Twenty years ago this week, Ridley Scott and DreamWorks unleashed Gladiator on an unsuspecting world. At that point, swords-and-sandals epics had been out of fashion for decades, vast money pits avoided like the plague by studios. Scott and his team, however, thought advances in CGI technology might make epics more affordable and convincing.
It turned out to be not so cheap - $100m was nothing to be sneezed at in 2000 - but Scott's instincts were spot on. A combination of good casting, brilliant recreations of ancient Rome and the Colosseum, and a rousing score by Hans Zimmer made Gladiator a resounding success, the second highest grossing film of that year.
Its reception convinced studios a revival of the epic would follow, but Gladiator's success was a flash in the pan and numerous attempts to build on its success failed. These days, epics still constitute a big financial risk, as the makers of the dire 2016 Ben-Hur remake discovered to their cost.
But once upon a time, sprawling stories of ancient times were a crucial element in Hollywood's armour, and huge stars and lavish sets drew cinema-goers in their millions.
Though they occasionally veered into more exotic territory, most of the golden age Hollywood epics focused on three main themes: Bible stories, stories of ancient Rome, stories about Christ or all of the above. Ben-Hur ticked all those boxes so pleasingly that they made it four times, beginning in 1907 with a hacked together one-reel version of Lew Wallace's action-packed, spurious novel.
Fred Niblo's 1925 version was the first real Ben-Hur: it cost a then-whopping $3.9m to make and would remain the most expensive silent movie ever made. Mexican star Ramon Novarro starred as Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince in the time of Christ who is imprisoned and spends years as a galley slave before proving himself as a gladiator and recovering his reputation.
MGM boss Louis B Mayer was apparently not impressed with initial rushes of the film's centrepiece chariot race sequence, and offered a prize of $100 for the winner. This may have led to a horrific crash that killed a stuntman.
William Wyler was an assistant director on the 1925 film, and took charge of the handsome Technicolor 1959 remake, which did an even better job of filming the chariot races without killing anyone, though I suspect the horses were not so lucky.
The poor Romans have tended to get a pretty bad press in Hollywood. During the era of the great epics, they were generally portrayed as the baddies, debauched and venal wine-swilling sex addicts who tried but failed to corrupt our hero, usually a Christian, or recently converted Jew.
In films such as Ben-Hur, The Sign of the Cross and Quo Vadis, Romans might win the argument on the ground, but you were left in no doubt that God was waiting for them in the long grass of eternity.
Charles Laughton, the English character actor, was cast several times as a dubious Roman. His fleshy face and portly screen presence made him a perfect fit to play the lunatic emperor Nero in Cecil B DeMille's entertaining 1932 epic The Sign of the Cross. Laughton went for it as the debauched despot, who burns central Rome to the ground then decides to blame the fire on the Christians. Laughton also starred in perhaps the greatest Roman film of all, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, playing the crafty but essentially decent senator Gracchus.
With a scale and grandeur to match its epic subject, Spartacus is a very special film, but it was an absolute horror story to make. Kirk Douglas starred as the legendary Thracian slave who led a revolt that threatened the might of the Roman Empire. Douglas also produced the film, and a long, gruelling outdoor shoot on the Spanish plains led to a clash of egos that put Kubrick off Hollywood for good. It's a terrific movie, though, three hours long and crammed with breathtaking set-pieces.
The story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony has been filmed at least 10 times. Claudette Colbert played a sultry Cleopatra in Cecil B DeMille's 1934 film of the same name, who uses her womanly wiles to hoodwink first Julius Caesar and then his buddy Mark Antony, provoking a Roman civil war.
Vivien Leigh starred in a 1945 film called Caesar and Cleopatra, but it bombed at the box office, and the definitive version of the story is probably Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 epic Cleopatra. It was famously the set on which Liz Taylor (Cleopatra) and Richard Burton (Mark Antony) fell in love, and it's also one of the most expensive movies ever made.
Let's not forget the Carry On team's bargain bucket 1964 version of the story, Carry On Cleo, in which Kenneth Williams played Julius Caesar and got to shriek the immortal line: "Infamy, infamy - they've all got it in for me!"
Hollywood has found it hard to forgive the Romans for killing Christ, and the Passion has been mulled over in dozens of epics including Barabbas, The Robe, King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. In the latter film, which starred the late Max von Sydow as an impeccably Aryan Jesus, John Wayne made a cameo as perhaps the most unlikely screen centurion ever, who looked upon the passing Christ and drawled, "truly he is the son a' Gawd".
Most of these films featured a star-struck Roman convert and demonised the empire as a whole. King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told were hopelessly po-faced, and the Monty Python team lampooned them very effectively in Life of Brian (1979), which portrayed the Romans as world-weary administrators who would treat the Jews tolerably well if they'd only follow the rules.
Rome's days were numbered of course, and in the vastly underrated 1964 epic Fall of the Roman Empire, we were given a glimpse of the end of days. Anthony Mann's three-hour drama did badly at the box office and helped hammer the final nail into the big-budget epic's coffin, but was intelligent and restrained, and charted the chaos that followed the death of the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Ridley Scott used the film as inspiration for Gladiator, which told essentially the same, refried story and starred Richard Harris as the kind and enlightened Marcus Aurelius. Gladiator was a much glossier and prettier film, but lacked Fall of the Roman Empire's depth. Still, Gladiator has thus far proved to be the last of the great Hollywood historical epics.