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- Intro -


Some figures like Pericles, Augustus, and Charlemagne have soared into the high country of Western historical tradition while Commodus has been disgraced and banished to a legacy laced with decadence and megalomania.

Only two primary literary sources (Cassius Dio and Herodian) concerning Commodus survive, so little information is known about the emperor's life.  Moreover, the quality of these sources is quite suspect to say the least  for historical purposes.  Cassius Dio was a senator under Commodus who wrote an 80-volume Roman History from a rather biased point-of-view considering the emperor's metaphysical war with the senate.  Herodian appears to have been a minor Roman civil servant whose style sought to entertain Greek-speaking audiences in story-telling fashion.  To frame these authors in a modern context, it would be like the CEO of a private medical insurance corporation writing a history of the United States after President Obama had overseen the creation of public health insurance for all U.S. citizens (representing Cassius Dio's view), and an Iraqi-born lawyer composing a story in his native language meant to be read primarily by other Iraqis after he had lived and worked in the U.S. for several years (representing Herodian's).  Additionally, a highly controversial source named the Historia Augusta still exists that was written at least 150 years after the emperor's death.  In today's world, this would be like the National Enquirer publishing a biography of former U.S. President Millard Fillmore.

Below is a "biography" of Commodus written in mainstream fashion, followed by a slightly tongue-in-cheek examination of the works of both Cassius Dio and Herodian, and finally, an exercise delving a little deeper into all of this.


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- "Biography" -




In March of 161 A.D., Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius died about 4 months shy of a
23-year reign and was succeeded by co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.  On August 31st of the same year, Faustina the Younger (wife and maternal cousin of Marcus) gave birth to twins:
 Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus (who died about 4 years later) and Lucius Aurelius Commodus.

The following year, Faustina the Younger bore Marcus Annius Verus.  This child and Commodus were each named Caesar in October of 166 during a Roman victory celebration of a 5-year war against the Parthians.

169 saw the deaths of both Lucius Verus and Marcus Annius Verus, leaving Marcus Aurelius the sole emperor and Commodus the sole heir.  By this time, both the Antonine Plague had broken out in the Empire and the dozen-year struggle (known as the Marcomannic Wars) against Germanic tribes along the Danube had begun.

Commodus was looked after in his youth by, among others, the physician/philosopher Galen.  It is unclear when the youngster traveled to the Danube during the wars, but he is believed to have been at his father's headquarters in Carnuntum in 172 where he presumably received the title Germanicus in front of the army.  In 175, Commodus received the title Sarmaticus and traveled with his father to the East where they visited Athens in 176 and were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries before returning to Rome that fall.

A 15 year-old Commodus received the title Imperator in November of 176 and celebrated a triumph with his father on December
23rd for having defeated the Germani and the Sarmatae.  He was then made the youngest consul in Roman history up until that time on January 1st, 177 and eventually held the consulship 7 times.  He was named Augustus later that year and married Bruttia Crispina in arranged fashion in 178.  Soon after his wedding, he traveled back to the Danube with his father to resume the wars.

Commodus was 18 years-old when his father died in on March 17th, 180.  Peace with the Germanic tribes soon followed before he celebrated a triumph in October of that year.

Commodus is said to have remained in or around Rome for the rest of his life, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that he was extremely popular with both the common people and the army.  Several wars were fought during his sole reign – most notably in Britain – but relative peace along the Danube lasted for the better part of a generation, which is quite significant considering that Eutropius described the Marcomannic Wars as “greater than any in the memory of man, so that it is compared to the Punic wars.” 

Commodus assumed the title Brittanicus in 184 after Ulpius Marcellus (a former governor of Britain) suppressed a revolt there (note:  coin evidence does suggest that fighting and unrest may have continued for another 2 or 3 years).  He also assumed the titles Pius in 183 and Felix in 185.

Commodus is alleged to have had little to do with the day-to-day affairs and administration of the Roman Empire for the first decade of his sole rule, and instead, delegated these duties to favorites such as palace chamberlains and praetorian prefects.  Saoterus is briefly mentioned in Dio's work as the apparent first of these followed by the prefect Perennis and, finally, the chamberlain-turned-prefect Cleander.

Commodus is alleged to have spent considerable time performing quite successfully as both a gladiator and chariot-racer
.  Around 190/191, the emperor began identifying himself with Hercules and had numerous coins minted and statues erected depicting himself wearing a lion's hide and holding a club.  He was assassinated the day before the New Year of 193.

The initial obverses of his coins refer to him as Commodo Caesar; "son of" Augustus; Germanicus and later include Sarmaticus.  Imperator Lucius Aurelius eventually replaced 
"son of" Augustus while Commodo morphed to Commodus.  Before his sole emperorship, some reverse titles include Tribunitia, Potestas, Imperator, Consul, Pater Patriae, and Senatus Consulto.  Some personifications depicted are Hilaritas (rejoicing), Castor (a gemini twin), Spes (hope), Salus (health), Pietas (duty to one's state, gods, and family), Virtus (courage, character, excellence, manliness, etc.), Fortuna, Minerva, Victoria, Roma, and Jupiter.

