Normally, when historical figures show up in movies, they’re exaggerated. Desperate to keep fiction more fantastic than life, filmmakers have to take all the complexity out and turn them into mad, cartoonish caricatures of real human beings.
Usually, anyway. Emperor Commodus, though, is the exception to the rule. When the creators of the movie Gladiator cast him as their villain, they actually had to tone the facts down a little. Because the things the real Emperor Commodus did were so completely insane that nobody would have believed them.
10 He Nearly Bankrupted Rome By Playing Gladiator
We’ve told you before about Commodus’s obsession with playing at being a gladiator. Regular readers may already know how he would strip naked, walk into the arenas, and bash physically handicapped people in the head in front of a roaring crowd of Roman citizens. But we haven’t told you just how big of a problem it was.
Commodus wasn’t like a normal gladiator. He was brutal, even by the standards of men who beat each other to death for the amusement of an audience. He would force gladiators to come to his home and practice with him. The invitation meant almost certain death; no one would dare beat him, and when he won, he would show no mercy. The lucky left his home with missing noses and limbs, and the unlucky never left alive.
When a fighting gladiator tried to spare his opponent’s life, Commodus would stop him. Hungry for blood, he would have the gladiators tied together and force them to fight until one was dead—or else they would never be freed.
Murder isn’t a normal pastime, but it even crippled the economy. Every time he showed up in the gladiatorial arena, Commodus charged the state a million sesterces for his appearance. His love of killing didn’t just cost lives—it helped spiral the Roman economy toward total collapse.
9 He Served Two People At A Banquet
Commodus’s depravity didn’t stop when he left the arena. He had a strange obsession with torturing the physically disabled—once even forcing men with dwarfism to fight each other with cleavers for an audience’s amusement—and he found ways to work torture into every part of life.
He even brought it into dinner. Once, he served two disabled men at a banquet. He invited a crowd of Rome’s elite to his home, had them gather his dining table, and then had his servants open up the silver platter to reveal two hunchbacked men smeared in mustard.
He didn’t actually eat them. The men were alive, put on the table as nothing more than a centerpiece meant to amuse his guests. They were forced to sit there on the cold silver platter throughout the whole dining party, naked and coated in mustard, pretending to be food to amuse the emperor and his friends.
8 He Renamed The Months Of The Year After Himself
Commodus’s ego was unparalleled. He legitimately believed that he was a living god. He had the head of the Colossus chopped off and replaced with his own likeness and even pressured the Senate to officially declare him a living god.
But he wasn’t just any god; Commodus believed that he was specifically the Greek demigod Hercules. When his madness was its fullest, he started walking around with a cloak made out of a lion’s hide so that he could look more like Hercules, and he forced everyone to refer to him as “Hercules, son of Zeus.”
He even changed the language to force people to praise him. He renamed Rome “Commodiana” and called the Roman people “Commodiani.” And he changed the names of every month into variations on his own name. August became “Commodus,” September became “Hercules,” and the other ten months were all renamed to one of the many nicknames he’d bestowed upon himself.
7 He Fed His Friends To Animals
The emperors of the old world went mad with power in a way that modern man just can’t compete with. They could get away with things modern leaders can only dream of—and it gave them some crazy ideas.
But Commodus was unique. He was the only emperor born while his father ruled Rome, which meant that he started going mad with power from the first moments of his life.
It made him a little sociopath. According to the Roman rumor mill, the young preteen Commodus would have anyone who made fun of him “cast to the wild beasts.” Playmates who slighted him (or, one time, a slave who made his bath too cold) were all put to death.
He conducted experiments, too. As a boy, he wanted to be a surgeon, so he’d practice—on living people. Once, he cut open a fat man’s belly with scalpels just to see what it looked like inside. His teachers just had to stand by, watch, and even help him do it. If they didn’t, they’d be next.
6 He Repeatedly Threatened To Kill His Senators
Commodus didn’t like his senators very much. He wanted complete power over Rome, and having to listen to the grumblings of the people’s representatives drove him wild. He had plans to get rid of them altogether—and he wasn’t subtle about it.
He had a massive statue erected outside of the Senate house. It was in his own likeness, showing him as an archer, with an arrow pointed directly at the building. Every time they stepped in, they’d have to look at a massive bronze bust of his likeness staring at them, poised to kill.
Once, while he was fighting animals in a gladiatorial arena, he threatened his senators with an ostrich head. He decapitated the bird, held its severed head up, pointed a bloodied sword at his senators, and shot them a long look of pure hatred, letting them know that they were next. And meanwhile, behind him, a headless ostrich was running around bumping into things.
