Lucius Verus – The Outshone Roman Emperor Governed by his Vices
Lucius Verus was a Roman emperor who lived during the 2nd century AD. Unfortunately for Lucius, he is often forgotten by history, as his reign is overshadowed by that of Marcus Aurelius, his co-emperor. In addition, when the comparisons are made between the two emperors (which is unavoidable), Lucius invariably emerges as the weaker ruler, which is unsurprising, since Marcus is considered by many to be one of the greatest emperors Rome ever had.
Lucius certainly had his share of vices, though they appear to be more severe than they should when juxtaposed with Marcus’ virtues. Still, compared to some of Rome’s more notorious emperors, like Nero before him or Commodus after, Lucius’ shortcomings may be said to be relatively mild.
Much of Lucius’ reign was spent in the East, where the Romans were at war with the Parthians. During the campaign, however, Lucius did not really distinguish himself and it was primarily due to his generals that the Romans managed to win the war.
Bust of Lucius Verus. Source: kozlik_mozlik / Adobe Stock.
Lucius Verus’ Life According to the Historia Augusta
Lucius Verus (or Lucius Aurelius Verus in full) was originally born as Lucius Ceionius Commodus on the 15th of December, 130 AD. His father, a senator, was also named Lucius Ceionius Commodus, while his mother was a Roman noblewoman by the name of Avidia Plautia. While little is known about Avidia, we have more information about Lucius’ father.
This is due to the fact that he was adopted by Hadrian and named heir to the throne. After his adoption, the elder Lucius changed his name to Lucius Aelius Caesar. Hadrian’s adopted son, however, died before him, and therefore did not become emperor.
Nevertheless, his biography is recorded in the Historia Augusta (which translates as Augustan History), a collection of biographies of Roman emperors from Hadrian to Numerian (the period between 117 and 284 AD). The first part of this work, which covers the period from Hadrian to Caracalla (and therefore includes Lucius Verus and Aelius Caesar), is believed to be based on reliable sources and therefore is of some historical value. The remainder of the work, on the other hand, is considered to be generally less reliable.
A page of the earliest manuscript of the Historia Augusta - end of the Life of Antoninus Pius und beginning of the Life of Marcus Aurelius, brother of Lucius Verus. (Πυλαιμένης / Public Domain)
According to the Historia Augusta, “The life of Ceionius Commodus, also called Aelius Verus, adopted by Hadrian after his journey through the world, when he was burdened by old age and weakened by cruel disease, contains nothing worthy of note except that he was the first to receive only the name of Caesar”. The Historia Augusta reports that Aelius was made praetor and appointed as civil and military governor of the provinces of Pannonia after his adoption by Hadrian.
In reality, however, he was already a praetor in 130 AD. When Aelius was adopted in 136 AD, he was appointed as consul, and appointed consul for the second time in the following year. He was also placed in command of the provinces of Pannonia that same year.
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Lucius Verus as a child, 136 AD. (Jastrow / Public Domain)
Aelius was on excellent terms with Hadrian, as the Historia Augusta reports that “he was the only one who obtained his every desire, even when expressed in a letter”. In addition, in Pannonia, he “carried on a campaign with success, or rather, with good fortune, and achieved the reputation, if not of a pre-eminent, at least of an average, commander”.
Unfortunately, Aelius suffered from such poor health that Hadrian apparently regretted his decision to adopt him, and that the emperor might have even canceled the adoption had Aelius lived a little longer. Regarding Aelius’s death, the Historia Augusta reports that “For after Verus had returned from his province, and had finished composing, either by his own efforts or with the help of imperial secretaries or the rhetoricians, a very pretty speech, still read nowadays, wherein he intended to convey his thanks to his father Hadrian on the Kalends of January, he swallowed a potion which he believed would benefit him and died on that very day of January”.
After Aelius’ death in January 138 AD, Hadrian adopted Titus Aurelius Antoninus (better-known as Antoninus Pius) as his new heir. Hadrian himself died several months after Aelius and Antoninus was the new emperor of Rome. Before his death, Hadrian made arrangements for Antoninus to adopt two young men, Lucius and Marcus, as his sons. This is an indication that Hadrian had high hopes for both youths.
