History of Gladiator - History

History of Gladiator - History

Gladiator

A man who fought with deadly weapons, as in the amphitheater, for popular amusement. Hence, one who engages in any kind of spirited contest.

I

(Tug: t. 67; 1. 76'1"; b. 19'4"; dr. 7'4".)

The first Gladiator was built in 1876 at St. Mary's, Gal, chartered from the Wilmington Towing Co., Wilmington, N.C., commissioned 19 April 1918; and assigned to the 5th Naval District. On 20 August 1918 tug Emily
B. owned by the same company, was substituted for Gladiator, and on 20 December 1918 Gladiator decommissioned and was returned to her owners.


Gladiator: nice patricide but where are all the pinecones?

Gladiator is the story of a Roman soldier who became a slave, trained as a gladiator, and rose to challenge the empire. Which is basically Spartacus, only Gladiator is set 250 years after the death of Spartacus. Russell Crowe channelled pure manliness for two and a half hours as Maximus, the gladiator of the title. The results included five Oscars, and greenlights all over the place for swords-and-sandals flicks like Troy, Alexander and 300.

Audiences may not thank it for that, but eight years after its release Gladiator remains remarkably watchable, and hotly debated. Despite Scott's legion of on-set historians, there are several websites devoted to its many supposed flaws.

It's 180 AD in Germania, and the nearly dead Emperor Marcus Aurelius is watching his army lay waste to the barbarians. His fictional general, Maximus (Crowe), clunks on to the screen in armour and wolfskins, growling: "On my signal, unleash hell." There is a slight twang of Bondi beach to the accent, but then again everyone is speaking modern English. A moderately credible battle follows.


Gladiator

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

gladiator, professional combatant in ancient Rome. The gladiators originally performed at Etruscan funerals, no doubt with intent to give the dead man armed attendants in the next world hence the fights were usually to the death. At shows in Rome these exhibitions became wildly popular and increased in size from three pairs at the first known exhibition in 264 bce (at the funeral of a Brutus) to 300 pairs in the time of Julius Caesar (died 44 bce ). Hence the shows extended from one day to as many as a hundred, under the emperor Titus, and the emperor Trajan in his triumph (107 ce ) had 5,000 pairs of gladiators. Shows were also given in other towns of the Roman Empire, as can be seen from the traces of amphitheatres.

There were various classes of gladiators, distinguished by their arms or modes of fighting. The Samnites fought with the national weapons—a large oblong shield, a visor, a plumed helmet, and a short sword. The Thraces (“Thracians”) had a small round buckler and a dagger curved like a scythe they were generally pitted against the mirmillones, who were armed in Gallic fashion with helmet, sword, and shield and were so called from the name of the fish that served as the crest of their helmet. In like manner the retiarius (“net man”) was matched with the secutor (“pursuer”) the former wore nothing but a short tunic or apron and sought to entangle his pursuer, who was fully armed, with the cast net he carried in his right hand if successful, he dispatched him with the trident he carried in his left. There were also the andabatae, who are believed to have fought on horseback and to have worn helmets with closed visors—that is, to have fought blindfolded the dimachaeri (“two-knife men”) of the later empire, who carried a short sword in each hand the essedarii (“chariot men”), who fought from chariots like the ancient Britons the hoplomachi (“fighters in armour”), who wore a complete suit of armour and the laquearii (“lasso men”), who tried to lasso their antagonists.

The shows were announced several days before they took place by bills affixed to the walls of houses and public buildings copies were also sold in the streets. These bills gave the names of the chief pairs of competitors, the date of the show, the name of the giver, and the different kinds of combats. The spectacle began with a procession of the gladiators through the arena, and the proceedings opened with a sham fight (praelusio, prolusio) with wooden swords and javelins. The signal for real fighting was given by the sound of the trumpet, and those who showed fear were driven into the arena with whips and red-hot irons. When a gladiator was wounded, the spectators shouted “Habet” (“He is wounded”) if he was at the mercy of his adversary, he lifted up his forefinger to implore the clemency of the people, to whom (in the later times of the Republic) the giver left the decision as to his life or death. If the spectators were in favour of mercy, they waved their handkerchiefs if they desired the death of the conquered gladiator, they turned their thumbs downward. (This is the popular view another view is that those who wanted the death of the defeated gladiator turned their thumbs toward their breasts as a signal to stab him, and those who wished him to be spared turned their thumbs downward as a signal to drop the sword.) The reward of victory consisted of branches of palm and sometimes of money.

If a gladiator survived a number of combats, he might be discharged from further service he could, however, reengage after discharge.

On occasion gladiators became politically important, because many of the more turbulent public men had bodyguards composed of them. This of course led to occasional clashes with bloodshed on both sides. Gladiators acting on their own initiative, as in the rising led by Spartacus in 73–71 bce , were considered still more of a menace.

Gladiators were drawn from various sources but were chiefly slaves and criminals. Discipline was strict, but a successful gladiator not only was famous but, according to the satires of Juvenal, enjoyed the favours of society women. A curious addition to the ranks of gladiators was not uncommon under the Empire: a ruined man, perhaps of high social position, might engage himself as a gladiator, thus getting at least a means of livelihood, however precarious. One of the peculiarities of the emperor Domitian was to have unusual gladiators (dwarfs and women), and the half-mad Commodus appeared in person in the arena, of course winning his bouts.

To be the head of a school (ludus) of gladiators was a well-known but disgraceful occupation. To own gladiators and hire them out was, however, a regular and legitimate branch of commerce.

With the coming of Christianity, gladiatorial shows began to fall into disfavour. The emperor Constantine I actually abolished gladiatorial games in 325 ce but apparently without much effect, since they were again abolished by the emperor Honorius (393–423) and may perhaps even have continued for a century after that.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


Gladiators Were Not Always Slaves

Mainstream media often depicts Gladiators as slaves who had no choice of their own and were thrown into battles and asked to wait for their eventual deaths in the arena. While it is true that most of the Gladiators who fought were slaves, many free-born individuals also took part in the duels and willingly became Gladiators. After the boost in the Gladiators’ popularity, many individuals wanted the same thrill which the games provided and signed up. These individuals also made up a significant portion of the trainee Gladiators, and it is said that 1 in 5 men were free men who voluntarily took up the sport. In fact, at one point, the prestige of the sport was so great that even knights and higher-ranking officials of the state also willingly became Gladiators.


Ancient Roman Gladiators: Origins and History

Often viewed as the working-class heroes of the Roman society, the gladiators have surely seen their fair share of screen time in our modern-day popular media. However, beyond grand spectacles and bloody feats, the very nature of gladiatorial contests alluded to the ‘institutionalization of violence‘ ingrained in the Roman society since its tribal days. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at the origins and history of the Roman gladiators that go beyond the realm of glitzy fiction to account for brutal reality.

