Commodus: The First Ruler of the End of Rome

Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, commonly known more briefly as Commodus, was the 18th emperor of the Roman Empire and the last of the widely praised “Nerva-Antonine Dynasty.” He was, however, instrumental in the downfall and demise of that dynasty and is remembered in sharp contrast to his close predecessors.

Indeed, his image and identity have become synonymous with infamy and debauchery, not in the least helped by the depiction of him by Joaquin Phoenix in the historical fiction blockbuster Gladiator. Whilst this dramatic depiction did veer from the historical reality in a number of ways, it did in fact mirror some of the ancient accounts we have of this fascinating figure.

Raised by a wise and philosophical father, Commodus shirked such pursuits and instead became fascinated with gladiatorial combat, even participating himself in such activities (regardless of the fact it was widely criticized and frowned upon). Moreover, the general impression of suspicion, jealousy, and violence that Phoenix famously portrayed, is one that is fleshed out in the relatively sparse sources that we possess for assessing Commodus’s life.

These include the Historia Augusta – known for its many inaccuracies and spurious anecdotes – and the separate works of the senators Herodian and Cassius Dio, who both wrote their accounts sometime after the emperor’s death. We therefore have to approach this evidence with some caution, especially as the period immediately following Commodus was one of considerable decline.

Who Was Commodus? Commodus’s Birth and Early Life

Commodus was the 18th emperor of the Roman Empire and was born on August 31st 161 AD, in an Italian city near Rome called Lanuvium, along with his twin brother Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus. Their father was Marcus Aurelius, the famous philosopher emperor, who wrote the deeply personal and reflective memoirs now known as The Meditations.

READ MORE: History’s Most Famous Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and More!

Commodus’s mother was Faustina the Younger, who was the first cousin of Marcus Aurelius and the youngest daughter of his predecessor Antoninus Pius. Together they had 14 children, although only one son (Commodus) and four daughters outlived their father.

Before Faustina gave birth to Commodus and his twin brother, she is said to have had a portentous dream of giving birth to two snakes, one of whom was considerably more powerful than the other. This dream then played out, as Titus died at an early age, followed by several other siblings.

Commodus instead lived on and was named heir at an early age by his father, who also tried to have his son educated in the same way that he had been. However, it became quickly apparent – or so the sources say – that Commodus had no interest in such intellectual pursuits but instead expressed indifference and idleness from an early age, and then throughout his life!

A Childhood of Violence?

Furthermore, the same sources – particularly the Historia Augusta – assert that Commodus began to exhibit a depraved and capricious nature from early on as well. For example, there is a striking anecdote in the Historia Augusta that claims Commodus, at the age of 12, ordered one of his servants to be cast into a furnace because the latter had failed to properly heat up the young heir’s bath.

The same source also claims that he would send men to the wild beasts at whim – on one occasion because somebody was reading an account of the emperor Caligula, who, to Commodus’s consternation, had the same birthday as him.

Such anecdotes of Commodus’s early life are then compounded by general assessments that he “never showed regard for either decency or expense.” Claims made against him include that he was prone to dice in his own home (an improper activity for someone in the imperial family), that he would collect a harem of prostitutes of all shapes, sizes, and appearances, as well as riding chariots and living with gladiators.

The Historia Augusta then gets much more debauched and depraved in its assessments of Commodus, claiming that he cut open obese people and would mix excrement with all manner of foods, before forcing others to consume it.

Perhaps to distract him from such indulgences, Marcus brought his son along with him across the Danube in 172 AD, during the Marcomannic Wars that Rome was bogged down in at the time. During this conflict and after some successful resolution of hostilities, Commodus was granted the honorary title Germanicus – simply for spectating.

READ MORE: Roman Wars

Three years later, he was enrolled in a college of priests, and elected as a representative and leader of a group of equestrian youths. Whilst Commodus and his family naturally aligned themselves more closely with the senatorial class, it was not unusual for high-ranking figures to represent both sides. Later in this same year, he then assumed the toga of manhood, officially making him a Roman citizen.

