The first section of Gladiator (2000, dir. Ridley Scott) deals with the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (d. 180AD). Marcus (Richard Harris) is an old man who is tired of being emperor and wants to designate the successful general Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) to be his successor. But when he tells his biological son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) about this, Commodus responds by complaining that his father never really loved him and never appreciated his virtues, and then by smothering the old man with his chest. I’m not sure that’s actually possible, but let’s go with it. Because somehow there are absolutely no servants hanging around in the emperor’s palace-tent to see what Commodus has done, Commodus successfully claims the throne, since he is, after all, Marcus’s son. Then he proceeds to spend the rest of the film being a Bad Emperor, as Sellars and Yateman would say.
This is pretty lurid stuff, and, in case you were wondering, completely made up. Marcus formally named Commodus his co-emperor in 177 AD, which is a pretty clear statement that Commodus was his intended successor. Marcus did not die on campaign in the middle of nowhere as in the film; he actually died at Vindobona (modern Vienna). And Maximus is a fictional character, so Marcus couldn’t have wanted him to succeed to the throne. So the film’s claims are pretty clearly false.
However, unlike a lot of historical films that make things up, Gladiator is actually doing something interesting here. It’s exploring the minor historical puzzle of why Marcus Aurelius allowed his son to succeed him.
“The Five Good Emperors”
Probably the biggest flaw in the Roman Imperial system is that there was no formally-established mechanism for arranging the succession to the imperial office. The reason for this has to do with the odd way that the imperial office was established. When Augustus took power in Rome after the end of the civil wars of the Late Republic, he was acutely aware that his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, had been too blatant about his desire for power; Caesar’s naked ambition unnerved many of his closest associates and led to his assassination. Augustus wanted to live longer in power than his adoptive father, and he realized that Romans of his generation were too deeply attached to the notion of the Republic to allow one man to monopolize all the political power. So instead of seeking to become king the way Caesar had (since the Romans hated the idea of kings), Augustus sought to disguise his power grab with a claim that he wasn’t actually the guy running everything. He allowed the Senate to debate issues and ‘advise’ him, and he permitted prominent men to hold the top offices as long as they didn’t challenge his control. So while Augustus was absolutely in control of Rome, he chose to pretend that he wasn’t in control. Instead of calling himself rex (“king”), he preferred more Republican-sounded titles like princeps (“first citizen”) and imperator (“commander”). These are the root words for the modern English words ‘prince’ and ‘emperor’, but neither of them has the implications of royalty in classical Latin that they have today.
But this created a problem for Augustus, one that he never quite solved. If he’s denying that he holds complete power, how can he pass that power on to a successor? The best he was able to do was associate his chosen successor with him in public office and let the man inherit his vast wealth. As a result, the next several emperors, while all related to Augustus, succeed him almost at random. His dynasty died out with Nero in 68 AD. After a civil war, the Flavian dynasty tried direct biological succession. Vespasian was succeeded by both of his sons in turn. The second son, Domitian, was stabbed to death as part of conspiracy in 96 AD.
When news of Domitian’s death reached the Senate, it immediately named a successor to prevent a repeat of the civil war at the end of Nero’s reign. The man the Senate chose, Marcus Cocceius Nerva (known simply to history as Nerva) was a relatively obscure old senator with no children. But Nerva lacked the support of the military, and less than a year later he was taken hostage by his own palace guard, who demanded that he name a successor. Nerva chose Marcus Ulpius Traianus (“Trajan”) and then essentially abdicated.
In doing this, Nerva blundered into a surprisingly effective system of succession. Trajan was a middle-aged man, a successful and popular general as well as a senator who had a good deal of experience in Roman government, having served as a governor and as a consul. But Trajan had no children, and as a result, after he became emperor, he adopted a distant cousin of his, Publius Aelius Hadrianus (“Hadrian”) as his son. At the time of the adoption, Hadrian was already middle-aged and, like Trajan, a successful general and administrator. Hadrian being childless as well, he eventually chose to adopt Titus Aurelius Fulvius Boionius Arrius Antoninus (known as “Antoninus Pius”; don’t you just love these names?) as his son and successor. Antoninus’ two sons had already died, although he had a daughter Faustina. He chose to adopt his wife’s cousin, Marcus Aurelius, and marry him to Faustina (which is sort of creepy to our way of thinking, but marrying adoptive siblings was relatively acceptable to Romans).
These five emperors, from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, are technically called the Antonine dynasty, but they’re often called the Five Good Emperors. This system of succession by adoption meant that rather than relying on the accidents of birth, the emperors could select a man they considered a competent successor and give him experience administering the Empire alongside the emperor.