Munera – the Funerary Contests That Gave Way to Gladiatorial Combats

In what might have been the precursor to latter-day gladiatorial combats, a nobleman named Brutus Pera made his death wish in 264 BC that his two sons should pay for combats that were to take place in the marketplace to mark his funeral. In less than a hundred years, such contests became pretty commonplace, and the combatants were generally the slaves of the organizer. In fact, in 174 BC, one of the munera (a ritualistic service dedicated to the dead) involved 74 men pitted against each other in a gruesome event that took place over three days.

And as time went by, the munera expanded in scopes to include spectacles like the venatio – which entailed the hunting of over hundreds of exotic animals across the Roman lands by the trained venatores. There was a symbolic side to this grisly affair, with the animals like lions, tigers and other predators alluding to the savages and ‘barbarians’ of the world that mighty Rome had subjugated (interestingly enough, the Mongols also had a similar type of hunting ritual that involved the ‘tactical’ killing of innocent beasts).

And, as the Roman Republic grew in pomp and size, her nobles thought out newer and grander ways to commemorate their legacy – by even making provisions in their wills for such funeral contests. In essence, the funerary service became more of a political statement (combined with bloody spectacles) that supposedly espoused the greatness of the patrons. As a result, being miserly regarding such ‘expected’ contests often incurred the displeasure of the common townsfolk. One particular incident aptly exemplifies such hedonistic attitudes – during the reign of Tiberius, a centurion’s funeral service was forcibly interrupted by the townspeople as they demanded funerary games. The situation soon turned into a riot, and the emperor had to send his troops to quell the disturbance.

A Mishap that Supposedly Killed 50,000 People!

The popularity of such funeral contests among the Romans increased exponentially – so much so that the patrons had to accommodate a variety of spectacles at specialized purpose-built venues, thus culminating in the final ‘evolution’ of gladiatorial games. These amphitheaters mostly sprung up inside Rome (the city) beside the Forum, and were initially constructed from wood with sand floors.

In fact, the very word harena – meaning ‘sand’, gave way to the term arena. Suffice it to say, overcrowding was a major predicament for the engineers, and as such one of the accidental mishaps resulted in the collapse of the entire superstructure of an amphitheater at Fidenae. According to Tacitus, the death toll reached over 50,000 people – which might have been an exaggeration on the author’s part, but still hints at the massive surge of popularity of such gladiatorial contests that took hold across Rome.

The nature of the incredible demand for gladiatorial combats could also be measured by the actual number of amphitheaters inside the Roman-held lands. According to architect and archaeologist Jean-Claude Golvin, this figure accounted for 186 venues spread over the Roman-ruled realms, while being additionally complemented by 86 other possible locations that might have had some kind of arenas for gladiators and their bloody spectacles.

The Hoplomachi – Professional Entertainers/Fighters of the Day

While the gladiatorial combats had their precursors in funerary contests fought among ill-equipped slaves, the spectacles at their gory zenith were ‘fueled’ by the professional warriors called hoplomachi (or armored fighting men – mostly inspired by the Greek hoplites) and their prowess inside the bloody arena. To that end, these men were the actual ‘gladiators’ that we are accustomed to seeing being depicted in popular movies and television programs. Skillful in handling their short swords (gladius), the combatants were trained to ‘entertain’ the crowds whether it be in single combats or staged battles inside the arena.

Such forms of crowd-pleasing entertainment alluded to the spectacle of long-drawn conflict as opposed to quick bloody events. In that regard, the hoplomachi were experts in prolonging the suffering of their opponents that entailed the drawing of blood and its spilling onto the sand. Simply put, they were a far cry from the ill-prepared criminals that went into the arena to die. Instead, they were viewed more as dashing daredevils, who while sharing some of their bad luck as being initially dispossessed, lived to please the rousing and often ruthless Roman spectators.

A Paradox of Low Class and High Fame –

The question naturally arises – where did such professional gladiators come from? Well, in the majority of the cases, the men (and few women) were bought from thriving slave markets. Some of them were simply sold by their masters because of their past crimes or transgressions, while others were prisoners of war.

However, beyond the scope of dispossessed slaves and war victims, even free men joined the ranks of gladiators – some who had lost their inheritance and some who were simply addicted to the thrill of fighting and winning accolades from the crowds. According to modern estimations, around 20 percent of gladiators admitted into the ludi gladiatori (gladiatorial schools) were free men of the Roman society.

And once the person was branded as a gladiator, he was seen as a social equivalent of a prostitute – with the term ‘gladiator’ even used as an abuse in various Roman circles. This directly contrasted with their fanfare and popularity among the citizens, especially during the grand gladiatorial spectacles that were akin to big sporting events of our modern world.

In fact, the fame and reputation of some gladiators reached such dizzying heights that their names appeared on city walls, while discussions about their victories and even sex appeal arose in inns, villas, palaces, and private dining rooms. And if discussions were not enough, the paradoxical adoration of gladiators took bizarre forms – with their oily grease, skin scrapings and even blood (brushed with jewelry) being collected and sold to Roman women as aphrodisiacs and restorative potions.

‘We who are about to Die’

Till now, we had talked about the ‘professional’ side of gladiators, and how gladiatorial contests formed an integral part of a thriving business model that was intertwined with the political system of Rome. But beyond such glitz and glory, there were the other fighters who were basically forced into the arena to spill their own blood.

These were the noxii, the criminals who were mainly accused of robbery, murder, and rape – and thus provided expendable ‘fighters’ whose sole purpose was to die inside the arenas, almost as a form of a grisly public execution that morphed into a sadistic ‘entertaining’ form. After being shackled, shoved and paraded inside such gladiatorial rings (especially during the afternoon shows) with jeering crowds clamoring for their blood, they had to make a grim proclamation before the Roman emperor – Ave Caesair, morituri te salutant! (We who are about to die, salute the Emperor).

After this statement, they became a part of the mass spectacle that sometimes involved fighting among themselves till the last man was standing (or everyone was killed). However, at other times, the noxii were simply used as living props who were unarmored (or sometimes dressed in ‘show’ armor) and then declared as opponents against the adept postulati, veteran gladiators armed with maces. Consequently, these experienced gladiators made a gory demonstration of slowly dispatching the straggling criminals by spilling their blood on the sands of the arena. Once again, beyond just the Romans, such ‘mock’ combats/executions were also practiced in other warrior cultures, namely the Aztecs.

‘Uri, vinciri,verberari, ferroque necari’ – The Oath of the Gladiators

Now while the noxii class belonged to the lowest strata of the gladiatorial scope, the actual gladiators also had to endure hardships and adversity, as is exemplified by their sacramentum gladiatorium (oath of gladiators) – ‘Uri, vinciri,verberari, ferroque necari.‘ Roughly translating to – ‘I will endure, to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword’, the phrase had to be repeated by the men before their induction into the gladiatorial ambit.

