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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)

4.2: Funeral of Severus

It is the Roman custom to elevate to divine status those emperors who at their death leave sons or designated successors; they call this honor deification [apotheosis]. To begin with, public mourning, a combination of festive feeling and religious ceremony, is observed throughout the entire city. 

After a costly funeral, the body of the emperor is interred in the customary fashion. But then a wax image is fashioned in the exact likeness of the corpse and placed on a large, high couch of ivory draped with coverings embroidered with gold. This wax figure lies on the couch like a sick man, pale and wan.

During most of the day people sit on each side of the couch; on the left is the entire Senate, clad in black; on the right are all the women who, because of their husbands' or their fathers' positions, are entitled to honor and respect. None of these women wear gold ornaments or necklaces; each affects the plain white garments associated with mourning.

The various ceremonies mentioned above continue for seven days. Every day the physicians come and visit the couch; after pretending to examine the sick man, they announce daily that his condition is growing steadily worse. When it appears that he is dead, the noblest of the equestrians and picked young senators lift the couch and carry it along the Sacred Way to the Old Forum, where the Roman magistrates give up their authority.

Tiers of seats are erected on each side of the couch: on one side sits a chorus of children from the noblest and most distinguished families; on the other, a chorus of women who seem to deserve respect. In honor of the dead man each choral group sings hymns and paeans arranged in solemn and mournful measures.

The couch is then carried out of the city to the Field of Mars, where, in the widest part of the plain, a square building has been constructed entirely of huge wooden beams in the shape of a house.

The whole interior of this building is filled with firewood; and on the outside it is decorated with gold-embroidered hangings, ivory figures, colored paintings. Upon this structure rests a smaller second story, similar in shape and decoration, with open windows and doors. And there is a third and a fourth story, each smaller than the one beneath it; finally, the smallest story of all tops this structure.


Coin, showing the apotheosis of Faustina.
"The building may be compared in shape to the lighthouses along the coast" (!!)

The building may be compared in shape to the lighthouses along the coast which by the light of their fires bring to safety ships in distress at night. The common name for such a lighthouse is Pharos. They bring the couch to this structure and carry it up to the second story; then they add every kind of perfume and incense the earth provides, together with all the fruits, herbs, and juices that are gathered for their fragrance.

Every province, every city, every man of fame and distinction is happy to furnish these last gifts in the emperor's honor. After a huge pile of aromatic material is collected, and the structure is completely filled, a cavalry exhibition is staged around the building; the entire Equestrian cavalry circles around it, following a fixed rotating pattern in the Pyrrhic choruses and maneuvers.



Chariots, too, are driven around the building in similar formations by drivers in purple robes; these chariots carry statues whose faces are those of Romans who fought or ruled in distinguished fashion. When these rites have been completed, the emperor's successor puts a torch to the structure, after which the people set it on fire on all sides. The flames easily and quickly consume the enormous pile of fire-wood and fragrant stuffs. 

From the topmost and smallest story, as if from a battlement, an eagle flies forth, soaring with the flames into the sky; the Romans believe that this eagle carries the soul of the emperor from the earth up to heaven. Thereafter the emperor is worshiped with the rest of the gods.



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Online 2007
Revision: 1 July 2007
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