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The People's Princeps, Enemy of the Senate

On October 22, AD 180 the young Princeps Commodus returned to Rome in an enormous triumphal procession. Backed by most of the Danubian legions, Commodusí entry into the city not only confirmed his authority but ushered in new hope for an era of peace and prosperity in a city that was weary of war. The victorious legions, having secured peace along the Danube (at least temporarily, and there were still to be various issues of settlement such as the Buri in Dacia), and the youthful, energetic son of the great Marcus Aurelius were symbolic of this new hope.

Commodusí popularity with the masses can be attested through several generous monetary gifts bestowed upon them as well as his well documented involvement with the games. In addition, Commodus was content to allow his Praetorian Prefects (first Perennis and followed by Cleander) to essentially administer the empire while he indulged himself in more entertaining pursuits (until his later reign when the Prefecture seems to have held less sway after previous failings). While such methods of imperial rule may seem to be unpopular on the surface, the average Roman citizen would have little to no knowledge of the inner workings of government and Commodusí general dismissal of such affairs would have little impact on his popularity. In fact, this very delegation of command especially in military affairs may have also aided his popularity with the legions. As the soldiers were well aware whose face was on the coinage, they knew that their ultimate benefactor was Commodus, but they were also aware (likely through their officers) that it was the praetorian prefects who were running military affairs. When things went bad, it was these prefects who took the brunt of criticism. In fact, Perennis eventually met his death as a result of a legionary revolt in Britain and the political ramifications that followed it.

While Commodus maintained popular support at least in his earlier reign, such popularity came at the cost of Senatorial and upper class hostility. Dio Cassius, who became a Senator during the reign of Commodus and claims to have been an eye-witness to some of the emperorís excessiveness, suggests that much of Commodusí costly endeavors were financed through the extra taxation of these classes. Coupled with the proscriptions and property confiscations against these same leading aristocrats, Commodus earned the hatred of his peers, though such later measures were possibly affected by an early conspiracy involving Commodusí own family. The new emperor had only recently arrived in Rome from the Danubian frontier before a plot against his life had been hatched.

In AD 182, an assassination attempt engineered by Commodusí sister Annia Lucilla and a cousin, (former consul) Marcus Ummidius Quadratus may have been the result of a dynastic dispute. Lucillaís husband Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a respected general under Marcus Aurelius during the Germanic Wars had possibly been previously considered as a potential heir following the death of Lucius Verus in AD 169. Lucilla, who had been married to Verus was quickly married to Pompeianus after her first husbandís death, therefore fueling this speculation (though it is more likely that Aurelius simply saw Pompeianus as a supporter who was to be rewarded for loyalty). In the plot against Commodus Lucilla (who despised the provincial equestrian station of her second husband) probably wished a return to her status as Augusta that she enjoyed while married to Verus and therefore, Pompeianus had been selected as an imperial replacement. It was his own nephew (who was engaged to a daughter of Lucilla and Verus) who drew the dagger to attack the emperor. However, the assassin was overpowered and several conspirators (including members of the Senate) were put to death. Lucilla and Commodusí wife Crispina were exiled to the island of Capri (though Crispina seems to have been exiled for adultery and the timing was just coincidental), but Lucilla was executed a short time thereafter. Pompeianus himself seemed to have been completely unaware and uninvolved in the plot, judging by the fact that Commodus left him unharmed when the great numbers of others who met cruel fates during his reign are considered.

Perhaps this plot, along with rumors that Commodus was the son of a gladiator rather than of Marcus Aurelius, (the Historia Augusta is noted for its dubious authenticity, and the rumor may have actually developed much later considering Commodusí escapades in the Arena) may have pushed the young emperor along a road which associated him closely with Hercules. As the Olympian hero had already been a symbol of the reigns of Commodusí preceding Antonine emperors (among other thing Hercules represented a champion of civic duties to the Romans and was an appropriate fit for the civic minded Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius) he was adopted by Commodus as well perhaps to prove his lineage. However, the symbolism under Commodus would be grossly different than it had been previously portrayed.

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The Roman Senate (Senatus) from the latin Senex (for elder or council of elders) was a deliberative governing body.


The People's Princeps, Enemy of the Senate - Related Topic: Roman Senate


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