Upon becoming sole emperor, his obverse title began Marcus Commodus Antoninus Augustus before Pius, Brittanicus, and Felix were added years later.  Pontifex Maximus was added to his reverse titles in 183, and additional personifications include Liberalitas (generosity), Aequitas (fairness and honesty), Felicitas (good luck/success), Providentia (forethought), Pax (peace), Annona (produce of the year), Concordia (harmony), Fides (trust)
, Securitas, Mars, and Apollo.

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- Cassius Dio/Herodian -




Considering that both authors had vastly different perspectives, intended audiences, and writing styles, a simultaneous examination of their works is going to be a bit messy.

But here goes.  :)

Purple:  Dio
Green:   Herodian


Dio begins his 73rd book by describing Commodus as a guileless, simple, and cowardly man who had "missed the better life and was then led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature."  Some more shots at Commodus throughout this book include:

    "...
he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city."

    "Commodus was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people."

    "I should render my narrative very tedious were I to give a detailed report of all the persons put to death by Commodus, of all those whom he made away with as the
    result of false accusations or unjustified suspicions or because of their conspicuous wealth, distinguished family, unusual learning, or some other point of excellence."

    "Commodus was wholly devoted to pleasure and gave himself up to chariot-racing..."

    "
Commodus devoted most of his life to ease and to horses and to combats of wild beasts and of men.  In fact, besides all that he did in private, he often slew in public
    large numbers of men and beasts as well."


    Commodus "(cared)
...nothing for anything of that nature (probably meaning the duties of his office); and, indeed, if he had been deeply concerned, he would not have
    been able to administer them by reason of his indolence and his inexperience."


    "And Commodus was so terrified (he was ever the greatest coward)..."

    "Commodus, taking a respite from his amusements and sports, turned to murder and was killing off the prominent men."

    "...Commodus was a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime."

    "...but
Amazonius and Exsuperatorius he applied constantly to himself, to indicate that in every respect he surpassed absolutely all mankind superlatively; so
    superlatively mad had the abandoned wretch become."


Fortunately, Dio assures us that he not only has just authority for relaying his account to us, but has also deemed it prudent to omit no details.

    
"I state these and subsequent facts, not, as hitherto, on the authority of others' reports, but from my own observation."

    "And let no one feel that I am sullying the dignity of history by recording such occurrences.  On most accounts, to be sure, I should not have mentioned this exhibition;
    but since it was given by the emperor himself, and since I was present myself and took part in everything seen, heard and spoken, I have thought proper to suppress none
    of the details, but to hand them down, trivial as they are, just like any events of the greatest weight and importance.  And, indeed, all the other events that took place in
    my lifetime I shall describe with more exactness and detail than earlier occurrences, for the reason that I was present when they happened and know no one else, among
    those who have any ability at writing a worthy record of events, who has so accurate a knowledge of them as I."

Dio declares that Commodus was 19 years-old when his father passed away when it appears he was actually 18.  He then recounts some of the terms that Commodus imposed on the Germanic tribes upon the conclusion of the Marcomannic Wars before asserting that Commodus went on to kill "
practically all those who had attained eminence during his father's reign and his own, with the exception of Pompeianus, Pertinax and Victorinus."  Meanwhile, Herodian claims that Commodus  regarding the Germanic tribes  "bargained for release from care and gave them everything they demanded."  He follows by alleging that Commodus "deferred to the advisors appointed by his father" two chapters after stating that Commodus "no longer consulted his advisors about anything."  

Dio then briefly mentions an alleged conspiracy around 182 involving a sister of Commodus named Lucilla (who had been married to Lucius Verus) and a nephew of Pompeianus before remarking that both Lucilla and Crispina (who had angered Commodus by an act of adultery) were exiled to the island of Capri before being executed.
  Herodian also states that Lucilla was detected in the plot and killed but makes no mention of Crispina's fate.  He then claims that this "was the initial reason for the young emperor's hatred of the senate."

Dio then provides us with details of some prominent men who were supposedly killed by the emperor before admitting that Commodus "occasionally performed an act of public service" along with displaying "many indications of wealth" and "a love of the beautiful" in the city of Rome.  Shortly afterwards, he illustrates some intrigue regarding Ulpius Marcellus and the Roman struggle in Britain before mentioning Perennis.  According to Dio:  "...
inasmuch as Commodus had given himself up to chariot-racing and licentiousness and performed scarcely any of the duties pertaining to his office, Perennis was compelled to manage not only the military affairs, but everything else as well, and to stand at the head of the State.  The soldiers, accordingly, whenever any matter did not turn out to their satisfaction, laid the blame upon Perennis and were angry with him."  Apparently, 1500 "javelin men" were chosen by Pertinax to leave Britain and enter Italy, which  interestingly enough they successfully accomplished "without encountering any resistance."  They then confronted Commodus with their concerns about Perennis before the emperor allowed this prefect (along with close members of his family) to be killed by these soldiers.  

