Although most Roman gladiators were slaves and prisoners of war, forced into the bloody arena against their will, a handful of respectable Romans actually chose to participate in gladiatorial combat. The most famous of these voluntary warriors was the megalomaniacal Roman emperor, Commodus (162–192 A.D.).

The only surviving son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus became ruler of all Rome in 180 A.D. Handsome, courageous in battle and gifted with youth (he was only 18 when he assumed the imperial throne), the young emperor was expected to accomplish great things. But Commodus quickly grew bored with affairs of state. Turning the reigns of government over to a series of corrupt lieutenants, he devoted himself to a life of extraordinary debauchery. He became famous for his harem of 600 concubines and young boys. He threw wild orgies and engaged in extravagant acts of self-aggrandizement, such as renaming the months of the year after his own imperial titles. Eleven years into his reign, Commodus demanded that the senate deify him as a living god and began wearing a lion skin and carrying a club, claiming he was a reincarnation of the Greek hero Hercules (above).

Commodus’s most outrageous antics were reserved for the Roman arena. In 191 A.D. the emperor shocked the citizens of Rome by insisting that he be allowed to fight in the arena games. For more than a year he participated regularly in staged animal hunts and afternoon gladiatorial matches at the Colosseum. He was, allegedly, an impressive hunter and fighter. His most famous performance occurred during the Plebian games of November 192 when he appeared in the guise of Hercules Venator (Hercules “the hunter”), using a bow and arrow to slaughter scores of wild beasts. According to the ancient historian Cassius Dio, “On the first day, he [the emperor] killed 100 bears all by himself, shooting down at them from the railing of the balustrade.” On subsequent days, Commodus “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 … After lunch, he [fought] as a gladiator … [holding] the shield in his right hand and wooden sword in his left, and indeed [he] took great pride in the fact that he was left-handed.” Commodus planned to make an even more spectacular appearance at the New Year’s games of 193 A.D., where he intended to challenge, and kill, both of the empire’s elected consuls. But his career as a gladiator-ruler was cut short when he was assassinated on December 31, 192.

Few Romans mourned the clearly deranged emperor’s passing, but Commodus continued to be widely praised for his physical courage and beauty. At least one Roman legend claimed that he was conceived after his mother bathed in the blood of a much beloved gladiator, giving rise to an emperor who was more warrior than king.