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Herodian: Accommodating the military, selling an empire

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

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Herodian
From History of the Roman Empire
Translated by Edward C. Echols

In a way of life so prosperous and well ordered, only the praetorians complained of their lot. Longing for a return to the violence and looting of the preceding tyranny and to their extravagant and dissolute pursuits, they plotted to remove Pertinax on the ground that he was a burden and a nuisance to them, and to choose an emperor who would restore to them their unbridled and uncontrolled power. And so, with no warning, the praetorians rushed headlong from their camp one day at noon, when they were off duty. Wild with unreasoning anger, they burst into the palace with spears raised and swords drawn…

But while he [Pertinax] was still talking, the bolder praetorians attacked and killed him. After they had committed this savage crime, alarmed by what they had done and wishing to anticipate the fury of the people, who would, they knew, be enraged by the murder, the praetorians rushed back to the camp. Shutting all the gates and blocking the entrances, they placed sentries in the towers and remained inside the walls to defend themselves if the mob should attack the camp…

When the praetorians saw that the people were quiet and that no one dared to avenge the murder of the emperor, they remained isolated inside the camp. Then, bringing forward to the walls the men with the loudest voices, they made proclamation that the empire was for sale, promising to hand it over to the man who offered the highest price, and promising to conduct the purchaser safely to the imperial palace under the protection of their arms. When they made this proclamation, the more august and respected senators, those who were nobly born and still wealthy, the scattered survivors of Commodus’ tyranny, did not go to the wall; they had no desire to use their wealth basely and shamefully to buy the empire. But the praetorians’ proposition was reported to a man named Julianus while he was giving a dinner in the late afternoon amid much drinking and carousing. This Julianus had already served a term as consul and was thought to be a very wealthy man; he was one of the Romans censured for an intemperate way of life. Then his wife and daughter and a mob of parasites persuaded him to leave his dining couch and hurry to the wall of the camp to find out what was going on. All the way to the camp they urged him to seize the prostrate empire; he had plenty of money and could outbid anyone who opposed him. And so, when they came to the wall, Julianus shouted up a promise to give the praetorians everything they wanted, assuring them that he had plenty of money, that his strongboxes were crammed with gold and silver…When he came up, Julianus promised to…restore to the praetorians all the powers they had possessed under that emperor and to give each soldier more gold than he asked for or expected to receive. Convinced by his promises and delighted with their expectations, the guard proclaimed Julianus emperor, and, in view of his family and his ancestry, thought it appropriate that he assume the name of Commodus. Then, raising their standards, to which pictures of Julianus had been attached, they prepared to escort the emperor to the imperial palace.After he had performed the usual imperial sacrifices in the camp, Julianus was led out under the protection of a contingent of the guard larger than normal. Because he had purchased the empire shamefully, disgracefully, and fraudulently, using force and opposing the wishes of the people, the new emperor rightly feared that the people would be hostile toward him. Therefore, under full arms and armor, the praetorians formed a phalanx so that, if necessary, they could fight. They placed their chosen emperor in the center of the formation, holding their spears and shields over their heads to protect the procession from any shower of stones hurled down from the houses. In this fashion they succeeded in conducting Julianus to the palace, as none of the people dared oppose them. No one, however, shouted the congratulations usually heard when emperors were accompanied by a formal escort; on the contrary, the people stood at a distance, shouting curses and reviling Julianus bitterly for using his wealth to purchase the empire.

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