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Commodus, the Best of Men

The arrival of an Alexandrian Tetradrachm of Commodus led to a deep dive into the life of Commodus and his coins. Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina II. He was the third child and had a twin brother who died in 165 AD. He was educated by the scholars in the court of his father.

"Marcus tried to educate Commodus by his own teaching and by that of the greatest and the best of men.In Greek literature he had Onesicrates as his teacher, in Latin, Antistius Capella; his instructor in rhetoric was Ateius Sanctus."
-Historia Augusta, Life of Commodus 1.5 

Commodus became the youngest emperor at the age of 15 when Marcus Aurelius died 27 November 176. This coin struck by Marcus Aurelius commemorates victory over Parthia c. 166 AD.

Marcus Aurelius, Æ Sestertius (21.67g, 29.4mm, 12h), Rome, AD 166

Obv: M AVREL ANTONINVS AVG ARM PARTH, laureate head to right

Rev: TR POT XX IMP IIII COS III, Victory, winged, naked to waist, standing front, head right, holding palm in right hand and with left hand placing on palm-tree a shield inscribed VIC PAR in two lines on palm tree; S-C across fields

This coin issued by Commodus in honor of his deified father:

Divus Marcus Aurelius, Æ Sestertius (31mm, 26.12g, 6h) , struck under Commodus, Rome, AD 180

Obv: DIVVS M ANTONINVS PIVS, bare head right

Rev: CONSECRATIO, garlanded funeral pyre of four tiers surmounted by statue of Aurelius in facing quadriga; S-C across fields

Ref: RIC 662

This map shows the location of the Ustrinum of Marcus Aurelius which was discovered in 1907 when a new Parliament building was under construction. An ustrinum was the site where the body of the emperor was cremated. Marcus Aurelius' ashes would also end up in Hadrian's Mausoleum (at least until Alaric's sack of Rome in AD 410).

Map source : Boatwright, M. T. (1985). The “Ara Ditis-Ustrinum of Hadrian” in the Western Campus Martius and Other Problematic Roman Ustrina. American Journal of Archaeology, 89(3), 485–497.

This coin has a portrait of Commodus' mother as a young woman, issued between the birth of her first child and elevation to Augusta at the end of AD 147, and the birth of her second child in March 149 when both obverses and reverses were changed significantly.

Faustina II, AR denarius (3.59g, 18mm), Augusta, AD 147-175, Rome, under Antoninus Pius, circa AD December 147 and March 149

Obv: FAVSTINAE AVG PII AVG FIL, draped bust of Faustina II right, hair tied in bun at back of head, single circlet of pearls around

Rev: V-E-NVS, Venus standing facing, head left, holding apple and rudder with dolphin entwined

Ref: RIC 515a; Strack 520; BMC 1067; RSC 261

The Early Years

Herodian was a Syrian, sometimes referred to as Herodian of Antioch, who wrote a history of Rome that covered most of his lifetime (c. AD 170 - c.240) from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the reign of Gordian III (AD 180 - 238).

There are differences between the various sources on Commodus, and telling of his faults certainly grew more exaggerated after his death. In Herodian's telling, Perennis, head of the praetorian guard, was the corrupting influence on the young emperor: "persuading him to spend his time in a life of pleasure and drunkenness" (Herodian I.8.2). Herodian's biography is restrained compared with descriptions from the Historia Augusta (uncertain date - attributed to 4th or 5th century AD) e.g.

"He never showed regard for either decency or expense. He diced in his own home. He herded together women of unusual beauty, keeping them like purchased prostitutes in a sort of brothel for the violation of their chastity. He imitated the hucksters that strolled about from market to market. He procured chariot-horses for his own use. He drove chariots in the garb of a professional charioteer,​ lived with gladiators, and conducted himself like a procurer's servant.
-Historia Augusta, Life of Commodus 

After an attempted assassination plot involving Lucilla (Commodus' sister), senators and nobles, Perennis enriched himself by taking for himself the property of the executed conspirators. According to Cassius Dio, Commodus banished both his sister, Lucilla, and his wife, Crispina, to the island of Capreae before having them executed (Dio, Roma History, LXXIII.4.4).

Perennis' ambitions to take the throne ended when another planned coup was revealed and he and his sons were executed in AD 185. (Herodian I.9.8). Coup attempts by Maternus and Cleanader, further fueled Commodus' anxieties and cruelty, while his inattention, several temple fires and a plague all damaged the relationship between Commodus and the Roman people. Commodus began to style himself as Hercules, wearing lion skins and carrying a club, and participating in gladiatorial displays of his strength and marksmanship.

Commodus, AR Denarius. Rome, AD 191-192, 18mm 3.27g.

Obv: L AEL AVREL COMM AVG P FEL, head to right, wearing the lion skin headdress of Hercules

Rev: HERCVLI ROMANO AVG, bow, club and quiver with arrows

Ref: RIC III 253; BMCRE 343; RSC 195

Provenance: Ex. Michael John Buckwell (1948-2022), London.

