What Really Happened to Gladiator?

When Ridley Scott’s Gladiator hit the big screen in 2000, it captivated audiences worldwide with  its thrilling tale of honor, vengeance, and redemption set in ancient Rome. The film’s grandeur,  stunning visuals, and gripping performances made it an instant classic, so much so that nearly a quarter of a century later a sequel is finally on the way. However, what many  might not know is that Gladiator drew inspiration from a real-life story, one that is equally as  captivating, though with its own unique twists and turns. Sometimes reality is much stranger than  fiction, so let’s find out What Really Happened To Gladiator?  

Gladiator: Fact Vs Fiction

In the film, Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) is a legendary general in the army of the Roman Empire. The aged Emperor Marcus Aurelius decides to appoint Maximus as his successor over his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). This angers Commodus, who orders Maximus to be put to death, but the Roman general is able to escape before the sentence can be carried out. He hurries home to his wife and child only  to find they have been killed.  

While wallowing in his grief, Maximus is captured and put into slavery. It is here that he is put  into gladiator combat by Proximo. At first, he refuses to fight, but soon his fighting skills kick in,  and Proximo is impressed by his tactics. He is put into the gladiator games and begins to earn the  audience’s approval. When he learns they will be heading back to Rome to participate in a  gladiator games marathon, Proximo reveals he used to be a gladiator. When he won enough  matches, he was granted his freedom. Maximus thinks this might be his chance to get close to  Commodus and finally exact his revenge. How close to history is the film?  

The core of Gladiator revolves around the characters of Marcus Aurelius, the wise and just Emperor of Rome, and Commodus, his treacherous and power-hungry son. In reality, Marcus  Aurelius was indeed a revered philosopher-king who ruled Rome from 161 to 180 AD. He was  known for his intellectual pursuits and his military successes against the Germanic tribes. One fact that the film completely omits is that Marcus actually shared the role of Ruler Of Rome with  his adopted brother Lucius Verus. The two consulted each other about the decisions for the  empire.  

In terms of character, Marcus Aurelius shared some similarities with his on-screen portrayal. He  possessed a deep sense of duty and sought to leave a legacy of Roman rule guided by wisdom  and justice. However, unlike the film, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Marcus  Aurelius intended to restore the Roman Republic or that he wished to appoint any of his Generals  as his successor. He wasn’t killed by his son but actually died during the Antonine Plague. The  Marcomannic Wars from the opening of the film actually lasted until after his death.  

Emperor Commodus was indeed the son of Marcus Aurelius and ascended to the throne after his father’s  death. However, the film exaggerates his villainous nature, depicting him as a bloodthirsty  megalomaniac driven solely by a lust for power. While Commodus was not a virtuous ruler, his  reign lasted for over a decade, during which he enacted some reforms and undertook a series of  gladiatorial combats. His demise came at the hands of Narcisuss while Commodus was in his  bath. 

It was discovered that his sister Lucilla (played in the film by Connie Nielsen, with Spencer Treat Clark as her son Lucius Verus) had been part of the plot to kill him. When this was  discovered, she was exiled to Capri, where she was eventually executed. Once Commodus was  killed, Rome would end up having five rulers as a power struggle broke out among those in  power. Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Septimius Severus  would all serve as Emperors in one year.  

Gladiator Facts

The film’s protagonist Maximus was not a real person but instead was a combination of multiple  people throughout Roman history. Marcus Nonius Macrinus was a general in the Roman Army  who was close to Marcus Aurelius. The ruler trusted him so much he was appointed to Roman  Council. The humble beginnings of Maximus may have been inspired by Cincinnatus, a Roman  Emperor who only ruled for fifteen days. He was said to have been a simple farmer who was  appointed ruler. During his short reign. it was said that he stopped an invasion of Rome.  

One person who may have been a big inspiration to Maximus’ plight in the film is Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger. He was born into an aristocratic family in Cordoba,  Spain around 4 BC and became one of Rome’s most prominent philosophers and statesmen  during the reigns of emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.  

Seneca’s life took a dark turn when he became embroiled in political intrigue during Nero’s reign.  Despite being one of Nero’s closest advisors at first, their relationship eventually soured due to  rumors that Seneca was involved in plots against him. In 65 AD, after being accused of  conspiring in the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero (of which historians now believe he had no  part), Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by opening his veins. He didn’t seek revenge against  those that accused him of being part of the plot but instead was executed.  

gladiator fact vs fiction

Another may be Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, who was thought to have been the preferred  candidate to replace Aurelius but declined the position when it was offered to him. Perhaps the  most famous inspiration for Maximus was Spartacus. He led a revolt of the slaves, and this also  takes place in the film as Maximus seeks his revenge.  

One of the most captivating aspects of Gladiator was its depiction of the gladiatorial games and  the grandeur of the Colosseum. The film showcased the brutal nature of these spectacles and the  immense popularity they enjoyed among the Roman populace. The portrayal of Maximus, the  seasoned general turned gladiator, winning the hearts of the crowd and seeking revenge against  Commodus, adds an intense dramatic touch to the narrative.  

In reality, gladiatorial combat was indeed a prominent form of entertainment in ancient Rome.  Gladiators were typically slaves or prisoners of war who fought for their lives in often brutal  matches. However, it is worth noting that Gladiator takes some creative liberties, combining  elements of different historical periods and venues to enhance the cinematic experience. 

One of the stranger elements of the gladiatorial arena of Rome was that Commodus would  actively participate in combat. He would don a gladiator uniform made of lion skins (that he had  killed himself in the arena) and fight against other competitors. It was thought that he would only  slightly wound the participants, and they would submit to him since they knew he was emperor.  It does make Commodus seem like a significantly more interesting character than the one from  the film.  

Gladiator Fiction

While Gladiator draws inspiration from real events and historical figures, it is important to  recognize that the film takes significant liberties with the historical record. It prioritizes drama,  spectacle, and emotional storytelling over strict historical accuracy. This is a common practice in  the film industry, where the goal is to entertain and engage the audience rather than adhere  strictly to historical facts.  

However, the film’s creative deviations do not diminish its impact or entertainment value. In fact,  the fictional narrative constructed around the historical framework serves to create a captivating  and emotionally charged story that resonates with viewers. The themes of honor, loyalty, and the  pursuit of justice transcend the boundaries of time and offer universal appeal.  

Gladiator stands as a testament to the power of cinema to bring historical events to life and  captivate audiences worldwide. While the film draws inspiration from the real-life story of  Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, it takes creative liberties to enhance its dramatic impact. The  fictional tale of Maximus, the valiant general seeking vengeance in the gladiatorial arena,  captivated audiences and propelled Gladiator to the status of an epic masterpiece.  By weaving together elements of history, mythology, and human drama, the film transports  viewers to ancient Rome and immerses them in a world of grandeur and conflict. While the real  story may differ in certain aspects, the film’s ability to evoke emotions and inspire awe remains  undiminished. Ultimately, Gladiator serves as a reminder of the enduring power of storytelling  and its ability to transcend time and bring history to life on the silver screen.


Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/gladiator-fact-vs-fiction/

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SBS editor