When we think of gladiators, we imagine half-naked men with short swords, and big shields, hacking themselves to death while the crowds of the Colosseum cheered for an orgy of blood and death. The football of Ancient Rome if you might. And such vision is not entirely inaccurate. We know the gladiators were slaves, some were famous, and their exploits so legendary, that their names survive nowadays, like Spartacus. Or Maximus Decimus Meridius.
1# Commodus and Marcus Aurelius
The fair and wise old man that wanted to pass power to Maximus after his death. Beloved by all and a fair Republican during his last years. Power back to the people, to the Senate! How could someone hate this guy? The movie didn’t get Marcus Aurelius totally wrong, he was in fact beloved by people and Senate, but he didn’t show any hint of wanting to abolish the position of Imperator, or Princeps, first citizen, as it was commonly known at the time.
In fact, Marcus named his son Commodus, Caesar in 166 AD, being only five. Then Marcus had him crowned co-emperor in 177, when Commodus was 16. The Commodus we saw in the movie was considered inept to rule by his father, but the real one was named co-emperor by Marcus, an unequivocal proof that he wanted Commodus to succeed him. Marcus Aurelius kept the true power as the senior emperor of course, but it was still the highest position of honour, and it left no doubt as to who would be the successor.
2# Commodus the soldier
In the movie, Commodus is depicted as arriving in the front after Maximus has defeated the Germanic barbarians, who wear loincloths and grunt rather than speak. That was a battle against the Quadi, one of the Germanic tribes that constantly rebelled and quarrelled with Roman legions, a conflict known as the Marcomanni Wars, lasting from 166AD to 180 AD.
But the truth is that Commodus had been present in his father’s headquarters in the front as early as 172 AD, when he received victory titles like Germanicus, given to generals who achieved glory fighting in Germania. And is certain that Commodus accompanied his father to the front, when in 177 AD, the hostilities with the Quadi and the Marcomanni resumed. In real life, Commodus wouldn’t have arrived in a fancy carriage, but he would have rode like the soldiers, and made life in the headquarters.
3# Commodus the murderer
Commodus didn’t murder Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius died in Vindobona (Vienna) in 180 AD, at the age of 58 and of natural causes, or perhaps the plague. Gladiator only portrays the year and the place as correct. What reason would have had a young Commodus, he was just 19 years old, to murder his father when he was already co-emperor? Moreover, Commodus was inexperienced in terms of administrating and dealing with politicians, as his co-rule had been spent mostly in the front.
Not even the ancient sources of Cassius Dio, which simply tear apart the memory of Commodus with draconian accusations (like Caligula or other vilified emperors), mention that Commodus murdered his father. It doesn’t even hint it. It is accepted that Marcus Aurelius died of natural causes, although some suspect the Antonine Plague, could have had its hand behind, just as it killed Lucius Verus, Commodus uncle, and co-emperor for Marcus Aurelius from 161 to 169 AD.
4# Commodus the gladiator
In the movie, Commodus is depicted as a gladiator hater, due his feud with Maximus. But the real life Commodus loved gladiators more than any other pleasure in life. Not only he is depicted by many historians as dressing and fighting in the arena as a gladiator himself, but he also kept some of them as bodyguards, and spent long periods of time with them. The Senate though he was lowering himself by participating in the games, like a common slave, but the people loved to see his emperor killing beasts, driving chariots like a madman, and fighting. Of course no gladiator was as fool as to beat the emperor, or hurt him.
5# Commodus’ sister
Lucilla, Commodus’ sister, a widowed mother and tortured soul who had to resist his brother’s incestuous advances. Poor Lucilla of the movie. Lucilla had been a widow yes, married to Lucius Verus, her father’s co-emperor. But by the time of the events of the movie, she was married to Pompeianus, a successful Roman general and very trusted by Marcus Aurelius. He was in fact, who arranged the match, against Lucilla’s wishes. She had had a son with Lucius, named after him, but the child died long before Commodus solo reign. And when it comes to Commodus’ urges to ride his own sister… it’s basically the most common hearsay to every ‘bad’ emperor. Ask Caligula if you don’t believe me.
