Commodus: The Year 180

Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March of this year in Vindobona. The emperor had campaigned in the Danube region for over a decade. The tide of frequent and dangerous Germanic incursions had been turned, but plans to create two new provinces – Marcomannia and Sarmatia – had to be abandoned. Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son, Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, commonly known to posterity as Commodus. Commodus was still quite young when he became Augustus and ruler of the vast Roman Empire. He was born in Lanuvium on 31 August 161, so he was 18 years old when his father died. Commodus had once had a twin brother, Antoninus, who had died when he was only four. His older sister Lucilla, more than ten years his senior, played an important role in his life.

Detail from Marcus Aurelius’ column in Rome.

After Marcus’ death in Vindobona, Commodus addressed the soldiers in a speech and won their loyalty by offering them the donativa, the gratification that new emperors gave to the men at the start of their reign. For a moment it looked as if Commodus would continue his father’s campaigns against the Germanic tribes. Herodianus claims he told his soldiers in his speech:

“To set these affairs in order and make them secure is for you to undertake, if with resolute courage you would finish what is left of the war and carry forward to the northern seas the boundaries of the Roman empire.”

Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia).

The “northern sea”, of course, refers to the Baltic Sea (and perhaps the North Sea as well). The same author claims that freedmen, who served at the imperial court, persuaded the new Augustus to change his mind by reminding him of the luxuries back home in Rome, and by comparing the comfortable circumstances in the Eternal City to the hardship suffered at the Danube front. A different explanation is perhaps more plausible. It may simply be that Commodus had had enough of war and had realised that negotiating a good peace was preferable to a continuation of hostilities, which had anyway been draining the imperial treasury for years. In order to pay for the war against the Marcomanni, Marcus Aurelius himself had been forced to auction off many of the imperial possessions at the Forum of Trajanus just a few years ago. This was anything but a profitable war for Rome.

Commodus’ brother-in-law Claudius Pompeianus – he was his sister Lucilla’s second husband – tried to convince the emperor to continue the war. Commodus wavered, but ultimately decided to make peace with the tribes. The peace terms were not bad. In fact, they arguably favoured the Romans. The Marcomanni and Quadi returned deserters and prisoners of war, supplied the Romans with grain annually, surrendered some of their weapons and sent a few thousand recruits for the Roman army. Moreover, a Roman centurion was to supervise their assemblies and they were prohibited from making war upon neighbouring tribes like the Iazyges and the Vandili.

A new kid in town

Commodus as Hercules (Capitoline Museums)

Commodus as Hercules (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

After ending the war in the Danube region, Commodus returned to Rome for his triumph. He would never leave Italy again. On 22 October he drove through the streets of the Eternal City in his chariot. His Bithynian chamberlain (cubicularius), the freedman Saoterus, accompanied him in the chariot, which was a remarkable breach of protocol. Saoterus’ influence on the emperor was substantial.

At first, the new Augustus seemed like a good choice. Commodus was willing to listen to advice from his councillors, many of them close friends of the late Marcus. The people of Rome and Italy expected him to rule in the spirit of his late father, who would be deified later this year in a joint meeting of the Senate and popular assembly. The new emperor travelled through Italy and was greeted enthusiastically wherever he appeared. Commodus was a very handsome man, with clear eyes and curly hair that was naturally blond. Dio claims he was left-handed and was very proud of this fact, but busts of Commodus as Hercules show him with a club in his right hand. Left-handedness was frowned upon in Antiquity – as the word for left-handed, sinister, demonstrates – so it is possible this fact was obscured by the sculptors. Dio was in his twenties when Commodus became Augustus and his claim may be true. We just cannot know for certain.

When Commodus entered Rome, his future and that of the Roman Empire looked bright. No one could have expected that the emperor would turn out to be a murderous tyrant, a megalomaniac gladiator who would kill his own wife, members of his family and many members of the Roman nobility. Dio, who had hindsight, was harsh in his judgment. He believed that, after Marcus Aurelius’ death, “our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust”.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 51-55;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 552-553.

Updated 28 December 2022.


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