How historically accurate is the Gladiator?
This article contains spoilers.
Gladiator was a film released in 2000 starring Russell Crowe that focused on General Maximus Decimus Meridius, who was enslaved after escaping his execution for not supporting the new Roman emperor Commodus (starring Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus rises as a well-skilled gladiator, eventually making it to Rome where he participates in the gladiator games sponsored by Commodus. After Commodus learns of Maximus, both characters want to kill the other. Maximus attempts to conspire with those in the Senate who dislike Commodus, while Commodus attempts to have Maximus killed in the gladiator battles.
Battles in Germania
The movie begins with the ailing Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, watching Maximus leading a battle against a German tribe, where the battle is portrayed as crucial in bringing peace to the Roman Empire's northern frontier. The German tribe was shown wearing Neolithic period clothing, something that is inaccurate and the clothing would have been more complex in fashion. During the reign of Aurelius, there were prolonged wars in Germania. Wars there were largely inconclusive, although they were close to annexing Moravia and West Slovakia during his reign. The movie depicts the emperor being killed by his son Commodus, although in reality, Commodus was already co-emperor. There is no certain evidence that Commodus had any difficult relationship with his father, although later authors did disparage Commodus. Furthermore, although Maximus is mostly a fictional character, it is not likely Marcus Aurelius would appoint a general as protector of the empire, as suggested in the movie where shortly before his death the fictional Marcus Aurelius asked Maximus to lead the empire.
In fact, in the film, a conflict in Marcus Aurelius' mind was whether to return power to the Senate rather than have it mostly be with the emperor. This is unlikely as Marcus Aurelius, although often considered a wise emperor and even called the "philosopher king," as suggested in the film, still believed in holding power closely and willingly passed power to his son, something a Roman Emperor had not done for about a century.
Marcus Aurelius appointed his son as successor long before he died in 166 (he died in 180 CE), making it clear that Commodus was his choice all along. He also died in Vienna (ancient Vindobona), but the film showed him dying in Germania during the campaign. Some rumors and stories did circulate that Commodus did kill his father, but this could have been later stories created to malign the emperor Commodus since he was not well liked by the Senate, as suggested in the film. The appointment of Commodus was controversial, as shown in the film. From historical documents, mainly in the writings of Cassius Dio, there is an indication that Marcus Aurelius was disappointed in his son, suggesting he had some trepidation about him. Cassius Dio indicates that Rome suffered as Commodus came to power, but this could be part of later propaganda after the reign of Commodus. It is hard to tell what is exactly accurate as Commodus may have been more disliked by the upper classes, while some indication suggests he was popular with the army or even lower classes as a sort of peoples' emperor.
The Gladiator Contests
In the film, after Maximus was taken as a slave, but not before he discovered that Commodus killed his wife and son, he was shown as being transported and eventually enslaved as a gladiator in a far away, a remote province in the Roman Empire (somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa). While the circumstances of how Commodus became emperor in the film are probably not true, there is some greater truth in some of the gladiator fights. For instance, gladiator contests did often reconstruct famous battles or scenes using characters from history or legends. Gladiator contests did take place in many places around the empire. Animals, such as tigers, were often used in arenas, where gladiators might fight each other as well as animals.
Excavations at the Colosseum showed a variety of exotic animals were present there. This included: bears, lions, hyena, elephant, wild boar, buffalo, tigers, bulls, wolves, and leopards. The clothing of the gladiators depicted, particularly the helmets, were likely, not true and were stereotypes taken from later periods.
Gladiators, as suggested in the film, were treated like rock stars. Those who were successful could gain favors, such as having access to women and even earn their freedom. However, unlike the film, often contests did not result in the death of contestants. Animals, in fact, were more often killed in contests. This may have been de-emphasized in the film. The emperors did use their thumbs at times to depict if the gladiator should die or live, although we do not know if this was thumbs up for living and thumbs down for getting killed. It could have been the other way around.
The Colosseum (Figure 1) was the premier event for gladiator contests after its construction in 70-80 CE. Ambitious trainers, similar to how the film depicts it, would try to situate themselves so they could compete in main events that promised large financial rewards. Similar to sport today, the gladiator games had a lot of money that would exchange hands around the event. This revolved around gambling on the events but also rewarded the owners from the gladiator slaves, which is one reason why the mass killing of gladiators may not have occurred that often.
Something not shown in the film is that gladiator contests may have looked familiar to us. Gladiators often were used to sponsor products and billboards often hung in the stadium where contests would have been held. These advertisements were not shown in the film, mostly because the producers thought film audiences would not believe it since it is so similar to our modern sports.
In the film, after Maximus was captured trying to revolt against the emperor. He was shown as fighting the emperor as a one on one contest. This match would have never happened. First, Commodus died in a coup event in 192 rather than at the hand of Maximus, as shown in the final combat scene in the film. Second, Commodus, as shown in the movie, did fight in the arena, although he probably only fought in events where he was assured victory such as against animals or crippled captives. The film does suggest this as Commodus does mortally wound Maximus before their fight, when Maximus was tied and unable to defend himself.
