Commodus: The Emperor Gladiator
Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus was an Emperor of Rome reigning from 180 to 192 AD succeeding his father, Marcus Aurelius at 19 years old. He was born in August 161 AD at Lanuvium, about 14 miles south-east of Rome and was commonly known as Emperor Commodus. However, he was nothing like his distinguished father. Commodus was also a gladiator!
Commodus was the tenth of fourteen children born to his father and his wife-cousin Faustina. He was a twin brother to one. However, his twin died at four years old. In fact, he was the only son to survive childhood. He spent much of his youth accompanying his father on military campaigns. It is believed his father died of the plague at Bononia on the Danube in March 180 AD.
Commodus was said to be a handsome, curly blonde haired man. But, his looks didn’t match his personality. He was weak willed, easily influenced and had a penchant for cruel and excessive behavior.Cruelty, vanity, lust for power, fear, bloodlust and suspicion formed the platform of his monarchy.
Unlike his father, Commodus was drawn to the baser aspects of human nature. From childhood, his immediate family knew him to be a depraved and cruel individual. The citizens of Rome didn’t. Upon his ascension to the throne they hoped he would follow his honorable father’s lead. His eldest sister Annia Lucilla however, knew he would be a tyrannical and merciless head of state. But, for a short time, he was able to hide his true colors.
Lucilla decided it best her debauched brother should be assassinated for the good of Rome. An attempt was made, but it failed and his sister was exiled. Commodus later had her murdered. The citizens now had an inkling of the kind of monster sitting on the throne.
He no longer made a pretense of being a civilized man. He casually put to death many leading citizens, ruled with ruthless abandon and demanded to be worshiped as a second Hercules. He even began to dress like the god, donning lion skins and brandishing a club.
He fancied himself quite the powerful legend’s equal in the gladiator arena slaying wild beasts. It was said he once slew an elephant. Actually, he was quite proficient in the art of gladiatorial combat and it's estimated he participated in as many as 735 match ups. His enormous ego dictated statues be erected and sacrifices be performed in his honor.
His vanity seemed to know no bounds as he continually kept changing his name to portray an image of even more glory. Titles such as "the Immortal" and "the Fortunate," were representative of how he viewed himself. Coins of the era identify Commodus as a new founder and his age as new days.
His demeanor was less than empirical, often living with gladiators and ignoring the responsibilities of his high office. The tyrant regularly took part in gladiator games and ordered the results documented in public records. Documents indicate Commodus had over 300 concubines, taken from all classes of society, which was frowned upon by Roman nobility. He further cheapened his image by attending public functions attired as a woman.
Commodus was extremely sadistic and enjoyed inflicting pain on his subjects. He once taunted an obese person and then sliced open his stomach just for the fun of it. It was also said he plucked an eye out of another and then humiliated him with the nickname “one-eye.”
Commodus continued his bloody rein until his mistress, Marcia, plotted another assassination attempt. She knew he was also planning her murder. Marcia had the prefect of the guard indiscreetly feed him poison. The attempt didn’t have the desired effect. However, a second attempt was successful. An exercise companion named Narcissus strangled him to death on December 31st, 192 AD. The Senate wanted his body dragged through the streets and then thrown into the Tiber River. However, his successor, Pertinax, ordered his body to be placed in the mausoleum of Hadrian…only because he was the son of Marcus Aurelius.
Before his death Commodus decreed his reign should forever be declared Rome’s "Golden Age," but history will perhaps forever hold Commodus as Rome’s most inept Emperor. Many literary documents actually ridicule him in later exploits of his career.