Your RDA of Irony

The Wrong Exorcism

This is the feast day of St. Albercius Marcellus, the second century bishop whose missionary efforts in Mesopotamia were so obviously successful. At least, no one killed him.

According to Christian folklore, Albercius Marcellus also was said to have exorcised Lucilla, daughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. That would make Albercius the patron saint of malpractice because Lucilla was the Emperor’s sane child. The good bishop apparently did not notice any of the quirks in Commodus; Hollywood has proved a little more observant.

Commodus preferred to be introduced as Hercules son of Jupiter. That certainly would have tested his father’s stoicism, but perhaps Marcus Aurelius thought that the boy would grow out of that phase. Unfortunately, inheriting the Roman Empire only further spoiled Commodus. He insisted that Rome be renamed Commodiana. And being the incarnation of Hercules, he trained to be a gladiator–although he limited his risk to killing animals. The wars in Britain and along the Danube were left to others; Commodus was busy slaughtering ostriches at the Colosseum. He was an accomplished archer, which allowed him a reasonably cautious way to kill lions.

The public was entertained, except for the patrician class being coerced into paying for the murdered menageries. His sister Lucilla was not exactly devoted to him either. In 182, just two years after his ascending the throne, she plotted his assassination. The nephew of her lover was supposed to stab the Emperor. Unfortunately, the aspiring assassin was also a cousin and he must have shared the family trait for bombastic theatrics because he proclaimed the assassination before he had accomplished it. The Praetorians had more than enough time to disarm the orating man. Of course, he was soon executed, and so was the Emperor’s nasty big sister and her lover. However, Lucilla’s husband was spared; he really was innocent of the plot. (Lucilla kept him in the dark about everything.)

In fairness to Commodus, he did not kill people as indiscriminately as he did animals. He was a megalomanical buffoon but not a monster. The young Emperor really just wanted to party rather than rule; he let his ministers run the empire and kill each other. (Just think of Commodus as a George Bush who had stayed drunk.) But after 12 years of a reign that was more mercurial than herculean, it was obvious that Commodus would never grow up; so his ministers decided that he shouldn’t grow old.

Even his mistress was involved in the plot. She tried poisoning him but apparently was not that good a cook. Someone finally thought of an appropriate sendoff; since Commodus was a jock, a professional athlete was hired to snap the Emperor’s neck. Commodus finally had a match that wasn’t fixed.

The ever-adolescent emperor (he was a callow 31) was succeeded by a mature and eminent senator who lasted less than a year, murdered by the imperial guard which then auctioned the empire off to the highest bidder. That was followed by civil war, tyrants, maniacs, more civil wars and an inexorable decline of the Empire itself.

Edward Gibbons began “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” with the reign of Commodus. If only St. Albercius had exorcised the right child.

  1. Mary Ann Jung says:

    Sounds like the word commode could be his namesake!

  2. MH says:

    What were the circumstances that led to the “mature and eminent ” senator’s assassination?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      The Emperor Pertinax might have expected a longer reign. He certainly was an improvement over his predecessor, the debauched and incompetent Commodus. (You remember him from “Gladiator.”) Indeed, on his own merits, Pertinax had the makings of an excellent ruler. He was conscientious, honest and capable. You could add frugality to his virtues, but that actually was a flaw in Rome. The people wanted their bread and circuses, and the Praetorian Guard expected “donations”.

      The Praetorians could overlook any vice in an emperor but stinginess. Pertinax had every virtue but generosity, so he did not survive his bodyguards.

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