No Fortunate Son - Commodus as Heir to the Throne
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
'Our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.'
- Cassius Dio (72.35)
Two denarii recently added to my collection offer an insight into one of the most significant transitions of power in the Roman world. When Marcus Aurelius died in 180 AD and his nineteen-year-old son Commodus assumed sole power, the near century-long run of ‘Good Emperors’ came to a crashing halt. Many observers, including the historian Cassius Dio who lived through the period, see that with the death of Marcus, the empire suffers a sea change. The accession of Commodus is famously deemed by Gibbon the precise moment that ended the 'period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous'. With his rule and certainly with his assassination in 192, decline and malaise seems to descend on the Roman world. The immense material record left to us from the high point of the 2nd century appears to dwindle, and a visible drop in artistic quality can be observed in almost every area of manufacture.
Roman coins, as ever, are an excellent example of this. From the time of Commodus (but admittedly noticeable earlier), the flans of coins become cracked and ragged; coin designs become more simplistic, portraiture more abstracted. The lifetime of dies seems to have been stretched beyond what would have previously been deemed acceptable, with many coins struck from badly worn-out dies. Not to mention the largest debasement of the denarius yet, its silver content dropping by a staggering 30% under the reign of Commodus and leading the empire further down the road to runaway inflation.
The denarius above comes from better times, showing Marcus Aurelius in his early forties about three years into his reign. His lavishly curled hair and beard continue the hirsute trends of his time, though his wilder beard evokes those of Greek philosophers more than his predecessors Hadrian or Antoninus Pius. Interestingly, Marcus proclaims his newly accepted title 'Armeniacus' on the coin. That Marcus had never fought in that theatre of war was no issue, the title honoured victories of his co-emperor Lucius Verus. Like everything in their admirable period of cooperation, it was shared by them both. The reverse emphasises Marcus as a provider for his people, with a goddess of Abundance pouring out the contents of a cornucopia into a jar.
The question of why this great philosopher-king would leave his empire in the clearly unsuitable hands of his teenage son, who even Marcus was ‘vastly disappointed in’ (Dio.72.36), has puzzled historians for centuries. The context of his troubled times is critical. A wise and just ruler he may have been, but his reign was beset by so many calamities it is no surprise he needed Stoic philosophy to help him see it through. The Antonine Plague, brought back to the West by Roman troops in 165, ravaged the empire for decades – even carrying off his co-emperor Lucius Verus. By 180 it is estimated to have killed around five million people across the Roman world. Catastrophic flooding of the Tiber also struck the capital, drowning many animals and leading to a famine. Marcus led relief efforts and ensured the grain supply to the city, likely the reason for his commemoration of Abundance on the coin above. At this worst possible time, a host of Germanic tribes crossed the Danube and laid waste to Rome’s northern frontiers. Marcus was forced to spend all the remaining years of his reign campaigning against the barbarians, dying in the military camp of Vindobona (modern Vienna) of unknown causes. Commodus couldn’t be bothered to keep up the fight and quickly negotiated a treaty with the tribes before returning to Rome to enjoy the varied delights of the absolute power gifted him.
Interestingly, when Commodus was born in 161, he was the first emperor to be 'born in the purple' (born during his father's reign), despite the imperial system being almost two centuries old. In handing him the throne, Marcus broke a successful run of 'Adopted Emperors' – childless rulers who selected the most suitable successor and adopted them as their son. Not only was Marcus not childless, it is thought he and his wife Faustina may have had around fourteen children in total, including a number of twins. Yet, again and again, we hear of them dying in their infancy – even the imperial palace wasn’t immune to the cruel life expectancies of the ancient world. Commodus himself was the younger of a pair of twins, but his brother Titus died in 165. The next year, he and another brother, Marcus Annius Verus, were officially earmarked as heirs with the title ‘Caesar’. When Annius died too, Commodus stood alone as the only surviving male heir. Marcus Aurelius then solidified this decision further in 177, making Commodus his co-emperor while he was still in his mid-teens. He put some of the great teachers of his age to work on his son in the hope of kicking him into shape – the famed doctor Galen was also his personal physician – but it was all to no avail. The apple had fallen irretrievably far from the tree.
This denarius dates from the following year, showing Commodus with his new title of 'Augustus'. Aged around seventeen, he is still beardless and fresh faced. All in all, he looks like a cheerful, young doppelgänger of his father, which is perhaps the idea. Commodus is so associated with the demented hubris of his subsequent reign: dressing as Hercules, fighting in the arena, even trying to rename Rome and all the months of the year after himself, it is easy to forget that he was once a relatively innocent youth. Not to mention, his was likely perceived as a charmed life – the only son of the emperor to reach adulthood.
Yet all the tutors in the world could not overcome the fact that young Commodus was, as Dio bluntly states, a bit of a 'dullard'. He was 'not naturally wicked', but 'his great simplicity and cowardice made him the slave of his companions' (73.1). Why then did Marcus choose Commodus as heir, when even he observed these flaws. Could he not have adopted a respected thinking-man’s-soldier to continue his tireless defence of the empire? The mere existence of Commodus would have made such a snub a recipe for civil war, as entertainingly imagined in the movie ‘Gladiator’. Previous Good Emperors adopted carefully chosen successors in the absence of their own sons. But the lure of a blood dynasty is an intoxicating one; if Trajan or Hadrian had sons of their own, they too would have surely placed them in the line of succession, however inferior they seemed in comparison to their fathers. Marcus was also a very busy man and a mostly absent father. How carefully did he truly observe the emerging character of his teenage boy? While he may have been concerned about his son’s abilities, he had assigned the best minds to his tuition and likely assumed this would be enough.
Any way we look at it, as leader of the Roman world he should have made it his business to closely monitor the personality of his intended heir – why devote your reign to securing the future of your empire, only to then throw it away with such a careless decision at the very end? Or as Gibbon puts it, 'sacrificing the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy'. The Stoic writings of Marcus Aurelius, journaled in military camps during his seemingly endless Germanic Wars, have brought comfort to millions over the centuries. But it is hard not to see in Marcus’ final act, a selfishness and abandonment of reason that somewhat stains his legacy as a great mind of his age.