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Gladiator Fact vs. Gladiator Fiction

By Katarina Ilic

When it comes to historical films there is one question that we should be asking ourselves: is it based on fact or is it a work of fiction? Today we tend to sensationalize and eroticise history, but are we being true to the facts or are we simply distorting them for our own entertainment, thus doing an injustice to the actual historical event and the people who played a role in history? Many movies today are inspired by actual historical events but how close are they to what actually happened? Let us take one of these films, specifically the Gladiator, that is based on history and dissect it for its accuracy. Does the movie do justice to history or is it simply a mockery?

When I first watched the movie, several years ago, I found myself wondering somewhat: are people going to see it and learn something about ancient Rome or is the movie, like the actual gladiatorial games, just in the name of entertainment meant to satisfy the crowd’s ‘lust for blood’? The movie definitely isn’t lacking in violence. It seems, in fact, to honour the spilling of blood. The crowed cheers on the hero Maximus as he guts a man like a fish, bathing in his blood. We like the ancient Roman crowds, cheer on Maximus as he slaughters dozens of men to win honour, glory and revenge. But is the story of Maximus true, and is the life of a gladiator presented accurately? Those are the questions that this article will attempt to answer.
The movie starts with a war in Germania. The Roman army, lead by General Maximus, fights bravely and conquers a new land for Rome. After the bloody battle has ended, Marcus Aurelius, in the film a dying old man, congratulates his general and makes plans to place Maximus himself on the throne as emperor (this being an American movie he, of course, plans for Maximus to stay on the throne just long enough for the senate to collect themselves so that they can rule Rome and so that Rome can become a republic once again). Aurelius calls Maximus to his tent and tells him of his plans. He also describes his own son, Commodus, as an immoral man who should never be allowed to rule Rome.

Eventually Commodus learns of his father’s wishes and is angered by the prospect of never being emperor. In a fit of rage he suffocates his own father and then attempts to cover up his crime. Maximus, believing that Aurelius was killed, attempts to leave but is caught and taken into the forest to be executed by the order of Commodus, who has now installed himself as the emperor of Rome. Maximus escapes and heads for home but arrives too late. His wife and son have been killed by order of the emperor and his house has been burned down. There, as he looks at the charred bodies of his family, revenge becomes the sole purpose of Maximus’ life. He eventually passes out somewhere and is picked up by a passing group of gladiators and gladiator scouts. He is taken to Zucchabar where a man named Proximo buys him along with a Nubian slave, who becomes Maximus’ best friend. Proximo, a former gladiator who was freed by Aurelius, sees potential in Maximus and reveals to him that they will be going to Rome. He tells Maximus that to win his freedom he would need to win the crowd. Seeing an opportunity for revenge Maximus is eager to get to Rome. Eventually he does get to Rome, wins the crowed over, and kills Commodus before he himself dies from the poison that Commodus placed on the knife he used to cut Maximus with prior to their fight in the arena.
Are the events presented in the movie factually accurate or not? The answer to this question is rather complex in that the some of the events in the film are accurate while others are not. The beginning of the movie starts out with a bit of truth. Aurelius was a philosopher and man of peace and he did spend most of his life fighting Germans in one way or another (Ward, Heichelheim, and Yeo 347). While this description of him is true the depiction of his children is somewhat false. Aurelius, in the Gladiator, is presented as having only two children. Historically Aurelius had 14 children by his first cousin Faustina. Out of those 14 only one male and five female children survived into adulthood (Ward et al., 347 & 348). Aurelius himself comes from a line of senatorial successions where one senator adopted another and thus passed on the position of emperor. Aurelius however did not choose to carry on this tradition of senatorial succession. Instead, when it came to succession instead of picking a senator to replace him he picked his son Commodus (Ward et al., 351). The movie, however, shows that Aurelius wanted to pass down his position to Maximus, who never historically existed.
In the Gladiator Aurelius, while talking to Maximus, voices his concerns about Commodus taking over the position of emperor. He calls his son an immoral man and says that he should never be allowed to rule Rome. Historically, there is no evidence to say that Aurelius thought this of Commodus: this is quite evident in his gesture of making Commodus his co emperor. However, there is a bit of truth in the film’s portrayal of Commodus: his portrayal as a disturbed, immoral, hateful and unstable man (Ward et al., 378 – 380). As in the movie, Commodus did not like the senate and he did not respect them or treat them properly. In fact he angered them and turned most of them against him (Ward et al., 379 & 380).

Before going on, one last observation about the beginning of the movie. In Gladiator Aurelius was suffocated by his own son Commodus. Historically Commodus did not kill his own father. Aurelius is rumoured to have died either from being very tired or from some form of illness (Ward et al., 351).

