VII

PROSECUTION AND DEFENSE

With no witnesses to present other than themselves, the prosecutors Servaeus, Veranius, and Vitellius each addressed the Senate in turn, testifying to what they had seen and heard in the East as companions of Germanicus. According to Tacitus, Servaeus and Veranius were earnest and businesslike, while Vitellius was strikingly eloquent.¹ Not unlike in courtrooms today, Roman attorneys treated their courtrooms as their stage, and performed accordingly. It was not unusual for advocates to speak for five hours without a break, only occasionally pausing to take a sip of water. “You speak much and long, and with your head tilted back swill tepid water from a glass flask,” the first-century Roman poet Martial was to say of one such legal advocate.²

The prosecution trio alleged that while in the East, Piso had displayed hatred for Germanicus and a desire for revolution against him, and had so corrupted the rank-and-file soldiery by relaxing discipline and by other means that the worst of them began calling Piso “father of the legions.”³ On the other hand, they said, Piso had treated all the best men, especially the friends and companions of Germanicus, with savage disdain, even cruelty. They gave numerous examples of Piso’s contempt for and disobedience of Germanicus’s orders, from his bribery of centurions to his performance at the banquet for the king of Nabataea, and, crucially, his failure to send the two legions into Armenia as ordered by Germanicus, an act that could have cost Germanicus his life at the hands of the Armenians or the Parthians.

The arrogant Piso, flicking his eyes around the benches opposite, would have seen anger and disgust registered on the faces of many a fellow senator. Some of his colleagues loudly interrupted the prosecutors to shake fists at Piso and voice their dismay at his actions as each instance of his disdain for and disobedience of Germanicus was detailed by the prosecutors. Tiberius’s opening address would have given Piso heart, but now, seeing this fierce animosity being directed at him from around the benches, Piso must have begun to doubt the promises that Sejanus had made to him since his return to Rome, promises that he had nothing to fear.

When the day’s session ended and after the emperor had taken his leave, Piso’s slaves brought his litter to a side door. He climbed in and drew the curtains. Escorted by an armed tribune, the commander of one of the Praetorian Guard cohorts, Piso was conveyed the short distance to his house. It would be variously rumored, Tacitus was to write, that the tribune was there to either guard Piso or ultimately to be his executioner.

At home that night, Piso found his wife, Plancina, cool and withdrawn. After dinner, she announced to Piso that she had decided to conduct her defense separately from his. Earlier, while the case had been proceeding in the Senate, Plancina had been granted an afternoon interview with Livia, the emperor’s mother, at the Palatium. And Livia had guaranteed to Plancina that she would be safe from punishment, but only if she withdrew her support for her husband and let him take all the blame for what had taken place inSyria.

Stunned by his wife’s desertion, Piso began to lose heart. The Palatium’s public support of his wife could be, he knew, fatal for him. Seeing himself left as the scapegoat for Germanicus’s death, and now fully aware of the public hatred for him, he thought seriously of throwing in the towel. But his sons Gnaeus and Marcus implored him to keep up the fight, which they were convinced he still could win. Strengthened by the support of his sons and clinging to the promises that Sejanus had made him, Piso decided to fight on.

The next day, Piso again took his usual seat in the Senate as, once again, the benches all around him filled and a huge crowd gathered outside the Senate House for the second day in succession. As had been the case the previous day, no business would be done in the city while the trial proceeded. Once the emperor had arrived at the Senate House, carried down from the Palatium in his litter, the day’s session, the last of the two days allocated to the prosecution, began.

Now the prosecutors came to the crux of the matter. They described how Germanicus had been poisoned; how he had died; and how, before he passed away, he had required them to swear to avenge him. Now they accused Piso of having personally destroyed Germanicus “by sorcery and poison,” They spoke of Plancina’s known association with Martina the poisonmaker, and particularly pointed out that just prior to Germanicus’s first illness Piso had reclined to the immediate right of Germanicus in the place of honor at an official banquet at Germanicus’s palace at Daphne. This, they said, would have given Piso ample opportunity to poison the prince’s food or drink.

