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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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Publius Helvius Pertinax. Bust at the Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
Publius Helvius Pertinax (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

2.1: Pertinax becomes emperor

[31 December 192] After the conspirators had killed Commodus, as has been described in the first book of our history, they were anxious to keep the deed secret. And so, to prevent the praetorians on guard in the imperial palace from discovering what they had done, they wrapped the emperor's body in bed linen and tied it securely. They gave the bundle to two loyal slaves and sent it out of the palace as if it were no more than laundry, somewhat bulkier than usual.

The slaves carried their burden past the guards; some of them were asleep, overcome by wine, others still awake, but dozing off leaning on their spears. The praetorians made no attempt to discover the contents of the bundle carried from the emperor's bedroom, since it was not their concern to look into such things. After the emperor's body had been carried out through the palace gates undetected, it was placed in a wagon and taken to the outskirts of the city.

Then Laetus and Eclectus conferred with Marcia about the best course to follow. They decided that an announcement should be made to the effect that the emperor had died suddenly of apoplexy. They were sure that this report would be accepted without question by those who heard it, since his endless and excessive orgies had prepared them for such an outcome. But before doing anything else, the conspirators thought it best to choose a sensible elder statesman as the successor to the throne, both to save themselves and to bring to all enjoyment of a respite from a tyrant so harsh and undisciplined. Discussing the matter among themselves, they found no man so well qualified for the post as a native-born Italian named Pertinax.

This Pertinax was famous for his accomplishments, both civil and military; he had won many victories over the Germans and the Eastern barbarians and was the only survivor of the revered advisers appointed for Commodus by his father.[1] Commodus had not had him put to death -this most distinguished of Marcus' companions and generals- either out of respect for his noble qualities or indifference to him as a pauper. And yet his poverty had contributed in no small measure to the universal praise Pertinax enjoyed; for, despite responsibilities which far outweighed those of his colleagues, he was less wealthy than any of them.

That night, while all were sleeping, Laetus and Eclectus, accompanied by a few fellow conspirators, came to Pertinax. Standing at the locked gates of his house, they aroused the porter on guard there. When the man awoke and saw the soldiers standing before the gates with Laetus, whom he knew to be the praetorian prefect, he was alarmed and went inside to report to his master.

Pertinax directed his visitors to enter, remarking that the fate he had been expecting was at last about to overtake him. Yet even in this extremity, they say, he remained so serene that he did not get up, but received them lying in bed. Even though he believed that Laetus had come with Eclectus to kill him, he spoke to them calmly, with no sign of pallor.

"For a long time now," he said, "I have been waiting for my life to end in this fashion, and I was surprised that Commodus was so slow to act against me, the sole survivor of the advisers his father appointed for him. Why do you delay? You will be carrying out your orders, and I will be relieved from degrading hope and constant fear."

To this Laetus replied: "Please stop saying things unworthy of you and your past conduct. Our visit does not concern your death but our safety and the safety of the Roman empire. The tyrant is dead, victim of a fate he richly deserved. What he planned to do to us, we have done to him. 

We have come to place the empire in your hands, aware that you are not only the most distinguished senator, because of your moderate life, and have won reverence for your greatness and the dignity of your years, but you also enjoy the love and esteem of the people. All these reasons lead us to believe that what we are doing will please the people and save our own lives."

Pertinax said in reply: "Why do you mock an old man? Why do you judge me such a coward that you wish first to taunt and then to kill me?" At this point Eclectus spoke up: "If you do not believe what we say, read this tablet (you know Commodus' handwriting - you see it regularly). From this you will see the danger we have escaped, and you will know that there is no treachery but only truth in what we tell you." After he had read the tablet, Pertinax believed these old friends of his. Now fully understanding everything that had occurred, he placed himself at their disposal.

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Note 1:
This is exaggerated: at least three others were still alive. Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus (1.8.3), husband of Lucilla; the Acilius Glabrio mentioned in 2.3.3-4 ("Glabrionus"); and Marcus Peducaeus Plautius Quintillus, husband of the Fadilla mentioned in 1.13.1.
Online 2007
Revision: 28 June 2007
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