Zach he was a distinguished philosopher.”( Michael

Zach Harris

Roman History

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Winter 2018

Michael Frassetto

 

Commodus

 

For over a century, the
Roman Coliseum has hosted the most grueling and bloody games in human history, fought
and won by the Roman gladiator. At the end of the second century, the Roman people
witness a game like no other. For the first time in history, a Roman Emperor

will fight to the death. All
hail Commodus, Emperor of Rome! Commodus’s reign will mark the beginning of the
fall… of the greatest civilization on Earth.

But his story begins more
than a decade earlier. By the end of the second century, there’s no
civilization as massive or as powerful as the Roman Empire. Almost one in five
people on Earth lives within the Empire’s boundaries… and is under rule of
one of the most powerful men on the planet, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. For
more than a decade, Aurelius has waged war to defend the Empire’s reach. And he
reigns over a territory that spans thousands of miles. From Western Europe and
the Middle East, through parts of Africa and the entire Mediterranean. Marcus
Aurelius was considered really one of the most successful Emperors.(The last of
the 5 Great Emporors) “In fact he was not just Emperor, but he was a
distinguished philosopher.”( Michael Frassetto) He was a student of Epictetus, who
was the leading “Stoic Philosopher” of the day, and he was a gifted
philosophical writer in his own right. His meditations are still read today. Over
the last century, Rome has been built into one of the most advanced cities in
the ancient world. And, under Aurelius’s reign, it’s given rise to a modern
era.

The
Roman Empire in the second century was a formidable global superpower and at
the height of it’s expansion. They had the most proficient military forces, ruled
the most civilized array of people, and if there was anything that you wanted by
Roman standard you could find in the empire. What kept this empire together was
an incredibly efficient array of infrastructure. Ancient Rome during this time
period was the greatest empire that the world had ever known. It was
responsible for enormous advances in technology such as the system of Roman
roads or the aqueducts that supplied water. The city of Rome itself had reached
one million people. So it was the first large-scale urban metropolis. Marcus
Aurelius rules over 50 million people within the boundaries of the Roman Empire,
and no one lives better than his son, big boss Commodus. The problem that was ushered
in by Marcus Aurelius when instead of doing what his predecessors had done, and
adopting a person who was qualified by temperament, and upbringing, and
training to serve as Emperor, instead wanted his son to succeed him. Commodus
was the first Roman Emperor who was ever born to a sitting emperor.

Growing
up the son of an emperor, as someone who was raised from birth to succeed his
father, we have to imagine that Commodus’s ego had no place to go. Knowing that
he would

have this role, that this
had planted some seed in his mind that he was, in some sense, extraordinary. When
people think about Commodus, he had more going for him than any other human
being previous in the history of human existence (In Rome) I mean, in fact, no
Roman Emperor for 80 years had had a son. However, one would be very, very hard
pressed to find a less intellectually, less energetic, less motivated person
with that type of responsibility in the whole of human history.

Against
his will, Commodus has been called to Germania. Ordered to train under his
father to become the next Emperor. Hundreds of miles from Rome, along the
borders of the Empire, massive armies of Germanic tribes are invading Roman
territory, and the Roman military has been called to the front lines. With one
of the strongest ground and naval forces in the world, the Roman military is
made up of hundreds of thousands of highly trained soldiers, equipped with the
latest weaponry, and prepared to defend the Empire’s borders at all costs. There
was the problem of Rome’s neighbors. Both to the east, and to the north. The
Parthians to the east and Germanic tribes to the north, which were a threat. Romans
had been fighting Germans, at this point, for 250 years. And the border on the
Danube had always been a problem and, as it turns out, always would be a
problem.

The
Roman army was the most formidable fighting machine that the ancient world had
seen. The basis for their success was less their capacity for killing, and more
their capacity for entrenchment. It was a capacity for digging fortresses, for
fashioning all the infrastructure of a frontier force that served to ensure that
the Roman frontiers were essentially guarded and held secure. Marcus Aurelius
and Commodus have come down in history as very, very different individuals. “In
this case the apple fell very, very far away from the tree”(Frassetto) After
all, he was also a leading general of his time and led many wars along the
Danube frontier. Commodus probably was as irresponsible as people say. That
said, Marcus Aurelius does not appear to have shown any hesitation in promoting
Commodus from a very young age.

