Portrayals of Commodus, From the Senate Floor to Hollywood

Lucius Aurelius Commodus reigned as emperor during the Roman empire’s apex. At nineteen years old he became the most powerful man on earth. Perhaps nowhere else in history was there more promise. Then when the young emperor first adorned the purple. However bright his beginnings, no one foresaw the tyranny and excesses that later defined his place in history. Remembered as one of Rome’s major villains, his likeness is reimagined across generations through screenplays, art, video games, biographical pieces, theatre, and a plethora of histories. The retelling of Commodus’ deeds has entertained and enlightened many, yet he is often portrayed by inaccurate reimaginations. One example is his depiction in modern cinema, the Gladiator[1] which seen in light of scholarship and his own contemporaries, misses countless complexities that molded one of histories most feared autocrats.

Facts & Fiction

            The screenplay Gladiator, not unlike Commodus’ contemporaries with their histories, will build an arc to tell a specific narrative. This is true regardless of a screenwriter’s pursuit to sew tension or a contemporary Roman historian, for example, attempting to justify a later imperial’s position on the throne.[2] History nor art, is rarely if ever told neutrally. Keep in mind every generation’s reimagining has an agenda, some entertainment, often nationalistic, others defacement, et cetera. Ridley Scott, Cassius Dio, Herodian, and many others are no exception to this reality. Understanding this dynamic allows for adequate separating of facts from fiction. Only then is an accurate comparison of portrayals possible.

            First, start by separating facts from fiction regarding Ridley Scott’s, Gladiator. The plot begins with Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ father in the last days of his life. Deep in the Germanic woods he meets his end at the hand of his own son. The jealousy of missing out on the crown because his father favors Maximus, exposes to the watcher Commodus’ first great act of villainy. Powerful, unsettling, and a perfect plot foundation. Only it didn’t happen. Marcus Aurelius was never hostile to the thought of Commodus on the throne.[3] From early childhood Commodus was actively groomed for the imperial purple. In fact, at five years old Commodus was proclaimed a Caesar.[4] Of course when mindful of creating a screenplay arc, it makes sense Gladiator would need to reveal Commodus’ villainy early, even inaccurately to pace the film under say twenty hours. Fact here, Marcus Aurelius did die on the frontier and was succeeded by his nineteen-year-old son.[5] Fiction, Commodus murdered his own father.

            Knowing why this is important to analyze is in itself of utmost importance. Commodus is often portrayed as an inept, spoilt, cowardly, and mentally ill man. None of these are true. What spelled disaster for his reign was really a combination of severe complexities. Nearly always overlooked was the fact despite Marcus Aurelius’ reasonable expectations the Senate and his advisors would help guide his son in matters of state; when the time of his death came, internal strife prevented such an ideal arrangement in practice. One example would be how the Senate splintered under Commodus’ decision to not continue his father’s expansionist policies in Germania.[6]

            However, blighted the young Emperor often was by those meant to help him succeed, Commodus did them no favors. It is well documented that dressed as a gladiator; Commodus threatened Senators sitting front row in the Colosseum by waving the head of a decapitated ostrich.[7] This clearly captures the sadism of a corrupt autocracy and personality of a young emperor who offered little to no respect regarding the institution of the Senate. A grave mistake.

            The facts in regard to the screenplay are Commodus was unstable, disrespectful, and a tyrant. Not to mention his lust for the mass’s approval was infectious. The fictions are how Ridley Scott created and completed his arc. Commodus did not kill his father and he himself did not die in the arena. He was assassinated in 192 CE,[8] after only twelve years on the throne. The film accurately caught the ethos of Roman culture during the sadist rule of Commodus, bloodlust and corruption. This in its own right is commendable and should not be overlooked.

Cassius Dio & Herodian

            Senator and historian, Cassius Dio is arguably the best firsthand witness to Commodus. His writings paint a vivid portrait condemning the emperor for his lack of devotion to matters of state. Cassius Dio tells that Commodus devoted his life to ease, horses, and combat of wild beasts and men.[9] The emperors disregard for handling matters of state and his perpetual purge of personal enemies filled Rome with terror. When a plague broke out in Rome, and at one point two thousand people were dying a day, Romans feared the emperor’s wrath more than the gods; “Now the death of these victims passed unheeded for Commodus was a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime.”[10]

            It is important to note that such a damning account will be replete with bias. However, a historian’s lamentation does not make him wholly inaccurate. Having personally lived through the reign of Commodus and taken part in much of what he seen; Cassius Dio is an instrumental witness.

