BMCR 2003.07.11

Commodus: An Emperor at the Crossroads

, Commodus : an emperor at the crossroads. Dutch monographs on ancient history and archaeology, v. 23. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 2002. vi, 250 pages, 13 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9050632386 EUR 68.00.

Oliver Hekster (hereafter ‘H.’) has published the first biographical study of the emperor Commodus in English (Traupman’s PhD thesis of 1956 was not published) and the first in any language since Gherardini’s German study of 1974; anterior to both was the detailed Italian treatment of Grosso (1964).1 In his preface and introduction, H. makes clear that his biography will differ from these earlier efforts by ‘mobilising different types of evidence to come to a better understanding of the reign of Commodus’ (p. i). This new evidence comprises a detailed investigation of the Bildprogramm presented during his reign, a consideration of the role of the viewer in this visual imagery, and an exploration of the reception of the games within his public imagery. In each of these three areas, he is drawing upon seminal work published in the last two decades by Zanker, Hölscher, Coleman, Wiedemann, and Elsner respectively.2 He is adamant that this is not a rehabilitation (although, because of the nature of the study, this tendency is in evidence throughout) but a search for a ‘method to his madness’. His primary objectives, as he declares them (p. 3), are to establish the nature of the messages disseminated in the period 180-192 AD; to determine whether or not these messages can be interpreted as a consistent program; and, if they can be, to identify both the audience and the nature of their reception of this program. The remainder of his introduction establishes the structure of the book: two parts comprising an historical reconstruction of Commodus’ life and reign, followed by an investigation of his visual imagery. Preliminary considerations conclude with source criticism of the senatorially inclined (and at least partially interdependent) literary accounts of his reign and a discussion of the various terminology used throughout the work.

The first chapter is concerned with two topics: the mechanics of adoption in the early imperial period — with special reference to the period of the ‘adoptive emperors’ — and the life of Commodus prior to his accession. The former thoroughly establishes the inappropriateness of the term ‘adoptive emperors’ and illustrates the dynastic impulse at work from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius. This principle is then used to counter Traupman’s proposition that Marcus’ designation of his son reflected the father’s confidence in his intellectual or moral abilities. In the second half of the chapter, H. discusses Commodus’ early life and promotion, and pays particular attention to the ironic consequences of the revolt of Avidius Cassius on the young prince’s elevation.

Chapter 2 is itself subdivided into six units which cover the period of Commodus’ sole rule. In the first of these sections, the settlement with the Marcomanni and Quadi is contextualised by reference to the drain on manpower and morale, the military risk, the opposition to the project by some of Marcus’ amici, and the dubious financial viability of annexing new lands in this region. The peace settlement is lauded, and H. acknowledges the possibility that advisors of Commodus’ father may have authored or helped to author the treaty. In his treatment of the new emperor’s return to Rome and the conspiracy of Lucilla, H. modifies Grosso’s negative appraisal of the beginning of his principate. Instead, he emphasises the attempts at conciliation made by Commodus in this period, and, in the wake of the conspiracy, the removal of those most dangerous to him, especially the recipients of Marcomannic commands. Next, H. argues for Commodus’ political activity in the 180s on the basis of the nature of the principate in the second century and the fact of Commodus’ survival. Direct evidence for this is confined to a consilium principis of 186/7 (which includes no senators), his habit of adlecting senators, the presence of patricians and sons of consuls in the fasti, and the continuation of the careers of some of Marcus’ advisors. While I agree with the likelihood of Commodus’ participation in politics proposed by H., I would have liked to have seen more of the ‘other evidence’ he mentions (p. 56) that supports this notion.

H.’s discussion of Perennis focuses upon the enigmatic circumstances surrounding his fall. A plot is rejected, Brunt’s reconstruction of events is mentioned, and de Ranieri’s is called attractive, but H. is wise not to endorse either fully.3 New perspectives also emerge regarding Cleander. The appointment of twenty-five consuls in 195 is presented as a post-plague repopulation of the consular rank (with attendant benefits for the emperor’s support within the senate). We are reminded of the lack of epigraphic evidence to confirm the existence of four out of eight praetorian prefects appointed; this is certainly welcome, but I wonder what the chances are of epigraphic evidence surviving to attest the position of someone who was prefect ‘for only a few days or even hours’ (SHA Comm. 6.7). Finally, H. rejects the notion that the office of a pugione was equal to that of praetorian prefect; instead, he argues that this was a new office created to diminish the prefecture, as a possible sop to the senate. ‘All the Emperor’s Men’, the next section, is really a summary of Commodus’ position in relation to his two infamous advisors: he arbitrated the power of both Cleander and Perennis and continued to centralise and personalise his power by the creation of a further, extra-constitutional, position (the a pugione) between himself and the aristocracy. After the death of Cleander, therefore, H. maintains that there was no break in policy, just a change in the manner in which authority was represented. H. follows Birley in the reconstruction of the final conspiracy.4 As with proof of Commodus’ involvement in domestic politics, the evidence supporting Commodus’ provincial benefactions is fairly thin, and we note that the emperor’s esteem in the provinces seems to escalate from page 85 to 86. In the final section, H. re-states his proposition of Commodus as an emperor in control who invested a few with power, but only those who were unable to challenge his own.

Chapter 3 surveys the extant archaeological evidence to establish early slogans ( Pius, Pius Felix) as well as the nature and chronology of Commodus’ promotion of certain divinities: Janus, Sol, and Jupiter appear only infrequently; Hercules dominates after 190 AD. H. rejects the notion of a slow progression of assimilation with Hercules from comes to Commodianus; instead he favours a sudden ‘new incarnation’ of the demigod, to which he ascribes a political motivation: this new imagery is read in the context of Cleander’s fall and the emperor’s more personalised presentation of his power. In his treatment of statues — treated here are the Herakliskos-Commodus, the Capitoline bust, the (adaptation of) the Neronian colossus, Lysippus’ Hercules, and the final portrait images with the closely shorn coiffure (which H. promotes as a gladiatorial rather than a military allusion, contra Fittschen-Zanker 5) — H. is generally very good, but in a study that is so careful to apprise its readers of the pitfalls of each type of source material, a few words about the possible influence of Commodus’ damnatio memoriae on the survival or destruction of statuary would be welcome, especially since part of his argument is that certain divinities are wholly absent from imperial sculpture in this period (p. 117). The chapter concludes with the removal of Mercury and Mithras from Commodus’ religious propaganda (contra de Ranieri 6), and a demotion of Isis and Sarapis to the context of the grain supply from Egypt.

Chapter 4 will surely be cited most frequently of all the book’s chapters, since here lies the crux of H.’s Commodus. In this chapter, H. offers an alternate motive for Commodus’ Herculean and gladiatorial posturing. At its core, this reading applies a great deal of recent sociological research regarding the significance of the gladiatorial munera to Commodus’ specific case. Especially relevant here is the work of Wiedemann (to whom H.’s book is dedicated), in which the notions of challenging and effectively conquering death as well as the display of uirtus are paramount. H. argues that Commodus promoted himself in Herculean and gladiatorial contexts in order to legitimise his rule by ‘general acclamation’ rather than through traditional avenues (p. 154). Among the many interesting side issues that emerge from this chapter are notions of the enforced participation of Commodus’ senatorial audience in these spectacles and the possibility that the emperor himself may have derived some understanding of his imperial role from this posturing. Not all will follow H.’s reading in every detail, but, in general, H. offers a rational and persuasive challenge to the image of the dangerously deranged emperor that will be impossible to ignore in future work on this period.

The final chapter looks at the evidence for the reception of this program of images. H. explores the response of the soldiers, the provinces, and certain private individuals, as well as some later literary evidence, and the use made of Commodian imagery in the early Severan period. In all but the last of these sections (and even here to a degree), the evidence is tenuous or highly problematic, or both, and H. is careful to remind his reader of this fact. Most reservations about this chapter are rooted in the equivocal nature of this evidence. For instance, does the soldiers’ use of the new names for the months and portraits of the emperor in Herculean guise really imply an ‘awareness and some sort of understanding of what the emperor was trying to broadcast’ (p. 165)? Could they not have been using — with neither positive nor negative reactions — what they were supplied with in both cases with no awareness and no understanding of Commodus’ central ideology? Also, I am not fully convinced that the infrequent, late, and eccentric literary evidence gathered by H. (Athenaeus, Dracontius, Jordanes, and Malalas) testifies ‘to a tradition in which Commodus was perceived as a good emperor’ (p. 185). His discussion of early Severan adoption of Commodian imagery seems to be a more valuable vein to mine and offers much that confirms the portrait presented in chapters 3 and 4.

In sum, H. has provided a consistent, provocative, and persuasive framework within which to re-consider the overwhelmingly negative ancient and modern tradition surrounding Commodus. For those willing to entertain the uncomfortable possibility of sanity, vigour, and competence as attributes of the last Antonine, An Emperor at the Crossroads should provide a catalyst for further perspectives in second century politics and imperial public imagery and will prove to be a valuable resource in its own right.

Included are two brief appendices (one on Commodus’ building activity, one on possible ridicule and criticism of his public image) and fifteen well-chosen and well-presented illustrations. In general, the book is attractively produced, and typographical errors are infrequent. These are, in most cases, formatting issues (p. 10 and p. 142 n. 26 have inconsistent ellipses; Caesares, p. 30, princeps, p. 70, Hercules Romanus, p. 170, should all be in italics), but note the following: p. 71: ‘… AD 189 or the beginning of AD 189’ should be ‘… or the beginning of AD 190’; p. 85: ‘… sole emperorship reign was plagued’ should be ‘… sole reign was plagued’; p. 92: ‘preciously little’ should be ‘precious little’; p. 119: ‘twinbrother’ should be ‘twin brother’; p. 136: ‘as against’ should be ‘in’; p. 147: ροπάλῳ should be (ροπάλῳ; p. 193: ‘… with Severan ruler cult’ should be ‘with the Severan ruler cult’; p. 198 ‘… to steer an own course’ should be ‘… to steer his own course’; p. 200 ‘… showed to posses’ should be ‘… was shown to possess’; p. 202 ‘eaxmples’ should be ‘examples’. Thanks to the author’s clear arrangement and presentation of his material (each chapter is divided and subdivided into various individual units) the book makes for easy reading and will prove to be accessible to students and scholars working on this period.


1. J. C. Traupman, The Life and Reign of Commodus (Dissertation, Princeton 1956); M. Gherardini, Studien zur Geschichte des Kaisers Commodus (Vienna 1974); F. Grosso, La lotta politica al tempo di Commodo (Turin 1964).

2. P. Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (Munich 1987); T. Hölscher, Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (Heidelberg 1987); K. Coleman, ‘Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological enactments,’ JRS 80 (1990) 44-73; T. Wiedemann, Emperors and Gladiators (London 1992); J. Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer. The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge 1995).

3. P. A. Brunt, ‘The Fall of Perennis: Dio-Xiphilinus 79.9.2,’ CQ 23 (1973) 172-77; C. de Ranieri, ‘La gestione politica di età Commodiana e la parabola di Tigidio Perenne,’ Athenaeum 86 (1998) 397-417.

4. A. R. Birley, ‘The coups d’État of the Year AD 193,’ BJ 169 (1969) 247-80.

5. K. Fittschen and P. Zanker, Katalog der römischen Porträts in den Capitolinischen Museen und den anderen kommunalen Sammlungen der Stadt Rom (Mainz 1985) 1.87.

6. C. de Ranieri, ‘Commodo-Mercurio. Osservazioni sulla politica religiosa Commodiana,’ PP 51 (1996) 422-41.