Commodus was the son of the far more revered Marcus Aurelius, whom he succeeded as emperor. Like President Obama, Commodus pulled his nation out of wars (in Commodus’ case, wars that had been pursued by his philosopher-soldier father) and proclaimed that the tide of war was receding. It made him the toast of Roma.
Jakub Grygiel compares the two leaders in a brilliant piece at The American Interest:
Obama is not the first one to have withdrawn from a fight. Commodus did it before him. As recounted by Herodian in his Roman history, Commodus, Roman Emperor in the second half of the 2nd century AD, inherited a war with the barbarians along the Danube River from his father, the prudent Marcus Aurelius. Initially Commodus was eager to continue the war and exhorted his men to finish the conflict. In a speech to his legions, mourning the loss of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus argued, “Crushed at the beginning of a new imperial reign, the barbarian will not be so bold to act at the present, scorning our youth, and will be cautious and fearful in the future, mindful of what he has suffered.” …
But then two groups of advisers competed for Commodus’s ear. On the one hand, sycophantic courtesans, “who gauge their pleasure by their bellies and something a little lower,” kept dangling in front of Commodus the attractions of a return to Rome. Life was easier, more pleasant there; the new Emperor would be celebrated and praised by the populace, and he could enjoy there the excitement of intellectual conversations at well appointed tables of influential men (perhaps the Roman equivalent of a “2006 Brunello, grilled rib-eye and three pasta dishes—cacio e pepe, all’arrabbiata and Bolognese” and a conversation about “the importance of understanding science, the future of the universe, how sports brings people together, and many other things,” as recounted in a New York Times article describing Obama’s attraction to such meetings). How preferable this vision must have been to the grinding details of frontier warfare! Moreover, were he to return to Rome and to a direct control over domestic affairs, the Emperor could perhaps also keep an eye on his political opponents, quickly criticizing them or bringing them to his court to coopt them.
The shallow and inexperienced men with whom Commodus surrounded himself kept telling him: “’Master, when will you stop drinking this icy liquid mud? In the meantime, others will be enjoying warm streams and cool streams, mists and fine air too, all of which only Italy possesses in abundance.’ By merely suggesting such delights to the youth, they whetted his appetite for a taste of pleasures.”
Older and wiser advisers, appointed by Marcus Aurelius, opposed this group of minions. …
Could we compare Leon Panetta to the wiser advisers appointed by a more realistic leader?
I am not going to compare George Bush to Marcus Aurelius, but I am going to suggest that Bush was a wiser man than the much-laureled Barack Obama. George Bush told us something very unpleasant about the barbarians that confront us. He said that they were waging war against us and that it would not end merely because we wanted it to end. It was an unpalatable thing to say, and George Bush became deeply unpopular. On cue, our own Commodus arrived on the scene to tell us that none of these nasty things were true. Unlike George Bush, both our current president and the Roman emperor prefer going to parties and enjoying the perks of office to doing the hard things.
I urge you to read the entire piece.