Gladiator stands as one of the best movies of all time, and certainly one of the definitive historical movies of the 2000s. It won big at the Oscars, including with a Best Actor prize for Russell Crowe. But it turns out that its best scene isn’t entirely accurate from the perspective of a historian.
One of the most celebrated Gladiator moments takes place in the Colosseum, when Crowe’s Maximus finally reveals to the emperor, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), that he is not an anonymous slave but actually a face from Commodus’s past and a threat to his rule.
Naturally, this reveal comes in the form of a gravel-voiced monologue in front of the people of Rome. Hopefully we’ll get something to match it when the Gladiator 2 release date arrives.
Historian Dan Snow explained on History Hit that there’s a lot wrong with the scene, even though he enjoys it. He described Crowe’s famous speech as “nonsense” and “word salad” adding: “There was no General of the Felix Legions, and there wasn’t really a Commander of the Armies of the North at this point in the Roman Empire.”
Snow also said there are flaws with the subsequent sequence in which Commodus illustrates to the crowd that he wants Maximus to be spared, rather than immediately executed in the arena.
“This bit shows the famous thumbs up or thumbs down for gladiators. It is true that people could show mercy,” said Snow.
“It’s now thought that thumbs up meant kill, to use your sword, to thrust your sword. Thumbs down actually meant to sheath your weapon. But the filmmakers decided that we’re more familiar with thumbs up being positive, so they just went with the thumbs up meaning [to] spare the gladiator.”
All of the best drama movies about history have their inaccuracies and, as Snow said himself, it shouldn’t get in the way of how much fun we have with the best movies based on a true story.
For more from the Colosseum, find out why Russell Crowe hated Gladiator’s best line and how a Sons of Anarchy star was crucial to the movie. You can also check out the best Joaquin Phoenix movies, as well as all of the new movies coming your way before Gladiator 2.