Note: This article was originally posted on Masksofmonsters a few years back, before the docu-drama Reign of Blood came out on Netflix. I’ve reposted here for your enjoyment. Actually…more for my enjoyment.
While watching Gladiator last week I got curious about Joaquin Phoenix’s sneering portrayal of Emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus (161 – 192 AD). Was he playing up the insanity for villainy’s sake? Was the stark narcissism and condescension a put-on? My only knowledge of the real Commodus came from a short Cracked article about how the son of Marcus Aurelius was a fairly successful statesman for a brief period of time. Maybe this means he wasn’t as mad or violent as Phoenix’s portrayal, right?
Upon further investigation I learned that Lucius Aurelius Commodus was so insane, arrogant, and paranoid that it would take several movies to capture all the unbridled crazy. In fact, the screenwriters left out years of egomania and bugnuts violence so Maximus would get the majority of screen time.
How crazy was he?
For your pleasure (and very much for mine) here are 5 historical accuracy-adjustments that would have made Emperor Commodus look crazier than Joaquin Phoenix could possibly portray.
Everyone Saw The Madness Coming…From Age 5
— Google Images
In AD 166, Commodus was given the title of Caesar. AKA; Emperor Junior. Which is kind of adorable until you realize this wasn’t a joke title. You see, for the past 8 decades Rome had enjoyed a string of leaders who gained the throne by victory, political prowess, or wealth. Little Lucius Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, the most successful emperor Rome had ever known. And when big papa says his son will be emperor, his son becomes emperor.
From day one it seems historians and politicians recognized Lucius’ flaws. He was cruel, excessive, and he had a weak will. He was also obsessed with gladiatorial games and violence. Kind of like a pretty boy with a bad temper. Juxtapose this with his philosopher father, author of Meditations, and you can see why Romans compared lil’ Lucius “Caesar” to Nero, an emperor known for orgies and deranged behavior.
Oh Romans you so craz– wait, are those babies passed out drunk?
Skipping the 17-ish years where Commodus made treaties with the Marcomanni “barbarians” and gave away lands annexed by his father (saving Rome the cost of governing foreign soil) Commodus began his true decadence when he appointed prefect Tigidius Perennis to govern Rome in his stead.
Before Perennis, another prefect had been Commodus’s right-hand man, until an assassination attempt (more on that later) made Perennis the sole prefect. By this time in his life Commodus felt governing the pinnacle of human society and the height of the empire’s glory was kind of blah. So he made prefect Perennis a deal that went something like this;
Commodus; “You keep everything running and I’ll sex my way across the empire.”
Tigidius Perennis, a man given the keys to Rome out of laziness, became incredibly corrupt…until he was killed. This started a trend, and a string of prefects conga-lined their way to the throne, got themselves slain and their families disposed of, and were swiftly replaced.
Meanwhile, Commodus was living an unending party/orgy that included a harem of 600 women, girls, and boys, some of whom he kidnapped. All this, according to an admittedly grudge-holding senate.
Comparing the real Commodus to Gladiator’s version may be a case of apples-to-oranges, but at least Phoenix’s Commodus was mostly just fixated on his sister.
Commodus Was Way More Violent Than The Movie Portrayed
Sometime during Commodus’ semi-retirement he took a fancy to gladiatorial combat. Not just watching it, mind you. He actually started engaging in battles on the sands. Remember, gladiators were mostly slaves and servants. They were popular with the public, but their low station was not to be desired by politicians.
Commodus thumbed his nose at the public’s opinion of gladiators’ low social class and built himself an arena in the palace, inviting friends to witness the spectacle of him stabbing man and animal alike. That would be like finding out Obama is hardcore into backyard wrestling, and loves pile-driving dudes into the mat behind the White House while celebrities and members of his cabinet watch.
Editor’s Note; This article was written in 2015. We are now living in a world where Trump is president. A man who has actually appeared on WWE on several occasions. All bets are off.
Eventually Commodus upped his game and moved his murder-sprees to the Roman Colosseum. During these gladiatorial fights Commodus would dress in a bear skin or lion fur and carry a club. He called himself “Rome’s Hercules” and would later charge the arena a fee to see him beat the piss out of other gladiators—to the tune of 12,000 men, or so he claimed.
