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This Week In History

The Gladiator Emperor – December 31, 192

Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus was born in 161 AD, at Lanuvium, to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and Faustina Junior. Even though the practice of naming genetic offspring as the next ruler had fallen out of fashion with end of the Flavian Era, Commodus and his younger brother, Annius Verus, were made co-Caesar when they were both elevated at 5 or 6 years old and 3 respectively. Only Commodus lived to adulthood, however – Annius Verus died around six years old.

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Commodus accompanied Marcus Aurelius on campaigns during his early adolescent years, where he began his training. When Commodus was 15, his father elevated him to co-Augustus and he married Crispina. Marcus Aurelius died only three years later and Commodus abandoned pretty much everything his father worked to achieve on the borderlands. He negotiated a bad treaty with the Marcomanni, which required the empire to not only forfeit territories, but also make annual payments.

Commodus wasn’t interested in running the empire itself or going on military expeditions. He returned to Rome and established himself at the capitol. He quickly alienated his wife, as well as his sister, Lucilla, and the two overcame their differences to form a plot to assassinate the emperor in 182/183. The plot failed in its mission, along with having the effect of making Commodus suspicious of everyone, since the would-be assassin drew his dagger and charged him, saying “See! This is what the Senate has sent you!”

The repercussions of the failed plot were brutal. Commodus banished and executed Lucilla and Crispina both. However, before Crispina was exiled, Commodus divorced her on charges of adultery. Ironically, Commodus was himself a prolific adulterer, rumored to have hundreds of female and male partners.

The management and defense of the empire was left to the praetorian prefects and generals. Luckily for Rome, the generals at the time happened to be extremely capable in the likes of Septimius Severus, Clodius Albinus, Pertinax and Pescennius Niger. The praetorians took care of managing everything else. Perennis was the chief praetorian, effectively “ruling” the empire from 180-185 until a false rumor was started that he planned to actually usurp the throne. That rumor may have been started by Cleander, who took over from 185-190, until the official in charge of Rome’s grain supply created a false shortage, pinning the blame on Cleander.

As time went on, Commodus became more brutal and detached. He appointed, and executed, praetorians without rational thinking. He participated in role-playing in public like Nero before him. He considered himself the reincarnation of Hercules and would wear a lion-skin headdress and carry a club. He was an accomplished archer and could apparently decapitate ostriches with crescent-shaped arrows. He also participated in gladiatorial contests, which fed into the rumors he wasn’t actually the son of Marcus Aurelius, but instead the result of one of the trysts Faustina Junior had with some of the gladiators.

Commodus had planned to address the Senate at the beginning of 193, in the guise of Hercules. The Senate, along with everyone around the emperor, fearing what would happen next, formed another assassination plot. The conspirators were praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus, Commodus’s chamberlain Eclectus, and Marcia, the concubine of Commodus along with being the wife of Eclectus. While at New Year’s Eve festivities in 192 at the Vectilian Villa gladiator school, Marcia gave the emperor some poisoned mushrooms. Commodus, however, vomited, so the mushroom plot failed. Terrified they would be discovered, the would-be assassins ordered an athlete, Narcissus, to come in and strangle the crazed emperor to death.

The Senate immediately breathed a sigh of relief and ordered a damnatio memoriae on Commodus. That would be lifted three years later, however, as Septimius Severus needed to honor Commodus’s memory in order to justify his own taking of the purple, along with the false claim of being the son of Marcus Aurelius.

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