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Herodian of Antioch, History of the Roman Empire (1961) pp.11-42. Book 1.




1. THE majority of writers who have devoted themselves to compiling histories and to reviving the memory of past events have had in mind the eternal glory of learning. They feared too that if they remained silent they might be numbered among the countless hordes of the obscure. Such writers are little concerned with truth in their narratives, however, but pay particular attention to phrasing and euphony, since they are confident that even if their writings have no basis in fact, they will still win a hearing, and the accuracy of their research will not be challenged.

2. Indeed, some writers, because they abhor tyrants and wish to flatter or honor rulers, countries, and individuals, have lent sparkle to trivial and unimportant events by the brilliance of their words rather than by the clear light of truth. 3. Unwilling to accept from others hearsay evidence and unsubstantiated information, I have collected, in my history, material that is still fresh in the minds of my intended readers; |12 nor do I think that knowledge of the many important events that occurred in a brief span of time will fail to bring pleasure to future readers. 4. If we were to compare this period with all the time that has elapsed since the Augustan Age, when the Roman Republic became an aristocracy, we would not find, in that span of almost two hundred years down to the time of Marcus Aurelius, imperial successions following so closely; the varied fortunes of war, both civil and foreign; the national uprisings and destructions of cities, both in the empire and in many barbarian lands. We would not find the earthquakes, the pollutions of the air, or the incredible careers of tyrants and emperors. 5. Some of these rulers retained their power for a long time; others more briefly. There were even some who, having attained the imperial power and enjoyed the imperial honors for no more than a single day, were immediately killed. Since, in a period of sixty years, the Roman imperial power was held by more emperors than would seem possible in so short a time, many strange and wonderful events took place. 6. The emperors who were advanced in years governed themselves and their subjects commendably, because of their greater practical experience, but the younger emperors lived recklessly and introduced many innovations. As might have been expected, the disparities in age and authority inevitably resulted in variations in imperial behavior. How each of these events occurred, I shall now relate in detail, in order of time and emperors.


1. THE emperor Marcus Aurelius had a number of daughters but only two sons. One of them (his name was Verissimus) died very young; the surviving son, Commodus, his father reared with great care, summoning to Rome from all over the empire men renowned for learning in their own countries. 2. He paid these scholars large fees to live in Rome |13 and supervise his son's education. When his daughters came of age, he married them to the most distinguished of the senators, selecting his sons-in-law not from the aristocrats, with their excessive pride in their ancestry, nor from the wealthy, with their protective shield of riches; he preferred men who were modest in manner and moderate in their way of life, for he considered these virtues to be the only fit and enduring possessions of the soul.

3. He was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us.1 4. To his subjects he revealed himself as a mild and moderate emperor; he gave audience to those who asked for it and forbade his bodyguard to drive off those who happened to meet him. Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life. His reign thus produced a very large number of intelligent men, for subjects like to imitate the example set by their ruler.

5. Many capable men have already recorded the courageous and moderate enterprises, marked by both political and military excellence, which he undertook against the barbarian nations to the North and in the East; but the events which, after the death of Marcus, I saw and heard in my lifetime— things of which I had personal experience in my imperial or civil service—these I have recorded.


1. WHEN Marcus was an old man, exhausted not only by age but also by labors and cares, he suffered a serious illness while visiting the Pannonians.2 When the emperor |14 suspected that there was little hope of his recovery, and realized that his son would become emperor while still very young, he was afraid that the undisciplined youth, deprived of parental advice, might neglect his excellent studies and good habits and turn to drinking and debauchery (for the minds of the young, prone to pleasures, are turned very easily from the virtues of education) when he had absolute and unrestrained power. 2. This learned man was disturbed also by the memory of those who had become sole rulers in their youth. The Sicilian despot Dionysus, in his excessive licentiousness, had sought out new pleasures and paid the highest prices for them. The arrogance and violence of Alexander's successors against their subject peoples had brought disgrace upon his empire. 3. Ptolemy, too, contrary to the laws of the Macedonians and Greeks, went so far as to marry his own sister.3 Antigonus had imitated Dionysus in every way, even wearing a crown of ivy instead of the Macedonian hat or the diadem, and carrying the thyrsus instead of a scepter.  4. Marcus was even more distressed when he recalled events of recent date. Nero had capped his crimes by murdering his mother and had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of the people. The exploits of Domitian, as well, were marked by excessive savagery. 5. When he recalled such spectacles of despotism as these, he was apprehensive and anticipated evil events. Then, too, the Germans on the border gave him much cause for anxiety. He had not yet forced all these tribes to submit; some he had won to an alliance by persuasion; others he had conquered by force of arms. There were some who, although they had broken their pact with him, had returned to the alliance temporarily because of the fear occasioned by the presence of so great an emperor. He suspected |15 that, contemptuous of his son's youth, they would launch an assault upon him; for the barbarian is ever eager to revolt on any pretext.


1. TROUBLED by these thoughts, Marcus summoned his friends and kinsmen. Placing his son beside him and raising himself up a little on his couch, he began to speak to them as follows:

2. "That you are distressed to see me in this condition is hardly surprising. It is natural for men to pity the sufferings of their fellow men, and the misfortunes that occur before their very eyes arouse even greater compassion. I think, however, that an even stronger bond of affection exists between you and me; in return for the favors I have done you, I have a reasonable right to expect your reciprocal good will. 3. And now is the proper time for me to discover that not in vain have I showered honor and esteem upon you for so long, and for you to return the favor by showing that you are not unmindful of the benefits you have received from me. Here is my son, whom you yourselves have educated, approaching the prime of youth and, as it were, in need of pilots for the stormy seas ahead. I fear that he, tossed to and fro by his lack of knowledge of what he needs to know, may be dashed to pieces on the rocks of evil practices. 4. You, therefore, together take my place as his father, looking after him and giving him wise counsel. No amount of money is large enough to compensate for a tyrant's excesses, nor is the protection of his bodyguards enough to shield the ruler who does not possess the good will of his subjects. 5. The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from |16 necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance. 6. When a man holds absolute power, it is difficult for him to control his desires. But if you give my son proper advice in such matters and constantly remind him of what he has heard here, you will make him the best of emperors for yourselves and for all, and you will be paying the greatest tribute to my memory. Only in this way can you make my memory immortal."

7. At this point Marcus suffered a severe fainting spell and sank back on his couch, exhausted by weakness and worry. All who were present pitied him, and some cried out in their grief, unable to control themselves. After living another night and day, Marcus died,4 leaving to men of his own time a legacy of regret; to future ages, an eternal memorial of excellence. 8. When the news of his death was made public, the whole army in Pannonia and the common people as well were grief-stricken; indeed, no one in the Roman empire received the report without weeping. All cried out in a swelling chorus, calling him "Kind Father," "Noble Emperor," "Brave General," and "Wise, Moderate Ruler," and every man spoke the truth.


1. DURING the next few days Commodus' advisers kept him busy with his father's funeral rites; then they thought it advisable to bring the youth into the camp to address the troops and, by distributing money to them—the usual practice of those who succeed to the throne—to win the support of the army. 2. Accordingly, all the soldiers were ordered to proceed to the assembly field to welcome them. After performing the imperial sacrifices, Commodus, |17 surrounded by the advisers appointed by his father (and there were many learned men among them), mounted the high platform erected for him in the middle of the camp and spoke as follows:

3. "I am fully persuaded that you share in my grief over what has occurred, and that you are no less distressed by it than I. At no time when my father was with me did I see fit to play the despot with you. He took greater delight, I am convinced, in calling me 'fellow soldier' than in calling me 'son,' for he considered the latter a title bestowed by Nature, the former, a partnership based on excellence. While I was still an infant he often brought me to you and placed me in your arms, a pledge of the trust he had in you. 4. And for that reason I have every hope that I shall enjoy your universal good will, since I am indebted to you old soldiers for rearing me, and I may properly call you young soldiers my fellow students in deeds of arms, for my father loved us all and taught us every good thing. 5. To follow him, Fortune has given the empire not to an adopted successor but to me. The prestige of those who reigned before me was increased by the empire, which they received as an additional honor, but I alone was born for you in the imperial palace. I never knew the touch of common cloth. The purple received me as I came forth into the world, and the sun shone down on me, man and emperor, at the same moment. 6. And if you consider the matter properly, you will honor me as an emperor born to you, not presented to you. Assuredly, my father has gone up to heaven, where he is already companion and counselor of the gods. But it is our task to devote ourselves to human affairs and to the administration of earthly matters. To set these affairs in order and make them secure is for you to undertake, if with resolute courage you would finish what is left of the war and carry forward to the northern seas 5 the boundaries of the Roman empire. 7. These exploits will |18 indeed bring you renown, and in this way you will pay fitting respect to the memory of our mutual father. You may be sure that he hears and sees what we do. And we may count ourselves fortunate to have such a man as a witness when we do what has to be done. Up to now, all that you have courageously accomplished is attributable to his wisdom and his generalship. But now, whatever zeal you display in further exploits under me, your new emperor, will gain for you a reputation for praiseworthy loyalty and bravery. By these dauntless exploits you will confer upon us added dignity. 8. Crushed at the beginning of a new imperial reign, the barbarian will not be so bold to act at the present, scorning our youth, and will be cautious and fearful in the future, mindful of what he has suffered."

After he had finished his speech, Commodus won the support of the army by a generous distribution of money and returned to the imperial quarters.


1. THEN, for a short time, the emperor did everything as the advisers appointed by his father suggested. They were with him every day, giving him wise counsel; they allowed him only as much leisure as they thought necessary for the sensible care of his body. But some of his court companions interfered and tried to corrupt the character of the naive emperor. All the sycophants at his table, men who gauge their pleasure by their bellies and something a little lower, kept reminding him of the gay life at Rome, describing the delightful spectacles and musical shows and cataloguing the abundance of luxuries available there. They complained about wasting their time on the banks of the Danube, pointing out that the region was not productive in summer and that the fog and cold were unending. 2. "Master," they said |19 again and again, "when will you stop drinking this icy liquid mud ? In the meantime, others will be enjoying warm streams and cool streams, mists and fine air too, all of which only Italy possesses in abundance." By merely suggesting such delights to the youth, they whetted his appetite for a taste of pleasures. 3. And so he immediately summoned his advisers and informed them that he longed to see his native land. But, ashamed to admit the real reason for his sudden interest in returning, he pretended to be fearful that one of the wealthy aristocrats in Rome would seize the empire and, after raising an army and a rampart, take control of the empire, as if from an impregnable fortress. For the Roman populace was sufficiently large to supply numerous picked young men for such an army.

