Unhinged Facts About Emperor Commodus, The Mad Man Of Rome

January 8, 2024 | Dancy Mason

Unhinged Facts About Emperor Commodus, The Mad Man Of Rome

As the beloved child of the reigning Emperor, Commodus was born with the world at his feet. Unfortunately, he also had a serious case of “only son” syndrome. While he started out as a promising ruler, his reign devolved into scandal, tragedy, and brutal acts of brutality—many of them immortalized in the movie Gladiator. Watch your back when you read these 44 unhinged facts about Commodus.

1. Stranger Than Fiction

Today, we might remember Commodus best as the unstable emperor played by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator. Because of that, Commodus is now infamous in popular culture. But while the movie took a lot of liberties with his life, Commodus’s true story is actually even darker.

Emperor Commodus

2. Silver Spoon in Mouth

Born on August 31, 161 AD, to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his wife Faustina, Commodus was the apple of his father’s eye. The birth of a royal son was a big deal at the time: Commodus was the first (and for a very long time, the only) Roman emperor “born in the purple,” meaning born during his dad’s reign.

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

3. The Lucky One

Ancient Rome was a truly brutal place, especially for an Emperor’s son. When Commodus rose to power, he was actually the first biological son of an emperor to succeed his father in almost an entire century. Most other Roman heirs were liquidated, exiled, or somehow disposed of before they could reach the throne.

Faustina the Younger factsRoman Empire (2016– ), Netflix

4. Kissing Cousins

Turns out, Commodus’s family tree was pretty gnarly: His parents were actually first cousins. Gotta keep that bloodline pure.

Emperor Commodus facts Wikipedia

5. Oh Brother

Though Commodus had an older brother and a younger brother who made it through infancy, they both met utterly tragic ends. His twin brother Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus passed in 165 when they were just four years old, and four years later Commodus’s baby brother Marcus Annius passed after a medical operation went horribly wrong.

Faustina the Younger factsRoman Empire (2016– ), Netflix

6. And Then There Was One

As a result of all this tragedy, Commodus was his father's only heir by the time he was eight.

Faustina the Younger factsRoman Empire (2016– ), Netflix

7. Girls Just Wanna Have Crowns

Though all his brothers had passed as children, Commodus still had four surviving sisters—and let’s just say that ambition ran very deep in this family. His older sister Lucilla was particularly power-hungry, and she even temporarily became an Augusta, or a Roman Empress, after she married one of her father’s early co-rulers.

Emperor Commodus facts Getty Images

8. Throne School

Emperor Marcus Aurelius groomed his young son to take up the family business. For one, Commodus went with his father on army campaigns and was even given the title “Germanicus". Later on, he entered the College of Pontiffs to begin a career as a public servant—a necessary stepping-stone for many future Roman Emperors.

Emperor Commodus facts Wikimedia Commons, Richard Mortel

9. Mr. Rome

Commodus was apparently very good looking; the historian Herodian noted that he was exceedingly handsome.

Emperor Commodus facts Gladiator (2000), DreamWorks

10. Daddy’s Little Boy

For the first years of his life, Commodus showed little sign of the rage and brutality that would mark his later rule, and it wasn’t long before Marcus Aurelius thought his favorite boy was ready for the big leagues. As a result, when Commodus was just 15 years old, Aurelius promoted his son to co-ruler of the empire.

Emperor Commodus facts Wikimedia Commons, Rabax63

11. Strongman

Commodus was renowned throughout Rome for his intimidating physical power, and he loved competing in chariot racing, horse racing, and wresting—both with wild animals as well as with other men. Maybe his favorite pastime, though, was his passion for staging and even participating in bloody gladiator fights.

Emperor Commodus facts Pixabay

12. Sharpshooter

The Emperor wasn’t just a meathead: Many sources make much of his deadly accuracy with a bow. As an archer, Commodus could shoot the heads off of ostriches running at full speed, and even liquidate a panther just as it was about to pounce on a victim.

