Commodus was a co-emperor of the Roman Empire while his father, Marcus Aurelius was the emperor in 177A.D. During this period Marcus Aurelius was a sick man who later passed away at Viandamona in 180 A. D. During his leadership, Aurelius was regarded to be a great emperor ever to rule Roman. After the death of Marcus Aurelius, his son Commodus took over as a Roman emperor when he was nineteen years old. After assuming the leadership position from his father, it only took a short time to gain so much hate from the Romans due to all his actions that were rendered disappointing. For instance, the emperor would leave his reins of leadership in the hands of others and get committed to his worldly pleasure. Commodus' aspect of lifestyle has been discussed in the film and by other scholars in the contemporary literature. There are differences in these portrayals in the film as compared to the scholars. One of the differences is that the film shows that a gladiator killed the emperor during a fight. However, scholars have detailed the facts of how he was killed. The scholars indicate that he was given a poisoned drink and when he did not die, he was killed by strangling by one of the wrestling partners. Additionally, they indicate that he was a victim of political assassination due to the mounting rebellion from people who did not like his leadership.
In the films, his personality is insufficiently highlighted compared to the other scholars' work. He is presented as a person who was well trained to fight and that he had won 620 battles. He boasted of gladiatorial training combat. Therefore, when he rises to power, people believe he will be fighting on their behalf. However, he works against the expectations of the people by killing even the amputees of war. He presented by scholars as stupid and ignorant since he does not focus on the administration of the empire. He appoints someone else to do the job on his behalf.
Consequently, he loses touch of the empire and starts killing people and animals for no apparent reason. It is thus a complete contrast between the film and the content of the scholars. The scholars have captured his real life and criticized his leadership, but the film seems to favor his deeds. Moreover, the film shows that Marcus Aurelius wanted to ban the gladiator fights. However, according to the scholars, the emperor wished to the atrocities to continue to distract people from the bad economy. The empire was not performing well, and the emperor did want people to start questioning his leadership.
Another fact is that the film shows Marcus Aurelius had intentions to name Maximus as the emperor. Although it was likely to be anticipated since some emperors would break the tradition and name people outside their family as their successor, he did not violate the tradition. He named his son as the successor. Although the son did not have admirable characters, he still recognized him as their prospective leader. When Maximus realized he had not been made the next emperor, the rivalry was developed between the two. The reason is that Commodus was jealous of seeing another person succeed him.
On the other hand, the scholars and the film express another difference regarding the plan of Marcus Aurelius to restore the republic. There is no evidence that such ideas were implemented or debated in platforms such as the Senate. Leaders who got into power did not act against the imperial office. Various leaders who rose to power worked closely with the imperial office. The opposition rose during the 21st Century.
Details Missing in the Film
The film has received great viewership and accolades, yet it remained insufficient in particular details about Commodus. Firstly, scholars indicate that he regarded himself as a god. He asked people to refer him as "Hercules, son of Zeus." He believed he was a Greek demigod who was similar to Hercules. At one point he would walk wearing a lion's hide posing like a demigod. It was frustrating for the people in the emperor since he changed the names of the months to his various names. He believed he would have an impact on the emperor and he would climb higher into power if posed like a god. The details of Commodus presenting himself as god are not evident in the film. It implies that some of the features were presumably omitted to meet the budget, deadline and other details of the film. Another reason could be that the writer of the script did not have precise information about Commodus or failed to extensively research on various lifestyle and leadership approaches of the leader.
Commodus found pleasure in evil deeds like killing his friends, servants, and enemies and feeding them to the animals. He is quoted to have murdered a servant simply because the bathing water was not as warm as the norm. In other instances, he would practice surgery with a live person. History records that he would cut the stomach of a plum person to see what was inside. The other people would help him since failure to cooperate they would be the next victims. Such details are not captured in the film. The film only shows the generic details of the Commodus and the various achievements he had. The crazy ideas that he had been unheard of in many other emperors who ruled before or after him. Some scholars argue that he took over leadership at a young age and did not know what to do with it. Consequently, he did what pleased him but not the will of the people. It is not a wonder a group of people organized how to assassinate him, and they finally succeeded in their endeavor.
Another detail missing from the Gladiator film is that he killed a whole family just because they were rich. A family did not even oppose his leadership was wiped out in a single day. Only one young man survived after he faked his death. The reason why he killed was that he thought people would rebel against him and ask the wealthy family to take over leadership. He did not believe anybody in the entire empire was supposed to be above him. It was a painful experience, but the residents could not oppose him since they would be killed as well.
The film did not capture that Commodus wanted to kill one of the women he loved most. The woman was called Marcia. At one point, Marcia decided to advise the emperor against wiping out the Senate and taking all the powers. Scholars indicate that he ordered people to kill the woman he loved. It seems the man was obsessed with authority since he could not rationally make decisions about a woman he loved. Finally, the plat to poison him was hatched, and when he was clearing the vomit in the bathroom, he was strangled to death.
Additionally, the film did not capture that the Commodus lowered the value of the Roman currency much lower than any other emperor. Other emperors like Nero had reduced the value of the money by reducing the amount of gold and silver in it. However, as one soldier would later suggest, the emperor had lowered Rome into an empire of rust and dust.
This paper has highlighted the differences between the details captured in the film and the details obtained by the scholars. The information by the scholars has been used in various sources showing that the information is valid. It is, therefore, crucial to acknowledge that there are significant differences between the film and the content developed by the scholars. While simple mistakes such as spelling mistakes are noted in the film plus inconsistency of spelling words, it seems like the writer of the script failed to widen the scope of the emperor's life and leadership. Although the details may have been left out intentionally, it was not clear why significant information such as the ruthlessness of the emperor was not captured in the film. Another reason could be that the Gladiator was only limited to a specific number of minutes and thus could not capture every detail of the life of Commodus.
Adams, Geoff W. The Emperor Commodus: Gladiator, Hercules Or A Tyrant? 1st ed. Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press, 2013.
Christian, John D. Gladiator. 1st ed. Harlow: Underground Press, 2000.
Epplett, Chris. "The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games." Historian 79, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 411-12. doi:10.1111/hisn.12570.
Keen, Annette, and Dewey Gram. Gladiator. 1st ed. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001.
Monica S. Cyrino. "Gladiator: Film and History." International Journal of the Classical Tradition, no. 2 (2006): 325.
Oliver, Hekster J. "Commodus-Hercules, The People's Princeps". The Classical Review 54 no. 01 (2001): 184.
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