Coming to power at just 19-years-old Commodus never had much of a knack for ruling. Rather than presiding over sessions in the senate, he preferred bludgeoning wild animals to death in the arena, or when he was feeling less energetic using them as target practice for archery. Highlights of his reign of terror include making his praetorian prefect dance naked through the palace, changing Rome’s name to “Commodiana” and renamed the months after his honorific titles: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius.
Eventually, and indeed inevitably, he was assassinated, ignominiously strangled in the bath after surviving an attempted poisoning by his wrestling partner Narcissus in 192 AD. The Senate wasted no time in declaring him hostis (enemy of the state), expunging his name from inscriptions, tearing down his statues throughout the city, and reversing some of the more intolerable changes he’d made. Like changing Rome’s name back to Rome.
We have a valuable but rather strange source which, if we choose to believe it, gives us the verbatim senatorial decree listing sanctions against the memory of the deceased emperor. Outraged in its tone, it exhorts for Commodus’s body to be dragged with a hook through the dust; for his statues to be overthrown; for “the memory of the foul gladiator [Commodus] to be utterly wiped away.” The problem with this source is that it reads so badly; too badly I think to be genuine. It’s repetitive to the point of ridiculous and conspicuously lacking in specifics. Nevertheless, it was right about the statues. Images and inscriptions bearing the emperor’s name were destroyed or altered en masse after his death, testament to the vitriol the people felt for him.
For all of his many transgressions, Commodus was actually made a god by his successor, Septimius Severus. It’s unlikely this was done out of any personal admiration; more likely it was a politically appeasing manoeuvre aimed to get the family of Marcus Aurelius onside. But becoming deified did nothing to help his posthumous reputation, and Commodus is still widely regarded as being one of Rome’s worst emperors. Perhaps he would have done well to listen to his fictional nemesis, the husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son Maximus Decimus Aurelius. After all, what he did in life really has echoed in eternity.