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Emperor Commodus: Was He Really So Terrible?

by March 13, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 AD) is widely regarded as one of the ‘bad emperors’ and a bloody tyrant. This image has been perpetuated in several movies, especially the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000).
His reign and life were extraordinary by even the standards of the Roman Empire. However, what was the legacy of Commodus and was he is evil and Emperor as is often made out?
Early life
Lucius Aurelius Commodus was born in 161 AD, the son of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His mother was the aristocratic Anna Galeria Faustina Minor, and his parents were first cousins. Rome was at the zenith of its power and prosperity when he was born.
Marcus Aurelius is widely seen as one of the greatest of all Emperors’ and was also a renowned Stoic philosopher. Commodus was the only legitimate male child of the Emperor that survived into adulthood. When he was just five years old, Commodus was given the title of Caesar and this designated him as the heir of Marcus Aurelius.
Birth of Commodus

Sestertius celebrating the birth of Commodus and his twin brother in 161

His upbringing was one that was directed by his father. He had the best tutors and his personal physician was Galen. Marcus Aurelius’ later reign was marked by war and plague. The Emperor was forced to fight German tribes in the so-called Marcomannic Wars. Rome was also badly shaken by the terrible Antonine Plague that killed countless people.
Commodus was present at his father’s headquarters during the wars with the Germans, in 172 AD.  Marcus was constantly on campaign and after a bitter struggle by 177 AD he was close to victory. He was on the verge of annexing much of modern Central Europe to the Empire. In 177 AD, Commodus was made co-ruler of the Roman Empire with his father.
No future Emperor was as well-prepared for his future role as Commodus. However, from an early age his temper and unpredictability made many doubt his suitability for the role.
Commodus’ Reign
Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD and he was mourned by his entire Empire. Commodus became sole ruler of the Roman World. The first thing that he did was end the war with the Germans and decided not to annex the, and turn them into a province his father had conquered. Many believe that this was the right strategic decision.
Commodus Denarius

Denarius of Commodus.

Commodus returned to Rome and he turned over the reins of government to the corrupt Praetorian Prefects. We know little of the early years of his reign, but it appears that after a conspiracy to assassinate him, he became paranoid.
Commodus’ paranoia turned to cruelty, as could be seen, for instance, when he tried to kill the woman he loved (his mistress)—more than once.  He soon devoted all his energy to his passions and he virtually handed the government of Rome to Cleander, a Phrygian former slave. Commodus also had a streak of sadism, delighting in tormenting and torturing the disabled. However, his overriding passion was gladiatorial games.
The Gladiator Emperor
The Roman elite was obsessed with the bloody sport, but Commodus took it to extremes. He would fight in the arena, which was against all the social norms of the time. In the early years of his reign he would invite gladiators to his palace and in staged combats, he would kill them. Typically, he would be armed, and the gladiators would be armed only with imitation weapons.
If this was not bad enough, he decided to participate in the Gladiatorial Games in the Coliseum, in Rome. He would appear as a gladiator and he would kill the disabled and later he would slaughter gladiators. All of his victims would have been tied up or unarmed… They didn’t stand a chance.

Commodus as Hercules, Capitoline Museums

Commodus was certainly bloodthirsty. However, he used his displays at the games to demonstrate his power. His slaughter in the arena demonstrated to his many enemies his cruelty and this made people afraid of him. Commodus’ extravagance in the arena was such, that he almost bankrupted the Empire. To pay his debts he was forced to devalue the coinage which wreaked havoc on the economy.
Commodus as God
Commodus was the first Emperor born into the ‘purple’. He knew that he would be an Emperor from childhood. From an early age he displayed signs of megalomania and he heeded no-one apart from his father. During his reign he self-identified with Hercules and wanted to appear god-like to the people of Rome. He even had the temerity to name the months of the year after himself.
The Roman Imperial system was one that was based on the Emperor cooperating with the Senatorial elite. However, Commodus intimidated the Senatorial elite and ruled as an absolute ruler. Nothing could restrain him, and he even had an entire family killed so that he could seize their wealth. When he became unpopular, he did the same thing to Cleander and his family. Commodus even had his former favorite’s head placed on a spear and paraded around Rome.
The assassination of Commodus
In 192 AD, the people of Rome had enough. Several leading figures entered a conspiracy. At first, they poisoned him, but Commodus managed to vomit up the poison. They then hired his favorite wrestler known as Narcissusus and he murdered the Emperor in his bath. Petrinax was acclaimed Emperor but he was later deposed, and this led to a series of civil wars that only ended with the rise of Septimius Severus.
Death of Commodus

Death of Commodus, Fernand Pelez

The legacy of Commodus
Commodus was a bloody tyrant and his reign was also a disaster and contributed to the decline of the greatest Classical Empire. After his reign of terror, the Emperors became the absolute rulers of the Roman World, following his example. Most importantly of all, Commodus weakened the economy of Rome, with his lavish spending. This was to lead to inflation which was a crucial factor in the ‘Third Century Crisis’ that almost destroyed the Roman Empire.
So, was Commodus as terrible as he is typically made out to be? Well, he certainly doesn’t seem to have been the worst, but he was far from an angel. The final judgment on the character of this Roman leader, I leave up to you.

