Intrigue, Insanity, and the Reign of Commodus

From the Lecture Series: Emperors of Rome

By Garrett G. Fagan, PhD, Pennsylvania State University

Marcus Aurelius departed sharply from the adoptive principle of succession initiated by Nerva 80 years earlier. The prior adoptive emperors had no surviving children at the time of their elevation, but the speed of Commodus’s advancement, despite his extreme youth, tells us that Marcus intended his blood to flow in the veins of the next emperor.

Bust of Commodus from the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
(Image: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme/Public domain)

For so prudent and careful a ruler as Marcus, it proved a catastrophic choice. The lad showed worrying proclivities: he liked his singing, dancing, and rude jokes. He liked performing (in private, one presumes) as a gladiator. At 11 years old, he had been so infuriated by the insufficient heat of his bath that he’d ordered the bath man hurled into the furnace alive. A sheepskin had been tossed onto the fire instead, and then, fooled by the smell of burning skin, Commodus believed his vile order had been carried out.

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Image of Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Bust of Marcus Aurelius (Image: By anonymous/Public domain)

Why Marcus was so blind to these features of his son’s character remains unclear. Perhaps it was a reluctance to regard his son as a savage. In March A.D. 180, no one was in a position to challenge Commodus’s accession, especially after the armies voiced their support on the spot. The new emperor immediately reversed any plan to annex Transdanubian territory for the empire (if indeed that had been Marcus’s plan). The forts and roads beyond the river were abandoned, peace was made with the Iazyges, and the frontier system was strengthened.

The Comforts of Rome

The sources suggest that Commodus was keen to return to the pleasures of Rome, which may have been true, but it’s also possible that he recognized his father’s plan to annex northern territory for Rome was misguided. The shifting currents of tribal migrations in the dense forests of Germany made the annexation of new territory there an added burden on the empire. Beyond the occasional unrest in places like Britain and Africa, the years of Commodus’s reign were relatively quiet in the provinces. The emperor, for his part, had his own priorities.

This is a transcript from the video series Emperors of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Commodus was idle and vainglorious. Both characteristics were probably reactions to his hard-working, modest father. Later on in his reign, Commodus even changed his official name to erase any mention of Marcus or Antoninus. This suggests a strong desire to be free from his father’s shadow. Dio, in introducing us to Commodus, says that he was not inherently wicked but that he was unintelligent, lacked guile, and was easily manipulated. An unintelligent and easily manipulated ruler is a dangerous one; he was only 19 years old on his accession. Despite being at Marcus’s side for most of his final years, Commodus had little hands-on experience in administration or command, or even in observing imperial power in action.

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Conspiracy, Power, and Assassination

These circumstances left the field wide open for unscrupulous underlings, and chief among these was a chap called Aelius Saoterus, a Greek advisor. Saoterus was eventually ruined and replaced by the Praetorian prefects, Sextus Tigidius Perennis and Marcus Aurelius Cleander, both probably around the year 182.

Cleander comes across as something of a neo-Sejanus. He was of low birth (he was an ex-slave), ambitious, and cunning—and during his ascendancy, which stretched from approximately 182 to 189, he was practically emperor while Commodus indulged his private pursuits. Perennis and Cleander also fell from grace and perished in circumstances that are left vague, after which Commodus ruled on his own initiative. That this period of his reign, from 189 to 192, was a disaster demonstrates that Commodus was deeply unsuited for power.

Image of statue of Lucilla, sister of Commodus
Lucilla, sister of Commodus (Image: AlexanderVanLoon/Public domain)

Other people reached this conclusion much earlier in his reign. In 181 or 182, a conspiracy was unearthed involving Commodus’s sister, Lucilla, and her husband, Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus. If we believe our sources, the plot was revealed to Commodus by the staggering stupidity of its chief agent, a man named Pompeianus Quintianus.

The conspirators had chosen Quintianus as an assassin due to his bold temperament, but his family name suggests some vague connection with Lucilla’s husband. Quintianus proved to be a dolt. Concealing a dagger beneath his gown, he waited for Commodus in a dark entrance of the amphitheater. But instead of a surprise attack, Quintianus brandished his weapon and shouted out that he’d been sent by the entire Senate to kill Commodus, at which point he was arrested and put to death. Lucilla was banished to Capri and later executed. Her husband, Pompeianus, strangely enough, survived unscathed.

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That Quintianus claimed to be an agent of the entire Senate soured relations between the emperor and that body. There now started the familiar and dreadful rounds of inquisition and denunciation that pitted senator against senator. Many perished at Commodus’s hands, and their property was confiscated.

The prevailing suspicion and fear are revealed in the strange tale of Sextus Condianus, the son of a senator murdered on Commodus’s orders. Condianus, realizing his likely fate, faked his death and then wandered the earth in disguise. So keen was Commodus to apprehend him that many men were arrested and killed merely for looking like Condianus. Their heads were put on display in Rome.

Condianus’s final fate is not recorded anywhere, but the fact the emperor targeted people because they looked like somebody else speaks volumes about Commodus’s reign. At least two other unsuccessful plots are on record against Commodus, the details of which are vague and disputed, but one apparently involved the prefect Perennis and led to his death in the year 185.

Entertaining the Emperor

For his part, Commodus gave himself over to his private passions, chiefly gladiatorial combat and chariot racing. The latter he practiced in private, as shame prevented him from racing in public. But as Dio records from personal observation, the emperor performed gladiatorial combats and beast hunts in the arena before adoring crowds.

