I should return to regularly scheduled musing soon. Nothing will mess with your schedule like Texas totally shutting down for a week. And for anyone wondering: yes, it is warmer now.
Oh, you haven’t read @apluswake’s update for this week?
AND NOW… ROME!
Gibbon gives us a rundown of Commodus, the first really bad emperor in nearly 100 years of Gibbon approved emperors. Gibbon opens with a description of Marcus Aurelius, his family, his attitudes, etc. Marcus makes Commodus a co-ruler who, after Marcus’ death, becomes the sole Emperor. Commodus is basically a disaster waiting to happen. He’s kinda sorta fine, but is running with the wrong crowd and seems poised to be a pretty bad guy.
Well, Commodus has a bad day and becomes a pretty bad guy after it. So bad that everyone ends up hating him. After eight years of increasing corruption and brutality, a famine throws everyone over the edge and they try to kill him. They fail because he throws his henchman Cleander under the bus. By “under the bus,” I mean “decapitate him and throw his head into the crowd to pacify them.”’
Commodus becomes more self serving, more depraved, more vicious, more… everything. So he starts killing people for the heck of it as a gladiator. And then for his feats of strength he shows off how many massive animals he can kill.
As the narrator says in Boney M.’s disco classic about RASPUTIN:
“But when his drinking, and lusting and his hunger for power became known to more and more people, the demands to do something about this outrageous man became louder and louder!”
Yeah, so his concubine Marcia, the prefect Laetus, and the chamberlain Eclectus cooked up an assassination scheme and pop goes the weasel. Pertinax becomes the next emperor and actually tries to clean up the town! And he’s loved for it! Well, by the public anyway. The corruptocrats who are watching their gravy train go away? Not so much. Pertinax gets whacked LESS THAN 3 MONTHS AFTER BECOMING EMPEROR.
AND THAT’S THE CHAPTER.
But we’re not done yet.
See, I figured that this chapter is as much about analyzing the individuals as it is about the overarching history. So we’re going to break this down by person.
MEET THE CAST OF CHARACTERS!!!
A typical Gen X parent who has a great worth ethic and depends on teachers and babysitters to raise his children. He worries about the behavior and TV watching habits of his 2.5 American Dream children, but gives them tons of toys and handouts anyway.
Faustina the Younger, aka Mrs. Aurelius
The latest addition to Desperate Housewives of Rome. She is not a Proverbs 31 woman. She probably thought that song was about her.
A cross between the Zodiac killer, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Sid in Toy Story, Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards, and actual Kevin Spacey. He’s BAD BOI #1 and is out to try and Be the Manliest ManTM through every godless depraved act imaginable. YOLO and stuff.
A real life version of Bob, the Joker’s chief henchman In Tim Burton’s Batman.
Roman Donald Trump. He is out to exhauriat paludibus and put Rome First. He isn’t appreciated for it, and the swamp makes him into the most persecuted leader, by far, like nobody has ever seen. I mean, like nobody ever heard of conspiracy before and now A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE SAYING that he’s one of the most persecuted leaders, if not the most persecuted, in the history. They went after him like a dog bigly like you wouldn’t believe.
She’s the equivalent of the guy in Downfall who tells Hitler that Steiner didn’t attack.
Leia in Slave Costume. Sort of. We’ll get to some more on that later.
That one guy in Thunderball who worked for Largo and then helps Bond and Domino defeat Largo, but mysteriously vanishes after they jump off of the Disco Volante.
The Servile and Profligate Youths
They’re the ones your parents warned you about. They demand your lunch money and are the types of losers demonized in after-school specials. They are henceforth referred to as the BAD BOIS.
The heavy hitters:
Marcus, as Gibbon describes him, is a good-natured fellow but kind of a pushover. He’s emperor, sure, but he’s also everyone’s doormat. He’s so oblivious to the various infidelities and uncouthness of those around him… that he even promoted all of his wife’s lovers. Yikes. I mean, his writings THANK THE GODS FOR HER FAITHFULNESS and had the senate basically DECLARE HER TO BE A GODDESS OF LOVE. Oof. I wonder how many times everyone looked at each other like “uh… who wants to tell him?”
