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Gladiator and the Myths of Rome

T.P. Wiseman looks at the development of the myth of ancient Rome, derived from the way its history has been seen.

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.

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