The first systematic analysis of Ridley Scott’s film, Gladiator.
Examines the film’s presentation of Roman history and culture.
Considers its cinematic origins and traditions.
Draws out the film’s modern social and political overtones.
Includes relevant ancient sources in translation.
Historical accuracy ofThe Gladiator
In making the film Gladiator (2000), director Ridley Scott wanted to portray the Roman culture more accurately than in any previous film and to that end hired several historians as advisors. Nevertheless, some deviations from historical fact were made to increase interest, some to maintain narrative continuity, and some were for practical or safety reasons. The public perception of what ancient Rome was like, due to previous Hollywood movies, made some historical facts, according to Scott, "too unbelievable" to include.
At least one historical advisor resigned due to the changes he made and another advisor Kathleen Coleman asked not to be mentioned in the credits. Historians called the movie both the worst and best of all films: the worst for the historical inaccuracies in a film Scott promoted as historically accurate, and the best for the film's accurate depiction of the people and violence of the late 2nd century AD. Historian Allen Ward of the University of Connecticut noted that historical accuracy would not have made Gladiator less interesting or exciting and stated: "creative artists need to be granted some poetic license, but that should not be a permit for the wholesale disregard of facts in historical fiction."
In the film it is stated that Rome was founded as a Republic. Rome was founded as an elective Monarchy, in the year 753 BC. It became a Republic around the year 509 BC.
In the film it is stated that the Roman Senate was "chosen from among the people to speak for the people." In reality, the Senate was never an elected body, unlike the four People's Assemblies. Its members were appointed by a high magistrate and later by the emperor, and, during the Republic, only after having served the "cursus honorum," a sequence of offices. During the early and mid-Republic, these offices were restricted to the patricians, members of old senatorial families.
In the scene with the gladiator caravan coming into Rome, a wall that surrounds the entire city can be seen, which resembles the Aurelian Wall. The Aurelian Wall was not made until 275 A.D.
In the film it is stated that the Colosseum holds 50,000 people. It is now believed to have seated 73,000.
In the movie, the Colosseum is referred to by that name; in truth during the Roman Empire it was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (Latin: Amphitheatrum Flavium). The name Colosseum, derived from the Latin word colosseus meaning colossal in reference to the broken remains of a giant statue of the Emperor Nero found there, came into common use around the 10th century. After visiting the Colosseum, Ridley Scott thought it was too small so the one in the film is larger than the real Colosseum.
In the film most Roman architecture is portrayed as being white. Historical excavations and archaeologists often say that this is a misconception, as most buildings and structures were somewhat coloured, and that we only believe this because what we find from Roman time (and even Greek) often look white. This is only because the original colour, through the ages, has gradually disappeared and left structures and buildings white. However, some of the older buildings might have already had the time to go through this process in the period of the film.
In the opening battle scene, the leader of the Germanic forces opposing the Roman legionnaires yells out in modern German, calling the Romans 'cursed dogs'. At this time, the German language did not exist, the first recorded use of Old High German (the most archaic form) occurring among the Alemannic tribes of south west Germany during the 6th century, and the Germanic dialects spoken would have been more akin to modern Dutch than German due to the second Germanic consonant shift occurring in the latter.
When Commodus' soldiers arrive at Maximus' home in Spain to kill his family, his son sees their approach and shouts, "Soldati!" This is modern Italian. The Latin word for soldiers is milites.
The Numidians were most likely of Berber origin, instead of Sub-saharan origin.
Maximus affirms to be from Trujillo, which is anachronistic since the proper name of the village in Roman times was Turgalium.
The campaign against Germania wasn't at its end, but instead it was part of a larger campaign to conquer and Romanize the whole region and was interrupted by Marcus Aurelius' death and Commodus' lack of will to proceed with it.
Maximus is shown with S.P.Q.R. tattooed on his shoulder which he removes. The identification tattoos Roman soldiers were required to wear by law were actually on their hands in order to make it difficult to hide if they deserted. By law, gladiators likewise were tattooed, but on the face, legs and arms until emperor Constantine (ca. AD 325) banned tattooing the face.