Now, back to Commodus and the senate. In the movie it was said that Lucilla, his sister, plotted with Gracchus and Gaius, two senators, to kill her brother. This is somewhat historically accurate. Lucilla did plot with the senators (not specifically Gracchus and Gaius) to kill her brother (Ward et al., 379 &380). Lucilla’s plot, as in the movie, was discovered, but historically she was exiled for her crime while in the movie Commodus attempts to make her his wife so that she would bare him a legitimate heir with strong family blood. He did execute a number of senators for plotting against him just as in the movie (Ward et al., 380). Commodus was eventually killed but, unlike the movie, he was killed in the baths of Rome: while he was with his wrestling partner Narcissus, a freedman strangled him (Ward et al., 381 & 382).
Thus we see that the background events within the film are a rather interesting mix of accurate and inaccurate facts. The next question that must be asked has to do with actual gladiators. It is the title of the film and thus it is logical to look at how the gladiators and their lives are portrayed in the film. It is interesting to note that the life of a gladiator was portrayed with far more accuracy than the background events. The life of a gladiator in the movie it is presented in roughly the following way: when first bought or found by the leader of the gladiator school, the gladiator is tested and marked according to strength. We see this when Maximus is forced to fight another rather large gladiator and receives a red mark on his shirt. Historically gladiators were mostly enemies of the Romans who were picked up during a war. Gladiators were also comprised of slaves or traitors, which Maximus was considered to be (Meijer 42 &43). Now Maximus was not sentenced to be a gladiator but was found. Yet he was thought to be a slave by the scouts and was thus picked up.

As in the movie, gladiators were arraigned in schools, which were led by gladiatorial managers (Meijer 53). The managers were private owners, as Proximo was. It was their job to train, sell or hire out their gladiators to cities like Rome. Just as in the movie the gladiators’ living conditions were not the ideal but were good enough to get by (Meijer 57 – 59). In the movie we see that the gladiators lived in little cells and traveled with their school. They ate together and they only got weapons when they were in the arena. This is historically accurate. The gladiators did in fact belong to the gladiatorial managers and they trained everyday, just as in the movie.

When purchased, gladiators were tested and marked. We see this when Maximus is forced to fight a big gladiator and is marked with a red dot on his shirt. In fact it was standard practice for the gladiators to be tested and retested often. It was key for gladiators to be in top fighting condition (Meijer 55). Naturally, a hierarchy amongst the gladiators emerged. Gladiators who survived their first fight were known as veteranus. The top fighters were known as primus palus (first pole). Those below were known as second pole and so forth ( Meijer 57). We see a clear rank system as in the film. Maximus starts at the bottom of the chain, easy prey, and then works his way up to be the favourite in all of Rome.

Gladiators had a short life. Proximo tells his gladiators that they are fighting for the entertainment of the patrons who pay to see them. All gladiators knew that their days were measured and that what they did was strictly for entertainment (Meijer 39). Their brutality during the kill is encouraged, as it wins the crowed over even more. This fact is shown in the movie in the blood lust of the spectators and in the way that Proximo encourages Maximus. The gladiators either fought with men or animals, or a group of gladiators fought against another group of gladiators (Ward et al., 236). This fact is well presented throughout the film, especially when they arrive in Rome.

A final feature of a gladiator’s fate has to do with the decision of whether he lives or dies. We see this in the scene where Maximus finally reveals who he is to Commodus. Naturally upset at seeing the man he thought was dead Commodus orders the death of Maximus and the gladiatorial group. The crowed boos the emperor and thus Commodus, after a moment’s hesitation, is forced to give the thumbs up to let the gladiators live. Had he given the thumbs down they would have died. This is how it was done historically too. The emperor or the host of the gladiator games could order the death of a gladiator and often times the emperor sided with his people wanting to remain popular within their eyes (Meijer 60 & 61).

We see from the above that historically speaking Gladiator is not a bad movie. While some of the events (like the character of Aurelius not wanting his son to be emperor or the existence of Maximus) are false, there are historical accuracies hidden within the film. Commodus was an immoral monster of a man who was hated by the senate. He did mistreat the senate enough for them to plot along with his sister Lucilla to kill him. There is also a high accuracy in the way that the life of a gladiator is portrayed. Gladiators were men who were trained to die for the public’s entertainment. They not only fought other gladiators but animals too. They were sequestered from the rest of society and under the rule of a school manager who was responsible for their training and their lives in general.

Works Cited
Meijer, Fik. The Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2004

Ward, Allen, and Fritz Heichelheim, and Cedric Yeo. A History of the Roman People. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2003