The 88th Academy Awards are next Sunday night. I rarely care about what Hollywood thinks are the best movies they have produced during the year although I usually manage to see at least one Best Picture nominee. This year, I have not and have no plans to do so before Oscar night. Instead, I would like to focus on the film Gladiator, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2000 and, more importantly, is my favorite movie.
I usually date the inception of my interest in ancient history, particularly Roman history, to my sixth grade year. That also happened to be the year that Gladiator was released. I think this burgeoning interest was probably the reason my parents agreed to rent the movie and watch it with my brother and I. It was the first movie I bought when my parents switched from VCR and DVD. It quickly became my favorite movie and has remained so through the years, despite my eventually learning that the plot of the movie is highly historically inaccurate, especially at the end.
Maximus Decimus Meridius is the eponymous Gladiator, a fictional character among a cast of characters that includes many historical personages. At the beginning of the movie, he is a cavalry general of the Felix legion, fighting in the campaign of Marcus Aurelius against the Germanic Marcomanni tribe. His motto, which his compatriots repeat back to him before battle is “Strength and Honor.” (The Latin word for strength is virtus and it is from this we get the word “virtue.”) This is a concise summation of exactly what manhood should be. Throughout the movie, Maximus serves as an excellent example for men to follow.
*** WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT. If you haven’t seen this film and want to, STOP NOW, go rent or stream it, and come back. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED***
Maximus is an inspiring servant leader. This is clear as his men rise to their feet, unbidden, as he rides by them to the frontlines. Like all good commanders, he does not order his troops to do anything he himself is unwilling to do. He rides into battle with his troops, fighting alongside them where the danger from both the enemy and friendly fire is the highest. Later, when Maximus is a gladiator, he takes command of his fellow gladiators, using his abilities to lead them to victory in a battle they were supposed to lose. By thus saving their lives, Maximus wins their steadfast loyalty, to the point that when the emperor’s Praetorian Guards enter the arena to seize Maximus, they surround him and force the Praetorians to withdraw. Later, one of them willingly tastes Maximus’ food before he eats it, in case it is poisoned. The final command Maximus gives to his men is to “not waste their lives” as they cover his escape so he can lead an army to remove the tyrannical emperor from power. At the end of the movie, the surviving gladiators, now free, carry the body of Maximus in honor out of the Colosseum.
In my Military Ethics class at the United States Naval Academy, we learned about the difference between a killer and warrior. A killer simply takes life. A warrior may take many lives, but there is a higher reason behind the deaths. A warrior fights with honor. He does not kill needlessly, nor does he waste the lives of troops under his command.
Maximus is a warrior and a highly skilled one at that. After his first gladiatorial match, in an arena far from Rome, Proximo, the former gladiator who is training Maximus, chides him for dispatching his opponents too quickly on the grounds his fights are not “entertaining” enough. After winning his next fight with the same efficiency, Maximus angrily and derisively asks the crowd, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, “Are you not entertained? Is that not why you are here?” Later in Rome, the popularity of Maximus begins to make him a threat to the emperor, who ensures that he is placed in an unfair fight against a veteran gladiator…and tigers. Maximus manages to severely wound his opponent and has the veteran at his mercy. The crowd clamors for the veteran’s death and the emperor gives the thumbs down. Instead of delivering the coup de grace Maximus casts his weapon aside, earning the epithet Maximus the Merciful. This makes him even more popular with the people, especially because of the contrast with the barbarity of the emperor. Although, his refusal is partly a show of defiance to the emperor, it is clear that although Maximus does not buy into the culture of death in which he finds himself, that sees violent deaths as entertainment, as every man should.
Husband and Father
Most importantly, Maximus is a family man, a faithful husband and father. Over the course of the film, Maximus is defined, and defines himself, by his relationship with his family. When Maximus delivers a speech to rouse his troops before the opening battle, he tells them that the thought of being at home and planting his crops to feed his family are what is motivating him to live through the battle.
After victory is won, the emperor Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus how he can “reward Rome’s greatest general.” This would be the time for an ambitious man to ask for money, power or a position of influence. Maximus simply requests that he be allowed to return home to his family. Even when the emperor offers to name Maximus as his successor instead of his own son, Maximus attempts to reject the offer, wishing only to return to his family. As any man should, Maximus willingly does his duty to his country but desires above all to return to his family when his duty if fulfilled.
The emperor’s offer makes Maximus a threat. When Marcus Aurelius dies, having told no one else of his plans, Commodus arrests Maximus and summarily sentences him to death. As he is being led away, Maximus asks his friend Quintus to keep his family safe. When Quintus informs Maximus that his “wife and son will join him in the afterlife,” Maximus fights violently against his fate. He manages to escape his executioners but is seriously wounded in the process. Nevertheless, Maximus relentlessly rides to save his family, forgetting his own pain and driving himself almost to the point of death in order to save his family. Tragically, he loses consciousness and is too late to save his family.
When he finds his wife and son crucified, he is utterly broken by his failure to fulfill his role as husband and father. It is this failure that drives him through the rest of the movie. Even after the deaths of his wife and son, Maximus identifies himself as a husband and father. When he dramatically reveals himself as alive to Commodus, he states that he is “father to murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” While revenge is not a Christian virtue, it is his love for his wife and son that continues to drive him.