Commodus as Co-Ruler with His Father

It was shortly after Commodus received the toga of manhood that a rebellion broke out in the Eastern provinces led by a man called Avidius Cassius. The rebellion was initiated after reports spread of Marcus Aurelius’s death – a rumor that was apparently spread by none other than Marcus’s wife, Faustina the Younger.

Avidius had a relatively broad source of support in the East of the Roman Empire, from provinces including Egypt, Syria, Syria Palestine, and Arabia. This provided him with seven legions, yet he was still considerably outmatched by Marcus who could draw from a much larger pool of soldiers.

Perhaps due to this mismatch, or because people began to realize that Marcus was clearly still in good health and able to properly administer the empire, Avidius’s rebellion collapsed when one of his centurions murdered him and chopped off his head to send to the emperor!

No doubt heavily influenced by these events, Marcus named his son as co-emperor in 176 AD, putting an end to any disputes about the succession. This was supposed to have happened whilst both father and son had been taking a tour of these same Eastern provinces that had been on the verge of rising up in the short-lived rebellion.

Whilst it was not typical for emperors to rule jointly, Marcus himself had been the first to do so, along with his co-emperor Lucius Verus (who died in February 169 AD). What was certainly novel about this arrangement, was that Commodus and Marcus were ruling jointly as father and son, taking a novel approach from a dynasty that had seen successors adopted on merit, rather than chosen by blood.

READ MORE: Roman Emperors in Order: The Complete List from Caesar to the Fall of Rome

Nevertheless, the policy was driven forward and in December of that same year (176 AD), Commodus and Marcus both celebrated a ceremonial “triumph.” He was shortly after made consul in early 177 AD, making him the youngest consul and emperor ever.

Yet these early days as an emperor, according to ancient accounts, were spent in much the same way as they had been before Commodus had ascended to the position. He apparently occupied himself incessantly with gladiatorial combat and chariot-racing whilst associating with the most disagreeable people he could.

In fact, it is this latter trait that most ancient and modern historians seem to suggest was the cause of his downfall. Cassius Dio for example, claims that he was not naturally evil, but surrounded himself with depraved individuals and did not have the guile or insight to prevent himself from being won over by their insidious influences.

Perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to direct him away from such bad influences, Marcus brought Commodus along with him to Northern Europe when war had again broken out with the Marcomanni tribe again, east of the Danube River.

It was here, on March 17th 180 AD, that Marcus Aurelius died, and Commodus was left as sole emperor.

The Succession and Its Significance

This marked the moment Cassius Dio says, when the empire descended from “a kingdom of gold, to one of rust.” Indeed, the accession of Commodus as sole ruler has forever marked a point of decline for Roman history and culture, as intermittent civil war, strife, and instability largely characterized the next few centuries of Roman rule.

Interestingly, Commodus’s accession was the first hereditary succession in almost a hundred years, with seven emperors between them. As previously alluded to, the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty was structured by a system of adoption where the ruling emperors, from Nerva to Antoninus Pius had adopted their successors, based seemingly on merit.

It was also, however, the only option really left to them, as each had died without a male heir. Marcus was therefore the first to have a male heir in a position to take over from him when he died. As such, Commodus’s accession was of significance at the time as well, diverging from his predecessors who have been remembered as the “adoptive dynasty.”

Perhaps more importantly though, they have also been named the “Five Good Emperors” (although there were technically six), and were seen to have heralded and maintained a golden age, or “kingdom of gold” for the Roman world as Cassius Dio reports.

It is, therefore, all the more significant that Commodus’s reign was seen to be so regressive, chaotic, and in many respects, deranged. However, it also reminds us to question whether there is any exaggeration entrenched in the ancient accounts, as contemporaries would naturally be inclined to dramatize and catastrophize the abrupt shift in reigns.

The Early Days of Commodus’s Rule

Acclaimed sole emperor whilst across the distant Danube, Commodus quickly wrapped up the war with the German tribes by signing a peace treaty, with many of the conditions that his father had previously attempted to agree upon. This kept the Roman border of control at the Danube River, whilst the warring tribes had to respect these boundaries and keep the peace beyond them.

Whilst this has been seen as a necessary, if not cautious, expedient by modern historians, it was criticized quite widely in the ancient accounts. Indeed, even though some senators were apparently happy with a cessation of hostilities, the ancient historians who recount Commodus’s reign accuse him of cowardice and indifference, reversing his father’s initiatives on the German frontier.

They attribute such cowardly actions to Commodus’s disinterest in such activities as war as well, accusing him of wishing to return to the luxury of Rome and the debauched indulgences he preferred to engage in.

Whilst this would correlate with the rest of their accounts of Commodus’s life, it is also the case that many senators and officials in Rome were happy to see the cessation of hostilities. For Commodus, it also made sense politically, so that he could return to the seat of government without much delay, in order to solidify his position.

Regardless of the reasons involved, when Commodus did return to the city, his early years in Rome as sole emperor were not characterized by much success or many judicious policies. Instead, there were a number of uprisings in different corners of the empire – particularly in Britain and North Africa.

In Britain it took the appointment of new generals and governors for peace to be restored, especially as some of the soldiers posted in this faraway province grew restless and resentful for not receiving their “donatives” from the emperor – these were payments made from the imperial treasury at the accession of a new emperor.

North Africa was more easily pacified, but the quelling of these disturbances was not counterbalanced by much praiseworthy policy on Commodus’s part. Whilst there were some acts carried out by Commodus given some commendation by later analysts, they seem to have been far and few between.

Moreover, Commodus continued a policy of his father’s, in further debasing the silver content of the coinage that was in circulation, helping to exacerbate inflation across the empire. Besides from these events and activities, there is not too much else noted for Commodus’s early reign and focus is quite markedly on the increasing deterioration of Commodus’s rule and the court “politics” he engaged in.

Nonetheless, besides the uprisings in Britain and North Africa, as well as some hostilities breaking out again across the Danube, Commodus’s reign was mostly one of peace and relative prosperity across the empire. In Rome however, especially amongst the aristocratic class that Commodus was surrounded by, the city became a locus of depravity, perversion, and violence.

Yet, whilst the senatorial class grew to increasingly hate him, the general public and soldiers seemed to be quite fond of him. Indeed for the former, he regularly put on lavish shows of chariot racing and gladiatorial combat, which he himself would on occasion take part in.

Early Conspiracies Against Commodus and Their Consequences

Similar to the way in which Commodus’s affiliates are often blamed for his increasing depravity, historians – ancient and modern – both tend to attribute Commodus’s increasing madness and violence to external threats – some real, and some imagined. In particular, they point the finger at the assassination attempts that were directed against him in the middle and later years of his reign.

The first major attempt against his life was in fact made by his sister Lucilla – the very same one who is depicted in the film Gladiator, by Connie Nielsen. The reasons given for her decision include that she had become fed up with her brother’s indecency and disregard for his office, as well as the fact she had in turn lost much of her influence and was jealous of her brother’s wife.

Lucilla had previously been an Empress, having been married to Marcus’s co-emperor Lucius Verus. On his early death, she was soon married to another prominent figure Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, who was a Syrian Roman general.

In 181 AD she made her move, employing two of her supposed lovers Marcus Ummidius Quadratus and Appius Claudius Quintianus to carry out the deed. Quintianus attempted to kill Commodus when he entered a theater but gave away his position rashly. He was subsequently stopped and both conspirators were later executed, whilst Lucilla was exiled to Capri and soon killed.

After this, Commodus began to distrust many of those close to him in positions of power. Even though the conspiracy had been orchestrated by his sister, he believed that the senate had been behind it as well, perhaps, as some of the sources claim, because Quintianus had asserted the senate had been behind it really.

The sources then tell us that Commodus put to death many apparent conspirators who had hatched plots against him. Whilst it is very difficult to ascertain whether any of these were genuine plots against him, it seems clear that Commodus quickly got carried away and began to undergo a campaign of executions, clearing out the aristocratic ranks of almost everyone who had become influential in the reigns of his father.

Whilst this trail of blood was being made, Commodus neglected many of the duties of his position and instead delegated almost all responsibility to a coterie of avaricious and iniquitous advisors, especially the prefects in charge of the praetorian guard – the emperor’s personal troop of bodyguards.

