Charlotte,  Eastern Europe,  Rome

Historical Inaccuracies in Gladiator

Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus
Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus

I can understand why creative license is taken in film and television. We just do not know every tiny detail that happened throughout history. Sometimes creative license is taken to condense the events to fit into the relatively short time frame of movies and television. However, sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why major changes were made. Things have been unchanged needlessly and the real story is not given its due.

Gladiator was a box office hit with all-star cast as well as being loaded with fighting, action and blood galore; a mixture for pure success. But what happens when that particularly popular movie tells the story of Ancient Romans and is not quite accurate enough to be the truth? You are left with Gladiator and people believing what the writers, directors and producers of the film want you to believe.

Most people understand that Russel Crowe’s character, Maximus Decimus Meridius, is a completely fictionalized creation, but most people do not realize that the character Commodus, while very real, was not exactly the man the movie portrayed him to be.

Emperor Commodus

The movie would have you believe that Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ father and Emperor, did not claim Commodus as the heir to the empire. As a result, Commodus kills his father because of his grief and claims the title of Emperor for himself.

In reality, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius co-ruled together after a rumor spread of Aurelius’ death. The Syrian Governor, Marcus Cassius, was hailed as emperor by his men and accepted as he did not want Commodus ruling the Empire. Well, Cassius learned that Aurelius had only fallen ill and survived but since he had already been hailed as emperor in the east he was determined to keep it. Aurelius needed to act against Cassius so he began preparations to go east and deal with the usurper but never left since news that Cassius was killed by his own men reached Aurelius before he left. Aurelius knew that this meant his son’s accession to the throne was not secure and the best course of action was to make him co-emperor; this happened in 177 CE.

The two co-ruled together for the following three years until Aurelius’ death. He was not murdered by his son, in fact he was not murdered by anyone. Instead what really happened was that he simply died of a ‘plague’ (either the measels or smallpox) that was killing people all over the empire. Further, he didn’t actually die of this plague but of starvation after learning he had this disease.

Now, uncontested, Commodus became Emperor Commodus in 180 CE. He is the emperor hailed by some historians to be the one who started the fall of the Roman Empire.

Gladiator would also have you believe that Commodus was murdered in the Colosseum by the gladiator Maximus.

This is a little closer to reality but still very far from how Commodus met his end. Marcia, Commodus’ mistress and former friend of his sister, found her name on the top a list to be executed. To save her skin, Marcia decided to take matters into her own hands. She and Commodus’ sister had been involved in a plot to assassinate him in 181 A.D. Interestingly enough, but this time it had to work.

Relaxing in his bath, Commodus was unsuspecting as Marcia brought him a glass of wine. Commodus eagerly drank the poisoned wine but immediately began vomiting everything back up. The plotters involved were worried that he wouldn’t die because he would expel the poison so a wrestler, Narcissus, was brought in to finish the job. Commodus also ruled for a little over 12 years, another difference from the movie.

These are only a few of the disparages of Commodus’ portrayal in Gladiator, and only just skimming the surface of inaccuracies within the film in general. I beseech you to share what you had noticed that was historically inaccurate about the film to share with others while bestowing the true history of Rome during Commodus’ reign.