History Reveals a Truly Nasty Emperor--and He Wasn’t Much of a Gladiator, Either


At the age of 12, upon finding his bathwater insufficiently heated, Commodus, son and heir of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, ordered the servant responsible to be thrown into the furnace.

At 19, according to historian and Commodus contemporary Dion Cassius, Commodus became the head of state by having his saintly father poisoned. According to director Ridley Scott’s film “Gladiator,” Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, asphyxiated his father. Others argue, however, that his father may have died of a contagious disease, possibly the plague.

Regardless of how, or even if, he killed his father, no one disputes that from the moment Commodus took over as Roman sovereign in AD 180, it was pretty much all downhill for the Roman Empire.


The film’s depiction of details of the historical period is largely accurate. A few of the film’s characters are based on historical fact, but the plot is entirely fictional, as are four of its principal players: Maximus, the gladiator of the title (played by Russell Crowe); his friend Juba (Djimon Hounsou); Proximo, owner of the gladiatorial school, played by the lateOliver Reed; and the sympathetic Roman senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi).

During the 84 years prior to Commodus’ rule, known as the period of the “Five Good Emperors,” Rome thrived under Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Commodus’ father, the distinguished “philosopher emperor,” Marcus Aurelius, whose most grievous fault was his disastrous decision to appoint his incompetent and unbalanced 16-year-old son as his co-emperor and successor.

Commodus was obsessed with sports--and with sex. Along with a wife, Crispina, and a mistress named Marcia, he kept a harem of 600 concubines, equally divided between young women and boys. He turned over the administration of the empire to his mistress and to several of his corrupt favorites. In the film, however, it is his real-life sister, the sly Lucilla (played in the film by Connie Nielson) who, while warding off her brother’s advances, tends to the affairs of state. Commodus is surprisingly celibate in the film and neither Crispina

(whom he ordered killed) nor Marcia, nor any of his 600 other paramours, put in an appearance.

Gladiators Were Chained Together, Fought in Pairs

Commodus very badly wanted to be acclaimed as divine and so, imitating the god Hercules, he took to wearing lion skins and carrying a club. (This did not stop him, however, from also dressing in women’s clothing.) He enjoyed drinking, gambling, chariot racing and hunting but, most of all, he saw himself as a great gladiator.

Rome’s first gladiators (from the Latin gladius, “sword”) fought in 264 BC. Pairs were chained together and fought other pairs to the death--all as part of funeral services to honor the deceased. The losers were thought to serve him in the afterlife. (In the film’s first fight sequence, these chained-together pairs are accurately portrayed.)


Ultimately, these contests took on a life of their own, independent of the funeral games, and grew immensely popular. By AD 107, for example, more than 5,000 pairs of gladiators took part in a triumph for the emperor Trajan. Unlike the Greeks, who forbade weapons in their games, the Romans greatly enjoyed gladiatorial contests between men and, starting in 63 AD under Nero’s reign, between women. They also relished pitting men against wild beasts. For this purpose, hunters scoured the empire, bringing back everything from panthers to crocodiles for use in the arena. Records indicate that as many as 11,000 animals were slaughtered on a single occasion.

Commodus especially enjoyed hurling javelins and firing arrows at various creatures--all, of course, from a protected distance. He dispatched lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, bears, rhinos and giraffes--sometimes 100 at a time. On one occasion, using crescent-headed arrows, he shot off the heads of a large flock of ostriches that, although decapitated, continued to run about the arena as the crowd cheered.

Commodus lined his pockets by charging the Roman treasury the ruinous sum of 25,000 pieces of silver for each of his gladiatorial appearances. This would not have been too bad had he only appeared now and again. Unfortunately, unlike the film, in which he fights only once, he appeared 735 times. Commodus fought against professional gladiators as well as wild beasts. As Herodian wrote, “In his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator.”

He once even fought a group of Rome’s crippled and infirm. Having had them costumed as monsters and “armed” with sponges that were made to look like rocks, he shot arrows into them. After winning, he always enjoyed rubbing the blood of his victims on his clothing and into his hair. One historian wrote, “Never did he appear in public without being stained with blood.”

Cities, Days of Week Renamed in ‘Golden Age’

Commodus also loved naming things in his own honor. For instance, he renamed the cities of Rome and Jerusalem as well as the names of the days of the week after himself. In 190, he issued an official edict that his rule should be called the “Golden Age” and, declaring himself the new Romulus, he founded the city of Rome anew. Commodus lavished gold upon the people and the army and kept them distracted. To pay for his generosity, he taxed the rich heavily and, as a result, grew to be hated by them as a betrayer of his own senatorial class.

In the second year of his reign, his sister, Lucilla, led a conspiracy to execute him. According to the historian Duroy, “As Commodus passed through a dark passageway that led to the amphitheater, an assassin fell upon him with a poniard [dagger], crying, ‘This is what the Senate sends thee!’ But he was disarmed before striking the blow and his imprudent words cost many senators their lives.” Commodus later had Lucilla killed. None of this appears in the film. Subsequent attempts on his life followed and he brutally persecuted and slaughtered senators at will and confiscated their estates. The history of his reign is filled with monotonous accounts of cruel executions. Successive portraits on Roman coins show Commodus degenerating from an affable adolescent to a deranged and dissipated adult.

When his mistress, Marcia, discovered her own name on his list of those to be executed, she handed Commodus a cup of poisoned wine. The wine drugged him and made him sick but did not kill him. The job was finished a little later by one of his so-called friends, a wrestler named Narcissus, who strangled him while he was in his tub bathing. The film ends very differently.

Commodus was murdered on New Year’s Eve of 192. Because he had not chosen a successor, civil war broke out and in five months four emperors were to rule Rome. Commodus was followed by the virtuous Pertinax, who ran an honest government, reduced spending, lowered taxes and even found homes for Commodus’ 600 concubines. Too good to be true, he was assassinated after only 86 days. The Praetorian Guards then auctioned off the empire to the highest bidder--a certain Didius Julianus. He lasted only two months before Severus, the first of many army commanders, seized power.

The 12-year rule of Commodus set the stage for anarchy and ushered in a century of martial law wherein armies made and deposed emperors at will and turned Rome into a police state. In the 49 years between AD 235 and 284, for instance, 26 military leaders, some of whom were enemies of Rome, occupied the throne.

His extravagance was such that, upon his death, the Roman treasury was found to be almost empty. Commodus had somehow managed to single-handedly bring the richest kingdom on earth to the verge of bankruptcy. The coinage was repeatedly devalued and a disastrous and lingering inflation followed his rule.

His reign signaled the turning point of Rome’s greatness--the beginning of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, none of this stopped his successor, Severus, from finally fulfilling the lifelong dream of this despot and, by official edict, declaring that Commodus was now to be worshiped as a god.


Julian Catalano is a Los Angeles writer and editor and has written extensively on this subject.