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Commodus, Where Art Thou?

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Patrick Harbert                                                                 Word Count 1204

Commodus, Where Art Thou?

        History shows that there was a man and his son, accompanied by thousands of Rome’s finest legions, campaigning far north of the Danube. These two men, as history has written, were simply the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his soon to be heir, Commodus. The legions that accompanied these men were the armies that made up the force who were campaigning against Germania led by their emperor Marcus. What was the ultimate goal of campaigning in such an uncivilized segment of the world? These questions are answered fair enough through simple research into the past through several historical sources. What question is a harder one to ask? Marcus died during this time which left his young son, Commodus to pick up the reigns of his father’s campaign. Commodus decides to leave shortly after his father’s death and the world was left asking the question, why?

        Since we have yet to discover the ability to time travel to return to this point and time to simply ask. We are then left to pick up the puzzle pieces and collectively place those pieces together to get the most complete picture possible. Some of these pieces are from ancient sources. Ancient sources, for instance, are excellent examples of evidence to help us achieve this goal but are the ancient sources always reliable? Herodian accounts of certain character flaws in Commodus that his own father was said to have believed.[1] He states that Marcus felt that his son would turn into an evil, savage ruler because of his youth and lack of knowledge.[2] In this regard, was Commodus an unpredictable, bloodthirsty young man? Couldn’t the young Roman, be advised and taught how to be the man his father perhaps wished he would?

        Dio Cassius paints a different picture on the young age of the newly appointed emperor.[3] Dio found Commodus to be a simple man, who was naturally not wicked but was a slave to his peers.[4] Young Commodus was surrounded by his peers as well as his father’s pervious peers and advisors who happened to be on this campaign. Commodus is said to have not taken the advice of his new advisors as he was being seduced into his darker desires.[5] He was consistently involved in matters of the gladiators so this could be a reason why people viewed him poorly.[6] What teenager with fame and fortune would not pander to these luxuries he has been away from for some time?  

It is fair to see how Hollywood based their versions of Commodus in some of their films as fierce, greedy, a sexual deviant and faithful to none.[7] Yet, here was a man who just lost his father to a plague that happened to be deteriorating their legions ranks as well. How was this young man supposed to react? In the Historia Augusta, Marcus was believed to have known that his son would soon leave their campaign and asked Commodus to take his time before returning to Rome.[8] Leaving the front also would be viewed poorly by the Senate and Marcus perhaps knew this would turn him further into a villain.[9] After all, popularity was key to having a successful reign as emperor.

“Although negotiations could be completed over a period of time by a live man, nothing could to be completed by a dead man.”[10] This is an excerpt from Aurelius Victor and it gives the impression that Commodus was afraid for his good health.[11] It was Marcus who was dying of the plague that was in the area and that had attached itself to some of his legions. Birley, a scholar states that Dio had a view that Marcus did not die from the plague that history suggests.[12] [13]Who would want to be surrounded by death with the idea of luxuries awaiting them in Rome? So what did Commodus do in regards to the new tasks he faced?

Commodus fought the barbarians for some months before he settled for peace and returning to Rome.[14] Since he left after some time after Marcus’ death, was Commodus really fearful for his health and if that was the case why would he not leave sooner?[15] Some may have viewed his departure from Germania as retreat.[16] Commodus could rightfully argue that the Roman honor was satisfied from the already numerous victories that his father and him had already completed.[17] Commodus did not leave the area like a wounded animal with its tail tucked between its legs in defeat. He established a peace treaty that was substantially beneficial to Rome.

With these victories in place, it is understandable that Commodus had titles added and a medallion minted to his co-triumph in the area. A papyrus parchment is able to show us that he was given the title Germanicus.[18] As this title was given to the person who had conquered that region, Commodus appears to have won the popularity and spoils of this campaign. This papyrus is an especially rare find and is safe to suggest that it is a piece of a private Senate proceedings.[19] A medallion was found that the legend said Propagatoribus Imperii (“for those who extend the empire” or “for those who enriched the empire”[20]) which implies that father and son had brought Germania into the fold.[21] The medallion itself pictured both men and it would appear that Rome was satisfied with the ending Commodus provided.[22] These two items help add more depth to the conversation as to the outcome of the man’s final decision.

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