The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part III

by March 11, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Parthian Attacks
With barely enough time to get comfortable in the Emperor’s seat, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus’ minds were turned to a ghost that haunted their predecessor. As Emperor Antoninus Pius lay dying, his mind was often consumed by the actions of foreign kings. Such worries would turn out to not be unfounded, though Antoninus would (perhaps fortunately) not live long enough to see his fears justified.
In late summer or early autumn of 161, Vologases IV of Parthia invaded Armenia, removing and exiling its king before installing a king of his choosing, King Pacorus. The governor at the time, Marcus Sedatius Severianus, an experienced military man and Gaul, was, unfortunately, mislead by the prophet Alexander of Abonutichus.
It was the prophet who told the governor that he would easily defeat the Parthians and win glory for himself in the act. Severianus was duped by the snake handler and lulled into a false sense of military superiority.
Vologases IV

Coin (front and back) of Vologases IV, minted at Seleucia in 156.

Sadly, Severianus led a legion into Armenia to challenge the Parthians. But, the Parthian general Chosrhoes trapped him near the head of the Euphrates River, at Elegia. Severianus attempted several engagements with the general but failed each time. After three days he committed suicide, leaving his legion to be massacred by the Parthians.
In the winter of 161-162, it was decided that Lucius would take over and direct the Parthian war. As he was strong and healthy, this seemed a wise choice, rather than sending Marcus who had always suffered from bouts of illness.
Marcus may have had an ulterior motive for sending Lucius; as the lesser emperor had developed a taste for debauchery, and he hoped the terror of war would straighten him out and remind him that he, too, was an emperor.
Bust of Lucius

Marble portrait of the co-emperor Lucius Verus, Roman Antonine period.

Thus, in the summer of 162, with the senate’s blessing, Lucius left for the Parthian war. He would spend much of his time in Antioch, wintering at Laodicea, and spending the summers at Daphne, enjoying what were to be his final days as a bachelor. In the autumn of 163, or early 164, Lucius married Lucilla in Ephesus after Marcus moved up the marriage date; perhaps as a result of Lucius taking a mistress, Panthea.
Marcus did not attend the marriage of his 13year-old daughter. Instead, he accompanied them as far as Brundisium, and returned immediately to Rome after they boarded the ship. Some evidence suggests that he was not entirely happy with the arrangement, as he also sent word to his proconsuls not to give the company any official reception.
In the coming years, the war with the Parthians would continue back and forth, with both sides sustaining bitter defeats with heavy losses. Eventually, in 165, the Roman forces moved on Mesopotamia, and after a series of skirmishes the Parthian army was routed at the Tigris River, before the Roman army continued on down the Euphrates River for another major victory. Lucius and the Roman army then turned their sights on the cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia.
Where Ctesiphon occupied the left bank of the Tigris, Seleucia sat on the left, and despite offering no resistance to the invading army, Seleucia was ransacked. At the end of 165 Ctesiphon was seized, and as the only city that had withstood the Romans, it then faced having the royal palace raised to the ground by fire. Both of these pillaging conquests would leave a black mark on Lucius’ honor and reputation.
Marcus and Lucius

Busts of the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius (left) and Lucius Verus (right), British Museum.

Upon the army’s return to Rome, Lucius adopted the title Parthicus Maximus, and both he and Marcus were hailed as imperatores again. When the army returned, in 166, to Media, Lucius then added the extra title Medicus to his name, while Marcus chose to wait until then to include Parthicus Maximus to his list of honors. The two emperors were then hailed as imperatores for the fourth time, and on 12th October Marcus announced his two sons as his heirs-apparent; Annius and Commodus.
Rebellion On All Fronts
The Parthian War wasn’t the only military matter that occupied Marcus’ thoughts. Indeed, much of the 160s were consumed with attacks on almost all of the Roman Empire’s borders. There were skirmishes in Britain, in Raetia (eastern and central Switzerland), and Upper Germany. Marcus had been ill-prepared for inheriting such a calamitous state, and with very little military experience, he was guided by others.
In 166 the borders of the Roman Empire were broken in Upper Germany by the indigenous tribes of the area. Unfortunately, Marcus had replaced capable leaders and governors with friends and relatives of the imperial family, and this nepotism would come back to haunt him.
Where the Roman army had so far succeeded in repulsing the advances of smaller bands of the Germanic tribes, in 168 they faced a much more dangerous combination of united tribes who crossed the Danube.
Consummation of Empire

The Course of Empire (series of paintings by Thomas Cole): The Consummation of Empire (1836).

