Peace, Power and Prosperity: The Antonines

There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.

Robert F. Kennedy, The Day of Affirmation speech, 6 June 1966

Antoninus Pius (138–161): ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’

Antoninus Pius did not live in interesting times. He was a boring Emperor who lived in boring times, and he worked night and day to keep things boring. His reign was not one of danger or uncertainty, nor was it a hotbed of creativity. On the contrary: ‘this age of indolence passed away without having produced a single writer of original genius or who excelled in the arts of elegant composition’,1 and one might say that the Antonines ‘did nothing in particular and did it very well’.2 Yet Rome was, at least superficially, now at the height of its security and prosperity.

His uneventful reign was presented as a Golden Age in Aelius Aristides’ speech To Rome, delivered in Pius’ reign:

In your Empire – and with this word I have indicated the entire civilized world – [. . .] no one worthy of rule or trust remains an alien, but a civil community of the World has been established as a free Republic under one, the best, ruler and teacher of order.3

To be pius in Roman eyes was to have a finely tuned sense of duty towards your family, state and gods. It was not a sexy quality, but it enabled Antoninus to rule the Empire effectively and with a light touch. He appears affable, conscientious, polite to his underlings, very considered in his decision-making and keen to make the good of the community his prime concern. Not much occurred in the way of scandal (that we know of) and he was happy to delegate the day-to-day process of government to experienced governors and administrators.

Antoninus had been born at Lanuvium (modern Lanuvio), 32 kilometres south-east of Rome, into a family with Gallic roots on 19 September 86. He had ascended to the top of the Cursus Honorum, married M. Annius Verus’ daughter Annia Galeria Faustina some time between 110 and 115, and governed Asia from 130 to 135. Following his very smooth accession to the purple on 10 July 138, he assumed the name Imperator Caesar Tiberius Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus, adding Pius and Pater Patriae shortly afterwards. Faustina was honoured with the title of Augusta.

Unlike his predecessor, Antoninus was not a great traveller. He stayed in Italy for his entire reign:

It is easy for him to abide in his place and manage the world through letters; these arrive almost as soon as written, as if borne on wings.4

Pius focused on hearing petitions, issuing new laws and rescripts (replies to petitions), and dealing with religious issues. His building work was primarily concerned with completion and restoration, but there were new projects like the impressive Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, which still stands in the Forum at Rome as the Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, complete with a rather odd baroque facade. He distributed cash to the plebs on nine occasions, paid a donativum to the soldiers when his daughter got married, founded an order of destitute girls, and promoted games featuring huge numbers of exotic animals. But all this was relatively conservative, and he purportedly left the public treasury with a robust credit balance of 675 million denarii. There were anecdotes about his personal parsimony, but he used his own money to distribute wine, oil and wheat in a time of famine, and he also oversaw humanitarian relief at Rome following a bad fire, flooding and a collapse of grandstands in the Circus Maximus in which over 1 000 people died. Epigraphic evidence also shows a genuine concern for the welfare of the provinces, where his procurators were under strict instructions to levy reasonable amounts of tribute and were held accountable it they exceeded proper limits. So, on the whole, the Empire prospered:

With such care did he govern all peoples under him that he looked after all things and all men as if they were his own.5

Rome also celebrated the nine-hundredth anniversary of her foundation in 148.6 This was the perfect opportunity for a pius ruler to reaffirm Rome’s core values, and it chimed in well with Pius’ personal role model, Rome’s second king Numa Pompilius,7 whom Aeneas (another paragon ofpietas) sees on his visit to the Underworld:

Who is that in the distance, bearing the hallows, crowned with

A wreath of olive? I recognize – grey hair and hoary chin –

That Roman king who, called to high power from humble Cures,

A town in a poor area, shall found our system of law.8

For the author of the Historia Augusta the comparison was not a bad one:

He was justly compared to Numa, whose good fortune and pietas and tranquillity and religious rites he ever maintained.9

Coins were minted with the legends TRANQVILLITAS and CONCORDIA on them, as well as others that trumpeted FELICITAS TEMPORVM (= ‘the happiness of the times’). ‘Keep calm and carry on’ was very much the order of the day, as was well expressed by his adoptive son Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations:

Do all things as a disciple of Antoninus. Think of his constancy in every act rationally undertaken, his invariable equability, his piety, his serenity of countenance, his sweetness of disposition, his contempt for the bubble of fame, and his zeal for getting a true grasp of affairs.10

Yet there were still two men who conspired against him. The first was Titus Atilius Rufus Titianus, whose name we find erased from the Fasti Ostienses, where the entry for 15 September 145 also says that Judgment was passed on Cornelius Priscianus in open session in the Senate, because he disturbed the province of Spain in hostile fashion.

The Historia Augusta adds that Priscianus died by his own hand, and that Pius didn’t allow any investigation into his conspiracy.

The Antonine Wall

Despite all the ‘tranquillity-propaganda’, there was a reasonable amount of military activity during Antoninus’ reign:

He conquered the Britons, through his legate Lollius Urbicus (another wall, of turf, being set up when the barbarians had been driven back), and compelled the Moors to sue for peace [in the first half of the 140s]; and he crushed the Germans and Dacians [in the late 150s] and many peoples, including the Jews, who were rebelling, through governors and legates. In Achaea too, and Egypt, he put down rebellions and frequently curbed the Alani when they began disturbances.11

However, Aelius Aristides says that most people in the Empire heard of these distant operations ‘as if they were myths / faraway bad dreams’.

The fighting in Britain was about as far away from Rome as one could get, and the motives and objectives are not known. Pausanias says

[Antoninus Pius] annexed the greater part of the territory of the Brigantes in Britain, because the Brigantes started an invasion of Genounia, which is subject to Rome.12

Quite where Genounia is only Pausanias knows (= the land of the Votadini?), and he may be using ‘Brigantes’ rather loosely (= the Selgovae?). It may also be that Antoninus simply needed some cheap military glory, and it was the only conflict for which he was hailed as Imperator (in 142). It started in 139 and was overseen by Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who operated well north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus, across which he then constructed a new wall on the successful conclusion of the campaign.

This so-called Antonine Wall (see Map 3B) was built of turf by the same legions that made Hadrian’s Wall. It featured a large ditch on the northern side, six primary forts and several other fortlets integrated into it, an east-west military way, plus various outpost forts to the north and protecting the western coast. It has been suggested that although Hadrian’s Wall had been ‘a tactical success [it was] a strategic failure because it was built in the wrong position’,13 and so Antoninus simply shifted the entire frontier system north to where Agricola had earlier found ‘a good place for halting the advance’.14 The garrisons of Hadrian’s Wall were moved forward, and lowland Scotland was reoccupied.

Then around 155 there was a serious rebellion among the Brigantes. This prompted a managed withdrawal from the Antonine Wall, and preparations were made to recommission Hadrian’s Wall. The situation was stabilized under a new governor, Cn. Julius Verus, and an inscription found in 1751 (now lost) records rebuilding activity on Hadrian’s Wall:

Legio VI Victrix Pia Fidelis rebuilt this when [Sextus Sulpicius] Ter[tullus] and [Quintus Tineius] Sac[erdos Clemens] were consuls [i.e., in 158].15

However, the Antonine Wall was reoccupied shortly before Antoninus’ death in 161, as the Romans moved north for a second time, staying (in the currently dominant, but by no means unanimous, scholarly view) until about 163, when a methodical, strategic abandonment to the Hadrianic frontier then ensued.

By the time his wall was abandoned, Antoninus Pius was already dead. Predictably he had made careful plans for the succession: his daughter Faustina had married his adoptive son Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus in 145 and now had several children by him; Marcus himself had been granted tribunician power and greater proconsular power; and he and Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus had held multiple consulships. These two men would accede to the purple as Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

Even Pius’ death was boring. Having eaten rather too much Alpine cheese he became delirious, gave the watchword ‘Equanimity’, and gave up the ghost at his estate at Lorium near Rome on 7 March 161. He was deified by the Senate, and his adopted sons erected a red granite column in the Campus Martius, whose base depicted Eternity taking Antoninus and Faustina up to heaven. His successor spoke glowingly of his positive qualities:

Constancy, equability, piety, serenity of expression, sweet nature, contempt for empty fame, determination to understand issues and never to dismiss a question until he had scrutinized it thoroughly. He never found fault with his critics, was never in a hurry, refused to listen to slander [. . .] He was always loyal to his friends, he revered the gods but was not superstitious.16

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus: Concordia Augustorum17 (161–169)

Had Hadrian still been alive in 161, he would doubtless have approved of the outcome of the accession process. He had insisted that Antoninus Pius adopt both Marcus Annius Verus (thereafter known as Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus) and Lucius Ceionius Commodus (currently Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus). Marcus was the front runner, but he refused to become Emperor unless the same powers and titles (apart from Pontifex Maximus, which could not be shared) were conferred on Lucius too. They both became Augustus, but other name changes ensued: Marcus dropped the name Verus in favour of Antoninus, to honour his adoptive father; Lucius took the discarded name of Verus instead of Commodus; and they then reigned jointly as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Verus. Unsurprisingly this has caused quite a bit of confusion among our sources.

Marcus’ wife Faustina had already borne nine children, of which just four girls had survived (see Genealogy Table 3). The Fasti Ostienses show that their first child, Domitia Faustina, had been born on 30 November 147, and on 31 August 161 Faustina gave birth again, this time to twin boys, who were named Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, after Pius, and Lucius Aurelius Commodus, after Lucius. Lucius Verus, who seems to have still been unmarried, was now betrothed to Marcus’ eldest daughter, the eleven-year-old Lucilla.

Marcus regarded Lucius as better than himself when it came to military activities, but there was no doubt that Marcus was still the senior partner. Lucius was a colourful character, reputedly one of Rome’s best-looking Emperors, sporting a fine beard and given to highlighting his blond hair with gold dust. He was well educated, too, having studied with the celebrated rhetorician M. Cornelius Fronto and the Stoics Apollonius of Chalcedon and Plutarch’s nephew Sextus of Chaeronea, and he had a taste for the Good Life, but not in the philosophical sense that Marcus did, even if the latter did use opium.18

Marcus Aurelius was sometimes called ‘the Philosopher’, and we are told that

Ever on his lips was a saying of Plato’s, that states prospered where philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.19

Marcus had also studied with Fronto, as well as with the Athenian sophist and ‘billionaire’ Herodes Atticus and various influential Stoics through whom he became acquainted with the works of Epictetus. At the heart of Stoic teaching was the idea that ‘nothing is of ultimate value to a man except his moral integrity’,20 and Marcus tried hard to take this on board. Later in his life he would outline his thoughts, in Greek, in his own ‘self-help’ book, the Meditations.


Rome’s new Emperors treated the plebs like fellow citizens, and were prepared to tolerate freedom of speech, but if they were intending to spend their reign philosophizing and partying, they had an instant wake-up call from the Parthians. Vologaeses III invaded Armenia, installed his own nominee, Pacorus, as king, and destroyed the Roman legion that was sent in to restore order.21 The Parthians then moved into Syria, and to make matters worse a British war was on the cards and there were problems with the Chatti beyond the Upper German frontier.

In the summer of 162 Marcus dispatched Lucius Verus to Syria with a massive army and several top-flight generals. Out in the East Statius Priscus managed to seize the Armenian capital Artaxata in 163, found a new one, and garrison it. He was a formidable commander: Lucian says that he merely shouted out and twenty-seven of the enemy fighters dropped dead.22 Lucius’ commander M. Pontius Laelianus did much to restore discipline in the Syrian army by rigorous kit inspections and a clampdown on drinking and gambling, and Fronto writes that Lucius himself acted as a role model, marching

on foot at the head of his men as often as he rode on horseback, putting up with the blazing sun and choking dust, his head exposed to sun and shower, hail and snow – and to missiles. He sweated unconcernedly as if engaged in sport [. . .] He took a belated bath after his work was done and ate simple camp-food, drank local wine. He often slept on leaves of turf. Through so many provinces, so many open dangers of sieges, battles, citadels, posts and forts stormed, he lavished his care and advice.23

Other sources see it rather differently, however, and make him party his way along the warpath and spend a lot of time at the resort of Daphne near Antioch, where he struck up an affair with the gorgeous and gifted Panthea from Smyrna. Marcus responded by sending out Lucilla, Lucius’ intended bride, to Ephesus, where the marriage took place in 164. The fourteen-year-old was given the title Augusta, and she ultimately gave Lucius three children.

Lucius was certainly a good delegator, and this allowed the professionalism of the Roman army to see the campaign through: they installed the pro-Roman Mannus to the throne of Osrhoene; followed up by capturing the city of Nisibis (modern Nusaybin in Turkey, right on the Syrian border), where the Parthian general narrowly escaped by swimming the Tigris; and they advanced down the Euphrates, scored a victory at Dura-Europos, destroyed Seleuceia on the Tigris, and sacked Ctesiphon. Lucius took the titleParthicus Maximus. The next year C. Avidius Cassius took Rome’s legions over the Tigris into Medea (modern Iran), further east than any Roman army had gone before, whereupon Lucius started calling himself Medicus, ‘of Medea’ (as did Marcus, who had had another son named Annius Verus in 162, although in 165 one of the twins – T. Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus – died). Vologaeses III fled, while the Romans consolidated their grip on the border regions and finally withdrew in 166. Avidius Cassius now became governor of Syria, and Lucius returned to Rome where he and Marcus celebrated a joint triumph. The Historia Augusta jokes that, because of Lucius’ behaviour on campaign, the Parthian War was described as the ‘Histrionic/Theatrical’ War.

Then disaster struck. The troops who returned home had contracted what is often called the Antonine Plague, an illness incurable at the time whose symptoms were described by the contemporary Greek physician Galen as diarrhoea, high fever and the appearance of pustules on the skin after nine days. It was possibly smallpox. Galen left Rome for his home city Pergamum (modern Bergama), where there was an important healing sanctuary. It was a wise move. Mortality estimates vary, but the death toll may have run into millions.

Lucius kept up his self-indulgent lifestyle, though. He was obsessed with chariot racing – he carried a gold statue of his favourite horse, Volucer, around with him, and the animal was given a tomb on the Vatican Hill – and had a pub built in his house where he spent a lot of time gambling, feasting and drinking. Sometimes, for a change of scene, he would dress in ordinary clothes and get drunk and fight in taverns and brothels.

There was, however, fighting of a very different order to be done. While the Parthian War had been under way, the so-called Marcomannic War24 broke out in the Danube frontier zone and escalated into something extremely threatening to the Roman Empire: population movements in what is now Poland and the Ukraine started to impact on tribes bordering Rome’s Empire, who now sought sanctuary within the Empire and threatened war unless they were taken in (see Map 4). The Danube frontier had also been weakened by the deployment of many of its troops to the east, and now the Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi and the Sarmatian Iazyges moved into Roman territory. The Germans moved across Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia, raided northern Italy and laid siege to Aquileia (the ancient ancestor of Venice). Marcus and Lucius had to delay their response because of the virulence of the plague, but they took to the field in 168.

The arrival of Rome’s two Emperors at Aquileia caused ‘several kings to retreat, together with their peoples’.25 Lucius was keen to return to Rome, but Marcus insisted on pressing on to address the problems on the Danube, and so they crossed the Alps, ‘pressed further on and settled everything that pertained to the defence of Italy and Illyricum’.26 With the situation back under control, and new measures taken to strengthen the defences of northern Italy, the two Emperors wintered at Aquileia. A spring offensive may have been scheduled but when plague struck their camp they took Galen’s medical advice and set off back to Rome in January or February 169.

Just two days into the trip Lucius suffered a stroke in his carriage. Three days later, at the age of thirty-eight, he died at Altinum (modern Altino). There were rumours of a plot by his mother-in-law, Faustina, along with suspicion of an illicit relationship, and also talk of his having been poisoned by Marcus. All of this seems implausible, and becoming sole Emperor was definitely not the easy option for Marcus. He also suffered a bereavement before campaigning resumed when his son Annius Verus Caesar died, leaving him with four daughters and the eight-year-old Commodus. Funds for the war were raised by auctioning property from the palaces, and a recruitment crisis necessitated the conscription of slaves, gladiators and common criminals, as well as two new legions, II Italicaand III Italica. An inscription from the Roman Forum that was probably erected early in Marcus’ reign gives the dispositions of the legions throughout the Empire, and has the two new ones added at a later date:27



Germania Superior

VIII Augusta, XXI Primigenia

Germania Inferior

I Minervia, XXX Ulpia


VII Gemina


III Augusta


II Traiana


XII Fulminata, XV Apollinaris


III Gallica, IIII Scythica, XVI Flavia


III Cyrenaica


VI Ferrata, X Fretensis


I Parthica*, III Parthica*

Upper Pannonia

I Adiutrix, X Gemina, XIV Gemina

Lower Pannonia

II Adiutrix

Upper Moesia

IIII Flavia, VII Claudia

Lower Moesia

I Italica, V Macedonica, XI Claudia


II Italica


III Italica


XIII Gemina


II Parthica*


II Augusta, VI Victrix, XX Victrix

* = these legions were also added later

Marcus Aurelius, Sole Emperor (169–180)

Marcus eventually arrived back at the northern frontier in the autumn of 169, but although the literary sources concerning the ensuing campaigns are sketchy, we do still possess the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, now in the Piazza Colonna. Standing 100 Roman feet high, it has a spiral relief that celebrates Marcus’ campaigns versus the Marcomanni and the Iazyges. Having wintered at Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia), Marcus resumed the offensive in 170, but it appears that the Romans suffered a reverse that cost them 20 000 casualties. Acting on the advice of a dodgy prophet called Alexander, Marcus had thrown two lions into the Danube as offerings to make sure that ‘victory would be won’. The lions swam the river in one direction and barbarians poured across in the other, whereupon the prophet claimed that he had never specified which side would win.

The Marcomanni and Quadi crossed over the Alps, besieged Aquileia and destroyed the city of Opitergium (modern Oderzo). In 171 the lower Danube frontier was violated as other tribes made their way through the provinces of Moesia, Macedonia and Achaea before their attack fizzled out in the vicinity of Athens. Moments of divine intervention supposedly helped the Romans, such as the ‘Rain Miracle’, depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, which rescued some struggling Roman troops in enemy territory. The date and location of that event are uncertain, but the Romans now started to regain the upper hand. When the Marcomanni attempted to return home laden with booty, Marcus intercepted and destroyed them at the Danube, before returning the plunder to the provincials from whom it had been taken. The Marcomanni accepted a peace settlement, coins proclaimed GERMANIA SUBACTA (‘Germany subjugated’), and Marcus took the name Germanicus.

Having established new headquarters at Carnuntum in Pannonia Superior (between modern Vienna and Bratislava on the Archäologischer Park Carnuntum), Marcus took the offensive against the Quadi and the Iazyges, with the intention of establishing new provinces of Marcomannia and Sarmatia. However, his plans came to naught. In 175 his hitherto trusted friend C. Avidius Cassius, who was now in charge of all the Eastern provinces, proclaimed himself Emperor. There were also whispers that Marcus’ wife Faustina was implicated, but Avidius received no significant backing. Marcus made peace with the Iazyges, taking the title Sarmaticus, and headed east, only to discover that Avidius had been murdered by one of his own centurions.

Marcus still felt it prudent to tour the Eastern provinces as far as Alexandria, and Faustina, who had been given the title of Mater Castrorum (‘Mother of the Camp’), accompanied him. However, she died suddenly in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. There are two traditions concerning her death. One, supported by Marcus’ correspondence with Fronto, was that it was caused by gout; the other makes her commit suicide after learning of the failure of Avidius’ conspiracy. There were also insinuations that she was an adulteress who had given birth to Commodus by a gladiator, but these look rather like clichéd ‘sinister narrative templates’28 of the Livia or Agrippina the Younger type, and Marcus was grief-stricken at her death.

On their way back to Rome, both Marcus and Commodus were initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. They arrived at the end of 176, and Commodus, who was still only fifteen years old, was granted imperium and nominated as Consul for 177, in which year he was also given proconsular and tribunician powers, the name Augustus, and the title Pater Patriae. Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Commodus Augustus had effectively become joint Emperor of Rome.

Marcus spent less than two years in the capital before warfare dragged him back to the Danube, taking Commodus with him. The Roman armies were gaining the ascendancy, but Marcus fell ill and died at either Vindobona (Vienna) or Sirmium on 17 March 180. His ashes were laid to rest in Hadrian’s mausoleum and Commodus made a stress-free transition to power. Against his late father’s wishes, he struck peace deals with the tribes in the frontier zone and pulled the trans-Danubian garrisons back across the river.

Some modern writers find it hard to like Marcus Aurelius, seeing him as ‘cold, self-sufficient and joyless, the fine flower of paganism running to seed’,29 but the Romans tended to view him as practically perfect. Many felt that it was downhill all the way from now on: as Dio put it, ‘our history now descends from an Empire of gold to one of iron and rust’,30 and Edward Gibbon famously took it upon himself ‘from the death of Marcus Antoninus [i.e., Aurelius], to deduce the most important circumstances of [Rome’s] decline and fall, a revolution which will ever be remembered and is still felt by the nations of the earth’.31

Commodus (180–192): Debauchery and Conspiracy

Commodus was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people.32

With Commodus, the Roman Empire re-enters ‘interesting times’. He shared his birthday, and a good many personal qualities, with Caligula, and like Nero he was still in his teens when he acceded to the purple. Dio, who knew him personally, says that he was not naturally wicked, but guileless, simple, cowardly and ignorant. Herodian, another eyewitness, talks of his

well-developed body and a face that was handsome without being pretty. His commanding eyes flashed like lightning; his hair, naturally blond and curly, gleamed in the sunlight as if it were on fire; some thought that he sprinkled his hair with gold dust before appearing in public, while others saw in it something divine, saying that a heavenly light shone round his head. To add to his beauty, the first down was just beginning to appear on his cheeks.33

The youthful down duly became a fully-fledged beard. The Historia Augusta refers to him being vigorous enough for debauchery, but otherwise as weak and sickly, and having ‘such a conspicuous growth on the groin that the people of Rome could see the swelling through his silken robes’, which became the source of scurrilous verses.34 He was also left-handed.

