Herodianus – Crisis In Rome

In classic histories there is a lot of variation in style and approach but in all cases they reflect the author’s position, perspective and to some extent his opinions. The number of available histories declines after 100 CE. Most historians of that time wrote about earlier times, perhaps because their age was fairly peaceful and less happened. After 180 the Roman Empire began its gradual decline and many sources about that time have become fragmented or unreliable. One of the few complete histories is the History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus by Herodianus (also called Herodian); my translated edition is called Crisis In Rome (238), which is a good description of the time, although the empire was still relatively stable compared to the times that followed after the history. Peculiar one of the few recent translations is a Dutch one, which is one of the reasons why I could not find his work earlier as I assumed I had to look at English ones.

What makes this history different is that it is the first history since Caesar’s commentaries (45 BCE) in which the author tells about the history he has witnessed himself. Herodianus makes his task harder for himself by going by to his earliest memories (ca. the year 180) while he writes things down decades later until his death shortly after the year 238. He probably talked with others but much of what is recalled are the most notable or extreme events. Another oddity in this history is that while Herodianus was born in the eastern part of the empire he lived and stayed most of his life in Rome itself. This results in a peculiar perspective of events with many details on eastern and local Roman events. Anything that takes place elsewhere he only knows from hearsay and is far less reliable.

Herodianus is not much of a traditional historian although he tries to. The reader has no idea when events take place or how certain events are related or set within the same timeframe. You have to guess it from comments or references. So for another historian Herodianus can be a frustrating source but if you are general reader you won’t be that troubled. Herodianus tells an interesting story, especially as he brings it as if he is talking about it to an audience. It is rarely longwinded with plenty of variation between battles, intrigues and politics. The reader obtains a good picture of Roman society and how the decline is setting in due to the weaknesses of the political system. Extra nice are certain details on social events and traditions which make the scenes more lively

Crisis In Rome is not one of great classic histories and this is probably why Herodianus is hardly known compared to others of his time. Although the accuracy and chronology lacks in many places it does what it intends to do: describe the events of the time and paint a pciture for the reader to learn his lessons and gain understanding of events even though the author may not be aiming for it.

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