Attacking between the Danube and Theiss rivers, the Marcomanni of Bohemia, along with the Lombards, followed by the lazyges (one of the main tribes of the Samartians, an Iranian confederation) , invaded the empire’s territory. Lucius Verus, having recently defeated the Parthian leader Vologases, was quick to defend the Danubian border.
At the same time, the Costoboci from Carpathia invaded Macedonia and Greece. However, Marcus was able to repel this attack for the moment. While fending off this advance, the Germanic tribes began settling in Dacia, Pannonia, Germany, as well as Italy.
Although this was not unheard of, the sheer numbers of tribes relocating there required the creation of new provinces; and with the overwhelming number of barbarians arriving, it caused Marcus to banish any and all barbarians who’d been brought to Italy previously, for fear of being overrun.
This onslaught of attacks would not be the worst thing Marcus would have to deal with. While returning to Rome, Lucius became grievously ill with the symptoms of gastroenteritis, although some scholars believe it may have been the Antonine Plague, aka; smallpox. Just three days later, he was dead.
Apotheosis of Lucius

The apotheosis of Lucius Verus, 2nd century relief plates from Ephesus, on display at Humboldt University of Berlin

The death of his adoptive brother, and the husband of his 21year-old daughter, caused Marcus a great deal of heartbreak. He escorted Lucius’ body back to Rome. The co-Emperor would be deified and then worshipped as Divus Verus, soon after the funeral games held in his honor.
Lawmaker and Administrator
Marcus proved to be a prudent ruler of the Empire. Now, as the only ruler, he would spend much of his time in Rome, addressing matters of law. There he would decide over disputes and listen to petitions. This is something that his predecessors had failed to do: being competent in navigating imperial administration. He also paid particular attention to the release of slaves, the welfare of orphans, and how city councilors were selected.
He was a shrewd businessman, seeking the senate’s approval before spending money, even though he did not need to do so as Emperor. During this period, Marcus potentially made contact with Han China, though this tenuous link is via a Roman traveler who claimed to represent the ruler of Daqin. There is physical evidence to support this story, with Roman glassware being found at Huangzhou, which shares some coastline on the South China Sea, and golden Roman medallions have been found at Óc Eo, in Vietnam, which dates to Marcus’ rule, or possibly earlier to Antoninus’.
At any rate, in 165/166 the Antonine Plague broke out in Mesopotamia, and possibly continued long after Marcus’ time as Emperor. The Antonine Plague is now suspected to have been smallpox, and was one of the plagues that afflicted the Han Empire at the time of Marcus’ potential contact.
aurelius on horse

Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.

It is believed that during this contact, Roman subjects may have begun a new era of Roman-Far East trading. However, this exchange of goods may also have instigated the wider spreading of the plague, and caused severe damage to Roman maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. For instance, archaeological records spanning Egypt to India show decreased traffic, and this had a significant effect on goods going to Southeast Asia at this point.
End of Days
It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty, with heathen tribes surrounding the borders of Rome, and the Antonine Plague ravaging the Roman populous. For much of the 170s, Marcus’ rule was spent attempting to stem the onslaught, and in 177 he named Commodus as co-ruler (his other son, Annius, died in 169).
This decision caused quite a stir, as his appointment was only the second time in Roman history where an Emperor nominated his biological son as co-ruler, the first being Vespasian and his son Titus. Perhaps Marcus hoped for a similar legacy for his family.
Whatever his intentions, Marcus would not live to see them bear fruit. He passed away in 180, of natural causes, in Vindobona—modern-day Vienna. He was 58years old, and his ashes were returned to Rome, and there placed in the mausoleum of Hadrian. Upon his death, he was immediately deified, and eventually his efforts against the German tribes and the Sarmatians were acknowledged with a column and a temple in Rome.
Column of Marcus

Detail of a relief scene on the Column of Marcus Aurelius (in Rome, Italy), depicting a battle of the Marcomannic Wars, late 2nd century AD

Despite the tumultuous events that afflicted Rome throughout Marcus’ reign, he is remembered today as the last emperor of the Pax Romana—the golden age of Rome.
Much of Marcus Aurelius’ life was marred by illness, loss of loved ones. Because of his stoic desire to live a quiet life he never sought the limelight of leadership, but when faced with ruling the empire, it was this same stoic attitude of his that allowed him to accept his fate. It was his natural duty, and he abided by it.
Marcus’ choice of an heir has been heavily criticized, as Commodus proved to be erratic, and lacked both military and political savvy. Though Marcus had done his best to raise the boy to be a capable man and future leader, Commodus would be a bitter disappointment to his father.
The death of Marcus and the reign of Commodus would come to mark the end of the Pax Romana. As Cassius Dio wrote, in an encomium to Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on the transition to Commodus and to Dio’s own times, “…our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.”
Destruction of empire

The Course of Empire (series of paintings by Thomas Cole): Destruction (1836).

