Mimicking Gods and Gladiators: The Assassination Of Emperor Commodus

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Detail of the Murder of Commodus by Fernand Pelez. (1879). (Public Domain)

Mimicking Gods and Gladiators: The Assassination Of Emperor Commodus

Commodus, the son and heir of the distinguished ‘philosopher emperor’ Marcus Aurelius, was a failure as a Roman emperor. He was appointed co-emperor of Rome and ruled alongside his father when he was just 16 years old and became the sole emperor after the death of his father in 180 AD. Then followed years of brutal misrule which precipitated civil strife that ended 84 years of the Roman empire’s stability and prosperity and led to several assassination attempts on his life. His eventual execution came from an unexpected source.

Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Joseph-Marie Vien (1765) Musée de Picardie (Public Domain)

Arrogant Young Emperor

At the age of 16 years, Commodus became the consul in 177 AD, making him the youngest consul in Roman history. He married Bruttia Crispina, before accompanying his father to the Danube front in 178 AD. Emperor Marcus Aurelius died at the front two years later in 180 AD, leaving the 18-year-old Commodus as the sole emperor.

Commodus had a solid start to his solo reign. By the time he had assumed power, Rome was already a thriving empire which had enjoyed the leadership of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ for 84 years. Commodus also inherited many of his father's senior advisers, such as his sister Lucilla’s second husband Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, his father-in-law Gaius Bruttius Praesens, and the prefect of Rome Aufidius Victorinus. He also had four surviving sisters, all of whom were married to some of Rome’s most powerful men. Lucilla, the eldest of his sisters was his senior of more than ten years. She held the rank of Augusta as the widow of her first husband, Lucius Verus, the adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor of Rome from 161 AD to his death in 169 AD.

From the military perspective, Commodus also had the advantage of a relatively peaceful rule compared to his father’s reign, which was marked by continuous warfare. However, Commodus’ reign was characterized by domestic political strife and the increasingly arbitrary and capricious behavior of the emperor himself.

Upon his ascension, Commodus promptly devalued the currency of Rome. He reduced the weight of the denarius from 96 Roman pound (3.85 grams) to 105 Roman pound (3.35 grams). He also reduced silver’s purity from 79% to 76% and dropped its weight from 2.57 grams to 2.34 grams. Commodus’ reduction of the denarius’ value was the greatest since the empire's first devaluation during the reign of Nero (54 – 68 AD).

Emperor Commodus as Hercules and as a Gladiator by Peter Paul Rubens (1599) (Public Domain)

Emperor Commodus as Hercules and as a Gladiator by Peter Paul Rubens (1599) (Public Domain)

Mimicking Gods And Gladiators

Besides his wife Crispina and his mistress Marcia, Commodus kept a harem of 600 concubines equally divided between young women and boys. Imitating the demigod Hercules, he also took to wearing lion skins and carrying a club. However, this did not stop him from also dressing in women’s clothing and drinking from a cup with a phallus spout.

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