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Empress Bruttia Crispina

Empress Bruttia Crispina

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Stamboom Petra Limburg » Bruttia Crispina Empress Rome (160-199)

in the year 0176 at Rome,Italy, she was 16 years old.

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Bruttia Crispina

Bruttia Crispina (164-191 AD) was Roman Empress from 178 to 191 as the consort of Roman Emperor Commodus. Her marriage to Commodus did not produce an heir, and her husband was instead succeeded by Pertinax.

Crispina came from an illustrious aristocratic family and was the daughter of twice consul Gaius Bruttius Praesens and his wife Valeria. Crispina’s paternal grandparents were consul and senator Gaius Bruttius Praesens and the rich heiress Laberia Hostilia Crispina, daughter of another twice consul, Manius Laberius Maximus.

Crispina's brother was future consul Lucius Bruttius Quintius Crispinus. Her father’s family originally came from Volceii, Lucania, Italy and were closely associated with the Roman Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. Crispina was born and raised in Rome or Volceii.

Crispina married the sixteen-year-old Commodus in the summer of 178 and brought him, as a dowry, a large number of estates. These, when added to the Imperial holdings, gave him control of a substantial part of Lucanian territory. The actual ceremony was modest but was commemorated on coinage, and largesse was distributed to the people. An epithalamium for the occasion was composed by the sophist Julius Pollux.

Upon her marriage, Crispina received the title of Augusta, and thus became empress of the Roman Empire, as her husband was co-emperor with her father-in-law at the time. The previous empress and her mother-in-law, Faustina the Younger had died three years prior to her arrival.

Like most marriages of young members of the nobiles, it was arranged by patres—in Crispina's case by her father and her new father-in-law, the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Though she was a beautiful woman, Crispina probably meant little to her egocentric husband, who was also known to prefer the company of men to women. Crispina is described as being a graceful person with a susceptible heart, but there is no medal extant of her.

As Augusta, Crispina was extensively honoured with public images during the last two years of her father-in-law's reign and the initial years of her husband's reign. She did not seem to have any significant political influence over her husband during his bizarre reign. However, she was not exempted from court politics either, as her sister-in-law Lucilla, herself a former empress, was reportedly ambitious and jealous of the reigning empress Crispina due to her position and power.

Crispina's marriage failed to produce an heir due to her husband's inability, which led to a dynastic succession crisis. In fact, both Anistius Burrus (with whom Commodus had shared his first consulate as sole ruler) and Gaius Arrius Antoninus, who were probably related to the imperial family, were allegedly put to death 'on the suspicion of pretending to the throne'.

After ten years of marriage, Crispina was falsely charged with adultery by her husband and was banished to the island of Capri in 188, where she was later executed. After her banishment, Commodus did not marry again but took on a mistress, a woman named Marcia, who was later said to have conspired in his murder.

On the basis of a misreading of HA Commodus 5.9 and Dio 73.4.6, her fall is sometimes wrongly associated with Lucilla's conspiracy to assassinate Commodus in 181 or 182. Her name continues to appear in inscriptions until as late as 191 (CIL VIII, 02366). Her eventual exile and death may instead have been a result of the fall of Marcus Aurelius Cleander, or of Commodus's inability to produce offspring with her to ensure the dynastic succession.

Who married Bruttia Crispina?

Commodus married Bruttia Crispina .

Bruttia Crispina

Bruttia Crispina (164 – 191 AD) was Roman Empress from 178 to 191 as the consort of Roman Emperor Commodus. Her marriage to Commodus did not produce an heir, and her husband was instead succeeded by Pertinax.


Commodus ( 31 August 161 – 31 December 192), born Lucius Aurelius Commodus and died Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, was Roman emperor with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 until his father's death in 180, and solely until 192. His reign is commonly considered to mark the end of the golden period in the history of the Roman Empire known as the Pax Romana.

During his father's reign, he accompanied Marcus Aurelius during the Marcomannic Wars in 172 and on a tour of the Eastern provinces in 176. He was made the youngest consul in Roman history in 177 and later that year elevated to co-emperor with his father. His accession was the first time a son had succeeded his biological father since Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79. He was also the first emperor to have both a father and grandfather (who had adopted his father) as the two preceding emperors. Commodus was the first (and until 337, the only) emperor "born in the purple", meaning during his father's reign.

During his solo reign, the Empire enjoyed a period of reduced military conflict compared with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, but intrigues and conspiracies abounded, leading Commodus to an increasingly dictatorial style of leadership that culminated in a god-like personality cult. His assassination in 192 marked the end of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty. He was succeeded by Pertinax, the first emperor in the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.

18 Reasons Why Commodus Was Rome’s Known Depraved Emperor

Commodus was a philanderer &ndash but it was his wife who was executed for adultery. Geni.

