The writers and directors of Gladiator would probably flunk a history class. Though the film is enjoyable, ridiculously popular, and has held up relatively well since its release in 2000, it often provides entertainment at the expense of fact. When examining the historical facts Gladiator got wrong, the film's tendency to prioritize story – and style – over substance becomes clear.
Known as one of Ridley Scott’s best movies, Gladiator was one of the first commercially and critically successful films of the 21st century. And though the movie won Oscars and earned piles of money at the box office, its success meant that audiences became accustomed to a fictionalized ancient Rome. (Of course, this is hardly the first time Hollywood disregarded the historical record to make a pretty good Roman movie.)
From falsely portrayed historical figures to inaccurate social patterns, historical errors in Gladiator abound. The bad history in the film doesn’t make it a bad movie, it just means that viewers should turn to a history book – rather than a sword-and-sandals epic – to learn facts about the Roman world. Check out all the things that are historically inaccurate in Gladiator below.
If you like this movie despite the inaccuracies, be sure to check out our list of movies like Gladiator.
One of the most dramatic, heartbreaking moments in the film occurs within the first 35 minutes: Commodus, the troubled son and expectant heir of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, slays his father when he learns that the Emperor intends to revive the republic and appoint Maximus as Rome's protector. The chilling moment succinctly communicates volumes about Commodus's character and volatile disposition. The only problem? The young heir never actually killed his own father.
Marcus Aurelius passed in 180 AD while leading a military campaign against northern Germanic tribes. While historians still debate what specifically caused his end – the most popular guess is the plague – he certainly did not perish at the hands of his son and heir. In fact, his health had been deteriorating for quite some time before his passing.
Gladiator frequently suggests that Lucilla – daughter of Marcus Aurelius and sister of Commodus – would make a better ruler than her brother, as she is clearly intelligent, thoughtful, and capable of taking action against wrongdoing. Although she mourns Maximus at the film's end, she is at least relieved that her son is safe from Commodus.
The life of the real Lucilla, however, was a far more dramatic story. She was married off twice to her father's political allies, even as she cultivated a mind of her own. After her brother succeeded their father as Emperor, Lucilla became concerned about his behavior and concluded that he must be overthrown.
With the help of her lover, Lucilla orchestrated an attempt to rid Rome of her brother. Unfortunately, the plot failed, and Lucilla was banished to the island of Capri, where she was later executed.
Joaquin Phoenix portrays Commodus as a sniveling yet complex villain who is emotionally damaged and craves the love of his people. As despicable as many of his actions are in the film, the historical Commodus was actually far worse.
He was a diehard gladiator fan, had delusions of becoming a gladiator himself, and even frequently appeared in arenas. Commodus even fought in the Colosseum with wooden swords against harmless opponents and pretended to be Hercules. He even renamed Rome after himself and was also a prolific slayer of animals.
Worst of all, he would dress up disabled people as mythological creatures simply so he could slaughter them in a gladiatorial spectacle.
The film upholds Marcus Aurelius as a virtuous, model Emperor. That judgment is underscored by the fact that he wishes to return Rome to a republic, something the city hadn't been since at least 27 BC. Though it is true that Marcus Aurelius craved a simpler life, there is absolutely no evidence that he intended to reinstate a republic.
In fact, his quest for territory in the Germanic lands cultivated his public image as a warrior-emperor, and he was perhaps even more of an imperialist than his son, who ended his father's expensive northern campaigns. In addition, Aurelius training his son to become succeed him as Emperor points to his lack of intention to restore the republic.