Lucius Verus

Lucius Ceionius Commodus
(AD 130 – AD 169)

Lucius Ceionius Commodus was born 15 December AD 130, son to the man of the same name whom Hadrian adopted as his successor. When his father died Hadrian adopted instead Antoninus Pius with the requirement that he in turn should adopt Marcus Aurelius (Hadrian’s newphew) and the boy Ceionius. This adoption ceremony took place on 25 February AD 138, with Ceionius only being seven years old.

Throughout Antoninus’ reign he was to remain in the shadow of the emperor’s favourite Marcus Aurelius, who was being groomed to hold office. If Marcus Aurelius was granted the office of consul at 18 years of age, he had to wait until he was 24.

If the senate would have had its way, then on the death of emperor Antoninus in AD 161, only Marcus Aurelius would have acceeded to the throne. But Marcus Aurelius simply insisted that his step-brother be made his imperial colleage, according to the will of both emeprors Hadrian and Antoninus. And so Ceionius became emperor under the name, chosen for him by Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Aurelius Verus. For the first time Rome should be under the joint rule of two emperors, creating a precedent frequently repeated thereafter.

Lucius Verus was tall and goodlooking. Unlike emperors Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, who had made wearing beards fashionable, Verus grew his to a length and breath of a ‘barbarian’. He is said to have taken great pride in his hair and beard and at times even to have sprinkled gold dust on it in order to further enhance its blonde colour. He was an accomplished public speaker and also a poet and enjoyed the company of scholars.

Though so too was he an ardent fan of chariot racing, publicly backing the ‘Greens’, the horse racing faction supported by the poor masses of Rome. Further he was also very interested in physical activities such as hunting, wrestling, athletics and gladiatorial combat.

Read More: Roman Games

In AD 161 the Parthians ousted the king of Armenia who was a Roman ally and launched an attack on Syria. Whilst Marcus Aurelius stayed in Rome, Verus was given command of the army agsint the Parthians. But he arrived in Syria only 9 months later, in AD 162. This was partly due to illness, but partly also, many thought, due to being too careless and preoccupied with his pleasure to show greater haste.

Once at Antioch, Verus remained there for the rest of the campaign. Leadership of the army was left entirely to the generals, and it is said, at times to Marcus Aurelius back in Rome. Meanwhile Verus follwed his fancies, trained as a gladiator and bestiarius (animal fighter) and wrote frequently to Rome inquiring about his horses.

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Verus also found himself charmed by an eastern beauty called Panthea, for whom he even shaved off his beard in order to please her. Some historians harshly criticise Verus’ evident lack of interest in the very campaign he was sent to oversee. But others point to his lack of military experience. It might well have been that, knowing himself incompetent at military affairs, Verus left things to those who might know better.

By the year AD 166 Verus’ generals had brought the campaign to an end, the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon having been captured in AD 165. Verus returned to Rome in triumph in October AD 166. But together with Verus’ troops came back to Rome a serious plague. The epidemic would devastate the empire, raging for 10 years across the empire from Turkey to as far as the Rhine.

Successive attack on the Danube frontier by Germanic tribes soon forced the joint emperors to take action again. In autumn AD 167 they set out for the north leading their troops. But hearing of their coming was enough reason for the barbarians to withdraw, with the emperors only having reached as far as Aquileia in northern Italy.

Verus sought to return to the comforts of Rome, yet Marcus Aurelius thought that, rather than merely to turn back, one should make a show of force north of the Alps in order to reassert Roman authority. After having crossed the Alps and then having returned back to the Aquileia in late AD 168, the emperors prepared to pass the winter in the town. But then plague broke out among the soldiers, so they set out for Rome despite the winter cold. But they hadn’t journeyed for long, when Verus – most likley affected by the disease – had a fit and died at Altinum (Jan/Feb AD 169).

Verus’ body was carried back to Rome and laid to rest in the Mausoleum of Hadrian and he was deified by the senate.

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