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The True Story of Commodus the Cruel Gladiator Emperor

Ian Harvey
 (Photo By Getty Images)
(Photo By Getty Images)

Ancient Rome was full of colorful characters. There are myriad stories of Julius Caesar, Nero, Caligula, and then there’s Emperor Commodus, who set Rome on its road to ruin.

Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus was born August 31, 161 AD in what is now Lanuvio, Italy to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger, the daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius. Having no living brothers, as his twin died at the age of four, he was brought up to be Emperor.

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, hence the lion skin, the club and the golden apples of the Hesperides. Part of a statuary group representing Commodus’ apotheosis. Roman artwork.

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, hence the lion skin, the club and the golden apples of the Hesperides. Part of a statuary group representing Commodus’ apotheosis. Roman artwork.

When he was sixteen, his father declared him co-Emperor. Commodus was a spoiled, narcissistic young man who was something of an embarrassment to his father. He showed no interest in government or military matters and was consumed by self-indulgence.

In 180 AD, Marcus Aurelius died, leaving Commodus as sole Emperor of Rome. He promptly renamed himself Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, and, throughout his rule from 177 to 192 AD, he became increasingly cruel and sadistic.

The Colosseum, Rome.

The Colosseum, Rome.

He fancied himself a reborn Hercules and took to wearing lion skins, as his hero did, to make himself seem more imposing. His favorite activity was acting the part of a Gladiator dressed only in his lion skin.

It was unheard of for an Emperor to engage in such activities and caused quite a scandal. Even worse, his chosen competitors, according to ancient-origins.net, were helpless animals and citizens of Rome who were physically infirm, often soldiers who had been maimed in a war.

Gladiator

Gladiator painting by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1872

They were sometimes tied together so Commodus could kill two at once with his club. Additionally, Commodus charged Rome financially every time he appeared in the arena. This wasn’t confined to the arena, either. He wiped out an entire family, the Quinctilius, just for being wealthy and popular. Only one child survived.

The Senate was informed that his name would no longer be Commodus; he was to be called Hercules, son of Zeus. He also petitioned them to declare him a living god. He changed the names of the calendar months after himself, renamed Rome to Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana and erected statues of himself around the city.

Bust of imperator Commodus in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy.

Bust of imperator Commodus in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy.

According to ancient.eu, Roman historian Cassius Dio remarked, “This man was not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.”

His closest advisor, Perennis, who took on Commodus’ emperor duties, attempted to assassinate him, but the plot failed and Perennis was executed. His next advisor, Cleander, was forced to take the blame when a food shortage occurred, and, in order to appease the protesting citizens, Commodus had Cleander executed along with his wife and children and his closest friends.

Bust of Bruttia Crispina. Photo by PierreSelim CC BY-SA 3.0

Bust of Bruttia Crispina. Photo by PierreSelim CC BY-SA 3.0

Commodus married Bruttia Crispina when she was sixteen years old. They had no children, and, about ten years into the marriage, she was banished to Capri and later was executed for adultery. He also kept a harem of over three hundred women and one boy, who was named “The Boy Who Loves Commodus.”

His favorite was a woman named Marcia who was allowed to give him advice, but even she was not immune to his cruelty. When Commodus decided to remove the Senate and rule on his own, she protested, causing him to issue an order for her death.

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Marcia and several of Commodus’ advisors had had enough. In 193 AD, Marcia brought Commodus a glass of poisoned wine while he was preparing to bathe.

Unfortunately, Commodus’ stomach rejected the wine, but, while he was cleaning himself off in the bath, Narcissus, a professional wrestler, was brought in to choke Commodus until the emperor was dead.

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Commodus had upset the peaceful balance that Rome had enjoyed for almost eighty years. Currency was devalued and the economy collapsed, leading the country into a civil war that lasted four years. His rule was the beginning of the end for that most famous empire.