Commodus in his throne room

I loved you, Livius. Yet now you must die. But that's the sort of joke the gods love best.
~ Commodus as he prepares to fight Livius

Commodus is the main antagonist of the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire.

He was portrayed by Christopher Plummer, who also voiced the Grand Duke of Owls in Rock-a-Doodle and Charles Muntz in Up.


Commodus is the charismatic but amoral son of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus knows Commodus is unfit to rule and plans to appoint his favorite general, and Commodus' best friend, Gaius Livius, as his successor. Commodus is enraged by his father's decision, and has him killed before Livius can officially assume the throne. Once he becomes Emperor, Commodus undoes all of his father's policies out of spite, and transforms Rome into a brutal dictatorship.

Livius reluctantly enforces Commodus' unjust rule out of patriotism and loyalty to his old friend, but eventually forms a secret alliance with Commodus' sister Lucilla, his former lover, against Commodus' regime. When Commodus learns of their betrayal, he has them both banished. He eventually allows them to return, even making Lucilla his co-ruler, but demands that Livius massacre his political opponents. Livius refuses, and with Lucilla forms an official front against Commodus' regime. Commodus retaliates by having his cronies in the Senate declare him a god, and sentencing Livius and Lucilla to be "sacrificed" to him.

Meanwhile, Commodus discovers that he is not really Marcus' son, but the product of his mother's affair with a gladiator; since he is illegitimate, he is ineligible to rule. Commodus' shame and thwarted ambition sends him over the edge, and he orders Livius to fight him to the death to determine who will rule Rome. Livius fights his old friend in a duel with javelins, and runs him through, killing him.


  • This would not be the only time that Commodus was adapted to the big screen. Later on he would be portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the critically acclaimed and immensely popular Gladiator directed by Ridley Scott from 2000. With whom he shares both similarities (some of which don't correspond to their historical counterpart) and differences.
    • Some of the narrative beats match-up. Both versions are the surrogate brother of the film's lead character whom is a leading Roman general who has Emperor Marcus Aurelius as a father figure. (Livius in Fall and Maximus in Gladiator) Both films starting with him going to join him and his father out in the Germanic Frontier during the Marcomannic Wars. Both eventually learn that their father plans to pass power down to the general rather than them, which infuriates them. (A stark contrast to history where Marcus Aurelius notably chose to pass his seat of power down to his son rather than a more worthy appointed successor as tradition had been at that point) This decision leads to the murder of Marcus Aurelius (However unlike the version in Gladiator this one in spite of his anger had no part in the assassination, with it being a group of advisors who feared losing power if Commodus didn't ascend) Leading to both versions becoming emperor, and causing a good deal of trouble as they put forth their agendas. Both films also end with Commodus facing the general in a one-on-one duel before a crowd, both ending in his demise.
    • Both ironically enough pick and choose different attributes of the historical Commodus to adhere to, while also adding a great deal of fiction. Both also contrasting greatly. The version in Fall is deeply arrogant and delusional (as was the historical version), while the version in Gladiator had an inferiority complex. The version from Fall started out as carefree and irresponsible, while the version of Gladiator starts out emotionally strained and damaged due to his cold relationship with his father. The version from Fall not having issue with his father or the general until he learns of the loss of his "birthright". Being genuine friends with the general, while the version from Gladiator from the start held resentment towards Maximus for having all the admiration and adoration that he desired and only ever put on a happy face with him to try and please his father. Upon taking power the version from Fall starts conflict by abusing the vassals (particularly the Germanians) through things like fierce taxation that Marcus Aurelius sought to make true Roman citizens, which puts the empire into chaos. While the version from Gladiator returned with the empire in peace, was reluctant to take part in the important affairs of state unless his hand was forced, with subterfuge in politics being the main battlefield of sorts. (As it was for the historical version) That version also like their historical counterpart directly using the games as a means to manipulate and win over the Roman mob. (However this version wanted to do that to eventually have them in his grip enough to be able to disband the senate and consolidate his power)
  • There is a great irony in the casting of this character's main opponent Livius. In that he is portrayed by Stephen Boyd, best known for playing the character of Messala in another Roman era epic of the time William Wyler's Ben-Hur released in 1959. In that in The Fall of the Roman Empire he in an opposite manner plays the lead hero who has to contend with an old friend who eventually becomes his rival and bitter enemy. Both films even have scenes where when reunited the old friends cross their arms together and drink wine and a ferocious chariot chase between the two.
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