After the uttering of these words, they were solemnly led to their tiny lockable cells that were spread around the perimeter of the training grounds – and thus their brutal lives as ‘dispensable’ showmen of Rome started. Fortunately, the free men who willingly accepted the dangerous career were still given an ‘opt-out’ opportunity where they had to pay a cash fee to the lanista (the trainer or manager of the acquired gladiators).

Suffice it to say, the balefully dangerous nature of frequent arena fighting (and the subsequent harsh lives inside the guarded barracks) took its toll on many a gladiator, not only on the physical level but also on the psychological level. As a result, there were occasional incidences of suicide within their ranks, so much so – that even special guards kept vigilance to prevent such self-destructive activities that could potentially hamper the business of the lanista.

To that end, there was one incident of a Germanic gladiator self-choking on a sponge material. Another grisly scenario involved the apparent mass-suicide of 29 Frankish prisoners, who had strangled each other while the last man standing smashed his head – before they could make their bloody debut inside the arena.

Safety Measures Backed by Precise Diets –

As for those gladiators who continued to live, fight and emerge victoriously, had better chances of making a name for themselves in the affluent Roman circuits. Interestingly, such candidates were also taken care of by a specialized staff of the gladiatorial schools, thus mirroring our modern-day treatment of athletes and famous sportspeople.

For example, while the schools themselves were guarded by fence and walls (so as to prevent ‘jailbreaks’), stringent safety measures were taken inside the premises. Such aspects included the prohibition of sharpened weapons in most cases, with wooden substitutes being the favored training arms. Moreover, when an accidental injury occurred during training sessions, physicians rushed to the grounds to treat such wounds (with their medical equipment, like scalpels, hooks, and forceps).

Incredibly enough, the schools also employed specialized diet experts who dictated the food-types and daily nutrient intake by the training gladiators – for their prolonged healthiness and defined muscular development. For example, sometimes gladiators were nicknamed as the hordearii (‘barley men’), since the consumption of barley aided in mitigating the arteries with fat, thus preventing heavy bleeding that occurred through deep cuts and injuries.

Ostentatious Armor and Bending of Rules –

While most armor systems were adopted by the different gladiatorial classes for their intrinsic practicality, there were also ornamental armor pieces that were only flaunted by the gladiators for their dramatic effect in crowd-packed venues. In fact, many of the armor sets donned by the gladiators evoked the imagery of Roman ‘enemies’.

Such stereotypical representations (like the British type, Samnite type, and Thracian type) added to the theatrical flair inside the arena where ordinary Romans could cheer and jeer at their favored factions. Later developments also incorporated various thematic styles with mythological and fantastical motifs – like the retiarius armed with his net and trident (like a stylized fisherman), who was often pitted against the murmillo with his ostentatious helmet and half-man half-fish attire.

Unfortunately, the status of most gladiators was so low that they didn’t even have a say when it came to significant changing of rules in the grand contest events. These decisions and thematic alterations were usually made by the editor before the commencement of the gladiatorial match. However, there were also times when the rules were unfairly exploited so as to give one gladiator-type advantage over the other. For example, it is commonly believed that Caligula intentionally made the murmillo gladiators reduce their armor because he favored their opponents – the Thracian-type gladiators.

A Theater of Blood Lust, as Opposed to Chaotic Fighting –

As we can gather from the thematic presentation of the different types of gladiators, the ambit of gladiatorial fights inside the arena did take a theatrical route, as opposed to practical combat. Some of us can visualize such gaudy yet bloody affairs from the scenes of the movie Gladiator (a fictional scope which otherwise was unhistorical in many respects).

To that end, the gladiators were not only dressed to looking enticing and exotic, but the manner in which they fought sort of had a choreographic element to it that lengthened the scope of combat, instead of quick and effective dispatching of their opponents. But therein lied the paradoxical scope of such contests, where fantasy set-pieces played their part in entertaining the audiences, while the reality of deaths and severe injuries played their part in affecting the fighters.

The Naumachia – ‘Gladiatorial’ Ship Combat

Since we brought up the scope of fantastical elements, no spectacle exceeded the Roman penchant for grandeur and butchery than the naumachia (literally ‘naval combat’). Believed to be founded by Julius Caesar himself, the first of these massive engagements were conducted on a specially dug lake by the Field of Mars (in Rome).

When this lake was filled with water, the entire area could easily hold 16 large war-galleys manned by over 4,000 oarsmen. And aboard these huge ships, the organizers forced more than 2,000 prisoners – who were thematically dressed as Roman enemies and then ordered to fight among themselves to death. Some of these grandiosely conceived naumachia events received so much fanfare that later emperors occasionally had to empty the prisons to make up for the massive number of ‘fighters’ aboard the ships.

According to one particular incident (as mentioned by Suetonius), when the inmates aboard the ships made their customary proclamation of ‘we who are about to die, salute you’, emperor Claudius made a grave mistake of responding ‘or perhaps not!’. This instilled a new sense of hope among the prisoners, who steered away from their vessels from each other. Such ‘peaceful’ moves instigated the spectacle-hungry audience members to start rioting.

Thereupon, Claudius became furious and had to threaten to massacre these rowdy viewers by sending in his troops. Fortunately, the survivors of the mock naval battle were allowed to live. Consequently, the later naumachiae were conducted on the strict supervision of Roman troops who protected the periphery of the lake, while being supported by siege weapons like ballistae and other catapults. And once again, the popularity of such events is epitomized by astronomical numbers – like one occasion of 500,000 reported people attending a naumachia on the Fucine Lake that was 60 miles east of Rome.

The Chances of Survival –

All of these grave incidences, bizarre laws, and grand spectacles naturally brings us to the question – how much chance did the average gladiator have to actually survive the process? Now, according to the munera traditions, the best fights tended to result in casualties. In the Republic phase, the trends of bloody encounters were actually quite frequent, with some fights already announced to be sine missus (where the loser would die).

However, by the first phase of the Roman Empire, such fights were banned (on the orders of Augustus Caesar) – thus allowing for a ‘nobler’ practice where the losing gladiator was often pardoned if he showed his courage during the fighting. These changes in societal values mirrored the casualty numbers found in pieces of evidence.

For example, according to historian George Ville, in a hundred analyzed duels from the 1st century AD, only around 19 gladiators died out of the studied 200 specimens. But such figures took a worse turn in the succeeding years of the Roman Imperium wrought by internal conflicts and harsher measures. In that regard, by 3rd century AD, it is estimated that at least one of the gladiators got killed or succumbed to his injuries in every alternate combat scenario.

