“For our history now descends from one a kingdom of gold, to one of iron and rust.” With this particularly enduring metallurgical metaphor, the historian Cassius Dio set forth an understanding of Roman history that has proved particularly difficult to dislodge. The reason for this degeneration, the historian asserted, was the death of Marcus Aurelius, the paragon of imperial rule, and the passing of imperial power to his son, Commodus. The golden age of the empire was drawing to a close, and with cruel irony, it was being led there by a man so vain and sure of his own divinity, that he sprinkled gold dust in his hair to bedazzle all who looked at him.
History looks back on Commodus as one of the very worst Roman emperors, joining the infamous ranks that include Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Elagabalus. The historians who described his reign paint vivid portraits of a man who embodied a plethora of vices; this was a man who was cruel and capricious, slovenly and sensual. But, as his contemporaries make clear, he was not born this way. The story of Commodus then is the story of a man who fell from exalted heights.
1. The Purple Prince: Emperor Commodus’ Early Years
The story of Commodus’ rise and fall from grace begins in late summer, AD 161. The future emperor was born not in Rome, but in Lanuvium, much like Antoninus Pius, another exalted imperial predecessor against whom history would judge him. He was the son of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina the Younger. Not only was Faustina Marcus’ wife, but she was also his cousin, as well as the youngest daughter of Antoninus; the webs of the imperial dynasty were frequently complex. Commodus was thus born into the very epicenters of imperial power in the second century. When he was born, Commodus was actually the younger of twins. Unfortunately, tragedy struck the imperial household in 165 when Titus, his elder brother, died, leaving Commodus as Marcus’ only son, and his heir.
Like his father before him, Commodus enjoyed the benefits of an exemplary Roman aristocratic education, focusing on raising a child fit to rule the empire. At the imperial court in Rome, he would have encountered the court physician Galen, one of antiquity’s most influential doctors and medical practitioners.
In an effort to foreshadow the depravities that would follow, some of the later sources, particularly the luridly entertaining, but historically questionable Historia Augusta, are keen to portray Commodus’ youth as the period when the first tendencies were evident. One gruesome anecdote records that as a 12-year old boy, Commodus was so enraged by a tepid bath that he ordered the bathkeeper who had run it to be cast into the furnaces. The life of the poor household attendant was only spared by the quick thinking of a fellow slave, who tossed a sheepskin onto the furnace instead. The stench of the smoke convinced the future-emperor that the crime of a not-hot-enough bath had been suitably avenged…
2. Father And Son: Joint Rule With Marcus Aurelius
Having endured the loss of one son, Marcus Aurelius was keen to ensure that the route of imperial succession was clear. As such, he took a number of steps to ensure that the people of Rome, as well as the armies in the provinces. Already in AD 172, when he was just 11, Commodus is known to have joined his father on a campaign at Carnuntum (in the east of modern Austria). This was acting as the emperor’s headquarters during the Marcomannic War, as the emperor fought against incursions made by a series of Germanic tribes. In October of that year, Commodus was bestowed with the title Germanicus alongside his father. His role as the leader of the army, and as a triumphal Roman commander, was already being established.
These steps appear not to have been sufficient in themselves. In the spring of 175, one of the emperor’s most trusted generals, Avidius Cassius, rebelled. Having heard a rumor that Marcus had died on campaign (his poor health was notorious), Cassius was reputedly concerned about the stability of the empire. From the province of Syria, where he was acting as Governor, Cassius declared himself emperor, and the provinces of Judea and Egypt declared their allegiance. The revolt continued, despite news of Marcus being very much alive although it quickly ran out of steam; before Marcus could even begin the campaign to quash the rebellion, Cassius was killed by an associate. Marcus is reported to have wept at the news of his friend’s death.
To subdue any residual unrest, Marcus ensured that the question of succession had a definitive answer. Commodus’ public role in the administration of the empire as Marcus’ colleague in power was made increasingly visible, including on coinage. His titles quickly came to reflect Marcus’ commitment to ensuring the succession of his son; by 176 Commodus was recognized as Imperator, and by 177 as Augustus, confirming that rule of the empire was not shared between father and son.
3. Empire At War: Germany, Dacia, Britain
The emperor Marcus Aurelius died in March AD 180, in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna) as he was overseeing the Romans’ ongoing campaigns on the Danubian frontier. Although the historian Cassius Dio records that Marcus remained disappointed in his attempts to educate his son, his attempts to ensure the smooth succession were at least successful.
