Emperors and the Games

Case Study II: Commodus (161-92 CE)

Commodus is perhaps best remembered now as the Emperor in Gladiator (2000); the real life Commodus was certainly fond of fighting as a gladiator, though he was also co-emperor with his father, Marcus Aurelius, and ruled for several years after he died, which is something the film ignores. The ever reliably over the top Historia Augusta gives a scurrilous story to explain Commodus’ mania for gladiators; it claims that Commodus’ real father was a gladiator.

Some say, and it seems plausible, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was not his child, but the product of an affair; they embroider this assertion, moreover, with a story current among the people. On a certain occasion, it was said, Faustina, the daughter of Pius[1] and wife of Marcus, saw some gladiators pass by and burned with love for one of them. Later, when she had been sick for a long time, she confessed the passion to her husband. And when Marcus reported this to the Chaldeans, it was their advice that Faustina should bathe in his blood and thus couch with her husband. When this was done, the passion was ended, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince; for afterwards as emperor he fought almost a thousand gladiatorial bouts before the people, as shall be related in his life. This story is considered plausible, as a matter of fact, because the son of so virtuous an emperor had habits worse than any lanista, any actor, any arena roadie,[2] anything brought into existence from the dregs of all dishonour and crime. Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really the child of adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators. When Marcus Antoninus was told about this so he might divorce, if not kill her, he is reported to have said “If we send our wife away, we must also return her dowry”. And what was her dowry? The Empire, which, after he had been adopted at the wish of Hadrian, he had inherited from his father-in‑law Pius.

Historia Augusta, Life of Marcus Aurelius 19.1-9

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

The Historia Augusta’s Life of Commodus gives some more sensational details:

Certain months were renamed in his honour by his flatterers; for August they substituted Commodus, for September Hercules, for October Invictus, for November Exsuperatorius, and for December Amazonius, after his own surname. He had been called Amazonius, moreover, because of his passion for his concubine Marcia, whom he loved to have portrayed as an Amazon, and for whose sake he even wished to enter the arena of Rome dressed as an Amazon. Besides these facts, it is related in records that he fought 365 gladiatorial combats in his father’s reign. Afterwards, by vanquishing or slaying retiarii, he won enough gladiatorial crowns to bring the number up to a thousand. He also killed with his own hand thousands of wild beasts of all kinds, even elephants. And he frequently did these things before the eyes of the Roman people.


At gladiatorial shows he would come to watch and stay to fight, covering his bare shoulders with a purple cloth. And it was his custom, moreover, to order the insertion in the city-gazette of everything he did that was base or foul or cruel, or typical of a gladiator or a pimp — at least, the writings of Marius Maximus so testify. He entitled the Roman people the “People of Commodus,” since he had very often fought as a gladiator in their presence. And although the people regularly applauded him in his frequent combats as though he were a god, he became convinced that he was being laughed at, and gave orders that the Roman people should be slain in the Amphitheatre by the marines who spread the awnings. He gave an order, also, for the burning of the city, as though it were his private colony, and this order would have been executed had not Laetus, the prefect of the guard, deterred him. Among other triumphal titles, he was also given the name “Captain of the Secutores” six hundred and twenty times.

The prodigies that occurred in his reign, both those which concerned the state and those which affected Commodus personally, were as follows. A comet appeared. Footprints of the gods were seen in the Forum departing from it. Before the war of the deserters the heavens were ablaze. On January 1st a swift coming mist and darkness arose in the Circus; and before dawn there had already been fire-birds and ill-boding portents. Commodus himself moved his residence from the Palace to the Aedes Vectilianae on the Caelian hill, saying that he could not sleep in the Palace. The twin gates of the temple of Janus opened of their own accord, and a marble image of Anubis was seen to move. In the Minucian Portico a bronze statue of Hercules sweated for several days. An owl, moreover, was caught above his bed-chamber both at Lanuvium and at Rome. He was himself responsible for no inconsiderable omen relating to himself; for after he had plunged his hand into the wound of a slain gladiator he wiped it on his own head, and again, contrary to custom, he ordered the spectators to attend his gladiatorial shows dressed not in togas but in cloaks, a practice usual at funerals, while he himself presided in the dress of a mourner. Twice, moreover, his helmet was borne through the Gate of Libitina.[3] He gave money to the people, 725 denarii for each man. Toward all others he was close-fisted to a degree, since the expense of his luxurious living had drained the treasury. 9 He held many races in the Circus, but rather as the result of a whim than as an act of religion,[4] and also in order to enrich the leaders of the factions.