However, if nothing else, it’s worth remembering Marcus’s steadfastness. As Dio also said of the man he knew,

“[Marcus] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”

Marcus’ iconic stoicism, philosophic nature, and compassionate heart meant he constantly worked towards creating a better Roman world. Marcus lived a life of constant challenges, overcoming them where possible, accepting those that he could not, and all the while striving for the betterment of all.
As he once so beautifully wrote in his Meditations,

“Upon every action that thou art about, put this question to thyself; How will this when it is done agree with me? Shall I have no occasion to repent of it? Yet a very little while and I am dead and gone; and all things are at end. What then do I care for more than this, that my present action whatsoever it be, may be the proper action of one that is reasonable; whose end is, the common good; who in all things is ruled and governed by the same law of right and reason, by which God Himself is.” ~ Book 8. II.


The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part II

by March 6, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
One Empire, Two Emperors
Life changed drastically for Marcus Aurelius, and Rome in 161 when Antoninus Pius died, leaving Marcus effectively as the new Emperor. However, although he was granted the name Augustus and the title imperator, and was elected Pontifex Maximus, Marcus appears to have taken these positions with some hesitation, having to be compelled to do so.
He may have been hesitant due to a literal fear of imperial power—horror imperii—or simply because he preferred the philosophic life. But, due to his training as a Stoic, he did not shrug off what he perceived as his duty and accepted the appointment.
It’s important to reflect on Marcus’ relationship with Hadrian, who was of course Antoninus’ predecessor. Although Marcus doesn’t appear to have had any great sentiment for Hadrian, as he did not mention Hadrian in his Meditations, Marcus was no doubt aware of the former emperor’s plans of succession, and ultimately chose to uphold them.
However, this is where Marcus displayed his sense of fairness, justice, and stoicism; he refused to take up office unless Lucius Verus was also granted equal powers. The Senate capitulated, and two Emperors were now ruling Rome equally, working united, a first for the Empire.
Aurelius and Verus

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum.

Or, at least that is how it appeared. Marcus held more authority—auctoritas—as he had been consul more times than Lucius, and had been involved in Antoninus’ rule and was Pontifex Maximus. To the public eye, it was clear that Marcus was the senior partner in this joint rulership.
In an unexpected move, the joint rulers then made their way to Castra Praetoria, the Praetorian Guard’s encampment, and Lucius addressed the troops, and made a declaration of a special ‘donative’—a donation which was more than double that from previous emperors, almost several years pay.
With this address and monetary promise, the army immediately declared them as imperatores, and vowed to protect them. This course of action, winning over the military, wasn’t entirely necessary as with previous ascensions, however it was an effective way of solidifying support from the army to the Emperors against any future attacks.
Family Matters
To honor Antoninus, the Emperors held elaborate ceremonies, with his body being cremated at the Campus Martius, and both Marcus and Lucius nominating him for deification. The remains of Antoninus Pius were interred with the remains of Marcus’ beloved children, and former emperor Hadrian’s remains in Hadrian’s mausoleum.
Meanwhile, Faustina was pregnant, and she had dreamt that she would give birth to two serpents, with one stronger than the other. On 31 August (Caligula’s birthday), Faustina gave birth to Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. The birth was celebrated widely, with coins being minted.
Commodus denarius

A denarius of Commodus.

Some time after both emperors’ ascended, Annia Lucilla was betrothed to Lucius despite him formally being her uncle – as he was also adopted by Antoninus, but wasn’t biologically related to her. During the ceremonies, the Emperors made new provisions to support poor children, something akin to previous imperial foundations.
A New Roman Empire
This joint leadership was popular with the Romans, in part because both Emperors’ were direct and lacked the pomp of former rulers. They also earned favor by permitting free speech, something that had been lacking, with those who spoke out being subject to retribution.
Marcus then proceeded to breath new life into the empire, by replacing major officials. The first to change was the ab epistulis, or those in charge of the imperial correspondence. Next, one of Marcus’ former tutors, Lucius Volusius Maecianus was appointed prefect of the treasury, due to his experience as prefectural governor of Egypt. Finally, Gaius Aufidius Victorinus, Fronto’s son-in-law, was made governor of Germania Superior.
At Marcus’ accession to Emperor, Fronto returned from Cirta, and took up residence in his Roman townhouse. Although Fronto did not dare to write to the emperors directly, he did reflect on how the boy he had known had grown into a great leader, and remarked, ‘There was then an outstanding natural ability in you; there is now perfected excellence. There was then a crop of growing corn; there is now a ripe, gathered harvest. What I was hoping for then, I have now. The hope has become a reality.’
Aurelius and bread

Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Joseph-Marie Vien.

