Roman Emperor Commodus – Life, Reign, Atrocities Committed, & Assassination
Lucius Aurelius Commodus, better known as Emperor Commodus, was a ruler whose sole reign (from 180 to 192 AD) over the Roman Empire became infamous for its decadence and debauchery, a stark contrast to the philosophically inclined and duty-focused reign of his father and predecessor, Marcus Aurelius.
From his early life and rise to power to the atrocities committed during his reign, Commodus remains one of the most controversial figures in Roman history.
Born in 161 AD to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger, Commodus was the apple of their eye, not least because he was the first son to survive infancy. As a child, he was introduced to imperial duties and given the title ‘Caesar’ at a mere 5 years of age. At 15, he was named co-emperor with his father, marking him as the heir apparent.
When Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD, Commodus became the sole emperor. Unlike his father, who was more interested in Stoic philosophy and the betterment of the Roman state, Commodus’ interests lay elsewhere. Early in his reign, he concluded a peace treaty with the Germanic tribes, ending the Marcomannic Wars, which some saw as a sign of weakness or an unwillingness to continue his father’s legacy.
He relied heavily on a series of favorites and freedmen, who had significant influence over him. These individuals, while satisfying Commodus’s personal desires and whims, often took advantage of their position for their own gains, leading to a corrupt and inefficient administration.
Atrocities & Eccentricities
Emperor Commodus’s reign is littered with tales of excesses, cruelties, and delusions of grandeur:
- Deification: Commodus saw himself as the reincarnation of the Roman demigod Hercules (Heracles in Greek mythology). He even commissioned statues showcasing him in the garb of the Greek hero. This association wasn’t just cosmetic; he believed he had divine strength and power, leading to reckless decisions.
- Gladiatorial Shows: His obsession with gladiator games is well-documented. He often fought as a gladiator himself, although these combats were rigged. His opponents were typically wounded soldiers or amputees. This debasement of the imperial image was shocking to the Roman elite.
- Persecution: Commodus’s reign saw increased persecution of political enemies. Senators were often executed on a whim or out of paranoia. This caused immense fear and resentment within the Senate.
- Economic Decay: Under his leadership, Rome’s economy suffered. He devalued Roman currency by reducing the purity of silver in denarius, leading to inflation. Excessive spending on games, shows, and personal luxuries further strained the imperial treasury.
- Naming of Rome: In a grandiose display of narcissism, he renamed Rome as “Colonia Commodiana,” meaning the Colony of Commodus. He even renamed the months of the year after his own titles.
- Conspiracies: His unpredictable behavior led to multiple conspiracies against him. The most significant was in 182 AD when his sister Lucilla, alarmed by his erratic leadership, plotted to assassinate him. Though the attempt failed, it only deepened Commodus’s paranoia.
Renaming of the months and Roman institutions
In 192, Commodus, likening himself to Rome’s legendary founder Romulus, symbolically re-established Rome, dubbing it Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. His ego led him to rename every month after one of his titles, turning the calendar into a reflection of his self-perceived grandeur.
All the months of the year were renamed to correspond exactly with his (now twelve) names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius.
Not stopping there, he rebranded the Roman legions as Commodianae, named the grain-importing fleet from Africa as Alexandria Commodiana Togata, and even the esteemed Senate became the Commodian Fortunate Senate.
His palace, the people, and even the day these changes were decreed were all stamped with the moniker “Commodianus”. Through these actions, Commodus aimed to reshape the very identity of Rome, placing himself at the epicenter of its cultural and political life.
Commodus and the gladiatorial games
Commodus had a fervent obsession with gladiatorial combat, even entering the arena as a gladiator. While he viewed it as a display of his prowess, many Romans deemed his participation scandalous. Spectators, as Herodian noted, believed that an emperor should be battling Rome’s enemies rather than participating in staged arena fights, deeming it beneath his imperial station. Rumors swirled that Commodus was not the legitimate son of Marcus Aurelius, but of a gladiator Faustina, his mother, had been involved with.
In the arena, opponents always yielded to Commodus, leading to his undefeated streak. In fact, scars from a fight against the emperor were worn as badges of honor. However, some reports, like those from the historian Cassius Dio, painted a more brutal picture: Commodus, pretending to battle giants, would tie disabled citizens together and club them. Dio also alleged Commodus’s habit of using lethal weapons in private fights, causing significant harm.
