It would have been interesting to have seen that young man, the mask removed, frightening the senate into calling Rome Commodia, and then in a linen robe promenading in the attributes of a priest of Anubis through a seraglio of six hundred girls and mignons embracing as he passed. There was a spectacle, which Nero had not imagined. But Nero was vieux jeu. Commodus outdid him, first in debauchery, then in the arena. Nero had died while in training to kill a lion; Commodus did not take the trouble to train. It was the lions that were trained, not he. A skin on his shoulders, a club in his hand, he descended naked into the ring, and there felled beasts and men. Then, acclaimed as Hercules, he returned to the pulvina, and a mignon on one side, a mistress on the other, ordered the guard to massacre the spectators and set fire to Rome. After entering the arena six or seven hundred times, and there vanquishing men whose eyes had been put out and whose legs were tied, the colossal statue which Nero had made after his own image was altered; to the top came the bust of Commodus, to the base this legend: The victor of ten thousand gladiators, commodus-Hercules, imperator.
Meanwhile conspirators were at work. Like Nero, Commodus could have sought in vain for a friend. His life was attempted again and again; he escaped, but never the plotters; only when they had gone there were more. He knew he was doomed. There was the usual comet; the statue of Hercules had perspired visibly; an owl had been caught above his bedroom, and once he had wiped in his hair the hand which he had plunged in the warm wound of a gladiator, dead at his feet. These omens could mean but one thing. None the less, if he were doomed, so were others. One day one of those miserable children that the emperors kept about them found a tablet. It was as good as anything else to play with; and, as the child tossed it through the hall, the one woman that had loved Commodus caught it and read on it that she and all the household were to die. Within an hour Commodus was killed.
There is a page in Lampridus, which he quotes as coming from the lost chronicles of Marius Maximus, and which contains the joy of the senate at the news. It is too long for transcription, but as a bit of realism it is unique. There is a shiver in every line. You hear the voices of hundreds, drunk with fury, frenzied with delight; the fierce welcome that greeted Pertinax—a slave’s grandson, who was emperor for a minute—the joy of hate assuaged.
The delight of the senate was not shared by the pretorians. Pertinax was promptly massacred; the throne was put up at auction; there were two or three emperors at once, and presently the purple was seized by Septimus Severus, a rigid, white-haired disciplinarian, who, in his admiration for Marcus Aurelius, founded that second dynasty of the Antonins with which antiquity may be said to end.