7. Divorce wasn&rsquot the done thing for an Emperor, so Commodus had his wife killed to make space for his favorite mistress

Commodus was still only 16-years-old when he was wed to Bruttia Crispina, herself just a young girl, in the summer of 178. From the day they wed, Commodus was routinely unfaithful. Indeed, it was even expected that he would have numerous mistresses. He also kept several private brothels, and Crispina would have been only too aware of her husband&rsquos indiscretions. Even if she had been bothered or upset, there was nothing she could have done But, what makes his treatment of his wife so despicable is that, in the end, Commodus accused her of adultery!

Despite having no proof of any alleged indiscretions, in 188 he had Crispina banished from Rome and sent to live on the island of Capri. A few months later, Commodus ordered some soldiers to head to the island and execute her. Commodus may have killed his wife because she ‘failed&rsquo to give him a child. Far more likely, however, he was simply sick of her. By 187, he was infatuated with his favorite mistress, Marcia, and he wanted her to be his de-facto Empress. Of course, Commodus got his way &ndash until Marcia ended up conspiring in his assassination that is.

The Roman Emperor Commodus

Have you ever watched a film based on historical events or famous people and wondered did that really happen? Lately i have been watching the 1964 film ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (Alec Guiness, Sophia Loren, Christopher Plummer) and i could not help but ask if the portrayal of the Roman Emperor Commodus was true.

For anyone who has seen either the 1964 film ‘The fall of the Roman Empire‘ or the 2000 film ‘Gladiator'(Mel Gibson, Joachim Phoenix), the Roman Emperor Commodus is portrayed as a cruel tyrant, obssessed with power that murdered his father to become emperor and wanting to be a gladiator more than being an emperor. But is this true?

Commodus was already co-emperor with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 177 A.D. Marcus Aurelius was already a sick man when he passed away in 180 A.D at Vindabona or modern day Vienna. Marcus Aurelius was regarded as a great emperor by the historian Cassius Dio who said of Marcus Aurelius that ‘In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power….so truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence’.

When Commodus became sole emperor in 180 A.D, he was only 19 years old. Would Commodus be a great emperor like his father? There were many who worried about the young Commodus. The historian Cassius Dio says that before he died, Marcus Aurelius was concerned that Commodus would stop his studies and turn to drinking and debauchery. To help Commodus, the trusted advisors of his father were left to guide the young emperor.

Commodus is nothing like his famous father. A youthful Commodus appears to be easily influenced by others as Cassius Dio tells us that ‘This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature’. It did not take long for Commodus to dismiss the advisors of his father and rely on the advice of dubious men such as Perennis, who commanded the Pretorian guard and also Cleander.

For the first several years, the reign of Commodus seems to have gotten off to a good start. But Commodus was criticized for his decision to make peace with the Barbarian tribes which Marcus Aurelius had been attempting to conquer. Cassius Dio puts the peace with the Germanic tribes down to the laziness of Commodus who wanted nothing more than to return to Rome as Cassius says ‘ And, although Commodus might easily have destroyed them, yet he made terms with them for he hated all exertion and was eager for the comforts of the city’. Or was there more to this decision to sue for peace? Was this the plan of Marcus Auerlius as well?

Men such as Perennis and Cleander become very powerful as Commodus begins to take an interest in being a gladiator and neglects his official duties, leaving them to Perennis and Cleander. The historian Cassius Dio tells us that ‘Commodus devoted most of his life to ease and to horses and to combats of wild beasts and of men. In Roman society, the gladiators that fought were slaves. For the emperor to dress up as gladiator was scandalous. Cassius Dio tells us that Perennis not only managed the military affairs, but everything else as well, and to stand at the head of the State. Perennis is effectively emperor in everything but name and title.

As Commodus played at being gladiator, Perennis and Cleander used their influence to get rid of their own enemies and used their power to sell public offices to friends. The behaviour of Perrenis outrages the Roman aristocracy and turns them against Commodus. One of the most important plots against Commodus was carried out by his own sister, Lucilla. According to historian Herodian, Lucila, plotted with the Roman senators Quadratus and Paternus, the prefect of the guard. Lucilla was later exiled and murdered on the orders of Commodus.

The attempt on the life of Commodus seems to be a turning point in the decreasing relations between Commodus and the Roman senate. Cassius Dio tells us of the distrust between Commodus and the senate when Commodus killed an Ostrich and cut off its head which he waved in front of Cassius Dio and other senators ‘ indicating that he would treat us in the same way.’

Its a dangerous atmosphere to live in. Both Perennis and later Cleander seemed to have stirred Commodus distrust in the senate and that he was being betrayed by everyone around him. Commodus has his wife Crispina executed when he believes she is having an affair. Cleander, a rival of Perennis, convinces Commodus that Perennis is trying to overthrow Commodus and install his own son as emperor. Another victim of Commodus suspicions is his wife, the empress Bruttia Crispina whom Commodus had married in 178 B.C. In 188 B.C, Commodus accused his wife of adultery and had her banished to the island of Capri where she was later executed.

The Roman aristocracy seems to have had enough of Commodus and when an attempt at poisoning Commodus failed, an athelete named Narcissus was sent to strangle Commodus while he was taking a bath. As Cassius Dio tells it ‘Such was the end of Commodus, after he had ruled twelve years, nine months, and fourteen days. He had lived thirty-one years and four months and with him the line of the genuine Aurelii ceased to rule’.

