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Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire (1961) pp.1-10. Introduction


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Translated from the Greek by Edward C. Echols

Herodian's history is a lively contemporary record of a half century of scandal and intrigue, of corruption and progressive decay, in the empire. In eight books, it covers the years from 180 to 238, from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the accession of Gordian III.

Although Dio Cassius had already written the definitive history of his age, Herodian, a native of Syria, and a minor civil servant in Rome, undertook to write, from a somewhat limited personal experience, supplemented by reference to standard authorities, a moralizing account of the downward spiral of the empire. He recognizes, acutely for his time, that the death of Marcus Aurelius was the end of an era in Rome's history and he is chiefly concerned to show his readers the corruption that followed upon it.

In his literary style Herodian is very much the product of his age: rhetorical, pompous, repetitive, derivative. Yet, unlike other imperial biographists, he makes no observations on the sexual experiments of the emperors, but chooses to ignore them. Perhaps, as Mr. Echols suggests in his introduction, the explanation for this singular omission is that Herodian, himself a Syrian, is reluctant to reveal the more notorious activities of the Syrian emperors. He is a sincere moralizer with a thoroughly patriotic Roman outlook.

His account remains the best connected of any contemporary source and is a valuable example of later classical historiography. This is the first English translation from the Greek text since 1749.

An introduction discusses the few facts about Herodian's life that are known, assesses his place in Roman historiography, describes his method, philosophy, and style, and comments on Herodian scholarship to date.

EDWARD ECHOLS is the author of some fifty articles in the classical journals. His special interest is in translating from late Latin and Greek historical writings. He teaches Latin at The Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.








Book vignettes reproduced from wood engravings by F. W. Fairholt, F.S.A., in S. W. Stevenson, F.S.A., A Dictionary of Roman Coins (1889).




I AM grateful to Dr. Linton C. Stevens, Professor of Romance Languages in the University of Alabama, for helpful criticism in regard to style and clarity. I have also to thank Professor Mason Hammond of Harvard University for his encouragement. And I wish to express my appreciation to Miss Genevieve Rogers, of the University of California Press, who assisted greatly in bringing the work to its final form.

The successful completion of this work owes much to the generous and sustained support of the University Research Committee of the University of Alabama. Grants-in-aid enabled me to give full time to the work of translation during two summers, and, even more important, made it possible for me to have access to a library with facilities adequate for the specialized requirements of this project.

For the shortcomings of the work I assume full responsibility.



COMMODUS 180-193
GETA 211-212
MACRINUS 217-218


THE Roman historians inherited from the Greeks a long and distinguished historical tradition. It was Hecataeus of Miletus who, in the fifth century B.C., first turned rational attention to the skeletal contemporary sources of history—the traditional myths, uncritically accepted, and the local annalistic records, uncritically evaluated. By the beginning of the Hellenistic period, Greek historiography included every form of historical writing: the discursive, rambling accounts deriving from Herodotus; the objective, scientific, and highly literate histories in the manner of Thucydides; partisan histories designed as propaganda; and historical biographies. Men of action described their personal exploits, and histories written to entertain or shock foreshadowed historical fiction. By the end of the fourth century B.C., history was a legitimate and accepted field of literary inquiry.

The Greek writers of the third century B.C., however, failed to find at home a subject worthy of their talents. The growing importance of Rome tended to counteract the decline of Greek influence, and Timaeus of Sicily, in the third century, wrote at some length of his neighbor in Italy. For the next several centuries, great events tended to produce great historians, and virtually every phase of Rome's history was carefully studied and competently published.

The early Roman historians were Greeks. The intent of these writers was to interpret for the Greek-reading world the phenomenon of Rome's rise to a position of dominance in the Mediterranean world. Greatest of these pioneer Graeco-Roman historians was the soldier-statesman-author Polybius |2 (ca. 203-ca. 120 B.C.), who wrote a Universal History covering events from 220 to 144 B.C. He describes in admirable detail, and with an equally admirable grasp of the issues involved, Rome's familiar extern wars during this important formative period. A pragmatic historian, describing contemporary times, Polybius was a competent analyst and interpreter.

