You may be most familiar with him from Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in the 2000 film Gladiator, but here is the real story of the infamous Roman emperor, Commodus.
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Born as the tenth of fourteen children to Marcus Aurelius in 161 AD, Lucius Aurelius Commodus was given his name after his father’s co-emperor and entered the world with a twin brother. While he was a member of quite a large crew, he was the only son to survive childhood. If it weren’t for him, there would have been no one to take the throne and he had momentum right away. At the age of five, he was made a junior emperor and at age sixteen, he became a joint emperor. Commodus proved to be a worthy partner, co-commanding troops in the wars of the Danube until his father’s death in 180 AD.
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Now that Commodus had complete reign, one would think he would have been fully prepared to lead his people, especially after having such a great example to follow. However, he fell short because he was easily swayed by others and didn’t have the strongest backbone. He was known to be cruel and have extreme behavior. His quest for power and blood earned him a reputation as a tyrant, vicious monster, and a terrible emperor.
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As is the case with many powerful figures, Commodus indeed talked a good talk, promising to expand the empire into his father’s conquered territories. Unfortunately, his follow through was something different. He ended up surrendering all his father had worked for and retreating from expansion. On the plus side, he brought about peace between Rome and the barbaric Macomanni by forcing them into signing a peace treaty. Though a small compensation, every cloud does have a bit of a silver lining!
Everything has a cost and the price of being an unpopular emperor was conspiracy plots to bring about death. One of the most notable plots came from Commodus’s sister and cousin, but the plan was foiled when he uncovered the sinister plan. As a result, all parties involved were put to death. After this scenario was dealt with, Commodus put another leader in charge of government affairs and indulged in full swing, living it up with orgies and fighting in the gladiator arena. Commodus seemed to have a need for public acclaim and thus, appeared consistently in the Roman Colosseum in gladiator matches. He was fierce and slaughtered many helpless animals and fighters in the arena, which was considered deplorable for royalty to lower himself to the status of a slave. Commodus paid no mind to this and continued to fight to gladiatorial fame.
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While Commodus was playing hooky, conditions in Rome worsened. Armies were being viewed with suspicion and in 191 AD, the center of Rome was destroyed by a fire. Commodus rebuilt it and renamed it, as well as the army, after him. As things continued to go downhill, another plot to put an end to the emperor and his negligence arose. This plot was put into motion by city prefect officials and leaders and unlike the previous death schemes, this one succeeded. Commodus was strangled by one of his wrestling partners one night in 192 AD, relieving the people of Rome of a horrific emperor and offering them a glimmer of hope once again.
Commodus did leave a legacy behind him, but it was not a great one. His main recognition comes from his brutal gladiator arena popularity and his less than adequate leadership as emperor of Rome.
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