Rather like with Nero, there were high hopes for his Principate, yet when he returned in triumphal procession to a hero’s welcome at Rome in October 180, Saoterus, his ‘partner in depravity’, sat in his chariot and was publicly showered with kisses by him. This Bithynian Greek freedman was Commodus’ a cubiculo (‘chamberlain’), and once again the delegation of serious government business to favourites, especially ones of servile status, led to intrigue, conspiracy and reprisals. Saoterus was murdered just before the first plot against Commodus was hatched by his older sister, Lucius Verus’ widow Lucilla, in 181 or 182. The ostensible reason was her jealousy of Bruttia Crispina, whom Commodus had married in 175. Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, who may have been Lucilla’s husband’s nephew, ambushed Commodus in an underground passage in the Colosseum, but instead of thrusting his sword into the unsuspecting Emperor he shouted, ‘The Senate sends this dagger to you!’, lost the element of surprise, and was ushered away to his death. The backlash was predictable: amidst a welter of other killings, Lucilla and Quadratus were executed, and so was Tarrutienus Paternus, co-commander of the Praetorian Guard, who may have ordered Saoterus’ death. Paternus’ colleague Tigidius Perennis now assumed control of the Praetorians, while deteriorating relations with the Senate meant that government by favourites became Commodus’ system of choice.

This arrangement suited both parties:

Perennis indulged the emperor’s youthful appetites, permitting him to spend his time in drinking and debauchery, [. . .] relieved him of imperial cares and responsibilities [and] assumed full personal charge of the Empire, driven by his insatiable lust for money.35

Commodus’ ‘appetites’ allegedly centred on Dionysiac revelry with an assembly of 300 concubines and 300 male prostitutes past the age of adolescence (exoleti), chosen on the basis of their good looks. The Historia Augusta also notes that he was ‘not free from the disgrace of intimacy with young men, defiling every part of his body, including his mouth, in dealings with persons of either sex’, and that ‘he kept among his minions certain men named after the genitals of both sexes, whom he delighted to kiss’. To a Roman, fellatio and cunnilingus form two aspects of one repellent phenomenon that has nothing to do with homo- or heterosexuality, but is all to do with befouling the mouth by oral-genital contact: fella-tores are not exclusively ‘homosexual’ any more than ‘cunnilingi’ are ‘heterosexual’, but both are disgusting to conventional Roman sensibilities. Commodus was also very fond of a staggeringly well-hung man whom he lovingly called Onos (‘Donkey’).36

Eventually Perennis’ hubris caught up with him. There had been an outbreak of warfare in Britain, which had seen northern tribesmen cross ‘the wall that separated them from the Roman legions’37 – which one is not specified, though Hadrian’s is more likely – before the governor Ulpius Marcellus took punitive measures. Although there was no more warfare on the frontier in Commodus’ reign, there was certainly unrest among the troops, who tended to blame Perennis whenever they didn’t get what they wanted. In 185, having failed to persuade a certain Priscus to declare himself Emperor, they sent a delegation of 1500 men to Rome, who told Commodus that Perennis was plotting against him. Commodus took the accusation at face value, and the inevitable executions were insisted upon by the man who took Perennis’ place of power, his bitter rival Cleander.

Cleander, who hailed from Phrygia, was of servile origin. Able, avaricious, corrupt and unscrupulous, he had become Commodus’ cubicularius (head of bedroom servants), married the Emperor’s concubine Damostratia, eliminated his rivals and amassed a huge personal fortune. Combining corruption and terror he conferred and/or sold Senatorial rank, military commands, procuratorships and governorships. Unsurprisingly this prompted a second coup against the Emperor in March 187. Maternus, a military deserter-turned-desperado who had been ravaging Spain and Gaul, infiltrated Italy with his brigands and planned to assassinate Commodus at the festival of Cybele, using men disguised as Praetorian Guards. But the scheme was betrayed, Maternus was beheaded and Commodus retreated into security-conscious isolation.

Cleander’s supremacy lasted until a serious famine struck Rome in 190, which was possibly exacerbated by the grain commissioner Papirius Dionysius in order to bring him down. An angry mob sought out Commodus at his estate near the city to demand Cleander’s execution. Cleander sent in the cavalry, who pursued the crowd back to Rome, but in the urban environment the horsemen were pelted with stones and roof tiles, and the rioters were joined by some of Rome’s garrison. Commodus had been kept in the dark about these events, but once his sister Fadilla told him what was going on he responded with alacrity. Cleander’s head ended up impaled on a long spear and thrown to the mob, while his two sons were put to death and all his known friends were killed. The bodies were dragged through the streets, mutilated and thrown into a sewer.