5 He Devalued Roman Currency
Commodus wasn’t just a dangerous, egotistical maniac, though—he was part of the reason the Roman Empire fell. He devalued the Roman currency, sparking off a chain reaction that would ultimately bring on Rome’s collapse.
In Roman times, devaluing currency was a much more literal process than it is today. Commodus actually lowered the amount of gold and silver in Roman coins, which made each coin lighter and literally less valuable. He wasn’t the first person to do this (Nero had started it), but Commodus devalued Roman coins by more than any emperor since then.
Even in his lifetime, it crippled the country. One Roman who lived through Commodus’s reign complained that he had brought Rome “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”
4 He Didn’t Actually Do Any Of His Duties
Commodus didn’t really bother with the duties of being an emperor, either. For most of his rule, he just put somebody else in charge. When he became emperor, he gave all of his duties to a man named Perennis—and then put himself in charge of the living-like-a-king part.
When he wasn’t fighting gladiators, Emperor Commodus was in his personal brothel. He had a harem of 300 concubines, which he’d built up by having his soldiers round up the most beautiful women and drag them to the palace by force.
Commodus had some weird fixations. He brought in a young boy, who he ordered to sleep with him naked and even forced to legally rename himself “The Boy Who Loves Commodus.” And Commodus brought in his family, too. Rumor has it that he made his own sisters join his harem and even gave one of his concubines his mother’s name.
The arrangement fell apart when Perennis realized he didn’t actually need Commodus and tried to kill him—but little changed. Commodus survived, Perennis was executed, a new guy named Cleander was put in Perennis’s place, and Commodus went right back into his harem.
3 He Betrayed His Friends
Cleander did all of Commodus’s work, but he didn’t get much of a reward for it. The whole of Rome turned against him when the country went through a food shortage. The person in charge of grain, a man named Papirius Dionysius, blamed it on Cleander to save his own head, and pretty soon, there was an angry mob out to kill Cleander.
Cleander ran to Commodus for help, and for a while, Commodus let him hide in his castle. But when his favorite mistress in his harem, a woman named Marcia, told him to throw Cleander to the mob, Commodus listened to her. After his years of service, he had his friend killed.
That’s pretty bad—but he didn’t stop at just killing Cleander. Commodus put Cleander’s head on a spear and gave it to the angry mob. Then he had Cleander’s friends put to death, along with his wife and children. And, to appease the crowd, he had the kids’ mutilated bodies dragged through the streets of Rome, thrown into the sewers, and left to rot.
2 He Slaughtered An Entire Family For Being Wealthy
Cleander’s wasn’t the only family Commodus massacred. He also had the Qunctilii family almost completely wiped out, but it wasn’t because they’d betrayed him or because anybody demanded it. They were just wealthy and respected, and as far Commodus was concerned, that meant it was just a matter of time before the people started calling for them to rule Rome. So they had to die.
He sent his men out to kill the entire family and very nearly wiped their whole line from history. Only one managed to survive: a boy named Sextus Condianus. When they came for Condianus, he filled his mouth with the blood of hare. Then he deliberately fell off his horse and spat out the blood, pretending to be bleeding from the mouth so that they’d think he’d saved them the work and killed himself.
It worked. They left him for dead, letting him sneak out and run off into the wilds. Afterward, though, Condianus had to lay low and stay in disguise, trying to avoid the bloodhounds Commodus had sent after him.
1 He Tried To Kill The Woman He Loved Most
Commodus’s mistress Marcia, the woman who’d told him to kill Cleander, seems to have been his one true love. He treated her like a wife, took her advice, and respected her more than any other person on Earth—until she disagreed with him, at least. Then, because love only goes so far, he tried to kill her.
Commodus was planning on declaring himself the sole supreme dictator of Rome. He was going to wipe out the Senate and start ruling on his own from inside the gladiators’ barracks. He was also going to announce it at a gladiatorial arena, dressed like a gladiator and flanked by gladiators.
Marcia begged him not to do it, believing he was about to ruin an entire country, so he sent out an order to have the love of his life murdered. The only reason Marcia survived was that Commodus’s boy sex slave, The Boy Who Loves Commodus, warned her. Apparently, he didn’t really live up to his name.
Marcia, working with others who wanted him dead, poisoned Commodus, but he vomited the poison up. While he was cleaning off the vomit in the bath, a wrestler named Narcissus was sent in to strangle him to death. That’s how Commodus really met his end—choked by a naked man while he washed vomit off of himself.