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Commodus, Lucius Aurelius

(161—192)


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Sole emperor ad 180–192, one of twin sons born to Marcus Aurelius and Annia Galeria Faustina in 161, the first emperor ‘born in the purple' (i.e. after his father's accession)’. Given the title Caesar in 166, he was summoned to his father's side after the usurpation of Avidius Cassius in 175, received imperium and tribunicia potestas at the end of 176, and was consul in 177, now Augustus and co‐ruler. He left Rome with Marcus for the second Marcomannic War. On his father's death in March 180 he became sole emperor, taking the names Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, rapidly made peace, and abandoned the newly annexed territories, holding a triumph in October 180.

Major wars were avoided during the reign, the exception being in Britain, where, following a breach of the northern frontier, victories were won for which Commodus assumed the title ‘Britannicus’ in 184. Commodus at first retained his father's ministers, e.g. the praetorian prefect Taruttienus Paternus, but after an assassination attempt in 182, in which the emperor's sister Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla was implicated, Paternus was dismissed and soon killed along with many others. The praetorian prefect Tigidius Perennis effectively ran the government from 182 to 185, when he was lynched by mutinous troops. Aurelius Cleander, the freedman chamberlain, was the next favourite to hold power, even becoming praetorian prefect. After his fall in 190, following riots in Rome, power was shared by the emperor's favourite concubine Marcia, the chamberlain Eclectus, and (from 191) the practorian prefect Aemilius Laetus. Commodus, by now obsessively devoted to performing as a gladiator, appeared to be deranged. Proclaiming a new golden age, he shook off his allegiance to his father's memory, calling himself Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus, as well as eight other names: each month was given one of these names; Rome itself became the Colōnia Commodiāna. Numerous senators had been executed; others feared the same fate, and Laetus, probably with the connivance of Helvius Pertinax, had Commodus strangled in the last night of 192. Though of humble origin, Pertinax was a most distinguished soldier, and that same night an enraptured senate declared him emperor. The memory of Commodus was at once condemned (see damnatio memoriae), but was restored by Septimius Severus in 195.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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