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Commodus – The Emperor Who Fought as a Gladiator

The year 2000 brought us Ridley Scott’s historical epic, Gladiator, featuring the rise of a fallen general seeking revenge against the tyrannical Emperor Commodus, played by 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 behavior was highly controversial and further alienated the Roman elite. Commodus also renamed Rome after himself and the months of the year to reflect his titles, demonstrating his increasing detachment from reality. His erratic rule culminated in severe economic strains, heavy taxation, and multiple conspiracies against his life, leading to his assassination in 192 AD.

Commodus constantly clashed with the Roman Senate, preferring to emphasize his own god-like authority, generosity, and strength. Statues depicting him as Hercules, the incredibly powerful son of a god, sprouted throughout the empire. This imagery portrayed him as a near-god himself, a giant protector who could conquer any foe, human or beast. By embodying Hercules, he also hinted at being Jupiter’s son, the king of Roman gods. These tendencies escalated to an extreme level. He downplayed his inheritance of power from his father, Marcus Aurelius, and instead fixated on his own special status. Commodus craved reshaping the entire empire to reflect his own grand image.

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

Emperor Commodus the Gladiator

Commodus wasn’t just content with claiming god-like status; he craved the thrill of gladiatorial combat. He even entered the arena himself, decked out in the armor of a secutor, a specialized gladiator type. This act was met with outrage by the Romans. They believed an emperor shouldn’t be playing around in the arena while Rome faced real threats. Historian Herodian noted how the public found it degrading for their leader to fight for entertainment, especially when he could be leading them against enemies. The whole spectacle fueled rumors that Commodus wasn’t even the true son of the previous emperor, but rather the offspring of a gladiator and his mother’s affair.

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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