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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 Julia Maesa. Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen (Holland). Photo Marco Prins.
Coin of Julia Maesa (Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen)

5.3: Soldiers proclaim Heliogabalus emperor

[Summer 218] Therefore it was inevitable that Macrinus, after ruling for a single year, should lose the empire and his life when Fortune provided the soldiers with a trivial and inadequate excuse for accomplishing their desire.

Julia, wife of Severus and mother of Caracalla, had a sister, Maesa, a Phoenician named after the city of Emesa in that country. During her sister's imperial career, the many years that Severus and Caracalla were emperors, this woman lived in the imperial palace. After the assassination of Caracalla and Julia's death, Macrinus ordered Maesa to return to her own estates in Phoenicia, allowing her to live there in full possession of her property. Since Maesa had lived for a long time under imperial protection, she had amassed a huge personal fortune. Thus the old woman now went off to live on her estates. Maesa had two daughters.

The elder was called Soaemias; the younger, Mamaea. Each of the girls had an only son: Soaemias' son was named Bassianus; Mamaea's, Alexianus. These boys, who were reared by their mothers and their grandmother, were at that time about fourteen and ten, respectively.

They were priests of the sun god, whom their countrymen worship under the Phoenician name Elagabal. A huge temple was erected to this god, lavishly decorated with gold, silver, and costly gems. Not only is this god worshiped by the natives, but all the neighboring rulers and kings send generous and expensive gifts to him each year.

No statue made by man in the likeness of the god stands in this temple, as in Greek and Roman temples. The temple does, however, contain a huge black stone with a pointed end and round base in the shape of a cone.[1] The Phoenicians solemnly maintain that this stone came down from Zeus; pointing out certain small figures in relief, they assert that it is an unwrought image of the sun, for naturally this is what they wish to see.

Bassianus was the chief priest of this god. (Since he was the elder of the boys, the priesthood had been entrusted to him.) He went about in barbarian dress, wearing long-sleeved purple tunics embroidered with gold which hung to his feet; robes similarly decorated with gold and purple covered his legs from hip to toe, and he wore a diadem of varicolored precious gems.

Bassianus, in the prime of youth, was the handsomest lad of his time. With physical beauty, bloom of youth, and splendor of attire combining to produce the same effect, the youth might well be compared to the handsome statues of Bacchus.

When Bassianus was performing his priestly duties, dancing about the altars in barbarian fashion to the music of flutes, pipes, and every kind of instrument, the natives and the soldiers watched him with more than ordinary curiosity, aware that he belonged to the imperial family.

His youthful beauty attracted the eyes of all. At that time a huge army was quartered at Emesa to guard Phoenicia. This army was later transferred from the city, as we shall relate in the pages to follow.[2] The soldiers were therefore frequent visitors in the city and went to the temple on the pretext of worshiping the god; there they delighted in watching Bassianus.

Some were deserters and compatriots of Maesa; while they stood admiring the youth, Maesa, either inventing the story or telling the truth, informed them that Bassianus was really the son of Caracalla, although it might appear that he had another father. She claimed that when she was living in the palace with her sister, Caracalla slept with both of her daughters, who were young and beautiful. The men repeated her story to their fellow soldiers, and it soon became common knowledge throughout the army.

Maesa was rumored to be enormously wealthy, and it was reported that she would immediately give all her money to the soldiers if they restored the empire to her family. The soldiers agreed that if the family would come secretly to the camp at night, they would open the gates, receive the family inside, and proclaim Bassianus emperor and son of Caracalla. The old woman agreed to the plan, preferring to risk any danger rather than live in obscurity and appear to have been discarded. And so she slipped unnoticed out of the city at night with her daughters and grandsons.

[16 May 218] Guided by soldiers who had deserted, they came to the wall of the camp and were warmly received inside. Immediately the entire army saluted Bassianus as "Son of Caracalla," and, wrapping him in a purple military cloak, held him inside the camp. Then, bringing in all the supplies from the villages and adjacent fields, together with the women and children, they prepared to endure a siege if it should prove necessary.

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Note 1:
A baetyl.

Note 2:
Herodian does not keep this promise. The army consisted of the Third legion Gallica and its auxiliary units.
Online 2007
Revision: 3 July 2007
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