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 violence—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.
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.
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 killed, exiled, or somehow disposed of before they could reach the throne.
4. Kissing Cousins
Turns out, Commodus’s family tree was pretty gnarly: His parents were actually first cousins. Gotta keep that bloodline pure.
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 died in 165 when they were just four years old, and four years later Commodus’s baby brother Marcus Annius died after a medical operation went horribly wrong.
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.
7. Girls Just Wanna Have Crowns
Though all his brothers had died 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.
8. Throne School
Emperor Marcus Aurelius groomed his young son to take up the family business. For one, Commodus went with his father on military 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.
9. Mr. Rome
Commodus was apparently very good looking; the historian Herodian noted that he was exceedingly handsome.
10. Daddy’s Little Boy
For the first years of his life, Commodus showed little sign of the rage and cruelty 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.
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.
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 kill a panther just as it was about to pounce on a victim.
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.
14. I’m an Adult Now
In 180 AD, Marcus Aurelius tragically died while on campaign. At 18 years old, Commodus was now the only ruler of the mighty Roman Empire.
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 died and Commodus had the throne all to himself, he quickly rejected his way of life and plunged right into decadence.
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.”
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 kill 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 killed: somehow, the unhinged ruler won all the fights.
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.
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.
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.
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 murder 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.
22. A Fate Worse Than Death
As punishment for their disloyalty, Commodus sentenced the two men to death. 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.
23. I Like the Look of You
Commodus’s reign quickly devolved into absolute chaos. In 182, his favorite chamberlain Saoterus was murdered 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.
24. The People’s Prince
Even while the Senate was trying to kill 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 kill him.
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.
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.”
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 killed Cleander’s son too, just to be sure.
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.
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.
36. Intimidation Tactics
Commodus definitely knew how to make a threat. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
41. Til Death 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.
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 kill 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.
43. Friend and Foe
In the end, Commodus’s tragic death 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 naked, vulnerable, and taking a bath. At last, the people of Rome had finally managed to assassinate the great tyrant.
44. Boy, Bye
After his death, the Senate wasted 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.