Gladiator and ‘Roman Hercules’

Commodus would never again trust anyone else with the running of the Empire, but the problem for Rome was that he had no interest in doing it himself:

He no longer had any regard for the ‘good life’; night and day, without interruption, licentious pleasures of the flesh made him a slave, body and soul.38

Symptomatic of this was the treatment of Iulius Iulianus, who was now sole Praefectus Praetorio: he was humiliated by being pushed into a swimming pool in front of his staff, made to dance naked for the Emperor’s concubines, and then murdered. Commodus styled himself The Emperor Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus, Pacifier of the Whole Earth, Invincible, the Roman Hercules, Pontifex Maximus, etc., etc. He also insisted on being called not ‘Commodus, son of Marcus’, but ‘Hercules, son of Zeus’: Herodian says that he started wearing a lion skin and carrying a club, and Dio that vast numbers of statues were erected representing him in the garb of Hercules.39 He seems to have come to believe that hewas Hercules.

Commodus was nothing if not egotistical. In 190 he renamed the months of the year to reflect his names and titles. Starting with January they were now Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius (‘the Supreme’),Amazonius (linking him to Hercules’ Labour of acquiring the girdle of the Amazon Queen), Invictus (Invincible), Felix (Fortunate) and Pius (Dutiful).40 Similarly, he is said to have given the name Commodianus (or Commodiana, depending on grammatical gender) to the Roman legions, the African grain fleet, the city of Carthage (absurdly termed Alexandria Commodiana Togata,)41 his mansion on the Palatine, the Roman people and the ‘Fortunate’ Senate. The Senate were not so fortunate when the designation Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR) was switched to Populus Senatusque Romanus, but in general the army and the lower classes liked him. His coins proclaimed a new Golden Age and he took the opportunity to play the ‘New Romulus’ and ‘refound’ Rome as Colonia Lucia Aelia Commodiana.

It is perhaps Commodus’ exploits as a gladiator that have most determined his image for posterity, notably in the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator:42

Commodus: ‘The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story!’

Promoting gladiatorial games was a ‘Good Thing’, but appearing in them was something entirely different. At (probably) the Ludi Plebeii of November 192 an audience from all over the Empire witnessed their Emperor, in the guise of Hercules the Hunter, shoot deer, roebuck, lions – a hundred with a hundred javelins – and leopards, a tiger, an elephant and a hippopotamus, as well as decapitating ostriches with crescent-headed arrows. Dio, who saw it happen, was terrified:

Having killed an ostrich and cut off its head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and raising his bloody sword in his right. He said nothing, but wagged his head with a grin, showing that he would treat us likewise.43

That was just in the morning. In the afternoon, Commodus fought as a gladiator, scoring a record number of victories for a left-hander. Senators and Equites had no option but to watch horror-struck, and to join in the acclamations:

You conquer, you will conquer; from the dawn of time, Amazonian, you conquer!44

Such outrageous behaviour could only end badly. It seems that Commodus planned to kill the incoming Consuls on New Year’s Day 193, and then emerge as sole Consul wearing the equipment of a secutor-style gladiator – a brimless helmet with two small eye holes; a short- to medium- length sword; a tall, oblong, curved shield (scutum) with a boss; an armband (manica) of heavily quilted linen on his right arm; a gaiter and short greave on his left leg, and a gaiter on his right; plus a loincloth (subligaculum) and a wide metal belt (balteus). Neither his cubicularius Eclectus, thePraefectus Praetorio Q. Aemilius Laetus, nor his favourite concu bine Marcia were able to talk him out of this. They then discovered a wax tablet in the Emperor’s handwriting with a list of people scheduled for death that night, and they themselves were at the top of it. So they decided to make a pre-emptive strike. Marcia administered poison in either wine or beef, but when Commodus puked it back up they sent in an athlete called Narcissus to strangle him, thereby ensuring that by not ‘taking the iron’ like a true gladiator, the Emperor died like a noxius (condemned criminal).

The Historia Augusta quotes the Senate’s acclamations on Commodus’ death, and their decree pertaining to the abuse of his corpse and his damnatio memoriae:

Let the memory of the murderer and the gladiator be utterly wiped away [. . .] Let the slayer of the Senate be dragged with the hook [. . .] More savage than Domitian, more foul than Nero. As he did unto others, let it be done unto him.45

They also wanted the informers punished in a rather Herculean manner, by either lions or the club. In fact, Commodus’ remains ended up in the Mausoleum of Hadrian, and he was deified four years later by Septimius Severus.

The Muse of History never repeats herself. She is like a jazz musician endlessly and creatively improvising around an underlying structure, but nevertheless the Roman Empire must at least have wondered whether a familiar refrain would break out: would it be like the death of Nero all over again, with savage civil war, or like the aftermath of Domitian, with an elderly ruler inaugurating a time of prosperity, or maybe some new narrative?

1   Gibbon, E., op. cit., chapter II, part IV.

2   Gilbert, W. S., No. 16: SONG (Lord Mountararat and Chorus), ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’, from Iolanthe, 1882.

