Maybe Commodus Was the Good Guy

A Look Back at Gladiator Through a 2020 Lens

There’s a lot of buzz in Hollywood right now about a projected sequel to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which won five Oscars following its release in 2000, including Best Picture, and helped rekindle interest in the sword-and-sandal genre. According to reports in Vanity Fair and other sources, they’ve been discussing the project for years now. Russell Crowe, who played the hero Maximus in the original, even prevailed on Nick Cave to write a screenplay, which, it turns out, will not be the basis for the new film.

Whatever screenplay they run with, the sequel is sure to be a hit. It will also remind us, as if we needed reminding, how little the history that Hollywood peddles has to do with fact. If it’s hard to find an honest man in Washington, it may be even harder to find screenwriters and directors with any kind of serious commitment to historical accuracy. A viewing of Gladiator brings this home again and again.

In making Gladiator, Ridley Scott and company got at least one thing right about the reign of the Roman emperor Commodus, which ran from 180 to 192 A.D. Scott’s film depicts a state of constant tension between Commodus and the Roman senate. The nasty, puerile villain, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, wants to act like the supreme ruler of the greatest empire on earth. But his elders in the senate seek to belittle him and undercut his authority at every turn. What will Rome do about the outbreak of a plague? “Perhaps the emperor will advise us out of his own extensive experience,” says Senator Gracchus, ridiculing the vain Commodus in front of dozens of important people. Commodus fumes at the Senate’s impudence. He plots to circumvent them and assume even more absolute power. He is cruel, barbaric, and ruthless toward those who displease him.

All this is fairly consistent with accounts from ancient sources such as Aelius Lampridius and by the great British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). It’s also timely. As America in 2019 looks to the election next year and hears increasingly shrill warnings from the left about what Trump’s reelection would mean for democracy, it’s worthwhile to step back from the rhetoric and ask questions about strong personalities and their compatibility with a republican (small “r”) system of government.

But the movie’s accuracy doesn’t go much further. Perhaps Ridley Scott and his screenwriter know of sources others don’t. For one thing, Commodus ruled for twelve years (180-192 A.D.). In the film, his physical appearance doesn’t change. The screenplay so compresses events that you might think his reign lasted a few months or a few weeks.

Commodus: The Untrue Hollywood Story

The real Commodus was power-hungry, but not so desperate in his pursuit of power that he refused to give himself a break and let someone else take over. According to Aelius Lampridius, a prefect, Tigidius Perennis, maneuvered himself into power with a bit of persuasion. Perennis made a case for Commodus letting him run the show while Commodus indulged in banquets, baths, and orgies. After taking over from Commodus, Perennis oversaw some military campaigns against upstarts on the fringes of the empire and gave his son credit for a number of victories that were really the work of other generals. The arrangement didn’t last, of course. A mob ended up lynching him. But Commodus replaced Perennis with another surrogate ruler, the chamberlain Cleander. None of this is in the movie, which presents Commodus as an autocrat singularly unwilling to give up or share power.

 

The film also presents Commodus as a coward. At the climax, he competes with Russell Crowe’s Maximus in a swordfight only through the dirtiest of tricks: by stabbing Maximus in the upper back and then covering the wound. When the face-off begins, the spectators think they’re watching Commodus fight bravely against a renowned warrior, not knowing that the emperor has mortally wounded Maximus, who must battle while in agony.

Again, Ridley Scott must know of sources others don’t, because his caricature of Commodus is unrecognizable. If there’s any truth to words of Aelius Lampridius or Edward Gibbon, the historical Commodus was a master gladiator in his own right, an expert swordsman who took part in 735—yes, seven hundred and thirty-five—public battles. He faced down savage beasts, including elephants. It’s far from clear that Crowe’s Maximus could have racked up a tally even close to the emperor’s or that Commodus would have been afraid of a fair fight with Maximus.

Contrary to the film, the real Commodus didn’t die in a swordfight with Maximus or anybody else. A prefect and a concubine first tried to arrange his poisoning. When that didn’t work, they got an athlete with whom he had trained to strangle him.

Gibbon fully agrees with Aelius Lampridius on the subject of Commodus’s skill and experience in combat. He offers examples of the emperor’s élan when it came to slaying dangerous beasts. “The dens of the amphitheatre disgorged at once a hundred lions; a hundred darts from the unerring hand of Commodus laid them dead as they ran raging around the arena. Neither the huge bulk of the elephant nor the scaly hide of the rhinoceros could defend them from his stroke.”

In these accounts, Commodus was pretty badass, yet we’re to believe that the guy feared a fair fight with Maximus.

Are You Not Entertained?

Ridley Scott’s film portrays Commodus as the most unscrupulous of cowards, but Gibbon may actually arouse sympathy for the emperor in his account of how Commodus’s enemies resorted to one of the dirtiest moves imaginable. According to Gibbon, they drugged him and had the wrestler strangle him to death in his sleep. Murdered in cold blood while unable to resist or fight back, Commodus himself fell victim to the most abject cowardice.

Of course this is not to suggest that the historians cited above are infallible or immune to the temptation to repeat legend as fact. But  Scott’s film clashes with their histories. If he and his screenwriters have access to what they believe are more accurate sources, it would be good know what those sources are.

But it’s unlikely that any of these discrepancies bother Ridley Scott too much, and they certainly didn’t hurt the film’s box office. As Crowe shouts at the spectators at the end of one of his swordfights, and, by implication, at the film’s audience: “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

 

The film and ancient sources agree on one point. A ruthless, brash egotist is unlikely ever to get on well with a legislative body in a republic. As we consider the possibility of a strong, bristly personality in the White House in January 2021, it’s worth recalling the words of Aelius Lampridius.

“He became so hated by the Senate that he was filled with a savage passion to destroy that great order; and from having been despised, he became cruel.”

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist. He is the author of a short story collection, Scenes from the Catastrophe (2016). A new collection, The Uprooted and Other Stories , is now available from Adelaide Books. Michael's story "Confessions of a Spook" won Causeway Lit's 2018 fiction contest.

One thought on “Maybe Commodus Was the Good Guy

  • May 31, 2019 at 4:24 pm
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    Love this article, I always felt like the one guy watching the movie who thought “hmm, that twelve-year reign went by awful quick, plus I don’t think Rome embraced its republican past after Commodus bit the dust.”

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