Heroes and Villains in Gladiator

Gladiator is a film that deals with extreme displays of heroism, of bravery and sacrifice, loyalty and honor – but also acts of extreme villainy.  The character of Commodus serves as a foil for the protagonist Maximus, emphasizing Maximus’s heroic characteristics: his moral rectitude, his wisdom, and his devotion to family and friends.

At the beginning of the film, Quintus remarks to Maximus, “People should know when they’re conquered.”  Maximus replies “Would you, Quintus?  Would I?”  While Quintus shows haughty disdain for the barbarians of Germania, Maximus recognizes their shared humanity and their shared proneness to foolhardy displays of pride.  Throughout the film, Maximus displays a capacity for sympathy and an ability to unite with others, in contrast with Commodus, who isolates himself from others.  When he is forced to fight in the ring for the first time, chained to Juba, he works with Juba to ensure that they both survive, unlike some of the other gladiators, who disregard their partners or even cut off their hands.  When he fights in the Coliseum, he organizes the gladiators to ensure the best chance of survival and even saves the life of another gladiator, putting himself in danger.



He is always admired by his comrades, from the beginning, when he is a respected general, to the end, when he is a lowly gladiator standing up to the emperor of Rome.  Commodus, on the other hand, takes every chance he gets to ensure that he is not respected.  When he first becomes emperor  and meets with the Senate, he threatens Gracchus and alienates the whole Senate when he has a temper tantrum and storms out.  He sees nobody as his equal, and thinks he is fit to be a dictator of Rome.

I found it interesting that another way in which there is a contrast between Maximum and Commodus is their behavior towards their family.  There is very different imagery associated with the families of the two men.  Maximus has dreams of his wife and son and keeps figurines of them with him at all times, always hoping for the time when he can be reunited with them.



Commodus has very different images associated with family – he has major daddy issues, to say the least.  I think that Joaquin Phoenix definitely deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this film – he plays Commodus with the exact level of creepiness to make the audience very uncomfortable.  At the time stamp marked above (34:37), a shot of a statue is shown looking on as Commodus murders his father, emphasizing the disconnect between Commodus and any familial love and affection.  Later on, Commodus is pictured in bed with his sister Lucilla, although she makes sure he never gets to act on his sexual feelings for her.  Lucilla’s son Lucius seems to be another object of Commodus’s misplaced sexual desire.  As a side note, I found it interesting that Commodus is portrayed as a sexual deviant, considering some of the homoerotic undertones present in Spartacus, the forefather of this film.  Both Commodus and Crassus have abnormal sexual desires, considering the far less accepting attitude towards homosexuality when Spartacus was made.


Overall, the character of Commodus serves as a foil for Maximus because he emphasizes Maximus’s valor and moral fiber.




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8 responses to “Heroes and Villains in Gladiator

  1. michellegoto

    Examining how the two characters go about gaining recognition and attention reveals another element of contrast. Commodus is so hungry for power and popularity that he goes to just about any length to achieve the status he desires; for example, since his father doesn’t give him the throne, Commodus kills him thus taking the throne and the power that goes with it. Once Roman emperor, however, he must win the hearts and respect of his people. He is told, “Rome is the mob. Win over the mob, win Rome,” so he holds 150 days of gladiator games to “honor his father” and, more importantly, to appeal to the mob. Maximus, on the other hand, is portrayed as a natural leader from the very start of the film shown by his effectiveness as Roman general. This ability paired with his quiet confidence allows him to command the attention of others without doing anything special or pretending to be someone he’s not. Whether it is his army, the other gladiators, or the citizens of Rome, everyone recognizes Maximus’s strength and positive qualities, which adds to Commodus’s hatred towards him. Perhaps because of his envy, Commodus tries to draw similarities between himself and Maximus; however, after studying their characters, it is apparent that his argument is far from valid.

  2. mcostin23

    I like you thesis statement. It makes for a good outline of the entire film. You said “Gladiator is a film that deals with extreme displays of heroism, bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, and honor”. The way the film begins immediately depicts Maximus as a hero. It is intended just by his obvious stature on the battlefield. Typically in some films I think that the audience is taken through a long story of how a main character was able to achieve that position of power. In Gladiator it is a more intuitive view that the audience is presented with. His ability to stay a live creates a major theme of revenge. His family is murdered, yet at no time do you think that Maximus will either kill himself or go into the ring with the intention of dying.

  3. Jason Jordan

    I agree in that I feel like your thesis highlights the main elements of Maximus in the film as well as showing that Commodus exihibits none of these qualities. The major conflict between these two in the film is the main point of the movie and these two characteristics as you have described them is what makes the movie “epic” for me. It’s the idea that Maximus will embrace all of these qualities and that he will triumph over the “villian” which make the movie enjoyable and resulted in the film winning Best Picture.

  4. taalib2010

    I agree with the characteristics that you associated with both the characters of Maximus and Commodus. The description you have provided fits them perfectly but one characteristic highlighted stands out greater than others in my perspective. It is the fact that Maximus was able to work coherently with most people and his ability to control his surrounding such as, the crowds and other gladiators. These characteristics mentioned, I believe, were the most essential in the success of Maximus’s journey. On the contrary, Commodus could not maintain a good relationship with none of the other people in his life. This lead to the downfall of his demise. His own sister, Lucilla could not even agree with his life style and turned against him in a plot to help Maximus escape. The insecure personality of Commodus and his lack of friendly communication with his peers lead him to fall against the wrath of Maximus in the end. Therefore, just as you stated, Commodus’s flaws of a lack of morality combined with the strong will of Maximus to overcome obstacles and ability to work with others made for a great outcome of a movie.

  5. While I agree with the statements you made about the antithesis between Commodus and Maximus, I believe you missed a major possible point.Throughout the film Maximus is shown as a great leader of men, rallying them to his cause despite all their individual reluctance. From his generalship early in the film to his time in the coliseum to the end conspiring to bring down Commodus, he is seen as the leading figure and repeatedly puts himself at risk to assist them. On the other hand, Commodus is a poor leader of the Roman people. He cannot gain the support of the Senate due to his childish nature and inability to tolerate dissenting opinions from his own. The only way he can gain the support of the Roman people is to put on lavish events in the city to distract them from his poor leadership. Otherwise a poignant piece.

  6. I think this is an interesting point. In films of revenge like this one, its common for the antagonist to be overshadowed by the protagonist hero. In this film the director uses a good combination in order to peg the villain versus the hero, and the hero versus the villain. I think this makes for a stronger emphasis on each of the characters values and personalities. The fact that Maximus is such a moral and respectable character emphasizes the fact that Commodus is such a terrible and evil leader. I think the main take away is that the villain makes the hero better and the hero makes the villain worse.

  7. leariej

    I like how you not only stated the presence of foil between these two characters, but also more specifically presented the characteristics in which they are different. These characteristics you have highlighted in your thesis show aspects of a strong leader, and it is interesting throughout the movie that the man considered a slave is the one with these characteristics while the emperor of Rome contains absolutely none.

  8. dscwood

    I agree that the foil between these two characters is really important to the overall promotion of the relationship between the two. The idea that you presented too of the images of family that the two men have is very interesting. When examined closer, it is interesting to think that the images of family truly do tell alot about the overall theme. I also like the mention of “daddy issues” that commodus has.

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