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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)

2.3: Pertinax and the Senate

[1 January 193] After he was established in the imperial palace, to which he had been escorted by the praetorians and the people by night, as has been related above, Pertinax was beset by serious doubts; indeed, although in all matters he gave the appearance of being calm and courageous, in the present situation he was very apprehensive. The emperor was little concerned about his own safety (he had many times scorned much greater dangers), but he was worried about this abrupt change from the autocracy of Commodus and about the noble ancestry of certain of the senators. He suspected that these senators, after having been ruled by the most nobly born of all the emperors, would not be willing to let the reins of government fall into the hands of a man who came to the high office from humble and undistinguished antecedents.

The Curia Julia. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Senate House

Even if his life deserved admiration for its restraint, and even if his military exploits were famous, in nobility of birth he was much inferior to the aristocracy. When daylight came, he went to the Senate house, but he did not allow the sacred fire to be carried before him nor did he permit any of the imperial tokens to be raised until he had determined how the Senate felt about the situation.

But as soon as he appeared, all the senators with one voice shouted his praises, calling him emperor and Augustus. At first he declined the envy-provoking title of emperor and, pleading his advanced years, begged to be permitted to decline the honor, pointing out that there were many men of noble birth by whom the empire might more fittingly be ruled. At this, Glabrionus [1] took him by the hand and led him forward, bidding him take his seat upon the imperial throne.

This Glabrionus was the most nobly born of all the Roman aristocrats (for he traced his ancestry to Aeneas, son of Venus and Anchises, and he had served two terms as consul. "I myself," Glabrionus said, "whom you consider the most eligible of all, yield the throne to you, and I together with all the rest happily concur in awarding you the supreme power." Then, with all of them pleading with him and actually forcing him to accept the position, Pertinax mounted the imperial throne slowly and reluctantly and addressed the Senate as follows:

"I am persuaded that your great readiness to do me honor, the extraordinary enthusiasm with which you acclaim me, and your selection of me as emperor in preference to those among you of such noble birth, has in it not the slightest intent to flatter, but is proof and pledge of your good will toward me. And this might make another ready and eager to accept without hesitation what has been entrusted to him, and he might reasonably entertain a hope of managing the empire with no difficulty among subjects so kindly disposed toward him.

But these favors which I am receiving at your hands, so great and so flattering, although I am aware of the honor they do me, cause me no little apprehension and inner conflict. For, when the initial favors are so great, it is always difficult to do equal favors in return. Now when anyone who receives small favors does greater favors in return, the fact that this is an easy matter is never taken into consideration; it is thought to be merely evidence of his gratitude. But when the initial favor is virtually unsurpassable, if the recipient does not return one equally large, the fact that this is a difficult matter is never taken into consideration; it is thought to be merely evidence of his ingratitude and lack of appreciation.

I see, therefore, that no ordinary task awaits me in proving myself worthy of such an honor as you have bestowed upon me. But the honor of the throne lies not in the throne itself, but in the acts which he who holds it must perform if he is not to disgrace his high office. The more men hate an unpleasant past, the more hopefully they look forward to a pleasant future. Injuries are remembered forever (the memory of pain is difficult to erase), but benefits and the memory of benefits disappear when the enjoyment of them is gone.

Freedom is never so pleasant as slavery is unpleasant, and no one ever considers himself fortunate to possess what is his free from danger; he thinks that he is simply enjoying his own possessions. But the man who is deprived of his property never forgets the man responsible for his loss. And if any change takes place for the common good, no one thinks that he has derived from it any personal benefit, since, when the common good prospers, it is of little concern to the whole group as individuals. With respect to his own affairs, no one believes that anything is of value to him unless he happens to obtain something he personally desires.

But those who have grown accustomed to reveling in the extravagant excesses of a tyranny not only object to any change toward a more moderate and more economical way of life occasioned by a shortage of money, not terming it sensible economy or planned and judicious management, but they reject it as a mean and wretched way to live, oblivious to the fact that had it not been for the loot taken by pillage and plunder, they could never have enjoyed their luxurious way of life. On the other hand, to give to every man all things according to his worth and for logical reasons, without committing any injustices, and not to supply him with an abundance of money gained from illegal sources teaches prudent conservation of things supplied in quantity.

And so you, who are skilled in these matters, must cooperate with me and consider the management of the empire as a joint enterprise, and you must entertain high hopes of living under an aristocracy, not under a tyranny, and you must confirm this for all our subjects."

By this speech, Pertinax encouraged the senators and received the plaudits of them all. After awarding him every honor and every token of respect, they escorted the new emperor to the temple of Jupiter and the rest of the shrines; when he had completed the sacrifices for his reign, he entered the imperial palace.

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Note 1:
His real name was Manius Acilius Glabrio.
Online 2007
Revision: 28 June 2007
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