The Gladiator: Fiction or Reality

The Gladiator: Fiction or Reality

The Gladiator, a film produced in the year 2000 was the story of an honorable and highly skilled general named, Maximus who was confronted with the tyrannical rule of the Roman emperor Commodus. How much of the Roman saga was based on actual historical events? Did the filmmaker present an accurate portrayal of the social, cultural and political tensions which existed within the Roman Empire during the reign of the ruler Commodus (180 C.E.)? The film can best be described as a collection of different historical “snippets” that have been glued together in order to present the aspects of history which would be most alluring to a modern day audience. Hence, the filmmaker has provided his audience with an illusion of history; he presents a reconstruction of the historical data but not in a chronological or accurate manner. Rather he has combined his ideas and understanding of Roman culture and politics with the factual details of the historical Rome in order to create a more in depth presentation of his characters. For it is impossible to gain such insight from reading the names and dates of various historical figures; one must also attempt to understand the characters themselves and what makes them who they are and how they have been remembered.

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This research paper will attempt to clarify and recognize the elements of fiction and those of a historical nature that can be ascertained from viewing the film, The Gladiator. This goal will be attained by reviewing the presentation of each of the principal characters in the film. That is the protagonist, general Maximus and his antagonist, the emperor Commodus. By reviewing these principal characters I will be able to asses to what extent the filmmaker has preserved the historical elements of each historical figure. Furthermore, this paper will also investigate the accuracy with which the filmmaker has chosen to portray one of the Roman Empires greatest landmarks, the Colosseum as well as one of the greatest political movements in the ancient world, the Roman Republic in order to distinguish between the elements of fiction and those derived from historical data. This will enable the reader to better understand the extent with which the filmmaker has allowed his own understanding of the historical figures and their historical setting to affect the overall presentation of the culture and society of the Roman Empire.

The film begins by presenting the main character, a general by the name of Maximus Decimus Meridius, in the midst of a battle which is successfully won. Moments later the general is brought before the roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who bestows his gratitude and satisfaction upon the roman soldier. Let us begin by exploring the setting of the initial scene, the battle field. During Marcus Aurelius’ reign as emperor (121-180 C.E.) he led several expeditions along the Danubian frontier against the Quadi and the Marcomanni ( During these expeditions it is believed that the roman emperor fell ill with the plague and eventually brought him to his death bed. Marcus Aurelius died on the 17th of March 180 C.E. in a military encampment at Bononia on the Danube ( It is upon his death that his nineteen year old son Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus was left with the heavy burden of ruling the Roman Empire. Emperor Commodus as he is often referred to, chose to make concessions to the northern Germanic tribes in order to quickly leave the snow covered battlefield of the Danube and return to Rome after almost two decades of war ( Thus far history has made no mention of a general Maximus or even of a soldier worthy of Marcus Aurelius’ praise. In fact no historical records can be found for the name Maximus Decimus Meridius. So who is this great warrior, leader of the roman army under the protective care of Marcus Aurelius?

            The character of the general Maximus in the film The Gladiator is clearly fictitious. Some believe the character to be a composite of different historical figures, in the film Maximus is a general who leads the armies of Marcus Aurelius, in parallel there was a general named Avidius Cassius who was reported to have led the armies of Marcus Aurelius in the battlefields of the Danube ( However, this same general was also believed to have proclaimed himself emperor upon hearing rumors of Marcus Aurelius’ death, he was later assassinated by his own soldiers (

_real_gladiator_one.html). Despite the fictitious nature of the character Maximus, there have been historical testimony of a general by the same name who lived during the Late Empire; this general has been described by historians as having revolutionary intentions and is most likely the inspiration for the character of Maximus (


            The character of the emperor Commodus, on the other hand, is one that can easily be found within the ancient roman sources. It was reported that Commodus spent most of his adolescence accompanying his father on his campaigns in the northern regions of the Danube ( He was also present when his father became ill and passed on, although it is believed that Marcus Aurelius died of the plague there have been speculations amongst scholars as to the cause of his death. In the film Commodus motivated by his jealousy of Maximus is lead to commit the murder of his father, Marcus Aurelius. Historical sources have demonstrated that in reality Commodus was even more unusual than the filmmaker chose to depict. Although he was loved by the people of lower classes he was hated and ridiculed by the aristocracy which viewed him as slightly insane (

commod.htm). Roman literary sources have revealed that Commodus believed himself to be a semi-god very much like Hercules so much so that he began to dress like him and engaged regularly in gladiatorial activities (

