Denis Meikle

Born: 1947 | Birthplace: Glasgow | Educated: Alleyn's School | Spouse: Jane | Children: Sarah, James | Resident: East Sussex

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The Italian Epic Cycle of the Early 1960s

The advent of television as a mass medium in the early 1950s had forced Hollywood studios to look for ways to combat its growing influence. On a technical level, this led to Cinemascope and 3-D as the means to attract audiences back into theatres; on an artistic level, it incited the rise of the historical spectacular.
      The cinema of spectacle was nothing new. Ever since Giovanni Pastrone staged the Second Punic War for Cabiria (1914), D W Griffith built Babylon for Intolerance (1916), and Cecil B De Mille burned Rome in The Sign of the Cross (1932), films had exploited to the full the box-office potential in depicting the awesome wonders of the ancient world in all their libertine glory. The term ‘epic’ in relation to a work of literature or film can be employed to embrace any subject with an expansive breadth of narrative, thus Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1939) was an epic romance and King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1947) an epic western. But to the cinemagoers of the 1950s and ‘60s, ‘epic’ came to mean one thing only: a biblical, historical or mythological spectacular, with a cast of thousands and a production cost to match.
      De Mille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) revived the genre for post-war audiences, but its stage-bound sets exposed the limitations of trying to mount a story on so vast a scale within the confines of a lot as big as even that of Paramount. Nevertheless, the film was the most commercially successful of its year and it encouraged the major studios to go for more of the same – but without the increasing overhead costs which were fast becoming a fact of Hollywood life; the practice of shooting on a cheaper basis abroad took hold, and so-called ‘runaway’ production came into being – the first and most extravagant example of which was M-G-M’s monumental Quo Vadis (1951).
      Directed by veteran Mervyn LeRoy and adapted from an 1896 novel by Nobel prizewinner Henryk Sankiewitcz, Quo Vadis, at more than $7 million, was the most expensive film ever made at the time of its production. Set in 64AD, it told of the love between a Christian slave-girl (Deborah Kerr) and a Roman general (Robert Taylor) during the turbulent reign of mad emperor Nero and, with towering sets, 200 speaking parts and a cast of 30,000 extras, it depicted the burning of Rome and Christians being thrown to the lions in the Circus Maximus to such impressive effect that it set the standard for all such ‘epics’ thereafter. Quo Vadis went on to gross $30 million, and it prompted M-G-M to embark on a series of historical spectacles, initially with Taylor as their regular star, leading eventually to the magnificent Ben-Hur (1959).
      The true owner of the genre was Italy, however; Enrico Guazzoni had shot a 2-hour version of Quo Vadis in 1913 while D W Griffith was still dabbling in two-reelers, and it was to Roman (or Biblical) history that Hollywood inevitably turned in its quest for spectacular storylines. The success of M-G-M’s film persuaded the moribund post-war Italian industry to reactivate its love affair with its own Graeco-Roman past and in 1954, Anthony Quinn was invited to star in Attila the Hun, followed by Kirk Douglas a year later for Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (in which Quinn also featured). These Italo-French co-productions with American stars were soon indiscernible from similar American productions with casts of French and Italians, such as Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1955), and Rome’s new Cinecitta studios quickly became an assembly-line for an endless stream of ‘Italian epics’ which highbrow critics would eventually dub pepla, from the Greek word for tunic. For a few years at the start of the 1960s, these films took the global box office by storm, but the cycle was really begun in late 1957, when a relatively-unknown bodybuilder-cum-bit-part player named Steve Reeves was hired by Attila director Pietro Francisci to star in Le fatiche di Ercole (‘The Labours of Hercules’), which was to become more widely-known by its international English title of Hercules.
      Reeves was a 31-year-old former farm-boy from Montana with an enviable shelf of trophies to attest to his suitability for the role of the mythological demi-god, son of Zeus and Alcmene; he had won the ‘Mr America’ contest in 1948, ‘Mr World’ the following year, and ‘Mr Universe’ in 1950. He had attempted to build on his bodybuilding successes through modelling and acting in the movies, but his inauspicious entrée in Hollywood was a role in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait (1954). A more substantial part in Athena the same year was what eventually brought him to Francisci’s attention, and Reeves was offered $10,000 a week to star in Hercules. After ‘labouring’ as Hercules for ten weeks at Rome’s Titanus Studios in the summer of 1957, he returned to the States and thought no more about Roman mythology; the film opened in Italy in February 1958 and was successful enough for Francisci to ask Reeves to return for a sequel: Ercole e la regina di Lidia. And so things might modestly have continued, but for the intervention of Joseph E Levine.
      Boston-born Levine was a former cinema owner and the man who had brought Toho’s Gojira (1954) to America as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and had cleaned up in the process. Now he thought to do the same with Hercules. He bought the rights from Galatea for $35,000, redubbed the film into English, and spent a cool million promoting it in the US in July 1959, four months ahead of the upcoming Ben Hur. Hercules took $5 million as a result and Levine promptly snapped up the rights to its successor, which he astutely retitled from the prosaic ‘Hercules and the Queen of Lydia’ to the more tantalising Hercules Unchained in a direct nod to the predicament in which its hero had found himself in the first film.
       Hercules Unchained picked up where Hercules had left off, with Hercules now married to Iole, daughter of Pelias, and returning to his home city of Thebes. This adherence to continuity was lost on filmgoers in the UK, most of whom had never encountered the original. The plot ostensibly centred on the struggle between two brothers for the throne of Thebes, but the bulk of the film was given over to a sub-plot which saw Hercules drink the ‘waters of forgetfulness’ and fall under the siren spell of Omphale (Sylvia Lopez), Queen of Lydia, who keeps macabre memento mori in the form of the embalmed bodies of her ex-lovers, posthumously preserved standing metaphorically erect, and whose unambiguous nymphomania is only sated by the sexual prowess of a demi-god (‘To me, your name is Love,’ she purrs to an amnesiac Hercules). This Sophoclean sidebar enabled Francisci to explore to the full the erotic potential of the genre, thanks to a powerhouse performance by Lopez (who was tragically dying of leukaemia when the film was shot), and the piece featured many of the tropes which would soon be common coinage in pepla, including a sensual ballet by scantily-clad slave-girls. Hercules Unchained was feted with a witty script, an alluring score (by Enzo Masetti) and competent playing throughout; to add to its appeal, a pop song (‘Evening Star’) was trowelled into the mix and with the clout of Warners behind it, it was paired in release in the UK by the sure-fire antics of The Bugs Bunny Show.
      The film was a massive hit in both the US and the UK, where it became the biggest box office success of 1960 (£50,000 having been spent on promoting it in the press and on TV – a first for a feature film in Britain), and the Italian ‘epic’ cycle was well and truly underway. Steve Reeves was suddenly a star, and now the most famous bodybuilder in the world – a title which had previously been held by the pseudonymous Charles Atlas, whose prolific ads for ‘Dynamic Tension’ had promised to turn ‘97lb weaklings’ into admired musclemen for the previous three decades.
      In Britain, things ‘epic’ had got off to a somewhat slower start. Hercules had gone largely unsung in 1959, and the first inklings of the birth of a new genre had come with full-page ads in London’s two evening newspapers (the News and Standard) for a film entitled Sign of the Gladiator (Nel segno di Roma; 1959), starring La Dolce Vita’s Anita Ekberg. This showcase for the voluptuous Ms Ekberg was released in the UK by Anglo Amalgamated but it had been bought for the US market by American International Pictures, Anglo’s stateside distribution partner. In the wake of Levine’s success with Hercules, AIP had decided to follow suit and also move into the epic arena, following its initial purchase of Sign of the Gladiator with that of Goliath and the Barbarians (Il terrore dei barbari; 1959). AIP did more than redub its Italian imports, however; it recut them and invariably rescored them as well, using ‘house’ composer Les Baxter to pick up their often-flagging pace. Common to both Sign of the Gladiator (in which there were no gladiators) and Goliath and the Barbarians was fiery Cuban dancing sexpot Chelo Alonso, but the latter was actually a third feature outing for Steve Reeves, although only his second to be released (as a second feature over the Easter holiday in 1960) in the UK. While Hercules had set the Reeves bandwagon rolling in the States, it was Goliath which really brought him to the notice of filmgoers in Britain – and with the saturation opening of Hercules Unchained four months later, he would now come to epitomise the entire ‘epic’ cycle.
