Ahead of its sale at Christie’s in London on 3 July, Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi explains what this carved portrait tells us about the tyrannical Roman leader
Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus (161-192 AD), or Commodus as he was more commonly known, was the last emperor of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire for almost 100 years from the end of the 1st century AD onwards. The first five emperors of the dynasty, which included Trajan and Hadrian, each adopted their elective successor based on merit. When the sixth emperor, Marcus Aurelius, named his son Commodus as heir, it caused outrage amongst the Senate and the people of Rome.
Unlike his father, who was a renowned military leader and stoic, the young Commodus was perceived as unruly and arrogant. ‘He was famous for being this archetypical megalomaniac,’ says Christie’s Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi. ‘He loved violence, he loved murder, he was very involved in the gladiatorial games — he once killed 100 lions in one day.’
Commodus ascended to the throne aged 18. He went on to publicly taunt the Senate with the head of an ostrich he had killed, rename months of the calendar after himself, and order the execution of many of his high-ranking enemies and their families. The contemporary Roman writer Cassius Dio despaired how the young leader turned Rome ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust,’ which possibly referenced the emperor’s drastic debasement of the local currency. Yet attempted coups, conspiracies and assassination plots against him only served to make Commodus tighten his dictatorial grip.
In 192 AD, in a final attempt to gain the support of Rome’s plebeians, Commodus organised a series of lavish games, where he reportedly shot hundreds of animals with his bow and arrow every morning, then fought (and won) as a gladiator each afternoon…………….