Posts Tagged ‘Marcus Aurelius’

In Praise of Impotence

Posted in General, On This Day on August 31st, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

August 31st:  Happy Birthday to Emperor Commodus

Marcus Aurelius was a statesman and philosopher.   But for all of the esteem that history has conferred on the him, he did leave the Roman Empire in the hands of a teenage idiot: his son Commodus.  The  fatuous, petulant princeling, born this day in 161, possessed no distinctions other than his father’s name and a talent for carousing.  Commodus’ reign was only as good as his advisors and his temper, and the former rarely survived the latter. He hated to be distracted from his chief interest: professional sports. The emperor preoccupied himself with managing a gladiator school. His tantrums finally compelled some endangered advisors to organize a fitting plot. The imperial jock got a fatal headlock from a professional wrestler.

How could the great Marcus Aurelius have made such a foolish choice?  Stoics are not supposed to be sentimental. Furthermore, the imperial position was not hereditary. From 96 to 180, five Emperors–Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninius Pius and Marcus Aurelius–had been selected on merit.  Heredity had proved a very poor criterion for government.

First, the Roman Patrician turned out to be very unproductive–literally. All that Italian body hair (I am referring to the men) had no correlation with fertility. Augustus had only one child–a daughter. Tiberius had only one child–a son who was murdered by his wife. Nero certainly did not prolong the dynasty by kicking to death his pregnant wife. And with Caligula’s habit of “dating” his sisters, sterility was preferable. So progeny may have been a Latin term but not a Latin habit.

Given the sparsity of heirs, the Romans were almost forced to pick Emperors on merit. Then the Philosopher-Emperor had to ruin it by indulging in nepotism. Commodus proved so abysmal that his reign seemed to Edward Gibbon the appropriate beginning of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” After Commodus, the Emperors again were elevated generally on merit. Unfortunately, the merit now was one’s ability to kill your predecessor. That would explain why there were some 80 emperors in five centuries.

p.s. Today is also Caligula’s birthday, but he doesn’t need me as a publicist.