Companions in Toil

Michael Kulikowski

  • Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard by Guy de la Bédoyère
    Yale, 336 pp, £25.00, March 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 21895 4

Commodus, the only surviving son of the venerable Marcus Aurelius, lurched into megalomaniac excess soon after his succession. He thought he was divine, an incarnation of Hercules, and proclaimed imperial victories over Amazons and other imaginary peoples. He also fancied himself a gladiator (Ridley Scott’s film got that bit right) and delighted in slaughtering exotic creatures in the arena. Once, having decapitated an ostrich with specially designed arrows, he harangued the senators in their box seats, waving the bird’s head at them and declaring a fervent desire to do the same thing to the Senate. The historian Cassius Dio, then a young man, was there and recalls that he and his senatorial peers were torn between laughter and terror, knowing the emperor happily murdered those who displeased him. Eventually, after 11 years of burgeoning madness, Commodus was himself murdered.

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