Empress Lucilla factsThe Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Paramount Pictures

13. Mommy’s Little Secret

Because of his obsession with gladiators, many people whispered that Commodus wasn’t really Marcus Aurelius’ son. Instead, the rumor went, his mother Faustina had slept with a gladiator and passed the love child off as a royal heir.

Faustina the Younger factsWikimedia Commons

14. I’m an Adult Now

In 180 AD, Marcus Aurelius tragically passed while on campaign. At 18 years old, Commodus was now the only ruler of the mighty Roman Empire.

Assassinations factsFlickr, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

15. I Call the Shots

Commodus found it incredibly difficult living in his father’s shadow. Aurelius was known as a great “Philosopher King” and he lived a sparse and monastic lifestyle. After his father passed and Commodus had the throne all to himself, he quickly rejected his way of life and plunged right into decadence.

Emperor Commodus facts Gladiator (2000), DreamWorks

16. Paradise Lost

The changes Commodus made after his father’s rule—like drastically devaluing Rome’s currency and taking up a very loose approach to administration—ravaged the once-prosperous empire. The historian Dio Cassius complained that when Commodus took over from Aurelius, he transformed Rome "from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust".

Empress Lucilla factsThe Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Paramount Pictures

17. I Am the Champion

By 192, Commodus was basking in his own megalomania. He set up the Plebeian Games, which were really just an excuse for the bloodthirsty emperor to hunt and liquidate hundreds of exotic animals every morning. In the afternoon, he’d fight as a gladiator in the arena, though he was hardly in danger of being liquidated: somehow, the unhinged ruler won all the fights.

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

18. A Giant Delusion

Because his opponents just submitted to the Emperor, he usually let them live. But in order to sate his thirst for blood, Commodus did something even darker. According to some sources, Roman citizens who were missing their feet were often brought into the arena and tied together. Commodus would then beat them with a club while pretending he was slaying giants. Spoiler: He totally wasn’t.

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

19. The Favorite

Instead of actually running the Empire, Commodus left the bulk of the work to a string of his favorites, starting with his chamberlain Saoterus.

Emperor Commodus facts Gladiator (2000), DreamWorks

20. Sibling Rivalry

Eventually, Commodus’s attitude had utterly violent consequences—and the attacks came from those closest to him. His ruthless sister Lucilla quickly got sick of watching Bruttia parade around as Empress, the position she once held, all while her baby brother continued on his useless rule. Not one to sit around, she started plotting his downfall.

Emperor Commodus facts Gladiator (2000), DreamWorks

21. Better Luck Next Time

In 182, Lucilla allegedly enlisted at least two of her illicit lovers to assassinate her brother. The two men grabbed the emperor as he entered a theater, but they made a huge mistake. Apparently, the two dolts began the liquidation by screaming out, “Here is what the Senate sends you!” The outburst gave them away and bodyguards intercepted them—and that was just the beginning of the nightmare.

Emperor Commodus factsWikimedia Commons

22. A Fate Worse Than Demise

As punishment for their disloyalty, Commodus sentenced the two men to demise. Even so, this was nothing compared to Lucilla’s dark fate. When he discovered his older sister had orchestrated the attempt, Commodus exiled her and her daughter to the island of Capri, let them live in terror for a year, and then sent a man to execute them.

Emperor Commodus factsPixabay

23. I Like the Look of You

Commodus’s reign quickly devolved into absolute chaos. In 182, his favorite chamberlain Saoterus was liquidated in a power plot, sending the Emperor into a tailspin of grief. But then it got worse. Commodus was so out of touch with what was really going on in Rome that he accidentally hired Saoterus’ murderer, the smooth-talking Cleander, as his replacement. Um, oops.