Rudis – the Symbolic Wooden Sword of ‘Freedom’

With all said and done, there was still hope for the actual gladiators (as opposed to the criminals) to gain their freedom from the exploitative bondage. Such measures of pseudo-freedom were offered to gladiators who had demonstrated exceptional courage and fighting prowess during their long gladiatorial tenures. This was symbolized by the rudis – a wooden sword that was presented to the participant on such very rare occasions.

Now, we used the term ‘pseudo-freedom’ because, by the very nature of segregated Roman laws, gladiators couldn’t truly be designated as free men. However, the fame and fortune that could be gained by their dashing feats inside the arena still inspired many gladiators to fight for the rudis – thus seemingly alluding to the fundamental nature of man and his simple freedom.

*Note – The article was updated on January 3rd, 2020.

Book References: Gladiators 100 BC – AD 200 (By Stephen Wisdom) / Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome (By Eckart Köhne, Cornelia Ewigleben)


The Go-To Festival Shoe Has Ancient Roots

To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

To revist this article, visit My Profile, then View saved stories.

Spring’s neoclassical sandal revival is unavoidable, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing the elevator with a powerful amazon or waiting in line at Starbucks with a latter-day goddess. You’ll know her by her shoes, laced gladiator sandals that crisscross up lithesome, bared legs or peeking out from under a flowing midi.

The sandal, which started as the most basic and utilitarian type of footwear—something solid strapped to the foot that offered protection—quickly became a marker of sex, status, rank, and fashion. When depicted in ancient (and modern) art, they are often worn by gods. And, in ancient Rome, the street of cordwainers was identified by a statue of Apollo, their patron deity.

Among plebeians, footwear became a marker of status. A lady of rank might be accompanied on an outing with a maid carrying a sandalthique, or carpet specially designed to carry a variety of shoes for different occasions. Just as today, sandals might be elaborate, brightly colored, high or low.

Isabeli Fontana Patrick Demarchelier Vogue

Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, Vogue, September 2008

Though a popular beach, resort shoe—the kind that you might pick up from a local handcrafter while on vacation in a seaside town and treasure as a memento of a sunny escape—the gladiator didn’t really get the full fashion treatment until the miniskirted sixties. The glad drew attention to ever-rising hemlines and to newly exposed legs and was appropriated by Space Age and utopian hippie designers alike who were attracted to its classical roots for different reasons.

In 1968, Vogue, which earlier had accessorized **Paco Rabanne’**s futuristic fashions with “laced all the way” sandals, dedicated several pages to “Ganymede—the Greek-boy look.” In the magazine, this translated to designer minidresses plus glads on the street the vibe was a bit more boho. The paparazzi snapped Patti “I’m-with-the-band” Boyd, for one, returning from San Fran in sandals strapped to the knee with swinging fringe.

While never out of fashion, the strapped-on sandal is once again having a renaissance for spring. It seems more than a coincidence that they should reappear as, _Vogue’_s Sarah Mower writes, “feminist consciousness is breaching the borders of fashion shows.” (Cue Chanel’s cadre of placard-bearing “protest” models.) The glad, after all, has amazing transformative powers. While a flat strap-on sandal might appeal to one’s inner Xena or be the best way to accessorize a festival look, a high-heeled pair can confer instant goddess status, a precedent set literally ages ago by the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus who developed a raised wedge heel to “give added majesty,” Wilcox reports, “to the gods and heroes of his plays.”

Photographed by Franco Rubartelli, Vogue, June 1, 1968

As you step up your sandal game, we present a visual history of the gladiator sandal from the pages of Vogue to the silver screen. Here, in 30 seconds, you’ll glimpse the six-foot-tall Veruschka returning to nature in the desert, Raquel Welch in a sandal-and-sword epic, and Raquel Zimmermann striking a Grecian pose for Vogue.


GLADIATOR: The Real Story

This site provides historical insight into the actual characters and events portrayed in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator. It discusses the film’s plot and ending, so if you have not seen the movie yet, you may want to come back later! I would not want to spoil it for you!

IS RIDLEY SCOTT’S FILM GLADIATOR A TRUE STORY?

While it is obvious that an impressive amount of historical and scholarly research was undertaken by the filmmakers, much of the plot is fiction. The fiction does however, appear to be inspired by actual historical events, as will be shown in the appropriate sections below. In this sense, the film is perhaps best seen as a collage, or artistic representation of ancient history, rather than an accurate, chronological, reconstruction of events. While highly original in its own right, the film’s plot does curiously resemble the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire directed by Anthony Mann.

It appears that Scott attempts to present not just a reconstruction of empirical facts, but also to boldly present to us his vision of the culture of ancient Rome, the spirit of its time, and the psychological outlook characteristic of its period. In one word, zeitgeist, and for the psychology of the characters, their mentalite.

This area of the film, while imperfect, is still stronger than its actual historical accuracy. Fellini attempted in his own way to do somethi ng similarly in his 1969 masterpiece The Satyricon, based on the ancient work by Petronius Arbiter, exploring the psychology of ancient time, in addition to its history. Scott, while historiographically imperfect, due to this creative effort in characterization, is to a certain extent avoiding the anachronisms of psychology present in such films as Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Ben Hur, where the characters appear to think and act solely like modern personages, while wearing unsoiled ancient costumes.

▼ Woodburytype, Jean-Léon Gérôme in his Studio with Large Model of The Gladiators,(1877), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Clearly it would seem, director Scott, and screenwriter David Franzoni, believe that history, at least as they present it, is not a regurgitation of empirical data, but instead an attempt to understand the psychology and culture of its characters, however, the greater purpose of the film is simply to tell a good story. Nevertheless, the film does emphasize Maximus’s worship of his family and ancestors, his obsessive compulsion for virtue and duty, and the stoical elements ever present in his character, which seem to be learned and informed, on the part of those who created this character. The film is inspired by real events, but should, and can not, be taken as an accurate historical source for true events, many of which are known to be different, and with certainty.

WHAT WAS MARCUS AURELIUS REALLY LIKE?

Marcus Aurelius was, as well as emperor from 161 to 180 CE, a stoic philosopher. He really did wage battles along the fr ontier as depicted in the film, and is remembered by historians of his time as a competent ruler, whom they favour. His name in full was Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, and these are the titles to which he would have been referred, not the anachronistic “sire” and “my lord” as in the film.

His work The Meditations, although more a compilation of existing stoical thought than a work of great originality, remains a highly readable classic in philosophy.

▼ Title pages from The Emperor Marcus Antoninus : his conversation with himself (The Meditations), Marcus Aurelius, London: (1701), Duke University Libraries.