One
of the great questions of this time is, not just among Roman historians of
today, but even of the time, was why Commodus? Why did Marcus Aurelius choose
Commodus? Why, despite the fact that everybody seemed to see that he was not up
to this task, why was there still the insistence that Commodus was going to be
the next Emperor? Perhaps we can chalk it up to naïveté or a kind of generic just
love for his son, blinding him to the realities that his son was not up to the
task. The means through which Commodus was groomed and trained to become
Emperor were unparalleled in Roman history. He had high hopes for his son
during this period. What Marcus Aurelius imagined for his child and what his
child became were two very different things. As Commodus trains, the Germanic
tribes begin to push through Roman defenses, banding together and launching a
massive assault on the Roman army. The great Roman nightmare was of Northern
Barbarians sweeping southwards and conquering Rome.

In
the reign of Marcus Aurelius, there was a disturbance. He knew that he had no
choice but to confront that. And as it turned out, the wars that Marcus
Aurelius fought against the German people were as strenuous and challenging as
any Barbarian enemy that the Roman people had faced. Lasting years making it a
devastating war and killing thousands. The war also takes its toll on the
Emperor who soon falls ill and eventually dies leaving the throne to Commodus.

There
were clearly any number of folks in the Roman Senate themselves, who were
senators, who thought that they had even better claim to nobility or to the
throne than the reigning Emperor himself. In general, it seems that being at
the top was a very lonely and dangerous place in Ancient Rome. Throughout the
Empire, governors and ambitious leaders are determined to seize control. And a
challenge to the throne could come from any of the Empire’s regions. After the
death of his father, Commodus ended the war in Germania and returned home to
take his father’s place. But while the people celebrate the new ruler, not all
are content to see Commodus rise to power.

For
centuries, emperors have given gifts to their soldiers returning from war in
the form of money, slaves, and land from conquered regions in an effort to keep
their support. For Commodus, winning the favor of the military was the first
step in securing the support of the Empire. But before he can give the military
its payment, he knows he’ll have to convince the Senate to back his plan. For
the first time in generations, Rome was at peace. So those who lay their lives on
the line for Rome deserve far more than simply gratitude. Senators, part of
that aristocratic elite, could actually be a threat in certain circumstances to
the Emperor. They had a bit more autonomy, a bit more wealth, and the familial
background that some of them could compete in certain contexts with imperial
power if the situation was just right. So they were not always trustworthy in
that sense. When Commodus wanted to reward the Roman army, the senate took all
the credit, infuriating Commodus. He comes up with a way to win over the Roman
people while undercutting the Senate. This was done by giving people a glorius
day of games, fighting animals and battles of gladiators, while also taxing the
sentate for the games as revenge for their earlier betrayal.

Soon
after taking the throne, Commodus launches a massive P.R. campaign commissioning
dozens of statues in his image, and minting thousands of coins with his
profile. Commodus made sure that he maintained the support of the Roman people.
Coins were a great way for Emperors to advertise their reign. It’s a way that
they can show themselves as they want to be seen. Commodus was very interested
in popular appeal, and so many of his programs, such as the donation of monies
to the people were aimed around garnering popular support. These were moves that
Roman Emperors made to really bask in the glow of popular acclaim.

After
insulting the senate numerous times throughout Commodus’ rein, Quintianus, a
Roman senator, worked with Commodus’ sister, Lucretia, and a few people close
to Commodus, on an attack on his life. So, on the day of the games that
Commodus taxed the senators for, 50,000 people crowd into the arena to see
battles and performances by more than 100 gladiators

and thousands of wild
animals, they attempted an assassination on the reining emporor. These were
celebrations that involved the entire city of Rome. Commodus avoided the
attempt on his life, but closest advisor was murdered. After this event the number
of people whom he felt he could trust must be extraordinarily small. Cleander,
another close advisor, and also one of the conspirators on Commodus’ life,
quickly rats out the other members involved and denied his involvement, making
him the most, and possibly only, trusted person Commodus had.

Commodus begins to give
more and more power to Cleader who begins selling off

high-ranking positions in
the Empire starting with seats in the Roman Senate. By removing the old guard, and
selling seats to his allies, Cleander secured the Senate’s loyalty and has
disturbed balance of an institution that has governed for nearly 700 years.

