Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Commodus - The Death of an Emperor

'Let me have war, say I. It exceeds peace as far as day does night. It's spritely walking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men'. [Coriolanus]

What better way to celebrate the New Year than with a juicy murder story? After all, if it were not for violence, treachery, massacre, genocide, war, treason and general beastliness, where would the human race be? We’d still be living in caves and bushes, existing on berries and roots, with not even a sudoku to stave off the boredom. Hurrah for human nastiness!

Thus it was that on 31 December 192, the Roman Emperor Commodus was strangled to death by his loyal servant, Narcissus, in his villa at Quintili. 

'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!' [Carry On Cleo]

It is the afternoon of 31 December 192 and Rome waits to celebrate the New Year. But treachery is afoot. There is a plot to assassinate Commodus by poison administered by his favourite concubine, Marcia.

But the poison merely makes the emperor nauseous and he vomits it up. The next day he will get his revenge on her treachery, along with the others in the devilish plot.

But already it is too late for Commodus. Later that night, his wrestling partner and friend of 30 years, Narcissus, comes to his chamber, and it is not a social call to wish him a Happy New Year. Narcissus has some unfinished business with his master. 

The emperor is sleeping on his bed and wakes to find his servant's hands around his throat. He struggles, but his aggressor, a champion wrestler, has him in his mortal grip. The end is inevitable. Commodus has lived, and lives no more.

Commodus became emperor at the age of 18 on the death of his father Marcus Aurelius in the year 180. He began his reign on a low key, devoting more time to his pleasures than to the running of the state. And with a household of 300 young women at his disposal, life for the young emperor was one long orgasm.

But the good life is brusquely interrupted when he escapes an assassination attempt by his sister Lucilla and several senators. In retaliation, he allows the commander of his Praetorian Guard to execute his sister along with her accomplices.

This first bloodbath leads to others. Anyone even suspected of plotting against him is executed. He puts down a revolt led by one Maternus, and becomes entrenched in his megalomania.

He presents himself as the new Romulus, renames the months of the year, claims to be Hercules, the son of Jupiter, dresses in a lion skin, and embraces man's natural propensity to slaughter anything that moves through gladiatorial spectacles in which hundreds of nature's finest animals - lions, bears, gazelles, ostriches, elephants - are butchered.

Then, in December 192, Commodus announces his wish to celebrate the New Year, not in the traditional manner, but dressed as a gladiator. Marcia implores him not to, telling him of the dishonour it will bring on Rome. 

He shares his plan with Eclectus, his steward, and Leatus, the Praetorian prefect, and they, too, try to dissuade him from his folly.

Enraged, Commodus withdraws to his chambers, and makes up a list of those he will execute the following night. Marcia, Eclectus and Leatus have the honour of heading the list, followed by the names of various senators. He then takes a bath.

While the emperor is bathing, Marcia sees the list, and goes to warn Eclectus and Leatus. Together they hatch a plan to kill the emperor. Marcia puts poison in the cup of wine that Commodus drinks after he has bathed. The emperor drinks the wine, then sleeps on his bed. But he is woken with violent stomach spasms and vomits up the poison.

The trio of conspirators are in a state of panic. What if Commodus recovers? What will be their fate? Their only solution is to persuade the slave Narcissus to throttle his master. A compensation deal is struck with Narcissus, and he duly performs the dirty deed.

And so endeth the life of the man who thought he was Hercules.

Happy New Year!

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