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This Week In History

Commodus sole Emperor. March 17, 1180 AD.

Marcus Aurelius´ reign was characterized by continuous wars. In March 17, 180 AD, after two years leading the campaigns in the Danube himself, he died leaving his son Commodus as sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

Therefore, although Commodus´ reign was more or less peaceful if compared with his father´s, it was terribly unstable and turbulent in political terms. His reign was subject to his own infatuations and needs instead of the needs of his people. In words of Dio Cassio:

Commodus´ reign marked the transition a golden and silver age to that of rust and iron.

This phrase has defined what many modern historians call the Decadence of the Roman Empire.

Commodus stayed with his army in the Danube until he proposed a peace treaty to the Germanic Tribes, which didn´t hesitate to accept the Emperor´s terms. After the success of the negotiations, the emperor returned to Rome where he celebrated his triumph on October 22, 180. Unlike his predecessors, Commodus had no interest in the administrative part of his office, so he uplifted his friends and favorites. The senators where not happy with this situation and so, started a series of conspirations and coup attempts which led to Commodus´ actions getting more and more despotic and tyrant. Despite the hatred of the Senate, he had the love of both the people and the army. Romans´ love wasn´t only caused by his generosity towards them, but also by the spectacular gladiatorial games that he organized throughout his rule. In order to bear the expenses of these games, he raised the senatorial tax and this only helped to widen the breach that already existed between them.

During all his rule he stated his opposition to the Senate in all his political discourses, making obvious his superiority in opposition to the archaic figure of the Senate. He presented himself as a god, with the same strength, skill and intelligence. He ordered to build statues all along the Empire that portrayed him with the appearance of Hercules, protector of the Roman people. He wanted to be identified with Hercules as the son of Jupiter, supreme god of the Roman Pantheon, neglecting his real predecessor, the beloved Marcus Aurelius.

In 192 there was a great fire in the city of Rome, that burnt down a lot of public buildings, the Temple of Pax, the Temple of Vesta and part of the Imperial Palace among others. After the fire, Commodus saw the opportunity of presenting himself as the new Romulus, renaming the city as Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. He renamed the twelve months of the year with his own twelve names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius. He also renamed the legions, the fleet, his palace, and even the Roman citizens (Commodianus from then on). He also ordered to replace his head for that of the Colossus of Nero. In November he celebrated the Plebeian Games, in which he participated shooting arrows to hundreds of animals and fighting dying men.

By this time, prefect Leto decided to set up a conspiracy and kill the Emperor, replacing Commodus with Pertinax. Following his murder, the Senate declared him a public enemy and decreed damnatio memoriae against him. All the names that Commodus had changed returned to their original names and all his statues where demolished. His name was erased from all public records. Commodus´s murder threw Rome into a second civil war, yet bloodier that the so called “year of the four emperors”. This conflict was known as the “year of the five emperors”, and took the live of four of them, including Commodus and his successor Pertinax.

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