An interesting fact omitted in the film, was that his adoptive brother and husband to daughter Lucilla, Lucius Verus, was made co- emperor with Marcus. In the time of the Republic, Rome was not ruled by emperors, but rather by two consuls. These consuls, with equal power, were to guard against dictatorship. So, perhaps Marcus really did have Republican inclinations, as attested to in the film, or perhaps this was a Machiavellian maneuver undertaken in an attempt to avoid the fate of the perceived dictator Julius Caesar. This was the first time in history that the Roman Empire had two joint emperors of formally equal constitutional status and powers, although in reality, Marcus was clearly the ruler of Rome.

▼ Bronze bust of Lucius Verus, Roman, (Ca. 170 – 180 CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

WHAT WAS COMMODUS REALLY LIKE?

If the ancient sources can be trusted, Commodus was even more bizarre in real life than he was in the film.

Commodus, whose full name was Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, was proclaimed Caesar at age 5 and joint emperor (co-Augustus) at the age of 17, in 177 CE, by his father, Marcus Aurelius. Reality was very different than the film in this instance. Commodus was, as depicted in Gladiator, present with his father during the Danubian wars, and yes, this is where Marcus Aurelius died. As for the actual circumstances of his father’s death, see below.

Historians from the time of Commodus have not been kind to him. As aristocratic intellectuals, they were not amused by his crude antics. Hence, our present day historiography still reflects, rightly or wrongly, this ancient bias. His father, possessing the virtues seen as noble by the literate aristocracy, was, and often still is, regarded as a great man, while his son was hated by the Senate and ridiculed by historians. Yet it is said that the army and the lower classes loved him. Cassius Dio, a senator and historian who lived during the reign of both Commodus and his father wrote, in regards to the accession of Commodus, that “our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”

▼ Coin of Commodus Ca. 180 CE, Obverse: Laureate Bust of Commodus, facing right, COMMODVS ANT AVG TR P II, Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins.

Indeed, some historians even question his sanity. Commodus, in his own time, was accused of being a megalomaniac. He renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana, the “Colony of Commodus”, and renamed the months of the year after titles held in his honour, namely, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius. The Senate was renamed the Commodian Fortunate Senate, and the Roman people were given the name Commodianus.

Historian Aelius Lampridius tells us that “Commodus lived, rioting in the palace amid banquets and in baths along with 300 concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots… By his orders concubines were debauched before his own eyes, and he was not free from the disgrace of intimacy with young men, defiling every part of his body in dealings with persons of either sex.”

Commodus went so far as to declare himself the new founder of Rome, a “new Romulus”. In attempting to boast a new “Golden Age” of Rome, he was clearly emulating his father. But the effect was to make him the laughing stock of the aristocratic class.

DID COMMODUS REALLY KILL HIS FATHER?

Some sources suspect that he did. The fact that he was present at the time, made a hasty peace with the enemy, and a quick retreat back to Rome in a victory triumph, has fueled speculation. The official story is that Marcus Aurelius died of plague.

DID COMMODUS REALLY FIGHT AS A GLADIATOR?

In this case, the truth is even stranger than the fiction. Commodus claimed to be descended from the God Hercules, and even began to dress like him, wearing lion skins and carrying a club.

The historian Herodian wrote that “in his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator.”

▼ Oil on Canvas, Pollice Verso, Jean-Léon Gérôme, (1872), Phoenix Art Museum.

He also fought wild beasts. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus killed five hippopotami at one time. He also killed two elephants, several rhinoceroses, and a giraffe “with the greatest of ease”. Herodian tells us further that Commodus had a special platform constructed which encircled the arena, from which he would display his skills as a hunter. He is recorded to have kil led one hundred leopards with one hundred javelins. As a theatrical treat, he would slice the heads off of ostriches with crescent-headed arrows, which would then run around the amphitheater headless.

Dio Cassius reveals that Senators were m ade to attend these spectacles, and that on one occasion Commodus killed an ostrich and displayed the severed head in one hand, his sword dripping with blood in the other, thus implying that he could treat them the same way.

▼ Ippolito Caffi (Italian, 1809 – 1866 ), Interior of the Colosseum, , watercolor and gouache over graphite on wove paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

DID COMMODUS REALLY DIE IN THE ARENA?

However he was assassinated, and, by an athlete. There were numerous plots and attempts upon his life, but the one which finally succeeded was carried out by a wrestler named Narcissus, while Commodus was in his b ath. The plot was orchestrated by his closest advisors, and apparently even included his mistress, Marcia.

It occurred on the very last day of the year 192 CE, and indeed, exactly when the rest of Rome was preparing festivities for the New Year, 193 CE. However, it was feared and believed by insiders that Commodus planned to kill the consuls-elect, who by both tradition and jurisprudence were to begin their terms upon New Year’s Day, and be sworn in as consul himself, instead. This he reportedly was going to do even outfitted as a gladiator, in his lion skins, with appropriate weapons. This was the final outrage, according to our ancient sources, and thus, his fate was sealed.

▼ Terracotta lamp illustrating gladiators in combat, North Africa, (late 1st – early 2nd century CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Commodus ruled for 12 years, a much longer period than alluded to in the film. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus was “a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.”

WAS THE REPUBLIC RESTORED AFTER THE DEATH OF COMMODUS?

The film is very wrong on this count. A republic is a system of government which does not have a hereditary monarch. An emperor is a monarch. The United States for instance is a republic, and England is not.

Rome was not founded as a republic, as was stated erroneously by a senator, who would have known better, as all educated Romans would hold this as basic knowledge, in the film. Legend has it that Rome was originally ruled by Etruscan kings. The first king was Romulus. The kings were overthrown in a revolution, which was sparked by the rape of Lucretia, in 509 BCE, by Sextus Tarquin, the son of the seventh and last king, Tarquinius Superbus.

Dictators and kings were thereafter despised by Romans, hence, the ideological adulation of a republican system of government, which was a central theme of Roman history, and thus correctly emphasized in the movie, and unlikely by accident, it should be noted.

After Commodus was murdered, the Senate met before daybreak, and declared sixty-six year old Pertinax, who was the son of a former slave, emperor. Pertinax thus became emperor on January 1st, but he was murdered by a group of soldiers the following March, after less than three months in power.

▼ Etching, Rome Ancienne, Jean Daullé, (1759), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

WHAT WAS MAXIMUS REALLY LIKE?

Maximus Decimus Meridius (his full name is stated only once in the film) is a fictitious character!

Although he did not exist, he seems as if he could be be a composite of actual historical figures. In the film, Maximus was Marcus Aurelius’ general. There was in fact a general by the name of Avidius Cassius, who was involved in the military campaign shown in the film, and, upon hearing a rumor of Marcus Aurelius’ death, declared himself emperor. He however, was assassinated by his own soldiers. It is true that there was, in the later Empire, a General by the name of Maximus who appears to have had revolutionary intentions. He is most likely an inspiration as well.

