Was Commodus the Worst Emperor in Ancient Roman History?

In the competition for the worst Roman emperor of all time, some names stand out. Caligula, for example, whose debauchery and perversion are legendary to this day. Or Nero, who became famous for his cruelty and who, according to popular legend, only strummed his lyre while Rome burned to ashes. Then there’s Commodus, which handled all of that and more.

Reigning from AD 180 to 192, Commodus virtually ignored his official duties. Instead, he devoted himself to his harem of 300 women and as many men, played gladiator at the Colosseum in Rome, and ordered the execution of countless enemies, allies, and family members. When Rome burned on his watch, he not only made little effort to stop it, but insisted that the rebuilt city be renamed in his honor. He also believed himself to be the reincarnation of the mythological strongman Hercules.

Little known today, but his name was boosted by the portrayal of Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film GladiatorCommodus was, in the words of Michael Kerrigan, the author of A Dark History: Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to the Fall of Rome“the strangest, the craziest of emperors”.

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The boy emperor

Roman Emperor Commodus shoots an arrow to subdue a leopard print by Giovanni Stradano.

Roman Emperor Commodus shoots an arrow from the balcony to subdue a leopard, engraving by Giovanni Stradano.

Commodus was 15 when his father, Marcus Aurelius, appointed him co-emperor and anointed him as his eventual successor, despite the fact that the young man was clearly unfit for the position. “Even from his earliest years he was vile and dishonorable, and cruel and obscene, filthy with mouth, moreover, and debauched,” wrote early historian Aelius Lampridius.

When the much-loved Marcus died in 180, Commodus became the sole emperor at 18. Commodus was rumored to have played a role in his death, but historians today are skeptical.

Marcus would have been a tough act for any successor to follow. Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University and author of Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (2019), calls him “the most humane, decent and philosophical of all emperors”. His son would be the opposite.

While Commodus enjoyed the many benefits of his office, he had little interest in doing the work involved. Instead, he delegated this to a series of trusted lieutenants. When he stopped trusting them, he had them murdered – often in gruesome ways – and appointed another.

This, added to his immeasurable wealth, gave Commodus many opportunities to pursue other passions, especially watching and participating in gladiator fights himself. “He often slew great numbers of men and beasts alike in public,” wrote another early historian, Dio Cassius. “For example, alone with his own hands, he sent five hippos with two elephants in two successive days; and he also killed rhinos and a camelopard [giraffe].” Another day he killed 100 bears, spearing them from the safety of the arena’s balcony.

In one instance, he rounded up a large number of men who had lost their feet, disguised them as snakes, gave them sponges to throw at him instead of stones, and bludgeoned them to death, pretending they were giants. He seems to have been more careful with real gladiators, never killing them but occasionally cutting off their ears or noses. Of course, they had the good sense to let him win their matches.

In total, Commodus is said to have claimed to have won some 12,000 contests in the arena, while bragging that he did so with his left hand.

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The emperor goes mad

Emperor Commodus (160-192) with the symbols of Hercules.  Marble statue, from Esquilino Hill, c.190 AD

Emperor Commodus (160-192) with the symbols of Hercules. Marble statue, from Esquilino Hill, c.190 AD

Sanity has never been Commodus’ forte, and he seems to have become increasingly alienated from reality as his reign has continued.

Once convinced that he was the reincarnation of Hercules, he spent huge sums to convince the rest of Rome. To this end, he had the 100-foot bronze statue of Nero’s head that stood near the Colosseum replaced with a replica of his own head; he equipped the statue with a club and placed a bronze lion at its feet to reinforce the comparison with Hercules. Other statues representing him as Hercules, dressed in animal skins and brandishing a club, were sent to the four corners of the Roman Empire.

Commodus also decided to rename the months of the year, all after itself. August, for example, became Commodus, October became Herculeus, and the rest also referred to one or another of his many self-conferred titles.

When a fire ravaged Rome in 191, he saw the opportunity to rename the city Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana, or Colony of Commodus. The Romans would henceforth be called Commodiani, and the Roman Senate became the Commodian Wealthy Senate.

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The Empire Strikes Back

Commodus’ folly did not sit well with the Roman elite, though few dared to challenge him publicly or lived long if they did.

He survived an assassination attempt launched by his own sister in 182, when the would-be assassin announced his intentions before he could deploy his sword and was attacked by guards. Commodus had him and many others, guilty or not, assassinated in retaliation. He sent his sister into exile for a short time, then had her murdered too.

An assassination attempt in 187 also failed, but in 192 the plotters fared better. Two of his high officials, possibly with the help of his mistress, first poisoned him (either with wine or beef, depending on the accounts). When that didn’t work, they brought in a professional wrestler named Narcissus, who then strangled him.

Commodus was 31 years old.

READ MORE: Ancient Roman Emperors: A Timeline

How bad was he?

In his 2021 book, Evil Roman Emperors: The shocking story of ancient Rome’s wickedest rulers, from Caligula to Nero and moreauthor Phillip Barlag awards Commodus first place, calling him “indulgent, stupid idiot”, not to mention “sick, cruel, sadistic, deluded”.

Historian Strauss points out that as bad as Caligula and Nero eventually became, they “each started their reigns on high notes”, while “Commodus started badly” – and stayed that way. In particular, his antics in the arena were an annoyance unsuited to his role as a ruler. “If Commodus was not the worst emperor in ancient Roman history,” says Strauss, “he was certainly the most unworthy in the eyes of the Roman elite.”

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