Religious and Political Overtones in Scott‟s Gladiator

Religious and
Political Overtones
in Scott‟s
CLAS3410 Classics on Screen
Gladiator‟s success at the box office and near single-handed rejuvenation of
cinema concerning the ancient world is due not only to its indulgent
violence and visual spectacle, but also to its continuing relevance to
modern, particularly American, politics and social climate.
The portrayal of political factions such as the Senate, Army, power-hungry
ruler and salt-of-the-earth hero are still visible both in real life and fiction.
The political shift from Clinton‟s liberal Government to George W. Bush‟s
conservative one is mirrored in Commodus‟ usurping of power from the
philosophically-minded Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator.
And some of the characters have a modern American President to whom
they can be correlated.
Francesca Ratnage
Rory Vieyra
The Presidential Mirror
Clinton‟s aggressive economic expansion may be reflected in Marcus
Aurelius‟ military expansion of the Empire.
Marcus seeks to be a good ruler by moving forward, but at the same time
he shows no bloody-mindedness: „For twenty five years I have conquered ,
spilt blood, expanded the Empire … since I became Caesar, I have known
four years without war, four years of peace in twenty and for what?‟ When
Marcus questions his actions in this way it is hard to equate him with the
foolhardy George Bush even though both instigated military campaigns.
Commodus is the Emperor who best embodies George Bush. When the
Presidency was conferred onto Bush, America had enjoyed one of its
biggest financial expansions ever. The surplus at the end of the financial
year of 2000 was $237 Billion, just before Bush took office; after his
resignation there was a deficit of roughly $1 trillion.
This arose from reckless tax cuts and spending on the two wars in the
Middle East. Bush‟s government had made little provision for the future and
instead tried to give people a short term high via tax cuts and grandiose
counter terrorism initiatives. Commodus also seems to have little foresight,
as he disregards the Senate‟s advice and silences Gracchus when he
speaks of the problems of plague in the Greek quarter.
- Commodus constantly attempts to proffer himself as a man of the people.
„I am their father, the people are my children, and I shall hold them to my
bosom and embrace them tightly…‟ This line, addressed to Gracchus in the
Senate, displays disregard for practicality in favour of an emotional ideal.
He also gives the people the aforementioned short term high in the form of
gladiatorial games and distribution of free bread.
- Like Commodus, George Bush always tried to show himself as an
average Southern guy even though he was born in Connecticut, and
educated at Harvard and Yale.
- Bush‟s colloquial phraseology, such as when he said „The mission is to
rout terrorists… to smoke „em out…‟ in order to be more accessible to the
public earned him the contempt of his fellow politicians. Commodus suffers
the same fate in Gladiator. He is loved by the people and feared by the
Senate for it.
On a fundamental level, we can argue that Maximus is directly made to
represent Christ.
Alternatively, one might argue that Maximus is a hero for a modern age. Indeed,
the film‟s poster seems to promote this idea with its slogan, “A Hero Will Rise”
Maximus dies for the „sins‟ of Rome, to return it to its Republican origins
and away from corruption, just as Christ died to cancel out the sins of
humanity and enable a new beginning.
If Ridley Scott‟s ancient Rome is an analogy of contemporary America, then the
idea of Maximus as a general is fitting. Scott deploys a militaristic hero for an
increasingly militaristic age.
The climax, the fight between the despotic Commodus and the hero
Maximus, is preceded by clear Christian iconography. The audience sees
Maximus chained in a position evocative of the crucifixion.
It is significant that when Maximus is dead, Lucilla proclaims to onlookers, “He
was a solider of Rome. Honour him”, emphasising the importance of militaristic
prowess in both ancient Rome and contemporary America.
When Maximus has killed Commodus and is himself dead, Lucilla reminds
us of the greater significance of Maximus‟ sacrifice:
Maximus, a second messiah, can be seen as placed in the context of ancient
Rome to illuminate how American society has regressed to a state of corruption
and savagery comparable to that of ancient Rome. The sacrifice of Maximus is
needed to redeem Rome and give it back to itself.
