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The Movie "Gladiator" in Historical Perspective

by Allen Ward, University of Connecticut
Original text © 2001 Allen Ward

A more extensive version of this paper with documentation can be found in the May 2001 issue of the NEW ENGLAND CLASSICAL NEWSLETTER, edited by William Wyatt, Jr. necj@brown.edu.

What can a Roman historian say about the movie “Gladiator”? It was the best of films. It was the worst of films. One of the best things about this movie is that it is part of a long line of books, plays, films, and works of art that keep alive interest in the Ancient World among the general public, something at which artists and writers have been far more successful over the centuries than professional historians. Unfortunately, the creative minds who do the most to shape popular views of the past often have little regard for the level of accuracy that preoccupies professional practitioners of Clio’s craft. Artists and writers mine the past for raw materials that support their own creative agenda. Few writers other than the most scrupulous of historical novelists will ever let the facts that concern professional historians get between them and paying customers.

As the worst of films, “Gladiator” provides a perfect example. Right from the opening scene, the inaccuracies are legion. First, there was no last great battle with the Germanic tribes on the eve of Marcus Aurelius’ death. There was a great daylong battle late in the campaigning season of A.D. 179, but Marcus died on March 17 of 180, just as he was about to launch another great military campaign. One could say that the scriptwriters needed to foreshorten the chronology here to save time in a long movie, but they certainly played fast and loose with some other aspects of the battle. I have found no attested parallel to the war dog of the Roman commander Maximus, the movie’s hero, and if there were one, it would not have been a German shepherd, a breed that did not exist in Antiquity. The use of fire-hurling catapults and mechanical dart launchers against the oncoming barbarians was certainly dramatic but probably unhistorical. By and large such weapons were too cumbersome for use on the open battlefield and were confined to more static siege warfare.

The whole movie has radically compressed the chronology of the Emperor Commodus’ reign. He became sole emperor upon his father’s death in March of 180 and was assassinated almost thirteen years later on December 31, 192.Although the time encompassed by “Gladiator” is not precisely indicated, it would appear that no more than two years could have elapsed before Commodus was killed. Within that time-frame, however, the script does utilize some historical facts: Commodus was fascinated with shows of beast hunting, chariot racing, and gladiatorial combat; he did train himself in those skills; and eventually, to the ultimate scandal of all classes, he fought in the public arena as the kind of light-armed gladiator known as a secutor (pursuer). In an inscription, he even boasted of his 620 victories in gladiatorial combat. 

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