Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Sandals, Sweat, and Swords May 11, 2000
by Spencer P.M. Harrington


Once a great Roman general, who was sold into slavery and trained as a gladiator, Maximus (Russell Crowe, right) must fight for his life in the Roman Colosseum in DreamWorks Pictures and Universal Pictures' epic action drama Gladiator. (© DreamWorks/Jaap Buitendijk)

Sword-and-sandal Hollywood historical fiction returned to the big screen when Gladiator opened on May 5. The film traces the fortunes of Maximus, a successful general under the ailing Marcus Aurelius who sparks the jealousy of Commodus, the emperor's son and heir. When Commodus becomes emperor, Maximus is sold into slavery. Forced to become a gladiator, he is left to fight for his freedom and for revenge. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Thelma and Louise) and starring Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential) as Maximus, Gladiator was filmed in Italy, Morocco, Malta, and England and features some dazzling computerized effects. "Every film has its own inherent challenges," says Scott, "but how often do you get to rebuild the Roman Empire?"

Merely reconstructing the Colosseum, scene of the film's gladiatorial combat, took 19 weeks and employed more than 100 British technicians and 200 Maltese tradesfolk. Time constraints and area limitations made it impossible to build a full-scale replica of the massive three-tiered original. The construction team built part of the first tier measuring nearly one-third the circumference of the Colosseum and 52 feet high; computer graphic imaging was used to complete the rest of the building. Populating the Colosseum were 2,000 extras, who are seen cheering alongside 33,000 computer-generated spectators.

The computer-generated parts of the building, particularly the velarium (the canvas roof used to shade the arena's spectators from the sun), did not produce optimal lighting effects within the Colosseum set. To cast light and shadows on the set at various times of day, cinematographer John Mathieson built a 500-foot section of the velarium suspended on 14 steel towers standing 80 feet high.


Computer generated images create the vistas of ancient Rome and thousands of Praetorian Guards to greet Commodus, the new emperor. (Joaquin Phoenix). (© DreamWorks/Jaap Buitendijk)

The costumes and weaponry involved a degree of historical improvisation. Costume designer Janty Yates says she was inspired by the works of artists like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and George de La Tour, while supervising armorer Simon Atherton invented "period" weaponry. Atherton explains, "I started by looking in books for references to weaponry and armor from this period, but there was not much to be found. So, taking ideas from what we know about subsequent periods and trying to imagine the evolution of certain weapons and armor--with the understanding that they did mainly close-quarter fighting--we were able to come up with some designs and ideas that would have been feasible at the time. I especially enjoyed Ridley's directive to come up with the Roman equivalent of an automatic weapon--the multi-firing crossbow."

At the film's website,, the curious can view trailers of the film, download desktop images, or sign up for a newsletter. Those under 13 are discouraged from subscribing to the newsletter with the following message: "Sorry, Caesar says you're not old enough to be a gladiator. Yet."

What did you think of the movie? Citizens! Vote here!
Thumbs up (I liked the movie, let the actors live!)
Thumbs down (I hated it, feed them to the lions)

View Current Results

ARCHAEOLOGY's review appears in the July/August issue.

Want to read more about it? Check out these titles:

* Michael B. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)
* Paul Plass, The Game and Death in Ancient Rome (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995

And here are some Colosseum web links:

Called "Bloody Colossuem," this page explores the myths and reality of gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome
This site is a virtual walkthrough of the Colosseum and includes 280 photographs of the building and the Roman Forum.

Spencer P.M. Harrington is a senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America