Financially, these spectacles drained Rome’s coffers, as he charged the city a staggering million sesterces per appearance. Additionally, his arena displays involved combat against exotic animals. He reportedly killed 100 lions in a day, beheaded an ostrich, and threatened senators by suggesting they could be next. These antics often evoked derision rather than fear among the senators. Other feats included killing elephants and a giraffe.
Downfall & Death
The final years of his reign were marked by increasing instability. As his behavior became more erratic, conspiracies against him grew. Ultimately, it was his chamberlain and mistress, Marcia, who played a role in his demise. Upon discovering her name on a list of those marked for death, she, along with a few conspirators, decided to poison him. When the poison didn’t work quickly enough, they sent the wrestler Narcissus to strangle him in his bath.
Commodus died in 192 AD, ending the more than two-decade-long rule of the Antonine dynasty. Following his death, the empire plunged into civil war, later termed as the Year of the Five Emperors, signaling the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire’s golden age.
Commodus’s legacy is undeniably tainted. While he began his reign with promise and had moments of competent leadership, his increasing megalomania and detachment from the realities of the empire overshadowed these. His fascination with gladiatorial games, combined with his atrocities against perceived enemies, painted a picture of an emperor more concerned with personal glory and pleasure than the wellbeing of the empire.
To many historians, Commodus represents the decline from the “Five Good Emperors” era. The stark contrast between him and his father Marcus Aurelius, the last of these good emperors, is often cited as a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. While his reign was undoubtedly decadent and tumultuous, it also serves as a cautionary tale about unchecked power and the importance of stable, responsible leadership.
In popular culture, Commodus is often portrayed as the archetypical mad emperor, his legacy forever marred by tales of decadence, cruelty, and megalomania. Whether as a product of his upbringing or a testament to the dangers of absolute power, Commodus’s reign remains a significant chapter in the annals of Roman history.
Did you know…?
- Marcus Aurelius, one of the Five Good Emperors known for adopting their successors, was the first emperor since Vespasian to have a legitimate biological son. This marked a deviation from the tradition of the Adoptive Emperors.
- On 1 January 177, at just 15, Commodus became the youngest consul in history, significantly younger than the typical minimum age of around 30 for the position.
- On 27 November 176, Marcus Aurelius named Commodus “Imperator”. Modern historians sometimes consider this the start of Commodus’ rule, but timelines vary. Before 17 June 177, Commodus was declared Augustus, though he might have dated his reign from 176. Uniquely, he was the first emperor “born in the purple” (during a reigning emperor’s term), a distinction not repeated until 337.
- Commodus, known for his volatility and cruelty, frequently executed Roman citizens for perceived slights. Notably, he attempted to annihilate the prominent Quinctilii family. Despite no proven involvement in any conspiracies, the brothers Condianus and Maximus were executed, largely due to their significant wealth and potential dissatisfaction with Commodus’ rule. In another incident at Terme Taurine’s Roman baths, an attendant faced a brutal end, being thrown into an oven for providing lukewarm bathwater.
- Originally named Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, he adopted the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Commodus upon his father’s death in 180. By 191, he reverted to his birth name and later in the year adopted an even grander title, connecting him with divine figures like Jupiter and Hercules. Inscriptions from locations as distant as Dura-Europos on the Euphrates indicate the widespread dissemination of these titles. Even auxiliary military units were renamed in his honor. Remarkably, Commodus adopted the titles Pacator Orbis and Dominus Noster, the latter of which would become a standard title for future Roman emperors. However, Commodus appears to have been its pioneer.
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How did Commodus devalue the Roman currency?
Upon becoming emperor, Commodus made significant changes to the Roman currency. He decreased the denarius’ weight from 105 per Roman pound to 96 (a shift from 3.85 grams to 3.35 grams). Additionally, the silver content was diminished from 79% purity to 76%, making the silver weight decrease from 2.57 grams to 2.34 grams. By 186, Commodus enacted another reduction, bringing down the purity to 74% and the weight to 2.22 grams, equaling 108 denarii to the Roman pound. This extensive devaluation of the denarius during Commodus’ reign was the most significant since Nero’s time as emperor.
Difference between Commodus’ reign and Marcus Aurelius’
Marcus Aurelius’ reign was defined by persistent warfare, while Commodus’ rule saw fewer military conflicts. However, Commodus’ leadership was plagued by political turmoil and his erratic and unpredictable actions. Cassius Dio, a historian of the time, sharply critiqued the transition of power from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus. He likened the shift to a decline “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust,” suggesting a deterioration in the quality and stability of the empire under Commodus.
