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Ancient Rome (Imperial) 185 AD Commodus Silver Denarius Globe and scroll RIC 124 good VF

Ancient Rome (Imperial) 185 AD Commodus Silver Denarius Globe and scroll RIC 124 good VF

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One of Rome's most notorious emperors.

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Ancient Rome (Imperial) 185 AD Commodus Silver Denarius Globe and scroll RIC 124 good VF

One of Rome's most notorious emperors.

The Roman Emperor Commodus - Man or Monster?

Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus ruled Rome between 180 & 192 AD, and he goes down in history as a positive monster - a megalomaniac who thought himself a god; had the months renamed in his honour; and delighted in nothing better than playing the gladiator in front of the assembled Roman populace. In describing the reign of Commodus, the historian Cassius Dio wrote: “Our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”

Soon upon becoming Caesar in 180 AD, Commodus opted to lead a life of luxury and debauchery, and allowed the real power over Rome to rest in the hands of a series of poorly chosen advisors.

These caretaker rulers variously lined their own pockets; schemed for the overthrow of the empire and murdered all in their way.

Commodus meanwhile demanded that the senate deify him as a living god – his favourite persona being Hercules. He took this obsession with Hercules to the extent that he gave orders that he be called “Hercules, son of Zeus”, and took to wearing a lion skin and carrying a club on public occasions.

He renamed the months of the year after himself, renamed Rome “Colonia Commodiana” and took part in the traditional gladiatorial games himself. Commodus performed his most memorable exploits in the arena during the Plebeian Games of November 192.  The contemporary historians, Cassius Dio and Herodian, provide vivid eyewitness accounts:

“On the first day he killed a hundred bears all by himself, shooting down at them from the railing of the balustrade....  On the other days he descended to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him....  He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus and an elephant. Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after luncheon, he would fight as a gladiator. The form of contest that he practised and the amour that he used were those of the ‘secutores’... he held the shield in his right hand and the wooden sword in his left, and indeed took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed.” Cassius Dio LXXIII.18-19

Commodus eventually fell victim to his own insecurities.

Those closest to him decided they had to murder him before they were murdered themselves. During the evening of December 31st 192, his favourite concubine gave him poison, and an athlete finished him off by strangling him.

A sharp contrast with his respected father, Commodus proved himself incapable of either managing himself or the power entrusted to him. His death marked the end of the Antonine dynasty.


Whatever the staid historian thinks of the historical accuracy of the movie, there is no doubt that Ridley Scott’s  movie is a blockbuster in the classical Hollywood mould.

As depicted in the film, Marcus Aurelius (as played by Richard Harris) died after a long illness, and was as respected and admired as the film portrays.

From there, the film deviates from fact a little, as there is no record of a senior general named Maximus during this period. The demented personality of Commodus perhaps does not play out to its extreme worst during the movie – although he is brilliantly portrayed by Joaquim Phoenix as a tortured madman, the Lion’s head dress does not make an entrance.


For those of you with an eye for detail, there are several scenes in the movie where coins are seen. Although the coins we have available are certainly not those in the film, there is definitely something special in holding a coin in your hand from an era long ago – particularly one as powerful as the Roman Empire.


The Romans used their coinage as a propaganda vehicle quite extensively, and the madness of Commodus is plainly evident on this coin – the depiction of Commodus holding a globe alludes to his dominion over the world.