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History Reveals a Truly Nasty Emperor--and He Wasn't Much of a Gladiator, Either

Movies * Some details were left out of the Ridley Scott film--such as the decapitated ostriches and the 600 concubines.

May 10, 2000|JULIAN CATALANO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the age of 12, upon finding his bathwater insufficiently heated, Commodus, son and heir of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, ordered the servant responsible to be thrown into the furnace.

At 19, according to historian and Commodus contemporary Dion Cassius, Commodus became the head of state by having his saintly father poisoned. According to director Ridley Scott's film "Gladiator," Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix, asphyxiated his father. Others argue, however, that his father may have died of a contagious disease, possibly the plague.

Regardless of how, or even if, he killed his father, no one disputes that from the moment Commodus took over as Roman sovereign in AD 180, it was pretty much all downhill for the Roman Empire.

The film's depiction of details of the historical period is largely accurate. A few of the film's characters are based on historical fact, but the plot is entirely fictional, as are four of its principal players: Maximus, the gladiator of the title (played by Russell Crowe); his friend Juba (Djimon Hounsou); Proximo, owner of the gladiatorial school, played by the lateOliver Reed; and the sympathetic Roman senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi).

During the 84 years prior to Commodus' rule, known as the period of the "Five Good Emperors," Rome thrived under Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Commodus' father, the distinguished "philosopher emperor," Marcus Aurelius, whose most grievous fault was his disastrous decision to appoint his incompetent and unbalanced 16-year-old son as his co-emperor and successor.

Commodus was obsessed with sports--and with sex. Along with a wife, Crispina, and a mistress named Marcia, he kept a harem of 600 concubines, equally divided between young women and boys. He turned over the administration of the empire to his mistress and to several of his corrupt favorites. In the film, however, it is his real-life sister, the sly Lucilla (played in the film by Connie Nielson) who, while warding off her brother's advances, tends to the affairs of state. Commodus is surprisingly celibate in the film and neither Crispina

(whom he ordered killed) nor Marcia, nor any of his 600 other paramours, put in an appearance.

Gladiators Were Chained Together, Fought in Pairs

Commodus very badly wanted to be acclaimed as divine and so, imitating the god Hercules, he took to wearing lion skins and carrying a club. (This did not stop him, however, from also dressing in women's clothing.) He enjoyed drinking, gambling, chariot racing and hunting but, most of all, he saw himself as a great gladiator.

Rome's first gladiators (from the Latin gladius, "sword") fought in 264 BC. Pairs were chained together and fought other pairs to the death--all as part of funeral services to honor the deceased. The losers were thought to serve him in the afterlife. (In the film's first fight sequence, these chained-together pairs are accurately portrayed.)

Ultimately, these contests took on a life of their own, independent of the funeral games, and grew immensely popular. By AD 107, for example, more than 5,000 pairs of gladiators took part in a triumph for the emperor Trajan. Unlike the Greeks, who forbade weapons in their games, the Romans greatly enjoyed gladiatorial contests between men and, starting in 63 AD under Nero's reign, between women. They also relished pitting men against wild beasts. For this purpose, hunters scoured the empire, bringing back everything from panthers to crocodiles for use in the arena. Records indicate that as many as 11,000 animals were slaughtered on a single occasion.

Commodus especially enjoyed hurling javelins and firing arrows at various creatures--all, of course, from a protected distance. He dispatched lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, bears, rhinos and giraffes--sometimes 100 at a time. On one occasion, using crescent-headed arrows, he shot off the heads of a large flock of ostriches that, although decapitated, continued to run about the arena as the crowd cheered.

Commodus lined his pockets by charging the Roman treasury the ruinous sum of 25,000 pieces of silver for each of his gladiatorial appearances. This would not have been too bad had he only appeared now and again. Unfortunately, unlike the film, in which he fights only once, he appeared 735 times. Commodus fought against professional gladiators as well as wild beasts. As Herodian wrote, "In his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, 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."

He once even fought a group of Rome's crippled and infirm. Having had them costumed as monsters and "armed" with sponges that were made to look like rocks, he shot arrows into them. After winning, he always enjoyed rubbing the blood of his victims on his clothing and into his hair. One historian wrote, "Never did he appear in public without being stained with blood."

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