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? Was the stark narcissism and condescension a put-on? My only knowledge of the real Commodus came from a short Cracked article that claimed (rightly) that the son of Marcus Aurelius was a fairly successful statesman for a period of time. To me this was an indicator that maybe he wasn’t as mad or violent as Phoenix’s portrayal, right?
Upon further investigation I found that Lucius Aurelius Commodus was so pants-shittingly 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 accuracies that would have made Emperor Commodus look crazier than Joaquin Phoenix could portray, even if he had mounds of drugs at his disposal.
1) Everyone saw the madness coming…from age 5.
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 (who will now be known as Lucky-C) was the son of Marcus Aurelius, the most successful emperor Rome had ever known. And when big papa says his son will be king, his son becomes king.
Very early on historians and politicians recognized Lucius’ flaws. He was cruel, excessive, and 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.
2) Commodus was more decadent than the movie portrayed.
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 was uncovered (more on that later) and Perennis was made 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; “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 became a trend as a string of prefects conga-lined their way to the throne, with predecessors being slain and their families disposed of.
Meanwhile, Commodus was living an unending party/orgy that included a harem of 600 women, girls, and boys, some of whom were kidnapped. This may be a case of apples-to-oranges, but compare this version of Commodus to the movie counterpart, who was mostly fixated on sister-boning.
3) 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. But 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 shrugged at the low opinion of slave-gladiators and built 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.
No, really. Picture it.
Eventually Commodus upped his game and moved his murder-sprees to the Colosseum. During these gladiatorial fights Commodus would dress in a bear-skin and carrying a club. He called himself “Rome’s Hercules” and later charged the arena a fee to see him beat the shit 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 wielding wooden weapons while the Emperor was given 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 attention. He killed Julius Alexander for being too awesome.
Reportedly politicians were forced to cheer at these performances, and the general public had to stifle their laughter at the clumsy Emperor’s wonton slaughter.
4) His ego didn’t stop at being the father of Rome, like the movie.
In the movie 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 is 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; 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 Romans, especially the senate, set about destroying anything related to the ass-hat who renamed their glorious city.
Of course, his movie death was a bit of a stretch too, because…
5) Maximus would have to get in line to kill this dude.
Not Pictured: A Black Friday crowd between them.
Except for the ancient hipsters who loved watching his gladiatorial fights ironically, Commodus wasn’t too popular. 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 to kill the bear-punching dickbag 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 hot chick Maximus refused to bang) was also sent away and later killed.
Not exactly the sexy fan-fic ending that was in our head.
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 wife a year earlier might not be joking, she sided with the conspirators, and in 192 poisoned his wine.
Proving that it takes more than mere poison to kill crazy, Commodus vomited up the wine. Probably while making some snide comment about how he’d sniffed sterner stuff off naked boys.
Upon seeing that the emperor might make a recovery, his coach and wrestling 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 no less, while he waited 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.