Herodian gives a vastly different impression regarding both the ambitions of Perennis and the manner of how Commodus discovered this alleged threat. 
While Dio claims that Perennis "privately...never strove in the least for either fame or wealth, but lived a most incorruptible and temperate life; and as for Commodus and his imperial office, he guarded them in complete security," Herodian asserts that he had an "insatiable lust for money," "was harsh and unbearable in his insolence and arrogance," and "began to plot for the empire."  Futhermore, Herodian recounts a tale about a man dressed as a philosopher who bursted onto stage at a theater at which Commodus was both spectator and judge to warn the emperor about Perennis.  Although this accuser was quickly killed, intimate friends of Commodus soon brought charges against the prefect, and he was eventually murdered on orders of the emperor.

Herodian also mentions an assassination attempt led by a man named Maternus (of which Dio makes no mention).  As an army deserter, he had "collected a huge mob of desperadoes" before launching his plot in Rome during a festival by "donning the uniform of a praetorian soldier and outfitting his companions in the same way, (hoping) to mingle with the true praetorians and, after watching part of the parade, to attack Commodus and kill him while no one was on guard."  This plan failed, and Maternus was seized and beheaded
. 

Supposedly, Cleander became the head of state after the death of Perennis and "
refrained from no form of mischief, selling all privileges, and indulging in wantonness and debauchery."  Dio and Herodian both agree that this man had originally been a slave brought to Rome and then sold.  Dio asserts that Cleander "bestowed and sold senatorships, military commands, pocuratorships, governorships, and, in a word, everything.  In fact, some men became senators only after spending all they possessed."  Haha...REALLY?  Poor senators in Rome, eh?  Tsk, tsk.  Although the details differ, both primary authors claim that the populace was responsible for bringing about the death of Cleander around 190 after blaming him for a food shortage.  

According to Dio, Commodus then begain another killing spree of prominent men at about the same time that "a 
pestilence occurred, the greatest of any of which I have knowledge; for two thousand persons often died in Rome in a single day.  Then, too, many others, not alone in the City, but throughout almost the entire empire, perished at the hands of criminals who smeared some deadly drugs on tiny needles and for pay infected people with the poison by means of these instruments."  A fire also broke out in the city of Rome around 191 which destroyed the temple of Pax, thereby making "paupers of many rich men...in a single night."  This fire "continued to burn for days" and "swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings."  

Herodian claims that "
with so many disasters befalling the city in rapid succession, the Roman people no longer looked with favor upon Commodus; they attributed their misfortunes to his illegal murders and the other mistakes he had made in his lifetime.  He no longer concealed his activities, nor did he have any desire to keep them secret.  What they objected to his doing in private he now had the effrontery to do in public.  He fell into a state of drunken madness."

Both sources indicate that it was around this time when Commodus starting elevating his conduct to another level.  Dio declares that "whatever honours they (the Romans) had been wont to vote to his father out of affection, they were now compelled out of fear and by direct command to assign also to the son."  A thousand-pound statue was erected depicting Commodus along with a bull and cow, and "it was voted that his age should be named the 'Golden Age', and that this should be recorded in all the records without exception."  

Dio claims that "this 'Golden One', this 'Hercules'...suddenly drove into Rome one afternoon from his suburb and conducted thirty horse-races in the space of two hours."  Evidently, the emperor was short on funds because, among other things, he was "fond...of bestowing gifts, and frequently gave largesses to the populace at the rate of one hundred and forty denarii per man."  Dio then accuses Commodus of killing yet more people and forcing some to sell their lives for their property, even ordering "us, our wives, and our children each to contribute two gold pieces every year on his birthday as a kind of first-fruits, and commanded the senators in all other cities to give five denarii apiece.  Of this, too, he saved nothing, but spent it all disgracefully on his wild beasts and his gladiators."

As for the emperor's flare for the spectacle, Dio states that "in public, he nowhere drove chariots except sometimes on a moonless night for though he was eager to play the charioteer in public, too, he was ashamed to be seen doing so; but in private he was constantly doing it, adopting the Green uniform.  As for wild beasts, however, he slew many both in private and in public.  Moreover, he used to contend as a gladiator."  Both Dio and Herodian admit that Commodus the gladiator never killed a man in public, but Dio claims that he did so privately every now and then.

