Commodus: Rome’s Problem Child?

Dan Billingham

You might think of Commodus (AD 161–92; reign 180—92) as Imperial Rome’s problem child, or the best argument against Stoicism. Edward Gibbon (1737–94) introduced him in the fourth chapter of the first volume of his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776—88) by noting that “the monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father’s virtues”. He was the murderous foe Russell Crowe battled in the film Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott). In addition to being depicted as, in one way or another, a terrible human being, Commodus has often been portrayed also as a lousy emperor: in antiquity, the historian Dio Cassius commented in his Roman History that his reign saw the Roman Empire go “from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust” (ἀπὸ χρυσῆς βασιλείας ἐς σιδηρᾶν καὶ κατιωμένην, 72.36.4). 

Whereas his father Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–80; reign 161–80) is widely quoted today for his wisdom and sayings, the son – if he is spoken of at all – is regarded with much less affection. In Ancient Rome, Commodus’ own mother and sister were rumoured to feature on a very long list of people who wanted to kill him. He seems to have been the sort of character who had no problem making enemies of his contemporaries, to judge from his claim to have been an incarnation of the hero Hercules, his performances in outrageously rigged gladiator fights, and the spree of executions that he performed himself. It is tempting to speculate that Marcus Aurelius saw ominous signs of what Commodus’ reign would be like after his own death.

Maximus (right, played by Russell Crowe) faces a challenge in Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott). The header image to this article shows Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix in the same film).

Modern scholars of Stoicism have tackled this issue from a couple of viewpoints. Some wonder whether Marcus Aurelius perceived Commodus as a ‘problem child’, but felt he had no better option than his son as successor. Others ponder whether Marcus himself was a surprisingly bad father. In his essay “Why did Marcus Aurelius allow Commodus to succeed him?”, the modern Stoic writer Donald Robertson argues on his blog that Marcus simply had no choice regarding his successor. A natural succession from father to son was, in any case, what most Roman emperors wanted. Had Marcus Aurelius chosen an alternate successor, Commodus’ claim to the imperial lineage would have made him a destabilising force, capable of assassinating his rival, but also vulnerable to assassination himself.

Any father forced to choose between letting a difficult son take over his job or else condemning that son to certain death would understandably prefer to hope for the best in the lad. It can of course be tempting to over-analyse history, to assume that every major event is planned and strategised over, when in fact major historical figures are just as likely as any of us to cross their fingers and hope for the best. As Anthony Birley outlines in his biography of the emperor, Marcus Aurelius is believed to have tolerated countless affairs on the part of his wife Faustina (AD 130–75/6). Evidently stability meant everything to him.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina as Mars and Venus, mid-2nd cent. AD (Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy).

Commodus was groomed for succession at an early age. This process was unexpectedly accelerated by the defeated revolt of the Syrian general Gaius Avidius Cassius (130–75) in 175. Marcus appointed his son as the youngest ever Roman Consul at the age of fifteen, and made him a co-emperor at sixteen. Gibbon thought Marcus an indulgent father for giving Commodus so much power at an early age, but the elevation of his son’s status was designed to cement stability, when the old man’s deteriorating health could have precipitated further battles for power. Tracking back from that process in his final years would have created turmoil. When he was on his deathbed, he is reported to have told soldiers to “go to the rising sun, for I am already setting.” This suggests that he felt great comfort in his chosen succession arrangement.

A recent article by Daniel Lehewych suggests that Commodus suffered as a result of his absent father: after all, Marcus Aurelius must have been preoccupied with his imperial duties. Perhaps some form of abandonment trauma contributed to a growing egotism, which later bordered on megalomania once he became emperor.

Lehewych suggests that Stoicism led Marcus Aurelius to be indifferent to his son – a criticism that might bother modern adherents to Stoicism. Meditations, the emperor’s guide to life, doesn’t exactly chime with the assumptions of modern parenting. Reflecting on the insignificance of life, Marcus wrote: “your children are no more than leaves… In a little while too you will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.” It is easy to see from this why Marcus may have chosen not to address failings he saw in Commodus: his Stoicism may have convinced him that his son’s actions were both beyond his control and of no significance to him.