These pragmatic histories, describing in detail short periods of time, were soon replaced at Rome by the annalistic reconstruction of Rome's early history; the formulation of an annalistic tradition was necessitated by the growth of nationalism resulting from Rome's increasing importance in the Mediterranean world. Once the native Roman historiography was firmly established, it soon embraced all the extant historico-literary forms; by the Augustan Age, Latin historians were writing antiquarian history, contemporary history, military history, "literary" history, and the historical biography.

The Graeco-Roman historians continued to write after the field was dominated by the Latin historians. Before the last century of the Republic, the great Stoic philosopher-historian, Posidonius of Apamaea, wrote a continuation of Polybius' Universal History covering the period from 144 B.C. to the dictatorship of Sulla. Posidonius, who had visited Rome and had been the teacher of many distinguished Romans at Rhodes, profoundly affected the literary careers of such Roman historians as Livy, Sallust, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Indeed, Posidonius has been credited with paving the way for the glory of the Augustan Age by awaking Rome's historians to a realization of her past and future greatness.

The Greek writers of Roman history were still active in the early empire. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote a |3 rhetorical account of Rome's origins, and Flavius Josephus produced in Greek an all-inclusive history of the Jews, as well as an eyewitness account of the Flavian conquest of Palestine in a.d. 68-70.

The growing importance of the individual in the empire raised historical biography to a position of major importance. In the first century B.C., Cornelius Nepos wrote his De Viris Illustribus, a series of comparative biographies of Greeks and Romans. Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-post 120) continued this literary form in a lengthy series of biographies comparing ancient and contemporary figures. Balancing these "antiquarian" biographies are the imperial biographies of Suetonius (A.D. 69-ca. 140), in which he described the empire in terms of its chief personalities, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Paralleling the increasing emphasis upon the place of the individual in history was the trend toward epitomes, eclectic and excerpted accounts concerned with long periods of time. Among the most successful of the annalistic epitomizers was the Bithynian, Dio Cassius, who, in the third century of the Christian era, wrote in Greek his history of Rome from 753 b.c. to a.d. 229. Dio's history is the major source of information for much of the post-Flavian period, when Rome's historical felicitas at last began to fail. The late historical summarizers, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Festus, Zosimus, and others, treat this period briefly in their epitomes.

The imperial biographers of the Historia Augusta, which seems to date from the late fourth century, provide information about the emperors from Hadrian through Numerianus in 284.

The third original source for the history of this period of the Roman empire is the Ab Excessu Divi Marci by Herodian of Syria, who wrote in Greek an account of the Roman empire from the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 to the |4 accession of Gordian III in 238. Dio and Herodian provide the only extant contemporary histories of this important period of the empire.

Iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes.
                                                   ----Juvenal Sat. III 62  

When Juvenal was moved to this peevish observation in the second century of the Christian era, the influx of Syria and Syrians into Rome was a recognized and often-deplored fact. Not all second-century Syrians in Rome, however, could be identified with Juvenal's light entertainers. In the field of history, Posidonius of Apamaea made an important contribution in the first century b.c. In the field of government, the Syrian phase began about 186, when the commander of a legion in Syria married the daughter of a priest of Elagabalus in Emesa. When Septimius Severus became emperor in 193, Rome had a Syrian empress, Julia Domna. When Caracalla became emperor in 211, Rome had a half-Syrian emperor; when Elagabalus became emperor in 218, Rome had a Syrian emperor.

The key figure in Rome's Syrian dynasty was Julia Domna. A shrewd, highly capable woman, she had assumed imperial responsibility with her husband. When Caracalla became sole emperor, Julia was put in charge of imperial correspondence and state records. She soon gathered about her the most distinguished literary men of the day, many of whom held important political posts: the jurists Papinian and Ulpian, the biographer Diogenes Laertius, the sophist Philostratus, the historian Dio Cassius.

After Julia's death, she was replaced at court by her younger sister, Julia Maesa. Rich and wily, Maesa plotted the overthrow of Macrinus and placed upon the throne her grandson Elagabalus, the first Syrian emperor of Rome. The Syrian domination was continued by the thirteen-year reign |5 of Alexander Severus, with whom the dynasty came to an end in 235.

