5. Commodus loved his sister (too much, some critics say), but he didn’t hesitate to have her killed when she conspired against him
From the very moment, Commodus was declared co-ruler with their father Marcus Aurelius, his sister Lucilla had been baying for blood. She believed that her own husband, Lucius Verus, should have been named the old man’s heir. When he wasn’t, Lucilla vowed revenge. Even when Lucius Verus died suddenly in 169, she bore a grudge. Combined with her ongoing feud – and jealousy of – Commodus’ wife, Lucilla was intent on revenge. In 182, she recruited her own nephew, a man called Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus to hide behind a pillar in the Colosseum and then stab Commodus to death.
Commodus was successfully lured to the arena under false pretenses and was exposed. But instead of simply stabbing the Emperor, the would-be assassin decided to first cry out: “This is what the senate has sent you!” This hesitation gave the Emperor’s elite Praetorian Guard enough time to react. The assassin was killed and Lucilla’s involvement in the plot was uncovered. She was sent to Capri to live in exile, along with her daughter. But Commodus soon felt he was being too merciful. Weeks later, he dispatched a loyal centurion to the island to murder both mother and daughter.
4. Commodus would step into the arena and fight as a gladiator, charging the Roman Treasury a fortune to see him take on disabled slaves
Commodus wasn’t just happy to watch fights in the Colosseum, he wanted to play the part, too. But first, he needed to practice. So, he would regularly invite slaves to his home to help him. None of them wanted to beat the Emperor. To do so would humiliate him and be a literal death sentence. However, Commodus was only too happy to kill his sparring partners. To him, they were disposable tools. Quite simply, if you were summoned to the Emperor’s home to help him train, the chances are you weren’t going to leave there alive.
Even though he practiced with regular fights, Commodus was never skilled enough to step into the arena without having the odds stacked in his favor. When he did fight, he fought disabled gladiators, including dwarfs and those missing limbs. He would also be positioned on an elevated platform, giving him an advantage. Even when he was out-skilled in the arena, no gladiator was allowed to lose to the Emperor. So, inevitably, all his opponents died, giving Commodus the ego-boost he craved. However, he charged the Roman Treasury a massive 1 million sestereces each time he fought, crippling the economy.
3. Not content with fighting dwarfs and cripples, Commodus fought wild animals in the Colosseum as well – much to the amusement of sneering senators
As well as fighting the disabled and dwarfs in the Colosseum, Commodus also liked to show off his fighting and hunting skills by taking on a wide range of exotic beasts in the arena. And the crowds loved it. According to contemporary accounts, the Emperor would ‘bravely’ take on giraffes, elephants and even a hippo once – all from the safety of an elevated platform in the middle of the arena and safe in the knowledge that his bodyguards were on hand to help if it started to look like Commodus might end up getting hurt.
It wasn’t just helpless large herbivores Commodus fought in the Colosseum. According to the historian Edward Gibbon, the Emperor killed 100 lions in a single day, much to the amusement – and, surely, bafflement – of the Roman people. But rather than getting down from his elevated fighting platform, he preferred to shoot at them with bow and arrows, thereby proving himself to be a skilled huntsman if not necessarily a brave, fearless warrior. What’s more, according to Gibbon, he killed three elephants in an afternoon, and he famously threatened watching Senators with the head of an ostrich he had just killed!
2. When Commodus announced plans for special Plebeian Games to celebrate his rebuilding of Rome, even his mistress agreed the Emperor had to die
At the end of 192, Commodus held the Plebeian Games. He himself took part, of course. By morning he fought and killed hundreds of animals, and in the afternoon he played at being a gladiator. The Emperor then announced his intention to hold a special day of games on 1 January 193, to represent the rebirth of the city under him. His mistress Marcia felt this was a step too far, so too did his chamberlain, a man called Electus. Most importantly of all, the head of the Praetorian Guard also concurred and joined in the conspiracy to kill Commodus.
At first, Marcia simply pleaded with Commodus to cancel his plans for the special games. He became enraged and threatened to have her killed. She struck first, however. She put poison in the cup of wine he always took before his bath. While he vomited this up, the conspirators still had a backup plan. When he made it to the bathroom, the Emperor’s own fitness coach, a wrestler called Narcissus, strangled him to death. So yes, Commodus died in his own bathroom, covered in vomit being strangled by a naked man.
1. In death, he was initially hated and erased from history, but before long, Commodus was being remembered as a god
With Commodus dead, the Senate got busy erasing him from history. The changes Commodus made to the name of Rome, its institutions and its calendar were reversed. What’s more, mentions of his name, for example where it was inscribed on temples, were erased and any statues of Commodus were destroyed or thrown in the Tiber. And above all, Commodus was declared an ‘enemy of Rome’ by the Senate. His fall from power and prominence was as decisive and brutal as it was swift.
But they couldn’t keep Commodus down for long, even in death. After Pertinax was assassinated and murdered by his own bodyguards for attempting to reform the Roman Army, he was followed by Julianus. And after his brief 63-day reign, Septimius Severus came to power. He was keen to gain favor with the still-important family of Marcus Aurelius, so he had the memory of Commodus resurrected. Moreover, he had Commodus, one of the most inept, corrupt and sadistic rulers of all of Rome, deified. Thereafter, Commodus would be remembered not as a man with many flaws but as a god.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: