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The Antagonists of GLADIATOR: An Analysis

It’s hard to write an antagonist, and it’s vital to remember that most individuals rarely perceive themselves as evil. Your antagonist should possess a clear goal that drives their actions, whether it's pursuing wealth, power, or establishing a particular vision.

Antagonists should be capable of rationalizing their deeds, at least within their moral framework. Nevertheless, with a new Gladiator right around the corner, what better time to analyze the antagonist from the 2000 classic Gladiator?

Still from 'Gladiator (2000)'. Photo credit: Screenrant


Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, better known as Emperor Commodus, is the usurper and main antagonist in Gladiator. Commodus is the only son of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the black sheep of his family. He is known for being a cruel, ruthless, arrogant, spoiled, and egotistical psychopath who lusts after his own sister and considers himself a god.

When his father denies him the throne, Commodus murders him and seizes power as the corrupt Emperor of Rome. He then targets Maximus Decimus Meridius, the Roman soldier his father intended to appoint as his successor, making Maximus his arch-enemy.

Understanding Commodus

Commodus was a cruel, ruthless, and power-hungry figure whose ultimate ambition was to be worshipped as a god by all of Rome. His father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, recognized his lack of morality and was determined that Commodus should never become Emperor.

Marcus Aurelius saw in Maximus Decimus Meridius the qualities of a true leader—loyalty, bravery, rationality, caution, and strength—qualities Commodus lacked. Commodus, fully aware of his father's preference for Maximus, harbored deep resentment.

He sought to destroy Maximus's reputation and life, often endangering others. Commodus's true intentions throughout the film become evident as he nearly succeeds in ruining Maximus's life.

His dishonorable nature is further highlighted in their final confrontation: fearful of Maximus's prowess, Commodus wounds him before the fight and, when disarmed, cowardly demands a sword from his guards instead of retrieving his own.

In his relationships, Commodus's love is limited to his father and his sister, Lucilla. However, his affection for Lucilla twisted into an unhealthy obsession, marked by dominance, lust, and incestuous desire.

Aware of his responsibility for their father's death, Lucilla came to see Commodus as the monster he was. His supposed love for his nephew also proved hollow; he threatened the boy's life to force Lucilla to reveal her plot against him and attempted to shape his nephew into a mirror of his cruelty.

Some might argue that Commodus's evil nature resulted from his father's neglect. However, Marcus Aurelius's recognition of his son's dishonor makes this unlikely. Even in Commodus's final moments with his father, when he lamented his lack of love, Marcus Aurelius showed compassion and tried to embrace him before being murdered. This indicates that, despite his faults, his father did care for him to some extent.

Ultimately, Commodus's evil actions far outweigh any tragic elements of his life. He used his sense of rejection as an excuse to seize the throne and subjected his sister to torment, viewing her as an object to be controlled and loved on his terms. His story is one of a man who allowed his darker impulses to define his reign and his legacy.

Revenge and Death

Every great antagonist relates to a central theme of the story, which, in this case, is revenge. Upon arriving in Rome, Maximus's sole focus becomes revenge. Commodus is directly responsible for the brutal deaths of Maximus's wife and son, driving Maximus to vow relentless combat in the arena until he can exact vengeance on Commodus.

However, revenge isn't exclusive to Maximus in Gladiator. Commodus's actions are also driven by personal vendettas rather than purely political ambitions. He murders his father because Marcus Aurelius refuses to name him emperor. Moreover, Commodus relentlessly targets Maximus due to his knowledge of the truth and because Maximus was favored over him by Marcus Aurelius.

Death permeates every aspect of Gladiator. Maximus fulfills his role as a gladiator by killing opponents in the arena and previously as a general in the army, where he defeated Rome's enemies.

Conversely, while Commodus isn't tasked with killing his enemies, he does so ruthlessly and without hesitation, exercising his unchecked power. Yet, amidst the pervasive theme of death in the film, what stands out are the profound reflections on mortality offered by various characters. Proximo's poignant observation that mortals are mere "shadows and dust" resonates deeply.

Equally powerful is Maximus's stirring declaration at the outset that "what we do in life echoes in eternity," encapsulating the film's central theme of legacy and the enduring impact of our actions.


Gladiator explores the concept of family in a complex and unconventional manner. It doesn't shy away from depicting the perversion of familial bonds or the absence of traditional family structures.

On the one hand, the film delves into the distorted notion of family, as seen in Commodus's desire for an incestuous relationship with his sister and his ultimate act of patricide. Marcus Aurelius's preference for Maximus over his son highlights the familial discord and betrayal within the imperial family. Lucilla left widowed, finds herself under Commodus's manipulative influence, replacing her deceased husband with her brother in an unsettling surrogate father role.

On the other hand, Gladiator portrays characters who have lost their families or have none to begin with. Maximus suffers the devastating loss of his wife and son, propelling him into the world of gladiators, where he finds camaraderie among other men who, like him, are devoid of family ties.

In this cinematic exploration, family is depicted not in its conventional form of warmth and support but rather through fractured relationships, tragic loss, and the search for belonging amidst betrayal and adversity.

Knowing the Importance of an Antagonist

In any narrative, the presence of an antagonist heightens the drama and intensifies tension by posing obstacles that hinder the protagonists from achieving their goals or resolving their conflicts. Gladiator wouldn’t be the same without Commodus.

At its core, storytelling revolves around transformation. Conflict is essential to drive this transformation, and the antagonist fulfills this role admirably. The hero's journey towards heroism necessitates challenges that test their resolve. Thus, there must be a force—whether personified or abstract—that actively opposes the protagonist, creating hurdles and forcing them to struggle in pursuit of their objectives.


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