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With the Roman Empire having lasted for so long and having been so vast, we are fortunate to never be lacking for topics. This includes the people that helped shaped history, for better or worse.
Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors. He was a practitioner of Stoicism, and his writing, commonly known as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, is the most significant source of our modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy.
Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between AD 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty. It describes how to find, and preserve, equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.
In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, although the threat of the Germanic tribes began to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. A revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius failed to gain momentum and was suppressed immediately.
Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March 180 AD, in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome, and rested in Hadrian‘s mausoleum (modern Castel Sant’Angelo) until the Visigoth sack of the city in AD 410.
Marcus gave the succession to his son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in AD 166 and made co-Emperor in 177. This decision, putting an end to the series of “adoptive emperors”, was highly criticized by later historians since Commodus was a political and military outsider, as well as an extreme egotist with neurotic problems.
Marcus Aurelius would make only a single negative contribution to Rome, but it would be huge. He named his son, Commodus, as his successor.
The youth turned out to be very erratic, or at least so anti-traditional that disaster was inevitable. Having gotten a glimpse of the father, let us see this so-called problem child.
Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus was born on 31 August 161 AD in in Lanuvium, near Rome. He was the son of the reigning Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and Aurelius’ first cousin, Faustina the Younger (the youngest daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius).
The latter died in 169 having failed to recover from an operation, which left Commodus as Marcus Aurelius’ sole surviving son. He was looked after, and treated for many common illnesses, by his father’s physician, Galen, in order to keep Commodus healthy and alive.
Commodus received extensive tutoring by a multitude of teachers with a focus on intellectual education. So aside from having his twin brother pass away, Commodus was raised as a normal as any other Roman child of wealth and prominence.
Commodus is known to have been at Carnuntum, the headquarters of Marcus Aurelius during the Marcomannic Wars, in AD 172. It was presumably there that, on 15 October 172, he was given the victory title Germanicus, in the presence of the Roman Army.
In April AD 175, Avidius Cassius, Governor of Syria, declared himself Emperor following rumors that Marcus Aurelius had died. Having been accepted as Emperor by Syria, Palestine and Egypt, Cassius carried on his rebellion even after it had become obvious that Marcus was still alive.
During the preparations for the campaign against Cassius, the Prince assumed his Toga Virilis on the Danubian front on 7 July 175, thus formally entering adulthood. Cassius, however, was killed by one of his Centurions before the campaign against him could begin.
Commodus subsequently accompanied his father on a lengthy trip to the Eastern provinces, during which he visited Antioch. The Emperor and his son then traveled to Athens, where they were initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. They then returned to Rome in the Autumn of AD 176.
Even though he himself was adopted as Imperial successor, which seems to have been a good choice for each of his 4 predecessors, Marcus Aurelius wanted to keep the power in his biological family. On 27 November 176 AD, Marcus Aurelius granted Commodus the rank of Imperator and, in the middle of 177, the title Augustus, giving his son the same status as his own and formally sharing power.
On 23 December of the same year, the father & son Augusti celebrated a joint triumph, and Commodus was given Tribunicia Potestas (Tribunician Power). On 1 January 177, Commodus initially became Consul, which at 15 years old, made him the youngest in Roman history up to that time.
Despite his notoriety, and considering the importance of his reign, Commodus’ years in power are not well chronicled. The principal surviving literary sources are Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta.
He subsequently married Bruttia Crispina before accompanying his father to the Danubian front once more in AD 178. When Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March 180, the 18-year-old Commodus was left as sole Emperor.
Here’s where the problems would begin for the Roman Empire overall. Whereas the reign of Marcus Aurelius had been marked by almost continuous warfare, that of Commodus was comparatively peaceful in the military sense but was marked by political strife and the increasingly illogical and unpredictable behavior of the Emperor himself.
In the view of Dio Cassius, a contemporary observer of the period, his accession marked the descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”. This famous comment which led some historians, notably Edward Gibbon, to take Commodus’ reign as the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.
Upon his ascension, Commodus devalued the Roman currency. He reduced the weight of the denarius from 96 per Roman pound to 105 (3.85 grams to 3.35 grams). He also reduced the silver purity from 79% to 76% with the silver weight dropping from 2.57 grams to 2.34 grams.
In AD 186, he further reduced the purity and silver weight to 74% and 2.22 grams respectively, being 108 to the Roman pound. His reduction of the denarius during his rule was the largest since the Empire’s foremost devaluation during Nero‘s reign.
Commodus was quite fond of himself and being praised, so upon becoming sole ruler he began collecting titles. In AD 182 he became Pius (the Dutiful), 3 years later he added Felix (the Fortunate/Happy), after that he became Invictus (Undefeated) and Herculeus (Herculean).
Commodus remained with the Danube armies for only a short time before negotiating a peace treaty with the Danubian tribes. He then returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph for the conclusion of the wars on 22 October 180.
