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Category Archives: Leaders

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Tarquin, Last King of Rome and Bloody Tyrant

by September 18, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Roman Republic was moulded rather decisively by the fall of the monarchy. The Republic was designed to prevent the re-emergence of rule by a single person. Rome’s last monarch was Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BC). His tyranny provoked a rebellion, and this was to lead to the Republic which was to change the history of the Classical World.  
The early life of the tyrant
Superbus was related to Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of the previous Etruscan king Servius Tullius. He was a member of the Tarquin Dynasty. His grandfather Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, had been an Etruscan by birth and had been adopted by the fourth Roman king. He later became his heir and ruled Rome for many years.
This story may indicate that Etruscans had conquered the Latin City and had imposed a king of Rome. The sources version of events, which were written down many years later, are not regarded as reliable. It is claimed by Cicero that Superbus conspired with his future wife to become king. He killed his wife and then assassinated the 6th king of Rome Servius Tullius.  He was the only king to seize power by force in Roman regal history.  The Roman king only ruled a small area at this time and was more like a petty king or chieftain. 

The murder of King Servius by his son-in-law (details), around 1413 -1415

The reign of Tarquin
Tarquin came to power in either 595 or 594 BC and he proved to be a capable if ruthless ruler.
Traditionally, the king had worked with the Roman nobility. However, Tarquin proved to be a despot and had no respect for the law or tradition. His name Superbus means the ‘proud’ in Old Latin.
Tarquin intimidated the Roman Senate and set aside the precedents established by Romulus. In this way, he was similar to later tyrannical Emperors such as Nero and Caligula. Tarquin often sentenced senators to death for alleged crimes and frequently used capital punishment against his real and imagined enemies. He initiated a reign of terror in Rome.
The dictator was a shrewd politician and he made Rome the head of the Latin League. He did this by charging his main rival with a spurious plot against the Latins. Tarquin was an aggressive leader and he waged war against the Volsci and Aequi and expanded the territory of Rome. He was careful to maintain peace with the powerful Etruscans. Tarquin was a great builder, as many tyrants are. He built a huge Temple to Jupiter and began the construction of the Forum. 

A reconstruction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome, Italy, 5-6th century (reconstruction by Dr. Bernard Frischer, Rome Reborn)

Tarquin and the Sibylline Books
The King was approached by the Cumaean Sibyl, who offered him nine books of prophecy. She was the priestess at a shrine to Apollo and was famed for her powers of second sight.
The priestess demanded a huge sum for the books. Tarquin dismissed her and in response, Sibyl burned three of the books. She returned to Tarquin and offered him the six books for the same price. Again, the king refused to pay and dismissed the priestess. The old priestess returned and offered the three remaining books for the same price. Tarquin at last relented and in this way, Rome obtained the Sibylline Books.
The books were a collection of oracular maxims written in Greek verse and they were widely consulted by the Roman Senate, especially during times of crisis. 

A Sibyl, by Domenichino, circa 1616-17

Downfall and exile of Tarquin
By 509 BC, the Roman population was tired of Tarquin and his brutal and burdensome rule. Tarquin went on a campaign that year but this was not a success, as the enemy refused to engage with the Romans.
Tarquin’s son after a night’s drinking raped a Roman noblewoman and she told members of the nobility after her family refused to help her. The Roman noblemen, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, began to plot the overthrow of Tarquin. 
Lucretia committed suicide and Brutus swore on her dead body that he would end the monarchy and free the Roman people. They moved slowly and secured the support of the Roman nobility and many of the ordinary people.
Interestingly, Lucius was an ancestor of the Brutus who was involved in the plot against Julius Caesar.  Brutus and others summoned an assembly of the people and the Senators, and they voted for the expulsion of Tarquin and end the monarchy.

The Story of Lucretia, by Sandro Botticelli, about 1500

The army refused to support the monarch and he was forced into exile. He attempted to regain his crown but he failed and he died in exile in Cumae. In 495 BC, the elderly former king, at the head of an alliance of Latins was defeated by Rome at the Battle of Lake Regillius.
The Romans replaced the monarchy with two consuls, who shared supreme executive power, for a year. The Republican system was designed to ensure that no single person could become the ruler. 
Tarquin was the last king of the Romans. However, he helped to establish the city-state as the greatest power in central Italy and was a great builder. It cannot be denied that he was a despot and that he ruled Rome with an iron fist. His rule was so brutal that it made the Romans determined to never have a king again. This led to the foundation of the Roman Republic, which may not have happened if Tarquin had ruled like his predecessors. The anti-monarchical political culture of Rome was unique and it ultimately transformed the city-state into a Mediterranean power.

