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"As to the biographical essentials - a victorious general sold into slavery becoming a famous gladiator - no such person, neither in the reign of Commodus, nor in that of any other emperor, ever existed."

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"Even as a young boy Commodus seems to have displayed the same taste for orgy as his mother."

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Gladiator Fact - Gladiator Fiction
by C.S. Stone


After a hiatus of several decades, more or less, Hollywood has again produced a Roman epic on the grand scale. Gladiator, the recently released film by director Ridley Scott and the Dreamworks studio, stars the Australian actor Russell Crowe in the not unfamiliar but always satisfying tale of a brave man who is brought low by his enemies and then gets even. And although digital technology now substitutes handsomely for the lavish, budget-bursting sets of the Dick and Liz era, some truths, like Rome itself, remain eternal:

Facts must never get in the way of a juicy story.

The movie would have its audience accept the bizarre notion that a popular gladiator, because of his celebrity, was in a position to politically challenge an emperor. This idea has more to do with the obsessions, delusions, and megalomania of the twenty-first century, than it does with the political realities of the second. Events of the reign of the emperor Commodus,during which most of the film's action unfolds, do not furnish much in the way of either gripping melodrama, or noble cant about fame and popular government.

History is more complex. And far more sordid.

The Movie

The year is 180 AD. After three years of warfare, General Maximus (Russell Crowe) has led his devoted legions to a signal victory against the forest-dwelling tribes of Germania. Dutiful and unambitious to a fault, he longs only to return to the wife, son and olive groves he has left behind in Spain. But the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who loves him like a son, begs him to assume the imperial throne and restore virtue to a decadent Rome. Marcus' true son, the cruel and licentious Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), arrives with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) just in time to miss the great battle, but soon enough to catch wind of his father's attempt to deprive him of the emperorship he covets. Commodus murders his father and prepares a similar fate for Maximus, who escapes his executioners. Maximus rides across Europe only to find on his arrival the burnt and crucified bodies of his wife and child.

Found half-dead and assumed to be a deserter, Maximus is sold as a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed) a former gladiator who runs a school for the same in North Africa. His true identity kept hidden, Maximus distinguishes himself in the bloody combat of the arena. Summoned to Rome to be part of the orgy of games celebrating the new emperor, Maximus'identity is soon revealed to his imperial nemesis. The unstable Commodus frets over Maximus' growing acclaim with the mob, while alternately threatening and lusting after his sister and her young son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark). For her part, Lucilla, who in her youth was in love with Maximus, plots with the assistance of Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) to free Maximus, who will then lead a rebellion to overthrow her brother. Maximus is seized before he can rejoin troops still loyal to him. Commodus, who fancies himself a gladiator, wounds Maximus before unleashing him for a fight to the death before the throng in the Colosseum.

Maximus - Fact

As to the biographical essentials - a victorious general sold into slavery becoming a famous gladiator - no such person, neither in the reign of Commodus, nor in that of any other emperor, ever existed.

Commodus did put to death a senator named Maximus, along with his brother Condianus and confiscated their estates in 183. Edward Gibbon relates that the brothers, who seem to have been inseparable, were jointly given a military command by Marcus Aurelius in 178 or 179, and that they had won an important victory over the Germans. They seem to have been unjustly implicated in a senatorial conspiracy (see below) against the young emperor, for there seems to have been no other reason for their deaths, except that, as Gibbon writes,"the friendship of the father always insured the aversion of the son."

Marcus Aurelius - Fact

Marcus did die on March 17, 180 AD on the German frontier near the Danube, perhaps at Vindobona (Vienna). He had spent much of his emperorship in the field, personally in command of a protracted and desperate struggle against marauding Germanic tribes. The war had begun in 167, when the Quadi and the Marcomanni sacked and burned Roman towns in the north of Italy. Although Marcus could not have known, it was the beginning of the great volkerwanderung that would eventually destroy the empire two centuries hence. He began his melancholy "Meditations", the book by which he is best known to posterity, while campaigning against the Quadi in 173.

These German wars were set aside long enough for him to put down a rebellion in Syria and Egypt (175-76) largely instigated by his wife (and first cousin), Faustina. The empress, a beauty who amused herself in the fleshpots of Rome while the emperor was away, told an ambitious general, Avidius Cassius, that she would gladly marry him should anything untoward happen to Marcus. Despite this, Marcus remained insensible to his wife's "irregularities" until her death, whereupon Marcus had her deified.

Returning briefly to Rome, he resumed the German campaign in 178, leading an army of 20,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to push the frontier of the empire from the Danube to the Carpathians. His death is easily attributable to disease or fatigue; the 58 year-old emperor was always of frail heath and plague had recently broken out in camp. There were the usual rumors, of course, that he was poisoned by an obliging doctor at the prompting of his son.

At the time of his demise the imperial succession, at any rate, was not in doubt. Marcus had been co-emperor only five months when Faustina gave birth to twin sons in August 161, the first male children born to a sitting emperor. Marcus had never wavered in his determination that Commodus should succeed him. This was made easier by the death of Commodus' twin, at the age of four, and the death of Marcus' co-emperor, Lucius Verus, while accompanying Marcus to the German frontier, in 169:

"Not far from Altinum (Altino), Lucius was struck down in the carriage with the sudden illness they call apoplexy. After being set down from the carriage and bled, he was taken to Altinum, and after living on speechless for three days he died there.There is a well-known tale that Marcus Aurelius handed Verus part of a sow's womb smeared with poison after he had cut it with a knife poisoned on one side. But it is sacrilege for this to be thought about Marcus, even if both Verus' thoughts and his deeds might have deserved it."Historia Augusta: Lucius Verus (trans. A. Birley).

Marcus showered honors on the boy: at the age of five Commodus was given the title of Caesar; on his sixteenth birthday he was declared Augustus, and henceforth shared the imperial power with his father. Although Marcus expressed aversion to the spectacles of the amphitheatre, games and other gifts to the people were distributed on the occasion. To further secure the imperial line, Commodus was married off at this time to Bruttia Crispina (Later accused of adultery, she was banished and executed; there were no children.)

Even as a young boy Commodus seems to have displayed the same taste for orgy as his mother. His largely absent father surrounded the boy with the finest teachers in the empire, but to no avail:

"Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal, and a fond attachment to the amusements of the populace; the sports of the circus and the amphitheatre, the combats of gladiators, and the hunting of wild beasts. The masters in every branch of learning, whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with inattention and disgust; whilst Moors and Parthians, who taught him to dart the javelin and to shoot with the bow, found a disciple who delighted in his application, and soon equaled the most skillful of his instructors, in the steadiness of the eye, and the dexterity of the hand." (E. Gibbon).

Marcus seems to have been well aware of his son's shortcomings: rather than leaving the boy emperor to his own devices in Rome, Marcus insisted that Commodus accompany him when he returned to the German frontier in 178.Perhaps the hardships of the camp could instill that strength of character that exercises in rhetoric could not.

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