Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Worldview in the Arena

Success in Hollywood, these days, usually involves films that promote situation ethics and moral uncertainty. But this summer's first blockbuster extols virtue and devotion to a higher cause. Appropriately, perhaps, it is set, not in the American suburbs, but in 2nd century Rome. Of course, I'm talking about the box-office hit, Gladiator. The time is 180 A.D. and the legions of Emperor Marcus Aurelius are arrayed against the German barbarians -- the last remaining obstacle to peace throughout the Empire. With the cry of "Strength and Honor," General Maximus leads the Roman army to victory. A man of war who longs for peace, Maximus prepares to return to his life as a farmer, with his wife and his son. But the Emperor, in failing health, has other plans. Maximus is like the son he always wanted -- not because of his military prowess, but because of his great personal virtue. By contrast, the emperor's true son, Commodus, is cowardly, cruel, and ambitious. Aurelius has misgivings about passing the crown to Commodus. In fact, he no longer believes Rome should be ruled by an emperor. Instead, he wants Maximus to return the elected Senate to power. But before Marcus Aurelius is able to announce his plans publicly, he is murdered by Commodus, who proclaims himself emperor. Maximus refuses to pledge loyalty to this usurper, and he narrowly escapes being killed, himself. Then, finding his own family slaughtered, Maximus is sold into slavery as a gladiator. Eventually, his success in the arena leads to a final showdown -- of course, with Commodus. Like most Hollywood historical fiction, Gladiator does require some suspension of disbelief. But it has merits. Although most discussion of the film emphasizes the spectacle and bold imagery, Gladiator unmistakably celebrates virtue over vice, selflessness over selfishness, and loyalty over ambition. Yes, it is also very violent -- be warned -- but the film provides its own critique of the violence it portrays. Commodus reinstates the gladiatorial games abolished by his father. Instead of ruling for the good of Rome, he uses the spectacle of the games, and he appeals to the basest impulses of the people to distract them from his own tyranny. Maximus, on the other hand, yearns for peace, but fights in the arena because he hopes to win his freedom and serve the ideal of Marcus Aurelius. He believes that how he lives has significance, not only for this life, but for the life hereafter. And because he lives with a view to eternity, he will not betray his principles. This noble warrior does not exhibit strength and honor only on the battlefield. When he refuses to kill a defeated opponent, his mercy makes a mockery of the cruelty of the emperor. Even as a slave, Maximus displays the virtue that makes him, not just a great soldier, but a good man. Now, you may find this film too violent for your tastes or for family viewing. But I'm thrilled that crowds are flocking to it. It's not often that Americans are given such a clear contrast between moral goodness and evil, and given such a high view of virtue. In the process, they're foretelling, in a sense, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," because they are reminding all of us that the way we live does have eternal consequences.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary