In 2001 the movie Gladiator swept the Oscars, taking five awards including one for Russell Crowe for best actor. Following the latest archaeological discoveries in Rome, ‘Five’ (formerly Channel Five) picked up this documentary which attempts to dissect how true to life was the film…
Unlike the usual Hollywood-cod-historical tie-in of such documentaries on commercial channels, this one set out its’ stall early, going straight to Gladiator screen writer Robert Facinelli. Was there a real Maximus Decimus Meridius? “No, I made him up.” Was there a real Emperor Commodus? A major figure, certainly, in the decline of the Roman Empire.
So where does the show go from there…?
Two archaeological digs. The first, the villa of a real Roman general and provincial commander, confidant of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris in the Gladiator movie). This one died at the height of his rank and privilege and was never a gladiator in the arena. This thread was discarded as a dead-end. The second, a villa known to have belonged to the Emperor Commodus.
Effectively stolen by means of assassination, it was this villa to which the Emperor retreated, largely out of sight of Rome, whilst he plotted against everyone and trained, as in the movie, to be a gladiator in the arena. The rest of the show followed this thread; Commodus, a paranoid, alcoholic, psychotic fantasist and the only Emperor to defy convention and ‘compete’ in the arena.
This fascinating documentary used archaeology and historical combat experts, both to look at the real lives and fighting tactics of Roman gladiators and the outlandish and bloodthirsty behaviour of Emperor Commodus.
Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus was Emperor from 180 to 192. He did not, as in the movie, kill his father Marcus Aurelius, one of the ‘five good emperors.’ However, aged only 19 at his accession, being young, spoilt, ambitious and almost certainly unhinged from the outset, Commodus wreaked havoc on Rome’s elite by assassinating all rivals, real or imagined. Undoubtedly what we now call ‘an adrenaline junkie,’ Commodus was desperate for the love of the Roman people and to establish a reputation of his own to outshine his father’s military and political distinction. Commodus largely disregarded the running of the empire for his twelve-year reign in favour of gladiatorial training under former ‘rock star’ fighter Narcissus. Commodus clearly lacked any true moral or physical courage as most of his public gladiatorial appearances were rigged. In private he was a sadist.
So many of the Roman emperors are now considered mad. Was it something in the gene pool? The abundance of toxic chemicals in Rome’s water supply? The corrupting effect of absolute power, combined with the paranoia induced by centuries of dynastic and political in-fighting with the Empire?
Commodus was finally undone by a plot to wipe out his own household. His mistress and servants took matters into their own hands, poisoning the Emperor. It was left to Narcissus to finish him off by drowning, in the bath, at the villa.
Gladiator: The True Story is probably the best documentary I have seen on ‘Five.’ It stuck to the known historical and archaeological facts, acknowledging where it speculated to fill in the gaps, whilst de-bunking large chunks of popular myth. All this without talking down to the audience, a rare thing in TV documentary across any channels. More like this, please, ‘Five’. RC