The servile crowd, whose fortune depended on their master’s vices, applauded these ignoble pursuits.
Continuing Commodus’ Bad Reign,
our selection from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon published in 1788. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Commodus’ Bad Reign.
Pestilence and famine contributed to fill up the measure of the calamities of Rome. The first could be only imputed to the just indignation of the gods; but a monopoly of corn, supported by the riches and power of the minister, was considered as the immediate cause of the second. The popular discontent, after it had long circulated in whispers, broke out in the assembled Circus. The people quitted their favorite amusements for the more delicious pleasure of revenge, rushed in crowds toward a palace in the suburbs, one of the Emperor’s retirements, and demanded, with angry clamors, the head of the public enemy. Cleander, who commanded the praetorian guards, ordered a body of cavalry to sally forth and disperse the seditious multitude. The multitude fled with precipitation toward the city; several were slain, and many more were trampled to death; but when the cavalry entered the streets their pursuit was checked by a shower of stones and darts from the roofs and windows of the houses.
The foot-guards, who had been long jealous of the prerogatives and insolence of the praetorian cavalry, embraced the party of the people. The tumult became a regular engagement, and threatened a general massacre. The praetorians at length gave way, oppressed with numbers; and the tide of popular fury returned with redoubled violence against the gates of the palace, where Commodus lay, dissolved in luxury, and alone unconscious of the civil war. It was death to approach his person with the unwelcome news. He would have perished in this supine security had not two women, his eldest sister Fadilla, and Marcia, the most favored of his concubines, ventured to break into his presence. Bathed in tears, and with disheveled hair, they threw themselves at his feet, and, with all the pressing eloquence of fear, discovered to the affrighted Emperor the crimes of the minister, the rage of the people, and the impending ruin which, in a few minutes, would burst over his palace and person. Commodus started from his dream of pleasure and commanded that the head of Cleander should be thrown out to the people. The desired spectacle instantly appeased the tumult; and the son of Marcus might even yet have regained the affection and confidence of his subjects.
But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus. While he thus abandoned the reins of empire to these unworthy favorites, he valued nothing in sovereign power except the unbounded license of indulging his sensual appetites. The influence of a polite age and the labor of an attentive education had never been able to infuse into his rude and brutish mind the least tincture of learning; and he was the first of the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the understanding. Nero himself excelled, or affected to excel, in the elegant arts of music and poetry; nor should we despise his pursuits, had he not converted the pleasing relaxation of a leisure hour into the serious business and ambition of his life. But Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal, and a fond attachment to the amusements of the populace; the sports of the Circus and Amphitheatre, the combats of gladiators, and the hunting of wild beasts. The masters in every branch of learning, whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with inattention and disgust, while the Moors and Parthians, who taught him to dart the javelin and to shoot with the bow, found a disciple who delighted in his application, and soon equaled the most skilful of his instructors in the steadiness of the eye and the dexterity of the hand.
The servile crowd, whose fortune depended on their master’s vices, applauded these ignoble pursuits. The perfidious voice of flattery reminded him that by exploits of the same nature, by the defeat of the Nemean lion, and the slaughter of the wild boar of Erymanthus, the Grecian Hercules had acquired a place among the gods and an immortal memory among men. They only forgot to observe that in the first ages of society, when the fiercer animals often dispute with man the possession of an unsettled country, a successful war against those savages is one of the most innocent and beneficial labors of heroism. In the civilized state of the Roman Empire the wild beasts had long since retired from the face of man and the neighborhood of populous cities. To surprise them in their solitary haunts and to transport them to Rome that they might be slain in pomp by the hand of an emperor was an enterprise equally ridiculous for the prince and oppressive for the people.
Ignorant of these distinctions, Commodus eagerly embraced the glorious resemblance and styled himself (as we still read on his medals) the Roman Hercules. The club and the lion’s hide were placed by the side of the throne, among the ensigns of sovereignty, and statues were erected in which Commodus was represented in the character and with the attributes of the god whose valor and dexterity he endeavored to emulate in the daily course of his ferocious amusements.
Elated with these praises, which gradually extinguished the innate sense of shame, Commodus resolved to exhibit before the eyes of the Roman people those exercises which till then he had decently confined within the walls of his palace and to the presence of a few favorites. On the appointed day the various motives of flattery, fear, and curiosity attracted to the Amphitheatre an innumerable multitude of spectators; and some degree of applause was deservedly bestowed on the uncommon skill of the imperial performer. Whether he aimed at the head or heart of the animal, the wound was alike certain and mortal. With arrows whose point was shaped into the form of a crescent Commodus often intercepted the rapid career and cut asunder the long, bony neck of the ostrich.