Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott) depicts Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) as being a Bad Emperor. In the film he murders his father, usurps the throne, and tries to execute the much more virtuous Maximus (Russell Crowe) out of jealousy. When he returns to Rome, he demonstrates a general disinterest in ruling, preferring to spend his time and energies throwing a massive series of gladiatorial games that are scheduled to last for 150 days. He lusts after his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), menaces Lucilla’s young son who innocently idolizes the gladiator that Maximus has become, and ultimately fights Maximus in the arena after giving Maximus a mortal wound just before the fight. That’s some pretty serious Bad Emperor shit.
The reality was probably worse, but in assessing Commodus’ reign, we have to deal with problems in the sources. None of the sources for this period of Roman history are entirely reliable. Herodian and Dio Cassius both make numerous errors; Herodian has been accused to being quite credulous, while Dio’s history survives only in substantial fragments. The anonymous Historia Augusta is filled with fabricated documents and large portions of it have been dismissed as fiction. Commodus’ legal edicts were all overturned after his death and thus have not survived. Dio is probably our best source for Commodus’ reign, because he was a senator and personally knew Commodus, but Commodus had very poor relationships with the Senate and the traditional Roman elite, and so Dio is quite hostile to the man. Thus we always have to allow room for the possibility that Dio is inventing or exaggerating what he saw as the emperor’s bad traits.
Despite these problems, the surviving evidence does point to Commodus being a pretty crappy ruler. He was a good-looking man, assuming the portrait busts are accurate. The Historia Augusta claims that he suffered from a large hernia in his groin that was visible through his loose robes and was the subject of many humorous poems. It also offers numerous salacious stories about his debauched behavior, but these were standard things to include in stories of Bad Emperors, so they may be fictitious. Gladiator’s Commodus looks pale and sickly, which is wrong; he seems to have been quite robust, given that his hobbies included hunting animals, fighting gladiators, and wrestling. If Ridley Scott wanted him to look creepy, they should have put glitter in his hair, since Dio tells us that he liked powdering his hair with gold dust. Instead, he gets a rather fey neckerchief.
Dio says that he was quite lazy, and more than happy to turn over the governance of the Empire to an unpopular and supposedly immoral Greek named Saoterus. But here we have to be careful. The Roman senate no longer ruled the Empire, but they were traditionally the class that supplied the high officials. Dio, as a senator, would naturally have resented Commodus’ preference for a non-senator, and thus may well have exaggerated just how disinterested in governing Commodus was.
Commodus’ preference for Saoterus quickly spawned a plot against the Emperor. In 182 or 183, after two or three years of Commodus’ reign, his sister Lucilla hatched a plan to murder her brother. Lucilla was not the imperiled widow with a young son that the movie presents her to be; she was the widow of Marcus’ Aurelius’ adopted brother Lucius Verus and, during Commodus’ reign, the wife of an important senator who was deeply devoted to Commodus. Since she disliked her husband and her brother, she hatched a plot with a different senator, Quadratus, who was probably a grand-nephew of Marcus Aurelius. Since Commodus was sleeping with Quadratus’ wife and Quadratus was sleeping with Lucilla, we can imagine that Quadratus had rather complex feelings about the whole situation.
Quadratus arranged for another senator, Quintianus, to stab Commodus to death as he was passing through a tunnel into an amphitheater. But, rather foolishly, when Quintianus confronted Commodus and brandished a dagger, he made the mistake of going on at some length about how the Senate wanted the emperor dead. This gave Commodus’ body-guards a chance to intervene and save the emperor. So it turns out that Syndrome from the Incredibles was right; monologuing is a bad idea.
This failed plot poisoned the rest of Commodus’ reign, because it made him deeply suspicious of the Senate. From this point on, the emperor relied on personal favorites whom he felt he could trust more than the senators, which must have alienated the senators even more.
The film’s claim that Commodus sought to win the support of the Roman crowd through the use of lavish spectacles is basically accurate. Like many previous emperors, Commodus relied heavily on congiaria, massive gifts of food, wine, oil, and money to the general population. Over the course of his reign, he made 8 congiaria, about one every 18 months.
He also loved gladiatorial games, going so far as to participate in them personally, and he enjoyed killing captive animals as a show of his personal prowess. Dio and other senators were witness to a number of these. Dio emphasizes that Commodus was not particularly good in combat, being more likely to cut off a gladiator’s ear or nose than to actually kill one, but Dio’s claims of the emperor’s incompetence are probably exaggerated. Dio also particularly records an incident in which Commodus personally beheaded an ostrich and waved its head around; according to Dio, the senators were laughing so hard at the ridiculous scene that Dio had to improvise a cover for their laughter, because otherwise Commodus would have executed them all. Again, we have only Dio’s claim that this was so. Commodus also reportedly fought and killed a large number of men who had already lost limbs in battle. When he appeared in the arena, he did so for pay, forcing the city to pay him a hefty sum for the privilege of watching him fight.
Over the course of his reign, Commodus is reported to have executed a large number of people. He executed Quadratus and Quintianus (quite reasonably, really, given that they had tried to kill him); Lucilla he exiled and later had executed. When a second conspiracy took the life of Saoterus, he executed the senators behind that plot, but Perennis, another of his trusted inner circle, took advantage of the situation to implicate several personal enemies, who were also executed. He later became convinced that his wife was guilty of adultery, and had her executed. When a philosopher denounced Perennis, the philosopher was executed, but a year later, when a group of soldiers denounced Perennis as plotting to replace the emperor, Commodus listened and executed Perennis and a number of other men. Finally, there is a story that he executed a couple of men on the grounds that they were the sort of men who might have become discontented with the emperor and thus might have started to plot against him.
However, the large number of executions were probably driven in part by the enormous expense that Commodus’ games and congiaria required. Such spectacles were extremely costly, and the funds for them had to come from somewhere. Confiscating the estates of the men he executed was a good way to pay for these expenses, and thus accusations of treachery may in some cases have been excuses to seize the property of wealthy men.
Eventually, in 192, after another round of gladiatorial games in which Commodus publicly hunted hundreds of animals and fought dozens of men, another conspiracy was planned. A group of senators schemed to replace him. First they bribed his mistress to poison him (although claims of poisoning are always suspicious in an era when food poisoning and undiagnosed illness was so common), but he vomited up the poisoned meat. Then they bribed his wrestling partner Narcissus to strangle him while he was taking a bath. Commodus was caught unawares and died.
So while Gladiator gets some things wrong, particularly the length of Commodus’ reign (which seems to be less than half a year in the film) and how he died, overall the picture that it offers of Commodus is probably broadly accurate.
Want to Know More?
Gladiatoris available at Amazon.
If you want to know about Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, an easy starting point is Michael Grant’s The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition. For Commodus, there’s the recent The Emperor Commodus: Gladiator, Hercules or a Tyrant?