Ridley Scott’s Roman epic is rightfully regarded as the movie that rekindled Hollywood’s love for the classics. It has all the ingredients for the perfect historical drama: a stellar cast, groundbreaking special effects and a Hans Zimmer soundtrack—not to mention a husband to a murdered wife and a father to a murdered son. It also perfectly captures the powerful essence of the High Roman Empire under the Antonines, if not in the exact details then at least in the overall feel.
The movie’s inaccuracies are few are far between; Scott’s commitment to his project perfectly apparent by the fact he hired scores of advisory historians. Where he does depart from history, he does so entirely by choice. So when he has Commodus murder his father Marcus Aurelius in a double-barreled act of patricide and regicide (there’s actually no evidence whatsoever there was any foul play in Marcus Aurelius’s death), he does so to create an effective plotline of imperial succession and (il)legitimacy, with Russell Crowe’s Maximus named the rightful heir.
There are plenty of other examples of Scott bending history. The emperor Commodus did in fact fight in amphitheaters. But he preferred shooting lions with arrows or javelins or beheading defenseless ostriches to fighting vengeful legionary generals in single combat. Suffice to say he didn’t die in the arena imploring his Praetorians to throw him a sword. Instead, he was poisoned by his mistress before being strangled in the bath by his wrestling partner. But the biggest inaccuracy in “Gladiator” is the city of Rome itself.
For a start, Scott whitewashes Rome’s buildings, while we know that they were ornately colored. He also creates a city so blotted in shadows that it almost comes to resemble one of his future dystopias, like Blade Runner’s LA. Most significantly of all, Scott’s Rome is a city of vast open public spaces. Nowhere is this more visible than towards the beginning of the movie during Commodus’s triumphal entry into the city.
This is completely anachronistic. Nowhere in the second century AD, Rome was there these kinds of spaces. What Scott’s done is he’s retrospectively projected imagery from the rallies of Nazi Germany—the Nazis drawing heavily from Roman art and architecture for their neoclassical style—onto antiquity. It serves Scott’s purpose well though: in introducing Nazi totalitarian imagery, he gives his audience that powerful, frightening sense of the might of Rome.