“Gladiator”: Good drama, bad history

Gladiator

Release Date: 2000

Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

Period of history in focus: Ancient Rome (specifically the Roman Empire, year 180 CE)

I wanted to look at Gladiator for several reasons.  For one, I think the movie is still largely popular and regarded as a great film (and it is still incredibly entertaining).  It won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe.  Also, it continued to spark the interest we have with ancient Rome.  According to one of my professors at school, the history department saw enrollment in the Rome-based classes rise after the release of the movie.  They were probably disappointed to learn that Gladiator paints a rather rosy picture of the world.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t good.  I like it.  It’s a fun watch.  But there are historical inaccuracies present throughout the film.  Upon researching the life of Commodus, I was surprised to discover that his life and rule were actually more interesting than the movie had painted them to be.  He managed to actually behave more outrageously than he did in the movie.  As a result of this discovery, I’ve divided my review into two parts.  In the first part, I’ll talk about historical inaccuracies in the movie, but not ones that I think would greatly affect the plot.  I just want you to know that they’re wrong.  In the second part, I’ll discuss inaccuracies that I think could have been made more correct and actually helped the direction of the movie.  You are free to disagree, of course, but portraying a more realistic Commodus on screen would have made for even more drama.

Oh, also, Maximus didn’t exist.  But we’ll ignore that.

Let’s start with these smaller points:

Maximus appears to be Christian

In a conversation he has with Lucilla (played by Connie Nielsen and sister to Commodus), Maximus learns that she prays for his family, proclaiming it with boldness, like she’s subversive: “Yes, I pray.”  Then, in the next scene, the audience is treated to Maximus praying for his wife and son, saying things like “Heavenly Father.”  Obviously, Christianity was around at this point (it’s 180 CE for anybody who forgot).  However, in Rome, it was still treated as more of a cult than anything else.  The state religion of Rome was bound to the gods and goddesses we all know from mythology, and Christianity was subversive to the state because it was so emotional and personalized.

Praying for the state was required of citizens.  Romans believed that they had succeeded and done so well in all their endeavors because the gods were appeased by their prayers and sacrifices.  This belief actually led to a stagnation of Roman religion, in which each family was instructed to pray every day and in the exact same way.  In your household you would have a set number of lines to say, and if you flubbed them then you could be partially responsible for a loss in battle.  Because religion had become so monotonous, many people did their routine and moved on.  You can imagine that having a personal connection with religion would seem really strange to them.

You can argue that Lucilla feels so subversive because she’s Christian, and Maximus didn’t grow up in Rome, so maybe he is too.  However, the imperial family would be certain to buy into the state religion, and it wasn’t until Constantine more than a hundred years later (in about 312 CE) that a Roman emperor would officially become Christian.  Lucilla being Christian seems almost absurd, and if she’s talking about praying for the state religion, well, there’s no reason to act so edgy about it.  Maximus is almost certainly Christian in order to create a connection with the audience.  My guess is that a man so deeply steeped in the Roman army for so many years, Maximus would buy into the state religion as well.  What else would help him win so many battles?

Dear Jupiter, Give me the strength to win this battle. Also, a pony.

From Germania to Spain to Northern Africa to Rome

The geography in this movie confuses me.  Now, this could just be my ignorance, but I have at least looked at a map.  The movie starts in Germania, and according to history, Marcus Aurelius was fighting around the Danube River when he died on campaign.  Throughout the movie, everybody keeps referring to Maximus as “Spaniard”, so I assume that his farm is located in Spain.  (By the way, there wasn’t really a Spain at this time.  It was Iberia or Hispania, as well as collection of other names that would refer to tribes.  The term “Spaniard” does not make sense in historical context.)  So, after the failed assassination attempt in Germania, Maximus manages to take two horses and hoof it home in a matter of days – as it appears to us.  That seems a bit farfetched.  His farm is a long ride, and even if the montage is supposed to represent weeks, he doesn’t have any food or supplies.

After discovering the bodies of his family, Maximus collapses with grief.  He is almost immediately found by a roving band of traders who take him to Zucchabar.  For anyone playing at home, Zucchabar is located in North Africa (also, it is incorrectly called a Roman province.  It was part of a province, Mauretania Caesariensis).  That means these traders would have had to cross water at some point, and all we get are shots of sand dunes and camels.  Not only that, but Zucchabar is located in western North Africa, which means a long journey and more sea time to get to Rome.  The timeline simply doesn’t make sense.

The dark red part is Mauretania Caesariensis. Everything else is the Roman Empire.

