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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. Every 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 virtuous soul lived on in both eras, a goal for the average citizen, the standard for heroes of the day.

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 sisters.

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 to lift 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 weapon of 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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Russell Crowe & Joachim Phoenix




Ben Hur

* Oscar Hillerstrom often writes for sydneytribe.com.au - a cool website

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