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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.

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.

Cato the Younger (95-46 BC)

by November 25, 2019

Cato the Younger played an important role in the Fall of the Roman Republic. As the leader of the optimate or Republican party, he sought to preserve the Republic and its institutions. While he ultimately failed, Cato was widely revered in the Classical age, and became to many a symbol of traditional Roman values and beliefs.
The early life of Cato the Younger
Cato was called the Younger to distinguish him from his illustrious grandfather, Cato the Elder, who had been the leader of the Conservative party of Senators and the driving force behind the political fall of the Scipios and the Third Punic War.
A bust of Cato the Younger

A bust of Cato the Younger

After the death of his parents, the young Cato was brought up in the home of his uncle Marcus Livius Drusus, a future tribune. Cato received a typical education for a member of the nobility, and from a young age, he studied Stoic Philosophy. His personal and political life was much influenced by Stoicism, a Greek philosophy that stressed reason and self-mastery. Above all, Cato was committed to the Roman Republic.
From an early age, he was noted for is stubbornness and bravery. While only a boy, Cato openly called for the death of the dictator Sulla when he overthrew the Roman Republic.
Cato the Younger served as a soldier in the war against the slaves led by Spartacus in 72 BC. He also served as a military tribune in Macedonia where he became popular with the common soldiers because he led from the front and shared their hardships. While he was a rather austere figure, he travelled widely and was familiar with Greek culture. Cato was also a fine poet and his poetry, most of which is now lost, were rated very highly by ancient critics.
A coin with the portrait of Cato

A coin with the portrait of Cato

Cato the Younger and Politics
Cato’s family was prominent in the senatorial elite, and it wasn’t long before the grandson of Cato the Elder became one of the leaders of the Conservative party. This was mainly because of his oratory skills; his speeches were very influential and were highly praised by Cicero. Moreover, he soon gained a reputation for honesty and for being incorruptible, which was most unusual at a time when Roman politicians were notoriously corrupt.
Rome was very unstable in 62 BC. Cato the Younger was among those who voted for the execution of the leaders of the Catilinarian conspiracy, who had sought to overthrow the Republic. This earned him the undying hatred of Julius Caesar, which was heartily reciprocated. Cato the Younger was an arch-conservative and thus opposed to the populist. He aimed to maintain the continuing domination of the old Senatorial elite and pushed back any attempts at reforms that benefitted the common people.
For instance, Cato the Younger resisted efforts by Caesar to pass legislation that would distribute land to the common people in Italy. He was also bitterly opposed to the plans of Pompey to resettle his veterans in Italy.
A bust of Julius Cesar

A bust of Julius Cesar

In fact, Cato the Younger’s hostility to the policies of the popular party helped to bring about the alliance between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, and earned him the role of implacable enemy of the First Triumvirate. In 58 BC, Cato the Younger was sent to Cyprus and successfully turned it into a Roman Province. However, his opposition to Caesar and his powerful allies made him many enemies and he was forced to retire from politics in 51 BC.
Civil War (49-45 BC)
Cato the Younger continued to write and study Stoic philosophy after his dismissal. However, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in defiance of the Senate, he came out of retirement. Cato knew that the Senate could not defeat Caesar and his veteran legions alone; they needed the support of Pompey. Cato was able to forge an alliance between the conservatives and the Pompeiians.
Pompey face

ca. 1st century B.C. — Bust of Pompey

While Cato the Younger was made the commander of the forces in Sicily, he could not hold the island. Later he joined Pompey in the Balkans, and was present at the great Battle of Pharsalus, in Northern Greece, where he witnessed the victory of Caesar. The Pompeiians and the Republicans fled all over the Mediterranean in the wake of this cataclysmic defeat.
Death of Cato the Younger
Cato the Younger fled to North Africa with a small force, where he and other Republicans managed to mobilize an army. However, in 46 BC, Caesar landed in North Africa and defeated the Republicans at the Battle of Thapsus. Cato the Younger, even after his defeat, refused to surrender to Caesar. He seized the city of Utica and defied the calls of the Caesareans to surrender. Despite the fact that it was apparent that further resistance was futile, Cato fought on. Only when the last of his forces had been evacuated to Spain by sea did he submit. Then, in accordance with his Stoic beliefs and Roman traditions, he committed suicide. Cato preferred death to dishonor.
The ruins of Utica

The ruins of Utica

The legend of Cato the Younger

After Cato’s suicide, his ideas lived on and he continued to inspire Republicans, despite Caesar’s victory. In particular, he was a great influence on the assassins of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Indeed, Cato the Younger had been the guardian of Marcus Brutus, perhaps the best known of the assassins.
Cato was in many ways an unattractive figure; he was stubborn, intolerant and grim. However, he was also an honest man who was dedicated to the ideals of Republican Rome. His commitment to Stoicism was exemplary and he did much to popularize this philosophy in the Roman Empire. To many, he became a model of virtue and represented all that was best in Classical Civilization. Later writers, such as Cicero and Lucian, praised him in their work, while Dante celebrated his memory in the Divine Comedy.

Holland, Tom (2005) Rubicon. London: Double Day

Xerxes: King of Kings

by November 22, 2019

By Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

In an age of heroes and gods, when priests in lofty temples decided people’s fates, there ruled a king who challenged the might of both the Egyptian and Greek empires. The grandson of Cyrus the Great, Xerxes became King, son of Queen Atossa and King Darius I, but his rule was not always so noble or successful.

Coming to Power

It is the year 486BC and King Darius I, the great Persian King of Kings, is preparing for another war with Greece. Unfortunately, at the grand age of 64, his health was declining and so from his royal palace in Persepolis, King Darius named Xerxes his heir. King Darius died shortly thereafter, throwing his heir Xerxes and Artobazan, his older brother, into uncertainty.

Artobazan, the first-born son, claimed the crown as his birth right. However, Artobazan was born to Darius by a commoner. The exiled Spartan king Demaratus advised Xerxes that Artobazan’s claim had no foundation; as it was Xerxes who was born to the King and Atossa, the Queen and the daughter of King Cyrus the Great.

This argument proved solid, Xerxes was hence recognised as the only legal heir to the throne of Persia, succeeding his father and being crowned sometime between October and December of 486 BC.


Persian Empire in the Achaemenid era, 6th century BC.

Thrust into War

With the crown placed on his head, Xerxes was immediately besieged with thoughts of war; of his father’s war with Greece, and with an uprising and revolts in Egypt and Babylon as a result of his father’s building efforts of the royal palaces in Susa and Persepolis.

The revolts were quashed swiftly by the might of the Persian forces, and this led Xerxes to appoint his brother, Achaemenes, as satrap over Egypt. But no sooner had the dust settled than Xerxes was thrust back into turmoil when he outraged his Babylonian subjects.

As King, he was required to grasp the outstretched hands of the golden statue of Marduk on New Year’s Day. Xerxes, however, had violently confiscated and melted this idol, which incited the Babylonians to revolt not once, but twice, in 484 BC and again in 482 BC.

With Egypt and Babylon back under control, Xerxes then returned his attention to his father’s invasion and punishment of the Greek mainland. This punishment was the result of interference during the Ionian Revolt of 499 BC to 493 BC.

greek vs persian

Persian soldier (left) and Greek hoplite (right) depicted fighting, on an ancient kylix, 5th century BC

In 483 BC Xerxes began preparing for his campaign. The Xerxes Canal was constructed, allowing them to store provisions through Thrace as it cut through the isthmus of Mount Athos. With two pontoon bridges across the Hellespont (today known as Dardanelles),

Xerxes was ready for war with his pan-Mediterranean army, with soldiers from Phoenicia, Assyria, Egypt, Thrace, Macedon, and many other Grecian states. Xerxes army was a force to be reckoned with; he was poised for victory.

A Twist of Fate

Yet, Xerxes’ mighty victory never came. Instead, according to Herodotus, his initial attempt was thwarted, not by an army, but by nature. A terrible storm swept through the isthmus and tore apart the pontoon bridges, demolishing the papyrus and flax cables that held the bridges together.

Xerxes, enraged, then ordered the Hellespont to be whipped 300 hundred times and commanded that fetters be thrown into the water. How this was going to punish the unruly weather is anyone’s guess, but it apparently worked, as his second attempt to cross was successful.

The Hellespont

A map of the ancient Hellespont, including ancient Troy (Ilium on the map) of Homer and Virgil.

This assault would come to be known as the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily, and its effect was to prevent any support from Agrigentum and Syracuse and forced Thessaly, Thebes and Argos to join the Persian side. It was a resounding success.

From here, in Sardis in 480 BC, that Xerxes would set out with the greatest the world had ever seen. Herodotus estimated the army to about one million in number, with the elite force known as the Immortals, so named, as their number was not permitted to drop below 10,000 men. The size of the Persian army has been given a serious review in modern times, with the estimated size being suggested at closer to 60,000 fighters. 

