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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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Bust of Septimius Severus. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki)

2.9: Septimius Severus thinks about becoming emperor

[Early April 193] While Niger was dreaming these dreams and relying upon uncertain and unfounded hopes, what had occurred in Syria was reported to the Pannonians and the people in Illyricum, as well as to the entire military force in that area - that is, to the troops assigned to duty on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine to check barbarian incursions in those regions and defend the Roman empire.

The governor of all the Pannonians (for they were at that time under one command) was a Libyan named Severus, a born administrator and a man of tremendous energy. Accustomed to a rugged life, he was physically able to endure heavy labor; mentally, he was quick to understand and quick to act once he understood.

When he learned from reports that the Roman empire was dangling in the sky like a meteor for Niger and Julianus to seize, Severus, charging the former with negligence and the latter with cowardice, decided to intervene in these affairs. He had had dreams which led him to expect something like this, and his dreams were supported by oracular responses and all the signs that appear as prophecies of things to come. All these, whether they are true or false, are invariably believed when they foretell something which later actually occurs.

Severus himself recorded many portents in his autobiography, and had them inscribed on his public statues also. But the last and most significant of his dreams, the one which made it clear to him that he would get all he hoped for, must not be omitted.

At the time Pertinax was reported to have assumed control of the empire, Severus, after making the sacrifices and swearing the oath of allegiance to the new emperor, went back to his house at dusk and fell asleep. He dreamed that he saw a large, noble stallion adorned with the imperial trappings carrying Pertinax down the middle of the Sacred Way at Rome.

But when the horse arrived at the entrance of the Forum, where, in the old days of the Republic, the popular assemblies had been held, in his dream the stallion unseated Pertinax and threw him to the ground. While Severus stood there motionless, the horse slipped under him, taking him up on his back, and bore him safely along. Then, halting in the middle of the Forum, the stallion raised Severus aloft, so that he was seen and cheered by all. And in our time a huge bronze statue depicting this dream still stood on that spot.[1]

His resolve thus strengthened, with high hopes that he was being called to the throne by divine summons, Severus made trial of the attitude of the soldiers. As the first step, he met in his quarters with a few commanders and tribunes and prominent soldiers and discussed with them the Roman empire, how it lay completely helpless because there was no man of the nobility and no man with enough ability to take control of it.

He spoke with contempt of the praetorians at Rome as disloyal and false to their oath in spilling the blood of their emperor and fellow Roman, and told them that he had to go to Rome to avenge the murder of Pertinax, for he was aware that all the soldiers in Illyricum remembered the governorship of the man.

When Marcus was emperor, Pertinax had won with them many victories over the Germans; after he had been appointed general and governor of the province of Illyricum, he had displayed great courage in fighting the enemy. But at the same time he revealed his benevolence and good will toward those he ruled by his moderation and his sensible exercise of authority. For these reasons they revered his memory and were enraged at those who had treated him so savagely. 

Seizing this as his excuse, Severus without difficulty persuaded them to do what he wished; he pretended that he was not personally seeking the empire and did not desire power for himself, but rather that he wished to avenge the murder of so great an emperor as Pertinax.

Although the men of those regions have huge and powerful bodies and are skillful and murderous in battle, they are dull of wit and slow to realize that they are being deceived. Hence they believed Severus when he said that he was enraged and wished to avenge the murder of Pertinax; and, putting themselves in his hands, they made him emperor and turned the control of the empire over to him.

Since he now knew the attitude of the Pannonians, he reported these events to the neighboring provinces and to the rulers of all the northern nations under Roman control; he convinced them by lavish promises and the expectation of great rewards, and easily won their support. 


The Arch of Septimius Severus, Rome. Photo Jona Lendering.
Arch of Severus, Rome

He was surely the most accomplished of all men in pretending to pledge his good will, but he never kept his sworn word if it proved necessary for him to break it; he lied whenever it was advantageous to him, and his tongue said many things which his heart did not mean.


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Note 1:
And not only an equestrian statue: the splendid Arch of Severus occupies more or less the same spot.
Online 2007
Revision: 29 June 2007
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