When Joaquin Phoenix played Emperor Commodus, he was spot on. Commodus was right out of central casting, almost a character out of literature. He was a braggadocio megalomaniac who used his power and authority to render his own image into that of a real gladiator. He was addicted to gladiator sports and spent more on the pageantry of these splendid public exhibitions than he should have. He trained with gladiators, ate with them, hung out with them and thrilled at their stories. In fact he engaged in combat with gladiators – who understood that he would have to win. So his gladiator opponents had to play this jejune game with this childlike Emperor and surrender at the slightest action. In return, they would be spared and then Commodus could brag that he actually beat several formidable opponents. Often, Commodus would get carried away and vault into the stadium and join the action himself. We all know wild beasts were used often in the the games. Not so surprisingly Commodus had special contraptions that allowed him to kill animals in the contests without every really being in any danger. Commodus often found wounded or mutilated soldiers who were hurt while in service to Rome, and killed them himself for spectacle in the arena.
Like the sociopathic child of a billionaire, Commodus had access to power like no other as an absolute Roman monarch. He held the Roman Senate in utter contempt and wondered why there even needed to be Senate. He made them all vote to raise funds just so he could go to North Africa to see sports and have parties. Of course they did so with alacrity knowing that they faced death if he were to decide upon it. He once cut open a fat man’s belly too see what was inside of him. Of course the man died an excruciating death. The cult of Bellona that arose out of Central Asia had caught the attention of many people and his as well. During prayers adherents would slice themselves on their arms. Commodus had the arms of one temples’ adherents cut off completely. This erratic and cruel streak had him send out for Romans who had lost their feet either by accident or disease or deformity. Then he tied them together and beat them to death with a club, pretending in front of the crowd that he was a giant.
The people around him had finally had their fill of his mendacity and waste of resources. His own wrestler teacher was sent to choke him to death. Commodus’ body was cremated, his statues knocked down and his memory soiled with a senate proclamation that he was a public enemy, number one.
Imagine also that after putting an entire empire at the beck and call of this insane monster we still think the Roman system of government was amazing. It was amazing. It was amazingly inefficient and out of touch with the suffering of its people. We should all keep this in mind while we worship the memories of the Roman Empire with cozy romantic notions.