The son of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius
, Commodus botched the job so badly that he managed to end 84 years of prosperity
when the Roman Empire
was at its height.
As the villain in the 2000 movie Gladiator, one might get some misconceptions about the kind of man Commodus really was. As happens all too often, Hollywood took a story that was stranger than fiction, and reduced it to a simplistic tale of a hero fighting against evil. Here are some artistic licenses that the movie took:
Mistake #1: Commodus attended gladiator matches, but rarely participated.
Perhaps this aspect of the man was dropped simply because it was so unbelievable, but Commodus put in over one thousand appearances in the Colosseum. His bouts with other gladiators, were, of course, fixed matches (and matches tended to end with opponents yielding to him, rather than dying), but Commodus was still a tough guy. When he wasn't fighting against humans, he would take on tigers, lions, hippos, and even elephants in the ring. On one occasion he beheaded ostriches on the run using arrows specially fitted with broad heads, then waved one of the heads at the watching senators as a warning. It should be noted that Commodus' appearance as a gladiator was something of a shock to the public, as the sport was equated with condemned criminals, prisoners of war, and professional low-lifes, rather than soldiers, let alone Emperors.
Mistake #2: Commodus was assassinated early in his career.
While this may have made good cinema, Commodus misruled for twelve years over Rome, until the year 192 AD. Commodus' sister Lucilla did conspire against him with certain senators in 182, but he discovered the plot and executed several leading members of the senate as revenge. After this incident, his rule became more arbitrary and tyrannical. One of his hobbies was to pay false accusers to bring treason charges against powerful senators, then condemn them to death, and help himself to their estates. He was finally killed on New Year's Eve in 192, after he scandalized the government by announcing that he would appear as consul of Rome in a gladiator's uniform.
Mistake #3: Commodus never expanded the empire
While his father led most of the campaign against the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes, he died before they were conquered, and Commodus spent the first year or so of his rule finishing the job.
One thing that the movie did get right was that Commodus was an insane megalomaniac. He called himself "The Roman Hercules", and kept replicas of Hercules' club and lion's skin beside his throne. He also renamed the city of Rome to "Colonia
Commodiana", literally, "Colony of Commodus". His reign was notable for the campaigns of terror that he waged against the Christians and other minorities in his empire. When he was finally killed, it was because those closest to him had begun to fear for their own lives.
When Commodus was killed, it marked the end of the Aurelian line of Roman Emperors. The senate picked Pertinax, the popular prefect of Rome, to succeed him, but it was too late to stop the Empire from slipping further into corruption and Civil War.
Thanks to britannica.com, myron.sjsu.edu/romeweb/empcont/E083.HTM, and The Big Book Of Bad.