Wondering what my favorite movie is? Not interested? I’ll tell you anyway. It’s Gladiator, the Oscar-winning blockbuster starring Russell Crowe as a Roman General in 180 A.D. He serves loyally the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, but runs afoul of the wicked son and becomes a slave and gladiator. I’ve seen it many times, as recently as last week on an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean, and there are many themes to talk about. But that is not what this post is about. Sorry.
What this post is about is the view of history that Gladiator is an example of. Two points I’ll bring out. First, it is of course a Hollywood version of history. Marcus Aurelius was a real Emperor, and the events are loosely based on actual historical situations. For example, Commodus the son was indeed a wicked man and failure as an Emperor. Slaves and exiles rising from powerlessness to leadership over an Empire actually happened in history more than once. Anyone remember the Biblical characters of Joseph? Or Daniel?
But as often happens in Hollywood, the movie account, though loosely based on actual events, strays widely from the truth. And this is exactly what happens when we believe and teach a version of history that has the center of the world in the first 1000 years being Europe and the Mediterranean sea. As I discussed in my post Do You Have a Flawed View of History?, this view of history is not wrong, but incomplete. It is, as one history wrote, a “lazy view of history”. Lazy because it is too easy to grasp, too focused on our peoples and our traditions. (Most of the historians who have written in the last 200 years are Westerners, thankfully that is changing.)
A Hollywood version of history has some or even many of the actual characters present, but misses including others that bring too much complexity for a two or maximum three hour movie. Don’t get me wrong. Knowing that movies like Gladiator are not exactly based on real events doesn’t take away my enjoyment. But geeky historian that I am, I did rush right after I watched it to look up whether Maximus was a real General! I didn’t think so, but had to check!
And this is what we need to do with the versions of history we are taught in school. Every nation has its own Hollywood version of history. I was taught one with the United States at the center of the world, and particularly with European Caucasians even more at the center. Thankfully that also is changing to a more complete version. You may come from India. Or China. Or England. Or?? Each of your nations also has its own distortions of history. Your own version of an “exceptionalism”. That means that your nation is somehow more favored than another. The USA has a particularly strong version in my opinion, called at times in history a “Manifest Destiny”.
But there is a second view of history in the Gladiator. I call it the Imperial View of History. That is one that has the Roman Empire at the center of world events. The movie is set in 180 A.D. and as many popular historical accounts portray, Rome is the leading Empire of the world. (I was told recently by a friend that in the version of the movie on DVD, scenes of Christians dying in Roman Coliseum are also shown. I want to check that out.) But by 180 A.D. the Christian faith had already spread to the borders of what is now Pakistan, across Central Asia and Afghanistan. There were other Empires: in Persia, China, India, Africa. There were more Christians dying by far under the Persian Empire in the first four centuries than under the Caesars of Rome.
A few months ago I watched a historical series on YouTube. It was titled Christianity, the First 1000 years. (https://youtu.be/GV20nBgPkDc?list=PLvrGm7rQ2_V48R4WqLmuKYNaFZHQsbZUA Again, this is not a wrong version of history in many ways, but incomplete. It has virtually no recognition of the spread of the Christian faith to the East into Asia. It is centered on the Roman Empire, both in Rome and later Constantinople. It is primarily concerned with power dynamics, how the Roman Empire was “conquered” by Christianity via Constantine’s conversion in 312 A.D. Even the music is triumphant.
I could say much more, but you get the idea. This series should really have been called, Western Christendom in the First 1000 Years. Would somebody please change the title? A better series is the one BBC did a few years ago, a more personal version starring the prolific and eccentric Oxford professor, Diarmid McCullough. You can see it also on Youtube at youtu.be/xs4Ez9fxqLE . I recommend especially the first episode but all are worth your time. (The BBC series he hosts is based on a book, also good.) McCullough is rare among Western historians in that he is very attentive to the spread of the Christianity to the East. He visits several of the key locations important to early Asian Christianity, including a place I was at a few months ago, the Da Qin pagoda outside Xian, China. (see my post A World Beyond Trump: Hidden in Plain Sight for 1400 Years, Part 2
The Imperial View of History is primarily concerned with Empires and power, and focuses often on top-down spread of the Christian faith, rather than the faithful obedience of a suffering minority Church. We need to work harder to make the narratives of history we learn and teach more complete, in a global sense as well as our own nations. The Hollywood and Imperial versions are often fun to watch, but even more often damaging to the larger story.