GLADIATOR - FICTION WITH FACTS
HAND ME MY EPIC
A word or two by Oscar Hillerstrom * on the historical accuracy of Gladiator - it's not a
true story - nor does it claim to be - but it is authentic and reveals much that is
factual about the old Romans and their society.
Where does the fact end and the fiction begin? Modern day audiences don't have
classical history drummed into them at school like the previous generation, and there have
been certain historical or 'true' stories in recent years that haven't been entirely close
to the mark.
But how is the audience supposed to know? With helpful info from the net. Lucky you.
A case in point is The Hurricane. Whilst a stirring epic about one man's fight for
justice, it's authenticity has been skewed by filmmaking necessity to a point where the
truth has been left behind. The director's vision impinges on historical accuracy to the
point where truth is lost. What's worse is when you apply modern ideals and modes of
thought to historic pieces.
The Story Of The Gladiator - Fictional, Not Factual But Right
Gladiator is a good of example of where to go right. The fictional story is simplicity
itself. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) fights in the wilds of Germania with the dying
Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is promised the throne with the mission of returning Rome to 'The
Republic'. Before he can finalise his anguished deliberations, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix),
Marcus' son, dispatches his father and claims the throne. Maximus is sentenced to death as
a possible rival, and is taken to the Black Forest for a messy death. His wife and child
are similarly condemned. As 'the fates' would have it, Maximus escapes, badly wounded,
rushes home to save his family but arrives to late. Exhausted and griefstricken, he is
picked up by a passing slave caravan. Sold in the provinces as a gladiator, his training
and 'easy come, easy go' attitude towards death sees him command a huge following.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, Commodus tries to win over the fickle mob with stupendous games
in the Colliseum. Lasting 180 days, the games draw wild animals and gladiators from all
over the empire - including 'The Spaniard' (our old Max). With Maximus in Rome, he sees
his chance for revenge - and the result is particularly Roman in character and spectacle.
The Story Of Rome - All True
Rome Was Built Like This...This simple outline shows up a couple of excellent points. The
film is an amalgam of all the great themes of Rome. Rome's empire was won by its
army - the discipline and training made the Roman Cohort the most powerful weapon in the
Ancient world. The clash between Maximus' army and the German barbarians in the opening
scene is a perfect replica of real events. Readers of Julius Caesar's Gallic Campaigns
will be stunned at the accuracy.
The next theme, the dichotomy of Emperors wishing for Republics, can be spotted in
Robert Graves' excellent 'I, Claudius', and 'Claudius The God'. Ironically, Augustus, the
first true Emperor, took the name only to secure power long enough to set up a republic.
Emperor after him took the title Augustus as a sign of 'kingship'. That's irony so strong
our American cousins will surely chuckle.
The Noble Roman
Marcus Aurelius was a strong defender of the republic. The first imperialists, the Romans
sought to bring nobility and civilisation to a cruel and barbarous world. Just like their
descendents of the colonial age, this illusion was a rare reality, and the natives that
were 'civilised' were not always appreciative. The dream of a noble, incorruptible and
soul lived on in both eras, a goal for the average citizen, the standard for heroes of the
Commodus The Confused
This brings up the clash betweeen Maximus and Commodus. In real life, Commodus was known
as 'The Cruel' - older generations will recall the phrase 'Cruel as Commodus'. Historians
of the time, 1800 years before Freud, saw Commodus as a weak emperor, his cruelty coming
from a spoilt child's desire to be loved. This is replicated perfectly in the film,
where Joaquin Phoenix desires to be loved by the mob (and his sister) as Commodus The
Merciful. Caligula is just one Emperor known for incestuous relations. And he had two
For The People Despite The People
The Mob and its importance to Rome can be seen in remnant form today all over the world.
The origins of Soccer hooliganism are over 2000 years old. As a political tool, the mob
could sway the Empire. Julius Caesar first came to power through his judicious use of
public entertainment - he won office by literally giving the people bread and circuses. In
Gladiator, Commodus tries to consolidate his power by wowing the crowds with the greatest
games Rome had ever seen.