      Already it can be seen that pepla fell into two distinct categories – the historical epic, notionally focussed on the Roman imperial period circa 753BC to 476AD, and the mythological one, invariably centred around a legendary hero. These two strands would continue to develop side by side, although popular taste tended to favour the second of them. The purely historical spectacular quickly waned when audiences tired of watching the massed ranks of the Italian army waving wooden swords around – Carthage in Flames (Cartagine in fiamme; 1960) was almost impossible to find, even at the height of the cycle in 1961 – but the mythological strain, a more basic form of the Hollywood ‘western’, was to secure some longevity for itself by first absorbing its historical twin (Duel of the Titans [Romolo e Remo]; 1961/War of the Trojans [La leggenda di Enea]; 1962), then multiplying the number of ‘heroes’ in each film (Hercules, Samson and Ulysses [Ercole sfida Sansone]; 1963) and finally diversifying into genre mashups like Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contro el vampiro; 1964). Early examples of the breed claimed to have drawn their inspiration from the works of Vergil, Livy and Cicero in the case of the historicals, and those of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Apollonius of Rhodes – as well as Homer and the Old Testament – in the case of the mythologicals, but all of these worthies were eventually abandoned in favour of pure hokum from the off.
      So staggeringly successful was Hercules Unchained in release in the summer of 1960 that film companies fell over themselves to buy up Italian epics of any style or substance. As it happened, Reeves had been far from idle in the period immediately preceding the Warner Bros US/UK release of Hercules Unchained; by the end of 1959, he had completed a further three features: The White Warrior (Agi Murad il diavolo bianco), The Giant of Marathon (La battaglia di Maratona) and The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei), all of them initiated in the wake of Hercules and fostered by Reeves’s refusal to repeat the role for Levine and Francisci for a second sequel. In America, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon was released by M-G-M before Hercules Unchained but in Britain, it went out immediately after it, heavily promoted with the longest television ad ever screened for a film; one month later, Mario Bonnard’s The Last Days of Pompeii followed it into the nation’s cinemas. Not only was the genre now in full flood but it was throwing new talents onto the stage of world cinema: cinematographer Mario Bava had shot Hercules Unchained, The White Warrior and The Giant of Marathon, but he had taken over the reins of the last when Tourneur departed prior to its completion and his reward was to be offered his official directorial debut with La masquera del demonio (The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday; 1960); in the same vein, most of The Last Days of Pompeii was actually directed by long-time assistant director Sergio Leone, whose work on the film was also rewarded by a first solo effort – The Colossus of Rhodes (Il colosso di Rodi; 1961). As conscious of the threat from without as was Rome itself when faced with the Visigoths, older talents were also keen to embrace the new genre: Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus (1960) deployed the combined thespian authority of Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons to try to show that CineCitta could never beat Hollywood at its own game. In the event, it had no need to fear.
      No sooner had Reeves’s career as king of the musclemen begun to take off than it was blighted by misfortune. An accident on the set of The Last Days of Pompeii (his chariot crashed into a tree) dislocated his shoulder and put him out of action for the best part of a year, during which time numerous identikit strongmen wasted no time in filling his vacant sandals. While Pietro Francisci moved from mythology to history and the Second Punic War in The Siege of Syracuse (L’Assedio di Siracusa; 1960), others were intent on continuing the saga of Hercules, and Vittorio Cottafavi hired Bronx bodybuilder Lou Degni – now rechristened Mark Forest – for La vendetta di Ercole, which surfaced in the US (courtesy of AIP) and Britain as Goliath and the Dragon. Cottafavi followed this first non-Reeves Hercules with the elegant Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide; 1961), but with Yorkshire-born Reg Park in the title role, and Mario Bava also used Park for Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (Ercole al centro della terra) later the same year. But waiting impatiently in the wings to compete at the box office as Goliath, Samson, Ursus or, most often, Maciste – the original eponymous strongman from Pastrone’s Cabiria – were Gordon Scott, Brad Harris, Ed Fury, Kirk Morris, Bob Matthias, Alan Steel and more.
