Biography

Commodus was born in 161 AD.  The son of emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus gained the title Caesar in 166.  After the usurpation of Avidius Cassidus in 175, Commodus was summoned to his father’s side and became consul in 177.  By 177 Commodus gained the title of Augustus, making him co-ruler with his father.  In 178 Commodus married his wife Bruttia Crispina.  With Marcus Aurelius’ death in 180 Commodus became the sole ruler of the Roman empire.  One of his first actions as emperor in 180 was abandoning recently annexed territories and claiming he had brought peace to Rome.  By 182, Commodus’ eldest sister Augusta Lucilla led a coup against Commodus, which caused the emperor to exile and and execute a number of internal enemies.  For the most part, Commodus avoided major wars during his reign.  The exception was in Britain where victories won by Ulpius Marcellus led Commodus to adopt the title Britannicus in 184.  Other military conflicts included minor disturbances along the Danube frontier.

Throughout his reign Commodus grew disinterested with government affairs, which meant the position of praetorian prefect would hold effective political control from 180 to 192.  Perennis was the first major character to fill this power vacuum.  He held effective control of the government from 182 to 185 when he was lynched by the army for giving undeserved credit to his son for military successes in Sarmatia.  Cleander then became praetorian prefect from 185 to 190.  By the time Cleander assumed power, Commodus had begun to devote much of his time to the arena.  In 190, Iulianus became praetorian prefect for a year before his murder in 191 and Commodus devoted almost all of his time to the arena.

The final years of Commodus’ rule were marked by controversial actions.  Commodus rejected his family names, assumed the title “Hercules Romanus,” and even attempted to rename Rome “colonia Comodiana.”  In 192 Commodus held his last public displays in the arena that lasted 14 days.  Commodus would kill exotic animals in the morning, such as lions and ostriches, and fight in fixed gladiator battles in the afternoon.  Laetus assumed the role of praetorian prefect in 191.  During this year Laetus planned to assassinate Commodus.  After a list of Commodus’ planned murders was discovered, Laetus and Ecletus persuaded his mistress Marcia to poison the emperor.  The poison was successfully delivered and then an athlete named Narcissus finally strangled him to death.  Commodus’ reign is often debated among historians as the end of the “golden age” of emperors.