Co'mmodus, L. Aurelius
son of M. Aurelius and the younger Faustina (see genealogical table prefixed to ANTONINUS PIUS), was born at Lanuvium on the last day of August, A. D. 161, a few months after the death of Antoninus Pius, and this was the first of the Roman emperors to whom the title of Porphyrogenitus
could be correctly applied. Faustina at the same time gave birth to a twin son, known as Antoninus Geminus, who died when four years old.
The nurture and education of Commodus were watched and superintended from infancy with anxious care; and from a very early age he was surrounded with the most distinguished preceptors in the various departments of general literature, science, and philosophy.
The honours heaped upon the royal youth as he advanced towards manhood have been accurately chronicled by his biographers.
He received the appellation of Caesar
along with his younger brother Annius Veras on the 12th of October, A. D. 166, at the time when M. Aurelius and L. Verus celebrated their triumph over the Partians; he was styled Germanicus
on the 15th of October, 172; in 175, on the 20th of January, he was admitted a member of all the sacerdotal colleges; on the 19th of May he left the city, having been summoned in all haste to Germany in consequence of the news which had arrived from Syria of the rebellion of Avidius Cassius; on the 7th of July he was invested with the manly gown, proclaimed Princeps Juxentutis,
and nominated consul-elect; he then accompanied his father to the East, and, during his absence from Rome, Sarmaticus
was added to his other titles; on the 27th of November, 176, he was saluted Imperator ;
on the 23rd of December, he shared in,the triumph celebrated over the Germans, and was assumed as colleague in the tribunician power; on the 1st of January, 177, he entered on his first consulship; in the same year he married Bruttia Crispina, daughter of Bruttius Praesens, was hailed as Augustus
and Pater Patriae,
and thus at the age of 16 was admitted to a full participation in all the imperial dignities except the chief pontificate, which, according to the principle maintained inviolate until the reign of Balbinus and Pupienus [BALBINUS], could be held by one individual only. On the 5th of August he set forth to take part in the war then raging on the Upper Danube, which, as is mentioned elsewhere [M. AURELIUS], was prosecated with signal success until the death of M. Aurelius, on the 17th of March, 180.
Impatient of hardship and eager to indulge without restraint in the pleasures of the capital, Commodus, disregarding alike the last injunctions of his sire and the earnest advice of the trusty counsellors to whose care he had been consigned, concluded a hasty and therefore uncertain peace with the barbarians, who in their depressed and enfeebled condition might by a vigorous effort have been crushed for ever.
In autumn he reached Rome, where his authority was as fully and freely acknowledged by the senate, the praetorians, and the people, as it had been by the legions which he commanded in person and the armies of the distant provinces. No prince ever commenced a career of power under fairer auspices.
The love and veneration entertained by men of every condition for the father had descended like an inheritance on the son, and although some who knew him well and had marked his boyhood might whisper distrust and fear, such murmurs were drowned by the general acclamations which greeted his first appearance as emperor. Nor were the hopes of men for a while disappointed. Grave and calculating statesmen might feel displeasure and alarm at the reckless profusion which characterised the very commencement of the new reign; but since a large portion of the sums squandered was lavished upon the soldiers and the people, the lower orders at least of the community were enthusiastic in their attachment to the new ruler.
This state of things did not endure long.
A formidable plot against his life was organised (A. D. 183) by his sister Lucilla, jealous, it was believed, of the superior influence and position of Crispina; but the scheme failed in consequence of the awkwardness of the assassin, who, instead of dealing the fatal blow at the proper moment, put the prince upon his guard by exclaiming as he rushed forward, "The senate sends thee this."
The event seems to have awakened the slumbering ferocity of a temper which now burst forth with frightful vehemence, and raging from that time forward without controul, especially against the members of that body in which the conspiracy was said to have originated, rendered the remainder of his life an unbroken tissue of sanguinary excesses. Every pretext was seized for the exhibition of the most savage cruelty; false accusations, vague suspicions, great wealth, high birth, distinguished learning, or any conspicuous virtue, were sufficient to point out and doom his victims, long lists of whom have been preserved by Lampridius, including nearly all who had risen to fame and fortune under M. Aurelius, with the exception of Pertinax, Pompeianus, and Victorinus. [PERTINAX; POMPEIANUS; VICTORINUS.] All other passions were indulged with the same freedom as the thirst for blood. Resigning the reins of government into the hands of the various favourites who followed each other in rapid succession [see PERENNIS; CLEANDER; LAETUS; ECLECTUS], he abandoned himself without interruption to the most shameless and beastly debauchery.