The execution of several unfaithful soldiers is staged as a modern military execution, with archers instead of guns (the officer even commands anachronistically "Fire!"). No such method of execution existed in antiquity; most commonly the sword would have been used.
The costumes are almost never completely historically correct. The soldiers wear fantasy helmets and bands wrapped around their lower arms which were rarely worn. From early on such bands typically signaled "antiquity" in monumental movies. Keeping in mind that the movie is set in the middle of the 2nd century AD, the body armor worn is Imperial Gallic, which was used by Roman legions from 75 AD and was superseded by a new design in 100 AD. The ancient German uniforms appear to be from the stone-age period.
In the reenactment of the battle of Carthage, Proximo's gladiators are described to be Carthaginians (despite wearing Roman style armor) facing Roman legionaries (who are depicted wearing non-Roman armor and fighting in a non-Roman fashion).
Stirrups can be seen used on some of the Roman cavalry, but while they were invented in Asia during the Roman Empire period, the Romans never adopted them. They are used in the movie for obvious safety reasons, a proper Roman saddle being difficult to ride.
The forest of the opening battle would not have appeared in Roman times as it does on film. The scenes were shot at a managed spruce forest near Farnham in England. Since modern forestry was not applied in Europe before roughly the 16th century, a forest consisting of a single species of tree (a monoculture) would have been an unlikely sight in Germania in AD 180. The location was chosen due to availability, as few forest areas are available to be used for such destructive purposes.
Catapults and ballistae would not have been used in a forest. They were rarely used in open battles and reserved primarily for sieges.
Much of the infantry combat is shown as one-on-one dueling between individuals. The highly organized Romans would not have allowed this to happen, as there was a higher chance of an individual legionary falling in single combat than if he was fighting as part of a unit. In fact, Roman soldiers were not trained in individual combat techniques and would be severely punished if they broke formation to do so. The organized, cohort-based fighting style of the post-Marian army would have been used to outlast the Germans. Both this and the above inaccuracy are due to the relative monotony of actual Roman tactics. In addition, the Barbarians were superb individual warriors, and any army that tried the Roman tactics from the opening battle sequence against them would have been massacred.
The Roman armies used throwing spears called pila in real life. However, in the battles there are no signs of pila-ridden enemy bodies, which does not track with how those conflicts turned out in Rome's favor.
In the movie Maximus' former army is said to be camped in Ostia; even though the officers are said to have been replaced with men loyal to Commodus no army other than the Praetorian Guard would have been camped so close to Rome
Scott received considerable criticism for having female gladiators in the film. Nevertheless, according to the ancient sources, they did, in fact, exist.
The emperor indicates the fate of a gladiator by showing thumbs up or thumbs down, which is a common misconception, as there is no historical evidence for this interpretation. Some scholars contend that the actual sign was a thumb to the throat for death (meaning plant the sword in the downed gladiator's neck), and thumb in fist (like a sheathed dagger) or thumbs down (to indicate sticking the swords point in the ground) if the gladiator was to live. The historical record repeatedly turned up the phrase "turning the thumb" without specifying exactly what that meant, which does allow for a great deal of leeway in how this was presented in the film.
Gladiatorial combats were accompanied by musicians who altered their tempo to match that of the combat in the style now familiar with music in action movies.
Gladiatorial combatants were not as violent as portrayed, nor did they forcibly fight to the death. Similarly to modern-day professional athletes, gladiators were too profitable of an asset to disregard their lives so callously. In fact, deaths in the arena were relatively rare, and only if the loser were particularly bad would the public ask for his killing.
Maximus only fights gladiators he does not know during the various games. This depiction is unusual, as it was the normal practice outside of rare special events for gladiators to fight only those they trained with from their own school.
Many of the combats in the film are fought between gladiators that are different weights and sizes. However, similar to modern boxing bouts, gladiators were matched against opponents of the same size
Like today's athletes, gladiators did product endorsements. Particularly successful gladiators (such as Maximus) would endorse goods in the arena before commencing a fight and have their names promoting products on the Roman equivalent of billboards. Although originally included in the script, this practice was later rejected as not a fact the audience would believe.
