5 Historical Inaccuracies That Make The Movie Better

Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of the most villainous figures in all of Roman history. The iconic baddie became emperor as a youngster (he wasn’t even 20 years old), and his youth and immaturity led to a string of increasingly erratic and unhealthy decisions. His sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), does plot against him in real life, and once she’s caught, the betrayed royal has his sibling executed. (We’ll see how Ridley Scott handles that detail in “Gladiator 2” now that his Commodus is dead.)

The historical Commodus’ reign is categorically horrendous, and Scott’s story admittedly does a good job of portraying that fact. However, the tyrannical ruler’s cinematic story starts incorrectly with his patricidal acts, and it ends with historical inaccuracies, too. That’s right — the real Commodus wasn’t killed in the arena shortly after becoming emperor.

To be clear, he did fight in the arena, even though this was considered a debased and embarrassing action in Roman culture and something an emperor should never do. But he didn’t die there. Instead, Cassius Dio explains that many years later (more on the length of his reign in a bit), Commodus was killed on New Year’s Eve. Where? In the bathtub. After a failed attempt to poison the off-the-rails ruler, a group of conspirators sent an athlete named Narcissus in to strangle Commodus while he bathed.

While still dramatic, Commodus’ real death doesn’t fit into the “Gladiator” story as neatly as one might hope. Even if you swap Maximus in for Narcissus, a scene where Russell Crowe strangles Joaquin Phoenix in the tub would hardly have been as compelling as a death in the Colosseum in front of the hordes of Rome.

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