RIDLEY SCOTT'S EPIC FILM Gladiator (2000) begins in AD 180, the last year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius. After the great battle in the German forest, the Roman commander Maximus and the emperor's son Commodus are talking to two senators called Gaius and Falco. (The purist winces. To introduce a man as 'Senator Gaius' is like calling Mr Blair 'Prime Minister Tony'.) Commodus warns Maximus that they will fill him full of ideas about a republic. 'Well, why not?' says Gaius, 'Rome was founded as a republic.' (The purist winces again. All seven kings forgotten? Ravished Lucretia died in vain if there was no tyrant to rebel against.) Commodus points out that in a republic, the Senate has the power. 'Where do you stand, General?' asks Falco, 'Emperor or Senate?' When Maximus tactfully avoids the question, Gaius comments 'With an army behind you, you could be extremely ... political.'
In real life, of course, well over a century after the last vain attempt to restore the Roman Republic had been snuffed out by the Praetorian Guard, such a conversation would have been unthinkable. Gaius' remark would have resulted in immediate arrest and execution for treason. However, the plot of the film requires that the Republic can be restored, and that Marcus Aurelius has a secret plan to restore it.
The old emperor has a final duty for Maximus: 'I want you to become the Protector of Rome after I die. I will empower you to one end alone, to give power back to the People of Rome ...' (The word 'Protector' suggests that the story-writers had seventeenth-century England at the back of their minds. No one could have seriously asked 'Emperor or Senate?' in AD 180, but in the 1640s 'King or Parliament?' was a real question.) At the end of the film the dying Maximus kills Commodus in the arena. His almost last words are 'There was a dream that was Rome. It shall be realised. These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.' And as the senators carry his body out, we are left to assume that the People of Rome have got their power back.
What really happened in AD 193 was that Commodus was assassinated in a palace plot, and his successor, a senator called Pertinax, was murdered by the Praetorian Guard who then put the empire up for auction to the highest bidder. That makes a great story in the first volume of Edward Gibbon's history, and it is the culminating scene of Anthony Mann's 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire. As the camera tracks back from the outrageous auction ('Two million denars for the throne of Rome!'), a voice-over spells out the lesson for the audience:
This was the beginning of the fall of
the Roman Empire ... A great
civilisation is not conquered from
without until it has destroyed itself
Gladiator is essentially a remake of the Mann film, but Ridley Scott's upbeat ending--the Republic, the wise old emperor's vision realised--could hardly be more different.
A cynic might say that Hollywood can no longer handle a message like Mann's. In twenty-first century America, the good guys get to win, whatever the history books may say. Besides, have the postmodernists not abolished the concept of historical fact?
But that is not the only reason for Gladiator's plot line, and in my view not the most interesting either. Scott's film invites us to admire the Romans, not just look on them as an awful warning. Maximus is inspired by 'a dream that was Rome'. Marcus Aurelius wants to be remembered as 'the emperor who gave Rome back her true self'. The tyranny of the emperors is not the real Rome. Here, however crudely, Hollywood has got it right.
The historian Florus, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, imagined the history of Rome as a human lifetime. Infancy was the time of the kings, youth and maturity were the Republic; under the emperors Rome is living out her old age. What the old emperor in the movie calls Rome's true self, what the historian thought of as her vigorous youth, was an age of heroic freedom-loving citizens whose memory was honoured in a long series of exemplary stories. …