Rome of ‘Gladiator’ has parallels with our country

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 3, 2001

One of my favorite movies is last year’s Gladiator.

Tuesday, July 03, 2001

One of my favorite movies is last year’s Gladiator. But I don’t like it because it won an Oscar. And though the music is stirring – I noticed that at least three marching bands are performing it – it’s not the music alone that makes the film stand out. For those that haven’t seen it, Gladiator is about a Roman general named Maximus, who is betrayed at the peak of his career. The emperor whom he has loyally served is murdered. Maximus’s family is slaughtered, his farm is burnt, and he ends up being captured by slave traders and becomes a gladiator. It’s an action movie, with lots of blood and destruction, but it is more than that. The movie is also about the survival of democracy and civilization in the face of greed, ambition and corruption. It’s a good film to watch as we celebrate our Independence Day.

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The movie is not a true story, but it is set in a history that is real enough. Maximus is a general in the armies of Marcus Aurelius. Both men are betrayed by Commodus, Marcus Aurelius’s son. Commodus is the villain, who stands for dictatorship, empire and decadence. Maximus, who stands for strength, honor and freedom, defeats him, but loses his life in the final battle. Believing that &uot;what we do in life echoes in eternity,&uot; he sacrifices himself so that others may rebuild the &uot;dream that was Rome&uot; and re-establish a more democratic form of government. Once upon a time, you see, Rome was a republic, not an empire, ruled by a form of government that would be familiar to us.

But Rome’s problems were created long before Maximus was born, and though the movie ends on a hopeful note, we know from history that a sacrifice like Maximus’s would have been a waste of a life. By the end of Marcus Aurelius’s reign as emperor, too many people depended on Rome as an empire, and returning to a more democratic form of government would have disrupted the status quo. Commodus ruled in Rome for over a decade before he also was assassinated. After his death things did not improve for Rome, and the empire continued to sink into corruption and greed. The institutions of the old Republic were either gone or recast as anchors of the Empire. A few, very wealthy families controlled the economic life of the whole empire, and the people in the small middle class were mostly civil servants and artisans, with maybe a few farmers and merchants. But there weren’t enough of them. Without a strong middle class, a more democratic form of government was unlikely to re-emerge.

The masses of people in the empire, the ones that weren’t slaves, were laborers and farm workers. Their great numbers gave them power, of course, and the leaders of the empire knew that, but the &uot;people&uot; could be manipulated. And though they were sometimes coerced through fear, they were mostly distracted with &uot;bread and circuses.&uot; The leaders of the Empire knew that the loyalty of the &uot;mob&uot; could be bought with gifts of food and entertainment – like the gladiatorial games of the film.

Our story here in America is built upon that of Rome. The buildings of our capital city are modeled after Roman architecture. Our constitution created a republic, with power shared among different branches, again following the Roman model. Our founders had the wisdom to learn from their mistakes, and extended the right to vote to all men, eventually to all citizens, not just property owners.

But we still have some lessons to learn from the tragic history of Rome. The dream of &uot;democracy&uot; is fragile, even here. Concentrating money and power in the hands of a few, either families or corporations, weakens the institutions that provide our republic its stability. Treating money in politics as if it is a protected form of speech creates an imbalance in favor of those with the most money. It’s not an issue of envy, but an issue of fairness. Rome collapsed, in part, because its policies became less and less fair to the average citizen. As we contemplate dramatic changes in government policies and programs we need to keep fairness as the primary objective, because what we do now echoes in the future lives of our children and grandchildren.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.