7 Ways Gladiator Was Historically Accurate (& 9 Ways It Wasn’t)


  • Gladiator
    , the Oscar-winning 2000 movie from Ridley Scott, takes creative license with the factual events of Ancient Rome, but some aspects reflect real historical truths such as the process of granting freedom to gladiators.
  • The character of Marcus Aurelius in
    is fairly historically accurate, depicting him as a competent and fair ruler who co-ruled alongside Lucius Verus.
  • While
    suggests that gladiators achieved celebrity status, they were actually seen as lowly and their purpose was to fight and die. However, it is true that gladiators included product placement in their routines.

Movies based on real life are never completely accurate, and the Gladiator historical accuracy has been hotly debated since the Oscar-winning movie came out in 2000. There are several things that this movie fictionalizes, including the main character, the fate of the villain, and even the events that happened in the military and gladiatorial battles of Ancient Rome. While Gladiator had a team onboard to ensure its historical accuracy in many areas, several things bothered even these crew members, as Ridley Scott took some serious creative license with the factual events of the Roman Empire at the time.

While many moments in Gladiator are inaccurate compared to real life, several of the movie’s scenes reflect what happened in Ancient Rome. While Maximus might not have been based on a real historical figure, he was based on many historical accounts of real gladiators and the lives they led. Scott also left out some genuine historical truths because he thought no one would believe it was true. One example is the real gladiators of Rome promoting products before and after fights, which really happened, but Russell Crowe said was “not going to ring right to a modern audience” (via Variety).

Russell Crowe hated gladiators best line Related Gladiator True Story & Historical Accuracy: How Much Really Happened

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is based in the history of ancient Rome, but while the movie is accurate in some areas, it take poetic license in others.

How Gladiator Was Historically Accurate

1: The Symbol Of Freedom

Proximo watches Maximus' victory in the fight pit in Gladiator with an image of a rudis in the corner

One of the more interesting characters in the film was Proximo, the former gladiator who opened his own arena in Rome after gaining his freedom. His description of the process by which a gladiator would be given his freedom is historically accurate. Once a gladiator had survived to reach retirement or had earned his freedom, he was given a wooden sword, or ‘rudis’, as a symbol. Although Proximo was freed by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, it was not necessary for every gladiator to receive that dispensation from the Emperor himself.

The detail helps to add complexity to the character of Proximo. He is a cynical man when first introduced, seeing human life as a short and rather meaningless thing. Having lived in a world in which death was dealt with as a game, it is easy to see how he earned that point of view. This historical detail will carry over into the sequel as Gladiator 2 will also feature an enslaved gladiator who won his freedom.

2: Marcus Aurelius, The Man

Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) speaks to Maximus (Russell Crowe) after the battle in Germania in Gladiator

The film takes a few liberties with the character of Marcus Aurelius, particularly when it comes to the nature of his rule. At the time, he co-ruled alongside Lucius Verus, his daughter’s husband. Besides the small caveats, Aurelius was something of a celebrity during his 161–180 CE reign. He was considered a good ruler, both competent and sound of mind, fair and tempered. This certainly seems to translate well into the figure depicted on screen, and his depiction in Gladiator is fairly historically accurate.

Though he has a small role in the movie, Aurelius is a key figure in the story and it is essential the audience understand him as a ruler before he dies. Richard Harris’ performance helps to sell the respect Aurelius commanded and the intelligence of his rule. This is reflected in how Aurelius wants Maximus to rule as a just man and how he sees his son, Commodus, as potentially poisonous to Rome.

3: The Social Status Of Gladiators In Rome

Maximus (Russell Crowe) confronts Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in the arena in Gladiator

Gladiator attempts to add a bit of glamor to the life of a gladiatorial combatant by suggesting that the best of the best would achieve celebrity status. In reality, the combatants were lower than dirt in the eyes of many Roman people. They were there to fight and die, nothing more. That being said, the cost-prohibitive nature of bouts to the death meant that most gladiators yielded in combat in order to fight another day.

While the popularity that Maximus earns in the movie differs from how most gladiators are treated, the movie makes a point of showing that he is an outlier. The fact that a gladiator is able to win over the people in such a way is seen as a true underdog element to the story. It is also interesting to note that the gladiators in real life included product placement in their routines, a historically accurate moment Ridley Scott chose to leave out of Gladiator.

