Decline of Empire

The Gladiator Emperor

Commodus’ association with the god Hercules was never more apparent than with his exploits in the arena. In order to perpetuate his image as a living god to the Roman people, Commodus not only began to attire himself in the same manner as the mythical hero (lions skins and carrying a club), but he used the arena to show his physical prowess, therefore proving his direct association with the god. Commodus became Hercules for all intents and purposes, not only in identification with the great heroic icon, but as the symbolic protector of Rome and the empire. This identification was not just a symptom of his megalomania, but was certainly a key factor resulting in his eventual assassination as Commodus continued to challenge and disrupt Roman institutions and traditions.

Whether Commodus simply delighted in the rush of a cheering crowd, enjoyed the thrill of individual combat, aspired to become Hercules on earth or some combination thereof, we can never be completely sure. Whatever his motivation, it is quite clear that the emperor was a regular participant in the arena against both man and beast. According to the ancient sources at various times Commodus killed one hundred bears, two elephants, five hippopotami and a giraffe among many others. Herodian similarly adds additional kills and differing methods of combat to illustrate the emperor’s actual skill with weapons. Commodus also faced real gladiators in combat, challenging men of several styles. In this Herodian wrote, "In his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator." Whether Commodus butchered his opponents (as sometimes suggested in the Historia Augusta and by Dio), or allowed them to submit with honor (as reported by Herodian) there is little question that he appeared in personal combat on many occasions. The Historia Augusta reports that Commodus engaged in gladiatorial bouts seven hundred and thirty-five times, but Dio suggests far more: “(Commodus) actually cut off the head of the Colossus (Nero’s statue outside the Colosseum), and substituted for it a likeness of his own head; then, having given it a club and placed a bronze lion at its feet, so as to cause it to look like Hercules, he inscribed on it… "Champion of secutores; only left-handed fighter to conquer twelve times (as I recall the number) one thousand men.”

Commodus reign was not simply an adventure in debauchery or personal excess, however. His era may have had the potential to develop into the prosperous age that Commodus so desperately wanted to be associated with. Though there were signs of economic trouble in the form of coin devaluation (reduction in precious metal content), the economy was relatively stable despite the expensive wars of his father’s reign and the excessive taxes that Commodus levied against the wealthy classes (perhaps masking potential economic woes). The Germanics along the Danube frontier, thanks in large part to those wars of Marcus Aurelius, were mostly peaceful. The east was stable and quiet and only the isolated province of Britannia had shown serious signs of unrest, which was brutally suppressed by Ulpius Marcellus. Whether it was because Commodus’ influential mistress Marcia was a Christian or because he had little interest in suppressing its growth, early Christian historian Eusebius claims that Commodus’ reign was one of massive conversions to that rapidly growing religion.

Regardless it was not these matters that his contemporary biographers focused on. Many men of rank and importance lost their lives during this period, a clear shift from the more tolerant reigns of Commodus’ immediate predecessors. Though Dio provides more detail than implied, he wrote simply, “I should render my narrative very tedious were I to give a detailed report of all the persons put to death by Commodus, of all those whom he made away with as the result of false accusations or unjustified suspicions or because of their conspicuous wealth, distinguished family, unusual learning, or some other point of excellence.” As opposed to the histories of such emperors as Gaius (Caligula) and Nero, where large portions of biographical information is from second hand accounts, innuendo and perhaps greatly influenced by political factors and propaganda, Dio’s biography of Commodus seems to have been written from first hand personal fear.

He also provides this telling story that illustrates the position of the aristocracy. “He (Commodus) had once got together all the men in the city who had lost their feet as the result of disease or some accident, and then, after fastening about their knees some likenesses of serpents' bodies, and giving them sponges to throw instead of stones, had killed them with blows of a club, pretending that they were giants. This fear was shared by all, by us senators as well as by the rest. And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing.”

This apparent anxiety, coupled with Commodus’ growing megalomania slowly brought about the end to his reign. Not only did proscription and taxation of the wealthiest citizens of Rome create distinct animosity, but Commodus view of himself as Hercules went beyond symbolism and took on the form of complete megalomania. He claimed to be a new founder of the city, renaming Rome in his own honor: Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. The months were renamed to match his imperial name and titles. From January through December, the twelve months became Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus (the first four from his name), Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius (excellent or above all others), Amazonius (an indication of his physical and combat prowess), Invictus (undefeatable), Felix (fortunate) and Pius. Nothing was beyond the boundaries of refinement and tradition, so long as Commodus’ could continue to illustrate his own glory. The grain fleet from Africa was named Alexandria Commodiana Togata and the legions referred to as Commodianae. As if proscription and taxation was not enough the Senate was renamed the Fortunate Senate of Commodus, certainly as a reflection of the great honor it must have been to serve him. Even the people of Rome were not left untouched and were called Commodianus rather than Romanus. In addition to several other such measures, Commodus had his era named as the Golden Age and this, according to Dio, was to be recorded in all official documentation.

Not surprisingly, Commodus was the target of several assassination attempts. However, since he enjoyed the relative popularity of the people and the loyalty of the legions and the praetorians, each was met successive failure. It was not until members of Commodus own inner circle seemingly began to feel threatened that the emperor was in any serious danger. A final plot seems to have been initiated by the Praetorian Prefect Aemilius Laetus and Eclectus, one of Commodus’ servants. Probably in fear for their own lives and concerned over the emperor’s growing strange behaviors, they recruited his concubine Marcia and attempted to poison him. Commodus was able to resist this subtle attempt on his life and instead the conspirators recruited an athlete, Narcissus, to take matters literally into his own hands. On December 31 AD 192, Narcissus strangled the 31 year old Commodus in his bath thus bringing an end to the rule of the Antonines and closing a definitive chapter in Roman history. After Commodus’ rule of nearly 13 years, along with 125 years of largely stable rule since the death of Nero, and in spite of the efforts of the conspirators to prepare for a stable succession, the Roman world was about to enter a moment of crisis and the potential for civil war. Ironically though, despite the initial damnation of Commodus’ memory by the Senate immediately following his death, Commodus would be deified by eventual successor Septimius Severus in AD 197.

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A secret passage was recently uncovered under the Roman Coliseum, elaborately decorated with mosaics and plaster carvings, that was built to let Emperor Commodus (180-192) run away from angry mobs.