That's partly why this week's pick is Gladiator, though it's also because it was a request by my friend Kat Arnett. I hesitated about doing it, because this is one film that had its inaccuracies wildly discussed upon its release. Just about every publication had a "Gladiator: Fact or Fiction?" article in 2000.
But that was ten years ago. Despite that pop culture has continued to dig into classical history for entertainment, I suspect the real story of Commodus and his gladiatorial hijinks has fallen by the wayside. I also thought it would be fun to discuss this film in the wake of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. Scott has an definite way of interpreting history that's become more pronounced with every film. So, while the historical story behind Gladiator may not be new to a lot of you, it might be illuminating to look at this film again and compare it to Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, as well as other recent depictions of Rome.
I imagine I don't have to summarize this one too much. It's the year 180 A.D., and Maximus Decimus Meridias is leading the final assault against Germanic tribes. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius is on hand to observe his victory, and the loyalty he commands among his men. Marcus Aurelius is dying, and is afraid to hand power over to his son, Commodus. (Joaquin Phoenix) He asks Maximus to take power, and guide Rome back into the hands of the Roman Senate.
But the suspicious and power hungry Commodus intervenes. He murders his father, takes the purple, and sentences Maximus to death when he won't swear allegiance. Maximus escapes, and rushes to protect his family. He's too late. Wounded and exhausted, he's captured by slavers and sold to Antonius Proximo. Proximo is overseer of a gladiatorial school (a ludus if you'd like the Latin), and after giving Maximus a few beatings, convinces him he can win fame and freedom in the ring.
Meanwhile, Commodus makes a triumphant return to Rome. He's hungry to remake it in his own image, but is bored with the day-to-day trials of bureaucracy. He wins over the people by staging endless gladiatorial games –the proverbial bread and circuses – but the Roman Senate seeks to get rid of him. They have a willing accomplice in his sister, Lucilla, who fears Commodus for reasons that are as much personal as political. When Maximus appears in the ring, openly defies Commodus, and wins the crowd, they seek to align him to their cause. But political coups prove harder to win than a fight in the arena, though Commodus' desire to crush Maximus actually puts the fate of Rome in the Coliseum itself.
The Historical Background
Rome had been under the rule of emperors for more than a century. The film hints at this in the placard, but all of Marcus Aurelius' talk of how Rome used to be almost implies that the emperors are a relatively new introduction. But the Empire has already seen Caligula and Nero come and go by this point. It's no wonder that historians have always been tempted to call the period from 98 AD to Marcus Aurelius' death in 180 AD as the period of "The Five Good Emperors" because politics were relatively restrained. But there was still plenty of conquest, warfare, and upheaval.
It would take too much time and space to describe what Rome was like on the eve of Gladiator. But what I'd like to note is that the voice of the common Roman has been lost to history. We don't know what they thought of Rome's expansion, or how they regarded the ascent of a new emperor, or the passing of an old one. Gladiator tries to fill in the blanks. The citizens boo Commodus upon his arrival in Rome, clearly suspecting him of foul play, and hail Maximus as the savior of Rome. They're proto-Americans and champions of democracy. They seem to be on the verge of overthrowing Commodus and disdain his corrupt ways. Did the average Roman really feel this way about this emperor, or that? We don't know. But it makes for great cinema to see them favoring the gruff Maximus and the morals he represents over the debauched, whiny emperor.
Is It Accurate?
No. There's an entire Wikipedia article (I know, I know) that's dedicated to all the inaccuracies big and small. Just about everything you see in the film is pure Hollywood -- from Maximus' tattoo (Roman soldiers were tattooed, but it would have been on his hand to make it difficult to remove) to the opening battle that's touted as the Defeat of all Germania. But one thing I never wanted this column to be about, though, was whether Commodus wore purple armor (a point my classics professor constantly complained about) or whether Lucilla's costumes were accurate. (Structurally, they look great, but there's an awful lot of synthetic lace covering her outfits.) These things are important, naturally. However, it's more damaging to history to have audiences come away with more Arab stereotypes (they're depicted as slave traders) or a belief that central Europe was populated by glorified cavemen. Gladiator is a film that touts the glory of Rome to something bordering on religious worship, and that's kind of dangerous.
Let's start with Marcus Aurelius. He was a scholar and philosopher, a man who followed the Stoic way of life. He was, by all accounts, a very good emperor. Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote of him "Marcus did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire." (Classical historian Mary Beard has bucked the scholarly trend of worshiping him – I don't want to mangle her by copying and pasting a quote, but those intrigued by Marcus Aurelius should read her.)
But that preservation never included handing Rome back to the Senate. He willingly appointed Commodus (the first man actually "born to the purple", previous emperors were adopted or appointed) his successor. Some historians believe he did it because he lacked for good candidates, or that he feared civil war would break out. But it's possible he just really liked the idea of his son succeeding him. (Again read Dr. Beard – he may not have been a just and prudent emperor, but no godlike mind.) It's not as though Commodus was a Caligula, and he was surrounded by good advisers. He was only nineteen when Marcus Aurelius died (of fever, not by his son's hand) and his father may have simply thought he'd grow out of his bad habits.
That's how Commodus appears to have started out – just a man of bad habits. Even Cassius Dio -- who had no kind words for him -- admitted he started his reign as a man who "was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature." There's not a lot of detail about Commodus' reign. Dio Cassius was a contemporary observer, and he describes a character not unlike the man portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix: "Commodus was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people. Many plots were formed by various people against Commodus, and he killed a great many, both men and women, some openly and some by means of poison, secretly, making away, in fact, with practically all those who had attained eminence during his father's reign and his own .... On coming to Rome he addressed the senate, uttering a lot of trivialities; and among the various stories that he told in his own praise was one to this effect, that once while out riding he had saved the life of his father, who had fallen into a deep quagmire. Such were his lofty pratings."
His lofty pratings, his tendency to hand all power to his favorites, and his godlike opinion of himself earned him the ire of many. Everyone began plotting against Commodus. His sister Lucilla was the first, though no one quite knows why. Supposedly, she was jealous of Commodus' wife, Crispina. Lucilla hired two men – possibly her lovers -- to kill him as he entered "the hunting theater." His bodyguards thwarted the plot, and Lucilla was exiled to Capri, where she was later killed. Empress Crispina seems to have been involved or been blamed in some peripheral way, as Commodus accused her of treason or adultery, and she too was exiled to Capri and killed. He took up with a mistress named Marcia, who played a big part in his political decisions. She may have been a Christian, as she encouraged Commodus to be tolerant of them.
Gladiator gets one idea straight -- Commodus' downfall came about because of the gladiatorial ring. Half the reason he kept handing power to his favorites was because he preferred hunting, driving chariots, and playing gladiator. He promoted himself as the reincarnation of Hercules, and made much of his physical and athletic skill. He was constantly staging public battles with himself as the star. My classical professor may have been right that Commodus never wore purple armor, but you can see where Scott got the idea: "Before entering the amphitheater he would put on a long-sleeved tunic of silk, white interwoven with gold, and thus arrayed he would receive our greetings; but when he was about to go inside, he put on a robe of pure purple with gold spangles."
Despite whatever ugly crimes Commodus was committing, his Spartacus cosplay was the one habit his circle wasn't willing to tolerate. Whether it was because they were horrified at his cruelties (one of his staged games involved clubbing crippled individuals to death), afraid they too would end up fighting him, or simply embarrassed is unknown. Dio Cassius claims he and other senators feared for their lives. But one prefect named Laetus decided he'd kill Commodus. He took Marcia into his confidence, and convinced her to poison Commodus. (Some give her all the credit because she was reportedly scheduled for execution.) But the emperor ended up throwing up all the poison. Fearing he would figure out who was behind it, Laetus, Marcia, and other conspirators paid his wrestling partner, Narcissus, to strangle him in the bathtub. He was succeeded by Pertinax, who was a bit of a Maximus, a man who climbed the political ranks through a military career. He himself was assassinated 86 days later due to not paying the Praetorian guards enough.
So, Gladiator is wildly inaccurate. That's not a surprise. As an eager film goer, I can see why they spun the story they did, and where they pulled the inspiration. I disagree with historians like Allan Ward who argue that the real story is better than the fictional one, as I can't really see a way to make a wrestler named Narcissus any kind of hero. Russell Crowe was right on that one. What's far more surprising (or alarming, depending how seriously you take such things) is Scott's determination, one that he has shown again and again, to populate his ancient worlds with anachronistic ideas. Gladiator was one that made historians bristle, but in griping about how Commodus was blonde, not brunette, or whether Marcus Aurelius would look as old as Richard Harris is missing the real Roman myth that's being spun.
Ridley Scott's Rome is that city of mythic, marble perfection. It's not the grimy, superstitious and dangerous city of reality. It took nearly ten years and an HBO show to depict that Rome. Instead, we might as well be watching Cecil B. DeMille's Rome as flocks of doves swirl in synchronized CGI beauty, the sunlight casts through the clouds just so, and the togas are as pristine and white as the people. The film is absolutely enamored with Rome as an ideal, and the founder of all that's good in Western culture. "Rome is the light!" protests Maximus, and the film agrees. The fringes of the Roman empire are fleabitten hellholes, or dark, dank worlds where civilization is foreign concept. The Germanic tribes actually had a pretty complex culture, but you'd never know it from the savages portrayed here. Luckily, Rome will show them a better way to live.
There's no accident this came out on the eve of a new millennium. Let us look to our glorious past, let us praise ourselves for pursing the despotic and debauched, and choosing the right form of government! What would our world be like if Rome hadn't created the Senate, and we hadn't adopted it? Well, it would probably look something like Germania. We'll pause while you shudder at the thought.
Oh sure, the film takes pains to show that the "beating heart" of Rome is the Coliseum, and that marble statues and pristine Senate debates are glosses over a savage culture that spills blood for sport. But I don't think Scott really believes it. You can't, not when you build an entire film around the common man (Maximus) taking a stand against a despot – ostensibly for revenge, but eventually for the greater good. This isn't a story you'd find in ancient epics. As I said before, we don't even know what the common people thought, so it's difficult to know if Maximus could represent a real spirit of the time. Would your average Roman soldier wake up one day, and say "This is a really unfair system. I'm going to take a stand! We should vote on our senators, and get rid of these emperors!" I don't know.
But someone today would, which is why Gladiator is so appealing, and why it's a film that's more about us than ancient Rome. All of Scott's historic epics are thinly veiled modern myths. Kingdom of Heaven is all about religious tolerance, set in an era when there was no such thing. Robin Hood is, like Gladiator, a song about how equality, fraternity, and brotherhood are our natural sentiments. Those blue-bloods who try to suppress it (be they Commodus or King John) do so at their peril. Men like Maximus and Robin Hood are always going to be around to call them on their monstrosities.
It's a historic fiction that is at once uplifting (I like stories that praise the human spirit, and I love a good action story), but also damaging. It's good to use stories of the past, present, and future to allude to modern day events – sexy costuming makes the medicine go down -- but I'm wary of Scott's use of it. An entertaining story is one thing, but a glorified past is another, and Gladiator simultaneously congratulates us for rejecting the horrors of the arena while implying our democracy was reborn out of its sands.