December 9, 2005
Books of The Times
The Pride and Terror of Those Who Fought to the Death / http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/09/books/09book.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0
By WILLIAM GRIMES
As everyone knows, gladiators entering the arena in ancient Rome faced the emperor and shouted, "We who are about to die salute you." Defeated combatants would have their fate decided by a thumbs up or a thumbs down from the crowd, or by the emperor himself.
Not really, says the Dutch historian Fik Meijer in "The Gladiators." It was not gladiators who uttered the immortal salute, but 9,000 prisoners about to engage in a mock sea battle on Lake Fucino organized by the Emperor Claudius, and described by Suetonius. The sentiment made no sense for gladiators, who expected to vanquish their opponents and live. The pollice verso, or "turned thumbs" signal, remains ambiguous. Historians do not know exactly what the gesture looked like.
Mr. Meijer, a professor of ancient history at the University of Amsterdam and the author of "Emperors Don't Die in Bed," understands exactly what readers want to know about gladiators and anticipates their every question in this admirable little study. He explains who the gladiators were; how they were trained, fed and paid; what weapons they used; and what rules governed combat in the arena. One chapter reconstructs a full day's program at the Roman Colosseum and, as a bonus, Mr. Meijer looks at two films, "Spartacus" and the more recent "Gladiator," to see just how well Hollywood captured the flavor and the period detail of Rome's most popular sport.
The elaborate, theatrically produced entertainments associated with the Colosseum and hundreds of smaller amphitheaters throughout the empire had their heyday in the first and second centuries A.D., but for many centuries before that, gladiators had engaged in hand-to-hand combat during funeral rites for important Romans. In so doing, Mr. Meijer writes, they illustrated "the virtues that had made Rome great, virtues demonstrated by the deceased himself during his lifetime: strength, courage and determination."
Over time, the increasingly elaborate private rites evolved into lavish public spectacles intended to boost the prestige of the emperors. The sport became professionalized, with managers, a fixed schedule and training centers, where gladiators developed expertise in one of the dozen or so weapon specialties on offer. Under Augustus, the games achieved a variety and splendor never before seen. In his political will and testament, he boasted that in the eight gladiatorial contests he had held, 10,000 men had fought to the death.
The gladiator was a contradictory figure. Socially, he was a despised outcast, the lowest of the low, but the warrior code and the unflinching courage displayed by most gladiators made them, in a sense, ideal Romans. Recruits were generally prisoners of war, like Spartacus, or slaves charged with crimes, but former soldiers, lured by the prospect of prize money, or well-born Romans entranced by the allure of the arena, often signed contracts to fight as gladiators. Even emperors occasionally took up sword and shield, descending into the arena for a bit of carefully staged combat. Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator") regularly appeared as a gladiator under the stage name Hercules the Hunter.
Not surprisingly, gladiators captured the public imagination. They were celebrities. Young women left amorous graffiti on the walls of the gladiator schools, or wore hairpins shaped like swords or spears. Even the wives of the emperors, it was rumored, occasionally enjoyed secret liaisons with gladiators. Some women became gladiators themselves, fighting regularly in shows staged by Nero. The emperor Septimius Severus, unamused, banned female combat in A.D. 200 as an affront to military dignity.
Fame came at a heavy price. Mr. Meijer estimated that most gladiators, fighting two or three times a year, probably died between the ages of 20 and 30 with somewhere from 5 to 34 fights to their names. One gladiator, Asteropaeus, notched 107 victories, and exceptional gladiators fought on into their 40's and 50's, sometimes retiring as free men. But these were the exceptions.
The "sport" was appallingly brutal, and many gladiators faced the arena with fear and trembling, especially those who were assigned to square off against wild animals. On one occasion, 20 gladiators committed group suicide, killing one another one by one, rather than enter the arena.
Even successful gladiators lived an exceptionally hard life. Like modern boxers, they were exploited by their managers. Victory usually brought an olive branch or wreath, plus a few small coins. Only a few shows offered the kind of prize money that could guarantee a comfortable life. Lucky gladiators found work as bodyguards for noblemen, but more often, those past fighting age took menial work at the gladiator schools and eventually ended up destitute, begging for alms.
Historians have very little specific information about gladiator fights. There were rules, and a referee, but the rules remain unknown. Some of the gladiatorial specialties remain obscure. The dimachaerus, or "man with two swords," is mentioned in two inscriptions, but there are no pictorial images of him, so it is impossible to know how he fought. Nevertheless, Mr. Meijer, relying on snatches of verse, historical passages, mosaics, sculpture and funeral inscriptions, manages to summon up the savage thrills of the Colosseum.
A few things we do know. Kirk Douglas should not have faced off against a gladiator with trident and net in "Spartacus," since that form of combat would not appear for another 60 years. Russell Crowe, in Roman times, would not have fought a gladiator and a tiger simultaneously as he does in "Gladiator." Even in Rome at its most barbaric, there was a right way and a wrong way to throw a man to the beasts.
Blood and circuses
Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard examine the perfect symbol of Roman imperial power in their history of the Colosseum, says Nigel Spivey
The Guardian, Saturday 12 March 2005 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/mar/12/featuresreviews.guardianreview10
by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
How typical of the Romans. It's not easy making a fire hot enough to reduce solid stone. But they cut down precious forests in their province of Judaea simply to create a conspicuous holocaust of the Great Temple of Jerusalem in AD70. Some massive blocks were left - as if to state what size of edifice had been destroyed. Meanwhile, treasure and other spoils of triumph from the Jewish revolt were directly translated into the monumental embellishment of Rome, the capital of empire. Begun by Vespasian, the commander who had "subdued" the Jews, and completed a decade later by his son Titus, this was the tiered spherical arena we know as the Colosseum: a place of public recreation symbolically erected on land once taken for private parkland by the odious Nero.
To Romans it was the amphitheatre - a model for imitation throughout the provinces. From north Africa to south Wales, essentially similar structures were raised. El Djem, Verona, Nimes, Arles, Caerleon - these are among the hundreds of Colosseum-clones that appeared. Only in the eastern Mediterranean did problems arise. For in these parts, where Greek cultural values still prevailed under Roman rule, most cities already had institutional spaces of public entertainment. Such areas primarily took the form of the stadium, where athletes strove for glory; or the semi-circular theatre. In both locations there was contest, but contest pitched as virtual reality. Wrestling was a sweated mimicry of war, tragedy the shadow-play of mortal disaster. But what was to be done with the spectacle of sheer violence -men and animals fighting to the death? Archaeological evidence shows that some athletic stadia were converted for use as amphitheatres, and a number of Greek theatres were adapted - high nets rigged around the stage, for instance, to prevent big cats leaping into the audience. Yet there are records of strident Greek protests, if only on behalf of those front-row onlookers who did not care to be sprayed with blood. And this categorical distinction between theatre and amphitheatre points us to the principal fascination of approaching the Roman Colosseum as a "wonder of the world": the wonder lies not with the elegance or substance of the building as it survives, but rather with the question of what the Romans thought they were doing.
As Keith Hopkins has pointed out before, Roman enjoyment of spectacular violence is not a matter of "individual sadistic psychopathology", but seems to betray "a deep cultural difference". How much Hopkins contributed to the present book before he died last year is not easy to estimate, because Mary Beard (a Cambridge colleague) has so sympathetically overlaid it with her own voice. But it was characteristic of Hopkins to begin answering the puzzle of a peculiar Roman "taste" for violence by sceptically probing its extent. The inauguration of the Colosseum was allegedly celebrated by hunting shows involving the deaths of 9,000 exotic animals. But how feasible was it to capture elephants and rhinoceroses without sedative darts, transport them long distances, and finally cajole them to ferocity in front of a large crowd? Documentary evidence of the laborious zoological kidnap of a single hippotamus from the Upper Nile to Regent's Park in 1850 suggests that supplying the Colosseum with large quantities of interesting animals was a logistical challenge beyond even the Romans. Further and more complex calculations about gladiatorial death-rates similarly indicate a strong tendency to exaggerate, and not only by ancient writers. Christian martyrologists piously inflated the number of casualties among the faithful. (In an unsually candid reflection, one persecuted Christian witness, Origen, wondered if the total tally of Christian martyrs at Rome actually reached double figures.) There is, in fact, no firm evidence to prove that any Christian was ever torn apart by lions inside the Colosseum.