In these early days of his reign, a time when all things appeared to move smoothly and without any conflict, Marcus was able to embrace his philosophic nature. Coinage from the era is stamped with the euphemistic words ‘felicitas temporum‘ or ‘happy times’.
Changing Tides
Sadly, these easy days were to end all too soon. Late in 161 or early 162, the Tiber broke its banks and flooded much of Rome. This flooding took the lives of citizens and livestock alike, causing famine and disease to ravage the city. Marcus and Lucius turned their personal attention to the dire situation, and provided for the communities from the Roman granaries to ease their suffering.
Fonto was obviously pleased with his student’s actions, as he continued to write to Marcus throughout the early days of his reign. He also noticed that, with this new prominence of position, that Marcus might have been ‘beginning to feel the wish to be eloquent once more, in spite of having for a time lost interest in eloquence’, something Fronto was all too keen to assist with, but also reminded him of the differences between Marcus’ personal life and his public one.
As a teacher, Fronto could be no prouder of his pupil; Marcus was beloved by his subjects, he was proving to be a wise and capable emperor, and most of all, Marcus was as eloquent as his teacher could wish for. With Fronto’s words ‘Not more suddenly or violently was the city stirred by the earthquake than the minds of your hearers by your speech’, he commended his student’s rhetorical abilities when the Emperor addressed the Senate after an earthquake in Cyzicus. It was clear to all who heard his words: Marcus Aurelius was indeed the Emperor.

The Life of Marcus Aurelius: Part I

by March 4, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A Man of Many Names
Marcus was born on the 26th of April, in Rome, in the year 121 A.D.. He bore many different versions of his name whilst growing up; these changed as his familial status was altered first by the death of his father, then his unofficial adoption by his grandfather, and finally his legal coming of age. Some of the names he was known by include Marcus Annis Verus, Marcus Annis Catilius Severus, or Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus.
But, when Antoninus Pius formally adopted him, as Hadrian’s successor, Marcus became heir to the empire, and his name was changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar. This name would only change once more; when he became emperor. His final, and full name—Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus—would last until his death.
Roman: Flesh and Blood
Marcus’ family background was as noble as they came. He was of Italo-Hispanic descent on his father’s side and, as such, was a member of the Aurelii, who were based in Roman Spain. The Annia gens is also of Italian descent, with the Annii Veri having risen through the Roman ranks from the 1st century AD. Marcus was related directly to Marcus Annius Verus (I), his great-grandfather, an ex-praetor, and Marcus Annius Verus (II), his grandfather and unofficial adoptive father, who was a patrician.
However, Marcus was also a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty courtesy of his grandmother, Rupilia. As such, Marcus was also connected directly to Emperors Trajan and Hadrian through Hadrian’s wife Sabina. She was his grandmother’s half sister, with Sabina and Rupilia being daughters of Trajan’s sororal niece, Salonia Matidia.

Domitia Lucilla from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”

Marcus’ mother, Domitia Lucilla, was notable historically, as she was immensely wealthy due to her inherited fortune. As the daughter of a Roman patrician, P. Calvisius Tullus, her wealth was so great that it included brickworks on the outskirts of Rome – which was a boon in an age of rapid expansion – and Horti Domitia Calvillae/Lucillae, the villa on the Caelian hill of Rome, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome. Marcus would later refer to this villa as ‘My Caelian’, as he was born and raised there, and always remembered it fondly.
Finally, Marcus adopted the gen. name Aurelia when he was chosen as an heir to Antoninus Pius; not just the Emperor, but his adoptive father, and part of the Aurelii Fulvi, who stemmed from the Sabine and were of Italo-Gallic origin. But genes and family names do not an Emperor make. Though Marcus Aurelius was born into noble families, it was his education that would shape the born-leader’s mind and harness his abilities.
Educating an Emperor
Marcus’ formal education was instilled through several private tutors as befits his aristocratic standing; his adoptive father, Marcus Annius Verus (II), through patria potestas authority when Marcus Annius Verus (III) died around 124, oversaw his grandson’s upbringing. Marcus’ education taught him to be of good character and to avoid bad temper, something he recognized as being of great value, and he thanked his grandfather for his wisdom.
“From my grandfather Verus I learned to relish the beauty of manners, and to restrain all anger.” Meditations, I.1
Diogenetus, a painting master, also had great impact on Marcus; as it appears it is he who introduced the young man to philosophy and a philosophic way of life. This extended to Marcus taking up the robes and habits of a philosopher in the year 132. This involved wearing a rough Greek cloak whilst studying, and he would sleep on the ground for a period, although the latter part he would give away after a time, due to the many frequent and vocal concerns of his mother.
Marcus Annius Verus

Marcus Annius Verus from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”

