Ten times ancient Greek gods and goddesses lit up the movies

From Hercules to Wonder Woman, the silver screen is full of films inspired by ancient heroes of Rome and Greece. We take a look at our top ten as we gear up to debut our exhibition, Return of The Gods.

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Today’s entertainment is dominated by chiselled superheroes, caped crusaders and warriors with unimaginable power - but who inspired these indestructible figures? On closer inspection, many of the familiar traits behind these spandex-loving supes can be traced back to the mythos of the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece and Rome. With the all-powerful Zeus, bewitching love goddess Aphrodite and poetic maestro Apollo, you don’t have to look far to see how these centuries-old characters led to the varied blockbusting heroes of today. 

They’ve also stolen the spotlight themselves at various points over the years. As we gear up to debut Return of The Gods, our new family-friendly exhibition featuring over 100 different objects and sculptures designed to bring you closer to the lives and myths of ancient Rome’s most famous faces, we thought it was time to shine a light on history’s first heroes. With that in mind, here are 10 times the Gods and Goddesses of old lit-up movies with their awe-inspiring abilities. 

Hercules - 1997

Where better to start than with perhaps the most well-known of all the ancient heroes? According to legend, Hercules was the son of the ruler of the Gods, Zeus, and his mother was the mortal woman Alcmene. Known for his strength, bravery and heroic nature, stories told about him often detailed his Olympic feats and battles with many mythical creatures. In Disney’s 1997 retelling, Hercules is stripped of his immortality while keeping his otherworldly strength and sent off to live a normal life on Earth. However, it’s not long before teenage Herc starts questioning his God-like abilities, setting him on a quest to beat a string of monsters released by the evil Hades and earn his ‘True Hero’ status. With familiar Disney flair, this colourful take on Hercules leans into his honest nature and muscle-bound physique, presenting a flawed hero who’s not above learning a few life lessons during his journey to becoming a fully-fledged God. 

Clash of the Titans - 2010

A remake of the 1981 epic of the same name, 2010’s 'Clash of the Titans' uses CGI spectacle to fully realise a forgotten world where ancient Gods and their monster enemies butted heads. Loosely inspired by the tale of Perseus, a hero that pre-dates the feats of Hercules and is famed for cutting off the snaked head of Medusa, this film tells a familiar hero tale on a grand scale. When demi-God Perseus (Sam Worthington) is cast away to live a mortal life, he soon discovers his almighty origins when the evil ruler of the underworld Hades declares war on the Gods and threatens to release the Kraken to destroy the city of Argos. Featuring well-known characters from Greek and Roman legend - including the one-eyed trio of Stygian Witches and the iconic winged-horse Pegasus - this film features all the action, heroism and bloodthirsty battles that make these tales so enduring, writ large on the big screen in a heady dose of popcorn cinema. 

Gladiator - 1999

Director Ridley Scott’s infinitely quotable 1999 battle classic 'Gladiator' may not feature the Gods directly but their presence can be felt all throughout this immaculately detailed film in which Scott resurrects a centuries-old world and shows us the beauty and horror of what day-to-day life would have been like during this treacherous time. Russel Crowe plays Maximus Decimus Meridius, a former soldier turned slave who must battle through Rome’s bloodthirsty colosseum to avenge his murdered family. Perhaps more interesting than this tale is the story of the film’s supernatural, shelved sequel. Penned by musician Nick Cave, it reunited us with Maximus in the afterlife where he meets the Gods themselves. Impressed with his battle abilities, they send him back to Earth and charge him with the task of killing Christ, a figure whose rising popularity is diluting the relevancy of these once-almighty figures. The full story is available to read online here.

300 - 2006

It may have inspired countless stag-do themes and brought the use of gratuitous slow motion to the forefront of blockbuster storytelling but director Zack Snyder’s '300' has its roots in actual Greek legend. An adaptation of author Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name and shot in the golden-hued style that made his book so popular, Snyder presents a loose, fantastical retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartan soldiers that went up against an army of 300,000. On the underdog side is Leonidas I (Gerard Butler), a warrior whose tribe, according to legend, descended from Hercules himself. Their opponent is King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), another real-life historical figure who here is presented as a person who claims to be a gold-covered living God. In addition to packing its frames full of spectacle, Snyder also brings various battle techniques that would have been used by ancient Roman warriors to vivid life, including the creeping, wall-like phalanx formation. 

