17. Big things were expected of Commodus, with Marcus Aurelius determined that his successor would be his biological son, not an adopted heir
From the day his twin brother died at a young age, Commodus was groomed to succeed his father. Inevitably, the young man benefited from the finest education of the age. Marcus Aurelius, a learned man himself, hired the greatest minds of the time to tutor his son. These included Onesicrates, Antistius Capella, Titus Aius Sanctus, and Pitholaus, all of them well-respected and even celebrity intellectuals. The Emperor also ensured his own son was given a grounding in science by his personal physician Galen – though, as we shall see, the reckless, even psychotic youth, took this medical training way too far.
When Commodus was just 16, Marcus Aurelius named him Imperator. This was a year after he had been named the youngest Consul in the history of the Empire. Then in 177, just a few months before he reached the age of 18, Commodus was given the title Augustus, banishing any doubt that he would rule as Emperor. Being bestowed with this title meant that father and son reigned as co-rulers. It was as such that they set off to the banks of the River Danube in March 180 in order to put down an uprising by some local tribes.
16. Could it be the Commodus was so dysfunctional because of his mother’s rumored infidelities?
According to some pop psychologists, the chances of Commodus growing up to be a well-adjusted adult were slim-to-none. The argument goes that, while his father might have been a thoughtful philosopher, his mother, Faustina the Younger, was a prime example of the sexual excesses of Rome. For centuries, she has been described as unfaithful maneater with an insatiable appetite. Certainly, the ancient historian Sextus Aurelius Victor described Faustina as a woman with notable vices. Similarly, 200 years later, Emperor Julian II, noted that Marcus Aurelius loved his wife despite the fact she was “not even a virtuous woman”.
She was alleged to have cruised the docks for young sailors to bed. What’s more, she was said to have seduced her husband’s generals and several senators and other members of the elite. But above all, Faustina became infamous for her alleged love of gladiators. The Historia Augusta even notes that she admitted an affair to her husband. Marcus Aurelius then consulted his soothsayers and was advised to have the gladiator killed and order Faustina to bathe in his blood. Another version even has the Emperor ordering the man to be killed while he and Faustina were in bed together!
15. Commodus wasn’t just a spoiled child, he was a sadistically cruel one too, as his young friends and slaves found out to their cost
From an early age, it was clear to everyone that Commodus had a wicked side. He was a cruel child, and being his friend was a risky business. Clearly, he enjoyed being the son of the Emperor and was only too ready to use his unchecked power to be the ultimate bully. According to one account, anyone who made fun of him would be “cast to the wild beasts”, with Commodus watching on in amusement. Childhood friends who had the audacity to better him in their studies or military training were also punished, often in the most appalling way imaginable.
Given the cruelty he was willing to show his friends, it’s no surprise that the young Commodus treated slaves terribly. Since he didn’t need to worry about the financial implications of losing a slave, he was prepared to have his servants killed for the slightest failing. Famously, he would punish any slaves who got his bathing rituals wrong. Since Commodus would take 7 or 8 baths a day, working in this part of the house was a risky business indeed – the records show that he had a slave executed on the spot for getting the temperature of his bathwater slightly wrong.
14. As a young student, Commodus wanted to be a surgeon and he was said to have practiced his scalpel skills on healthy slaves
According to some of his biographers, his twin brother’s early death after a surgical operation in the year 165 was what sparked in Commodus a fascination with medicine. Additionally, another younger brother died soon after going under the surgeon’s knife. His father assigned his own physician, a respected man called Galen, to look after his son. It’s likely the medicine man tried to pass on his learning to the young boy. Above all, this all meant that Commodus had a grisly interest in surgery; the bloodier and riskier the procedure, the more he liked it.
He even fancied himself as a surgeon and didn’t let a lack of scientific knowledge or proper medical training get in the way of acting out his fantasies. According to the Historia Augusta, “he even aped a surgeon, going so far as to bleed men to death with scalpels.” That’s right. For his own amusement, he would cut men open and subject them to unnecessary surgical procedures, all without the aid of anesthetic, of course. The fact that Commodus didn’t know what he was doing meant certain death for the poor slaves the boy chose to play surgeons on.
13. Commodus was so unlike his philosopher father, rumors spread throughout the Empire that he was fathered by a gladiator
As we’ve already seen, Faustina the Younger was the subject of much malicious gossip back in the 2nd century. Many elite Roman women took gladiators as their casual lovers in those times. After all, they were in perfect physical form and, better still, they were entirely disposable. Could it be that Faustina not only slept with a gladiator while married to Marcus Aurelius, but even had a gladiators’ child? Certainly, proponents of the theory argue, that would explain why Commodus showed such a love for violence despite the fact Marcus Aurelius showed no real interest in the gladiatorial arena.
However attractive such a theory is, it’s highly unlikely that Commodus was born as the result of an illicit affair between Faustina the Younger and a gladiator. After all, he was a twin, and his brother was a sickly child who died young. More importantly, Faustina was a savvy woman and political operator. Even if she had enjoyed lovers outside of her marriage, she would never have allowed her husband’s authority to be undermined by giving birth to an illegitimate child – to do so would have meant the Emperor’s embarrassment and probable end, and her own exile or even death.
12. He might have had all the power in the world, but as Emperor, Commodus was regularly bored and distracted and didn’t want to rule
Unlike his predecessors, including Hadrian, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius himself, Commodus had no interest in government. In fact, he left most affairs of the Empire to his closest officials. He sacked those he inherited from his father and installed his own loyal men, even if they had little experience. In particular, a freeman called Saoterus was promoted from being the Emperor’s chamberlain to be the day-to-day ruler. This left Commodus free to pursue his real interests, namely hunting, pretending to be a gladiator and keeping his private brothels on the outskirts of Rome stocked with girls from across the Empire.
