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Roman Games

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1320
  • Category: History

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Gladiator has been reviewed by some as “…the revival of Roman history”(Mitchell, 2000) and extremely unrealistic by others. However it is the major themes portrayed in Gladiator such as the social, political and economic situations that need to be analysed in further depth with close reference to the written and archaeological evidence.

During Gladiator, Senator Gracchus states that “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, but the sand of the Colosseum”. Here Gracchus is emphasising the idea that the mob of Rome no longer cares for the struggle of political freedom and democracy that the senate still fights for, but the amount of spectacles the emperor is able to provide. This can be supported by Juvenal who states that: “A body that used to confer commands…and everything else…is eager and anxious for two things only: ‘Bread & Circus.’ ”(Parker,1935).

Both the races and gladiatorial contests were used as a mock political forum by the mob. During the reign of Commodus: “ A riot broke out in the Circus, and the mob forced their way…Once again the Emperor…handed over his favourite to the people…”(Parker,1935). In this source Cleander who was Commodus’ Imperial Secretary is referred to as “his favourite”. Hence this source identifies how instrumental the mob mentality was during the games that even the Emperor had his hand forced in the disposing of his most trusted and important servant.

Another prominent political theme displayed throughout the movie is the corruption within the Senate. Whilst consulting Senator Falco, Commodus states: “Thank you Falco. And for the loyal subjects I hope they weren’t, too expensive”. This concept of buying the senators can be supported historically through Emperor Vespasian whom which replaced the majority of the senators with his own loyal subjects to ensure his own position due to the fact that it was “The Year of Four Emperors”.

The gladiatorial games were lavish and exotic containing wild animals from across the entire Roman Empire. Thus capturing, shipping and supplying these animals on a weekly basis was expensive. It is said that: “The extravagance of Commodus in the games emptied the treasury and, to compensate these losses, Cleander resorted to a policy of selling state offices.”(Parker,1935). This source highlights the economic drain the games inflicted upon the treasury.

Adam Bajjada – Ancient History Essay – Gladiator
Throughout Gladiator there is a slight religious theme in which Maximus is seen praying through the use of lares. Whilst praying Maximus states: “Blessed Father watch over my wife and son with a ready sword”. Due to the Roman legionaries rarely being in the presence of their families they prayed for them through the use of lares. Lares were small idols of household gods or spiritual ancestors that a person would pray through to their families or to mainstream gods/goddesses.

In a religious context games were held during festivals to honour a particular god or goddess. For example the festival of “Romania” was held in the Roman provinces in honour of Rome. The festival often included gladiatorial contests and chariot races.

During Gladiator Commodus’ nephew Lucius responds to Maximus question about the boy viewing the games by saying: “My uncle says it makes me strong.”. In this source Lucius is referring to the gladiatorial contests. This sense of complacency and strength that derives from viewing the games can be supported by Tertullian who states that: “The ancients thought that with this spectacle they rendered a service to the dead, believing that the souls of the dead are appease with human blood”(Stamp, 1993).

Despite there being several misrepresentations, Gladiator accurately depicts several key militaristic elements. During Gladiator Marcus Aurelius informs Maximus that “…you have not been corrupted by her politics”. In this scene Marcus Aurelius is referring to the city of Rome. It was this gift of being untainted that made Roman generals popular amongst the people. This was evident throughout Roman history with generals rising to the imperial throne such as Augustus, Galba, Vitellius and Vespasian.

Adam Bajjada – Ancient History Essay – Gladiator
Another key militaristic element in which Gladiator accurately depicts, is the representation of the Praetorian Guard and the Praetorian Prefect. The Praetorian Guard were extremely powerful in the city of Rome itself. Ultimately it was the Praetorian’s who had the final say on who became the Emperor, for they were the defenders of Rome and in particular the guards of the Senate and the Imperial Court. In the final scene of Gladiator when Commodus requests a sword from his Praetorian Prefect Quintus the Praetorians defy him by ignoring his request and obey the commands of their prefect. This highlights the true leader of Rome in which the prefect triumphed over the Emperor. During the course of the Roman Empire a large minority of the Emperors were in actual fact former Praetorian Prefects such as Otho, Pertinax, Philip I and Carus.

In Roman society and indeed in Gladiator itself, the underlying concept of Mos Maiorum is present. Mos Maiorum is the ideology of ancestor worship and building upon your ancestors legacy. In Gladiator Maximus states: “Ancestors I honour you. I will try and live with the dignity you taught me”. This statement can be supported by Suetonius who makes reference to Emperor Titus’ approach to the games: “Nor had any of his predecessors displayed such generosity”(Matyszak, 2007). This source highlights Emperor Titus’ ability to excel the legacy which his predecessors left him and successfully complete his duty in fulfilling the concept of Mos Maiorum.

Throughout the entire film of Gladiator Commodus’ personality has been represented to the point that it aligns almost perfectly with his historical representation. Commodus was the first Roman Emperor to be “born in the purple”(Parker, 1935). In Gladiator Commodus pleads to Marcus Aurelius that he is capable of becoming Emperor by stating: “…but I have other virtues father. Ambition, that could be one that drives us to excel. Resourcefulness, courage; perhaps not on the battlefield but there are many forms of courage. Devotion to my family…to you.”. Commodus also portrays
himself as an entertainer who avidly took part in the games in particularly, the gladiatorial contests. This can be supported from an historical perspective by Dio Cassius who states that: “…he also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Having performed… he would retire, but later, after luncheon, would fight as a gladiator.”(Kohne & Ewigleben, 2000).

Adam Bajjada – Ancient History Essay – Gladiator
During Gladiator there is one pinnacle, incorrect theme that can not go unnoticed. The misrepresentation of the restoration of the Republic. Marcus Aurelius had no intention of restoring the republic in 180AD or denying Commodus his promised position as Emperor. This can be supported historically as Marcus Aurelius had previously announced Commodus as his heir in 166AD and Co-Emperor in 177 AD. It is these facts that address why Marcus Aurelius would have intended for his linage to succeed not abdicate. In conclusion, Gladiator accurately depicts several key social, political, religious and militaristic elements. All of these element have been supported by historical evidence including works from historians and works based on key Roman figures such as Vitellius, Otho, Vespasian, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.

Adam Bajjada – Ancient History Essay – Gladiator
• Parker, H. (1935). A History of the Roman World: From A.D. 138 to 337. Methuen & Co. Ltd, London.
• Matyszak, P. (2007). Ancient Rome: On Five Denarii A Day. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.
• Rodgers, N. (2005). Life In Ancient Rome: People & Places. Hermes House, London.
• Carrington, R. (1961). Dawn of History Series: Ancient Rome. Chatto & Windus Ltd, London.
• Kohne, E. & Ewigleben, C. (2000), The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome: Gladiators and Caesars. British Museum Press, London.
• Ward, A. (2001). The Movie “Gladiator” in Historical Perspective
[Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 8 June, 2012].
• Roman Festivals & Holidays [Internet]. Available from: [Accessed 6 June, 2012].

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