When Antoninus became emperor, he was 51 years old, while Lucius and Marcus were 7 and 17 years old respectively. Antoninus reigned until his death in 161 AD, by which time Marcus was about 40 years old. It has sometimes been assumed that Hadrian regarded Aelius and Antoninus as ‘bench warmers’ for either Lucius, Marcus, or both. Hadrian miscalculated in both instances – Aelius died even before becoming emperor, while Antoninus reigned for just over two decades.
Bust of Antoninus Pius, he adopted Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. (Waterborough / Public Domain)
Lucius and Marcus Ascend to the Throne
In 161 AD, Lucius and Marcus ascended the throne as co-emperors. During Antoninus’ reign, Marcus was already learning to govern the empire and was assuming public roles. In 140 AD, for instance, he was appointed consul for the first time. Five years later, he was appointed consul again.
In that same year, Marcus married Annia Galeria Faustina Minor (known also as Faustina Minor or Faustina the Younger), his maternal cousin and Antoninus’ daughter. In 147 AD, the imperium and tribunicia potestas, which were the main formal powers of emperorship, were conferred on Marcus. By granting these powers to Marcus, Antoninus was appointing him unofficially as a ‘junior co-emperor’.
Lucius, on the other hand, played a much less prominent role during Antoninus’ reign, partly due to the fact that he was still a minor at the time of his adoption. It was only in 153 AD that Lucius was given a public office to hold. In that year, he was appointed quaestor.
In the following year, he held the office of consul for the first time. In 161 AD, both Marcus and Lucius were consuls, the third time for the former and the second for the latter. Antoninus died in March that same year and the throne went to his heirs.
At the time of Antoninus’ death, Marcus was already in possession of imperium and tribunicia potestas, which meant that there was no problem for him to become emperor. Lucius, on the other hand, had not been granted these constitutional powers. Moreover, the Senate had presented the emperorship to Marcus alone. Upon Marcus’ insistence, however, Lucius was made co-emperor.
Compared to Marcus, Lucius did not have much political influence, and could have been easily removed from the picture if Marcus had wished it so. On the other hand, leaving Lucius in any position less than an emperor could potentially turn him into a focus point for those dissatisfied with Marcus’ rule. Considering Marcus’ character, however, it is most likely that he insisted on Lucius being appointed as co-emperor out of his own conscience.
Co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Thus, for the first time in Rome’s history (though it would certainly not be the last), there were two emperors with equal status and power. To cement the alliance, one of Marcus’ daughters, Lucilla (whose full name was Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla) was engaged to Lucius. Since Lucilla was 12 years old at that time, the marriage only took place two years later, in 163 AD.
In spite of their equal status and powers as co-emperors, it was Marcus who had more authority. According to the Historia Augusta, “Verus obeyed Marcus, whenever he entered upon any undertaking, as a lieutenant obeys a proconsul or a governor obeys the emperor”. Marcus was also the one who was doing the bulk of the empire’s administration.
Like Marcus, Lucius had been educated by various tutors, though he was apparently not a very bright student. Lucius’ tutors included “the Latin grammarian Scaurinus (the son of the Scaurus who had been Hadrian's teacher in grammar), the Greeks Telephus, Hephaestio, Harpocratio, the rhetoricians Apollonius, Caninius Celer, Herodes Atticus, and the Latin Cornelius Fronto, his teachers in philosophy being Apollonius and Sextus”.
The Historia Augusta goes on to note that “For all of these he cherished a deep affection, and in return he was beloved by them, and this despite his lack of natural gifts in literary studies”. Instead, Lucius was more of a sportsman, and “loved hunting and wrestling, and indeed all the sports of youth”.
Unlike Marcus, who learned to govern while serving as Antoninus’ ‘junior co-emperor’, Lucius did not do so, neither during his predecessor’s reign, nor during his co-emperorship with Marcus. The Historia Augusta describes Lucius as “devoted to pleasure, too care-free, and very clever, within proper bounds, at every kind of frolic, sport, and raillery”.