4. While the youth was alleging such specious excuses, the rest, sick at heart, kept their eyes fixed on the ground in dismay. But Pompeianus, the oldest of his advisers and a relation of the emperor by marriage (his wife was Commodus' oldest sister), said to him: "Child and master too, it is entirely reasonable for you to long to see your native land; we too are gripped by hunger to see those we left at home. 5. But more important and more urgent matters here put a curb on that yearning. For the rest of your life you will have the enjoyment of things at home; and for that matter, where the emperor is, Rome is. But to leave this war unfinished is both disgraceful and dangerous. That course would increase the barbarians' boldness; they will not believe that we long to return to our home, but will rather accuse us of a cowardly retreat. 6. After you have conquered all these barbarians and extended the boundaries of the empire to the northern seas, it will be glorious for you to return home to celebrate your triumph, leading as fettered captives barbarian kings and governors. The Romans who preceded you became famous and gained renown in this way. There is no reason to fear that |20 someone at home may seize control. The most distinguished senators are right here with you; the imperial troops are here to protect you; all the funds from the imperial depositories are here; and finally, the memory of your father has won for you the eternal loyalty and good will of your subjects."

7. Eager to improve the situation, Pompeianus, by his exhortations, restrained the youth for a short time. Commodus, shamed by his words and unable to make a suitable reply, dismissed the group, saying that he would consider personally and at greater length what he should do. 8. Then, yielding to his companions, he no longer consulted his advisers about anything. He sent off letters and, after assigning command of the Danube to men whom he considered capable, ordering them to block the barbarians' attacks, he announced his departure for Rome. Those left behind carried out their assignments; soon they subdued most of the barbarians by force of arms, and easily won the friendship of the rest by substantial bribes. 9. The barbarians are by nature fond of money; contemptuous of danger, they obtain the necessities of life either by pillaging and plundering or by selling peace at a huge price. Commodus was aware of this practice; since he had plenty of money, he bargained for release from care and gave them everything they demanded.


1. WHEN the emperor's decision was announced, the army was in turmoil; all the soldiers wanted to leave with him, so that they might stop wasting their time in the war and enjoy the pleasures at Rome. When the news was circulated and messengers arrived to report the approach of the emperor, the Roman people were overjoyed; they had the highest hopes for the reign of the young emperor, |21 believing that he would rule as his father had ruled. 2. Speeding with the vigor of youth, Commodus passed quickly through the cities between Pannonia and Rome. Received everywhere with imperial pomp, he appeared in person before the celebrating crowds, a pleasing sight to all. 3. As he drew near Rome, the entire senate and the people of the city cast aside all restraint. Bearing laurel branches and every kind of flower then in bloom, each man carrying as much as he could manage and eager to be first, they came out some distance from the city to welcome their young and nobly born emperor. 4. For they did indeed give him all their affection, since he was born and reared among them and was of imperial ancestry through three generations of distinguished Romans. His father's family tree included a number of distinguished senators; his mother, the empress Faustina, was the daughter of Antoninus Pius; she was the granddaughter of Hadrian on her mother's side and traced her ancestry to Trajan, her great-grandfather.

5. Such was Commodus' family background. At this time he was in the prime of youth, striking in appearance, with a well-developed body and a face that was handsome without being pretty. His commanding eyes flashed like lightning; his hair, naturally blond and curly, gleamed in the sunlight as if it were on fire; some thought that he sprinkled his hair with gold dust before appearing in public, while others saw in it something divine, saying that a heavenly light shone round his head. To add to his beauty, the first down was just beginning to appear on his cheeks. 6. This was the emperor upon whom the Romans feasted their eyes and welcomed with garlands and showers of blossoms. Entering the city,6 Commodus went immediately to the temple of Jupiter 7 and |22 the other shrines. After expressing his gratitude to the senate and to the soldiers on duty in Rome for their loyal protection, he entered the imperial palace.


1. FOR several years the emperor deferred to the advisers appointed by his father, following their advice in everything. But when he assumed absolute control of the empire, he put in command of the Praetorian Guard an Italian, Perennis, who seemed to be a capable soldier. (Indeed, it was for this reason that Commodus made him praetorian prefect.) Perennis indulged the emperor's youthful appetites, permitting him to spend his time in drinking and debauchery, and relieved him of imperial cares and responsibilities.

2. Perennis assumed full personal charge of the empire, driven by his insatiable lust for money, his contempt for what he had, and his greedy longing for what was not yet his. To begin with, he launched an attack upon Commodus' advisers and upon all the wealthy and nobly born; by casting suspicion upon these men, Perennis aroused the fears of the emperor and provided the youth with reason and opportunity to destroy them and confiscate their property.

3. For the present, however, the memory of his father and his respect for his advisers held Commodus in check. But then a disastrous stroke of ill fortune completely altered his previously mild, moderate disposition. It happened this way. The oldest of the emperor's sisters was Lucilla. She had formerly been married to Lucius Verus Caesar,8 whom Marcus had made his associate in governing the empire; by marrying Lucilla to Lucius, Marcus had made her marriage |23 to his Caesar the strongest bond of mutual good will. But after Lucius died,9 Lucilla, who retained all the privileges of her imperial position, was married by her father to Pompeianus. 4. Commodus, too, allowed his sister to retain the imperial honors; she continued to occupy the imperial seat at the theaters, and the sacred fire was carried before her. But when Commodus married Crispina, custom demanded that the front seat at the theater be assigned to the empress. Lucilla found this difficult to endure, and felt that any honor paid to the empress was an insult to her; but since she was well aware that her husband Pompeianus was devoted to Commodus, she told him nothing about her plans to seize control of the empire. Instead, she tested the sentiments of a wealthy young nobleman, Quadratus, with whom she was rumored to be sleeping in secret. Complaining constantly about this matter of imperial precedence, she soon persuaded the young man to set in motion a plot which brought destruction upon himself and the entire senate. 5. Quadratus, in selecting confederates among the prominent senators, prevailed upon Quintianus, a bold and reckless young senator, to conceal a dagger beneath his robe and, watching for a suitable time and place, to stab Commodus; as for the rest, he assured Quintianus that he would set matters straight by bribes. 6. But the assassin, standing in the entrance to the amphitheater (it was dark there and he hoped to escape detection), drew his dagger and shouted at Commodus that he had been sent by the senate to kill him. Quintianus wasted time making his little speech and waving his dagger; as a result, he was seized by the emperor's bodyguards before he could strike, and died for his stupidity in revealing the plot prematurely. Thus found out beforehand, Quintianus brought about his own death, and Commodus was put on his guard by this forewarning. |24 

7. This was the initial reason for the young emperor's hatred of the senate. He took Quintianus' words to heart and, ever mindful of what his attacker had said, now considered the entire senate his collective enemy. 8. This incident also gave Perennis sufficient excuse for taking action, for he was always advising the emperor to eliminate and destroy the prominent men. By confiscating their property, Perennis easily made himself the richest man of his time. After the attempt at assassination had been thoroughly investigated by the prefect, Commodus without mercy put to death his sister, all those actually involved in the plot, and any who were under the slightest suspicion as well.


1. AFTER he had removed the men whom Commodus had reason to fear, those who showed him good will for his father's sake, and those who were concerned for the emperor's safety, Perennis, now a powerful figure, began to plot for the empire. Commodus was persuaded to put the prefect's sons in command of the army of Illyricum, though they were still young men; the prefect himself amassed a huge sum of money for lavish gifts in order to incite the army to revolt. His sons quietly increased their forces, so that they might seize the empire after Perennis had disposed of Commodus.

2. This plot came to light in a curious fashion. The Romans celebrate a sacred festival in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus,10 and all the stage shows and athletic exhibitions are sent to take part in this festival in the capital. The emperor is both spectator and judge, together with the rest of the priests, who are summoned in rotation for this duty. 3. Upon his |25 arrival for the performance of the famous actors, Commodus took his seat in the imperial chair; an orderly crowd filled the theater, quietly occupying the assigned seats. Before any action took place on the stage, however, a man dressed as a philosopher11 (half-naked, carrying a staff in his hand and a leather bag on his shoulder) ran out and took his stand in the center of the stage. Silencing the audience with a sweep of his hand, he said: 4. "Commodus, this is no time to celebrate festivals and devote yourself to shows and entertainments. The sword of Perennis is at your throat. Unless you guard yourself from a danger not threatening but already upon you, you shall not escape death. Perennis himself is raising money and an army to oppose you, and his sons are winning over the army of Illyricum. Unless you act first, you shall die." 5. Whether he said this by divine inspiration, or whether, obscure and unknown before, he was making an effort to gain fame, or hoped to receive a generous reward from the emperor—whatever the reason, Commodus was thunderstruck. Everyone was suspicious of the man's words, and no one believed him. Perennis ordered the philosopher to be seized and burned for making insane and lying accusations. 6. Such was the penalty that the beggar paid for his ill-timed outspokenness. The emperor's intimate friends, however, who had long been secretly hostile to Perennis (for the prefect was harsh and unbearable in his insolence and arrogance), believed that the time had come and began to bring charges against him. As a result, Commodus escaped the plot, and Perennis and his sons perished miserably. 7. For not much later, some soldiers visited Perennis' son12 in secret and carried off coins bearing the prefect's portrait. And, without the knowledge of Perennis, the praetorian |26 prefect, they took the coins directly to Commodus and revealed to him the secret details of the plot. They were richly rewarded for their service. 8. While Perennis was still ignorant of these developments and anticipated nothing of the sort, the emperor sent for him at night and had him beheaded. And he dispatched men to Perennis' son by the fastest route, so that they might reach him before he knew what had happened. These men were to take a route shorter than the one by which news was regularly carried; in this way they would be able to come to the youth before he was aware of events at Rome. Commodus wrote the youth a friendly letter, telling him that he was recalling him to greater expectations, and ordering him to come to Rome. 9. Perennis' son knew nothing of the reception awaiting him and was unaware of his father's fate. When the messengers informed him that his father had given these same orders orally but, satisfied with the emperor's letter, had not written a separate note, the youth was convinced, although he was concerned about leaving the plot unfinished. Nevertheless, relying on his father's power as if that power still existed, he left Illyricum.  10. On the way to Italy the youth was killed by the emperor's men. Such was the fate of Perennis and his son. Thereafter Commodus regularly appointed two praetorian prefects, believing that it was safer not to place too much authority in the hands of one man; he hoped that this division of authority would discourage any desire to seize the imperial power.


1. BUT before long another plot was organized against Commodus. It involved a former soldier named Maternus, who had committed many frightful crimes. He deserted from the army, persuading others to flee with him, and soon collected a huge mob of desperadoes. At first they |27 attacked and plundered villages and farms, but when Maternus had amassed a sizable sum of money, he gathered an even larger band of cutthroats by offering the prospect of generous booty and a fair share of the loot. As a result, his men no longer appeared to be brigands but rather enemy troops. 2. They now attacked the largest cities and released all the prisoners, no matter what the reasons for their imprisonment. By promising these men their freedom, he persuaded them to join his band in gratitude for favors received. The bandits roamed over all Gaul and Spain, attacking the largest cities; a few of these they burned, but the rest they abandoned after sacking them. 3. When he was informed of these developments, Commodus, in a towering rage, sent threatening dispatches to the governors of the provinces involved, charging them with negligence and ordering them to raise an army to oppose the bandits. When the brigands learned that an army was being raised against them, they left the regions which they had been ravaging and slipped unnoticed, a few at a time, into Italy, by a quick but difficult route. And now Maternus was plotting for the empire, for larger stakes indeed. Since everything he had attempted had succeeded beyond his fondest hopes, he concluded that if he were to undertake something really important it was bound to succeed; having committed himself to a hazard from which it was impossible to withdraw, he would, at least, not die obscure and unknown. 4. But when he reflected that he did not have an army sufficiently powerful to resist Commodus on equal terms and in open opposition (for it was thought that the majority of the Roman people were still well disposed toward Commodus, and he also had the support of the Praetorian Guard), Maternus hoped to balance this inequality of forces by guile and cunning. This is the way he undertook to accomplish it. 5. Every year, on a set day at the beginning of spring, the |28 Romans celebrate a festival in honor of the mother of the gods.13 All the valuable trappings of each deity, the imperial treasures, and marvelous objects of all kinds, both natural and man-made, are carried in procession before this goddess. Free license for every kind of revelry is granted, and each man assumes the disguise of his choice. No office is so important or so sacrosanct that permission is refused anyone to put on its distinctive uniform and join in the revelry, concealing his true identity; consequently, it is not easy to distinguish the true from the false. 6. This seemed to Maternus an ideal time to launch his plot undetected. By donning the uniform of a praetorian soldier and outfitting his companions in the same way, he hoped to mingle with the true praetorians and, after watching part of the parade, to attack Commodus and kill him while no one was on guard. 7. But the plan was betrayed when some of those who had accompanied him into the city revealed the plot. (Jealousy led them to disclose it, since they preferred to be ruled by the emperor rather than by a bandit chief.) Before he arrived at the scene of the festivities, Maternus was seized and beheaded, and his companions suffered the punishment they deserved. After sacrificing to the goddess and making thank offerings, Commodus completed the festivities and did honor to the goddess, rejoicing at his escape. The people continued to celebrate their emperor's deliverance after the festival came to an end.


