Herodian 1.17

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.

Commodus Assassinated

[1.17.1] [31 December 192] Commodus, enraged, dismissed them and retired to his bedroom for a nap (for this was his custom in the middle of the day). First he took a wax tablet made from a thin strip of basswood, which grows under the bark of the linden tree - and wrote down the names of those who were to be put to death that night.

[1.17.2] Marcia's name was at the top of the list, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and a large number of the foremost senators. Commodus wanted all the elder statesmen and the advisers appointed for him by his father, those who still survived, to be put to death, for he was ashamed to have these revered men witness his disgraceful actions. He planned to confiscate the property of the wealthy and distribute it to the soldiers, so that they would protect him, and to the gladiators, so that they would entertain him.

[1.17.3] After composing his list, Commodus placed the tablet on his couch, thinking that no one would come into his bedroom. But there was in the palace a very young little boy, one of those who went about bare of clothes but adorned with gold and costly gems. The Roman voluptuaries always took delight in these lads. Commodus was very fond of this child and often slept with him; his name, Philocommodus,note clearly indicates the emperor's affection for him.

[1.17.4] Philocommodus was playing idly about the palace. After Commodus had gone out to his usual baths and drinking bouts, the lad wandered into the emperor's bedroom, as he usually did; picking up the tablet for a plaything, he left the bedroom. By a stroke of fate, he met Marcia. After hugging and kissing him (for she too was fond of the child), she took the tablet from him, afraid that in his heedless play he might accidentally erase something important. When she recognized the emperor's handwriting, she was eager to read the tablet.

[1.17.5] Discovering that it was a death list and that she was scheduled to die first, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and many others marked for murder, she cried out in grief and then said to herself: "So, Commodus, this is my reward for my love and devotion, after I have put up with your arrogance and your madness for so many years. But, you drunken sot, you shall not outwit a woman deadly sober!"

[1.17.6] She then summoned Eclectus; he was in the habit of visiting her anyway, since he was the bedroom steward, and it was rumored that she was sleeping with him. She handed him the tablet, saying: "See what a party we are to enjoy tonight!" Eclectus read it and was dumbfounded (but he was an Egyptian, bold by nature and quick-tempered, a man of action). Sealing the tablet, he sent it off to Laetus by one of his trusted slaves. 

[1.17.7] After reading the tablet, Laetus hurried to Marcia as if to discuss the emperor's orders with her, especially about his proposed stay with the gladiators. And while they pretended to be arguing about this matter, they concluded that they must act first or suffer the consequences, agreeing that it was no time for indecision or delay.

[1.17.8] They decided to poison Commodus, and Marcia assured them that she could administer a potion with the greatest ease. For it was her custom to mix the wine and give the emperor his first cup, so that he might have a pleasant drink from the hand of his beloved. When Commodus returned from his bath, she poured the poison into the cup, mixed it with a pungent wine, and gave it to him to drink. Since it was his practice to take a cup of friendship after his many baths and jousts with animals, he drained it without noticing anything unusual.

[1.17.9] Immediately he became drowsy and stupefied and fell asleep, believing that it was the natural result of his exertions. Eclectus and Marcia ordered all the rest to return to their homes, and made everything quiet for him. Commodus had acted like this on other occasions when overcome by wine. Since he bathed often and drank often, he had no set time for sleeping; in addition, he indulged in all kinds of pleasures, to which he was a willing slave at any hour.

[1.17.10] For a short time he lay quiet, but, when the poison spread through his stomach and bowels, he became nauseated and began to vomit violently, either because his excessive eating and drinking were expelling the poison, or because he had taken beforehand an antidote for poison, as emperors regularly did before eating or drinking.

[1.17.11] After much vomiting had occurred, the conspirators, afraid that Commodus would get rid of the poison, recover, and kill them, promised lavish rewards to a powerful young nobleman, Narcissus, if he would strangle the emperor. Narcissus rushed in where the emperor lay overcome by the poisoned wine, seized him by the throat, and finished him off.

[1.17.12] Such was the fate Commodus suffered, after ruling for thirteen years from the date of his father's death. He was the most nobly born of all the emperors who preceded him and was the handsomest man of his time, both in beauty of features and in physical development. If it were fitting to discuss his manly qualities, he was inferior to no man in skill and in marksmanship, if only he had not disgraced these excellent traits by shameful practices.