History in Films: Gladiator

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This is going to be either a regular or semi-regular series of blog posts concerning how history is displayed in films. Since I’m a history nerd I can get quite worked up when a movie gets it all wrong.  Warning, there will be major plot spoilers ahead. Anyway, off we go!

Gladiator is all about a Roman General from Spain called Maximus who is betrayed by the Emperor Commodus. He figures out that Commodus has killed off his own father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and wants him dead since Aurelius made him heir instead of his own son. After he finds his family murdered he is turned into a gladiator and gets revenge by killing Commodus in the Colosseum.

Was Marcus Aurelius murdered by his son Commodus?

No. He died of plague in the city of Vindobona, modern Vienna, in the year 180 CE. Commodus was there during the time but had nothing to do with his death.

Did Marcus Aurelius want his son Commodus to become Emperor?

Yes he did since he made Commodus co-emperor in the year 177 CE. There was a lot of controversy at the time concerning this since Commodus had no military training and was considered very erratic. Aurelius was considered, even back during his time, to be one of the most intelligent of all of the Roman emperors, so people were quite shocked by his decision.

Was there a Roman general during the time of Marcus Aurelius named Maximus?

No, there wasn’t. However, Aurelius had a close friend who was a general named Marcus Nonius Macrinus.

Did Commodus have a sister named Lucilla, and did she have a son named Lucius Verus?

Yes, Lucilla did really exist. She was in on a plot to kill Commodus that failed, so her and two other women were sent in exile to the island of Capri. Later that same year Commodus had them killed. She did have a son named Lucius, but he died as a child.

Was Commodus insane?

I wouldn’t say insane as much as he was totally full of himself. He declared himself the embodiment of Hercules, so in turn he could call himself the son of Jupiter. He had statues put up all over Rome and the Empire depicting himself as Hercules; full of power and strength. In 192 CE he declared himself the new Romulus, the original founder of Rome, after Rome was heavily damaged by fire. He even renamed the city and gave new names to the months that corresponded with his self appointed twelve names. He was quite lazy when it came to ruling Rome, and let his favorites dole out policies for him. All of these actions made him a lot of enemies in the Senate.

Did Commodus actually fight as a gladiator, and did he die in the Colosseum?

Yes, he did fight in the Colosseum as a gladiator, and this outraged the citizens of Rome. Gladiators who fought against him would surrender and not be killed, but he would slaughter amputees, exotic animals and perhaps even criminals. In private matches he would kill whomever he fought against. He even charged Rome for the privilege of seeing him fight. All of this brought along his downfall, and he wasn’t actually killed in the Colosseum. On December 31st 192 CE a group of conspirators got Narcissus, the wrestling partner of Commodus, to strangle him in his bath. After his death the original name of Rome was restored and his statues were pulled down.

As you can see the film Gladiator embellished, or even made up, a lot of the ‘history’ that it portrayed. I can understand making up certain events to have a screenplay run more smoothly, but there comes a point in which you have to stop and think if what you are trying to portray goes too far off of the original mark. There were some historians actually consulted to make this film, but so many changes were made to the script concerning historical accuracy that one of them walked out and the other refused to have their name attached to the film.


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