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Monday, August 3, 2020

Gibbon’s Description of Commodus’s Gladiatorial Performance

In November 192, Commodus became the first Roman Emperor to enter the arena (during the Plebeian Games) as a gladiator. He believed that he had the attributes of a Roman Hercules, and no man or beast could kill him. In Edward Gibbon’s History of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, (Volume 1, Chapter 4), there is a colorful account of Commodus’s feats as a star-gladiator at the Plebeian Games: “Whether he aimed at the head or heart of the animal, the wound was alike certain and mortal. With arrows whose point was shaped into the form of crescent, Commodus often intercepted the rapid career, and cut asunder the long, bony neck of the ostrich. A panther was let loose; and the archer waited till he had leaped upon a trembling malefactor. In the same instant the shaft flew, the beast dropped dead, and the man remained unhurt. The dens of the amphitheater disgorged at once a hundred lions: a hundred darts from the unerring hand of Commodus laid them dead as they run raging round the Arena. Neither the huge bulk of the elephant, nor the scaly hide of the rhinoceros, could defend them from his stroke. Ethiopia and India yielded their most extraordinary productions; and several animals were slain in the amphitheater, which had been seen only in the representations of art, or perhaps of fancy. In all these exhibitions, the securest precautions were used to protect the person of the Roman Hercules from the desperate spring of any savage, who might possibly disregard the dignity of the emperor and the sanctity of the god.” But even with such an incredible performance, Commodus was unable to win the trust and love of the Roman people, and, more importantly, the Roman elite, on whose orders he was murdered on December 31, 192 by a gladiator called Narcissus.

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