The True History of Commodus, the Mad Emperor of Ancient Rome

By: Dave Roos  | 

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s ('Pollice Verso')
This painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (titled 'Pollice Verso') depicting an armored gladiator in the ring convinced Ridley Scott to make his epic "Gladiator," featuring the emperor Commodus. Public Domain/Wikipedia

If the name Commodus sounds familiar, it's probably from the Oscar-winning 2000 film "Gladiator" starring Russell Crowe. In the movie, the villainous emperor, played with slimy panache by Joaquin Phoenix, is based on a real-life Roman emperor named Commodus (161-192 C.E.) who one ancient historian called "a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime."

The lurid stories told about Commodus's unquenchable appetite for sex and violence — that he had 600 concubines consisting of young women and boys, that he slaughtered scores of men and exotic animals in gladiatorial bloodbaths, and that he rubbed his skin and hair with the blood of his victims — should be taken with a grain of salt, says Barry Strauss, a classicist and military historian at Cornell University, and author of "Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine."

"The ancient sources are full of malicious gossip about all the emperors," says Strauss, except for Marcus Aurelius, Commodus's father and predecessor as emperor. "The sources were written either by senators or by people who made their living being paid by senators. Marcus Aurelius was the most kind to the senate, so he got good press. Commodus was just the opposite; he killed a lot of senators, so of course they trashed him."

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Like Father, Not Like Son

Commodus's father Marcus Aurelius was a morally upright and beloved emperor who ruled Rome through a devastating plague epidemic and endless frontier wars against invading Germanic tribes. Marcus Aurelius also penned "Meditations," a philosophical memoir that remains a classic of Stoic philosophy.

Commodus was Marcus Aurelius's only surviving son and was hand-picked to succeed his father as emperor. When Commodus was 15, his father named him as co-emperor, and at 17 Commodus joined his father at the frontier encampments where Marcus Aurelius was leading Roman troops to battle.

What was teenage Commodus like? The only clues that we have to go by are from a history of Rome written by Cassius Dio (135-235 C.E.), a senator and historian who was no fan of Commodus and may have exaggerated some of his faults. He describes young Commodus as a clueless coward who fell in with the wrong crowd.

"[Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature."

Commodus was crowned emperor at 19, when Marcus Aurelius died, probably from the plague. Unlike his father, who fought tirelessly against the Germanic tribes, Commodus immediately struck peace accords and made a beeline for Rome, says Cassius Dio, "for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city."

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Commodus as Killing Machine and Gladiator

Back in Rome, Commodus systematically killed all perceived enemies in the Senate, as well as anyone else who appeared to have the wealth and renown to overthrow him, again according to Cassius Dio. "I should render my narrative very tedious were I to give a detailed report of all the persons put to death by Commodus," writes the historian.

Commodus wasn't really into the daily grind of governing, either, according to Cassius Dio. He left that unpopular work to a series of military leaders, including Perennis, commander of the emperor's Praetorian Guard.

"For, inasmuch as Commodus had given himself up to chariot-racing and licentiousness and performed scarcely any of the duties pertaining to his office, Perennis was compelled to manage not only the military affairs, but everything else as well, and to stand at the head of the State," writes Cassius Dio, adding that Perennis's soldiers ultimately revolted, killing him and his family.

Gladiatorial contests were big entertainment in ancient Rome and Commodus, like other emperors, knew how to stage a spectacle. But Commodus went a step further — he dressed up like a gladiator and fought in the contests himself.

Commodus fires an arrow to subdue a leopard
Commodus fires an arrow to subdue a leopard. Engraving by Giovanni Stradano.
© Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

"It was kind of scandalous," says Strauss, because emperors were supposed to be above the base violence of the gladiatorial ring, but Commodus fancied himself the people's champion and a skillful fighter.

According to Cassius Dio, Commodus would warm up by slaughtering domestic animals that were brought to him leashed or in nets. Then he'd move on to wild animals like bears, tigers, hippos and elephants that he would dispatch from a safe distance with spears and javelins.

As for fighting people, Commodus didn't fight to the death in public. He'd compete with a wooden sword against other athletes and gladiators, collecting a handsome sum of a million sesterces a day from the gladiatorial fund, writes Cassius Dio, adding that Commodus "of course" won all these sparring matches (insert Dio's eye roll).

When it came to the real gladiatorial contests, Commodus liked bloodshed. One time, some victorious gladiators hesitated to finish off their opponents, so Commodus bound them all together and forced them to fight to the death, according to Cassius Dio.

He also notes that the senators were compelled to attend all of these spectacles and even to cheer on Commodus with scripted chants, including this mouthful: "Thou art lord and thou art first, of all men most fortunate. Victor thou art, and victor thou shalt be; from everlasting, Amazonian, thou art victor."

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Commodus as Megalomaniac

Commodus as Hercules
This second-century bust shows Commodus as Hercules.
Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Commodus certainly didn't suffer from a lack of confidence. Strauss says that Commodus called himself the "Roman Hercules" and even dressed the part in a full lion's skin and club, as shown in this rare surviving sculpture of Commodus from the second century.

In one particularly twisted gladiatorial bout, Commodus wanted to reenact the story of Hercules defeating the giants, so he gathered all of the men of Rome who had lost their feet to disease or accident, "and then, after fastening about their knees some likenesses of serpents' bodies, and giving them sponges to throw instead of stones, had killed them with blows of a club, pretending that they were giants," writes Cassius Dio.

Commodus also renamed things after himself. And not small things, either.

"He renamed Rome as Colonia Commodiana or Commodus City," says Strauss. "He also renamed the months of the year after various names that he gave himself," like Amazonius, Augustus and Herculeus.

When Commodus sent messages to the senate, writes Cassius Dio, this is how they all began:

"The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country, to consuls, praetors, tribunes, and the fortunate Commodian senate, Greeting."

Strauss questions the veracity of Cassius Dio's reports, but he admits that Commodus wasn't the first Roman emperor to have megalomaniacal tendencies or to act like a tyrant. It's the sheer level of Commodus's lunacy that stands out.

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The End of Commodus

A man like Commodus makes a lot of enemies, and during his 12-year reign, Commodus survived numerous assassination attempts, including one plotted by his sister (whom he executed). But fate finally caught up to Commodus on New Year's Eve in the year 192 C.E., when he was strangled in his bath by his wrestling partner.

Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix
In this scene from 2000's "Gladiator," Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (played by Connie Nielsen).
Getty Images

"Cruellest of all, his favorite mistress Marcia was in on the plot," says Strauss, who just finished a book about another ancient power couple called "The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium."

The reign of Commodus is sometimes pegged as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, but Strauss disagrees. While it's true that his death was followed by a bloody and protracted civil war, it ended with the establishment of the Severan Dynasty, a run of ethnically diverse emperors hailing from North Africa, Syria and other corners of the Roman Empire.

"Commodus didn't do that on purpose; it happened because he was a failure," says Strauss. "But out of the chaos that was his reign, not everything that happened was bad."

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