A Failure of Education: Commodus’ Cruelty

From the Historia Augusta on Commodus, 1

“Therefore, when his brother had passed, Marcus tried to educate Commodus with his own writings and those of famous and prominent men. As teachers he had Onesicrates for Greek literature, Antistius Capella for Latin and Ateius Sanctus for rhetoric.

But teachers of so many disciplines were useless in his case—such was the power of his native character or of those who were kept as instructors in the palace. For from his early childhood, Commodus was nasty, dishonest, cruel, desirous, foul-mouthed, and corrupted. For he was already a craftsman in those things which were not proper to the imperial class, such as making chalices, dancing, singing, whistling, playing a fool, and acting the perfect gladiator.

When he was twelve years old, he provided an omen of his cruelty at Centumcellae. For, when his bath was accidentally too cool, he ordered that the bath-slave be thrown into the furnace. Then, the slave who was ordered this, burned a sheep’s skin into the furnace, so that he might convince the punishment was performed through the foulness of the smell.”

mortuo igitur fratre Commodum Marcus et suis praeceptis et magnorum atque optimorum virorum erudire conatus est. habuit litteratorem Graecum Onesicratem, Latinum Capellam Antistium; orator ei Ateius Sanctus fuit.

Sed tot disciplinarum magistri nihil ei profuerunt. tantum valet aut ingenii vis aut eorum qui in aula institutores habentur. nam a prima statim pueritia turpis, improbus, crudelis, libidinosus, ore quoque pollutus et constupratus fuit. iam in his artifex, quae stationis imperatoriae non erant, ut calices fingeret, saltaret, cantaret, sibilaret, scurram denique et gladiatorem perfectum ostenderet. auspicium crudelitatis apud Centumcellas dedit anno aetatis duodecimo. nam cum tepidius forte lautus esset, balneatorem in fornacem conici iussit; quando a paedagogo, cui hoc iussum fuerat, vervecina pellis in fornace consumpta est, ut fidem poenae de foetore nidoris impleret.

 

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A Character Sketch of Commodus

From Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chp. IV Part I

The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father’s virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy; and that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic. Nothing however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. The distasteful lesson of a grave philosopher was, in a moment, obliterated by the whisper of a profligate favorite; and Marcus himself blasted the fruits of this labored education, by admitting his son, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, to a full participation of the Imperial power. He lived but four years afterwards: but he lived long enough to repent a rash measure, which raised the impetuous youth above the restraint of reason and authority.

Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society, are produced by the restraints which the necessary but unequal laws of property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many. Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude. In the tumult of civil discord, the laws of society lose their force, and their place is seldom supplied by those of humanity. The ardor of contention, the pride of victory, the despair of success, the memory of past injuries, and the fear of future dangers, all contribute to inflame the mind, and to silence the voice of pity. From such motives almost every page of history has been stained with civil blood; but these motives will not account for the unprovoked cruelties of Commodus, who had nothing to wish and every thing to enjoy. The beloved son of Marcus succeeded to his father, amidst the acclamations of the senate and armies; 6 and when he ascended the throne, the happy youth saw round him neither competitor to remove, nor enemies to punish. In this calm, elevated station, it was surely natural that he should prefer the love of mankind to their detestation, the mild glories of his five predecessors to the ignominious fate of Nero and Domitian.

Yet Commodus was not, as he has been represented, a tiger born with an insatiate thirst of human blood, and capable, from his infancy, of the most inhuman actions. Nature had formed him of a weak rather than a wicked disposition. His simplicity and timidity rendered him the slave of his attendants, who gradually corrupted his mind. His cruelty, which at first obeyed the dictates of others, degenerated into habit, and at length became the ruling passion of his soul.

Whence Commodus? Blood-Magic or Adultery (Historia Augusta, Marc. Ant. 19)

[Earlier we posted a passage contrasting the virtue of Marcus Antoninus (Aurelius) with the vice of his son Commodus. here’s the rest.]

“Some men report a thing which seems likely, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was born not from him but from adultery and they support such a tale with a common rumor. There was a time when Faustina, Pius’ daughter and Marcus’ wife, saw some gladiators pass and was set afire with love for one of them. Later, when she was suffering from a long sickness, she told her husband about this. When Marcus relayed this to the Chaldaeans, their advice was that he should have Faustina bathe herself in the blood of the killed gladiator and then lie with her husband. When this act was complete, the passion was quenched, though their son Commodus was as a result born to be a gladiator not a princeps. This tale is treated as likely since there was never a son of a prince so virtuous with ways worse than a gladiator master, a street-actor or some arena-fighter, a man who could summon up a trophy of crimes from a surfeit of blessings.

Many others, however, claim that Commodus was really conceived through adultery because it is known that when Faustina was at Caieta she would choose lovers from the sailors and the gladiators. When this was mentioned to Marcus Aurelius so that he would reject her or kill her, he is reported to have replied, “If I divorce my wife, I must return her dowry.” And what did he consider her dowry but the empire which he had received when he was adopted by his father-in-law at Hadrian’s urging.”

