6. Lots of Roman Emperors were decadent and twisted – but only Commodus ate dinner off the hunched backs of slaves
Like many of his contemporaries, Commodus had a twisted fascination with disabled people. And, just as with many elite households, he had a habit of keeping several physically disabled slaves in his palace at any one time. In one of the most outrageous stories from his rein, the Historia Augusta notes that Commodus would order two hunchbacked slaves to be present when he was hosting a feast. He didn’t indulge in cannibalism – he wasn’t that twisted – but he did have the men stripped naked, put on silver plates and then covered in mustard for guests to eat off their backs.
By ancient standards, however, such behavior was not so outrageous. Other Emperors were arguably far worse. Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and Domitian all surrounded themselves with ‘human curiosities’. And Trajan was possibly the most wicked of them all, thanks to his sexual interest in dwarfs and the disabled. On the one hand, disabled slaves usually received more food, more comfortable quarters and were less likely to be beaten, but on the other hand, they routinely suffered a wide range of humiliations, not least being paraded naked or used for their owners’ sexual gratification.