Another Cruel Emperor
Marcus Aurelius, as you have seen, was a model of every virtue, and fully deserved the title of the greatest of Roman emperors; but his son Commodus was one of the most vicious men that ever lived. In spite of his father's example, and of the careful training he had received, Commodus had already shown cruel traits in his childhood.
When he was only thirteen years of age, a slave once failed to heat his bath properly. In a rage because of this oversight, Commodus ordered that the man should be flung into the fire. Such was the passion he displayed that the people around him did not dare to disobey him openly. But, instead of the slave, a sheepskin was thrown into the flames; and Commodus, smelling the bad odor which arose from the furnace, went away satisfied, thinking that the slave was dead.
Commodus did not improve as he grew older, so you will not be surprised to hear that he paid no heed to his father's dying requests. Instead of listening to the senators' advice, he drove away from court all his father's friends, and surrounded himself with a number of flatterers. They applauded everything he did, and told him morning, noon, and night that he was the handsomest, wittiest, and wisest man that had ever been seen. At the end of three years they had managed to turn his head completely, and to help him undo much of the good his father had done.
Of course so cruel and bad a man as Commodus had many enemies, and could not expect to live long. Once, as he was coming from the games, a man sprang upon him with dagger raised, and cried: "The senate sends you this."
By a quick movement, Commodus dodged the blow, and the would-be murderer was seized by the guards. The man was then tortured to make him reveal the names of his accomplices; and among them was the emperor's own sister.
This attempt made Commodus both angry and suspicious. All those suspected of having taken part in the conspiracy were either exiled or slain, and it is said that the emperor never trusted any one again, and became a perfect monster of cruelty and vice.
Commodus was passionately fond of all kinds of gladiatorial shows, in which he liked to take part himself, as he was very vain. But he was as cowardly as vain; so he always used the best of weapons, while his opponents were armed with leaden swords which could do him no harm.
The emperor also delighted in fighting against wild beasts, from a very safe place, where they could not possibly come to him. When he had killed them all, he boastfully called himself the Roman Hercules, and insisted that his people should worship him.
Another pastime, of which Commodus is said to have been very fond, was playing barber to his servants. But, as he would accidentally cut off their ears, lips, or noses, his slaves were not eager for the honor of being thus served by their master.
Although the barbarians grew ever bolder, and finally made open war on the legions, Commodus did not go forth to fight them. Instead, he sent his generals to the front, while he remained in Rome, where he thought of nothing but his pleasures, and of killing as many people as possible.
Like Domitian, he had a tablet on which he daily wrote the names of his next victims. This tablet once fell into the hands of his wife, Marcia, who discovered her own name among those of several senators and officers who were to be slain.
Marcia showed the list to two of these proposed victims, and they resolved to murder the wicked emperor in order to save their own lives. They therefore began by poisoning his food; and, when they saw that the drug did not act quickly enough, they hired a slave to murder him.
Commodus was not quite thirty-two when he thus died, and his reign had lasted only twelve years. Instead of mourning for him as they had for his good father, all his subjects openly rejoiced; and throughout the empire people sighed with relief when they knew that he was dead.