Power Case Study: Cleander vs. Cassius Dio

As Winston Churchill noted, “History is written by the victors.” Nowhere can this truth be illustrated more than Ancient Rome. Cassius Dio, a statesman of the Roman senate under the emperor Commodus. He was one of the few ruling men to survive the turmoil of Commodus’ reign and later wrote a history of Rome that spanned eighty books and 1400 years. We can safely say he came out of the struggle a victor.

Cleander was a Roman freedman who had grown up with Commodus and was a favorite of his. When Commodus came to power, he appointed another freedman, Saoterus, as a high official in his administration. Cleander conspired and killed Saoterus and stole his position as Commodus’ most trusted adviser.

At this time, Rome was ruled solely by the emperor, who kept a puppet Senate to do his bidding. However, the senators and officials all conspired to gain as much power as possible and get the support of the people of Rome. Both Cleander and Cassius Dio were involved in plots behind the back of the emperor, both striving for the most power.

After killing Saoterus and achieving the highest office in the land under Commodus, Cleander began to concentrate his newfound power. He leveraged to get all the offices in Commodus’ administration in his hands and began to sell them off to the highest bidder. Commodus was a laissez-faire ruler who preferred to let his officials handle the governing of the state, so he had no idea what Cleander was doing. By selling seats on the Senate to lowborn men, he indebted them to him and could control their actions.

Dio had been part of an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Commodus, but his co-conspirators were killed before they could implicate him. During much of the emperor’s reign, Dio sat back and tried to stay out of the way of both Commodus and Cleander. Many of the other senators who took a more active stand against Cleander’s actions ended up dead, but against all odds Cassius Dio was left alive.

Most of the grain in Rome was shipped across the Mediterranean from Egypt in Roman vessels. Cleander, in order to gain the support of the people, conspired to create a grain shortage so that he could become a hero by supplying grain to the starving crowds. He diverted many of the ships’ paths slightly and stored up grain in his own warehouses, leaving only a few ships on the path to Rome. The food shortage coupled with the poor living conditions in much of the city brought on an unintended outbreak of the plague.

This is where Cleander overplayed his hand. Instead of coming out with his grain and looking like a hero to the people as he so dearly wanted, he chose to wait out the plague epidemic. A prefect who had conspired with him to create the shortage finally came out with the truth, and the people demanded Cleander’s head. To please them, Commodus killed his adviser and hung his body up for the people to see. Cleander’s reign was over.

Commodus was an unstable man who took little interest in the running of his empire. He wanted to be a favorite of the people, and he often gave them long gladiator games that lasted months. However, they never fully came to his side. His own sister, Lucilla, conspired to kill him, but she was caught and strangled. Eventually, Commodus was killed by a gladiator and his irresponsible reign brought to an end.

Cassius Dio survived. He had retained his position as a high-ranking senator throughout the turbulent years of Commodus’ rule and became both governor and consul later in life. He wrote one of the most detailed accounts of the history of Rome, including the years of Commodus and Cleander. His knack for keeping his mouth shut and staying out of the spotlight had earned him a long life and a peaceful death of old age.


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