Lycurgus: Mysterious Spartan Lawgiver

by September 16, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sparta has fascinated people for thousands of years. One of the most, if not the most important figure in all of Spartan history was Lycurgus, the great lawgiver. The interesting thing is that we know very little about this man and his character and indeed, many suspect that he was only a myth.
Sparta at the time of Lycurgus
The Spartans were Dorian Greeks and they had probably migrated from the Balkans and occupied parts of the Peloponnese during the so-called Dark Ages (12th to 8th century BC). 
At the time of the future lawgiver’s birth, Sparta was just another one of the many petty kingdoms and city-states that controlled Greece. It was not wealthy and was not famed for its military prowess. Indeed, it had many enemies and was very vulnerable to attack. 

This map, dating to some 20 years after the death of Lycurgus, shows Sparta as one of many ancient Greek city-states

The origin of Lycurgus
We know very little about the man who became the founder of the remarkable Spartan state.  It is believed that he may have lived in a date range between the 10th and the 8th century BC.
What we do know about his life is from the biographer Plutarch who wrote several hundred years after his probable death. Many believe that he never existed and that the Lygurgus comes from an epithet derived from the God Apollo. Then some believe that the name Lygurgus may be based on an archaic wolf-deity or cult.
Certainly, the great Spartan is a quasi-mythical figure, but he was almost certainly a historic figure. However, there may have been more than one person with that name, and later generations may have attributed all their works and policies to one single person. 

A statue of Lycurgus at the Brussels Court of Law

The life of Lycurgus
It is widely believed that he was born into the royal family of Sparta. It seemed that he was highly esteemed by his fellow Spartans. His father and his older brother both predeceased him and he was offered the kingship.
He became the rule of the kingdom and was a good and just ruler. However, his brother’s wife was pregnant when he died, and she later gave birth. After some consideration, Lycurgus did something remarkable and abdicated, which astonished all of Greece, according to Plutarch.
He had his nephew crowned the king and he acted as his regent. His brother’s queen became concerned and she and her family feared that Lycurgus was plotting to assassinate the infant. They plotted against him and forced him into exile.

Lycurgus Gives the Laws to the Spartans, by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio (c 1480-1528) or Bonifazio Veronese (1487-1553), date unknown

Travels and Oracle Delphi
During his exile, the Spartan decided to travel the known world. On his travels, he acquired a great deal of knowledge and gained a new perspective on politics.
In particular, he was impressed by the institutions of Crete, whose rulers were also Dorian Greeks. The Spartan also travelled to Asia Minor, where he admired the intellectual pursuits of the Ionians, but not their luxurious lives. According to one source during his wandering Lygurgus met Homer and later helped to compile the Iliad and the Odyssey, but this is almost certainly incorrect.
Some believe that the Spartan travelled as far as Spain. Back in his native land, things began to go badly and the people wanted Lycurgus to return and rule them again. He agreed out of a sense of duty, but before he did he consulted the Oracle at Delphi

Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia, by Eugène Delacroix, 1835-45

The Oracle assured him that his reforms would work and that he would make Sparta the greatest Greek state. Many have been struck by the similarities between the Spartan and the Athenian Solon, another great lawgiver.
Lycurgus the lawgiver
The Spartan saw that his kingdom needed to be completely reformed. He redrafted the constitution and established that two kings would rule Sparta. A council of elders would guide them and the male citizens would have a say in the government by their participation in the assembly.
This system provided Sparta with a great deal of political stability for centuries. Next, he established a system that has been likened to communism. He banned the use of gold and silver and all land was owned by the state, which allocated equally among all the citizenry.

Lycurgus Demonstrates the Benefits of Education, by Caesar van Everdingen, 1660-62

Lycurgus decided to make Sparta a highly militaristic society with the best warriors in Greece. He developed the agoge system to train young boys. Under this system, they were taken from their families and trained in warfare from an early age. It was a brutal system, but the young boys became fierce and highly disciplined soldiers.
Lycurgus wanted the citizens to put the state before their own family. He ordered that all adult males have a common mess hall. Lycurgus was almost universally loved, and he was a mild-mannered character. As he grew old, he decided to return to the Oracle at Delphi. 
The mysterious death of Lycurgus
Before he left he assembled all the Spartans and had them swear to maintain the laws he had introduced.
Then he left and he simply disappeared and was never seen again. Some claim that he starved himself to death as part of a ritual.
After his death, he was worshipped by the Spartans and a hero-cult developed around his memory. Such was his reputation, after his death, he came to be regarded as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. 

