It is impossible for mankind to escape history, but sometimes even when you are least expecting it, history becomes more personal. Rummaging though a box of old prints in London, I discovered a print of the Roman Emperor Commodus for just £1.
Commodus was one of the least popular Roman Emperors – and if you have seen the film Gladiator, you will know why. The son of Marcus Aurelius Commodus, he was born Lucius Aurelius Commodus and ruled from 177 to 192AD with his father.
He liked to fight as a gladiator, as well as being emperor – and if you have not seen Gladiator, I will not spoil the outcome just yet.
He became emperor by becoming the youngest ever consul – and then began to rule as co-emperor with his father. Commodus was also the only son to succeed his father to the position since 79AD, when Titus succeeded his father Emperor Vespasian. He was also the only emperor to be born while his father was ruling Rome, so his lineage alone set him up to be emperor, whereas others had to literally fight for it.
Like Julius Caesar, he ruled increasingly as a living deity – and like Caesar, he was assassinated, in 192AD. His father had been the fifth of what are known as The Five Good Emperors, so Commodus failed to make it as the sixth – and his unpopularity meant that, even if he had lived, it was unlikely he would have been added to the tally.
He was notable for reducing the value of the Roman currency – devaluing it by reducing the amount of precious metal in coins, one of his most unpopular moves.
But he accompanied his father on military campaigns – and was named as Germanicus after the Marcomannic Wars in 172AD.
The Dacians ruled Transylvania and what are now areas of modern day Romania, until the Emperor Trajan (78-117AD) annexed and colonised the region in 107AD. After the Macromannic Wars in 172AD, Commodus and his father united the north and the south of the province under one governor. Dacia was rich in agricultural land and the Romans also expanded their mining operations there. It was referred to as “Dacia Felix” or “happy Dacia” – and provided most of the grain to the Roman militia and the entire region, so was a valuable asset to the Roman empire.
Germanicus was a title awarded to the victor in military campaigns – and the Romans had many victor titles which could be awarded after a successful campaign. Germanicus means “victory in Germania”.
Commodus identified with Hercules and is even portrayed in images as the Greco-Roman demigod, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. There is still a healthy trade in coins depicting Commodus as Hercules – and they fetch impressive prices online.
Now back to how I came to be rummaging in a box of old prints in London and decided to buy a print of Commodus. Well, his father Marcus Aurelius is one of my distant great grandfathers, adding Commodus to my list of unholy ancestors – although it is a pleasant change to discover that Marcus Aurelius was actually one of the good guys.
I was also rummaging in London’s Camden Passage – an historic Georgian area of Islington in north London famed for antiques. Islington, by coincidence, was the place where Boudicca made her last stand against the Romans in Barnsbury in 61AD – having burned the capital – now Colchester – rather than allow it to fall to the Roman army. She was by then 40 years old and a widow, so chose to commit suicide rather than be taken captive. Boudicca is also my many times great grandmother.
If you are interested in history and genealogy and tracing your family tree, you may find that the extent to which we are all distantly related is fascinating. The Romans ruled a vast empire which spread its tentacles into what is now Great Britain, Gaul, Africa, the Middle East and beyond – and Roman emperors frequently married the daughters of local rulers to help community cohesion, so finding a Spanish or Syrian grandmother will not be uncommon. You may also find that you are a Viking as well as a Roman, as the French rulers were descended from Rollo, a Danish King who took Rouen in 876AD and was the first ruler of Normandy – William the Conqueror is a descendant of Rollo, which might also explain his savagery.
Another way of checking whether you are a Roman is to check your earlobes – apparently Romans had long, generous earlobes! The Dacians – whom Commodus and his father fought in the Macromannic Wars – naturally had small earlobes, it is said, so check yours!
But I can never forgive what Commodus (played by Joaquin Pheonix) did to Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator – who recognises Marcus Aurelius as the true emperor, not his son, in what is one of the most iconic speeches in the history of film.
“I am Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next”.
You can watch scenes from Gladiator on YouTube – and see exactly why Commodus was not one of the more popular Roman emperors.
Commodus may be my ancestor, but I know whose side I am on – and the fact he is famous for devaluing the Roman currency and I bought his image for just £1 seems like natural justice in itself.