Biography of Commodus, Roman Emperor (180–192)

Bust of Commodus in the Capitoline Museum in Rome
Bust of Commodus in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Davide Zanin / Getty Images Plus

Commodus (August 31, 161–December 31, 192 CE) was the emperor of Rome between 180–192 CE. As the son of emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus was the first Roman emperor to have been "born in the purple," and thus dynastically selected to be his successor. He was also a dangerously deranged man who forced the Senate to name him a demi-god and eventually assassinate him. 

Key Takeaways: Commodus

  • Known For: Emperor of Rome 180–192
  • Alternate Names: Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix, Conqueror of the World, Roman Hercules, All-Surpasser
  • Born: August 31, 161, Lanuvium
  • Parents: Marcus Aurelius and Annia Galeria Faustina
  • Died: December 31, 192, Rome
  • Spouse: Bruttia Crispina, m. 178
  • Children: None

Early Life

Lucius Aurelius Commodus was born on August 31, 161 in Lanuvium, the ancient city of Latium. He was the son of the last of the "Good Emperors," the philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121–180, ruled 161–180) and his wife Annia Galeria Faustina. He was one of eight brothers, including a twin, and the only one to survive past his youth. 

Commodus was given the title of Caesar in 166—this would establish him as Marcus' successor at the age of eight. He was tutored in Latin, Greek, and rhetoric, but not military skills, and not much physical education either. 

Co-Ruler and Marriage

At the age of 15, Commodus received the title of imperium and tribunicia potestas positions. In early 175, he was rushed to his father's side at the Pannonian front of the Marcomannic Wars (166–180) between Rome and the Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi tribes. There was a coup d'etat when rumors about Marcus' death arose, and the governor of Syria Avidius Cassius proclaimed himself emperor. Commodus assumed the toga virilis signifying his adulthood and Marcus introduced him to the soldiers in Pannonia. While they were still there, news came that Cassius had been assassinated.

After Cassius was killed, Marcus and Commodus toured the provinces that had aligned themselves with Cassius—Egypt, Syria, and Palestine—re-establishing a connection with them. In 177, at the age of 16, Commodus was named consul and took the honorific Augustus, acting from now on as co-ruler with his father. 

In 178, Commodus married Bruttia Crispina but soon left Rome with Marcus for the second Marcomannic War. They would have no surviving children. 

Becoming Emperor 

Marcus had been ill when the rumors of his death began circling, and he died, a victim of the plague, in March of 180. At the time of his death, Marcus may or may not have been considering taking new provinces, but the 18-year-old Commodus had no interest in that. He rapidly ended the Marcomannic Wars, making peace with the Germanic tribes, and returned to Rome. 

During the first two years of Commodus' rule, major wars were avoided. He stopped consulting with the Senate and ceased state dinners. He allowed freedmen to become senators—patricians could buy a seat on the Senate only if they paid everything they owned to him. Displeasure in his rule mounted, and in 182 his sister Lucilla joined in a conspiracy to have him killed, but it failed. She was banished and the co-conspirators were executed. 

Becoming a God 

Around the time of the assassination attempt, Commodus retreated from governing, passing along responsibility for his government to a string of consuls and indulging in a fabled level of debauchery, including 300 concubines and fighting wild beasts in the Roman Circus Maximus

His co-regents included Tigidius Perennis 182–185 (lynched by mutinous troops) and the freedman M. Aurelius Cleander 186–190 (killed during a riot in Rome). After Cleander's death, Commodus began to broadcast his superhuman status, fighting in the arena as a gladiator dressed as the hero demi-god Hercules. By 184/185 onward, he started calling himself Pius Felix and began promoting himself as divinely chosen. 

Emperor Commodus (160–192) dressed as Hercules. Marble statue
Emperor Commodus (160–192) dressed as Hercules. Marble statue, in the Capitoline Museums, Rome. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

At first, Commodus aligned himself with four gods—Janus, Jupiter, Sol, and Hercules—and announced he was leading a Golden Age in Rome. He gave himself a string of new titles (Conqueror of the World, All-Surpasser, the Roman Hercules), renamed the months of the year after himself, and renamed the Roman legions the "Commodianae."

Descent Into Madness

In 190, Commodus began associating himself only with the semi-divine Hercules, calling himself Herculi Commodiano and then Herculi Romano Commodiano on medallions and coins. His official name was changed to Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix, and many of his official portraits show him wearing a bearskin and carrying a club in the guise of Hercules. 

By 191 he appeared to be dangerously deranged, obsessively performing in the arena dressed as Hercules. He demanded that the Senate name him semi-divine and they agreed, possibly because numerous senators had been executed in exceedingly gory fashion. In 192, Commodus renamed the city of Rome, which was now to be known as the Colonia Antoniniana Commodiana.

Death and Legacy

In late December 192, Commodus' concubine Marcia discovered a tablet on which was written plans to kill her and leading men in the Senate on January 1. She attempted to poison Commodus, but he drank too much wine offsetting the poison, so the conspirators had the celebrated athlete Narcissus strangle him while he slept on December 31, 192.  

The year 193 is called the "Year of the Five Emperors," and Rome would not settle down to dynastic leadership until the last of these, Septimus Severus ruled (193–211).

Sources and Further Reading

  • Birley, Anthony R. "Commodus, Lucius Aurelius." The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Eds. Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 360. 
  • Hekster, Olivier Joram. "Commodus: An Emperor at the Crossroads." University of Nijmegen, 2002. 
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography. London: John Murray, 1904. Print.
  • Speidel, M. P. "Commodus the God-Emperor and the Army." The Journal of Roman Studies 83 (1993): 109–14.