Lycurgus of Sparta, by Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1828

Lycurgus changed Sparta and he transformed it into a highly disciplined and militaristic society. Without his laws, the Spartans would not have been the greatest power in the Peloponnese nor able to play their decisive role in the defeat of the Persian invaders.  Moreover, without his reforms, they would not have been able to become the dominant power in Greece after the Peloponnesian War.

Julius Caesar: Legend Borne Out of a Lifetime of Adversity

by August 12, 2020

Written by Ash G, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“Smooth seas don’t make good sailors” is a clichéd term but a very underrated statement, nonetheless. It is often said that something great is on the horizon when everything is going downhill. When life is pulling an individual back, it is often preparing to catapult them to greatness. The cross-section of Julius Caesar’s life has the potential to instill a greater appreciation for adversity in people.
Even from early adulthood, Caesar faced a very real possibility of death after his uncle Marius’s rival, Sulla, became the leader of Rome. He was executing everyone remotely linked to Marius. Young Caesar was forced to leave Rome and live off in exile for some time until Sulla was lobbied to pardon him.
He came back to Rome as a poor man, as even though he was able to keep his head intact on his neck, all his personal and ancestral belongings were confiscated. This would prove to be one of the basic dynamics that will haunt him for his entire life, and at the same time, drive him to attain the legendary status in history.

Statue of Julius Caesar on Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome.

Yes, his prime motivation to go on to that daring suicidal-cum-genocidal conquest of Gaul was to pay off his debt that he had been taking all his life to compensate for the losses of his properties. If not, he faced imprisonment at home.
His second-biggest source of adversity was his relationship with his peers; or, more aptly put, his enemies. Because, as it would turn out, almost everyone was his enemy.
Maybe he didn’t know the art of diplomacy. It created bundles of hurdles for him everywhere he went but indirectly helped him ascend to the status of the most powerful man in Rome.
He had many enemies. He was hated and mocked with almost everything he did. An individual would obviously get pissed off if he’s called every man’s woman in Rome. He was rumored to have been in a homosexual relationship with the King of Bithynia. Queen of Bithynia,” they would call him in Rome.
These kinds of allegations were fairly common in ancient Rome as a political tool, but Caesar’s reaction made it far worse. He vehemently denied these rumors. He would go to great lengths to prove he was the “ladies’ man in Rome.” He would humiliate his accusers like Cato by sleeping with their sisters and disclosing their love letters in public. This would earn him ever-green enemies in the Senate of Rome, who would ultimately give him no option but to declare war on the Senate after his term as Governor of Gaul and his alliance with Pompey ended.
Gallic surrener

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, Lionel Royer (1852-1926). The painting depicts the surrender of the Gallic chieftain after the Battle of Alesia (52 BC).

He was ordered by the Senate to come back to Rome as a private citizen and face justice for his illegal warfare and numerous other crimes. He again faced imprisonment or death. He was thus forced to choose to go back to Rome on the head of his army; a move that many at Rome translated as yet another criminal act.
But the the die was cast for Caesar. Sometimes our adversities make the decisions for us. This decision would kick-start a series of developments in the form of civil war that would result in Caesar becoming the most powerful man in Rome.
During the civil war, most of his trusted lieutenants and allies would leave him to join the Senate. Marcus Brutus, who he considered to be his son, and Titus Labienus, his most celebrated cavalry commander, both turned against him. Although he was able to defeat his enemies during the civil war and pardoned those who he considered as friends, his difficult relationship with his peers would not subside throughout his life.

The Death of Caesar, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867.

Caesar wasn’t raised to become a military genius by birth like Alexander the Great. Yet, arguably, he surpassed the glory of Alexander. He was a scared man running from one part of the world to another from his creditors as well as his political, judicial, and personal enemies who were constantly at his throat.
Caesar reportedly used to ponder how he had wasted his entire life when he used to look at Alexander the Great’s statues because, unlike Alexander, he only got his first major military command when he was at the ripe age of 40. For the most part of his life, he himself didn’t know that he was destined to change the very history of Western civilization.
In hindsight, if Caesar was with us today, he would tell us how his adversities made him the legend he is. He would also tell us that destiny has its mysterious ways. The adversities he initially wished weren’t a part of his life eventually led him to unprecedented greatness. As Marcus Aurelius would say, “the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way.” Julius Caesar, in hindsight, would have been appreciative of the difficult life he lived.