Was the Colosseum, then, always what it has become - an iconic hulk, picturesquely staffed by burly men with wooden swords, and very occasionally put to some ceremonial use, whether a mock-battle or a Paul McCartney concert? Hopkins and Beard stop short of making such a case. For even when stripped of its mythology, the amphitheatre subsists as an enclosure designed to give a maximum number of onlookers the closest possible view of a kill. Academic demonstrations of human anatomy used to be compassed in such steep-sided, eye-goggling spaces. The old bullring of Mexico City relies, to this day, on the same telescopic principle. We may agree that the daily pabulum of the Roman populace was bread, not circuses. Still the circus existed all the same; and no one went there for some harmless fun. The closest to slapstick at the Colosseum came from the so-called "fatal charades", when some myth was enacted for real: the flight of Icarus, done like a bungee jump without the bungee; or else a wretched criminal dressed up as Orpheus -given a lyre, and pushed out to charm with melodies the animals prowling around the arena. Too bad if the bears were tone deaf.
Quite how this ingenious mode of human sacrifice originated is left implicit by Hopkins and Beard. They dismiss without reason the notion that gladiatorial combat developed out of archaic Etruscan funerary rites, and offer no plausible alternative. So what was the Colosseum all about? The applications of capital punishment within the amphitheatre were conducted at midday, as a lull in proceedings, deemed a diversion only for the chronically bored. So connoisseurs of bloodshed came for more than the sight of exemplary justice. Protagonists of good entertainment were marked not by damnation but chance; made brave or furious by freedom from blame, how much more fiercely they would fight.
Some ancient observers - notably St Augustine - deplored the addictive magnetism of witnessing this sort of death. Others were complacent about its habituating and homeopathic effect: so death was, as it were, domesticated. But in the end it is impossible to explain the Colosseum unless one concedes that its principal sponsors - the emperors of Rome - all of them, even "good" ones such as Trajan, ultimately ruled by terror. This arena by the Palatine, the hill on which Romulus founded his city, was the looming and central emblem of their power to "play God" - to allocate life or death.
• Nigel Spivey's The Ancient Olympics is published by OUP.
Gladiator & the Portrayal of the Roman Empire in the Cinema.
July 12, 2011 by Professor Rollmops / http://tragicocomedia.com/2011/07/12/gladiator-the-portrayal-of-the-roman-empire-in-the-cinema/
I began writing this article in 2000, whilst still researching my PhD at Cambridge. It was largely finished, but with significant holes which I have finally decided to fill in. I originally intended to research it more intensively and submit it for publication to an academic journal, but ultimately the style seemed more journalistic and its prohibitive length ruled out any hope of publication in a newspaper or magazine. So, after all these years, here it is!
The recent release of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator has once again sparked interest in a genre that seemed doomed never to be revived. Prohibitive costs and questionable appeal were the enduring memories after the hugely expensive and unsuccessful Cleopatra and the ponderous The Fall of the Roman Empire. After 1964, no one was either rich enough or stupid enough to invest in a project of this scale.
Gladiator, the first Roman epic for almost forty years, whilst receiving mixed reviews for critics, has proven very popular with cinema-goers the world over. The story of Maximus’ fall from the slippery heights of power as a conquering Roman general, to his being sold as a slave and his evolution as a great gladiator, certainly makes for great matinee entertainment. The exotic locations, vast battles, splendid sets, and epic scenes are true to form of the “sword and sandal” epic, and with the assistance of modern technology and greater attention to close detail, Gladiator sets a new benchmark for a raw and “realistic” evocation of the Roman world. Yet what is so frustrating about Gladiator is its lack of contextual historical accuracy.
The genre to which Gladiator belongs has always been a flawed one. Roman epics have attracted criticism for both their historical accuracy and dramatic qualities. Roman epics aren’t so much historical films, as vehicles for other, often anachronistic moral or ideological themes; Italian nationalism and fascism, for example. Otherwise they have tended towards ponderous, opulent romance.