The battle of Carthage in the arena

This battle is now known at the Battle of Zama and took place to seal Rome’s victory in the Second Punic War against Hannibal.  The announcer lets audience know that the Carthaginians are the barbarians.  Fair enough, they would have said that.  So why do the gladiators posing as the Roman army come riding out in tricked out chariots, wearing gold armor, and at least one leopard print cape?  The fact that the faux Roman soldiers include women and black people doesn’t matter, I don’t want to quibble about that.  I just don’t get why they would portray the Romans as frankly more exotic than the “barbarians” who had simple togas, Roman shields and short swords.  If I had never seen the movie and somebody turned on this scene for me, I would have assumed the guys in the chariots were from Carthage.

A quick note about chariots: Roman chariots would not have been so large and decorated and fitted with blades.  The platform was smaller and lightweight so that the horses could pull it without getting tangled up or slowing down.  Riding a chariot took some amount of skill, so you didn’t go tumbling off – that’s what made chariot races so thrilling and so dangerous.  Maybe it battle they would take a little more time to beef the chariots up, but for a bunch of gladiators in the arena?  Don’t forget, everyone fighting in that battle is a slave, not just Maximus and his friends.

The Colosseum?  Oh, you mean the Flavian Amphitheater.

One of the senators in the movie claims that the beating heart of Rome is not in the senate or the mob but “in the sands of the Colosseum.”  They would have called it the Flavian Amphitheater, or perhaps Caesar’s amphitheater.  The name we use today game about hundreds of years later.

Roman naming systems

When Maximus reveals himself to Commodus he makes a big scene of it: “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”  Roman naming conventions worked somewhat the same way they do in the US, except there was an added name.  Your praenomen, or first name, was your given name – such as Lucius, Publius, etc.  Your nomen, or second name, was your family name – Cornelius, Julius.  Your cognomen, or third name, was the nickname people gave you to distinguish you from relatives with similar names, especially because there were a set number of available first names.

Take Gaius Julius Caesar (yes, that Caesar).  His first name, Gaius, is like Eric or Sally.  His second, Julius, is his family name, as he was part of the Julian tribes.  His last name, Caesar, is a nickname that basically means “hairy” (think about that the next time you eat a Caesar salad).  Or maybe Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus.  His given name is Publius.  His family name is Cornelius.  His nickname was originally Scipio – ironically, these are exact three names his father had, making his nickname really bad at distinguishing him – but after he helped win the Second Punic War he was granted the additional “Africanus” for winning battles in Africa.

Applying all of this to the movie, we get Maximus Decimus Meridius.  It seems that Maximus serves as more of a cognomen, or nickname, meaning roughly “the largest.”  Meridius means something like “from the South.”  Then we have Decimus, which could be a given name.  That still leaves us without a family name.  From what I can tell after reading movie trivia, you get to hear the name Aelius Maximus at one point.  If we take Aelius to be his family name then his name should look like this: Decimus Aelius Meridius Maximus.  OR Decimus Aelius Maximus Meridius.  It would depend on which his family gave him and which is army buddies gave me.

What did Commodus look like?

Another small thing.  According to Herodian, “he was in the prime of youth, striking in appearance, with a well-developed body and a face that was handsome without being pretty.  His commanding eyes flashed like lightning; his hair, naturally blond and curly, gleamed in the sunlight as if it were on fire…”  He goes on to make note of the rumors that he rubbed gold dust in his hair to make it look even shinier.  Considering that Commodus was 19 when his father died and he became emperor, the guy sounds a little more like Apollo than Joaquin Phoenix – not saying that Joaquin Phoenix isn’t attractive when he’s not playing creeps or growing gigantic beards.

The face of royalty, ladies and gents.

This covers a lot issues with the movie that wouldn’t necessarily bother anybody but a historian.  However, when you start looking into the life and times of Commodus, the movie diverges much more radically.  I think that if they had tried to stay closer to history as we know, the story might have even been better.  So, let’s start with the opening of the movie.  Marcus Aurelius was on campaign in Germania when he died.  He did die in 180 CE.  That’s about where it all starts getting crazy:

1) Commodus did not kill Marcus Aurelius

He didn’t really have a reason to do it.  Marcus called for his son to join him on campaign when Commodus was about 13, gave him the honor of full manhood at this time, and had pulled enough strings to make him consul by the time he was 16.  Commodus was obviously being groomed to take over when his father died.  He did not have to scheme and plan and worry about succession.  Furthermore, he was in battle or in camp with his father for years, not joining him at direct request and traveling in luxury.  In fact, Commodus was the first Roman emperor who was raised in royalty and succeeded his father.  All emperors before Marcus Aurelius had appointed men for other reasons than relation by blood.