As far as his child rearing, he’s not so hot. He seems so modern and tolerant. (Not a compliment, fyi). So Marcus showered him with teachers and caregivers and philosophers… no expense was spared! But rather than let Commodus get sorted out, “Marcus blasted the fruits of this labored education, by admitting his son, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, to a full participation of the Imperial power.”
Marcus co-ruled with Commodus for 4 years. And Marcus really worked to keep the BAD BOIS away from Commodus and out of any office of power or influence.
Everything changed after Commodus overhead Marcus tell the general Maximus Decimus Meridius that Commodus was unfit for the throne. Commodus killed his father and then turned Meridius into a gladiator.
Yeah, that’s not true. I mean, yes: the movie Gladiator is about the emperor Commodus. But NO: it isn’t even remotely true. The entire thing is a fictionalization. What really happens is that Marcus dies, natural causes as far as anyone knows.
Sorry to burst your Ridley Scott directed bubble that stars Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. But thank them for the memes.
Faustina the Younger, aka Mrs. Aurelius
Faustina is Marcus’ wife. Faustina is also Marcus’ cousin. And though Faustina is not single, she is still out to mingle. Wow. And according to Gibbon, literally everyone knows this except for Commodus. And apparently, he never gets to this moment:
Outside of that, we don’t get much about Faustina, and that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years.
Though Gibbon doesn’t say it outright, Commodus is a product of this parental units. His dad is a good guy who rolls over, spoils Commodus, and is oblivious to infidelity while his mom is inspiring the song “Runaround Sue.”
Oompa Loompa Doopity Doo, the Wonka kids’ parents caused the problems, just like you.
Commodus gets the throne in 180. And he seems kind of bored with everything for a while. He’s completely dispassionate about anything. He simply is: he fills his space and isn’t too bad. But he isn’t too good either, and his youth and bad tendencies lie in wait. Some of the BAD BOIS that Marcus tried to keep out work their way back. The Wormtongues start whispering into Theoden’s ear.
Joker tries to drive Gordon insane in one of the most famous graphic novels ever released, The Killing Joke. The ambiguous ending is such that you don’t know for sure if he drives Batman insane. But Joker’s entire premise is that the difference between being normal and being a deranged homicidal maniac is “one bad day.”
Well, in 182 Commodus has his one bad day. Someone clumsily tries to assassinate him and blames the Senate for it. Despite the fact that the plot was quickly discovered to be the brainchild of Commodus’ sister Lucilla and carried out by one of her boyfriends, Commodus quickly decided to view the Senate through the same lens of distrust and paranoia that caused Stalin to constantly kill off USSR officials. Show trials ensured, and everyone started trying to throw each other under the bus to make it out of the Hunger Games alive. At this point, any restraint Commodus showed in his early years simply disintegrated over the remaining eight years of his reign. As evidence of just how quickly this happened, Gibbon offers an incident that occurred not long after the Senate fiasco in which a social media woke mob got Commodus to, um, permanently cancel a fellow named Perennis, who had the bulk of running things dumped on him. (FWIW: Perennis kind of had it coming… he was kind of a power hungry dude that already murdered his way into his job… but still.)
By the way, no, this doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some ex-military guys and a mercenary tried to get Commodus by starting a slave revolt, but they failed. Then a famine struck and a riot threatened the palace. Cleander the Praefect turned the Praetorians lose on the masses to no avail, so Commodus was intruded upon by his sister, Fadilla, and “the most favored of his concubines,” Marcia. Commodus gets out of getting murdered by the mob in the study by having Cleander decapitated and thrown out to the crowd to pacify them. It worked – order restored.
Two years later though, the jig was up. Commodus had become increasingly sociopathic and megalomaniacal, going on a persistent roid rage He-Man quest to show off his greatness to Rome. He started competing as a gladiator, killing people personally in the Coliseum for show. Then to show off his big strong he-man muscles and total fearlessness, he started having all sorts of big and vicious wild animals brought in for him to slay. He started having himself portrayed as Hercules and, though not well addressed in the Gibbon, he also proclaimed himself to be new Romulus. Commodus was also straight up selling power and offices for cash.
Oh, did I mention the guy is a total sleaze bag? Check out this quote from Gibbon:
“His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of every rank, and of every province; and, wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence.”
“and as many boys”
“the brutal lover had recourse to violence.”
For those keeping score, Commodus is now:
- the emperor
- a murderous sociopath
- a violent pervert and child predator
- a self-proclaimed supreme god
- a gladiator
- Ernest Hemingway (or at least a rabid matador)
Somewhere in all of that was the last straw. Remember Marcia? The favored concubine? She helped run the assassination plot with Commodus’ chamberlain Eclectus and the praefect Laetus. They poisoned him, got him drunk, and then had hired muscle strangle him.
And there was much rejoicing.
Speaking of Marcia…
Marcia is the “favored concubine” according to Gibbon, anyway. I did a little digging and it seems the modern conclusion tends to be that she was much more like a pseudo-wife than a typical concubine and actually had some significant influence on Commodus. For example, it is possible that killing Cleander to pacify the crowd was actually her idea. And we do know that at one point, Marcia successfully convinced Commodus to allow a group of exiled and enslaved Christians to return to Rome.
Hilariously, she was actually married to a guy named Eclectus and may have been involved in the very first assassination attempt again Commodus before she became his concubine. Yes, that’s the same Eclectus that was serving as Commodus’ chamberlain, who worked with Marcia and Laetus to eliminate the despotic emperor.
It’s a small world after all.
Ah, a new emperor. There was much rejoicing when Commodus died. Literally everyone was thrilled. Pertinax set out to drain the Roman swamp, offloaded his personal fortune out of virtue, and went to work. He tried to help Commodus’ victims and got as many out of exile and prison as he could, and returned their confiscated properties. He reversed repressive taxes. And he started selling off the gold and silver to pay for everything that needed to be done.
Just one problem: the BAD BOIS. The corrupt and unscrupulous were thrilled to be rid of Commodus, but they weren’t interested in giving up their gravy train. Of particular issue were the Praetorians, who in only eight short years of Commodus had become accustomed to the lax and debaucherous environment and weren’t interested in going back to the old days. Laetus thought he had it all worked out when they killed Commodus and installed Pertinax, but it turned out that Pertinax wasn’t handing out favors and the praetorians weren’t going to get special treatment. So they whacked him, less than three months after he became emperor.
And there was much sadness among the people.
What to make of it all?
We really start to see how quickly everything starts eroding. And this is the first that Gibbon has really given us any insight into the inner workings of power struggles instead of running down emperor’s personalities. And we’ve gone from “everything is great” to “uh oh” in a decade. Also, I get to meme Gibbon:
How it started:
“and it may be observed, that those famines, which so frequently afflicted the infant republic, were seldom or never experienced by the extensive empire of Rome. The accidental scarcity, in any single province, was immediately relieved by the plenty of its more fortunate neighbors”Chapter II: The Internal Prosperity In The Age Of The Antonines. Part I
How it’s going:
Pestilence and famine contributed to fill up the measure of the calamities of Rome… a monopoly of corn, supported by the riches and power of the minister, was considered as the immediate cause of the second… The people quitted their favorite amusements for the more delicious pleasure of revenge.”Chapter IV: The Cruelty, Follies And Murder Of Commodus.—Part II
We also get to further contrast Gibbon with himself, or at least dig in a bit on him. Like his whole “everything is great and Rome was incapable of freedom but Rome was the world and the world was Rome so everyone were prisoners in an endless Hotel California” bit. Too bad no one has anywhere to escape to, now isn’t it? Maybe? Also, Gibbon has yet to entirely criticize the emperor-governance itself. I mean, he both emotes praise, disdain, and even weird admiration for Augustus for assuming power… despite the fact that it’s the sole reason for the current scenario.
Gibbon ends on quite an ominous note (second chapter in a row that he’s done so, too). When Pertinax is axed, the Praetorians marched his remains around in celebration “in the sight of a mournful and indignant people, who lamented the unworthy fate of that excellent prince, and the transient blessings of a reign, the memory of which could serve only to aggravate their approaching misfortunes.”
I find it interesting that famine and Commodus motivated a riot but the Praetorians offing the emperor wasn’t. I get it if the public are afraid of the Praetorians, but the fact that there isn’t some serious blow back to this doesn’t make sense. Maybe we get that in the next chapter, but it would make sense to at least hint at it here.
One more thing:
Watch the lips sink.
Yes, that’s live in the USSR.
They were, and still are, megastars in Russia.
But as great as the dancing is, watch this version to get the famous ending line: