“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series

We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.

I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.

In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.

It has been widely reported that Gladiator was, to say the least, inaccurate in how it presented this era of Roman history. Marcus Aurelius was not slain by his son, but rather died from a pandemic (which given Gladiator celebrates its anniversary during the Covid-19 global outbreak is fitting). Commodus ended up in a power-sharing situation as Emperor. And Maximus never existed, being a composite of several other military and gladiatorial figures of the time.

One must also understand that being a Caesar, an Emperor of the Roman civilisation, would have been nothing like existing as a President or Prime Minister in our modern, 21st century era. Emperor’s were widely, and infamously, known for their madness, cruelty or sheer whimsy over centuries, and would have been constantly embroiled in plots, schemes and assassinations, or simply plain “fiddling while Rome burns” as ascribed to the well known Emperor Nero. Ancient Rome was, of course, in no way a democratic society. Yet there is something about Commodus which resonates to me as, through Gladiator, a warning from history. Our leaders may not be Emperor’s but they are often no less unaccountable for their actions.

Commodus only comes to rule the Roman Empire in Gladiator because of primogeniture, and his rights as the son of an imperial dynasty. Psychologically and in terms of skill, he is not remotely capable of any kind of leadership. He is vain, cruel, sociopathic, fantasises about congress with his biological sister, and entirely governed by his own self-interest. Committing patricide is just the icing on the cake. He also, crucially, on imagining his role as leader, courts Maximus—the leader of a military force who could theoretically make or break his throne—against the Senators who represent the people he would rule over. “These senators, they scheme and squabble and flatter and deceive. Maximus we must save Rome from the politicians”.

What he doesn’t realise at this point is that Marcus, more of a politician and public servant than traditional Emperor, certainly in Gladiator, seeks to give Maximus and the military absolute power on the proviso that Rome reverts to a republic, which it originally was before the rise of the Caesars. This in itself is a risky move politically, ceding power to a military force. Derek Jacobi’s Senator Gracchus asks the important question of Maximus about the realities of that situation later in the film: “So, after your glorious coup, you will take your 5,000 warriors and leave?”. Ultimately, Maximus is trusted with this because he is the precise opposite of Commodus in character. “Commodus is not a moral man” Marcus tells Maximus, as he explains why he shouldn’t inherit his throne. Marcus understands that a leader’s *character* is what defines their rule. Morality is certainly something considered lacking in populist leaders.

This is what we see in Gladiator and we are seeing now with the rise of populist rule in global democracies. Populists capitalise on times of political and economic strife. In 2016, Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit vote were bulwark moments in populist politics as a reaction, in no small part, to the economic strife of the Great Recession triggered by the banking crisis of 2007-2008. In Gladiator, the death of a Caesar gives Commodus the space to seize power, kill or lock away his political enemies, and bring back blood-sports to the populous in the Colosseum. A stable political arena would have no space for the kind of rule Commodus, albeit briefly, constructs in Gladiator, much like modern financial instability triggers the conditions for populist messages to cut through to those in desperate need of change and renewal.

Once in power, Commodus openly begins to disagree with the Senators who still exist as the political backbone of Rome. Gracchus wants to get practicalities done, such as helping plague victims in slums, but Commodus is interested only in vague platitudes based on paternalistic nationalism. “I call it love. The people are my children and I their father. I shall show them they are loved. I shall hold them to my bosom and embrace them”. Gracchus tartly asks “Have you ever embraced someone dying of plague, sire?”. That’s a remark that almost gets him killed but it exposes a weakness of populists. Their rule is built on empty words (take Trump’s rallies to the already converted) or slogans (Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit done” for instance) that *practically* mean nothing. They are designed to shield them from the realities of acting on the people’s genuine interests and needs.

Commodus rails against the Senate for daring to lecture him, despite the fact he earlier to them professes no interest in the scholarship Marcus maintained while in power, believing it was at the expense of ‘the people’. He flirts with the idea of a Rome without a Senate, with him as an absolute ruler to ‘take care’ of the people. He suggests they are out of touch and he is the only one who understands what Rome is, or could be. “I will give the people a vision and they will love me for it. They will soon forget the tedious sermonizing of a few dry old men. I will give them the greatest vision of their lives”. What is this if not Trump’s pledge to ‘Make America Great Again’? Has he not battled Senators who have disagreed with his views or whims or especially a media he considers hostile to his ends? Trump is as personally ‘un-governable’ as Commodus would have been.