Life of Commodus 15-16

Cassius Dio, who lived and served in the Senate under Commodus, gives more information on the details of Commodus’ mania for the games:

Commodus as Hercules

He did not drive chariots in public except sometimes on a moonless night, for, though he was eager to play the charioteer in public, too, he was ashamed to be seen doing so; but in private he was constantly doing it, taking on the Green uniform. As for wild beasts, however, he killed many both in private and in public. In addition, he fought as a gladiator; in doing this at home he managed to kill a man now and then, and in making close passes with others, as if trying to clip off a bit of their hair, he sliced off the noses of some, the ears of others, and sundry features of still others; but in public he refrained from using steel and shedding human blood. Before entering the amphitheatre he would put on a long-sleeved tunic of silk, white interwoven with gold, and thus arrayed he would receive our greetings; but when he was about to go inside, he put on a robe of pure purple with gold stars, wearing a chlamys[5] in the Greek style in the same colour, and a crown made of gems from India and of gold, and he carried a herald’s staff like Mercury’s. As for the lion-skin and club, in the street they were carried before him[6] and in the amphitheatres they were placed on a gilded chair, whether he was present or not. He himself would enter the arena dressed like Mercury, and taking off his other garments, would begin his exhibition barefoot and wearing only a tunic.

On the first day he killed a hundred bears all by himself, shooting down at them from the railing of the balustrade – the whole amphitheatre had been divided up by means of two intersecting cross-walls which supported the gallery that ran its entire length so the beasts, divided into four herds, might more easily be speared at short range from any point. In the middle of the struggle he became weary, and taking from a woman some chilled sweet wine in a cup shaped like a club, he drank it at one gulp. At this both the people and we senators all immediately shouted out the words so familiar at drinking-bouts, “Long life to you!” And let no one feel that I am sullying the dignity of history by recording such events. On most accounts, to be sure, I should not have mentioned this exhibition; but since it was given by the emperor himself, and since I was present myself and took part in everything seen, heard and spoken, I have thought proper to suppress none of the details, but to hand them down, trivial as they are, just like any event of the greatest weight and importance. And, indeed, all the other events that took place in my lifetime I shall describe with more exactness and detail than earlier occurrences, for the reason that I was present when they happened and know no one else, among those who have any ability at writing a worthy record of events, who has so accurate a knowledge of them as I.

On the first day, then, the events that I have described took place. On the other days he descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him and some also that were led up to him or were brought before him in nets. He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant. Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after lunch, would fight as a gladiator. He fought as and dressed in the armour of the secutores, as they were called: he held the shield in his right hand and the wooden sword in his left, and indeed took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed. His antagonist would be some athlete or perhaps a gladiator armed with a wand; sometimes it was a man that he himself had challenged, sometimes one chosen by the people, for in this as well as in other matters he put himself on an equal footing with the other gladiators, except for the fact that they enter the games for a very small sum, whereas Commodus received a million sesterces from the gladiatorial fund each day. Standing beside him as he fought were Aemilius Laetus, the prefect, and Eclectus, his cubicularius;[7] and when he had finished his sparring match (and, naturally, won it) he would then, just as he was, kiss these companions through his helmet. After this the regular contestants would fight. The first day he personally paired all the combatants down in the arena, where he appeared with all the trappings of Mercury, including a gilded wand, and took his place on a gilded platform; and we regarded his doing this as an omen.[8] Later he would ascend to his customary place and from there view the remainder of the spectacle with us. After that the contests no longer resembled child’s play, but were so serious that great numbers of men were killed. Indeed, on one occasion, when some of the victors hesitated to kill the defeated, he fastened the various contestants together and ordered them all to fight at once. Then the men who were bound fought man against man, and some killed even those who did not belong to their group at all, since the numbers and the limited space forced them together.

