After events on a fifth century coin hoard, the portrayal of emperors, digital reconstructions of ancient cities, classically inspired poetry and Greek tragedy and epic, the Classical Association in Northern Ireland moved on to a place where historical fact seemingly goes to die – Hollywood.
The Green Room of the Black Box, Belfast played host to the first CANI Film Night – a screening of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, itself not immune to accusations of distorting the facts or inventing new ones with anachronisms, virtually the entire character of Maximus, the restoration of the Republic or Oliver Reed and his homosexual giraffes.
However, there are plenty of things it did get right such as the depiction of the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius, weighed down by endless war, age and illness (and likely an opiate addiction), the corrupting effects of power on Commodus and the use of Bread and Circuses to control the mob.
But as Dr Martijn Icks pointed out in his short introduction to the film, does it really matter if something like Gladiator is historically accurate? And not just in the way that it is meant to be entertainment and does not claim to be historically accurate at any stage.
On a personal note, it was the release of Gladiator that got me to think about studying Ancient History beyond secondary school in the first place. The release of Gladiator saw a rise in sales of books on Marcus Aurelius, while its success, coupled with technical advances, saw a rejuvenation of historical epic as a mainstream film genre with films like Alexander, 300, King Arthur, The Eagle and Centurion (a nice list for future Film Nights perhaps). And even if none of these reached the heights of Gladiator, they continue to breed interest in the Ancient World.
Dr Icks also pointed out that films like Gladiator can reflect not just what we think of Rome at any given time but what also we think of ourselves in that Gladiator represents a different approach to the Roman Empire in mainstream film. In the “swords and sandals” epics of the 1950s and 60s, Rome was the archetypal, evil empire ruled by the worst emperors, Nero and Commodus, hell-bent on oppressing freedom, or persecuting Christians, reflecting the political backdrop at the time in the aftermath of the fall of fascism and the current Cold War against godless Communism.
In Gladiator, Rome is something more.
In the hands of a tyrant like the born-in-the-purple psychopath, Commodus, it quickly devolves into political turmoil and blood-letting in the sands of the Colosseum. Oppression by entertainment – there is nothing new in it.
But in the hands of a good emperor, it could be not just a bulwark against barbarian chaos but an agent of civilisation best seen when the ailing, last of the “Good Emperors” Marcus Aurelius asks “And what is Rome, Maximus?,” the Spanish general replies “I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light.”
Here’s hoping that Gladiator lights the way forward for future CANI Film Nights.
Dr Peter Crawford
For more photographs from the event, head over to our Gladiator Gallery