Commodus the Brigand-Chief

What would it have been like to be brought to trial before a Roman governor, or even the emperor himself? This seems to have been a question which occupied the minds of Roman citizens in the imperial period, judging by the surprising amount of trial scenes which feature in literary texts. Tacitus’ Annals, which covers the age of the Julio-Claudians, includes some of the most evocative depictions of political trials, such as Calpurnius Piso’s arraignment in the senate for fomenting civil war in Syria and undermining Germanicus, the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius (Tac. Ann. 3.10-19). Who can forget the memorable dramatization of these events in the BBC drama I, Claudius (with much greater emphasis on the poisoning charges, it has to be said)?


Domitian, Munich Glyptothek (Photo by C. Davenport)

Trials feature in a range of literature that is probably less well known to the general public, such as Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. This is an entertaining account of the life of the Greek sage and holy man Apollonius, who is brought to trial before Domitian for supporting the emperor’s enemies (including the future emperor Nerva). Before the trial starts, Apollonius is instructed to look at Domitian as ‘the god of all mankind’, but refuses to do so, gazing heavenward to Zeus instead (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 8.4). Domitian’s own divinity is undermined in the trial itself when Apollonius manages to vanish before everyone’s eyes, leaving the audience wondering about the extent of the sage’s powers (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 8.5.3). Philostratus’ readers, accustomed to the long reach and firm hand of Roman imperial authority, would have probably enjoyed seeing an emperor undermined in such fashion, especially one with such a tyrannical reputation as Domitian. These trial scenes are of particular interest for the Popular Perceptions of Roman Emperors project, since the Roman perception of imperial justice forms one of our four key areas of investigation.

Some of the most memorable trial scenes have been found on papyri, which record appearances by embassies of Alexandrian Greeks and Jews before Roman emperors of the first and second centuries A.D. These texts are collectively known as the Acta Alexandrinorum (‘Acts of the Alexandrians’), or more sensationally as the ‘Acts of the Pagan Martyrs’ (Musurillo 1954). They are a type of popular literature that draws inspiration from real disputes between the Greek and Jewish communities of Alexandria which were heard either before the prefect of Egypt or the emperors themselves (Harker 2008). We do have surviving examples of genuine imperial judgements on these matters, such as a letter of the emperor Claudius from A.D. 41 (P. Lond. 6.1912). However, most of the Acta are fictional and extraordinary accounts of Alexandrian embassies. In these texts, the emperors are not portrayed as reasonable and merciful figures, but as hostile, intemperate tyrants. One of the features of the Acta is the way in which the Alexandrian Greeks frequently speak very candidly and even abusively to the emperors. I’ve been working through this material recently while preparing a paper on ‘Liminal Perspectives on the Imperial Court’, which I will be presenting at the Celtic Classics Conference in Dublin in June 2016.

The work known as the ‘Acts of Appian’ (Acta Appiani) is a particularly interesting text (Musurillo 1954 No. XI). This is a fictitious account of the trial of Appian, an Alexandrian Greek, who has accused the emperor of corruptly pocketing money from the grain shipments sent from Egypt to Rome. The most extensive fragment of the text begins with Appian already having been sentenced to death, and appearing again before the unnamed emperor:

The emperor (then) recalled Appian. The emperor said: ‘Now you know whom you are speaking to, don’t you?’

Appian: ‘Yes, I do: Appian speaks to a tyrant.’

The emperor: ‘No, to a king.’

Appian: ‘Say not so! Your father, the deified Antoninus, was fit to be emperor. For, look you, first of all he was a philosopher; secondly, he was not avaricious; thirdly, he was a lover of goodness. But you have precisely the opposite qualities: you are tyrannical, dishonest, crude!’

(P. Oxy. 1.33, translation slightly adapted from that of H. Musurillo).

Most Romans could only fantasize about telling the emperor what they really thought of him by calling him a tyrant to his face. But who was the emperor that Appian had the gall to attack in person? The text provides us with a crucial clue: his father, Antoninus, had been deified after his death, and was known to be a philosopher. This can only be the emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose full name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He is perhaps best known today as the author of the philosophical work commonly called The Meditations (though the original title was To Himself). Marcus’ devotion to philosophy was well known even in his lifetime – according to the historian Cassius Dio (71.35.2), many men pretended to be philosophers themselves so that Marcus would reward them. The Acta Appiani indicates that the perception of Marcus as a good philosopher was widespread throughout the empire, and not just confined to the imperial court.


Commodus, Palazzo Massimo, Rome (Photo by C. Davenport)

The emperor whom Appian is addressing must be Marcus Aurelius’ son, the infamous Commodus, best known for his gladiatorial proclivities and harsh treatment of senatorial opponents. The language which Appian uses to denounce Commodus is particularly interesting. It does not depend on any actual actions or offences committed by Commodus, but on the conception of the ‘philosopher king’ as the best ruler (MacMullen 1963). When Appian calls Commodus a ‘tyrant’ (tyrannos), Commodus does not reply that he is an ‘emperor’ (autokrator), but says that he is a ‘king’, employing the Greek word basileus. The dichotomy between a tyrannos and basileus was derived from Greek political philosophy, and this idea was used by Greek authors of the Roman empire to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors. Commodus’ behaviour towards Appian is far from kingly, however.

