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The Seeds of Bliss: Gladiator and Sacrifice

Updated: Apr 30


Still from Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000)

Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24, NIV)


The term sacrifice has become somewhat of a dirty word over the course of my life. This changeover began in the 1970s with the ascent of the “Me Generation” of Baby Boomers. However, the creeping selfishness of this period of time has not diminished. Reinforced by social norms, an ever-present pressure to acquire rather than to give up, lurks behind much of our modern thoughts and actions. Even the literary and filmic heroes we so admire, with whatever sacrifices that they make on their journeys, almost always in the end get to participate in what Joseph Campbell called “the boon” or the benefit they bring back to the collective. Very rarely does a fictional hero climb to the heights of popular culture whose story involves making the ultimate sacrifice—forfeiting their very life for a boon that they cannot experience. However, inevitably such “A Hero Will Rise” and this is indeed the subtitle of the 2000 DreamWorks film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe. With a sequel to this movie currently in production, I will turn my mythic inquiry to the original film–set in a highly fictionalized Imperial Rome–to see what a fresh examination of it, incorporating Campbell’s ideas of The Power of Myth episode “Sacrifice and Bliss,” could offer us (please note the typical warning of spoilers to come).


Even before we are introduced to Gladiator’s protagonist Maximus (Crowe) as the head of the Roman army, we see daydream images of him walking through a wheat field, his hand brushing the sheaf tops, which are ready for harvest. Soon after he awakes from this reverie, we learn that General Maximus is actually a farmer who longs to return home to his agrarian life after an epic battle that ends a long campaign. Yet Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) has one last duty for him: to become “The Protector of Rome” and oversee its transition from an imperial state to a Republic after Caesar’s death.


Making Endings and Beginnings Sacred

The archetypes of birth and death are, for Campbell, the main concerns of sacrifice. The loss of something—its being given up or dying—is “made sacred” (sacer: “sacred”; facere: “to make”) because something is being born. “Unless there is death, there cannot be birth,” he asserts to Bill Moyers in the Sacrifice and Bliss episode of The Power of Myth. “Every generation has to die in order that the next generation should come. As soon as you beget or give birth to a child, you are the dead one; the child is the new life, and you are simply the protector of that new life.” In the fictional Rome of Gladiator, the dying generation is that of the Caesars, and the “child” coming into being is the Republic. Echoing Campbell’s word, Marcus wants to pass the initial protector role to Maximus. Maximus’s self-concept is as a farmer first, a warrior second, and not at all a political participant. He views himself as the wheat we see in the film’s first image: ready for harvest in a rural backwater of the Empire, at the end of a journey, not at the start of another.


Both longing for the comfort of his old way of life and not wanting to take on a new one, Maximus hesitates, an action which Campbell has labeled “the hero’s refusal of the call” (see Michael Lambert’s January 28th MythBlast). Consequently, Marcus’s immoral son, Commodus, kills his father and assumes the throne, ostensibly ending Marcus’s “dream of Rome.” In doing so, Maximus falls under the power of Commodus, who orders him and his family killed. While Maximus escapes, his family does not, and his farm is burned. Remarking on the refusal of the call Campbell states, “Whatever house [the refuser] builds, it will be a house of death” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pg. 49). Thus, Maximus’ clinging to the life he planned led to its demise. He is eventually enslaved, becomes a gladiator, and must fight his way to Rome to fulfill the role at which he initially balked, and to exact his revenge on Commodus.


No Death, No Birth

The metaphorical death of Maximus the Farmer/General is the seed of his new journey, for, as Campbell paraphrased the idea found in John 12:24, “If the seed does not die, there is no plant” (A Joseph Campbell Companion, pg. 19). Under the mentorship of the retired gladiator Proximo (Oliver Reed), Maximus learns the ways of “winning the crowd.” This idea of pleasing the people will eventually be sublimated into benefiting the people, as Maximus’ goal is to end Commodus’s tyranny for the sake of all of Rome. As a general, he had fought for one person—his father-figure, Marcus Aurelius. Now he fights for the collective.


The film's ending beautifully merges the themes of sacrifice and bliss, death and birth. Commodus agrees to face Maximus in single combat in the Colosseum but treacherously stabs him before the duel to gain advantage. As Maximus fights and bleeds to death, he begins to see visions of the bliss of the afterlife—a reunion with his wife and son, and a return to his agrarian life. Elysium awaits and even tempts him, but he has not yet bestowed on Rome the ultimate boon. Maximus, in a final burst of herculean effort, kills Commodus. As he openly declares Rome’s transition to a republic before dying, Maximus succeeds in being the Protector of Marcus’s dream. His death marks the birth of the new Rome, a Rome from which he himself will not experience benefit. His sacrifice produces the seeds of freedom from imperial authority. At the same time, he himself is born into immortality and a much more spiritual wheat to harvest than his original, mundane goal.


Time to Harvest, Time to Plant

How are all of us non-gladiators supposed to see ourselves in this story? We are all, at the same time, both the wheat and the seed within. We are growing and evolving where we are planted, yet there exists within us potential for more in life, more that might require death and replanting. The call to extend beyond our current paradigm (like Maximus’s Farmer/General) may come when we think we are ready for harvest and the enjoyment of our labors. But as Campbell often repeated, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us” (A Joseph Campbell Companion, pg. 18). That getting-rid-of process is the symbolic death and sacrifice. Yet our losses are made sacred through the boons that come through our new callings, new paradigms, and new crops. Many folks have adopted Campbell’s saying “Follow your bliss,” but perhaps more accurate would be to say “Follow your sacrifices to your bliss.” Even though it contains that “problematic word,” it would more deeply reflect the wisdom of what I believe Campbell was conveying.



MythBlast authored by:


Scott Neumeister is a literary scholar, author, TEDx speaker, and mythic pathfinder from Tampa, Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of South Florida in 2018. His specialization in multiethnic American literature and mythology comes after careers as an information technology systems engineer and a teacher of English and mythology at the middle school and college levels. Scott coauthored Let Love Lead: On a Course to Freedom with Gary L. Lemons and Susie Hoeller, and he has served as a facilitator for the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Myth and Meaning book club at Literati.





Sacrifice and Bliss on a green background with a tree, man and ouruboro collage.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 4, and Pathways to Bliss.

 

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In this episode we welcome Ben Katt. Ben has been helping people experience deep transformation and access lives of greater joy, compassion, and purpose for the past twenty years.


His first book, The Way Home: Discovering the Hero’s Journey to Wholeness at Midlife, is a guidebook and memoir about the inner journey we all must embark on in order to live our fullest lives. He writes regularly about identity, purpose, creativity, and belonging in his STILL newsletter on Substack. He is a certified advanced meditation teacher with 1 Giant Mind, holds a Master of Divinity degree, and was an ordained minister for over a decade. Previously, he led The On Being Project’s work in supporting religious and spiritual leaders in social healing.


Ben is a perpetual student of religious, spiritual, and cultural wisdom and an expert at adapting ancient personal development practices for modern contexts to help people wake up to who they are and why they are here. He lives with his wife, three children, and a bunny in Milwaukee, WI where he enjoys walking by the lake, trail running, karaoke, and volunteering as a hospice companion.


In the conversation, Ben and Tyler Lapkin of the Joseph Campbell Foundation speak about Ben’s life, why he based his book around Campbell’s hero’s journey, what it means to have your heart, the necessity of following your weird, and why midlife is such an important crossroads for us all. To learn more about Ben and his book, visit https://www.benjaminkatt.com/



 

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A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"Unless there is death, there cannot be birth. The significance of that is that every generation has to die in order that the next generation can come. As soon as you beget or give birth to a child, you are the dead one. The child is the new life, and you are simply the protector of that new life ."










 

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