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Galen: The Father of Modern Medicine and Anatomy

by June 17, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Graeco-Roman Civilization has shaped the modern world in many ways. Among these is the fact that it laid the foundations for modern medicine. Perhaps no single person did more for the development of medicine in the Ancient World than the physician Galen. His genius helped to establish medicine as a science, and he was the foremost authority in the field until the Renaissance.
The life of Galen
Galen (129-216 AD) was born in the rich city of Pergamum, which is now near Bergama in modern Turkey, during the zenith of the Roman Empire. He was a Greek speaker and the son of a wealthy architect. Galen received a typical liberal education for a member of the elite, studying literature and philosophy.
Pergamum was the location of one of the most important Asclepian temples in all the Roman Empire. People visited them in the hope of being healed by the god Asclepius. The priests of this cult often had considerable medical knowledge. This seemed to have stimulated Galen’s interest in medicine, and at the age of 16 he moved to Alexandria, which was famous for its medical schools.
Galen group

The ‘Galen’ group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides; he is depicted top center.

In 157 AD he returned to Pergamum and became the physician to a Gladiatorial school. During his time there, Galen learned a lot about the human body. He became a great surgeon and he wrote extensively on the discipline, contributing to the advancement of surgical practice in the Classical World.
Putting anatomy first
It was at this time Galen became famous for his anatomical knowledge. He was only able to study the corpses of dead animals because the vivisection of humans was prohibited at this time. Galen’s anatomical reports on the nervous systems of animals and their vocal cords were revolutionary.
He mainly carried out vivisections on monkeys at first but found them too human-like and he later began studying pigs. The physicians often held public displays of his anatomical studies and this made him famous. Galen believed that anatomy was the foundation of all medicine and that knowledge of the body was a pre-requisite for every medical practitioner, a view which has been enormously influential. He also proposed a new theory of the circulatory system based on the ‘four humors’.

Galen and Hippocrates. Galen of Pergamum, left, with Hippocrates on the title page of Lipsiae (1677), a medical book by Georgii Heinrici Frommanni. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

As his fame spread, Galen was summoned to Rome to become the personal physician to several nobles. However, he became a little bit too successful for the liking of many of the city’s resident doctors. Moreover, his new ideas challenged long-held assumptions, and the Greek was very dismissive of his rivals.
Galen was eventually forced to leave Rome because he feared that he would be assassinated by his professional enemies. At around this time, he developed the medical technique of prognosis. He was the first medical practitioner to use empirical observation to predict the course of a disease. This was revolutionary as traditional healers had used rites and spells to cure people. Galen urged doctors to use reason rather than religion to understand diseases.
Antonine Plague
The Antonine Plague was one of the most terrible pandemics in recorded history. The Greek physician was present when the plague decimated Roman legions in Aquileia, and saw first-hand the devastation it caused among the population in Rome. He recorded the symptoms and prevalence of the disease and left vivid descriptions of it.

Galen’s Opera omnia, dissection of a pig. Venice, 1565

Based on his descriptions, many modern researchers believe that the Antonine Plague was smallpox. Galen left Rome in 166 AD and returned to Pergamum. Though he claimed that he was leaving because he feared assassination, some scholars suspect that it was really because he wanted to flee the plague.
Physician to the Emperor
Galen returned to Rome when the plague abated.  The Greek accompanied Marcus Aurelius on his campaigns against the Marcomanni. However, Marcus dispensed with his services on the advice of a seer. He became the personal physician to Emperor Commodus and later to Emperor Septimius Severus. Though there is no agreed upon date of the death of Galen, it is believed that he died at the age of 70 in 199 AD, while some Arab sources claim that he died in 210 AD.
Galen’s contributions
Galen was pivotal in the history of medicine. He pioneered a new scientific method and was the father of modern anatomy. He published hundreds of works that influenced later Roman and Greek doctors, but also medicine in the Byzantine and Muslim Worlds. Translations of his works inspired many Arab physicians who made great advances in medicine. Given the times Galen lived in, it’s not surprising to learn that some of his theories were wrong and were refuted by later experts during the Renaissance, such as Andreas Vesalius.
The Hippocratic Bench

A drawing of a Hippocratic bench from a Byzantine edition of Galen’s work in the 2nd century AD

Galen was also a philosopher and made important contributions to logic and the philosophy of science. One of his most original contributions was his belief that there was no distinction between mind and body and that all mental activity was ultimately a result of biological process. Many also believe that Galen was one of the first psychologists.
Galen was one of the most brilliant men of the Classical World. He helped move medicine forward, away from a discipline based on mysticism and superstition to a discipline being based on reason and empiricism—that is, to a discipline based on fact rather than religion. Though he didn’t get it all right, he got quite far with the limited resources he had and decisively influenced the development of medicine and science.

