Who Was Commodus? - Facts, Quotes & Accomplishments

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

This lesson will look at the life and reign of the Roman emperor, Commodus. Best known for his obsession with the gladiatorial games, he was one of the many emperors of Rome who ruled for a very brief time before being assassinated.

Emperor Commodus

You arrive at the gladiatorial games excited to see the bloodbath, but to your surprise, the emperor is in the center of the arena. He is fully dressed in armor and intends to fight in the games to show off his strength. You are disappointed because you know there will not be much to see; nobody would dare to injure or kill Emperor Commodus. You are also shocked and disappointed that the ruler of the Roman Empire would act in such an embarrassing manner by making himself a public spectacle. Who does this guy think he is anyway?

Early Life and Parentage

Born Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus in 161 A.D., he was one of fourteen children born to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Faustina the Younger, daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius. He was the only surviving son, and therefore he was the sole heir of the emperor. He received an excellent education as a child as his father was known for his philosophical musings and is, to this day, remembered as a philosopher. Despite this, Commodus seemed to have been a lazy student and would be an even lazier emperor. He was declared co-ruler with his father in 176 A.D., and in 178 A.D., he married Bruttia Crispina. After his father's death in 180 A.D., he became sole emperor, changing his name to Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus.

Commodus as a young man
commodus

First Years as Emperor

Many scholars say Commodus was simple-minded and easy to manipulate. This was a problem since he left governing in the hands of a few power-hungry men who used their positions to do away with their personal enemies. He ignored the leading citizens and the Senate. This built up the resentment of the patrician class, especially since they were often executed and their property confiscated which made Commodus richer.

As early as 182 A.D., there was an assassination plot against him involving members of his own family. Although it failed, it left him paranoid that it could happen again. He had his male cousins put to death and exiled his sister, Lucilla, his niece, and his wife, whom he accused of adultery around the same time, to the island of Capri. He only did this to make it seem like he could be merciful, since they were executed anyway.

Commodus and the Gladiators

While his advisors ran the empire, they encouraged him to enjoy himself. Commodus spent time in his palace where he had 300 women in his harem. He would throw lavish parties that were completely debauched. He spent a great deal of time in the countryside where he would drive chariots and train with gladiators. He was the only emperor to ever fight in the arena. There was no honor in doing so, however, since the weapons of his opponents were dulled so they could not hurt him, and the gladiators would easily give up to let him win. Thousands of exotic animals were brought in, such as rhinos and giraffes, so that he could kill them to show his strength. The people were shocked at his behavior, and it made him look weak in their eyes.

A Reign of ''Rust and Iron''

Commodus declared his reign a ''Golden Age,'' but Roman statesman, Cassius Dio, is famous for writing that it was one of ''rust and iron.'' Cassius Dio also wrote, ''He was a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.'' To put it simply: Commodus tortured his subjects. Besides having the patrician class killed at his will, he also made fun of overweight and handicapped people, often taking people who were lame, giving them a head start, and then hunting them down with bows and arrows.

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