According to Tacitus, Piso now glanced at Tiberius. Many sycophantic senators had grown to take their lead from the emperor when it came to debates; if the emperor nodded when a point was made, or smiled in the direction of an accused man, they knew what reaction he required from them. In this case, Tiberius had seemed, in his opening statement, to favor the defendant, but now Piso was shaken to see a cold expression on the face of the emperor. Registering neither pity nor anger, Tiberius seemed to be closing himself off, to be deliberately hiding any display of emotion or favoritism. With narrowed eyes, Tiberius looked away.

Outside the Senate House, the crowd had grown restless. From within the House, the senators could hear increasingly raised voices beyond the building’s walls. Impatient for a verdict, and beginning to fear that the senators would let Piso off under the influence of Tiberius, the people commenced to threaten violence should the Senate fail to convict Piso of Germanicus’s murder. The unrest grew until large numbers of people flooded to where statues of Piso stood around the Forum—all ex-consuls were honored with statues. In this riotous atmosphere these statues were hauled down from their plinths and dragged to the Gemonian Stairs, which ran down from the Capitoline Mount on the northern side of the Forum. According to tradition, the bodies of traitors were thrown down these stairs, while the heads of men and women convicted of capital crimes and decapitated by the Praetorian Guard were displayed on the stairs, as gory yet indisputable proof that their punishment had been carried out. The angry mob began breaking up the statues of Piso so they could symbolically display the marble heads on the stairs.

The tumult outside caused Tiberius to suspend the trial’s proceedings and to send messengers to find out what was going on. When news of the riot came back, Tiberius immediately commanded the Praetorian Guard to restore order and to rescue Piso’s statues and return them to their plinths. Soldiers of the Guard swiftly obeyed. Hundreds of them peeled away from the Guard cordon around the Senate House and quickly headed for the Gemonian Stairs. As the members of the Senate waited in the Curia, the riot was broken up by the troops without bloodshed, and the damaged statues were reerected in their original locations.

After this delay, once news of the Praetorians’ successful termination of the civil unrest had been delivered to Tiberius, the prosecution was authorized to resume. They returned to the evidence of sorcery found at the governor’s palace at Antioch. As a prelude to Germanicus’s death, the prosecutors now said, there had been the “ceremonies and horrible sacrifices made by himself [Piso] and Plancina,”¹ and they gave details of the macabre artifacts found in the search of the governor’s palace. Finally, the prosecutors accused Piso of having threatened the Roman state with war, detailing his unauthorized orders to regional leaders and his foolish military exploits in Cilicia that had led to the brief and doomed stand at Celenderis. It was only after he had been defeated in battle, said the prosecutors, and had surrendered, that Piso could be returned to Rome to face trial and be meted justice for his monumental crimes. Having made this point, the prosecution rested.

All eyes turned to the emperor. Tiberius now gathered himself and came to his feet. After reminding the senators that the House would resume in six days’ time to hear the defendants’ cases, he turned to Piso’s two sons and urged them to vigorously lead the defense of their absent mother when the hearing resumed. The trial was then adjourned,¹¹ and the emperor took his leave as the senators reverently stood in their places.

It had been an exhausting two days. These sittings of the Senate, where it acted as Rome’s supreme court, were always exhausting for the participants. Eighty years later, after participating in a three-day Senate trial during which charges against another former governor of Farther Spain had been made and rebutted, the senator, legal advocate, and author Pliny the Younger would describe “the fatigue we experienced in speaking and debating for such a length of time, and in examining, supporting, and countering so manywitnesses.”¹²

In the darkness of early evening, Piso again went home in a closed litter and accompanied by the armed Praetorian tribune. He should have gone home in high spirits. As his defense team would have assured him before he left the Senate House, the prosecution had failed to make a convincing argument of his guilt on the major charge. Yes, the prosecution had successfully established that he had tampered with the soldiers in Syria and that he had insulted Germanicus, his superior. There was also no denying that Piso and his son Marcus had, in Cilicia, interfered with legion recruits, had illegally called auxiliaries to serve them, and had armed their own slaves, all with the intent of obtaining the government of Syria. Whether this amounted to civil war was disputable, but it would take considerable eloquence to convince the senators of Piso’s claim that he had done this out of loyalty to Tiberius rather than through a selfish desire to regain the power of which Germanicus had deprived him.

It seemed certain that Piso could not avoid a conviction on the lesser charges, which could be expected to incur a punishment such as banishment. But on the capital charge of death by poisoning, the prosecution had fallen down. Unlike his wife, Piso had not been linked with poison or with a poisonmaker. As for the charge that Piso had personally administered poison to Germanicus at the Daphne banquet, it seemed absurd, his advocates were preparing to say in Piso’s defense in six days’ time, “that he would have dared to make such an attempt surrounded by strange servants and in full view of so many other guests.”¹³

The defense advocates were right. It does seem highly unlikely that Piso could have or would have tried to poison the prince’s food at this banquet in Germanicus’s palace—in front of so many “unfriendly” witnesses. In classical times, only slaves sat down to eat. Free people lay on their stomachs on special dining couches, with three diners side by side on each couch, and three couches around each table so that the nine diners were all looking at each other across the low central table containing the food and drink. Diners did not eat from their own individual plates, as we do. Using their fingers, they selected items from all platters on the table, platters from which the other diners also took food. Even if Piso could have somehow managed to spread a poison on food right before the eyes of the eight other diners at his table and the numerous servants who were constantly coming and going, it is probable that others would have eaten the same food as Germanicus; yet no one else fell ill.

Poisoning Germanicus’s drink was a more credible methodology. But with Germanicus’s drinking cup sitting on the table in front of him, somehow Piso still had to put poison into the cup without being spotted, by either Germanicus himself, by other diners to the left and the right, or by Germanicus’s numerous loyal servants, who were constantly bringing food and drink and taking away platters. And that seems improbable if not impossible.

“Besides,” Tacitus was to write, “the defendant offered to allow his own slaves to be submitted to torture” for evidence that he had been involved in the murder of Germanicus. He had also insisted that the slaves on Germanicus’s staff who had served the meal that night be tortured as well, to prove that he’d had nothing to do with the death of the prince.¹ It would seem to some that only a man truly confident of his innocence would do that. With such slim and contentious circumstantial evidence against him, there was a real chance that Piso would escape conviction on the murder charge.

Back at his home that evening, Piso sat down to write. His steward, a freedman, would later state that he assumed his master was working on his legal defense. Piso then sealed the document he had penned and handed it to the steward, without instructions. He then ate a meal and performed his toilet. His wife, Plancina, had gone to her own bedchamber when, late at night, Piso ordered the house’s outer doors to be closed, and he withdrew into his bedchamber. At dawn the next day, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was found dead in his room, in a pool of blood. His throat had been cut. A sword lay on the tiled floor nearby.

The news that Piso was dead shocked Rome. Tiberius also seemed to be shocked. He called the Senate together immediately and, looking sad—although Tacitus felt it was a pretense of sadness—declared, unhappily and accusingly, to the assembled senators, “The purpose of such a death is to bring reproach on me!”¹ Tiberius seemed to be accusing Piso himself of taking his own life to make the emperor look bad, or accusing someone else, perhaps the friends of Germanicus, of engineering the murder of Piso before the man could be exonerated by the Senate of Germanicus’s murder.

Rather than brush Piso’s death under the mat, the emperor seemed determined to discover the truth about how he had died, for he proceeded to conduct an inquiry there in the Senate into the last day and night of Piso’s life. He questioned, in front of the senators, the tribune charged with his escort, as well as Piso’s two sons, and his steward. Some of the answers were cautious, others unwise, but none shed any real light on how or why Piso had died. Tiberius then read the Senate a letter he said had been written to him by Piso:

Crushed by a conspiracy of my enemies and the hatred attracted by a false charge, since my truth and innocence find no place here I call on the immortal gods to witness that toward you, Caesar, I have acted loyally, with similar respect for your mother.

I beg you to think of my children, one of whom, Gnaeus Piso, is not involved in my career in any way, such as it has been, seeing that he has been at Rome all this time. The other, Marcus Piso, strove to persuade me not to return to Syria. I wish that I had given in to my young son, rather than to his aged father. I therefore pray all the more earnestly that the innocent will not pay the penalty for my wickedness.

With forty-five years of obedience, through my association with you in the consulate, as a person who previously won the esteem of your father, the Divine Augustus, and as one who is your friend and who will never again ask a favor of you, I beg you to save my unfortunate son.¹

This letter, which, as Tacitus was to note, pointedly made no mention of Plancina, appeared to be the document that Piso had given his steward the previous evening. Taken in context, it had the hallmarks of the suicide note of a guilty man.