Unlike the preceding Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, he seems to have had little interest in the business of administration. Throughout his reign Commodus tended to leave the practical running of the State to a succession of favorites as his Chamberlain.
Dissatisfaction with this state of affairs would lead to a series of conspiracies and attempted coups, which in turn eventually provoked Commodus to take charge of affairs, which he did in an increasingly dictatorial manner. The Senatorial Order came to hate and fear him.
Evidence suggests, however, that he remained popular with the Army and the common people for much of his reign. This was at least in part because of his lavish shows of largesse and because he staged and took part in spectacular gladiatorial combats.
One of the ways he paid for his donatives and mass entertainments was to tax the Senatorial Order. On many inscriptions, the traditional order of the 2 nominal powers of the State, the Senate and People (Senatus Populusque Romanus) is defiantly reversed.
In opposition to the Senate, in his pronouncements and iconography, Commodus had always laid stress on his unique status as a source of god-like power, liberality and physical prowess. These tendencies now increased to megalomaniacal proportions.
Far from celebrating his descent from Marcus Aurelius, the actual source of his power, he stressed his own personal uniqueness as the bringer of a new order, seeking to re-cast the Empire in his own image.
During AD 191, the city of Rome was extensively damaged by a fire that raged for several days. During that time many public buildings including the Temple of Pax, the Temple of Vesta and parts of the Imperial Palace were destroyed.
Perhaps seeing this as an opportunity, early in 192 Commodus, declaring himself the new Romulus, ritually re-founded Rome, renaming the city Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. All the months of the year were renamed to correspond exactly with his (now 12) names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius.
The Legions were renamed Commodianae, the fleet which imported grain from Africa was termed Alexandria Commodiana Togata, the Senate was entitled the Commodian Fortunate Senate. His palace and the Roman people themselves were all given the name Commodianus, and the day on which these reforms were decreed was to be called Dies Commodianus.
Thus he presented himself as the fountainhead of the Empire and Roman life and religion. He also had the head of the Colossus of Nero adjacent to the Colosseum replaced with his own portrait, gave it a club and placed a bronze lion at its feet to make it look like Hercules Romanus, and added an inscription boasting of being “the only left-handed fighter to conquer twelve times one thousand men”.
In November 192, Commodus held the Ludi Plebeii. During said games he shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning, and fought as a gladiator every afternoon, winning all the bouts (of course since he’s Invincible).
Then in December, Commodus announced his intention to inaugurate the year AD 193 as both Consul and Gladiator on 1 January. At this point, the Praefectus Laetus had all that he could stand of this crazy Emperor and formed a conspiracy with Eclectus to supplant Commodus with Pertinax.
On 31 December, Commodus’ mistress Marcia poisoned his food but he vomited up the poison. Not to be discouraged so easily, the conspirators sent his wrestling partner Narcissus to strangle him in his bath.
Upon his death, the Senate declared Commodus a public enemy (a de facto Damnatio Memoriae). The Senate restored the city’s name back to Rome, all institutions of Commodus were reversed to what they had previously been, and all of his statues were thrown down.
So let’s recap this difference in reigns between father and son…
Marcus Aurelius (Father) was chosen (adopted) by his predecessor for his qualities, ruled as what historians have deemed the Five Good Emperors, governed with a stoic philosophy seeking balance, provided the people of Rome with needed grain and riches, but had to accomplish this by constantly putting down rebellions and suppressing warring tribes on the Empire’s boundaries, then died a natural death.
Commodus, however, was given power solely due to his being born into it, had no real wars of his own and was loved by the people for giving them grain and non-stop games in the Colosseum, but changed everything about Rome and its history to favor himself, financed everything by scamming Rome’s currency, had others rule for him while he fought in games believing himself to be Hercules, before ultimately being assassinated by his own guard and mistress.
We will let you make your own judgement, but we think the case is clear. In this particular scenario, the apple fell very far from the proverbial tree.
Thank you for stopping by and we hope you enjoyed today’s exploration. Check back with us again soon to see what else we have in store.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Birley, Anthony R. Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. New York: Routledge, 1987. ISBN 0-415-17125-3.
Cassius Dio. Roman History (Cary, Earnest, translated). London: Heinemann, 1914–27. Online at LacusCurtius.
Furtak, Rick Anthony. “Marcus Aurelius: Kierkegaard’s Use and Abuse of the Stoic Emperor.” In Kierkegaard and the Roman World, edited by Jon Stewart, 69-74. Ashgate Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-6554-0.
Kerrigan, Michael. A Dark History: The Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to the Fall of Rome. Sterling Publishing, 2008.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Meditations.
McLynn, Frank. Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor. Bodley Head, 2009. ISBN 978-0-224-07292-2.
Millar, Fergus. The Roman Near East: 31 BC – AD 337. Harvard University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-674-77886-3.