Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Gladiator (Ancient Warfare)

Of all the great civilizations that developed in the Ancient World, few have captured the imagination like Ancient Rome. Beginning in what is now the capital of Italy, Rome would build one of the most powerful armies in the world (at least by the standards of the era) and conquer much of Europe, Asia, and Africa (they only failed to take North and South America because they did not realize those continents existed). They were not the first conquerors, nor would they be the last. But historically they were the most successful.

The Roman Empire would rule most of the world for over a thousand years, longer than any conqueror before or since. Over the years, they would expand continuously and faced a number of worthy opponents, some of the most famous including Spartacus and Boudica, and as the Empire grew it faced a continued succession of wars with other nations. Between their military might (something made more powerful by their ability to study and adopt techniques used by their enemies) and their strategic power, Rome was largely uncontested.

Roman history is long and complex, and depending on a variety of factors they may be seen in very different perspectives ranging from brave warriors to ruthless tyrants. Nobody is entirely sure how Rome got started, the historical facts having been displaced by the myth of Romulus and Remus. Whatever happened, it grew into a powerful republic with the first Emperor traditionally identified as being Julius Caesar. Rome would become a powerful nation, presenting military and political strategies still studied today.

Of course, Rome was not without its darker side. Roman law explicitly stated that women have no rights. In fact, at least one of the Romans' many wars started because of their misogyny: Boudica was inspired to take up arms and drive the Romans out of England when they denied her and her daughters the right to her husband's land. The Romans also advocated slavery. The practice of buying and selling human beings as property was more or less a part of everyday life, especially for the rich who were generally expected to own at least a few. When Spartacus tried to end the practice, the Romans threw everything they could at him to stop his revolution.

But amidst the complex history and culture of Ancient Rome, there is one part that has stood out more than any other: the gladiatorial games. One of the most popular forms of entertainment in the era was to attend a Coliseum (hundreds were built throughout the Empire, but the most famous one is located in Rome and still partially intact) and watch a variety of differently scheduled fights. Normally these would have been between men, but the occasional female gladiator often proved to be a huge hit with crowds (probably a lot to do with the audience being largely male and women often being naked).

Ridley Scott's Gladiator is, to the best of my understanding, one of the most thoroughly researched and historically accurate interpretations of Rome. It is true that some liberties were taken in its portrayal of historical figures, namely Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and Commodus (Joaquin Pheonix). While Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russel Crowe) is fictional, he does draw inspiration from several real people. These include the Roman athlete Narcissus, Commodus' historical murderer; and Spartacus, a gladiator who fought against Rome. But there are much deeper layers to the film beyond its remarkable attention to detail.

The story begins with a set of a series of title cards which present a very cold outlook on the Roman Empire at present. We jump right into the end of a Roman military campaign that we are told has been going on for twelve years, with the intent of wiping out the "barbarian" tribes of Germainia (a region in Europe at the time). During this time, we are introduced to Maximus, a well-intentioned general who fights for "the glory" of Rome. But just what does it mean to find "glory" in battle and to "serve Rome." This becomes one of many questions faced throughout the movie, especially when it becomes more difficult to answer with the political upheavals that occur later on.

From the beginning, there is a common sense that the Romans have seen a non-stop series of wars with the only change being in who they fight. Marcus Aurelius sums this up in his conversation with Maximus, when he claims to have only seen "four years of peace." This statement becomes all the more powerful when one recognizes his old age and the constant references to how he is "dying." Maximus himself is hardly optimistic. On the battlefield, he is treated as nothing more than a man doing his job. As a soldier, he follows orders, and his only goal is the hope that he will eventually return home.The beginning of the film depicts a massive battle scene with one of the Germainic tribes, but there is no glory to be found.

When the rival tribe emerges, they are shown to be ruthless and determined to see the Romans driven out, but at the same time, the Romans are not willing to negotiate or leave (fun fact: the war chants used by the Germainic army are taken from the 1964 film Zulu). Maximus is successful in defeating them, but at a cost. The battle is shown through a barrage of quick cuts that make it difficult to follow, a choice which gives a much clearer sense of what it would have been like to fight in such a war.

Realistically, it would have been hard to co-ordinate so many people when the battle is mainly fought in close quarters with swords. In order to survive, one would have to be extremely quick on their feet. On top of that, there is also another problem that could easily occur, and one which is depicted in the film. Amidst all the confusion, it can become harder to tell the difference between friends and enemies. In the middle of fighting, Maximus shows that even one of Rome's best generals is not immune to this problem when he almost stabs one of his lieutenants by mistake.

The battle is won, but there is little satisfaction to be found in their victory. Even Marcus Aurelius (who led the campaign) is sick and tired of the war. Maximus is more concerned with his own losses than any potential gains. He spends much of the first act worrying both about the soldiers who were killed and wounded in the battle; and his longing to return home to his family. The only person who shows any interest is Commodus, who only arrives in time to see the aftermath. When asked what he would like in return for his services, Maximus states that he would just like to return home.

Commodus is established early on to be interested mainly in power more than anything else. He is convinced that he will be proclaimed the new emperor, believing himself to be the only viable option. Marcus Aurelius alludes to this when he speaks to his daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielson), whom he claims would have made a great Caesar "if only you were born a man." This is also the exact reason why Marcus instead chooses Maximus to succeed him. He knows that he is less likely to be influenced by political agendas and will "return power to the people." It is only in the movie's final moments that this request is granted (in the form of Maximus giving it as his first and last wish before dying).

Commodus is not so keen on the idea, as it turns out. He decides he wants to make Rome great again and kills Marcus before he can make his decision public. From a political standpoint, it is a very smart move, without Marcus himself to voice his decision the soldiers are more likely to take Commodus' word over Maximus, and the limited medical knowledge of the era would have made it harder to identify that Marcus was strangled. He tries to have Maximus killed, but it turns out his experience with the local terrain allows him to easily outwit his captors and escape. Only when he returns home he discovers his family has been killed, presumably on Commodus' orders.

Scott takes an interesting approach to depicting Commodus' rise to power by drawing from, of all things, Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will. The first shots of Rome, especially the image of the eagle statues and the establishing shots, are taken straight from the infamous Nazi Propaganda film. This is an unusual approach, but it may be more fitting than one would expect. A lot of Nazi ideology was inspired by Ancient Rome. In addition to being an inspiration for the Nazis' political structure and military strategies, a lot of Roman imagery was re-appropriated for Nazi propaganda. This also gets alluded to through dialogue, where Commodus states that he needs to get rid of the senate and that Rome needs a strong leader who can do what needs to be done, not unlike the reasoning that got Hitler (or, for that matter, Donald Trump) elected.

Thus ends the first part of the film, and sets in motion what will become the primary focus: gladiatorial combat. Maximus is found by slave traders who take him as property and eventually sell him to a former gladiator. It is here that the film begins to move in some interesting directions especially when we arrive at the Coliseum in Rome which becomes the main setting. The focus moves from the Roman wars to the popular Roman entertainment of gladiatorial fights. Scott provides some heavy criticism of the practice, noting the peculiar fascination members of the audience have with watching the fights.

"Win the crowd" Maximus is told he must do to in order to win his freedom. The crowd is always treated as a collective. We know it is there but no individual members are ever emphasized. In some cases we can barely see it. This is not an unreasonable choice, given the recurring theme that the crowd represents Rome itself. It is through winning over the crowds that Maximus is finally able to face Commodus at the film's climax. But of the various fans who attend the games, the only one who gets any focus is Lucius, (Spencer Treat Clark) Lucilla's son who opens up one peculiar motif: the role of gladiator combat as a sport.

Lucius, along with many of the unnamed members of the crowd, appears to idolize gladiators, and Maximus in particular. He cheers him on, excitedly asks him questions about his trade, even pretending to be a gladiator for fun. In a way, he is really not that much different from the various children in the 1920's who eagerly attended baseball games where they cheered for Babe Ruth or Shoeless Joe. Although 1920's baseball provides a great example, one could also link it to modern viewers of sports who idolize particular players and cheer them on.

A lot of the film likes to emphasize the role of gladiator games as a sport. The bulk of the film takes place in an Coliseum, which is essentially the Roman equivalent of a stadium. There are athletes and sponsors who present particular matches, complete with an announcer who likes to make the fighting dramatic. They even show vendors handing tossing bread into the audience, very much like getting a hot dog or popcorn at a baseball game. Even having a lot of the gladiators be slaves is not too unusual when one looks at the contracts used for baseball teams in the 1920's (which were basically a different kind of slavery).

In fact, the historical gladiator games were treated so much like modern sports culture that Ridley Scott had to remove some details to keep his film from seeming too cartoon-ish. One surprisingly common practice that didn't make the film was the use of gladiators in advertising. It is fairly common today for companies to hire popular athletes to endorse products such as energy drinks and shoes, and Rome had its own equivalent. It was not unusual for gladiators, especially very successful ones who were popular with the crowds, to be hired for product endorsements. Usually this would have occurred in the form of an off-duty gladiator standing in the street and talking about how much they love a particular product. Scott cut this from the film because he was worried that audiences would never believe it.


  1. Sorry it took so long for me to get over here, but I made it. It's been a long time since I've seen this one. Very good film I remember liking, but not really loving. Time for a rewatch. It will be interesting to see how I feel it about it after all these years.

    1. That's okay. It's sometimes easy to forget that people don't always have the same schedule I do.

      I first saw Gladiator when I was in Grade 3 (I was really into ancient Rome at the time, though I was probably too young to understand the intricacies of Roman politics). Going in I only remembered the beginning, end, and that there were a bunch of fight scenes in between. Seeing it now allowed me to notice a lot more.