But Not By The People
Commodus resurrected a tradition of outdoing the previous Emperor in spectacle and
generosity (not hard for him, as Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic). But this lead to an
explosion in the bonus given to the Praetorian Guards every time a new Emperor took
office. The Praetorians became the final word on who would become Emperor. At the Empire's
lowest ebb, the throne of Rome was even auctioned off by the Praetorians to a businessman
named Didius Julianus. His reign lasted 66 days.
What's In A Name?
The naming of Maximus has significance and reflects history - there were several Roman
generals throughout the Empire's history by that name (none, as was origianlly in the
script, by the name of Narcissus (shudder). The Gladiator moniker, The Spaniard, also has
meaning -Spain's governors, generals and natives played a continuous part in Rome's
history. In particular, in 383, a Spanish officer by the name of Magnus Maximus (loosely
translated - 'The Greatest Great') took over the western Empire as its new emperor, with
the title Magnus Maximus Augustus (The Most Exalted (Godhead Implied) Greatest Great) much
to the consternation of the incumbent Theodosius. Maximus was eventually executed in 388,
his son Flavius also put to death. Another general by the name of Maximinus also claimed
the throne in 235. He was distinguished by being a giant (reputedly 8 ft tall) being able
a man in each hand and outrun a horse. Bags meeting him in a German forest.
Surely They Made This Stuff Up?
The end of the film has a touch of the unbelievable about it. A Roman Emperor, fighting a
Gladiator in the Collisseum? Ridiculous! You'd think. You'd be right that it's ridiculous,
but so is making a horse a Senator, like Caligula did. Or using the smell of camels as a
war, like Claudius did in Britain. Or even killing an entire town that surrendered its
siege (14,000 inhabitants) like Julius Caesar did. The Emperor Commodus was officially
recorded as fighting in the Colliseum 734 times. He wasn't a brilliant swordsman - it's
just that his 'opponents' were armed with leaden swords.
Not True, But It Is Authentic
Gladiator is NOT a true story, but it is highly authentic. Ridley Scott has long been
associated with having an idiosyncratic vision. Readers of Do Androids Dream Of Electric
Sheep will attest to a story very different to the film of Blade Runner (oh, just for the
record... Deckard, never, at any point, ever, has any notions of being a replicant).
Gladiator is remarkable in that authenticity is the strongest design element. Only a few
details are incorrect, and none glaringly so. Even Scott's interpretation of the Roman
afterlife - The Elysian Fields, smacks of authenticity. Whilst those of us familiar with
the film The Fall Of The Roman Empire and the TV series, 'I, Claudius' (Derek Jacobi,
wowed critics with his stuttering Claudius, stars in Gladiator in a running gag for
Claudius fans) will see obvious visual and metaphorical similarities, we won't see a
modern world view imposed, as in Titanic (teeny hearthrob love, poor guy can mix it with
rich people) and Spartacus (Christians-as-good-guy, anti slavery stance totally at odds with recorded history).
I'm Spartacus! No, I'm Spartacus!
In fact, whilst Spartacus remains the last great Roman epic before Gladiator, it pales in
comparison. In ancient times, slavery was a way of life for all people. If you lost in
battle, you became a slave. In fact slavery, (whilst not essentially a good thing -
obviously - just checking in for any nutball out there) was one of the major factors in
disseminating ideas and information, more so than trade. The fruit of war was slavery, but
slaves became nannies, became teachers, advisors, and even helped run the government as
civil servants. An example - our days of the week come from the mixing of Greek, Gallic,
Roman, Scandinavian, Gothic and Celtic cultures due primarily - to slavery.
Civilised? Who, us?
The great themes of Rome are all contained within its story, touched on with elegant
efficiency. The film is also an awesome blood and guts spectacle, that reminds us, no
matter how 'civilized' we are, there's always a bloodthirsty member of the mob just
waiting to get out. The key to Gladiator's success is that its themes come from history,
and these themes still apply today. When you try the other way round, it doesn't quite
work. Hopefully a few of Ridley Scott's colleagues will follow his lead.
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* Oscar Hillerstrom often writes for sydneytribe.com.au - a cool website