I began writing this article in 2000, whilst still researching my PhD at Cambridge. It was largely finished, but with significant holes which I have finally decided to fill in. I originally intended to research it more intensively and submit it for publication to an academic journal, but ultimately the style seemed more journalistic and its prohibitive length ruled out any hope of publication in a newspaper or magazine. So, after all these years, here it is!
The recent release of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator has once again sparked interest in a genre that seemed doomed never to be revived. Prohibitive costs and questionable appeal were the enduring memories after the hugely expensive and unsuccessful Cleopatra and the ponderous The Fall of the Roman Empire. After 1964, no one was either rich enough or stupid enough to invest in a project of this scale.
Gladiator, the first Roman epic for almost forty years, whilst receiving mixed reviews from critics, has proven very popular with cinema-goers the world over. The story of Maximus’ fall from the slippery heights of power as a conquering Roman general, to his being sold as a slave and his evolution as a great gladiator, certainly makes for great matinee entertainment. The exotic locations, vast battles, splendid sets, and epic scenes are true to form of the “sword and sandal” epic, and with the assistance of modern technology and greater attention to close detail, Gladiator sets a new benchmark for a raw and “realistic” evocation of the Roman world. Yet what is so frustrating about Gladiator is its lack of contextual historical accuracy.
The genre to which Gladiator belongs has always been a flawed one. Roman epics have attracted criticism for both their historical accuracy and dramatic qualities. Roman epics aren’t so much historical films, as vehicles for other, often anachronistic moral or ideological themes; Italian nationalism and fascism, for example. Otherwise they have tended towards ponderous, opulent romance.
Gladiator is an interesting product in the context of film history, for it picks up almost directly where the Roman epic left off. Gone are the moralising voice-overs which introduce the historical context; gone is the typical demonisation of the Roman Empire; gone is the anachronistic emphasis on modern Christian concepts of ethics and morality. In their place we have a secularised film which does not seem to carry any message whatsoever. This absence of any clear moral purpose behind Gladiator is, in part, what makes it a better Roman epic than many of its predecessors.
Historical films can also have a very powerful effect on an audience, imaginatively and emotionally, but often very particularly on account of national identity. This is especially the case when the film depicts the actions of a national group, and particularly in the context of an international conflict. The film Braveheart, for example, generated very heated debate about its depiction not just of certain historical personalities, but also ofEngland’s relationship toScotland. It was not at all well received by the English.
It seems extraordinary that a cinematic interpretation of events which took place almost seven centuries ago could cause such rancour, yet such they did. Some film-makers might therefore be wary about alienating potential audiences, which raises the question as to whether or not historical accuracy in the cinema depends upon the degree to which there is a risk of upsetting members of any social group which could identify with the characters and events of the film. Inevitably, where national identities are concerned, someone is bound to be upset, and the director or author of the screenplay are likely to find themselves forced to justify the reasons for their portrayal.
The Roman epic, however, occupies a special place in the broad spectrum of historical films. This is because the period it depicts is sufficiently distant in time to avoid arousing the ire of any political or ethnic group by an historically unfair or inaccurate portrayal; thus neutralising any possible social antagonism such as that generated by films such as Braveheart. This might go some way towards explaining the flights of fantasy into which Roman epics are capable of delving. The recent and appalling television production of Cleopatra was a perfect example of the quite extraordinary degree to which history can be manipulated.
Gladiator is another production in which there is very little historical truth. It need only be pointed out that Maximus did not exist, that Commodus was already co-opted as co-emperor in 177, three years before the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, and that he ruled until 193 when he was strangled to death by a professional wrestler as he lay in a drunken sleep, to illustrate the quite ridiculous historical inaccuracy of the film. Can Gladiator therefore rightly be called an historical film?
On some levels, namely those of costuming and interior design, the makers of Gladiator have made an impressive effort to achieve historical accuracy. It is perhaps counter-productive to quibble about the exact appearance of the Roman urban landscape at the time; which facades loomed, which statues stood where, which aqueducts had been completed, and about the decoration of the interior of the senatorial curia. That neo-classical facades were shot, cut and pasted to create the backdrop of the city of Rome should not trouble us too greatly, for the effect is at least successful in conveying an impression of the scale, and, it might be said, the “modernity” of Roman development at the height of the Empire’s power. Perhaps more importantly, the attention to detail in military hardware, costumes, furniture, personal effects, and so on, is a considerable advance on previous cinematic depictions of theRoman Empire.
Another positive of the film is that it attempts to create a less anachronistic intellectual, social and cultural context. Often, due to the need to acquaint the audience with the historical context, period films tend to be packed with informative dialogue and exposition, which at times stumbles uncomfortably from the lips of the protagonists. Gladiator is somewhat more successful in contextualising this background and making it incidental to the film.
Still, it is reasonable to wonder why so much effort has been put into minute detail, when the broader context in which all the detail is conveyed is almost completely fictional?
Director Ridley Scott provides the best answer to this question. When asked what attracted him to the film, he described his first encounter with the producer Walter Parkes, in which Parkes simply threw down a rolled-up print of Jean Leon Gerome’s famous painting of a gladiator in the Colosseum. “That’s what got me,” said Scott, “It was a totally visceral reaction to the painting.”
Gladiator is probably best described as a visceral experience. Rather than being an historical film, Gladiator is a “human” film in a fictive historical context, whose historicity is supported by a careful reconstruction of the appearance of the world being represented. If we were to try to define Gladiator further, then it would be as the story of an individual’s struggle against injustice, and of loyalty to a threatened ideal of enlightened despotism or republican government.
It is tempting, however, to be more cynical and say that considering the lack of regard for the historical narrative, it is essentially a vehicle for great special effects and innovative action sequences. After all, the project began with only the arena in mind. The script, which needed a great deal of work, ran to a mere thirty-five pages and underwent a number of transformations throughout the shoot. Perhaps as a consequence of the simplicity of its original conception, it is difficult to find any serious message in Gladiator. If one were to look for a historical message in it, all one really finds is that Marcus Aurelius was a good man, Commodus was a bad man, life was hard and tenuous, and that Roman Republican government, namely rule by the Senate, was a cherished ideal.
It could also be misconstrued that the principle message of the film is to reveal the horrors of gladiatorial combat, for Gladiator depicts gladiatorial contests with very startling realism, although what we see is as nothing to the vast and elaborate slaughter which often took place in the Colosseum and other arenas around the Empire. The horrors of slavery and the staging of fights to the death, resonates strongly with our modern outrage at such “entertainments.” The assertion of the humanity of the slaves and gladiators is deeply moving to us who so greatly value freedom and human life. Yet this is not really the concern of Gladiator. Indeed, if one looks at the web-site, it becomes quite clear that the film is more concerned with glorifying the arena than anything else.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it is less of an anachronism. Indeed, one of the problems with the film Spartacus is that it makes too much of the slave revolt as a type of ideological movement against an oppressive and evil empire, and establishes Spartacus as a sort of proto-communist revolutionary. We cannot ignore that slavery was something almost irrevocably intrinsic to the ancient world; the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, all had slave-based economies, and it would be difficult to say that any of these civilisations were more inclusive, more tolerant, or provided a better system of social infrastructure than did Rome. Though we are appalled by slavery, to vilify theRoman Empire for employing it is rather like vilifying a child for adopting the habits of its parents, and of society at large.
Yet whilst Spartacus might be too redolent with Marxist overtones it is one of the few Roman epic films which attempts to remain true to the understood historical narrative of what it depicts, with the exception of its fabricated conclusion. (Spartacus’ body was never recovered from the battlefield.) It is an excellent, humane, and deeply moving film, which has a greater “historicity” than many of its predecessors.
When asked why he thought Roman epics had vanished for forty years, Ridley Scott said that: “They reached a saturation point and then they simply went away because every story seemed to have been exhausted.”
This response might go some way to explaining why Gladiator is essentially fiction. Yet, at the same time, it might be the very thing which will allow the Roman epic to re-emerge as a genre. No one had ever heard of Maximus before, and the vast majority of the audience will never have heard of Commodus either. This has in no way hindered Gladiator’s success. Not many people outside of the United Kingdom, and probably only a limited number within it would have ever heard of William Wallace before the release of Braveheart. Roman history is so rich that countless stories could be artfully extracted without much need to change the context. Rather than turning to fiction, the time is now ripe for screen-writers to plough deeply the very rich and extensive soil of Roman history for future epics. Apart from all the smaller, human stories of individuals caught up in the events of Roman history, there is vast scope for movies on a grander scale. The late Roman empire in particular begs attention. Why is there no epic about Constantine, or of Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410? What of Attila’s failed invasion of the ailing western empire in 451 and, in particular the epic battle of the Catalaunian Plains?
The release of Gladiator is a very exciting and important event in film history. It has the potential to bring about a rebirth of a dead genre and to set a new direction for that genre. For, one of the most promising aspects of Gladiator is that it avoids the polemics against Roman rule which were characteristic of so many of its predecessors. It empathises much more successfully with the period in offering a fairer cross-section of Roman society and ideas. In the opening battle scene, Maximus’ Tribune Quintus says with derision; “People should know when they’re conquered.” To which Maximus replies, “Would you Quintus, would I?” In conversation with Marcus Aurelius, Maximus acknowledges that the world outside of Rome is dark and forbidding; “Rome is the light,” he says sincerely. The means by which the greater complexity of the Roman world is conveyed is more subtle than many other epics of this genre and less dominated by modern political, religious and ideological concerns.
