GLADIATOR–The History Behind the Movie

While it is obvious that an impressive amount of historical and scholarly research was undertaken by the filmmakers, some of the plot is fiction. A significant amount of “artistic license” is taken by the director and writer. That which is fiction appears to be inspired by actual historical events. In this sense, the film is more like a collage, or an artistic representation of ancient history, as opposed to an exact chronological reconstruction of events.


The film avoids many of the annoying anachronisms present in such films as Spartacus, Cleopatra, and Ben Hur.

Marcus Aurelius

  1. He really did wage battles along the frontier as depicted in the film
  2. Is remembered by historians of his time as a competent ruler.
  3. He was a philosopher as well as an emperor and his work The Meditations, a compilation of existing stoical thought, remains a highly readable classic in philosophy.
  4. An interesting fact omitted in the film, was that his adoptive brother and husband to daughter Lucilla, Lucius Verus, was made co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius.


If the ancient sources can be trusted, Commodus was even more bizarre in real life than he was in the film. He was proclaimed joint emperor at the age of 17 by his father Marcus Aurelius, so reality was very different than the film in this instance.  However, as depicted in Gladiator, Commodus was present with his father during the Danubian wars, and yes, this is where Marcus Aurelius died.

Some historians question the sanity of Commodus, and for good reasons. He was accused by his contemporaries of being a megalomaniac.

  • He renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana, the “Colony of Commodus”,
  • renamed the months of the year after titles held in his honor,
  • The Senate was renamed the Commodian Fortunate Senate,
  • the Roman people were given the name Commodianus.
  • Commodus went so far as to declare himself the new founder of Rome, a “new Romulus.”

All of the above served to make him the laughing stock of the aristocratic class.


Historian Aelius Lampridius tells us that “Commodus lived, rioting in the palace amid banquets and in baths along with 300 concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from among both matrons and harlots…

Did Commodus kill his father?


Some sources suspect that he did. The fact that he was present at the time, made a hasty peace with the enemy, and a quick retreat back to Rome in a victory triumph, has fueled speculation. However, the official story is that Marcus Aurelius died of plague.

Did Commodus  really fight as a gladiator?

Yes! In this case, the truth is even stranger than the fiction. Commodus claimed to be descended from the God Hercules, and even began to dress like him, wearing lion skins and carrying a club.

His opponents may have let him win, however: The historian Herodian wrote that “in his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator.”


He also fought wild beasts. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus killed five hippopotami at one time. He also killed two elephants, several rhinoceroses, and a giraffe “with the greatest of ease”.

Herodian tells us further that Commodus had a special platform constructed, which encircled the arena, from which he would display his skills as a hunter. He is recorded to have killed one hundred leopards with one hundred javelins. As a theatrical treat, he would slice the heads off of ostriches which would then run around the amphitheater headless.

Did Commodus really die in the arena?


However, he was assassinated, and by an athlete. There were numerous plots and attempts upon his life, but the one which finally succeeded was carried out by a wrestler named Narcissus while Commodus was in his bath. The plot was orchestrated by his closest advisors, and apparently even included his mistress, Marcia.

Commodus ruled for 12 years, a much longer period than alluded to in the film. Dio Cassius wrote that Commodus was “a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.”

Was the republic restored after Commodus’ death?


After Commodus was murdered, the Senate met before daybreak, and declared sixty-six year old Pertinax, who was the son of a former slave, emperor. Pertinax thus became emperor on January 1st, but he was murdered by a group of soldiers the following March, after less than three months in power.

What was Maximus really like?

Maximus Decimus Meridius (his full name is stated only once in the film) is a fictitious character.

Although he did not exist as portrayed in the film, he seems to be a composite of actual historical figures. There was, in fact, a general by the name of Avidius Cassius who was involved in the military campaign shown in the film, and, upon hearing a rumor of Marcus Aurelius’ death, declared himself emperor. He, however, was assassinated by his own soldiers. Also, in the later Empire, a general by the name of Maximus appears to have had revolutionary intentions. He is most likely an inspiration as well for this character.

But the idea of an emperor designating someone to inherit the throne after him – someone other than his own son – had definite precedence. For instance, the emperor Diocletian, who ruled Rome from 284 to 305 CE, was born in the lower classes like Maximus. He eventually became his emperor’s trusted and favorite bodyguard, and later became a general. Finally he was named heir, and thus became emperor.

Did Senator Gracchus really exist?


The ideas which he represents are, however, historically authentic. Senator Gracchus appears to be based upon Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. During the Republic, these two brothers, were tribunes, one after the other. They were champions of the common people, and paid the cost with their lives. Both brothers fought for reforms to help benefit the plebeians. Both were eventually murdered.

Senator Grachus in the film accurately reflects the desire of individual senators at different times throughout Roman history to try to reinstate the republic. These political factions were never successful. Yet, returning to “the good old days of the republic” remained an illusive dream for many of the most educated and wise men of that time.

Did Commodus really have a sister?


Commodus really did have a sister, Lucilla, and she hated her brother. Lucilla was at one time married to Lucius Verus, just as the film says. What is not said is that Verus was co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius until Verus died.

The real and historical Lucilla conspired against Commodus and attempted to have him assassinated. Commodus banished Lucilla to the island of Capreae as punishment and ordered her execution shortly after. So, unlike the film portrayal, Commodus actually outlived Lucilla.

The film also uses “artistic license” in portraying Commodus as forcing Lucilla to have an affair with him. This did not happen as far as we know with Lucilla, however, it is based on historical facts in that Commodus did reputedly have sexual relations with his other sisters.

Were there really any female gladiators?

Surprisingly, yes!

Some criticism has been levied towards Scott (director of the film) for having a female gladiator. However, the ancient sources are clear; they did exist. Petronius, in The Satyricon, wrote of female charioteers. Dio Cassius explained how some women performed as ”venatores,” that is gladiators who fought wild beasts. The Emperor Domitian staged games in which women battled pygmies.

Women were forbidden from gladiatorial performances shortly after the time of Commodus, by the emperor Alexander Severus, in 200 CE.

Maximus’ tatoo

S.P.Q.R., the letters of the tattoo worn by Maximus, is an abbreviation for an oft used Latin phrase whose English translation is “the Senate and People of Rome”.

The Latin word for tattoo is “stigma,” and our modern meaning of “stigmatize,” as a pejorative, has clearly evolved from the Latin. It was slaves, gladiators, criminals, and later soldiers,too, who were tattooed as an identifying mark.

Upper class Romans did not partake in tattooing, which they associated with either marginal groups, or foreigners, such as Thracians, who were known to tattoo extensively. The emperor Caligula is said to have forced individuals of rank to become tattooed as an embarrassment.

In later Roman history, the Roman army consisted largely of mercenaries. They were tattooed in order that deserters could be identified.


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