XV

THE CLAIMS OF GERMANICUS’S QUAESTOR

By A.D. 58, in the East, General Corbulo was leading elements from three Roman legions in a surprise attack against the Armenians and the Parthians. Sweeping into Armenia, he overran Armenian fortresses and pushed back Armenian and Parthian troops. He was well on his way to subjugating with his large military force the country once conquered by Germanicus’s force of personality.

At the same time, at Rome, a vendetta against Germanicus’s quaestor Publius Suillius Rufus was under way. Recalled from exile by Claudius, Suillius had become one of that emperor’s favorites, offering him counsel, enjoying his confidence, and profiting from the lucrative appointment as governor of the province of Asia. While Messalina was alive, Suillius had made himself very wealthy and very unpopular by taking fees to prosecute a number of knights and senators who displeased her, and this had not been forgotten by the many friends and relatives of people who had died or been banished as a result of Suillius’s prosecutions. They were determined to seek revenge, and now that both Messalina and Claudius had left the scene, Suillius was without friends in the highest places. The chief secretary Seneca gave his support to this campaign against Suillius and may even have instigated it, apparently because he believed that Suillius had been behind Seneca’s conviction for adultery with Germanicus’s daughter Julia and his subsequent eight years in exile.

So that Suillius could be convicted of a crime, the Senate now revived an ancient law that made it illegal to seek payment for conducting prosecutions. Now in his early seventies, his red hair turned white by the passing years, Suillius was brought to trial in the Senate. Notably, Seneca didn’t take his seat in the House while the Suillius trial was being conducted. The charges against Suillius were numerous, and the list of men and women who had suffered as a result of prosecutions brought by him extensive. Two noble ladies and four leading senators, including Valerius Asiaticus, a man who had once contemplated seeking the throne for himself following the assassination of Caligula, had perished at Suillius’s hands, as well as a large number of knights.

Suillius patiently held his temper as he sat through the list of accusations; then, with the consul’s approval, he rose to his own defense. Unlike others who meekly took their own lives when the Palatium instigated prosecutions against them, the stubborn Suillius was going to doggedly fight the charges. With studied indignation, he railed against the reintroduction of the old law against taking money for conducting prosecutions, which, he declared, had been revised merely to attack him. And he taunted the absent Seneca, the man whom Suillius fervently believed was behind his prosecution, saying that he was on trial only because the chief secretary displayed a savage enmity toward anyone who had been a friend of Claudius while Seneca had languished in exile. Put simply, said Suillius, his defense was that he had carried out the prosecutions on the orders of the emperor Claudius.

At the Palatium, Seneca was following the trial closely, with messengers continually bringing him updates on the proceedings. Hearing this claim—that Suillius had only been following orders—Seneca promptly sent a letter to the House, ostensibly from Nero, in which he countered Suillius’s defense. The letter, read to the House by the presiding consul, claimed that Nero knew, from a study of Claudius’s unpublished memoirs, which he had with him at the palace, that Claudius had never compelled the prosecution of a single person while he was emperor.

Once the consul had read out the young emperor’s letter, effectively foiling Suillius’s defense argument, Suillius was forced to change his tack. Now he claimed that he had in fact been operating on orders of the empress Messalina. That had certainly been the case in his prosecution of Valerius Asiaticus. Messalina had envied Asiaticus’s sumptuous gardens, the famous Gardens of Lucullus, created by one of Rome’s most famous and richest first-century B.C. generals, and she had Suillius prosecute Asiaticus so she could get her hands on the gardens, which she did. There was considerable irony in the fact that it was in those very gardens that Messalina perished just several years later, with a dagger to the heart.

This was not a defense that would hold much sway in this House. Messalina had previously been disgraced by her faithlessness, her treasonous acts, and her ignominious end. While she lived she had terrorized this very Senate through the agency of Suillius and others. One senator wanted to know why Suillius had agreed to employ his tongue “in the service of that savage harlot.”¹ Another stated that the Senate must punish men who blamed others for their wicked deeds. Witnesses accused Suillius of embezzlement while he was governor of Asia. But it was Suillius’s prosecutions of leading Romans that occupied the most attention and drew the most condemnation, from one speaker after another. Some charges even went back as far as the reign of Tiberius, when, it was claimed, Suillius had participated in the destruction of Germanicus’s sister, Livilla, after it was revealed she had been involved with Sejanus in the murder of her husband, Drusus the Younger.

The outcome of this trial was foregone, as Suillius must have realized. Seneca wanted him dead, and that was that. But Suillius was determined that if he was to be brought down, then Seneca would pay the price of his secret prosecution, that Seneca’s reputation would suffer as much as his own. For Suillius, a trusted member of the retinues of the family of Germanicus, knew more about what had gone on behind closed imperial family doors than most men over past decades. For years he had kept secrets. But when it came to Seneca, his lips were sealed no more.

