The bust of Commodus history



The bust of Commodus history


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The bust of Commodus history


Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius and was a brutal Emperor for 12 years (180 AD – 192 AD) until he was assassinated by strangulation at the age of 31.  The bust dates from c.190 AD.

Commodus was an interesting character of questionable sanity.  He was a decadent, self-indulgent, deranged megalomaniac who M. Wheeler calls a “sadistic pervert”.  He was fond of gladiatorial games often taking part in the animal hunts (dressed as Hercules).  His blatant self-heroization here in this piece is quite extraordinary.

Commodus is shown with a beard and moustache.  His head is framed by the lion skin which he wears with the paws tied around his upper torso.  He holds a knotted club in his right hand and in his left hand he holds three apples.  Part of the lion skin is draped over his left forearm

Two cornucopiae full of fruit (represent prosperity, fertility and abundance) hold up the bust and they represent the new ‘Golden Age’ of Commodus’ reign.  The cornucopiae themselves rest on a sphere with a kneeling Amazonian warrior on each side of it

Between the cornucopiae is an Amazon shield which is decorated with Medusa’s head (Perseus cut off her head and gave it to Athena for her shield).  The shields ends are tipped with eagle heads.

The sphere has a band across the middle of it showing three Zodiac signs – a bull at the bottom, a Capricorn in the middle, and a scorpion at the top – that could be three important moments in his life (what is unknown).  The sphere is also decorated with four-petalled rosettes set in circles (stars?)

The larger than life bust conveys the message that Commodus is the saviour of mankind, worthy of portrayal as Hercules, a heroic/divine figure who is a doer of great deeds. 

Commodus had begun to establish a public image where he was identified with the god demi-god Hercules.  He was often portrayed on coins and in inscriptions as the hero Hercules whose worship was popular in Rome.  The comparison with Hercules in this bust is obvious:
- The club is a regular attribute of the hero though this is smaller than usual,
- the apples allude to Hercules’ immortality which Commodus regarded as his due after subduing the enemies of Rome in the north and east,
- the lion skin represents power and strength,
- the Amazon warrior relates to the fact that Commodus had also defeated the Sarmatians who lived around the Black Sea (which is where the Amazons also lived in legend).  She also represents Rome’s defeated enemies.

First labour = killing of the Nemean lion from whose skin he made a cloak.
Ninth labour = obtaining the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyta & the subsequent defeat of the Amazons.
Eleventh labour = the theft of the golden apples from a tree at the world’s end, guarded by a dragon (Ladon) which he slew.

The whole image is very theatrical and the bust is idealised and not veristic. 

Antonine Baroque style        - smooth highly polished skin which gives a youthful appearance,
- deeply drilled luxurious hair,
- contrasts of light & dark areas, powerful musculature & polished head,
- Commodus was the last of the Antonine's.

Eyes   - are not painted but have rings incised into the iris,
- heavy upper eye lids that droop over the iris,
- eyes are upturned and gaze to one side (our left),
- head turned towards his right shoulder.

Hair     - deep drilling in beard and hair creates shadows on the surface,
- rhythmical waves in hair,
- full beard gives sense of imperial majesty,
- contrast between deeply modelled hair and smooth texture of face.

Mouth  - short but full lower lip with a moustache above the lip,
- the mouth is turned down.

Chest  - gleaming white marble skin that is smooth and muscled.


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