“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
How close to history does a film have to keep to be considered a historical epic? It has to be set in a specific period of time, and has to involve actual historical figures. But not all figures will be known, so some will be made up or amalgamated from multiple sources. If the main character of a film is fictional, can it still be a historical epic? And just how far can it deviate from the actual history? If it acts like a historical epic, but isn’t, can it still be a good movie? Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator raises these questions by its very nature. It has the approach and pretenses of a historical epic, but General Maximus Decimus Meridius never existed. It takes place in a historical time, and a few key roles are actual historical figures, but the actual history differs in some significant respects. But while I am uncertain whether to classify it as a historical epic, I am quite willing to classify it as a good movie.
“This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?”
The tagline for the film spells the plot out simply and succinctly: “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.” Maximus starts out a loyal general of the Roman empire under Emperor Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 180. When Marcus is killed, his son Commodus becomes Emperor, and arranges to have Maximus killed, knowing his father’s true plan was to appoint Maximus his heir and turn Rome into a Republic. Maximus escapes the execution only to find his family already murdered, and is captured by slavers. His new owner makes him a gladiator, and he eventually finds himself at the Colosseum in Rome, where he is presented with the opportunity to defy Commodus once again. In the end, he kills Commodus in personal combat, in the Colosseum, in front of the whole of Rome.
“People should know when they are conquered.”
“Would you, Quintus? Would I?”
It is, of course, a fabrication. As stated above, Maximus never even existed. There was no great general who was enslaved and then fought in the Colosseum as a gladiator, with all knowing who he had once been. Emperor Commodus did not die in gladiatorial combat. But there was a Commodus, and a Marcus Aurelius as well, and Marcus Aurelius did die in the year 180, with Commodus serving as his successor. The basic framework of history was used to construct the story for Gladiator.
“There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile.”
Marcus Aurelius is played in the film by Richard Harris, and is depicted as a wise elder statesman who is hoping to restore Rome to the rule of the people. While the notion of turning Rome into a republic appears to be a fiction for the sake of the story, the depiction otherwise matches historical accounts of Aurelius. Though he was also known for being one of the emperors who persecuted early Christians, Marcus Aurelius was referred to as a philosopher by many of his contemporaries and wrote a book, Meditations, collecting his thoughts. While he reigned over a period of massive conquest and expansion for the Roman Empire, he himself was referred to as being temperate and even philanthropic in nature. He was the fifth of a succession of emperors who have become known as the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, a term coined by Niccolo Machiavelli, for their overall beneficial effect on the empire.
“You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them.”
In Commodus, played with consummate sleaziness by Joaquin Phoenix, the filmmakers found their villain. If Marcus Aurelius was the fifth of “Five Good Emperors”, what does that make his son who comes after him? It is interesting to note from a historical perspective that of the Five, none were the natural-born son of the emperor before them. It is perhaps this which gives rise to the speculation shown in Gladiator — and the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire — that Marcus Aurelius was going to pass over Commodus in favor of one of his generals, and that Commodus murdered his father rather than let this come to pass. In this respect, if none other, Commodus appears to have gotten a bad rap. There is no indication Marcus Aurelius ever intended to turn Rome over to someone other than Commodus. In fact, Aurelius appointed Commodus Caesar and co-Emperor, and the two reigned together for the last three years of Aurelius’s life. When Marcus Aurelius died in 180, it was of illness — believed to be measles or smallpox.
“Your fault as a son is my failing as a father.”
In other respects, however, the movie arguably downplays the insanity of Commodus. Though he had co-reigned for 3 years at the time of his father’s death, Commodus was only 18 at the time he became sole emperor. He ceased the expansion of the empire, and devalued the coin of the realm. Political strife soon became characteristic of his reign, with him regularly defying the senate, and some members of the senate regularly conspiring against him. As he grew older, he became increasingly megalomaniacal, expanding his name and renaming surrounding cities and even Rome itself after his newly-appropriated names. He considered himself the reincarnation of Hercules, commissioning statues of himself as the Greek demi-god and regularly fought in exhibition matches in the Colosseum.
“What could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?”
Gladiators who fought against Emperor Commodus were instructed to let him win all his matches. In exchange, he showed mercy by letting them live. This would be the only mercy, fairness, or humanity in his gladiatorial games. Commodus was known for bringing in exotic animals for the sole purpose of killing them, at one point reportedly killing 100 lions in a single day. Despite the “bread and circuses” reputation of Rome, which Gladiator refers to when Derek Jacobi as Gracchus says Commodus will bring death and they will love him for it, this was not well received by the Romans. Worse, Commodus would have amputees brought in — whether they had lost their limbs through illness, accident, or in war — and would kill them in play fights, pretending he was fighting giants.
In the year 193, 13 years after Marcus Aurelius’s death, one of the conspiracies against Commodus finally succeeded in removing him. He was strangled in his bathtub by his own personal trainer, Narcissus.
“It vexes me. I’m terribly vexed.”
Narcissus, along with elements of Spartacus, Cincinnatus, and Marcus Aurelius’s actual general Marcus Nonius Macrinus, formed the basis of the fictional character Maximus. Little is known of the historical figure Narcissus, and so the bulk of Maximus is fictional. In particular, his position was changed so as not to be one of the conspirators close to the Emperor. Other changes were made, some at the insistence of subsequent screenwriters and some at the insistence of Russell Crowe, to make him more of a sympathetic character. The murder of his family was written in to give him a justified motive for revenge, rather than simply acting for the abstraction of “the good of Rome”. The friendship with Juba (Djimon Hounsou) was written in to make Maximus more than just a man out to kill, and the themes of the afterlife were added to show his sensitive side.
“I will see you again… but not yet… Not yet!”
Although the plot deviates from history in several regards, Ridley Scott set out to accurately reflect Roman culture in his picture, and hired several historians to aid in the depiction (some of whom quit over the change in story). The costume designs, which won an Academy Award, were designed to be true to the period and culture. Of note are the swords used in the arena; the most common sword shown is an actual Roman gladius, from which the sport takes its name.
But the biggest challenge — in more than one sense — was to bring the Colosseum to life. The Colosseum was one of the most impressive feats in ancient architecture, often being considered one of the later wonders of the world (after the original seven). But Scott’s engineers couldn’t simply represent it as it is now, half destroyed — they had to reconstruct what it would have looked like in 180, complete and populated. They built a replica of approximately one third of the Colosseum, and constructed the rest digitally, populating it with people who were digitally cloned from actors. The effect is convincing, and like the costume designs, won the film an Academy Award, this one for Best Visual Effects.
“I did not know men could build such things.”
These would not be the only accolades it received. In fact, it was nominated for a total of twelve Academy Awards, and won five of them. Ridley Scott was nominated for Best Director, and Joaquin Phoenix for Best Supporting Actor. Russell Crowe won for Best Actor for his role as Maximus. And the film itself took home Best Motion Picture of the Year — as well as the equivalent Golden Globe Award.
The Oscars are occasionally criticized for not going with the populist choice for Best Picture. That accusation cannot be applied in this case, as Gladiator was a smash success at the box office as well. It recouped its costs within two weeks, and ended up earning over $450 million worldwide, making it one of the highest-earning films of 2000.
“I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.”
Gladiator played with history to serve its story, but its story is one that captures the imagination. It’s filled with excitement and drama, with just enough of a sense of realism to make it feel like a historical epic, even if it is somewhat of a departure. It’s masterfully crafted and all of the acting is top-notch. It’s one of my favorite films.
“Are you not entertained?!”