By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
When Marcus Aurelius died, the Roman Empire had enjoyed an 84-year period of prosperity known as the Golden Age of Rome. The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, described Aurelius’s death as an event that would lead Roman history from a “kingdom of gold to one of iron and dust”. Marcus Aurelius and his four predecessors were all known as sagacious rulers, famous as the ‘Five Good Emperors’. However, Marcus Aurelius’s successor put an end to the short-lived tradition of meritocracy.
Marcus Aurelius Designates His Son as His Successor
The decline of the Roman Empire was initiated when Marcus Aurelius decided to designate his son as the next emperor. It was against the tradition of the past 84 years when the Five Good Emperors had chosen their successors based on merits and qualifications rather than designating their nearest male relative. Aurelius had thought that he would prepare his son to take the role of the emperor through a series of training and education.
At the age of five, Commodus was granted the title of Caesar. At the age of 15, he received the highest rank in the traditional governmental structure, a consul. Despite all the education, he proved to be lacking in the personality traits required for a qualified emperor. He was described by an ancient source as “immoral, shameless, cruel, lecherous, and depraved”. His cruelty is manifested on one occasion when he threw his attendant into the fire when he felt that his bath water was not warm enough. He was 12 years old at the time.
Learn more about the Five Good Emperors.
Commodus: An Incompetent and Immoral Emperor
When Commodus became emperor, instead of taking an active role in ruling and politics, out of laziness he passed on his duties to a bunch of sycophants. Unsurprisingly, they were not competent for those tasks and spoiled what qualified administrators had already accomplished.
In another attempt to free up his time to indulge himself, he put an end to the Marcomannic wars with a humiliating treaty. The lengthy wars had been going on for more than 10 years and had taken up most of his father’s reign. But he was not as interested in those wars as much as he enjoyed gladiator fights.
He considered himself a gladiator and a hunter of wild beasts, so he enjoyed public events where he could appear in these roles. Reportedly, he won more than a thousand gladiator wars, which do not seem to have been authentic ones.
One of the few abilities he had was archery. For instance, he killed one hundred bears with arrows. On another occasion, he dispatched one hundred lions with one hundred spears. But these accomplishments only demonstrate his skills, not his courage, because he killed these wild animals in safe places like elevated wooden platforms and paths. During his reign, he slaughtered thousands of animals, like elephants and ostriches.
Despite having no mercy for animals and showing no sympathy toward senators, he sought to win the hearts of ordinary people. To this end, he indulged people with generous gifts, held public events for entertainment, imported food from Africa with low prices, and even distributed cash among people.
This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Commodus was also interested in representing himself as a god, a feature that had been seen in other megalomaniacs like Nero. He was especially interested in Hercules and demonstrated this fondness in the way he dressed. For example, he carried a wooden club and put a lion’s skin on his head. He struck coins with “Hercules Commodus” carved on them and even had portraits of himself painted looking like Hercules. He had a month named after him and one after Hercules. He also called the city of Rome Colonia Commodiania, or “the Colony of Commodus”, which was revoked after his death.
His reign saw many instances of attempted assassinations and conspiracies. Finally, after a long-time reign, he was assassinated in 192 AD. Fearing they would be killed by Commodious, his mistress, his chamberlain, and the Praetorian Prefect plotted to kill him. He was poisoned by his mistress. But he vomited the poison because he had drunk too much. So, they had to have him strangled by his wrestling partner because they feared he might wake up after vomiting.
Unsurprisingly, his death was such a delight for the senate that they issued a long decree vilifying him and recited a litany cursing him for his vile actions. His statues were destroyed, and the city of Rome took its name back.
Learn more about Claudius and Nero.
Common Questions about the End of the Golden Age of Rome
Commodus was assassinated by his mistress, his chamberlain, and the Praetorian Prefect. His mistress poisoned his wine, but when he vomited due to drinking too much, they had him strangled by his wrestling partner because they feared he might wake up after vomiting.
Commodus has been described as an immoral, cruel, and shameless emperor. He enjoyed killing wild beasts and fighting as a gladiator. He wanted to be seen as a deity; he was especially fond of Hercules and often dressed like him.
The Golden Age of the Roman Empire was an 84-year stretch of the reign of five emperors. The emperors were chosen based on their merits, which led to the prosperity and safety of the Roman Empire during these 84 years.