The training arena where Commodus worked off energy and kept his Herculean muscles in condition was within the palace grounds, but the tunnel by which he reached it continued on and downward to the Circus Maximus, so that he could attend the public spectacles without much danger of assassination.
Nevertheless, a certain danger still existed. One of his worst frenzies of proscription had been started by a man who waited for him in the tunnel, and lost his nerve and then, instead of killing him, pretended to deliver an insulting message from the senate. Since that time the tunnel had been lined with guards at regular intervals, and when Commodus passed through his mysterious “double” was obliged to walk in front of him surrounded by enough attendants to make any one not in the secret believe the double was the emperor himself.
No man in the known world was less incapable than Commodus of self-defense against an armed man. There was no deception about his feats of strength and skill; he was undoubtedly the most terrific fighter and consummate athlete Rome had ever seen, and he was as proud of it as Nero once was of his “golden voice.” But, as he explained to the fawning courtiers who shouldered one another for a place beside him as he hurried down the tunnel:
“How could Rome replace me? Yesterday I had to order a slave beaten to death for breaking a vase of Greek glass. I can buy a hundred slaves for half what that glass cost Hadrian. And I could have a thousand better senators tomorrow than the fools who belch and stammer in the curia, the senate house. But where would you find another Commodus if some lurking miscreant should stab me from behind? It was the geese that saved the capitol. You cacklers can preserve your Commodus.”
They agreed in chorus, it would be Rome’s irreparable loss if he should die, and certain senators, more fertile than the others in expedients for drawing his attention to themselves, paused ostentatiously to hold a little conversation with the guards and promise them rewards if they should catch a miscreant lurking in wait to attack “our beloved, our glorious emperor.”
Commodus overheard them, as they meant he should.
“And such fulsome idiots as those expect me to believe they can frame laws!” He scowled over-shoulder. “Write down their names for me, somebody. The senate needs pruning! I will purge it the way Galen used to purge me when I had the colic! Cioscuri! But these leaky babblers suffocate me!”
He was true to the Caesarian tradition. He believed himself a god. He more than half-persuaded other men. His almost superhuman energy and skill with weapons, his terrific storms of anger and his magnetism overawed courtiers and politicians as they did the gladiators whom he slew in the arena. The strain of madness in his blood provided cunning that could mask itself beneath a princely bluster of indifference to consequences. He could fear with an extravagance coequal to the fury of his love of danger, and his fear struck terror into men’s hearts, as it stirred his mad brain into frenzies.