But the death of Commodus brings a period of civil war and the year of the Five Emperors when five military leaders all claim the title of emperor. The peaceful years of the reign of Marcus Aurelius become just a memory.

Coins for this issuer were issued from 178 until 187.

Bruttia Crispina was the daughter of L. Fulvius Bruttius Praesens. She married the future emperor when he was 16 years old. After ten years of marriage, she was banished to Capri for adultery and later killed.

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Description: A complete, copper alloy sestertius o&hellip
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Description: A copper-alloy Roman as, dupondius or sest&hellip
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Object type: COIN
Broadperiod: ROMAN
Description: An incomplete copper alloy Roman sestertiu&hellip
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Record: LIN-AB72FB
Object type: COIN
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Description: Roman copper-alloy sestertius of Crispina,&hellip
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Coins for this issuer were issued from 178 until 187.

Bruttia Crispina was the daughter of L. Fulvius Bruttius Praesens. She married the future emperor when he was 16 years old. After ten years of marriage, she was banished to Capri for adultery and later killed.

Latest examples recorded with images

We have recorded 91 examples.

Record: PUBLIC-AD4677
Object type: COIN
Broadperiod: ROMAN
Description: A complete, copper alloy sestertius o&hellip
Workflow: Published

Record: SF-BFDD4B
Object type: COIN
Broadperiod: ROMAN
Description: A copper-alloy Roman as, dupondius or sest&hellip
Workflow: Awaiting validation

Record: OXON-0DEDA7
Object type: COIN
Broadperiod: ROMAN
Description: An incomplete copper alloy Roman sestertiu&hellip
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Record: LIN-AB72FB
Object type: COIN
Broadperiod: ROMAN
Description: Roman copper-alloy sestertius of Crispina,&hellip
Workflow: Awaiting validation

Roman Empress Asks

Livia: Have you ever been unfairly blamed for anything?

Lollia Paulina: Do you look like anyone in your family?

Messalina: Have people ever gossiped or spread rumors about you?

Agrippina the Younger: Do you miss anyone right now?

Claudia Octavia: Have you ever felt overshadowed?

Poppaea Sabina: What do you think is beautiful about yourself?

Domitia Longina: If you could start your own business or shop, what would it be like?

Pompeia Plotina: Do you feel drawn to any branch or school of philosophy? If so, which one(s)?

Vibia Sabina: Who are your favorite poets?

Faustina the Elder: Have you ever been involved in any volunteer work?

Faustina the Younger: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Lucilla: Are you interested in having a political career at all?

Bruttia Crispina: Are you currently stressed about anything? What about?

Julia Domna: Who are your favorite scholars and why?


[1] The relations between the Empire, the Christians, and the Jews have been discussed by really numberless writers, beginning with the Fathers of the Church. I have consulted, among the moderns: Mangold: De ecclesia primæva pro cæsaribus et magistratibus romanis preces fundente. Bonn, 1881.—Bittner: De Græcorum et Romanorum deque Judæorum et christianorum sacris jejuniis. Posen, 1846.—Weiss: Die römischen Kaiser in ihrem Verhältnisse zu Juden und Christen. Wien, 1882.—Mourant Brock: Rome, Pagan and Papal. London, Hodder & Co. 1883.—Backhouse and Taylor: History of the primitive Church. (Italian edition.) Rome, Loescher, 1890.—Greppo: Trois mémoires relatifs à l’histoire ecclésiastique.—Döllinger: Christenthum und Kirche.—Champagny (Comte de): Les Antonins, vol. i.—Gaston Boissier: La fin du paganisme, etc., 2 vols. Paris, Hachette, 1891.—Giovanni Marangoni: Delle cose gentilesche trasportate ad uso delle chiese. Roma, Pagliarini, 1744.—Mosheim: De rebus Christianis ante Constantinum.—Carlo Fea: Dissertazione sulle rovine di Roma, in Winckelmann’s Storia delle arti. Roma, Pagliarini, 1783, vol. iii.—Louis Duchesne: Le liber pontificalis. Paris, Thorin, 1886-1892.—G.B. de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana. Roma, Salviucci, 1863-1891.

[2] See de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1888-1889, p. 15 1890, p. 97.—Edmond Le Blant: Comptes rendus de l’Acad. des Inscript., 1888, p. 113.—Arthur Frothingham: American Journal of Archæology, June, 1888, p. 214.—R. Lanciani: Gli horti Aciliorum sul Pincio, in the Bullettino della commissione archeologica, 1891, p. 132 Underground Christian Rome, in the Atlantic Monthly, July, 1891.

[3] See Ersilia Lovatelli: Il Monte Pincio, in the Miscellanea archeologica, p. 211.—Rodolfo Lanciani: Su gli orti degli Acili sul Pincio, in the Bullettino di corrispondenza archeologica, 1868, p. 132.

