27 February 2018
In Gladiator the character of Maximus exemplifies the timeless attributes of classic manhood. He is an ideal man. But wherever you find an ideal man, why is it that you are likely to find his hostile, murderous brother— the archetypal story of Cain and Abel.
In the movie, the aging Roman emperor says Maximus is the “son I should have had.” The emperor cannot favor his real son Commodus because “Commodus is not a moral man.” Commodus and Maximus are not brothers, by blood, but the story emphasizes their symbolic brotherhood.
While Maximus sacrifices and his sacrifices bring him the favor of God and life, Commodus also sacrifices. But Commodus’s sacrifices are not of the same quality, and hence do not have the same results as Maximus’s.
Commodus yearns for the favor of his father, and the same kind of favor which life has shown to his brother Maximus. In essence, even Commodus wants to be Maximus. But Commodus is blinded to the ways in which Maximus had to partner with life and sacrifice to life, in order to curry its favor. Commodus believes that life can be manipulated according to his own terms, and he’s willing to use any means, to gain his ends.
This sort of manipulation is demonstrated throughout the movie through his relationship with his sister, Lucilla, who he doesn’t just love as a sister, but with whom he thinks he can twist the rules of affection and make her a sexual partner as well. He is willing to do anything to manipulate her to act in the way he desires, apparently blind to the way his means make the accomplishment of his goal impossible.
And while his manipulations get him some immediate results, he finds that the things he wants the most elude him. Commodus wants his father to recognize his sacrifices by naming him the next Roman Emperor, but his father chooses Maximus instead.
Commodus is such a fantastic villain because he is worthy of our pity. He’s genuinely trying. We have all met these kinds of people who seek so earnestly to succeed but have had their perceptions warped to think they can write their own rules for obtaining success.
The story of Cain and Abel tells us what happens next. When the older brother finds his offerings rejected by God, instead of accepting his responsibility for his failings, instead of cursing himself, he casts blame on everything else, including existence itself, and everyone in it. He curses the God, and he curses his brother, who stands as a gleaming accusation of everything he is not.
Beyond simply cursing his ideals, he seeks to destroy them. In Gladiators version of the story succeeds in destroying his father, and attempts to destroy Maximus as well, but not just destroy him, he wishes to destroy Maximus’s spirit by making Maximus suffer in the most acute way possible. Because Maximus had stolen the love of the people from whom Commodus most desired it, Commodus would take from Maximus the love of those he most cared about.
Those who feel pain most exquisitely know exactly how to produce it in others.
Maximus loses everything. His family, his home, his health, his position, his people. Everything that is, except his character. And here’s where the story gets especially interesting.
In the next episode, we find what happens when you take the ideal man and thrust him into the darkest dungeon: the story of Joseph of Egypt.