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Top — Fancy-looking or anachronistic helmets.
Bottom — A genuine gladiator helmet.
Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo. This is not it. This is not it!
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Five Oscars winner Gladiator rescued the Sword & Sandal genre from the moribund hell it had fallen after The '60s and consolidated Russell Crowe as a movie star and Ridley Scott as an action-packed, big-budget historical epic director. But much like its Spiritual Predecessor, Braveheart, the reason of this success resided more in ramping up the action, gore, and grittiness, than in increased historicity. As a result, the film actually manages to be less historically accurate than its predecessors, both classic and modern.note 

To its credit, it is evident that the filmmakers made some research (more than most, actually) but they dropped a lot along the way because of narrative constrains, budget, or simply because it looked better on the screen. In a few cases, elements were actually included or excluded based purely on audience expectations, even though the filmmakers were aware of their real accuracy. Nevertheless, several consulted historians requested not to be named in the credits because of their opposition to the most drastic alterations.

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Characters

    Maximus 
  • First thing first: Maximus Decimus Meridius did not exist, so everything he does and causes in the film is a historical deviation in itself. Word of God is that he is an amalgamation of several different people, including Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus (Marcus Aurelius's general in the Danube region and Lucilla's second husband), Maximus of Hispania (from whom his name and moniker were taken), and Narcissus, the athlete who killed Commodus in Real Life (and whose name Maximus retained in the first drafts of the script).
  • The name "Maximus Decimus Meridius" doesn't make sense. The world of the movie seems to follow modern American naming customs, with "Maximus" as his first name, "Decimus" as his middle name, and "Meridius" as his last name. Per Roman custom, men also had up to three names, but the first one (Praenomen) was rarely used because only eighteen options existed. Of Maximus's three, it is actually "Decimus" that is a valid praenomen. Next came the family name or Nomen, which in this case would be "Meridius". "Maximus" would be a Cognomen (a sort of 'nickname' that could also be inherited father to son) and come last, but it would also be the most personal and the one the holder was likelier to go by. Maybe he's supposed to say "Decimus Meridius Maximus" and we hear it with Maximus first because of Translation Convention.
    • Strangely, in another scene, Proximo introduces Maximus as "Aelius Maximus", which invalidates the "translation" explanation... unless "Aelius Maximus" is an incredibly coincidental slave name or a very poorly chosen alias.
  • Maximus is clearly not very familiar with politics and considers himself mostly a military man. However, he just happens to be Marcus Aurelius's legatus in Germania, presumably not a mere one but the resident Legatus Augusti pro praetore given that he seems to have command of all the Roman troops here. In real life, you had to be a senator and a praetor or consul first in order to get that job regardless of your military career (and Marcus Aurelius was particularly respectful to the Roman senate, so he would have not skipped their laws to personally appoint someone unfit). Incidentally, this is hardly the only reason why Maximus's claims to have "come from nothing" and never been to Rome don't make any sense. The fact that he has a cognomen, whatever it is, identifies him necessarily as a Roman noble, and the implied background of having grown up together with Lucilla makes any humble origin away from Rome downright impossible.
  • The greatest plot hole in the movie is the question of how, and why Maximus was Made a Slave. It was actually near-impossible for an adult Roman citizen to become a slave under Roman law.note  And it is clear to everyone that Commodus wants him dead, so surrendering Maximus to the Emperor for a reward would be insanely easier and more profitable than enslaving him, anyway.