Thus, throughout most of the sixty-year period covered by Herodian's history, Rome was under some degree of Syrian domination. Herodian states that he had a career in the imperial civil service (1.2.5) which enabled him to write much of his history from personal experience and observation. Since his book ends with the year 238, it is hardly likely that he began his career before the accession of Septimius Severus. Marcus Aurelius had no reason to favor Syria, which had supported the unsuccessful pretender Avidius Cassius in 175. Commodus also seems to have taken relatively little interest in the country. But with the accession of Severus and Julia Domna, the time was favorable for an influx of Syrians into the civil service. Severus did not trust the native Romans, since he dismissed the Praetorian Guard and replaced it by veterans from his legions. The Syrian (?) Papinianus served as praetorian prefect under Severus. The imperial bias after 193 was definitely Eastern, and the literary language of the contemporary literary figures was Greek.

Herodian belonged to the educated class in a country where Aramaic was still the spoken language. An educated Syrian would obviously be of value in the records division of the imperial civil service. It may be suggested that Herodian, a trilingual Syrian (Latin sources were employed for the first four books of his history), joined the civil service after the defeat of Niger by Severus.

Herodian's early association with the Syrian dynasty at Rome would account for the amazing "Romanness" of his outlook. Herodian is so thoroughly patriotic and so Romanized that he can speak of his fellow non-Romans as barbarians, and can offer an analysis of his fellow Syrians that is thoroughly unflattering.

Assuming that he began his imperial service with |6 Septimius Severus and ended it under Alexander or soon thereafter, Herodian may have been a member of Julia Domna's Eastern-oriented literary coterie. He read Dio Cassius; he used his sources; it is entirely possible that he knew Dio Cassius. In view of Dio's advanced age in 229, Herodian probably survived his greater contemporary.

Dio had already produced the definitive "world" history of his age. If Herodian, after his long career in letters, had any serious historical intent, an epitome was obviously out of the question. I hazard the guess that the Ab Excessu Divi Marci is a true "memoir," but that Herodian had played so minor a role in the period he undertakes to describe from personal observation and experience that he was forced to supplement his limited knowledge by reference to the standard sources. His work therefore does not compete with that of Dio Cassius; instead, he offers a moralizing account of the downward spiral of the empire. We must credit Herodian with enough sense of history to recognize that the death of Marcus Aurelius signified the end of an era. Herodian's chief concern is with the corruption that accompanied the decline in Rome's world position. That he was not a professional historian is apparent. That he was literate, concerned with the recording of history, aware of the long tradition of Greek historiography but at the same time very much a product of his own age, is equally apparent. He is a rhetorician, pompous, repetitive, and derivative. His fabricated speeches in the Thucydidean mode, which were intended to enliven the narrative, generally have the opposite effect. His insight into causes and motivation is superficial and unconvincing; he obviously lacked the personal experience and broad background that are needed for passing judgment on men and events. Perhaps Polybius is right: only the man of action can write history. Herodian's biographical approach to this period of imperial history is not too successful; his |7 men on all levels are given a curious sameness of character that reminds us of Cornelius Nepos; with Nepos, the career of one Greek general is very much like that of any other Greek general.

Herodian has been criticized for his many sins of omission, among them his failure to note Caracalla's extension of citizenship throughout the empire. We can only suggest that this action of the emperor's was not nearly so impressive at the time as it now seems. Herodian's geography is vague and must be cited with extreme care. His indefinite and inexact data suggest again the narrow limits of his personal knowledge. His decision to ignore the sexual experiments of many of the emperors is odd in the extreme. These clinical observations were basic features of imperial biography beginning with Suetonius, and the general historians, including Dio Cassius, did not overlook them. Herodian was doubtless a sincere moralizer; a Syrian, he would be reluctant to reveal the more spectacular activities of the Syrian emperors.

As a historian, then, Herodian is an amateur; as a stylist he is typical third-century baroque. If he is no Polybius, no Livy, no Tacitus, it is only fair to point out that neither is any other third-century Roman historian. Herodian is a product of his age, and his work is an interesting and valuable specimen of later classical historiography from a period in which original sources are scarce.

