I love the movie Gladiator and even though a lot of the backstory is fabricated it is actually based on fact. The emperor Commodus assumed power under questionable circumstances when his father Marcus Aurelius died at the age of fifty-nine.
Marcus was the last of a line history has dubbed “The Five Good Emperors” who succeeded Domitian. Because Domitian was a paranoid maniac, the Senate had chosen to elect one of their number as emperor and then had him adopt another senator as his subordinate and successor. This produced what Edward Gibbons called a “Golden Age” for the empire. But when Marcus’ successor, Lucius Verus, died prematurely of a stroke, both Marcus and the Senate were faced with a crisis. Ultimately, Marcus chose his son Commodus as his successor – a choice that contributed greatly to the decline of the empire.
Marcus and his wife Faustina (also his first cousin) had thirteen children, but only five outlived their father, and of them only Commodus was male. Commodus’ father did not approve of him and seems to have suspected Commodus of weakness and madness even as a child.
During a campaign against the Germans of modern day Austria in 180 CE, Marcus became sick and summoned Commodus and chief senators (exactly as depicted in the movie Gladiator.) When Marcus died, the eighteen year old Commodus was immediately confirmed as sole emperor. The next twelve years consisted of maddening chaos. The young emperor imagined himself as a reincarnation of Hercules. He competed in gladiatorial games. He changed his name no less than half a dozen times.
In 192 CE, a number of high Roman officials formed a conspiracy to kill the now thirty-one year old emperor. They poisoned him, but he vomited up the poison. Feeling the effects of the poison, he went to bed. Commodus’ mistress Marcia let his wrestling partner Narcissus into the bed chamber. There Narcissus killed the emperor with his own hands.
Although the movie Gladiator romanticizes the situation, making Narcissus into Maximus – a general loyal to Commodus’ father – the idea is still there.
Many of my friends who saw the movie think that Maximus is motivated by revenge, and it is certainly part of his motivation but Maximus is also living out the dying wishes of his friend and mentor, Marcus Aurelius.
Of course the irony of the situation is that Commodus’ death did not restore the Republic or even stabilize the empire. The empire fell into disarray. The next century was characterized by rulers known as “barracks emperors” who were made and broken by the armies. The empire was worse for the act of killing Commodus.
I guess it just goes to show you that even the best of intentions can go wrong because the world is a complicated place. You cannot control results. You can only control your own actions.
So make your actions worth it. Do things worth doing. Live for the excellence of God, for the glory of Jesus Christ.