In the arena, Commodus once "killed a hundred bears all by himself," before "descending to the arena from his place above and cut down all the domestic animals that approached him and some also that were led up to him or were brought before him in nets.  He also killed a tiger, a hippopotamus, and an elephant.  Having performed these exploits, he would retire, but later, after luncheon, would fight as a gladiator."  Dio alleges a particular spectacle that lasted fourteen days in which Commodus received "a million sesterces from the gladiatorial fund each day."  During this time, the senators would "shout out
whatever we were commanded, and especially these words continually:  'Thou art lord and thou art first, of all men most fortunate.  Victor thou art, and victor thou shalt be; from everlasting, Amazonian, thou art victor.'  But of the populace in general, many did not enter the amphitheatre at all, and others departed after merely glancing inside, partly from shame at what was going on, partly also from fear, inasmuch as a report spread abroad that he would want to shoot a few of the spectators in imitation of Hercules and the Stymphalian birds.  And this story was believed, too, because he had once got together all the men in the city who had lost their feet as the result of disease or some accident, and then, after fastening about their knees some likenesses of serpents' bodies, and giving them sponges to throw instead of stones, had killed them with blows of a club, pretending that they were giants."

He continues, "
this fear was shared by all, by us senators as well as by the rest.  And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death.  Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way."

Herodian writes that the instructors of Commodus were "
the most skillful of the Parthian bowmen and the most accurate of the Moroccan javelin men, but he surpassed them all in marksmanship" before mentioning that a "terrace encircling the arena had been constructed for Commodus, enabling him to avoid risking his life by fighting the animals at close quarters; rather, by hurling his javelins down from a safe place, he offered a display of skill rather than of courage.  Deer, roebuck, and horned animals of all kinds, except bulls, he struck down, running with them in pursuit, anticipating their dashes, and killing them with deadly blows.  Lions, leopards, and other animals of the nobler sort he killed from above, running around on his terrace.  And on no occasion did anyone see a second javelin used, nor any wound except the death wound.  For at the very moment the animal started up, it received the blow on its forehead or in its heart, and it bore no other wound, nor did the javelin pierce any other part of its body: the beast was wounded and killed in the same instant."

He goes on that "
once when a leopard, with a lightning dash, seized a condemned criminal, he thwarted the leopard with his javelin as it was about to close its jaws; he killed the beast and rescued the man, the point of the javelin anticipating the points of the leopard's teeth.  Again, when a hundred lions appeared in one group as if from beneath the earth, he killed the entire hundred with exactly one hundred javelins, and all the bodies lay stretched out in a straight line for some distance; they could thus be counted with no difficulty, and no one saw a single extra javelin."  Dio also claims that "...all alone with his own hands, he dispatched five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days; and he also killed rhinoceroses and a camelopard."

Additionally, "even if his conduct was hardly becoming for an emperor, he did win the approval of the mob for his courage and his marksmanship.  But when he came into the amphitheater naked, took up arms, and fought as a gladiator, the people saw a disgraceful spectacle..."  Commodus supposedly "
defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator.  At last he became so demented that he was unwilling to live in the imperial palace, but wished to change his residence to the gladiatorial barracks."

Dio and Herodian differ a bit on the details of the emperor's assassination
including the date (Dio asserts it was on December 31st while Herodian claims it was on New Year's Day).  Dio alleges that Commodus seemed to have wanted to slay both consuls of the day while Laetus (a praetorian prefect) and Eclectus (his chamberlain) had grown "displeased at the things he was doing."  They supposedly caused his mistress Marcia to poison him  which failed  so they sent an athlete named Narcissus to strangle Commodus while he was taking a bath.  However, Herodian claims that an enraged Commodus (after Marcia, Laetus, and Eclectus had pleaded with him to not disgrace the Empire by celebrating the New Year by appearing in clad armor from the gladitorial barracks instead of in the imperial purple at the imperial palace) "retired to his bedroom for a nap (for this was his custom in the middle of the day)...and wrote down the names of those who were to be put to death that night.  Marcia's name was at the top of the list, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and a large number of the foremost senators.  Commodus wanted all the elder statesmen and the advisers appointed for him by his father, those who still survived, to be put to death, for he was ashamed to have these revered men witness his disgraceful actions.  He planned to confiscate the property of the wealthy and distribute it to the soldiers, so that they would protect him, and to the gladiators, so that they would entertain him."  A child who was playing idly about the palace then supposedly walked into the emperor's room after Commodus "had gone out to his usual baths and drinking bouts" and picked up the tablet.  Marcia then saw and took the tablet from the boy after hugging and kissing him.  She then took it to Eclectus, who showed it to Laetus before they all agreed that Commodus had to die.  Marcia then poisoned him before Narcissus (a powerful young nobleman according to Herodian) "rushed in where the emperor lay overcome by poisoned wine, seized him by the throat, and finished him off."

Herodian conclues that Commodus 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."     

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- A Little Deeper -



A significant point regarding the reign of Commodus at least from a power perspective  is that he basically declared war on the senate.  Herodian alludes to this like it was well-known during his time ("the initial reason for the emperor's hatred"), and Dio's disgust for the man is clearly evident.