The earliest Roman films were often rooted in a strong ideological agenda. , The 1914 Italian film Cabiria, set during the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), was produced by the ultra nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio and was released shortly after the Italo-Turkish war, in which Italy conquered the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica in North Africa. Similarly, the 1937 film Scipione l’africano, depicting the life of Scipio Africanus, Rome’s most successful general during the Second Punic War, followed in the wake of Mussolini’s Ethiopian conquest.
The 1964 Hollywoodfilm, The Fall of the Roman Empire, reads like a positivist moral essay; striving to put across a more explicit historical argument. Starring Alec Guiness as Marcus Aurelius, and Christopher Plummer as Commodus, it has many parallels with Gladiator in that it too focuses on the accession and reign of Commodus. It essentially argues that the reign of Commodus and what took place immediately afterwards, namely the auction of the Empire to the highest bidder (it ignores the brief reign of Pertinax) was the beginning of the decline which was to lead to the Empire’s eventual “fall”, though this did not happen in the west for another two hundred and fifty years. This particular interpretation of the narrative of Roman history dates back to Gibbon, who first identified the reign of Commodus as a significant turning point after the more enlightened rule of Marcus Aurelius.
One of the central themes of The Fall of the Roman Empire, namely the social experiment of settling barbarians as farmers in Roman territory, was a massive oversimplification of an issue which, in fact, was dealt with at a painstakingly academic and philosophical level in the late Roman Empire, the consequences of which were central to the gradual devolution of Roman power in the west in the fifth century.
It is inevitable that political and social complexities have to be glossed over in an historical film – no audience is going to sit through a film which depicts with arduous detail the mind-boggling intricacy of Roman bureaucracy – yet such complexity can be hinted at through thought-provoking ambiguity, rather than being arduously explicit. Ideally, the Roman context should be incidental to the film and less explicit, especially where long-established clichés are otherwise the only resort. Typically the Roman Empirehas been portrayed as a vicious, cruel organisation, run by ruthless madmen. Gladiator at least went some way towards suggesting that Commodus was just an example of a very cruel, weak, and over ambitious megalomaniac in a world of otherwise sane human beings with complex identities.
The 1951 MGM film Quo Vadis, however, opens with a startling and lengthy diatribe against the nature of Roman power, based entirely upon modern, Christian concepts of ethics and morality, and which is to put it mildly, anachronistic in the Empire of the 1st Century AD. Such criticisms of Roman power as did exist in the 1st century, rarely focussed on the immorality and inhumanity of gladiatorial contests or slavery, rather upon an antique perception of freedom and self-determination, which, sadly, often translated as the freedom of another aristocracy or religious oligarchy to run its own exclusive autocratic regime.
Indeed, the degree to which the Roman state is vilified in the cinema is probably only paralleled by post-war portrayals of Nazi Germany. Certainly the Roman Empire was a physically coercive entity which encouraged practices we find abhorrent, but considering the context from which it emerged, it was the paragon of ancient civilised states of the Mediterraneanand near Eastern world. The Roman Empire was an inclusive, not an exclusive system which encouraged religious freedom, (with the exception of certain troublesome dissidents who worshiped a dead carpenter), which provided immense and sophisticated public services, sanitation, education and security, which championed free trade, and which, under the pax Romana, also championed peace.
The great eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon once wrote:
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. (AD96-180).”
During Gibbon’s lifetime such an observation had much greater currency, especially when we consider that theBritish Empirehad not as yet abolished slavery by the time of his death. Clearly there is no excusing slavery in any context, but this is a modern sensibility. Even the much vaunted Athenian democracy was heavily dependent on slave-labour, and they did not offer to extend their citizenship to outsiders as the Romans did.
It is largely for this reason that Gladiator makes a departure from its predecessors. Rather than critiquing theRoman Empire as an entity, it highlights the folly and wickedness of certain individuals. It marks a turning point in the portrayal of Roman history and offers, without being especially cerebral or historically accurate, a less explicitly moralising theme and context. If its success results in the making of further such historical epics, then there might be something of a rebirth of the genre. Either way, and perhaps most importantly, enrolments in ancient history courses both at high school and university have risen dramatically in its wake. If the cinema can still inspire students to take an interest in the very distant history that underlies the culture, identity and institutions of modern western society, then this is surely a positive.