Commodus became sole ruler in 180, guaranteed by the support of the soldiers on the frontier. He recognized well the significance of his rise; this was the first time since the reign of Titus, the son of Vespasian, that the empire had passed to a biological son, and the first time ever that it had passed to a child raised specifically to be emperor. In a speech recorded (and probably invented) by the historian Herodian, Commodus makes clear his uniqueness to the soldiers and courtiers gathered on the frontier: “I alone was born for you in the imperial palace… The purple received me as I came forth into the world, and the sun shone down on me, man and emperor, at the same moment.”
Although his father is celebrated as the paradigm of imperial rule, it cannot be refuted that he oversaw a reign ravaged by war. His son, for all his other faults, had no desire for conflict. His reasons for seeking peace appear to have been less than noble, however… The historians are unanimous that the emperor quickly lost interest in continuing his father’s campaign, encouraged by the group of favorites and sycophants that gathered around the new emperor and encouraged him to return to the comforts of Rome. Nevertheless, troubles did emerge around the empire that required intervention, first in Dacia (modern Romania, the province captured by Trajan) and later in Britain. These campaigns in Dacia in AD183 allowed two future contenders for the imperial throne, Clodius Albinus and Pescennius Niger, to distinguish themselves (neither would be able to defeat Septimius Severus when the time came, however).
4. Commodus And The Conspiracies
A reduction in conflict on the frontiers of the empire was not matched by peace within the empire. Political strife beset the reign of Commodus from its earliest days, and the emperor was compelled to counter several attempted conspiracies. As early as 182, his eldest sister Lucilla (holding the title of Augusta as the widow of Lucius Verus) attempted to orchestrate a revolt against the emperor, which involved some leading senators. Some leading senators planned to cut down the emperor whilst he was attending the theatre. Like a classic movie villain, the assassin spoiled his element of surprise by monologuing (he reputedly shouted to the emperor: “See! This is what the Senate sends you!” whilst brandishing a dagger).
Commodus’ bodyguards seized the foolish assassin, and the plot was foiled. The emperor’s relationship with the senate was irreparably poisoned by this close shave. Leading men in the Empire were viewed with suspicion and often removed from the picture, regardless of their loyalty or not. This happed to the cultured Quintilii brothers, whose palatial villa on the Via Appia to the southeast of Rome was seized by the emperor.
The retaliatory purges in Rome allowed new men to occupy the positions of influence closest to Commodus. Most infamous amongst these was the freedman Cleander, who rose to command the Praetorians, the imperial bodyguard. Cleander made concerted efforts to concentrate power in his own hands, overseeing the sale of public offices and military commands to the highest bidder. However, he would eventually fall foul of popular discontent. Food shortages ravaged Rome in 190, and the Prefect of the Annona, or grain supply (the praefectus annonae) laid the blame at Cleander’s door. Civic unrest spilled over into violence at a chariot race at the Circus Maximus and Cleander was forced to flee to Commodus, who was staying at Lanuvium. The fickleness of the emperor would be Cleander’s undoing. At the advice of his mistress, Marcia, Commodus had Cleander (and his son) beheaded.
Away from Rome, the disturbances in the northern provinces of Britain and Gaul and prompted military desertion. This came to a head as a group of disaffected soldiers gathered around the charismatic rogue Maternus, who led a plot to assassinate Commodus. Although it was ultimately unsuccessful, this tale of derring-do against the villainy of the depraved emperor makes for one of the more entertaining passages of ancient history.
5. Characterising Commodus: Roman Emperor, God And Gladiator
The succession of plots and intrigues against him, as well as the influences of questionable courtiers, led to increasingly erratic behavior from Commodus, as he slipped further and further into megalomania. The emperor fell well short of the standards of behavior set by his father. Most infamous was Commodus’ proclivity for the gladiatorial arena. The sources make clear that, as a man, Commodus was a fine physical specimen with an enjoyment of physical pursuits, including horse and chariot racing, as well as sparring.
In private, this was nothing to be mocked or criticized. What was considered wrong, was when this spilled into public. Infamously, Commodus was the gladiator emperor (made famous by Joaquin Phoenix in the 2000 film Gladiator), fighting frequently in the arena, much to the shame of the gathered senatorial spectators. The emperor was famed for his beast hunts, including his rescue of a condemned criminal from the jaws of a leopard in one bout.
Alongside his exploits in the arena, Commodus cultivated a strong association with the cult of Hercules. Emperors had previously fostered such close associations with gods and heroes previously (such as Augustus and Apollo). Commodus, however, crossed into the ridiculous. The iconography of Commodus displays a consistent emphasis on presenting the emperor as Hercules. This heroic, mythological association connected Commodus to the Roman Pantheon (Hercules was the son of Jupiter, King of the gods) and fuelled his sense of self-importance.
Cassius Dio, the most reliable historian for the reign of Commodus, even attests that the emperor went so far as to be named a “god!” A fire that devastated the city in 191 was for Commodus, like Nero a century beforehand, an opportunity. Framing himself as a new Romulus and founder of the city, Commodus gave free-reign to his megalomaniac tendencies, renaming the city Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana and even renaming the months of the year to correspond his own names (by this point, he had 12, including Commodus, Hercules, and Invictus). Just in case anyone living in the city had not grasped his sense of importance, he also had the Colossal statue adjacent to the Colosseum (hence the name) which had been originally erected by Nero, remodeled to look like himself; wielding a club and standing over a bronze lion, it again presented the emperor as Hercules.
6. Death And Disgrace: Imperial Assassination
Eventually, the people of Rome – and especially the senators – could take it no more. Commodus’ megalomania had gone on too long and continued to threaten their own status (and frequently, their lives). By late 192, he was finishing up another performance in the arena, this time for the Plebian Games, in which he massacred scores of wild animals and fought as a gladiator. In a final insult to the prestige of the office of emperor, he announced that on January 1st 193, he would inaugurate the year as both consul, the leading magistrate, and gladiator.
A conspiracy led by Laetus and Eclectus, who involved Marcia in their plotting, saw proposed to overthrow Commodus. Even this plot, like the others before it, almost failed! On New Year’s Eve 192, Marcia slipped a powerful poison into the emperor’s wine. However, the emperor vomited up the wine, reputedly a side-effect of drinking too much in the hot climate of the bath he was taking. This kind of raucous behavior was something he had allegedly had precedent for, so no-one was alerted that the emperor may be in danger…
Having vomited up the poison that Marcia had slipped him, the conspirators had to send in Narcissus, a powerful young man at the court, to go into the bath where Commodus was reeling from the effects of the poison, and strangle him. It was an ignoble end for the son of perhaps the greatest emperor of all, and one not at all befitting either god or gladiator. This would not be the end of Commodus’ disgrace.
Such was the vehement dislike felt by the senate at having had to suffer the abuse and threats of the emperor over the 12 years, that they condemned the memory of Commodus; his images were destroyed and his names scratched from inscriptions around the empire. The sources present some of the most vivid accounts of the emotions that came rushing out as part of these material assaults on memory, known today as damnatio memoriae. The senatorial decree ordering it, as recorded by Dio, is particularly shocking: “Cast the gladiator into the charnel-house. He who slew the senate, let him be dragged with the hook… Let the murderer be dragged in the dust!”
7. Legacy Of Emperor Commodus
This would not be the end of Commodus’ role in Roman history, however, and he had an important function left to fill. Although the empire passed relatively smoothly into the care of the elder statesman Pertinax, as emperor he lost the support of the Praetorians and was murdered within months of his accession. The attempts to restore stability would lead to a protracted series of civil wars lasting 4 years. Order was not restored until the arrival in Rome, and ultimate victory over his rivals, by Septimius Severus, Rome’s first African emperor. To help present his power as legitimate, Severus fabricated the story that he was the descendant of Marcus Aurelius and, therefore, the brother of Commodus. To honor his new-found family, the emperor ordered that the condemnation of Commodus’ memory be lifted. Sure enough, the name Commodus once more begins to re-emerge in the titles of Severus.
Now, whether on our screens in the guise of a bloodthirsty gladiator, or in museums in the hubristic form of Hercules, Commodus remains seemingly fixed as an embodiment of imperial vices. For 13 years, Rome had been ruled by a man who promised so much, and ultimately delivered so little, as a reign that started in purple and gold, ended in red and rust. The son of the paragon of imperial excellence had not only failed to match the standards set by his father but had veered so far away from them as to be vilified. So much was expected of this “most nobly born of all the emperors,” that the man beneath the expectations was surely doomed to fail: “he fell to earth of his own accord, because he could keep on his feet of accompanying the heroes.” He was after all, underneath it all, just another man.