Two other factors should also be considered:

    1) When studying history, one must slip into perspectives applicable to the time period under investigation.  Barring any sort of direct connection to the
ancient Rome of
        the late 2nd-century
B.C., this is virtually impossible to accomplish in this case because of the limited amount of surviving information.

    2) As a corollary to the first factor, it must be remembered that the vast majority of relevant literature, statues, paintings, and inscriptions have long vanished.  Therefore,
        any attempt to reconstruct a comprehensive understanding in a traditional manner would be foolish.  Now, this does not imply that a serious study cannot be
        attempted using the surviving evidence, but it must be stressed that the best anyone can do (again, barring anything out of the ordinary) is extremely limited in scope.

Thesis

Throughout most of his reign, Commodus cooperated with the Roman elite 
particularly the senate  regarding both his public perception and his position in the power structure.  But when he began to desire a more traditional imperial role (to which the senate undoubtedly objected), he was forced to either submit or assert himself.  Apparently choosing the latter, Commodus then initiated a war with the senate over the metaphysical domination of Rome.  In this light, the emperor's motives were rooted not in madness or megalomania.  Rather, he simply employed a practical tool of warfare:  use his popularity via the imperial cult to send a message that power, in fact, rested with him.

Part I
Early Years
Let us begin by examining a slice of the climate that existed when Commodus ascended the sole emperorship.  The Romans had been battling numerous tribes along the Danube for over 12 years, and a great plague that killed millions of people throughout its course was still active
.  The previous 4 generations of emperors had each been rooted in adoption, meaning that Commodus was the first man in over 98 years to have become emperor due to birth.  Now, it is probably safe to assume that most Romans especially the soldiers had likely desired a respite after years of devastating disease and war.  Additionally, while fighting under Marcus had initially surfaced due to the nature of the situation and had later continued due to Roman resolve, this emperor was now dead, meaning an opportunity for change was on the horizon.

Our two primary authors would have us believe that Commodus shied away from continuing this war because he was lazy and wished to return to Rome.  However, it is quite possible that making peace was a calculated move by not only Commodus (who may have actually had little influence over the matter
), but by the military elite.  After all, the Romans finally had an opportunity to save face; for imagine how it would have looked if they had made peace without a decisive victory during the time of Marcus – weakness!

And consider the socio-political energy that this decision could have generated:  a new, young emperor marching into Rome posing as a triumphant general fresh off making peace after a long and costly war; the first man born into the high imperial rank after almost a century; the opportunity to create a divine-like aura using images of victory, peace, and prosperity.  Any good propaganda minister would have drooled over this situation.


If one believes that an environment of prolonged adversity (in this case, war and disease) provides opportunities for men with great potential to actualize to a high degree, then many strong men were made during the time of Marcus Aurelius.  Furthermore, it seems likely that when Marcus died, a culture of military and probably political sophistication had existed amongst the warrior elite.  Therefore, upon his death, members of this elite would have had the skill, experience, and auctoritas required for effective leadership.  Now, also considering that a healthy imperial dynasty had existed and that many of the soldiers had probably been wishing for an end to a war with no decisive victory in sight, it had been in the best interest of the Roman State to have taken advantage of this face-saving opportunity.  The warriors could thereby enjoy their newfound wealth as the Roman people shared in the war spoils, and a metaphysical facade could be constructed for a new era.

Additionally, any notion that Commodus had wanted to establish his claim to the throne at this time seems quite suspect.  Remember, seasoned and sophisticated veterans had probably been calling the major shots after the death of Marcus.  These men had served together for many years, had developed mutual respect through the hell of war, and had probably seen enough fighting to have lasted the rest of their lives so it is doubtful that much plotting had been in the works  especially considering the existence of a well-established imperial system.  Plus, as civil wars are usually devastating, undergoing one at this particular time would have been especially costly.  Indeed, since overthrowing a dynasty is no small task which requires a great deal of support from many layers of society, would anyone at this time have reasonably expected success in challenging the current system after such a long and brutal war?  It seems highly doubtful, and as a result, the position of Commodus appears to have been quite secure; and therefore, the best interest of the State would have been to have maintained the status quo at least in appearance.

Meanwhile, Commodus had been in a position to act out his role as the official State leader
in the eyes of the masses (note:  Although he was, in fact, the emperor, it is doubtful that the elite recognized him as the true leader of Rome at this time.  A situation like Octavian overcoming heavy adversity in his youth by defeating his enemies and thereby proving his military-political capabilities is a far cry from the situation Commodus found himself in.  Sure, he was the official imperial head and probably received respect in some light, but he had not yet proven himself in any real-world context).  At this point, Commodus had no reason to feel threatened or worry about anything other than the conclusion of many years of war and, therefore, had probably recognized the benefits of cooperating with the elite.