4: The War In Germania

The Roman Army in Germania in Gladiator.

Gladiator had one of the most stunning and visceral openings to a classical epic ever filmed – a huge battle between the Roman army, and the Germanic hordes. Shot in a jarring and violent manner, the sequence puts the audience directly in the middle of the battle to feel the raw grit, dirt, and blood. Historically speaking, the suggestion that the Roman Empire was engaged in a prolonged war with Germanic tribes is accurate. Marcus Aurelius spent the latter part of his reign securing the northern frontier in an attempt to keep the Germanic tribes at bay.

Gladiator‘s opening battle is not just a thrilling way to kick off the movie, but also an essential part of the storytelling. The moment establishes Maximus as an effective commander and determined warrior in his own right. From the horrors of being on such a battlefield, it is not surprising that he is able to face the brutality of the gladiator arena with ease and use his skills as a commander to excel.

5: Maximus’ Character

Maximus walking through a field in the afterlife in Gladiator

The character of Maximus Decimus Meridius may be fictional, but his personality and characteristics were firmly steeped in Roman history. When Rome faced a dire external threat, the Senate would appoint one man to see it through, with the expectation they would relinquish power when the threat was vanquished. As the legend goes, the Senate approached Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus to subdue a hostile force. It took Cincinnatus 15 days to quell the threat, and once he did, he returned to his modest farming life. Maximus’ steadfast refusal to assume power in Rome mirrors that of the legendary Roman general Cincinnatus.

The amazing real-life figure provides a terrific model for the character of Maximus. As heroic as Maximus is, there is a tragedy to the character in that he wants to escape the world of violence but is continuously thrown back in it due to being such an effective warrior.

6: Enmity Between The Praetorian Guard & The Legion

A collage image of the Roman Legion and Maxmius kneeling to be executed in Germania in Gladiator.

The Praetorian Guard were the Roman Emperor’s personal bodyguards and intelligence gatherers, keeping him safe from physical and political threats. The life of a Praetorian Guardsman was different from that of a Legionnaire, as they got to stay in Rome in relative comfort and safety, while the legions fought on the outskirts of the Empire. This didn’t sit well with the average soldier, who looked at the Praetorians with disdain.

The rivalry in Gladiator is historically accurate, portrayed perhaps most prevalently in the scene where Maximus escapes his execution in the North, calling one of his would-be executioners “Praetorian” in a derisive way, before dispatching them. It is a subtle detail, but it makes sense to make that distinction in this sequence. Having seen Maximus as a strong leader, it would have been off-putting to see him killing his own men even if it did allow for his escape.

7: Loyalty Of The Legion

Maximus on horseback flanked by his army of Roman legions.

Maximus told Gracchus, “Let my men see me alive, and you shall see where their loyalties lie.” Roman armies were extremely loyal to their generals, something Gladiator got right about Roman history. The strong sense of loyalty and camaraderie from Legionnaires who fought and bled together for the Empireis recounted in many historical accounts from the time. Also, Roman generals were responsible for securing retirement packages for their troops in the form of land, pensions, or the promise of spoils from war.

Generals who ate with their soldiers, slept in the same barracks, fought side-by-side with them, and guaranteed a comfortable retirement were idolized and fought for till death. This is a key detail in the character of Maximus as he brings over that quality to being a gladiator. While these fighters fought for themselves and their own survival, he showed them respect and brought them together as a single army which made their chances of surviving even greater.

The Historical Inaccuracies In Gladiator

1: Maximus’ Existence

Maximus in his mask in Gladiator.

Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Maximus sets the narrative tone. His tribulations, losses, and victories are all born from a system that once held him aloft, only to send him into the abyss when it was convenient. As effective as the story of Maximus is, the character didn’t exist. He’s a complete fabrication created solely for the movie and has no mention in history whatsoever. Hollywood films often do this in order to create a recognizable anchor for the audience to follow along.

Gladiator takes the audience back to Ancient Rome and uses details about the reality of this era to enhance its original story of Maximus. While the movie could have drawn on real-life gladiators of the past, such as with Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, inventing these aspects of Maximus allowed Gladiator to its their own unique and impactful hero untethered by historical fact.

2: The Presence Of Christianity In Gladiator

Maximus & Lucilla speaking outside of a tent in Gladiator.

The film insinuates that Christianity is an influential religion during the time period in which the story takes place. Hints of this are strewn about, particularly during a conversation between Lucilla and Maximus where she mentions praying in a manner that suggests it’s a private practice. The prevalence of Christianity during this point of the Roman Empire was historically inaccurate in Gladiator. Lucilla would never have gone against the Roman religion of the time, and Christianity would not hold sway over the Empire until much later in 380 CE.

It creates a sense of gravitas by adding Christianity as an anchor for the audience, but it’s a false assumption. However, religion is not something that places a large role in the movie or in guiding any of the character’s motivations. While this is also likely inaccurate with the culture of the time, the lack of religion or mistakes in how it is represented don’t particularly affect the plot.

3: Weapons Of War During The Time Period

The Roman army fires dart launchers and catapults in Gladiator.

Historical movies tend to fictionalize the little things, but those who know said history can spot them a mile away. Weapons are one of the things that suffer the most in adaptations, as filmmakers sometimes yank items out of an arsenal from an entirely different time period. Gladiator features massive dart launchers and catapults to sell the excitement of the opening scene in Germania, one of the most epic opening battles in cinematic history.

Unfortunately, these were siege weapons in use at the time as a means of stationary defense, as opposed to moving platforms fighting in a forested environment. The inclusion of these weapons in the opening battle provides an extra sense of epicness to the sequence while also showing how much more advanced the Roman army is compared to the Germanic army. However, these details are small overall and the movie likely could have done away with the inaccurate weaponry without taking anything away from the scene.

4: Marcus Aurelius Banned Gladiator Battles

Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) speaking to Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in Gladiator.

In Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius banned gladiator games, according to Antonius Proximo. He called Marcus wise for making this decision. The real Marcus was indeed against the bloodlust of gladiator games, but he kept them going because of their overwhelming popularity. However, he did everything he could to make them safer for the enslaved involved in these battles. He took away blades and made the gladiators use blunted weapons, making it more of an athletic competition than a fight to the death. This ended up helping the nation as Marcus used gladiators in the first Marcomannic War.

The point of the movie including Marcus’s opposition to the violence of the games is to show how he differs from his son Commodus. Upon becoming Emperor, one of Commodus’ first acts is to continue the gladiator games. While this could have been achieved through Commodus simply reintroducing real blades and death into the fights, his bringing the games back after an absence also helped Commodus earn the support of the people.

5: Thumbs Up/Down

A collage image of gladiators in the Coliseum and Commodus giving a thumbs down in Gladiator.

Historical battle scenes like the ones depicted in Gladiator rely a great deal on intense drama and exciting themes to draw the audience in. One of the ways the film does this is by featuring several scenes where the fate of the arena combatants is decided with a thumbs-up or down gesture by Joaquin Phoenix’s terrifying Commodus. However, there is little evidence that these precise gestures were used.

The erroneous belief comes from a painting of Roman gladiators by Jean-Léon Gérôme named Pollice Verso, which shows the audience using the thumbs-down sign to call for the death of the defeated gladiator. However, it is a very memorable inclusion in the movie and a standout Commodus moment. It shows that he has such a flippant attitude towards life and death and enjoys playing God. However, that power is turned on him when the crowd pressures him into allowing Maximus to live, giving the reluctant thumbs up.

6: Lucilla & Commodus

In the Senate house, Commodus leans in to Lucilla.

Lucilla was presented as an upstanding woman in Gladiator who was concerned with the state of the Roman Empire. Her tempestuous relationship with her cruel brother Commodus is a main theme in the movie. Although it’s true that Lucilla did organize a botched assassination attempt on Commodus, there’s no evidence that he ever harbored any erotic feelings toward her.

It’s probable that Rome’s reputation as an opulent, corrupt, and depraved empire may have inspired the film’s screenwriters to include such a salacious plot point in the script, but it has no basis in historical fact. Of course, the detail is also quite fitting for the sadistic villain of Commodus. The relationship shows his twisted mind while also highlighting his need for affection which his father denied him all his life. It also adds another sympathetic element to Lucilla’s character as she feels trapped by her dangerous brother.

