He made no false claim when he called Rome the City of Commodus and himself the Roman Hercules. The vast majority of Romans were unfit to challenge his contempt of them, and his contempt was never under cover for a moment.
Debauchery, of wine and women, entered not at all into his private life although, in public, he encouraged it in others for the simple reason that it weakened men who otherwise might turn on him. He was never guilty of excesses that might undermine his strength or shake his nerves; there was an almost superhuman purity about his worship of athletic powers. He outdid the Greeks in that respect. But he allowed the legend of his monstrous orgies in the palace to gain currency, partly because that encouraged the Romans to debauch themselves and render themselves incapable of overthrowing him, and partly because it helped to cover up his trick of employing a substitute to occupy the royal pavilion at the games when he himself drove chariots in the races or fought in the arena as the gladiator Paulus.
Men who had let wine and women ruin their own nerves knew it was impossible that any one, who lived as Commodus was said to do, could drive a chariot and wield a javelin as Paulus did. Whoever faced a Roman gladiator under the critical gaze of a crowd that knew all the points of fighting and could instantly detect, and did instantly resent pretense, fraud, trickery, the poor condition of one combatant or the unwillingness of one man to have at another in deadly earnest, had to be not only in the pink of bodily condition but a fighter such as no drunken sensualist could ever hope to be. So it was easy to suppress the scandal that the gladiator Paulus was the emperor himself, although half Rome half-believed it; and the substitute who occupied the seat of honor at the games—ageing a little, growing a little pouchy under eyes and chin—was pointed to as proof that Commodus was being ruined by the life he led.
The trick of making use of the same substitute to save the emperor the boredom of official ceremony, whenever there was no risk of the public coming close enough to detect the fraud, materially helped to strengthen the officially fostered argument that Commodus could not be Paulus.
So the mystery of the identity of Paulus was like all court secrets and most secrets of intriguing governments, no mystery at all to hundreds, but to thousands an insoluble conundrum. The official propagandists of the court news, absolutely in control of all the channels through which facts could reach the public, easily offset the constant leakage from the lips of slaves and gladiators by disseminating artfully concocted news. Those actually in the secret, flattered by the confidence and fearful for their own skins, steadfastly denied the story when it cropped up. Last, but not least, was the law, that made it sacrilege to speak in terms derogatory to the emperor. A gladiator, though the crowd might almost deify him, was a casteless individual, unprivileged before the law, whom any franchised citizen would rate as socially far beneath himself. To have identified the emperor with Paulus in a voice above a whisper would have made the culprit liable to death and confiscation of his goods.