Cambridge University historian Peter Burke states that we see history through the eyes of those who “invent” it. One of the best examples supporting this assertion is the historical film drama, which tends to “educate” the general public in terms of history far more effectively than any academic work or documentary effort, regardless of accuracy.
Unfortunately, the purpose of Hollywood’s historical epics is not to educate, but to entertain and make money. Therefore artistic license is not simply a caveat for inauthenticity, but an excuse to distort in any way that might sell more tickets at the box office or fill Netflix orders.
Here we examine one particularly popular historical film, Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. The film has received both praise and criticisms for its portrayal of Ancient Rome. While some historians contend that it has represented some aspects of the Empire quite well, it is also rife with inaccuracy.
Here are eight examples of how Gladiator gets it wrong.
1. Catapults and giant dart launchers in the forest battle
Though these weapons existed and help make for an impressive opening battle scene in Germania, they almost certainly weren’t used in this type of conflict. Catapults and ballistae, which were used to spring-launch large projectiles, would be practical in sieges, but unwieldy in open battles, especially when there are so many trees.
2. Marcus Aurelius banned gladiator fights
In fact, in classic “bread and circuses” fashion, the Emperor decreed that gladiatorial contests continue in order to distract the masses from a bad economy.
3. Marcus Aurelius wanted to restore the Republic
There is no evidence that the Emperor, nor even the Senate, wished to restore Rome to its previous republican system or get rid of the Imperial office. Those who rose to be emperor were not against the Empire. This is an obvious appeal to 21st century democratic ideals.
4. The character of Maximus
The hero of the film, killer of the evil Commodus and champion of the people never existed. His character is perhaps inspired by several historical figures, including Taruttienus Paternus, the commander of Roman forces at the great battle against the Germanic tribes in 179 AD; Narcissus, the wrestler who actually killed Commodus; and Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, who came from a humble background in Syria and became a favourite general of Marcus Aurelius, marrying his daughter Lucilla.
Perhaps in spirit as well as story, Maximus most resembles Spartacus, the Thracian slave who became a gladiator and later led a rebellion against the Romans, winning nine significant battles before his defeat.
5. Marcus Aurelius was going to name Maximus as Emperor
Obviously the Emperor wouldn’t name a fictional character as his successor, but it was traditional to name “adoptive” emperors who were not biological sons. Yet while it seems Marcus may have thought ill of Commodus, who was pretty horrible, he did break with tradition and name his son as heir.
6. They got Commodus all wrong
Only 18 at the time of the death of his father, Commodus is described as tall, muscular and blonde. He trained in gladiatorial combat and boasted 620 victories, at least according to his own writing, which is probably accurate enough because his opponents always submitted to the Emperor. For this, he would spare their lives. While practicing, however, he liked to kill all his sparring partners.
Though certainly a piece of work in the film, writings about the real Commodus show him to be unbelievably awful. Stupid, sadistic, cowardly and overly impressionable, he was nonetheless reportedly as handsome as he was cruel and spent his time slaughtering exotic animals like lions, ostriches and giraffes in canned hunts inside Rome’s arenas.
He also publicly slaughtered amputees who were veterans of Roman wars.
7. They got the Latin language wrong
Perhaps this one is nit-picky, but why would such a big production make these kinds of simple mistakes? Sometimes they’d use Italian — the character Proximo instead of Proximus — and sometimes they’d mix the two. A sign on a building reads ‘LUDUS MAGNUS GLADIATORES’, when it should say ‘LUDUS MAGNUS GLADIATORUM’.
8. Commodus was killed by a gladiator
The Emperor was a victim of assassination due to a political conspiracy. First he was poisoned by his mistress, but when that proved ineffective, the conspirators sent Commodus’ wrestling partner to strangle him in his bath.