He appears to have been quite good. In private, he fought with sharp weapons, killing and maiming his opponents, but in public, he fought only with blunt weapons—the prospect of an emperor of Rome dying on the sand before the eyes of his people was too atrocious even for Commodus to contemplate. Dio notes that Commodus was a left-handed gladiator, a fact of which he was very proud. He appears to have won every bout he fought.

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Not only were the senators and knights forced to attend whenever Commodus took to the sand, but they also had to chant: “You are lord and you are first, of all men most fortunate. You win and win you will; from time everlasting, Amazonian, you win.”

Once, having killed an ostrich, Commodus strutted about waving the ostrich head and his bloody sword, grinning at the senators menacingly. Dio says that he and his colleagues found this spectacle not threatening but silly, and they laughed—but to avoid risking death, they concealed their mirth by chewing the laurels of the wreaths that they were wearing.

In one bizarre spectacle, Commodus collected from the city men who had lost their feet, and he fashioned serpent’s tails for their lower legs so that they resembled mythological giants.

He then gave them sponges instead of stones to throw at him before he battered them all to death with a club.

I Am Hercules

Statue of Commodus as Hercules
Commodus as Hercules (Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006)/Public domain)

These shows helped forge and reinforce divine connections for Commodus to the public. Prominent Romans since the republic had all associated themselves with gods, and the emperors were no exception. In the 2nd century, Jupiter, the chief god of the Roman state, was a favorite, as was Hercules.

Hercules was the Greek demigod, the son of Zeus (or Jupiter, for the Romans), who, through fighting for good against evil, freed the common man from dangers and was eventually upgraded to full divine status on death. The appeal of Hercules to imperial minds is therefore not far to seek. By killing large and threatening animals in the arena, let alone make-believe giants straight from myth, Commodus drove home the association with Hercules.

The difference from other prominent Romans is that, at least toward the end, Commodus thought he actually was Hercules. The identification goes well beyond simple evocation, to the point that “Hercules Commodianus” was proclaimed on coins. Note that in that form, Hercules is the primary name and Commodianus is the adjective attached to it.

Commodus is portrayed outright as Hercules, complete with lion skin and club, in his portraits, and a cult was established to worship the emperor as Hercules. He had Nero’s colossus altered to resemble himself as Hercules, with an inscription added: “Jupiter’s son, victorious Hercules am I, not Lucius, even though forced to bear that name.”

Renaming the Empire

All of this, of course, reveals a vast and towering megalomania. At the very end of his life, he even renamed Rome “Colonia Lucia Aelia Nova Commodiana,” which means something like “The New Colony of Commodus.” He also had all the months of the year named after himself, and he liked to be addressed as either Amazonius or Exsuperatorius, two titles difficult to render into English but carrying connotations of martial skill and transcendent superlativeness.

The Senate was renamed “the lucky Commodian Senate,” the Roman people were renamed “the Commodian people,” and all the legions were to be given the title “Commodian.” Commodus was declared “The Golden One,” and his reign “The Golden Age.” All of this made Commodus deeply unpopular in senatorial circles, but it amused the masses to no end. His Herculean persona promised them protection, while his extravagant generosity (cash handouts are proclaimed on nine coin issues) and his fine spectacles, which he staged and then sometimes took part in himself, all added to his popular appeal.

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The Death of a Madman

In the end, though, his death was carried out by those closest to him. New advisors, such as the new Praetorian prefect, Aemilius Laetus, or his chamberlain, Eclectus, feared for their lives. They’d seen what happened to Commodus’s prior advisors, like Cleander. His long-term mistress, Marcia, also seems to have been involved.

When an appalling plan surfaced that Commodus, on the 1st of January, 193, should kill both of the new consuls and then emerge from the gladiatorial barracks dressed in his fighter’s gear to assume the post of consul himself, this group decided to act. In another version, the group discovered a death list with their names on it.

Damnatio memoriae of ‘Commodus’ on an inscription in the Museum of Roman History Osterburken. The abbreviation “CO” was later restored with paint. (Image: DerHexer/Public domain)

Regardless of how the plot came about, Commodus was fed poisoned beef, but he vomited it up and thus saved himself. An athlete named Narcissus was then sent in to strangle the emperor in his bath. This was done on the 31st of December, 192. Commodus was 31 years old and had ruled almost 13 years. With Commodus died the Antonine dynasty, as minimal provisions had been made for the succession. Since Nerva, the Antonines had presided over unprecedented stability and prosperity. But the good years were over, and the shadow of civil war once more loomed over the realm.

Common Questions About Commodus

Q: Who was the cruelest Roman emperor?

Among the the cruelest Roman emperors were the paranoid Tiberius, who executed anyone who aroused his suspicions, Nero, who persecuted Christians and wasn’t above killing his own family members, and the corrupt Commodus, who had citizens executed under faulty reasoning so he could steal their wealth.

Q: Is the movie Gladiator based on a true story?

Although in real life Commodus did not murder his father Marcus Aurelius, as he does in the movie Gladiator, the movie is similar to the real story in that both depict the assassination attempt by Commodus’s sister, followed by Commodus’s descent into madness and the way in which his ego led to recklessness and senseless violence.

Q: How did Commodus really die?

Commodus was assassinated by strangulation, ending his chaotic and brutal reign.

Q: When did Commodus die?

Commodus died on December 31, 192 AD.

This article was updated on July 14, 2020

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