It’s the second century A.D., and the Roman Empire has prospered under a succession of excellent leaders for more than 150 years. But when Emperor Marcus Aurelius dies, his son, Commodus, takes the throne. And over the course of his reign, he succumbs to a madness that will make him a formidable ruler. But it also inspires one of Hollywood’s most memorable villains.
In May 2000 director Ridley Scott released the movie Gladiator, a historical epic set during Roman times. Plot-wise, the story follows Maximus Decimus Meridius, a fictional general, as he is enslaved and reduced to fighting in Rome’s arenas. And it’s all thanks to the machinations of the evil Emperor Commodus.
In Gladiator, Commodus is portrayed as a politically ambitious psychopath who murders his own father in a fit of rage. And throughout the movie, he is continually depicted as an unstable, sadistic ruler, ordering brutal deaths, threatening the life of his young nephew and even fostering incestuous feelings towards his sister.
Eventually, Scott’s epic would go on to win five Oscars and gross more than $450 million around the world. But while Russell Crowe secured the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the heroic Maximus, it was Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Commodus that would secure the character a place as one of cinema’s most iconic bad guys.
Although most of Scott’s movie is pure fiction, elements of it were inspired by real people and events. And while Maximus himself is believed to be a composite of historical figures, Commodus was a genuine emperor who ruled in the second century A.D. But was he really as bad as the villain immortalized forever on film? In reality, it’s possible that he was even worse.
In August 161, Faustina, wife of then-Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, gave birth to twin boys: Lucius Aurelius Commodus and Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus. Just a few months earlier, the Empress’s father had died. Following his death, control of the Empire fell to his son-in-law in the absence of a biological heir.
Sadly, Titus passed away in 165, leaving Commodus and his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, as the emperor’s remaining sons. And when Marcus died just four years later, Commodus became his father’s sole heir. However, there is evidence to suggest that the boy was a far from perfect candidate to take over the throne.
According to historians, Commodus received an excellent education at the hands of famous scholars. However, he appears not to have had a taste for politics, preferring instead to pursue a life of pleasure. Nevertheless, Marcus Aurelius seemed determined that his son would one day inherit his power.
As the last in a succession of leaders known as the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius presided over the final days of the period of peace and prosperity known as the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. But unlike his predecessors – who had each adopted their heirs – he had a legitimate son to take his place.
In 177, Marcus Aurelius named the 15-year-old Commodus as joint ruler, appointed to govern the Empire at his side. But according Herodian, a historian, the emperor soon grew concerned that his son’s wild ways might cause him to neglect the responsibilities of leadership. And as it turned out, his fears were spot-on.
In 180, Marcus Aurelius died, leaving Commodus to inherit the throne. And at first, it seemed as if the new emperor might bring about a greater level of peace. He even called an end to the wars with Germanic tribes in the north, choosing instead to retreat to Rome and live a cosmopolitan life.
Over time, Commodus’ lack of interest in political affairs became evident. And with the emperor distracted by more earthly pleasures, a succession of trusted advisors emerged to exert influence in his stead. Apparently, the first was Saoterus, a former slave who had risen to the position of chamberlain.
But while Saoterus was busy doing the emperor’s job, a conspiracy was brewing. Apparently, Commodus’ older sister, Lucilla, had grown frustrated with her brother’s rule. Her first husband, Lucius Verus, had once been Marcus Aurelius’ co-emperor and she allegedly believed that they had been unfairly overlooked in the succession.
Perhaps Lucilla was spurred on even further by her jealousy of Commodus’ wife, Crispina, as it’s claimed that she became the driving force behind a plot on her brother’s life. And in 182, a would-be assassin attempted to stab the emperor inside Rome’s Colosseum. However, he failed, and the nefarious scheme came to light.
While two of Lucilla’s co-conspirators were swiftly executed, some remained free long enough to have Saoterus killed. However, the emperor took the loss of his chamberlain badly and soon ordered the deaths of all the individuals allegedly involved in the conspiracy. And even though the emperor’s sister was initially exiled, she, too, was executed later that year.
With Saoterus gone, another advisor soon rose to a position of influence within the emperor’s circle. A commander of the imperial bodyguards, Tigidius Perennis quickly secured Commodus’ trust and took over the bulk of his governmental responsibilities. Meanwhile, the emperor returned to a life of leisure.
As the years passed, Perennis grew more and more powerful, while Commodus became increasingly withdrawn from his role as ruler. And eventually, the commander began to view himself as the real emperor of Rome. Allegedly, he even sought to oust his employer from power, claiming the throne for his sons instead.
However, Perennis had an enemy in the shape of the emperor’s new chamberlain, Cleander – a former slave and another favorite of the imperial court. And in 185, the rivalry between the pair came to a head. Apparently, Cleander was able to get word to Commodus that the commander was plotting to usurp him.
Soon after learning of Perennis’ betrayal, Commodus ordered his execution. But with one power-hungry advisor gone, another simply stepped into his place. This time it was Cleander himself. Indeed, the chamberlain soon took the reins of government while the emperor continued to neglect his responsibilities.
Under Cleander’s influence, the emperor’s’ reign grew even more corrupt. Apparently, the chamberlain began selling-off honors, giving away governorships and senatorial positions to those offering the most money. Meanwhile, unrest began to grow across the Empire, and in 190 a grain shortage led to rioting in Rome.
Seizing this opportunity, one of Cleander’s rivals managed to persuade the angry mob that the chamberlain and his greed were to blame for their hunger. And so, they marched to the emperor’s door, demanding the head of the guilty man. Eventually, Commodus acquiesced, executing his former favorite in order to appease the people.
The fall of Cleander marked a turning point in the emperor’s life. Apparently finished with troublesome advisors, Commodus finally decided to play a more active role in politics. However, his egotistical nature soon developed into full-blown megalomania, resulting in an allegedly strange and terrifying reign.
Commodus apparently assumed the role of a living god, styling himself after the Roman deity Hercules. He even took to wearing a lion’s hide in reference to the animal that was slain by the legendary hero. And eventually, the emperor decided to cast aside the very name that had brought him into power.
“First [the emperor] discarded his family name and issued orders that he was not to be called Commodus, son of Marcus, but Hercules, son of Zeus,” Herodian wrote in his History of the Roman Empire. “Abandoning the Roman and imperial mode of dress, he donned the lion skin and carried the club of Hercules.”
Commodus, shockingly, did not stop there. He apparently also built a number of statues depicting himself as Hercules across the Empire, painting a picture of himself as a mythical hero. Then, in 191, a terrible fire tore through Rome. Following the blaze, many of the buildings needed to be rebuilt. The reconstruction gave the emperor the perfect opportunity to put his own mark on the city.
The emperor proclaimed himself the successor to Romulus, Rome’s legendary founding father. Commodus even gave the city a new name: Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. He then came up with a fresh identity for the inhabitants, dubbing them Commodiani. And if that wasn’t enough, the ruler also re-branded the Empire’s legions, Senates and ships.
Under Commodus, the 12 months of the year were each given new names – all additional monikers that the emperor had assumed. And apparently, he even desecrated the Colossus of Nero statue, removing the head and replacing it with his own likeness. With the addition of a club and a lion forged from bronze, it further reinforced the notion that the emperor was Hercules reborn.
But for all of Commodus’ megalomania, some of his contemporaries believed that the emperor was not an inherently evil ruler. “This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived,” the chronicler Cassius Dio wrote in one of his histories of ancient Rome.
“[The emperor’s] 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,” Dio continued. Meanwhile, the Empire crumbled around him. In fact, the historian once described Rome under Commodus as descending “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”
Elsewhere, Commodus’ misconception of himself as a hero had extended into Rome’s arenas as well. Throughout his reign, in fact, he made a habit of entering into combat under the guise of a gladiator. But not only did these exploits scandalize Roman society, they also gave birth to the rumor that the emperor was not really Marcus Aurelius’ son.
Instead, some theorized that Commodus was the result of an affair between Faustina, his mother, and an unknown gladiator. But despite the harm that the rumors did to his reputation, the emperor continued to fight in the arenas. However, it’s thought that his opponents would always surrender rather than risk the consequences of defeating their ruler in public.
According to historians, Commodus also took on those with physical handicaps, such as amputees, in a fight to the death in front of the arena crowds. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he also charged the city an astronomical fee for each appearance. All of which left the Empire’s finances in disarray.
Commodus, apparently, caused even more uproar with his insistence on fighting live animals. The historian Edward Gibbon claims that, on one occasion, the emperor slaughtered as many as 100 lions. On another, he allegedly decapitated an ostrich using a dart – only to parade the bird’s bloody head in front of the watching Senators.
The list of dead creatures goes on, with Commodus allegedly slaughtering both elephants and giraffes during his gladiatorial career. Then, in November of 192, the emperor hosted the Plebeian Games – a bloody competition that saw him spear countless animals and battle gladiators every day. And of course, the emperor always came out on top.
The following month, Commodus announced that he would celebrate the new year by stepping into the arena once more. By this point, though, another conspiracy had formed against him. One of the imperial aides, Quintus Aemilius Laetus, had, apparently, joined forces with the emperor’s chamberlain and was plotting to have him killed.
According to historians, Laetus and his co-conspirator managed to persuade Commodus’ mistress, Marcia, to join their side. Apparently, she had found her name on a list of people that the emperor intended to murder, giving her motivation to assist in the assassination attempt. And soon, they hatched a plan.
On December 31, 192, Marcia brought her lover a glass of poisoned wine. However, this tactic failed to end the emperor’s life. And in desperation, the conspirators sent Narcissus, a professional wrestler, to strange Commodus to death. Interestingly, the athlete is one of the real historical figures that Maximus, the hero of Gladiator, is based upon.
Afterwards, only the intervention of Pertinax, Commodus’ eventual successor, stopped the emperor’s body from being desecrated and dragged through the town. Instead, he was interred at Hadrian’s Mausoleum in Rome. Meanwhile, the new names and titles that he had established were eliminated and the city returned to normal once more.
With the assassination of Commodus, the conspirators ended the imperial Nerva-Antonine line. The emperor was, in fact, the last in a succession of seven leaders who had ruled the Roman Empire for almost 100 years. And when the throne passed to Pertinax, it was the beginning of a bloody year that saw five different men fight for control of the realm.
Today, Commodus is largely remembered as a villain, thanks to his prominent role in some depictions of ancient Rome. In addition to Gladiator, he has also appeared in a number of movies, books, TV shows and games. But while these may fictionalize his exploits to varying extents, it seems that the true nature of his reign was equally horrific and perhaps, even more insane.