In 182, Commodus uncovered a plot to assassinate him. Saoterus was implicated. He had his right-hand-man executed, with another chamberlain taking his place. From then on, however, Commodus decided to be more involved in the running of the Empire. This marked the start of his descent into ruling as a tyrant and an increasingly-egotistical dictator. Even then, however, he preferred to stay away from Rome whenever possible. Indeed, he spent most of his time on the family estates at Lanuvium, indulging his love for horse-riding and hunting, as well as keeping himself amused with drunken parties and countless affairs.
11. Unlike his wise father, Commodus was no economist, and his short-term fix of devaluing the Roman currency soon caused real trouble
As soon as he took sole control of the Empire in the year 180, Commodus got busy devaluing the Roman currency. At first, he reduced the weight of the denarius from 3.85 grams to 3.35 grams. At the same time, he also reduced the weight of silver coins by making them less pure. Just six years later, he further devalued both gold and silver coins, largely to make sure that he had enough of the precious metals to pay for his opulent lifestyle and to fund his habit of paying his legionaries regular bonuses to keep them loyal and onside.
This policy was far from wise. In fact, though it proved a short-term fix for Commodus, it caused significant damage to the Roman economy over the longer term. So much so, in fact, that the ancient observer Dio Cassius, who witnessed the economic debacle first-hand, described the way Commodus squandered his legacy. For him, the transition from Marcus Aurelius to his reckless son represented the start of the descent of the Empire “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust” – though, of course, he didn’t dare criticize the Emperor’s economic policies to his face!
10. He may have been crazed and wasteful of public money, but Commodus knew how to maintain his popularity through his generosity
Like many Roman Emperors, Commodus realized only too well that his power depended on the goodwill of the people. As the writings of Herodian noted, the Emperor would often hand out money in the center of Rome. At the same time, he would host lavish and extravagant events for the people. Quite literally, he engaged in the policy of keeping the people content and distracted with “bread and circuses”. Likewise, regular and generous payments to well-placed Legionnaires and generals reduced the risk of Commodus being killed by his own bodyguards, a fate that befell many an elite Roman, Emperors included.
So, how did Commodus pay for all this? One main way was to tax the Senate and its members. While this won him some enemies, the people – that is, the plebs – lapped it up. They welcomed the fact that they were being put first for once. To reinforce this idea, Commodus decreed that the traditional motto of Senatus Populusque Romanus (that is, powers deriving from the Senate and the People) be reversed. Even today, inscriptions reading Populusque Senatus Romanus remain, a sure sign that they were created as propaganda tools during the reign of Commodus.
9. Commodus came to see himself as the reincarnation of Hercules and would demand people addressed him as the Greek god
Around the year 190, Commodus suddenly decided that he was the living reincarnation of the god Hercules. The ancient historian Herodian gives the best account of this obsession. He wrote: “First he discarded his family name and issued orders that he was to be called not Commodus, son of Marcus, but Hercules, son of Zeus. Abandoning the Roman and imperial mode of dress, he donned the lion skin, and carried the club of Hercules. … He erected statues of himself throughout the city …. for he wished even his statues to inspire fear of him.”
A bust representing Commodus as Hercules is still one of the most defining and iconic images of Ancient Rome. In the marble artwork, which dates back to between 183-190AD, the vain Emperor is seen with a lion skin over his head, alluding to one of the 12 Labours of Hercules. Along with the club of the warrior-god in his right hand (even though Commodus was left-handed), he’s shown holding the golden apples of Hesperides in the other, an allusion to another one of the Greek hero’s most famous feats.
8. Always the egotist, Commodus changed the months of the year to name them after him, and that wasn’t the only thing he re-named in his own honor
Not content with declaring himself to be the second coming of the Hercules, Commodus also announced himself to be the new Romulus. The original had been the mythical founder of Rome. And so, in naming himself his historic successor, the egotistical Emperor presented his reign as the start of the second Golden Age of the Eternal City, even if it was anything but! To promote this idea, Commodus renamed the city after himself in the year 192. From then on, he declared, the city would be known as Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. What’s more, all of its citizens would be known as Commodianus.
Alongside this, he also renamed the calendar after himself – handily, he had given himself 12 names. So, from the year 192, the months of the year were to known as: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Hercules, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix and Pius. He even announced that the day these reforms came into being would be known as the Dies Commondianus. Furthermore, Legions of the Roman Army, were re-branded as Commodianae. He also declared that the Senate should be referred to as the Commodian Fortunate Senate. The latter was seen as a step too far by many of Rome’s Senators.
7. Divorce wasn’t the done thing for an Emperor, so Commodus had his wife killed to make space for his favorite mistress
Commodus was still only 16-years-old when he was wed to Bruttia Crispina, herself just a young girl, in the summer of 178. From the day they wed, Commodus was routinely unfaithful. Indeed, it was even expected that he would have numerous mistresses. He also kept several private brothels, and Crispina would have been only too aware of her husband’s indiscretions. Even if she had been bothered or upset, there was nothing she could have done But, what makes his treatment of his wife so despicable is that, in the end, Commodus accused her of adultery!
Despite having no proof of any alleged indiscretions, in 188 he had Crispina banished from Rome and sent to live on the island of Capri. A few months later, Commodus ordered some soldiers to head to the island and execute her. Commodus may have killed his wife because she ‘failed’ to give him a child. Far more likely, however, he was simply sick of her. By 187, he was infatuated with his favorite mistress, Marcia, and he wanted her to be his de-facto Empress. Of course, Commodus got his way – until Marcia ended up conspiring in his assassination that is.
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.
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: