Sunday, June 11, 2000

Gladiator and Commodus the Deranged

Despite the fact that Rome isn’t really our specialty, we at Classics Corner recently waddled down to Oak Tree Cinema to watch musclemen perform strenuous acts of combat in the hot sun. As always, we were grateful to not be born in Italy circa 160 AD.

We are, of course, referring to “Gladiator,” which features Russell Crowe doing his best Anthony Hopkins on steroids impersonation, and Richard Harris, who looked about 90, which is odd, since he played Marcus Aurelius, who died at 59.

If you are the sort who needs the element of surprise to stay interested in a predictable story line, I suggest you stop reading right now and spend the next three minutes making crank calls to 684-4000. Tell the Mayor you’re not pacified by bread and circuses, you’re still pissed about SAFECO field, and that one day, the revolution will come. Otherwise, read on.

In the movie, Marcus Aurelius, after conquering most of the known world, asks Maximus, his lead general, to restore the state to the senate and end political corruption as the next Emperor. Maximus momentarily demurs. Commodus, the Emperor’s son, takes the news badly and offs the old man before the decision becomes known. Maximus is unsuccessfully executed, winds up a slave, becomes a gladiator, and eventually, with the ineffective help of Commodus’ sister, plots revolution and kills the annoying upstart Emperor in the Coliseum before a cheering crowd.

It was great. Yet, as the credits rolled and the adrenaline high began to subside, we began to suspect that “Gladiator” was not exactly an historical document. While we don’t want to sound like some nerd at a Star Trek convention whining about how ships in space don’t bank for turns, we thought, as a public service, that we might separate history from Hollywood for those who care.

Marcus Aurelius was, in fact, Emperor from 161-180 AD. He was also preoccupied as a philosopher with the problem of power and responsibility. Despite this, he disastrously named his son Commodus as successor, a move that was widely considered his biggest mistake. Commodus had a sister, Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilia, who attempted his assassination. For this she was exiled and finally executed. In the movie-land of happy endings, perfect teeth, and extensive cleavage, she triumphantly survives to offer a climactic speech.

According to our Oxford Classical Dictionary, which we read everyday and twice on Sundays, Commodus was “obsessively devoted to performing as a gladiator and appeared to be dangerously deranged.” He also, in true Roman tradition, called the months of the calendar after himself and renamed Rome as Colonia Commodiana. He was finally strangled on New Years Eve 192. The people did not mourn his passage.

Unfortunately, there was no general turned slave turned gladiator upon whom the story turned. Nor, presumably, was there an improbable love interest between this gladiator and Commodus’ dearly departed sister. Nor did Commodus bring the games back to Rome after Marcus Aurelius, the saintly philosopher king, had them banned, thus desecrating the memory of his father. In truth, the games were never banned in Rome until Constantine, in 325, decided they were too bloody for a peacetime activity.

But we at Classics Corner would never let our facts get in the way of good story. “Gladiator” has the enduring moral that bread and circuses are not enough. The people love entertainment, but will eventually see through the politicians’tricks to support the scrappy underdog, especially if he puts on a good show. Justice will prevail, and all they’ll have to do is cheer.

At least that’s how it works in Hollywood.

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