Sun Ra - Column for 11/11

The Fortunate Column of Commodus

I've been doing pretty well with the history themes these last few weeks, so I think I'll continue in that vein. Today we're going to look at a very interesting psychological question. Are you really a megalomaniac if you are the most powerful man in the world?

Picture the Roman Empire at its height. About a hundred years before, the emperor Nerva had a very short but important two year reign. Because before he died in 98 AD, rather than having a blood relative succeed him as all previous emperors had done or had tried to do, he adopted the highly respected and well-liked general Trajan to be his successor. So when Nerva did die, Trajan became emperor in the first of a series of orderly transitions of power to well-chosen men rather than descendants that would mark the next five imperial successions.

Trajan in turn nominated and was succeeded by Hadrian, Hadrian by Antoninus Pius, and Antoninus Pius by Marcus Aurelius. It was a period considered by later scholars - in particular Gibbon - as the height of the power and glory of the empire. But that's not the period we're going to talk about.

Marcus Aurelius, you see, demurred to choose a successor from the Empire's worthies. He already had a successor - his son, Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus. In 180, Marcus Aurelius died, and the nineteen year old Commodus became sole emperor. His accession was fairly popular, as he was young and good-looking, and also generous. His generousity won him many supporters among the army and the lower classes, although since he paid for it with taxes on the wealthy it also earned him the enmity of the Senate. Not that he much cared.

For a number of years, he ruled ably enough. At least, he had fun with his 300 mixed-gender concubines, while allowing various officials to rule ably enough for him. But Commodus began to get, well, a swelled head. He began to identify with Hercules, dressing up in lion skins, carrying a club, and eventually officially taking the title of 'Hercules'. Much to the delight of the public, he also began to fight in the arena, clad in lion skin, against gladiators and wild beasts alike. Well, the delight of the poorer sections of the public. The higher classes thought that giving the other gladiators wooden swords, and tying up the bears, was not only unfair but rather undignified.

Whether he was Hercules or not, however, he was also Commodus. And increasingly, he felt that the world really did exist because and for himself. In 190, he ceremoniously re-founded Rome, naming it Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. That's right, he renamed Rome after himself. And he expected everyone to use the new name. Welcome to Commodiana.

And he was just getting started. The era that he was living in swiftly became the Golden Age of felicitas Commodi and the calendar started counting over again at I. Then renamed the months of the year, changing them from January, February, etc, to Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, and Pius. That's right, that's his names and all his titles.

Nor did he stop with the city and the calendar. The legions were renamed Commodianae (instead of Legionae), the grain fleet from Alexandria became the Alexandria Commodiana Togata, the Senate was renamed the Commodian Fortunate Senate, and our boy's opulent palace and the Roman people both were henceforth to be called Commodianus. Understandably, the day that these new appellations were announced to the Commodianus of Commodiana became the Dies Commodianus.

Unfortunately for Commodus, this was all getting to be a bit too much for the rest of Rome. Particularly as increasing numbers of powerful people found themselves executed or tossed in the arena. In 194 AD, he was strangled in his bath, and the Antonine dynasty came to an end. His successot, Pertinax, ruled for only three months, the first victim of years of civil war to come, accompanied by barbarian invasions that would destroy the Roman society of the 'five good emperors' forever.

But you knew that was going to happen. How about that Commodus, eh? Sure, he was a megalomaniac, but he was also the Roman Emperor, when the Roman Emperor was the unquestioned ruler of all the world he cared about. I mean, how's that for irony? It's better than being Napoleon. Of course, it wasn't enough, although it took ten years or so for him to really start running amok. When the whole Emperor gig was no longer enough, he went and renamed absolutely everything after himself. Personally, I wonder how people communicated.

"So, how about that Commodianae?"

"Which one?"

"You know, the big one, lived in by Commodus."

"Which one?"

You can see the problem.

I bet Harlock secretly longs to do that, though.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra