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The Emperor’s Forgotten Son

Remarkable Marcus Aurelius

The Roman Empire has had many illustrious and infamous rulers, but I have always taken a particular interest in Marcus Aurelius. He went on record as the last of the Five Good Emperors, and his death marked the start of the Empire’s decline.

Why? Because Marcus broke with the tradition set by his four predecessors.

The title of emperor was hereditary, as were many things. To facilitate rights of ownership and inheritance, it was not uncommon in Roman high society to adopt adults, thereby choosing who inherited – or who succeeded. The Good Emperors all selected and adopted the best-qualified man as their co-ruler and successor.

Necessity did play in this practice when there was no (legal) male offspring in the first place – and the law excluded daughters. Marcus Aurelius, however, did have a natural son: Lucius Aurelius Commodus.

Bad Seed

Contemporary records say that Commodus was handsome but not too bright. He had no interest in affairs of state or in the calm, Stoic philosophy of his father. This was obvious even before Marcus died and left Commodus as sole emperor.

If Commodus was recognisably unqualified for the job, why would Marcus have made the boy co-ruler and sole successor?

One of the reasons historians consider is that grief drove Marcus to favour his only surviving son. Marcus and his wife Faustina had 13 children, including two sets of twins. Only five children survived into adulthood, of which four were daughters.

The historians’ argument certainly has merit. Marcus’s grief over losing so many children is understandable and shows evidently in the personal notes he left for his son. By the way, these notes – a collection of thoughts, ideas and memories – are now known as Meditations.

Unfortunately for the Empire, Commodus took little note of his father’s advice. Cassius Dio, a contemporary of Commodus, describes him as guileless but ignorant, cowardly and impressionable. The touch of megalomania that he acquired didn’t help, and he was assassinated 12 years into his reign.  

Shell Game of Sons

Yet Marcus didn’t mean to put all his eggs in one basket. When he gave Commodus the title of Caesar, it was together with his younger brother Marcus Annius Verus. Possibly their father would have made them both his co-rulers in time. Except Annius Verus died only three years later.

Perhaps Marcus could find no suitable candidate to adopt as co-ruler for his surviving son. His own co-ruler, Lucius Verus, had already died, so perhaps the strain of being the sole ruler of so large and empire forced Marcus to appoint someone to help him. Perhaps politics forced his hand: Commodus was bound to have had supporters to his claims as successor elsewhere in government.

Or perhaps something else happened. A forgotten turn of event that someone took great pain to hide.

What caught my eye in all this is the fact that Commodus had a twin brother. Of this older twin, nothing survived but his name: Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antonius, died 165 AD at the age of four. A footnote in history, along with his other dead siblings.

But, isn’t history (re)written by the victors?