Post #13: Anxieties of Empire on Commodus’ Armor in ‘Gladiator’
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Monday December 29 2014
I remember seeing Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator as an impressionable (and excitable) seventeen-year-old when it was first released in 2000. It was exciting, sure, with some amazing battle scenes, but it also wasn’t terribly interesting to me in terms of my dominant fascination with myth at the time. Since then I’ve become more deeply engaged with Gladiator, both as the film commonly attributed with a renaissance of movies set in the ancient world and as a vision of ancient Roman history and society.
Inspired by a talk given by Dr. Matthew Taylor of Beloit College at the Film & History Conference in October of 2014 about the dream of the Roman Republic in Gladiator, I re-watched Scott’s film. As I watched I was fascinated by the film’s treatment of ancient Roman material culture, an aspect of modern visions of antiquity that Dr. Stacie Raucci of Union College drew my attention to in her talk at the Classical Association of the Middle, West, and South in April of 2014. This time around I took notice of the intricate designs on the armor of the emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and the general-turned-gladiator Maximus (Russell Crowe) in the last scene. While Maximus wears a black leather breastplate with silver figures, Commodus wears a brilliant white breastplate that’s etched with figures in high relief. Abstracted from the context of Roman history, the meaning of Commodus’ armor is a bit obscure--perhaps we are meant to recall that stereotype of white marble statues that instantly evokes ancient Rome in our culture. But it is also clear that costume designer Janty Yates was dialoging with the designs on the armor worn by Augustus in his Prima Porta statue (figure 1).
Prima Porta was made in the late first century BCE or perhaps the early first century CE and portrays the first emperor of Rome as a victorious general. Much has been written about this piece (an excellent one with fantastic photos was written by Dr. Michael Squire), but for the purposes of this post I’m going to concentrate on the figures embossed on Augustus’ breastplate (figure 2).
In the center stands a Roman general and his dog on the left receiving a Roman military standard from a Parthian, an inhabitant of a nation situated in roughly modern-day Iran, on the right. This represents Augustus reclaiming the standard diplomatically in 20 BCE, which countered the disgrace of its loss by the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus to the Parthians in 53 BCE. To the immediate left and right of the central figures are two women that represent the nations conquered by the Romans. Below them are the god Apollo riding a griffin and his sister Diana with a stag. On the lowest part of the breastplate is the reclining Ceres, goddess of fecundity and abundance.
Directly above the central figures is a god holding up the sky, the sun god driving his chariot on the left, the dawn goddess holding a pitcher of dew on the right, and the moon goddess holding a torch on the right. These deities represent Rome’s dominion over the entire universe, from earth to the heavens, as well as the gods’ blessing on it.
Commodus’ armor (figure 3) is not an exact copy of the Prima Porta armor, though its imagery is clearly drawn from that famous object. The layout is parallel; some of the individual figures have different details, though, and others are entirely absent. It’s also notable that Commodus’ armor includes shin greaves and forearm guards, neither of which are part of the Prima Porta ensemble. These pieces also have figural decorations, but because they aren’t connected to the decorations on Prima Porta, I’m not going to consider them here. Thanks to Alley Cat Scratch’s Costume Exhibits detailed photos of the armor are available.
Commodus’ armor (figures 4 and 5) retains the two central human characters, although they’re depicted quite differently from Prima Porta: the left-hand figure looks female rather than male, the right-hand figure, who holds what looks like a torch instead of the Roman standard, appears to be a young man without a beard. The figures representing conquered nations are instead (Roman?) soldiers menacing the central figures with their swords. Apollo, Diana, and Ceres have been replaced by decorative elements that have parallels with the vegetative elements on Roman monuments like the late-first century BCE Altar of Augustan Peace. The three gods at the top are present, but the flowing robe of the sun god is replaced with armor, and there is only one female figure (who still holds a pitcher) on the right. The meanings of these re-configurations, adaptations, and innovations deserve further analysis, but here I’ll content myself with three broad observations.
Figures 4 and 5: Details of Commodus’ breastplate.
First, by referencing the armor of the first Roman emperor, Commodus’ armor collapses the history of the Roman Empire. According to the ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio, Commodus’ rule in the late second century CE marked a change for Rome “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”, and indeed modern historians generally consider the five emperors preceding Commodus (Nerva-Trajan-Hadrian-Antoninus Pius-Marcus Aurelius) to be the “Five Good Emperors”. But in the vision of Gladiator there are no good emperors--Commodus is parallel to Augustus and empire is itself a corrupt institution, no matter whether a “benevolent” figure like Augustus or, in this film, Marcus Aurelius, is running it. Indeed. Marcus Aurelius’ desire at the beginning of the film is that the Empire be dismantled and the Republic restored.
Second, the changes in the designs on the breastplate underscore our own time’s intervention with antiquity. We aren’t doomed to repeat the past, but rather can better it. (This also shows up in the film’s spectacular CGI re-creation of the Colosseum and downtown Rome).
Third, the white armor, although never used in antiquity (what practical material would have this appearance anyway?), gives Commodus the look of the marble statues so closely associated with ancient Rome in the modern visual vocabulary. (Phoenix’s pale skin tone in this scene enhances this impression.) Maximus’ breastplate is closer in appearance to what ancient armor actually looked like, but also farther away from the stereotypical vision of ancient Rome. Commodus, embodying the elitist past, is defeated in his statue-like armor by an Aussie representative of freedom from the tyranny of history.
Commodus’ white armor is used only in the final scene for all of about five minutes, and the meanings of the figures on it are never explained. Although the costume designer clearly put much effort into these designs and engaged in a deep way with ancient Roman culture, to many viewers these pieces are window-dressing that however vaguely evoke “ancient” in the minds of early twenty-first century audiences. This is undoubtedly true, but as I have tried to show in the discussion above, they are much more than that. Material objects are an incredibly important part of our understanding of the ancient world, and so it’s important to pay attention to how modern culture appropriates it.