I got a look recently at Gangster Squad with Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. Inspired by the true events of Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen and the police force that took him down, the Hollywood version gives a sanctioned group of officers free reign to eradicate his syndicate by any means necessary. In fact, Brolin instructs his underlings to leave their badges at home as they stalk, maim and murder the enterprise out of existence. The truth is a bit less dramatic, according to the real life crime fighter at the helm. “I fired my gun once,” said John O’Mara in a recent interview in regards to the film events depicted. So with that in mind, I decided that one of my favorite’s – Gladiator – needed a little historical separation from a formula that usually elevates the facts and typically draws a distinct line between good and evil to deliver a story.
In this case, Maximus rises to the level of a near mythological god in his efforts to fulfill the dying wish of his King: save the glory that is Rome and cast aside the Roman Empire. But, in actuality, he never existed.
The Real Gladiator is an Amalgamation
Still, Maximus derives of an amalgamation of different historical figures. Avidius Cassius was the real general portrayed in the military campaign against the Germanic tribes, but he had no such reservations in regards to ruling and republicanism was not within his lexicon. Upon hearing of the mere rumor Marcus Aurelius’ death, he declared himself Emperor. In turn, the general was promptly murdered by his own troops.
An actual Maximus came later in gladiator heels and did possess inclinations for the separation of powers, while Emperor Diocletian also seems an inspiration with his heightened and sense of duty and virtue that's found in the historical record.
Thus, as the on-screen Maximus arises out of the contemplative regret of Marcus Aurelius and his dying hope, the real-life thing comes with a little more nuance. Definitely remembered as a philosopher from his work, The Meditations, the emperor shared the Roman aversion to dictatorship, and co-emperorship was the vehicle he undertook to serve as the check. On the other hand, he was clearly in command - despite the constitutional procedure he put in place to put the Roman Empire at bay.
As for Commodus…
Either way, Commodus actually rises to the level of villain and could even be considered a toned down version of the actual figure. Viewed as crude among the aristocratic intellectual class and a megalomaniac by history, he actually renamed Rome Colonia Commodiana (Colony of Commodus) and thought himself a direct descendent of Hercules. But he was definitely not the coward portrayed on film and personally dispatched quite a few gladiators in the Coliseum.
He did not die, though, at the hands of Maximus in the arena. Devising a plot to murder the entire counsels-elect and replace it with himself, Commodus was murdered in the bath by a wrestler when the plot leaked out.
In the aftermath, a new Emperor was named by the Senate, but was murdered three months later. So it went until the fall of the Rome Empire in 476 AD.
How about True Stories Instead
The question then is why not add some variable depth to the characters in our historical dramas. It makes for interesting stories either way or does film simply require a stark contrast between heroism and villainy to make it palatable.
I think we just want to believe, and while Hollywood can certainly be criticized for giving us what we want, hopefully the search for heroes ultimately inspires people to seek the truth in the actual stories that are just as compelling.