5 minutes with... A marble bust of the Roman Emperor Commodus

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.’

A Roman marble portrait head of the young Commodus, circa 175-177 AD. Head 11¼  in (29  cm) high. Estimate £50,000-80,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

A Roman marble portrait head of the young Commodus, circa 175-177 AD. Head: 11¼ in (29 cm) high. Estimate: £50,000-80,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

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.

‘The artist managed to capture what is the arrogance and the attitude of this young prince that knows he is about to become emperor’

It was the final straw for the Senate who persuaded Commodus’s favourite concubine, Marcia, to poison him on New Year’s Eve. Commodus vomited the poison back up, so the conspirators sent in the Praetorian guard to finish the job. Ironically, it would be Commodus’s wrestling partner, Narcissus, who would eventually strangle him to death in his bath.

Like any good megalomaniac, Commodus closely controlled his public persona. He looked to re-cast the empire in his own image, declaring himself as a reincarnation of Romulus — one of the twins who founded the original city of Rome in the 8th century BC. He stressed his divine right to rule by portraying himself as Hercules, the heroic son of the god Jupiter. In Rome, he replaced the head of Nero on top of his Colossus with one of his own, adorning it with a club and placing a bronze lion at its feet. Yet after his death, Commodus was declared a public enemy of Rome and his public statues were all pulled down.

Commodus’s smooth features, gazing eyes, youthful appearance and heavily drilled, short ringlets of hair all suggest grace and immortality

Commodus’s smooth features, gazing eyes, youthful appearance and heavily drilled, short ringlets of hair all suggest grace and immortality

As specialist Claudio Corsi explains, this marble bust shows all the hallmarks of Roman sculpture from the 2nd century AD. Commodus's smooth features, gazing eyes, youthful appearance and heavily drilled, short ringlets of hair all suggest grace and immortality, adopting the iconography traditionally reserved for gods. Furthermore, says Corsi, ‘the artist managed to capture what is the arrogance and the attitude of this young prince that knows he is about to become emperor.’

Historically, Commodus went on to be regarded as the first ‘bad’ emperor to follow on from the ‘five good emperors,’ and according to the historian Edward Gibbon, his reign signalled the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. Famously, in 2000, he was portrayed as a murderous tyrant by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning epic Gladiator.

Recent scholars, however, have argued that Commodus may actually have been a man of the people and that he was praised by the populace for establishing peace and cementing the empire’s borders. What is not in dispute, however, is that this bust is an amazing piece of history. ‘Not only do we get to see what the personality of this emperor might have been like,’ concludes the specialist, ‘but it also it marks a very important moment when the Roman Empire really reaches the peak of its power.’