After having waged war, and survived a final battle in ancient Germania, General Maximus washes the blood from his hands before entering the dining tent. As he makes his way, he encounters some of his fellow soldiers. When he is asked what is in his future, the following conversation ensues.
Maximus: To home, the wife, the son, and the harvest.
Quintus (A fellow soldiers remarks mockingly): Maximus the farmer?
Maximus: Dirt cleans off easier than blood, Quintus.
Maximus is then intercepted by Commodus and two Senators. Following introductions, the verbal jousting begins that reveals the participant’s motivations.
Commodus: In a Republic, the Senate has the power.
Senator: Where do you stand General, Emperor or Senate?
Maximus: A soldier has the advantage of looking his enemy in the eye.
Senator: With an army behind you, you could be extremely political.
The scene is set. You have a man who is weary of war. A soldier who wishes to return home to see his loved ones, a life of peaceful tranquility, and a more productive life. As for politics, he wants nothing to do with it, and deftly side steps pointed questions by those motivated by power and influence. Leading an army and politics are the last thing on Maximus’ mind. This dialogue is from one of the early scenes of “Gladiator,” a movie that was released over 15 years ago. As an amateur historian, it remains one of my favorites. The movie takes historical liberties in an effort to tell a story, but in many ways, paints an accurate picture of the struggles of Rome, and the people who played a part in its history.
It was an extremely popular and successful production, and many of my friends and acquaintances went to the theaters to see it. When I asked what they thought the message of the movie was, overwhelmingly the response was, “It was a great story with lots of great action.” Their focus seemed to be on the spectacle of conflict, but not the source of the conflict. I was always surprised that people missed it. The theme of “Gladiator” was political. What resulted in the tension between “Senate and Emperor” was a struggle for power and control. In some cases, where one stood was the difference between life and death.
Soon after, Maximus is summoned by the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. In the quiet solitude of Caesar’s tent, a touching, but poignant conversation transpires. The scene begins with Caesar in deep thought, — writing —, which is historically accurate, as Marcus Aurelius was a prolific writer. He is known as the last of the Five Good Emperors, and as a noted philosopher. (Reference: “A Dark History: The Roman Emperors,” by Michael Kerrigan, copyright 2008, Page 160.)
Maximus: You sent for me Caesar?
Caesar: Tell me, again, Maximus, why are we here?
Maximus: For the glory of the Empire, Sire.
Caesar: Ah yes, I remember. (He wearily points to a map.) That is the world I have created. (He laments.) Twenty-five years, — four without war —, for what? (Pause) I brought the sword, and nothing more.
Maximus: Caesar, —
Marcus Aurelius (Caesar): Please, — don’t call me that. Come, — let us talk as men.
Maximus: (Laments that he will not believe that his men fought, died, and were maimed for nothing.)
Marcus Aurelius: What would you believe?
Maximus: They fought for you, and for Rome!
Marcus Aurelius: What is “Rome”, Maximus?
Maximus: I have seen much of the world, — it is brutal, cruel, and dark. (The implication being that Rome brings order, — Pax Romana.)
Marcus Aurelius: Yet you have never been there (to Rome). You have not seen what it has become. (Pause) I am dying Maximus! When a man sees his end, he wants to know it had some purpose to his life. How will my name be remembered: the philosopher; the warrior; the tyrant? Or, will I be remembered as the Emperor who gave Rome back its true self. There once was a dream that was called Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper, and it would vanish, — it was so fragile. I am afraid for Rome! Let us whisper now, — together, — you and I. (Marcus then asks Maximus about his family, his home, his hopes. It was a test that reveals the character of the man.)
Maximus: (Home is a beautiful, and simple place. He speaks to the warmth of the morning sun, the smell of herbs from the kitchen, the aroma of jasmine in the evening, the soil is black and fertile, and produces an abundance of fruit and vegetables. A beautiful wife and son, whom he has not seen in two years, 264 days, and this morning.)
Marcus Aurelius: He envy’s Maximus and his life, then states — “There is one more duty I ask of you before you go home.”
Maximus: What would you have me do, Caesar?
Marcus Aurelius: I want you to become the protector of Rome after I die. I will empower you to one end alone. To give power back to the people of Rome, and end the corruption that has crippled it. (Long pause.) Will you not accept this great honor that I have offered you?
Maximus: With all my heart, — no.
Marcus Aurelius: Embraces Maximus, and says, “Maximus, that is why it must be you!”
Maximus: Surely a Prefect, a Senator — someone who knows the city, and understands its politics!
Marcus Aurelius: But you have not been corrupted by her politics!
Maximus: And Commodus?
Marcus Aurelius: Commodus is not a moral man. Commodus cannot rule! He must not rule!
Having read some of the writing of Marcus Aurelius (Reference: “Meditations – Marcus Aurelius,” copyright 1909), I can tell you that he was reflective, and spoke of a spiritual purpose in life. Ironically, that period was a time of Christian persecution. He did have a person he spoke of with great admiration who’s name was Maximus. At the time of his rule, 161 AD to 180 AD, the Roman Empire had been essentially a dictatorship since Octavian (Caesar Augustus) 27 BC. The Roman Senate had become nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Emperor’s dictates. I try to point out to people that the Roman Republic seized to exist long before Rome was conquered by Flavius Odoacur in 476 AD. The Roman Republic had ended more than 500 years prior to its military conquest. The first Republic caved in on itself, and went out with a whimper. It could be said that the Roman Republic was conquered by political infighting. The Roman citizen was left with nothing more that the facade of representative government.
That is one of the historical truths in “Gladiator.” The Republic was fragile and actually ended decades prior. There are many parallels in the political landscape of today, and those of Rome reflected in this movie drama. Most Americans would prefer to live their lives in quiet tranquility and peace, to enjoy their homes, their work, and their families. But can we, as the Senate and the House seem to have become nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Executive Branch of Government? The GOP is unwilling to fulfill on their promises and hides behind planned failure and feigned outrage. Disgusted, the average citizen is looking to perceived outsiders to set a new direction, someone who has not been corrupted by the institutions themselves.
In past essays, I have talked about looking at the world and things around us with new eyes. If you have access to it, pull out that old movie of 15 years ago, and see if it was not prescient in its plot, message, and story line. It is not an action movie, but is more of a historical drama, and a good one. After that, ask yourself if you are comfortable in the quiet solitude of your home and family, yet feel uneasy about the direction of your country. Are you the one who hates politics and what it represents? Do you think it should be left to those who know their way around Washington DC or City Hall? Then, maybe, that is why it must be you! You probably have not been corrupted by politics, and your motivations are pure. “Will you not accept this great honor that I have offered you?”