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Herodian's Roman History


Marcus Aurelius. Equestrian statue on the Capitol, Rome. Photo Marco Prins.
Herodian (late second, first half third century): Greek historian, author of a History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius (table of contents) in which he describes the reign of Commodus (180-192), the Year of the Five Emperors (193), the age of the Severan dynasty (211-235), and the Year of the Six Emperors (238).

The translation was made by Edward C. Echols (Herodian of Antioch's History of the Roman Empire, 1961 Berkeley and Los Angeles) and was put online for the first time by Roger Pearse (Tertullian.Org). The version offered on these pages is hyperlinked and contains notes by Jona Lendering.
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Statue of Commodus as Hercules Romanus. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Commodus as Hercules
(Musei Capitolini, Roma)

1.14: Fire destroys Rome

[191] In that time of crisis a number of divine portents occurred. Stars remained visible during the day; other stars, extending to an enormous length, seemed to be hanging in the middle of the sky. Abnormal animals were born, strange in shape and deformed of limb.

But the worst portent of all, which aggravated the present crisis and disturbed those who employ auguries and omens to predict the future, was this. Although no massing of dark clouds and no thunderstorm preceded it, and only a slight earthquake occurred beforehand, either as a result of a lightning bolt at night or a fire which broke out after the earthquake, the temple of Peace, the largest and most beautiful building in the city, was totally destroyed by fire.

It was the richest of all the temples, and, because it was a safe place, was adorned with offerings of gold and silver; every man deposited his possessions there. But this fire, in a single night, made paupers of many rich men. All Rome joined in mourning the public loss, and each man lamented his own personal loss.[1]

After consuming the temple and the entire sacred precinct, the fire swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings. When the temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view - that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy, as the story goes. Now, for the first time since its journey from Troy to Italy, the statue was seen by men of our time.

For the Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and carried it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace. Many other beautiful sections of the city were destroyed in this fire, which continued to burn for days, spreading in all directions. It was not finally extinguished until falling showers put an end to its raging.

For this reason the disaster was held to be of divine origin; in that critical period, men believed that the fire was started and stopped by the will and power of the gods. Some conjectured from these events that the destruction of the temple of Peace was a prophecy of war. And subsequent events, as we shall relate in the books to follow,[2] confirmed this prophecy by actual events.

With so many disasters befalling the city in rapid succession, the Roman people no longer looked with favor upon Commodus; they attributed their misfortunes to his illegal murders and the other mistakes he had made in his lifetime. He no longer concealed his activities, nor did he have any desire to keep them secret. What they objected to his doing in private he now had the effrontery to do in public. He fell into a state of drunken madness.


Heracles and the Nemean lion. Sarcophagus from Perge, now at the archaeological museum of Alanya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Hercules (sarcophagus from Perge, Museum of Antalya)

First he discarded his family name and issued orders that he was to be called not Commodus, son of Marcus, but Hercules, son of Zeus. Abandoning the Roman and imperial mode of dress, he donned the lion skin, and carried the club of Hercules. He wore purple robes embroidered with gold, making himself an object of ridicule by combining in one set of garments the frailty of a woman and the might of a superman.

This was the way he looked in his public appearances. He assigned new names to the months of the year; abolishing the old ones, he called the months after his own list of names and titles, most of which actually referred to Hercules as the manliest of men. He erected statues of himself throughout the city, but opposite the senate house he set up a special statue representing the emperor as an archer poised to shoot, for he wished even his statues to inspire fear of him.



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Note 1:
Among the items that were lost were several manuscripts by the physician Galenus.

Note 2:
The wars of the Year of the Five Emperors, 193/194, which Herodian describes in 2.9-3.4.
Online 2007
Revision: 28 June 2007
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