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Gladiator (2000)

In the introduction to his most recent podcast, The History of the Byzantine Empire, Lars Brownworth discusses a bit of history that makes the film Gladiator even more poignant. Because, it turns out that Marcus Aurelius's reign came during a period when Rome's emperors were choosing successors who were not actually their own children. This raises the possibility that had he been devoted to the restoration of the Republic and recognized the despicable character of his son, Commodus, he might have done something like turn over the Empire to an honest reformer, as Ridley Scott imagines in this movie. While this departure from history, for dramatic purposes, is one of the most reviled features of the movie, to me it is what makes it a great film. Indeed, had Scott simply recast the story as fantasy instead of history, one suspects even the critics would embrace it. As is, it is one of the most American and aspirational movies you'll ever see. It's particularly worth revisiting at this Trumpian moment, when our own republican institutions are creaking under the weight of a petulant wannabe dictator with inappropriate sexual attractions toward family members.

The dramatic tension at the core of this film virtually defined Western Civilization for 1800 years. While Greece had experimented with democracy on the city-state level, Rome set the example of republican governance, representative democracy. This example embodied not just the structural characteristics of the Republic--with power divided among institutions--but the idea of republican liberty, which Maurizio Viroli describes thus:
Classical republican writers maintained that to be free means to not be dominated--that is, not to be dependent on the arbitrary will of other individuals. The source of this interpretation of political liberty was the principle of Roman law that defines the status of a free person as not being subject to the arbitrary will of another person--in contrast to a slave, who is dependent on another person's will. As the individual is free when he or she has legal and political rights, so a people or a city is free insofar as it lives under its own laws. [...]

Classical republican theorists also stressed that the constraint that fair laws impose on an individual's choices is not a restriction of liberty but an essential element of political liberty itself. They also believed that restrictions imposed by the law on the actions of rulers as well as of ordinary citizens are the only valid shield against coercion on the part of any person or persons. Machiavelli forcefully expressed this belief in his Discourses on Livy (I.29), when he wrote that if there is even one citizen whom the magistrates fear and who has the power to break the law, then the entire city cannot be said to be free. It can be said to be free only when its laws and constitutional orders effectively restrain the arrogance of nobles and the licentiousness of the people.
But the rise of the dictator Julius Caesar and his succession by a series of emperors saw republicanism pass from the stage until maybe the American Revolution.

In Gladiator Marcus Aurelius recognizes that he has been too unconstrained himself and that his arrogant and arbitrary son will take even greater advantage of the lack of constraint. He asks Maximus to sacrifice his dream of returning to farm and family in Spain and restore the dream of Republic in Rome instead. When he informs Commodus of this decision, his own son kills him and orders Maximus and his family put to death. Escaping his executioners, Maximus races across Europe but arrives too late to save his wife and son. He is sold into captivity in North Africa, where he is to fight as a gladiator. Rather than take on a performer's role in the ring, he uses his training and charisma to defeat all comers with minimal fuss while expressing his contempt for the games and the spectators. The leadership skills that had made him a hero of Rome and a chosen successor of the Philosopher Emperor, bind his fellow fighters to him.

When the troop of gladiators is recalled to Rome, Maximus, who answers only to the name Gladiator, still refuses to acquiesce to the bread and circuses showmanship and gets to confront Commodus, who demands he remove his mask and reveal himself, in a scene that is so thrilling it pretty much defines why we love movies. Commodus realizes he has lost the populous, so he can't kill Maximus right away. His sister, Lucilla, who is terrified of her brother and is fending off his attentions towards her and her son, realizes that Maximus might be able to save her. And Gracchus and other reformist politicians realize that he might be able to help them restore the Republic. Commodus is reduced to trying to stack the deck against Maximus in the games, but the gladiator turns them into demonstrations of military prowess and leadership nous, further cementing the allegiance of the Roman people. Eventually, inevitably, the two square off in the Colosseum and, though Commodus tries to fix the fight, they kill each other. Before he falls though, Maximus orders the restoration of the dream that was Rome.


Grade: (A)


See also:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Ridley Scott
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Ridley Scott (IMDB)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Gladiator (IMDB)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Gladiator
    -ENTRY: Ridley Scott (1937–) (
    -Ridley Scott Wiki
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Gladiator (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -ESSAY: Stoics in the Shining City (Jesse Russell, 2/04/23, Law & Liberty)
-ENTRY: Commodus (161 - 192 AD) (UNRV Roman History)
    -ESSAY: COMMODUS: ROME’S PROBLEM CHILD? (Dan Billingham, 3/09/23, Antigone)
-ESSAY: Marcus Aurelius’ son was a murderous psychopath. Is Stoicism to blame?: Commodus lived the anti-Stoic life, pursuing lust, narcissism, and self-indulgence. (Daniel Lehewych, 8/10/22, Big Think)
    -ESSAY: Marcus Aurelius & the Dying Wisdom of the Gladiator (Christopher Morrissey, March 8th, 2016, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: The true story of “The Gladiator”: We all have watched Ridley Scott’s movie, but what is the true story of “The Gladiator”? Who were Maximus, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius? (Italy's Wonders)
    -PROFILE: ‘Gladiator’ at 20: Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott Look Back on the Groundbreaking Historical Epic (Mackenzie Nichols, 5/04/20, Variety)
    -ESSAY: Sorry, Haters: Gladiator Is One of the Greatest Best Picture Winners Since 2000: As the Ridley Scott epic celebrates its 20th anniversary, naysayers have been eager to take it down. But the Oscar winner remains a grand cinematic achievement. (CHRIS NASHAWATY, MAY 8, 2020, Esquire)
    -INTERVIEW: Inside the Actors Studio With Russell Crowe
    -PROFILE: 'I will kill you with my bare hands!' 20 years on, how Russell Crowe almost ruined Gladiator: From threatening producers to on-set tantrums, via script re-writes and hotel bust-ups, Russell Crowe was no easy man to have in the ring (Tom Fordy, 8 May 2020, The Telegraph)
    -Interview: with Douglas Wick: How a Painting Wooed Ridley Scott into Directing 'Gladiator' (Brian Davids, 6/18/20, Hollywood Reporter)
    -ESSAY: Broken bones, the death of a star, tigers on the loose: The story behind Ridley Scott’s Gladiator: Scott’s mid-career epic had to overcome a uniquely chaotic production to reach Oscar glory. But as the thrilling sword-and-sandal flick turns 20, Geoffrey Macnab learns that its cast always sensed they were onto something special (Geoffrey Macnab, 8 May 2020, the Independent)
    -ESSAY: Did Gladiator really deserve the best picture Oscar?: Ridley Scott’s summer spectacle, which turns 20 this month, was lifted into prestige with a surprise Oscar haul, something that’s tainted its legacy (Scott Tobias, 5 May 2020, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: Russell Crowe on ‘Gladiator’ 20 Years Later, From Risky Stunts to Working With Ridley Scott (Mackenzie Nichols, 5/5/2020, Variety)
    -ESSAY: ‘Gladiator’ at 20: Ridley Scott’s popcorn perfection influenced a generation (Nick Johnston, May 5, 2020, Vanyaland)
    -PROFILE: Ridley Scott Reveals How the ‘Gladiator’ Cast Helped Rewrite the Script (ALLIE GEMMILL, MAY 4, 2020, Collider)
    -PROFILE: Crowe feels Gladiator guilt (WENN - Jul 21, 2020, Castanet)
    -ESSAY: Gladiator at 20: how Ridley Scott's epic rejuvenated the historical blockbuster: The Oscar-winning sword-and-sandals Russell Crowe vehicle refreshed old cliches, before ushering in a spate of copycats (Steve Rose, 4 May 2020, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE: 'Gladiator' at 20: Creator David Franzoni on the film's journey from 'Easy Rider' homage to Oscar hit (Ben Falk, May 5, 2020, Yahoo)
    -ESSAY: 15 Epic Facts About Gladiator (ROGER CORMIER, MAY 10, 2015. Mental Floss)
    -ESSAY: The Legacy of 'Gladiator': Have you not been entertained? Here's a look at the effects of the success of Ridley Scott's Best Picture winner 'Gladiator' 20 years on. (Christopher Campbell, May 6, 2020, Mental Floss)
    -PROFILE: Russell Crowe Was Nearly Mauled By a Tiger While Filming Gladiator: As the epic turns 20, Ridley Scott remembers how his production was almost as dangerous as the actual arena. (JUSTIN KIRKLAND, MAY 5, 2020, Esquire)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Marcus Aurelius
