Tag Archive | Marcus Aurelius

Commodus: The Emperor who fought as a Gladiator

Roman Emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus is known in history as a corrupt and mad king who was not well received by the Roman populace during his reign. He identified himself as an incarnation of the mythical hero Hercules and fought in the gladiator arena. He adopted outrageous tactics such as slaying the crippled and slaughtered wild beasts while in the arena. His acts created a negative impression and played a big role in his eventual assassination. Historians believe the reign of Commodus as the start of decline of mighty Roman Empire. His rule was marked with chaos all around.

Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus

Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus


Commodus was born in August 31, 161 AD in Lanuvium which is situated 14 miles South-east of Rome. His father as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and mother was Faustina the Younger. Commodus was tenth of the fourteen children born to the couple and later became the only surviving son. He had a twin brother Titus Fulvus Antonius who died at the age of four. After that royal physician Galen was tasked with looking after the young prince. Commodus remained in good health. He was educated intellectually and in military skills by expert trainers.

Aurelius was desperate to see his son ascend the throne, as no other son had succeeded his father ever since Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79 AD. All the other emperors had been adopted. At the tender age of five, Commodus was named Caesar by Aurelius. This is seen as a sign of Aurelius’ desperation to bestow the royal title upon his bloodline. In the following years, Commodus proved a big disappointment for his father. However, Aurelius continued to push Commodus’ claim to the throne by promoting the 15 year old to the rank of Imperator or commander of Roman legions in 176 AD. In the following year, Commodus was named the co-emperor, becoming the youngest consul in Roman history till that point.

Commodus in Gladiator Arena

Commodus in Gladiator Arena


Marcus Aurelius passed in the year 180 AD and Commodus became the sole emperor. He was an inept and megalomaniac individual with odd behavior, which frustrated his subjects. He showed no interests in being a leader, other than taking the advantage of his position to fulfill his needs. In his early years he negotiated peace with certain powers, which hurt the Roman pride. He also reduced the weight of Denarius (Roman currency) and purity of silver was cut too. He organized lavish gladiatorial games that drained the royal coffers and strained the people through taxes. He delegated all the leadership responsibilities to others, and they started misusing the power. He dedicated all his time in things he liked. As noted historian from the Roman era, Dio Cassius states Commodus turned the Roman Empire “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”

Gladiatorial combat was one activity that captured the attention of Commodus. He would regularly take to the arena and engage with gladiators, which was viewed as scandalous by the Romans. He viewed himself as a reincarnation of Hercules and ordered statues of himself dressed like Hercules. While fighting in the arena, opponents would submit to the Emperors and their lives were spared. But it is known that in the practice fights be would slay opponents mercilessly. He often ordered the wounded soldiers or amputees into the arena to slay them. The non-military citizens who had lost their feet due to injury or illness would be tied together for Commodus to club them to death. He would also slay exotic animals such as elephants, hippos, lions, ostriches and giraffes in the arena. These acts horrified the Roman people.

Commodus as Hercules

Statue of Commodus dressed as Hercules


Soon rumors of Commodus not being the legitimate son of Aurelius started spreading. According to the rumors, Faustina had an affair with a valiant gladiator prior to Commodus’ birth and thus Commodus loved the arena so much. His behavior led to plots for his assassination. The Roman populace were frustrated by their king and wanted to get rid of him. In November 192, Commodus declared the Plebian Games where he intended to use javelins and arrows to kill hundreds of animals every morning and engage in gladiatorial battles by afternoon. He decided to welcome the New Year from the gladiator arena. It was also the time when Laetus started a conspiracy to assassinate Commodus.

Commodus Death

Commodus was strangled to death by his wrestling partner


Laetus got support from Marcia, one of Commodus’ mistresses. First, she attempted to kill the emperor by applying poison to his food. But Commodus vomited the poisoned food out and the plot failed. Next, the conspirators bribed Commodus’ wrestling partner, Narcissus, to strangle Commodus to death. This attempt was successful and Commodus was killed on the final day of 192. The Roman people were finally relieved of tyranny.

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Historical Version of the Film “Gladiator”

Ridley Scott won many acclaims for his award winning movie Gladiator. The film according to him was a result of thorough research. Scott tried to present the facts of the Roman Empire back in those with his own psychological outlook. Many critics feel that in doing so Ridley Scott has gone further than most of the earlier film-makers who have de-constructed historical facts significantly for artistic sense. But does that mean the story of Gladiator is true in every aspect? Let us inspect:

Still from Ridley Scott's Film Gladiator

Reality of Maximus Decimus

This character shown in the movie was entirely fictional or may be considered a collage of characters during those times. In the film Maximus is portrayed as Maximus’ general and leads some expeditions. In true fact the name of this general was Avidius Cassius who led similar expeditions. He later declared himself as the emperor of Rome on hearing about the news of Marcus Aurelius’ death, but was assassinated by some soldiers under his command. Maximus in the film also resembles to the emperor Dioclethan who was born in the lower class family and became trusted as well as favourite bodyguard and later a general. The Emperor named him the heir to the throne and later he became an Emperor too. In Gladiator Commodus is seen killed in the arena by Maximus, but in reality he was murdered by a wrestler.

How was Marcus Aurelius?

Gladiator shows Marcus Aurelius as dutiful, virtuous, honest and family oriented man. In history Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor and reigned from 161-180 CE. He was also a philosopher. Some of his works such as The Mediations are great pieces of philosophy back in those times.

Statue of Commodus

Was Commodus Evil in Reality?

According to the history books Commodus was even more bizarre then depicted in the film. Commodus was proclaimed as a Caesar at the age of 5 and became joint emperor along side Augustus at the age of 17. He was not liked by Senate and was also ridiculed by the historians in their descriptions. Some historians wrote about Commodus’ reign as “our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.” Some historians accuse of Commodus being insane. He renamed months of the year by the titles held by him such as Aelius, Lucius, Aurelius, Commodus, Herculeus, etc. Under his reign the Senate was renamed as Commodian Fortune Senate and the Romans were renamed as Commodianus. According to historian Aelius Lampridius “Commodus lived, rioting in the palace amid banquets and in baths along with 300 concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots… By his orders concubines were debauched before his own eyes, and he was not free from the disgrace of intimacy with young men, defiling every part of his body in dealings with persons of either sex.”

Was Marcus Aurelius Killed by Commodus?

As shown in the film Commodus enters into his father’s tent and murders him. Maybe he did so as he was present during the Caesar’s death and concluded a peace treaty with the enemies in quick time. But official records suggest Macus Aurelius died of plague.

Colosseum - Venue for Gladiator Fights in Past

Truth of Commodus Fighting in the Gladiator’s Arena

Yes, Commodus quite loved to fight within the arena with the Gladiators. But he never killed or severely wound anybody as the gladiators used to put down their arms after a tame fight. Not because he was a skilled fighter but because he was the Emperor. However, he did not die in the Gladiator’s fight. There were many plots to kill him and finally a wrestler named Narcissus murdered him when he in his bath.

Thus there are close resemblances in the well knit plot of Gladiator. But fiction also looms large.

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