Is ‘Gladiator’ Based on a True Story? (The Cinemaholic)

The modern classic is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Hollywood is reputed for having a wholesale disregard for historical accuracy. Director Ridley Scott’s historical flick ‘Gladiator’ was adored by critics and casual audience alike, and upon its release in 2000, the film broke box office records, became ridiculously popular, and was showered with awards and accolades. While Hans Zimmer was nominated for an Oscar for the background score, Russell Crowe’s steely and soulful acting did not go unnoticed by the Oscar committee; he bagged an Academy Award for the same.

Backed with Ridley Scott’s atmospheric vision and stellar acting on the part of Russell Crowe as Maximus and Joaquin Phoenix as the ruthless king Commodus, it seemed as if nothing could go wrong with the film. And yet, some things did. So, how historically accurate is this epic masterpiece? Let’s find out!

Is ‘Gladiator’ Based on a True Story?

‘Gladiator’ is partially based on a true story. But it fictionalizes history to make it look theatrical and sentimentally evocative. If Shakespeare can manipulate history to give us timeless tales of love, betrayal, and revenge, it seems unfair to be harsh on Ridley Scott for tweaking history for purposes of gripping storytelling. Also, in Ridley Scott’s defense, he tries to portray the Roman culture and society more accurately than some of the early Hollywood depictions of Rome in films like ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Cleopatra.’

Image via Dreamworks LLC & Universal Pictures

Scott even took his commitment to historical accuracy a step further by appointing several historians as consultants. However, the apple fell quite far from the tree. As per reports, a few of the historians withdrew their names or did not want to be associated with the project since the final version had many historical glitches. Although, on the brighter side, the film initiated a revival in the study of Roman history in the US, which has henceforth been dubbed as the “Gladiator Effect.”

Marcus Aurelius Was Not Slain by His Son

In one of the film’s most shocking moments, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) kills his father and emperor, Marcus Aurelius, after getting to know that the emperor wishes to appoint not his son but his favorite General Maximus as the protector of the Roman Empire. The moment appropriately conveys the erratic disposition that the character of Commodus embodies as the audience begins to fathom the depths of the nature of his character. However, there is a slight problem. Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his young heir.

As history suggests, emperor Marcus Aurelius was not slain by his son Commodus.

According to history books, the philosopher-emperor bit the dust in 180 AD while leading his army in a conflict against a swarm of Germanic tribes from the North. While there remain debates among historians regarding the cause of his death, the most popular consensus is that he died of the Antonine Plague, which ravaged much of the Roman Empire between the years 165 AD and 180 AD.

The Truth about Commodus

In the film, Marcus defeats the horde of barbarians, but as history suggests, the conflict was brought to an end by Commodus when he signed a treaty with the barbarians. Commodus ruled the empire alongside Aurelius for around three years, and after his father’s death, Commodus reigned for over twelve years, up until 192 AD, quite unlike the short period of rule that he is assigned to in the film. Also, while he engaged himself in gladiator battles, he did not die in the Colosseum. He was murdered by a gladiator called Narcissus while he was in his bath.

Is Maximus Wholly Fictional?

Maximus Decimus Meridius is one character in the film that is purely fictional, but it is speculated that the character has been modeled upon some historical figures. Among the list are Narcissus (Commodus’s murderer and Maximus’s name in the first draft), Spartacus (a rebellious slave), Cincinnatus (a farmer who ruled the empire for 15 days), Marcus Nonius Macrinus (an army general and a friend of Marcus Aurelius), and reportedly, Claudius Pompeianus (Commodus’s sister Lucilla’s husband).

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