6# Commodus the conqueror
The movie shows how Commodus tries to enlist Maximus after killing his father, in order to keep enlarging the Roman Empire, and thus win the people’s love. But the truth is that Commodus didn’t like wars, he hurriedly ended the Marcomannic Wars in 180 AD, shortly after his father’s death, and against the advice of senior commanders. He is depicted in historical sources as a lover of pleasures and comforts, and despite his taste for physical exercise, after all he enjoyed hunting and fighting gladiators, he had no stomach for war, or extended conflict like his father did. Ironically, Marcus Aurelius, a warmonger, is remembered under a more positive light than his son, the peace lover.
7# Commodus and the Roman people
As in the movie Commodus is the bad guy, it only makes sense that Romans jeered and laughed at him. The folk of Rome, always wise and more than ready to sniff at tyrant when they see one. Except Romans seemed to like tyrants who gave them bread and games. And precisely Commodus gave them both, in abundance. It is unlikely he would had been criticised by common folk, since they loved his physical displays in the arena. Witness of his popularity, are the statues that were built in his honour, a significant proportion commissioned after his assassination in 192 AD. If he was so hated by everyone, why did he get statues?
8# Commodus, the Roman Hercules
Let’s keep up with the statues’ talk. One thing the movie utterly ignores is Commodus fascination for Hercules, the Greek semi-god. Hercules was seen by the Romans as strong, brave and was famous for completing the twelve tasks, and later taking his place as one of the Olympic gods. And Commodus saw himself as Hercules, perhaps for his fascination for gladiators, or perhaps because he was big and strong. But it was common for emperors, even popular ones like Hadrian and Trajan, to identify themselves with the gods, build statues of themselves bearing godly attributes, and mint coins with their persona depicted as a Roman/Greek god.
But despite Commodus being renowned for his fascination for Hercules, and his statues depicting him with the symbols, the club and the lion skin, the movie Gladiator, makes no mention of such displays, even though they could have used it to highlight Commodus’ megalomania.
9# Commodus’ death
Commodus was assassinated. But he wasn’t stabbed to death in the arena in front of the eyes of baffled spectators, neither would they have stood motionless as the guy who gave them daily games was being butchered. The historical Commodus was actually drown.
He had gone to take a relaxing bath with the company of wine while the loyal Narcissus, a sort of personal trainer and wrestling partner, guarded the door. Commodus’ lover, Marcia, the Praetor Prefect Laetus, and Commodus’ chamberlain, Eclectus, had found themselves at the bad side of Commodus’ ire, and feared for their lives. Knowing an apology for their misbehaviour wouldn’t do, they conspired to kill Commodus. But he dodged their first attempt by throwing up the poisoned wine.
A second attempt would demand of refinement, cleverness and lots of carefully, thought strategy. But feeling rather uncreative, instead they convinced Narcissus to help them, and the big man drowned Commodus while he was taking the bath. A smooth and clever assassination. Never mind, it worked well.
10# Commodus’ successor
Maximus’ death is the culmination of his loyalty to Marcus Aurelius and his dream of the Roman Republic restored. Of course as he dies, he asks for the Senate to assume full power from now on. Very noble. Except for the fact that the Senators were very much like politicians today, corrupt, wealthy, and caring only for the depth of their pockets, never for the filth accumulating in the slums of Rome and the provinces.
But the Senate’s unattractiveness for the common folk apart, its common knowledge that once the Roman republic was transformed into a one-man-rule entity, there was no way back. And when Commodus died, the power didn’t get back to the Senate, and therefore the people didn’t forget their differences, held their hands and lived happily, and in peace forever more. No, it lead to a civil war period, known as the Year of the Five Emperors, which is considered the turning point for Rome’s fortunes. And after the war? Another emperor. Sorry Republic, maybe in another 1800 years perhaps.
