This is from a dialogue in the film Gladiator (2000):

We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus.
Source: Gladiator (2000) movie script - Screenplays for You

Could someone please explain this sentence? Apparently, the words “dust” and “shadows” are used figuratively. Does this “but” mean “only”?

  • 1
    In life we are shadows. In death we become dust. Nothing more.
    – user11714
    Nov 6 '14 at 4:35
  • "pulvis et umbra sumus, fruges consumere nati" - Horace. ""as his friend laughs, Horace slyly puts his finger on his every fault; once let in, he plays about the heartstrings" - Persius
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 6 at 2:54

"but" in your example is an old expression equivalent to "nothing but". Here are some examples of use:

  • I hear of your tricks; you disown me for your mother, and say I am but your nurse. Is not this true?

  • Well, say the holy Scriptures of Truth, there is but one God.

  • in respect to which all these glories are but smoke, all these riches are but dirt, all these delights are but dreams, all these businesses are but triflings, ...

In your example, Maximus is simply stating that human life is ephemeral. The word shadow is used as a reference to Plato's cave and the word dust may be a biblical reference:

  • Genesis 2:7 - And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

  • Ecclesiastes 12:7 - Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

And here, you can see the decline in use:


  • Could you say what shadows and dust mean here?
    – Juya
    Mar 3 '14 at 15:19
  • @Juya, it is used figuratively to express that human life is ephemeral. Updated the answer.
    – Nico
    Mar 3 '14 at 15:21
  • 2
    In addition to the biblical references above also note the phrase "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is from the funeral service of The Book of Common Prayer.
    – AllInOne
    Mar 3 '14 at 20:45
  • 1
    Something came to my mind: This film is about a gladiator in ancient Roman times. Is it sensible to refer to something in Bible in that time? As far as I remember the story of this film happens before the Christ.
    – Juya
    Mar 3 '14 at 21:51
  • 2
    @Juya, it is possible. Gladiator's plot starts in 180 AD.
    – Nico
    Mar 3 '14 at 22:37

"but" can be a conjunction expressing contrast as in: He was sad, but didn't show it. And it can be an adverb meaning only, not more than as in There were but three people present/She is but a little girl, not a woman.

Furthermore, "but" has a lot of particular uses as shown in a larger dictionary.


It means that

we are nothing. We're just a bit of dust resting in the corner. We're just a shadow passing through. We won't be remembered. That's how little bit of space we take up.

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