Cleander
now looks to the Roman people, and believes there’s only one way to guarantee
their support. Cleander knows the masses are a powerful force in the Empire, and
he can solidify their dependence, and gain their favor, by threatening their
food supply. He attempts doing so by storing the food on his own private
property until people are hungry enough, then distributing the food making him
the hero. Cleaders plan then backfires massively, as people starve disease
spreads and many people die as a result of the food shortage. Commodus then
confronts Cleander and learns of, not only his plans for wealth and power, but
the fact that he killed his previous advisor. When Cleander is killed, it was
very clear that all the important elements of Roman society were against him
and there was nobody he could trust. And just when it seems the state of the
Empire can’t get any worse, catastrophe strikes in the heart of Rome. Triggered
by a passing storm, a massive fire erupts in the center of the city, causing
widespread destruction and panic. The fire was started by a lightning strike within
the city itself, leading immediately to rumors of divine wrath and retribution.
The Gods themselves were angry with Commodus, were angry with the city of Rome,
and were therefore going to gut it and going to destroy it. In just days, the
fire destroys ancient government buildings and religious shrines, devastating
the Roman people, and their Emperor.

Commodus
was affected by many of these traumatic experiences in the various stages of
his reign. He faced all of these other plots, plagues, fires, and these forms
of disasters, and it’s not surprising, having faced all of these plots, that he
did not necessarily trust the old system anymore. With the city in ruins, Commodus
realizes he has no one to turn to for help and begins to believe that he’s the
only person who can save Rome. With a plan to gain control of his Empire and
restore glory to Rome, Commodus calls a meeting with the Senate. He announces
that he will be hosting 14 days of games to strengthen the morality of the
empire and restore glory.

After
months of training and preparation for his games, realizes he’s not ready for
the arena, and with the games quickly approaching, he starts devising a way to
secure his victory. This is done by poisioning the animals and other gladiators
and dulling his opponents blades.The Emporor also portrays himself as the god
Hercules, a great fighter and a great hunter. What it seems he was trying to do
when he appears in the games dressed as Hercules, is underline to people that
when he fights as a gladiator, he is as skilled a fighter as the god Hercules
was.

Commodus seems to have
acted increasingly dictatorially as the people deified and feared him.

He ignored those around
him, and he himself becomes more and more a megalomaniac.

Other
Emperors,whether it was Caligula or Nero, had similar character traits. By
rejecting the authority of the Senate, Commodus has established total control
of the Empire, and begins to transform the city in his image. With imperial
orders, the Emperor commissions massive golden statues and renames the months
of the year after himself. And in a show of ultimate authority, nearly 1,000
years after the founding of Rome, Commodus gives the city a new name: Colonia
Commodiana.

Being
Emperor wasn’t just simply about fulfilling duties, it wasn’t just simply about
going to work on a day-to-day basis. An emperor was who you were at the
absolute root of your person. And everyone and everything in Roman society is
aimed at expressing how great the Emperor is. Of course, that’s going to affect
you. It’d be impossible that that wouldn’t, in some way, begin to affect the
way that you saw yourself. Commodus wanted to appear as a gladiator. He was taken
by the notion of his own strength and power, and he may actually have believed

 that he was displaying superhuman, extra-human
power and skill.

As
Commodus increases his power (and possibly inversely effects his sanity),  he marks anyone who conspires against him, or
who he feels might be a threat to him and the beliefs of Rome Colonia
Commodiana, for banishment or execution in an official royal document known as
a proscription list. Paranoia was not entirely uncharacteristic of the Roman
Emperors, and Commodus lived in his own little world of paranoia. He supposed
everybody was plotting against him and they were. All of them. That is if “them”
was your mistress, the entire senate, and your training partner. Commodus was first
poisoned by his mistress Marcia, which didn’t work fully, and then killed by enraged
Narcissus, his training partner, after finding out the games were rigged.

The
assassination of Commodus marks the end of an era, and the dawn of widespread
turmoil throughout the Empire. For the next year, Rome is consumed by civil war
and those who plotted against the Emperor are soon punished. Responsible for
the Emperor’s death, Narcissus, a celebrated gladiator and the man who trained
Commodus to fight in the arena is executed. And within a year, Marcia, one of
the most powerful women in the Empire, and the one person Commodus truly
trusted, is sentenced to death by the new reigning Emperor. In the 13 years of
his reign, Commodus brought peace to Rome. But he came to be known as the man
responsible for an unprecedented age of chaos, betrayal, and the beginning of
the fall of the greatest empire ever known.