Maximus also reminds one of the emperor Diocletian. Remember that in the film, Marcus Aurelius names Maximus as his heir. Diocletian, who ruled Rome from 284 to 305 CE, was born in the lower cl asses, like Maximus. He eventu ally became his emperor’s trusted favourite and bodyguard, and later became a general. Finally he was named heir, and thus became emperor.

▼ Marble Sculpture, Bust of Emperor Commodus, (Ca. 180 – 185 CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Commodus, in reality, was not murdered in the arena by Maximus. He was however murdered by a wrestler. So the character Maximus, whil e fictitious, is not that far-fetched. He appears credibly, as if he could perhaps be inspired by a collage of other, real, historical figures that have been researched, even if not one himself.

As for his personality, he was definitely a stoic, as evidenced by his sense of obligation to the state, and concern for duty and virtue. This makes sense, given his admiration for Marcus Aurelius, who was a stoic philosopher. One difficulty is, even though many Romans (and not just Christians) believed in an afterlife, stoics usually did not. So this is problematic pertaining to his mentalite in the film, as it is a glaring inconsistency with his other somewhat more correctly presented stoical beliefs .

DID SENATOR GRACCHUS REALLY EXIST?

The ideology which he represents is however, somewhat authentic. Senator Gracchus appears to be based upon Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. During the Republic, these two brothers, were, one after the other, plebeian tribunes (not senators). They were champions of the common people, and paid the cost with their lives.

Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people in 133 BCE, and fought for reforms of benefit to the plebeians. He was murdered by opponents. His brother Gaius was elected tribune of the people in 123 BCE, and attempted the continuation of popular reforms. He was also murdered. It is problematic that in the film Gracchus was a senator, in the sense that it was the senatorial class which opposed Gauis and Tiberius, and even participated in their murder.

The political infrastructure of ancient Rome evolved over time, and was actually more complex than portrayed in the film. Other important political entities, along with the Senate, were the Plebeian Tribunate, as well as the Comitia Centuriata. These, along with two Consuls who would rule jointly, are the basic Republican institutions so cherished by Romans, and which emperors would claim to restore.

DID LUCILLA REALLY PLOT AGAINST HER BROTHER?

Commodus really did have a sister Lucilla, and she hated her brother. Lucilla was at one time married to Lucius Verus, as her son tells Maximus in the film. What is not said is that Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. Lucilla conspired against Commodus, and attempted to have him assassinated in 182 CE. Commodus banished Lucilla to the island of Capreae as punishment, and ordered her execution shortly after. So then, the film portrayal is actually entirely backwards, as Commodus not only outlived Lucilla, he was responsible for her death, and not the other way around, as Hollywood would have it.

▼ Coin of Lucilla Ca. 180 CE, Obverse: Bust of Lucilla, facing right, LVCILLA AVGVSTA, Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins.

▼ Coin of Lucilla Ca. 180 CE, Reverse: Juno standing left, raising hand and holding baby, IVNONI LVCINAE, Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins.

Incidentally, ancient historians are not too shy to reveal details, such as it was his other sisters, not Lucilla, that Commodus reputedly enjoyed having degrading sexual relations with.

DID WOMEN REALLY FIGHT IN THE ARENA?

Some criticism by film reviewers has been levied towards Scott for having a female gladiator. However, the ancient sources are clear they did in fact exist. Tacitus, for instance, wrote that Nero staged “a number of gladiatorial shows, equal in magnificence to their predecessors, though more women of rank and senators disgraced themselves in the arena”. Petronius, in The Satyricon, wrote of female charioteers. Dio Cassius explained how some women performed as venatores, that is gladiators who fought wild beasts. The Emperor Domitian staged games in which women battled pygmies.

▼ Image of the Roman Colosseum, The Continent by Queenboro’ via Flushing, A handbook for English and American tourists, (1894), The British Library, HMNTS 10097.c.31.

Women were forbidden from gladiatorial performances shortly after the time of Commodus, by the emperor Alexander Severus, in 200 CE.

WHAT’S WITH THE TATTOO WORN BY MAXIMUS?

S.P.Q.R., the letters of the tattoo worn by Maximus, was an abbreviation for an oft used Latin phrase whose English translation is “the Senate and People of Rome”.

The Latin word for “tattoo” was stigma, and our modern meaning of stigmatize, as a pejorative, has clearly evolved from the Latin. It was slaves, gladiators, criminals, and later, soldiers, who were tattooed, as an identifying mark.

Upper class Romans did not partake in tattooing, which they associated with either marginal groups, or foreigners, such as Thracians, who were known to tattoo extensively. The emperor Caligula is said to have forced individuals of rank to become tattooed as an embarrassment.

▼ Image of a Roman Legion’s Standard with SPQR, L’ Algérie Ouvrage Illustré (1885), The British Library, HMNTS 10097.c.31.

In late antiquity, the Roman army consisted largely of mercenaries, they were tattooed in order that deserters could be identified.

The sixth century Roman physician, Aetius, wrote that:

“Stigmates are the marks which are made on the face and other parts of the body. We see such marks on the hands of soldiers. To perform the operation they use ink made according to this formula: Egyptian pine wood (acacia) and especially the bark, one pound corroded bronze, two ounces gall, two ounces vitriol, one ounce. Mix well and sift… First wash the place to be tattooed with leek juice and then prick in the design with pointed needles until blood is drawn. Then rub in the ink.”

The Christian emperor Constantine, ca. 325 CE, decreed that individuals condemned to fight as gladiators or to work in the mines could be tattooed on the legs or the hands, but not on the face, because “the face, which has been formed in the image of the divine beauty, should be defiled as little as possible.”

▼ Engraved Gem, Warrior or Gladiator, European, (Ca. 1750 – 1850 CE), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

In 787, Pope Hadrian the First prohibited tattooing altogether, due to its association with superstition, paganism, and the marginal classes.


Crassus

By the time Spartacus had reached the straits a new leader named Marcus Licinius Crassus had taken command of the Roman forces. Strauss notes that he was a wealthy individual, able to raise a large army and pay them, at least in part, out of his own pocket.

In his business dealings Plutarch said that he had a scheme where “he bought up the burning properties and the buildings in the neighborhood of those alight, as the owners would surrender them for a small sum of money out of fear and uncertainty.” (Translation from Roman Social History: A Sourcebook, Routledge, 2007).

In his military life he was even more ruthless. Among his forces were the remnants of legions belonging to Gellius and Lentulus that had been previously defeated by Spartacus. As a consequence “Crassus selected every tenth man from the consular legions by lot and had him executed,” wrote Appian. He also revived a practice called “decimation” where units that ran away from the enemy would draw lots and have a random number of soldiers killed by being clubbed or stoned to death.