Amongst his other tutors were the Homeric teachers Alexander of Cotiaeum, Trosius Aper, and Tuticius Proculus, all who taught him Latin, with Marcus thanking Alexander for teaching him literary styling, which can be seen in Marcus’ Meditations. From AD 136, Marcus had three Greek tutors, Aninus Macer, Caninius Celer, and Herodes Atticus, along with Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin.
Late in 136 Marcus’ life changed dramatically; he took the toga virilis and began his training in oratory. After nearly dying, Emperor Hadrian, whilst convalescent in Tivoli, chose Marcus’ intended father-in-law, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his successor. Lucius took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar, making Marcus as Lucius’ adoptive son, a direct successor to the throne.
However, Lucius did not live long enough for this to happen; Instead, Lucius died the night before delivering his speech to the senate, in 138. Hadrian then selected a new heir; Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt, Faustina the Elder. In a bold move, and as part of the terms of this agreement between Hadrian and Antoninus, Antoninus was to adopt Marcus and Lucius’ son Lucius Verus. This once again implied that Emperor Hadrian had always kept Marcus in mind for the role of Emperor, eventually.
Upon the death of Hadrian, Antoninus was made Emperor, and Marcus’ previous betrothal was annulled; Marcus would instead marry Antoninus’ daughter, Faustina the Younger. In 140 Marcus was made consul, he was then appointed as a seviri and became the head of the equestrian order with the title princeps iuventutis. As the heir apparent to the Empire, he also took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar; a title he would remind himself not to take too seriously with the following admonition:
“Take care that thou art not made into a Caesar, that thou art not dyed with this dye; for such things happen. Keep thyself then simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods, and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus.” Meditations, VI.30

Faustina the Younger (130–175 AD). Marble, ca. 161 AD. From the area of Tivoli.

Life and service under Antoninus saw Marcus rise through the ranks, and at the senate’s request he joined all the priestly colleges, although there is only direct evidence of him joining the Arval Brethren. Despite Marcus’s objections, he was also required to adopt the habits of his position, the aulicum fastigium or ‘pomp of the court’. As such, he was also made to relocate his home to the House of Tiberius, the imperial palace on the Palatine, something he was loathed to do and which caused him some sadness.
The trappings of his position did not sit well with his philosopher’s mind, and he would struggle to reconcile the two for the remainder or his life. However, through the words ‘Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life; life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace’, he was convinced the two could work together.
As quaestor, and under the tutelage of Fronto, Marcus received training for ruling the state. He gained practice by dictating dozens of letters, receiving oratory training giving speeches to the senators, and being educated in matters of State. In 145 he was made consul for the second time, with Fronto urging him to rest well before his appointment as Marcus had complained of an illness previously. This ongoing illness would haunt him for many years, especially as he had never been particularly healthy or strong.
Around 146-147, Marcus’s health took a downward turn, historically it is unclear if this was physical, mental, or a combination of both, as he drifted away from his studies in jurisprudence, and he tired from his exercises in imaginary debates. At this point, Marcus’ formal education was ended, and his philosophic tendencies began to return to the fore.
Meditations title page

Titlepage of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves.

Fronto had warned Marcus against philosophical studies, as he disdained both philosophy and philosophers. He had contempt for  Marcus’ sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon, as it is probably he who introduced Marcus to Stoicism. Fronto’s attitude would lead to a distance growing between master and student that would never be bridged. Marcus would keep in touch with Fronto, but from here on he chose to ignore Fronto’s opinions.
Domestic Joys and Heartbreak
In April of 145, Marcus and Faustina finally married, having been betrothed since 138. During their marriage they would have at least 14 children over a 23-year period; including two sets of twins, and only one son and four daughters outliving their parents. The first child, Domitia Faustina, was born in 147, and the next day Marcus received tribunician power and the imperium from Emperor Antoninus.
Although many of his children would not live past early childhood, Marcus’ joy at each birth was celebrated with the minting of Imperial coins, many of which can be seen in museums today. Sadly, this period also marked the deaths of his beloved mother, Domitia Lucilla, and Cornificia, his sister. This period of emotional upheaval may have contributed to Marcus’ downward spiralling health, and cemented his Stoic beliefs: that Nature will always rule men.
Rise to Power
At this time, Lucius Verus began his political career, first as consul in 154, and again in 161, this time with Marcus. Antoninus turned 70 in AD 156, and had grown physically weak; needing stays to keep him upright and nibbling dried bread to stay awake through morning receptions. During this time, Marcus took on more and more administrative duties, including those of praetorian prefect when Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157. Marcus and Lucius were both designated as joint consuls for the coming year in 160, as Antoninus was quite ill by this time.
Antonius Pius

Statue of Antoninus Pius, Palazzo Altemps, Rome

On 7th March, 161, Emperor Antoninus Pius died at his ancestral estate of Lorium, in Eturia. Having summoned the imperial council, and having handed over the state and his daughter to Marcus, as evening fell and the night-watch came to ask the password, he uttered it before turning over as if to sleep – aequanimitas (equanimity). So ended the rule of Anotnius Pius and began that of Marcus Aurelius.

