Gnaeus Piso was in no hurry to return to Rome. He had given his word to Governor Sentius that he would go home to the capital, and he intended to keep his word. But instead of going directly back to Rome, he had lingered in the ports of Asia and Greece on the way west. Then he had landed in the Balkans, from where he sent his son Marcus on to Italy to seek an interview with the emperor at Rome. Young Marcus was given the mission of clearing the way for his father’s return without recriminations.
Piso himself had made his way, accompanied by his wife, Plancina, up into the Roman province of Illyricum in the Balkans, hoping for a meeting with Tiberius’s son, Drusus the Younger. Tiberius had sent Drusus back to his post as Roman commander in the region immediately following Germanicus’s funeral. Piso was hoping, says Tacitus, that Drusus would be kindly disposed toward him because, with Germanicus out of the way, Drusus was now Tiberius’s heir apparent.¹ Drusus’s twin sons, born only weeks before to his wife, Livilla, who was the biological sister of Germanicus, were now next in the line of succession, ahead of the sons of Germanicus, who otherwise would have been first in the line of imperial succession after Drusus.
Piso’s wife, Plancina, would have assured Piso that he could bank on the support of the Palatium once he returned to Rome, for she had connections with the emperor’s mother, just as Piso’s friend Celer had reminded him. But Piso seems to have doubted that he genuinely enjoyed the favor of the Palatium. By taking this sidetrack to Illyricum, he was looking for the moral support of Drusus, the new heir apparent. At the same time, he was trying to forestall the inevitable; back at Rome, proud Piso knew, he would face the humiliation of criminal charges proffered by the friends of Germanicus. To delay his return and to delay the inevitable court case, he would pursue any diversion.
Piso was received by Drusus at his headquarters, at Burnum, today’s Kistanje in Croatia, not far from the Adriatic Sea. Drusus, two years younger than Germanicus, was Germanicus’s complete opposite. He possessed a reputation for heavy drinking and for violent rages, and to date had shown little interest in public administration. Yet he and Germanicus had been very close, partly because of Germanicus’s sweet nature and partly because Drusus had married Germanicus’s sister. In early A.D. 17, Germanicus and Drusus had teamed up in the Senate to jointly sway senators to their way of thinking and ensure the promotion to the vacant post of praetor of a relative of Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina. Germanicus had even stopped off in Illyricum on his way east later in A.D. 17 to pay Drusus and Livilla a brotherly visit before he launched into the next, and last, stage of his career.
For all his affection for Germanicus, Drusus was, according to Tacitus, firmly under the control of his father, Tiberius. When Piso arrived at his door, Drusus said to him, quite publicly, for all to hear, “If certain insinuations are true, I would be the first to resent you. But I prefer to believe those insinuations are false and without grounds. The death of Germanicus need not be the ruin of anyone.”² It was just the sort of supportive statement that Piso was looking for.
Drusus the Younger, said Tacitus, was a man who normally displayed all the simplicity and candor of a boy, yet suddenly here he was speaking with all the cunning of an old and experienced politician. Tacitus was to remark that when Drusus’s words were reported at Rome, men were certain that this response had been drafted for him by Tiberius, or his advisers.³ Yet even though Drusus benefited directly and substantially from the death of Germanicus by replacing him as Tiberius’s principal heir, no classical author was to suggest that Drusus had been involved in his adoptive brother’s murder. Drusus, who had never shown any interest in becoming emperor, was apparently only interested in a hedonistic life. Drusus was guilty of a failure to demand justice for Germanicus and failing to pursue his murderers, and of betraying his memory, but beyond that he seems to have been innocent of any crime against his adoptive brother. In all probability, Drusus suspected his own father of complicity in Germanicus’s death. Perhaps now fearful for his own life, Drusus did as he was told.
Following his meeting with young Drusus, Piso and his party crossed the Adriatic Sea and landed in eastern Italy at the port city of Ancona. From there they headed along the Flaminian Way, a broad, paved military highway like the Appian Way, heading toward Rome. The Piso party soon encountered the five thousand troops of an entire legion on the march, heading in the same direction. This was the 9th Hispana Legion. Usually based at Sisak (today’s Siscia) in Pannonia, the unit had been ordered by the efficient Palatium to transfer temporarily to the province of Africa, today’s Tunisia in North Africa. The resident 3rd Augusta Legion was having trouble in Africa countering a revolt in Numidia led by Tacfarinas, a native Numidian and former prefect of Numidian auxiliaries in the Roman army who had raised a large rebel army that was raiding towns and road convoys and harassing the province’s garrison.
To reach North Africa, the legionaries of the 9th Hispana had marched along paved military highways from Pannonia into northeastern Italy. Their course would take them on to Rome, where they would camp on the grass of the Field of Mars. For the majority of the legionaries of the 9th Hispana, who had been recruited in Spain, this would bring their first ever sight of the capital. From Rome, where they would be reprovisioned, they would march on down to the western coast of Italy to Reggio, to board ships that would ferry them to Messina in Sicily. From Messina they would march along the northern coast of Sicily to Marsala, and there they would take ships to the province of Africa, landing near Carthage. This was how Rome quickly deployed its legions, using its military highways and fleets to move thousands of men and all their equipment, in this case from eastern Europe to North Africa, in just weeks.
Piso, being an ex-consul, which gave him the military rank equivalent to a lieutenant general today, was welcomed by the officer leading the 9th Hispana, its deputy commander, who was a “tribune of the broad stripe” in his late twenties. Also called a “military tribune,” this rank was the equivalent of a modern-day colonel. The Piso party now linked up with the army column. At the rear of the long military column, Piso’s hundreds of slaves joined the legion’s baggage train, which comprised scores of wagons and upward of a thousand pack mules— one mule for every eight-man squad of the legion, and many more besides. Piso and Plancina traveled up front in their slaveborne litters, with the mounted officers. Piso, ignoring the rumor that he had been responsible for the death of Germanicus, says Tacitus, repeatedly “displayed himself to the soldiers” on the march.⁴
At the riverside town of Narnia in the Apennine Mountains just northeast of Rome, Piso and his wife and some of their attendants left the legion column. Here at Narnia, Piso hired a riverboat. After transferring to the boat, the Pisos sailed down the Nera River and joined the Tiber River, following it into Rome. Rather than sneak into the city in darkness, the pompous Piso had the boat tie up in broad daylight opposite the Mausoleum of Augustus, as if thumbing his nose at the remains of Germanicus resting there. Going ashore, and followed by a large retinue of dependants and staff, Piso and Plancina paraded along the streets of the Field of Mars and entered the city with broad smiles on their faces. Once in the city proper, they headed for the Piso mansion, which happened to be among the homes of the elite on the lower slopes of the Palatine Hill, not far from the imperial palaces, overlooking the Forum.
Gnaeus Piso Jr., Piso’s and Plancina’s eldest son, had remained in the family home at Rome while his parents were in the East. In expectation of their imminent return, he had decked out the house with floral decorations for the Festival of Juno. These decorations were still in place when Piso arrived at the house. Piso promptly gave orders for a large banquet. He made no attempt to keep the fact that he had returned to the capital a secret; Piso wanted it publicly known that he was back in town and hiding from no one. The news that awaited him was both good and bad. His younger son Marcus, sent ahead to Rome by Piso, had been granted the requested interview with the emperor. Tiberius had courteously received the young man, in the same way that he would receive any son of a noble family. According to Tacitus, this was because Tiberius was striving to make it appear that he was totally impartial in the matter of Germanicus’s death.⁵
But at the same time, Tiberius, anxious to clear himself of any suspicion of involvement in the death of the prince, told Marcus Piso that he wanted a prosecution to be commenced against the young man’s father as soon as the former governor returned to Rome. Tiberius knew he must act before the public demands for revenge for Germanicus’s death exploded into riots in the streets, or brought the legions of the Rhine armies marching down from the north to avenge their former commander in chief. Like it or not, Piso was about to be put on trial for murder.