Aiunt quidam, quod et verisimile videtur, Commodum Antoninum, successorem illius ac filium, non esse de eo natum sed de adulterio, ac talem fabellam vulgari sermone contexunt. 2 Faustinam quondam, Pii filiam, Marci uxorem, cum gladiatores transire vidisset, unius ex his amore succensam, cum longa aegritudine laboraret, viro de amore confessam. 3 Quod cum ad Chaldaeos Marcus rettulisset, illorum fuisse consilium, ut occiso gladiatore sanguine illius sese Faustina sublavaret atque ita cum viro concumberet. 4 Quod cum esset factum, solutum quidem amorem, natum vero Commodum gladiatorem esse, non principem, 5 qui mille prope pugnas publice populo inspectante gladiatorias imperator exhibuit, ut in vita eius docebitur. 6 Quod quidem verisimile ex eo habetur, quod tam sancti principis filius his moribus fuit, quibus nullus lanista, nullus scaenicus, nullus arenarius, nullus postremo ex omnium decorum ac scelerum conluvione concretus. 7 Multi autem ferunt Commodum omnino ex adultero natum, si quidem Faustinam satis constet apud Caietam condiciones sibi et nauticas et gladiatorias elegisse. 8 De qua cum diceretur Antonino Marco, ut eam repudiaret, si non occideret, dixisse fertur : “Si uxorem dimittimus, reddamus et dotem.” 9 Dos autem quid habebatur [nisi] imperium, quod ille ab socero volente Hadriano adoptatus acceperat?

Marcus Aurelius Would Have Done Better to Have No Sons (Historia Augusta, Marc. Ant. 18-19)

“Such a great man [Marcus Aurelius], joined to the gods in life as well as death, left behind his son Commodus—if he had been truly blessed, he would have not left a son. So it was not enough that people of all ages, gender, social position, and condition gave him honors, but a man would be declared sacrilegious if he did not have his image in his own home, should he be able to do so thanks to fortune. Indeed, even today status of Marcus Antoninus [Aurelius] remain in many homes among the household gods. There was no lack of men who claimed that he predicted many things in dreams that they foretold future events in truth. Hence, , a temple was constructed in his honor, and there were priests dedicated to the service of the Antonines, along with Flaminess and Sodales, all those things which tradition has established for sacred rites.

So men report a thing which seems likely, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was born not from him but from adultery and they support such a tale with a common rumor….[to be shared later…]”

Hic sane vir tantus et talis ac diis vita et morte coniunctus filium Commodum dereliquit: qui si felix fuisset, filium non reliquisset. 5 Et parum sane fuit, quod illi honores divinos omnis aetas, omnis sexus, omnis conditio ac dignitas dedit, nisi quod etiam sacrilegus iudicatus est, qui eius imaginem in sua domo non habuit, qui per fortunam vel potuit habere vel debuit. 6 Denique hodieque in multis domibus Marci Antonini statuae consistunt inter deos penates. 7 Nec defuerunt homines qui somniis eum multa praedixisse augurantes futura et vera concinuerunt. 8 Unde etiam templum ei constitutum, dati sacerdotes Antoniniani et sodales et flamines et omnia, quae de sacratis decrevit antiquitas.

XIX. 1 Aiunt quidam, quod et verisimile videtur, Commodum Antoninum, successorem illius ac filium, non esse de eo natum sed de adulterio, ac talem fabellam vulgari sermone contexunt.

He Did Not Finish His Father’s Projects! Commodus’ Sudden and Unfruitful End

Historia Augusta: Commodus Antoninus 17.1-8

“Compelled by these things, but still too late, the prefect of the guard, Quintus Aemilius Laetus, and his concubine, Marcia initiated a conspiracy for killing [Commodus]. First, they poisoned him. When this did not work out, they had him strangled to death by an athlete he used to exercise with.

Commodus had a decent body with a vacant expression, as is often the case for drunkards. His speech was not sophisticated, his hair was always dyed and shining thanks to gold dust—and thanks to a fear of the barber, he used to shorten his hair by singeing it.

The senate and the people requested that his body be dragged by hook and then put into the Tiber. But, later, thanks to the command of Pertinax, it was installed in Hadrian’s Mausoleum.

No public buildings remain from his time apart from the bath which Cleander built in his name. And the senate erased the name he had inscribed on the works of others. He did not even complete his father’s projects.”

His incitati, licet nimis sero, Quintus Aemilius Laetus praef.et Marcia concubina eius inierunt coniurationem ad occidendum eum. 2 Primumque ei venenum dederunt; quod cum minus operaretur, per athletam, cum quo exerceri solebat, eum strangularunt. 3 Fuit forma quidem corporis iusta, vultu insubido, ut ebriosi solent, et sermone incondito, capillo semper fucato et auri ramentis inluminato, adurens comam et barbam timore tonsoris. 4 Corpus eius ut unco traheretur atque in Tiberim mitteretur, senatus et populus postulavit, sed postea iussu Pertinacis in monumentum Hadriani translatum est. 5 Opera eius praeter Iavacrum, quod Cleander nomine ipsius fecerat, nulla exstant. 6 Sed nomen eius alienis operibus incisum senatus erasit. 7 Nec patris autem sui opera perfecit.

Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius and inspiration for the mad emperor in Gladiator, was actually a roman emperor who reigned from 180-191 CE.

Here’s a statue made during his lifetime depicting him as Herakles:

Commodus

The Taste of Nero, The Brutality of Commodus

“The influence of a polite age, and the labor of an attentive education, had never been able to infuse into his rude and brutish mind the least tincture of learning; and he was the first of the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the understanding. Nero himself excelled, or affected to excel, in the elegant arts of music and poetry: nor should we despise his pursuits, had he not converted the pleasing relaxation of a leisure hour into the serious business and ambition of his life. But Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal, and a fond attachment to the amusements of the populace; the sports of the circus and amphitheatre, the combats of gladiators, and the hunting of wild beasts. The masters in every branch of learning, whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with inattention and disgust; whilst the Moors and Parthians, who taught him to dart the javelin and to shoot with the bow, found a disciple who delighted in his application, and soon equalled the most skilful of his instructors in the steadiness of the eye and the dexterity of the hand.”

-Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, Chp. IV, pt. 2