As eccentric as Joaquin Phoenix allegedly is, he has nothing on the real Commodus as we know him from contemporary histories and corroborating evidence. Commodus, the son of the famously wise and not-a-bad-guy-for-an-emperor Marcus Aurelius, was the sole Emperor of Rome for twelve years and managed to actively and purposefully do massive amounts of damage to the state that his father and his predecessors had worked to build up for a century.
The rise of Commodus, in many ways, coincided with the end of an era for Rome. Ever since the selection of the senator Nerva as Emperor in the year 96 following the death of the unloved Emperor Domitian, each successive ruler had chosen his replacement not by blood but according to his skill and judgment. Following Nerva, four such emperors ruled over Rome: Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and finally Marcus Aurelius. While specific peoples throughout time have had some serious grudges against some of these emperors – most notably held by the Jews against Hadrian, who persecuted them following the Bar Kochba revolt in Judea against Roman rule – they are together known as the Five Good Emperors because there were five of them and they were pretty good. They are generally remembered as competent rulers who were considerate of both the needs of their people and the necessity to maintain propriety in public – the partial exception again being Hadrian, who very publicly was in love with a teenage Greek boy named Antinous and who deified him following his accidental (?) death. (Hadrian is an interesting figure, so maybe we’ll take a look at him later.)
Commodus broke this chain. As strange as it seems, Commodus was the first son to inherit the diadem from his natural father since Titus, son of Vespasian, one hundred years earlier, and only the second since the foundation of the Principate by Augustus one hundred years before that. He was also the first emperor to be “born in the purple” – meaning that he was born the son of an emperor. Marcus Aurelius elevated his son to co-Augustus in AD 177, and Commodus became sole ruler in 180 when his father died.
Note that there’s no evidence Commodus killed his father, despite what Gladiator would have you believe. Gladiator is a good movie, but it’s definitely not a historically accurate one. Though as we’ll see, the one thing it did get right was how insane Commodus would turn out to be. In fact, the movie downplayed the emperor’s crazy antics – maybe Ridley Scott and the writers thought they would be too unbelievable to audiences, and they may have been right. But as the cliche goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and that is especially true in the case of Commodus.
Roman citizens initially had no reason to think Commodus would be an especially bad ruler. As co-Augustus, he had presumably been constrained by his father’s presence. Once Marcus Aurelius was dead, however, his son’s true nature was unleashed. Commodus, still only 19 years old, had been on campaign with his father on the Danube against the Marcomanni and other German tribes at the time. After taking over, Commodus seemingly decided that he didn’t like all this warfare and quickly cut a deal with the Germans, making peace and returning to Rome to enjoy the benefits of his new position. And he would enjoy the hell out of them.
It was likely clear to the Senate and other responsible persons right away that Commodus had no interest in the administration part of being the Emperor. Unlike his five predecessors, Commodus simply wanted all the stuff that came with it – the palace, the money, and the non-accountability. In fact, when he did get involved in administration, the results were usually disastrous. Commodus and one of his favorites, Cleander, together appointed and removed consuls so many times (25 of them in one year, according to Cassius Dio) that the administration damn near broke down, and his spending was out of control. Like many of his fellow crappy emperors, Commodus also put quite a few senators and other officeholders to death because they had incurred his displeasure. Relations between Emperor and Senate had never been so bad, but since Commodus had the army and the Praetorian Guard on his side, the Senate couldn’t do much about it. The Senate had become pretty much toothless anyway, and once Commodus packed it with his own supporters it really became a joke.
Commodus also shared a particular interest with many of the common Roman people – the gladiatorial games. The Emperor spent massively from the imperial treasury to stage elaborate games in which armed slaves were pitted against each other (and sometimes against wild animals) in combat. These games were extremely popular and had been a part of public life since the days of the Roman Republic, but Commodus took them to a new level. Not only did he stage games, he participated in them as a gladiator himself. For serious-minded Romans, this was unthinkable – the Emperor, the highest and most revered figure in the Empire, taking up the sword to fight in the role that a slave would usually occupy. While some very successful gladiators became celebrities, they still formally occupied the lowest rung of society.
Naturally, Commodus made sure that he would win his fights. Contemporary accounts and sculptures of the Emperor indicate that he was fit and often trained at fighting, but he also took part in shenanigans such as pre-wounding his opponents just in case they might otherwise get the better of him in combat (so that scene where Joaquin Phoenix stabs Russell Crowe before fighting him in public was basically a real thing that Commodus did, just not to Russell Crowe.)
Panem et circenses could only get Commodus so far with the people, however. As he began to get more and more obviously insane, even the game-crazy Romans started to cool off on him. Commodus had already thrown his best friend and chief administrator Cleander under the bus (or horse-cart) after public demonstrations blaming him for a famine that led to his execution. By 190, the Emperor began to assert his status as the reincarnated Hercules and ordered sculptures (such as the one at the top of this page) to be created depicting him in animal hides and carrying “the Club of Hercules” – which, according to the contemporary histories, Commodus actually did in public. The Emperor also decided to rename everything in Rome after himself. Rome, he declared in 192, would be renamed Commodiana, and the legions would become the Commodians. Dissatisfied with his current name of Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, he gave himself several more, and renamed the twelve months after twelve of these names. By 192, Commodus’ official title had become the Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, Holder of the Tribunician Authority for the eighteenth time, Imperator for the eighth time, Consul for the seventh time, Father of his Country, to consuls, praetors, tribunes, and the fortunate Commodian senate.
Sadly for Commodus, his attempt at a Kim Il Sung-style god-worship cult of personality didn’t work. Like many modern dictators, Commodus conducted routine purges of his own inner circle. Probably fearing for their own lives in another one of these purges, his mistress Marcia and his Praetorian Prefect Aemilius Laetus joined with a few others in the Emperor’s entourage to plot his assassination. On December 31, 192, Commodus was strangled to death by his wrestling partner in the bath, and the old general Pertinax replaced him as Emperor. The memory of Commodus was thereafter damned1 and his narcissistic reforms were reversed.
Commodus is perhaps most interesting for his attempt at a major cult of personality. The first emperor, Augustus, really had set in motion a cult around his rule for political purposes, but he never cared to take it very far and there’s no evidence that he believed in his own divinity. Even other psychotic emperors like Caligula who claimed to be gods and demanded to be worshipped didn’t try to change the name of Rome and all of its institutions. Commodus, however, really went all in with his particular brand of crazy. He might have turned Rome into something resembling North Korea today if he’d had his way. The fact that he failed probably had less to do with the strength of the Roman administration, which had become weak partly as a direct result of Commodus’ policies, and more to do with Commodus’ own failure to protect himself from members of his inner circle after purging old members of his inner circle several times. It also had to do with the fact that he was batshit insane, and such emperors tended not to die violently before too long, even when they surrounded themselves with loyal bodyguards (see Nero at fourteen years, Caracalla at six years, and Caligula and Elagabalus at four years each, all of whom were assassinated or forced to commit suicide in their twenties or thirties.)
Considering that, Commodus had a pretty good twelve-year run of depravity and cruelty. As a leader, Commodus was a total disaster, but at least the Romans got some fun gladiatorial shows out of it.
1 Damnatio memoriae was an official procedure that involved rubbing someone’s memory right out of history. Sometimes literally – Commodus’ name was chiseled out of inscriptions on monuments, etc. Of course, damnatio memoriae seems not to have worked in Commodus’ case because we’re still talking about him.