Whilst these advisors were carrying out their own campaigns of violence and extortion, Commodus was busying himself in the arenas and amphitheaters of Rome. In complete disregard for what was considered appropriate for a Roman emperor to indulge in, Commodus regularly rode in chariot races and fought many times against maimed gladiators or drugged beasts, usually in private, but often in public as well.

In the midst of this increasing madness, there was another notable assassination attempt on the emperor Commodus, this time initiated by Publius Salvius Julianus, son of a prominent jurist in Rome. Like the previous attempt, it was quite easily foiled and the conspirator was executed, only amplifying Commodus’s suspicion of all around him.

The Reign of Commodus’s Favorites and Prefects

As has been alluded to, these conspiracies and plots pushed Commodus into paranoia and disregard for the usual duties of his office. Instead, he delegated immense power to a select group of advisors and his praetorian prefects, who like Commodus, have gone down in history as infamous and avaricious figures.

First was Aelius Saetorus, whom Commodus was very fond of. However, in 182 he was implicated in a plot against Commodus’s life by some of Commodus’s other confidants and was put to death, greatly saddening Commodus in the process. Next came Perrenis, who took charge of all of the emperor’s correspondence – a very significant position, central to the running of the empire.

Yet, he too was implicated in disloyalty and a plot against the emperor’s life, by another of Commodus’s favorites and really, his political rival, Cleander.

Out of all of these figures, Cleander is probably the most infamous of Commodus’s confidants. Beginning as a “freedman” (a freed slave), Cleander quickly established himself as a close and trusted friend of the emperor. Around 184/5, he made himself responsible for almost all public offices, whilst selling entry to the senate, army commands, governorships, and consulships (the nominally highest office besides emperor).

READ MORE: Roman Slaves: Slavery in Ancient Rome

At this time, another assassin attempted to kill Commodus – this time, a soldier from a disgruntled legion in Gaul. In fact, at this time there was quite a lot of unrest in Gaul and Germany, no doubt made worse by the emperor’s apparent disinterest in their affairs. Like the previous attempts, this soldier – Maternus – was quite easily stopped and executed by beheading.

Following this, Commodus reportedly secluded himself in his private estates, convinced that only there would he be safe from the vultures that were surrounding him. Cleander took this as the cue to aggrandize himself, by disposing of the current praetorian prefect Atilius Aebutianus, and making himself supreme commander of the guard.

He continued to sell public offices, setting a record for the number of consulships bestowed in the year 190 AD. However, he seemingly pushed the limits too far and, in the process, alienated too many other prominent politicians around him. As such, when Rome was hit by a food shortage, a magistrate responsible for the food supply, placed the blame at Cleander’s feet, enraging a large mob in Rome.

This mob chased Cleander all the way to Commodus’s villa in the country, after which the emperor decided that Cleander had outgrown his use. He was quickly executed, which seemingly forced Commodus into more active control of the government. However, it would not have been how many contemporary senators were hoping.

Commodus the God-Ruler

In the ensuing later years of his reign, the Roman principate turned into somewhat of a stage for Commodus to express his strange and perverse aspirations. Much of the actions he took reoriented Roman cultural, political, and religious life around himself, whilst he still allowed certain individuals to run different aspects of the state (with responsibilities now being more widely divided).

One of the first alarming things that Commodus did, was to make Rome a colony and rename it after himself – to Colonia Lucia Aurelia Nova Commodiana (or some similar variant). He then bestowed upon himself a catalog of new titles, including Amazonius, Exsuperatorius, and Herculius. Furthermore, he fashioned himself always in clothes embroidered with gold, modeling himself as an absolute ruler of all he surveyed.

His titles, moreover, were early indications of his aspirations beyond mere kingship, to the level of a god – “Exsuperatorius” as a title shared many connotations with the ruler of the Roman gods Jupiter. Similarly, the name “Herculius” of course referenced the famous god of the Graeco-Roman myth Hercules, whom many god-aspirants had likened themselves to previously.

READ MORE: Heracles: Ancient Greece’s Most Famous Hero

Following on from this Commodus began to have himself depicted more and more in the garb of Hercules and other Roman gods, whether in person, on coinage, or in statues. As well as Hercules, Commodus often appeared as Mithras (an Eastern god) as well as the sun god Sol.

This hyper-focus on himself was then compounded by Commodus changing the names of the months to reflect his own (now twelve) names, just as he renamed the legions and fleets of the empire after himself as well. This was then capped off by renaming the senate the Commodian Fortunate Senate and replacing the head of Nero’s Colossus – next to the Colosseum – with his own, remodeling the famous monument to look like Hercules (with a club in one hand a lion at the feet).

All of this was presented and propagated as part of a new “golden age” of Rome – a common claim throughout its history and catalog of emperors – overseen by this new God-king. Yet in making Rome his playground and mocking each hallowed institution that characterized it, he had pushed things beyond repair, alienating everybody around him who all knew that something must be done.

Commodus’s Death and Legacy

In late 192 AD, something indeed was done. Shortly after Commodus had held Plebeian games, involving him throwing javelins and firing arrows at hundreds of animals and fighting (probably maimed) gladiators, a list was found by his mistress Marcia, containing the names of people Commodus seemingly wished to kill.

On this list, was herself and the two praetorian prefects currently in position – Laetus and Eclectus. As such, the three decided to pre-empt their own deaths by having Commodus killed instead. They decided initially that the best agent for the deed would be poison in his food, and so this was administered on New Year’s Eve, 192 AD.

However, the poison did not deliver the fatal blow as the emperor threw up much of his food, after which he ushered some suspicious threats and decided to bathe (perhaps to sweat out the remaining poison). Not to be dissuaded, the triarchy of conspirators then sent Commodus’s wrestling partner Narcissus into the room that Commodus was bathing in, to strangle him. The deed was carried out, the god-king was killed, and the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty was ended.

Whilst Cassius Dio tells us that there were many omens portending Commodus’s death and the chaos that would ensue, few would have known what to expect after his passing. Immediately after it had become known that he was dead, the senate ordered that Commodus’s memory be expunged and he be retrospectively declared a public enemy of the state.

This process, known as damnatio memoriae was visited by quite a lot of different emperors after their death, especially if they had made a lot of enemies in the senate. Statues of Commodus would be destroyed and even the parts of inscriptions with his name on them would be etched out (although the proper implementation of damnatio memoriae varied according to time and place).

Following Commodus’s death, the Roman empire descended into a violent and bloody civil war, wherein five different figures competed for the title of an emperor – with the period being accordingly known as the “Year of the Five Emperors.”

First was Pertinax, the man who had been sent to pacify the uprisings in Britain during the earlier days of Commodus’s principate. After trying to unsuccessfully reform the unruly praetorians, he was executed by the guard, and the position of emperor was then effectively put up for auction by that same faction!

Didius Julianus came to power through this scandalous affair but only managed to live for another two months before war broke out properly between three more aspirants – Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Septimius Severus. Initially, the latter two formed an alliance and defeated Niger, before turning on themselves, resulting finally in the sole ascendancy of Septimius Severus as emperor.

Thereafter Septimius Severus did manage to rule for a further 18 years, during which he did in fact restore Commodus’s image and reputation (in order so that he could legitimize his own accession and the apparent continuity of rule). Yet the death of Commodus, or rather, his succession to the throne has remained the point wherein most historians cite the “beginning of the end” for the Roman Empire.

READ MORE: The Fall of Rome: When, Why and How Did Rome Fall?

Even though it lasted for almost another three centuries, the majority of its subsequent history is overshadowed by civil strife, warfare, and cultural decline, resuscitated at moments by remarkable leaders. This then helps to explain, along with the accounts of his own life, why Commodus is looked back upon with such disdain and critique.

As such, although Joaquin Phoenix and the crew of Gladiator undoubtedly employed an abundance of “artistic license” for their depictions of this infamous emperor, they very successfully captured and reimagined the infamy and megalomania that the real Commodus has been remembered for.

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