      Forest’s ‘Goliath’ was tasked to tackle forties’ screen heavy Broderick Crawford, taking time out from TV’s Highway Patrol, in Goliath and the Dragon, while Park’s Hercules was pitted against B-movie bad girl Fay Spain, a poor man’s Sylvia Lopez, in Hercules Conquers Atlantis and a slumming (and poorly-dubbed) Christopher Lee in Hercules at the Centre of the Earth. In Bava’s eccentric hands, much of the second half of the garish Hercules at the Centre of the Earth is a horror movie in all but name, as Park fends off a horde of Hadesian undead and Lee brandishes a dagger honed from a skeletal hand, but this element had been present in the genre ever since De Mille’s Sign of the Cross. All three films – especially the second – were respectable entries in the canon, but none were afforded a mainstream release in the UK once the initial enthusiasm for Italian epics died down.
The unlikely star of The Colossus of Rhodes was to be former B-western actor Rory Calhoun, but other Hollywood names who had not yet found a niche for themselves on American television had already preceded him to Europe to swap six-guns for Roman short swords: Victor Mature had looked on from the relative comfort of the Avala Studios in Belgrade as a few dozen extras trudged across the ‘Alps’ for Hannibal (Annibale; 1959), while Stuart Whitman and Tom Tryon had merely looked uncomfortable as suitors of Elana Eden in The Story of Ruth (1960). In similar vein, Richard Egan had vied with Hercules Unchained villain Sergio Fantoni for the charms of Joan Collins in Esther and the King (Esther e il Re; also 1960), while Vincent Price had bitten the hands of both Jeanne Crain and Ricardo Montalban in Queen of the Nile (Nefertiti, regina del Nilo; 1961) and The Black Buccaneer (Gordon il pirata nero; 1961) respectively. Along with them, in the wake of King Vidor and the unfortunate Solomon and Sheba (1959, which had to be reshot with Yul Brynner after the death of lead actor Tyrone Power), came directing veterans like Tourneur, Raoul Walsh, Andre de Toth, Richard Thorpe (The Tartars; 1961) and Rudolph Maté (The 300 Spartans; 1962).
      Steve Reeves had returned to flexing his muscles for the less arduous Morgan the Pirate (Morgan il pirata; 1960) but when the film went into release in July 1961, his left arm could clearly be seen dangling weakly at his side during its sword-fighting set-pieces. His days as peplum cinema’s most celebrated son were now numbered and while his imitators were many, those possessing even a vestige of his charisma were few and far between. Ex fitness-trainer Gordon Scott was already well-known as the contemporary screen’s Tarzan, the pinnacle of which had come the previous year with Robert Day’s Tarzan the Magnificent, but Park, Forest, Harris et al were hired purely for their pectorals, their often pug-ugliness passing unnoticed by casting agents in the rush to replicate Reeves.
      By the end of 1961, ‘spectaculars’ accounted for almost one-quarter of the 200-odd films produced by the Italian industry during the year. But the time when the likes of Silvio Amadio’s Warlord of Crete (Teseo contro il minotauro; 1960) could command a booking in Britain’s Odeons or ABCs was fast coming to a end. The Last Days of Pompeii was the last film of Reeves’s to receive a general release in the UK; Morgan, The Wooden Horse of Troy, Son of Spartacus and The Thief of Baghdad (1960 to 1962) were all accorded second-feature status, while the films of his contemporaries were invariably consigned to the fleapits. Those with something different to offer, like the genuine spectacle of Leone’s The Colossus of Rhodes, the sheer star-power of Richard Fleischer’s sombre Barabbas (1961) or the sexual titillation of Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) kept the standard of the epic flying for another year or so, but late entries like Joseph L Mankiewicz’s bloated Cleopatra (1963), George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and John Huston’s The Bible (1966) were clearly flogging a dead centaur. Within three years of Hercules Unchained having taken the global box office by storm, anyone wishing to see Perseus Against the Monsters (Perseo l’invincible; 1963) would have been hard-pressed to find a screen on which to view it; the era of sword-and-sandal was effectively at an end by the time Steve Reeves decided to hang up his toga in 1963 and retire to ranching in California.
