Commodus

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Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus (AD 161-192), was sole Roman Emperor from 180 until his death, having been co-Emperor with his father since 177.

Life

Bust of Commodus

He was born in Lanuvium on 31 August 161, the only son to survive infancy of the thirteen or more children of the reigning Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his wife and first cousin Faustina. He was made Caesar on 12 October 166 and Imperator on 27 November 176. The following 1 January, he became at fifteen the youngest consul yet in Roman history, and later that year Augustus and thus theoretically the equal of his father, whose death on 17 March 180 left him in sole control of the empire.

His father raised him with great care, "summoning to Rome from all over the empire men renowned for learning in their own countries. He paid these scholars large fees to live in Rome and supervise his son's education.” [1] When, however, the dying Marcus “realized that his son would become emperor while still very young, he was afraid that the undisciplined youth, deprived of parental advice, might neglect his excellent studies and good habits and turn to drinking and debauchery (for the minds of the young, prone to pleasures, are turned very easily from the virtues of education) when he had absolute and unrestrained power.” [2]

His fears proved justified. “Our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust” opined Cassius Dio [3] on Commodus’s accession, a judgment followed by later historians such as Edward Gibbon, who took it as signifying the beginning of the decline of Rome.

Commodus abandoned his father’s Danubian campaign for the pleasures of Rome, especially sex and wine. Already childlessly married to Bruttia Crispina, “he herded together women of unusual beauty, keeping them like purchased prostitutes in a sort of brothel for the violation of their chastity. … The son of Salvius Julianus, who commanded the troops, he tried in vain to draw into lewdness, and he thereafter plotted against Julianus.”[4]

Soon he began to disdain the opinion of the Senate and instead courted the Roman populace with extravagant gladiatorial shows in which he was a proud participant, while leaving the government in the hands of untrustworthy and thoroughly corrupt cronies, who plotted against him.

The first of these, Perennis, “being well acquainted with Commodus' character, discovered the way to make himself powerful, namely, by persuading Commodus to devote himself to pleasure while he, Perennis, assumed all the burdens of the government — an arrangement which Commodus joyfully accepted. Under this agreement, then, Commodus lived, rioting in the Palace amid banquets and in baths along with three hundred concubines, gathered together for their beauty and chosen from both matrons and harlots, and also with three hundred pubescent catamites, whom he had collected by force and by purchase indiscriminately from the common people and the nobles solely on the basis of bodily beauty."[5]

His popularity with ordinary Romans was dented by a devastating fire in 191 and growing signs of his megalomania. Extravagantly renaming himself Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Herculeus Romanus Exsuperatorius Amazonius Invictus Felix Pius, he opened himself to ridicule through personal naked appearances in the arena to defeat gladiators and slaughter enough wild animals to sicken even the jaded Roman mob.


Death

On the last day of 192 he announced to his mistress Marcia, praetorian prefect Laetus and steward Eclectus his intention of inaugurating the new year by appearing to the people “not from the imperial palace, in the customary fashion, but from the gladiatorial barracks, clad in armour instead of in the splendid imperial purple.” Infuriated with their pleas not to thus disgrace himself, he put their names on a tablet at the top of the list of those who were to be put to death that night. He then “placed the tablet on his couch, thinking that no one would come into his bedroom. But there was in the palace a very young little boy, one of those who went about bare of clothes but adorned with gold and costly gems. The Roman voluptuaries always took delight in these lads. Commodus was very fond of this child and often slept with him; his name, Philocommodus, clearly indicates the emperor's affection for him. Philocommodus was playing idly about the palace. After Commodus had gone out to his usual baths and drinking bouts, the lad wandered into the emperor's bedroom, as he usually did; picking up the tablet for a plaything, he left the bedroom. By a stroke of fate, he met Marcia. After hugging and kissing him (for she too was fond of the child), she took the tablet from him, afraid that in his heedless play he might accidentally erase something important. When she recognized the emperor's handwriting, she was eager to read the tablet. Discovering that it was a death list and that she was scheduled to die first, followed by Laetus and Eclectus”, she summoned them, and together they then poisoned his wine, and when his death still seemed uncertain, had him strangled. [6]

The contemporary historian Herodian summed up Commodus thus:

“He was the most nobly born of all the emperors who preceded him and was the handsomest man of his time, both in beauty of features and in physical development. If it were fitting to discuss his manly qualities, he was inferior to no man in skill and in marksmanship, if only he had not disgraced these excellent traits by shameful practices.”[7]

Like Caligula and Nero, his life offers interesting insights into the sexual proclivities of the entirely unrestrained Roman male.

In film

Commodus has been a leading character in two Hollywood epics: The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), in which he was played by Christopher Plummer, and Gladiator (2000), in which he was played by Joaquin Phoenix. In both highly fictionalised stories, the existence of Philocommodus and his fellow-catamites is expunged and the exaggeratedly wicked emperor meets his deserved fate at the hands of an invented hero with suitable twentieth-century sensibilities.

References