You likely know the name Commodus as the bad guy from Gladiator, the Best Picture winner from 2000. Played as a pervy psychotic by Joaquin Phoenix, Emperor Commodus is portrayed as a man with insecurities motivating his actions. And while that may be an accurate, historical understanding of the emperor's persona, there's a lot more to Commodus’ biography than the made-up bits starring Russell Crowe.
Who was Commodus? Believe it or not, the movie version of the Roman emperor was actually white-washed to cover up his degenerative insanity. Born into a world that prepared him to be a ruler, Commodus grew up believing some pretty fantastic things about himself. Sure, Commodus fought in the arena with ancient Roman gladiators, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the atrocities Commodus inflicted on the people around him. If you were fascinated by the profoundly creepy emperor in Gladiator, you haven’t seen anything yet - read on to discover insane tales about Commodus.
Born at the end of August in 161 AD, Commodus was born alongside his twin brother, Antoninus. The boys were the sons of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger, the daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius. The proud parents were also first cousins.
Before Commodus was born, Faustina had a dream where she birthed two snakes. One snake was much stronger than the other. When astrologers went on to say that Antoninus had the more promising future, it was assumed that Commodus was destined for mediocrity. Unfortunately for history, Antoninus died of an illness at the age of four.
The tenth of fourteen children, Commodus ultimately became the only male child to survive childhood. Groomed to run the Empire from a young age, Commodus’ health was a top priority. He had his own physician named Galen, whose sole priority was keeping the young emperor healthy.
If you thought Caligula's sex stories were crazy, wait until you hear about Commodus. Just check out this description from the History Augusta:
“Commodus lived, rioting in the Palace amid banquets and in baths along with 300 concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots, and with minions, also 300 in number, whom he had collected by force and by purchase indiscriminately from the common people and the nobles solely on the basis of bodily beauty.”
For those unfamiliar with ancient Roman lingo, that passage roughly translates to: “Commodus spent his days gathering, through acquisition or force, an army of sex slaves composed of 300 women and 300 boys.” In fact, massive, prolonged orgies were only the beginning of Commodus’ sexual depravity.
Commodus ordered the death of his sister, Lucilla, when he found out that she had been plotting to kill him. He then proceeded to rape the rest of his remaining sisters and name one of his concubines after his mother. In an excerpt from the Historia Augusta:
“After debauching his other sisters, as it is said, he formed [a sexual relationship] with a cousin of his father, and even gave the name of his mother to one of his concubines. His wife, whom he caught in adultery, he drove from his house, then banished her, and later put her to death. By his orders his concubines were debauched before his own eyes…”