In 186 – or a few years later – a badly documented rebellion broke out, usually called the Bellum desertorum. It was led by a deserter from the Roman army, one Maternus. Maternus gathered around him a group of comrades from the army and started to pillage the countryside. At first he was just a local brigand, but with success came wealth, and wealth led to more supporters joining his ranks. Ultimately, Maternus and his men were overrunning most of Gaul and the Iberian provinces, looting and burning the countryside and even attacking large cities. Commodus sent Pescennius Niger against the rebels, who soon realised they were outnumbered.
Herodianus relates how Maternus and his followers now slipped into Italy and devised a plot to kill the emperor. The murder was supposed to take place during the annual procession in March in honour of Magna Mater. Maternus and his men were to disguise themselves as praetorian guardsmen, infiltrate the procession and then kill Commodus. The plan was betrayed to Commodus by some of Maternus’ comrades and the rebel leader was arrested and decapitated. The Bellum desertorum can arguably be considered historical (it is mentioned by Herodianus and the Historia Augusta), but whether Maternus really attempted to assassinate Commodus is up for debate.
Plague and famine
One of the most powerful men of the Empire was the emperor’s cubicularius (chamberlain), a Phrygian freedman named Marcus Aurelius Cleander. His power had been growing especially since the death of Perennis, the praetorian prefect who was executed in 185. Being a praetorian prefect was quite risky. If we are to believe the Historia Augusta, Perennis’ successor was a certain Niger, who held the position for just six hours. Another successor, Marcius Quartus, lasted just a little longer: five days. When yet another praetorian prefect, one Aebutianus, was killed somewhere between 186 and 188, Cleander became a praetorian prefect himself, reportedly one of three, but definitely holding a senior position.
Cleander was a wealthy man, notorious for selling provincial commands to the highest bidders and enrolling freedman into the Senate and making them patricians. In 189, in large part due to Cleander’s efforts, there were 25 (!) consuls. One of the suffect consuls was reportedly Septimius Severus, a former legate in Gaul and future emperor. The source for this claim is Cassius Dio, who also writes that:
“Cleander, accordingly, was obtaining money from every source, and he amassed more wealth than any who had ever been named cubicularii. A great deal [of] it he gave to Commodus and his concubines, and he spent a great deal on houses, baths, and other works of benefit either to individuals or to cities.”
In 190, Cleander’s luck ran out. Italy had been struck by a terrible plague this or the previous year. It was possibly smallpox, and it was claiming thousands of lives. A densely populated city like Rome was hit very hard, and both people and animals were dropping like flies; Dio claims as many as 2.000 people died in Rome in a single day. Commodus, on the advice of his physicians, had already left the city and had moved to Laurentum, some 40 kilometres south of Rome. To make things worse, at the same time Rome was struck by a great famine. The people accused Cleander of buying up large quantities of grain, thus preventing the grain from being sold at the markets. It is hard to ascertain whether Cleander was truly guilty. Dio claims that the true culprit was a grain commissioner named Papirius Dionysius, who made the famine worse in the hope that the people would blame Cleander. Which the people did.
During horse-races at the Circus Maximus, the people began shouting insults at Cleander. A large crowd subsequently left the city to find the emperor and inform him about what his most trusted advisor was doing. Commodus was apparently unaware about what was going on in the city, and Cleander wanted to keep him blissfully ignorant. When the crowd reached the estate where the emperor was staying, Cleader ordered the imperial horse guards to charge them. Many citizens were cut down by the guards or trampled by the horses. The horse guards chased the crowd back to the gates of Rome, which makes it rather unlikely that Commodus was staying near Laurentum, which – as stated above – is 40 kilometres from Rome. Dio claims Commodus was staying in the “Quintilian suburb”, and wherever that is, it was probably a lot closer to the city.
Now that the chase had reached the city, the citizens began fighting back. The people bolted their doors, climbed on rooftops and began pelting the horse guards with bricks and tiles. Many guardsmen were killed or wounded and many horses slipped and threw their riders. The praefectus urbis Publius Helvius Pertinax also intervened and ordered the urban cohorts (cohortes urbanae) to aid the people. These soldiers had little love for the imperial horse guards and ultimately the latter were forced to retreat and flee.
Another kingmaker killed
Commodus was now informed of Cleander’s crimes, either by his elder sister Fadilla or by his mistress Marcia. Dio claims that Marcia had originally been the mistress or the “notorious wife” of Quadratus, the same Ummidius Quadratus who had been killed by Commodus for his involvement in a plot to kill the emperor. Dio also mentions “the tradition […] that she greatly favoured the Christians and rendered them many kindnesses”, words that were most likely added by Xiphilinus, the 11th-century Christian scholar who epitomised Dio’s work.
In any case, Commodus was now forced to take action against Cleander. He summoned his praetorian prefect and had him arrested and beheaded. Cleander’s head was stuck on a spear and carried through the streets of Rome, much to the delight of the population. The emperor also had Cleander’s children killed, and all those who were known to be his friends. Their bodies were dragged through the streets, mutilated and finally dumped in the sewers. Commodus was still quite popular, and when he returned to Rome, he was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd.