Eventually, Scott’s epic would go on to win five Oscars and gross more than $450 million around the world. But while Russell Crowe secured the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the heroic Maximus, it was Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Commodus that would secure the character a place as one of cinema’s most iconic bad guys.
Although most of Scott’s movie is pure fiction, elements of it were inspired by real people and events. And while Maximus himself is believed to be a composite of historical figures, Commodus was a genuine emperor who ruled in the second century A.D. But was he really as bad as the villain immortalized forever on film? In reality, it’s possible that he was even worse.
In August 161, Faustina, wife of then-Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, gave birth to twin boys: Lucius Aurelius Commodus and Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus. Just a few months earlier, the Empress’s father had died. Following his death, control of the Empire fell to his son-in-law in the absence of a biological heir.