The writers and directors of Gladiator would seriously flunk a history class. Though the film is ridiculously fun and has held up pretty well since its release in 2000, it often provides entertainment at the expense of fact. In taking a look at the historical facts Gladiator got wrong, it becomes clear that the film puts story over substance. 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 it won Oscars and brought in piles of money at the box office, its success meant that audiences became familiar with a fictional ancient Rome.
From falsely portrayed historical figures to inaccurate social patterns, historical errors in Gladiator abound. The bad history in the film doesn’t mean that it is a bad movie. It just means that viewers should turn to a history book, rather than this sword-and-sandals epic, to learn a thing or two about the Roman world. Check out all the things that are historically inaccurate in Gladiator.
No, Commodus Didn't Murder His Dad
One of the most dramatic, heartbreaking moments in the film happens within the first 35 minutes: Commodus, the troubled, wounded son and expectant heir of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, strangles his father when he learns that he intends to revive the republic and make Maximus the protector of Rome. It's a chilling moment that succictly tells the audience everything it needs to know about Commodus. The only problem? The young Emperor never actually killed his own father.
Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD while leading a military campaign against northern Germanic tribes. While historians still debate what specifically caused his death (some claim it was the plague, since it had stricken his army), one thing is for certain: he did not die at the hands of his son and heir. In fact, his health had been deteriorating for a while before he passed away.
Lucilla Didn't Get A Happy Ending
Lucilla is one of the most interesting characters in the film. The film constantly suggests that she would make a better ruler than her brother, and she is clearly intelligent, thoughtful, and capable of acting against things she perceives to be wrong. Gladiator ends with her mourning Maximus' death, but relieved that her son was now safe from Commodus.
However, the real Lucilla had 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 over his behavior and came to the conclusion that he had to go.
With the help of her lover, Lucilla orchestrated an assassination attempt to rid Rome of her brother. The plot failed and Lucilla was banished to the island of Capri, where she was later executed.
Commodus Was Way More Terrible Than The Film Shows
Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus comes across as a sniveling, complex villain who is emotionally wounded by a distant father and craves the love of his people. Some of the most horrible things he does is he murders his father, wants to sleep with his sister, and threatens the life of his nephew. The historical Commodus was actually way, way worse.
He was a major gladiator fanboy, 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 killer of animals.
Worst of all, he actually dressed up disabled people as mythological creatures in one of his gladiatorial spectacles simply so he could slaughter them.
Marcus Aurelius Had No Intention Of Returning Rome To A Republic
The film holds up Marcus Aurelius as a virtuous, model Emperor. That judgment is underscored by the fact that he wants to return Rome to a republic, something it 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 Marcus Aurelius 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 more of an imperialist than his son, who ended his father's expensive northern campaigns. In addition, behaviors like grooming his son to become Emperor points to the fact that he did not have any intention of restoring a republic.
The film is thus misleading in its depiction of Marcus Aurelius' political intentions.