At the base of the Bust of Commodus as Hercules is an Amazon figure.

That spectacle, of the general character I have described, lasted fourteen days. When the emperor was fighting, we senators together with the equestrians always attended. The only person never to show up was Claudius Pompeianus – he sent his sons, while remaining away himself; for he preferred to die for this rather than to behold the emperor, the son of Marcus, behaving like this.  For among other things that we did, we would shout out whatever we were ordered, and we especially shouted out these words: “You are lord and you are first, the most fortunate of men. Victor you are, and victor you shall be; from everlasting, Amazonian, you are victor.” But many of the people did not enter the amphitheatre at all, and others departed after merely glancing inside, partly from shame at what was going on, partly also from fear, for a report spread abroad that he would want to shoot a few of the spectators in imitation of Hercules and the Stymphalian birds.[9] And this story was believed, too, because he had once gathered all the men in the city who had lost their feet as the result of disease or some accident, and then, after fastening about their knees some likenesses of serpents’ bodies, and giving them sponges to throw instead of stones, killed them with blows of a club, pretending that they were giants.

We all shared this fear – us senators as well as the rest of the people. Another thing he did to us senators which gave us every reason to expect our death was to kill an ostrich and cut off his head and then approach where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and silently raising up his bloody sword with his right hand, he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. Many would indeed have died by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for we were overcome with laughter rather than indignation), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our arms we could hide the fact that we were laughing. After the events described he raised our spirits. For when he was intending to fight once more as a gladiator, he ordered us enter the amphitheatre dressed formally as equestrians and in our woollen cloaks, a thing that we never do when going to the amphitheatre except when one of the emperors has passed away; and on the last day his helmet was carried out by the gates through which the dead are taken out. These events caused absolutely every one of us to believe that we were surely about to be rid of him.

Athlete Narcissus strangling Commodus.

And he actually did die, or rather was killed, before long. For Laetus and Eclectus, displeased about what he was doing, and inspired by fear because of the threats he made against them because they tried to prevent him from acting in this way, formed a plot against him. It seems that Commodus wished to kill both the consuls, Erucius Clarus and Sosius Falco, and on New Year’s Day to issue forth both as consul and secutor from the quarters of the gladiators; in fact, he had the first cell there, as if he were one of them. Let no one doubt this statement. Indeed, he actually cut off the head of the Colossus, and substituted for it a likeness of his own head; then, having given it a club and placed a bronze lion at its feet, so as to cause it to look like Hercules, he inscribed on it, in addition to the list of his titles which I have already indicated, these words: “Champion of secutores; only left-handed fighter to conquer twelve times (as I recall the number) one thousand men. For these reasons Laetus and Eclectus attacked him, after making Marcia their confidant. At any rate, on the last day of the year, at night, when people were busy with the holiday, they caused Marcia to administer poison to him in some beef. But the immoderate use of wine and baths, which was habitual with him, kept him from succumbing at once, and instead he vomited up some of it; and thus suspecting the truth, he indulged in some threats. Then they sent Narcissus, an athlete, against him, and caused this man to strangle him while he was taking a bath.  Such was the end of Commodus, after he had ruled twelve years, nine months, and fourteen days. He had lived thirty-one years and four months; and with him the line of the genuine Aurelii ceased to rule.

Cassius Dio, Roman History

The last word on Commodus goes to Herodian, a second century CE historian:

Now the emperor, casting aside all restraint, took part in the public shows, promising to kill with his own hands wild animals of all kinds and to fight in gladiatorial combat against the bravest of the youths. When this news became known, people hastened to Rome from all over Italy and from the neighboring provinces to see what they had neither seen nor even heard of before. Special mention was made of the skill of his hands and the fact that he never missed when hurling javelins or shooting arrows.