Commodus killing a leopard, print by Adrien Collaert (attrib.) after Jan van der Straet, 1596.

The sense of cool detachment that runs through Marcus’ Meditations seems less evident in the extensive correspondence that survives between Marcus Aurelius and his childhood tutor Fronto (AD c.100-late 160s). The warmly affectionate tone of the letters represents a stark contrast with the austere Meditations – but this is no surprise. The letters seem to document how Marcus actually lived his life, with all its annoyances and dilemmas, whereas the Meditations offer a more idealised outlook on how best to live your life. The man who thanked the philosopher Apollonius of Chalcedon, whom he had met at the age of fifteen and studied regularly with, for inspiring him in Meditations “always to be the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness” (1.8), was the same person who admitted in a letter to Fronto that he spent a holiday at the seaside resort of Alsium in a state of total anxiety because one of his daughters had a fever (On Holidays at Alsium 1).

Marcus secured for his son an education worthy of an emperor, and seems to have taken care to do the right thing by him. For instance, Marcus made specific arrangements to ensure the health of six-year-old Commodus when he travelled to the Northern Front in AD 167. I find no evidence though that Marcus was consumed by excessive pride, fear or judgment as a father, all things he prescribed himself in Meditations.  

The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, Eugène Delacroix, 1844 (Musée des beaux-arts, Lyon, France).

But to what extent was Marcus Aurelius aware of the flaws of Commodus? And how flawed was Commodus in reality? The first question is almost impossible to answer, for no ruler would want to highlight his chosen successor’s failings. Commodus may have had significant personality differences from his father even from a young age. He became intensely interested in sports and hunting, for instance, whereas Marcus Aurelius did not bother to hide his lack of interest in these popular passions – regularly reading throughout performances at the theatre and Colosseum on his rare public appearances there as emperor.

In this regard, though, Commodus was merely less eccentric than his very scholarly father. The two doubtless knew each other on a deeper personal level than any historian could hope to capture. All of us can identify flaws in our own family members. Asking whether Marcus had more cause for concern than the rest of us is difficult, given the gulf in time and culture between Rome and the contemporary world.  But we may still have our suspicions. The anonymous Historia Augusta describes an incident where the eleven-year-old Commodus ordered a slave to be thrown into a fire because he had prepared a bath that wasn’t warm enough for the future emperor. The veracity of this work has been highly disputed, however, and the story could emerge from a tradition where Commodus’ flawed character was already established. 

What we can say for certain is that Marcus was a realist in his experience and expectation of character flaws in those he dealt with. He writes in his Meditations, “At dawn say to yourself first: ‘I shall meet the interfering, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable’.“

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, c. AD 175 (Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy).

Judging the character of Commodus and his reign is a fraught exercise. There has been a clear tendency to latch onto Cassius Dio’s criticisms and form a black-and-white narrative. Commodus was, in Lehewych’s words, “lazy, undutiful, lustful, vengeful and masturbatory,” – but aren’t we all, at times?

There are no records left by the Barbarian tribes of the Danube, but they would presumably have been much more favourable to Commodus for ending the grinding war they fought against the Romans than to Marcus Aurelius for his role in starting it to conquer their lands. John McHugh notes in his biography of Commodus that early Christian historians were fond of the emperor for his relative tolerance of Christianity.

Marcus Aurelius distributing bread to the people, Joseph-Marie Vien, 1765 (Musée des beaux-arts, Marseille, France).

Commodus may have been poisoned by his lover then strangled to death by a wrestler in his bath after fifteen years as emperor, but his reign was much longer than those of his two immediate successors. The emperor Pertinax (AD 126–93) was killed after 87 days, and his successor, Didius Julianus (AD 133–93), after just 66. Commodus had a talent for survival at a time when the end of the empire’s expansion and the onset of plague created great financial, security, and food supply problems.     

