Herodian, History of the Empire VIII.7.4-6

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About the foundations of imperial power and legitimacy and the preeminence of Rome in the middle of the third century CE
Name of the author: 
240 CE to 250 CE
Roman and Greek
Literary genre: 
Biography, Eulogy / Panegyric and History
Title of work: 
History of the Empire

We do not know much about Herodian’s life and career. The sole information we have about him come from his work. Herodian says that he wrote an history of the events he saw and heard in his lifetime (I.2.5). As the History of the Empire he composed ends with Gordian III’s arrival to power, he must have lived at least until 238 CE. Scholars agree to suggest that he may have been born approximatively in the 170’s CE and died at the end of the 240’s or in the 250’s CE. As he seems to better know the geography of Asia Minor and more precisely the western part of Asia Minor, it has been suggested that he may have come from that region (see Cassola, “Sulla vita,” p. 214-216, followed in Alföldy, “Herodians person,” p. 255-263; for a more nuanced view see Whittaker, Herodian, p. xxiv-xxviii). By recalling that he deals with the events that happened after Marcus Aurelius’s death, Herodian writes that he “had a personal share in some of the events during [his] imperial and public service (ἐν βασιλικαῖς ἢ δημοσίαις ὑπηρεσίαις)” (I.2.5). Scholars have debated a lot to determine whether he had been a senator, a member of the equestrian order or a freedman who succeeded to enter the emperor’s service, the last proposal being the most commonly accepted (see the bibliographical survey in Zimmermann, Kaiser und Ereignis, p. 305). Some scholars have interpreted some of Herodian’s detailed descriptions of events that happened at Rome as being the result of the fact that he was present in person in the Urbs. Charles R. Whittaker has thus suggested that he may have been present at Rome in 188-193, 204-205, 211-212, 217-222, 238 CE (Whittaker, Herodian, p. xxxiii). However, this link between detailed descriptions and physical presence in the described place has been challenged by Martin Zimmermann. Considering Herodian’s approximations in Rome’s topography, Zimmerman argues that Herodian did not spend time in Rome, perhaps at the exception of the years 204/205 and 238 CE (see Zimmermann, Kaiser und Ereignis, p. 305-319, esp. 317). As Cassius Dio, Herodian may have retired to his region of origin when he composed this work for a Greek-speaking and cultivated audience. It has been suggested that Herodian composed his work in the 240’s, probably after the end of the reign of Gordian III that occurred in 244 CE, under the reign of M. Julius Philippus (244-249 CE) (for a recent bibliographical survey see Zimmermann, Kaiser und Ereignis, p. 284-302 who actually thinks that the work is not incomplete).

We ignore the actual title of the work from which this text is taken from. It is now commonly named the History of the Empire (from Marcus Aurelius to Gordian III) or the History of Roman emperors (from Marcus Aurelius to Gordian III). It covers the period 180-238 CE. The question of Herodian’s sources have been extensively debated and the opinions of scholars have varied greatly between those who do not believe that Herodian used Cassius Dio but a source that would have been used by both of them, and those who on the contrary defend the thesis that he used it more or less extensively (for a presentation of the debate see Cassola, “Erodiano e le sui fonti”). It has been however convincingly demonstrated that Cassius Dio’s narrative was probably the main source used by Herodian (see Alföldy, “Cassius Dio,” p. 229-235). At the difference of Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Herodian’s work is not only a historical narrative. By focussing his successive imperial lives on personal anecdotes and by making a moral evaluation of the qualities or virtues of each of the rulers, Herodian’s work is at the crossroad of history, praise, novel and biography. Throughout his portrayals of the successive emperors, Herodian tries to expose his conception of the ideal princeps, which is clearly embodied in his narrative by Marcus Aurelius, and to give counter-examples of bad rulers.