However, it’s not clear how intentional this system was. Did the emperors consciously view this as a superior system to simple inheritance, or was it just the result of the fact that for four generations, the emperors had no surviving sons and thus had to adopt a successor? We don’t really know.
Regardless, this system came to an end in 177, when Marcus Aurelius chose to designate Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus, or Commodus, the only survivor of his fourteen children, as his heir.
Why Did Marcus Aurelius Choose Commodus as His Heir?
It has generally been agreed that Commodus made a poor emperor. He was disinterested in the responsibilities of government and tended to hand authority over to a series of favorites. When this proved unpopular and provoked conspiracies to remove him, he became increasingly dictatorial. On one occasion, he executed two men who were not involved in any plots on the pretext that their wealth meant that they were liable to become dissatisfied with him. He showed signs of megalomania, associating himself with the god Hercules, who was the son of Jupiter, the highest deity in the Roman pantheon. He spent lavishly on entertainment and fought in the gladiatorial arena on numerous occasions, something that Romans regarded as deeply scandalous (perhaps comparable to the reaction people might have if Barack Obama started a second career as a WWE wrestler). He has also been accused of cowardice, a somewhat odd charge for a man who enjoyed fighting as a gladiator.
All of this stands in odd tension with his father’s life. In addition to being a very conscientious emperor, Marcus Aurelius was one of the last great Stoic philosophers. Like all Stoics, he placed a very high value of duty and virtue and advocated for self-control of the emotions and passions. His Meditations is a treatise on self-improvement that calls for self-analysis. So it is odd that such a man would have been willing to break with nearly a century of practice and allow his biological son to inherit the throne when Commodus seems rather clearly to have been a poor candidate for the imperial office.
Several factors were probably at play. Although Marcus Aurelius advocated for emotional self-control, that doesn’t mean that he was capable of being emotionally objective about his own children. Perhaps he simply couldn’t see Commodus’ character flaws, or perhaps he saw them but simply couldn’t bring himself to disinherit Commodus. Maybe he thought that Commodus would rise to the occasion and find the duties of the imperial office a goad for improving his character. Marcus provided Commodus with excellent tutors, so he may simply have felt that Commodus was better prepared than he actually was. The two men were co-emperors for three years, so Commodus certainly had time to learn the skills it took to be emperor.
Another factor is that most of the negative evaluation of Commodus is based on things he did as emperor. His gladiatorial excesses, his dictatorial response to opposition, and his lavish spending on entertainment were all developments of his time as emperor and as such were traits that Marcus couldn’t easily have predicted. Only Commodus’ disinterest in the day-to-day affairs of state is something that his father could have observed. It is only in retrospect that Commodus’ personal failings are obvious, so perhaps Commodus appeared to be a good successor. Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20.
A third issue is that, although the imperial office was about 200 years old, Commodus was, in fact, the first son born to a sitting emperor; he was the first emperor “born in the purple”. So there was no direct precedent for what to do with such a child. The system of adopting successors was born out of expediency; for close to a century, no emperor had had a surviving son to consider for the succession. Marcus way well have felt that his unique situation justified allowing him to succeed.
Gladiator’s answer to this small historical puzzle is a novel one. Marcus didn’t want Commodus to succeed him, but never got the chance to announce the fact since Commodus killed him. As I already noted, that’s almost certainly false. There’s no evidence for it, and the fact that Commodus was co-emperor for three years before his father’s death is fairly strong evidence that Marcus wanted his son to succeed him. But at least Gladiator is trying to be intelligent about its historical inventions, which I as an historian have to cheer for.
Update: I was just looking at Michael Grant’s The Antonines, which has a section on Commodus, and Grant offers a couple of points relevant to this post. First, he points out that, had Marcus Aurelius attempted to appoint someone other than his son, he would inevitably have had to draw from a small number of prominent Romans, which would inevitably have been contested by the other prominent Romans; in other words, attempting to designate anyone other than his son would probably have triggered a civil war after his death.
His other interesting point is that we don’t actually know much about Marcus Aurelius’ death. While it is commonly thought that it happened at Vindobona, no source actually tells us exactly where or how he died. Dio Cassius, one of the best sources for Marcus’ reign, says that he was quite sick for much of the German campaign, but also says that he heard a story that Marcus’ doctor hastened his death in order to please Commodus. So while Gladiator’s scenario of Commodus personally killing his father is still false, it’s not quite as improbable as I had assumed.
Want to Know More?
Gladiatoris available at Amazon.
If you want to know about Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, an easy starting point is Michael Grant’s The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition.Anthony Birley’s biography of Marcus Aurelius: A Biography is sound, although it’s quite academic. For Commodus, there’s the recent The Emperor Commodus: Gladiator, Hercules or a Tyrant?