The Roman Emperor Commodus

Have you ever watched a film based on historical events or famous people and wondered did that really happen? Lately i have been watching the 1964 film ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (Alec Guiness, Sophia Loren, Christopher Plummer) and i could not help but ask if the portrayal of the Roman Emperor Commodus was true.

For anyone who has seen either the 1964 film ‘The fall of the Roman Empire‘ or the 2000 film ‘Gladiator'(Mel Gibson, Joachim Phoenix), the Roman Emperor Commodus is portrayed as a cruel tyrant, obssessed with power that murdered his father to become emperor and wanting to be a gladiator more than being an emperor. But is this true?

Commodus was already co-emperor with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 177 A.D. Marcus Aurelius was already a sick man when he passed away in 180 A.D at Vindabona or modern day Vienna. Marcus Aurelius was regarded as a great emperor by the historian Cassius Dio who said of Marcus Aurelius that ‘In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power….so truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence’.

When Commodus became sole emperor in 180 A.D, he was only 19 years old. Would Commodus be a great emperor like his father? There were many who worried about the young Commodus. The historian Cassius Dio says that before he died, Marcus Aurelius was concerned that Commodus would stop his studies and turn to drinking and debauchery. To help Commodus, the trusted advisors of his father were left to guide the young emperor.

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Commodus is nothing like his famous father. A youthful Commodus appears to be easily influenced by others as Cassius Dio tells us that ‘This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature’. It did not take long for Commodus to dismiss the advisors of his father and rely on the advice of dubious men such as Perennis, who commanded the Pretorian guard and also Cleander.

For the first several years, the reign of Commodus seems to have gotten off to a good start. But Commodus was criticized for his decision to make peace with the Barbarian tribes which Marcus Aurelius had been attempting to conquer. Cassius Dio puts the peace with the Germanic tribes down to the laziness of Commodus who wanted nothing more than to return to Rome as Cassius says ‘ And, although Commodus might easily have destroyed them, yet he made terms with them; for he hated all exertion and was eager for the comforts of the city’. Or was there more to this decision to sue for peace? Was this the plan of Marcus Auerlius as well?

Men such as Perennis and Cleander become very powerful as Commodus begins to take an interest in being a gladiator and neglects his official duties, leaving them to Perennis and Cleander. The historian Cassius Dio tells us that ‘Commodus devoted most of his life to ease and to horses and to combats of wild beasts and of men.  In Roman society, the gladiators that fought were slaves. For the emperor to dress up as gladiator was scandalous. Cassius Dio tells us that Perennis not only managed the military affairs, but everything else as well, and to stand at the head of the State. Perennis is effectively emperor in everything but name and title.

As Commodus played at being gladiator, Perennis and Cleander used their influence to get rid of their own enemies and used their power to sell public offices to friends. The behaviour of Perrenis outrages the Roman aristocracy and turns them against Commodus. One of the most important plots against Commodus was carried out by his own sister, Lucilla. According to historian Herodian, Lucila, plotted with the Roman senators Quadratus and Paternus, the prefect of the guard. Lucilla was later exiled and murdered on the orders of Commodus.

The attempt on the life of Commodus seems to be a turning point in the decreasing relations between Commodus and the Roman senate. Cassius Dio tells us of the distrust between Commodus and the senate when Commodus killed an Ostrich and cut off its head which he waved in front of Cassius Dio and other senators ‘ indicating that he would treat us in the same way.’

Its a dangerous atmosphere to live in. Both Perennis and later Cleander seemed to have stirred Commodus distrust in the senate and that he was being betrayed by everyone around him. Commodus has his wife Crispina executed when he believes she is having an affair. Cleander, a rival of Perennis, convinces Commodus that Perennis is trying to overthrow Commodus and install his own son as emperor. Another victim of Commodus suspicions is his wife, the empress Bruttia Crispina whom Commodus had married in 178 B.C. In 188 B.C, Commodus accused his wife of adultery and had her banished to the island of Capri where she was later executed.

The Roman aristocracy seems to have had enough of Commodus and when an attempt at poisoning Commodus failed, an athelete named Narcissus was sent to strangle Commodus while he was taking a bath. As Cassius Dio tells it ‘Such was the end of Commodus, after he had ruled twelve years, nine months, and fourteen days. He had lived thirty-one years and four months; and with him the line of the genuine Aurelii ceased to rule’.

But the death of Commodus brings a period of civil war and the year of the Five Emperors when five military leaders all claim the title of emperor. The peaceful years of the reign of Marcus Aurelius become just a memory.


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