Gladiator is not an appropriate metaphor for the welfare state

For the past couple of weeks my sister has been writing an essay about one of the most quotable blockbusters of the turn of the century, Gladiator. The assignment’s one of those standard “let’s make learning fun and cool… er… bro” that any high school history student knows and loves, where you ‘analyse’ primary and secondary sources and write what’s historically accurate and what’s not. Anyway, one of her friends sent a bunch of links to websites that may or may not have been useful in her search for the truth behind the fiction, and I went through them quickly to sort through what she could use and what she couldn’t. Amongst the links was this one here that gave me a good chuckle, then annoyed me.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with this article. The long and short of it is that when you say Gladiator, the author says an understated but truthful depiction of the ‘depravity and corruption’ that characterised the centralised welfare state and redistributive nature of ancient Rome and led to the empire’s inevitable downfall. I’m paraphrasing his arguments of course, and given the nature of his article it’s not a bad read. It’s conceptually flawed, of course, from the somewhat bizarre claims about historical Rome to the application of modern ideas to a society fifteen centuries before anyone had thought of them. Calling the Republic a representative democracy with free enterprise and a respect for life and property is ridiculous, as is claiming that the later Empire was a welfare state brought down by poor monetary policy and wealth redistribution.

Yeah, probably not what historians should focus on...
Yeah, probably not what historians should focus on…

Believe it or not this isn’t the point I want to make. The issue I have with an article written in 2001 about a movie from 2000 (I am somewhat behind the times) is this: what the bloody hell does a movie about a bloke with a talent for decapitation getting revenge on a bloke with unsettled daddy issues and funny feeling for his sister have to do with how fixing the price of wheat, currency devaluation and centralised bureaucracies brought down the Roman Empire? Oh, right, second paragraph says it depicts depravity and corruption. And what does this have to do with the price of grain in Gaul?

Now when it comes to the study of literature I am all for the  pulling of themes, morals, messages, ideas and subtext out of the figurative arse (you should hear me talk about underlying feminism of AC/DC sometime), but this is just lazy. The title of the article is Truth in ‘Gladiator’, but the movie doesn’t exist after the second paragraph. Instead of commenting on how Gladiator demonstrates the populist tactics of the emperors and leadership (“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”) or the insanity and depravity traditionally attributed to Roman Emperors as seen in the Freudian caricature of Commodus, the author gives us an Alexander Hamilton quote and Emperor Diocletian’s narcissism.

If you’re going to use piece of pop-culture to make a point, then use it. If I was going to write about how the movie Titanic is a Marxist depiction of the structural deficiencies inherent in pre-Depression capitalist society, I wouldn’t just say that “Early twentieth century capitalism was like the Titanic until it hit the iceberg of the Great Depression,” and then never mention the film again. I would use Jack and whatever the girl’s name is (let’s call her Linda) to lead into an argument about class warfare, the faith in the design of the ‘unsinkable ship’ to discuss the feeling of the growing middle class in the post-war boom, how the officers on the Titanic’s crew compare to the reckless drive of many early industrialists, bankers and stockbrokers that led to disaster… Huh, this isn’t bad. Someone should totally write about how Titanic is a Marxist depiction of the structural deficiencies inherent in pre-Depression capitalist society, if someone hasn’t already. I’m not going to, since I’d have to watch the damn film again, but someone else totally should.

Anyway, back on point. I said at the beginning of this post that my sister’s essay was one of those attempts to make learning fun and cool that the old folks who design the syllabus insist on trying. Articles like this are similar, attempting to seem topical in order to draw in a new audience for their old lessons. And it works for a time. You can bet that even in 2001 when the piece was posted there would have still been people searching the internet for information about ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius and Gladiator. But it’s lazy click-baiting that, on the one hand robs what you’re writing of any credibility as pop-culture study or analysis (because it isn’t), and on the other hand robs you of any credibility on the topics you actually want to discuss because they’re not what was promised.

So an article from 2001 written about a movie from 2000, that the author probably doesn’t remember or care about, that I honestly had no reason to read or link to, or that I don’t particularly not like (as I said, for what it is it’s not bad) but disagree with nonetheless, has annoyed me. Because it invoked the name of Gladiator but did not use it beyond click bait, something I consider intellectually lazy.

Yeah, I know I need a life.

(In fairness here’s the URL for the article/post/blog/opinion piece again: I didn’t ask the author’s or the host website’s ( permission to link it or discuss it. I’ll also mention that while, as I said, this piece irritated me I’ll not pass further judgement on the rest of the site).


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