I was in middle school when Gladiator came out, and I liked it when I saw it in the movie theater. The opening battle scene against a loosely interpreted German tribe like the Marcomanni or Quadi is a thrill. That the disorganized combat melee and use of siege weapons in the forest against a mobile army was, to put it mildly, a similarly loose interpretation of Roman military tactics during the age of the Antonines didn't matter. Russell Crowe's character, Maximus, doesn't even wear any headgear when he leads a cavalry charge into the fray. On the other hand, it captures the essence of the age, and many of the criticisms are picayune--Commodus, like most emperors after Trajan, wore a beard--or blatantly incorrect. For example, in this documentary--a putatively more veracious telling of the events depicted in the movie--it is asserted that, unlike in the film, shields, in addition to providing protection, were also used as weapons (clip). That's true, but as much was quite clearly depicted in Gladiator (clip).
This artistic license doesn't matter just because I was ignorant of as much at the time, but more importantly because, in capturing the spirit of the Roman military ethos, it conveys heroism and valor in ways that men have recognized for time immemorial. As a tweenager, I recognized this essence at a hazy, rudimentary level.
Watching the film again fifteen years later, the fog has lifted. Gladiator is the story of a hero, a hero not merely in the cheap sense of a comic book superhero who enjoys the ability to fly or get up after being run over by a Mack truck while acting like a petulant, snarky child, but a human hero in volition and intent. Maximus is a good man who is good at being a man.
Being a good man and being good at being a man
The former is contextually captured in Stoicism's four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. In stark contrast to Maximus, who possesses all of them, is Commodus, who possesses none (clip). More broadly, the goodness of a man is judged by the morality of his thoughts, words, and deeds.
Regarding the latter, Jack Donovan identifies four tactical virtues that define masculinity: Strength, courage, mastery, and honor. They may correlate positively, negatively, or not at all with the characteristics that define a good man. These virtues are universally applicable to men while at the same time tending not to graph well onto assessments of feminine virtue. The phrase "strength and honor" (clip) recurs throughout the movie. If not such a mouthful, the inclusion of the other two virtues into the phrase would've fit just as well.
A seasoned warrior, Maximus is physically strong and martially capable (clip). His courage is unquestionable. Unregulated courage, however, can slide into recklessness. Maximus' demonstrated understanding of the concept reveals the necessary restraint true courage demands, as when he asks Proximo's gladiatorial contingent to buy him time to steal out of the city (clip). Mastery is conspicuously insinuated by the defeat of the Germans and on full display in the arena 'reenactment' of the second Punic War (clip). Honor, probably the virtue most frequently misunderstood in the contemporary Western mind, is most succinctly demonstrated when the Spaniard's identity is revealed to Commodus (clip). Honor is not the self aggrandizement of 'honors' bestowed (clip), nor is it, as it is often incorrectly defined to be by 21st century WEIRDOs, the expression of one's personal convictions (clip).
The film is full of allusions to the power of these virtues, but in the 'recreation' of the battle of Zama and its immediate aftermath, Maximus demonstrates all of them in the course a single event:
A Stoic superman
It is tempting to say that the previous assertion that Gladiator is the story of a hero needs no qualification, but that is a difficult position to maintain when when one looks around today. Maximus is a practitioner of violence, and that, in tandem with devotion to family and to republican ideals is a 'controversial' concoction, as Chris Kyle's story illustrates.
More precisely, Maximus epitomizes the ideal practical Stoic hero. As someone who finds just about every metaphysical system devised (or invented) prior to the Scientific Revolution to be conjectural fantasy, I'll dispense with that whole aspect of the Stoic philosophical tradition and focus on the philosophy's functional aspects.
It is not only as an actionable model of the four Stoic virtues that this representation is played out. In the face of the most hellish experience a man can suffer (clip), Maximus regains his balance after a brief stumble (clip) that would be more than enough to send many men careening over the precipice. He refuses to be consumed by a hatred for Quintus, one that would be entirely understandable but also counterproductive at the individual level and, more importantly, in the pursuit of justice. In the rigged duel with Commodus, Maximus doesn't waste a single breath bemoaning his circumstances. He doesn't even allow the perception of a brutally unfair fight to be detected by onlookers, choosing instead to lunge at Commodus as soon as the opportunity presents itself (clip).
The movie isn't all unrestrained reverence for the teachings of Epictetus and the letters of Seneca. In his biography of Marcus Aurelius, Frank McLynn refers to Stoicism as an "inhuman philosophy". That sentiment, and the consequences it entails, are thrown into sharp relief when Commodus murders Marcus (clip). We see in Quintus the inherent dangers acceding to the idea of an ordained natural hierarchy carries with it. Even the Stoic protagonist is incapable of embracing one of the philosophical tradition's most callous precepts: "As you kiss your son goodnight, whisper to yourself that he may be dead in the morning" (clip--the only time as an adult that a movie has made me tear up).
The Roman citizen, soldier, and farmer
The idea and the polity of Rome, the Roman military ethos, and his patch of blood and soil existing within that framework--these are the motivators driving the protagonist. When the corruption of the first obliterates the existence of the third, the course of the individual, Maximus, and well being of the society, Rome, align. Perpetuating the dictatorship in his own person holds no appeal. So genuine is Maximus' claim that he will simply hand over control of Rome to the senate that the conspiratorial senator Gracchus takes him at face value: "Marcus Aurelius trusted you. His daughter trusts you. I will trust you." Such is the Stoic ideal.
But life doesn't always converge so conveniently. Lucilla, sister of Commodus and mother of the vulnerable heir apparent Lucius, is willing to bring the whole world down in a desperate effort to save her son (clip). Even though harsh judgment seems the only defensible verdict for Lucilla's behavior--as a categorical imperative it fails, miserably--it is difficult to not at the same time empathize with her, viscerally.
A commenter once wrote something here that has stuck with me ever since: "A more interesting question is not whether or not you would sacrifice or endure pain for a child (as a father of three it is a no-brainer that I would gladly and with satisfaction give my life), but what level of misdeeds would you perform [to keep your own child from suffering]?"
Quintus, look at me
The line separating blind subservience from prudent loyalty is both fine and easily blurred. Less the natural than Maximus, Quintus attempts to compensate with rigid adherence to the purple, whoever is wearing it. The interaction between the two generals, comprising just a few minutes of the film, is a beautiful illustration of how the essence of mentorship lies in providing an aspiration, of being worthy of emulation (clip, clip). Lifted straight from the pages of Meditations comes perhaps the most concise explanation of the Stoic's relationship with the universe, at once profound and perplexing, an ingenious attempt at squaring the circle to allow a simultaneous influence of both free will and fate in determining what becomes of us (the scene only appears in the director's cut):
This pithy profundity inspired three words that changed the (fictionalized) course of history: "Sheathe your swords!" (clip)
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
Marcus was a man forced by necessity and circumstance to spend much of his life engaged in militarily securing the northeastern borders of the Roman empire. Of primary interest was the study of philosophy, and of predominant 'vocational' interest the adjudication of cases in what would today be termed "family law". He was not considered the last of the five good emperors for nothing though, and took the self-prescribed advice to retire into himself while performing the functions of his office.
We get an allusion to this when Maximus comes upon Marcus in his room (clip). At first blush, it appears as though senescence, in the form of hard hearing, has caught up to the emperor. Instead, Marcus, the polar opposite of the irresponsible and dissolute Verus, reveals to his most trusted general a little crack in the carapace. Sensing the end, he is betraying a wariness from the unending business of empire by sneaking a few more lines into the Meditations before addressing Maximus.
Historically at the time of Marcus' passing there was of course no succession uncertainty. Commodus had already been co-emperor for three years when his father died. By bending actual events in the way the film does, perhaps the biggest failure of Marcus' reign--his support of and devotion to Commodus--is fancifully made into a pivotal part of the story line.
Good art inspires. It motivates. It provides an ideal, and it also provides a reference point to check one's journey towards attaining that ideal. The fanciful absurdity that characterizes today's action genre and the snarkiness that infects so much of everything else keeps me away from most movies, but Gladiator reminds me that the medium is still capable of producing great power when all the requisite pieces of the puzzle are present.
What we do in life echoes in eternity. It is why nihilism, materialism, and existentialism--basically materialism with experiences substituted for material things--don't do it for me. When I'm decomposing in the ground or ashes floating disparately on the surface of the sea, what more can I leave behind than the biological legacy of my descendants and the philosophical legacy of who I was and what I stood for? Yes, I understand that such a concern does not constitute a tenet of the Stoic school, quite the contrary. But we're all eclectics to some degree.