Roman Emperors FactsWikimedia Commons

24. The People’s Prince

Even while the Senate was trying to end Commodus and his loved ones left, right, and center, the common people still adored him. While he was never a fan of bureaucratic red tape, the young Emperor loved throwing large parties. Moreover, his gladiator fights became the place to go get your blood-and-guts fix during your free time.

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

25. Can’t Please Everyone

Not everyone was a fan of Commodus the Gladiator. While the public gave him their support in these bloody spectacles, most upper-class Romans sneered at his obsession. They felt it was beneath the mighty emperor.

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

26. Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Despite having the people’s love, Commodus was often incredibly cruel to his subjects—and occasionally very murderous. In one instance, the mentally unstable emperor ordered the executions of two innocent but successful men, Condianus and Maximus, just because their incredible wealth and talents made him nervous.

CommodusRomainbehar, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

27. Tin Foil King

With BFF-murderer Cleander running the country, Commodus’s already rickety reign started to really crumble. Still only in his late 20s, an increasingly paranoid Commodus began executing men based only on whispers and started spending most of his days locked up in his estates to avoid potential assassinations.

Emperor Commodus factsShutterstock

28. Zero to Hero

Commodus had a big crush on the hero Hercules. Since he was such a buff, strong man, Commodus demanded that people compare him to the demi-god, and had statues of himself dressed as Hercules erected throughout Rome. As Hercules, Commodus could see himself as unbelievably powerful, courageous—and above all, god-like.

Emperor Commodus factsFlickr, Carole Raddato

29. A Sinister Connection

Commodus was left-handed, just like Hercules himself. He was very proud of the connection, and it convinced him even more that he was Hercules reincarnated.

CommodusParamount , The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

30. Black Widow

Commodus was susceptible to some very scandalous bedroom influences, and his most powerful and infamous mistress was the beautiful, cunning Marcia. In another embarrassing example of Commodus’s absolutely stellar judgement, some sources claim that before becoming his lover, Marcia was involved in a plot to end him.

Queen Olympias factsShutterstock

31. Number One Side Chick

Despite her “mistress” status and her secret past, Marcia held huge sway over the emperor. She had some Christian beliefs and even persuaded Commodus to adopt a few Christian policies and show mercy toward practitioners—not an emotion the emperor was used to feeling. Though they never married, Commodus treated her as his wife.

Commodus outsideParamount , The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

32. Peer Pressure

Given his total inability to tell enemies from friends, some saw Commodus not as a villain but as a narcissistic fool. First-hand source Cassius Dio described him as, "not naturally wicked but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived". Instead, it was more nefarious parties who led Commodus “into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature".

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

33. Anything for You, Sweetums

In 190, Cleander’s luck finally ran out. He had been wheeling and dealing throughout the empire, selling off public offices and making himself a very rich man. Marcia caught wind of this and demanded that Commodus execute him. Not wanting to disappoint his sugarbun, Commodus had Cleander beheaded—and then liquidated Cleander’s son too, just to be sure.

Commodus Paramount , The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

34. If You Want Something Done…

By this time, Commodus was thoroughly fed up with most of his advisors and yes-men. He executed a handful of them and started to take the reins of power as a dictator. Of course, he still kept Marcia and a few other men close to him.

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

35. I Love Myself

After a fire tore through the city in 191, Commodus really went off the deep end. He symbolically re-founded Rome—all in his own image. All twelve months of the year corresponded to his own twelve names, Roman citizens were now called Commodianus, and even Rome itself was renamed Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana.

Emperor Commodus factsPixabay

36. Intimidation Tactics

Commodus definitely knew how to make a menace. At one of his gladiator battles, he reportedly slew an ostrich and then carried its decapitated head over to where his rival senators were seated. Once there, he threw the head down at their feet and gestured as if to say, “You’re next". Unfortunately, it didn’t quite have the intended effect.

Hardened to Commodus’s bizarre, violent behavior, the senators thought it was so ridiculous that they had to hide their laughter by chewing on laurel leaves.

Gladiator factsGladiator, DreamWorks

37. Pay Me What You Owe Me

Commodus’s gladiator hobbies didn’t come cheap. Every time he appeared in the arena, he charged his own people enormous sums for the privilege of seeing him, helping to bankrupt the Roman economy in the process.

Memorable Stranger FactsPixabay

38. Kneel Before Me

During this time, Commodus claimed some pretty lofty glories as his own. He demanded to be called Pacator Orbis, or “Pacifier of the World,” as well as Dominus Noster, AKA “Our Lord".

Emperor Commodus factsGladiator (2000), DreamWorks

39. Hot-Headed

Commodus had quite the temper. One historian records that while taking a bath, Commodus flew into a tantrum because his bathwater was a little chilly. Instead of asking politely for the water to be heated up, he threw the attendant into an oven.

Commodus Paramount , The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

40. Teen Bride

Soon after his ascension, Commodus took the beautiful and wealthy Bruttia Crispina as his Empress. He was only 16 years old on the day of the wedding, but Bruttia was even younger at just 13 years old. People described the young, naïve girl as “a graceful person with a susceptible heart”—and she had no idea what was in store for her.

Emperor Commodus facts Wikimedia Commons

41. Til Demise Do Us Part

Commodus’s innocent wife Bruttia suffered an utterly tragic fate. The couple never had a child together, and some historians even think that Commodus was completely sterile. Enraged at the lineage crisis this created, Commodus falsely accused Bruttia of adultery—and, just like his sister Lucilla, had her banished to Capri and then executed.

Portrait Of Crispina, Wife Of Commodus, 180 - 187 Ad, Galleria Degli Uffizi, Florence (19014212733)Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

42. Fool Me Once

By this point, even Commodus’s closest advisors, as well as his beloved girlfriend Marcia, knew he had to go. They started plotting to end him—and Marcia’s close relationship with the emperor made her the perfect assassin. The cold-hearted mistress put poison in his food one night, but her treachery didn’t work. After eating the poisoned food, Commodus just vomited it up.

Attention-Seekers factsPixabay

43. Friend and Foe

In the end, Commodus’s tragic demise still came at the hands of a friend. Not ready to give up, the conspirators sent his wrestling partner Narcissus to do the deed, and the man strangled the emperor while he was uncovered, vulnerable, and taking a bath. At last, the people of Rome had finally managed to assassinate the great tyrant.

Emperor Commodus factsShutterstock

44. Boy, Bye

After his demise, the Senate spent no time in calling him a public enemy. They immediately renamed Commodiana back to Rome, tore down all his precious statues, and erased his names from tablets. Thanks to his legendarily bizarre antics and violent delights, Commodus remains of Roman history’s most infamous rulers.

Roman senators in the Senate speakingHBO, Rome (2005–2007)

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

More from Factinate

Featured Article

My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.

Dark Family Secrets

Dark Family Secrets Exposed

Nothing stays hidden forever—and these dark family secrets are proof that when the truth comes out, it can range from devastating to utterly chilling.
April 8, 2020 Samantha Henman

Featured Article

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.

Madame de Pompadour Facts

Entrancing Facts About Madame de Pompadour, France's Most Powerful Mistress

Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
December 7, 2018 Kyle Climans

More from Factinate

Featured Article

I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.

These People Got Genius Revenges

When someone really pushes our buttons, we'd like to think that we'd hold our head high and turn the other cheek, but revenge is so, so sweet.
April 22, 2020 Scott Mazza

Featured Article

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.

Catherine of Aragon Facts

Tragic Facts About Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s First Wife

Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but very few people know her even darker history.
June 7, 2018 Christine Tran

Dear reader,

Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your time!

Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at contribute@factinate.com. Thanks for your help!

Warmest regards,

The Factinate team

Want to learn something new every day?

Join thousands of others and start your morning with our Fact Of The Day newsletter.

Thank you!

Error, please try again.