(I should clarify here – thanks to a commentator! – that Commodus was not the first son to take over the position after his father.  He was the first “born in the purple” or born while his father was Emperor.  Conversely, Vespasian had two sons become emperor, but they were both born and raised by the time their father earned the title.  Also, I’d like to note that of the “five good emperors” Marcus Aurelius is the only one who had a natural son he could make emperor.)

Furthermore, Marcus Aurelius died when Commodus was only 19.  Not only he did he have the promise of all the power and position, but he was still young.  Why would he kill his father when he could still spend his time without as much responsibility?  It’s easy to make him out as the villain because Marcus was so beloved and Commodus is commonly considered one of the worst emperors in Roman history.  Let’s give him at least some benefit of the doubt.  He didn’t kill his father.  Also, he was young and inexperienced when he took over, and according to Cassius Dio his lack of guile and lack of great intelligence meant that his older advisers could manipulate him.  What if the movie had started with Commodus as a good looking younger man with a great deal of potential?  The first sign of trouble could be his pulling away from battle and returning to Rome.  The historical Commodus ended his father’s campaign – he could even make a rational argument that he wanted to help soldiers return home.  This way, he gains the support of the army, is thoughtful, but maybe also a coward for retreating from battle.

Could he at least TRY to look like less of a douche?

Maximus could still be a solider – not a general though, he should fly under the radar – who gets forced into slavery for some reason.  Perhaps he fights for the other side and gets captured by soldiers.  A prisoner of war being sold into slavery would not be unusual.  He could now have a great deal of resentment against Rome and want to get back to his family.

2) The Roman Senate did not work “for the people”

One common assertion in the film is that the senators are elected from the people and for the people while the emperors are blue-blooded aristocrats.  In truth, particularly in the early days of the Republic, you only had a chance of being in the senate if you were part of the aristocratic patrician class.  If you were a normal person – a plebian – then your political career didn’t have much of a chance.  The senate was comprised of elected magistrates.  Once you became a magistrate, you were in the senate for life.  There was only one position for magistrates that dealt directly with the people, and even then they dealt with the Council of Plebs.  This council consisted of roman citizens who were male.  If you were a woman or not a citizen, then you had no voice in politics.

Senators largely looked after their own interests, and as the Republic continued they got more corrupt and self-centered.  Men who tried to fight for the “common man” were ousted or killed.  Part of the reason Augustus was able to set up the Empire in the first place was because the senate had created so much infighting and instability in Rome that the people didn’t care who was in charge.  Emperors brought them peace?  Bring on the Emperors!

"What about the...poor people? AHAHAHA, oh Quintus, you're such a card."

3) Make gladiator fights more realistic, and attitudes toward them

I know that popular portrayals of gladiators are more violent to drum up audience interest.  But the speech Proximo gives early in the film about buying slaves to profit from their deaths?  Straight up lies.  Anyone who owned or sponsored gladiators had to put in time to train them, to feed them, to give them medical attention.  If they died in the first battle, you lost out on the profit you could gain from seeing them fight time and again.  Not to mention, that these early fights outside of Rome would have been less bloody in history.  By this time, gladiator fights that ended in death were largely banned outside of Rome, and sometimes the contestants would fight with wooden weapons to prevent death.  The movie could give Maximus the chance to prove himself by winning fights, as this nobody from another army.  Commodus could still call for more gladiators from outside Rome.  While he didn’t hold 150 days of games when he took the throne, he did throw a lot of spectacles, and would need a lot of people.

The historical Commodus was obsessed with games, particularly gladiator fights.  When he first became emperor he would participate in practice fights in privacy, but as the years wore on he began to insert himself into the arena.  This had mixed results.  His ability has an archer in killing animals impressed the Roman people, they ate it up.  When he actually fought in the arena against men?  That would be far more dubious.  Only slaves were debased enough to be forced into entertainment, and someone of the aristocracy fighting in such a manner would have been humiliating to some degree.  Still, we can’t deny that it entertained the hell out of the people.  In the film, they could have had Commodus participating in multiple fights rigged so he wouldn’t be harmed because that’s what he actually did.  They could slowly show him growing more unstable.  There’s at least one account of him being so jealous of a popular gladiator that he had the man killed.  Maybe Maximus is too popular for Commodus’ tastes.  The turning point of horror in the film could center around Commodus entering the arena as Hercules (something else he actually did).  In one historical account, Commodus had men in Rome without feet, or otherwise handicapped, chained together and made them costumes to turn them into the monstrous giants of mythology.  He then clubbed them to death as Hercules saving the people.

