What is the movie Gladiator trying to tell us?
That living an amoral and deceitful life, even as the emperor of Rome, condemns one to far greater suffering than living a virtuous and honorable life as a slave whose innocent son and wife have been murdered.
That’s an extraordinary claim and it should give us a lot of food for thought.
It’s interesting to note that the same claim is echoed in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. The crux of the matter can perhaps be most simply understood through Nietzsche’s famous quote “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
The concepts of good and evil in the movie are embodied by the two central characters, Maximus and Commodus.
There are two standout scenes where we can understand the true pain of Commodus, the newly instated and entirely corrupt emperor of Rome.
In the first one, Commodus violently and repeatedly slashes a bust of his late father Marcus Aurelius, consumed by resentment at an imagined failure of his father’s capacity for justice and kindness. While the movie does not show what, if any, the failings of Marcus Aurelius as a father were, it makes quite clear the contempt for his son as a undeserving successor to the throne, which even turns into pity as he nears the end of his life and comes to see in Commodus an irredeemable failure of a son. When Marcus Aurelius ends up choosing Maximus, his honorable and virtuous general who had led the armies of Rome to numerous victories while remaining firmly undeterred by the corrupting influences of power, to succeed him, Commodus kills his own father in response to an overwhelming feeling of injustice felt by him. The perceived injustice is of course jarring because the audience can clearly see why Maximus would be the better choice.
In the second scene, Commodus is gazing intently at his young nephew’s face as he sleeps, pressing his own face closer and closer as if to confirm how sound he must be sleeping. There is a menacing aspect to this scene, at the end of which he says, almost as if he were speaking to himself, “He sleeps so well because he is loved,” resurfacing once again that profound bitterness that he experiences throughout his entire life.
When Maximus comes to suspect foul play in the death of Marcus Aurelius and refuses to pledge allegiance to Commodus, he is summarily condemned to death, an end that he manages to narrowly escape only to find that revenge has been exacted in an excruciating way all the same—his innocent wife and son have been burnt alive. After being picked up by marauding slave traders, the once honorable general now becomes a nameless slave. Despite being stripped of everything he loves, everything he has, and finally his very identity, the whole movie right until the very end underscores the idea that Maximus is nevertheless able to survive this terrible ordeal because of his virtues.
A truly extraordinary counterpoint to the sufferings of Commodus.