The Movie Gladiator in Historical Perspective

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The Movie Gladiator in Historical Perspective

by Allen Ward, University of Connecticut

Original text © 2001 Allen Ward

What can a Roman historian say about the movie “Gladiator”? It was the best of films. It was the worst of films. One of the best things about this movie is that it is part of a long line of books, plays, films, and works of art that keep alive interest in the Ancient World among the general public, something at which artists and writers have been far more successful over the centuries than professional historians. Unfortunately, the creative minds who do the most to shape popular views of the past often have little regard for the level of accuracy that preoccupies professional [historians]. Artists and writers [look to] the past for raw materials that support their own creative agenda. Few writers other than the most scrupulous of historical novelists will ever let the facts that concern professional historians get between them and paying customers.


As the worst of films, “Gladiator” provides a perfect example. Right from the opening scene, the inaccuracies are legion. First, there was no last great battle with the Germanic tribes on the eve of Marcus Aurelius’ death. There was a great daylong battle late in the campaigning season of A.D. 179, but Marcus died on March 17 of 180, just as he was about to launch another great military campaign. One could say that the scriptwriters needed to foreshorten the chronology here to save time in a long movie, but they certainly played fast and loose with some other aspects of the battle. I have found no attested parallel to the war dog of the Roman commander Maximus, the movie’s hero, and if there were one, it would not have been a German shepherd, a breed that did not exist in Antiquity. The use of fire-hurling catapults and mechanical dart launchers against the oncoming barbarians was certainly dramatic but probably unhistorical. By and large such weapons were too cumbersome for use on the open battlefield and were confined to more static siege warfare.

The whole movie has radically compressed the chronology of the Emperor Commodus’ reign. He became sole emperor upon his father’s death in March of 180 and was assassinated almost thirteen years later on December 31, 192.Although the time encompassed by “Gladiator” is not precisely indicated, it would appear that no more than two years could have elapsed before Commodus was killed. Within that time-frame, however, the script does utilize some historical facts: Commodus was fascinated with shows of beast hunting, chariot racing, and gladiatorial combat; he did train himself in those skills; and eventually, to the ultimate scandal of all classes, he fought in the public arena as the kind of light-armed gladiator known as a secutor (pursuer). In an inscription, he even boasted of his 620 victories in gladiatorial combat. 


Except for a love of the games, there is not much that is historical about “Gladiator’s” version of Commodus. In the movie he appears to be in his mid-to-late twenties, is of average build, has dark hair, and fights with his right hand. In reality, he was only eighteen and a half when Marcus died, had a very strong physique, sported golden blond hair, and fought with his left hand. Moreover, he was not single, as the movie represents him. In 178, at the age of sixteen, he had been married to Bruttia Crispina, and it was not until after the conspiracy of 182 that he divorced her for adultery and executed her.


Unfortunately, there are no portraits with which to compare the Hero of “Gladiator”, the Spanish general Maximus. He never existed at all. He is a pastiche, a composite portrait of the kind of able men from the provinces who were tangible proof of Marcus Aurelius’ insistence on promoting men because of merit wherever he found them. Like Marcus himself, Trajan, and Hadrian, the character Maximus came from a provincial family in Spain. His longing for home and family in the movie echo sentiments that Herodian attributes to Claudius Pompeianus, whose career as a military officer from the provinces resembled his in many ways. The man who most likely held the supreme field command in the great battle of 179 on which the opening scene is probably based was Taruttienus Paternus, senior prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who was later executed for supposed involvement in the plot of 182.



Despite its many specific inaccuracies, “Gladiator” is the best of films because it does vividly and convincingly portray some important general truths about the late second-century-A.D. Roman World. Many people find the movie offensively violent, bloody, and gory. Unfortunately, life in the ancient world in general was much more violent and gruesomely bloody than life in modern industrial democracies. Marcus Aurelius spent most of his reign in fighting wars. Despite the misplaced fire-hurling catapults, the brutal hand-to-hand butchery of the opening battle gives a good idea of the ugly face of legionary combat and the gruesome ways in which one could be killed or wounded. Indeed, such scenes are graphically depicted on the famous column that commemorates Aurelius’ Northern Wars.

Not just on the battlefield but everywhere people constantly confronted sudden violent or painful death. People were acutely aware that we are, as the character Proximo, misquoting Horace (Odes, 4.7.6), more than once said, “shadows and dust.” Murder was frequent in crowded, poorly policed cities, and the countryside was constantly being raided by brigands and invaders. After the abortive plot of 182, the senatorial class again faced the kind of murderous purge such as had occurred earlier under Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. The brutal murders of Maximus’ wife and son in “Gladiator” mirror that reality. Marcus avoided such extremes in dealing with his domestic opponents, but those who were loyal to him did not scruple to cut off the head of the hapless Avidius Cassius and send it to him. Plague had ravaged the Roman Empire since the return of Lucius Verus’ army from Parthia in 166, and the lack of modern medicines rendered all diseases more deadly than now. Death rates were very high. Marcus himself had buried his wife and eight of their fourteen known children.


The pressing perception of death lurking everywhere helps to explain the popularity of gladiatorial shows all over the Empire. As the fictional senator Gracchus in the movie said of Commodus and his attempt to win the hearts of the masses: “He will bring them death, and they will love him for it.” While gladiatorial shows and related games like beast hunts and chariot races were religiously charged spectacles of Roman power used to maintain political and social control, the great popular enthusiasm that they generated had nothing to do with any popular love for Roman rituals and expressions of power. It had everything to do with the ancient warrior code that stressed overcoming death by achieving honor and undying fame through killing others in battle or at least meeting a glorious death. Gladiatorial combat replicated the daily struggle with death faced by everyone and provided the model for how to confront it heroically. As the Black gladiator Juba, who healed Maximus’ wound, said to him when at first he refused to play his new role as a gladiator, “Why don’t you fight? We all have to fight!” Through heroically facing death, one might actually overcome it for the present by defeating one’s foe or, by fighting courageously even in the face of overwhelming odds, one could obtain a degree of heroic honor in defeat that transcended death. Proximo said it all when he said, “Ultimately, we are all dead men …. We have to decide how to meet death in order to be remembered as men.”

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