This site provides historical insight into the actual characters and events portrayed in Ridley Scott's film Gladiator. It discusses the film's plot and ending, so if you have not seen the movie yet, you may want to come back later! I would not want to spoil it for you!
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IS THE FILM GLADIATOR A TRUE STORY?
Yes and no.
While it is obvious that an impressive amount of historical and scholarly research was undertaken by the filmmakers, much of the plot is fiction. The fiction does however, appear to be inspired by actual historical events, as will be shown in the appropriate sections below. In this sense, the film is perhaps best seen as a collage, or artistic representation of ancient history, as opposed to an accurate, chronological, reconstruction of events.
It also appears that Scott attempts to present not just a reconstruction of empirical facts, but also desires to present to us his vision of the culture of ancient Rome, the spirit of its time, and the psychological outlook characteristic of its period. In other words, its zeitgeist, and for the psychology of the characters, their mentalite. On that note, Ridley Scott, much to his credit, has gone further than any filmmaker before him. Only Fellini, in The Satyricon, has attempted to do this before, and in so doing, Scott, while historiographically imperfect, avoids many of the annoying anachronisms of psychology present in such films as Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Ben Hur.
Clearly, director Scott, and screenwriter David Franzoni, understand that history is more than a regurgitation of empirical data, and that to understand a society, one must be able to do more than recite names and dates, one must also attempt to understand the psychology and culture of its characters. Hence the film emphasizes Maximus's worship of his family and ancestors, his obsessive compulsion for virtue and duty, and the stoical elements ever present in his character.
WHAT WAS MARCUS AURELIUS REALLY LIKE?
His work The Meditations, although more a compilation of existing stoical thought than a work of great originality, remains a highly readable classic in philosophy.
An interesting fact omitted in the film, was that his adoptive brother and husband to daughter Lucilla, Lucius Verus, was made co-emperor with Marcus. In the time of the Republic, Rome was not ruled by emperors, but rather by two consuls. These consuls, with equal power, were to guard against dictatorship. So, perhaps Marcus really did have Republican inclinations, as attested to in the film, or perhaps this was a Machiavellian maneuver undertaken in an attempt to avoid the fate of the perceived dictator Julius Caesar. This was the first time in history that the Roman Empire had two joint emperors of formally equal constitutional status and powers, although in reality, Marcus was clearly the ruler of Rome.
WHAT WAS COMMODUS REALLY LIKE?
If the ancient sources can be trusted, Commodus was even more bizarre in real life than he was in the film.
Commodus, whose full name was Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, was proclaimed Caesar at age 5 and joint emperor (co-Augustus) at the age of 17, in 177 CE, by his father, Marcus Aurelius. Reality was very different than the film in this instance. Commodus was, as depicted in Gladiator, present with his father during the Danubian wars, and yes, this is where Marcus Aurelius died. As for the actual circumstances of his father's death, see below.
Historians from the time of Commodus have not been kind to him. As aristocratic intellectuals, they were not amused by his crude antics. Hence, our present day historiography still reflects, rightly or wrongly, this ancient bias. His father, possessing the virtues seen as noble by the literate aristocracy, was, and often still is, regarded as a great man, while his son was hated by the Senate and ridiculed by historians. Yet it is said that the army and the lower classes loved him. Cassius Dio, a senator and historian who lived during the reign of both Commodus and his father wrote, in regards to the accession of Commodus, that "our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day."
Indeed, some historians even question his sanity. Commodus, in his own time, was accused of being a megalomaniac. He renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana, the "Colony of Commodus", and renamed the months of the year after titles held in his honour, namely, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius. The Senate was renamed the Commodian Fortunate Senate, and the Roman people were given the name Commodianus.
Historian Aelius Lampridius tells us that "Commodus lived, rioting in the palace amid banquets and in baths along with 300 concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots... By his orders concubines were debauched before his own eyes, and he was not free from the disgrace of intimacy with young men, defiling every part of his body in dealings with persons of either sex."
Commodus went so far as to declare himself the new founder of Rome, a "new Romulus". In attempting to boast a new "Golden Age" of Rome, he was clearly emulating his father. But the effect was to make him the laughing stock of the aristocratic class.
DID COMMODUS REALLY KILL HIS FATHER?
Some sources suspect that he did. The fact that he was present at the time, made a hasty peace with the enemy, and a quick retreat back to Rome in a victory triumph, has fueled speculation. The official story is that Marcus Aurelius died of plague.
DID COMMODUS REALLY FIGHT AS A GLADIATOR?
In this case, the truth is even stranger than the fiction. Commodus claimed to be descended from the God Hercules, and even began to dress like him, wearing lion skins and carrying a club.
The historian Herodian wrote that "in his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator."
He also fought wild beasts. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus killed five hippopotami at one time. He also killed two elephants, several rhinoceroses, and a giraffe "with the greatest of ease".
Herodian tells us further that Commodus had a special platform constructed which encircled the arena, from which he would display his skills as a hunter. He is recorded to have killed one hundred leopards with one hundred javelins. As a theatrical treat, he would slice the heads off of ostriches with crescent-headed arrows, which would then run around the amphitheater headless.
Dio Cassius reveals that Senators were made to attend these spectacles, and that on one occasion Commodus killed an ostrich and displayed the severed head in one hand, his sword dripping with blood in the other, thus implying that he could treat them the same way.
DID COMMODUS REALLY DIE IN THE ARENA?
However he was assassinated, and, by an athlete. There were numerous plots and attempts upon his life, but the one which finally succeeded was carried out by a wrestler named Narcissus, while Commodus was in his bath. The plot was orchestrated by his closest advisors, and apparently even included his mistress, Marcia.
It occurred on the last day of the year 192. It was believed that Commodus planned to kill the consuls-elect, and be sworn in as consul himself. This he reportedly was going to do dressed as a gladiator, in his lion skins. This was the final outrage. His fate was sealed.
Commodus ruled for 12 years, a much longer period than alluded to in the film. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus was "a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime."
WAS THE REPUBLIC RESTORED AFTER THE DEATH OF COMMODUS?
The film is wrong on this count. A republic is a system of government which does not have a hereditary monarch. An emperor is a monarch. The United States is a republic, and England is not.
Rome was not founded as a republic, as was stated by a senator (who should have known better) in the film. Legend has it that Rome was originally ruled by Etruscan kings. The first king was Romulus. The kings were overthrown in a revolution, which was sparked by the rape of Lucretia, in 509 BCE, by Sextus Tarquin, the son of the seventh and last king, Tarquinius Superbus.
Dictators and kings were thereafter despised by Romans, hence, the ideological adulation of a republican system of government, which was a central theme of both Roman history and the movie.
After Commodus was murdered, the Senate met before daybreak, and declared sixty-six year old Pertinax, who was the son of a former slave, emperor. Pertinax thus became emperor on January 1st, but he was murdered by a group of soldiers the following March, after less than three months in power.
WHAT WAS MAXIMUS REALLY LIKE?