      Hollywood producer George Pal had got in on the act at the beginning of the cycle with Atlantis the Lost Continent (1960), but British director Don Chaffey and stop-motion supremo Ray Harryhausen brought it to a fitting close with their own homage to the genre: Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
      Like most of those whose careers were carved in pepla, Steve Reeves was more of an icon than he was an actor, but the films that he graced with his presence left an indelible imprint on the cinema of the 1960s. He more than any of his peers embodied the moral philosophy of the epic form: strength, goodness and self-sacrifice. Reeves believed in the culture and purity of bodybuilding and regarded physical fitness as a noble and heroic pursuit. To the end of his life, he railed against the use of chemical aids to stimulate muscle growth, which he felt could only demean the sport. His goal was simply to inspire, which he did a generation of athletes who came after and who looked to him as the supreme example of the body beautiful. He ascended to his own Olympus in 2001, but among the demi-gods with whom he now shares the pedestal of immortality, Steve Reeves still stands tallest of them all.
      A second, different strand of the cycle was begun by showman Samuel Bronston in 1961 with King of Kings, went through El Cid and 55 Days at Peking, and ended three years later with the appositely-titled The Fall of the Roman Empire. But that is quite another epic story…
Sergio Fantoni
Sergio Fantoni was a strikingly handsome (and classically-trained) Neapolitan actor who first came to the attention of western cinemagoers when he played Eteocles, homicidal pretender to the throne of Thebes, in Hercules Unchained. (His father, Cesare Fantoni, played his screen father in the film.) His smooth line in villainy was pitted against Reeves again in The Giant of Marathon, and he also supplied the intra-court scheming in Esther and the King; in all three, he came to a sticky end – from wounds inflicted in hand-to-hand combat, by being thrust onto a spiked rostra, and through a graphic onscreen hanging. In 1960, he took time out from spectaculars to switch sides and play the hero in Seddok, Son of Satan/Atom Age Vampire (L’erede di Satana), but the success of Hercules Unchained had brought him to the attention of Hollywood producers and he popped up in a number of American films as the sixties rolled on, including The Prize (1963), Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and the Blake Edwards comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966). Early in his career, he had worked for Visconti (Senso; 1954) and one of his last appearances onscreen was for Peter Greenaway (The Belly of an Architect; 1987), but he was at his best as the psychotic usurper in Hercules Unchained, who responded to a plea for him to surrender the city by casting four bound women from the top of the mighty Theban Gate with the words, ‘Here’s your answer, Polynices...’
Sylva Koscina
Croatian émigré Sylva Koscina was a physics student at Naples University before her beauty contest-winning face and figure took her into films. The role of Iole, wife of Hercules, in both Hercules and Hercules Unchained launched her on a career that embraced only a handful of pepla as she concentrated instead on romantic comedy. Her last peplum to be released in the UK/US was Swordsman of Siena (La congiura dei dieci; 1962), with Stewart Granger and Christine Kaufmann, but alongside her comedy work were small but significant roles in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (Giuglietta degli spiriti; 1965) and Ralph Thomas’s Bulldog Drummond reboot, Deadlier Than the Male (1967). In 1969, after co-starring with Paul Newman in The Secret War of Harry Frigg and Kirk Douglas in A Lovely Way to Die (both 1968), she played opposite a visibly-declining Laurence Harvey (he died in 1973) in the ‘experimental’ – for which read softcore – sex drama, He and She (L’assoluto naturale; 1969) in which she bared all for her art; this put her beyond the pale of Hollywood and into the arms of exploitation producer Harry Alan Towers and Eurotrash director Jésus Franco for a cameo in Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1971), alongside Klaus Kinski. Dramas and thrillers became the order of the day, including a Mario Bava horror, Lisa and the Devil (Lisa e il diavolo; 1973), opposite Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer and, by 1975, Koscina was posing nude for Playboy. Since the early 1960s, she had put all of the earnings from her film work into a luxury villa in the wealthy Rome suburb of Marino, but the house was lost to a charge of tax evasion in 1976. Unperturbed, she continued on as before and after a colourful life and a prodigious screen career spanning almost 120 feature films, Sylva Koscina died in 1994, aged just 61.
