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Gladiator Analysis

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  • Pages: 5
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  • Category: Roman

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Gladiator, though not the most intellectually stimulating film of this decade, was deeper and more complex than one might gather from it at first glance. Its theme was not a simple “good-guy versus bad-guy” one as one might gather from the title. In fact, Gladiator in essence had very little to do with gladiators. Its real purpose, its real underlying flavor, was to depict a man’s struggle against decadence in his society and to restore it to the disciplined one that it had been, a man who was driven not by outlandish ideals, but by down-to-earth loyalties and affections.

The plot of this film is relatively simple. Marcus Aurelius, empreror of Rome at the time, asks Maximus, his favorite general, to become emperor after his death and eventually restore the power to the senate. Commodus, the son of Aurelius, is jealous of Maximus and kills his father, afterwards asking Maximus for his loyalty. When Maximus refuses, Commodus attempts to have him and his family killed; he succeeds in killing his family, but fails to kill him. Instead, Maximus, is captured by slave traders and becomes a gladiator, a job which lends itself to his leadership skills and warrior abilities. Throughout his career as a gladiator, Maximus’s primary objectives are to save Rome from Commodus and to avenge the murder of his family. Convenienty, both objectives have the same solution.

The film opens, essentially, with a scene depicting a pitched battle between Romans and German barbarians. Maximus is at this point commander of a Roman legion, and the legion performs masterfully. Against wildly roaring barabarians coagulated into an unruly mob, the Roman legionaires advance with discipline and even, in some ways, grace. All the while, the superior Roman technology rains fire upon the barbarians. The effect of this imagery is to illustrate not only the power of the Roman legions, nor even their relative modernity, but also to demonstrate the pride Maximus has in them and in Rome.

Maximus’ role as a general is not the result of megalomania but rather a function of his love for Rome, for his family, and for his friend, Marcus Aurelius. This is clearly demonstrated when he is offered the empire of Rome from the dying emperor, and Maximus, the family man, tries to refuse. Maximus is torn between his own desire to be with his family and his desire to, essentially, help his friend and country by taking over upon Aurelius’ death and then handing over power to the Senate. This is a clear indicator that he is not power mad: he would rather tend his farm and family rather than a huge block of the world’s population.

His hopes of spending time with his family are ultimately shattered when, upon his return home, he finds his wife and child dead, mutilated and hanging. Their deaths were at the hand of Commodus, a character who is in many respects an opposite of Maximus: he yearns for power and cares little for his family on any other level than at the superficial one. After all, what person who truly loved his father would kill him to garner greater power?

Finding himself powerless as a gladiator, Commodus is given a glimpse of a side of Rome he never saw before. Once in command of Roman legions, he is now at the mercy of slave traders. The gladiatorial games represent the decadence characteristic of Rome under people like Commodus. Of course, the gladiatorial games were ever present, under emperors as good as Augustus, but it was under emperors like Nero, Caligula, Commodus, and so forth that the gladiatorial games tended to be the most bloody and most frequent. Commodus in fact, historically and in the film, actively participated in such tournaments

Despite his new position as, essentially, a slave, Maximus is able to make the best of his situation and remains as decent a person as he had been when general. He is more bitter at this point than in the beginning of the movie, but that is not due to his new station in life. Rather, it is because of the death of his wife and son.

The death of Maximus’ family was a product of Commodus’ actions, Commodus being representative of the more decadent parts of Roman society (“Commodus,” n.pag). Seeking revenge for his family could indirectly be translated into restoring the Senate to Rome, and vice versa. On top of that, Maximus felt he had to fullfill Marcus Aurelius’ wishes. This is where his struggle against society is rooted: it is not rooted in his idealizations of how Rome should be, but rather on his personal promises and vendettas alike.

There is more of interest to Maximus personally than his family and the late emperor. Maximus has an affinity for Lucila, though it is not necessarily an erotic one. Another driving force behind his motives to restore Rome to the Senate is his sense of responsibility for Lucila and, in particular, her son.

One scene in which this is evident is when Maximus, given a golden opportunity to slay Commodus in the ring, refrains from doing so upon seeing Lucila’s son. As the plot progresses, Maximus and Lucila become closer and closer. There are tensions between them, of course, but over all they end up working towards the same end, and for similar reasons. It is ironic then that the loophole to their plan through which Commodus slips is Lucila’s son.

Upon discovering Lucila’s intentions, Commodus is hurt; rather, he is hurt as much as a man of his character can be. To protect himself, he holds Lucila’s son hostage and threatens his life if Lucila does not turn the plan over to him. Her first loyalty being to her son and her primary interests being in his health and well-being, she succumbs to Commodus’ ploy and, through her, he foils to plan to overthrow him.

Roman soldiers, now answering to Commodus, storm the gladiator “stables” in an attempt to capture Maximus. It is in this scene that the loyalty Maximus commands becomes evident: each of his fellow gladiators, as well as his master, are willing to die for him. His loyalty to his loved ones, though not exactly reflected in the actions of Lucila, is at least matched with the undying–quite literally–loyalty of his fellow gladiators.

Maximus eventually gets a chance at revenge for his family, when he is put against Commodus in the ring. He eventually kills Commodus, after a long struggle and despite a wound he acquired previously to the tournament, but even here his actions are not cold-blooded. He does not kill Commodus in his sleep, nor does he kill him in anyh drawn out way; he kills him efficiently, and in many ways out of self-defense.

Gladiator depicts a man who is loyal to those he loves and who in turn commands loyalty from those whose lives he touches. It also depicts his struggle against a society that, at one time a model society in many ways, had become warped and twisted. This struggle is not idealistic but it is entirely personal, and derives its drive from his affections and loyalties.

Work Cited

“Commodus.” http://myron.sjsu.edu/romeweb/EMPCONT/e083.htm

“Gladiators.” http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/gladiators.html

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