On Commodus

Last week I received an email from France asking for information on the largest painting in our collection, pictured below:

Edwin Howland Blashfield (American, 1848 – 1936)
The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators
Oil on canvas
48.5 x 91 inches
Sloane Collection

At a whopping 91 inches long, the only spot we have enough acreage to display it is the central stairwell. Thankfully I was not here when it was last hung (a precarious task involving ladders and, I assume, grappling hooks), and I hope to be long gone by the time it needs to move again.

Photo taken in 2003 after Commodus returned from conservation treatment

I walk past this painting every day, so I am especially ashamed to admit that I take it for granted. The stairwell lighting is tragically dark (remedying that is on my short list), and the fact that I can’t move the canvas around and incorporate it into exhibitions puts it low on my list of priorities.

Well, there’s nothing like an email from France to make you stop and consider something you’ve been ignoring for two years. Merci beaucoup, M. Sérié.

The request from France merely concerned the painting’s provenance, dimensions and correct title (to be included in an upcoming book on the Paris Salon 1860-1900), but once I relayed those details I began to ponder the scene itself. In graduate school I read T.J. Clark’s excellent book The Sight of Death, in which the author viewed the same two Poussin paintings every morning for a year and recorded his meditations in a journal. His personal take on writing about art has inspired me ever since (hence this blog, among other things), and I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to undertake a similar experiment with Blashfield’s painting?

My knowledge of Roman history is limited to the [fictional] events of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. I’m sure I learned the actual history at some point, but those neurons shriveled and died long ago … or were replaced, evidently, by the courses I took towards my English major.

Things I already knew about Commodus:
– Crazy.
– Debaucherous.
– Ruled for twelve years.
– Killed his father (allegedly).
– Played by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, which I haven’t seen since 2003.

So why was Commodus leaving the arena with the Gladiators? What in the world was he wearing, and what is he holding in his hand? What inspired Edwin Blashfield, an American muralist, to paint this enormous scene? We may never know the definitive answer to that last point, but I sure learned a lot about Commodus today.

Commodus ruled alongside his father, Marcus Aurelius, from the tender age of fifteen. Father and son went to war together in the year 178 where the emperor was slain. Commodus returned to Rome and acceded the throne as sole emperor in 180. He was the first son to accede his father since the emperor Titus, nearly 100 years earlier.

According to historians of the day, Commodus was something of a megalomaniac. I suppose it’s hard not to be a bit touched when you become emperor at fifteen. Besides being something of an Adonis, he was skilled in battle and extremely physically powerful. Commodus believed he was the reincarnation of the god Hercules and commissioned several statues of himself dressed in lion skins and carrying a club to reinforce his image throughout Rome.

Commodus as Hercules, Musei Capitolini, Rome

He spent quite a bit of time fighting naked in the gladiator arena — a habit most Romans found particularly shameful — and was known to battle exotic animals when willing human victims were in short supply. He was a careless, brutal gladiator who treated his opponents mercilessly. According to the contemporary Greek historian Cassius Dio he sliced “the noses of some, the ears of others, and sundry features of still others, (LXXIII.17.2).”  Outrage over his elaborate gladiatorial combats came to a head in November of 192. He was strangled to death by a wrestler named Narcissus on December 31, 192.

Blashfield’s modern interpretation of Commodus is in accordance with history. In this scene Commodus, though not completely naked, wears a lion pelt on his back, signifying his connection with Hercules. He holds a small golden statue of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, in his right hand and a palm leaf in his left. Victors were commonly awarded a palm leaf as a trophy before exiting the Porta Triumphalis, the large archway to the left of the scene. Commodus always won his matches (of course!) and was known to boast about defeating “over a thousand men” in combat during his lifetime. A troupe of gladiators follows him out of the arena, laying flowers at his feet, while a tumult of Romans watches from above.

This painting is representative of much of Blashfield’s work from the 1870’s, with a subject drawn from ancient history set amid architectural grandeur.  The artist could hardly have chosen a more odious fellow to ennoble (Cassius called him “a greater plague to the Romans than any pestilence or crime”), so why is he painted so splendidly? What do you think Blashfield was attempting to convey?

Lastly, check out the emperor’s piercing blue eyes. I think he can see my soul:

More musings to come… let me know what you think.


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