1. As we have discovered by research, the Romans are devoted to this goddess for the following reason—a reason which it seems worth while to relate here, since it is |29 unknown to some of the Greeks. They say that this statue of the goddess fell from the sky;14 the exact material of the statue is not known, nor the identity of the artists who made it; in fact, it is not certain that the statue was the work of human hands. Long ago it fell from the sky in Phrygia (the name of the region where it fell is Pessinus, which received its name from the fall of the heavenly statue); the statue was discovered there. 2. As we learn from other sources, a battle is said to have taken place there between Ilus the Phrygian and Tantalus the Lydian. Some say it was a boundary dispute; others, that it was concerned with Ganymede's kidnapping.15 The battle continued for a long time on even terms, and a large number of men fell on both sides; this disaster gave the region its name. It was there, so the story goes, that Ganymede was spirited away and disappeared from mortals' view when his brother and lover tore him limb from limb. After the youth's body vanished, his sufferings made him immortal when Zeus spirited him away to heaven. The Phrygians of old staged their revels in Pessinus, on the banks of the river Gallus, from which the eunuch priests of Cybele derive their name. 3. When Roman affairs prospered, they say that an oracle prophesied that the empire would endure and soar to greater heights if the goddess were brought from Pessinus to Rome. The Romans therefore sent an embassy to Phrygia and asked for the statue; they easily got it by reminding the Phrygians of their kinship and by recalling to them that Aeneas the Phrygian was the ancestor of the Romans. The statue was carried aboard ship, but when the vessel arrived at the mouth of the Tiber (the Romans use this as their harbor) it came to a halt, stopped by divine power. 4. For a long time the Romans tried in every way to dislodge |30 the ship, which was held fast as if by a sand bar, but it refused to move until one of the Vestal Virgins, who was charged with breaking her oath of chastity, was led forward. The priestess, who was about to be put to death, begged the people to submit her case to the goddess from Pessinus. She unfastened the sash at her waist and attached it to the prow of the ship, praying that if she were still virgin and pure the ship would follow her. 5. The ship, secured to her sash, followed her readily. The Romans were struck with awe both by the manifestation of the goddess and by the piety of the maiden.16 Let this suffice as an inquiry into the history of the goddess from Pessinus, but it will prove a not unwelcome digression to those unfamiliar with Roman affairs. After escaping Maternus' plot, Commodus strengthened his personal bodyguard and seldom appeared in public. He spent most of his time at his suburban estate and at the imperial estates far from Rome, having given up his judicial and administrative duties.


1. 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. 2. Then, on the advice of his physicians, Commodus left Rome for Laurentum.17 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 |31 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.

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. 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. 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. 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 |32 armed and, at the order of the prefect, butchered those in their path. 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. 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. 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.


1. EVEN though a civil war was raging, no one was willing to report to Commodus what was happening, for fear of Cleander. Finally the emperor's eldest sister (her name was Phadilla) rushed into the palace (as his sister, she had free and easy access to the emperor), and, loosing her hair, threw herself down and cried out in anguish: 2. "Here you are, emperor, taking your leisure, ignorant of what is happening, when you are actually in the gravest danger. And we, your own flesh and blood, are at this very moment threatened with murder. Already the Roman people and most of the army |33 are lost to you. What we would not think of enduring at the hands of barbarians, our own people are doing to us. And those people whom you have treated with special consideration, you now find to be your enemies. 3. Cleander has armed the people and the soldiers against you. Those who hate him because they hold differing opinions, the mob, and the entire imperial cavalry, who support him, are up in arms, killing each other and choking the city with blood. The fury of both factions will fall upon us unless you immediately hand over to them for execution this scoundrelly servant of yours, who already has been the cause of so much destruction for the people and who threatens to be the cause of so much destruction for us." 4. After she had made these statements, tearing her clothes in grief, others who were present (for they became bolder at the words of the emperor's sister) urged Commodus to take action. He was terrified by this pressing danger, which did not merely threaten but was already upon him. In his panic he sent for Cleander, who knew nothing of what had been reported to the emperor, but had his suspicions. When the prefect appeared, Commodus ordered him seized and beheaded, and, impaling his head on a long spear, sent it out to the mob, to whom it was a welcome and long-desired sight. 5. In this way he terminated the danger, and both sides stopped fighting: the soldiers, because they saw that the man for whom they had been fighting had been killed and also because they feared the wrath of the emperor (for they realized that he had been deceived and that Cleander had done everything without imperial approval); the people, because their desire for vengeance was satisfied by the arrest of the man responsible for the appalling crimes. 6. They put Cleander's children to death (for he had two sons), and killed all his known friends. They dragged their bodies through the streets, subjecting them to every indignity, and finally brought the mutilated corpses to the sewer and threw them |34 in. Such was the fate of Cleander and his associates; it was as if Nature had undertaken to demonstrate that a small and unexpected twist of fate can raise a man from the lowest depths to the greatest heights and then plunge the man so exalted down to the depths again.

7. Although he feared a popular uprising and a new attempt upon his life, Commodus nevertheless, at the urging of his advisers, entered the city. Received there with great enthusiasm, he went to the imperial palace, escorted by the people. After undergoing such risks, the emperor trusted no one; he killed now without warning, listening to all accusations without question and paying no heed to those worthy of a hearing. He no longer had any regard for the "good life"; night and day, without interruption, licentious pleasures of the flesh made him a slave, body and soul. 8. Men of intelligence and those who had even a smattering of learning were driven from the palace as conspirators, but the emperor gave enthralled attention to the filthy skits of comedians and actors. He took lessons in driving the chariot and trained to take part in the wild-animal fights; his flatterers praised these activities as proof of his manliness, but he indulged in them more often than befitted an intelligent emperor.


1. IN THAT time of crisis a number of divine portents occurred. Stars remained visible during the day; other stars, extending to an enormous length, seemed to be hanging in the middle of the sky. Abnormal animals were born, strange in shape and deformed of limb. 2. But the worst portent of all, which aggravated the present crisis and disturbed those who employ auguries and omens to predict the future, was this. Although no massing of dark clouds and no thunderstorm preceded it, and only a slight earthquake occurred |35 beforehand, either as a result of a lightning bolt at night or a fire which broke out after the earthquake, the temple of Peace,18 the largest and most beautiful building in the city, was totally destroyed by fire. 3. It was the richest of all the temples, and, because it was a safe place, was adorned with offerings of gold and silver; every man deposited his possessions there. But this fire, in a single night, made paupers of many rich men. All Rome joined in mourning the public loss, and each man lamented his own personal loss.

