By Elesha Coffman, assistant editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY
Now that I work for a history magazine, watching "period" movies has become much more complicated. I like watching them to get a flavor of a past era, but the whole time I'm wondering, "How much of this are they making up?" Assuming you're the same way, I'll save you some research on the new film Gladiator, which I found both informative and unsettling.
First, the historical details. The film depicts two Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius and his son, Commodus. On screen, Marcus is a philosopher-king who is tired of war (he laments that only four of his 20 years as Caesar were peaceful) and wishes to make Rome the republic it was founded to be. The real Marcus did write some Stoic meditations, and he increased individual rights for many less-favored people (though not Christians) during his rule, but he was hardly so revolutionary as to plan the rise of the Senate at the expense of his son's reign. In fact, contra the film, Marcus and Commodus ruled together from 177 to 180, when Marcus died. Reports do not seem to support the cause of death posited by the filmmakers, though that sort of thing (I don't want to give it away) certainly happened.
The film's Commodus is perhaps more accurate. As depicted, he was half-mad, he treated enemy senators ruthlessly, his sister plotted to kill him, and he did participate in gladiator fights (as had the completely insane emperor Caligula before him). The film doesn't even show the height of his craziness: he renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana (Colony of Commodus) and imagined he was the god Hercules. Commodus's on-screen death, however, was changed to fit the plot. Historically, after he announced he ...