And now five things Gladiator got right, because it might be historically inaccurate for the most part, but it’s a brutally awesome movie, and it deserves a fair trial.
1# Marcus Aurelius and the Germanic Wars
As mentioned before, Marcus Aurelius’ reign had been plagued by constant warfare in the north-eastern borders of the Roman Empire, following the Danube. The fight against the Marcomanni and other tribes had lasted 14 years, starting in 166 AD. When Marcus Aurelius mentions that his reign has been a constant war, he is actually accurate. Moreover, he is depicted in Vindobona, where after achieving another victory against the Quadi, he dies. So bar the cause of death, the movie gets it quite right with the battle and the scenario.
2# Commodus and the Senate
Probably the greatest guess of the movie, is Commodus relationship with the Senate. Historically speaking, many ‘bad’ emperors, take Caligula for instance, had difficult dealings with the Senate. And the emperor executing Senators without the Senate approval was a dangerous move. But Commodus ignored all the warnings and moved over the Senate privileges. Therefore, the movie is quite right in depicting a Senate-hater Commodus.
In real life, Commodus had a statue of himself as Hercules archer built, his arrow pointing towards the gates of the Senate. A bit of a provocateur that Commodus. Furthermore, he had the traditional name of Rome’s government, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR), inverted. Populus Senatusque Romanus, the People and Senate of Rome. Understandably, the Senate didn’t like the dirty and stinky folk to precede their noble name, but Commodus found fun in these jests of the Senate’s ancient body.
3# Commodus and sister. The payback
Despite Lucilla’s inaccurate role in Gladiator, there was one thing they got absolutely right. And that’s her plot to kill his brother. She indeed plotted against Commodus in 182 AD, together with a man called Quadratus, and Quintianus, who attempted to stab the emperor. He failed, and Lucilla was cast into exile in the isle of Capri, where she was finally murdered under Commodus’ orders.
Lucilla had been married to Lucius Verus, and therefore she had had enjoyed the rank of empress, but when Lucius died, rather than reverting to the dull rank of empress ‘daughter, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus, initially at least, allowed her to retain some of the perks. Like the imperial seat in the theatre. But when Commodus married to a woman called Bruttia Crispina, Lucilla was relegated to a second-rate seat, and from there, the fancy hair of the new empress must had made the task of watching the stage rather difficult. Lucilla decided to approach her brother to discuss this insult with tact, so she must have thought that a knife would be very convincing.
So at least the Lucilla from the movie and the real one had their hate for Commodus in common, and both were part of plots to end his life. Yes I know, I too prefer the Lucilla from the movie. The real one was a bitter, vengeful bitch.
4# Bread and games
As mentioned before, Commodus was like a child in a candy shop when he was surrounded by beasts and gladiators in the arena, and so he rained games upon the bored people in Rome. And like senator Gracchus said in the movie, ‘they will love him for it’. And indeed the folk adored Commodus.
There’s a scene where a cart in the arena distributes bread to the people, and after the games had begun, the people cheer when they hear Commodus’ name. So it looks as his reputation improves a bit. In real life Commodus was immensely popular with the common man, and didn’t receive such lukewarm applauses, but yet it accurately shows up how Panem et circenses, bread and games, was effectively used by rulers to curry favour with the mass. And Commodus had a knack for doing it.
5# Commodus’ assassin
Let’s finish with Commodus’ death, again. What did the movie got right then, in that epic final fight in the arena of Colosseum, laid with rose petals and surrounded by the imposing Praetorian guards? Almost nothing, to be honest. Commodus was strangled by a man called Narcissus, who is mentioned in the sources as an athlete. Probably a sort of personal trainer for Commodus, maybe.
An athlete was considered a gladiator? Maybe, Commodus is mentioned as enjoying the company of gladiators more than he should, so it’s a possibility. And a gladiator, rather than a chariot racer, or some other sort of athlete, would have been more likely to bodyguard Commodus, like Narcissus did, and therefore guessing that Narcissus was a gladiator is not a far-fetched idea.