(Bust of Commodus photographed by Wolfgang Sauber in the Antiques Museum in the Royal Palace, Stockholm, via Creative Commons (CC 1.0))
The Real Emperor Commodus Was Much More Bizarre and Odd Than The Way He Is Portrayed In Film
After watching movies, TV shows and docudramas about Emperor Commodus, one cannot help but ponder the way that peculiar emperor has been depicted in film. In the hit movie, Gladiator, released in 2000, Commodus was portrayed as an incestuous snob who murdered his father, the great philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. At the end of that movie, Commodus was killed in a gladiatorial battle with the masses of Rome in audience. It made great cinema, but it was hardly a factual depiction of Commodus’ reign.
Similarly, to name one docudrama miniseries, Netflix’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood was much more factual, but there were noticeable differences between what the historians featured on the show said, compared to how the filmmakers recreated the scenes. The information provided by the historians was spot-on, but the filmmakers could not help but make the scenes more elaborate. The two scenes that really stood out in this regard were Commodus fighting as a gladiator and the depiction of his assassination. In the show’s gladiatorial scenes, Commodus was shown to be in dramatic (mostly fair) fights, but historically, Commodus likely only fought the crippled, the injured or the incapacitated in the arena. If he actually fought against skilled opponents, he would win by forfeit without any real combat. As to Commodus’ assassination, Gladiator and Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, both set the scene up as a final hand-to-hand combat showdown between the emperor and a gladiator, while history claims that Commodus was strangled by his wrestling instructor while bathing.
Yet, criticism is not the aim of this article. In the following paragraphs, read about the life and reign of Commodus and determine for yourselves if the historical Commodus is more interesting and bizarre than the interpretations provided by filmmakers.
Commodus’s father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), is one of the most respected of Rome’s long list of emperors. He had few blots on his record throughout his long reign, with only his persecution of Christians and the appointment of his son as his heir being the most common complaints against his rule. Marcus Aurelius, for the most part, ruled his empire justly and philosophically, and warred against the enemies of Rome with determination and vigor. With Marcus Aurelius as his father, Commodus had one of the greatest mentors and imperial role models in his very home. Unfortunately, Commodus wanted to be his own man and did not take to heart Marcus Aurelius’ valuable teachings.
Marcus Aurelius did what he could to ensure Commodus would receive a peaceful transition of power. He rapidly ascended his son up through the ranks of Roman government, making Commodus a co-emperor in the year 177. Aurelius also exposed his son to the Roman Senate, and—more importantly—he encouraged a bond between his son and the Roman military. Marcus Aurelius even dragged his son north to experience the Roman war against the tribes of Germany. On the German front, however, Marcus Aurelius’ mentoring of Commodus came to an abrupt end, for the aging emperor died (likely to the Antonine Plague) in 180, leaving his son as the sole emperor of Rome.
For one of his first actions as emperor, Commodus made a controversial peace with the Germans. One the one hand, the agreement is widely thought to have been beneficial for Rome, but on the other, a truce with the Germans was a clear break from Marcus Aurelius’ ambition of expanding the empire in that direction. Once the peace was set, Commodus returned to Rome to enjoy the leisure of a peaceful reign.
During his first years of sole rule, Commodus had as his most trusted adviser and agent a man named Saoterus. He would be the first of a long line of advisers that would be given great power and political clout by Commodus. Saoterus, and his successors, would manage the tedious running of the empire while Commodus could relax in extravagance and abstractly dream of the empire’s future direction.
Two years after Commodus’ ascension to power, a plot was already brewing in the elite circles of Rome to assassinate the emperor. Commodus’ own older sister, Lucilla, and a senator named Quintianus were spearheading a conspiracy to kill the emperor. The first sign of trouble was the assassination of Commodus’ adviser, Saoterus—a killing that may not have been a part of Lucilla’s plot, but definitely benefitted the conspiracy.
The conspirators planned for Quintianus to ambush Commodus with a knife while the emperor was entering the Roman Colloseum. The plan worked perfectly. Commodus was vulnerable while he passed the location where the assassin was in wait. Quintianus, however, made the mistake that all movie villains seem to make—he just could not resist giving a monologue before he attacked. The time it took for Quintianus to shout a verbal justification for his actions allowed the emperor’s Praetorian Guard to arrive in time to subdue the rogue senator and prevent the assassination.
In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, the conspirators were executed and Lucilla was exiled from Rome, only to be killed months later. From this point onward, Commodus’s reign would only become stranger. The death of Saoterus allowed new selfish and greedy advisors to gain Commodus’ trust.
With Saotorus dead, and a plot on the emperor’s life freshly defeated, a commander of the Praetorian Guard named Tigidius Perennis maneuvered his way into becoming Commodus’ next chief adviser. Around this time, Commodus also became more withdrawn from government; his already heavy delegation of power to his advisers eroded into mass negligence of leadership. While Commodus surrounded himself in luxury and distraction, Perennis managed the affairs of the empire. The Praetorian commander soon developed his own scheme to steal power from Commodus, and to make himself and his son the rulers of Rome.
Unfortunately for Perennis, an ambitious former slave named Cleander discovered the plot and tipped off Commodus to the dangerous scheme. With this information, Commodus reemerged from his distractions long enough to have Perennis (and the man’s son) executed around the year 185. The emperor then elevated Cleander to the position of chief advisor before he receded back into his pursuit of pleasure.
It was soon apparent that Cleander was an even more self-serving adviser than Perennis. For the next five years, he ran the government like an auction, where the most important positions went to whomever was the highest bidder. Cleander’s power came to an end, however, in the year 190 when a grain shortage caused the people of Rome to erupt in riot. A recurring theory is that Cleander had orchestrated the grain shortage, so that he could pour his own supply of stockpiled grain into Rome, thereby becoming a hero of the masses. Whatever the cause of the grain shortage, the Roman people wanted a scapegoat—and they immediately targeted Cleander.
The food riots ended Commodus’ negligence of leadership once and for all. The tension and discontent caused by the grain shortage pulled the emperor out of his leisurely isolation. When Commodus questioned the rioters as to what they wanted, the crowds demanded Cleander’s execution—a demand Commodus was willing to meet. With the death of Cleander, Commodus apparently decided he could no longer trust advisors to manage his empire. From this point on, Commodus returned to the forefront of Roman government.
Though Commodus was back in the saddle—so to speak—after 190, the way he began to rule the empire was both unexpected and embarrassing to the Roman elite. Commodus was leading the empire again, but he was leading it in really weird directions.
By 191, Commodus appointed a man named Electus as his latest adviser, but the emperor remained active in governance. He also had his wife, Bruttia Crispina, exiled and killed to make room for his new mistress, Marcia. During the same year, a fire damaged the city of Rome, and since parts of the city had to be rebuilt, he felt entitled to rename the great city. He deleted the labels, Rome and Roman, replacing those iconic words with Colonia Commodiana (Colony of Commodus) and its population of Commoddiani. He also renamed the months of the year based on the words in his name (his full title was Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, and he had been called Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus before 180).
Next, he began to think of himself as a reincarnation of Hercules—inspiring the emperor to wear lion pelts and carry a herculean club. He also had statues of himself posing like Hercules erected throughout Rome.
The most disgraceful of Commodus’ actions, at least in the opinion of the Roman elite, was his escalating obsession with the Colloseum and gladiatorial shows. It started simple. Commodus sponsored games where gladiators and exotic animals would be showcased and criminals would be executed in the arena—all commonplace practices for emperors. Next, however, Commodus began to pick up a bow and shoot the wild beasts himself during the shows. He escalated further by being the executioner, killing criminals with his own blade in the arena. He also reportedly brought in wounded and disabled men to participate in a sad façade resembling a gladiatorial fight. If, by chance, anyone that faced Commodus in a public arena happened to have any true skill or fighting ability, they would surrender to Commodus without a fight. As the year 192 was coming to a close, Commodus was enjoying his gladiatorial charade so much that he wanted to celebrate the upcoming New Year with a gladiator fight in which he would be a participant.
When Commodus made his plans for the New Year known to his acquaintances, the emperor’s inner circle decided that Commodus needed to be removed to save the Roman Empire from further embarrassment. The few remaining people that Commodus trusted now plotted his death. The conspirators included Marcia (Commodus’ mistress), Electus (the new adviser), Quintas Aemilius Laertus (commander of the Praetorian Guard) and Narcissus (Commodus’ wrestling instructor).
Marcia initiated the plot by slipping poison into Commodus’ supply of wine. The emperor, however, vomited the poisonous substance out of his system and headed off to clean up without any suspicion. He then went to bathe, but that was where the wrestler, Narcissus, enacted plan B. He strangled Commodus in the bath, ending the life of the young emperor on December 31, 192.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. California: Xist Publishing, 2015.
- Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, produced by Stephen David Entertainment, 2016.