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?
Marcus Aurelius was, as well as emperor from 161 to 180 CE, a stoic philosopher. He really did wage battles along the frontier as depicted in the film, and is remembered by historians of his time as a competent ruler, whom they favour. His name in full was Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, and these are the titles to which he would have been referred, not the anachronistic “sire” and “my lord” as in the film.
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?
Maximus Decimus Meridius (his full name is stated only once in the film) is a fictitious character!
Although he did not exist, he seems to be a composite of actual historical figures. In the film, Maximus was Marcus Aurelius’ general. There was in fact a general by the name of Avidius Cassius, who was involved in the military campaign shown in the film, and, upon hearing a rumor of Marcus Aurelius’ death, declared himself emperor. He however, was assassinated by his own soldiers. It is true that there was, in the later Empire, a General by the name of Maximus who appears to have had revolutionary intentions. He is most likely an inspiration as well.
Maximus also reminds one of the emperor Diocletian. Remember that in the film, Marcus Aurelius names Maximus as his heir. Diocletian, who ruled Rome from 284 to 305 CE, was born in the lower classes, like Maximus. He eventually became his emperor’s trusted favourite and bodyguard, and later became a general. Finally he was named heir, and thus became emperor.
Commodus, in reality, was not murdered in the arena by Maximus. He was however murdered by a wrestler. So the character Maximus, while fictitious, is not that far-fetched. He appears to be collage of other, real, historical figures.
As for his personality, he was definitely a stoic, as evidenced by his sense of obligation to the state, and concern for duty and virtue. This makes sense, given his admiration for Marcus Aurelius, who was a stoic philosopher. One difficulty is, even though many Romans (and not just Christians) believed in an afterlife, stoics usually did not. So this is problematic with regards to his character in the film.
DID SENATOR GRACCHUS REALLY EXIST?
The ideology which he represents is however, somewhat authentic. Senator Gracchus appears to be based upon Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. During the Republic, these two brothers, were, one after the other, plebeian tribunes (not senators). They were champions of the common people, and paid the cost with their lives.
Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people in 133 BCE, and fought for reforms of benefit to the plebeians. He was murdered by opponents. His brother Gaius was elected tribune of the people in 123 BCE, and attempted the continuation of popular reforms. He was also murdered. It is problematic that in the film Gracchus was a senator, in the sense that it was the senatorial class which opposed Gauis and Tiberius, and even participated in their murder.
The political infrastructure of ancient Rome evolved over time, and was actually more complex than portrayed in the film. Other important political entities, along with the Senate, were the Plebeian Tribunate, as well as the Comitia Centuriata. These, along with two Consuls who would rule jointly, are the basic Republican institutions so cherished by Romans, and which emperors would claim to restore.
DID LUCILLA REALLY PLOT AGAINST HER BROTHER?
Commodus really did have a sister Lucilla, and she hated her brother. Lucilla was at one time married to Lucius Verus, as her son tells Maximus in the film. What is not said is that Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. Lucilla conspired against Commodus, and attempted to have him assassinated in 182 CE. Commodus banished Lucilla to the island of Capreae as punishment, and ordered her execution shortly after. So, unlike the film portrayal, Commodus actually outlived Lucilla.
Incidentally, it was his other sisters, not Lucilla, that he reputedly had sexual relations with.
DID WOMEN REALLY FIGHT IN THE ARENA?
Some criticism by film reviewers has been levied towards Scott for having a female gladiator. However, the ancient sources are clear; they did in fact exist. Tacitus, for instance, wrote that Nero staged “a number of gladiatorial shows, equal in magnificence to their predecessors, though more women of rank and senators disgraced themselves in the arena”. Petronius, in The Satyricon, wrote of female charioteers. Dio Cassius explained how some women performed asvenatores, that is gladiators who fought wild beasts. The Emperor Domitian staged games in which women battled pygmies.
Women were forbidden from gladiatorial performances shortly after the time of Commodus, by the emperor Alexander Severus, in 200 CE.
WHAT’S WITH THE TATTOO WORN BY MAXIMUS?
S.P.Q.R., the letters of the tattoo worn by Maximus, was an abbreviation for an oft used Latin phrase whose English translation is “the Senate and People of Rome”.
The Latin word for “tattoo” was stigma, and our modern meaning of stigmatize, as a pejorative, has clearly evolved from the Latin. It was slaves, gladiators, criminals, and later, soldiers, who were tattooed, as an identifying mark.
Upper class Romans did not partake in tattooing, which they associated with either marginal groups, or foreigners, such as Thracians, who were known to tattoo extensively. The emperor Caligula is said to have forced individuals of rank to become tattooed as an embarrassment.
In late antiquity, the Roman army consisted largely of mercenaries, they were tattooed in order that deserters could be identified.
The sixth century Roman physician, Aetius, wrote that:
“Stigmates are the marks which are made on the face and other parts of the body. We see such marks on the hands of soldiers. To perform the operation they use ink made according to this formula: Egyptian pine wood (acacia) and especially the bark, one pound; corroded bronze, two ounces; gall, two ounces; vitriol, one ounce. Mix well and sift… First wash the place to be tattooed with leek juice and then prick in the design with pointed needles until blood is drawn. Then rub in the ink.”
The Christian emperor Constantine, ca. 325 AD, decreed that individuals condemned to fight as gladiators or to work in the mines could be tattooed on the legs or the hands, but not on the face, because “the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, should be defiled as little as possible.”
In 787, Pope Hadrian the First prohibited tattooing altogether, due to its association with superstition, paganism, and the marginal classes.