Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator” is a movie which, roughly, could be described using one word only: a spectacle. Nevertheless, this “spectacle” is not purely fictitious; it is not serving the sole purpose of entertaining and stirring an audience who may long for a good movie with gorgeous scenery, impressive set design and gripping performance. It is designed not only to enthral, but to “educate” as well, in a way. The events happening are a blend of a scriptwriter’s imagination and the known facts.
Actual historical personages and events are used for background.
The events are set in Germania, where Emperor Marcus Aurelius is drawing his war campaign against barbarian tribes to an end. The emperor is very old and weak, so he decides to pass his power down to Maximus Decimus Meridius, a general of the Roman army, who enjoys great support of the masses because of his honesty, loyalty and valor. Meanwhile, the emperor’s only son Commodus is firmly convinced that it will be him to acquire the position after Marcus’ imminent death.
When the emperor’s expectancies become known to him, Commodus, in a fit of rage, strangles his own father and decides to get Maximus out of his way. Miraculously, Maximus manages to escape this fate only to find that his family have been tormented to death. Then he is enslaved and taken to Zucchabar, Roman Province, where his master, Proximo, trains him to be a gladiator. After that the scene shifts to Rome, where Maximus gains one victory after another in Coliseum, sating the mob’s desire for blood and entertainment. He sustains all severities to finally face his enemy – the Caesar Commodus and avenge the death of his wife and son. At the end of the film the dying Maximus kills Commodus in the arena.
As to the theme, there are actually many of them throughout the entire movie. The main and the most significant one is that heroic virtues eventually defeat anything. Valor and fortitude are rewarded, villainy and cruelty are punished. Maximus’ motto: “Strength and honour!” manifests the essence of his credo, everything he believes in and fights for. Maintaining your honor and using mental and physical abilities, you are able to conquer any problem of task. Another theme is fight for power, accomplishment of the desired at any price, reflected in Commodus’ actions.
The next theme is closely connected with the desire for power – the idea is that power comes through controlling the mob. There many other important issues highlighted in this movie – such as love towards your family and your children, loyalty to you motherland and willingness to sacrifice your life serving the highest aim.
Another thing making this movie so fascinating is the attention given to the characters. The characters of the film are not numerous (if not to take into consideration Roman society and the mob), but each one possesses deep and expressive personality. Maximus, being a protagonist, is an embodiment of a perfect hero – brave, smart, skilful. On the contrary, Commodus is a “perfect” scoundrel– a spoiled degenerate, who, like a snake, is coiled and ready to attack without warning. The villain is at least as smart as a hero, and, at the same time, far more ruthless.
Another character is Lucilla, Commodus’ sister, who used to be Maximus’ lover. Her 8-year old son is the current heir to Roman emperor’s throne, and, drawn by fear for her child, Lucilla is condemned to live obeying every word of her dangerous and unpredictable brother. She is torn apart by her maternal love, feelings she still has towards her former lover and her duty as a Roman. Then, there is Proximo, who, at first sight, is a ruthless slave-holder, but later we understand that he has his own peculiar sense of honor, respect towards the brave, allegiance to principles and fidelity to the Caesar Marcus Aurelius, who once freed him. A figure of Marcus Aurelius himself is vivid and significant. Though he is not the main character, the high ideals he professes are supported and used throughout the movie. The film’s characterization attempts to show Marcus Aurelius’ reputation for wisdom and does so by placing a modern democratic shade to his actions and beliefs. Maximus fights and dies for the ideals of his Caesar.
Ridley Scott managed to create a second-century Rome that is entirely credible and stunning in its detail, but if we trace these historical events not by the film, the book will point out quite a number of discrepancies in the plot of the “Gladiator”. The date (180 AD) is true, that is exactly when Marcus Aurelius suddenly died, probably of plaque (Gibbon), though according to the film he was assassinated. Then, Commodus became an emperor at his father’s will, moreover, he was appointed to be a joint emperor in 177 AD yet. (Illustrated History of the Roman Empire).
Commodus’ reign was marked by numerous plots, which has not been mentioned in the film. In AD 182 his own sister Annia Lucilla, together with her cousin, the former consul Marcus Ummidius Quadratus, were involved in a plot to assassinate him. The second husband of Lucilla, Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus of Antioch, who had held the office of consul twice, was whom the plotters sought to make emperor. Lucilla was then exiled and eventually executed.
The film not only deprives us of the slightest reference to that fact, but does not mention either Lucilla’s husband or Commodus’ wife, who took part in another riot (Gibbon). Then, the very death of Commodus does not correspond to any of the sources. What really happened in AD 193 was that Commodus was assassinated in a palace plot. His concubine administered poison to the emperor, but the immoderate use of wine and baths, which was habitual with him, kept him from succumbing at once, and instead he vomited up some of it; and thus suspecting the truth, he indulged in some threats. Then Narcissus, an athlete, was sent against him, and Commodus was strangled while taking a bath (Cassius Dio). There some other minor inaccuracies, but the general conclusion is that the history was sacrifices for the sake of a grand spectacle, which is “Gladiator”. Thus, I would recommend watching this film to entertain yourself, but not to derive any historical information.
Works Cited List:
Cassius Dio. Roman History. Epitome of Book LXXIII
Commodus entry at De Imperatoribus Romanis. Retrieved on 10 December, 2005 from http://www.roman-emperors.org/lverus.htm
Historia Augusta. Life of Commodus. Retrieved on 10 December, 2005 from
Garzetti, A. From Tiberius to the Antonines. A History of the Roman Empire A. D. 14-192. London, 1974.
Gibbon, Edward. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. Retrieved on 10 December, 2005 from http://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/volume1/chap4.htm#RET
Nock, A. D. “The Emperor’s Divine Comes,” Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947): 102-116
Wiseman, T. P. “Gladiator and the Myths of Rome: T. P. Wiseman Looks at the Development of the Myth of Ancient Rome, Derived from the Way Its History Has Been Seen.” History Today. Volume: 55. Issue: 4, April 2005, 37-39
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Historical perspective of the film Gladiator. (2017, Jan 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/historical-perspective-of-the-film-gladiator/