Tiberius: Great Emperor or Monster?

by February 28, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Tiberius( 42 BC –37 AD) was the second Roman Emperor and one of its greatest. He was also a brilliant general. Yet, he is remembered today as a gloomy tyrant who was vey cruel. Tiberius was a very complex man and to this day he is something of an enigma.
The Early Life of Tiberius
The future Emperor was born to Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla of the ancient Claudian family. His father was a supporter of the Optimates and was opposed to the increasing power of Octavian (late Augustus). He was forced with his wife to flee for his life from the anger of Augustus but was eventually pardoned.
However, when Augustus saw Livia he fell in love with her, despite the fact that she was pregnant with her husband’s child. The first Emperor forced Tiberius’ father to divorce his mother.
The young Tiberius was at first raised by his father, but after he died he went to live in the home of his Stepfather Augustus. The strange family circumstances of the young Tiberius are blamed by many for his gloomy and suspicious temper.
Tiberius and Livia

Livia and her son Tiberius, AD 14–19, from Paestum, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid.

Tiberius’ Early Career
Augustus was very concerned about having a heir. From an early date Tiberius was regarded as a potential successor of the First Emperor. He entered public life under the direction of Augustus and was a fine orator and advocate. He soon was given a military command and proved to be a brilliant general. After service in the East, he was given command of several legions.
Tiberius was able to conquer the mountainous area of Raetia (modern Switzerland). Later he would conquer large parts of Pannonia and Illyria, despite facing large armies.  Tiberius also launched an offensive across the Danube and defeated the Marcomanni. He was later ordered to Germany where he defeated several tribes. After the death of Augustus’ close friend Agrippa, the First Emperor recalled Tiberius to Rome.
Tiberius in Mid-Career
In 11 BC, Tiberius was forced to divorce his first wife Vipsania, with whom he had a son, Drusus. Augustus made Tiberius marry Julia, his daughter, and consequently became the stepson of his grandchildren. He was cruelly forbidden to even see his first wife.
It seems that Augustus wanted Tiberius to act as the guardian of his likely heirs. However, his marriage to Julia was a disaster and he remained in love with his first wife. His relationship with the Emperor became strained.
Bust of Augustus

Head of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, Roman artwork of the late Augustan period, last decade of the 1st century BC

Despite this, in 6 B.C. Tiberius was selected to take over de-facto command of the East. He suddenly resigned and retired to Rhodes, where he studied philosophy and rhetoric.
His reasons for this dramatic action are not known. Some have speculated that he was humiliated by his wife’s infidelities or that he felt that he was no longer a candidate to succeed Augustus. After a few years, Tiberius wanted to return to Rome, but Augustus refused him leave to return, despite the pleas of his mother Livia.
Tiberius as Heir
Tiberius could have died in exile but for a remarkable series of events.  Two of Augustus’ grandsons died while still young men.  The First Emperor had Tiberius recalled and made him his heir. Another grandson of Augustus was later banished. In 12 A.D., Tiberius was made the co-Emperor. It appears that Augustus was reluctant to do so but Livia probably persuaded him to make Tiberius his heir.
Tiberius as Emperor (14-37 AD)
When Augustus died, Tiberius, at least publicly, became Emperor. He was faced with a great many challenges including a rebellion in Illyria and a mutiny among the legions on the Rhine. Germanicus, the son of this brother, ended the mutiny and the rebellion, at least according to the historian Tacitus.

Bust of Germanicus

Tiberius was a capable administrator and he strengthened the administration of the Roman Empire  and continued the policies of Augustus. He avoided unnecessary wars and the population enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity.
The reign of the Second Emperor is seen as embedding the Imperial system and ensuring that it was accepted by the vast majority of the local elites. However, Tiberius had a poor relationship with the Roman senatorial elite and he held many treason trials and executed many Senators.  Germanicus was hugely popular with the populace, and many historians believe that Tiberius had him poisoned.
Retirement to Capri and Sejanus
The Emperor was aware of his unpopularity and is said to have become weary of government. He withdrew to the Island of Capri and the reins of the government were left to Sejanus. He was an Etruscan by birth and was commander of the Praetorian Guard (Imperial bodyguard).
Tiberius stayed in Capri where he allegedly delighted in cruel tortures and sexual orgies. Sejanus ruled Rome with an iron-fist and had many Senators assassinated. However, he soon aspired to the Imperial throne.
Tiberius in Capri

Tiberio in Capri (French engraving)

Sejanus began an affair with the daughter in law of Tiberius. Later he had the Second Emperor’s son poisoned, but made it appear as having been a natural death. Tiberius was not aware of Sejanus’ actions, until he was informed of them. Tiberius then had Sejanus and his family summarily executed. However, he still did not return to Rome and power was largely in the hands of the successor of Sejanus in the Praetorian Guard.
The Second Emperor was somewhat paranoid, and he had many potential heirs killed off for no particular reason. Eventually he decided to make Germanicus’ son, Caligula, his heir along with his only grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. It is widely suspected that Caligula and the Praetorian Prefect had Tiberius suffocated or poisoned.
Tiberius’ Legacy
The Second Emperor did much to ensure that the Imperial system managed to survive the death of Augustus and his shrewd administration, preventing another outbreak of civil war. He could be brutal, but his cruelty and tyranny were overstated by later Roman historians.
Is it possible that, perhaps, one might be a great emperor and a monster? I leave that for you to decide, dear reader.

The Most Unbelievable Deaths of the Ancient World

by February 21, 2020

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Never have I thought as much about how difficult being a judge must be, as when I was completing this difficult task of choosing only a few among the cornucopia of surprising and absurd deaths attested by ancient sources!
A lot of things in our lives revolve around death. Paradoxically, it is one of the most important parts of life. The most powerful thing about it is the fact that it strikes everyone. It doesn’t matter how rich or handsome or intelligent you are – we are all heading towards the same destination. Only a few of us, however, get to be laughed at by Grim Reaper from Horrible Histories. For those of you who don’t know, it is a segment of this brilliant show (called “Stupid Deaths”) in which Grim Reaper works as the receptionist for entering the Afterlife. He asks every person for the reason of their death and then makes fun of its absurdity.
I am confident that this list would make our Grim Reaper seriously entertained. So, let’s get down to it!



Bust of Aeschylus

As we all know, ancient Greece had three great playwrights of tragedy: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The first among them, the father of tragedy, was Aeschylus. Besides writing plays that are still performed and used as a source of inspiration to this day, he also fought in important battles, such as the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Marathon, during the Persian wars.
A little less known fact, however, is that the cause of this great tragedians’ death was a falling turtle! Allegedly, Aeschylus was killed (following an oracle) when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. Ironically, that story would make a great fit with his depiction of destiny’s inevitability and unpredictability.


When we hear the name Draco, the first association (after Draco Malfoy, for sure!) is Draco’s code, a set of laws by this Athenian lawmaker which was so severe that we still use the word draconian for laws that are extremely and often unnecessarily severe. What we don’t get to hear often is that according to Suda (a Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world) Draco died by suffocating in the huge amount of hats and cloaks that his supporters threw at him!


Empedocles, 17th-century engraving

Empedocles, ancient Greek Presocratic philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655).

Empedocles was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers. This Pythagorean who came up with the four-element theory was quite an interesting man. He claimed to be a daimon, an immortal being that was punished with countless reincarnations for eating meat. However, convinced that he had achieved the perfect human state, he claimed that he was to be reincarnated as an immortal.
There are a couple of stories about Empedocles’ death, but the most interesting one is described by Diogenes Laertius. According to this story, he died by jumping into an active volcano, Mount Etna. Allegedly, he wanted to prove to be a God by disappearing and making everyone think he had been removed from the Earth.


Chrysippus was one of the greatest stoics of all time. When his teacher Cleanthes died, he formed the philosophical school of stoicism that is known to us today. Moreover, he was a very fruitful author, believed to have written 705 works.
There are two stories concerning the death of this great philosopher, given by Diogenes Laertius. According to one, it was due to dizziness caused by drinking undiluted wine. According to the slightly more interesting one, he saw a donkey eating figs and exclaimed, “Now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs”, after which he died in a fit of laughter.



Pythagoreans Celebrate the Sunrise (1869) by Fyodor Bronnikov

We have probably all heard of the mysterious Pythagoreans and their peculiar teacher Pythagoras. It is believed that among many other unbelievable things said about Pythagoras, he had ridiculously strict rules about everything (such as the rule of which shoe should be put on first!). One of the most famous rules was the prohibition of eating beans. According to one story found in Diogenes Laertius’ writings, Pythagoras, while running away from his enemies, stumbled upon a field of beans, refused to go over it because it was against his teaching, and died.


Antiphanes is known as one of the most important writers of Middle Attic comedy. We don’t know much about this playwright whose works are preserved only in fragments. However, we do have a Suda’s account of his death, according to which Antiphanes died after being struck by a pear. Still better than a turtle, though!


Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman general that was a member of the famous triumvirate together with Caesar and Pompey. He was famous for his wealth, which was the strongest reason for being invited to be a member of the triumvirate in the first place. Unlike the previously mentioned guys who didn’t see it coming, the way Crassus was executed was closely related to his vices.
Marcus Crassus

Bust of Marcus Crassus

After entering a huge conflict with Caesar, Crassus parted intending to conquer Parthia but was defeated by the Parthian king Orodes II. According to the legend, Parthians’ way of executing him was pouring molten gold down his throat as the response to his insatiable desire for wealth!

Human, All Too Human

Almost all these men contributed their wisdom and artistry to various areas of life. It is known how much we owe to Pythagoras when it comes to math, or to Aeschylus when it comes to tragedy, or to Chryssipus and Empedocles when it comes to philosophy. However, we have to admit that there is some comfort in learning that these men were human after all. Whether the tales of their deaths be entirely accurate or not, it is fun and humbling to be reminded that there is no genius that can prevent a pear from falling on your head!