Commodus is one of the Emperors of Ancient Rome who remained largely unknown until recently. Gladiator presented him to the world as a greedy, self-absorbed murderer who would stop at nothing to get his way. That doesn’t really separate him from most other Roman Emperors, but the question inevitably arises when real people or events from history are used in movies: is that really what he or it was like?
Commodus was indeed born to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 – 180. Although it had been nearly a century since a son had followed his father onto the throne, it seems that was Aurelius’ intention, since he set up a joint rule with his son three years before his death. There is no evidence Aurelius preferred any of his military men over his son. Aurelius himself was not the best tactician in history and in fact seemed more interested in philosophy than warfare for much of his reign. Commodus had the best military training, and his father clearly felt no threat from Commodus, who became the country’s youngest consul in its history when he took the position by Aurelis’ side. Aurelius certainly seems to have had faith in the boy, and no events under the dual rule as Roman Emperor stand out to indicate ill will.
At Aurelius’ death, when Commodus became Emperor in his own right, he proved himself a fine negotiator. He was able to end the wars that had continually plagued his father’s reign, and signed a truce just shortly after Aurelius’ passing. Rome seemed poised for another twenty years of the same power and prosperity they had been enjoying, a reign more peaceful than that of Emperor Aurelius.
However, Commodus’ ascension did indeed signal the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire. Commodus tried to stay out of the day-to-day affairs of state, leaving them to a group of men unflinchingly loyal to him, but he eventually had to take more of an active role because of infighting and threats. When Commodus took something over, he took it over whole-heartedly. As Augustus Caesar had done 200 years earlier, Commodus took what little governmental power others had bit by bit until he had it all. As the movie showed, there was little affection between Commodus and the Roman senate.
It is also true that Emperor Commodus enjoyed the gladiatorial games and did sometimes take part, and the odds were usually slightly skewed in his favor, just as the movie depicted. He revived the games that had become popular with the general public during the Golden Age of Rome. Much of the money to run these spectacles came from taxes, taxes paid largely by the senatorial order, straining his relationship with those groups even more. What the public also didn’t know was that he charged the city for each of the appearances he made as a gladiator, an enormous sum that drained the Empire’s coffers.
He had troubles with his siblings, as well. A twin brother had died very young, but several older sisters were alive when Commodus took over the Roman throne, and at least one of them was directly responsible for an assassination attempt. While he survived, his closest advisors were either killed in the frays or shaken enough to step down to retirement, leaving him alone on his lofty throne.
Continuing conspiracies caused Commodus to withdraw further from his duties to Rome. Fighting broke out in the far-flung corners of the Empire, and land was lost. Harvests began to fail. In 191, a huge fire ravaged the city. Commodus said he would create a new, better Rome from these troubling times, likening himself to the gods. He ordered executions of those who might be part of the plots against him or those who he thought might be unhappy with his reign. He seemed disconnected from the reality of what was happening to Rome and blind to what was necessary to stop the crumbling. More and more citizens began to feel he was not living up to the requirements for a Roman Emperor.
Toward the end of his reign, his gladiatorial exploits even began to turn the people against him, people he had kept happy through his largesse. Although he usually killed human combatants only in private, he began the public slaughtering animals by the hundreds. One writer claims the Emperor killed a giraffe, an exotic and helpless creature loved by the Romans, an act they could not reconcile with an unbiased leader.
It took two tries the same night to kill Emperor Commodus in the end. December 31, 192, he was poisoned but vomited it out of his system, so a second attempt was made, this time by Commodus’ trainer and assistant, to strangle him in his bath, ending his strange leadership of Rome.
The Roman people were unforgiving. Titles Commodus had bestowed upon himself were removed. Declarations were ignored. Statues were destroyed. His name became associated with circles he would not have appreciated (note the definition of the common English word commode).
But was this animosity warranted? The Emperor had left the economic situation of Rome in shambles. Rather than achieving an economic balance, Commodus spent lavishly and simply attempted to tax back what he wanted to pay out. His payments to himself further crippled the damaged economy that grew weaker as the edges of the Empire were lost. Those revenues disappeared largely because of a lack of visible leadership that was interested in keeping control over the territory. Through much of his reign, Commodus seemed disinterested at best in campaigning with the military; he preferred to show his considerable athletic prowess in the arena. His antics even eventually lost him the support of the people closest to him as well as the Roman public, which led to his death.
So is Gladiator an accurate description of Roman Emperor Commodus? No. But it does depict the arrogance and self-absorbed nature that befit him and so many other Roman Emperors. Knowing the full truth doesn’t make him more likeable or easier to understand, but it does perhaps make him more interesting.