If you want to be an emperor, the easiest way is to be born into it.
Classically emperors pass the job on to their son. But chance had it that it took nearly 200 years for a reigning Roman emperor to produce a son and heir during their actual reign.
The five good emperors had all to some extent or other been selected on the basis of some kind of merit and none of them had been born with any expectation of the role that they were going to play. Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antoninus all lacked a direct male heir and so ‘adopted’ a suitable person instead (or in the case of Trajan, did so if you believe Hadrian). But Marcus Aurelius had a son, and it was to his son that Marcus bequeathed the empire. Gibbon hints at criticism for doing this when the ad hoc system of the previous four reigns had given such good results. But at the time Marcus’ actions were simply unquestioned. If there was a legitimate heir then it was accepted that he should inherit the empire, just as he would any other piece of property.
So Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, was in fact the first emperor who spent his entire life in expectation of ascending the throne and who everyone else expected to as well. Given the ultra respectful way emperors were treated and the natural tendency to make a fuss of a small child, you can imagine the indulgence and flattery he must have experienced from a very early age.
But it is easy to forgive people who indulged him. The days of mad emperors and civil wars must have seemed very distant, but even so the small boy held out the prospect of someone young and fit available to continue his father’s good work of government for probably decades to come. Commodus did not much resemble his father in temperament. In fact it is an open question as to whether he was the biological son of Marcus at all. In the Meditations Marcus thanks the Gods for granting him a wife of purity and simplicity. He obviously saw her as a fitting partner to his chosen course of virtue and self sacrifice. Unfortunately he was the only man in the Empire who saw her that way. Everyone else was well aware of her string of lovers. It does take quite a bit of the shine off his reputation. Despite his supposed deep seated wisdom and understanding of human nature, he totally missed the fact that he was married not to a faithful paragon of stoic virtue, but to an outrageous trollope. Faustina was named after her mother, the now sacred wife of Antoninus Pius who must have been spinning in her grave in the temple she shared with her husband.
Several of the emperor’s close advisors were amongst her lovers. When you think about it, some people do like to live dangerously. Carrying on with the emperor’s wife was quite a risky business. Men are notoriously prone to not fully thinking this kind of thing through but even so – it wasn’t just any husband that they were talking liberties with, it was the emperor. The emperor with the power of life and death over everyone. She must have been quite a looker.
And she had broad tastes. She was supposed to have succumbed to the charms of a gladiator, among others, and there was a rumour that it was him that was the true father of Commodus. If so, it explains a lot.
On the death of his father in the summer of 161 AD, Commodus found himself in charge of an army fighting the Quadi and Marcomanni on the Danube. He was 19. He didn’t stay there long though, and by the Autumn he had returned to Rome.
Leaving the army at this stage was a questionable decision, but it doesn’t seem to have led to any serious military problem. For the first four years nothing much happened. He was still young and in awe of the ministers still in place from the time of Marcus. At this stage, it seemed possible that the Romans might be in for their sixth good emperor. But an incident occurred that was to spoil this hope.
One night Commodus was returning to his palace after a night at the theatre, when a man with a knife lunged at the young prince with the words “the Senate sends you this”. The guards easily overpowered the attacker and the details of the plot were revealed. It turned out to have had nothing to do with the Senate: it was much closer to home. The emperor’s sister, Lucilla, fed up with being left out of the limelight was behind it. Her husband was indeed a senator, but had known nothing about what his wife had been up to. It doesn’t sound like it was a close relationship. She was rapidly exiled and later killed.
But this affair seems to have made a deep impression on the still very young Commodus. Despite the evidence, he seems to have decided that the Senate now posed a threat. He pass the administration of the government into the hands of Perennis, a court favourite whose CV included murdering his predecessor. Perennis was an able but avaricious man who proceeded to hound individual senators while enriching himself at their expense as part of the process. The drawbacks of the political system began to become apparent. If the absolute ruler chose to ignore the wishes of the Senate, there was nothing that could be done about it. In fact, being a senator simply made you more visible and more vulnerable. You and your family could lose your and your possessions and there was nothing that you could do about it.
The army was the only institution that had the power to oppose the emperor. The legions of Britain had some complaint with Perennis and sent a deputation asking for his head. Their request was granted. Commodus may already have been concerned that too much power was getting into the hands of Perennis, but it was hardly wise to be seen to bow to pressure of this sort. Few probably mourned the passing of Perennis, but the weakening of military discipline was hardly good news.
Perennis was soon replaced by another favourite. Where Perennis had been able but avaricious, Cleander just concentrated on the avarice. The exactions from the senators continued and were developed into new forms. High offices were offered for sale. Bad enough in itself, but the sale was not a voluntary one. Favourable outcomes in the courts could also be purchased. A combination of greed and incompetence is not really a recipe for winning friends and influencing people. When pestilence and famine struck, the high prices that resulted were the trigger for discontent to break out into open revolt. Cleander had given himself a monopoly on corn so making himself the natural target for anger at high bread prices.
Things got out of hand and an angry mob besieged the palace braying for the head of Cleander. A cavalry charge repelled the crowd initially, but having chased them into the narrow streets of the city found itself at a disadvantage. The rioters counterattacked, pelting the elite horsemen with missiles. The foot guards sided with the people and the attack on the palace was resumed. Things were now becoming serious. Amazingly, nobody had told Commodus what was going on. To approach him with bad news was dangerous. The only people who felt confident enough to break it to him were his elder sister and his favourite concubine.
With his reign hanging on a thread the true character of Commodus was revealed. Many people can summon up unsuspected reserves of courage and initiative in a crisis. Commodus summoned up reserves of treachery and cowardice. If the crowd would be appeased by the head of his favourite, then let them have it. Cleander’s head was severed from his body and thrown to the crowd.
Thanks to Francesca Tronchin on Flickr for the fine photo of Commodus dressed as Hercules (http://www.flickr.com/photos/frenchieb/1889244256/) , to portableantiquities on Flickr for the photo of the coins and to mharrsch on Flickr for the splendid photo of the bronze of Commodus (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/2746809028/) and also for some timely advice on the set up of my blog. Her own blog http://ancientbooks.blogspot.com is well worth a look. There is a lot on it, so you might want to make yourself a sandwich first.