The text presented is part of the 33 speeches of the whole work. It is taken from the last book of Herodian’s work dealing with the end of the reign of Maximinus Thrax. Maximinus Thrax was a man of low birth from Thracia who, thanks to his advancement in the military career, succeeded to reach high positions in the equestrian hierarchy. To briefly recall the historical context, one should remind that Maximinus had been proclaimed emperor by his troops in 235 CE after the killing of Severus Alexander by Roman soldiers. Immediately afterwards, Maximinus led an aggressive military policy against the barbarians, more especially against the Alemanni and their allies. After his first successes, probably at the beginning of 236 CE, he associated his son Maximus to his power and proclaimed him Caesar. During the years 236-237 CE, Maximinus continued to lead military operations in order to control and sometimes to weaken barbarian peoples, more especially in the Danubian and in the Rhenan regions. If Maximinus’s policy was well-accepted by the Roman soldiers who benefitted from frequent donations, aristocratic milieux in Rome and in Italy, and in particular the senators, disapproved the fact that Maximinus stayed so far from Rome and confined himself to the life in military camps.
Provincials were also fed up by his policy because it had provoked an impressive growth of their fiscal duties. This situation led to a major political crisis that lasted four months. This crisis started in Africa, in the judiciary district of Carthage, probably in January 238 CE. Due to fiscal oppression, some provincials revolted, killed the procurator and proclaimed the governor of the province, Gordian I, emperor. Gordian I accepted to lead the revolt in order to destitute Maximinus, and he associated to his power his son Gordian II. The Roman Senate supported them and asked the provincial governors to follow the revolt. After Maximinus had been declared public enemy, many provinces of the Empire fell into the Gordian camp (most of the Hellenistic East, Asia, Egypt, Aquitania, Narbonnensis, Mauretania Caesariensis). Even if the two Gordians were quickly assassinated in Africa by the governor of the province of Numidia who supported Maximinus, the Roman Senate took the lead of the revolt and nominated two imperatores, who were presented as colleagues, Pupienus (an Italian of origin who must have come from a plebeian family and who became senator thanks to his career) and Balbinus (who came from an old patrician family). Due to popular pressures, Pupienus and Balbinus had been quickly obliged to associate to their power the son of Gordian II, the future emperor Gordian III, who was then thirteen years old. He was then promoted Caesar and princeps iuventutis (“the first among the young”). After Maximinus heard about the revolt of the Gordians supported by the Roman Senate, and about the promotion of Pupienus and Balbinus as imperatores, he decided to take the control of Italy and to march on Rome with his troops which were stationed in Pannonia. However, Maximinus underwent a major difficulty when he had to besiege the city of Aquileia that resisted pretty well to the assaults of his troops. At the same time, Pupienus arrived up to Ravenna and organised troops in order to defeat Maximinus. Due to the inextricable situation, many of Maximinus’s soldiers defected. Among the mutineers, one of them killed Maximinus and Maximus, and most of the soldiers that previously supported Maximinus rallied to Pupienus, Balbinus and Gordian. The text presented here corresponds to a speech that Herodian puts in the mouth of Pupienus when, after the killing of Maximinus and Maximus, he went to Aquileia in order to address himself to Maximinus’s soldiers. It is an interesting text because, in the context of the successive political and military crisis that affected the Roman empire from the end of the 230’s onwards, Herodian proposes, through the voice of Pupienus, an interesting reflection about how power and its prerogatives should be shared between the main actors of the state, namely the emperor, the Senate, the Roman people and the army, about the foundations of imperial power and legitimacy and about the preeminence of Rome.

One important point that has to be recalled before analysing Pupienus’s statements about the functioning of the Roman state, is that this speech is made to contrast radically with the previous ruler, Maximinus, and the new ones, Pupienus and Balbinus. In Herodian’s depiction of Maximinus, the latter is clearly presented both as a barbarian and as the archetype of the military tyrant. Maximinus is defined by his low and barbarian origins which explain why he had been such a brutal and greedy ruler, and why he hated towns and their inhabitants, preferring the life in military camps in the peripheries of the Empire (about Herodian’s depiction of Maximinus as a barbarian and military tyrant, see Martin, “L’image de Maximin”). As stated by Michel Christol, Herodian’s depiction of Maximinus’s birth, origin and career was made in order to show how he was the contrary of what was perceived in the middle of the third century CE to be a good ruler (Christol, “Rome sedes imperii,” p. 131-136, esp. 135). On the contrary, in the speech, Pupienus insists on his and Balbinus’s “nobility of birth” (εὐγένεια/eugeneia), and he recalls how they have achieved a long and regular cursus (§ 4). These two qualities are presented as having motivated the Roman people and the Senate to choose them as emperors. Pupienus and Balbinus appear thus as anti-Maximinus and that is why the conception of the Principate that Pupienus defends throughout his speech is also built in order to be the perfect opposite of Maximinus’s rule.