4. After consuming the temple and the entire sacred precinct, the fire swept on to destroy a large part of the city, including its most beautiful buildings. When the temple of Vesta went up in flames, the image of Pallas Athena was exposed to public view—that statue which the Romans worship and keep hidden, the one brought from Troy, as the story goes.19 Now, for the first time since its journey from Troy to Italy, the statue was seen by men of our time. 5. For the Vestal Virgins snatched up the image and carried it along the Sacred Way to the imperial palace. Many other beautiful sections of the city were destroyed in this fire, which continued to burn for days, spreading in all directions. It was not finally extinguished until falling showers put an end to its raging. 6. For this reason the disaster was held to be of divine origin; in that critical period, men believed that the fire was started and stopped by the will and power of the gods. Some conjectured from these events that the destruction of the temple of Peace was a prophecy of war. And subsequent events, as we shall relate in the books to follow, confirmed this prophecy by actual events. |36 

7. With so many disasters befalling the city in rapid succession, the Roman people no longer looked with favor upon Commodus; they attributed their misfortunes to his illegal murders and the other mistakes he had made in his lifetime. He no longer concealed his activities, nor did he have any desire to keep them secret. What they objected to his doing in private he now had the effrontery to do in public. He fell into a state of drunken madness. 8. First he discarded his family name and issued orders that he was to be called not Commodus, son of Marcus, but Hercules, son of Zeus. Abandoning the Roman and imperial mode of dress, he donned the lion skin, and carried the club of Hercules. He wore purple robes embroidered with gold, making himself an object of ridicule by combining in one set of garments the frailty of a woman and the might of a superman. 9. This was the way he looked in his public appearances. He assigned new names to the months of the year; abolishing the old ones, he called the months after his own list of names and titles, most of which actually referred to Hercules as the manliest of men.20 He erected statues of himself throughout the city, but opposite the senate house he set up a special statue representing the emperor as an archer poised to shoot, for he wished even his statues to inspire fear of him.


1. THE senate removed this statue of Commodus after his death and replaced it with a statue of Freedom. Now the emperor, casting aside all restraint, took part in the public shows, promising to kill with his own hands wild animals of all kinds and to fight in gladiatorial combat against the bravest of the youths. When this news became known, people hastened to Rome from all over Italy and from the |37 neighboring provinces to see what they had neither seen nor even heard of before. Special mention was made of the skill of his hands and the fact that he never missed when hurling javelins or shooting arrows. 2. His instructors were the most skillful of the Parthian bowmen and the most accurate of the Moroccan javelin men, but he surpassed them all in marksmanship. When the days for the show arrived, the amphitheater was completely filled. A terrace encircling the arena had been constructed for Commodus, enabling him to avoid risking his life by fighting the animals at close quarters; rather, by hurling his javelins down from a safe place, he offered a display of skill rather than of courage. 3. Deer, roebuck, and horned animals of all kinds, except bulls, he struck down, running with them in pursuit, anticipating their dashes, and killing them with deadly blows. Lions, leopards, and other animals of the nobler sort he killed from above, running around on his terrace. And on no occasion did anyone see a second javelin used, nor any wound except the death wound. 4. For at the very moment the animal started up, it received the blow on its forehead or in its heart, and it bore no other wound, nor did the javelin pierce any other part of its body: the beast was wounded and killed in the same instant. Animals were collected for him from all over the world. Then we saw in the flesh animals that we had previously marveled at in paintings. 5. From India and Ethiopia, from lands to the north and to the south, any animals hitherto unknown he displayed to the Romans and then dispatched them. On one occasion he shot arrows with crescent-shaped heads at Moroccan ostriches, birds that move with great speed, both because of their swiftness afoot and the sail-like nature of their wings. He cut off their heads at the very top of the neck; so, after their heads had been severed by the edge of the arrow, they continued to run around as if they had not been injured. 6. Once when a leopard, with a lightning dash, seized a |38 condemned criminal, he thwarted the leopard with his javelin as it was about to close its jaws; he killed the beast and rescued the man, the point of the javelin anticipating the points of the leopard's teeth. Again, when a hundred lions appeared in one group as if from beneath the earth, he killed the entire hundred with exactly one hundred javelins, and all the bodies lay stretched out in a straight line for some distance; they could thus be counted with no difficulty, and no one saw a single extra javelin.

