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Commodus actually was an emperor and Marcus Aurelius was, indeed, his father. He became the head of state when he was 19 but historians disagree about the cause of Marcus Aurelius' death. Some say Commodus had his father poisoned, others that he died of a contagious disease, possibly the plague. In any case, it was Aurelius' great error in judgment to appoint his son to succeed him.
Commodus took over as Roman sovereign in AD 180 and most historians agree that this was the beginning of the end of the glorious Roman empire. The movie would have us believe that it was rescued by a returning war hero in the guise of a gladiator/general, but it just ain't so.
While the film doesn't deal with any great sexuality on Commodus' part, except for a nagging and unrequited desire to make love to his sister, the facts are that he had a wife, Crispina, a mistress named Marcia, and a harem of 600 concubines, equally divided between young women and boys.
As for Commodus' character, it was definable at an early age. At 12, upon finding his bathwater insufficiently heated, Commodus ordered the servant responsible to be thrown into the furnace.
Need we say anything more about why his reign was so disastrous for the empire and why it would have been so great to have been rescued by an upright hero like Maximus? Dream on, Hollywood.
How did Commodus actually meet his end? It sure wasn't in gladiatoral combat with Maximus. The deranged and dissipated Commodus put his mistress' name on a list of those to be executed and it came to her attention. No dummy, she reacted by handing him a cup of poisoned wine. It merely made him sick, but the job was finished a little later when a wrestler named Narcissus strangled him while he was in his tub bathing. The murder took place on New Year's Eve of 192. The Roman treasury was found to be almost empty.
What then happened to the empire? The 12-year rule of Commodus set the stage for anarchy and ushered in a century of martial law. In the 49 years between AD 235 and 284, for example, 26 military leaders, some of whom were enemies of Rome, occupied the throne.
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