The historical Commodus was approximately 1000x more horrifying than the movie version leering at his sister.

4) Get rid of the incest, PLEASE

If Commodus had actually tried to seduce his sister, then fine.  But as far as we can tell, he didn’t.  A bunch of guys who hated Commodus and wrote really nasty things about him never even suggested it, so don’t put it in the movie.  I feel like the writers were afraid people wouldn’t think he was a horrible enough emperor, even after his own father denounced him as an amoral man who must under no circumstances have power.

I thought he might have good reasons for killing his father, but NOW I know that he's a creep.

In truth, about two years after Commodus became emperor, Lucilla devised a plot to assassinate him.  Unfortunately, they hired an aspiring actor for the job who not only revealed himself with knife waving around but who yelled something like,  “See!  This is what the senate has sent you!”  Yelling dramatically is a good way to give bodyguards the chance to take you out, and that’s what they did.  Not to mention, that the senate had nothing to do with the plot to kill Commodus.  That didn’t matter to the young emperor, who subsequently grew to hate and distrust the senate more than he already had, and began a murderous campaign against them to oust everybody who might not like him.  You could say that this attempt made Commodus even worse than Lucilla already thought he was.

Oh, he also exiled his sister and had her killed.  Can you imagine this woman being set up as a key player in the movie only to have her killed partway through?  It would certainly help turn the audience against Commodus, probably even more than they were when he asked her to spend the night with him.  Seriously, get rid of the incest, put in the failed assassination.

5) Add more roles for women

Commodus had another sister besides Lucilla, as well as his wife – Bruttia Crispina – and a number of mistresses, although his favorite was Marcia.  Put these women in the mix, let them learn how terrible he is and begin to start their own plotting.  They could meet with Maximus in secret and start up a plan, and take on proactive roles in trying to keep Commodus from becoming completely amoral.

I like this approach because it gives more women the chance to act.  In the version we have now, Connie Nielsen is the only one who really gets to talk, aside from the prostitutes.  With more of the historical women, we now get a good three or four roles of women plotting and manipulating the scene.

Also, it gives Marcia the chance to be awesome.  In one explanation for why she decided to help assassinate Commodus, she found a tablet on which he had written the names people he wanted to kill.  She was at the top of the list.  When she saw this, Marcia apparently said:

So, Commodus, this is my reward for my love and devotion, after I have put up with your arrogance and your madness for so many years. But, you drunken sot, you shall not outwit a woman deadly sober!

How fantastic is that?  I am on the Marcia bandwagon.  Let the ladies get in on the death and assassination.

6) Make Commodus die in secret

I know this if far less dramatic, but Commodus was actually killed by being strangled in a bathtub.  Marcia attempted to poison him, and when he vomited up most of the poison, they sent in a wrestler by the name of Narcissus to finish him off.  Perhaps instead, Marcia could sneak Maximus in to kill him if we are intent on having Maximus carry off the final heroic act.

As it stands, having a slave kill an emperor in the arena is too ridiculous.  No matter how much the people hated Commodus, they would never have reacted to his death like they did in the film.  His sister would not have failed to pay respects to his dead body.  It just wouldn’t happen.  I understand the uplifting ending.  After all, if the movie followed history too closely, after Commodus died, more emperors like him would take his place and continue the path to absolute and autocratic rule.  Let’s at least try for the conspiracy angle.  Maximus gets his revenge and changes the face of the Empire, but most people just remember him as a lowly slave.

It’s a possibility.

One more note on the film: Ridley Scott made the Colosseum larger than it actually was because he wanted to show off the dramatics.  In an attempt to kill off Maximus, Commodus could move him from the arena to the Circus Maximus, to the far more dangerous chariot races.  If Commodus stooped so low as to participate in a chariot race?  The people of Rome would be absolutely scandalized.

Overall, I like this film.  Like I said, it is entertaining.  I  just think that creating more historical accuracy concerning Commodus could allow the audience to watch him slowly slip into madness and terrifying homicidal rages that would make the drama more complicated than simply: Maximus is good and fights for the people.  Commodus is bad and has few morals.

I leave you here, because this is getting ridiculously long and there is more I could say.  Before you go though, would you mind scrolling down and voting on the poll for which movie you’d like to see done next?