7. As far as these activities are concerned, however, even if his conduct was hardly becoming for an emperor, he did win the approval of the mob for his courage and his marksmanship. But when he came into the amphitheater naked, took up arms, and fought as a gladiator, the people saw a disgraceful spectacle, a nobly born emperor of the Romans, whose fathers and forebears had won many victories, not taking the field against barbarians or opponents worthy of the Romans, but disgracing his high position by degrading and disgusting exhibitions. 8. In his gladiatorial combats, he defeated his opponents with ease, and he did no more than wound them, since they all submitted to him, but only because they knew he was the emperor, not because he was truly a gladiator. At last he became so demented that he was unwilling to live in the imperial palace, but wished to change his residence to the gladiatorial barracks. He gave orders that he was no longer to be called Hercules, but by the name of a famous gladiator then dead. 9. He removed the head of a huge Colossus 21 which the Romans worship and which bears the likeness of the Sun, replacing it with his own head, and inscribed on the base not the usual imperial and family titles; instead of "Germanicus" he wrote: "Conqueror of a Thousand Gladiators." |39 


1. BUT the time had finally come for Commodus to cease his mad antics and for the Roman empire to be rid of this tyrant. This occurred on the first day of the new year,22 when the Romans celebrate the festival which they trace back to the most ancient of the Italic native gods. They believe that Saturn, ousted from his realm by Jupiter, came down to earth and was the guest of Janus. Fearful of his son's power, he escaped when Janus hid him. 2. This episode gave the region of Latium its name, which is derived from the Greek word lathein, "to escape notice." For this reason the Italians continue to celebrate the Saturnalia down to the present time, to commemorate the sheltering of the god, and they observe at the beginning of the year the festival of the Italic god Janus. The statues of Janus have two faces because the year begins and ends with him. On the day of this festival the Romans go out of their way to greet each other and exchange gifts. 3. On this day, too, they dine together gaily on the delicacies of land and sea. This is also the day on which the consuls who give their names to the year first don the purple robes of office for their one-year term. When all were occupied in the celebration, Commodus had it in mind to appear not from the imperial palace, in the customary fashion, but from the gladiatorial barracks, clad in armor instead of in the splendid imperial purple, and accompanied by the rest of the gladiators.

4. He announced his intentions to Marcia, whom, of all his mistresses, he held in highest esteem; he kept nothing from this woman, as if she were his legal wife, even allowing her the imperial honors except for the sacred fire. When she learned of his plan, so unreasonable and unbecoming an |40 emperor, she threw herself at his feet, entreating him, with tears, not to bring disgrace upon the Roman empire and not to endanger his life by entrusting it to gladiators and desperate men. After much pleading, unable to persuade the emperor to abandon his plan, she left him, still weeping. Commodus then summoned Laetus, the praetorian prefect, and Eclectus, his bedroom steward, and ordered them to make arrangements for him to spend the night in the gladiatorial barracks, telling them that he would leave for the festival sacrifices from there, and show himself to the Romans under arms. And these men, too, pleaded with the emperor not to do anything unworthy of his imperial position.


1. 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—one 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. 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.

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 |41 delight in these lads. Commodus was very fond of this child and often slept with him; his name, Philocommodus, clearly indicates the emperor's affection for him. 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. 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!" 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 dumfounded (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. 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. 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 |42 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

[Footnotes moved to end]

1. 1 The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, available in many editions and translations. 

2. 2 Regularly "Paeonians" in the Greek authors.

3. 3 Berenice I was actually the stepsister of Ptolemy I (ca. 367-282 B.C.). She became his legal wife in accord with the customary Egyptian practice of marriage between brother and sister in the royal family.

4. 4 March 17, 180.

5. 5 I.e, to the North and Baltic seas.

6. 6 October, 180.

7. 7 The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.

8. 8 By the late second century, the title Caesar conferred by the reigning emperor carried with it a claim to the succession. I have used "Caesar" regularly in preference to a less exact "heir."

9. 9 Married to Lucilla in 164, Verus died in 169.

10. 10 The ludi Capitolini, oldest of the Roman festivals, celebrated on October 15. Plutarch Rom. 25.

11. 11 One of the ubiquitous Cynic beggar philosophers.

12. 12 The confusion concerning Perennis' sons is Herodian's: he had two sons, both of whom were presumably involved in the total plot, though Herodian follows the fate of only one.

13. 13 The rites of the spring festival in honor of Cybele, goddess of fertility, began on March 15.

14. 14 These heaven-sent statues derive from the Palladium, a sacred image of Athena sent down by Zeus to the founders of Troy. 

15. 15 Ovid Met. 10.155 ff.

16. 16 Cf. Livy 29.10; Ovid Fasti 4.305 ff.; Seneca Frag. 80; Suetonius Tib. 2. 

17. 17 A few miles south of Rome on the seacoast.

18. 18 This temple, in the Forum of Peace, was begun by Vespasian in 71 to commemorate the capture of Jerusalem.

19. 19 According to legend, the true Palladium was sent down from heaven by Zeus to Dardanus, founder of Troy, or to his descendant Ilus. Brought to Italy by Aeneas, also according to legend, it was placed in the temple of Vesta to protect the city of Rome.

20. 20 Cf. Dio 73-15.3. Also A. Lampridius Vita Commod. 11.8.

21. 21 Originally a colossal statue of Nero, for whose head Vespasian substituted a head of the Sun. Suetonius Vesp. 18.

22. 22 Actually the night of December 31, 192.

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Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts