Maximus, Commodus and Richard

Last summer I went with some friends to see Gladiator, with Russell Crowe. I thought the movie, taken on its terms, was pretty good. I'm not a big fan of blood and gore (and Gladiator has it in spades). But I was impressed that the movie took Roman virtues and even Roman pagan religion seriously and did not sneer at it. Crowe's Maximus strives to be what ancient pagan Roman culture thought he should be: a pious man whose devotion to his ancestors and household gods is enacted in his creed: Strength and Honor. He is not a perfect man as, indeed, his creed is not a perfect creed and his culture was, by no stretch of the imagination, a perfect culture. But he understands that there is a True, a Good, and a Beautiful and he strives to attain to it, however imperfectly.

In the course of the movie, Maximus runs afoul of the depraved Emperor Commodus who kills his family and tries to kill Maximus. Through a series of adventures, Maximus is reduced from Legionary General to a gladiator and eventually winds up fighting in the Colosseum under a new identity and unrecognized by Commodus. The filmmakers then begin to perform subtle tricks on us and on our perception of ourselves. For Maximus is the one we admire. He has courage, honor, and honesty as he faces the life that the despicable Commodus has created for him. Commodus is a dissolute, patricidal, incestuous, creep who holds sway over the mob at Rome by hosting huge gladiatorial games and flinging bread by the cartload into the stands for the gibbering masses to wolf down while men bleed to death for their entertainment. He is everything that can be loathed in a human being.

But when the battles in the arena begin, we find we are in a grotesque position. We admire Maximus, but we are sitting with Commodus. It is in his box above the arena that we sit, as he does, watching the beheading and disemboweling. He sits next to us, sniggering and hooting and cheering-and we find we are part of his mob, engrossed in the proceedings like everyone else in the Colosseum. It is a very disconcerting moment, not least because we really do empathize with Maximus even while we are voyeurs, peeking at his trials.

I think of all this because I am struck by the sudden eruption of interest in voyeurism on the tube. One of the sunnier memories I have concerning the just-concluding year is that I have no memory of Survivor. I never saw it, never had any friends who saw it and, God willing, I shall also never see other "reality TV" offerings like Chains of Love (featuring men and women handcuffed together for days at a time), The Mole (where one weasel spies on friends), CBS' Big Brother or the eagerly anticipated (by everybody but me) Survivor II.

But (such is the all-pervading omnipresence of pop culture) I still know more about Survivor than anybody needs to know. I know that Susan was bitter. I know that Sean was proud to announce before an enthralled world that he had finally had a bowel movement after a suspense-filled hiatus. I know that Richard was a gay Machiavellian toad who periodically wandered about in his birthday suit and won the Grand Prize by his schemes. I know that the theme of the show was Darwin-meets-Stalin-for-big-bucks. Not unlike the sewage that flows from other purveyors of trash TV like Jerry Springer.

And I know it was as popular as the bread and circuses of Commodus.

What it was not was anything that even an ancient pagan like Maximus could admire, much less a Catholic. Not only do none of these proceedings come within light years of the highest virtues of faith, hope and love, they don't even ennoble us with the pagan and natural virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. They don't even show us Maximus' "strength and honor". They show us merely conniving, and conflict and animal cunning. That's it. Not only are the seats in the American Colosseum filled with Commodus' toadies, even the heroes in the arena are Commodus' toadies.

The result of such an abandonment of even the bare minimum of pagan honor is not freedom. It is not even "excitement". It is boredom and eventual death. For when a population begins to seek merely novelty then the need to stab the nerve of boredom becomes more acute. Been there, done that becomes the credo. Fake sex in every conceivable configuration is not enough. We must (as the Euro version of Survivor does and as numerous websites do) broadcast real sex. Simulated births aren't enough. We have to broadcast live births. And then the day comes (as it came in late 1999) when fake death is not enough. We must (as 60 Minutes so execrably did) broadcast a real murder at the hands of Jack Kevorkian.

I have a friend who says that within two decades, the sort of death matches seen in Gladiator will be available on cable. I think he's wrong. I think it will be within a decade. A population that hungers for novelty, that says yes to euthanasia and infanticide (as ours increasingly does), that permits no limits on what "two consenting adults choose to do" and that is increasingly filling its empty soul with media heroin in order to simulate the old thrill of being alive-such a culture has all the building blocks in place for a revival of the Games of Commodus.

It is up to us to say no to that.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea