Could “Gladiator,” have happened?

Menshevik

Ad Honorem
Dec 2012
9,503
here
I thought someone said something interesting in another thread regarding the status of freeborn Roman citizens and whether or not such people could be enslaved and/or made to fight in the Colosseum as was depicted in the movie.

Putting aside all the other details of the film, could a Roman emperor have done such a thing to a Roman citizen? How much more complicated would it have been to do so to a decorated and respected general?

Were Roman emperors above the law and custom? Was their power absolute?
 
Sep 2017
809
United States
I have no idea on the laws and customs, but practically I think getting a general in would be very hard.

I think he would’ve had to have fallen pretty far in the eyes of his troops and the general population. I don’t know how demotions worked in the Roman Empire, but I find it pretty hard to believe that his legion would surrender him to imperial authority for such a fate unless he was a horrible general.

Maybe if he led them into a disaster and ran away in the middle of it?
 
Sep 2013
649
Ontario, Canada
Gladiator was a complete fable with only loose relations to actual historical reality... but it sure made for a pretty good movie, and I was entertained.

But yes, freeborn Roman citizens could be enslaved, and then made to fight in the arena if their new master desired it. There's a number of reasons how that could come about, one of which is being sold as children. Though it was illegal, it was still done. It was enough of a problem that Constantine the Great issued a decree in 325 CE stating that a father might have power of life and death over them but a Roman citizen still could not sell his children into slavery.

Another one was failing to pay your taxes, then the government could sell you into slavery to cover your own debt. I suppose, in a roundabout way, since it's his representative, that's the Emperor throwing the Roman citizen into the slave pens. You'd become a slave to the Imperial tax collector until your debt was paid. It was not the Emperor's will, it was the law, as set down in the 12 Tables with regards to debtors to the state.

I do not think there's a single record of any General in Roman history being enslaved. They were all full Roman citizens to begin with, and were not in debt, and thus could not be enslaved in the Roman world.

And no Emperor was above law and custom. The ones who tried to didn't last long, as was in the case of Caligula and Domitian and Elagabalus and Nero. The ones who respected the Senate, entertained and fed the masses, and kept the army well-paid, usually lasted the longest. But they had real, true power, everyone knew it, and if the Emperor respected them then they would return the favor in the interest of the common peace. And that's how Augustus lasted more than 40 years, and the ones who emulated him like the Good Emperors ended up being the best of the Roman rulers.
 
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Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,074
MD, USA
Generals were *Senators*, or at least very high-ranking Equestrians, so they were really not likely to be thrown into slavery for debt. Plus, the movie ignored the thousands of very loyal troops that Max would have used at least to protect himself. The whole sequence of events that ended up with him fighting in the Colosseum in Rome was far less likely than getting kidnapped by aliens and becoming Emperor of Mars...

Basic rule of thumb? EVERYTHING in the movies is WRONG. Start from there. If something actually historical manages to slip in by mistake, please don't let it spoil your enjoyment of the film...

Matthew
 

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,865
Florania
Generals were *Senators*, or at least very high-ranking Equestrians, so they were really not likely to be thrown into slavery for debt. Plus, the movie ignored the thousands of very loyal troops that Max would have used at least to protect himself. The whole sequence of events that ended up with him fighting in the Colosseum in Rome was far less likely than getting kidnapped by aliens and becoming Emperor of Mars...

Basic rule of thumb? EVERYTHING in the movies is WRONG. Start from there. If something actually historical manages to slip in by mistake, please don't let it spoil your enjoyment of the film...

Matthew
Then, even barracks-emperors (the generals who became emperors) were murdered in Rome, and please check this Maximus:
Maximus Thrax was way after the events in the movie Gladiator, and Maximus Thrax was a lowly commoner rather than an Equestrian.
Would the movie make more sense if it was set in later years of the Roman Empire?
 
Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
Then, even barracks-emperors (the generals who became emperors) were murdered in Rome, and please check this Maximus:
Maximus Thrax was way after the events in the movie Gladiator, and Maximus Thrax was a lowly commoner rather than an Equestrian.
Would the movie make more sense if it was set in later years of the Roman Empire?
Maximinus Thrax may have begun his military career without equestrian status if the sources are to be believed, but he was a high-ranking military officer when he took power and thus had to have been an equestrian by that time. This applies to all the third-century 'soldier-emperors'.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
3,074
MD, USA
Then, even barracks-emperors (the generals who became emperors) were murdered in Rome...
Of course! Assassination itself is not a plot problem. I don't recall just how those Vader-clone "praetorians" got Max out of camp past all his troops, but...

and please check this Maximus:
Maximus Thrax was way after the events in the movie Gladiator, and Maximus Thrax was a lowly commoner rather than an Equestrian.
Doesn't seem to be relevant. We're talking about the downfall of a powerful general, regardless of how he got there. The movie Max plays up the "farmer" thing, but that came across to me as just something else they couldn't be bothered to get even partly right.

Would the movie make more sense if it was set in later years of the Roman Empire?
Nope. Every plot point was ridiculous, in any era.

Matthew
 
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Oct 2018
2,092
Sydney
Emperors could strip senators of their status, and they also enjoyed the privilege of princeps legibus solutus, which meant that they could transcend legal stipulations. The lex de imperio Vespasiani also decrees that emperors have complete political, administrative, military and religious control should they wish to exercise it. As other users have pointed out, the limitations on emperors were social and practical rather than legal. If you undermine the privileges of senators or send too many of them to their deaths, that would be regarded as taboo (at least by the elites) and would encourage conspiracy (not to mention historians are elites and would thus present you to posterity as a tyrant). If we're talking about a military commander, whether senator or equestrian, this commander has the means to put up resistance and perhaps launch a usurpation through the bribing of soldiers, networking with other commanders, and so forth.
 
Feb 2017
526
Latin America
The Third Century Crisis is somewhat similar. A figure like Postumus is not very different from Maximus. The Three Servile Wars, especially the last two, are the closest equivalent from actual history, though they're from the Republican era, not the Imperial one.
 

johnincornwall

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
8,008
Cornwall
The Third Century Crisis is somewhat similar. A figure like Postumus is not very different from Maximus. The Three Servile Wars, especially the last two, are the closest equivalent from actual history, though they're from the Republican era, not the Imperial one.
The Republic Roman Empire as opposed to the Imperial Roman Empire?

I sometimes think people get too excited about the difference :lol:
 
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