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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)

2.5: Pertinax murdered by angry soldiers

[March 193] In a way of life so prosperous and well ordered, only the praetorians complained of their lot. Longing for a return to the violence and looting of the preceding tyranny and to their extravagant and dissolute pursuits, they plotted to remove Pertinax on the ground that he was a burden and a nuisance to them, and to choose an emperor who would restore to them their unbridled and uncontrolled power.

[28 March 193] And so, with no warning, the praetorians rushed headlong from their camp one day at noon, when they were off duty. Wild with unreasoning anger, they burst into the palace with spears raised and swords drawn.

The imperial attendants on duty in the palace were astounded at this unbelievable and unexpected assault. Since they were only a handful of unarmed men against a horde of armed soldiers, the attendants deserted their assigned posts and fled into the palace grounds or the nearby passageways. But a few who were devoted to Pertinax informed him of the attack and advised him to flee and put his hope of safety in the people.

The emperor, however, did not follow the advice of those who suggested this advantageous course of action in the present emergency. He considered this solution undignified and servile, unworthy of an emperor and unworthy of his previous way of life and his achievements. He therefore declined to flee or to hide; preferring to face the issue squarely, he came out to talk to the praetorians, hoping to win them over and put an end to their insane anger. 

And so he left the room and approached the praetorians, in an effort to discover the reason for their anger, and tried to persuade them not to act like madmen. Remaining cool and calm in this crisis and displaying the dignity of an emperor, he showed no evidence of fear or cowardice or servility.

"For me," he said, "to be murdered by you is neither important nor grievous to an old man who has received so many honors in the course of a long life. It is inevitable that every man must die someday. But for you who are supposed to be the emperor's guardians and defenders to be his murderers, and for you to stain your hands with the blood of an emperor and, what is worse, that of a fellow Roman, be sure that this is not only an act of pollution at the present but also represents a danger for you in the future. I know in my heart that I have wronged you in no way.

If you are still grieved at the death of Commodus, remember that it is hardly surprising that death caught up with him. He was mortal. But if you think his death was the result of treachery, the blame does not lie with me. For you know that I am free of all suspicion on that score, and I know no more about what happened then than you do. So, if you suspect anything, bring charges against someone else.

But even though Commodus is dead, you will not lack anything which can be supplied you fairly and deservedly, so long as it can be done without recourse to violence and confiscation of property."

So persuasive were his words that he had now convinced some of them; indeed, quite a few of them began to withdraw, respecting the age of their revered emperor. But while he was still talking, the bolder praetorians attacked and killed him.

After they had committed this savage crime, alarmed by what they had done and wishing to anticipate the fury of the people, who would, they knew, be enraged by the murder, the praetorians rushed back to the camp. Shutting all the gates and blocking the entrances, they placed sentries in the towers and remained inside the walls to defend themselves if the mob should attack the camp. Such was the fate of Pertinax, whose life and policies have been described above.

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Online 2007
Revision: 28 June 2007
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