7: Roman Democracy

A collage image of the Roman Senate and Gracchus in the coliseum in Gladiator

Audiences may have thought the Roman Empire more progressive than originally perceived when Gracchus states that “…the Senate is the people, sire. Chosen from among the people. To speak for the people,” envisioning a state similar to modern forms of representative democracy. However, there are inaccuracies in this statement as the Roman Senate’s composition was made up of representatives from Rome’s oldest leading families. Eventually, the nouveau-riche and provincials gained entry as well, but the interests of the Senate were usually selfish in nature, looking to increase personal and familial stature, and rarely looking out for the common folk.

This is certainly one of the biggest stretches that Gladiator makes. The idea of taking power away from Commodus and returning it to the senate was seen as the key element in the climax and Maximus’s heroic journey. To reveal this mission would have just led to more power for the richest citizens and would have robbed the movie of its victorious ending.

8: Commodus, The Man

Commodus after being crowned Emperor of Rome in Gladiator

Commodus was depicted as somewhat of an unhinged villain in Gladiator, but his real-life persona was far more outlandish. In fact, the film touches only lightly on the depths of his depravity. Once in power, he literally renamed Rome “the Colony of Commodus” in an obvious example of megalomania run wild. He was more like Caligula in many respects, with massive indulgences being something of a staple of his weekly schedule. Unfortunately, his legacy would suffer at the hands of historians who did not take pity on him as they recounted his deeds.

Joaquin Phoenix infuses his performance as Commodus with a sense of a spoiled and entitled child which is perhaps influenced by the real figure. However, he is much more effective as a villain in this story, with Gladiator focusing on his bloodlust and unserious role as Emperor. It connects more closely with Maximus’s journey in the movie while also distancing Commodus from his father.

9: The Deaths Of Marcus Aurelius & Commodus

Split image of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus before they die, in Gladiator

Marcus Aurelius was one of the greatest Emperors of Rome, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ of the Antonine Dynasty, and historically renowned as a Platonic philosopher-king for his works in Stoic philosophy. Although it makes for a compelling drama to have him smothered by his son Commodus, the murder scene in Gladiator didn’t actually happen. Thereal Marcus Aurelius died of natural causes.

As for Commodus, his fate was far less extravagant than the one seen in the film. He was actually assassinated by his sparring partner, a wrestler by the name of Narcissus, who had been bribed in a plot to replace the mad Emperor.

As inaccurate as these deaths are in the movie, it is easy to see why they were chosen. Commodus killing his father was the beginning of his villainous journey and it is fueled by the jealousy he felt toward Maximus. This sets the two men on a collision course which brings them to their final confrontation inside the gladiator arena. Commodus’s death is a satisfying one as he is someone who built himself up as a warrior only to die in fear and defeat against a true warrior.

Is Gladiator 2 Set To Be Historically Accurate?

The Story Of Lucius Verus II Will Be Largely Fiction

Split image of Lucius (Stephen Treat Clark) and Maximus (Russell Crowe) in the colosseum in Gladiator Custom Image By SR Image Editor

Gladiator 2 will be even less historically accurate than the first Gladiator movie. This is because the movie plans to tell a fictionalized tale about a real historical figure, with things that never actually happened in real life. The sequel will pick up 20 years after the end of the first Gladiator movie with Lucius Verus II and is also referred to as a revenge tale.

There are two real-life emperors in the movie — Caracalla (Joseph Quinn) and Geta (Fred Hechinger). Geta granted citizenship to all free men in real life, so there is the idea that Lucius will help set this plan into motion, adding a fictional story to an important historical event.

The problem with Gladiator 2 lies in the fact that Lucius Verus II died at a very young age in real life. While he was a boy in the first movie (played by Spencer Treat Clark), the real Lucius died very young. Almost all of Lucilla’s children died at a young age, mostly from unknown cases. If Lucius had lived, he would have been in line for the throne, but he died.

Furthermore, Lucilla was banished and executed for a failed assassination attempt on Commodus in real life. This resulted in the actual challengers for Commodus’ throne being contested by five men, most of whom had nothing to do with the original Gladiator movie story.

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Release Date May 1, 2000 Director Ridley Scott Cast Russell Crowe , Derek Jacobi , Oliver Reed , Connie Nielsen , Joaquin Phoenix , Djimon Hounsou , Richard Harris Studio(s) DreamWorks Distribution , Universal Pictures , Scott Free Productions , Red Wagon Entertainment

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