Not the Best Way To End A Year…A Roman Soap Opera!

Although ancient Romans vacillated between January 1st or March 1st as the beginning of a new year, however you look at it, this is not how someone wants to end their year. Any year

On the thirty-first of December 192 AD, the Emperor of Rome, at the time known as Caesar Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus – Commodus for short – intended to ring in the New Year 193 AD by making himself consul and gladiator. He enjoyed being a gladiator. In November, he not only spent his mornings killing animals in the arena, but fought gladiators each afternoon. I don’t need to tell you Commodus won each bout.

Plots were everywhere, and one involved Commodus’ favorite mistress, Marcia, a woman he treated like his legal wife although they never married. Marcia already knew a thing or two about conspiracies. About ten years before, she and Commodus’ sister Lucilla had plotted an overthrow but were exposed. While Lucilla was executed (this is where the movie Gladiator takes liberties), Marcia was spared, often giving the Emperor governmental advice, including a more lenient policy towards Christians. (Marcia might have been one herself).

So we’re back to “New Year’s Eve.”

Commodus intended to appear before the people, but “not from the palace in traditional purple robes, but from the gladiator’s barracks, escorted by the rest of the gladiators. After telling his plan to Marcia the night before, she begged him not to behave so carelessly and bring disgrace to the Roman Empire.”          

Well, you don’t tick off an Emperor or dictator or a ‘god’ because he also tells his plan to several prominent others, and when they told him the same as Marcia, he added their names to a list of those he intended on executing New Year’s Day. While the Emperor was bathing, his favorite servant found the names and took the tablet to Marcia. I wonder how surprised she was to find her name at the very top. Allegedly – per Herodian – she exclaimed, “Well done, indeed, Commodus. This is fine return for the kindness and affection I have lavished on you and for the drunken insults which I have endured from you all these years. A fuddled drunkard is not going to get the better of a sober woman.”

Hell hath no fury…

After meeting with the three also recently added to the list, they decided it was either Commodus or them.

Because of his trust in her, Marcia had the honor of handing him his drink once he left the bath, therefore, she added poison to the wine and gave it to him. He became so violently ill he vomited…and vomited…and vomited. At this point, he might have vomited all the poison before he finally dropped dead. Marcia and the others went to Plan B: they ordered Commodus’ favorite wrestling partner (and wrestling professional), Narcissus, to strangle him.

The deceased son of Marcus Aurelius was now declared an enemy of the State. His statues were destroyed. Although there were plans to drag his body through the streets of Rome, cooler heads prevailed before it occurred. His remains were buried in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. But the Roman Empire was often fickle, for two years later, at the behest of Emperor Septimius Severus, the Senate declared Commodus a god, however his assassination concluded the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. Marcia did not have a happy ending either. She and her husband were murdered in 193 AD.

In the end, there was no colossal gladiatorial battle of good versus evil witnessed by the people of Rome: a mad emperor battling a general who became a slave who became a gladiator who defied an emperor. Lucilla would not be there to see to the remains of the ‘savior of Rome.’ 

I don’t know. Maybe the movie version was better. 

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