The glory and triumphs that Commodus received upon his return were mostly for the blossoming of State and imperial imagery.  To illustrate, first consider the motives of the senators and other warrior elite.  They had just made peace and were probably desiring the good life while basking in an image of prosperity.  What better way to have done this than to have cast the limelight onto a youthful emperor and prop him up as the focal point of this image? 
After all, they had known who was really in charge and understood that imperial cults and other imagery were used primarily to influence the masses while sustaining a healthy illusion of the State.  So while Commodus had publicly taken credit for victories won by other strong men, this was simply just how it worked in imperial Rome (to an extent).  Besides, the strong men had their spoils and had been relatively satisfied with their positions of power, so a 19 year-old parading around in traditional fashion probably didn't rub them too much the wrong way.  Indeed, they had actually been better situated than they would have been under previous emperors who had possessed more auctoritas and, therefore, more real power than that of Commodus.

Secondly, the imperial family already had plenty of wealth so their primary desire at this time would have probably been to develop a healthy imperial cult.  From their point-of-view, the public perception of Commodus as a golden emperor paving the way for a prosperous age must have looked very appealing.  As a result,
a cooperative harmony likely formed between the imperial family and other elites during the 180's  with both sects sharing power and influence, but with the senate likely assuming more than the usual custom.  What a blissful marriage this must have been at the onset.

Part II
Propaganda and Later Years
The propaganda campaign during the honeymoon must have been one for the ages.  For example,
coins struck during Commodus's first year as sole emperor depict him as a triumphant general delivering the victory spoils to Rome.  Also, at least 7 largesses were granted by the imperial family to the Roman people during his sole reign.  Several commemorative coins of Marcus Aurelius were issued (which had been a common custom), and many coins were created with traditional imagery and titles for the young emperor.  One can only imagine the literature, statues, paintings, and religious customs during this time that celebrated Commodus as an almost divine-like figure.  "At last, an emperor has descended from the imperial family!  After so many years of the gods deeming imperial power to pass not by blood, but by adoption...oh magnificent Commodus, you must surley be a gift from destiny!  We worship you, oh mighty deliverer from years of war and disease...hooray!"  Indeed, he must have been walking on air in the eyes of not only the people of Rome proper, but throughout many in the Empire.

Now, while Commodus was still developing during his 20's, this power-sharing accompanied by a widely distributed imperial image probably suited him just fine.  But when he came into his own, it is likely that he may have actually wanted to BE the emperor instead of just a showcase.  After all, people in lofty eschelons of society had been telling him since he was a kid that he would be emperor some day.  Further still, it is fairly safe to assume that he had not been ignorant of politics and had probably learned much from his stoic father, not to mention from Galen and other masters patroned by the imperial family.  Plus, State imagery and propaganda were in everybody's faces.  Did members of the senate really believe he would just play the role of emperor-presented-to-the-masses, but not emperor-in-practice his whole life?

Both the inner workings of this power-sharing and the details of the tension that undoubtedly arose between the two sides will probably never be known to posterity.  But in any case, the turning point in this relationship appears to have been around 190/191, which would have made the emperor about 29 or 30 years old.  This was also around the time that a great fire broke out in Rome and destroyed a number of temples and large areas of the city; not to mention the 700th anniversary of the Roman Republic.  These two events provided great opportunities for the emperor to have presented himself to the public in grand fashion:  in one instance as the glorified leader consoling the distraught urban masses through a state of mourning; the other, while celebrating the foundation of a political order that supposedly still existed.

It appears that Commodus took great advantage of the imperial cult that had been molded during the previous decade by escalating the propaganda to heights rather ridiculous even for the Romans.  While Hercules had been a god to whom the Antonines had traditionally linked themselves, Commodus launched this bond into another realm.  One coin from the early 190's depicts him
wearing a lion skin with one hand holding a club and the other resting on a trophy.  Another shows him similarly dressed while driving a plough with some oxen.  Additionally, the infamous bust of the emperor's apotheosis contains much symbolism regarding the deeds of Hercules:  the lion headdress represents the slaying of the Nemean lion, the left hand holds the apples of Hesperides, the base contains a plate with an image of a Gorgon (possibly Medusa) flanked by two eagles, and two Amazon women originally knelt beneath two cornucopiae.  Commodus even identified with Jupiter in an extreme manner:  one coin depicts them standing together with the supreme god holding a thunderbolt in one hand with his other resting on Commodus's left shoulder, while the emperor is holding a globe and scepter.

The emperor also changed his name around this time.  By substituting "Lucius" for "Marcus," he essentially re-assumed his original praenomen in place of his father's (which he had assumed upon the latter's death in 180).  Also, by replacing "Antoninus" with "Aelius," Commodus then identified himself with two Roman gens  the Aurelii (of both Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius) and the Aelia (of Hadrian), but dropped the cognomen used by the two previous generations. 