Commodus markedly differed from prior emperors like Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius in his approach to governance. While his predecessors were deeply involved in administrative affairs, Commodus appeared largely disinterested. Instead of personally overseeing the intricate workings of the empire, he preferred to delegate these responsibilities. Throughout his reign, he entrusted the day-to-day management of the empire to various favorites. One of the earliest and most influential of these was Saoterus, a freedman from Nicomedia, who held the prominent position of Commodus’ chamberlain, playing a significant role in the empire’s operations.
Commodus’ perceived mismanagement led to multiple conspiracies and coup attempts. These challenges pushed him to assert control in an increasingly autocratic manner. Despite the disdain and fear he instilled in the senatorial class, evidence suggests the army and commoners largely favored him. His popularity was buoyed by his generous handouts, as evident in his coinage, and his participation in gladiatorial games. Though not a skilled fighter, Commodus would shoot animals with arrows from a safe vantage. When facing gladiators, they would intentionally yield, as harming or killing the emperor could result in their crucifixion. Concurrently, Rome’s economy suffered significantly during his rule.
How do we know about Commodus’ reign?
Commodus’ reign, despite its significance, is poorly documented. The main surviving accounts come from Herodian, Cassius Dio, and the Historia Augusta. Cassius Dio was a contemporary of Commodus, serving as a Senator, and offers some first-hand observations.
However, only fragments and summaries of his accounts for this period endure. The Historia Augusta, while a primary source, is viewed with skepticism. It blends historical accounts with fictional elements, making it a less reliable historical record. In the case of Commodus, the Historia Augusta likely exaggerates or embellishes details from genuine contemporary sources. The limited and varied nature of these sources makes it challenging to paint a complete and accurate picture of Commodus’ rule.
Why was Commodus obsessed with portraying himself as the Roman demigod Hercules?
Commodus, in his pursuit of unparalleled power and grandeur, often positioned himself contrary to the Senate’s traditional authority. He projected an image of divine power, generosity, and unmatched physical prowess. This was particularly evident in the multitude of statues erected across the empire, portraying him as Hercules — a demigod and a fierce protector who stood tall against both men and beasts. By aligning himself with Hercules, he not only highlighted his god-like stature but also implied his lineage from Jupiter, Rome’s supreme deity.
Rather than acknowledging his genuine lineage from the revered Marcus Aurelius, he emphasized his own distinctiveness, envisioning himself as the harbinger of a revolutionary order. In 192, in a display of unmatched megalomania, Commodus symbolically re-founded Rome, renaming it and every month of the year after himself. This audacious rebranding extended to the legions, fleet, Senate, his palace, and even the Roman populace. The day these monumental reforms were announced was termed “Dies Commodianus.”
His intent was clear: to depict himself as the nucleus of Roman civilization, its faith, and its imperial might. The Colossus of Nero, standing near the Colosseum, was modified to bear his likeness. This transformation included characteristics of Hercules Romanus, further augmenting his divine image.
Commodus, unlike his more philosophically inclined father, took immense pride in his physical capabilities. Contemporary historian Herodian depicted him as strikingly handsome. To amplify this larger-than-life image, he commissioned statues showcasing him as Hercules. He fervently believed in being Hercules’ reincarnation, repeatedly showcasing his might by combating wild creatures in arenas. His unique left-handedness was a point of pride. Sources like Cassius Dio and the Augustan History vouch for his exceptional archery skills, narrating feats where he decapitated galloping ostriches and thwarted attacking panthers with unparalleled precision.
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How exactly was Commodus assassinated?
In November 192, Emperor Commodus participated in the Plebeian Games, showcasing his skills by killing hundreds of animals and fighting as a gladiator daily, emerging undefeated. By December, he planned to start 193 as both a consul and a gladiator.
However, his reign soon faced a turning point. Marcia, his mistress, discovered a death list that included her, the prefect Laetus, and Eclectus. In response, they conspired to kill Commodus. Initially, they tried poisoning him, but after he regurgitated the poison, his wrestler, Narcissus, strangled him on 31 December.
Following his demise, the Senate labeled him a public enemy (a de facto damnatio memoriae), effectively erasing his memory. Rome reverted to its original name, and Commodus’ statues were torn down. His remains were placed in Hadrian’s Mausoleum.
Commodus’ death ended the Nerva–Antonine dynasty, and Pertinax briefly succeeded him before the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors ensued. Later, in 195, Emperor Septimius Severus, seeking alliance with Marcus Aurelius’ lineage, revived Commodus’ reputation, even achieving his deification by the Senate.
