By Jean Marie Carey

The only surviving son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus became Emperor of Rome on 27 November 180 at the age of eighteen. His assassination in 192 created civil war and marked the end of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

Commodus’s reign was relatively peaceful in terms of international relations, but its highly unfavorable historical reputation owes partly to his autocratic style of rule and reliance on court favorites, which was seen as a break with the antonine tradition of elite consensus rule. A botched aristocratic coup in 182 resulted in a subsequent purge of the senate, and a series of non-senatorial ministers who held power by controlling access to the emperor.

Our view of Commodus comes mostly from the letters of hostile senators who portray him as lazy, stupid, and, finally, delusional. Particularly striking are his self-identification with Hercules, which is documented in sculpture and coins, and his passion for gladiatorial performance – one of only a few truisms portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film Gladiator. This contemporary portrayal has had a lot of traction owing to the popularity of the movie and Phoenix’s over-the-top performance.

The real Commodus did not die in the arena however, though by late 192 his behavior was increasingly bizarre: He renamed all twelve months and the city of Rome after himself and went on public animal-killing sprees in the Circus. This evidence of critical instability finally led members of his own inner circle to have him killed on 31 December.

Reference: Adam M. Kemezis. “Commodus.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. : Oxford University Press, 2010.

A dead person, possibly Commodus, is taken to Osiris by Anubis, c. 193. Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Accession Nr. 87.483

Commodus as the infant Hercules killing the snakes, c. 165-190. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. ID Nr. SC191101.

Head of Commodus, c. 300. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida, a division of Florida State University.

Portrait Bust of Commodus as Hercules, c 190. Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome.

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Gladiator, 2000. Paramount Pictures.

Further Reading and Viewing: Jerry Toner. The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 

Ridley Scott. Gladiator. Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles, 2000.

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