Arturo Dominici
Sicilian actor Arturo Dominici had made only a handful of films before he became a mainstay of the peplum cycle. After dipping his toes in the Aegean waters of Hercules and playing henchman to a corpulent Bruce Cabot in Goliath and the Barbarians, he tried his luck in the fledgling Italian horror film, appearing in the Riccardo Freda/Mario Bava-directed Caltiki-The Immortal Monster (Caltiki-il mostro immortale; 1959) before creating his signature role as Barbara Steele’s devilish disciple Javutich in Bava’s seminal The Mask of Satan. As a consequence of that film, his hooded eyes and trademark Zapata moustache marked him out for devious roles, especially those of barbarian or other ethnic groupings of the ancient world. His return to pepla saw him feature in everything from The Thief of Baghdad to Hercules and the Masked Raider (Golia e il cavaliere mascherato; 1963) with the occasional horror inbetween: Sergio Corbucci’s Castle of Blood (Danza macabre; 1963). But when both cycles had run their course, he carved out a new career for himself as a voice artist dubbing foreign films into Italian, including Disney’s Mary Poppins (1965). Dominici had three daughters and died in 1992 of cancer, aged 74.   
Mimmo Palmara
When it comes to peplum cinema, Mimmo Palmara was the archetypal face-without-a-name to British and American eyes. Sometimes credited as ‘Dick Palmer’ (if he was credited at all), Domenico ‘Mimmo’ Palmara first donned a toga for Hercules but from that point on, he never looked back. After essaying what arguably would be his best-remembered role as Polynices in Hercules Unchained, his distinctive Roman features and muscular physique were put to efficient use in Sign of the Gladiator, The Last Days of Pompeii, The Colossus of Rhodes, Hercules Conquers Atlantis, The Wooden Horse of Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah and more, before he sashayed effortlessly into as many ‘spaghetti westerns’ when that cycle took prominence in the mid-sixties, including Giovanni Grimaldi’s take-off of Leone’s classic, The Handsome, The Ugly and the Stupid (Il bello, Il bruto, l cretino; 1967), in which he played the ‘Handsome’. That same year, Palmara founded his own dubbing company, SINC Cinematografica, which created a whole new revenue stream for artists like himself and Dominici. At time of writing, the Sardinian-born actor is alive and well at 86, and he continues to be lauded for the (often-unappreciated) part he played in the Golden Age of Italian cinema. 
Scilla Gabel
Sultry Italian redhead Scilla Gabel began her screen career as a stand-in for Sophia Loren. The former Gianfranca Gabellini from Rimini underwent plastic surgery to differentiate her from Loren and was rewarded with small roles in her own right before her breakout in Guillermin’s Tarzan the Magnificent (1959). Her first peplum was Riccardo Freda’s The White Warrior, and she acted in seven more – including The Queen of the Pirates (La Venere dei pirate; 1960) with Gianna Maria Canale – in addition to Sodom and Gomorrah, in which Stanley Baker had her tortured to death almost as soon as the credits had rolled. In 1960, she also starred in the Giorgio Ferroni Italo-German horror Drops of Blood/Mill of the Stone Women (Il Mulino delle donne di pietra), one of the first in the cycle of Euro-Gothics which were to make cult figures out of directors Freda and Bava. But Gabel was no Barbara Steele and she soon returned to secondary roles in minor German and Italian fare, although she shared top-billing with Sergio Fantoni and Sylva Koscina in the 1964 Mario Mattoli comedy for Dino De Laurentiis, Corpse for the Lady (Cadavere per signora). Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-her part in Joseph Losey’s failed Modesty Blaise (1966) briefly refreshed her waning star but within five years, she had married and retired from the screen for good at the age of 33. Scilla Gabel is also alive and well; she has a son, Emiliano – which in Roman form was the given name of the eponymous ‘Goliath’ in many a peplum.