177 - 192 CE
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In case you're wondering, the reign of Commodus was nothing like the Ridley Scott blockbuster movie "Gladiator". But the reality was quite entertaining in its own right. Commodus is often held up as proof of the evils of hereditary monarchy. Eighty-four years of excellent rulers, with each emperor adopting a worthy heir, brought to ruin when a father passed the reins to his own son.

But this is not entirely fair. Commodus would have been a horrible ruler even if he had been adopted. And besides, this assessment assumes that we know who his father was ...

Commodus Denarius
About this coin: Minted in the last year of Commodus's reign, it shows a strong stylistic change from his earlier portraiture, a deliberate attempt to appear "god-like".

When Marcus Aurelius died, his son Commodus gave a beautiful little speech to the troops. This, as it turned out, was the high point of his reign. He then called off his father's planned conquest of central Europe and headed back to Rome, though he did impose upon the Europeans a peace settlement that was highly favorable to Rome, one that held for many years.

Back in Rome, however, he demonstrated that he had more in common with his uncle Lucius than his father. He seemed quite willing to leave the governing to others, while enjoying the "perks" of office. He had his first brush with assassins very early in his reign. In this case, two of the chief conspirators were his sister Lucilla [see the previous page] and her son. His reign could have been short indeed, had his nephew not felt the need to give a mocking little speech to Commodus after unveiling the knife but before plunging it home, thus giving the guards time to grab and disarm him. Nice kid, but not very bright. But it also may have contributed to Commodus's willingness to hide behind a series of "proxy" rulers.

The first of these proxy-rulers was his chamberlain, Saoterus. But Saoterus didn't last long, falling victim to an assassination plot in short order.

After Saoterus's death, so soon on the heels of his own nearly fatal family gathering, Commodus retreated almost completely from the public eye, giving virtually unlimited power to Perennis, commander of the Praetorian Guard. Perennis had a remarkable ability to make enemies, and soon a group of soldiers brought a false rumor to Commodus that he intended to rebel and install one of his own sons as emperor. Commodus believed it and had Perennis executed, along with all of his sons.

A former slave named Cleander was the next proxy emperor. He showed quite a flair for corruption, openly selling government offices and military appointments and keeping much of the money for himself, though he always made sure that Commodus had plenty with which to indulge his increasingly debauched tastes.

Cleander's downfall came as a result of a grain shortage, blamed (probably unfairly) on an attempt by him to corner the grain market. A riot ensued, which Cleander could not contain. This made Commodus rather nervous, so to appease the mob, he ordered that Cleander's head be removed from his body. He then presented both head and body to the crowd for their amusement. They seemed to appreciate the gesture, marching all around with the head on a pole and committing all sorts of fun atrocities on the body, and when Commodus emerged from the palace, it was an adoring throng that greeted him, not an angry mob.

This convinced Commodus that he had a real talent for leadership, and that it might be fun to actually rule for a while. And so it was -- for him. He declared himself to be Hercules, son of Zeus, and paraded about wearing a lion skin. He also shocked the delicate sensibilities of the Roman upper class by participating in the gladiatorial games, slaughtering animals and fighting as a gladiator himself. This inspired a rumor that he was not Marcus's son at all, but rather the result of an affair between Faustina Junior and a gladiator. However, we are left with no proof and the likelihood that it was an invention of his detractors. Judging by the coin portraiture, there was indeed a strong family resemblance between father and son.

As Commodus got further afield, mentally, he began imagining assassination plots everywhere. Executions became commonplace, which, predictably enough, increased the number of real assassination plots. (Just because he was paranoid didn't mean they weren't really out to get him ...) Fearing for their own lives due to Commodus's increasingly capricious executions, his favorite concubine, Marcia, conspired with the imperial chamberlain and the praetorian commander to do him in.

On New Year's Eve, 192, Marcia fed him a poison-laced drink, with the intention of passing off his death as natural. Unfortunately, he got sick too quickly and threw up the poison. This required that they go to "Plan B", which was to call in a young athlete (possibly Marcia's other lover) to finish the job. Thus, Commodus suffered the final indignity of being strangled by a wrestler named Narcissus.

This made it difficult to pass the death off as natural. But they tried anyway. They wrapped his body in a blanket and ordered two slaves to carry it past the guards, who had apparently not been chosen for their keen powers of observation.

But no one really minded, and the Senate merely declared: "More savage than Domitian, more foul than Nero. As he did unto others, let it be done unto him." They then ordered the body dragged through the streets of Rome. My sources don't indicate whether that order was carried out, but if so, the Roman citizenry probably enjoyed it immensely; they always seemed up for a good corpse drag. The Senate then erased his name from all official records.

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