The Gladiator Emperor

In the year 2000, Riddley Scott came out with his historical fiction movie, Gladiator, starring Russel Qrow and Joaquin Phoenix. This movie took place during the high point of the Roman Empire when it stood as Europe’s sole superpower. One of the most memorable characters in this movie is the villainous Emperor Commodus. Not only was he power-hungry and sadistic, but he also became infamous for taking part in the famous gladiatorial games of Rome.

The movie does take some creative liberties and Commodus’s gladiatorial career is one of them. While the real Commodus was indeed a gladiator, he was far more of a threat than the cheating liar we see in the movie.

Reign of Commodus

Emperor Commodus was a Roman Emperor from 180 to 192 AD and was the son of Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s most revered emperors. His father became famous both as a philosopher and a general, having led the Roman legions into battle during the Marcomannic Wars, a series of conflicts that spanned most of his reign.

After he died in 180 AD, his son Commodus took over. Although strong and young, the new emperor was infamous for his erratic behavior and megalomaniacal tendencies. Rather than continue his father’s wars, he returned to Rome to indulge in a life of luxury. Days were spent feasting and partying, leaving the actual administration to his favorites.

Unfortunately, while Rome was peaceful in a military sense, it was a city filled with conspiracies with many of his relatives plotting against him. This meant Commodus spent most of his early reign not fighting against Rome’s enemies, but his sisters and in-laws. Such actions must have taken a toll on him as he grew increasingly paranoid.

As his reign went on, Commodus also began to show megalomaniac tendencies, believing himself to be the reincarnation of Hercules and even dressed in a lionskin and fought in the gladiatorial arena to show his physical prowess.

This was considered highly unusual and distasteful for a Roman to do as gladiators were typically slaves and prisoners of war.

Commodus would make a name for himself in the arena as he was never defeated. While some accuse him of staging matches to ensure his success, many gladiators believe the emperor was genuinely skilled with weapons, allowing them to trounce them. He also became known for fighting exotic animals like elephants, lions, and ostriches which were much more difficult to stage.

“In fact, besides all that he did in private, he often slew in public large numbers of men and beasts as well. For example, all alone with his own hands, he dispatched five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days; and he also killed rhinoceroses and a camelopard. This is what I have to say with reference to his career as a whole.”

-Cassius Dio, Roman Historian.

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