Cicero: Rome’s Greatest Defender

by May 27, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There are many great Romans whose names are still honored to this day. None has been more feted down the centuries than Cicero. He was perhaps Rome’s greatest author and one of its greatest orators and philosophers. Cicero was also one the last defenders of the Roman Republic, inspiring democrats and those who oppose tyranny to this day.
Early Life of Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was born into an aristocratic family in Arpimium, not far from Rome. He received a good education in Latin and Greek and oratory, the art of public speaking, which was essential for a life in politics and law.
After briefly serving with the legions he became a lawyer. His oratory soon became legendary and was a much sought-after lawyer. Cicero won fame for defending a man against a trumped-up murder charge.
Young Cicero

The Young Cicero Reading by Vincenzo Foppa (fresco, 1464), now at the Wallace Collection

Politically he was allied to the Optimates, that is the old Senatorial nobility, even though they never fully accepted him. His public speaking made him a powerful force in Roman politics and he became the enemy of the populist party (populares).
One of the most prominent populists was Cataline. Cicero regularly condemned him and his party in fiery and eloquent speeches. When Cataline failed to become consul in 63 B.C. he began to plot with others to seize Rome and start a popular revolution. Among his aims was believed to be the destruction of the old aristocratic elite and the cancellation of all debts.
Cicero became aware of this, which later became known as the Cataline Conspiracy. He urged the Senate to move against the populists, who were planning to start a revolt in Italy and burn Rome.
Cicero managed to persuade the Senate to issue a decree ordering Cataline to be detained. There was an attempt to assassinate the great orator, but it failed. Cataline then left Rome, and evidence was produced that proved he was guilty. Cicero had the conspirators executed, but many including Julius Caesar believed that he had gone beyond his powers as Consul.

Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari

Cicero and the First Triumvirate
Cicero had a close relationship with Pompey the Great. He was a supporter of him, because he was the leader of the Optimate party. The orator lent his support to the creation of the First Triumvirate. This was a political alliance between Julius Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey which effectively made them the most powerful men in Rome.
Cicero began to criticize Caesar and his policies and as a result he was forced out of Rome and became an exile. Later he was able to return to Rome and even became a governor. He intrigued with Pompey and he warned him about the growing power of Caesar.
Cicero returned to Italy just as Caesar was crossing the Rubicon. Later he tried to broker a deal between Caesar and Pompey but he failed. Later the orator joined the army of Pompey in the Balkans. When Caesar defeated the Republicans at the Battle of Pharsalus, Cicero was pardoned by Caesar and even returned to politics.
When the conqueror of Gaul was assassinated, Cicero was shocked. He correctly saw that Mark Antony was a threat and had ambitions to become absolute ruler of Rome. Furthermore, Mark Antony hated Cicero because he frequently mocked him in his speeches. Naturally, then, the orator formed an alliance with Octavian, the future Augustus.
First Triumvirate

From left to right: Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey

The Death of Cicero
Cicero made many speeches opposing Mark Antony and he encouraged the Senate to oppose his ambitions. When Mark Antony took up arms against the Senate, the orator urged that the Consuls be sent against him.
After the Battle of Mutina, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, and they divided the Republic and its provinces between them. They decided to secure their position by starting a campaign of terror against their enemies, known as the Proscriptions.
Mark Antony wanted Cicero dead. This forced the orator to go into hiding, and many Romans helped him to evade the Second Triumvirate. However, he was finally betrayed to two killers by a former slave of his brother. Cicero died with great bravery and when the assassins approached him, he bared his throat to them, to show that he was not afraid.
His killers beheaded him and cut off the hand that had written so many condemnations of Mark Antony. According to legend, Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, mocked the head of Cicero and reputedly stuck a pin into the tongue of the dead orator. This was done out of revenge for all the times he had used his tongue to castigate Mark Antony.
Death of Cicero

