Herodian 1.12

Herodian (late second, first half third century): Greek historian, author of a History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius 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.

The Plague

[1.12.1] [c.189] About this time, plague struck all Italy. The suffering was especially severe in Rome, since the city, which received people from all over the world, was overcrowded. The city suffered great loss of both men and animals.

[1.12.2] Then, on the advice of his physicians, Commodus left Rome for Laurentum. This region enjoyed the shade from extensive laurel groves (whence the area derives its name); it was cooler there and seemed to be a safe haven. The emperor is said to have counteracted the pollution in the air by the fragrant scent of the laurels and the refreshing shade of the trees. At the direction of their doctors, those who remained in Rome filled their nostrils and ears with fragrant oils and used perfume and incense constantly, for some said that the sweet odor, entering first, filled up the sensory passages and kept out the poison in the air; or, if any poison should enter, it would be neutralized by the stronger odors. The plague, however, continued to rage unchecked for a long time, and many men died, as well as domestic animals of all kinds.

[1.12.3] Famine gripped the city at the same time. Responsible for it was a Phrygian named Cleander, one of the slaves offered for sale by the public auctioneer for the benefit of the state. As a slave in the imperial household, Cleander grew up with Commodus and eventually was raised to a position of honor and authority: the command of the bodyguard, the stewardship of the imperial bedroom, and the control of the imperial armies were all entrusted to him. Because of his wealth and wantonness, Cleander coveted the empire.

[1.12.4] He bought up most of the grain supply and put it in storage; he hoped in this way to get control of the people and the army by making a generous distribution of grain at the first sign of a food shortage, anticipating that he would win the support of the people when they were suffering from a scarcity of food. He also built a huge gymnasium and public bath and turned them over to the people. In this way he tried to curry favor with the mob.

[1.12.5] The Romans, however, hated the man and blamed him for all their difficulties; they especially despised him for his greed. At first they attacked him bitterly when they thronged the theaters; later, however, they went in a body to Commodus, who was passing the time on his estate near the city, and there, raising a fearful din, they demanded Cleander for execution. 

[1.12.6] During this tumult on the grounds of his suburban estate, Commodus was loitering in the pleasant, secluded inner rooms, for Cleander had kept him in ignorance of what was happening. Suddenly, unlooked for by the assembled mob, the imperial cavalry appeared fully armed and, at the order of the prefect, butchered those in their path.

[1.12.7] The people were unable to withstand the assault, for they were unarmed men on foot fighting against armed men on horseback. And so they fell, not only because they were attacked by the cavalry and trampled by the horses, but also because they were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their own numbers, and many died in the pile-ups. 

[1.12.8] The horsemen pursued the fugitives right to the gates of Rome and slaughtered them without mercy as they attempted to force their way into the city. When those who had remained in Rome heard what had happened, they blocked the doors of their houses and went up on the roofs to throw down stones and roof tiles on the cavalry, who now suffered what they had inflicted, for no one opposed them in formal battle; most of the people were hurling missiles at them from safe positions. Finally, unable to endure the onslaught any longer, the wounded horsemen turned and fled, leaving many dead behind.

[1.12.9] In the steady hail of missiles, their horses stumbled and fell on the round stones, throwing their riders. After many had been killed on both sides, the infantry in the city, who despised the cavalry, came to the aid of the mob.