Empires die, but their propaganda echoes in eternity
“There once was a dream that was Rome.”
Everyone’s favourite swords and sandals epic Gladiator (2000) has a lot to answer for. Not because it’s riddled with factual inaccuracies, those are awesome — even historians (the cool ones at least) will agree. Historical films don’t need to be accurate, they need to be fun. The nerds don’t get it: no one has to care what kind of tridents real-life gladiators would have used, or who won which forgettably horrible war in the woods, or how “Roman chariots didn’t have obvious gas canisters in them,” apparently. Artistic license is sacred, and that movie is still great twenty years later (sorry).
By far the most accurate thing about Gladiator is its depiction of the personality traits of Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who became emperor after the death of his father, the great philosopher-ruler Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). By all accounts he was a shallow, decadent, incompetent monster who habitually made death threats to senators he found annoying. He’s even recorded as having fought in the Colosseum, even if the lions he slew would almost certainly have been starved in captivity for several weeks beforehand. His sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson) really did make a failed assassination plot against him. Commodus’s reign is widely regarded today as the moment the Roman empire began to truly decline, and his braver contemporaries were all too happy to state for the record that he should never have been made emperor:
“This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life; and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.”
— Cassius Dio, Historia Romana
It is of little importance to us today that the real Commodus executed his sister, nor that there’s no record of a general named Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crow) who became a slave who became a gladiator who became a blah, blah, etc. But in defence of the nerds, there is one historical inaccuracy in…