Sources:

Primary

Joann Shelton, As the Romans Did.  Like I said before, this is a fantastic compilation of primary sources that cover all aspects of Roman culture.

Cassius Dio, Roman History.  Epitome of Book LXXIII.  A contemporary of Commodus, he has a good account of what happened.  Unfortunately, he only have the epitomes and not full lengths of his text, but a good primary source.

Herodian, History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius.  Specifically books 1.4-1.17.  Professor Garrett Fagan calls him “dubious and moralizing” but he still acts as a solid ancient source, and is more reliable than the Augustan Histories.

Augustan Histories.  Supposedly, after reading this the screenwriter decided to focus the movie on Commodus.  There’s a lot of stuff in here that’s propaganda, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Secondary

Professor Garrett G. Fagan, Emperors of Rome.  Lecture 24: Marcus in the North and Commodus.  The lecture is only half an hour long, but does serve as a good summary and backs up some of the ancient sources.

David Potter, Emperors of Rome: Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar to the last emperor.  Not specifically great for Commodus, but a nice summary of life in the empire and the various men in charge for someone wanting to learn about Rome.

Mike Duncan, The History of Rome.  Series of podcasts about Rome that begin with the foundation of the city and have currently worked through the reign of Constantine.  Listen to episodes 95-97 for more about Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

FOR NEXT WEEK:

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8 responses to ““Gladiator”: Good drama, bad history

  1. Commodus was most likely not MA’s son, but the consequence of Faustina’s affair with a gladiator. What is more, his wife may have been involved in a plot with Avidius Cassius to overthrough MA. After Cassius was captured and killed, MA had his papers burned, unread, and granted clemency to the rebels. As a Stoic, MA tolerated his wife’s infidelity and his son’s incompetence, and indifferent to who succeeded him. MA was a co-emperor with Lucius Verus for many years, and thought little of aristocracy. If there had been a Maximus, he may well have selected him.

    • I’ve read about the questionable parentage of Commodus, and I prefer to take the stance that he was really Marcus Aurelius’ son. Faustina did sleep around while he was on campaign, okay, but I find this idea that Commodus was the son of a gladiator more a convenient excuse to explain why he grew up to be so obsessed with gladiatorial combat. I think it was more likely that he just happened to be a disappointing son. One of the other things I find interesting concerning this part of history is that Marcus Aurelius made sure to take the steps before his death to let people know that Commodus was his intended heir, despite the tendency of Emperors at that time to choose someone they thought fitting for the job rather than defaulting to a blood relative. This also makes me think that MA must have been pretty sure Commodus was his son.

      That’s part of what makes history so interesting, though! A lot of different views. Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate it!

  2. Michael A. Rhodes

    Your statement that Commodus was the first Roman Emperor to succeed his father is not correct. Vespasian (Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus) was succeeded by his son Titus in 79 AD (or CE, as some prefer).

  3. This might get lengthy I will only list my arguments… First, Maximus was not obviously Christian since when they depicted him praying, it was to his ancestors (a la the figurines of his family). Heavenly father does not necessarily mean the “One God”. I suspect some sort of commingling of religion here. The fact that Lucilla prays means nothing. She could be praying to Jupiter. Anyhow, I think the film director was trying to accentuate her past indiscretions and reform by saying “Oh yes, I pray”.

    I cannot argue much on your traveling time line as it confused me a bit. I just chalked it up to movie making. One curious thing though, when Maximus traveled to Spain, he had a full beard and obviously longer hair upon arrival.

    The battle scene in the Flavian Amphitheater with the Carthaginians against the Romans, the Roman Legion was introduced with the name Africanus in it. Since, I believe, most outlying Roman Legions were conscripted, would it not make sense that some would be black and have some of their own gear?

    I don’t think the filmmaker tries to portray the Senate as “of the people”, rather a few that are sensitive to the people and try to be “for the people”; nor do I recall, at any time in the movie, one running for re-election.

    • Oh, one last thing on Maximus’ travels from Germania to Spain, the second horse would have supplied ample food after it gave out during the arduous ride.

  4. Good points John there are a lot of holes in this article, also worth mentioning Lucilla the gods have spared you to Maximus when she first visits him in prison.

  5. So in that case I don’t think she was being portray as Christian, I suspect she meant she was praying to the “gods”. Also when the movie ends Lucilla is still standing in the centre of the arena, she doesn’t follow the remains of Maximus. I think the movie makers leave the viewer guessing whether she payed respect to her dead brother or not.

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