Any historian asked to name the most crazed of the Emperors of Rome has no shortage of candidates to choose from. But arguably, Lucius Aurelius Commodus has the strongest claim to the title. He’s as fascinating now as he was back in the 2nd century, when he ruled over the Empire and was the most powerful man in the world. But it’s not his political reforms or even military triumphs that fascinate us so much. Rather, it’s his decadent lifestyle and his cruel, sadistic ways.
Of course, it could well be that Commodus is the victim of a 2,000-year smear campaign. In fairness, hardly anything is known about his life. The ancient historian Herodian left us some clues, as did Dio Cassius, though these are just fragments and almost certainly embellished. And then there’s the multi-volume Historia Augusta, the ancient account of the lives of the Emperors. Even this, however, mixes fiction and anecdote with the real historical truth.
But still, we know enough to conclude that Commodus was a bad Emperor – and a bad guy, full stop. So, from using hunchbacks as serving plates, fighting dwarfs and killing sisters and wives, here are 18 reasons why Commodus can reasonably be called the worst Roman ruler of them all:
18. Commodus could not have been any less like his famously wise father Marcus Aurelius- did the transition of power mark the beginning of the end for Rome?
Perhaps what makes the crazed life and rule of Emperor Commodus so noteworthy is that he inherited power from his father, Marcus Aurelius. As men, and as rulers, the two could not have been more different. Marcus Aurelius ruled from 161 to 180. A stoic by nature and by learning, he oversaw the Empire’s expansion and consolidation. On the side, he also wrote his famous Meditations. Clearly, he was hopeful that Commodus would follow in his footsteps. This confidence is reflected in the fact that he named his son – the tenth of his 14 children – his heir.
This was a significant decision. Commodus was the first Roman ruler to be born while his father was the reigning Emperor. What’s more, Commodus was the first Emperor to inherit the throne for many years. Before him, the five previous rulers, including Marcus Aurelius himself, had assumed the top job through adoption. Clearly, the philosopher believed his own flesh and blood were as wise as he was. He was greatly mistaken – indeed, many historians pinpoint 180 AD, the year Marcus Aurelius died, as the start of the Empire’s decline.