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First as History, and Again as Farce: Ironic Echoes in Herodian’s Description of Commodus

Patrick Cook

Herodian remains one of the least studied historians of the Roman empire. He has won few admirers, either for his historical technique or his literary qualities, but he has an undeniable flair for the visual and the dramatic, which comes to the forefront in his use of vivid description. The first book of Herodian's History contains a remarkable ekphrasitic description of body of Commodus (1.7.5-6), as it appeared during his entry to Rome. Commodus is described as a sight well-worth seeing, with golden curly hair, bright eyes, and a halo. This description has perplexed readers of Herodian, who have variously suggested that it must reflect either Commodus' actual appearance (Hohl 1954) or a statue of him (Whittaker 1969). No one has hitherto established any relation between this description and earlier sources (Kozlowski 2008).

This paper instead argues that Herodian's description is not as anomalous as has been alleged. Reading it as a part of a wider tradition of corporeal ekphrasis in ancient historiography and biography (as discussed notably by Gladhill 2012), it finds several parallels and intertexts in both Greek and Latin sources, ranging from Xenophon to Plutarch. Intriguingly many of the aspects of Herodian's description are very similar to the description of the body of Augustus in Suetonius, particularly in the description of the hair and eyes, two elements that assumed great importance both in ancient physiognomic manuals and in ancient literature more broadly.

This paper argues that Herodian draws on a tradition of corporeal ekphrasis to create an image of Commodus who, to begin with, looked very much like an ideal ruler should look. First impressions, however, can be deceiving, and this paper argues that Herodian shows a transformation of Commodus' appearance from an icon of the Augustan paradigm of imperial authority into an embodiment of its antithesis, in accordance with Herodian's wider view of Roman history being a narrative of decline after the death of Marcus Aurelius. By placing this passage of Herodian back into a context of a Roman tradition of corporeal description, this paper aims to re-evaluate Herodian's historical technique, seeing something of Herodian's method in Commodus' madness.



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Roman Imperial Ideology and Authority

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