“That man was only familiar with profitless studies and the ignorance of a boy,” said Suillius, referring to Seneca’s years as Nero’s tutor. “He envied those of us who used their lively and genuine eloquence in the defense of their fellow citizens.” He put his hand to his heart. “I was Germanicus’s quaestor, while Seneca was a lover in his house.” The Senate was stunned into silence. Suillius continued, “Should it be considered a worse offense to obtain a just reward for honest service, with the litigant’s consent, than to pollute the bedchambers of the imperial ladies?”²

Seneca had denied that he’d had the affair with Germanicus’s daughter Julia, the crime for which he had been convicted of adultery and exiled, but most Romans, in his own time and after, did not accept his denial. Tacitus would describe Seneca’s banishment to Corsica for his affair with the beautiful Julia as “a most righteously deserved exile.”³ Seneca would gain a reputation in Roman times and down through the ages, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as one of history’s great philosophers. Yet Seneca’s conduct was frequently “diametrically opposed to his philosophical teachings,” Cassius Dio was to say. “It hadn’t been enough for him to commit adultery with Julia,” Dio went on. “His banishment hadn’t made him any wiser, for he had to have improper relations with Agrippina” as well, “irrespective of the sort of woman she was.”

It is indisputable that during her lifetime Agrippina the Younger had affairs with many men who could get her what she wanted. This counted in favor of Suillius’s accusation, along with the certainty that Seneca had slept with her equally promiscuous sister. And no one, least of all Seneca, had been able to explain why Agrippina had chosen him, of all people, to be recalled from exile to become her son’s tutor and live under her roof. She had gone to considerable trouble to have Seneca returned from Corsica to take up the post; yet, while he was certainly a learned and well-written man, tutors of the children of the nobility were most often Greek freedmen. Two of Nero’s previous tutors had both been freedmen; one had been an ex-barber, another a charioteer. For a senator, and a praetor and senior judge, as Seneca also had become immediately after his return to Rome from exile, to serve as a boy’s tutor was rare indeed. But to be in the Germanican palace as the boy’s adviser was a very strategic placement that had benefited both Seneca and Agrippina, quite apart from any sexual relationship they might have enjoyed. It put him close to the emperor and gave Agrippina a strong ally on her own doorstep. According to Dio, Seneca’s relationship with Agrippina was much talked about at the time, and Dio was convinced that Seneca had been her lover.

Now, as Suillius conducted his defense in the Senate, he kept up his attack on Seneca by turning to the chief secretary’s sudden wealth. “By what kind of wisdom, or philosophical maxims, has Seneca, during four years as an emperor’s favorite, amassed 300 million sesterces? At Rome, he has made fortunes from the wills of the childless, while Italy and the provinces have been drained by his extortionate rates of interest.”

Suillius was met by silence from the benches opposite. His fellow senators knew all about Seneca’s swift elevation from penniless exile to one of Rome’s richest men. His loans to the provinces were equally well known, as was the high level of interest he charged; his loans to tribes in southern Britain, amounting to some 40 million sesterces, would be considered one of the causes of rebellion in that province within two years, after Seneca summarily called in those loans and threatened to send in the Roman military if the money was not forthcoming. Only the emperor owned more property at Rome than Seneca, and some believed that Seneca’s gardens outdid the imperial gardens in their splendor. And Seneca’s expensive lifestyle was legendary. Dio was to note that while Seneca found fault with the rich, he himself owned five hundred dining tables made from citrus wood and equipped with ivory legs, on which he served massive banquets.

“On the other hand, my own money,” Suillius told the Senate, “is not excessive, and has been acquired from industriousness. I would rather suffer prosecutions and perils, in fact anything, rather than make the position in society that I have earned and long held take second place to a newly rich upstart.” He sank back onto his seat with a look of disgust on his face.

No further attempts to refute Suillius’s charges or to discredit Suillius himself came from the palace in the hands of panting messengers. It was left to the senators to silence him with their votes. Not unexpectedly, despite his claims and accusations, the Senate found Suillius guilty as charged. Half his property was confiscated by the state, with the other half going to his son Marcus Nerullinus Suillius and his granddaughter. Suillius was then banished to Spain’s Balearic Islands. He took his punishment without a semblance of fear or a plea for mercy. He was duly shipped away to the Balearics, where he reportedly lived out the rest of his days in comparative comfort, supported from Rome by his family.

Even as Suillius was being led away, charges were immediately also brought against his son Marcus, who had been a consul eight years earlier. But a note soon arrived from the Palatium: the emperor wished no action taken against Suillius’s son. Tacitus believed that this imperial intercession implied that the twenty-year-old emperor felt enough vengeance had been wrought on the family of Suillius.¹ There would have been another reason for letting Marcus Suillius off the hook. The note from the Palatium would have been written by Seneca; and Seneca wanted to bury the whole Suillius affair, rather than let any more damaging accusations surface about his relationship with members of the family of Germanicus.

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