The following is intended to become an episode of The Urban Mystic Show (episode 302):
Twenty-six minutes into the movie Gladiator, the emperor Marcus Aurelius asks his general, Maximus, to become emperor following his death; to fulfill the one thing that he was unable to do. Marcus Aurelius says: "I will empower you to one end alone: to give power back to the people of Rome, and end the corruption that has crippled it." This request is problematic for several reasons, least of all having to do with the structure of the Roman senate itself.
First of all, to get the pesky problem with the senate out of the way as quick as possible, it should be noted that the senate of Rome did not function the way it is portrayed by the filmmakers. Senators were never elected by the people at all, they were appointed, and one had to be fairly wealthy in order to even be considered eligible for appointment. The senators did not represent the people of Rome at all, but a very minute group of elites at he very pinnacle of Roman society. Aside from having to endure the foul smell and terrible racket of chariot wheels on cobblestone streets of the city itself, senators really had nothing in common with the people. Returning the empire of Rome to a republic would not end the corruption – senators were always corrupt and looked out for their own potential benefit from political dealings – and it would certainly not give power back to the people because power never rested in the hands of the people to begin with.
More importantly, the very idea of handing power over to the people of Rome would be a profoundly stupid idea with extraordinarily disastrous results. One would expect Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher whose Meditations are still quoted today, would have realized this. Of course, one cannot fault the emperor for this error; Ridley Scott appears to be crafting a vision of "Rome" that will appeal to the great idea of American of a government of the people, by the people, for the people, instead of creating something accurate that would be completely alien to a modern audience.
Just who is to be included under the banner of "the people of Rome?" Are the people of Mauritania and Moesia to be given equal say in the governing of the empire as the Latins themselves? Or is it just the people inhabiting the city itself that will rule, as a great many-headed tyrant over the vast conquered masses of the empire? At the rate it took to travel the vast spans of the empire anything more than the confines of the city would be too great a territory to permit any governance within a reasonable time frame. Should the Parthians invade it would be suicide to wait for the inhabitants of Britannia to decide whether to go to war or seek diplomatic means of crisis resolution.
The average Roman was preoccupied with more important matters, like securing food, and could not possibly have been educated in the finer points of governance. The average Roman was cold, hungry, illiterate, fearful. They desperately held on to their customs and traditions, their rituals and routines just to carve out mere subsistence. For as bad as the emperors were, as corrupt the senators, it was the people of Rome who were perhaps the worst possible choice as for who should rule. While Marcus Aurelius' vision makes for a wonderful story, and a wonderful picture of 21st century America, for second century Rome the idea would be absolutely nonsensical, and would be the farthest thing from Marcus Aurelius' mind.