Nevertheless, historians indicate he liked to think of himself as Hercules, and even began to dress like him in gladiator contests rather than as the emperor, where he wore bright emperor clothing in the film.
Maximus Decimus Meridius: Maximus is an entirely fictitious character, but seems to be based on several characters, including Avidius Cassius, who was a general in Marcus Aurelius' armies. He did declare himself emperor or revolt shortly after thinking Aurelius died in 175, suggesting a brief power struggle, but he was eventually killed after it became clear Aurelius was not dead. There was a general named Maximus who lived in the late Roman Empire who may have aspired to revolt against the empire.
Commodus: While Commodus is a historical figure who did hold gladiator contests and may have been mentally unstable, as depicted in the film, he did, in fact, rule for 12 years. Among the odd things Commodus did was rename the months and legions after himself (he had twelve names he went by). He even named the Roman people after himself. He was purported to have held naked gladiator contests, which would have outraged some Roman citizens and may have contributed to his bad reputation and eventual downfall. He may have killed 100 lions in a day during his gladiator contests and other exotic animals such as elephants. Even by Roman standards, the level of slaughter may have caused outrage.
He even started killing a large number of disabled people in the arena, which may have been one of the final straws before he was assasinated. However, his political actions were also likely unwise, as he tried to declare himself consul and gladiator, where the former is an elected position and the later something usually only slaves should hold. Narcissus, his wrestling partner, eventually killed him in 192 as part of a larger conspiracy by Roman leaders.
Lucilla: She was Commodus' sister and in the film, she was depicted as trying to encourage the conspiracy against her brother. She did conspire to kill Commodus but failed in 182, leading to her death. Unlike what the film depicts, Lucilla was probably ambitious to be a co-ruler with her husband (she is shown as a widow in the movie), which is why she may have conspired. However, she may have not considered herself as a possible ruler until she witnessed her erratic brother's behavior. Unlike the film, Commodus probably did not seek to have an incestuous relationship with his sister.
Marcus Aurelius: The emperor's relatively positive reputation has likely contributed to his depiction in the film as a wise ruler (i.e., the philosopher king) who tried to avoid appointing his son. However, despite the destructive nature of his son, Marcus Aurelius willing to chose Commodus to be his successor and heir. The film depicts Marcus Aurelius lamenting his many wars, but in reality, Marcu Aurelius would have seen these wars as his duty to Rome. He was influenced by Stoic philosophy, which believed in wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.
Conclusion and Accuracy
There were many historical inaccuracies in the film and the historians who were hired to advise on the movie quit or refused to be given credits because of the many historical inaccuracies the final version had. Nevertheless, as with most historical dramas, this movie was more about entertainment than historical narrative.
The overall narrative of a somewhat crazy emperor in the form of Commodus embellishing in gladiator games was correct. Oddly enough, the reality of Commodus' reign was probably more outrageous than what was shown in the film, as the emperor often made himself dress as a gladiator and fought numerous contests with animals and others, such as wounded gladiators.
If you want to learn more about gladiators, check out our article How Did Gladiatorial Games Evolve in Ancient Rome? for more information.
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- For more on Marcus Aurelius, see: Birley, A. R. (2016). Marcus Aurelius: a biography. Place of publication not identified: Routledge.
- For more on Commodus and his life, see: Adams, G. W. (2013). The Emperor Commodus: gladiator, Hercules or a tyrant? Boca Raton: BrownWalker Press.
- For more on the gladiator games in the Roman Empire, see: Dunkle, R. (2008). Gladiators: violence and spectacle in ancient Rome.. 1st ed. Harlow, England ; New York: Pearson/Longman.
- For more on gladiator traditions, see: Winkler, M. M. (Ed.). (2004). Gladiator: film and history. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
- For more on the Colosseum and venues for gladiator contests, see: Aldrete, G. S. (2008). Daily life in the Roman city: Rome, Pompeii and Ostia (Oklahoma paperback ed). Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.
- For more on advertising in the Roman world, see: Bomgardner, D. L. (2002). The story of the Roman amphitheatre. London; New York: Routledge, pg. 55.
- For more on Commodus' gladiator contests, see: Adams 2013: 242
- For more on Avidius, see: Canduci, Alexander (2010). Triumph & Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Immortal Emperors. Roman imperial biographies. Sydney: Pier 9.
- For more on Commodus, see: Adams 2013.
- For more on Lucilla, see: Lightman, M., Lightman, B., & Lightman, M. (2008).A to Z of ancient Greek and Roman women. (Rev. ed). New York: Facts On File, pg. 195.
- For more on Marcus Aurelius as the philosopher king, see: McLynn, F. (2010). Marcus Aurelius: warrior, philosopher, emperor. London: Vintage Books.