Solon: Great Lawmaker and First Democrat

by July 31, 2020

Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Solon (640-560 BC) was one of the most important men in the Classical world. He was in part responsible for setting Athens on its road to greatness. He helped to stabilize the city-state and laid the foundations for the future Athenian Empire. Most importantly of all, he laid the foundations for Athenian democracy, which continues to influence modern-day democracies.
The early years of Solon
Solon was believed to be the son of Execestides, who was a member of the nobility. The family was distinguished but they had fallen on hard financial times. His family circumstances gave Solon a unique insight into Athenian society.
He received a good education and was an acclaimed poet. His poetry was famous in Athens and it includes verses on political issues and even his love affairs. During the war with Megara, Solon was given an important command and he carried out his duties with bravery and great skill. According to some sources, Solon was also a merchant and this allowed him to learn something about the world outside Greece.

Marble relief of Solon (1950), located at the U.S. Capitol in the House of Representatives Chamber.

Solon and his rise to power
Sometime around 590 BC, Solon was appointed archon of the city and became the de-facto ruler. The archon had a range of legal, military, and political powers. However, the Athenians provided Solon with extraordinary powers to deal with the serious political and social-economic crisis that was blighting the city.
At the time, Athens was divided between aristocrats who dominated the political life of the city, and a rising class of merchants and entrepreneurs who, though wealthy, were excluded from power.  This caused a great deal of friction in the city-state and it was widely feared that these tensions could lead to civil strife and even outright civil war.
Meanwhile, the majority of the population was powerless and lived on the verge of starvation. Many were dependent on the aristocracy who owned the land. The poor often became indebted to them and were sold into slavery if they failed to pay their debts.
A previous archon, Draco, had introduced a law code that favored the rich and was very harsh on any wrongdoer. From Draco we get the word Draconian, meaning harsh and brutal. Solon was charged with reforming Athens.

“Solon demands to pledge respect for his laws”, book illustration (Augsburg 1832)

Solon and his reforms
Solon somehow managed to get the aristocrats to end the practice of debt-slavery. He also outlawed the practice of fathers using their sons and daughters as security when taking out a loan. This was transformative and it helped to end debt-bondage. Solon sought to change Athenian society and to make it more equal and more stable. He introduced four classes of inhabitants and people were divided based on their wealth.  Taxation was based on which class a person belonged to.
The four classes all had different political rights, and this was to reflect the amount of tax that they paid. The highest class, the pentakosoimedimnoi, had the most political rights, followed by the hippeis.
Though the poor and the artisans had few if any, political rights, they were granted equality before the law and this was a historic change. Solon also introduced an appeal system. In this way, he dismantled the cruel law code of Draco. Athens, as a result of Solon’s innovations, had a very liberal court-system, and this promoted equality and justice in the city-state. All that was retained of Draco’s law code was the punishment for murder.

Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens (Wikimedia)

Solon was also a political reformer. He abolished the aristocracy’s monopoly on power. He introduced a new popular council, whose members could vote on political, diplomatic, and legal matters.
However, the aristocrats dominated a smaller council, and this allowed them to greatly influence politics. Even after Solon’s reforms, the old elite was still inordinately powerful. Not long after the death of the great lawgiver, Athens fell under the control of the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons for several decades.
Ironically, Peisistratos was a relative of Solon, who blamed the Athenians for the rise of the tyrants, because they did not place the good of the city before their selfish interests. Tragically, Solon was to witness the death of democracy in his beloved city and he died in exile.
Many have pointed out that Solon’s reforms were to bear fruit in the 5th century BC when, under Pericles, the city became very democratic.
Solon had been a trader and he took an interest in the economy. He encouraged agriculture and prohibited the export of foodstuffs. This benefitted the economy and food became cheaper. However, he did encourage the export of olives and this became a major industry. Many credit him with the promotion of the Athenian pottery industry, which became a major industry in Attica.

Plutarch, c. 100 CE, the biographer of Solon. Edward Gooch—Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The travels of Solon
After the end of his period of office, Solon did an unusual thing. It is claimed that he visited Midas and Lydia. He was believed to have also traveled to Egypt and learned the lore of the Egyptians. It is believed that he was also the source of the Atlantis legend.
Because of his great wisdom, he was regarded as one of the seven sages of Ancient Greece. His words of wisdom such as ‘count no man happy until he dies’ were very influential in the Classical world. It is believed that he lived to be one hundred years old, but this is probably only a legend.
Solon was crucial in the history of Athens. His foresight and reforms changed the course of Athenian history. Solon can justly be considered as the ‘father of Athenian democracy’ and played a significant role in the development of democratic institutions and systems all around the world. His social, economic, and legal reforms not only influenced the Greek city-state but have influenced societies since the Classical era. Solon, more than anyone, was responsible for the rise of Athens and its Golden Age, which has shaped western civilization down to this day.

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.

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.