The major theme that pervades Pupienus’s speech is to remind the soldiers who had previously supported Maximinus and who were in front of him, that they should remain at their place and that they could not, in the future, betray the emperors, nor disturb the institutional order of the Principate by challenging the decisions of the Roman people and of the Senate. By then, in many passages of his work Herodian judges the soldiers as being a dangerous group always ready to support a tyrant who could grant them more money and who, from the very end of the second century onwards, were enough powerful to call the shots in most of the affairs of the Empire (according to Herodian the excessive rise of the military power started with Pertinax’s murder in 193 CE, see History of the Empire II.6.14, on Herodian’s vision of the military power see De Blois, “The Perception,” p. 153-154; Christol, “Rome et le peuple,” p. 224). In Herodian’s global perception of Roman political system, soldiers “were only one part of the political body and not the highest one” (quotation taken from De Blois, “The Perception,” p. 154).
This vision of things pervades the speech put in the mouth of Pupienus by Herodian. When Pupienus exhorts the soldier “you are now keeping your soldier’s oath which is the sacred secret (σεμνὸν μυστήριον/semnon mustērion) of the Roman empire” (§ 4) he orders them not to reproduce what happened in 235 CE when the emperor Severus Alexander had been killed by some Roman soldiers and replaced by Maximinus. The killing of active emperors by soldiers was a break down in the military oath, sacramentum, here stratiōtikos horkos, that united the soldiers to their supreme commander, the emperor. Actually, the sacramentum was taken on behalf of the name of the ruling emperor at each imperial accession, each anniversary of the emperor’s enthronement (dies imperii), and at the beginning of each year. When soldiers did not respect this oath, by proclaiming for instance a rival emperor, they broke up the sacred oath with the emperor, and, most importantly, with the gods. This point is implicitly recalled in the text presented here when Pupienus declares to the soldiers who had chosen to rally his cause that “[they] are at peace with the gods by whom [they] swore” (§ 4).
After having dealt with the sacred nature of the oath binding the soldiers to the imperial power, Pupienus recalls several times how important is the balance between the main entities composing the Roman state. Pupienus exhorts the soldiers to remain loyal towards the Roman people, the Senate and the emperors, namely Balbinus and himself (§ 4). Immediately he takes the trouble to recall that they had been proclaimed emperors by the Roman people and the Senate (§ 4) which corresponds to the traditional steps of the imperial investiture from Augustus onwards. This investiture can be summarised as follows: 1/ The soldiers acclaimed the futureemperor who could have been sometimes previously associated with the power of the previous one. 2/ The Roman Senate had to approve this choice by calling him imperator and then deliberated so as to summon the comitia tributa (the assembly of the people) in order that it grants to the one who had been acclaimed the tribunician power, the proconsular imperium, various other privileges, and finally to be elected consul. 3/ The comitia tributa were then summoned by one magistrate, and the various senatus consulta were submitted to the vote of the assembly. It was the day after the vote of the comitia tributa that the princeps was really invested with his full powers. This assembly had a purely symbolic role as it granted each of the powers and prerogatives that the Senate had previously asked for, however it seems that the vote continued to be part of the imperial investiture process up to the third century CE. To conclude, even if the new princeps was associated with the power of his predecessor, the latter being his father or not, the fact that the imperial powers remained granted by the vote of the popular assembly following the proposal of the Senate remained the formal procedure that had to be followed so than the imperial investiture could be a regular one (on the whole investiture process, see Jacques and Scheid, Rome et l’intégration, p. 22-25). In the passage of the speech presented here, Pupienus presents his investiture and that of Balbinus as fitting into this formal procedure. By doing so, one of his aims may have been to highlight the difference with Maximinus, the opponent of the Roman Senate. Interestingly, Herodian does not deal with Maximinus’s investiture after his acclamation by his troops. This state of fact has led numerous scholars to conclude that Maximinus may have done without the approbation of the Senate and introduced a break into the usual procedure (see for instance Jacques and Scheid, Rome et l’intégration, p. 25). However an inscription from Rome (CIL VI, 2001) attests that Maximinus had been co-opted, following the previous recommendation of the Senate, among one of the sodalities in charge of the dead emperors. It is thus highly plausible that, before that co-optation, the Roman Senate had previously ratified the choice of the soldiers who had proclaimed Maximinus, and that it voted the senatus consulta so that the investiture could follow the usual procedure (in that perspective, see Loriot, “Les premières années,” p. 670-671; Christol, L’Empire romain, p. 80). A last remark can be made about the conception of the Roman people which is here adopted by Herodian. When Herodian deals with the “Roman people,” dēmos tōn Rōmaiōn, he follows a traditional definition of the Roman people as being the people of the city of Rome who, with the senators, were the sole holders of political legitimacy (in that sense, Neri, Valerio, “Il populus romanus,” p. 227-228; followed in Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 224).

