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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 Aquilia Severa. Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen (Holland). Photo Jona Lendering.
Coin of Aquilia Severa (Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen)

5.6: Heliogabalus' religious excesses

Even though the emperor seemed to be devoting all his attention to dancing and to his priestly duties, still he found time to execute many famous and wealthy men who were charged with ridiculing and censuring his way of life. [Autumn 219] He married one of the noblest of the Roman ladies [Cornelia Paula] and proclaimed her Augusta; [January 220] but he soon divorced her and, after depriving her of the imperial honors, ordered her to return to private life.

So that he might seem to be doing something manly, he made love to one of the Vestal Virgins of Rome [Julia Aquilia Severa], priestesses who are bound by sacred vows to be chaste and remain virgin to the end of their lives; taking the maiden away from Vesta and the holy virgins' quarters, he made her his wife. He sent a letter to the Senate asking to be forgiven his impious and adolescent transgression, telling them that he was afflicted with a masculine failing - an overwhelming passion for the maiden. He also informed them that the marriage of a priest and a priestess was both proper and sanctioned. [July 221] But a short time later he divorced this girl and took yet a third wife [Annia Aurelia Faustina], a girl who belonged to the family of Commodus.

Not content with making a mockery of human marriage, he even sought a wife for the god whose priest he was. He brought into his own bedroom the statue of Pallas which the Romans worship hidden and unseen. Even though this statue had not been moved from the time when it was first brought from Troy, except when the temple of Vesta was destroyed by fire, Heliogabalus moved it now and brought it into the palace to be married to his god.

But proclaiming that his god was not pleased by a goddess of war wearing full armor, he sent for the statue of Urania which the Carthaginians and Libyans especially venerate. This statue they say Dido the Phoenician set up at the time when she cut the hide into strips and founded the ancient city of Carthage. The Libyans call this goddess Urania, but the Phoenicians worship her as Astroarche, identifying her with the moon.[1]

Claiming that he was arranging a marriage of the sun and the moon, Heliogabalus sent for the statue and all the gold in the temple and ordered the Carthaginians to provide, in addition, a huge sum of money for the goddess' dowry. When the statue arrived, he set it up with his god and ordered all men in Rome and throughout Italy to celebrate with lavish feasts and festivals, publicly and privately, in honor of the marriage of the deities.

In the suburbs of Rome the emperor built a very large and magnificent temple to which every year in midsummer he brought his god. He staged lavish shows and built race tracks and theaters, believing that chariot races, shows, and countless recitals would please the people, who held night-long feasts and celebrations. He placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.[2]

A six-horse chariot bore the sun god, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the sun god himself were the charioteer. Heliogabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses' reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

Since he was unable to see where he was going, his route was paved with gold dust to keep him from stumbling and falling, and bodyguards supported him on each side to protect him from injury. The people ran parallel to him, carrying torches and tossing wreaths and flowers. The statues of all the gods, the costly or sacred offerings in the temples, the imperial ornaments, and valuable heirlooms were carried by the cavalry and the entire Praetorian Guard in honor of the sun god. 


Bust of Heliogabalus. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Bassianus or Heliogabalus (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

After thus bringing the god out and placing him in the temple, Heliogabalus performed the rites and sacrifices described above; then, climbing to the huge, lofty towers which he had erected, he threw down, indiscriminately, cups of gold and silver, clothing, and cloth of every type to the mob below. He also distributed all kinds of tame animals except swine, which, in accordance with Phoenician custom, he shunned.

Many lost their lives in the ensuing scramble, impaled on the soldiers' spears or trampled to death; thus the celebration of the emperor brought tragedy to a host of people. Heliogabalus was often seen driving a chariot or dancing. He had no desire to sin in secret, but appeared in public with eyes painted and cheeks rouged; these cosmetics marred a face naturally handsome.



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Note 1:
In Emesa, Elagabal was venerated together with two goddesses, Atargatis and Astarte. By bringing the statues of Minerva and Urania (Juno Caelestis; Tanit) to Rome, Heliogabalus recreated the triad.

Note 2:
The celebration resembles the Akitu festival from Babylonia, which had survived in Emesa.
Online 2007
Revision: 3 July 2007
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