Yet in this note Piso had stuck firmly to his claim that he was innocent of the murder of Germanicus and had been falsely accused. Nor did he expressly say in the note that he was going to kill himself. Had Piso not been found dead, this letter, if genuine, would have been taken merely as a plea from Piso for leniency for his son Marcus prior to the commencement of the defense case in six days’ time. Piso’s friends would be adamant that he had not taken his own life. Tacitus was to say that in his own younger days he had personally spoken with aged senators who had told him they were convinced that Piso had not committed suicide, but had died at the hands of “a person sent to be his executioner.”¹

Did Piso take his own life? Suicide in the face of disgrace was a common course for Roman senators. Far from being cowardly, it was seen by Romans as a noble gesture, in the same way that many centuries later Japanese samurai would embrace and ritualize suicide in the form of seppuku, or hara-kiri, as an honorable alternative to defeat and dishonor. But the normal method used by Romans to take their own lives was to slice open the veins of the arms, and sometimes also the legs, so that they slowly bled to death. On the battlefield, a surrounded general might occasionally fall on his sword as a rapid last resort, as General Varus had done in the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 6, rather than fall into enemy hands. Half a century later, the short-lived emperor Otho would commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat with a dagger, and there were one or two instances of nobles ending their lives by slicing open their throats with a razor. But to cut one’s own throat with a sword was a rare thing indeed. While it is not impossible that Piso did just that, the odds against him killing himself in this manner are high.

A possible scenario for what happened that night runs like this. On the instructions of his commander, Sejanus, the Praetorian tribune who escorted Piso home urged him to write a letter to the emperor begging leniency for his son, with the tribune promising to deliver it personally to Tiberius. Piso had duly written the letter and handed it to his steward, to be passed on to the tribune the next day. Then, in the early hours of the morning, Piso’s hall porter, bribed by the tribune, or perhaps on the orders of Piso’s wife, Plancina, opened the front door and admitted several Praetorian Guard centurions who wore civilian dress and carried sheathed swords beneath their cloaks. The assassins had then slipped into Piso’s bedchamber, found him asleep, and slit his throat, leaving the bloodied murder weapon on the floor before they left.

Those same aged senators who had told Tacitus about the belief among Piso’s friends that Piso had been murdered also told him about the mysterious document that Piso had kept by him during the two days of the trial. They told Tacitus that Piso’s friends declared over and over again that this document was “a letter from Tiberius containing instructions referring to Germanicus, and that it was his intention to produce it in the Senate and embarrass the emperor.”¹ The only reason Piso hadn’t produced the letter, they said, was that he had been “misled by empty promises from Sejanus.”¹ That incriminating letter had now disappeared, and would never again see the light of day. Once they had dispatched him, the murderers must have searched Piso’s room to locate and destroy the letter.

Even though, just hours prior to his death, it had appeared that Piso could and would be found not guilty of the murder of Germanicus, Piso’s sudden end very neatly brought the Germanicus murder case to a conclusion as far as the emperor was concerned. Tiberius now suggested to the Senate that Marcus Piso be acquitted of the charge of making civil war, on the grounds that the son could not refuse the orders of his father and military superior. Tiberius added that compassion was necessary in this case because of both the high rank of the Piso family and Piso’s dreadful end. As for the role in Syria of the universally despised Plancina, Tiberius said it had been both shameful and disgraceful. However, he said, looking embarrassed, at the intercession of his mother, Livia, he called on the House to grant Plancina a full pardon.

A buzz ran through the Senate. “Secret complaints” from “all good men” about the emperor’s mother were becoming more and more vehement, according to Tacitus. He quoted a typical covert complaint. “So, it was a grandmother’s duty to look her grandson’s murderess [Plancina] in the face, to speak freely with her, and to rescue her from the Senate?”² But in public, not a word of complaint was aired by the senators.

Now Tiberius called on the Senate to pronounce its verdict in the case. Normally, the presiding consul didn’t cast a vote, but when the emperor was present in the Senate he did, so the consul spoke first. The consul Cotta announced that he believed that Gnaeus Piso Sr. was guilty on all counts, and moved that in punishment his name should be removed from the public register and that half his property be confiscated by the state, with the remainder given to his elder son, Gnaeus Jr., who must also change his first name so he had no association with his disgraced father. The younger Piso son, Marcus, the consul proposed, should be stripped of his senatorial rank and exiled for ten years with an allowance of 5 million sesterces. To show how little hardship this would have entailed for young Piso, a legionary earned 900 sesterces a year and received a pension of 12,000 sesterces after twenty years’ service. A productive small farm could be had for 100,000 sesterces, while the going price for a large Italian farming estate owned by a senator was 3 million sesterces. Five million sesterces, even spread over ten years, was a small fortune. And finally, said the consul, in the light of the intercession of the emperor’s mother, the life of Plancina should be spared.