The Vengeance of Fulvia by Francisco Maura Y Montaner, 1888 depicting Fulvia inspecting the severed head of Cicero

Literary Works
Cicero is considered to be one of the masters of Latin. His speeches and oratory were collected and widely read. They have influenced oratory to the present day and the adjective “Ciceronian” is used to describe eloquence.
He was also a distinguished philosopher, much influenced by Greek Scepticism and Neo-Platonism. Cicero worked tirelessly to introduce Greek philosophy into Rome. He also wrote extensively on politics and ethics.
His works have had an enduring influence on the development of European culture and history. Cicero influenced Italian Humanists of the Renaissance such as Petrarch, who discovered letters between Cicero and his friend Atticus that had been lost to time. He was also much admired by leading members of the Enlightenment, such as David Hume and even many of the founding fathers of the United States.
“…the philosophers of the Academy have been wise in withholding their consent from any proposition that has not been proved. There is nothing worse than a hasty judgment, and nothing could be more unworthy of the dignity and integrity of a philosopher than uncritically to adopt a false opinion or to maintain as certain some theory which has not been fully explored and understood.” ~ Cicero, De Natura Deorum

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen. ( Public Domain )

“A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.” ~ David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Cicero was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, despite his bravery and oratory, he failed to save the Republic. He is remembered as one of the greatest of all Latin writers and decisively shaped Western culture. To this day, Cicero inspires those who want to defend freedom against tyrants.

Xenophanes: The Most Scandalous Philosopher of Ancient Greece

by May 13, 2020

Written by Mariami Shanshashvili, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Plato’s Euthyphro is centered around Socrates’ attempts to examine and define the concept of piety. In the course of conversation, he develops a central and somewhat scandalous argument: what is holy is not the same as what the gods do or approve. In fact, the gods ‘sin’ and engage in immoral behavior a lot – they murder, steal, cheat, wage wars, and act out of spite.
Socrates often pointed out how Greece’s most beloved poets – Homer and Hesiod – depicted the gods as all too human, but the first ancient Greek thinker to make radical claims about this matter was Xenophanes of Colophon.
Although appearance of the first philosophers in ancient Greece was all about the emergence of unconventional and nontraditional ways of thinking, Xenophanes could still be justifiably viewed as one of the most – if not the most – unorthodox and even scandalous figure of his era.
There were two things an ancient Greek would never doubt: first, that the gods are in charge of everything and everyone, and second, that we know this because they themselves disclosed it to us. The sun, rainbows, and the very earth we are walking on were believed to be gods and goddesses. Every natural phenomenon was ascribed to some property of a deity; every historical event and fate of an individual race or man was explained as the result of the will of the Olympians.
assembly of the gods

Assembly of 20 gods in Olympus, a painting by Raphael

And how did they know? Muses told them so. Invocation of the Muses served as a traditional and commonplace poetic tool: when a poet wanted to authenticate the truth of his claims, he called on Muses so they would act as witnesses and provide assertion.
This is how Homer opens both of his epic poems: he addresses divine agency. It should not be hard to guess that the ancient Greeks were not very fond of people who dared to doubt their undoubtable beliefs – think of the trials of Socrates or Anaxagoras – and unfortunately, this is exactly what philosophers tend to do.
The first thing the first philosophers did was ask for well-grounded, sound arguments for every claim. Appealing to divine authority did not strike them as a very compelling argument. However, some of the early Greek philosophers still partly accepted conventional religious teachings and even referred to the divine authority.
Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Anaximenes, for example, allegedly said that there are gods, exactly as Greek religion acknowledged, but that they come from air (his Cosmic principle) as well as the rest of the universe. And Parmenides, one of the most ahead-of-his-time thinkers, begins his poem by depicting a divine revelation.
So most of early philosophers did not entirely give up on the traditional gods and divination, but threw down a challenge to the conventional notion of the divine. As Cicero states, Xenophanes was the only one among the most ancient philosophers who, while basing his whole philosophy on the existence of the divine entity, launched a direct attack on the popular religion and “did away with divination from its very foundation.”
Xenophanes was an itinerant poet and philosopher from a small Ionian town of Colophon. He is reported to have had quite a storm-tossed life as he was banished from his homeland, was sold into slavery, and buried his sons with his own hands.

