Roman Empire (Germania, Africa, Rome)
Gladiator takes you on an all-expenses paid tour of the best sights of the Roman Empire.
Okay, that's a complete lie. No package vacation would show you glorious sights like "slavery rings in Northern Africa" or "burned corpses in Spain." (Thank goodness.)
But that being said, we do get a look-see at just how massive the Roman Empire was. Over the course of this two and a half hour film we travel from Germania (a massive parcel of land that includes many modern day countries, like Germany, Austria, parts of Belgium, Switzerland, and others), to Africa, and, finally, to Rome.
And all of these settings were once part of the Roman Empire. (Source)
The film's reasons for taking us to all these places, however, aren't merely academic or documentary. These places are all richly, deeply, profoundly symbolic.
The film opens somewhere in Germania. Comments by the characters later in the film (Cicero to Lucilla, "I served your father at Vindebona") suggest that these scenes take place somewhere near, well, Vindebona—the city that would eventually become Vienna, Austria.
Things are very dark in Germania…for for a lot of reasons. The charcoal coloring of the scenes in Germania—symbolically indicates how the Romans viewed the world outside the Empire. When talking about the rest of the world, Maximus says to Marcus Aurelius,
MAXIMUS: It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.
It doesn't help that Mr. Lead Germanic Barbarian throws the severed head of the Roman negotiator back towards the Romans near the beginning of the film's first big action sequence. Who else would do that except a "brutal and cruel" barbarian lord?
There's a bit more to the story, however. The darkness of all the scenes that take place in Germania sets the tone of the entire film. Any way you slice it, Gladiator's a tragedy. It's Maximus' tragedy, and his job as the hero is to suffer enormous calamities (the murder of his mentor and friend, the brutal execution of his family, the execution of his close friend Cicero, a life of slavery) and, ultimately, destroy the source of those calamities.
The colors in these first, Germania-set scenes make it clear: this is a dark film.
After burying his dead family, Maximus's picked up by a slave caravan from his home in Spain and carried to Africa. The film calls this place the Zucchabar Province, which in Roman times was in what is now Algeria.
(Technically, the province was called Mauretania Caesariensis, but the producers were probably right to leave that out and roll with Zucchabar—it sounds cooler, and it's easier to put on the screen.)
What better place for a guy who has lost everything to go than a place that looks like it's also lost everything? Zucchabar is portrayed as being pretty much a wasteland with a water source. It looks hot, sandy, and rough.
It's clear that gladiatorial combat's still allowed there…and that gladiatorial combat isn't allowed in Rome until Commodus reinstates it. We first meet Proximo in Zucchabar because the whole gladiator-entertainer industry was shut down in Rome, and he, and others like him who lost their means of income, had to go to the provinces.
In fact, everyone in Zucchabar has lost something: Maximus has lost his family, his career, and his friend Marcus Aurelius; Proximo has lost his career as an entertainer in Rome; Juba and Hagen have lost their freedom. All of these lives have metaphorically become desert wastelands…which is why they end up in a literal desert wasteland.
While we see Rome before Proximo takes Maximus there, the city really doesn't assume its symbolic richness until Maximus arrives. That makes sense. It's Maximus' movie, after all.
And Rome is both the center of the Empire, and, in a lot of ways, the center of the film. The final conflict between Maximus and Commodus takes place there, and Marcus Aurelius' last wishes are ultimately realized there (when Maximus defeats Commodus and communicates them to Quintus and those assembled). Maximus both dies in Rome, and ultimately saves it by his death.
So, what can we say about Rome? Even though it is, technically, the most "civilized" setting in the poem (complete with huge markets, an incredibly food supply, and stunning architecture), it is also the most uncivilized. The most brutal gladiatorial combats take place here, and it's here that the sinister, evil, plotting Commodus manages his reign of the terror.
Rome itself, more than anything else in the film, is a setting of irony. There's fighting in Germania, but its fighting against the colonization of the Roman Empire (so it makes sense from the perspective of the Germanians). There are gladiator games in Zucchabar, but for the most part Zucchabar is a place where people get along.
In Rome, it's the opposite. Despite the "peace" in the Empire mentioned in the film's opening blurb, Rome itself is divided. Commodus and the Senators are locked in a cold war, complete with politicking and espionage. Lucilla must ward off her brother's incestuous advances. Commodus himself has an uneasy relationship with the citizenry.
Sure, Rome's a big, well-managed, and stunning testament to human achievement (check out the good digital recreations of the Colosseum and the Senate), but it's also a very dangerous—and very conflicted—place.