The Senate unanimously voted in favor of the consul’s proposal. Yet even these laughably mild punishments were considered too severe by Tiberius. Not even Mark Antony’s name had been removed from the public record after he made war on the state, said the emperor. So, at Rome, Piso’s name would not be erased or his statues removed. Tiberius announced that Marcus Piso would be pardoned, and the half of his father’s property confiscated by the state would be granted to him. Thus ended this “mockery of a trial,” as Tacitus was to describe it.²¹

So anxious was the emperor to cap public anger and gain closure on the entire Germanicus affair that on Tiberius’s orders, bronze tablets would be inscribed by the Senate with details of the Piso trial, the verdict, the sentences, and the commutations, as well as the honors decreed in Germanicus’s honor. These tablets would be displayed publicly for thirty days in cities, towns, and legion bases throughout the Roman world, to prove that Tiberius had exacted revenge for the death of Germanicus. Examples of these tablets, known as the Tabula Hebana, the Tabula Siarensis, and the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre, would be unearthed in the twentieth century in Italy and Spain. Other than the private asides about how Piso died and the reference to the mysterious document Piso kept by him, these tablets accord precisely with the record of the trial given by Tacitus in his history, the Annals. One of these tablets, the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre, found in Spain in the 1990s, detailed the punishment meted out to Gnaeus Piso, inclusive of a later decree from Tiberius, subsequent to the trial in the Senate, that Piso’s name was to be erased from all public inscriptions where he had served as governor in Spain.

Immediately after the verdicts and punishments had been voted on in the Senate, various senators tried to outdo each other in their sycophancy. One senator proposed that a golden statue of Tiberius be erected in the Temple of Mars the Avenger, another that an altar to Vengeance be dedicated to Tiberius, in celebration of the fact that the emperor had supposedly avenged the death of Germanicus. Tiberius vetoed both these proposals; such monuments were for victories over foreign enemies, he said. Then the elderly senator Valerius Messalinus, who had married into a branch of the Caesar family, proposed that Tiberius, Livia, Agrippina, Drusus the Younger, and Germanicus’s mother, Antonia, all be publicly thanked for having avenged Germanicus. The senator Lucius Asprenas then jumped up and admonished his colleague for failing to include Germanicus’s brother Claudius in that imperial group. Claudius’s name was added to the resolution, and the motion carried. The Senate then adjourned.

Talking animatedly among themselves, the members of the vast crowd outside the Senate House dispersed and went about their business. The news that Piso was dead sated the bloodlust of many of those Romans who had been calling for revenge for Germanicus. But while most Romans would go to their graves convinced that Piso had played a role in the death of the prince, many also continued to believe that Tiberius, and probably his mother also, had plotted the crime and orchestrated it from afar.

Several days after the conclusion of the Piso trial, Tiberius proposed to the Senate that prestigious priesthoods be conferred on the three prosecutors, Vitellius, Veranius, and Servaeus, as a reward for their services, a proposal that, of course, the Senate endorsed without question. Tiberius also told Fulcinius Trio, the senator who had made the time-wasting accusations against Piso, that if he reined in his rancor when he undertook prosecutions he could expect Tiberius’s support when seeking promotion. Trio would in fact become a consul with Tiberius’s support several years later. Apart from their priesthoods, none of the three prosecutors would receive any further honors or gain promotions during the reign of Tiberius.

“This was the end of avenging the death of Germanicus,” Tacitus was to say.²² But it was not the end of the story of Germanicus’s murder. The story had just begun. Spurred by the murder of Germanicus, more murders would follow, and more members of the house of Germanicus and descendants of the Caesar family would perish over the coming years in a concerted effort to destroy all those associated with Germanicus. Four decades and numerous gruesome deaths were to follow before a clearer picture of who murdered Germanicus, and why, would emerge. The persons who took the life of Germanicus were not on the list of suspects in A.D. 20. Yet you have already met them.

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