Pupienus briefly exposes how the responsibilities between the emperors and the military have to be divided. Soldiers are confined to a secondary role and are just here to play the role of auxiliaries of the emperors who are in charge of ruling the Empire. This idea appears in the sentence: “We have been entrusted the government and administration of that empire with your collaboration” (§ 5). Pupienus explicitly asserts that the role of the emperors is both to take care of the administration (διοικήσεται/dioikēsetai) of the Empire from Rome, and to go abroad (ἀλλοδαπῆς/allodapēs) if necessary to take care of the external affaires (§ 6). Interestingly, Pupienus says that, due to the fact that there are two emperors, it will be easier for the imperial power to administrate Roman internal and external affairs, but he insists upon the fact that he or Balbinus are the true and good war-time commanders that the Empire needed in order to tame the barbarian threats, and to control the various military forces. About the military responsibilities that Pupienus assigns to the imperial figure, he simply says: “It will be our concern to keep the barbarian nations quiet” (§ 6). If Herodian saw in Marcus Aurelius the ideal emperor who allied all the virtues of the good civilian ruler to the ideal war-time commander (see I.2), the successor emperors that the Greek writer depicts do not have both qualities. Thus, the fact that Pupienus insists not so much on their role as supreme military commanders but chooses on the contrary to allude to the fact that they will simply try to contain the barbarians and keep them quiet, may be interpreted as the announce of their future failure to act as an effective counter-weight to military misconduct and licence. Actually, Pupienus’s admonition to the Roman soldiers at Aquileia to respect law and order failed as the joint government of Pupienus and Balbinus was quickly put to an end briefly after the victory of Aquileia. At the beginning of May 238 CE, the soldiers of the Praetorian Guard invaded the imperial palace, killed the two emperors and proclaimed a child, Gordian III, as being the new emperor.

One last very interesting point that is raised by this speech is the way Pupienus deals with the city of Rome.On this point, he says: “it is in that great city (i.e. Rome) that the fate of the imperial power is placed” (καὶ ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ πόλει ἡ τῆς βασιλείας ἵδρυται τύχη/kai en ekeinē tē polei ē tēs basileias hidrutai tuchē, § 5). First, the fact that Rome is the very seat of the Empire is an idea that also appears in II.10.9 when, just after the armies of Illyria and Pannonia proclaimed Septimius Severus emperor, Herodian has Septimius Severus say that he will be the first to march his troops into Rome, the “very seat of the Empire (ἡ βασίλειος ἔστιν ἑστία/hē basileios estiv hestia)”. This predominance of Rome over all the rest of the Empire and especially over Italy has been interpreted by Lukas De Blois as the manifestation of the fact that, for Herodian, Italy was “no longer a dominating power”. What mattered concerning the ruling of the Empire was Rome, which remained the seat of the Empire, and the armies that protected the Empire from the barbarian threats, which made or unmade emperors. Lukas De Blois thus suggests that Herodian’s appreciation of the importance of Rome and of the secondary role of Italy clearly recalls that of Cassius Dio (see De Blois, “The Perception,” p. 151). The passage of Pupienus quoted above has been differently translated. Charles R. Whittaker translates: “It is in the hands of the city of Rome that the fate of the principate is placed”. As stated by Denis Roques, when Herodian uses the term βασιλεία, he refers most of the time to imperial government or power (see Roques, “Le vocabulaire,” p. 36-37). Michel Christol chooses to translate the sentence in a more elaborated way: “it is in that great city (i.e. Rome) that is placed the deity that determines the fate of the imperial power” (see Christol, “Le métier d’empereur,” p. 358). Thus, following Michel Christol’s interpretation of this sentence that Herodian puts in the mouth of Pupienus, Rome is presented as being the place in which there is the divine origin of imperial power, a divine origin fixing the fate of the imperial power. Actually, to make an imperial investiture effective, it was necessary to go to Rome in order to accomplish the necessary religious and political rituals (see Christol, “Le métier d’empereur,” p. 358-359). This principle continued to be valid even when the recently promoted emperors spent a large part of their time in military operations far from Rome (note that it remained valid even in 289 CE as in Latin Panegyric II (10).14, the panegyrist implicitly recalls the emperor Maximian that he had to go to Rome, where he never went, if he wanted his investiture to be completed). Herodian probably believed in the preeminence of Rome and in the fact that its preeminence was the basis of the imperial power because it guaranteed its legitimacy. Pupienus’s assertion about the role of Rome has thus to be interpreted as an implicit criticism of Maximinus’s practice of power. Actually, between 235 and 238 CE, Maximinus is said to have remained far from the Urbs, living in military camps established in frontier zones (see Herodian, History of the Empire VII.1.1-4). Fitting into his depiction of being the man who was not made to become emperor, Maximinus is presented as neglecting Rome, a choice implying that his imperial power was not a legitimate one (about his neglect of the Urbs see Christol, “Rome sedes,” p. 135-136). Maximinus’s refusal to go to Rome had been perceived by many Romans, and probably by Herodian, as a serious attempt against the dignity and greatness of the City (Christol, L’Empire romain, p. 83-84).

