When we examine the whole of human history, it is safe to say that the Holy Roman Empire was one of the most powerful and impactful of all time. At the height of its rule, that Empire counted 70 million people strong. For almost two full centuries, its laws and customs were the laws and customs of a majority of people living in all developed countries on the planet. This period of Roman rule is known in history as Pax Romana or Roman Peace. For the sake of this post, I will not go into the entire history of the Holy Roman Empire but will, instead, focus on how it ended. The 200-year historical period known as Pax Romana was marked by the rule of five Roman Emperors known as the Five Good Emperors. Of those five good emperors, the final one was Marcus Aurelius. During his lifetime, Marcus Aurelius fathered several children, all of whom passed away during childhood except one: a son named Commodus. Being the sole heir to the throne, Commodus received the best in terms of education and opportunity. As a young teenager, Commodus rode off into battle with his father and earned many honours. As he rose in influence, Commodus eventually joined his father as co-emperor and then, a few years later upon Marcus Aurelius’ death, Commodus became the sole Roman Emperor in his early twenties. The reign of Commodus is noted mainly for two things: 1- he negotiated several peace treaties with warring neighbouring countries that led to the final period of stability and peace in the Pax Romana era. 2- Commodus never showed an interest in running the day-to-day affairs of state. He delegated those to subordinates. Instead of being a statesman, Commodus began to rule as though he was a God. He fought gladiator-style in the Coliseum and, among other things, changed many laws to honour his name and protect his place on the throne of Rome. Because of his unsteady leadership, he was the subject of a coup and was assassinated at the age of thirty-one. The death of Commodus ended Pax Romana and ushered in the Year of the Five Emperors and initiated the start of the decline of the Holy Roman Empire across the world.
The movie Gladiator is a work of historical fiction that was inspired by the true story of the reign of Commodus. In the movie, Joaquin Phoenix played the role of Commodus to great effect. Veteran actor Richard Harris played his father, the last great Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. As you may know, Gladiator won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor for Russell Crowe. Crowe’s character of a military leader turned slave turned gladiator named Maximus was a composite of several historical figures. While Gladiator played loose with the historical facts, as most movies do, overall it was lauded for its generally accurate depiction of how Commodus behaved personally and politically up to and including his decision to meet Maximus in combat in the movie’s climactic scene. All throughout his twenties, Commodus regularly climbed into the combat arena to battle with select gladiators. As was to be expected, he never faced a serious challenge and always emerged victorious. One of his customs was to inflict one or more cuts into the flesh of his opponents. He would then “show mercy” and allow his opponent to live if the opponent agreed to bow down and surrender to him in the arena. All did. Then, as these gladiators went about the rest of their lives, they would bear a “battle scar” that told the world of their indebtedness to Commodus. It was much the same idea as when slave owners branded slaves with their mark as a way of showing ownership. So in the movie’s final scene, it was historically accurate to depict Joaquin Phoenix climbing down from the Emperor’s viewing stand and agreeing to fight to the death with Maximus (who the movie implies was Marcus Aurelius’ favoured choice of successor). If you have not seen the movie then I will not spoil the ending by telling you how the battle turned out. However, I will say that as the scene ended, a most beautiful and unusual song began to play. This song is called “Now We Are Free”. It was written by a woman named Lisa Gerrard. The musical score was created by the legendary composer Hans Zimmer. Before I go any further, I want you to stop reading this post so that you can go and listen to a live rendition of this song. I would like to see if it makes any impressions upon you (aside from the fact that it is lovely and epic in scope). Can you spot what is unusual about this song which makes it completely original in terms of the vast majority of songs used in movies. So, take a moment and listen to the song here. Come back when you are finished and I will let you in on a little secret.
I hope that you gave this song a proper airing. What did you think of it? I have listened to several different renditions by several different female singers and they all sound similarly beautiful and ethereal. The thing that makes “Now We Are Free” so unique has nothing to do with the music of Hans Zimmer. It is entirely something to do with the writer Lisa Gerrard. While you were listening to the singer, did you hear her use words? It seems as though she does but, in truth, there are no words from any discernible language used in this song at all. Not one. Apparently, from the time she was a child, Lisa Gerrard believed that she could talk directly to God. I kid you not. As part of this communication conduit, Gerrard spoke in a made up language which she believed was given to her by God in order to facilitate their communication. Thus, in “Now We Are Free”, the female voice is using Gerrard’s invented speech patterns. What Hans Zimmer did was match his musical notes so that they amplified and/or complemented the sounds that Gerrard’s utterances were making in such a way as to make beautiful music. It is the same technique that Earth Wind and Fire used in their hit song, “September” when they sang the nonsense line “Ba De Ya” over and over again. Initially that was just a placeholder phrase when the song was still in the formative stages of development but once the music was composed, Maurice White decided to keep the nonsense phrase “Ba De Ya” in place because the cadence of it matched the musical notes perfectly. So, whether it be an uptempo number like “September”, or a passionate, dramatic piece such as “Now We Are Free”, sometimes the sounds made by a human voice are more important in the form they take rather than any actual words being used. This lends credence to those who say that instrumental music, or more specifically, wordless music is still a form of language just the same.
In any case, “Now We Are Free” stands out as one of the most unique cinematic songs ever created. For a song without intelligible lyrics, “Now We Are Free” says so much. By now you will have listened to a live recording of the song. Below, I will provide a link to how the song was used in the movie. If you have never watched Gladiator and think that you might as a result of this post, then don’t click on the link because it gives away the ending of the movie and I would hate to spoil that experience for anyone. However, if you have watched the movie or just don’t really care, then by all means, click away and enjoy. In any case, the movie Gladiator launched a resurgence in historical fiction in Hollywood with movies such as Troy, King Arthur, The Last Samurai, 300 and Alexander being just some of the movies made in the 2000s that sought to replicate the success of this historical epic. However, even if history isn’t your thing, it is still important to know some of the most important and well known aspects of it. Movies such as Gladiator provide a gateway into the political world of empire building in a way that makes it seem interesting. The desire of megalomaniacs to create empires has been something that has happened repeatedly throughout human history with England and the US and Russia and Hitler’s Germany and WWII-era Japan all being recent examples. Stories of conquerors and the conquered are, in fact, more than works of fiction that fuel novels and movie scripts. This is the real world in which we all live. The real fiction may, in fact, be that any of us truly believe that we are free.
The link to the video for the song “Now We Are Free” by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film Gladiator can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to the film Gladiator can be found here.
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