Dio also informs us that Commodus renamed Rome Commodiana, (styling it the "Immortal, Fortunate Colony of the Whole Earth"), bestowed the legions with a similar title, referred to the senate as the "fortunate Commodian senate," and renamed the months of the year after himself  Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius.  The reverse of one particular coin labels Rome Colonia Lucia Antoniniana Commodiana.  Also, the Historia Augusta mentions that he renamed the fleet that imported grain from Africa Commodiana Herculea.

Aside from coins, hard evidence is scarce.  Indeed, very few inscripted monuments pertaining to Commodus can ever be expected to surface
.  Since the senate eventually condemned the emperor's memory, all related monuments and images were thus ordered to be destroyed or at least undergo the removal of dedicated inscriptions.  However, one such monument does survive that was dedicated to Commodus on 17 March, 193 at Dura-Europos in modern Syria suggesting that the range of Commodus's escalated propaganda was widespread throughout the Empire.  Apparently, news of the emperor's demise had not yet reached this city where an under-officer named Tittianus erected an altar honoring the Dies Commodianus  an official holiday later abolished by the senate commemorating the anniversary of the emperor's sole rule.  Its inscriptions contain personal titles such as Dominus Noster (our lord), Pacator Orbis (pacifier of the world), and Invictus Romanus Hercules (unconquerable Roman Hercules).  The local army unit is referred to as a Commodiana rather than an auxilia, and the word Pius is used with reference to a month.  Furthermore, there is evidence of cult propaganda in Britain (see:  Rostovtseff, Journal of Roman Studies vol. 13 [1923]), Germany (a statue of Commodus-Hercules found in Kongen), and north Africa (a centurion's altar to the Romanus Hercules from Volubilis in Mauretania).

While a possible motive for the emperor's propaganda escalation has already been posited  to assert his imperial power how did Commodus get away with this seemingly over-the-top imagery?  He obviously didn't do so in the long run, but it appears that his enhanced status existed throughout the Empire for at least two years.  First of all, he must have been extremely popular with the people, the army, and the Praetorian Guard to have pulled this off, and 10+ years of State propaganda must have undoubtedly produced an aura of almost divine-like status for him.  Surely, if past emperors had tried raising their images to this type of level without an already existing aura similar to that of the Roman Hercules', they would have been laughed out of the palace; for while the nature of the Principate had vested ultimate power in the emperor, this reality had been presented to the Roman people through a guise of his being "first among equals."

Indeed, Commodus remained popular even after his death.  Herodian writes that Didius Julianus had promised in 193
"to revive the memory of Commodus, to restore his honors, and to re-erect his statues which the senate had pulled down; he further promised to restore to the praetorians all the powers they had possessed under that emperor..."  Now why would Julianus have made these promises if they had not been favorable to many people?  After all, he had been in the process of seeking the ultimate power prize and would've wanted to have placated as many layers of society as possible.  Further still, according to Herodian, the guard even "thought it appropriate that he (Julianus) assume the name of Commodus."  If one understands the importance that Romans placed on names and titles, this resonates with thundering significance.  

Septimius Severus even deified Commodus a few years after the latter's death.  Since there is little doubt that Severus had wanted to establish a strong, healthy dynasty that would have lasted for generations, he certainly would have strengthened his position by linking himself to previous emperors...but why the Roman Hercules?  If Commodus had truly been "cowardly," and "guilty of many unseemly deeds" and "a greater curse to the Romans than any pestilence or any crime," why on earth would Severus not only have him deified, but also adopt himself into the Antonine family as his brother?  This only makes sense if many layers of society would have respected the imagery with which Severus was identifying (i.e. would it have been wise for the chancellor of Germany in 1949 to have linked himself with Hitler?).  

Moreover, coins were issued during Severus's reign commemorating Commodus.  Further still, coins during the reign of Decius (249-251) were struck consecrating Commodus as
Divo Commodo with an eagle on the reverse.  For modern comparison, what are the odds that either coins or stamps will be released anytime soon celebrating Stalin?

Even Christian tradition holds this emperor's period in high esteem.  For Eusebius writes,
"in the reign of Commodus, our condition became more favorable, and through the grace of God the churches throughout the entire world enjoyed peace."

Imagine how the senators must have felt watching the emperor use the very image they had helped mold over the previous decade to publicly elevate his position of power.
  Indeed, the senate must have been livid at Commodus's heightened propaganda, but what could they have done?  For reasons already mentioned, the emperor had been uniquely situated to have succeeded with this sort of image escalation, and due to its non-violent nature, the senators' hands had been bound to the use of force (or, at least, until they'd finally had it).  They could have tried discrediting him, but that's exactly the point the image of Commodus had been so magnificent that it would have been political suicide to have ridiculed him!

As far as the surviving literature is considered, it seems clear that a tradition developed to slander and condemn the name of Commodus after his death, portraying him as an incompetent, decadent coward full of madness.  The senate certainly had the motive to have supported this.  From their point-of-view, a good little thing had existed during the 180's, and to have watched this man assert himself the way he did must have raised a fury.  Of course, while it had not been unusual for senators of previous generations to have expressed harsh judgment and criticism at deceased emperors (Nero, Domitian, etc.), their collective sentiment towards Commodus must have been truly vindictive.

Herodian appears to have been a distributor of this slanderous portrayal, and it is clear that the tradition was still in existence by the time of the Historia Augusta.  Of course, the elite clearly had their work cut out for them by having to destroy mountains of propaganda depicting the emperor in a favorable fashion, so an aggressive approach was undoubtedly needed to eradicate his magnificent image from the cultural consciousness.  Hehe...
Commodus killed 100 lions with exactly 100 javelins, eh?  And was more accurate than all the Parthian bowmen and Moroccan javelin men?  Was unable to administer the Empire because of indolence?  And how exactly does a lazy man not only participate in chariot races, but also acquire such amazing skill in gladiatorial combats and beastly battles?  Now, while it is certainly possible that Commodus played an unusual role in the Colosseum (emerging from the gladiatorial barracks as the gladiators' leader seems reasonable, but it is virtually impossible to glimpse the truthful aspects behind this legend), it is preposterous to seriously indulge even a tiny fraction of the tales preserved in the surviving literature.  Further still, the fact that Commodus had possessed relatively little power during the 180's is alluded to in the tradition albeit through a fictitious portrayal intending to depict weakness and incompetence (i.e. how likely is it that seasoned war veterans and other sophisticated elites would have "allowed" the emperor to delegate his power to chamberlains and other personal favorites while killing off many prominent men?). 

Yes, the enemies of Commodus surely had to embellish and flat-out lie to an incredible degree in order to combat the propaganda that had been molded for over a decade.  Indeed, how likely is it that a man raised in a sophisticated environment (his father was a well-educated philosopher, one of his masters was one of the most prolific writers and learned men of antiquity, etc.)
basically went mad and held the Empire hostage?  Furthermore, are we to believe that the power structure at this time was such that Roman elites just submitted to the emperor's will because of his imperial status?  Please.  Such harsh and outlandish illustrations only make rational sense upon the understanding of the senators' dollective attitude towards Commodus after the commencement of his image escalation and their resulting need to discredit such a highly revered man.  After all, if he had truly been just a "bad" ruler, why not employ the usual tricks and exaggerations instead of creating such a ludicrous tradition?

Part III Conclusion
In summary, the reign of Commodus probably began with Roman elites viewing the death of Marcus Aurelius as an opportunity to save face by making peace with Germanic tribes they had been battling for years.  Wishing to enjoy tranquility and the spoils of war, they constructed propaganda which ushered in a period of prosperity using Commodus as the golden boy.  The emperor cooperated with this image for quite some time  perhaps even a decade  until he began desiring more than just the spotlight.  He then took advantage of his imperial image by raising it to a level which would have surely seemed ridiculous to the Roman elite (and normally to many of the people as well, but considering Commodus's already existing imagery, they had been willing to accept it).  The resulting power struggle lasted for at least two years and eventually ended with the emperor's assassination, severing the Antonine dynasty with no heir to the throne.

The consequences of Commodus's death were immense for the Roman State.  First of all, without an established dynasty in place, a power vacuum developed which quickly led to internal war.  Secondly, the overall metaphysical system of Rome imploded and eventually (after a band-aid was briefly applied by the Severan dynasty) plummeted the Empire into a period of instability 
a state then unfamiliar to the cultural consciousness as it had been over a century since the previous set of civil wars  as a new group of power-sharks battled for the ultimate prize in their game.

In a broader context, the death of Commodus can be viewed as the spark that caused Rome's 3rd century crisis 
which appears to have been metaphysical in nature.  After all, the army had still been plenty capable, strong men still existed, and the Empire certainly controlled vast resources of land, people, and wealth.  But the lack of a cohesive web depicting a healthy State with stable central power proved to be devastating.  The Severan dynasty enjoyed moderate success especially in the first generation not just because of strong leadership, but also because of its connection to an image system which many layers of society (the people, army, guard, elites, etc.) accepted.  After this dynasty fell, Rome became devoid of an effective metaphysical system, and as a result, it is no wonder why so many otherwise capable rulers with battlefield success ultimately failed in long-lasting bids for the throne.  Had one of these men managed to construct a successful image-system instead of just winning over the armies, his position would have been much more secure.  This assertion is supported by the fact that it wasn't until the reign of Diocletian beginning in 284 who DID construct an efficient, although flawed system before the Empire finally returned to a stable central footing.

What an irony, indeed, that caused the explosion of Rome's power structure after so many generations of elite prosperity.  Mythological, religious, and cultic imagery had been used for centuries to mold a complex metaphysical web that allowed Roman elites to dominate the impressionable masses while maintaining a sophisticated illusion of their State.  And then to have one man raise this web to such extraordinary heights in order to assert the power vested in him by the very State this imagery represented is all too fitting as one of the great buried tales of world history.



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