The opening sequences of Gladiator, with their violence, cruelty, and display of the might of a ruthless war machine, may well seem shocking and offensive, not to mention glaringly politically incorrect, to an astrologer more concerned with spiritual and psychological development. Films such as What Dreams May Come might seem far more suitable viewing. Where, one may well ask, is the spirituality, let alone ordinary human compassion, in a Roman commanding officer whose objective is the utter destruction of a recalcitrant tribe?
This film, whose visual magnificence is tainted with a simplistic script and a characteristic Hollywood laissez-faire about the facts of history, is nevertheless a remarkable portrayal of a particular kind of spiritual fervour - the passion of the war-god, whose divine inebriation once sent the Norse berserker invincible into battle and catapulted a small tribe of Italic natives into supremacy over the whole of the known world. We might do well, as astrologers, to understand the enduring attractions of the war-god, for in an epoch when war has demonstrated its more horrifically Plutonian face and lost the nobility and honour which were once essentially part of Mars' array of attributes, we have lost our comprehension of why some people love to fight. Myth can teach us a great deal about the divine nature of prowess and honour in battle; the Norse Valhalla and the Elysian Fields of the Greeks are only two examples which bear testimony to the afterlife rewards which lie in store for those who live and die honourably by the sword. Figures like Napoleon and Alexander continue to hold a powerful fascination for those who seek a human model for an archetypal pattern once deemed to be a god. Gladiator can teach us a lot about this god; and despite its Hollywood pyrotechnics and unabashed sentimentality, it may also help us to understand why those whose birth charts are Mars-dominated need to honour what they are made of, and find constructive outlets for it, rather than being made to feel they are bad, unspiritual, or "unevolved".
The figure of the Roman general Maximus, played by the delicious Russell Crowe, is distilled essence of Mars. He is manly and beautiful. His physical body is an expression of the energy and instinctive grace of a deity born not of the upper ethers of the sky-gods but of the dark blood-flow of the chthonic realm. He is not afflicted with the need to display gratuitous cruelty; that is the emblem of a blocked or twisted Mars, not a healthy one. He lives to serve his empire and his god, and his honour is worth more than his life. He is passionate, devoted, fearless, honest, and loyal. He is also a realist; he does not whinge and whine about the spiritually superior merits of pacifism when faced with the stark necessity of winning or dying. In a time when we are virtually muzzled by the collective idealisations of Neptune in Aquarius, Maximus is refreshingly unhypocritical. Even the eye-for-an-eye principle of revenge, also part of Mars' nature but so un-Christian and unfashionable these days, is portrayed here as noble. That is undoubtedly part of the film's enormous popularity: it presents us with emotions we secretly feel but are afraid to articulate. Maximus is not stupid enough to think war is anything other than a brutal necessity. But he chooses to fight with discipline, clarity, nobility, and skill. This is the "night side" of Mars with its Scorpionic devotion and self-disciopline, reflected by the Sephira Geburah in that other great symbolic system, the Kabalah. Here too, Mars is recognised as a divine principle, not a random display of destructiveness and chaos.
The film's "feminine interest", as it is euphemistically known in Hollywood, is token. Maximus' Spanish wife, and Lucilla, the Roman princess to whom he is passionately attracted, are both stereotypes. It is a man's film, which is not to say it cannot be thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated by women. The relations between Maximus and Commodus, the cowardly, neurotic and deeply damaged young Emperor, are far more important, and hint at (perhaps inadvertently, but nevertheless suggestively) a profound human issue concerning the distortions of Mars. Commodus is, at least in the film (although not in historical reality), a rejected son. While the script is not overburdened with psychological sophistication, nevertheless this figure is common enough in everyday life - the young man who is a disappointment to his father and who, rather than fulfilling the strengths of his own nature, settles into a good nasty seethe about those whom his father loves more. Commodus hates Maximus because Maximus has the qualities the old Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, would have wanted in a son. Commodus is not a warrior, and he knows it; he is sensitive and indolent rather than brave, sensuous and self-indulgent rather than disciplined. So he begins to hate. He is eaten up with jealousy, and this turns him destructive. We may see this dynamic at work in many families, between father and son and also between mother and daughter. When Mars is not expressed constructively, with honour and respect, it may turn poisonous and emerges as a kind of cowardly cruelty and malice aimed at undermining all those who trigger the individualís sense of impotence. Many instances of child abuse and domestic violence owe their existence to just such a dynamic. In its simplistic way, the relationship between these two male figures in the film gives us a succinct image of how destructive envy arises, and how it can so easily slide into unmitigated evil. Although the film does not purport to be either deeply philosophical or deeply insightful into human character - it is, after all, a Hollywood spectacular - it can, nevertheless, make us think philosophically about the nature of evil, the roots of violence, and the undeniable magic and mystery of a clean and shining Mars reflecting the divinity of the archetypal warrior.
In some ways, the second half of the film could be dispensed with, because the plot loses its way and the script becomes increasingly trite and simplistic. This film is not a work of art. Yet the filming of the great battle sequence between the Roman army, with Maximus as its commander, and the Germanic tribes who "refuse to admit they have been conquered", is a cinematic masterpiece. At the end of the film, when Commodus is finally killed by Maximus in the arena and the Senate implies that the Roman Republic will be restored, those of us who respect sound historical research may fall about laughing. The Roman people in the 2nd century CE were not remotely interested in the restoration of the Republic, and this anachronistic plug for an essentially modern concept of democracy is utterly absurd. Commodus was in fact murdered by a slave called Narcissus, and rather than inaugurating the dawn of a new republic, the murder of the Emperor simply ushered in the rule of yet another Emperor. The American movie-making machine, with a little help from Mel Gibson, seems intent on turning historical fact into sentimental proselytising. But the performances in Gladiator are convincing, and the recreation of the Roman world, Mars-imbued and steeped in glory, is vivid and realistic. There are many kinds of war and many kinds of heroism; and if we are fortunate enough to live in a culture which has, albeit only recently, begun to work out what a bad idea it is to rush blindly into battle, we may still exercise the unique spirituality of Mars through battle with our own inner demons as well as the demons unleashed around us, and still maintain the courage and loyalty which allow us to live our lives with honour. The football hooligan and the lager lout, the conscienceless mercenary and the corrupt dictator, are deformed Mars, not Mars parading in his full beauty and potency. Rather than less Mars, we may need more. Deity without Mars means a castrated deity which deprives us of our capacity to maintain our integrity; then we run the risk of becoming horribly similar to Commodus, in thought and feeling if not in actual deed. Gladiator, although no doubt too violent for the tastes of many film-goers, too simplistic for the intellectually-minded, and perhaps too overtly and spectacularly brutish for the refined sensibilities of many spiritual souls, can make us question some very fundamental issues we ordinarily take for granted. Every planet has its own form of spirituality as well as its own form of baseness and destructiveness. The next time we interpret Mars in a birth chart, we might do well to think of Maximus.