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Frequently Asked Questions about Roman Emperor Commodus
Understanding Commodus requires a dive into the complexities of Roman politics, the immense pressures of leadership, and the pitfalls of unchecked power. While his reign is remembered largely for its negatives, it offers invaluable lessons about the Roman Empire’s history and governance.
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about this Roman emperor and his reign:
When was Commodus born?
Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, born on 31 August AD 161 in Lanuvium near Rome.
Who were Commodus’ parents?
He was born to the then-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Faustina the Younger. Faustina was the youngest daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius, who passed away a few months before Commodus’ birth.
Commodus had a twin, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, who tragically died in 165.
On 12 October 166, both Commodus and his younger sibling, Marcus Annius Verus, were designated as Caesars. However, misfortune struck again when Marcus Annius Verus died in 169 post-surgery. This series of events left Commodus as the only living son of Marcus Aurelius.
How was his early life like?
Commodus was cared for by his father’s renowned physician, Galen, who addressed many of his routine ailments. In terms of education, Commodus underwent rigorous training under a range of instructors, emphasizing intellectual growth. Notable among these educators were Onesicrates, Antistius Capella, Titus Aius Sanctus, and Pitholaus. Their combined efforts ensured a comprehensive educational foundation for the young prince.
In 172, Commodus was at Carnuntum, where Marcus Aurelius led the Marcomannic Wars. Likely on 15 October 172, he received the title “Germanicus” amidst the army, implying his presence at his father’s triumph over the Marcomanni. By 20 January 175, Commodus began his public career by joining the College of Pontiffs, a significant step in Roman public life.
In April 175, Avidius Cassius, the Syrian Governor, proclaimed himself emperor, mistakenly believing Marcus Aurelius was deceased. Although the rumors were false, Cassius, backed by regions like Syria, Judea, and Egypt, persisted with his insurrection. Preparing for conflict against Cassius, Commodus marked his formal entrance into manhood by donning his toga virilis at the Danubian front on 7 July 175. Before any military confrontation could commence, a centurion assassinated Cassius. After this, Commodus joined his father on an extensive tour of the Eastern provinces. In Antioch, they explored the city, later journeying to Athens. There, both participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a renowned initiation ceremony. By autumn of 176, they concluded their journey, returning to Rome.
At what age did Commodus become emperor?
Commodus became emperor in 177 AD. Given that he was born on 31 August 161 AD, he would have been 16 years old when he became co-emperor with his father, Marcus Aurelius.
Was Commodus involved in persecuting Christians?
There’s no concrete evidence that Commodus initiated widespread persecutions of Christians. However, localized persecutions could have occurred, and some individual Christians might have suffered during his reign.
How did Commodus’s reign impact the Roman Empire?
His reign is often seen as the beginning of the decline of the golden age of the Roman Empire. Following his death, Rome saw the Year of the Five Emperors, a period of civil war and instability.
Did Commodus rename Rome after himself?
Yes, in a grand display of ego, he briefly renamed Rome “Colonia Commodiana.” There were very few Roman emperors that could compete with Commodus when it came to his level of megalomania.
Who was Commodus’ wife?
Commodus’ wife was Bruttia Crispina. They married in 178 AD. She was a Roman empress consort during Commodus’ reign, but little detailed information about her life or the duration of her marriage to Commodus has survived in historical records. Their union did not produce any known offspring.
How accurate is Commodus’s portrayal in the movie “Gladiator”?
“Gladiator” (2000), directed by English filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott, is an epic drama starring Russell Crowe as Roman General Maximus, betrayed by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) who kills his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and usurps the throne. As a slave, Maximus becomes a gladiator, seeking revenge for his family and emperor.
While “Gladiator” offers a dramatic representation of Commodus, it takes significant liberties with historical facts. For instance, Commodus did not kill his father Marcus Aurelius, nor was he killed in the gladiatorial arena by a general named Maximus.
Did Commodus have any successors?
After Commodus’s death, Pertinax briefly became emperor, but 192 AD saw a series of short-lived emperors, leading to what is known as the Year of the Five Emperors.
Why is Commodus often labeled as a “bad” emperor?
Commodus’s reign was marked by perceived narcissism, erratic behavior, economic decline, and persecution of political enemies. His participation in gladiatorial games and self-deification also led many contemporaries and historians to view him negatively.
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