It is unfortunate that the emperor Marcus Aurelius did not choose to adopt a capable man as his son to succeed him on the throne. He chose instead Commodus, the spoiled son of Aurelius and his wife, Faustina the Younger. The young Commodus was more fond of performing in the arena and drinking wine with his friends than governing the huge Roman Empire. It was a time when the empire very much needed a strong ruler to lead the armies against the ever increasing barbarian invasions from the North.
Commodus loved to hunt wild animals and was very good at killing an animal with the first arrow. When he decided to display his talents by performing in the arena at public games, he shocked and scandalized the Roman people. The arena was the place for criminals, condemned prisoners of war, and professional gladiators (considered a rather seedy, lower class occupation). Commodus enjoyed shocking the Roman people and making a spectacle of himself this way. He came to crave the attention so much that he started calling himself "The Roman Hercules "and kept a replica of Hercules' club and the Nemeian lion's skin beside his throne!
After plots against his life were discovered, Commodus began a reign of terror. He would frequently pay false accusers to bring treason charges against powerful senators, whom he then had condemned to death. Commodus would enrich himself with the dead person's property. The accusers, of course, were given a generous reward out of the confiscated property of the innocent man whom they had betrayed. When two women in Commodusí household, his wife Crispina and his sister Lucilla were accused of hatching a plot to murder him, Commodus had the two ladies banished to a lonely prison on an island. He later had them murdered. A group of senators who feared for their own lives was also involved in the plot.
The insane Commodus kept stepping up his campaign of murder and terror until even those closest to him in the palace began to fear for their lives. His mistress, Marcia, and two other of his ministers, Laetus his praetorian Prefect and Eclectus, his chamberlain plotted together to do away with the mad emperor. Marcia prepared a cup of poisoned wine and presented it to him after he had spent an exhausting day hunting. Evidently, the poison was not potent enough and Commodus was heavily drugged, but not killed. The conspirators decided to finish the job by asking one of his athlete friends, a strong young wrestler, to strangle him to death.
Commodus died on New Year's Eve, A. D. 192. He was to be proclaimed a consul on the following day, and planned to accept the greatest honor of the republic dressed as a gladiator. Doubtless, the Senate was relieved that they would be spared the indignity of having to witness this farce.
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