Gladiator’s Historical Accuracy


Gladiator was a film released in 2000 starring Russell Crowe that focused on General Maximus Decimus Meridius, who was enslaved after escaping his execution for not supporting the new Roman emperor Commodus (starring Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus rises as a well-skilled gladiator, eventually making it to Rome where he participates in the gladiator games sponsored by Commodus. After Commodus learns of Maximus, both characters want to kill the other. Maximus attempts to conspire with those in the Senate who dislike Commodus, while Commodus attempts to have Maximus killed in the gladiator battles.

Battles in Germania

The movie begins with the ailing Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, watching Maximus leading a battle against a German tribe, where the battle is portrayed as crucial in bringing peace to the Roman Empire’s northern frontier. The German tribe was shown wearing Neolithic period clothing, something that is inaccurate and the clothing would have been more complex in fashion. During the reign of Aurelius, there were prolonged wars in Germania. Wars there were largely inconclusive, although they were close to annexing Moravia and West Slovakia during his reign.

The movie depicts the emperor being killed by his son Commodus, although in reality, Commodus was already co-emperor. There is no certain evidence that Commodus had any difficult relationship with his father, although later authors did disparage Commodus. Furthermore, although Maximus is mostly a fictional character, it is not likely Marcus Aurelius would appoint a general as protector of the empire, as suggested in the movie where shortly before his death the fictional Marcus Aurelius asked Maximus to lead the empire.

In fact, in the film, a conflict in Marcus Aurelius’ mind was whether to return power to the Senate rather than have it mostly be with the emperor. This is unlikely as Marcus Aurelius, although often considered a wise emperor and even called the “philosopher king,” as suggested in the film, still believed in holding power closely and willingly passed power to his son, something a Roman Emperor had not done for about a century.[1]

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Categories: Historically Accurate, Roman History

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