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Gladiator: More Than a Tale of Gore

Gladiator: More Than a Tale of Gore

Might there actually be a message in this Academy Award-winning movie that I could agree with?


As the big winner in this year's Academy Awards, Ridley Scott's movie "Gladiator" is understandably receiving lots of attention. It has all the ingredients an audience loves: blood, gore, passion, and revenge -- all set to the magnificently reconstructed settings of the greatest empire in the history of Western civilization: Rome.

As a committed Jew, when I thought about the movie, I couldn't help but feel unease: a celebration of the decadent, barbaric, pagan values of bloodshed, violence and death. A Jew is supposed to give up his life rather than be forced to commit murder!

Then I decided to take a closer look at "Gladiator." Might there actually be a message in this movie that I could agree with?


"Gladiator" tells the story of a Roman General, Maximus Decimus Meridius, or Maximus for short. (I suppose if he were Jewish we would just call him "Max.") Maximus has close ties with the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. When the emperor's son Commodus strangles his aging father and names himself the new emperor, he figures that one of his main opponents will be Maximus, his father's favorite. So he tries to have Maximus executed, but the plan goes sour when Maximus escapes from his executioners, is sold into slavery and made into a gladiator. (You know, one of those Roman arena warriors who fights other gladiators and beasts to the death.)

He is sent into the arena to kill or be killed in front of thousands of spectators.

Maximus loses everything -- his titles, his army, his estate and his family. He is made into a slave, the lowest member of the Roman Empire. He loses his independence and his life, becoming the property of his master who sends him daily into the arena to kill or be killed in front of thousands of spectators. Death can come in an instant. What is the point of being alive after everything that gave meaning to your life is taken away from you, and the evil man that did this to you is now the most powerful man in the world?

Defeated, powerless and overwhelmed at the hands of a terribly powerful foe, what hope is left for Maximus?

His only hope is hope itself. "Gladiator" is in fact the story of one person who manages, despite his lowly position and numerical disadvantage, to overcome the most powerful individual in the world. Through the force of his will, through his desire for a just revenge for the murder of his wife and child, and most importantly, through the righteousness of his path, Maximus succeeds in winning the hearts of the Roman mob, and in defeating Commodus, the evil emperor.


In doing so, Maximus teaches us a lesson: that good and righteousness cannot be beaten, no matter how powerful and menacing, heartless and immoral the evil that stands against it.

In this sense, "Gladiator" teaches us a crucial lesson about power. Power is one of those elusive qualities that we all aspire to have. We seek it through money, through education, through politics, and through our social ties. When we think of the Roman Empire, we think of "power." The Roman Empire ruled over the Old World for hundreds of years. There were other individuals and nations that managed to conquer much of the world: Alexander the Great is the most famous, and Napoleon wreaked some havoc in his time. But since the fall of the Roman Empire, that level of sheer power has not been matched.

Maximus defeats with his mind and his heart.

Though his skill as a gladiator and as a warrior are important, it is not with his sword that Maximus defeats evil, but with his mind and his heart. He has courage, resilience, and a singular belief in the power of good to triumph over evil.

Though the movie's final, climactic scene depicts Maximus killing the Emperor Commodus, Maximus in fact had won the war with Commodus much earlier, by virtue of his survival and his refusal to be broken.


If this idea rings true in your ears, it is no coincidence. This theme has been repeated in Jewish teachings for millennia. Throughout the Bible, one is confronted time and again with the idea that despite the size of an army or how advanced their weapons, the biggest factor in battle is how large your heart and whether or not it is in the right place.

Moses teaches the nation of Israel time and again not to rely merely on the strength of their army, but to know that real power comes from following the path of truth, justice, and commitment to God. The prophet Zechariah exhorts: "Not with might and not with strength but with my spirit said God the Almighty" (Zechariah 4:6).

It is no coincidence that the Jewish nation came into direct conflict with every great empire of the classic world (including the Romans) over precisely this matter. Not unlike the fictitious character of Maximus, our nation suffered terribly for our beliefs and for our insistence on following the path of truth and justice.

The Romans destroyed our Temple in 70 CE, slaughtering millions of Jews in the process. If you go to Rome today you can visit Titus' Triumphal Arch which bears the engraved image of the Menorah from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem being carried victoriously into Rome.


Yet the Jews have survived, drawing resilience from our firm faith in the Torah. Amazingly, against all odds, we have prevailed.

How is it that we "prevailed?" No, we never beat mighty armies Roman or captured their kings. But just go out into the street wherever you live, and try to find a member of the Roman Empire. Or if there aren't any Roman centurions around your neighborhood, perhaps you could find a Greek, a Babylonian, or a Persian?

Go out into the street wherever you live, and try to find a member of the Roman Empire.

You won't find any, of course, because they have vanished from the face of the earth long ago. They remain only as memories in the pages history books, and in movies such as "Gladiator."

And yet if you go into any city in the Western world, chances are pretty good you can find a thriving community of Jews: living, loving, and continuing their commitment to the eternal Torah through its study and practice of its teachings.

"Gladiator" illustrates somewhat allegorically what we as Jews have learned through our history: that no matter how powerful or evil our foes, by following the path of truth and justice as taught in the Torah, we can forever overcome.

March 17, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Anonymous, June 28, 2010 5:14 AM

One of the best movies made

Gladiator was a movie of a man that was the leader and commandor of an army. The ruler Marcus knew his son was not worthy and wanted Maximus to be the ruler. He knew that he was strong enough to gve Rome back her name. He wanted to be remembered as the one who gave Rome back to the people. Maximus was not evil and did not have the fickel of the senate and mob. He rose above everything that had happened. He was a leader of the army and then wanted to be released. He wanted to go home and see his wife and son and was Maximus the farmer. When they were taken from him by murder. Something in his heart rose above he had nothing to loose. He knew what Marcus wanted and that is what he did and planned on doing. That was his only reason to live was to make thngs that were wrong right. He knew his family was gone and he would see them in the after life. He believed they were waiting for him. It was just not time for him to go. He fought and fought his way threw everything. He never gave up and was not scared he was a soldier. He lead people and told them not to fear we work together. We will survive and have more of a chance of living. He gave the people something to cheer and learn about. He won the crowd. Win the crowd and you may win your freedom. He gave us many fight scences that I could watch over and over. He not only was smart and thought of the others. He had a heart and knew right from wrong. He never gave up the things he believed in. He said about his to horses he lost on the shield. He talked to Facilla a woman that he had loved in the past. Her son he told about the horses and he thought about his own son. In the end he killed the empiror and he won the hearts of the Roman Empiror. He brought a dream there once was to life. His soldiers were all released and he ended up telling Facilla her son was finally safe. He dyed and ended up going to his family. His duty was done and Rome was given hope again and a new life. One man that fought and won the hearts.

(14) , January 28, 2002 12:00 AM

great article.

Everything make a lot of sense, truly a job well done!

(13) aaron greenberg, August 23, 2001 12:00 AM

Yoni - a job well done!!

(12) DEREK ATKINS, August 13, 2001 12:00 AM



(11) Anonymous, July 28, 2001 12:00 AM

No accident I looked at this one

Your message encourages me as I fight evil on a much smaller scale in my own neighborhood. Thanks to Hashem for leading me to this on a night when I was mourning the overwhelming strength of those who seek to disempower the people they claim to serve.

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