3   Aelius Aristides, To Rome 60, tr. in Nicolet, C., The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980, p. 18.

4   Ibid. 33, tr. in Hadas, M. (ed.), A History of Rome, from its Origins to 529 AD, as told by the Roman Historians, New York: Doubleday, 1956.

5   Historia Augusta, Pius 7.1 tr. Magie, D. op. cit.

6   The traditional date of Rome’s foundation was 753 BCE: 753 + 148 – 1 (there is no ‘Year Zero’) = 900.

7   Conventionally ruled 715–673 BCE.

8   Virgil, Aeneid 6.808 ff, tr. Day Lewis, C., op. cit.

9   Historia Augusta, Pius 13.4, tr. Magie, D., op. cit.

10   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.30, tr. Haines, C. R., Marcus Aurelius, Edited and Translated by C. R. Haines, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1930.

11   Historia Augusta, Pius 5.4 f., tr. Birley, A., Lives of the Later Caesars: The First Part of the Augustan History, with Newly Compiled Lives of Nerva & Trajan, London: Penguin, 1976.

12   Pausanias 8.43.4, tr. Levi, P., in Pausanias: Guide to Greece, Volume 2, Southern Greece, Translated with an Introduction by Peter Levi, rev. edn., London: Penguin Classics, 1979.

13   Breeze, D. J., The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain, London: Batsford, 1982, p. 97.

14   Tacitus, Agricola 23.

15   RIB 1389, from Heddon-on-the-Wall, tr. Kershaw, S.

16   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.30.2, tr. Haines, C. R., op. cit.

17   Coins of 161 and 162 show Marcus and Lucius standing with clasped hands and bear the legend Concord[ia] Avgvstor[um].

18   See Africa, T. W., ‘The Opium Addiction of Marcus Aurelius,’ JHI 22 (1961), 97–102.

19   Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 27.7, tr. Magie, D., op. cit.

20   Long, A. A., ‘Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius’, in Luce, T. J. ed., Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome: Vol. II, New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1982, p. 987.

21   It might have been Legio IX Hispana, last attested at York under Trajan and in the early second century at Nijmegen, but perhaps then transferred to the East by Hadrian.

22   Lucian, How to Write History 20.

23   Fronto Principia Historiae 13–15, tr. in Birley, A. R., ‘The Wars and Revolts’, in van Ackeren, M. ed., A Companion to Marcus Aurelius, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 219.

24   Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 12.13. It comes to be referred to as the German War, the Northern War or the War of Many Nations as more tribes enter the picture.

25   Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 14.2, tr. Kershaw, S.

26   Ibid. 14.6.

27   CIL 4 3492 = ILS 2288.

28   Freisenbruch, A., The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars, London: Jonathan Cape, 2010, p. 214.

29   Wells, C., The Roman Empire, London: Fontana Press, 2nd edn., 1992, p. 218.

30 Dio 72.36.3, tr. Cary. E., op. cit.

31   Gibbon, E., op. cit, vol. 1, part 1, chapter 1.

32   Dio 72.4.1.

33   Herodian 1.7.5, tr. Echols, E. C., Herodian of Antioch’s History of the Roman Empire, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961.

34   Historia Augusta, Commodus 13.1 f., tr. Magie, D., op. cit.

35   Herodian 1.8.1 f., tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

36   See Historia Augusta, Commodus 5.4 (concubines and exoleti); 5.11 (oral defilement, though Magie’s Loeb translation prudishly omits ‘including his mouth’); 10.8 (minions); 10.9 (‘Donkey’). Cf. the stories told about Elagabalus, p. 256 below.

37   Dio 73.8.2. See Breeze, D. J., The Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain, London: Batsford, 1982, p. 126 f.

38   Herodian 1.13.7, tr. Echols, E. C., op. cit.

39   Ibid. 1.14.8; Dio 72.15.6.

40   Dio 73.15.3. See Kershaw, S., op. cit., 2007, pp. 150 ff.

41   See Corey Brennan, T., ‘Tertullian’s De Pallio and Roman dress in North Africa’, in Edmonson, J. and Keith, A., Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture, Phoenix Supplementary Volume XLVI, Toronto, Buffalo and London: Toronto University Press, 2008, pp. 258–270.

42   Directed by Ridley Scott, DreamWorks SKG, Universal Pictures, Scott Free Productions, 2000.

43   Dio 73.21.1–2, tr. Cary, E., op. cit.

44   Ibid. 73.20.2, tr. Kershaw, S.

45   Historia Augusta, Commodus 19.1–-2, tr. Magie, D., op. cit. See also Kyle, D. G., Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, pp. 224 ff.

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