            Commodus’ enjoyed greatly taking part in gladiatorial events and demonstrating his skill and strength to his people. Events of such nature normally took place inside the confines of the Colosseum which was better known as the Amphitheatre in ancient roman times. The Amphitheatre was built by the Flavian emperors in the first century of the Common Era and was a gift to the Roman people ( For the people of ancient Rome, visits to spectacular events in the arena of the Colosseum were part of daily life. For over several centuries’ gladiatorial games, chariot races and plays were the most important leisure activities of the Roman middle and lower classes, satisfying their need for excitement and hero-worship ( The Colosseum was the abridging gap between the people and the ruling families, as was evident in the film the activities that were presented by the emperor in the Colosseum were enthusiastically received by the roman public.

            In contrast the Roman Republic which was a separate entity from the roman emperor was viewed as an innovative political idea of the time. The Roman Republic was born out of a revolt against the Etruscan kings of 510 B.C.E., a revolt which did not bring about total independence for Rome but rather paved the road for the putting in place of a new political governing structure ( The revolt was led by the aristocracy of Rome and hence was not a democracy as we understand it today in fact most of the power in the early days of the Roman Republic lay in the hands of the upper class ( However, it is important to note that with the arrival of the emperor Octavian in 30 B.C.E. almost 150 years prior to Marcus Aurelius’ rule the Roman Republic was slowly coming to an end and was finally dissolved in 27 B.C.E. ( Hence the Roman Republic depicted in the film was somewhat fictitious in nature since what existed at the time of Commodus and his predecessor was a Senate which was put in place to converge upon legal matters but the final say remained in the hands of the emperor.

            Clearly the film, The Gladiator, only chose to represent certain historical aspects of the Roman Empire during the final days of Marcus Aurelius and his successor Commodus. The filmmaker has preferred to introduce his audience to a fictitious character named Maximus in order to depict an individual worthy of praise from his leader, honorable, courageous and strong willed, a man of the people who is willing to fight for what he believes in. His antagonist Commodus is revealed as cowardly, paranoid and egotistical who wishes to be praised by his people and the ones he loves but is overcome with blinding jealousy and an unquenchable thirst for revenge. Here we are introduced to the recurring theme of the ultimate battle between good and evil, a battle that is fought in the arena of the Colosseum. The filmmaker in this particular instance decided to make general Maximus the heroic and courageous gladiator and Commodus the cowardly emperor who sits by and watches in the sidelines. Here we have a rather visible contradiction to historical fact as Commodus was well know for his skill as a Gladiator in the arena of the Colosseum, in fact he was reported to never have lost a battle. The character of Commodus is evidently being “stereotyped” by the filmmaker; here the filmmaker chose to focus on the historical sources which depicted Commodus as a less than worthy emperor one that relished in unsuitable behavior and placed his well being before that of his people. The Colosseum is the setting chosen by the filmmaker to depict the “final battle” between Maximus and Commodus, it is here where the fate of the people is decided upon for Maximus kills Commodus, the tyrannical ruler, but selflessly gives up his own life to do so. The Colosseum here is used by the filmmaker to symbolically represent the will of the people (and by the “people” what is meant are the lower classes) and through Maximus express their need for freedom from oppression and poverty. An objective that was also sought out by the Roman Republic in order to establish a form of government that would represent the best interest of the people and not of the emperor. However, as mentioned earlier this depiction is also fictitious as the Republic was set up by the aristocracy of Rome with the intent of serving the upper class and not the average roman citizen. Hence here the filmmaker’s portrayal of the Republic mimics greatly the independence model of so many oppressed countries that desire independence from dictatorship and the establishment of democratic rule.

            The themes and characters utilized by the filmmaker of The Gladiator has demonstrated that although there is great interest in preserving certain aspects of the past it is also important to be able to reinterpret the historical kernels that have been left behind. It is in this reinterpretation that the historical figures, infrastructures and movements of the past are able to gain a three dimensional representation. In addition the filmmaker also offers a different understanding of the ancient world by bringing about a more modern feel to the scenario.

Work’s Cited

Long, Jacqueline. De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopaedia of Roman Emperors.

            26 Nov. 2008. < >

Neelin, David. Gladiator: the Real Story. Copyrighted 2000. 26 Nov. 2008.


Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. 26 Nov. 2008. <http://www.roman-


The Colosseum: A Site on the Roman Amphitheatre. Copyrighted 2001-2006. 26 Nov. 2008



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