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I knew they couldn’t stay away for long. Some decades back, some of
the biggest moneymakers in Hollywood history were lifted straight (or
almost) from the most glorious and goriest pages of the Roman Empire
from “Ben Hur” and “Quo Vadis” on down. I will not deceive you. It
isn’t the details of Roman dynastic succession that have fascinated the
multitudes for centuries now. Nor is it the struggles for power. Nor
the prestige of ancient Rome. It’s good old sex and violence that have
assured the Empire’s long-time success at the box office. I’m sure
you’ve heard of sex and violence.
Historian Edward Gibbon (the “Decline and Fall” man) included on his
list of Roman emperors Commodus, the worthless son of Marcus Aurelius,
one of Rome’s greatest emperors. Although Marcus Aurelius wrote his
philosophical work almost in secret, while fighting Roman border wars in
present-day Germany, he is now generally thought to be one of the great
stoics of the ancient world. Commodus, his son, was cut from different
cloth. He made his mark in history by the size of his harem (300 women
and perhaps as many boys) and in his enjoyment of cruelty.
But the reader wishing to refresh his mind on Roman history will
learn little from the new movie. “Gladiator” (with Russell Crowe) is
presently leading the field by far among America’s summer movies. At a
guess, Mr. Crowe is unlikely to even plow through the well over 100
pages (two columns a page) devoted to Rome in the Encyclopedia
Britannica. No matter how diligently he plows, furthermore, he will not
come across the name of “Maximus” (his role in the movie) as,
unfortunately, there is no such person as “Maximus.” He is an imaginary
History in this film yields to melodrama at every key point. Marcus
Aurelius, noble as the name might sound, never had any intention of
restoring the ancient Rome republic. His son Commodus, however (an
interesting detail), subscribed to his own version of affirmative
action. His seraglio was composed of beautiful women — and boys — but
from every Roman rank and every Roman province. He may or may not have
had an incestuous relationship with his sister.
Another interesting detail, this one included in the movie, is that
Commodus actually did fight as a gladiator. Although I can find no
record of it in the history books, no one will ever convince me that any
such match with the Emperor was on the up and up. It seems simply
incredible to me that a gladiator, unprotected by the Roman caste
system, would feel free to chop up the Emperor of Rome.
On the other hand, I can easily believe that Commodus died the way he
died in the history books. He seemed so wild in his cruelty that the
Roman aristocratic class decided that as long as Commodus was around, no
one was safe. A court concubine slipped poison into his wine. And a
professional wrestler was called in to finish the job by strangling him
to death, after which Rome slid into many years of civil war and strife.
It was almost unthinkable that the Roman Empire, the greatest
political institution that humanity had as yet built, should falter.
But falter it did, until Constantine and the coming of Christianity at
the beginning of the fourth century.
Not that everything was easy for the early Christians. The crowds at
the Roman Colosseum felt no shrinking from the regular shows of cruelty
these circuses publicly displayed. In fact, there is an abundance of
evidence that these obscenities were hugely popular among the Roman
masses. Compassion never figured very large as a Roman character trait.
All this until the arrival of Christianity from the East. The notion
of Christianity as an “Eastern” sect persisted for years in the
Christianized Roman Empire — and indeed almost all the place names in
the Gospel are situated most specifically in the East. But eventually,
Eastern myths and many other elements were absorbed by the Western
But we will never know the form in which we would have inherited
Christianity if the West, beginning at the start of the 15th century,
had not sought — nor indeed won — world domination. What we do know
is that if the West — by this time heavily irreligious with church
attendance dropping every Sunday — had reached the stage of agnosticism
with which we are familiar, it might be rare to encounter Christians in
gladiator films. Christian creativity in the theatrical arts might
perhaps have divided itself into two streams, the pious and the
You pays your money, you takes your choice.