    Commodus 
  • Commodus was eighteen when Marcus Aurelius died (though in Franzoni's defence, he is described as such in the script, so we can consider Joaquin Phoenix being cast as a case of Playing Gertrude). He ruled for 12 years before his murder, not just 150 days of games. He was also described as tall, muscular, with a face "handsome without being pretty", blond, and with curly beard and hair, just like his father.
  • Commodus was never noted for any incestuous or patricidal behavior. There's plenty of reasons why Marcus Aurelius was the last of the "Five Good Emperors", it's just that the character flaws given to Commodus in the film are not the same as those he had in real life. The real Commodus was considered bad for things like believing himself to be Hercules and renaming everything in the Empire--including Rome itself--after himself, a whole other kind of crazy. The unsympathetic eye-witness Cassius Dio called him "not naturally wicked" but so guileless and cowardly that he was "led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature."
  • Commodus actually fought in the arena, but he was almost certainly in no real danger since his opponents would always tap out, and the Romans found these displays comical rather than badass, like a modern head-of-state starring in an over-the-top action movie. His real speciality also seems to have been slaughtering animals in ways that disgusted even the unsentimental Romans, including a particularly pitiful incident with a helpless giraffe.
    • Another of Commodus's "specialities" was dressing as Hercules and clubbing unarmed war cripples who had been dressed as monsters from Classical Mythology. It's a pity the film didn't use this, because it would have been a great way to showcase Commodus's cowardice and make Maximus hate him even more (if he was personally humiliating and killing men who had served under him, for example).
  • In reality, Commodus was poisoned in his bath by one of his many mistresses, Marcia (Adapted Out but presumably merged with Commodus's sister, Lucilla, who was Marcia's friend and was executed earlier for conspiring against her brother), in agreement with Praetorians Laetus and Eclectus. When Commodus vomited, the conspirators feared that he might expell the poison and recover, so they enlisted Commodus's sparring partner, Narcissus, to strangle him in either the bath or his bed. Narcissus's choice may have been helped by the fact that Commodus had killed other sparring partners during training sessions - unlike gladiators, whom he always "spared" after they tapped out. Nothing else is known of Narcissus besides the fact that he was either an athlete or wrestler: he could have been a former gladiator, or not.

    Marcus Aurelius 
  • Neither Marcus Aurelius nor anyone else in the Imperial government had any interest in democracy. The expanding empire had already proven ungovernable under the system of city-state democracy of the Roman Republic. They needed a concentration of power to establish order and keep the peace after the Civil Wars, which came about partially due to ambitious generals filling the power void in the far away provinces and fighting the bogged-down Senate for authority by taking over Rome.
  • If the real Marcus Aurelius had any problem with his son succeeding him, he took great lengths to disguise it. When Marcus Aurelius fell ill in 175 AD and was mistakenly reported dead, the Syrian General Avidius Cassius took issue with then 14-year-old Commodus succeeding him (as Marcus Aurelius had made clear he would) and was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. The first thing Marcus Aurelius did was to prepare a military action against Cassius, which was canceled when he was murdered by those same troops. A couple of years later, Marcus Aurelius skipped the "succession" part and made Commodus his co-Emperor.
  • At most, Marcus Aurelius disliked Gladiator Games in his old age and took direct imperial funding away from them, but he never banned them from the city of Rome (he banned them from Antioch - as punishment for Antioch supporting Avidius Cassius). This lack of funding coupled with Marcus Aurelius's allowing gladiators to be conscripted into the Army rather increased profits for gladiator trainers, who could charge more for their services.
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    Lucilla 
  • The real Lucilla was married twice, both to high-ranking officers and personal friends of her father: Lucius Verus (d. 169 AD), and Pompeianus. Only Verus is named in the film as having passed and Lucilla being his widow, whereas by this time she would be already married to Pompeianus. Some of Pompeianus's traits are transferred to Maximus. She had a son named Lucius from her first marriage, but he died young along with a sister. Her son from her second marriage was named Pompeianus and he was about the same age as the film's Lucius. She also had a surviving daughter from her first marriage, Plautia.
  • She did grow concerned about Commodus early in his reign and did take part in a conspiracy to assassinate him with the support of the Senate (or claimed support, anyway), but instead of blackmailing her into incest, Commodus banished her to Capri and had her executed there by unknown means, along with Plautia and other alleged conspirators. Interestingly, early versions of the script had Lucilla and the conspiring senators executed by being roasted alive in a Brazen Bull.