The manuscript tradition is discussed in the preface of the Teubner edition (1883) by K. Mendelssohn, and summarized in the Teubner edition (1922) by K. Stavenhagen. They conclude that there are five codices, one from the eleventh century and four from the fifteenth century. A sixth codex, used by Aldus for the editio princeps in 1503, has been lost. Three of these fifteenth-century codices derive from one source; the other three, including the lost codex of Aldus, |8 are from a second source. These two sources derive in turn from a single source which goes back to the archtype. This archtype is also the source of the excerpts quoted by the seventh-century John of Antioch; these excerpts are outside the surviving manuscripts. I have seen none of these codices.

During the Renaissance, Herodian was studied with interest. At the request of Pope Innocent VIII, the Italian humanist Politian prepared, in 1487, and published both at Bologna and Rome, in 1493, so excellent a Latin version of Herodian that it was believed by many to be an original history in Latin. This translation was reprinted with the Greek text many times in the next two centuries.

The first translation into English, prepared from the Latin of Politian by Nicholas Smyth, was published in London perhaps in 1550. Another English translation, by J. Maxwell, appeared in London in 1629 and 1635. G. B. Stapylton produced a metrical version in English in 1652. The last translation into English is apparently that of J. Hart, London, 1749. The first translation into French seems to have been that of Jean Collin in 1541; Leon Halevy was responsible for the second French version of Herodian in 1824, republished in 1860. Adolph Stahr did a German translation in 1858.

Present-day scholarship has been concerned chiefly with Herodian's contributions to a knowledge of individual emperors. The most recent extensive work is the Princeton dissertation of Reynold Burrows, which considers Herodian and Septimius Severus. Twentieth-century classical and historical scholarship has neglected Herodian. This neglect reflects the general indifference of scholars to the period of the late Roman empire. Only a revival of interest in this significant era will lead to an adequate reappraisal of Herodian as a basic source for the eventful and important years treated in his history. |9 

I have based my translation directly upon the Greek text edited by K. Stavenhagen for the Teubner Series (Leipzig, 1922), supplemented by the Latin version of Politian in the edition of 1532, and I had access also to the translations of Hart, Halevy, and Stahr. A variant of the old dictum frequently applies: "Four translators, four versions." I have elected to avoid a slavish adherence to the Greek idiom and style, and have essayed a version for readers without Greek. For readers of Greek I sincerely recommend the Stavenhagen text in the Teubner Series.

For place names I have chosen to employ the Latin versions: for example, Perennis for Perennius. On occasion I have substituted familiar modern place names for the classical forms: for example, Danube for Ister. The names by which the emperors are generally known have sometimes been substituted for those used by Herodian: for example, Elagabalus for Antoninus.  



Aldine. Venice, 1503. 
Bekker, I. Leipzig, 1855. 
La Roche, J. Vienna, 1863. 
Mendelssohn, L. Leipzig, 1883. 
Stavenhagen, K. Leipzig, 1922.


Latin: A. Politianus. Bologna and Rome, 1493.

English: J. Hart. London, 1749.

French: Jean Collin. L'Histoire de Herodien ..., tournée de grecq en latin par Ange Politian et de latin en francays par Johan Collin. Paris, 1541 ; 2d ed., Lyons, 1546.
L. Halévy. Paris, 1824, 1860. 

German: A. Stahr. Stuttgart, 1858.


Baaz, E. De Herodiani fontibus et auctoritate. Berlin, 1909. 

Dändliker, C. "Die drei letzten Bücher Herodians," Untersuchungen zur römischen Kaiser geschichte. Leipzig, 1870. III, 203-320. 

Fuchs, K. "Beiträge zur Kritik der ersten drei Bücher Herodians," Wiener Studien, XVII (1896), 222-252. 

--------- "Beiträge zur Kritik Herodians (IV-VIII Buch)," Wiener Studien, XVIII (1897), 180-234. 

Kettler, G. Nonnullae ad Herodianum rerum Romanarum scriptorem annotationes. Erlangen, 1882. 

Kreutzer, J. De Herodiano rerum Romanarum scriptore, Bonn, 1881. 

Pasoli, A. L'Uso di Erodiano nella vita Maximini. Milan, 1927. 

Roos, A. G. "Herodian's Method of Composition," Journal of Roman Studies, V [part 2] (1915), 191-202. 

Smits, J. C. P. De geschiedschrijver Herodianus en zijn bronnen. Leiden, 1913.

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