Historical accuracy of Gladiator (2000 film)
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In making the film Gladiator (2000), director Ridley Scott wanted to portray the Roman culture more accurately than in any previous film and to that end hired several historians as advisors. Nevertheless, some deviations from historical fact were made to increase interest, some to maintain narrative continuity, and some were for practical or safety reasons. The public perception of what ancient Rome was like, due to previous Hollywood movies, made some historical facts, according to Scott, "too unbelievable" to include.
At least one historical advisor resigned due to the changes he made and another advisor Kathleen Coleman asked not to be mentioned in the credits. Historians called the movie both the worst and best of all films: the worst for the historical inaccuracies in a film Scott promoted as historically accurate, and the best for the film's accurate depiction of the people and violence of the late 2nd century AD. Historian Allen Ward of the University of Connecticut noted that historical accuracy would not have made Gladiator less interesting or exciting and stated: "creative artists need to be granted some poetic license, but that should not be a permit for the wholesale disregard of facts in historical fiction."
- In the movie, Commodus appears to be in his mid-to-late thirties, single, wiry, with dark hair, and right-handed. In reality, he was eighteen when Marcus Aurelius died, was married to Bruttia Crispina, had a strong physique, natural blond curly hair—he also coated it with gold dust—and was left-handed. He also liked to appear as a gladiator quite frequently whereas in the film, he only does once and is killed.
- Commodus and his family weren't from the family of the earliest Caesars, such as the mentioned Claudius.
- In the movie, Commodus dies shortly (within a few years, or even a year) after Marcus Aurelius, whereas he actually died in 192 A.D. 12 years after his father's death in 180 A.D.
- Commodus' megalomaniac projects for Rome, never initiated, are actually more correspondent to Nero's projects.
- Commodus didn't execute any of his Generals upon his accession to secure his position, but Caracalla did.
- While Commodus was indeed killed by a professional fighter, it was by a wrestler named Narcissus, not a gladiator. His death did not occur in the Colosseum; he was strangled while bathing.
- Commodus lived from 161-192 AD but Maximus of Hispania, a Roman usurper, died in 422 AD, although being effectively executed in the arena by emperor Flavius Honorius as an example for rebellion. From Commodus' death to that of usurper Maximus, there is a gap of 230 years.
- The character of Maximus had a similar career (and personality traits as documented by Herodian) to Claudius Pompeianus (a Syrian) who married Marcus Aurelius' daughter Lucilla following the death of Lucius Verus. It is believed Aurelius may have wanted Pompeianus to succeed him as Caesar in preference to Commodus but was turned down. Pompeianus had no part in any of the many plots against Commodus. He was not depicted in the film. The actual supreme field commander at the battle depicted in the film was Publius Tarrutenius Paternus, who was also the Praetorian Prefect. Claudius Maximus was actually the teacher of Marcus Aurelius.
- Maximus is mentioned as Maximus Decimus Meridius and later as Aelius Maximus; the complete name would thus be Aelius Maximus Decimus Meridius, but the correct form of his name should be Decimus Aelius Maximus Meridius. Roman naming conventions used first the praenomen (given name) Decimus, then the nomen (family name) Aelius and finally the two cognomina (nicknames), Maximus (meaning largest) and Meridius (meaning, from the South). Cognomens were usually chosen based on some physical or personality trait.
- Marcus Aurelius actually died of plague at Vindobona and was not murdered by his son Commodus. (A deviation also made in the book The Fall of the Roman Empire, where Marcus Aurelius is poisoned with apples and not suffocated.) Caracalla, however, did try to kill his father, only being forgiven because his father was aging.
- Marcus Aurelius shows Maximus "the Empire he created and expanded". In fact, Rome didn't expand during his reign, but he spent all his life trying to maintain it from inner and outer attacks.
- Marcus Aurelius never intended to restore the Republic or to disinherit his son Commodus, since he was his father's associate Emperor for some years before his death. (Also a deviation made in the book The Fall of the Roman Empire.) In fact, the last Roman Emperor who was openly a Republican was Claudius. The movie implies that Rome would in fact become a Republic again in the future, which never happened.
- Antonius Proximo claims "the wise" Marcus Aurelius banned gladiatorial games which forced him to scratch out a living in the colonies. Marcus did ban the games in Antioch as punishment for their supporting rebel Avidius Cassius, but this had no effect on Rome. Marcus, however, did cause a shortage of Gladiators by conscripting them into the army, which resulted in Lanistas such as Proximo making "windfall" profits through increased charges for their services. The Emperor who actually banned the games was the Christian Theodosius I, although the last recorded games were organized at the time of his son Honorius, who brought them back as Commodus did in the film.
- Commodus' only nephew by Lucilla, if called Lucius Verus like his father, actually died young even before his uncle became Emperor. Since Lucilla's husband, Lucius Verus died in 169 and Commodus became Emperor in 181, Lucilla's son by her dead husband would be at least 12 years old at the beginning of Commodus' reign and already 23 at the end in 192. The film shortens the actual reign of Commodus.
- The historical Quintus who was the Praetorian Prefect at the date of Commodus' death was actually Quintus Aemilius Laetus and only took this office at the very end of his reign.
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- In the film it is stated that Rome was founded as a Republic. Rome was founded as an elective Monarchy, in the year 753 BC. It became a Republic around the year 509 BC.
- In the film it is stated that the Roman Senate was "chosen from among the people to speak for the people." In reality, the Senate was never an elected body, unlike the four People's Assemblies. Its members were appointed by a high magistrate and later by the emperor, and, during the Republic, only after having served the "cursus honorum," a sequence of offices. During the early and mid-Republic, these offices were restricted to the patricians, members of old senatorial families.
- In the scene with the gladiator caravan coming into Rome, a wall that surrounds the entire city can be seen, which resembles the Aurelian Wall. The Aurelian Wall was not made until 275 A.D.
- In the film it is stated that the Colosseum holds 50,000 people. It is now believed to have seated 73,000.
- In the movie, the Colosseum is referred to by that name; in truth during the Roman Empire it was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre (Latin: Amphitheatrum Flavium). The name Colosseum, derived from the Latin word colosseus meaning colossal in reference to the broken remains of a giant statue of the Emperor Nero found there, came into common use around the 10th century. After visiting the Colosseum, Ridley Scott thought it was too small so the one in the film is larger than the real Colosseum.
- In the film most Roman architecture is portrayed as being white. Historical excavations and archaeologists often say that this is a misconception, as most buildings and structures were somewhat coloured, and that we only believe this because what we find from Roman time (and even Greek) often look white. This is only because the original colour, through the ages, has gradually disappeared and left structures and buildings white. However, some of the older buildings might have already had the time to go through this process in the period of the film.
- In the opening battle scene, the leader of the Germanic forces opposing the Roman legionnaires yells out in modern German, calling the Romans 'cursed dogs'. At this time, the German language did not exist, the first recorded use of Old High German (the most archaic form) occurring among the Alemannic tribes of south west Germany during the 6th century, and the Germanic dialects spoken would have been more akin to modern Dutch than German due to the second Germanic consonant shift occurring in the latter.
- When Commodus' soldiers arrive at Maximus' home in Spain to kill his family, his son sees their approach and shouts, "Soldati!" This is modern Italian. The Latin word for soldiers is milites.
- The Numidians were most likely of Berber origin, instead of Sub-saharan origin.
- Maximus affirms to be from Trujillo, which is anachronistic since the proper name of the village in Roman times was Turgalium.
- The campaign against Germania wasn't at its end, but instead it was part of a larger campaign to conquer and Romanize the whole region and was interrupted by Marcus Aurelius' death and Commodus' lack of will to proceed with it.
- Maximus is shown with S.P.Q.R. tattooed on his shoulder which he removes. The identification tattoos Roman soldiers were required to wear by law were actually on their hands in order to make it difficult to hide if they deserted. By law, gladiators likewise were tattooed, but on the face, legs and arms until emperor Constantine (ca. AD 325) banned tattooing the face.
- The execution of several unfaithful soldiers is staged as a modern military execution, with archers instead of guns (the officer even commands anachronistically "Fire!"). No such method of execution existed in antiquity; most commonly the sword would have been used.
- The costumes are almost never completely historically correct. The soldiers wear fantasy helmets and bands wrapped around their lower arms which were rarely worn. From early on such bands typically signaled "antiquity" in monumental movies. Keeping in mind that the movie is set in the middle of the 2nd century AD, the body armor worn is Imperial Gallic, which was used by Roman legions from 75 AD and was superseded by a new design in 100 AD. The ancient German uniforms appear to be from the stone-age period.
- In the reenactment of the battle of Carthage, Proximo's gladiators are described to be Carthaginians (despite wearing Roman style armor) facing Roman legionaries (who are depicted wearing non-Roman armor and fighting in a non-Roman fashion).
- Stirrups can be seen used on some of the Roman cavalry, but while they were invented in Asia during the Roman Empire period, the Romans never adopted them. They are used in the movie for obvious safety reasons, a proper Roman saddle being difficult to ride.
- The forest of the opening battle would not have appeared in Roman times as it does on film. The scenes were shot at a managed spruce forest near Farnham in England. Since modern forestry was not applied in Europe before roughly the 16th century, a forest consisting of a single species of tree (a monoculture) would have been an unlikely sight in Germania in AD 180. The location was chosen due to availability, as few forest areas are available to be used for such destructive purposes.
- Catapults and ballistae would not have been used in a forest. They were rarely used in open battles and reserved primarily for sieges.
- Much of the infantry combat is shown as one-on-one dueling between individuals. The highly organized Romans would not have allowed this to happen, as there was a higher chance of an individual legionary falling in single combat than if he was fighting as part of a unit. In fact, Roman soldiers were not trained in individual combat techniques and would be severely punished if they broke formation to do so. The organized, cohort-based fighting style of the post-Marian army would have been used to outlast the Germans. Both this and the above inaccuracy are due to the relative monotony of actual Roman tactics. In addition, the Barbarians were superb individual warriors, and any army that tried the Roman tactics from the opening battle sequence against them would have been massacred.
- The Roman armies used throwing spears called pila in real life. However, in the battles there are no signs of pila-ridden enemy bodies, which does not track with how those conflicts turned out in Rome's favor.
- In the movie Maximus' former army is said to be camped in Ostia; even though the officers are said to have been replaced with men loyal to Commodus no army other than the Praetorian Guard would have been camped so close to Rome
- Scott received considerable criticism for having female gladiators in the film. Nevertheless, according to the ancient sources, they did, in fact, exist.
- The emperor indicates the fate of a gladiator by showing thumbs up or thumbs down, which is a common misconception, as there is no historical evidence for this interpretation. Some scholars contend that the actual sign was a thumb to the throat for death (meaning plant the sword in the downed gladiator's neck), and thumb in fist (like a sheathed dagger) or thumbs down (to indicate sticking the swords point in the ground) if the gladiator was to live. The historical record repeatedly turned up the phrase "turning the thumb" without specifying exactly what that meant, which does allow for a great deal of leeway in how this was presented in the film.
- Gladiatorial combats were accompanied by musicians who altered their tempo to match that of the combat in the style now familiar with music in action movies.
- Gladiatorial combats were not as violent as portrayed, nor were they forcibly fights to the death; indeed, deaths in the arena were relatively rare, and only if the loser were particularly bad the public would ask for his killing.
- Maximus only fights gladiators he does not know during the various games. This depiction is unusual, as it was the normal practice outside of rare special events for gladiators to fight only those they trained with from their own school.
- Many of the combats in the film are fought between gladiators that are different weights and sizes. However, similar to modern boxing bouts, gladiators were matched against opponents of the same size.
- Like today's athletes, gladiators did product endorsements. Particularly successful gladiators (such as Maximus) would endorse goods in the arena before commencing a fight and have their names promoting products on the Roman equivalent of billboards. Although originally included in the script, this practice was later rejected as not a fact the audience would believe.
- Ward, Allen (May 2001). "The Movie "Gladiator" in Historical Perspective". University of Connecticut. Retrieved July 31, 2009.
- "GLADIATOR: THE REAL STORY". Retrieved 2008-06-17.
- "Commodus". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2008-06-17.
- Winkler, Martin M. (2004). Gladiator: film and history. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-1042-2.
- Junkelmann, Marcus in Hollywoods Traum von Rom (Hollywood’s Dream of Rome), p. 117, 120 and 195.
- "Movie Nitpick: Gladiator". The Nitpickers Site. Retrieved 2008-06-17.
- "Gladiator Production Notes". Retrieved 2008-06-17.
- Suetonius, Domitian, 4.1
- Potter, David S. (2010). "Entertainers in the Roman Empire," chap. 8 in Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman World, eds. David S. Potter and David J. Mattingly. The University of Michigan Press.
- Not Such a Wonderful Life: A Look at History in Gladiator IGN movies February 10, 2000