A second passage from the Acta Appiani develops this political criticism further. In this scene, the Roman people have complained about Appian’s execution, so Commodus summons the Alexandrian before him once again:

 When Appian had come in, he said: ‘Who is it this time that called me back as I was about to greet death again and those who died before me, Theon and Isidorus and Lampon? Was it the Senate or you, you brigand-chief?’

The emperor: ‘Appian, I am accustomed to chasten those who rave and have lost all sense of shame. You speak only so long as I permit you to.’

Appian: ‘By your genius, I am neither mad nor have I lost my sense of shame. I am making an appeal on behalf of my noble rank and my privileges.’

The emperor: ‘How so?’

Appian: ‘As one of noble rank and a gymnasiarch.’

The emperor: ‘Do you suggest that I am not of noble rank?’

Appian: ‘That I know not; I am merely appealing on behalf of my own nobility and privileges.’

(P. Oxy. 1.33, translated by H. Musurillo).

Why does Appian call Commodus a ‘brigand-chief’ (lestarchos in Greek)? At first sight this may seem like a slightly strange insult. But we know that in Greek and Roman thought, brigands and robbers were considered the ultimate outsiders, the enemy of both the state and the people (MacMullen 1963; Grünewald 2004: 73-76). It had become particularly common in the late Roman Republic to brand one’s political enemies as robbers, brigands, or pirates, as Cicero memorably characterised Marcus Antonius in the Philippics. By calling Commodus a ‘brigand-chief’, Appian portrays the emperor himself as the rebel and outsider, undermining his position.


Gold coin (Aureus) of Commodus, featuring NOBILIT(AS) on the reverse (RIC III Commodus 155). Copyright Trustees of the British Museum. Image used under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Creative Commons License.

The conversation soon turns to the question of ‘nobility’, for which the Greek word used is eugeneia (literally ‘good birth’). There is a sly dig here at Commodus’ own nobility. In response to the emperor’s questioning, Appian says he does not know whether Commodus is noble or not, as he can only vouch for himself. Commodus was in fact very proud of his status as the ‘purple-born’ son of a Roman emperor, so much so that it formed part of the official image he presented to the world. He was the first emperor to mint coins featuring the legend NOBILIT(AS) (‘nobility’), and he is described as nobilissimus (‘most noble’) in contemporary inscriptions (Noreña 2011: 232, 254-255). It is difficult to determine the extent to which the author of the Acta Appiani was deliberately undermining this specific aspect of Commodus’ public image. Popular awareness of the nuances of imperial ideology is something that we are examining as part of the project, but we do not have any firm answers as of yet. We do know that there were rumours, reported in fourth century sources, that Commodus was not a genuine son of Marcus Aurelius, but the product of a liaison between his mother Faustina and a gladiator (Historia Augusta, Marcus Aurelius 19.1-7; cf. Aurelius Victor, On the Caesars 16.2). Although this story was baseless scuttlebutt, its origin can probably be ascribed to the fact that Romans had difficulty conceiving how Commodus could be the son of the good philosopher king Marcus Aurelius. These are the same doubts expressed by Appian himself in the Acta Alexandrinorum.

The Acta Alexandrinorum suggest that the thought of being arraigned before the Roman emperor exercised a considerable hold on the popular imagination. One of the most interesting features about these texts is the way in which the accused parties interact with the emperor, refusing to hold their tongue and instead going toe-to-toe with the ruler. Indeed, the manner in which Appian calls into question Commodus’ suitability for the purple turns the table so effectively that it is almost like the emperor himself is on trial. This unexpected role reversal must have contributed to the popularity of such trial scenes, as their readers took pleasure in seeing their emperors called to account.

Caillan Davenport

Want to know more?

The essential starting point for any study of the Acta Alexandrinorum is the edition of Musurillo (1954), which features the Greek text of the papyri, English translation, and a commentary. Harker (2008) is an excellent analysis of these popular texts in their political and social context.  If you are looking for a detailed and reliable account of Commodus and his reign, then Hekster (2002) is the best English biography. The major literary sources for Commodus’ reign are the Roman History of Cassius Dio, the History of Rome after Marcus by Herodian, and the Life of Commodus in the Historia Augusta.


Grünewald, T. 2004. Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality, trans. J. F. Drinkwater. Routledge: London and New York.

Harker, A. 2008. Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Hekster, O. 2002. Commodus. An Emperor at the Crossroads. J. C. Gieben: Amsterdam.

MacMullen, R. 1963. ‘The Roman concept: robber-pretender’, Revue Internationale des droits de l’Antiquité Series 3, 10: 221-225.

Musurillo, H. A. 1954. The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Noreña, C. 2011. Imperial Ideals in the Roman West: Representation, Circulation, Power. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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