Was Commodus a good emperor?

Commodus’s legacy clearly stated he was not a good emperor for Rome.

Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, also known as Commodus, was a Roman emperor vilified as one of the bloody tyrants. 

He was born to emperor Marcus Aurelius on August 31, 161 C.E, in Italy, previously known as Lanuvium.

Commodus was often caught between gladiator and god as he presented himself as Hercules, god of worthy fear and respect.

He could fight off hundreds of bears, shooting and killing them to prove a good gladiator.

He was made the co-heir to the throne at a very tender age; later on, he joined his father in a campaign against German invasion over the Danube; however, after the death of Marcus, he was on good terms with Germans.

Commodus was a cruel and capricious man whom his sister and mistress tried to assassinate.

He has always been linked with Nero, Caligula, and many other Roman rulers known for their infamous deeds. 

Was Commodus a good Roman Emperor?

Commodus was not regarded as an excellent Roman emperor for some of his deeds during his reign.

He was responsible for the economic instability, wished the public to worship him as a god, humiliated slaves, and assassinated his sister.

Early Life

Bust of Emperor Commodus
Bust of Emperor Commodus

Commodus was the son of emperor Marcus Aurelius and his first cousin Faustina the younger, born near Rome. 

His mother passed away too early, leaving him with his father Marcus and his elder twin brother Marcus Annius Versus, who also passed away at a young age in 165 C.E.

Commodus suffered numerous timely ailments treated by his father’s physician Galen as a child. He enjoyed a royal education fit for the child who would succeed to the Roman throne in the later future.

At the tender age of 11, Commodus was said to have joined his father’s campaign at Carnuntum in 172 A.D in the Marconnic wars.

In the following year, he was bestowed with the Germanicus title for triumph alongside his father, Marcus.

After attending the College of Pontiffs in 175 A.D, he was set to fight against a rebel Avidius Cassius, who initiated a revolt in Syria, Egypt, and Judea, entitling himself as the emperor faking Marcus’s death.

Marcus declared Commodus as a joint emperor in 177 A.D, after which Commodus got married to Bruttia Crispainia at the age of 15 before joining his father on the Danubian front.

In 180 A.D, Commodus finally became sole emperor of Rome upon the death of Marcus.

Commodus was not regarded as an excellent Roman emperor for some of his deeds during his reign, as listed below:

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1. Economic instability

A denarius featuring Commodus
A denarius featuring Commodus

After the death of emperor Marcus, Commodus was known to the world as the sole ruler of Rome. Upon his return to Rome, he converted the reins of Roman governance to corrupt Praetorian Prefects. 

Similarly, he also caused the devaluation of Roman currency and a reduction in the weight of the denarius from 96 per Roman pound to 105 per Roman pound.

Not just monetary values, he degraded the purity of silver from 79 percent, dropping to 76 percent only.

In addition to it, the purity of silver suffered a further fall to 74 percent, while the Roman pound also dropped to 108 per pound. The degradation in financial capital was the largest recorded to date.

The inflation caused Rome long-term significant damage to the economy due to Commodus’s desire to utilize precious metals like gold and silver to pay for his lavish lifestyles and pay his legionaries regular incentives for their loyalty towards him.

2. Demand to worship him as god

Commodus with attributes of Helios, Apollo and Jupiter, late 2nd century AD
Commodus with attributes of Helios, Apollo, and Jupiter, late 2nd century AD

Commodus was born to the first emperor to be born in the purple, showing signs of megalomania, which is a delusional feeling of personal omnipotence.

He had developed a particular obsession with being identified as the god Hercules as mentioned by a famous historian Herodian in his account.

Commodus initially abandoned his family name and ordered him to be called Hercules, son of Zeus, instead of Commodus, son of Marcus.

Commodus leveled up his infatuation with being a god as he discarded the Roman imperial dress code and started carrying a club of Hercules and donning himself with lion skin.

He had an urge to establish fear in people’s minds, so he got his statues erected throughout the city, named the months of a year after himself.

As per an iconic marble work dating back to 183 A.D, Commodus was depicted as one of the 12 laborers of Hercules, carrying the club in one hand and holding golden apples of Hesperides in the other.

3. Humiliation of slaves

Painting of Roman slaves on a slave block
Painting of Roman slaves on a slave block

Commodus was known for his weird fascination for differently-abled enslaved people who were kept at his royal palace in vast numbers.

Commodus was said to have humiliated physically disturbed slaves in his grand feast.

According to the Historia Augusta stories, Commodus presented hunch-backed enslaved people in his jollified dining sessions, with the men stripped naked and put onto a silver plate.

In addition to it, he had mustard spilled all over their bodies and served them to his guest to eat off their backs.

Slaves in Commodus’s reign received relatively proper food and comfortable quarters and suffered less physical torments; however, he indulged them in sexual exploitation.

Significantly dwarfs and disabled slaves were used for their owner’s sexual gratification.

4. Commodus as a gladiator

The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators
Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators

The lists of Commodus’s fascinations also included a bloody sport which he took to further extremes. He not only found pleasure in watching fights in the Colosseum but also wanted to experience the sport.