[4] A description of the beautiful villa of Herodes, adjoining the Catacombs of Prætextatus, will be found in chapter vi. pp. 287 sqq.

[5] A consul suffectus was one elected as a substitute in case of the death or retirement of one of the regular consuls.

[6] Lampridius, in Sev. Alex., c. 43.

[7] In chapter v., p. 122, of Ancient Rome, I have attributed these graffiti to the second half of the first century but after a careful examination of the structure of the wall, on the plaster of which they are scratched, I am convinced that they must have been written towards the end of the second century.

[8] Orelli, 4024, Digest L., iv. 18, 7.

[9] See Ulpian: De officio Procons., i. 3.

[11] See Greppo: Mémoire sur les laraires de l’empereur Alexandre Sevère.

[12] The name of the villa was Cassiacum its memory has lasted to the present age. See the memoir of Luigi Biraghi, S. Agostino a Cassago di Brianza. Milano, 1854.

[13] See Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1865, p. 50.

[14] It contains the words PETRO LILLVTI PAVLO. They are surely genuine and ancient. I examined them in company with Mommsen, Jordan, and de Rossi, and they attributed them to the beginning of the third century of our era. The best suggestion regarding their origin is that they belong to a person, probably Christian, who used the name Petrus as gentilitium, and Paulus as cognomen, and who was the son of Lillutus, however barbaric this last name may sound.

[15] See de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1863, p. 49.—Rohault de Fleury: L’arc de triomphe de Constantin, in the Révue archéologique, Sept. 1863, p. 250.—W. Henzen: Bullettino dell’ Instituto, 1863, p. 183.

[16] See Bibliography, p. 1. The title of the book may be translated thus: On the pagan and profane objects transferred to churches for their use and adornment.

[17] The two busts of S. Peter and S. Paul, described in Cancellieri’s book, Memorie storiche delle sacre teste dei santi apostoli Pietro e Paolo, Roma, Ferretti, 1852 (second edition), were stolen by the French revolutionists in 1799.

[18] See Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, part VI., No. 351.

[19] In the Byzantine period this church and the adjoining monastery were called casa Barbara patricia. They are now comprised within the cloisters of S. Antonio all’ Esquilino, on the left side of S. Maria Maggiore.

[20] These incrustations, and the basilica to which they belong, have been illustrated by Ciampini: Vetera monumenta, vol. i. plates xxii.-xxiv.—D’Agincourt: Histoire de l’art, Peinture, pl. xiii. 3.—Minutoli: Ueber die Anfertigung und die Nutzanwendung der färbigen Gläser bei den Alten, pl. iv.—De Rossi: La basilica di Giunio Basso, in the Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1871, p. 46.

[21] See Andrea Amoroso: Le basiliche cristiane di Parenzo. Parenzo, Coana, 1891.—Mommsen: Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. v. part i. nos. 365-367.

[22] See Lovatelli: I labirinti e il loro simbolismo nell’ età di mezzo, in the Nuova Antologia, 16 Agosto, 1890.—Arné: Carrelages émaillés du moyen âge.—Eugène Müntz: Etudes iconographiques et archéologiques sur le moyen âge.

[23] See Pietro Pericoli: Lo spedale di S. Maria della Consolazione. Imola Galeati, p. 64.

[24] Published in two volumes with the title: Indicazione delle immagini di Maria, collocate sulle mura esterne di Roma. Ferretti, 1853.

[25] The inscription, after all, was very mild in comparison with the violent formula imposed upon Alexander VII. It read: “In memory of the absolution given by Clement VIII. to Henry IV. of France and Navarre, September 17, 1595.”

[26] The amphora corresponds to 26.26 litres the metreta to 39.39 litres the modius to 8.75 litres. The pound, divided into twelve ounces, corresponds to 327.45 grammes, a little more than 11-1/2 English ounces.

[27] See Antichi pesi inscritti del museo capitolino, in the Bullettino della commissione archeologica comunale di Roma, 1884, p. 61, pls. vi., vii.

[28] See de Rossi: Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1864, p. 57.

[29] See Acta purgationis Cæciliani, post Optati opp. ed Dupin, p. 168.

[31] See Gaetano Marini: Iscrizioni doliari, p. 114, n. 279.—Giuseppe Gatti: La lex horreorum, in the Bullettino della commissione archeologica comunale di Roma, 1885, p. 110.

[32] The place was called in tribus fatis, from the three statues of sibyls described by Pliny, H.N. xxxiv. See Goth. i. 25.

[33] “Sank into the great flower, that is adorned With leaves so many, and thence reascended To where its love abideth evermore.”

From Pagan and Christian Rome, originally published in 1892, republished under public domain license by Project Gutenberg, July 26, 2007

Commodus, Roman Emperor and Gladiator

“Who was the worst Roman emperor?” is a commonly asked question, and one which is difficult to answer for many reasons. Not least of those is “worst for whom?” Rome was a slave economy after all, so an emperor good for the city of Rome was likely bad for the people who were conquered and enslaved. Taken as “who was worst for Rome”, though, the answer becomes simpler. Though there were emperors whose reigns had worse consequences for the city, in general those emperors inherited bad situations and made them worse. But no other emperor quite managed to take a Rome at the height of its powers and solely through their mismanagement destroy it quite like Commodus.

