Commodus – the Outrageous Emperor who Fought as a Gladiator
Roman coins featuring Commodus. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
The activities which held Commodus’ attention and with which he spent his time were in the nature of “gladiatorial combat.” He would take to the arena and engage in combat which the Romans viewed as being scandalous and disgraceful. He was very vain, and strongly believed himself to be the reincarnation of Hercules – so much so that he ordered statues of himself be dressed like Hercules, and he ordered that people call him Hercules, son of Zeus.
Bust of Commodus as Hercules, hence the lion skin, the club. Roman Artwork. Public Domain
While fighting in the arena, opponents would submit to Commodus, as Emperor, and their lives were spared. However, in private practice fights, Commodus would slay his opponents. The Romans were outraged when Commodus would order wounded soldiers and amputees into the arena to be slayed. Non-military citizens who had lost their feet due to injury or illness would be tied together for Commodus to club to death. In addition to the crippled, Commodus would slay exotic animals, such as lions, ostriches, hippos, elephants, and giraffes. This horrified the Roman people.
Hercules and the Hydra (ca. 1475); the hero wears his characteristic lionskin and wields a club. Public Domain
Ultimately, it is believed that Commodus’ outlandish behavior led to his eventual assassination. In November 192 he held Plebian Games, where he would use arrows and javelins to shoot hundreds of animals every morning, and then engaged in gladiator battles each afternoon. By December of that year, he declared that he would inaugurate the New Year on January 1, 193 as a gladiator in the arena. This caused much outrage, and inspired prefect Laetus to start a conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor.
Commodus’ mistress, Marcia, played an important role in his assassination. First, she attempted to kill him by poisoning his food. He vomited the poisoned food up, foiling that plan. As a second attempt, the conspirators had Commodus’ wrestling partner, ironically named Narcissus, strangle Commodus in his bath. This assassination attempt was successful, and both Commodus’ reign as Emperor, and his life, ended on the final day of 192.
Despite the fact that Commodus caused much anger and resentment during his reign, few written records were kept. Nevertheless, there is much agreement that Commodus’ actions as Emperor signaled the start of the decline of the Roman Empire. Clearly, choosing to “play gladiator,” mercilessly killing animals and the crippled, was not a strategy that served to promote Roman culture, no matter how brutal it was at the time.
Commodus – Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available from: http://www.ancient.eu/commodus/
Commodus – Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/128108/Commodus
Lucius Aurelius Commodus – Roman-Empire. Available from: http://www.roman-empire.net/highpoint/commodus.html
By M R Reese