Other

    Games 
  • All gladiator fights in the movie are to the death (except Maximus vs Tigris, but that's only because Maximus disobeys Commodus's order to finish him). While games started as human sacrifices in practice, by the Empire deathmatches had become rare enough to be advertised as such (sine missione), and even these were banned at times. Unless sentenced to death beforehand (the Noxiinote  and Damnati), gladiators could request to stop a fight by signaling defeat to the referees (remember one in the film?) or the sponsor of the game.
  • While there were many types of gladiators and some wore full armor, most fought with their torso naked (like the Zucchabar gladiators and Tigris of Gaul) so they would draw blood even from superficial scratches and give a better spectacle. The Zucchabar gladiators are also the only ones wearing accurate gladiator helmets and weapons (Bull Carcass Guy aside), while Proximo's company's and Tigris's are fantastical. Tigris's helmet looks inspired from Hercules and was probably derived from the historical Commodus's penchant for dressing as him in the Games.
  • The morning star used by the door gladiator at Zucchabar was invented in Germany in the 14th century.
  • Ancient sources imply that a "turned thumb" was used to decree death for a fallen gladiator. However, nobody knows how the thumb was actually turned. The idea that "thumbs up" was to let the gladiator live and "thumbs down" to kill him is a modern media convention. Some historians have suggested that "thumbs up" actually meant to kill, and the closed fist, to spare (or maybe vice versa)
  • The 'reenactment' of the Battle of Zama is obviously not meant to be historically accurate in-universe. However, gladiator games were big in Cultural Posturing and often pitched 'Roman' vs 'Foreign' type gladiators (such as "Samnites", "Gauls", or "Thracians"), with the Romans obviously expected to win. This happens in the movie, with Proximo's company being assigned the roles of the Carthaginians and his opponent's the roles of the Romans, and the former being expected to lose until Maximus's leads his pals to victory. Yet, it is Proximo's company who is fitted with outwardly Roman-type weapons and armor from the beginning, while their opponents include many elements that a Roman audience would consider stereotypically "Barbarian", and "Exotic-Decadent-Oriental-Barbarian-like-Carthage" in particular (war chariots, mounted archers, women warriors, bronze armor, leopard skins, etc).

    Geography 
  • Maximus's journey from Austria to Spain has been mocked many times as "movie magic", even by the filmmakers themselves... and yet it's clear that a lot of time passes due to Maximus's growing beard and losing a horse. What's less justifiable is the fact that he crosses a desert to get there. And far, far less justifiable is the fact that he is Made a Slave in Extremadura and doesn't wake up until he is in northern Algeria, not even during the necessary boat trip in the middle.
  • Zucchabar was a city (modern Miliana, Algeria), not a Roman province. It was located in the province of Mauretania Caesariensis.
  • Juba, played by Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou, is named after a Numidian king and repeatedly identified as "the Numidian", even at a glance by people who have never met him before. The clear implication is that he looks like what anyone would expect the average Numidian to look like. However, Numidia was a Berber kingdom in northeastern Algeria that extended at its greatest extent from eastern Morocco to northwestern Libya - people there were olive-skinned like Moors, not black African like Hounsou. Juba would be likelier to be called a Nubian, or an "Ethiopian", the generic word for a black person in the Ancient Mediterranean.

    Language and Terms 
  • Some critics have taken issue with the use of language in the film. Obviously there is a Translation Convention going on and the characters are probably supposed to say Hispanus or Hispanicus when we hear them calling Maximus "Spaniard", or Turgalium when he calls his hometown Trujillo. Other choices are more baffling, like the use of "Proximo" when Proximus would fit better among Maximus and Commodus.
    • A deleted scene has Quintus ordering archers to "fire"... hundreds of years before the invention of firearms. What's weirder, the earlier battle scene has him giving the correct command, "loose!"
  • The Colosseum wasn't called that in Ancient Times; it was the Flavian Amphitheatre (Amphitheatrum Flavium). The name Colosseum ("By the Colossus") was given to it in The High Middle Ages in reference to a colossal statue of Nero that fell into disrepair and disappeared at some point between the 5th and 9th centuries AD.note  The size of the Flavian Amphitheatre (though exaggerated in the film) probably helped the transition of the name.
  • The Romans speak The Queen's Latin. The Germanics speak modern German... but they sing in Zulu before engaging the Romans in combat (actually because the chant is sampled from the movie Zulu as a hidden joke). Meanwhile, Maximus's son speaks modern Italian, and his wife is played by an Italian actress but she has no lines. Is their language supposed to be Vulgar Latin? A native Hispanic language from the Trujillo area, like Lusitanian or Celtic Vetton?
  • The Latin used is weak. After the battle in Germania, Maximus yells "Roma Victor!", instead of the correct "Roma Victrix!" (Roma being a feminine word). The sign above Gladiator barracks reads Ludus Magnus Gladiatores when it should be Ludus Magnus Gladiatorum ("Great School of Gladiators").

    Military 
  • Catapults and ballists were siege weapons and not used against armies like field artillery, as it is shown in the film. They would be all but useless in a forested area like that.
  • Arrows on Fire and naphtha-filled clay pots, likewise, were weapons used to induce fires in sieges and naval engagements. Maybe the movie!Romans wanted to set the forest alight to get the Barbarians out, but they failed for who knows what reason. In the movie, the fire's only purpose seems to look cool on the screen.
  • Roman generals rarely led from the front. When they fought, it was with the infantry, the backbone of the Roman Army. The cavalry had an auxiliary role and was made largely of conquered Barbarians and allies.
  • Roman cavalrymen (as well as officers and standard bearers) used scale armor, not the stereotypical Roman segmented cuirass, which was used by the legionaries. Their primary weapon was the spear, not the sword (but try telling that to Hollywood).
  • As usual in movies, all horses wear stirrups, which were unknown in Europe before the 6th century. Even the horse Maximus rides in the Colosseum has them, despite having been stolen from a chariot. Obviously, this is done for safety reasons and because training actors to ride accurate Roman horned saddles is incredibly difficult.
  • Roman infantry is shown advancing in formation and stopping the Germanic arrows and charge because of it... but as in most movies, this is abandoned right after to engage the Barbarians in more visually appealing combat. In Real Life, losing the formation would have been the immediate prelude to losing the battle catastrophically.
  • As it is also usual in fiction, the Germanics are portrayed as a bunch of Wild Hair-weaving, pelts-wearing, screamig cavemen with little gear besides clubs and axes, and no more strategic thinking than charging at the Romans until one side is destroyed (i.e. theirs). There is even a helmet with downward pointed horns, like the Nord helmet from Skyrim. Their only apparent strength is their wild surroundings and the fact that they will just not stay down ("A people should know when they are conquered", in the words of Quintus).
    • In reality, the Germanics Marcus Aurelius fought (the Marcomanni and the Quadi) were a strong confederation in what is now Czechia and Slovakia, which became vassals of Rome (but not conquered by them) some time after the reign of Augustus. They were much closer to the Romans in both tactics and equipment, which isn't surprising given their long relationship and the fact that Romans commonly recruited Barbarians in the borders of the Empire. They were more than capable of fighting the Romans and even conducting sieges: during the wars against Marcus Aurelius, the Marcomanni made it as far as Aquileia and killed two Praetorian guards in battle. The Romans even compared the Marcomannic Wars to the Punic Wars in terms of difficulty and the peril they meant to Rome's survival, rather than the casual feel they have in the film. And they ended with Commodus signing a white peace with the tribes, instead of with Marcus Aurelius note  offering them peace and slaughtering them with ease when they refused.
  • Soldiers and gladiators alike wear short metal or leather armbands. These didn't exist in Real Life but became ubiquitous in depictions of Antiquity from The Renaissance on, due to people misunderstanding depictions of segmented arm armor (Manica) in Roman reliefs. This is one of the items the filmmakers knew were inaccurate, but felt they could not exclude due to audience expectations.

    Politics 
  • Senator Gaius claims, "Rome was founded as a republic" when in fact it was founded as a kingdom. Word of God claims this was meant to be inaccurate in-universe, and this is plausible since Gaius is a politician trying to push his political agenda, and the Romans themselves didn't like to think of Rome ever having been a kingdom and considered the real Rome to have started when they kicked out the kings and established a republic.
  • Marcus Aurelius tries to make Maximus his heir but power passes automatically to Commodus upon Aurelius' death. The oddity here is the assumption that Commodus would otherwise naturally be the heir. In reality, there was no official line of succession since Rome was not officially monarchist and the historical Commodus was in fact the first emperor "born to the purple" (i.e. born during his father's reign) and by succeeding his father he actually broke the longstanding tradition of emperors hand-picking successors from outside their biological family, something he was able to do because he'd already ruled jointly as co-emperor for four years.
  • Asking the Senate to bring power back to the old Republican Offices would be somewhat akin to asking the French today to restart the Bourbon Monarchy in its absolutist Ancien Régime glory.
    • In a similar vein, even in the heyday of the Republic, the Senate was a fundamentally oligarchic body whose members where appointed by a censor (later Emperor) or the Senate itself with strict property requirements. Significant legislative and executive power did also rest in the democratic Citizens' Assembly, where any citizen could cast a vote and patricians and Senators were on even ground with Plebeians, but of course it's an almost universal mistake in Hollywood's mind that only the Senate existed.
    • Returning power to the Senate also couldn't be further from the truth of the real life Year of Five Emperors in which Commodus' immediate successor Pertinax was murdered by the Praetorian Guard who then auctioned off the title to the highest bidder Didius Julianus only for Julianus to be ousted by Septimius Severus who then had to fight off Pescennius Niger in a civil war.note 
  • The Gracchi brothers were borrowed from one of the film's main inspirations, Spartacus (the other was The Fall of the Roman Empire). Of course the Gracchi had more reason to appear in Spartacus than in Gladiator, because they actually lived in the second century BC instead of AD.


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