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Enslaved people were abused as gladiators were invited to his place to fight with him in staged combats.

It would have been unethical and humiliating for an emperor to lose to the gladiator, so the gladiators lost the fight purposefully, but Commodus slew the slaves in return.

He considered them as disposable tools as he would have weapons during the fights, while gladiators were only given fake arms.

Commodus slaughtered numerous gladiators in the sport as he tried to quince his egoistic thirst to establish power. 

The bloodshed within the sports arena was to show Commodus’s cruelty to his rivals, which caused Rome’s economy to cripple.

Each time he went for the play, he charged the Roman treasury around 1 million sesterces, eventually bringing Rome to the verge of bankruptcy. He had to devalue coins, silver, and gold to pay his debts.

5. Animal abuse

Bronze medallion depicting the fight between a man and a wild animal
Bronze medallion depicting the fight between a man and a wild animal

Not just slaves but even animals met the same fate as gladiators in the bloody sports arena. He fought against animals, especially an exotic breed of beasts, in the arena in the Colosseum.

Commodus also took off on elephants, giraffes, and hippos while standing on a safety ensured platform surrounded by his bodyguards.

He took the insanity to an extreme level after killing almost 100 lions in a single day, shooting them with arrows and bows to signify himself as a fearless, skilled man.

 By the end of 192 A.D, he held games known as the Plebeian Games, where he would fight off animals in the dusk and slaughter gladiators by the dawn.

Even his mistress thought it was insane to perform such an activity, so she called a man named Electus to kill Commodus.

The head of the Praetorian Guards also joined his hands with her in the plan to wipe off Commodus by poisoning the cup of wine he always took before his bath.

6. Cruelty towards people

Captives in Rome a 19th century painting by Charles Bartlett
Captives in Rome, a 19th-century painting by Charles Bartlett

Commodus was not just cruel towards enslaved people, animals, or his fellow men but also towards his wife Bruttia Crispina, whom he married at around 16 years.

He was very unfaithful towards his wife from the day he married her as he was said to have kept numerous mistresses.

He had even kept plenty of private brothels his wife was unaware of. Even though she knew about his deeds, she would have nothing to be done.

Despite having any concrete shreds of evidence, Commodus expelled Crispina from Rome in 188 A.D accusing her of adultery and allegedly forcing her to reside on the island of Capri.

Commodus issued an order to execute Crispina. One of the reasons behind the assassination might be that she could not bore him a child.

However, other reasons suggested that he was sick of Crispina and wanted his favorite mistress Marcia to become his de-facto empress.

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7. Assassination of own sister

Statue of Lucilla depicted as the goddess Ceres
Statue of Lucilla depicted as the goddess Ceres

Lucilla Verus was Commodus’s sister who grew envious after emperor Marcus declared Commodus as his hero instead of her husband.

Enraged with jealousy upon Commodus and his wife, Lucilla conspired to murder her brother in 182 A.D, along with her nephew Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus.

They had planned to kill him, hiding behind the walls of the Colosseum and stabbing him to death. However, Commodus luckily found out the truth and killed the assassin.

Lucilla was sent off to live in exile on the island of Capri along with her daughter.

Weeks later, Commodus felt that he was too compassionate towards Lucilla, so he ordered kill Lucilla and her daughter to a loyal centurion.

Death of Commodus

Painting depicting Commodus assasination
Painting depicting Commodus assassination

Commodus had crossed extreme boundaries with his megalomania that the Roman senates and the public could no longer resist.

In 192 A.D, while he was finishing off a game in the bloody arena of the Plebeian Games, his mistress planned to exterminate him.

Mistress Marcia, along with Electus, planned to poison the wine Commodus drank every day before his bath. Marcia swiftly slipped poison into his wine cup, but Commodus luckily puked the poison.

After the failed poisoning attempt, they hired a wrestler named Narcissus, who strangled Commodus to death in his bath.

Petrinax succeeded to the Roman throne after the death of Commodus, who was later on deposed, giving rise to a series of civil wars and ultimately the rise of Septimus Severus.

Legacy of Commodus

Commodus as Hercules
Commodus as Hercules

Commodus was not the cruelest emperor of the Roma compared to other ferocious rulers; however, his lack of dedication to rule sacked his reputation.

He was known for making luxurious festive celebrations for the amusement of people. Although he devalued silver and gold coins, he heavily taxed Roman senates and eventually made the public glad.

During the reign of his father Marcus, Rome underwent a series of military interventions causing violence and disharmony, but in Commodus’s era, not many military combats took place.

He maintained peace within the empire as no significant wars broke out during the time.

Commodus was also famous for negotiating a peace treaty with the Danube tribe that had been in absolute conflict for ages since emperor Marcus’s times.

Conclusion

Commodus was a cruel, self-centered man who exercised power only for personal benefits and lavish lifestyles.

He abused enslaved people, especially physically disabled enslaved people, gladiators, animals, and his public.

The Roman economy degraded by dropping gold and silver coins values during his reign. He was responsible for bringing Roman down to the verge of bankruptcy.

Several conspiracies were made to assassinate the emperor, which clearly states he was undoubtedly not a good emperor despite few deeds regarding maintaining peace were his accomplishments.

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