Would Commodus have killed Marcus Aurelius?

Jan 2019
130
USA
I'd be lying to say this thread wasn't somewhat inspired by the movie Gladiator. After reading an article about the historical accuracy of the movie a long time ago, they mentioned that there were some writings indicating that Commodus killed his father. They did coin it off as politically inspired. However, I can't seem to find any information around that period stating such. Since a lot of you are very in tuned with details surrounding historical events, I was curious if anyone here had information indicating such?

From what I can see there would have been little motivation for Commodus to do this other than expediting his climb to Emperor. From what I can find it was clear that Commodus was to be his father's successor.

Are there actually any Roman pieces that indicate the possibility? I can't find anything.
 
Feb 2019
905
Pennsylvania, US
There are some incredibly knowledgeable people on here who will do a much better job answering... I know just some circumstantial stuff, I suppose.

Commodus succeeded his father - which never happened... usually a successor was chosen who would be best (which is how Commodus' father came to power). Commodus shared power with his father for several years before his father died. He often wasn't in Rome during his reign. After Marcus Aurelius died, Commodus relied on his administrators too much and really had no idea about the sorts of conspiracies and intrigues his underlings were getting into (i.e. holding back flour from Egypt and causing starvation and anger from the populace towards Commodus, murder plots, etc). After several schemes came to light - including Lucilla's plot to kill him - he went into this sort of extreme ruler mode, trying to diminish the power of all around him (perhaps to keep himself safe) and glorify himself into a god-like being. Then you have the gladiatorial fights... which must have been a death sentence for many gladiators who didn't want to kill the emperor!

The vibe I get is:

Born into privilege (brat) with a truly remarkable father he didn't aspire or have the disposition to be like (Marcus Aurelius being an amazing thinker and planner and stoic, for heavens sake; and Commodus more of a jock who enjoyed a lavish, sensual lifestyle)... who he co-ruled with for several years, yet seem to make somewhat obvious blunders (currency inflation, bad judge of men's characters, etc) when he ruled himself. I imagined him being somewhat peevish and spoiled... and really preferred being fawned over to the actual work of ruling. It's only when he gets scared and betrayed that he kicks it into full tyrant mode.

I can't see someone like this killing his father...

change my mind 1.jpg
 
Oct 2018
1,874
Sydney
Yeah, personally I don't know of an ancient text that suggests Commodus killed his father, but if one does exist, I would still question it because a) it doesn't appear in the histories of Cassius Dio and Herodian, and b) it's not clear what the motivation would be. As you and Niobe point out, Marcus had made Commodus his Caesar (166) and then co-Augustus (177). He had thus set up Commodus as his junior co-ruler and successor. Of course, if Marcus had not wanted Commodus to succeed, that would be a different situation. It wouldn't have merely been a matter of gaining power, but one of life or death, since eldest biological sons who did not succeed to the purple tended to be killed. Note the examples of Postumus Agrippa, Tiberius Gemellus, Britannicus, Candidianus (son of Galerius), Severianus (son of Severus II), Maximus (son of Maximinus II), the various half-brothers and half-nephews of Constantine who could claim superior legitimacy (that is, if Constantine was born illegitimate, as some have argued). Maxentius and Constantine are notable exceptions, but they forcibly took power for themselves.
 
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paranoid marvin

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,359
uk
It certainly wouldn't be the first time that a successor would be accused of murdering or hastening the death of their predecessor, especially when that person dies suddenly or unexpectedly.

He might have been heir, but that was no guarantee that he would succeed - especially to an office as high and desirable as that of Emperor; and of course he may have had to wait another 10 or 20 years to do so. And by murdering his father at a time of his choosing, he would have been able to have wrong-footed his opponents and ensured a smoother transition of power to himself.

I'm not saying that he DID murder his predecessor, but he would have had reason to do so; and of course it would not have been the first time that an Emperor of Rome would come to the job in such a way. Also I'm not sure if he was accused or not of murdering his predecessor, but - considering the number of intrigues and attempted coups during his reign - I'd be very surprised if he wasn't.
 
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Oct 2018
1,874
Sydney
It certainly wouldn't be the first time that a successor would be accused of murdering or hastening the death of their predecessor, especially when that person dies suddenly or unexpectedly.

He might have been heir, but that was no guarantee that he would succeed - especially to an office as high and desirable as that of Emperor; and of course he may have had to wait another 10 or 20 years to do so. And by murdering his father at a time of his choosing, he would have been able to have wrong-footed his opponents and ensured a smoother transition of power to himself.

I'm not saying that he DID murder his predecessor, but he would have had reason to do so; and of course it would not have been the first time that an Emperor of Rome would come to the job in such a way. Also I'm not sure if he was accused or not of murdering his predecessor, but - considering the number of intrigues and attempted coups during his reign - I'd be very surprised if he wasn't.
Livia, Caligula and Agrippina were accused of murdering the emperor to control the succession, but those were situations where the ultimate successors had clear rivals to the throne (Postumus Agrippa, Gemellus and Britannicus). By the time of Marcus' death, there wasn't a clear rival for Commodus to contend with. He was already an Augustus, and thus had already attained the position of 'emperor', albeit not having seniority over his father. He couldn't cease to be Augustus except through being assassinated, overthrown or execution by his senior colleague due to perceived crimes against the state (thus the executions of the Caesars Crispus and Gallus, and Maximian's attempt to remove the purple cloak from Maxentius, which failed because the soldiers regarded such an action by a father against a son as impious). Unless there is reason to think that this was likely to happen to Commodus (Maybe there is? This is not my area of expertise), it doesn't seem likely to me that Commodus would assassinate Marcus.