Gladiator is an interesting product in the context of film history, for it picks up almost directly where the Roman epic left off. Gone are the moralising voice-overs which introduce the historical context; gone is the typical demonisation of the Roman Empire; gone is the anachronistic emphasis on modern Christian concepts of ethics and morality. In their place we have a secularised film which does not seem to carry any message whatsoever. This absence of any clear moral purpose behind Gladiator is, in part, what makes it a better Roman epic than many of its predecessors.
Historical films can also have a very powerful effect on an audience, imaginatively and emotionally, but often very particularly on account of national identity. This is especially the case when the film depicts the actions of a national group, and particularly in the context of an international conflict. The film Braveheart, for example, generated very heated debate about its depiction not just of certain historical personalities, but also ofEngland’s relationship toScotland. It was not at all well received by the English.
It seems extraordinary that a cinematic interpretation of events which took place almost seven centuries ago could cause such rancour, yet such they did. Some film-makers might therefore be wary about alienating potential audiences, which raises the question as to whether or not historical accuracy in the cinema depends upon the degree to which there is a risk of upsetting members of any social group which could identify with the characters and events of the film. Inevitably, where national identities are concerned, someone is bound to be upset, and the director or author of the screenplay are likely to find themselves forced to justify the reasons for their portrayal.
The Roman epic, however, occupies a special place in the broad spectrum of historical films. This is because the period it depicts is sufficiently distant in time to avoid arousing the ire of any political or ethnic group by an historically unfair or inaccurate portrayal; thus neutralising any possible social antagonism such as that generated by films such as Braveheart. This might go some way towards explaining the flights of fantasy into which Roman epics are capable of delving. The recent and appalling television production of Cleopatra was a perfect example of the quite extraordinary degree to which history can be manipulated.
Gladiator is another production in which there is very little historical truth. It need only be pointed out that Maximus did not exist, that Commodus was already co-opted as co-emperor in 177, three years before the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, and that he ruled until 193 when he was strangled to death by a professional wrestler as he lay in a drunken sleep, to illustrate the quite ridiculous historical inaccuracy of the film. Can Gladiator therefore rightly be called an historical film?
On some levels, namely those of costuming and interior design, the makers of Gladiator have made an impressive effort to achieve historical accuracy. It is perhaps counter-productive to quibble about the exact appearance of the Roman urban landscape at the time; which facades loomed, which statues stood where, which aqueducts had been completed, and about the decoration of the interior of the senatorial curia. That neo-classical facades were shot, cut and pasted to create the backdrop of the city of Rome should not trouble us too greatly, for the effect is at least successful in conveying an impression of the scale, and, it might be said, the “modernity” of Roman development at the height of the Empire’s power. Perhaps more importantly, the attention to detail in military hardware, costumes, furniture, personal effects, and so on, is a considerable advance on previous cinematic depictions of theRoman Empire.
Another positive of the film is that it attempts to create a less anachronistic intellectual, social and cultural context. Often, due to the need to acquaint the audience with the historical context, period films tend to be packed with informative dialogue and exposition, which at times stumbles uncomfortably from the lips of the protagonists. Gladiator is somewhat more successful in contextualising this background and making it incidental to the film.
Still, it is reasonable to wonder why so much effort has been put into minute detail, when the broader context in which all the detail is conveyed is almost completely fictional?
Director Ridley Scott provides the best answer to this question. When asked what attracted him to the film, he described his first encounter with the producer Walter Parkes, in which Parkes simply threw down a rolled-up print of Jean Leon Gerome’s famous painting of a gladiator in the Colosseum. “That’s what got me,” said Scott, “It was a totally visceral reaction to the painting.”
Gladiator is probably best described as a visceral experience. Rather than being an historical film, Gladiator is a “human” film in a fictive historical context, whose historicity is supported by a careful reconstruction of the appearance of the world being represented. If we were to try to define Gladiator further, then it would be as the story of an individual’s struggle against injustice, and of loyalty to a threatened ideal of enlightened despotism or republican government.
It is tempting, however, to be more cynical and say that considering the lack of regard for the historical narrative, it is essentially a vehicle for great special effects and innovative action sequences. After all, the project began with only the arena in mind. The script, which needed a great deal of work, ran to a mere thirty-five pages and underwent a number of transformations throughout the shoot. Perhaps as a consequence of the simplicity of its original conception, it is difficult to find any serious message in Gladiator. If one were to look for a historical message in it, all one really finds is that Marcus Aurelius was a good man, Commodus was a bad man, life was hard and tenuous, and that Roman Republican government, namely rule by the Senate, was a cherished ideal.
It could also be misconstrued that the principle message of the film is to reveal the horrors of gladiatorial combat, for Gladiator depicts gladiatorial contests with very startling realism, although what we see is as nothing to the vast and elaborate slaughter which often took place in the Colosseum and other arenas around the Empire. The horrors of slavery and the staging of fights to the death, resonates strongly with our modern outrage at such “entertainments.” The assertion of the humanity of the slaves and gladiators is deeply moving to us who so greatly value freedom and human life. Yet this is not really the concern of Gladiator. Indeed, if one looks at the web-site, it becomes quite clear that the film is more concerned with glorifying the arena than anything else.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is less of an anachronism. Indeed, one of the problems with the film Spartacus is that it makes too much of the slave revolt as a type of ideological movement against an oppressive and evil empire, and establishes Spartacus as a sort of proto-communist revolutionary. We cannot ignore that slavery was something almost irrevocably intrinsic to the ancient world; the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, all had slave-based economies, and it would be difficult to say that any of these civilisations were more inclusive, more tolerant, or provided a better system of social infrastructure than did Rome. Though we are appalled by slavery, to vilify theRoman Empire for employing it is rather like vilifying a child for adopting the habits of its parents, and of society at large.
Yet whilst Spartacus might be too redolent with Marxist overtones it is one of the few Roman epic films which attempts to remain true to the understood historical narrative of what it depicts, with the exception of its fabricated conclusion. (Spartacus’ body was never recovered from the battlefield.) It is an excellent, humane, and deeply moving film, which has a greater “historicity” than many of its predecessors.
When asked why he thought Roman epics had vanished for forty years, Ridley Scott said that: “They reached a saturation point and then they simply went away because every story seemed to have been exhausted.”
This response might go some way to explaining why Gladiator is essentially fiction. Yet, at the same time, it might be the very thing which will allow the Roman epic to re-emerge as a genre. No one had ever heard of Maximus before, and the vast majority of the audience will never have heard of Commodus either. This has in no way hindered Gladiator’s success. Not many people outside of the United Kingdom, and probably only a limited number within it would have ever heard of William Wallace before the release of Braveheart. Roman history is so rich that countless stories could be artfully extracted without much need to change the context. Rather than turning to fiction, the time is now ripe for screen-writers to plough deeply the very rich and extensive soil of Roman history for future epics. Apart from all the smaller, human stories of individuals caught up in the events of Roman history, there is vast scope for movies on a grander scale. The late Roman empire in particular begs attention. Why is there no epic about Constantine, or of Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410? What of Attila’s failed invasion of the ailing western empire in 451 and, in particular the epic battle of the Catalaunian Plains?
The release of Gladiator is a very exciting and important event in film history. It has the potential to bring about a rebirth of a dead genre and to set a new direction for that genre. For, one of the most promising aspects of Gladiator is that it avoids the polemics against Roman rule which were characteristic of so many of its predecessors. It empathises much more successfully with the period in offering a fairer cross-section of Roman society and ideas. In the opening battle scene, Maximus’ Tribune Quintus says with derision; “People should know when they’re conquered.” To which Maximus replies, “Would you Quintus, would I?” In conversation with Marcus Aurelius, Maximus acknowledges that the world outside of Rome is dark and forbidding; “Rome is the light,” he says sincerely. The means by which the greater complexity of the Roman world is conveyed is more subtle than many other epics of this genre and less dominated by modern political, religious and ideological concerns.
The earliest Roman films were often rooted in a strong ideological agenda. , The 1914 Italian film Cabiria, set during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), was produced by the ultra nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio and was released shortly after the Italo-Turkish war, in which Italy conquered the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica in North Africa. Similarly, the 1937 film Scipione l’africano, depicting the life of Scipio Africanus, Rome’s most successful general during the Second Punic War, followed in the wake of Mussolini’s Ethiopian conquest.
The 1964 Hollywoodfilm, The Fall of the Roman Empire, reads like a positivist moral essay; striving to put across a more explicit historical argument. Starring Alec Guiness as Marcus Aurelius, and Christopher Plummer as Commodus, it has many parallels with Gladiator in that it too focuses on the accession and reign of Commodus. It essentially argues that the reign of Commodus and what took place immediately afterwards, namely the auction of the Empire to the highest bidder (it ignores the brief reign of Pertinax) was the beginning of the decline which was to lead to the Empire’s eventual “fall”, though this did not happen in the west for another two hundred and fifty years. This particular interpretation of the narrative of Roman history dates back to Gibbon, who first identified the reign of Commodus as a significant turning point after the more enlightened rule of Marcus Aurelius.
One of the central themes of The Fall of the Roman Empire, namely the social experiment of settling barbarians as farmers in Roman territory, was a massive oversimplification of an issue which, in fact, was dealt with at a painstakingly academic and philosophical level in the late Roman Empire, the consequences of which were central to the gradual devolution of Roman power in the west in the fifth century.
It is inevitable that political and social complexities have to be glossed over in an historical film – no audience is going to sit through a film which depicts with arduous detail the mind-boggling intricacy of Roman bureaucracy – yet such complexity can be hinted at through thought-provoking ambiguity, rather than being arduously explicit. Ideally, the Roman context should be incidental to the film and less explicit, especially where long-established clichés are otherwise the only resort. Typically the Roman Empirehas been portrayed as a vicious, cruel organisation, run by ruthless madmen. Gladiator at least went some way towards suggesting that Commodus was just an example of a very cruel, weak, and over ambitious megalomaniac in a world of otherwise sane human beings with complex identities.
The 1951 MGM film Quo Vadis, however, opens with a startling and lengthy diatribe against the nature of Roman power, based entirely upon modern, Christian concepts of ethics and morality, and which is to put it mildly, anachronistic in the Empire of the 1st Century AD. Such criticisms of Roman power as did exist in the 1st century, rarely focussed on the immorality and inhumanity of gladiatorial contests or slavery, rather upon an antique perception of freedom and self-determination, which, sadly, often translated as the freedom of another aristocracy or religious oligarchy to run its own exclusive autocratic regime.
Indeed, the degree to which the Roman state is vilified in the cinema is probably only paralleled by post-war portrayals of Nazi Germany. Certainly the Roman Empire was a physically coercive entity which encouraged practices we find abhorrent, but considering the context from which it emerged, it was the paragon of ancient civilised states of the Mediterraneanand near Eastern world. The Roman Empire was an inclusive, not an exclusive system which encouraged religious freedom, (with the exception of certain troublesome dissidents who worshiped a dead carpenter), which provided immense and sophisticated public services, sanitation, education and security, which championed free trade, and which, under the pax Romana, also championed peace.
The great eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon once wrote:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. (AD96-180).”
During Gibbon’s lifetime such an observation had much greater currency, especially when we consider that theBritish Empirehad not as yet abolished slavery by the time of his death. Clearly there is no excusing slavery in any context, but this is a modern sensibility. Even the much vaunted Athenian democracy was heavily dependent on slave-labour, and they did not offer to extend their citizenship to outsiders as the Romans did.
It is largely for this reason that Gladiator makes a departure from its predecessors. Rather than critiquing theRoman Empire as an entity, it highlights the folly and wickedness of certain individuals. It marks a turning point in the portrayal of Roman history and offers, without being especially cerebral or historically accurate, a less explicitly moralising theme and context. If its success results in the making of further such historical epics, then there might be something of a rebirth of the genre. Either way, and perhaps most importantly, enrolments in ancient history courses both at high school and university have risen dramatically in its wake. If the cinema can still inspire students to take an interest in the very distant history that underlies the culture, identity and institutions of modern western society, then this is surely a positive.