My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Commodus - or Commode?

Gardy Loo!
 For April Fool’s Day, I shall present another irreverent topic.  I recently re-viewed the movie “Gladiator” and wondered how true it was regarding the villainous emperor’s career.  It seems that the movie took liberties with the truth.  Marcus Aurelius did not try to oust his son as emperor.  Commodus was awarded the title of Augustus in 177 by Aurelius, making him co-emperor of Rome.  He accompanied his father to Germania a year later, where Aurelius died in 180, leaving Commodus as sole and undisputed emperor of Rome.  Commodus ruled for only eight years, but for many of them he was popular with Rome’s people, in no small part for staging and taking part in vast gladiatorial spectacles.

The Senate did oppose Commodus, and he became increasingly dictatorial and erratic.  He renamed Rome Commodiana, named the months for himself, and when he placed his own head on a colossal statue at the Colosseum, Commodus added an inscription boasting that he was the only left-handed fighter to conquer “twelve times one thousand men” (but omitting that his opponents always surrendered).  Commodus’s reign ended as many emperors’ did – violently.  A conspiracy enlisted his mistress to poison him, but when Commodus survived, they had his wrestling partner strangle him.

So, Commodus did not die in the Colosseum after all, but he did fight there (mostly against animals).  After fact-checking “Gladiator,” I moved on to another tale I have heard – that the lowly commode was named after Commodus.  The commode’s name in Latin is commodus, but that appears to be the extent of the association between the two.  It was the French who began using the term commode, meaning convenient.

Commode chair
That is a good way to describe the commode in a day when toilet facilities were kept outdoors.  A commode, or chamber pot, often found in early bedrooms, is a wide-mouthed container of glazed ceramic or metal.  It was used for bodily elimination when it was too cold and dark to put on your boots and go out to the privy.  Chamber pots usually had handles, and they sometimes came as a set with a lid and/or a platter to set the pot upon and so protect the floor.  Some were set in commode chairs, with a wooden or padded cover to hide the pot.

Ephesus latrine
The Romans are famed for their plumbing, created in no small part to handle sewage in that giant city.  Their large-scale public latrines did not provide privacy, but they kept the city clean.   Smaller indoor pots were also used, but weren’t always available as this graffiti from the Inn of the Muledrivers in Pompeii demonstrates:  “We have wet the bed, host.  I confess we have done wrong.  If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot.”

After the fall of Rome, it was a long, long time before their sewage facilities were equaled.  Many cities relied on privies and open ditches, with rake-wielding cleanup crews driving herds of hungry pigs to finish the job.  Readers of my historical novel Rebel Puritan (set partly in 17th-century London) will recognize the term Gardy-Loo, which derives from the French Gardez l’eau.  Watch out for water, hurled from windows overhead when people emptying chamber pots in the morning didn’t feel like carrying the pots downstairs.

Eventually chamberpots and commode chairs became antique curiosities when indoor plumbing made them obsolete.  However, the variety of these containers makes them collectable, and some of them are downright hilarious.  I will close with photos of three different pots.  And next time, I’ll search for a more uplifting topic.

19th century chamber pot
I have seen citations with this poem in minor variations, and spanning centuries.  This 19th-century pot comes from EBay, with a warning to keep it clean.

Beast Butler
This decoration appeared during the Civil War.  General Benjamin “Beast” Butler (no relation) was in charge of occupied New Orleans when he commanded that any woman showing disrespect toward Union soldiers would be treated as a prostitute “plying her avocation.”  This is what New Orleans thought of his order.

Finally, also from EBay, here is a more modern pot with the same sentiment.

Personal photos


  1. Thank you I have wondered about Commodus and the commode. It seemed unlikely however:
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Whether it is Commodus - or Commode! The need of it cannot be ignored by single person. But disabled persons who have paraplegia or weakness in the lower limbs or very elderly persons cannot use the normal commode properly. For them some supporting commode are available nowadays which facilitate the bowel and bladder emptying without any difficulty.

  4. Awesome information and thank for sharing this article


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