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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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Coin of Didius Julianus. Limesmuseum, Aalen (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Didius Julianus (Limesmuseum, Aalen)

2.13: Severus disarms the Praetorian Guard

[2 June 193] Deserted by all, Julianus was found weeping disgracefully and was killed. When he learned of the Senate's action and the death of Julianus, Severus, encouraged to hope for greater success, used a trick to seize and hold prisoner the Praetorian Guard, the murderers of Pertinax. He quietly sent private letters to the tribunes and centurions, promising them rich rewards if they would persuade the praetorians in Rome to submit and obey the emperor's orders.

He also sent an open letter to the praetorian camp, directing the soldiers to leave their weapons behind in the camp and come forth unarmed, as was the custom when they escorted the emperor to the sacrifices or to the celebration of  a festival. He further ordered them to swear the oath of allegiance in his name and to present themselves with good expectations of continuing to serve as the emperor's bodyguard.

Trusting these orders and persuaded by their tribunes, the praetorians left their arms behind and appeared from the camp in holiday uniform, carrying laurel branches. Arriving at Severus' camp, they sent word that they were at the assembly ground where the emperor had ordered them to muster for a welcoming address.

The praetorians moved toward the emperor as he was mounting the speaking platform; then, at a given signal, they were all seized while cheering him in unison. Prior orders had been issued to Severus' soldiers to surround the praetorians, now their enemy, at the moment when they were standing with their eyes fixed in expectant attention upon the emperor; they were not, however, to wound or strike any member of the guard. Severus ordered his troops to hold the praetorians in a tight ring of steel, believing that they would not resist, since they were only a few unarmed men, fearful of wounds, confronted by an armed host.

When he had them netted like fish in his circle of weapons, like prisoners of war, the enraged emperor shouted in a loud voice: "You see by what has happened that we are superior to you in intelligence, in size of army, and in number of supporters. Surely you were easily trapped, captured without a struggle. It is in my power to do with you what I wish when I wish. Helpless and prostrate, you lie before us now, victims of our might.

But if one looks for a punishment equal to the crimes you have committed, it is impossible to find a suitable one. You murdered your revered and benevolent old emperor, the man whom it was your sworn duty to protect. The empire of the Roman people, eternally respected, which our forefathers obtained by their valiant courage or inherited because of their noble birth, this empire you shamefully and disgracefully sold for silver as if it were your personal property.

But you were unable to defend the man whom you yourselves had chosen as emperor. No, you betrayed him like the cowards you are. For these monstrous acts and crimes you deserve a thousand deaths, if one wished to do to you what you have earned. You see clearly what it is right you should suffer. But I will be merciful. I will not butcher you.

My hands shall not do what your hands did. But I say that it is in no way fit or proper for you to continue to serve as the emperor's bodyguard, you who have violated your oath and stained your hands with the blood of your emperor and fellow Roman, betraying the trust placed in you and the security offered by your protection. Still, compassion leads me to spare your lives and your persons. But I order the soldiers who have you surrounded to cashier you, to strip off any military uniform or equipment you are wearing, and drive you off naked.

And I order you to get yourselves as far from the city of Rome as is humanly possible, and I promise you and I swear it on solemn oath and I proclaim it publicly that if any one of you is found within a hundred miles of Rome, he shall pay for it with his head."

After he had issued these orders, the soldiers from Illyricum rushed forward and stripped from the praetorians their short ceremonial swords inlaid with gold and silver; next, they ripped off belts, uniforms, and any military insignia they were wearing, and sent them off naked.

The praetorians had to submit to this treatment, since they were betrayed and taken by a trick. Indeed, what else could they do - a few naked men against so many fully armed soldiers? They left then, lamenting their fate, and, although they accepted with gratitude the safe-conduct granted them, they bitterly regretted that they had left the camp without arms and had been trapped in this humiliating and high-handed fashion.

The circumstances of the situation led Severus to use another stratagem. Fearing that, after they had been cashiered from the service, the praetorians might rush back to the camp and snatch up their arms, the emperor sent ahead, by other streets and ways, men picked for their demonstrated courage; these men were to reach the camp ahead of the praetorians, seize the arms there, and shut out the guards if they came to the camp.

Such was the punishment suffered by the murderers of Pertinax.

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Online 2007
Revision: 29 June 2007
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