But while devouring in gluttony the resources of the empire and wallowing in every description of sensual fifth, he was at the same time the slave of the most childish vanity, and sought for popular applause with indefatigable activity.
He disdained not to dance, to sing, to play the charioteer and the buffoon, to disguise himself as a pedlar or a horse-dealer, and to essay his skill in the practical pursuits of the humble artizan. Frequently he would appear and officiate as a sacrificing priest, and eagerly assisted in all the orgies of foreign superstition, celebrating the rites of Isis, of Anubis, of Serapis, or of Mithra, in all their folly and all their horror. His pride and boast, however, was his skill in the use of martial weapons.
This he sought not to display against the enemies of his country in the field, but he fought as a gladiator upwards of seven hundred times, and slew many thousands of wild beasts in the amphitheatre with bow and spear. Other emperors had sought or accepted the compliment of having one month named after themselves, but Commodus decreed that the whole twelve should be designated by the epithets and titles which he had at different periods assumed, and that they should be arranged and enumerated in the following order :--Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius,
ordaining also that the happy epoch during which he had sojourned on earth should be distinguished as Seculum aureum Commodianum,
the nation as Commodiana,
the senate as Commodianus,
the armies as Commodiani,
and the eternal city itself as Colonia Commodiana.
At length the miserable craving could be no longer appeased by the homage and flatteries which a more mortal might claim. Long ere this, indeed, the Greeks had been wont to compare their rulers, both domestic and foreign, to deities, and the Romans had sometimes delicately hinted at some such resemblance by the devices stamped on the reverse of the coins of their Augusti.
But as yet no inscription had appeared openly ascribing divine attributes to living princes, nor had any symbol appeared on their medals which could openly and directly convey such impious meaning.
It was left for Commodus to break through these decent restrictions; his exploits in the slaughter of wild beasts suggested an analogy with the Tirynathian hero; he demanded that he should be worshipped as Hercules, and hence from the year 191 we find a multitude of coins on which he is represented in the attire of the immortal son of Alcmena, with the epigraph of Hercules Commodianus
or Hercules Romanus.
His statues also, we are told by the historians of the day, were clad in the appropriate robes; sacrifices were publicly offered as to a present God; when he went abroad the lion's hide and other insignia were borne before him; and, to crown the whole, a number of unhappy wretches were inclosed in cases terminating in serpent-tails, and these he slaughtered with his club, as if they had been the giants warring against heaven.
After having escaped many plots provoked by atrocious tyranny, he at length cane to a fitting end.
He had a mistress named Marcia, to whom he was deeply attached, and whom he especially loved to behold equipped as an Amazon. Hence the epithet Amazonius
was frequently assumed by himself: the name Amazonius, as we have already seen, was attached to the first month, and he displayed his own person in the amphitheatre arrayed in the Amazonian garb.
The first of January, 193, was to have been signalized by a spectacle which would have thrown into the shade the insults previously heaped upon the senate and the people, for Commodus had determined to put to death the two consuls-elect, Q. Sosius Falco and C. Julius Erucius Clarus, and to come forth himself as consul at the opening of the year, not marching in robes of state from the palace to the capitol at the head of the senate, but in the uniform of a secutor, followed by a band of gladiators issuing from their training-school.
This project he communicated to Marcia, who earnestly implored him to abandon a design so fraught with disgrace and danger, and her remonstrances were warmly seconded by Laetus and Eclectus, the one praefect of the praetorians, the other imperial chamberlain.
These counsellors were dismissed with wrath from the presence of the prince, who retired to indulge in his wanted siesta, having previously inscribed on his tablets a long catalogue of persons who were to be put to death that night, the names of Marcia, Laetus, and Eclectus appearing at the head of the list.
