Herodian 8.8

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.

Accession of Gordian III

[8.8.1] [May 238] For the rest of the time the two emperors governed in an orderly and well-regulated manner, winning approval on every hand both privately and publicly. The people honored and respected them as patriotic and admirable rulers of the empire. The praetorians, however, were privately disgruntled, not at all pleased that the people had demonstrated their approval of the emperors. The noble birth of the two men was an affront to the praetorians, and they were indignant also because the emperors had received the imperial office from the Senate.

[8.8.2] The praetorians feared that the German troops with [Pupienus] Maximus in Rome would oppose them if they should instigate a revolt. They suspected that the Germans were lying in wait for them; if the praetorians were discharged from service by trickery, the Germans would be at hand to replace them as the imperial bodyguard. They recalled the example of Severus, who dismissed the praetorians who had killed Pertinax.

[8.8.3] When the Capitoline Games were drawing to an end and all the people were occupied with festivals and shows, the praetorians suddenly brought their hidden resentments into the open. Making no attempt to control their anger, they launched an unreasoning assault; rushing into the palace with one purpose, they approached the aged emperors.

[8.8.4] It so happened that the two men were not in complete accord: so great is the desire for sole rule and so contrary to the usual practice is it for the sovereignty to be shared that each undertook to secure the imperial power for himself alone. Balbinus considered himself the more worthy because of his noble birth and his two terms as consul; Maximus felt that he deserved first place because he had served as prefect of Rome and had won a good reputation by his administrative efforts. Both men were led to covet the sole rule because of their distinguished birth, aristocratic lineage, and the size of their families.

[8.8.5] This rivalry was the basis of their downfall. When Maximus learned that the Praetorian Guard was coming to kill them, he wished to summon a sufficient number of the German auxiliaries who were in Rome to resist the conspirators. But Balbinus, thinking that this was a ruse intended to deceive him (he knew that the Germans were devoted to Maximus), refused to allow Maximus to issue the order, believing that the Germans were coming not to put down a praetorian uprising but to secure the empire for Maximus alone.

[8.8.6] While the two men were arguing, the praetorians rushed in with a single purpose. When the guards at the palace gates deserted the emperors, the praetorians seized the old men and ripped off the plain robes they were wearing because they were at home. Dragging the two men naked from the palace, they inflicted every insult and indignity upon them. Jeering at these emperors elected by the senate, they beat and tortured them, pulling their beards and eyebrows and doing them every kind of physical outrage. They then brought the emperors through the middle of the city to the praetorian camp, unwilling to kill them in the palace; they preferred to torture them first, so that they might suffer longer.

[8.8.7] When the Germans learned what was happening, they snatched up their arms and hastened to the rescue. As soon as the praetorians were informed of their approach, they killed the mutilated emperors. Leaving the corpses exposed in the street, the praetorians took up Gordian Caesar and proclaimed him emperor, since at the moment they could find no other candidate for the office. Proclaiming that they had only killed the men whom the people did not want to rule them in the first place, they chose as emperor this Gordian who was descended from the Gordian whom the Romans themselves had forced to accept the rule. Keeping their emperor Gordian with them, they went off to the praetorian camp, where they shut the gates and remained quiet. Learning that the men they were hurrying to rescue had been killed and their bodies exposed, the Germans returned to their quarters, unwilling to fight fruitlessly for men already dead.

[8.8.8] Such was the undeserved and impious fate suffered by these two respected and distinguished elder statesmen, nobly born men deservedly elevated to the imperial throne. Gordian, at the age of about thirteen, was designated emperor and assumed the burden of the Roman empire.