Commodus

Self-Declared Hercules of Rome

Commodus ruled as the Roman emperor from 180 to 192 A.D., marking the end of the era of the five good emperors and the Pax Romana, a period of peace in Rome. Following his father Marcus Aurelius’ death, the empire entered a period of chaos and decline. Among the emperors who ruled during this time, Commodus was the first, and he was widely regarded as both corrupt and debauched. In his book Evil Roman Emperors, author Phillip Barlag places Commodus at the top spot, labeling him as a “self-indulgent, dim-witted oaf,” and describing him as “sick, cruel, sadistic, and deluded.”

Commodus gained greater recognition when he was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film Gladiator

Commodus gained greater recognition when he was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film Gladiator

Commodus was born as the tenth child in a family of fourteen, and tragically, only he survived among the sons—his twin brother passed away at the age of four. At the age of fifteen, his father declared him co-emperor and designated him as the future successor. When Marcus Aurelius passed away, Commodus, at the age of 18, became the sole emperor.

During his twelve-year reign, Commodus saw it as a new “golden age,” but his focus on a life of leisure and extreme paranoia overshadowed his political responsibilities, leading to what some might view as a reign of terror. Instead of handling political matters himself, he entrusted all power to a series of loyal men, but as soon as he doubted their loyalty, he would have them brutally murdered and replaced with someone new.

That, along with his immense wealth, gave Commodus plenty of chances to pursue various passions, particularly watching gladiatorial contests and even participating in them himself. Standing on a raised platform, he engaged in battles against both physically disabled opponents and a variety of formidable creatures, including a tiger, an elephant, and even a hippopotamus. It was common practice for fellow gladiators to tactfully allow him to emerge victorious in these matches. Commodus claimed an astonishing tally of approximately 12,000 victories in the arena, boasting that he achieved this feat using his left hand.

The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators by Edwin Blashfield (1848–1936). Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfolk, Virginia.

The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators by Edwin Blashfield (1848–1936). Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfolk, Virginia.

Driven by his delusion of being the reincarnation of Hercules, Commodus embraced grand displays of his supposed divine status. In public, he would put on a lion-hide cloak, symbolizing his association with the legendary hero. Taking his obsession further, he replaced the head of Nero on the colossal 100-foot bronze statue, known as the Colossus of Nero, with a likeness of his own. To solidify the connection to Hercules, he outfitted the statue with a club and positioned a bronze lion at its feet. The Senate was coerced into proclaiming him a living god, further fueling his megalomania.

Not content with merely altering his image, Commodus decided to leave his mark on the calendar. He renamed each month, dedicating them all to himself. For example, August became Commodus, while October was now referred to as Herculeus, and the other months were associated with his numerous self-bestowed titles.

When a devastating fire swept through Rome in 191 A.D., Commodus seized the opportunity to rename the city itself. It was then known as Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana, or Commodus’ Colony. The inhabitants of Rome were henceforth referred to as Commodiani, and the Roman Senate adopted the title of the Commodian Fortunate Senate.

The Bust of Commodus as Hercules, c. 192 A.D. The Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy.

The Bust of Commodus as Hercules, c. 192 A.D. The Capitoline Museums in Rome, Italy.

Commodus’s dependence on others to govern on his behalf made him susceptible to manipulation, leading to the formation of several plots against his life. In 182 A.D., a conspiracy involving his older sister Lucilla and a group of senators took shape. However, the plot was thwarted when the would-be assassin prematurely revealed his intentions and was swiftly apprehended by the guards before he could carry out his attack. In retaliation, Commodus ordered the execution of not only the would-be assassin but also many others, whether guilty or not. Lucilla was initially exiled for a short period, and later executed as well.

In 187 A.D., another assassination attempt on Commodus’ life was unsuccessful. However, the conspirators had better luck in 192 A.D. Two high-ranking officials, potentially aided by his mistress, attempted to poison him using either wine or beef, depending on the account. When the poison failed to kill him, they brought in a professional wrestler named Narcissus, who proceeded to strangle Commodus to death. At the time of his demise, Commodus was 31 years old.

Words of wisdom

“Let them hate us as long as they fear us.” —Caligula, a Roman emperor from 37 to 41 A.D.

“Hidden talent counts for nothing.” —Nero, a Roman emperor from 54 to 68 A.D.

“Money does not stink.” —Vespasian, a Roman emperor from 69 to 79 A.D.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” —Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor from 161 to 180 A.D.

Bibliography

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