Nerva, first of the “good emperors”.

The Rome that Commodus inherited came at the end of the reign of the “Five Good Emperors”. The first of these was Marcus Cocceius Nerva, a longtime civil servant and imperial advisor. Nerva was voted as emperor by the Roman Senate after the assassination of Domitian, and though his reign was short he did much to stabilise the Roman economy. He was also smart enough to know when his reign started to slip, so he appointed Trajan (a popular general) as his successor. Trajan was succeeded by Hadrian, who Trajan’s widow claimed had been adopted by Trajan on his deathbed. This might even have been true.

Hadrian is an example of an emperor who was good for Rome and bad for other people. For example, Jewish records of him generally follow his name with “may his bones be crushed”. Nowadays he is most remembered for building a wall marking the northern boundary of Roman Britain but he was also responsible for many other public works. He was succeeded by Antoninus Pius, who adopted two sons: Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. When he died they succeeded him as co-Emperors, until eight years into their reign when Lucius died of an uncertain disease. Marcus Aurelius ruled on alone, and became the first of these emperors to have a biological son to succeed him. Which is, of course, where things went wrong.

Lucius Aurelius Commodus and his twin brother Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus were born on the 31st of August in the Roman year 914, nowadays better known as 161 AD. [1] This was only a few months after the the death of Antoninus Pius. His mother Faustina was actually the youngest daughter of Antoninus, and though later histories slandered her as an adultress in truth she and Marcus Aurelius seem to have made a solid match. The had thirteen children, with Titus and Commodus as the tenth and eleventh respectively. But in a sad reflection of child mortality at the time, though Commodus was their seventh son he was the only one who would survive to adulthood.

Commodus as a child.

Titus died when he and Commodus were four years old, and the following year Commodus was officially given the rank of “Caesar”. Originally Augustus had taken Julius Caesar’s cognomen to emphasize his connection to the great man, but it had become the traditional marker that someone was to be considered a member of the Imperial family and so was in line for the succession. Commodus’ younger brother Marcus Annius Verus was also made a Caesar, though he died in 169 AD at the age of seven after an attempt was made to remove a tumour from behind his ear. This left Commodus as sole heir to Marcus Aurelius, who became sole Emperor the same year.

Notoriously, Marcus mourned his dead son for a mere five days. His justification was that the holy games of Jupiter were going on, and it was his sacred duty as Emperor to officiate. In truth, it was very much in character for him to shun a public display of grief. Marcus Aurelius had a reputation as a “philosopher king”, and his philosophy was Stoicism. In fact a lot of our knowledge of this school of philosophy comes from his writings. Self-control and freedom from passion were key to the Stoic way of life. This was the strict worldview that Commodus was raised in.

By 172 AD the eleven year old Commodus was accompanying his father on campaign, along with his mother Faustina. At the time Marcus was leading forces in the north against the German tribes, who always caused trouble on the border. It was in recognition of them being driven back that Commodus was given the title of “Germanicus”, with which Marcus somewhat farcically credited the child with being the reason for the Roman victory. This was part of him attempting to legitimise Commodus as an heir, since for a long time genuine dynastic succession like this had not been a part of the Roman system.

Commodus as a youth in the toga of manhood.

175 AD saw Commodus undergo the Roman rites of manhood and gain the privilege of wearing the garb of a Roman citizen, a toga. He underwent these ceremonies while his father was mobilising the army to put down a revolt in Egypt. Marcus had fallen ill and rumours had spread of his death, leading the governor of Egypt, Avidius Cassius, to rebel. Egypt was a vitally important province as it produced the grain that fed the city of Rome. Marcus thus wasted no time in mobilising to put down this revolt, though as it turned out he needn’t have bothered. Once it became clear he was alive and the revolt had no chance of success Cassius was murdered by his own men, who sent his head to Rome as proof that the revolt was over.

Faustina died in the winter of 175, in a town called Halala in modern day Turkey. Unlike when his son had died, Marcus did grieve deeply for his wife’s death. He renamed Halala as Faustinopolis, and had her deified by the Senate. In the aftermath of her death Marcus took Commodus on a tour of the eastern provinces, which culminated into a visit to Greece where they took part in the secret rites of Demeter known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. (This had become a status symbol for the Greek-obsessed Romans.) Then they returned to Rome.

Over the next few years Marcus did his best to consolidate Commodus as his heir. This included making him a consul in 177, aged only fifteen. At the time he was the youngest person to hold what had been (in the days of the Roman Republic) the supreme position of power of Rome. Now it was simply a tool the Emperor used to show his favour. Following this consulship Marcus made his son co-Emperor. Commodus was also married off to Bruttia Crispina, a fourteen year old heiress of a rich aristocratic Roman family. The two Emperors then set off to the northern front, as the victory celebrations against the Germans had been slightly premature.

A statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback

By now Marcus Aurelius was fifty-eight years old, an advanced age back in those times. As the army traveled through Vindobona (modern Vienna) he fell ill, and he feared (correctly) that this could be the end for him. Herodian of Antioch [2] later wrote that Marcus was nervous, thinking about previous rulers who had gained the throne at a young age and been corrupted by it. He was also afraid that the enemies of Rome would see this as an opportunity to act. So he summoned all of his friends and kinsmen, told them to remember all that he had done for them and asked them in memory of him to act as fathers to his son after he was gone. The next day he died, and Commodus became emperor. It was only the third time in Roman history that a ruler had been succeeded by his biological son, at least since the days of the last king Tarquin the Proud (link!) six hundred years before, and the first time one had been “born to the purple” as the Emperor’s son.

Commodus began his reign by ending the campaign against the Germanic barbarians. This was against strenuous protests from his father’s advisors and generals, who saw it as a betrayal of the twelve years they had spent trying to conquer Germany. On the other hand, the soldiers saw it as a chance to escape from the hellish forests along the Danube, where hordes of barbarians would suddenly ambush them and melt away. They were delighted when (after leading one last sortie against a weak enemy force so he could declare “victory”) Commodus packed them all up and headed back to the comforts of Rome.

Once they had returned to the Eternal City, Commodus began throwing himself into all the pleasures of the flesh that had been denied by his Stoic father. He was uninterested in the details of running the Empire, so that fell to the advisors his father had left him, the Senate, and the Imperial Chamberlain. This last was a Greek man named Saoterus, a former slave who had been a friend of Commodus for years. Some sources insinuate that the two men were lovers, but whether that was true or not he was someone who Commodus trusted enough to run his empire for him.


Marcus Aurelius had done a good job of clearing out any potential rivals to his son, with the result that Commodus got away with his laissez-faire approach for the first two years of his reign. In fact the first trouble came not from his rival, but from his wife Crispina’s. Lucilla, the elder sister of Commodus, had been the wife of Marcus’ co-emperor Lucius Verus. This had given her the rank of Augusta (or “Empress”), and after Faustina’s death she had been the First Lady of the Empire. Until Commodus became emperor, and his wife became the Augusta.

Lucilla had remarried to a senior senator named Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and she began conspiring with a group including the prefect of the Praetorian Guard to have her husband made emperor once Commodus had been removed. (The Praetorian Guard were officially the Emperor’s bodyguard, but in truth they were usually the ones involved in plotting against him.) Part of the plot involved framing Saoterus for the assassination, while they recruited one of Lucilla’s lovers, Quintianus, to do the actual killing. Pompeianus, Lucilla’s husband, was left out of the plot partially to give him clean hands and partially in case he had cold feet.

Of course, the entire plot hinged on Quintianus killing Commodus. He ambushed him from a doorway as the Emperor was returning from the theatre, but he bungled the job. Some sources say that he grandstanded before attacking Commodus and declared “This is a gift from the Senate!” If true, that was a statement that would have serious consequences. However it happened, he was overpowered by the Emperor’s bodyguards, and captured alive. It was a catastrophic failure.

The unfortunate Crispina.

Quintianus was tortured and gave up all the conspirators he knew of, including Lucilla. Most of them were executed. Lucilla, as a noblewoman, was simply forced into exile. (As was traditional, Commodus had her secretly murdered a few years later. Ironically poor Crispina, his wife, would suffer the same fate six years later. Her crime, laid by her constantly unfaithful husband, was “adultery”.) Quintianus didn’t know about the Praetorian involvement, but the prefect (Tarrutenius Paternus) had already murdered Saoterus “resisting arrest” for his part in the conspiracy. Commodus was enraged and had Paternus arrested and executed. He was replaced by his second in command, Tigidius Perennis, who managed to cover up his own involvement in the conspiracy. In fact Perennis ingratiated himself with Commodus enough to take over Saoterus’ position as right hand man to the emperor.

Though Perennis was now Commodus’ trusted steward, he had enough other duties that he did not act as chamberlain for the imperial household. That job went to Marcus Aurelius Cleander, a freedman like Saetorus had been. (”Freedmen”, former slaves, were forbidden from pubic office and so naturally gravitated in to civil service.) Cleander soon gained Commodus’ trust by agreeing to “marry” one of the emperor’s mistresses, though of course this was solely for the sake of appearances. Commodus had no idea that Cleander was one of those who had carried out the murder of his friend Saoterus.

Commodus in a hunting costume, a 19th century drawing of an ancient statue.

The attempt on his life broke Commodus out of his complacency and left him in a dangerously paranoid state. Dangerous, that is, for those around him. Perennis took advantage of this paranoia to direct Commodus in a purge of the senate, a purge that just happened to sweep up both political enemies of Perennis and rich men whose property he was able to confiscate. Commodus was mollified by this, enough that he didn’t notice how Perennis was buttering up the army with gifts and maneuvering his sons into command positions.