    -ENTRY: Marcus Aurelius: emperor of Rome (John Anthony Crook, Encyclopedia Britannica)
    -ETEXTS: Marcus Aurelius (Project Gutenberg)
    -ARCHIVES: Marcus Aurelius (Internet Archive)
    -ENTRY: Marcus Aurelius (HISTORY.COM)
    -ESSAY: Mimicking Gods and Gladiators: The Assassination Of Emperor Commodus (Ancient Origins)
    -ESSAY: Why did Marcus Aurelius allow Commodus to succeed him? (Donald Robertson, January 19, 2018)
    -AUDIO BOOKS: Marcus Aurelius (LibriVox)
    -ESSAY: THINKERS AT WAR – Marcus Aurelius (Iain King, August 18, 2014, Military History Matter)
    -BOOK REVIEW: Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor by Frank McLynn (Mary Beard, London Review of Books)
    -WIKIPEDIA: Commodus
    -ENTRY: Commodus: Roman emperor (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -ETEXT: The Life of Commodus (Historia Augusta)
    -ENTRY: Biography of Commodus, Roman Emperor (180–192) (K. Kris Hirst, October 06, 2019,
    -ESSAY: Commodus: The True Story Of The Mad Roman Emperor Immortalized In ‘Gladiator’ (Gina Dimuro, December 30, 2018, All That is Interesting)
    -ESSAY: Commodus (Donald L. Wasson, 29 August 2013, Ancient History Encyclopedia)
    -ESSAY: The True Story of Commodus the Cruel Gladiator Emperor (Ian Harvey, 1/03/19, The Vintage News)
    -ESSAY: Who Will Lead Us? : America's neglect of civic virtue and rising tribalism have led to fewer and fewer broadly respected figures in public life. (Andy Smarick, 6/03/24, Law & Liberty)
    -ARCHIVES: Gladiator (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVE: Gladiator (Collider)
    -PODCAST: Gladiator (Bill Simmons, Chris Ryan, Shea Serrano, and Jason Concepcion May 5, 2020, the Ringer: Rewatchables)
    -MOVIE REVIEW ARCHIVE: Gladiator (Metacritic)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Mark Steyn, Steyn Online)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Roger Ebert)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (James Berardinelli, Reel Views)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Keith Phipps, AV Club)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Jonathan Foreman, NY Post)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Joe Morgenstern, WSJ)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Ian Nathan, Empire)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Rob Bricken, Mel)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Marc Lee, The Telegraph)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Ralph Potts, AVS Forum)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (HD Report)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (London Evening Standard)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (David Denby, The New Yorker)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Brian D. Johnson, Maclean's)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Philip French, The Observer)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Ann Hornaday, Baltimore Sun)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (David Edelstein, Slate)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Nell Minow, Common Sense Media)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Andrew Sarris, NY Observer)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Jeffrey M. Andersen, Combustible Celluloid)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Michael Dwyer, Irish Times)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Lisa Schwarzbaum, EW)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Wesley Morris, SF Examiner)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Gregory Weinkauf, Cleve Scene)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (Stuart Klawans, The Nation)
    -MOVIE REVIEW: Gladiator (C. Antonio Romero, Culture Kiosque)
    -ESSAY: The Philosophical Life and Mysterious Death of Marcus Aurelius: Explore the life and mysterious death of Marcus Aurelius, the renowned Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, whose legacy continues to captivate historians and enthusiasts. (Jake Parks, Jun 20, 2024, Discover)