Yet, crucially, there is a sense that such populists have a deeper understanding of their world, and what the people actually desired, than centrists such as Marcus or noble warriors like Maximus. Gracchus admits as much about Commodus. “I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. He will conjure magic for them and they will be distracted. He will take away their freedom, and still they will roar. He will give them death, and they will love him for it”. You could particularly substitute Rome for America here, or to a degree England, and the same would apply. Commodus uses the Colosseum and games. Johnson stirs up historic national fervour. Trump stokes xenophobia. And both, as do other dangerous populists such as Jair Bolsonaro or Victor Orban, use a level of showmanship to do so. They are characters *beyond* their politics. They appeal to the mob.

As I type, as the coronavirus ravages the planet, Trump openly suggests drinking bleach might help provide a cure. He *literally* may have given people death, and yet still millions of his supporters back him. He can do no wrong. Millions feel the same about Brexit, despite how frequently it has been proven to be a regressive nationalist fantasy that will set Great Britain back rather than take it forward. Populists encourage cultish zealotry and do so by appealing directly to what ‘the people’ want, with their words and slogans, and promises they will never keep that are so quickly ignored by a new promise, the people have no time to keep up and question their lies. With Commodus, it is new gladiators, new sports, new entertainment to appease the masses. 

Hence why, in Gladiator, Maximus serves as such an outlier. The mob love him more than Commodus. He has such respect within the military, and the Senate, that nobody tells Commodus he is still alive. “If they lie to me they don’t respect me. If they don’t respect me then how can they ever love me?”. Commodus’ narcissism and deep found insecurity means while he is incapable of giving such love and respect, he expects it from everyone else, and cannot understand why this doesn’t happen. He then cannot kill Maximus, lest making him a martyr for a greater cause, and court the displeasure of a mob who he just wants to hear cheering at the up or down of his thumb. “They love Maximus for his mercy, so I can’t kill him or it makes him even more merciful”.

If anything, seeing his young nephew Lucius—himself theoretically next in line to the throne—playing as a child does and venerating Maximus as “the saviour of Rome” wounds him even more. Commodus cannot cope with the idea that people do not love him as much as Maximus, personalising the broader political concepts of populist rule. “Gladiators only fight in the games. Wouldn’t you prefer to be a brave Roman warrior like Julius Caesar?” He asks, but Lucius feels more of an affinity to the hard-fought bravery of Maximus than the inherited power of Commodus. It more and more shows up his insecurities. You only have to look, in the modern context, how powerfully and personally Trump reacts to any suggestion Barack Obama might be more loved and respected than he. Trump has constantly personalised what should have been a professional transition of government into an attempt to prove he is *better* than his predecessor.

This, too, is a key part of the populist psychology. Insecurity. The need to prove their own worth. Johnson constantly compares himself to Winston Churchill, quite a poor domestic Prime Minister venerated by history for leading the West through the fight against fascism, but who if you look deeper was by no means the straightforward hero he is remembered as. Johnson feels the need to mould himself as a Churchillian leader, his enemies this time the technocratic trading bloc of the European Union. He has consistently foundered when faced with a genuine threat in Covid-19, as has Trump, who framed his conflict in terms of either China or Mexican/foreign immigration. Their profession of strength and of proficiency collapses under the weight of actually having to *do* something as clearly as does Commodus’ attempt to best Maximus in the arena and cement his power. Even by cheating, stabbing Maximus ultimately fatally, he still loses. He is still too weak.

Gladiator ends up more of a fantasy in this regard, as there is no evidence modern populists will be bested as easily by moral centrists as they are in this fictionalised version of Ancient Rome. Ridley Scott’s film even frames the defeat of Commodus in vaguely fascistic terms, with plenty of Nazi iconography in Commodus’ insignia, his chariot ride through legions of Roman soldiers, and his plan to impregnate his sister and have her “provide me with an heir of pure blood so that Commodus and his progeny will rule for 1,000 years”. This makes it even easier for Maximus to slay this Hitler-in-waiting, a clear cut tyrant, backed by a mob keener on revolution than the status quo. Would that it were so simple in a modern era where populism has turned democracies into tribalist factions who populist leaders actively encourage to disagree in order to solidify their base.

Whether the world will look differently after the pandemic, and may stem the tide of populism, it is too early to say. But in looking back at Gladiator, and seeing many of our own leaders reflected in the narcissistic, venal sociopathy of Commodus, one imagines a bleak future if men like this are allowed to reshape our world as they shaped antiquity.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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