Commodus. Not a noble character. Gibbon thought that he was more weak than evil. But perhaps it isn’t very meaningful to make judgements. After all, the early life of Commodus could not have been more divorced from reality. Michael Jackson probably led a more normal life.
He showed little interest in the hard work of ruling. He happily delegated it to anyone who would leave him free to enjoy his leisure. And as a ruler of the Empire his leisure time was pretty good. He had a harem of 300 girls and 300 boys. He came to the throne young, but even so you have to at least admire his stamina.
He was also keen on sport, hunting and gladiators. He showed no interest in any of the arts. He used to have wild beasts brought to Rome from the far reaches of the Empire and beyond, so that he could kill them himself in the Circus in front of the people. This was a demeaning way for an emperor to behave. He began to style himself the Roman Hercules. This involved wearing a bearskin and carrying a club. It was a pretty ridiculous comparison. Hercules had sought out the Nemaean Lion that was strong enough to withstand arrows and fought it bare handed to save the people of Nemaea from being terrorised by it. Commodus was killing animals for fun while being well protected.
He didn’t restrict himself to lions. Ostriches, elephants and rhinoceros were also displayed and then killed. Whether the Romans got much in the way of entertainment value out of these displays we won’t ever know, but it does show the reach of the Empire at its height if it was able to lay hands on creatures from so far outside its borders.
But it got worse. He started dabbling in gladiatorial contests, and then started appearing in the Circus as a gladiator himself. This was behaviour definitely not consistent with the dignity of the Emperor of Rome. Gladiators could become wealthy but they were never respectable. The role he played was that of the Secutor, fighting against the Retianius. There were lots of variations of gladiatorial combat, but I think that this is the one that comes first to most people’s mind. As the Secutor, Commodus would be lightly armoured and armed with a small shield and short sword. His opponent would only have a net and a trident. If he could trap the Secutor with his net and dispatch him with his trident he would live. Otherwise the Secutor at close contact would have an obvious advantage.
Needless to say. Commodus always won. Mercifully, he rarely actually killed his opponent. But he did pick up the enormous prize money. He did this 735 times which meant that the prize amounted to such a huge sum of money that it was effectlvely a tax. He also adopted the name Paulus to associate himself with the most famous and successful gladiator of the day.
The Romans must have been appalled. One senator, Claudius Pompeianus, simply refused to attend. Prominent citizens were being killed routinely by this stage so he was well aware he was taking his life in his hands by doing so, and he prudently instructed his sons to continue to show up themselves. Mind you he did have other issues. He was the senator to whom Commodus’ sister Lucilla had been married – the one who had tried to kill him. He may well have decided he was due for the chop anyway. In the event, he got away with it.
The whole History Books Review organisation was saddened to hear this week of the death of Michael Foot. In addition to his career as a politician he was of course also a historian of some note and his biography of Aneurin Bevan is on the list of books I intend to review. This particular book is interesting as an example of a history of his own time written by a participant in that history. This is quite a rare thing nowadays.
Marcus Aurelius would probably have been remembered as a philosopher even if he had not gone into politics, a unique achievement.
At an early age, long before becoming the Emperor was even a remote possibility, Marcus embraced the philosophy of the stoics. It seems that from that time on he was first and foremost a philosopher and behaved accordingly even after he came to the throne. His Meditations, written in the winter campaigns on the Danube, are still popular today. Amazon offers several pages of differing editions of his work, all of which are frequently reviewed and which get almost universally positive ratings. He is quoted roughly once an hour on Twitter.
Hadrian had a tough act to follow, but he did hit the ground running. His only problem was that Trajan had never actually nominated him as his successor until he was on his deathbed – and even this was only witnessed by Plotina his pro-Hadrian widow.
Gossip must have been at fever pitch in Rome in 27BC, the year Augustus’ reign is generally held to have started. Whenever somebody new takes over, there is always a lot of speculation ahead of their arrival. But there can’t have been many situations where quite so many people had quite so little clue about what was going to happen next.
Augustus returned in victory to Rome after 20 years of civil war. With 44 legions behind him he could do whatever he chose. He could have declared himself a king, or a dictator or even a God. But publicly he was modest in his ambitions. An account has survived of his speech to the Senate. “He was now at liberty to satisfy his duty and his inclination. He solemnly restored the senate and people to all their ancient rights; and wished only to mingle with the crowd of his fellow-citizens, and to share the blessings which he had obtained for his country.”
I got in some beers and a pizza last Saturday night and stayed in to watch a DVD with my son – V for Vendetta. This was released in 2005, directed by James McTeigue and starring Hugo Weaving (masked throughout), Natalie Portman, John Hurt and Stephen Fry. It is a good film, keeping you interested throughout and with good special effects and some very good actors performing very well. Although it is a cult film it has a very Hollywood feel to it with lots of action, a bit of love interest and building up to a satisfying ending with good basically triumphing over evil.
The Thirty Nine Steps is one of the most familiar books of the twentieth century. I first came across it as a set book in English classes at school. But it has also had several film and television versions. It is in a way quite sobering to realise that it is now very nearly a hundred years old. It has now not just a thumping good yarn but also a glimpse into a long vanished world.