Thor: Love and Thunder - 2022

Despite primarily focusing on the adventure-laden lives of Nordic Gods like Loki, Odin and its titular, hammer-wielding hero, Marvel’s 'Thor' franchise has been known to include appearances from figures from Greek and Roman folklore from time to time too. A recent example of this is the 2022 threequel 'Thor: Love and Thunder,' where an attack from Christian Bale’s God-killer Gorr sends Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and rubble-alien Korg (Taika Waititi) on a quest to stop him in his tracks. Eventually, their journey leads them to Omnipotence City to warn the Gods of impending danger and it’s here where they meet Zeus, played by 'Gladiator' star Russell Crowe. However, instead of the wise and powerful figure we’re used to reading about in stories, Crowe’s God of Gods is rather obtuse, pig-headed and far sleazier than any other on-screen depiction. While it provides a good few laughs, it’s a far cry from the awe-inspiring statues and illustrations that frequently bear Zeus’s name. 

Wonder Woman - 2017

With her weaponry, battle training and mythical (albeit fictionally heightened) backstory, Wonder Woman - AKA Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince - certainly fits the bill when it comes to cinematic depictions of modern-day Goddesses. Perhaps that’s because according to the character’s history within the DC comics universe, she is in fact a demi-God herself. Like a female take on Hercules, her 2017 feature debut explains that Diana’s father was the legendary Zeus, while her mother was Queen Hippolyta, ruler of the Amazons just like her real-life namesake plucked from Greek mythology. Mixing elements of real history with fantasy detours commonly found in comic books, Wonder Woman is shown to be the greatest of a tribe of warrior women created by the Olympians to protect mankind. When the evil God of War Ares (David Thewlis) rises and threatens humanity, through intense battle Diana comes to realise her true ‘God Killer’ identity in an adventure that takes its cues from many recognised myths. 

Jason and the Argonauts - 1963

Splicing live-action with some (then) jaw-dropping animated work from stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, 1963’s 'Jason and the Argonauts' brought the story of this ancient Greek hero into the world of technicolour entertainment like never before. In ancient lore, Jason is the son of Aeson, king of Thessaly, great-grandson of the messenger God Hermes and leader of a heroic band of fighters known as the Argonauts. Here, he’s played by Todd Armstrong and through his quest for the golden fleece - an object that signifies kingship - he’s forced to do battle with a range of otherworldly creatures. Lovingly brought to life by Harryhausen’s animation that’s now considered cult and classic, Jason’s fights with the multi-headed Hydra and an army of skeleton warriors remain thrilling more than 60 years after its initial release. Extra points for its cameo appearance of a live-action (and giant) King Triton, Greek god of the sea and bloke in a crown.

Hercules in New York - 1970

Rumour has it that the agent of a 22-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger secured his audition for the schlocky 'Hercules in New York' by telling the casting team he had 'years' of stage experience. Little did they know that all those stages were actually in body-building competitions and not theatres. Still, Schwarzenegger (then going under the apt stage name ‘Arnold Strong’) managed to bag the role of Zeus’s all-powerful son who here is played as a problematic young adult who’s yearning to explore life on Earth. As you might expect, the plot is a bit all over the place, with Herc crossing paths with gangsters and various strongman competitions that make good use of Schwarzenegger’s multiple-Mr-Olympia-winning physique. Meanwhile, other Greek Gods make an appearance during his campy Manhattan adventure; including Mercury, the God of financial gain, Nemesis, the Goddess of retribution and Juno, ruler of love and marriage.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief - 2010

Helmed by Chris Columbus, the same director behind the first two 'Harry Potter' movies, 'Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief' serves up an explosive slice of family adventure with God lore at its centre. Our hero is Percy (Logan Lerman), a seemingly ordinary teenager who discovers he’s actually the demi-God son of Poseidon, ruler of the seas. Together with his demi-God friends Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of the Goddess of wisdom, Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), a horse-like nature spirit known as a Satyr, and frenemy Luke, child of God-herald Hermes, Jackson must retrieve Zeus’s stolen lightning bolt to avoid an all-out God war. While Columbus has fun giving his young heroes the power of the Greek Gods, he also weaves in other ancient mythological figures, including the bull-like Minotaur, the vengeful Erinyes Alecto who’s one of the Furies, and even Pierce Brosnan as a slick half-man, half-horse Centaur. 

Troy - 2004

Loosely based on the 'Iliad,' a legendary poem penned by the Greek poet Homer, 2004’s big-budget Brad Pitt vehicle 'Troy' gathered an ensemble cast boasting Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana and Sean Bean to give the Trojan War - AKA the decade-long battle between the Greeks and the city of Troy - the blockbuster treatment. Similar to 'Gladiator,' the ancient Gods don’t appear physically in this sword-and-shield epic and yet their presence can be felt steadily throughout its frames. Pitt plays the legendary Greek warrior and owner of a dodgy heel, Achilles, whose determination to conquer the city of Troy leads his army to construct a huge wooden horse which is presented to their enemy as a peace offering and tribute to the Gods. However, once inside the city gates, the Greek soldiers hiding within the structure are free to wreak havoc and continue their bloody battle. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, 'Troy' is one of the few films to bring the iconic Greek Trojan Horse to the big screen in such practical detail.