Entertainment Weekly

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

''Gladiator'' doesn't quite stick to the facts

”Gladiator” doesn’t quite stick to the facts — Classics experts discuss the historical accuracy of the film’s take on ancient Rome

Posted on

Think of it as the other Latin explosion. Set 1,800 years before Ricky Martin first shook his bon-bon, Gladiator slew the competition its opening weekend, grabbing a regal $34.8 million and making an insta-star of Aussie-bred actor Russell Crowe.

But the film also left millions scratching their helmets: How close to Roman reality was it? Just how fast and loose were the filmmakers with the veritas? ”We had a consultant from Oxford,” says producer Douglas Wick. ”I felt very strongly that we at least had to know what the history was before we changed it.” To find out what was changed, EW hit up some classics experts. Our findings:

Did emperors really give the thumbs-down for death?
Put it this way: The Fonz would have been a brutal man had he lived in the second century. ”It’s been shown [in ancient art] that the signal for death, in fact, is thumbs-up,” says Prof. David Potter, editor of Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. The signal for ”life” was a fist with two fingers extended. Blame our misconception on Jean-Leon Gerome’s 1872 painting Pollice Verso, which director Ridley Scott said inspired him to make Gladiator. Grouses Potter, ”That picture’s had more influence on the representations of [the] amphitheater in Hollywood than all classical scholars combined!”

How accurate were Gladiator’s fights?
Not very. Sure, the Colosseum was a cruel place, but most of the carnage was reserved for criminals and anonymous POWs — not famed gladiators like Crowe’s Maximus, who were too profitable to whack. Indeed, only 1 in 10 gladiators actually died in the ring. ”Most fights ended with first blood or surrender, not death,” says Potter. What’s more, as opposed to Gladiator‘s crowded free-for-alls, the ancient fighters usually went one-on-one. ”This idea that [Maximus] carved his way through six or seven gladiators in a matter of eight seconds is overdone,” says Prof. Donald Kyle, author of Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. Likewise, the typical gladiator—who was freed after five years — didn’t mix with tigers (the big cats snacked on convicts), and rarely mingled with chariots, which usually wheeled around in high-stakes races at the Circus Maximus — a larger venue (seating about 250,000) not far from the Colosseum.

Were some gladiators really Madonna-caliber celebrities?
Thumbs-up — or, rather, two fingers — to that one. The producers actually toned down the stardom shtick, thinking audiences wouldn’t buy it. ”Gladiators endorsed products,” Wick says. ”But if you cut to Russell Crowe endorsing a chariot or olive oil, that would become parody when in fact it’s true.”

Who the Hades was the real Maximus?
The filmmakers admit they totally fabricated Crowe’s character. There were many Maximi — one was a commander in the third century B.C., but he wasn’t Spanish or a gladiator. Still, Crowe’s Maximus was pretty realistic. Says Kyle, ”The virtue of the Roman soldier was depicted very well.”