Marcus’ life, however, did not flow on quietly; he had to kill Germans while writing this Fifth Gospel, and in the end he faced death with no consolation in the son who would succeed him, and no hope of happiness beyond the grave. Soul and body alike return to their original elements.

For as the mutation and dissolution of bodies make room for other bodies doomed to die, so the souls that are removed into the air, after life’s existence, are transmuted and diffused… into the seminal intelligence of the universe, and make room for new souls…. Thou hast existed as a part; thou shalt disappear in that which produced thee…. This, too, nature wills…. Pass, then, through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journeys in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.


When the officer of the guard asked the dying Marcus for the watchword of the day he answered: “Go to the rising sun; my sun is setting.” The rising sun was then nineteen, a robust and dashing youth without inhibitions, morals, or fear. One would have expected of him, rather than of Marcus the ailing saint, a policy of war to victory or death; instead, he offered the enemy immediate peace. They were to withdraw from the vicinity of the Danube, to surrender most of their arms, return all Roman prisoners and deserters, pay Rome an annual tribute of corn, and persuade 13,000 of their soldiers to enlist in the Roman legions. All Rome condemned him except the people; his generals fumed at allowing the trapped prey to escape and fight again another day. During the reign of Commodus, however, no trouble came from the Danubian tribes. The young prince, though no coward, had seen enough of war; he needed peace to enjoy Rome. Back in the capital, he snubbed the Senate and loaded the plebs with unprecedented gifts- 725 denarii to each citizen. Finding no field in politics for his exuberant strength, he hunted beasts on the imperial estates and developed such skill with sword and bow that he decided to perform publicly. For a time he left the palace and lived in the gladiators’ school; he drove chariots in the races, and fought in the arena against animals and men. Presumably the men who opposed him took care to let him win; but he thought nothing of fighting, unaided and before breakfast, a hippopotamus, an elephant, and a tiger, which made no distinctions for royalty. He was so perfect a bowman that with a hundred arrows he killed a hundred tigers in one exhibition. He would let a panther leap upon some condemned criminal and then slay the animal with one arrow, leaving the man unhurt to die again. He had his exploits recorded in the Acta Diurna and insisted on being paid, out of the Treasury, for each of his thousand combats as a gladiator.

The historians upon whom we must here depend wrote, like Tacitus, from the viewpoint and traditions of the offended aristocracy; we cannot tell how much of the marvels they relate are history, how much are revenge. We are assured that Commodus drank and gambled, wasted the public funds, kept a harem of 300 women and 300 boys, and liked to vary his sex occasionally, at least by using a woman’s garb, even at the public games. Tales of unbelievable cruelty are transmitted to us: Commodus ordered a votary of Bellona to amputate an arm in proof of piety; forced some women devotees of Isis to beat their breasts with pine cones till they died; killed men indiscriminately with his club of Hercules; gathered cripples together and slew them one by one with arrows…. One of his mistresses, Marcia, was apparently a Christian; for her sake, we are told, he pardoned some Christians who had been condemned to the Sardinian mines. Her devotion to him suggests that in this man, described as more bestial than any beast, there was some lovable element unrecorded by history.