8 Historical Inaccuracies From the Film Gladiator

Cambridge University historian Peter Burke states that we see history through the eyes of those who ‘invent’ it. One of the best examples supporting this assertion is the historical film drama, which tends to ‘educate’ the general public in terms of history far more effectively than any academic work or documentary effort, regardless of accuracy.

gladiator inaccuracy

At least we are entertained. Russell Crowe as Maximus in Gladiator

Unfortunately, the purpose of Hollywood’s historical epics is not to educate, but to entertain and make money. Therefore artistic license is not simply a caveat for inauthenticity, but an excuse to distort in any way that might sell more tickets at the box office or fill Netflix orders.

Here we examine one particularly popular historical film, Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. The film has received both praise and criticisms for its portrayal of Ancient Rome. While some historians contend that it has represented some aspects of the Empire quite well, it is also rife with inaccuracy.

Here are 8 examples of how Gladiator gets it wrong.

1. Catapults and Giant Dart Launchers in the Forest Battle

Though these weapons existed and help make for an impressive opening battle scene in Germania, they almost certainly weren’t used in this type of conflict. Catapults and ballistae, which were used to spring-launch large projectiles, would be practical in sieges, but unwieldy in open battles, especially when there are so many trees.

gladiator inaccuracies

A 1552 engraving of a Roman ballista

2. Marcus Aurelius Banned Gladiator Fights

In fact, in classic ‘bread and circuses’ fashion, the Emperor decreed that gladiatorial contests continue in order to distract the masses from a bad economy.

3. Marcus Aurelius Wanted to Restore the Republic

There is no evidence that the Emperor, nor even the Senate, wished to restore Rome to its previous republican system or get rid of the Imperial office. Those who rose to be Emperor were not against the Empire. This is an obvious appeal to 21st century democratic ideals.

4. The Character of Maximus

The hero of the film, killer of the evil Commodus and champion of the people never existed. His character is perhaps inspired by several historical figures, including Taruttienus Paternus, the commander of Roman forces at the great battle against the Germanic tribes in 179 AD; Narcissus, the wrestler who actually killed Commodus; and Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, who came from a humble background in Syria and became a favourite general of Marcus Aurelius, marrying his daughter Lucilla.

Perhaps in spirit as well as story, Maximus most resembles Spartacus, the Thracian slave who became a gladiator and later led a rebellion against the Romans, winning 9 significant battles before his defeat.

5. Marcus Aurelius Was Going to Name Maximus as Emperor

Gladiator film

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius

Obviously the Emperor wouldn’t name a fictional character as his successor, but it was traditional to name ‘adoptive’ Emperors who were not biological sons. Yet while it seems Marcus may have thought ill of Commodus, who was pretty horrible, he did break with tradition and name his son as heir.

6. They Got Commodus All Wrong

Only 18 at the time of the death of his father, Commodus is described as tall, muscular and blonde. He trained in gladiatorial combat and boasted 620 victories, at least according to his own writing, which is probably accurate enough because his opponents always submitted to the Emperor. For this, he would spare their lives. While practicing, however, he liked to kill all his sparring partners.

Though certainly a piece of work in the film, writings about the real Commodus show him to be unbelievably awful. Stupid, sadistic, cowardly and overly impressionable, he was nonetheless reportedly as handsome as he was cruel and spent his time slaughtering exotic animals like lions, ostriches and giraffes in canned hunts inside Rome’s arenas. He also publicly slaughtered amputees who were veterans of Roman wars.

7. They Got the Latin Language Wrong

Perhaps this one is nit-picky, but why would such a big production make these kinds of simple mistakes? Sometimes they’d use Italian — the character Proximo instead of Proximus — and sometimes they’d mix the two. A sign on a building reads ‘LUDUS MAGNUS GLADIATORES’, when it should say ‘LUDUS MAGNUS GLADIATORUM’.

8. Commodus Was Killed by a Gladiator

The Emperor Commodus was a victim of assassination due to a political conspiracy. First he was poisoned by his mistress, but when that proved ineffective, the conspirators sent Commodus’ wrestling partner to strangle him in his bath.

gladiator commodus

Statue of Commodus as Hercules, 191-192 AD. The Emperor also portrayed himself inaccurately.

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.

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  • Erdwerkel

    Good article, but 1. cannot be said in this absolute way. The Roman army used field versions of ballistae in battle, for example here: http://www.roemerschlachtamharzhorn.de/the-roman-battle-at-the-harzhorn.html

    • GrahamLand

      Thanks! True point, which is why I used the non-absolute “almost certainly”, based on other historians’ opinions. : ) Of course, we can’t know. One thing we do know about that battle is that there were no German shepherd dogs back then!

  • starkadder

    Maximus’ farm was adorned in bougainvillea. The Romans must have been very adept at cruising the Pacific for plants.

    • GrahamLand

      I hadn’t heard that one before. They were probably hoping to slip that one by, but they should have counted on a little botany knowledge among viewers!

  • Caius Tarquitius

    What is about all that inaccurate and ridiculous clothing? Wrong soldier´s arms and armour? A wrong reconstruction of the colosseum… etc..

    • GrahamLand

      Good points. Yes, there are many more errors, some more glaring than others. These are just 8 in a brief article. It’s also great idea to list them in the comments section :)

  • niky

    Spartacus is not Greek slave. Hi is Thracian noble

    • GrahamLand

      Good point about him being Thracian, though I don’t see any record of him being noble. He was enslaved by the Romans, however, making him a slave regardless of his origins.

      • Sol Flower

        I have to disagree about comparing the fictitious Maximus with Spartacus, beyond the two finding themselves in gladiatorial arenas. One was a career soldier, destroyed for political reasons. The other a slave, a Thracian born into slavery (where did the bit about his noble ancestry come from?) who rebelled against his lot in life and was successful in *reversing* it, for a time. He also captured and made slaves of those who opposed him.

        The “Spartacus” movie made me gag with all that nonsense about freedom and democracy, but then again Hollywood knows how to perpetuate the myths Americans believe about themselves, under the cloak of history.

        • GrahamLand

          It might not be the most apt comparison, but Spartacus apparently was one of the inspirations for Maximus, who is sort a gestalt entity made from many historical figures and a whole lot of Hollywood schmaltz.

  • Sol Flower

    A long time ago this film was discussed in another ancient history forum, with particular attention to historical inaccuracies. Someone stated that a consultant was hired by production but that when he saw the finished product he asked to not to be mentioned in the credits!

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  • William Touret

    Nord african were prety much indo-european like (berbers) + some phenician semitic. But they are depict as only arabic. What they are not really, even now (10-20% arabic DNA only, for allmost 80% indo-european). A lot of berbers protest against that.

    • AgonistGadfly

      Berbers are of Semitic origin, not Indo-European. Of course, many modern North Africans possess Indo-European ancestry due to the invasions of the Vandals and Normans, but I don’t think it would be inaccurate to portray ancient North Africans as Semitic in appearance, especially given the significant genetic contribution of the Phoenicians.

      • William Touret

        Even egyptian depict nord-african (red/yellow/brown air and blue eyes) diferently than semitic. Then we have genetic about nord-african before invasions, and greek and roman record. Even berber word is non semitic. And Berber tribes who kept their life style and got really few mixe with germanic blod. We have a lot of studies about it in french, as a lot of nord-africans speek french. A lot of them blame Gladiator for depict them as semitic. In fact even now they just got 10-20% semitic blod.

        There is a lot of berber here in France, as much of them choosed to fight for us in Algeria war, and them came to don’t be killed. They got allmost no semitic blod at all, red/blond/brow hair and blue eyes and small face are comon.

        True for Phoenicians especially because the movie takes place in a town where there were allmost only Phoenicians or mixed. But in gladiator they are depicts as arabs not phoenicians. It’s like depict romans as vikings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Marks/1266358046 Paul Marks

    It was not a “bad economy” that the Emperor was worried about – it was a massive plague and invasions by Germanic tribes that got as far as northern Italy. Perhaps the good professor should pay more attention to avoiding mistakes of his own, before attacking other people. As for the dislike for “the games” by the Emperor – that is included in the first few pages of his “Meditations” as is his admiration for a whole string of pro Republic political writers and figures. Where the film does fall down, right at the start, is in its treatment of Roman infantry – who are shown as a disorganised rabble (attacking without any formation – or even discharge of throwing weapons) who have to be saved by the cavalry. Whilst later Roman infantry may have been awful – the Roman infantry of the time of Marcus Aurelius were not like this.

    • GrahamLand

      Thanks for your comment, though I’m not sure what your argument is.

      What good professor is making mistakes or attacking other people (as opposed to pointing out inaccuracies in a Hollywood movie? This one?

      “In fact, Aurelius had enacted legislation to guarantee the continuance of gladiatorial games in hard economic times.”
      —Allen Ward, Professor Emeritus, Late Roman Empire, University of Connecticut
      http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/wardgladiator4.html

      Doesn’t mean Germanic invasions played no part, of course.

      Nor does admiring pro Republic writers mean a wish for a return to the Republic. Lip service to political ideals never hindered anyone’s personal ambition.

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  • George White

    Listen to this a few times. A very easily digestible history of Rome: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-history-of-rome/id261654474?mt=2

    In spite of the inaccuracies, it was a great movie!

  • ratio

    I always thought of odd seeing this large deplyed of cavalery units engage in a full scale charge in dense germanic forest.

    seems a bit unroman and unpractical to me.
    non the less in spite of all its flaws i loved this movie

  • Get History

    It missed my favourite teeth-gnashing mistake: ‘Rome was founded as a republic’. Gah!

  • Donna Herman

    The Roman Empire was an Empire of Iron as the Book of Daniel states. Iron is STRONG. The Empire was strong in Might. The Empire had a huge Military that was able to conquer foreign lands.

  • Chris Browne

    In the battle scene there was no use of the Pilum which I found disappointing, The Romans would have unleashed a volley or two of these Javelins into the enemy lines before attacking (in formation) with their Gladius swords. That was the real strength of the legions not catapults and giant dart launchers. Check out more Roman history at http://romanonthewall.com