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The Roman Emperor Who
Claimed To Be The
World's Greatest Athlete
By Brad Steiger
To the crowd at the Circus Maximus the odds were six to five either way whether the criminal standing in the arena before them would survive the day. Whether he did or did not depended on the emperor, and the emperor was known to be a man moved mainly by whim.
Even as the single lion was set loose into the arena and goaded with spears and moveable fences to the thief who would be its lunch, the emperor lounged comfortably in his chair, seemingly unmoved by the pitiful-looking wretch before him.
The starved beast did not charge at once but moved around its prey slowly, cautiously. Then the lion sprang for the quivering man, and the crowd, which had become tensely silent, was immediately on its feet, shouting as the bounding beast approached its victim.
At that moment the emperor moved. His white robe did not interfere with his arm motion as he snatched up the javelin at his side and impaled the beast in midair as it began its final lunge.
Cheers rocked the crowded coliseum, and the emperor took his bows, while the man he had saved kissed his feet.
Who was this strange monarch who played with the lives of others so carelessly? Lucius Aurelius Commodus was the son of the great philosopher-statesman Marcus Aurelius and Faustina, a woman whose shady reputation inspired a great deal of gossip in the Roman Empire. This bizarre parental combination inclined the boy to be wild in his youth, and while his father wanted him to be schooled to ascend to the throne of the empire, Commodus followed his own interests.
On October 12, 166, Lucius Aurelius Commodus, became Caesar of Rome together with his younger brother Marcus. Commodus's twin, Antoninus, died in 165, and Marcus died in surgery in 169, leaving Commodus as Marcus Aurelius' sole surviving son. On November 27, 176, Marcus Aurelius bestowed the title of Imperator upon Commodus, and in 177, gave him equal power as himself by naming him Augustus. On January 1, 177, at the age of 15, Commodus became the youngest consul in Roman history up to that time. On March 17, 180, Commodus became the sole emperor when Marcus Aurelius died while the two moved the army to the Danubian front.
Although mentally lazy, Commodus was physically strong and excelled in horse racing, chariot racing, hunting and killing wild beasts, and in hand-to-hand combat against professional soldiers and gladiators. When all the statistics of the races won, the animals killed, and the gladiators bested are computed, many historians have acknowledged Commodus as the greatest athlete who ever lived.
By modern standards Commodus was not an extraordinarily big man, but in his time when the average height of the Roman soldier was about five feet, his six-foot-190-pound frame was Herculean. Nor did Commodus' bulk affect his coordination adversely, and he was said to have had an uncanny ability to stay on his feet in any situation. Because of his size, he enjoyed impersonating the character of Hercules when he entered the coliseum.
For ten years Commodus was acknowledged as the best boxer in the empire. This may not seem too astounding in the light of modern record holders like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Muhammed Ali, but it must be remembered that boxing matches in ancient Rome always ended with the loser stone cold dead.
In addition to being the fastest runner in the empire, Commodus was also the best man with a bow, javelin, and sword. Furthermore, he was an excellent horseman and a champion charioteer.
The reign of Marcus Aurelius had been marred by almost constant warfare, but even though Commodus' administration was one of the most corrupt the Roman Empire had ever known, it was comparatively one of peace. Perhaps it was boiling with political strife, but the crowd at the coliseum did not care, for they had a hero to idolize. The mob never knew what special treat the remarkable emperor would devise for them next. On one occasion Commodus ordered a hundred lions to be let into the arena and killed them all with his personal bow. For the wholesale slaughter he used only a hundred arrows, one for each lion.
A great innovator of weapons and tools for the athlete, Commodus once heard that a Goth archer had killed an elephant with only seven arrows. Not to be outdone, he summoned Galen, the official physician, and an elephant. Commodus then proceeded to shoot arrows into the hulking creature until the poor animal lay dead. Commodus then had the physician dissect the body to find out which of the arrows had done the most damage. On the following day the emperor pleased the crowds by killing an elephant with only five arrows.
On another occasion Commodus experimented with a crescent-shaped arrowhead, putting it to use by shooting off the heads of dozens of ostriches as they were chased around the arena.
In combat he was at his best. Commodus' favorite ploy was to stack the odds against himself and yet emerge the victor. He would fight as asecutor, a heavily armored swordsman, against a ratarius, an almost completely naked gladiator, who carried a three-pronged spear and a twine net to ensnare his foe.
To the modern reader, it would seem that the armored man would have the advantage, but the Roman connoisseurs of combat knew exactly the opposite was the case. The ratarius, nearly naked, was much more agile and nearly always found the more heavily armored man to be an easy prey for the cast of his net and the jab of his spear. Commodus never lost in this contest. Often he spared his would-be victims, and when he did kill, he did so quickly, the anatomy lessons from Galen telling him exactly where the human body was most vulnerable.
Commodus was the only emperor who walked the sands of the arena with the gladiators. He bested the trained warriors at their own game, and during his long career he killed 735 of these professionals without ever being seriously wounded himself.
While some historians have insisted that the gladiators were too frightened to defend themselves against the emperor and thus submitted to his prowess--expert or not--there is some debate whether or not Commodus killed the fallen warriors in view of the masses in the coliseum. Substantial evidence has mounted that the Great Hercules did kill the defeated gladiators either in public or in private. Indeed, when certain officials complained of the slaughter of the finest gladiators by Commodus, thereby depriving the crowds of skilled contests between evenly matched opponents, wounded soldiers and amputees were placed in the arena to be slain by Hercules.
While his athletic prowess grew, Commodus' administrative abilities waned, and though some of his counselors had thought him capable of maturing into a fine emperor, he began to run the empire as he did the games at the Circus Maximus--with an iron hand and a ruthless competitive spirit. Commodus murdered political rivals without reason, antagonizing Rome's most powerful citizens, until even the hero-worshipping plebeians knew that something drastic was bound to happen.
Late in 192, the Temple of Pax, the Temple of Vesta, and a section of the Imperial state palace were destroyed in a fire. Although a portion of the citizenry was devastated by such a loss, Commodus paid little attention, shooting hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins in the morning and fighting his winning bouts as a gladiator in the afternoon.
Whether paid to do so or not, Marcia, Commodus' favorite mistress, took the problem to heart and drugged her lover's wine. With the emperor unconscious, the chamberlain and a praetorian guard ordered a wrestler into the imperial quarters to strangle him. Commodus' life ended as violently as he had lived it.
Commodus has been portrayed in two movies. In 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire, Christopher Plummer was quite convincing as the emperor who sought to be respected for his gladiatorial prowess. On the other hand, in Gladiator (2000) Joaquin Phoenix emphasized the sinister and ruthless side of the man. In neither film was Commodus assassinated, but slain in combat in the arena.
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