H. G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, simultaneous with the birth of the movies. By sending out their cadre of globetrotting cameramen, the Lumière brothers quickly opened up the world of the present (replete with all its regional oddities and exoticism) to film audiences. Wells mastered the speculative future in the tradition of Jules Verne, but perhaps even more intriguing for filmgoers was the possibility film offered to travel back in time and retrieve the distant past.
D. W. Griffith had dabbled in this (with his In Prehistoric Days, 1913, for example), but the real heavy lifting was done by the Italians. This is appropriate, since the thousand-year history of the Roman Republic and Empire was unrivaled in its impact on the contemporary world; Italy practically owned history. This was accentuated for visual artists by the poignant beauty of surviving ruins and statuary, both in Rome and spread over three continents. Italy’s heritage contributed mightily to the seeming authenticity of its celluloid spectacles.