To conclude, Pupienus’s assessment about Rome’s role fits in with the speech that consisted in presenting himself as an anti-Maximinus. However, behind this statement one should see also Herodian’s own opinions and especially a question that pervades his work and which is related to the reality of Rome’s preeminence. As stated by Michel Christol, Herodian sometimes relays the opinions of some provincials who lived in regions concerned by troubles caused by barbarians and who considered that Rome was where the emperor was (I.6.5; Christol, “Le métier d’empereur,” p. 140). This reflects how between the 230-250’s the increase of the external threats affected this principle of the preeminence of Rome. Aside from offering a perfect counter-example to Maximinus’s conception of power, one main aim of this speech of Pupienus – that also reflects Herodian’s personal opinions – is to react to this kind of statement and to reassert that, on top of the res publica, there were three essential entities, the city and the people of Rome and the Roman senate, which formed the very basis of imperial legitimacy and authority (Christol, “Le métier d’empereur,” p. 137).

Bibliographical references: 

“Herodians person”

Alföldy, Gézaarticle-in-a-bookDie Krise des Römischen Reiches. Geschichte, Geschichtsschreibung und Geschichtsbetrachtung Géza Alföldy240-272“Herodians person”StuttgartFranz Steiner Verlag1989

“Erodiano e le sui fonti”

Cassola, Filippoarticle-in-a-journal165-17237“Erodiano e le sui fonti”Rendiconti dell'Accademia di archeologia, lettere e belle arti di Napoli1957

“Rome et le peuple romain à la transition entre le Haut et le Bas Empire: identité et tensions”

Christol, Michelarticle-in-a-bookIdentità e valori fattori di aggregazione e fattori di crisi nell’esperienza politica antica. Vol. 3 Alle radici della casa comune europea Alberto Barzanò, Cinzia Bearzot, Franca Landucci, Luisa Prandi, Giuseppe Zechini209-225“Rome et le peuple romain à la transition entre le Haut et le Bas Empire: identité et tensions”RomeL’Erma di Bretscheinder2001

“The Perception of Roman Imperial Authority in Herodian’s Work”

De Blois, Lukasarticle-in-a-bookThe Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power. Proceedings of the Third Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Roman Empire, c. 200 B.C. – A.D. 476), Netherlands Institute in Rome, March 20 – 23, 2002Lukas De Blois, Paul Erdkamp, Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn, Stephan Mols148-156“The Perception of Roman Imperial Authority in Herodian’s Work”Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben Publisher2003

“L’image de Maximin le Thrace dans Hérodien”

Martin, Jean-Pierrearticle-in-a-bookLa “crise” de l’Empire romain de Marc Aurèle à Constantin. Mutations, continuités, rupturesMarie-Henriette Quet95-106“L’image de Maximin le Thrace dans Hérodien”ParisPresses de l’université Paris-Sorbonne2006
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Herodian, History of the Empire VIII.7.4-6
Author(s) of this publication: Marie Roux
Publishing date: Mon, 04/16/2018 - 19:18
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/herodian-history-empire%C2%A0viii74-6
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