To be treated like an arena rock star, one would think the emperor-turned-gladiator must have been amazing with a sword, right? Certainly Joaquin Phoenix’s character was pretty good with a blade.
Not so much! In the movie, Commodus takes to the sand to face off with Maximus, but not before stabbing him in the back to weaken him. Historically that would have been pretty generous for Commodus. The Great Swaggerer was known to fight hobbled slaves, cripples, and wounded gladiators. He also fought men who were given wooden weapons while the Emperor wielded steel. Once, he was said to have slaughtered one hundred bears in a single night, likely trapped so they could be cut down without danger to Commodus. He was also insanely jealous of other gladiators, and had a fighter named Julius Alexander executed. Not for besting the Emperor in combat, but for killing a lion from horseback with a javelin and getting too much adoration for it.
Reportedly politicians were forced to cheer at these performances, and the general public had to stifle their laughter at the clumsy Emperor’s wanton slaughter.
His Ego Didn’t Stop At Being The Father Of Rome
Are those…yep, those are definitely his victim’s testicles in his hand.
In Gladiator Lucius Commodus proclaims his desire to hold the Roman citizens to his bosom like a father. This was an actual title one could achieve (Pater Patriae, or Father of the Fatherland) which Commodus was awarded in AD 177. But being Rome’s daddy wasn’t enough for Commodus.
When a freak fire torched half of Rome’s downtown area in 191, Commodus did what any emperor was expected to do. He rebuilt the center of town by dipping into Rome’s coffers. But like everything else in his life, Commodus tainted this good act (read; an act that was completely expected of him) by demanding his name be stamped onto his new city.
He renamed Rome to Colonia Commodiana, City of Commodus, and renamed the legion to the Commodian Army.
So why didn’t we grow up reading about “Ancient Commodiana” instead of Ancient Rome? Because the moment Commodus died, the senate set about destroying anything related to the man who renamed their glorious city.
Of course, his death in the movie was a bit of a stretch too, because…
Maximus Would Need To Get In Line To Kill Commodus.
— Google Images
Not Pictured: A Black Friday line between them.
Except for the ancient hipsters who loved watching his gladiatorial fights ironically, Commodus wasn’t too popular with the crowd. So it came to almost no one’s shock when the people closest to him tried to end his life.
Three times. That we know of.
The first was his sister Lucilla and her cousin Quintianus. For complex political reasons the two schemed together to kill the bear-punching emperor. This attempt in AD 182 failed for one simple reason. Monologue.
While leaping out from behind Commodus at the arena (where else?) Quintianus shouted “This is what the senate has sent for you!” And there he posed, dagger-in-hand, while the music peaked to a dramatic crescendo and the screen cut to black for a cliff-hanger commercial break. Quintianus was, of course, tackled by the Praetorian guard and executed. Lucilla–you might remember her as the privileged lady Maximus refused to mambo with–was also sent away and later killed.
Not exactly the fan-fic ending.
Years later Commodus’ mistress would also be coerced into assassinating the emperor. Earlier he had threatened to send her to the great arena in the sky if she crossed him. Feeling that a man who had just killed his own wife a year earlier might not be joking, she sided with the conspirators, and in 192 she poisoned his wine.
Proving that it takes more than mere poison to kill crazy, Commodus vomited up the wine.
Once the conspirators saw that the emperor might make a recovery, his wrestling coach and sparring partner, Narcissus, stepped in. The very night he was poisoned by his mistress, Commodus got the life choked out of him, on his own bed, while waiting to bathe. This is arguably more fitting than having Russell Crowe give him an honorable send-off in the arena–a death that would have tickled the real Commodus to no end.
Yep. Definitely more dignified than being strangled pre-bath by a naked wrestler.
You can catch the series Roman Empire: Reign of Blood on Netflix. While the truth of the events surrounding Emperor Commodus will forever be shrouded by time, this rendition seems far more accurate than the historical documentary we know as Gladiator.
In recent years I’ve also come to appreciate how much of Roman history was re-written by the Roman Senate to slander emperors they didn’t particularly like. So while I’ve taken the points above directly from historical sources, the real story of Commodus is probably somewhere between “Batshit” and “Old Men Slandering A Ruler They Didn’t Like”