The Zenith of Xerxes

The battle at Thermopylae is well known by all historians and movie fans alike; the heroic tale of King Leonidas leading his 300 Spartan warriors. There in stony crags, they held back the onslaught of the Persian army but were ultimately defeated due to betrayal by a fellow Greek by the name of Ephialtes.

Xerxes assault on Thermopylae is the stuff of legends, so too was its lesson: when you hit a wall, if you can’t go through it look for a way around, under, or over it. Which is what he did by taking the secret pass through the mountains. Once through the mountains, the Persian army continued their attack and were aided by a storm that wrecked the Greek ships at Artemisium. Faced with this defeat, the Greek armies retreated.


David, Jacques-Louis: Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814; in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Xerxes refused to slow his progress. His eyes were set on fulfilling his father’s punishment of the Athenians. The city, having been abandoned by its inhabitants for the island of Salamis, gave little defence.

With Athens in his grasp, he ordered its destruction; in 480 BC the city was burnt. The fires raged to such a degree that it left an indelible mark; a mark know by us today through an archaeological attested destruction layer, known as Perserschutt. Xerxes now controlled all of mainland Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth.

The Turning Tides

Whether his pride took over, or he became so arrogant he would not listen to his advisors, Xerxes fell for a trap. The Greeks, under the Athenian general Themistocles, tempted the invaders into a naval skirmish in the Saronic Gulf by subterfuge. The plan was to block the narrow Straits of Salamis and cut off the Greek navy. 

Here, Xerxes’s navy was unprepared for the unfavourable weather conditions, and within hours the alliance of Greek city-states was able to outmaneuver and defeat the invading army. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Greeks managed to overcome the Persians, as their ships were smaller and more agile in the tempestuous waters.


Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis [English: Battle of Salamis], Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868.

With his navy relegated to the bottom of the seafloor, Xerxes retreated to Asia with a large contingent of his army. He left Mardonis, a leading commander in his army, to complete the assault. 

However, this would not be so. The following year the remnants of the Persian army launched an attack at Plataea while the Persian navy attacked Mycale. Both of these battles were disastrous, with the Greeks scoring decisive victories. 

Rebuilding His Image

After the resounding defeat in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and focused instead upon completing the royal palaces at Susa and Persepolis, along with many smaller but highly detailed building projects within these complexes.

These achievements include the Gate of All Nations, the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, the Apadana, the Tachara, the Treasury, along with maintaining the Royal Road and completing the Susa Gate. 

While his military achievements were a mixed bag, his architectural endeavours were all successes, with some still in existence to this day.

Gate of Xerxes

The Gate of All Nations (Old Persian : duvarthim visadahyum) also known as the Gate of Xerxes, located in the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, Iran.

Betrayal and Murder

The summer of 465 BC saw the king cut down, assassinated by the royal bodyguard Artabanus and a eunuch Aspamitres. The political figure, Artabanus, was the protector of the king but had been scheming for some time to dethrone the Achaemenids. He had placed his sons in positions of power and waited for the time to strike.

Xerxes murder was only part of the plan. Artabanus’ plot also involved murdering the heir, Crown Prince Darius. There are some contradicting accounts of exactly who was killed first, but the plot was successful. Both king and heir were dead.

Artabanus’ plan backfired though, and when prince Artaxerxes uncovered the plot, no doubt with the help of Megabyzuz who had switched sides, retribution was sought. Artaxerxes came after Artabanus and all of his sons. This decisive action, along with the defection of Megabyzus, is attributed with having saved the line of the Achaemenids.

Xerxes’ Impact

Xerxes and his achievements have been depicted for thousands of years. As early as Aeschylus and his play ‘The Persians’, Xerxes was being immortalised. George Frideric Handel’s protagonist Serse is based on the Persian king, and the Italian Poet Metastasio romanticised the story of the murder of Xerxes, Crown Prince Darius, and the ascension of Artaxerxes in the libretto of his Artaserse.

Denouncing Haman

Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahaseurus (1888), Ernest Normand (1857-1923)

Xerxes even appears in the Bible, where he was identified as King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, inspiring the painting Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahaseurus by Ernest Normand. He has also been portrayed in films (perhaps unflatteringly) such as The 300 Spartans (1962) and 300 (2006). 

Whilst his departure from the world was as abrupt as his ascension, Xerxes’ impact is undeniable. Without him, we would not have the incredible story of the courage of the Spartans under Leonidas, nor the Perschutt of Athens. We would be without the Gate of All Nations, or the Royal Road that would prove its value for generations to come. Xerxes’ life and reign was short by today’s standards, but his legacy has lasted, and will last, for millennia.