Fictionalized portrait of Xenophanes from a 17th-century engraving

Despite his manifold interests, he is primarily remembered for his critique of traditional religious concepts, and as professor Peter Adamson aptly words it, “in doing so, he inaugurated a not-always-friendly rivalry between Greek religion and Greek philosophy that will persist right through Plato and Aristotle”.
Xenophanes found the traditional understanding of the divine to be inherently flawed and he chiefly blamed Homer and Hesiod for disseminating these widely accepted misconceptions. He writes,
“Both Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds which among men are matters of reproach and blame: thieving, adultery, and deceiving one another” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.193)
Homer Singing for the People

Homer Singing for the People

And indeed, it seems like the Greeks imagined their gods in their own image: the gods were born, wore clothes, ate, indulged themselves with sexual adventures, and looked like men, just much more beautiful and perfect. Realizing this, Xenophanes observes:
“If horses had hands, or oxen or lions, or if they could draw with their hands and produce works as men do, then horses would draw figures of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would render the bodies to be of the same frame that each of them have.” (Clement, Miscellanies 5.110;).
The point is that humans have a tendency to attribute their own characteristics to the divine entities; in other words, humans think of their gods as all too human. Xenophanes believed it was disrespectful to the gods to conceptualize them as being subject to human weaknesses and illicit acts. It is the same as ascribing imperfections to the perfect being – which, without doubt, does not make any sense.
Artemision Bronze

Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon from Artemision, Euboea. ca. 460 BC.

The writings of Xenophanes are not limited to such criticism, he also offered a pretty systematic account of divine nature, which attracts special interest for its unique and ground-breaking perspective. How likely is it of a man from 6th century BC to develop ideas highly similar to the monotheistic understanding of the Christian god? Amidst the classical polytheistic convictions of his society, whose gods are born, have bodies, and resemble men, Xenophanes formed the notion of a god
“greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought.” (Clement, Miscellanies, 5.109;).
Even though the reference to the “gods” in plural raises a question about whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or polytheist (some scholars even designate him as a pantheist), it is certain that Xenophanean image of the god is set apart from traditional polytheistic convictions and falls on the spectrum of the monotheistic paradigm.
Geometer god

God as architect of the world, folio 1 verso of a moralized Bible, from Paris, France, ca 1220-1230, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is more likely that he means lesser deities in the plural form of “gods”. Throughout the records of Xenophanes, only one god, a single divine entity, is presented as the perfect, almighty being who holds sway over the whole universe.
“. . whole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears. . . (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144;).
“Always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all, nor is it fitting that [he] come and go to different places at different times. . . but completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics 23.10; 23.19;).
All of the characteristics Xenophanes ascribes to the god – omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, immobility, incorporeality (spirituality) – are the typical attributes of a monotheistic deity. He prefigured the ideas which still lay centuries ahead.

A late 16th-century engraving of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury. In his Proslogion (1078 AD), St. Anselm proposed the first ontological argument for the existence of God in the Western tradition.

Another key aspect of Xenophanes’ philosophy is his remarkable contribution to epistemology (the theory of knowledge). He opposes the traditional understanding of divination by claiming that,
“by no means did the gods intimate all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, inquiring, they discover better.” (Stobaeus, Selections 1.8.2;).
Xenophanes suggests that it is unreasonable of men to expect divine disclosure about the things they seek to know. Moreover, he raises questions about the nature and possibility of sure and certain knowledge. There he makes a fundamental distinction between knowledge and belief/opinion, a theme which will be later taken up, for instance, by Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle, and is one of the most important problems in philosophy as a whole.
“…and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen. Nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things. For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass, still he himself would not know. But opinion is allotted to all.” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 7.49.110;).
Plato's Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Plato’s allegory of the cave, told to us in the Republic, is a thought experiment that is used to this day to illustrate the limits of our knowledge about the world as it is in itself.

It is important to note that by this, Xenophanes does not necessarily reject the possibility of any kind of knowledge, but rather reproves dogmatism and acknowledges boundaries of the dimension of human knowledge. Even though our epistemic status is limited, we can still form opinions and inquire about things. As F.R. Pickering notes,
“Xenophanes is a natural epistemologist, who claims that statements concerning the non-evident realm of the divine as well as the far-reaching generalizations of natural sciences cannot be known with certainty but must remain the objects of opinion.”
Ancient Greeks, on the one hand, had poets who provided answers for all of their questions and, on the other hand, had a poet philosopher who tried to awaken them from their ´dogmatic slumber´ by casting doubts on their answers and asking questions, the relevance of which would persist for centuries to come.
  1. Adamson, Peter. A History of Philosophy Without any Gaps: Classical Philosophy.
  2. Cohen, Mark, Patricia Curd and C.D.C Reeve. Reading in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. NOTE: all the passages of Xenophanes are cited from this book.
  3. Tor, Shaul. Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology.
  4. Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>
  5. Patzia, Michael, “Xenophanes”.

Aristotle: Bad Writer, but Good Philosopher?

by May 1, 2020

Of Aristotle’s writing, some readers were struck by the accuracy, some by the tone, others by the diligence, incision and insight of Aristotle’s words. Marcus Tulius Cicero, the most prominent man of letters of the late Roman Republic, even referred to Aristotle’s literary style as an ‘aureum flumen’, a ‘river of gold’.
However, Cicero was in the minority.
A great thinker, innovator, teacher, researcher, chronicler and international icon Aristotle may well have been, but there were very few who considered him to be a great writer.
The influential 5th century AD philosopher and critic Ammonius Hermiae did his best not only to excuse this shortcoming, but to turn it into a positive. He claimed that Aristotle deliberately withheld information in order to make it difficult to pierce through his prose so that “good people may for that reason stretch their mind even more, whereas empty minds that are lost through carelessness will be put to flight by the obscurity”.
So, he’s not a bad writer – he’s just too good for the likes of us to understand!
Rembrandt's Aristotle

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 1653

However, another ancient critic surmised the more commonly held view when he said that Aristotle “surrounds the difficulty of his subject with the obscurity of his language, and thus avoids refutation – producing darkness, like a squid, in order to make himself hard to capture”.
In Aristotle’s defense, he was following the hardest of hard acts by taking up the gauntlet thrown down by Plato; the rarely-disputed master of elegantly-written philosophy. It has been said that “Plato’s dialogues are polished literary works, the brilliance of their thought matched by the elegance of their language. Aristotle’s surviving writings for the most part are terse. His arguments are concise. There are abrupt transitions, inelegant repetitions, careless allusions. Paragraphs of continuous exposition are set among staccato jottings. The language is spare and sinewy”.
Another important caveat is added by Dr Jonathan Barnes’ in his seminal work on Aristotle: “fine words butter no parsnips, and fine language yields no scientific profit”.
So perhaps Aristotle is immediately off-putting and then suddenly, brutally irresistible? He is to philosophy what smoking is to recreation, though infinitely better for your health.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

It should also be noted that the Aristotle read in antiquity was not the same man we read today. His early work, that which made him famous, is now lost to us, presumably for evermore. What survives is what he wrote during his second spell in Athens from 335 to 322 BC.
And these works were intended merely as lecture notes, as a teachers’ book; designed to be read, reread, annotated, experimented with, and improved upon by Aristotle and his colleagues. Little wonder then that Aristotle’s work can at times come across as disjointed and self­-contradictory.
Regardless, he had a profound influence on the European mind, and by extension the minds of the Americas and Antipodes. He was also respected by Jewish scholars of the middle­ ages and their Islamic counterparts referred to him as ‘the first teacher’. Dante dubbed him ‘the master of those that know’, whilst Thomas Aquinas simply called him ‘the philosopher’.
aristotle and alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

He is said to have had a mind which was ‘ordered, balanced and stunningly capacious’. Indeed, some suspect that he may have been the last man in existence who knew all that it was possible to learn.
Aristotle was a lecturer far more than he was a writer, and as such his words should ideally be heard and not read. Thus, we shall finish with some inspirational thoughts of a man who was limitless in his own ability to think:
“We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth.”

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.