A detail from the Roman victory column, Columna Centenaria Divorum Marci et Faustinae, shows how bloody and gruesome most Roman victories were. This particular structure, from AD 193, honors the old sage and Emperor Marco Aurelio (bearded and dispensing wisdom at top left) for his assiduous repression of the Germanic tribes being mauled in the battle below.
As related in the movie The Gladiator, Marco (played by Richard Harris) did indeed die while off fighting the Germans. Although no one blamed his disappointing son Commodus, the latter’s descent into paranoia and more than a touch of madness proved the first serious tipping point on the long slide into oblivion of the Roman Empire.
Commodus loved playing the gladiator and practiced for each of his wildly popular public bouts by murdering a handful of half-armed slaves. But unlike the Joaquin Phoenix character, he did not die in combat with a handsome Australian. After executing his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen in the movie) for attempting his assassination, he was finally brought down by his mistress Marcia. She started with poison in his lunch and, when that failed to do the trick, seduced the wrestler Narcissus into strangling the weakened Emperor in his bath.
Slaves, sparring partners, and rival statesmen breathed sighs of relief.