Relief frieze of the Parthian monument depicting the apotheosis of Lucius Verus. Lucius Verus is represented on Helios’ chariot being driven by Nike (Victory) who leads him by the hand. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Therefore, he did not have the serious-mindedness of Marcus and seems to have been more interested in pleasure than in the governance of the Roman Empire. Lucius’ care-free nature, however, was not considered completely negative by everyone. In fact, Antoninus “loved the frankness of his nature and his unspoiled way of living and encouraged Marcus to imitate him in these”.
Marcus and Lucius were on the throne for less than half a year when bad news arrived from the empire’s eastern frontier. Vologases IV, the ruler of Parthia, Rome’s long-time enemy in the East, decided to renew hostilities between the two empires, as he felt that the new emperors were weak. Moreover, neither Marcus nor Lucius had military experience, which made them look even weaker in Vologases’ eyes.
Therefore, he invaded the Kingdom of Armenia (which was a client state of Rome), expelled its king, and placed their own puppet, Pacorus, on the throne. The Romans reacted by sending a legion to recapture Armenia from the Parthians.
The legion, which was led by Marcus Sedatius Severianus, the governor of Cappadocia at that time, was wiped out by the Parthians. Following this victory, the Parthians invaded the Roman province of Syria and defeated its governor, Lucius Attidius Cornelianus.
Marcus decided to send Lucius in 162 AD to deal with the Parthians, ostensibly for the following reason(s), “either that he (Lucius) might commit his debaucheries away from the city and the eyes of all citizens, or that he might learn economy by his travels, or that he might return reformed through the fear inspired by war, or, finally, that he might come to realize that he was an emperor”. If Marcus had hoped that Lucius would turn over a new leaf after his time in the East, he was probably disappointed.
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Scene from the war of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus against the Parthians. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Historia Augusta reports that “in the course of this war there were revealed many features of Verus’ life that were weak and base”. For instance, Marcus accompanied Lucius as far as Capua, and the latter would have behaved himself in the presence of the former. Once he was on his own, however, Lucius “gorged himself in everyone's villa, and in consequence he was taken sick at Canusium, becoming very ill”.
Moreover, Lucius was not concerned at all with the war. His journey to the East was a leisurely trip, and involved “hunting in Apulia,” and “traveling about through Athens and Corinth accompanied by orchestras and singers”. When Lucius arrived at Antioch, he “gave himself wholly to riotous living”. It was Lucius’ generals, Statius Priscus, Avidius Cassius, and Martius Verus who conducted the war for the next four years, and they succeeded in recapturing Armenia, as well as advancing all the way to Babylon and Media.
Lucius Verus Returns Home
The war with Parthia ended in 166 AD and Lucius returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph with Marcus. Lucius’ time in the East did nothing to improve his character. After returning from Syria, Lucius is said to have established a tavern in his home, where he would go after attending Marcus’ banquets. Additionally, Lucius is said to have picked up gambling in Syria and would indulge in it through the night.
Denarius, standard Roman silver coin, of Lucius Verus. Inscription: L. VERVS AVG. ARMENIACVS. (Rasielsuarez / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lucius is also rumored to have enjoyed wandering about at night through taverns and brothels while keeping his identity secret, where he would engage in rowdy behavior and be involved in brawls. Marcus was aware of the vices Lucius was indulging in, but “with characteristic modesty pretended ignorance for fear of censuring his brother”.
Lucius did not stay in Rome very long. Around 167 AD, the Marcomanni, a Germanic tribe, invaded Roman territory. In 168 AD, both emperors went to the battlefront in Pannonia, as Marcus “wished neither to send Lucius to the front alone, nor yet, because of his debauchery, to leave him in the city”.
The war was settled in the following year and both emperors returned home. As they approached the city of Altinum, however, Lucius suffered from a stroke, was brought to the city, and died after living for three days without being able to speak. Although Lucius died of natural causes, rumors circulated that he had been poisoned, either by Marcus, his wife Lucilla, or his mother-in-law, Faustina Minor.
Top image: Roman leader and his soldiers. Credit: vukkostic / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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