Needless to say discipline tightened under Crassus. Still, knowing that many of Rome’s best soldiers were outside Italy, he proceeded carefully when moving against Spartacus. Rather than try and openly battle Spartacus in southern Italy he built a system of fortifications centred on the Melia Ridge in an effort to trap Spartacus and starve his troops.

Spartacus responded to the situation by offering Crassus a peace treaty which Crassus swiftly rejected. Perhaps seeing his own soldiers beginning to waver Spartacus stiffened their resolve by crucifying a Roman soldier where all could see. It served “as a visual demonstration to his own men of what would happen to them if they did not win,” wrote Appian. Spartacus eventually managed to break through Crassus’s trap by filling in one his trenches (allegedly with human bodies) and using his cavalry to punch through.

While Spartacus escaped Crassus’s trap he faced serious consequences. Ancient writers say that he lost thousands of soldiers in the break out. Furthermore a split emerged in the rebel camp. A dissident group led by Castus and Gannicus, which included many Celtic and German troops, broke away from Spartacus and set off on their own. Additionally Crassus’s force was still largely intact while another force, led by Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus, was about to land at Brundisium and a third force, led by Pompey, was on its way to Italy from Spain.

Spartacus’s force was now divided and increasingly surrounded and the stage was set for the final battle.


Roman Gladiator

A Roman gladiator was an ancient professional fighter who usually specialised with particular weapons and types of armour. They fought before the public in hugely popular organised games held in large purpose-built arenas throughout the Roman Empire from 105 BCE to 404 CE (official contests).

As fights were usually to the death, gladiators had a short life expectancy and so, although it was in some respects a glamorous profession, the majority of fighters were slaves, former slaves or condemned prisoners. Without doubt, gladiator spectacles were one of the most-watched forms of popular entertainment in the Roman world.

Advertisement

Etruscan Origins

The Romans were influenced by their predecessors in Italy, the Etruscans, in many ways. For example, in the use of animal sacrifice for divining the future, the use of the symbolic fasces and organising gladiatorial games. The Etruscans associated these contests with the rites of death and so they had a certain religious significance. Although the first privately organised Roman gladiator contests in 264 BCE were to commemorate the death of a father, the later official contests discarded this element. Vestiges of the religious origins did, however, remain in the act of finishing off fallen gladiators. In this case, an attendant would strike a blow to the forehead of the injured. The attendant would wear a costume representing Hermes the messenger god who escorted souls to the underworld or Charun (the Etruscan equivalent). The presence of the divine Emperor himself, accompanied by priests and the Vestal Virgins also lent a certain pseudo-religious air to the contests.

Kings of Entertainment

Roman gladiator games were an opportunity for emperors and rich aristocrats to display their wealth to the populace, to commemorate military victories, mark visits from important officials, celebrate birthdays or simply to distract the populace from the political and economic problems of the day. The appeal to the public of the games was as bloody entertainment and the fascination which came from contests which were literally a matter of life and death. Hugely popular events were held in massive arenas throughout the Roman Empire, with the Colosseum (or Flavian Amphitheatre) the biggest of them all. Thirty, forty or even fifty thousand spectators from all sections of Roman society flocked to be entertained by gory spectacles where wild and exotic animals were hunted, prisoners were executed, religious martyrs were thrown to the lions and the stars of the show, symbols of the Roman virtues of honour and courage, the gladiators, employed all their martial skills in a kill or be killed contest. It is a popular misconception that gladiators saluted their emperor at the beginning of each show with the line: Ave imperator, morituri te salutant! (Hail emperor, we who are about to die salute you!), whereas, in reality, this line was said by prisoners about to be killed in the mock naval battles (naumachia), also held in the arenas on special occasions.

Advertisement

Gladiators most often came from a slave or criminal background but also many prisoners of war were forced to perform in the arenas. There were also cases of bankrupt aristocrats forced to earn a living by the sword, for example, Sempronius, a descendant of the powerful Gracchi clan. It is also of note that until their outlaw by Septimius Severus in 200 CE, women were permitted to fight as gladiators. There were special gladiator schools set up throughout the Empire Rome itself had three such barracks and Capua was particularly famous for the gladiators produced there. Agents scouted the empire for potential gladiators to meet the ever-increasing demand and fill the training schools which must have had a phenomenal turnover of fighters. Conditions in the schools were similar to any other prison, small cells and shackles for all, however, the food was better (e.g. fortifying barley), and trainees received the best possible medical attention they were, after all, an expensive investment.

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

Armour & Weapons

The term gladiator derives from the Latin gladiatores in reference to their principal weapon the gladius or short sword. However, there was a wide range of other weapons employed in gladiator contests. The gladiators also wore armour and their helmets, in particular, were objects of great workmanship, richly embossed with decorative motifs and set with ostrich or peacock plumed crests. Weapons and armour though depended on which class a gladiator belonged to. There were four principal classes:

The Samnite class was named after the great Samnite warriors that Rome had fought and beaten in the early years of the Republic. Interestingly, the Romans, at least in the early days, used gladiator and Samnite as synonyms, suggesting an alternative origin to Etruscan for these contests. The most heavily armed, the Samnite had a sword or lance, a large square shield (scutum) and protective armour on his right (sword) arm and left leg. The Thracian gladiator had a curved short sword (sica) and a very small square or round shield (parma) held in the fist to deflect blows. The Myrmillo gladiator was sometimes known as the fishman as he had a fish-shaped crest on his helmet. Like the Samnite, he carried a short sword and scutum but had armour only of padding on arm and leg. The Retiarius had no helmet or armour other than a padded shoulder piece and he carried a weighted net. He would try to entangle his opponent by throwing the net and then stab with his trident.

Advertisement

Gladiators fought in particular combinations, usually to provide a contrast between slower, more heavily armoured classes such as the Myrmillo against quicker, less protected gladiators such as the Retiarius. There were many other lesser types of gladiators with various combinations of weapons and armour and names changed over time, for example, 'Samnite' and 'Gaul' became politically incorrect when these nations became allies. Other types of combatants also included archers, boxers, and the bestiarii who fought animals in the wild beast hunts.

Winners & Losers

Those who lacked the enthusiasm to fight were cajoled by their manager (lanista) and his team of slaves who brandished leather whips or red-hot metal bars. No doubt the indignant roars from 40,000 spectators and the unrelenting attacks of one's opponent also convinced many to fight till the end. There were cases of refusal to fight: Perhaps one of the more famous was in the gladiator games organised by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus c. 401 CE when the Germanic prisoners who were scheduled to fight decided instead to strangle each other in their cells rather than provide a spectacle for the Roman populace.

