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Commodus: The Emperor who fought as a Gladiator

Tags: commodus roman

Roman Emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus is known in history as a corrupt and mad king who was not well received by the Roman populace during his reign. He identified himself as an incarnation of the mythical hero Hercules and fought in the gladiator arena. He adopted outrageous tactics such as slaying the crippled and slaughtered wild beasts while in the arena. His acts created a negative impression and played a big role in his eventual assassination. Historians believe the reign of Commodus as the start of decline of mighty Roman Empire. His rule was marked with chaos all around.

Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus

Bust of Roman Emperor Commodus

Commodus was born in August 31, 161 AD in Lanuvium which is situated 14 miles South-east of Rome. His father as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and mother was Faustina the Younger. Commodus was tenth of the fourteen children born to the couple and later became the only surviving son. He had a twin brother Titus Fulvus Antonius who died at the age of four. After that royal physician Galen was tasked with looking after the young prince. Commodus remained in good health. He was educated intellectually and in military skills by expert trainers.

Aurelius was desperate to see his son ascend the throne, as no other son had succeeded his father ever since Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79 AD. All the other emperors had been adopted. At the tender age of five, Commodus was named Caesar by Aurelius. This is seen as a sign of Aurelius’ desperation to bestow the royal title upon his bloodline. In the following years, Commodus proved a big disappointment for his father. However, Aurelius continued to push Commodus’ claim to the throne by promoting the 15 year old to the rank of Imperator or commander of Roman legions in 176 AD. In the following year, Commodus was named the co-emperor, becoming the youngest consul in Roman history till that point.

Commodus in Gladiator Arena

Commodus in Gladiator Arena

Marcus Aurelius passed in the year 180 AD and Commodus became the sole emperor. He was an inept and megalomaniac individual with odd behavior, which frustrated his subjects. He showed no interests in being a leader, other than taking the advantage of his position to fulfill his needs. In his early years he negotiated peace with certain powers, which hurt the Roman pride. He also reduced the weight of Denarius (Roman currency) and purity of silver was cut too. He organized lavish gladiatorial games that drained the royal coffers and strained the people through taxes. He delegated all the leadership responsibilities to others, and they started misusing the power. He dedicated all his time in things he liked. As noted historian from the Roman era, Dio Cassius states Commodus turned the Roman Empire “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”

Gladiatorial combat was one activity that captured the attention of Commodus. He would regularly take to the arena and engage with gladiators, which was viewed as scandalous by the Romans. He viewed himself as a reincarnation of Hercules and ordered statues of himself dressed like Hercules. While fighting in the arena, opponents would submit to the Emperors and their lives were spared. But it is known that in the practice fights be would slay opponents mercilessly. He often ordered the wounded soldiers or amputees into the arena to slay them. The non-military citizens who had lost their feet due to injury or illness would be tied together for Commodus to club them to death. He would also slay exotic animals such as elephants, hippos, lions, ostriches and giraffes in the arena. These acts horrified the Roman people.

Commodus as Hercules

Statue of Commodus dressed as Hercules

Soon rumors of Commodus not being the legitimate son of Aurelius started spreading. According to the rumors, Faustina had an affair with a valiant gladiator prior to Commodus’ birth and thus Commodus loved the arena so much. His behavior led to plots for his assassination. The Roman populace were frustrated by their king and wanted to get rid of him. In November 192, Commodus declared the Plebian Games where he intended to use javelins and arrows to kill hundreds of animals every morning and engage in gladiatorial battles by afternoon. He decided to welcome the New Year from the gladiator arena. It was also the time when Laetus started a conspiracy to assassinate Commodus.

Commodus Death

Commodus was strangled to death by his wrestling partner

Laetus got support from Marcia, one of Commodus’ mistresses. First, she attempted to kill the emperor by applying poison to his food. But Commodus vomited the poisoned food out and the plot failed. Next, the conspirators bribed Commodus’ wrestling partner, Narcissus, to strangle Commodus to death. This attempt was successful and Commodus was killed on the final day of 192. The Roman people were finally relieved of tyranny.

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Commodus: The Emperor who fought as a Gladiator


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