“What we do in life, echoes in eternity”: How director Ridley Scott successfully sells history in Gladiator



By Dannii Johns

Many history enthusiasts and film fanatics love Gladiator made in 2000. It portrays the Roman Empire in its finest era as a result of Marcus Aurelius being known as the last of the ‘Five good Emperors’. It accurately portrays the time in which Gladiator is set, along with the historic details. Yet changes some character specifics. This works for the narrative as long as crucial elements like the location, props and costumes are accurately interpreted, allowing room for the character to be adjusted to make a good story for the audience.


Other films like The Last Legion and 2016’s Ben Hur have gotten historic details wrong, however, the creators of Gladiator definitely done their homework when it comes to the specifics.

After budgeting $103 million, director Ridley Scott had his work cut out for him due to the fact that his rival of the year The Patriot directed by Roland Emmerich was also a box-office contender based on another memorable event in history set in 1776– the American Revolution, which was budgeted an extra $7 million therefore having the opportunity to flawlessly portray things like the historic costumes and equipment. The Patriot shown the American Revolution accurately with outfits of soldiers and civilians, hair-styles, muskets and even the re-loading of so. However, it inaccurately portrayed the British coming over to America with aggressive intentions, but this may have been done for the storyline.


Gladiator therefore had its opportunity to amaze spectators due to its larger budget compared to other Hollywood films made that year. So, this was it’s chance to be seen as accurate and authentic (compared to latter date TV shows like Netflix’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood and Colosseum: Rome’s Arena of Death due to the fact that there aren’t many films about the Roman Empire), whilst trying to leave a mark in box office history before the competition was released a month later … And it did so by keeping the spectator interested in the characters’ journeys, while keeping the scenery and props authentic. This helped the audience enjoy the experience as they could easily be placed within the film itself and not be consciously thrown off course for historical mistakes such a plane flying in the background of Troy which was set in the late 12th century BC.


Gladiator is now one of the most well known films that correctly portrays the Roman Army’s uniform. From simple things like the shield or ‘scutum’, down to the ‘Gladius’ short sword. However, we do have to remember Spartacus, made in 1960 by Stanley Kubrick, a fastidious filmmaker who volunteered his time and work into putting even the smallest historically correct details into the location and time period. Spartacus took home many Academy awards such as best cinematography, production design and costume design.

As time went by, some TV shows and films like the ones mentioned above still got simple facts like the Gladius (short sword) wrong by placing it on the left hand side of the body. Encyclopedias, websites like Ancient Weapons: The Roman Gladius and documentaries like Forged in Fire all describe the short sword as being placed on the right hand side of the hip for the soldier to use with his right hand he holds the ‘scutum’ with his left.

For film and history lovers, mistakes like these may suggest that particular departments in the film crew did not go into detail with their research before production. This can be seen as disappointing as a result of these facts being done in history and when filmmakers go through facts for the film’s setting, costume-design and location, they should want to passionately create accurate pieces of work with captivating storylines. From the opening scene, you can see that Gladiator got it right.


Yet, one thing that Ridley Scott and David Franzoni (the writer) took a shot with when creating the great Gladiator, was the character Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix). In real life Lucius Aurelius Commodus and Marcus Aurelius jointly ruled Rome before Commodus was around 18 years old when his father passed away. Also, Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) wasn’t a real historic Roman.

Though many people may not know this, changing Commodus’ age from 18 to being mid-twenties (similar to Maximus’) made a more dramatic and challenging battle between the two for the narrative. This does mean the narrative is not accurate, however if the director kept Commodus’ at 18 years old, the very storyline could not have been used for a historical drama. Therefore many viewers without the full knowledge of Roman Emperors may not have been interested in the first place. Gladiator needed Commodus to be older and with similar authority and leadership skills for a powerful feud between him and Maximus to take place, hence the perfect binary opposites.


So, by having Commodus away from the war in Germany, the spectators had yet not been introduced to him and were able to make up their own perspective about his character when Commodus was sat in luxury instead of being on the field next to his father.  But this didn’t really give the audience much leeway, because Phoenix’s brilliant take on the character Commodus portrayed him as rude to anyone else lower than him. Straight away, when Commodus got out of his carriage, waltzed past the Roman Army and up to his dad, the audience could see the attitude he had, and this displayed Commodus as someone who enjoyed luxury over strenuous work, whereas Maximus being the opposite was in one of the main cavalry charges of the battle and fully in the Germanic war. Throughout the film, Maximus’ life changing turn of events placed him in a Gladiators ring of life VS death. By winning local tournaments due to his fearless view on death and military skills, he quickly gained recognition and fame from the people of Italy and worked his way up to a gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum – an arena known for entertainment – perfect for a dramatic ending.


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