January 20, 2015, by Esther Eidinow

A Reign of Terror

As part of the Nottingham ‘Anniversaries through Coins’ project, Larissa Ransom describes how, on this day, 20th January 175AD, Commodus was enrolled into all sacred colleges as priest

Commodus (Caesar Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus) was born on 31st August 161AD to Marcus Aurelius and his wife, Faustina the Younger. He was the sole surviving son of Marcus Aurelius; his elder twin brother died in 165AD, and his younger brother in 169AD. Commodus was later to become emperor of Rome and was the first to have been born during the reign of his father. He was also the last of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

On the 20th of January 175, at the tender age of nearly 13 and a half, he was enrolled into all sacred colleges as a priest (adsumptus est in omnia collegia sacerdotalia sacerdos XIII kal. Invictas Pisone Iuliano consulibus. SHA 12.1.). On the 1st January 177AD Commodus became the youngest consul of Rome at just 15, and during that year was given the title Augustus by his father, effectively making them joint emperors of Rome. Marcus Aurelius died on 17th March 180AD, leaving Commodus as sole emperor at the age of 18.

In 182AD Lucilla, his eldest sister and window of a former emperor (Lucius Verus), conspired to assassinate Commodus. The conspirators failed, however, and would-be-assassins were executed, and Lucilla exiled to Capri where she was later killed.

After this plot, Commodus began to see enemies everywhere and retreated from Rome to his country estates. Thus began a ten-year reign of terror. He became a megalomaniac: he compared himself to Hercules, calling himself the son of Jupiter. Sources state that he often adorned himself with a lion skin and a club to imitate the hero; coin issues and statues depict him in this guise. He also declared himself the new Romulus; by 192, he had in fact re-named himself, the city, the months of the year, and several other venerable institutions.

In December 192AD yet another group of conspirators was formed. Commodus’ mistress, Marcia, was taken into their confidence and, on 31st December, attempted to poison the emperor. The poison failed to take effect, however, and so murder descended to farce: they sent Commodus’ wrestling partner, Narcissus, to throttle the emperor whilst he was in the bath.

With no heir to succeed him, the elderly prefect, Pertinax, became emperor. However, he proved unpopular and his reign was short-lived. Thus began a crisis of succession and the Year of the Five Emperors. Nevertheless early in 195 Commodus achieved the godhood he seemingly so desired when he was deified by Septimius Severus.


Image by Kelly Grimshaw:

AR denarius of Commodus, 180 AD. Obverse has M COMMODVS ANTONINVS AVG; laureate head right. Reverse has LIB AVG TR P V IMP IIII COS II P P; Liberalitas left with abacus and cornucopia. 2.71g, 18mm, 12 o’clock.

Posted in Classical receptioncoinsCommodusEmperorsRoman cultureRoman historyRoman social historyUncategorized