Fun fact: I have “SPQR” tattooed on my left arm. True story. If you know your Russell Crowe films, then you know where this is going. If not, then go watch Gladiator (2000). I was quite taken with the film when it came out, so much so that I had the mark of the Roman Legion from it permanently emblazoned into my flesh. I did this even though Maximus (Russell Crowe) is so incensed with the empire for which he fought for so long betraying him that he literally scrapes the letters from his skin. We will talk more about why this happens later. As I got older, I began noticing the letters “SPQR” in Catholic Churches every once in a while. One can say that this is just part of the Church’s desire for earthly power. At least that would be the cynical response. For me, whenever I see those letters adorning a Catholic place of worship, it reminds me of the mission to spread the Faith. It is a conquest of hearts, not of arms.
When Gladiator opens, Rome is ruled by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), an aging monarch who is hoping this last campaign against the barbarians of a region known as Germania will finally bring about peace. The hoped-for final battle is being commanded on the Roman side by Maximus. When victory is achieved, Marcus Aurelius seeks to honor the loyal soldier of Rome, much to the chagrin of the emperor’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Commodus is ambitious, and he believes that his sickly father will name him successor. When he names Maximus, instead, with the express mission to return the Roman Empire to its former state as a republic, Commodus suffocates Marcus Aurelius to death. From the start, Maximus suspects foul play, and is about to take matters into his own hands when Commodus has the general arrested and orders an execution. What Maximus is most worried about when this happens is his family, and after getting free he rides many miles to get to his estate. He arrives there only to find his home destroyed and his son and wife burned and crucified. He passes out at their feet, and is picked up by some wandering traders who sell him into slavery. Eventually he is sold to a trainer of gladiators named Proximo (Oliver Reed). Initially, all Maximus wants to do is die, but when he is put into the arena for the first time and faces death, he channels his anger into brutally massacring his opponents. Thus, he earns a reputation for his skill, and the nickname “The Spaniard.” Meanwhile, Commodus has returned to Rome to begin his reign as emperor, and one of his first acts to endear him to the people is to re-institute gladiatorial competitions. He does this supposedly to honor his father, though his predecessor had banned the sport. This move brings Proximo’s men, along with Maximus, to the imperial capital to test their skills in the famous Coliseum (which still stands today). Their first match earns the ecstatic recognition of the crowd, particularly for Maximus. However, when Commodus goes down to meet this seemingly mysterious figure, he is none too pleased to find out that it is his formal rival, a man he thought dead. One person that is thankful to see Maximus alive is Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). She lives in constant fear of her brother, though she puts on a brave face. She, too, suspected Commodus’ responsibility for their father’s death, but felt powerless to do anything about it because her son, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), is the next in line for the throne. Commodus also has unnatural feelings for his sister. I will just leave that part alone. With Maximus she sees an opportunity to depose the tyrannical Commodus, and she begins to gather supporters among the senators in order to depose her brother. Initially, Maximus is against this plan, but when he sees his former aide, Cicero (Tommy Flanagan), in the crowd and learns that his former army is near, he changes his mind. He agrees to go through with the plan because it was Marcus Aurelius’ last wish that he do so. Unfortunately, Lucius inadvertently lets the cat out of the bag, and the plot is thwarted before it can truly begin. Seeking to make an example of a man who dared defy the emperor, Commodus decides to fight Maximus in the arena. In order to give himself an advantage, though, Commodus mortally wounds Maximus before their duel. Regardless, the seasoned soldier is able to summon one more fight and slays the emperor. As he lays dying, he can see himself going to meet his deceased family in the afterlife, and that is basically where the film ends.
There is much that is said about the afterlife in Gladiator, but I do not believe I have remarked much about the Catholic stance on this matter in other reviews. Either way, I am going to do so now because there are many moments where we see Maximus communicating with his deceased loved ones. If you have not seen this movie before, please note that he does this without a séance, or some similar nonsense. Instead, though it is not a specifically Christian act (and Christianity is strangely absent from this film), he prays for them. At one point, his friend and fellow gladiator Juba (Djimon Hounsou) asks Maximus if his son and wife can hear him, to which he says yes. Catholicism, roughly speaking, shares this belief. It is also one of the primary dividing lines between Rome and Protestantism. You see, the books of Maccabees talk about praying for the souls of those who have died, a principle that speaks to the existence of Purgatory. Protestants one day decided they did not like this idea and chucked it, even though it is a Scripturally based practice that had been part of what it meant to be a Christian from the start. This is why when you read the King James version of the Bible, you will not see the books of Maccabees. Anyway, when I see Maximus praying for his dead wife and son, it reminds me of the prayers I say on a daily basis for those who have gone before me, particularly my family members.
Like Braveheart, Gladiator is full of violence befitting of its R rating. And it is bloody and gory. If you can handle such things, then know that is about the worse this movie has to offer. No nudity, though I would not consider that something making it okay for younger audiences. Also, it really must be said that Phoenix’s performance as Commodus made the Roman emperor out to be a spoiled brat. I am sorry, but it is a little tiresome. Overall, though, a good movie.