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I’ve been watching the History channel series Colosseum, which explores how the huge arena played a role in solidifying power and influence in ancient Rome. The show is filled with computer-generated imagery of ancient Rome, actors playing gladiators and gladiatrixes, beast masters, Roman leaders, and victims of the Colosseum’s violence, with historians to give it all context.
What I did not expect to find in this depiction of Roman “bread and circuses” was a glaring example of a Stoic parenting fail: The Emperor Commodus, son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His story is a cautionary tale to all Stoic parents.
Marcus Aurelius was the model Stoic. He had been educated by Stoic teachers. He personified the Stoic virtues, and his poetic and personal writing about his effort to implement Stoic ideals in the Meditations still resonates with people who read it today, just as it has done throughout the centuries.
But when it came to his son Commodus, Marcus’ philosophy could not save him.
Marcus was the last of the so-called “five good emperors” of Rome during the empire’s Golden Age. He took his obligations and responsibilities extremely seriously when it came to managing the government and was celebrated for his wise judgment. He fought invaders attacking Roman holdings as well as the plague attacking his citizens. But his efforts to raise Commodus, his only son to live to adulthood and the young man who took over the empire after his death, had disastrous results.
Commodus bankrupted Rome’s treasury on elaborate, bloody contests at the Colosseum (including his own performance as a gladiator, for which he paid himself the equivalent of millions of today’s dollars), made peace with warlike enemies who promptly re-invaded Italy, and tortured and killed members of the Senate. He escaped the city when the plague ran wild, and his corrupt delegates caused an economic meltdown and famine, causing many deaths. His paranoia about being assassinated led to countless murders upon his orders. Commodus even wielded a club like his hero the mythological Hercules and used it to clobber victims brought into the Colosseum during his violent “games.”
After so much destruction, Commodus was, in fact, assassinated—killed by his own wrestling trainer on the orders of other Roman leaders who witnessed his descent into madness. (If you saw the movie The Gladiator, Commodus was the evil emperor depicted there in a fictionalized retelling, in some ways less bad than the original.) Historians point to Commodus’ rule as the dividing line between an ascendant Rome in its golden age and its long decline.
How is it possible that Commodus could have turned out to be so awful—despite being the son of such a wise father?
Whether or not Marcus thought of himself as a “Stoic parent,” he definitely wanted his son to be well educated and he surely wished to leave the empire in good hands. But he had a tough time. Even while working nonstop to fight wars on Rome’s behalf, Marcus took pains to provide excellent tutors to educate Commodus. He brought Commodus along to the military base during the wars, exposing him to what it was like to defend the empire, and then asked the great physician Galen to help protect the boy from the raging plague. Marcus also took Commodus with him on a trip to the Eastern provinces and to Athens, where they were initiated together into the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret religious tradition.
But Commodus still turned out to be an irresponsible, corrupt, and murderous emperor. His temperament played a role. Commodus was a deeply flawed young man whose character was completely different from his father’s—volatile and, according to some Romans, cowardly, as well as averse to hard work. He was easily swayed by people around him. Some contemporaries in Rome thought he must have been the product of a different father, pointing out that Marcus’ wife was allegedly having affairs with gladiators.
Could Marcus have played a different and better role in his son’s upbringing? That is one of those what-if situations we’ll never really know about. He did a great deal to educate and influence Commodus, all the while managing the most powerful Mediterranean empire the world has ever seen through war and plague (which likely killed him). And it’s easy to imagine how Commodus’ enormous power went to his head as a teenage boy, no matter his upbringing. He was only 18 when his father died, leaving the empire in his hands.
I think this story demonstrates three things: First, how little control we have over our children’s temperament. Second, how much external influences outside our power can shape our offspring. Both of these elements should be familiar to Stoics: We have limits on what we are able to change, and we need to come to terms with that.
And third, this story shows that no matter how busy or preoccupied we become with work and our own callings, we should attempt to make the time needed to raise our kids to be decent human beings. (As a corollary, we should forgive ourselves if we fail.)
Marcus did what he could to train Commodus, especially when he was a teen. But I’m sure that the pressures and responsibilities of running the Roman Empire at its height left little time for really getting to know and influence his son, causing him (like anyone in his role, surely) to rely instead on tutors and assistants.
My personal takeaway from the Marcus and Commodus story is to remember to take a step back from work whenever I can to be there for my children and family. Many parents and caregivers I know have changed from full-time to part-time employment, left jobs, or opted for full-time positions that offer stability and limited hours to be able to take care of children during their formative years (realizing that not everyone has the financial flexibility or option to do so). For those who can make it work, spending time with kids in their younger years can demonstrate the value of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control… instill caring about and helping other people (encouraging our pro-social nature as humans)… and model how to question what we think we know, and understand what’s going on below the surface (stop, drop, and question your impressions!).
All this is well and good, you may say, but how much is enough, and how much is too much time and influence on our children? During the pandemic, some parents learned the limits of what they could and wanted to do. The shutdown of many schools and daycare services demanded that caregivers spend more time teaching and helping our kids—which was sometimes very demanding, especially to parents stretched thin by many responsibilities. It was made all the more tough when in-person social contact was cut off.
In the ideal world, we’d find a middle ground. We wouldn’t leave our kids to learn everything from school and other kids and YouTube and TikTok – we’d be there to teach our values. We also wouldn’t be stuck at home continuously with our kids, serving as their only influence, cut off from everyone else. Instead, we would balance our community’s educational and social influences with family- and caregiver-instilled virtues and values.
There are lots of ways to find this path, and there’s no one right answer, but simply searching for this middle-ground way forward—and prioritizing sharing our life philosophy with ours kids and our communities in the time we do have—seems to be the rational approach to working to shape our kids into good human beings. We can also acknowledge that kids are individuals, with their own temperaments and characters, and there are limits to what parents can do to form and educate them.
Please share your thoughts on this, and any other aspects of Stoic parenting in the comments!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.