Movies Based On True Stories

The Harsh Truth Behind 11 Of Your Favorite Historical Movies

Published November 25, 2019
Updated March 25, 2020
Published November 25, 2019
Updated March 25, 2020

Movies Based On True Stories: The Creative Liberties In Gladiator


Wikimedia CommonsThe Roman Emperor Commodus, who was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator.

Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic was certainly entertaining, but adventure set in ancient Rome was nonetheless historically thin.

The film Gladiator is often compared to Braveheart, even though the movies are set centuries apart in different parts of the globe. According to The Guardian, despite the director’s numerous on-set historians, the script by David Franzoni took tremendous creative liberties.

Marcus Aurelius’ doubt regarding his successor and nefarious son Commodus was true, but his wish of making Rome democratic was pure fantasy.

Commodus was portrayed with pitch-perfect malevolence by Joaquin Phoenix, but even his depiction was more humane than the real-life figure. Indeed, the real Commodus was even more vile, torturous, and barbaric than the movie ever made him out to be.

Commodus herded women, killed rare animals for fun, ate feces, fed his guards poisoned figs, and forced people to beat themselves to death with pinecones. Unfortunately, this kind of cruelty was interpreted as a strength, so Commodus was actually quite popular among his people.

The movie did show correctly that Marcus Aurelius died because of Commodus. Though Commodus himself didn’t kill his father, a friend of his, Cassius Dio, recorded how the emperor’s doctors killed Marcus Aurelius so that Commodus could become emperor.

Russel Crow As Maximus In Gladiator

Scott Free ProductionsMaximus (Russell Crowe), confronted by well-armed opposition and ferocious tigers.

In a similar act of narrative leeway to Braveheart, Scott’s film employs plot points that make emotional sense in lieu of historical accuracy.

Mauritanian slave traders didn’t scour rural Hispania for dying men to nurse back to health on the off-chance that they could be sold. This point was pure fiction. The film also conveniently forgets to mention that Commodus fought in hundreds of gladiatorial events — that way it could portray him as more of a coward than he actually was.

But Scott’s masterful direction of the gladiatorial battles and the peripheral landscape of excitement was surely accurate. The fights were indeed gruesome and the audience did enjoy them on a visceral level. As a modern viewer though, it is petrifying to consider that to delight in this kind of violence was once so common.

Commodus is confronted by Maximus in the arena in this scene from Gladiator.

According to How Stuff Works, the use of catapults in open battlefields like the opening forest battle in Germania was absolute fiction. The whole character of Maximus, himself, was created just for the film as well. But these are debatably minor quibbles when contrasted with other narrative faults of the movie.

Despite the movie squeezing Commodus’ 12-year reign into a seemingly one or two-year period, the depiction of his death is arguably the most egregious deviation from the truth.

In the film, the fictional Maximus valiantly defeats Commodus in battle for all of Rome to see. This plot point may be a neatly tied bow on a well-constructed story, but it’s a far cry from the truth.

In reality, Commodus met his end far less publicly and without much dignity. He was strangled in his bath by a wrestler named Narcissus.

Marco Margaritoff
Marco Margaritoff is a Staff Writer at All That Is Interesting.