Stoics on the Big Screen? John Sellars examines the ancient philosophy which surfaces in Gladiator.
Anyone with a passing interest in the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism would have found themselves drawn to Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. For in Gladiator we are treated to a marvellous performance by Richard Harris in the role of the Stoic philosopher and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, author of the Meditations.
Indeed, scholars of Stoicism have been drawn to the film and one – Dr William Stephens of Creighton University in the USA – has suggested that the presence of Stoicism in Gladiator is not limited to the aged Marcus. Stephens has argued that the film’s principal character – Maximus, the general turned gladiator, played by Russell Crowe – can be seen to embody the Stoic virtues of ‘strength and honour’. In what follows I shall suggest that in fact Maximus’ behaviour is decidedly un-Stoic. However I shall also suggest that there is another character who does come closer to the Stoic ideals embodied by Marcus Aurelius. But first, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the central features of the plot.
The film opens with the aged Marcus Aurelius and his troops fighting the Germanic tribes in central Europe. Aware that he is nearing the end of his life, Marcus makes plans for the future of Rome by asking his loyal general Maximus to hold power in trust after his death until the Senate is ready to rule again, returning Rome to a republic. This naturally angers Marcus’ son and heir, Commodus, who wastes no time in smothering Marcus to death and ordering the execution of both Maximus and his family back in Spain. However, Maximus manages to escape and is picked up by a slave trader who sells him to Proximo, the master of a provincial gladiatorial school. Meanwhile, Commodus assumes power in Rome and orders an extended festival of games in the arena to celebrate his accession.
Soon Proximo moves his school to Rome in order to take part in these games. Maximus and his companions prove themselves in the arena and, when Commodus comes to praise these fighters, he learns that Maximus is still alive. Soon Maximus, a number of Senators, and Commodus’ sister Lucilla are plotting to overthrow Commodus and to put into practice Marcus’ dream of a restored republic. The plot is discovered and Maximus is caught trying to escape from the city. Commodus takes on Maximus in the arena himself, but makes sure that the odds are in his favour by wounding Maximus before the contest begins. But Maximus manages to kill Commodus, finally getting his revenge for the murder of his wife and son, only to fall down dead himself moments later. Commodus’ sister Lucilla and the loyal Senators return Rome to a republic just as Marcus wished.
As I have said, Stephens argues that throughout these events Maximus displays the Stoic virtues of ‘strength and honour’ and so becomes “the movie’s inheritor of Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic philosophy”. But is this so? Is Maximus really a Stoic?
Throughout the film Maximus’ behaviour is driven by his desire for revenge against Commodus, perhaps in part for the death of Marcus, but more so for the murder of his wife and son. The most important thing for Maximus while on campaign is the opportunity to return home, as evidenced by him keeping a count of the number of days since he was last there and his small clay figures of his wife and son that he carries with him. Maximus certainly does not follow the claim made by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that one should consider one’s close relations as if no different to other transitory possessions, such as an earthenware jug. Maximus does not accept the circumstances in which he finds himself but rather plots with his new master Proximo to enable him to stand before the Emperor Commodus in order to exact his passionate revenge. As he says to Commodus when they first face each other in the arena, “father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”. Despite his obvious courage and fearlessness, Maximus remains decidedly passionate, and it is his passionate attachment to particulars and his desire for revenge when they are taken from him that makes Maximus decidedly un-Stoic.
Stephens’ argument in favour of Maximus being the heir to Marcus’ Stoicism is that Maximus embodies Stoic endurance in the face of adversity, displaying ‘strength and honour’ in all circumstances. This is a fairly common image of Stoicism; the Stoic is one who heroically endures in the face of adversity. This modern image of Stoicism can be traced back to the sixteenth century humanist Justus Lipsius and his attempt to revive Stoicism in his De Constantia of 1584. To some extent Lipsius follows his philosophical mentor Seneca, whose works he edited in 1605, but Lipsius also adds much of his own to his ethic of endurance, an ethic certainly inspired by Stoicism but not necessarily an orthodox Stoic position. This attitude is not particularly prominent in Marcus’ Meditations and it is nowhere to be found in the Discourses of Epictetus, arguably Marcus’ principal source of philosophical inspiration. Marcus and Epictetus are more concerned with the affirmation of what comes to pass rather than resignation or endurance in the face of adversity. As Richard Sorabji has put it, Stoicism “is not about gritting your teeth but seeing things differently so that you don’t need to”. Although heroic endurance may appear in the works of Seneca, and later in Lipsius, it is by no means the orthodox Stoic attitude. In any case, I cannot find much heroic endurance in the behaviour of Maximus either, as disaster after disaster befalls him. Instead he simply fights for his life when he has to, and schemes to kill the Emperor Commodus in revenge for the death of his family.
So, Maximus is no Stoic, and he doesn’t really embody the philosophical attitude of Marcus Aurelius. However, I suggest that there is another Stoic in the film, someone who does stand as a philosophical heir to Marcus. This is Proximo, the master of the gladiatorial school, played by Oliver Reed in his final screen performance. But why Proximo?
Firstly, he adapts to circumstances, whether he be in Rome or in the provinces, and he simply gets on with doing the best he can wherever he is. This is precisely the advice that the Stoic Epictetus gives. Proximo accepts his role as an ‘entertainer’ rather than trying to get involved in politics, following Epictetus’ advice that for the most part one should act within the context of the role in which one finds oneself; but when he learns that Commodus killed Marcus, this new information activates Proximo’s higher sense of debt and respect for the man who set him free.
Secondly, he is not squeamish about death, accepting the daily slaughter in the arena as but part of the larger physical processes that make up the world. He neither relishes it nor deplores it, but simply acknowledges that this is part of the way the world in which he lives works.
Thirdly, Proximo is the only character in the film – Marcus included – to utter lines that sound as if they could have been lifted from the pages of the Meditations. Reminding Maximus of the transitory nature of individual human life, he proclaims, “we mortals are but shadows and dust, shadows and dust Maximus”, echoing Marcus’ repeated claim in the Meditations that we should analyse everything in terms of ‘matter and cause’. Proximo also says to his gladiators about to fight for the first time that “ultimately we are all dead men; sadly we cannot choose how, but we can decide how we meet that end, in order that we are remembered as men”, echoing Epictetus’ maxim that the only thing up to us is our internal mental attitude. We must face external circumstances with the correct attitude, aware of what is and is not within our control. Only if we do this will we – like the Stoic sage – be worthy of the label ‘man’.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is Proximo’s noble suicide, something which the Stoics are of course famous for advocating in certain circumstances. Despite his appearance of heartlessness – something that all true Stoics run the risk of displaying – when the chips are down, Proximo is prepared to lay down his life for the greater good of the future of Rome, perhaps the only action in the film truly in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius. Moreover, as he waits for the soldiers to strike him down, he repeats his maxim “shadows and dust”, forming a final meditation on the transitory nature of human life worthy of Marcus himself. The true Stoic hero of Gladiator, then, is Proximo.
© JOHN SELLARS 2003
Dr John Sellars is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Warwick and a member of the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle project at King’s College London. This piece is based upon a paper delivered to the Classical Association’s Centenary Conference at the University of Warwick in April 2003.