His instructors were the most skillful of the Parthian bowmen and the most accurate of the Moroccan javelin men, but he surpassed them all in marksmanship. When the days for the show arrived, the amphitheatre was completely filled. A terrace encircling the arena had been constructed for Commodus, enabling him to avoid risking his life by fighting the animals at close quarters; rather, by hurling his javelins down from a safe place, he offered a display of skill rather than of courage. Deer, roebuck, and horned animals of all kinds, except bulls, he struck down, running with them in pursuit, anticipating their dashes, and killing them with deadly blows. Lions, leopards, and other animals of the nobler sort he killed from above, running around on his terrace. And on no occasion did anyone see a second javelin used, nor any wound except the death wound. For at the very moment the animal started up, it received the blow on its forehead or in its heart, and it bore no other wound, nor did the javelin pierce any other part of its body: the beast was wounded and killed in the same instant. Animals were collected for him from all over the world. Then we saw in the flesh animals that we had previously marveled at in paintings.

Emperor Commodus kills a leopard with an arrow

From India and Ethiopia, from lands to the north and to the south, he displayed animals unknown before to the Romans and then killed them. On one occasion he shot arrows with crescent-shaped heads at Moroccan ostriches, birds that move with great speed, both because of their swiftness afoot and the sail-like nature of their wings. He cut off their heads at the very top of the neck; so, after their heads had been severed by the edge of the arrow, they continued to run around as if they had not been injured. Once when a leopard, with a lightning dash, seized a condemned criminal, he thwarted the leopard with his javelin as it was about to close its jaws; he killed the beast and rescued the man, the point of the javelin anticipating the points of the leopard’s teeth. Again, when a hundred lions appeared in one group as if from beneath the earth, he killed the entire hundred with exactly one hundred javelins, and all the bodies lay stretched out in a straight line for some distance; they could thus be counted with no difficulty, and no one saw a single extra javelin.

As far as these activities are concerned, however, even if his conduct was hardly becoming for an emperor, he did win the approval of the mob for his courage and his marksmanship. But when he came into the amphitheater naked, took up arms, and fought as a gladiator, the people saw a disgraceful spectacle, a nobly born emperor of the Romans, whose fathers and forebears had won many victories, not taking the field against barbarians or opponents worthy of the Romans, but disgracing his high position by degrading and disgusting exhibitions.

In his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents easily, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator. At last he became so demented that he was unwilling to live in the imperial palace, but wished to change his residence to the gladiatorial barracks. He gave orders that he was no longer to be called Hercules, but by the name of a famous gladiator then dead. He removed the head of a huge Colossus which the Romans worship and which bears the likeness of the Sun, replacing it with his own head, and inscribed on the base not the usual imperial and family titles; instead of “Germanicus” he wrote: “Conqueror of a Thousand Gladiators.” On this day, too, they dine merrily together on the delicacies of land and sea. This is also the day on which the consuls who give their names to the year first don the purple robes of office for their one-year term. When all were occupied in the celebration, Commodus had it in mind to appear not from the imperial palace, in the customary fashion, but from the gladiatorial barracks, clad in armor instead of in the splendid imperial purple, and accompanied by the rest of the gladiators.

But the time had finally come for Commodus to cease his mad antics and for the Roman empire to be rid of this tyrant. This occurred on the first day of the new year, when the Romans celebrate the festival which they trace back to the most ancient of the Italic native gods. They believe that Saturn, ousted from his realm by Jupiter, came down to earth and was the guest of Janus. Fearful of his son’s power, he escaped when Janus hid him. This episode gave the region of Latium its name, which is derived from the Greek word lathein, “to escape notice.” For this reason the Italians continue to celebrate the Saturnalia down to the present time, to commemorate the sheltering of the god, and they observe at the beginning of the year the festival of the Italic god Janus. The statues of Janus have two faces because the year begins and ends with him. On the day of this festival the Romans go out of their way to greet each other and exchange gifts. He announced his intentions to Marcia, whom, of all his mistresses, he held in highest esteem; he kept nothing from this woman, as if she were his legal wife, even allowing her the imperial honors except for the sacred fire. When she learned of his plan, so unreasonable and unbecoming an emperor, she threw herself at his feet, entreating him, with tears, not to bring disgrace upon the Roman Empire and not to endanger his life by entrusting it to gladiators and desperate men. After much pleading, unable to persuade the emperor to abandon his plan, she left him, still weeping. Commodus then summoned Laetus, the praetorian prefect, and Eclectus, his cubicularius, and ordered them to make arrangements for him to spend the night in the gladiatorial barracks, telling them that he would leave for the festival sacrifices from there, and show himself to the Romans under arms. And these men, too, pleaded with the emperor not to do anything unworthy of his imperial position.

Commodus, enraged, dismissed them and retired to his bedroom for a nap (for this was his custom in the middle of the day). First he took a wax tablet made from a thin strip of basswood, which grows under the bark of the linden tree – and wrote down the names of those who were to be put to death that night. Marcia’s name was at the top of the list, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and a large number of the foremost senators. Commodus wanted all the elder statesmen and the advisers appointed for him by his father, those who still survived, to be put to death, for he was ashamed to have these revered men witness his disgraceful actions. He planned to confiscate the property of the wealthy and distribute it to the soldiers, so that they would protect him, and to the gladiators, so that they would entertain him. After composing his list, Commodus placed the tablet on his couch, thinking that no one would come into his bedroom. But there was in the palace a very young little boy, one of those who went about bare of clothes but adorned with gold and costly gems. The Roman voluptuaries always took delight in these lads. Commodus was very fond of this child and often slept with him; his name, Philocommodus clearly indicates the emperor’s affection for him.

Philocommodus was playing idly about the palace. After Commodus had gone out to his usual baths and drinking bouts, the lad wandered into the emperor’s bedroom, as he usually did; picking up the tablet for a plaything, he left the bedroom. By a stroke of fate, he met Marcia. After hugging and kissing him (for she too was fond of the child), she took the tablet from him, afraid that in his heedless play he might accidentally erase something important. When she recognized the emperor’s handwriting, she was eager to read the tablet. Discovering that it was a death list and that she was scheduled to die first, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and many others marked for murder, she cried out in grief and then said to herself: “So, Commodus, this is my reward for my love and devotion, after I have put up with your arrogance and your madness for so many years. But, you drunken sot, you shall not outwit a woman deadly sober!”

She then summoned Eclectus; he was in the habit of visiting her anyway, since he was the bedroom steward, and it was rumored that she was sleeping with him. She handed him the tablet, saying: “See what a party we are to enjoy tonight!” Eclectus read it and was dumbfounded (but he was an Egyptian, bold by nature and quick-tempered, a man of action). Sealing the tablet, he sent it off to Laetus by one of his trusted slaves. After reading the tablet, Laetus hurried to Marcia as if to discuss the emperor’s orders with her, especially about his proposed stay with the gladiators. And while they pretended to be arguing about this matter, they concluded that they must act first or suffer the consequences, agreeing that it was no time for indecision or delay. They decided to poison Commodus, and Marcia assured them that she could administer a potion with the greatest ease. For it was her custom to mix the wine and give the emperor his first cup, so that he might have a pleasant drink from the hand of his beloved. When Commodus returned from his bath, she poured the poison into the cup, mixed it with a pungent wine, and gave it to him to drink. Since it was his practice to take a cup of friendship after his many baths and jousts with animals, he drained it without noticing anything unusual. Immediately he became drowsy and stupefied and fell asleep, believing that it was the natural result of his exertions. Eclectus and Marcia ordered all the rest to return to their homes, and made everything quiet for him. Commodus had acted like this on other occasions when overcome by wine. Since he bathed often and drank often, he had no set time for sleeping; in addition, he indulged in all kinds of pleasures, to which he was a willing slave at any hour.

Herodian, Roman History 1.15-17


  1. Antoninus Pius, the previous emperor, who adopted Marcus Aurelius, and who was also Faustina’s father.
  2. The word used in Latin is arenarius, which usually means someone who worked at the area as an attendant or orderly.
  3. Libitina was a Roman goddess of death; this gate may have been located on the east side. It is often said that the bodies of dead gladiators were taken through this gate, but we really know very little about this. 
  4. The races were only supposed to take place as part of religious festivals; there were certainly enough of those that one didn’t really have to start coming up with that many other excuses.
  5. A type of Greek cloak.
  6. Commodus liked to dress up like Hercules, which meant carrying a club and wearing a lion skin.
  7. A private servant and especially someone who guards access to a public person.
  8. Mercury was, among other duties, the god who escorted the souls of the dead to the underworld.
  9. This was one of Hercules’ 12 labours.


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