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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Drinking with Roman Usurpers

Firmus was, according to the HA, a usurper. The historical record is less clear.

Historia Augusta 29.IV

“Firmus was nevertheless of huge stature with prominent eyes, curly hair, a scarred forehead, a darker complexion on his face while most of his body was white, although it was tough and hairy, so that many used to call him a Cyclops. He used to eat a lot of meat and allegedly ate an ostrich in a day. He drank some wine and a lot of water. He was extremely strong in mind, most robust in nerves to the extent that he overcame Tritannus, whom Varro mentions. For he endured an anvil placed on his chest and struck constantly while he seemed to be rising up rather than lying down because he was face up supporting himself on his hands.

Yet, [Firmus] had a drinking competition with Aurelian’s generals when they wanted to test him. For, when a certain Burburus, one of the standard-bearers and a notable drinker, challenged him to a drinking context, he sucked down two pails of wine but was still sober after the banquet. When Burburus asked him, “Why didn’t you drink the dregs?” he responded “Fool, the earth is not drunk.” We are pursuing lighter notes here, we must speak of more important ones.”

Fuit tamen Firmus statura ingenti, oculis foris eminentibus, capillo crispo, fronte vulnerata, vultu nigriore, reliqua parte corporis candidus sed pilosus atque hispidus, ita ut eum plerique Cyclopem vocarent. 2carne multa vescebatur, struthionem ad diem comedisse fertur. vini non multum bibit, aquae plurimum. mente firmissimus, nervis robustissimus, ita ut Tritannum vinceret, cuius Varro meminit. 3nam et incudem superpositam pectori constanter aliis tundentibus pertulit, cum ipse reclinis ac resupinus et curvatus in manus penderet potius quam iaceret.  fuit tamen ei contentio cum Aureliani ducibus ad bibendum, si quando eum temptare voluissent. nam quidam Burburus nomine de numero vexillariorum, notissimus potator, cum ad bibendum eundem provocasset, situlas duas plenas mero duxit et toto postea convivio sobrius fuit; et cum ei Burburus diceret, “Quare non faeces bibisti?” respondit ille, “Stulte, terra non bibitur.” levia persequimur, cum maiora dicenda sint.


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Who Could Measure Up Against Marcus Aurelius? Not Verus…

From the Historia Augusta (Attributed to Julius Capotilinus)

“Indeed, Lucius Ceionius Aelius Commodus Verus Antoninus, who was called Aelius at Hadrian’s bidding, and also Verus and Antoninus thanks to his relationship to Antoninus, does not sit among the good or the bad emperors. It is agreed that though he was not clothed in vices, he also didn’t abound in virtues; and, in addition, he did not rule freely on his own, but shared power evenly with Marcus—a man from whom he differed in the baseness of his morals and the extreme looseness of his life. For, he was a man of rather simple character who couldn’t hide anything.”

Igitur Lucius Ceionius Aelius Commodus Verus Antoninus, qui ex Hadriani voluntate Aelius appellatus est, ex Antonini coniunctione Verus et Antoninus, neque inter bonos neque intermalos principes ponitur. 4 Quem constat non inhorruisse vitiis, non abundasse virtutibus, vixisse deinde non in suo libero principatu, sed sub Marco in simili ac paris maiestatis imperio, a cuius secta lascivia morum et vitae licentioris nimietate dissensit. 5 Erat enim morum simplicum et qui adumbrare nihil posset.

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:


Historia Augusta: Hadrian, XVI: Hurt Feelings and a Great Retirement Plan

“Although he was quick to rebuke musicians, tragedians, comedians, grammarians, rhetoricians, and orators, he still honored all the professors and made them rich—and he continued to annoy them with questions. And, while he was to blame for the fact that many left him in sorrow, he used to say that he could scarcely bear watching someone get their feelings hurt. He was especially close to the philosophers Epictetus and Heliodorus and all sorts of grammarians, rhetoricians, musicians, geometricians, painters, and astrologers, though I would not name them all—and many claim that Favorinus stood out from the rest. The teachers who seemed unfit for their own profession, Hadrian dismissed from their work with money and honors.”

8 Sed quamvis esset in reprehendendis musicis, tragicis, comicis, grammaticis, rhetoribus, oratoribus facilis, tamen omnes professores et honoravit et divites fecit, licet eos quaestionibus semper agitaverit. 9 Et cum ipse auctor esset, ut multi ab eo tristes recederent, dicebat se graviter ferre, si quem tristem videret. 10 In summa familiaritate Epictetum et Heliodorum philosophos et, ne nominatim de omnibus dicam, grammaticos, rhetores, musicos, geometras, pictores, astrologos habuit, prae ceteris, ut multi adserunt, eminente Favorino. 11 Doctores, qui professioni suae inhabiles videbantur, dilatos honoratosque a professione dimisit.

The Historia Augusta are a collection of biographies of Roman Emperors starting with Hadrian (117-138 CE)

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