“Is Rome worth one good man‟s life? We believed it once, make us believe
it again.”
In this way, the setting of ancient Rome provides a safe distance from which the
film can critique contemporary America whilst still maintaining an outwardly
entertaining and generally profitable motif.
- The film also parallels modern America in the way that it presents Rome
as place of opportunity and enlightenment in the eyes of those who have
not been there. In reality it does not live up to its image. This is very similar
to the presentation of the „American Dream‟ in popular media, such as
Arthur Miller‟s play Death of a Salesman.
- Near the beginning of the film Maximus and Aurelius discuss why war has
been waged, with Maximus saying „… the rest of the world, it is brutal and
cruel and dark. Rome is the light.‟ Aurelius retorts „Yet you have never been
there. You have not seen what it has become.‟ Maximus‟ naive picture of
Rome is deftly smashed once he views it himself. Before his fight with the
undefeated champion Tigris he says „Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was
Rome. This is not it.‟
- Rome and America are supposed to be enlightened and just superpowers,
but they can be seen to be rife with inequality, danger and powerful men
scheming for personal gain.
This idea of origins and their uses appears central to a critical interpretation of
Gladiator. We can compare the simplistic life of Maximus with the decadence of
Commodus and see the relative heroism and corruption that stem from them as a
result. The film heavily contrasts the austere life and dreams of Maximus with those
of Commodus. Maximus tells Marcus Aurelius:“My house is in the hills of Trujillo. A
very simple place...”
He uses similar imagery to motivate his troops in the opening battle scene: “Three
weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops, imagine where you will be, and it will
be so.”
Commodus in comparison is fixated by decadence and ostentation, as symbolised
by the Colosseum. As emperor he tries to win the people by ordering 100 days of
games, indicating that they too are preoccupied with spectacle.
We might therefore consider the tension between Maximus and Commodus to be
representative of a conflict between social ideologies as well as political.
Gladiator, then, presents a critical view of contemporary America through a critique
of ancient Rome. We see the short-sighted government of Commodus, who
appeases the mob and shuns the Senate, as dangerous and degenerative for
The film ultimately appears to argue that Maximus‟
function as hero and reluctant martyr is to return Rome to
its origins of Republic. So too then, must America look to
its origins. As a country it fought for independence from
tyranny and the right for liberty and democracy. Ironically,
as a superpower its determination to enforce these views
might well be its destruction. Gladiator is in some ways a
warning to contemporary America through the medium of
ancient Rome, to look within itself for inequalities before
it attempts to educate others.
Concluding Remark
Maximus‟ function as hero and reluctant martyr is to return
Rome to its origins as a Republic. So too must America
look to its origins. Gladiator is in some ways a warning to
contemporary America through the medium of ancient
Rome to look within itself for inequalities before it attempts
to educate others.
The film can be seen to gain resonance after 9/11, as it arguably provides a
discursive view of America that is sympathetic with that of its most vocal
contemporary critics, the Middle East.
One of the main points of contempt for Islamic fundamentalists is the spread of
Western culture, the founding of an ideological empire on the back of capitalist
consumerism. Fundamentalists argue that the enforcing of Western values upon
other cultures is a corrupting influence.
As Maximus dies to return Rome to its Golden Age, his death also carries
contemporary significance, evoking the reprise of a moral and simplistic lifestyle
in the face of overwhelming decadence and vacuous consumerism.
Winkler, M.M. „Cinema and the Fall of Rome‟, Transactions of the
American Philological Association 125 (1995), 135-54
Winkler, M.M. „The Roman Empire in American Cinema after 1945‟,
Classical Journal 93 (1998), 167-96.
Gladiator, (2000), Directed by Scott, R., Universal and DreamWorks,
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