Early on in Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott), Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) tells Maximus (Russell Crowe) that he wants to “return Rome to the people” and re-establish the Roman Republic. He feels that Maximus has the moral qualities that will enable him to accomplish this feat, while Commodus lacks those virtues, and thus Marcus makes the choice to declare Maximus his successor, although Commodus murders him before he can announce the decision. Thus the film’s plot is driven by Marcus’ idea of restoring the Republic.
Nor is Marcus alone in this goal. Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) and Senator Gaius (John Shrapnel) both want to see Rome returned to a Republic as well. They plot with Maximus and with Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) to foment a rebellion that will overthrow Commodus and put Maximus in control, so that he can empower the Senate to rule Rome again. So while the memorable part of the film is the conflict between Commodus and Maximus, the actual plot of the film is an attempt to end the entire system of the Principate (as modern scholars term the rule of the emperors in this period) and re-establish the system of the Republic.
So Is the Film’s Plot Plausible?
In a word, no. The Roman Republic, which was founded around the year 510 BC (at least according to Roman tradition), entered its decline in the late 2nd century BC. This period, termed the Late Republic, is generally taken to have begun with the disputed election of 133 BC, during which the supporters of the populist tribune Tiberius Gracchus (note his cognomen) forced through his illegal re-election so that he could enact a law aimed at helping the poor. The Senate, lead by the pontifex maximus (high priest), rioted and massacred Tiberius and around 300 of his supporters in the street.
This combination of political violence and disregard for the electoral processes became one of the chief characteristics of the Late Republic, as politics increasingly became a matter of force. By the time Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, the Roman political system was in a state of near-total collapse, and it fell to Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (more commonly known as Augustus) to create a new system on the ruins of the old one, as I discussed in a previous post.
In Augustus’ day, there were still many people who longed for a revival of the traditional Republican system, and for that reason, Augustus had to be careful to cover his absolute rule with a fig-leaf of Republicanism. In 41 AD, when a conspiracy by Cassius Chaera led to the assassination of Gaius Caligula, there were calls for the re-establishment of the Republic. But this doesn’t seem to have been the main motive for the assassination; rather, Chaerea seems to have been primarily motivated by Caligula’s constant ridicule of him. The Senate briefly supported the cause of a revived Republic, but their support evaporated when the Praetorian Guard declared Caligula’s uncle Claudius the new emperor.
Perhaps, had events played out differently, it might have been possible to revive the Republic in 41 AD, but it’s doubtful. By 41 AD, there was no one alive who had any experience with the genuine Republican system; a few ancient men and women might have remembered the Republic’s final collapse under Caesar and Octavian, but even that is unlikely.
Furthermore, the collapse of the Republic was due in considerable measure to forces unleashed by the expansion of the Roman state outside the Italian peninsula. The Republic was essentially a system set up to run a single city; the Senate was in many ways like a large city council. The entire slate of elected officials only numbered in the low dozens, and there was no bureaucracy to assist these elected officials. As the Roman state conquered new territory, instead of revising the system to keep up with new demands of running a large state (for example by adding more levels of elected officials), the conservative Romans just kept jury-rigging this city government. For example, they decided that conquered provinces would be administered by former consuls appointed by the Senate. So in other words, imagine the city council of Chicago trying to run the entire United States government, and constantly appointing former mayors to help do so. It’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.
The whole system became riddled with political corruption, profiteering, overweening political ambition, and civil war. Eventually, by the time Julius Caesar came along, the whole system was simply stretched past its breaking point, and Caesar was the guy who finally snapped it. By the end of Augustus’ reign, Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean basic and a good deal more beyond that. There was simply no way that Rome could go back to a system that had collapsed in some part because it was no long adequate to manage its needs. So the idea that the Republic could be restored in 41 AD was little more than a transient fantasy.
If the Republic was moldering in its grave by 41 AD, the corpse had long since been reduced to nothing by 180 AD. While Marcus Aurelius could have been an idealistic dreamer who fantasized about restoring the Republic (although there’s little evidence of that), there is no way it could possibly have accomplished, any more than Barack Obama could plausibly expect the United States to revert to the Articles of Confederation.
So the idea that a serious conspiracy could be hatched to accomplish this pipe dream is pretty silly. It becomes slightly more plausible if we assume that Gracchus or Gaius is hoping to make himself emperor by using Maximus to depose Commodus and then get rid of Maximus, but there’s no evidence that that’s what they’re up to.
Additionally, the film makes the assumption that the Roman Republic was somehow ruled by the ‘people’ in the sense of modern American democracy. It’s true that the Roman officials were elected, so there is a faint resemblance to modern democracy, but the Roman system had almost nothing in common with the American system beyond having elected officials. The Roman electoral system was designed to heavily privilege the Roman aristocracy; they voted first, they controlled the votes of a large number of people below them, and voting stopped the moment the winner was clear, so that many poor people never voted at all. Rather than being a Republic in the modern sense, modern scholars tend to see the Roman Republic as a type of oligarchy, in which the same two dozen or so aristocratic families were perpetually in control through the election of different family members. And the Senate, which in this film is supposedly the representatives of the Roman people, was the least democratic element of the system, since it was comprised of all former office-holders, who served more or less as lifetime senators after having held almost any elected office.
Again, I suppose we could make more sense of the plot by saying that after 200 years, no one understood that the Republic was actually an oligarchy, and instead that they somehow actually want modern democracy, but that’s pretty dubious.
The biggest problem with the film’s plot is that it can’t make up its mind who actually represents ‘the people’. Gracchus and Gaius are disgusted by Commodus’ gladiatorial spectacles, precisely because they see how easily Commodus will sway the Roman people to support him. As Gracchus says, “He will bring them death, and they will love him for it.” But somehow, at the same time, Gracchus is convinced that the Senate is the body that represents the people. He claims that “The senate is the people, sire. Chosen from among the people to speak for the people.” His claim is totally false; at no point was the Senate the voice of the people. Even at the height of the Republic, it was the tribunes who represented the lower classes, not the Senate (which is part of the reason the Senate was afraid of Tiberius Gracchus). Again, this will make a little more sense if we assume that Gracchus is either deluded or simply looking to justify his jealousy of Commodus’ power.
So the whole plot of the film is problematic. It claims to be a plot by various people to overthrow the emperor and restore the Republic, but this is so unrealistic as to be implausible. The only way we can really make this story make sense is to assume that Gracchus’ true aim is to make himself emperor. If that’s the case, Maximus is simply a puppet in a failed political coup. That means that this film isn’t actually based on how Commodus died (since he died in 192, not 180); it’s really the story of Senator Quadratus’ failed attempt to assassinate Commodus in 182, with Maximus playing the role of Quintianus. Ridley Scott got the names wrong, and he shows the conspiracy succeeding when it actually failed, but this still makes more sense then the film’s putative plot.