This document was found by a favourite child, who entered the apartment while Commodus was asleep, and was carried by him in sport to Marcia, who at once perceived its import.
She immediately communicated the discovery to Laetus and Eclectus.
The danger was imminent, and, unless promptly met, inevitable. Their plans were quickly matured and quickly executed.
That evening poison was administered, and its operation proving so slow as to excite apprehensions of its efficacy, Narcissus, a celebrated athlete, was introduced, and by him Commodus was strangled on the night of December the 31st, A. D. 192, in the thirty-second year of his age and the thirteenth of his reign. When the news of his death, at first cautiously attributed to apoplexy, was spread abroad, the intelligence diffused universal joy among all ranks except the guards, who had been permitted to revel in indolence and luxury and could scarcely expect again to find a master so indulgent and liberal. When his successor, Pertinax [PERTINAX], repaired next morning before daylight to the senate, that venerable body, while greeting their new sovereign, poured forth a string of curses upon the dead tyrant in a sort of strange chaunt, the words of which have been preserved by Lampridius, declared him a public enemy, and, being unable to vent their rage upon the living man, begged that his body might be dragged, like that of a criminal, through the streets with a hook, and cast into the Tiber,--a request with which Pertinax, to his credit, refused to comply, and the corpse was decently interred in the mausoleum of Hadrian.
We seldom meet in history with a character which inspires such pure and unmixed detestation as that of Commodus. While his vices and crimes were inexpressibly revolting, they were rendered if possible more loathsome by his contemptible meanness and weakness.
The most grinding oppression was combined with the most childish vanity, the most savage cruelty with the most dastardly cowardice.
He hated, persecuted, and massacred the senate and the nobles, and at the same time eagerly drank in their most disgusting flatteries.
He slew thousands and tens of thousands of wild beasts, but his arrows were shot and his darts were hurled from behind a screen of network which protected his person from the possibility of risk.
He butchered hundreds of his fellow-men in gladiatorial combats; but while he was clad in the impenetrable armour and wielded the heavy blade of a sector, his antagonists had no defences except weapons of lead or tin; and when as, Hercules, he crushed with his club the unhappy creatures dressed up to resemble the monstrous progeny of Earth, the rocks which they hurled at their assailant were formed of sponge.
After examining the ample records preserved of his career, we shall be unable to find a trace of one generous action or one kindly feeling, to discern a single ray of human sympathy to relieve the portentous blackness of his guilt. Dion, indeed, represents him as naturally of a weak and extremely simple temper; as one who easily received impressions, and whose crimes were to be attributed rather to the artful advice of evil counsellors acting upon a timid and yieldnig disposition, than to any inherent depravity; and imagines that he erred at first from ignorance of what was rigllt, and gliding by degrees into a habit of doing evil, became gradually faniliar with deeds of shame and wickedness.
But had this been the case. the lessons so carefully inculcated in early life would never have been so rapidly and for ever obliterated. We feel more inclined to give credit to the assertion of Lampridius, who declares that from his earliest boyhood he displayed evident proofs of dark passions and a corrupt heart, a propensity to indulge freely in every low and dissolute pleasure, and utter indifference to human suffering and life.
It is almost needless to remark, that Commodus paid no attention to foreign policy nor to the government and regulation of the provinces, except in so far as they might be made to minister to his profusion and profligacy.
The integrity of the empire was however maintained, and the barbarians repulsed from the Dacian frontier by the skill and valour of Clodius Albinus and Pescennius Niger, the same who after the death of Pertinax contested the throne with Septimius Severus.
A still more serious disturbance arose in Britain; for the northern tribes having forced a passage across the wall of Antonine, defeated the Roman troops who opposed their progress, slew their leader, and laid waste the more peaceful districts far and wide. But Ulpius Marcellus having assumed the chief command, the Caledonians were speedily driven back, the war was successfully terminated about A. D. 1814, Commodus was saluted Imperator
for the seventh time, and added Britannicus
to his other titles.
(Dio Cass. lib. lxxii. and Excerpta Vaticana, p. 121, ed. Sturz; Herodian. 1.10-55; Capitolin. M. Aurel. ;
Lamprid. Commod. ;
and the minor Roman historians.)