Glorified Gore

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 would assume the consulship on January 1, 193 (dressed as a gladiator), his advisers had him strangled by a championship wrestler.

The movie does a pretty good job illustrating the gladiator industry—a big, big business. The fights had grown from three pairs of gladiators at the funeral of a Brutus in 264 B.C. to 5,000 pairs celebrating Trajan's triumph in A.D. 107. Gladiators were usually taken from the ranks of slaves and prisoners, but some men volunteered in hopes of gaining fame and money. Matches could feature any combination of men and animals (though animals more often fought each other), and even some women became gladiators until banned from combat by Commodus's successor, Septimus Severus. Posters advertised upcoming bouts days in advance, attempting to draw large crowds with the names of the chief competitors. Successful gladiators were immensely popular, especially with the ladies; for example, graffiti from Pompeii mentioned "Crescens the nocturnal netter of young girls." Crowds helped determine whether a fallen gladiator lived or died, and fighters who could combine winning with popularity sometimes achieved freedom.

The main character in Gladiator, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a fabrication. Maximus is probably modeled on Spartacus, the politically powerful gladiator who led an uprising in 73-71 B.C. Maximus's journey from slavery up through the gladiator "minor leagues" and into public favor is credible, though it's unlikely he would ever have been allowed to snub, let alone openly challenge, a reigning emperor without immediately losing his life.

There aren't any Christians in Gladiator, but I don't think this is a major oversight. Persecution wasn't particularly severe under Marcus or Commodus, though anti-Christian literature and informants caused many deaths during Marcus's reign. Also, while some Christians were killed in the arena, the purpose of the fights was more to entertain the masses than to execute specific enemies. Unless the emperor (or whomever was hosting the fight) made a point of it, the crowds probably seldom knew—or cared—the religion of the combatants.

Just as gladiator battles were originally intended to amuse the masses, Gladiator is a blockbuster all the way: sexy stars, great special effects, and tons of bloody combat. And that's what bothers me. If a million Americans flock to see gladiators on a big screen, are they (perhaps I should say we) any better than the Romans who watched the games the first time? In Confessions Augustine describes what happened to his friend Alypius when he let his friends drag him to the arena: "[H]e was overcome by curiosity. He opened his eyes, prepared to despise and be superior to it, whatever it was, even while seeing it, and he was stricken with a deeper wound in his soul than the gladiator. … At the moment he saw that blood, he drank down savageness and did not turn away from it. He was riveted to it, drinking in frenzy unawares, and was delighted with that wicked fight and intoxicated with the bloody pastime. Nor was he the same man that he was when he had first come; he had become one of the crowd."

Certainly that type of "intoxication" will help Gladiator make big bucks at the box office, and that's a fairly sickening commentary on our society. But at least we have this on the ancient Romans: if the movie's end credits told of even one death caused by the filming, American audiences would have been outraged, and the death story would have made bigger headlines than the number of tickets sold. We like our violence, all right, but only so long as we can believe nobody got hurt.

* Find information on the Roman era, as well as the story of a famous Christian killed in the arena, in Christian History issue 27: Persecution in the Early Church (to order, see instructions at the end of this letter)

* Read more about gladiators online at and

* For early church father Tertullian's extensive denouncement of gladiator "spectacles," see

Elesha Coffman can be reached at