The losing gladiator, if not killed outright, often appealed for mercy by dropping his weapon and shield and raising a finger. His adversary could then decide to be lenient, although, as there was a significant risk of meeting again in the arena, it was considered good professional practice to kill your opponent. If the emperor were present then he would decide, although the crowd would certainly try to influence his judgement by waving cloths or gesturing with their hands - raised thumbs and shouts of Mitte! meant 'let him go', thumbs down (pollice verso) and Iugula! meant 'execute him'.

Advertisement

Victors in the contests, particularly those with many fights behind them, became darlings of the crowd and as surviving graffiti on Roman buildings indicates, they were particularly popular with women - cases of affairs with aristocratic ladies and even elopement were not unknown. Graffiti from Pompeii gives a fascinating insight into how the gladiators were seen by the general public: Oceanus 'the barmaid's choice' or another was described as decus puellarum, suspirium puellarum (the delight and sighed-for joy of girls) and also written were how many victories some attained: Petronius Octavius 35 (his last), Severus 55, Nascia 60. However, it should be noted that the average was much lower and there were even some games in which victors fought other winners until only one gladiator was left standing. More material rewards for winning one's contest included the prestigious palm branch of victory, often a crown, a silver dish heaped with prize money and perhaps, after years of victories, even freedom.

Famous Gladiators

Perhaps the most famous gladiator of all was Spartacus, who led an uprising of gladiators and slaves from Capua, the leading producer of gladiators, in 73 BCE. From Thrace, the former Roman soldier had become a bandit until his capture and forced training as a gladiator. He and seventy comrades escaped from their training school and set up a defensive camp on the slopes of Vesuvius. Besieged, they then fled their position and rampaged through the countryside of Campania, collecting followers as they went and moulding them into an efficient fighting force. Battling his way north to the Alps, Spartacus displayed great military leadership in defeating four Roman armies on no less than nine occasions. Far from being a saint though, when a friend died in battle, Spartacus, in the old custom, arranged for three hundred Roman prisoners to fight gladiator contests in honour of his fallen comrade. After two years of revolt, the armies of Marcus Licinius Crassus finally cornered and quashed the rebels in Apulia in the south of Italy. As a warning to others, 6,000 of the prisoners were crucified along the Appian Way between Capua and Rome. Another consequence of this disturbing episode was that from then on, the number of gladiators owned by private citizens was strictly controlled.

Another famous gladiator was, in fact, a non-professional. Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192 CE) was keen and mad enough to compete himself in the arena, indeed, there were even rumours that he was the illegitimate son of a gladiator. One might argue that Commodus was a professional as he made sure to draw a fantastic salary for his appearances in the Colosseum. However, it is unlikely that Commodus, usually dressed as Mercury, was ever in any real danger during the hundreds of contests he fought in the arena, and his most frequent participation was as a slaughterer of wild animals, usually from a protected platform using a bow.

Advertisement

The End of the Show

Gladiator contests, at odds with the new Christian-minded Empire, finally came to an end in 404 CE. Emperor Honorius had closed down the gladiator schools five years before and the final straw for the games came when a monk from Asia Minor, one Telemachus, leapt between two gladiators to stop the bloodshed and the indignant crowd stoned the monk to death. Honorius in consequence formally prohibited gladiatorial contests, although, condemned criminals continued the wild animal hunts for another century or so. Many Romans no doubt lamented the loss of a pastime that was such a part of the fabric of Roman life, but the end of all things Roman was near, for, just six years later, the Visigoths led by Alaric would sack the Eternal City itself.


Is Gladiator Based on a True Story?

Hollywood is reputed for having a wholesale disregard for historical accuracy. Director Ridley Scott&rsquos historical flick ‘Gladiator’ was adored by critics and casual audience alike, and upon its release in 2000, the film broke box office records, became ridiculously popular, and was showered with awards and accolades. While Hans Zimmer was nominated for an Oscar for the background score, Russell Crowe&rsquos steely and soulful acting did not go unnoticed by the Oscar committee he bagged an Academy Award for the same.

Backed with Ridley Scott&rsquos atmospheric vision and stellar acting on the part of Russell Crowe as Maximus and Joaquin Phoenix as the ruthless king Commodus, it seemed as if nothing could go wrong with the film. And yet, some things did. So, how historically accurate is this epic masterpiece? Let&rsquos find out!

Is ‘Gladiator’ Based on a True Story?

‘Gladiator’ is partially based on a true story. But it fictionalizes history to make it look theatrical and sentimentally evocative. If Shakespeare can manipulate history to give us timeless tales of love, betrayal, and revenge, it seems unfair to be harsh on Ridley Scott for tweaking history for purposes of gripping storytelling. Also, in Ridley Scott&rsquos defense, he tries to portray the Roman culture and society more accurately than some of the early Hollywood depictions of Rome in films like ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Cleopatra.’

Scott even took his commitment to historical accuracy a step further by appointing several historians as consultants. However, the apple fell quite far from the tree. As per reports, a few of the historians withdrew their names or did not want to be associated with the project since the final version had many historical glitches. Although, on the brighter side, the film initiated a revival in the study of Roman history in the US, which has henceforth been dubbed as the “Gladiator Effect.”

Marcus Aurelius Was Not Slain by His Son

In one of the film&rsquos most shocking moments, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) kills his father and emperor, Marcus Aurelius, after getting to know that the emperor wishes to appoint not his son but his favorite General Maximus as the protector of the Roman Empire. The moment appropriately conveys the erratic disposition that the character of Commodus embodies as the audience begins to fathom the depths of the nature of his character. However, there is a slight problem. Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his young heir.

According to history books, the philosopher-emperor bit the dust in 180 AD while leading his army in a conflict against a swarm of Germanic tribes from the North. While there remain debates among historians regarding the cause of his death, the most popular consensus is that he died of the Antonine Plague, which ravaged much of the Roman Empire between the years 165 AD and 180 AD.

The Truth about Commodus

In the film, Marcus defeats the horde of barbarians, but as history suggests, the conflict was brought to an end by Commodus when he signed a treaty with the barbarians. Commodus ruled the empire alongside Aurelius for around three years, and after his father&rsquos death, Commodus reigned for over twelve years, up until 192 AD, quite unlike the short period of rule that he is assigned to in the film. Also, while he engaged himself in gladiator battles, he did not die in the Colosseum. He was murdered by a gladiator called Narcissus while he was in his bath.

Is Maximus Wholly Fictional?

Maximus Decimus Meridius is one character in the film that is purely fictional, but it is speculated that the character has been modeled upon some historical figures. Among the list are Narcissus (Commodus&rsquos murderer and Maximus&rsquos name in the first draft), Spartacus (a rebellious slave), Cincinnatus (a farmer who ruled the empire for 15 days), Marcus Nonius Macrinus (an army general and a friend of Marcus Aurelius), and reportedly, Claudius Pompeianus (Commodus&rsquos sister Lucilla&rsquos husband).