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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.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Bust of Heliogabalus. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Bassianus or Heliogabalus (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

5.5: Heliogabalus' unusual behavior

[Summer 218] Now the entire army went over to Heliogabalus, proclaiming him emperor, and the youth assumed control of the empire. After affairs in the East had been set in order for him by his grandmother and his advisers (for he was young in years, and lacking in education and administrative experience), he delayed his departure for only a short time, as Maesa was eager to return to her familiar imperial life at Rome.

The Senate and the Roman people were dismayed at the report of these developments, but submitted through necessity because the army had elected to follow this course. They attributed the affair to the indolence and weakness of Macrinus and said that he alone was responsible for what had happened.

Leaving Syria, Heliogabalus proceeded to Nicomedia, where he was forced by the season of the year to spend the winter [218/219]. Immediately he plunged into his mad activities, performing for his native god the fantastic rites in which he had been trained from childhood. He wore the richest clothing, draping himself in purple robes embroidered in gold; to his necklaces and bracelets he added a crown, a tiara glittering with gold and jewels.

His dress showed the influence of the sacred robe of the Phoenicians and the luxurious garb of the Medes. He loathed Greek and Roman garments because they were made of wool, in his opinion an inferior material; only the Serian cloth [1] met with his approval. Accompanied by flutes and drums, he went about performing, as it appeared, orgiastic service to his god.

When she saw what Heliogabalus was doing, Maesa was greatly disturbed and tried again and again to persuade the youth to wear Roman dress when he entered the city to visit the Senate. She was afraid that his appearance, obviously foreign and wholly barbaric, would offend those who saw him; they were not used to such garb and considered his ornaments suitable only for women.

But Heliogabalus had nothing but contempt for the old woman's warnings, nor did anyone else succeed in convincing him. (He would listen only to those who were like him and flattered his faults.) Since, however, he wished the Senate and the Roman people to grow accustomed to seeing him in this costume and wished to test their reaction to this exotic sight, before he returned to Rome he had a full-length portrait painted, showing him performing his priestly duties in public. His native god also appeared in the painting; the emperor was depicted sacrificing to him under favorable auspices.

Heliogabalus sent this picture to Rome to be hung in the center of the Senate house, high above the statue of Victory before which each senator burns frankincense and pours a libation of wine upon entering the chamber. He directed all Roman officials who perform public sacrifices to call upon the new god Heliogabalus before all the other gods whom they invoke in their rites. [Summer 219] By the time the emperor came to Rome presenting the appearance described above, the Romans saw nothing unusual in it, for the painting had prepared them for what to expect.


The remains of the terrace of the temple of Elagabal. Photo Jona Lendering.
The remains of the terrace of the temple of Elagabal in Rome

Heliogabalus then made the distribution of money customary at the succession of an emperor and staged lavish and extravagant spectacles of every kind. He erected a huge and magnificent temple to his god and surrounded it with numerous altars. Coming forth early each morning, he sacrificed there hecatombs of bulls and a vast number of sheep. These he placed upon the altars and heaped up spices of every kind; he also set before the altars many jars of the oldest and finest wines, so that the streams of blood mingled with streams of wine.

Heliogabalus danced around the altars to music played on every kind of instrument; women from his own country accompanied him in these dances, carrying cymbals and drums as they circled the altars. The entire senate and all the knights stood watching, like spectators at the theater. The spices and entrails of the sacrificial animals were not carried by servants or men of low birth;

 rather, they were borne along in gold vessels held on high by the praetorian prefects and the most important magistrates, who wore long-sleeved robes with a broad purple stripe in the center, robes which hung to their feet in the Phoenician style. On their feet were the linen shoes customarily worn by the Eastern prophets. It was obvious that Heliogabalus was paying the highest honor to those associated with him in the performance of the sacred rites.



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Note 1:
Silk.
Online 2007
Revision: 3 July 2007
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