Cornelius Tacitus

The Annals

Book IV: LIX-LXXV - Sejanus in control


History of Rome and the Roman people, from its origin to the establishment of the Christian empire - Victor Duruy (1811 - 1894) (p778, 1884)
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Book IV:LIX A rock-fall near Fondi

It so happened, at that time, that a serious accident involving Tiberius encouraged these idle speculations and gave him further justification for faith in Sejanus’ steadfast friendship. They were at a villa known as the Grotto, on the Gulf of Terracina, below the hills of Fondi, dining in a natural cavern. A sudden rock-fall at its mouth buried a number of his servants, leading to total panic and the flight of those who had been enjoying the banquet.

Sejanus, on his hands and knees, shielded Tiberius’ face, and supported the falling stones, such being the attitude in which he was discovered by the soldiers who ran to their assistance. This increased his influence and, given that he had shown no concern for himself, trust was placed in his advice, however deadly it might prove.

Regarding the house of Germanicus, Sejanus assumed the role of judge, enlisting those who would act the part of accusers; Nero Julius, the next in line, being the focus of their attacks. Though Nero Julius was a modest youth, nevertheless he too often forgot what the present time demanded, while his freedmen and followers, eager to gain power, goaded him into displays of pride and self-confidence, advising him that this was what the people of Rome desired and the military longed for, while Sejanus, who at present took advantage of an old man’s forbearance and a young man’s diffidence, would not dare to oppose him.

Book IV:LX Sejanus plots against the house of Germanicus

To all this Nero Julius listened without a thought of doing wrong, but now and then insolent and unconsidered comments emerged from him, and as these were taken up by the spies around him and augmented in the retelling, no opportunity to refute them being granted him, various other reasons for concern began to appear. At one time some man would avoid meeting him, other men returned his salutation but immediately turned away, many broke off attempts at conversation, while any followers of Sejanus about stopped to jeer.

Indeed, Tiberius himself met him with a frown or a hypocritical smile on his face: no matter if the young man spoke or was silent, there was guilt in silence, or in speaking. Not even the night hours were safe, since his every moment of wakefulness or sleep, his every sigh, was revealed by his wife to her mother Livilla, and by Livilla to Sejanus; who had won Nero’s brother Drusus Julius to his faction, holding out to him the prospect of imperial supremacy, once he had dealt with his elder and now weaker brother.

Over and above the desire for power, and an antipathy common between brothers, Drusus’ savage nature was inflamed with envy, since their mother Agrippina favoured Nero. Yet Sejanus was not so warm towards Drusus that he neglected, even regarding him also, to sow the seed of his future ruin, aware of that rashness which left him the more exposed to deception.

Book IV:LXI The deaths of Asinius Agrippa and Quintus Haterius

At the close of that year (AD26) two notable individuals died, Asinius Agrippa, of an ancestry (that of Marcus Agrippa and Asinius Pollio) noted for its honour rather than its antiquity, of which his life proved worthy; and Quintus Haterius, of a senatorial family, celebrated in his lifetime for eloquence, though the memory of his talents is scarcely so well retained. Indeed he succeeded through his energy rather than his attention to detail; and while the considerations and efforts of others may subsequently have grown in value, that melodious fluency Haterius possessed has vanished with himself.

Book IV:LXII Collapse of the wooden amphitheatre at Fidenae

In the consulate of Marcus Licinius and Lucius Calpurnius (AD27), an unexpected disaster, beginning and ending in an instant, caused casualties as numerous as those in a major war. For a freedman named Atilius erecting a wooden amphitheatre at Fidenae, to house a gladiatorial contest, failed to establish it on solid enough ground, or secure the superstructure with strong enough fixings, due to his designing the project not to display his abundant wealth or to court favour with his townsmen, but merely for sordid gain.

Those eager for such things and, with Tiberius in power, strangers to such amusements, flocked to the place, men and women of all ages, the crowd all the greater as the town was nearby, which was why the toll was heavier, the structure, packed full when it collapsed, falling inward and spilling outward, dragging down and overwhelming a mass of human beings intent on the spectacle or standing round.

And indeed, as fate would have it, those who had met death in the first moment of tragedy escaped the torment of those, more to be pitied, whose shattered bodies life had not yet deserted; who during the daylight hours recognised their wives or children by sight, at night by their wailing and grieving. The news brought others, lamenting here a brother, there parents or some relation. Even those whose friends or relatives were away for some reason, were fearful; and while the names of those whom disaster had struck remained as yet unknown, anxiety was widespread.

Book IV:LXIII The aftermath

When the debris began to be removed, they rushed to kiss and embrace the dead; even disputing cases where the features were unrecognisable but form or age led to errors of identification. Fifty thousand people were injured or crushed to death in the disaster; and by senate decree, no one with resources of less than a thousand gold pieces was to mount a gladiatorial show in future, and no amphitheatre might be built except on tried and solid ground.

Atilius was driven into exile. It must be said, however, that after the accident, the great houses opened their doors, dressings and medical aid were supplied, and throughout those days however sad her aspect, Rome followed the practice of the ancients who after a great battle relieved the wounded with generosity and care.

Book IV:LXIV Fire on the Caelian Hill

That disaster had not yet faded from memory, when a violent fire unduly affected the city, by destroying the Caelian Hill district. That this was a deadly year and that everything was opposed to the emperor’s decision to absent himself from Rome, was repeated by those, who, as the masses will, ascribed evil intent to matters of chance.

But Tiberius countered this by issuing compensation according to loss. Thanks were returned, in the Senate by the nobility, in the streets by public opinion, since he had aided, through his generosity, and without the influence of his relatives or seeking to gain favour, even those unknown to him and unable to be summoned.

Proposals were then advanced that the Caelian Hill should in future be called the Augustan since, while all around was ablaze, a bust of Tiberius in the house of the senator Junius was the only thing left untouched. This had once happened to a statue of Claudia Quinta which twice escaped the effects of fire, a statue which our ancestors had dedicated to the shrine of the Mother of the Gods (Cybele). The Claudians were sacrosanct and acceptable to the powers above, and additional respect should be shown the site where the gods granted such honour to the emperor.

Cottage on Fire at Night

‘Cottage on Fire at Night’
Joseph Wright of Derby (British, 1734 – 1797)
Yale Center for British Art

Book IV:LXV History of the site

It may not be out of place to relate that the hill was anciently named the Querquetulanus, from the density and rich growth of oak trees there, and was only called the Caelian after Caeles Vibenna, an Etruscan leader who supplied auxiliaries to us, he receiving the site from Tarquinius Priscus or as the gift of some other of our kings: for the historians disagree on the matter.

The rest is not in doubt, that this large force settled in the plain also, with the neighbourhood of the forum, Tuscan Street taking its name from theirs.

Book IV:LXVI Quintilius Varus denounced

But though the disaster mentioned was relieved through the good-will of the nobility and the generosity of the emperor, the power of the informers grew without remedy, greater and more vicious each day.

Quintilius Varus, a wealthy relation of Tiberius, was attacked by the same Domitius Afer who had obtained the conviction of Varus’ mother, Claudia Pulchra. It was hardly a surprise that, long impoverished and making ill use of his recent bounty, he was preparing further crimes, but it was astounding that Publius Dolabella appeared as his partner in denunciation, since, given his illustrious ancestry and his connection to Varus, he was about to attack his own noble status and his own cousin.

However, the Senate stood firm, and decided to await the emperor, the only respite available, for the moment, from imminent misfortune.

Book IV:LXVII Tiberius retires to Capri

But Tiberius, after dedicating temples in Campania, still continuing in his loathing for the townships, colonies and all things in mainland Italy, even though he had warned the public not to invade his privacy and the local citizens were prevented from doing so by stationing troops there, took himself off to the island of Capri, which is separated by three miles of water from the tip of the Sorrentine peninsula.

I would imagine that its isolation was its main attraction for him, since its coastline is without harbours and provides scant shelter for even small vessels, nor could anyone land without being seen by the sentries. The winter temperatures are mild, due to the mountain chain which blocks the cold winds; its summers catch the western breeze and are pleasantly embraced by the open sea. The island overlooked the most beautiful of bays until the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (AD79) changed the face of the landscape.

Tradition has it that the area was colonised by Greece, and that Capri was inhabited by the Teleboans. But Tiberius now occupied it with his twelve imposing and individually named villas. Previously preoccupied with matters of state, he was now equally intent on hidden pleasures in an idleness filled with evil. For those suspicions and mindless beliefs of his persisted, which Sejanus had habitually encouraged, even in Rome, and now more actively fostered.

