Things Gladiator Got Right About History

The movie “Gladiator” depicts Roman senators opposing Commodus. This longstanding institution endured both the Republic and the Empire. But the film also couches them in an anachronistic democratic context that didn’t exist. Although the Roman Republic boasted a democratic constitution, “in practice [it was] a fundamentally undemocratic society, dominated by a select caste of wealthy aristocrats” (via Inquiries Journal). What’s more, by the time of Commodus, centuries cemented the transition to an empire. 

The Republic came crashing down with Julius Caesar’s power grab in 60 B.C. Sure, this resulted in his stabbing death on the floor of the Roman Senate by a group of senators. (Talk about cutthroat politics!) But even assassination couldn’t take the nation off its trajectory into imperial despotism. According to The Collector, “the Roman Senate saw dramatic changes to its composition, influence, and powers” over the many centuries of the civilization’s existence.

Surprisingly, the senators would outlive almost every other institution of Rome, including the vaunted emperors. Perhaps this makes their name even more fitting. You see, the word senator comes from the Latin term senex, which translates simply as “old man.” So, what did “Gladiator” get right about the senators? For starters, they’re accurately dressed and have the distinguished bearing, white hair, and beards you’d expect from these iconic “old men.” And a conspiracy to remove Commodus from power existed, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

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