One of my favorite movies that is set during the time of the Roman empire is the movie Gladiator. The movie is set in the second century AD, and tells of a great fictional Roman general, Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is forced to become a common gladiator when the son of the emperor, whose name is Commodus, killed his own father, Marcus Aurelius, after he chose Maximus to be the next in line to the throne. Commodus arranged to have the general and his family killed; Maximus escapes, but cannot save his family, and is forced into becoming a lowly gladiator. The movie does an excellent job of portraying the structure of the Roman legion, the brutality of the Colosseum, and the power of popularity among the wealthier Roman citizens. However, even though it does get some things right, the majority of the movie is not accurate.
The movie does well in a few aspects in terms of accuracy. One of the most accurate aspects was – as you may have guessed – the gladiator fights. The film made sure to show as much blood gore as it could for the fight scenes, which I think is awesome. Additionally, when Maximus and his gladiator gang eventually reach the Colosseum, they fight against people using chariots and other equipment, on top of throwing in animals like tigers into the fray. According to Augustus, he put on many gladiatorial shows that featured thousands of men from across the men fighting each other to the death in the arena, as well as having hunting shows of animals from Africa (Augustus 22.1). Although the film takes place nearly two hundred years following the death of Augustus, the fact that the film revolves around the epic and gory battles between men and the occasional beasts shows that the movie makers did their research. They even included other more extravagant things on top of just men and beasts, like chariots, to liven up the show.
Contrarily, there are many things about the movie that are not historically correct. For example, the opening fight scene that pits the Roman army against the barbaric Germanic tribes (which, funnily enough, were also misrepresented) contains many inaccuracies. The usage of the ballistae, which is essentially a giant crossbow, was reserved mainly for assaulting enemy fortresses instead of firing them into charging soldiers in open battle. Also, they were not used as mobile artillery in the field (Ancient History Encyclopedia). The catapult fell into the same problem here, as it was more of a siege tool instead of counter-infantry weapon.
This scene is one of the best scenes – in my opinion – of the whole movie, even though it is not accurate. Had the move producers remained accurate and made the Romans fight as they actually did, it would make for a less exciting scene. The catapults, ballistas, flaming arrows, and overall bloodshed make the scene riveting and entertaining for the audience, and the producers figured that entertaining the audience was more important than appeasing the historians.
Gladiator is an excellent movie that paints a vivid picture of Roman culture for its audiences. It gets some things right when it comes to historical accuracy, but mostly falls prey to many inaccuracies. However, the reasons behind the decisions for the inaccuracies acts to make for a more action-packed and dramatic film, the opening scene being a perfect example of this. Nonetheless, the movie tells an exciting and heart wrenching story of triumph in the face of hopelessness, and will remain one of my favorite films to date – regardless of accuracy.
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