Gladiator Movie Review: A Dramatic Representation of 180 A.D. Roman Era

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The movie Gladiator directed by Ridley Scott is set in Roman times in 180 A.D. and follows the life events of a general named Maximus Decimus Meridius. Conflict arises when the current emperor named Marcus Aurelius has a son, named Commodus, who sets out to kill Maximus due to him being named the successor. This leads Maximus to become a revered gladiator and begins his journey of seeking revenge on Commodus. The main historical events portrayed in this movie are centered around Marcus Aurelius’ time as emperor and the conflict between Romans and Barbarians. Gladiator depicts several accurate and inaccurate aspects of Roman life during this time regarding the military, the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus’ overall history, and women fighting in the Roman Colosseum (Gladiator).

Throughout the movie Gladiator, there are several accurate military aspects portrayed during the various battles and times in which the military is shown. In the opening scene, there is a major battle between the Romans and Barbarians. They are shown assuming a distinctive battle formation called a cohort throughout the duration of the fight (Bossio et al. 29). According to Evan Bossio in the project report Historical Evolution of Roman Infantry Arms and Armor 753 BC - 476 AD “A cohort was made up of six centuries, each containing 100 men: 80 infantry and 20 non-combatants' (Bossio et al. 29). Each cohort was a skilled unit which was entirely self-sufficient and had their own weaponry (Bossio et al. 29). The cohort design allowed for much more efficient battle which is demonstrated in how quickly they defeat their opposers in the movie (Bossio et al. 29). Another accuracy shown in Gladiator is found in the helmets the characters are shown wearing during the initial battle. In the book War: from Ancient Egypt to Iraq by Saul David, it is stated that the gallic style of the late 1st century A.D. Legionary's iron helmet was used in many of the Roman’s battles (David 53). This helmet was made either of copper alloy or iron and had a smooth top that covered the lower neck area (David 53). The sides left openings for the ear but had large neck and cheek guards (Bossio et al. 38). Maximus’ army and some gladiator characters during the Colosseum fight scenes are shown wearing these helmets. The militaristic aspects shown in Gladiator such as the Cohorts and the helmets worn are both predominantly accurate (Gladiator).

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Referencing the main battle portrayed at the beginning of the movie Gladiator, there was one major inaccuracy depicted. Ada Gabucci states in his book Rome that during this time it was customary for music to be played during battle (Gabucci 191). Three major instruments played during this period were the horn, a wind instrument where the player would grasp the crossbar with their left hand, the bucina, an instrument similar to the horn but crafted from metal as opposed to an animal’s horn, and the tuba (Gabucci 191). The horn did not have a primary purpose in battle, however, the bucina was often used to indicate orders inside encampments (Gabucci 191). The tuba’s piercing sound was thought to signal an attack or retreat or just to incite fear in the enemy (Gabucci 192). I believe the reason the producers chose to leave out instruments was because they wanted viewers to understand that this opening battle was not intended to be the focus of the movie. The instruments would have made it much more dramatic in the viewer’s eyes and therefore they would focus on it more. There is no musicality or instrumentalists conveyed during the entirety of the battle in Gladiator (Gladiator).

Marcus Aurelius reigned as emperor from 161-180 A.D. and his political actions are accurately detailed in the movie (David 44). During the first two centuries A.D., Germanic tribes were continually threatening the Roman empire from the Rhine and the Danube rivers (David 44). Initially, Marcus Aurelius tried to keep the peace by simply “campaigning against the Quadi, Marcomanni, and other tribes along the Danube frontier” (David 44). However, this didn’t last very long, for history has recorded several defensive battles that were implemented to relieve pressure on the borders (David 43). This is shown accurately with the battle at the beginning of the movie in which they are fighting with the Barbarians. It is also found evident in the conversation Maximus has with Marcus Aurelius where he reveals that during his reign only four years were peaceful. The way Marcus Aurelius handled conflict in real life coincided with the way it was shown in the movie (Gladiator).

Gladiator’s portrayal of Marcus Aurelius’ life isn’t completely accurate, however. The issues of accuracy are evident in how Gladiator presents the emperor’s death. Commodus is shown murdering Marcus Aurelius. This was very unlikely to have occurred since Commodus would not have had a motive to do so. In 176 A.D. after the death of Faustina, Marcus Aurelius formally named Commodus to be his successor (Gabucci 38). I believe Commodus was made to be the murderer in the movie to add to the tragedy of his father’s death and clearly define Commodus as the antagonist. During this time there were also many bouts of the Antonine plague beginning around 166 A.D. with Roman troops returning from Parthia infected by it (Bossio et al. 36). It eventually killed around five million people, and the emperor likely fell victim to it instead of murder by his son’s hands (Bossio et al. 36). Overall, the details regarding Marcus Aurelius’ death and relationship with his son are shown to be inaccurately portrayed in Gladiator (Gladiator).

The issue of female gladiators is a detail shown in Gladiator which historically is partially correct but not entirely. The scene starts with Maximus and the other gladiators in a battle at the Colosseum against the Barbarian Horde. Among other male counterparts, a lone female gladiator shooting arrows enters on a chariot drawn by a white horse. This scene is accurate in the sense that women were sometimes trained to fight in the Colosseum due to the belief that these women were reincarnations of the Amazons (Brunet 485). The issue arises from the fact that the female gladiator is riding on a chariot, because “Romans surprisingly had no interest in seeing women perform as charioteers, an area where women had a reasonable chance of holding their own against men” (Brunet 485). Romans agreed with the concept of Halicarnassos relief which essentially meant favoring women fighting other women (Brunet 485). Another inaccuracy with the female gladiator is found in her having a helmet on. Women were not allowed to wear helmets in fights so that the audience could clearly distinguish their gender (Brunet 482). I believe the addition of a female gladiator but the subtraction of her wearing a helmet was implemented in the movie because the producers assumed that the audience might be confused as to why the female gladiator would not be wearing one. In general, the way Gladiator represents the female gladiator is mostly inaccurate but at the very core of the principal, it has accuracy (Gladiator).

Overall, the movie Gladiator was a film that I enjoyed. It had a very understandable storyline and I found the characters easy to relate to. I feel that the movie held up to my expectations with the representation of the Roman era in roughly 180 A.D. With the limited knowledge I have of that period, the architecture, clothing, military, and geographical location all held accuracy in my eyes. There are many things I learned during my time watching and researching the accuracy of Gladiator. My research led me to primarily learn about warfare and political stances during Roman times, but I also learned about smaller aspects such as the issue of female Gladiators. I am uncertain however if this movie should be considered a decent history. The main character Maximus Decimus Meridius and everything surrounding his life never actually happened. His existence in the movie greatly altered the history of mainly Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, seeing as how he was to be Marcus Aurelius’ successor and he killed Commodus in the final scene (Gladiator). It is very believable for a viewer that Maximus existed and that all these events took place which makes this movie faulty history. This being said, I would indeed still recommend Gladiator for the type of person who already has a historical perspective on Roman times during the 1st century A.D. I feel that a knowledgeable person would greatly enjoy the dramatic storytelling and heroic actions depicted in the movie. While it doesn’t portray everything accurately it still is quite entertaining and gives the viewer an interesting viewpoint in this time in history.

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