"So far Commodus was still quite popular with the mob even if his conduct, apart from his courage and marksmanship, was unfitting for an emperor. But when he ran into the amphitheatre stripped and carrying his weapons for a gladiatorial fight, the people were ashamed to see a Roman emperor of noble lineage, whose father and forebears had all celebrated great triumphs, now disgracing his office with a thoroughly degrading exhibition, instead of using his weapons to fight the barbarians and prove himself worthy of the Roman empire."
-Herodian, History of the Empire, I.15.5-6

Commodus renamed the months of the year after his own names: Amazonius (Jan), Invictus (Feb), Felix (Mar), Pius (Apr), Lucius (May), Aelius (Jun), Aurelius (Jul), Commodus (Aug), Augustus (Sept), Herculeus (Oct), Romanus (Nov), Exsuperatorius (Dec).

Those around him, alarmed by his behavior, and the risks to themselves killed him - first attempting poison in wine offered to him by his mistress Marcia. When that didn't work, they paid an athlete, Narcissus, to strangle him. So ended the last emperor of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. The Roman people were not upset with the change.

"As the word quickly spread the people went practically mad with excitement. Everyone rushed to and fro paying their visits to their patrons and telling them the news, especially if they were people of importance or wealth, since they were the ones whom it was known Commodus was also making plans to destroy. People danced at the temples and altars in acknowledgement of their gratitude to the gods. Shouts of all kinds were heard, such as that the tyrant was dead, or that the gladiator had been killed, as well as other more profane and abusive cries."
-Herodian, History of the Empire, II.2.3-4

An Altar found in Dura Europos, Tittianus Altar, on the Parthian Frontier (today Syria) both illustrates that news of Commodus' death was slow to arrive in Dura-Europos and documents his renaming of the months.

Image Source: Speidel, M. P. “Commodus the God-Emperor and the Army.”

Commodus, AD 177-192, AR Denarius, Rome mint, struck AD 186

Obv: Laureate head right

Rev: Commodus, standing left on platform, holding scepter and raising hand, addressing three soldiers, each holding standard; FID EXERC in exergue

After his death, Commodus was still regarded well as a benefactor or symbol of strength by the military. Pertinax, a former confidant of Marcus Aurelius, was chosen to replace Commodus as emperor, but he was killed by the Praetorian guard. Then, according to Herodian, Didius Julianus bought the title of emperor:

"Julianus promised first to reinstate Commodus’ reputation by restoring the honours and statues which the senate had removed, then to allow them as much freedom as they had had under Commodus and finally to give each man more money than he dreamt of asking for or getting."
-Herodian, History of the Empire, II.6.7

The Ancient Coin

This coin added to my collection of Roman Egyptian Tetradrachms, and this one of Commodus was issued AD 183/4 while Commodus was under the influence of Perennis,

Egypt, Alexandria. Commodus, 177-192 AD, BI Tetradrachm (26mm, 10.62g). Dated RY 24 (183/4 AD)

Obv: Laureate head right

Rev: Bust of Nilus right, wearing lotus wreath and holding cornucopiae; L K-Δ (date) across field

Ref: Köln 2215; cf. Dattari 3874; Milne 2651; Emmett 2552

This coin from Rome in the next year - not long before Perennis and his sons were executed.

Commodus (AD 177-192), Dupondius, Rome, 23mm, 12.03g, issued 184-185

Obv: M COMM ANTON AVG PIVS BRIT, Radiate head right

Rev: P M TR P VIIII IMP VII COS IIII P P, Roma seated left on shield with spear and Victory

Ref: RIC 443

Commodus, Æ Sestertius, Rome, AD 188-189, 19.62 g

Obv: M COMMODVS ANT P FELIX AVG BRIT, laureate head to right

Rev: MART PACAT P M TR P XIIII IMP VIII COS V P P, Mars standing to left, holding branch and sceptre; S-C across fields

Ref: RIC III 527

This denarius was issued in his last year of reign:

Commodus, AD 177-192, AR Denarius (16mm, 2.2 g, 12h), Rome mint, struck AD 192

Obv: L AEL AVREL COMM AVG P FEL, laureate head right

Rev: P M TR P XVII IMP VIII COS VII P P, Victory advancing left, holding wreath and palm frond; star to left

Ref: RIC III 237; RSC 568a


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Jan 21, 2023

Interesting article. One could almost do a whole display at a major coin show with the coins mentioned here. I would like to add two additional coins to this discussion of Commodus.

You mention that:

"Commodus began to style himself as Hercules, wearing lion skins and carrying a club,..."

He also issued coinage of this design, I believe, in 192 AD.

This is an example of an As, purchased from a friend and long-time Roman historian/collector ca. 1996 or 97. These were also issued in sestertius denominations, which I'm also looking for.

The second was an accidental purchase as I {when much younger} went to a coin show and just bought any Roman antoninianus. They were all $35 to $50.…

Jan 21, 2023
Replying to

Great additions, Gallienus!


Alfred Kowsky
Alfred Kowsky
Oct 18, 2022

Sulla, another excellent article with great coin photos 😊. My favorite coin has to be the dupondius with Britannia on the reverse 🙂. Pictured below is a denarius I had auctioned in CNG 483, lot 468, it fetched $180.

Commodus, AD 177-192 (struck AD 189). Rome Mint. AR Denarius: 2.95 gm, 17 mm, 11 h. Obverse legend: M COMM ANT P FEL AVG BRIT P P. Reverse: Fortuna Felix standing with left foot on prow, holding short caduceus & cornucopia, legend: FOR FEL P M TR P XIIII COS V DES VI. RIC III 186.

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