The ancient histories are divided on whether Perennis was plotting to overthrow Commodus and Cleander took advantage of it, or if Cleander framed the prefect. The first rumbling came several years after the Lucilla incident, when someone invaded the stage and denounced Perennis. The prefect managed to convince the emperor that this was a lie, and the man was executed. However the following year when some soldiers were reassigned from Britain to Italy they asked for permission to see the emperor. They had been under the command of Perennis’ son in Britain, and they had coins allegedly minted there showing Perennis as emperor. Based on that evidence Commodus ordered Perennis and his entire family executed. This left Cleander effectively in control of the empire.

That was bad news for the empire. Perennis might have been corrupt and scheming, but he had a career of command and was a competent administrator. Cleander was not. He ran the empire as a bandit king, seeking only to extract the maximum amount of profit he could out of it. Public offices had always informally been sold off, but Cleander raised it to an art form. Senatorial positions, governorships, army commands, all could be had for a price. Even the consulship, once the highest rank in Roman society, could be bought. In 190 AD, ten years into the reign of Commodus, there were 25 consuls all of whom had paid for the privilege. In the meantime the infrastructure of the empire was beginning to crumble, and cracks were starting to appear.

A statue of Commodus in gladiator armour.

What was Commodus doing while his empire was falling apart? Playing at being a gladiator, of course. All of Rome was fascinated by the gladiatorial games, where men risked their lives for the screaming crowds. The fact that Commodus loved the games (and generously financed them) was part of why he was so popular among the people of Rome. But thought they loved the games, the Romans in general had little but contempt for the actual gladiators themselves. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been unable to stand the slaughter otherwise. Regardless, it became a national scandal when Commodus decided he didn’t just want to watch the games. He wanted to take part.

Now Commodus did train hard for his role as a gladiator. He had loved sports since he was a child, and he pushed himself into excellent physical shape. However there’s no getting around that he never did really put his life at risk. His opponents were usually weakened and given weapons made of soft lead, no match for the emperor’s steel. They also knew that if they wounded him they would almost certainly be killed, while if they put up a good show but were defeated then the “gracious” emperor would probably spare them. It’s not surprising then that Commodus soon began to think of himself as the greatest gladiator of all time. In the meantime the aristocrats of Rome began spreading rumours that Commodus was not the son of Marcus Aurelius, but that his mother Faustina had conceived him during an affair with a gladiator.

“Pollice Verso” (”Turned Thumb”) by Jean-Leon Gerome. The victorious gladiator is armed as a secutor, just as Commodus would have been.

Not all of his opponents in the arena were gladiators, or even human. Commodus began to think of himself as one of the great mythic heroes, and so he decided that he should fight “monsters”. Sometimes these were exotic animals like giraffes, but all too often they were people who had some “amusing” disability. Dwarfs and people missing limbs (from accident or birth) were a particular favourite. They would be captured on the street or bought as slaves, and then sent into the arena so that Commodus could kill them for sport. This was one of the things that hurt the emperor’s popularity, not because the public found it barbaric but because they found it boring. Sometimes Commodus would also show off his archery skills, and on one notable occasion he decapitated an emu with a single arrow.

Despite all of this Commodus remained very popular with the people of Rome, which is why when there was a food shortage in 190 AD they didn’t blame him for it. They blamed Cleander. This was exactly what the prefect in charge of the grain supply, Papirius Dionysius, had hoped for. He had been prefect of Egypt until the previous year, when Cleander had displaced him in favour of someone who had paid more. When the grain supplies were interrupted, Dionysius should have used the reserves to prevent the people of Rome from starving. He didn’t, they did, and they rioted.

Commodus probably wouldn’t have paid that much attention to the civil unrest in Rome, except that the rioters found the one place that he wouldn’t ignore them – the arena of the Circus Maximus. A protest during a horse race led Commodus to dispatch the Praetorian Guard to pacify the streets. The prefect of Rome, a well-respected general named Pertinax, decided that this was an illegal use of the guard and sent the Vigiles Urbani (the City Watch, a combination of firemen and police) to prevent them from interfering with the rioters. Eventually Commodus decided that it would make his life easier to give them what they wanted. He handed over Cleander, who was promptly murdered. After things had calmed down, Commodus discovered that it was Papirius Dionysius who had fanned the flames and had him executed.

One of the many statues of Commodus-as-Hercules.

Tiring of the failures of his henchmen, Commodus now decided to take a more active role in governing the city. He was sure that he could do a good job of it, because he had now decided that he was a god. Specifically he had decided that he was the god Hercules reborn. In order to showcase this he had statues made showing him with the hero’s iconic lion skin and club – the same club he used to beat cripples and other unfortunates to death in the arena. The statues included the great Colossus of Nero next to the Colosseum, a 30-foot statue of Nero that later emperors had already transformed into the sun god Sol Invictus. Commodus beheaded the unconquered sun and replaced it with his own visage.

Commodus didn’t stop at declaring himself a god, though. By now between his imperial names and self-bestowed titles his full name was Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Herculeus Romanus Exsuperatorius Amazonius Invictus Felix Pius. That made twelve names, the same as the number of months in the year. This wasn’t a coincidence, as Commodus officially renamed the months after each of his names. He went even further, though. After Rome was ravaged by a fire in 191 AD and needed extensive rebuilding, he decided it was no longer Rome. Rome was now “Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana”, and its people were now “Commodianus”.

Unsurprisingly this was the point at which Commodus’ popular support began to fade. This was only partially due to the megalomania. It was also due to the economic mismanagement which meant that paying for the much-needed rebuilding work was difficult. Telling Commodus about any of these problems was an easy way to wind up dead, of course. It’s not surprising that plots against soon began, very discreetly, to spring up.

“The Emperor Commodus Leaving the Arena at the Head of the Gladiators”, by Edwin Howland Blashfield. Source

Legend has it that the trigger for the final plot against him was his plan for the New Year’s Day celebration at the end of 192 AD. This was one of the most sacred occasions in the Roman calendar, and his plan was to commemorate it with a procession of gladiators from the Colosseum to the Imperial Palace. He himself would take part in this procession as a gladiator. Commodus told his mistress Marcia about this plan and she was unable to stop herself from crying out against it. Later that day she walked into a scribe carrying messages, and while she was helping him gather them up she noticed her own name on a list of those scheduled for execution. She realised that if she didn’t do something, then she was doomed.

That’s one story of events, at least. Another more likely version is that the Praetorian prefect Quintus Aemilius Laetus and the chamberlain Eclectus formed a conspiracy to eliminate Commodus before they went the way of Perennis and Cleander. They recruited Marcia because of her access to the emperor and made a quiet agreement with the prefect Pertinax, a man well-respected by the Senate, people and army. When the throne was vacant Pertinax would step in with clean hands, and in return he would make sure that no reprisal for the death of Commodus fell on them.

The conspirators struck on New Year’s Eve, the last day of 192 AD. Originally Marcia tried to poison the emperor, but poisoning back then was often a hit and miss affair. Most versions of the story have Commodus feeling ill and forcing himself to vomit, though it’s uncertain whether he knew he was poisoned. Either way he retreated to his bath to try to sober up. Subtlety having failed, the conspirators went to their backup plan. They sent in one of the few people allowed to access the emperor’s bathroom, his personal trainer Narcissus. Narcissus then strangled the emperor to death. The earthly reincarnation of the god Hercules was no more, murdered at 31 years old.

The Death of Commodus, from a history book published in 1900.

Nowadays Commodus is best remembered as the villain of Ridley Scott’s movie “Gladiator”, a sneering and arrogant portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix. The movie is far from historically accurate. Its protagonist, Maximus, is entirely fictitious. Its version of Lucilla might as well be. It has Marcus Aurelius murdered by Commodus for planning to return Rome to being a Republic something that would have been wildly out of character for the stoic authoritarian. It drastically alters the death of Commodus, of course. But the single biggest lie in the movie is when it implies that the death of Commodus led to a happy ending for Rome. The truth was far from that.

At first, events after the emperor’s death went exactly according to plan. The senate acclaimed Pertinax as emperor, damned the memory of Commodus, and undid all his ambitious renaming. Unfortunately Pertinax miscalculated when he tried to reign in the Praetorian Guard. Having had their prefects effectively running the country several times in the last ten years they had grown use to lax discipline and hefty bribes. When Pertinax failed to come up with enough to satisfy him they murdered him on the steps of the imperial palace.

With Pertinax dead, there was no longer a “natural successor” to Commodus. The Praetorians decided to auction off the throne, and it was bought by a senator named Didius Julianus. Meanwhile three governors in different parts of the empire went into rebellion. This was why 193 AD became known as the Year of the Five Emperors, and it would be years of civil war before one of those governors prevailed and became undisputed emperor.

Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus. Source

History has not been kind to Commodus. To be fair, he probably doesn’t deserve kindness. But he also probably doesn’t deserve to be given sole credit for destroying the Roman Empire, as some historians claim. The long-term worst decision he made was probably to abandon the northern campaign, as that left barbarians who would ravage and eventually destroy the Western Empire. But conquering them would merely have exacerbated the other problem that destroyed Rome: that the Empire simply grew too large to live. Controlling it required powerful independent governors, exactly like those who rebelled after the death of Pertinax. But the real reason Commodus should not get that blame for “destroying” Rome is that it would not be until 400 years after his death that the Western Empire finally fell. There are a lot of modern countries that have not been around for half that amount of time. Empires are resilient things, and it takes more than one bad ruler to kill them off even one so undeniably bad as Commodus.

Images via wikimedia except where stated.

[1] The “AD” system of years didn’t become common until about six hundred years later, and wasn’t universally adopted in Europe until the 15th century.

[2] Herodian was writing about fifty years later, and his accuracy has been hotly debated over the years. Though he did live through the times he wrote about, like most contemporary writers he did have his own politics that he brought to the table. He’s still one of our best sources for a crucial period in Roman history, of course.


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