The Assassination Of Commodus

Commodus, the son and heir of the distinguished “philosopher emperor” Marcus Aurelius, was a failure as a Roman emperor despite all the influences and privileges that would have prepared him for the position from a very young age. He was appointed co-emperor of Rome and ruled alongside his father when he was just 16 years old and became the sole emperor after the death of his father in 180 AD. What then followed were years of brutal misrule which precipitated civil strife that ended 84 years of the Roman empire’s stability and prosperity and led to several assassination attempts on his life.

Roman art, from Cyrene, Marcus Aurelius, 160-170
Roman art, from Cyrene, Marcus Aurelius, 160-170 by I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Princeling

At the age of 16 years, Commodus became the consul in 177 AD, making him the youngest consul in Roman history. He married Bruttia Crispina, before accompanying his father to the Danube front in 178 AD. Emperor Marcus Aurelius died at the front two years later in 180 AD, leaving the 18-year-old Commodus as the sole emperor.

Commodus had a solid start to his solo reign. By the time he had assumed power, Rome was already a thriving empire which had enjoyed the leadership of the “Five Good Emperors” for 84 years. Commodus also inherited many of his father’s senior advisers, such as his sister Lucilla’s second husband Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, his father-in-law Gaius Bruttius Praesens, and the prefect of Rome Aufidius Victorinus. He also had four surviving sisters, all of whom were married to some of Rome’s most powerful men. Lucilla, the eldest of his sisters and  his senior of more than ten years, held the rank of Augusta as the widow of her first husband, Lucius Verus, the adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor of Rome from 161 AD to his death in 169 AD.

Year of the Five (193AD) Clockwise: Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and in the center: Septimius Severus
Year of the Five (193AD) Clockwise: Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and in the center: Septimius Severus, Cakelot1, CC BY-SA 4.0

From the military perspective, Commodus also had the advantage of a relatively peaceful rule compared to his father’s reign, which was marked by continuous warfare. However, Commodus’ reign was characterized by domestic political strife and the increasingly arbitrary and capricious behavior of the emperor himself.

Denier of Commodus
Denier of Commodus

Upon his ascension, Commodus promptly devalued the currency of Rome. He reduced the weight of the denarius from 96 Roman pound (3.85 grams) to 105 Roman pound (3.35 grams). He also reduced silver’s purity from 79% to 76% and dropped its weight from 2.57 grams to 2.34 grams. Commodus’ reduction of the denarius’ value was the greatest since the empire’s first devaluation during the reign of Nero (54 – 68 AD).

Impersonating Gods And Gladiators

Besides his wife Crispina and his mistress Marcia, Commodus kept a harem of 600 concubines equally divided between young women and boys. Imitating the demigod Hercules, he also took to wearing lion skins and carrying a club although this did not stop him from also dressing in women’s clothing and drinking from a cup with a phallus spout.

Commodus as Hercules at Palazzo dei Conservatori - Musei Capitolini , Rome ©José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
Commodus as Hercules at Palazzo dei Conservatori – Musei Capitolini , Rome ©José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0

Commodus enjoyed a life of drinking, gambling, chariot racing and hunting. But most of all, he saw himself as a great gladiator. He especially enjoyed hurling javelins and firing arrows at various creatures from a protected distance. He lined his pockets by charging the Roman treasury the sum of 25,000 pieces of silver for each of his gladiatorial performances. This would have been bearable to the affluent empire had Commodus only made a rare appearance as a gladiator. Unfortunately, he appeared 735 times, fighting against professional gladiators as well as wild beasts. The professional gladiators of course, understanding that they were fighting against their emperor, submitted to him after a respectable time had passed during the battle.

Commodus did not confine himself to gladiators and wild animals. He once fought a group of Rome’s crippled and infirm. After having them costumed as monsters and ‘armed’ with sponges that were made to look like rocks, Commodus callously shot arrows at them.

Commodus as a child
Commodus as a child

The Conspiracy of Lucilla and Cleander

The first crisis of the reign of Commodus occurred in 182 AD, when Lucilla engineered a conspiracy against her brother. According to the historian Herodotus, her motive was alleged to have been her envy of the Empress Crispina who, as the current empress, enjoyed the prerogative of  better seats at the games and more frequent tributes than Lucilla, who was merely the widow of a previous emperor. Although her second husband Pompeianus was not involved, Lucilla enlisted the help of Commodus’ mistress Marcia, as well as consuls Marcus Ummidius Quadratus Annianus (Marcia’s secret lover) and Appius Claudius Quintianus, to murder Commodus as he entered a theater. The two men bungled the job and were quickly seized by the emperor’s bodyguards. Quadratus and Quintianus were executed. Lucilla was exiled to Capri and later killed. Lucilla’s husband Pompeianus retired from public life soon after. Marcia somehow managed to escape punishment.

Bust of Annia Lucilla
Bust of Annia Lucilla, by Lalupa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The involvement of one of the two Praetorian prefects, Publius Tarrutenius Paternus in the conspiracy was not discovered until later on. In the aftermath of this bungled assassination attempt, Paternus and his colleague, Sextus Tigidius Perennis, were able to arrange for the murder of Saoterus, a favorite of Commodus as well as his chamberlain. While Commodus grieved over the loss of Saoterus, Perennis seized the opportunity to advance himself by backstabbing and implicating Paternus in a second conspiracy against Commodus, led by Publius Salvius Julianus, the son of the jurist Salvius Julianus, and fiancé of the daughter of Paternus. Salvius and Paternus were executed along with a number of other prominent consular officers and senators.

Perennis took over the running of the government and Commodus found a new chamberlain and favorite in Cleander, a Phrygian freedman who had married one of his mistresses, Demostratia, apparently unaware that Cleander was in fact the person who had murdered Saoterus. After those attempts on his life, Commodus spent much of his time outside Rome, participating in horse racing, chariot racing, and combats with beasts and men.

The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators (detail) by Edwin Blashfield (1848–1936), Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfolk, Virginia.
The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators (detail) by Edwin Blashfield (1848–1936), Hermitage Museum and Gardens, Norfolk, Virginia.

Now in a powerful position, Cleander proceeded to accumulate power and enrich himself by appointing himself responsible for all public offices. He sold and bestowed entry to the Senate, army commands, governorships and even the suffect consulships to the highest bidder. Suffect consulship was a consul who held the highest elected political office of Rome. Ancient Romans considered the consulship the highest level of the cursus honorum (the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in Rome).

In 187 AD, a man named Maternus travelled from Gaul to assassinate Commodus at the Festival of the Great Goddess in March, but he was soon captured and executed. In the same year, a conspiracy by two enemies of Cleander, namely Antistius Burrus, who was one of Commodus’ brothers-in-law and Arrius Antoninus, was unmasked by Pertinax, who would later succeed Commodus as emperor. As a result of this, Commodus further reduced his public appearances and became increasingly isolated.

Early in 188 AD, Cleander removed the Praetorian prefect, Atilio Aebutianus, to take command of the Praetorian Guard himself. He gave himself the new rank of apugione (‘dagger-bearer’), with two Praetorian prefects as his subordinates. Now at the peak of his power, Cleander continued to sell public offices as if they were his private business. By 190 AD, Rome had 25 suffect consuls all appointed by Cleander.

In the spring of 190 AD, Rome was afflicted by a food shortage. Papirius Dionysus, the official in charge of the grain supply, laid the blame on Cleander. Soon, a mob demonstrated against Cleander during a horse race in the Circus Maximus. Fearing for his life, Cleander ordered the Praetorian Guard to put down the riots. But Pertinax, who was now the prefect of Rome, dispatched the Vigiles Urbani (‘watchmen of the city’) to oppose them. Cleander fled to Commodus for protection, but the mob followed, calling for his head. At the urging of Marcia, Commodus ordered Cleander to be beheaded and Cleander’s son to be killed.

At 29 years old, Commodus grew into his power as the emperor. However, he continued to rule through a small group of advisors which consisted of Marcia, his new chamberlain Eclectus, and his new Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus.

Bust of Commodus at Ephesos, Turkey
Bust of Commodus at Ephesos, Turkey by Segafredo18 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

After repeated attempts on Commodus’ life, he had no qualms about killing Roman citizens who angered him. A notable event was the attempted massacre of the House of the Quinctilii, a patrician family whose ancestry could be traced to the earliest period of Roman history and continued well into the imperial period. Sextus Quinctilius Condianus, who served as consul with his brother Maximus were put to death by Commodus on the pretext that, while they were not implicated in any plots against Commodus’ life, their wealth and talent would render them discontent with the current state of affairs in Rome. Historian Aelius Lampridius also recorded an incident which took place at the Roman baths at Terme Taurine, where the emperor had an attendant thrown into an oven after he found his bathwater to be lukewarm.


After Commodus had exiled and murdered his wife Crispina on charges of adultery, he chose not to marry again and took Marcia as his concubine. Marcia also acted as Commodus’ political advisor and kept several other lovers besides the emperor. This string of lovers would later include Commodus’ own chamberlain, Eclectus, whom Marcia had married while continuing her liaison with the emperor. According to third-century Hippolytus of Rome, Marcia lobbied for and obtained a letter of manumission from Commodus for the release of a number of Christian confessors who had been condemned to the Sardinian mines. One of those confessors was a man named Callistus, later to become Pope Calixtus I.

As she had been portrayed only as a mere peripheral figure on the side lines before she took center stage to became one of the most powerful women in Rome, it is rather difficult to get a clear picture of Marcia. Because her personal history is largely ignored by ancient authors such as Cassius Dio and Herodian, and since her name was so common, there is a possibility of a case of mistaken identity to occur, when searching for traces of her in recorded history.

Commodus as Hercules (Capitoline Museum)
Commodus as Hercules (Capitoline Museum)

Whatever her lineage, it was Marcia the mistress who was eventually the one to succeed in orchestrating the death of the emperor, effectively ending the Antonine dynasty, before contributing to select the new emperor Pertinax in 193 AD.

To celebrate the Roman New Year in 192 AD, Commodus decided to appear before the Romans emerging from the gladiator’s barracks accompanied by the rest of the gladiators, instead of from the palace in his traditional purple robes.

The night before the New Year, Commodus told Marcia of his plan. Marcia begged him not to act so carelessly and not to bring further scandal to the imperial household. Upset by Marcia’s reaction, Commodus revealed his plan to his servant Eclectus and the Praetorian prefect Aemilius Laetus. After they, too, tried to dissuade him, Commodus angrily put their three names on a prescribed list of people to be executed the next morning among the names of prominent senators.

While Commodus was taking a bath, his favorite servant Philcommodus (translated as “brother of Commodus” as a symbol of Commodus’ affection for him) found the tablet on which the list had been written and accidently ran into Marcia, revealing the tablet. Thinking that she was protecting the document from being potentially ruined by the servant’s clumsiness, Marcia took it from him and saw her name at the top of the list. She hastily summoned Laetus and Eclectus and the three of them decided to kill Commodus to save their own lives and replace him with Pertinax.

Damnatio memoriae of Commodus on an inscription in the Museum of Roman History in Osterburken, Germany. The abbreviation "CO" has been restored with paint.
Damnatio memoriae of Commodus on an inscription in the Museum of Roman History in Osterburken, Germany. The abbreviation “CO” has been restored with paint. By DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0

Marcia would habitually give the emperor his first drink after his bath so that he could have the pleasure of drinking from his lover ‘s hand. Therefore, it was easy for her to mix poison into the wine, which she presented to Commodus after his bath. After drinking the wine, Commodus became ill and violently vomited for a period. Afraid that the emperor would expel all the poison from his body, the three conspirators offered a reward to Narcissus, a young wrestler as well as Commodus’ trainer, to strangle him to death. As Commodus had not chosen a successor, a civil war broke out after his death and four emperors were to rule Rome in five months. As planned by the conspirators, Commodus was eventually succeeded by Pertinax who proceeded to run an honest government. Pertinax cut spending, lowered taxes and even found homes for Commodus’ 600 concubines. However, he was murdered after scarcely 86 days in power. The Praetorian Guards then auctioned off the empire to the highest bidder, being Didius Julianus who assumed power for only two months before Severus seized power. Marcia met her fate and was killed by Didius Julianus in 193 AD.

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