            Another historian is Herodian. Sharing with Cassius Dio many similar lamentations regarding Commodus, he reinforces the ineptness of the emperor. One of these complaints was how the emperor simply handed over all communication to go through his chamberlain Perennis.[11]Perennis was cruel, but efficient. Again, proper context should be given. This decision was largely a result of the emperor’s refusal to appear in public in response to his sister’s plot to kill him. Though Perennis was soon replaced by Cleander, who became Commodus’ new chamberlain after exposing Perennis’ own plot to overthrow the emperor.[12]  If Herodian is to be believed, Commodus learned of the plot while attending a festival, before an entire audience seated in a theatre.[13] Commodus certainly, if not constantly feared for his life. An event like this would have been humiliating. Circumstances like this perhaps contributed toward his fanatic behavior.

Conclusion

A consistent narrative across scholars, his contemporaries, and screen play writers is the message that Commodus had little to no respect for his duties and unleashed a reign of terror. Though much scholarship has tried to figure out why Commodus was the way he was, history lacks any empirical explanations. Scholars are left asking questions that may never be answered. Was the office too big for him? Was being born into his duty, in itself a corrupting feature? Perhaps it was his love for reading and imitating emperor Nero that drove his excesses?[14] Did he really see himself equal to Hercules? He did erect a colossus depicting himself as much?[15] Was he simply mad? Was the constant threat on his life what drove him mad? The pursuit of these questions has inspired interest into Commodus for generations.

Regardless of what it was that led to the autocratic behavior Commodus exhibited, his legacy is immortalized. Even if it is for negligence, jealousy, and tyranny; Commodus would be pleased he didn’t fall into obscurity. His portrayal from the ancient Senate floor to Hollywood has remained consistently negative. Though facts are often stretched to arc the narrative as the writer sees fit, commonalities in his portrayals help uncover just how difficult ruling Rome must have been. From the start Commodus was manipulated by his own counsel for personal gain. This alone might provide reasonable insight into his personal disdain toward the Senate. Where Gladiator missed Commodus’ bright beginnings, his contemporaries overwhelm history with evidence the emperor was not naturally evil, but a product of circumstances.

Join 599 other followers

Bibliography

“Gladiator.” Ridley Scott. DreamWorks Distribution, (2000).

Mary Beard. “SPQR,” A History of Ancient Rome. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2015): 43-398

Gary North. “Gladiator,” A Review. (lewrockwell.com, www.lewrockwell.com, 2001).

Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 368-371

Cassius Dio. “Roman History,” Vol IX, Book LXXII. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): 94-103

Donald L. Wasson. “Commodus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (www.ancient.eu/commodus, 2013).

Mary Beard. “Confronting the classics,” Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2014): 145

Herodian. “History of The Roman Empire Since the Death of Marcus Aurelius.” Vol I, Book I. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): I.IX


[1] “Gladiator.” Ridley Scott. DreamWorks Distribution, (2000).

[2] Mary Beard. “SPQR,” A History of Ancient Rome. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2015): 43

[3] Gary North. “Gladiator,” A Review. (lewrockwell.com, www.lewrockwell.com, 2001): par III

[4] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 368

[5] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 368

[6] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 369

[7] Mary Beard. “SPQR,” A History of Ancient Rome. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2015): 398

[8] Allen M. Ward, Fritz M. Heichelheim, Cedric A. Yeo. “A History of The Roman People,” Sixth Edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016): 371

[9] Cassius Dio. “Roman History,” Vol IX, Book LXXII. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): 94

[10]Cassius Dio. “Roman History,” Vol IX, Book LXXII. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): 103

[11] Donald L. Wasson. “Commodus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (www.ancient.eu/commodus, 2013): par IV

[12] Donald L. Wasson. “Commodus.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. (www.ancient.eu/commodus, 2013): par V

[13] Herodian. “History of The Roman Empire Since the Death of Marcus Aurelius.” Vol I, Book I. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927): I.IX

[14] Mary Beard. “Confronting the classics,” Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2014): 145

[15] Mary Beard. “Confronting the classics,” Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2014): 145

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s