EW reports that the Russell Crowe actioner hews fairly close to the facts

By Tricia Johnson
Updated May 12, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jaap Buitendijk

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-Léon Gérôme’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.”

Just how rotten was the emperor’s no-goodnik son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix)?
As rotten as sandals without socks. In the movie, Commodus pines after his sis (Connie Nielsen) but never beds her. But ”the biography we have of Commodus says he slept with any female relative he could find,” says Alison Futrell, author of ”Blood in the Arena.” The real Commodus (who ruled from a.d. 180 to 192) also loved to climb into the ring, facing down both gladiators and beasts — including ostriches. (His fights, however, were as fixed as an episode of ”WWF Smackdown!”) The one evil deed the flick unfairly pinned on Commodus? His father’s murder; Aurelius died of disease, probably smallpox.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Fierman)