The preceding accusations against Livia, Caligula and Agrippina also allow a possible scenario whereby some authors (albeit not Dio and Herodian in the case of Commodus) were tempted to attribute to canonical 'bad' emperors succession through familial assassination, as a mark of their impiety and lack of legitimacy. An author might be tempted to draw possible parallels between Commodus and the other villains (Tiberius, Caligula, Nero... I would add Caracalla, who of course had his brother Geta killed in his mother's arms; I think one author levels the accusation against Domitian as well? Caracalla is another example of an emperor with a clear rival, and Domitian, if he did do it, could have been seeking to preempt the birth of a son to Titus).

So I'm sceptical of such a scenario, but if someone can find the ancient text that makes this claim, it would really benefit further discussion.
 

paranoid marvin

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,359
uk
Livia, Caligula and Agrippina were accused of murdering the emperor to control the succession, but those were situations where the ultimate successors had clear rivals to the throne (Postumus Agrippa, Gemellus and Britannicus). By the time of Marcus' death, there wasn't a clear rival for Commodus to contend with. He was already an Augustus, and thus had already attained the position of 'emperor', albeit not having seniority over his father. He couldn't cease to be Augustus except through being assassinated, overthrown or execution by his senior colleague due to perceived crimes against the state (thus the executions of the Caesars Crispus and Gallus, and Maximian's attempt to remove the purple cloak from Maxentius, which failed because the soldiers regarded such an action by a father against a son as impious). Unless there is reason to think that this was likely to happen to Commodus (Maybe there is? This is not my area of expertise), it doesn't seem likely to me that Commodus would assassinate Marcus.

The preceding accusations against Livia, Caligula and Agrippina also allow a possible scenario whereby some authors (albeit not Dio and Herodian in the case of Commodus) were tempted to attribute to canonical 'bad' emperors succession through familial assassination, as a mark of their impiety and lack of legitimacy. An author might be tempted to draw possible parallels between Commodus and the other villains (Tiberius, Caligula, Nero... I would add Caracalla, who of course had his brother Geta killed in his mother's arms; I think one author levels the accusation against Domitian as well? Caracalla is another example of an emperor with a clear rival, and Domitian, if he did do it, could have been seeking to preempt the birth of a son to Titus).

So I'm sceptical of such a scenario, but if someone can find the ancient text that makes this claim, it would really benefit further discussion.

I agree, it is unlikely that Commodus would have had his father murdered. But considering how unpopular an Emperor Commodus became, (eventually being murdered after several unsuccessful coups) it would be surprising if he wasn't accused by his enemies and rivals. But (according to Wikipedia) his reign was not well chronicled, so maybe there is little or no evidence of this?
 
Oct 2018
1,874
Sydney
I agree, it is unlikely that Commodus would have had his father murdered. But considering how unpopular an Emperor Commodus became, (eventually being murdered after several unsuccessful coups) it would be surprising if he wasn't accused by his enemies and rivals. But (according to Wikipedia) his reign was not well chronicled, so maybe there is little or no evidence of this?
Yeah that's true. The second century as a whole leaves much to be desired when it comes to historical accounts. The most detailed accounts for Commodus' reign are those of Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta (I've just checked the HA, and it too fails to accuse Commodus of patricide). But I also wouldn't be particularly surprised if an ancient author did make the accusation, perhaps a late Roman chronicler. With the Julio-Claudian examples and Caracalla as possible parallels, it does seem to me like it would be a tempting suggestion.
 
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Oct 2018
1,874
Sydney
I've now skimmed the relevant sections of Dio, Herodian, the Historia Augusta, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, the Epitome de Caesaribus, Zosimus and Malalas. None accuse Commodus of patricide. These are the most notable surviving accounts of the period.
 
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MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
3,000
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
Senator Cassius Dio was an eyewitness to several events in the reign of Commodus, and knew Commodus. As I remember, Dio said:

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. 2 And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city.
Cassius Dio — Epitome of Book 73

Since Commodus was 19 when his father died, and reigned for about 12 years, Cassius Dio probably meant that Commodus did most of his slide into evil habits after Marcus Aurelius died, and only a small part of it before Marcus Aurelius died. And since the Romans considered patricide a very evil crime, I think that Cassius Dio would probably have said that Commodus was born wicked if he believed that Commodus murdered his father, and he would probably have given his reasons to suspect that Commodus murdered his father to support his statement that Commodus was born evil.

The Historia Augusta, written over a century later, claims that Commodus was naturally evil.

However, teachers in all these studies profited him not in the least — such is the power, either of natural character, or of the tutors maintained in a palace. For even from his earliest years he was base and dishonourable, and cruel and lewd, defiled of mouth, moreover, p267 and debauched.3 8 Even then he was an adept in certain arts which are not becoming in an emperor, for he could mould goblets and dance and sing and whistle, and he could play the buffoon and the gladiator to perfection. 9 In the twelfth year of his life, at Centumcellae,4 he gave a forecast of his cruelty. For when it happened that his bath was drawn too cool, he ordered the bathkeeper to be cast into the furnace; whereupon the slave who had been ordered to do this burned a sheep-skin in the furnace, in order to make him believe by the stench of the vapour that the punishment had been carried out.
Obviously the writer of the Historia Augusta would have been consistent with that story if he claimed that Commodus murdered his father. Obviously if someone thought he got away with killing a slave by the age of 12 they could become evil enough to murder their father by the age of 19. But the Historia Augusta doesn't claim that Comodus murdered his father.
 
Jan 2019
130
USA
Thanks for the replies all. It seems there isn't any relevant text stating such that we can find. More than likely, the article I read just fabricated the claim for the context for the movie.