The mangled reputation of Commodus is perhaps largely due to how he made an enemy of the senate in order to ensure his survival. He placed a huge tax burden on the empire’s elite, and shunned their advice, instead packing his administration with bureaucrats from the lower classes. He seems to have created an atmosphere of terror among senators by executing those disloyal to him (or at least those suspected of being so). It was this rule by fear that led to his downfall: his lover, Marcia, was prepared to kill him in order to avoid the same fate suffered by his wife, Bruttia Crispina (AD 164–91), who had been executed after being allegedly discovered in flagrante delicto. It was a stark contrast to the reign of his father, who seems to have cultivated an atmosphere of love and respect among many of his fellow citizens in the senate.

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872 (Phoenix Art Museum, AZ, USA).

Genuine fright prevailed among Rome’s senators, who were in a better position than anyone else to influence history’s verdict on Commodus. That the senate wanted his body ceremoniously dragged through the streets and thrown into the Tiber as a final insult after his murder (a desire overruled by his successor, Pertinax) demonstrates the strength of their animosity. The circumstances of Commodus’ accession must have played a role in how things turned out. The emperor must have been stricken with fear and suspicion upon his ascent to the throne: his own mother had conspired against him by supporting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius that would have denied his right to succession.

This fear was naturally heightened by surviving an attempted stabbing in 182, two years into his sole reign. The would-be assassin, Quintianus, shouted “This is what the senate has sent you,” while brandishing a dagger, before being tackled by bodyguards. Gibbon points out that there was minimal chance of Commodus trusting the senatorial class after this episode, and that distrust developed into rivalry, further plotting from the senate, and the deliberate sowing of fear to divide them.

Narcissus strangling Commodus, Giuseppe Mochetti after Bartolomeo Pinelli, early 19th cent.

It was clear that Commodus became seduced by the trappings of power, as seen in his love of banquets and mock gladiatorial performances. He indulged his twisted sense of humour and vanity by crudely and cruelly flexing this power. For instance, he ordered a naked old man to dance and play cymbals in front of his concubines (of which he had some 300) and commissioned a giant statue of himself outside the Colosseum, claiming that he had defeated 1,000 gladiators on 12 occasions.

He certainly was not the first ruler before or since to let power go to his head, though. The chronic insecurity of his position was surely a factor here, as much as any innate character flaw. The megalomania evident at the end of his reign – which saw him rename Rome as Commodiana, rebrand the calendar, and identify himself as Hercules – was the conclusion of the propaganda process by which he spread his appeal beyond the senate, all in order to cultivate popularity among the army and ordinary citizens. Everything suggests that this was a success.

It is understandable that later historians and film producers were eager to adopt the prodigal son narrative surrounding Commodus. However, to reduce his life to that of a wasted soul, and to worship his father, is to risk falling into the trap of following the ‘great man’ theory of history, against which Leo Tolstoy once warned us.

Commodus as Hercules, AD 191/2 (Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy).

Marcus Aurelius led the Roman Empire into a near unwinnable war in the Danube region at the very time the plague was eating away at it. His son – and successor – picked up the pieces and clung onto power only by his fingernails in his reign, making a show of himself in the process. Yet these events shaped or exaggerated their personalities, rather than being defined by them.  

A final irony of this story is the extent to which Marcus Aurelius stressed in Meditations how lives and legacies end up being forgotten in the grand scheme of history. “Everything fades away and quickly becomes a myth, and soon complete oblivion covers them over,” he wrote. “Alexander the Great and his stable-boy both met their death in the end… Soon enough you will vanish into nothing.” Just not quite yet, in his case.

Dan Billingham is a freelance journalist and Durham University history graduate. He has previously written for Antigone about the Nika riots and chariot racing in 6th-century Constantinople.

Further Reading:

Both Anthony Birley’s biography of Marcus Aurelius and John McHugh’s on Commodus are very insightful reading for anyone seeking to understand this era – McHugh is to be commended for carefully making the case for the defence of such an unbeloved emperor. Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is an excellent overview of the philosophical gifts of Marcus Aurelius that keep giving. Speaking of which, the emperor’s Meditations is a widely available book brimming with fascinating takes on the challenges of life in any age.