The plotting against Agrippina and Nero Julius was no longer hidden. Soldiers were appointed to record, as if for the annals, their messages and movements, both open and covert. Moreover agents contrived to advise the pair to seek refuge with the armies in Germany, or to clasp hold of the statue of the divine Augustus, at a moment when the forum was most crowded, and call on the Senate and people for help. And since they scorned these actions, the accusation was made that such was at least their intention. 

Book IV:LXVIII The downfall of Titius Sabinus – AD28

With the consulate of Junius Silanus and Silius Nerva (AD28) the new year began badly, the illustrious Roman knight, Titius Sabinus, being dragged off to prison, due to his previous friendship with Germanicus: since he had in no way ceased to honour the dead man’s widow and children, visiting them at home, befriending them in public, the only one of so great a multitude of former followers to do so, and thereby praised by the virtuous and an offence to their enemies.

He was attacked by Latinius Latiaris, Porcius Cato, Petilius Rufus, and Marcus Opsius, ex-praetors greedy for the consulate, a post to which there was no admittance except through Sejanus; while Sejanus’ goodwill could only be achieved through wrongdoing.

It was agreed between them that Latiaris, who was involved with Sabinus over some minor matter, should set the trap, the rest being present as witnesses, and that afterwards the accusation should be laid. Latiaris, therefore, began the conversation with casual remarks, then praised Sabinus’ constancy, in not abandoning in its affliction, as others had, the house to which he had been a friend in its prosperity. At the same time he spoke of Germanicus in honourable terms and of Agrippina with pity.

When Sabinus shed tears and uttered complaints, showing the usual human weakness in times of calamity, Latiaris grew more daring, reproaching Sejanus for his viciousness, pride and ambition. Even Tiberius was not spared abuse, and with this conversation, filled with so much that was forbidden, the impression was given of intimate friendship. Now Sabinus began to seek out Latiaris, visiting him at home, and bringing his troubles there, as if to the most faithful of companions.

Book IV:LXIX Sabinus ensnared

The plotters I have mentioned now discussed the means of granting these things a wider audience. For the meeting-place needed the appearance of solitude, and placed behind doors there was every chance of being detected by sight or sound or some other source of casual suspicion. Three senators hid between the roof and ceiling, a hiding place as disgraceful as the deceit was shameful, and applied their ears to the holes and cracks.

Meanwhile, Latiaris had come across Sabinus in the street and, on the pretext of communicating the latest news, dragged him home and into his private chamber, where Latiaris plied him with horrors past and present and to come. Sabinus responded in a similar manner, only at greater length, emotion once having found an outlet being more difficult to repress.

The accusations were then levied in a letter to the emperor, in which the conspirators revealed the stages of their deceit and coincidentally their own dishonour. The anxiety and fear of the citizens, hidden from their own family, had never been greater; meetings, conversation, the ear of friend or stranger, all were similarly avoided; even dumb and inanimate things, the very roofs and walls were eyed circumspectly.

Book IV:LXX Tiberius condemns him

But in a letter, read aloud on the first of January, Tiberius, after the prayers for the new year, turned to the matter of Sabinus, accusing him of corrupting several of his freedmen and plotting against himself, and openly demanded vengeance, which was readily decreed, and the condemned man was hauled away, crying out as loudly as he could, shrouded as he was in his cloak and with a noose around his neck, that such was the year’s inauguration, such the victim sacrificed to Sejanus.

Wherever he turned his eyes, wherever his voice sounded, desolation followed, with an exodus from street and forum. And whenever anyone retraced their steps and showed themselves once more, they were afraid of their very fear itself. For what day was free of persecution, they reflected, if the rope and chains were in evidence at a time when custom demands the avoidance of so much as an ominous word?

Tiberius, they thought, had not courted such odium from lack of foresight, rather it was deliberately planned, so none might believe the new magistrates were precluded from consecrating prisons in the same manner as they dealt with the consecration of shrines and altars.

A second letter followed the first, expressing the emperor’s thanks that they had punished a man dangerous to the country, adding that his own life was at risk, and he suspected treachery on the part of his enemies; he mentioned no names, but there was little doubt that those of Agrippina and Nero Julius were intended.

Book IV:LXXI The death of Julia the Younger

If I had not decided to cover events under their appropriate year, I would have wished to anticipate and record here the deaths of Latinius, Opsius and the rest of the instigators of this disgraceful action, those who died after Caligula’s accession but also those who died while Tiberius was still alive. Though not wishing to see the servants of his wrongdoing overthrown by others Tiberius often wearied of them, and when fresh labourers of the selfsame ilk appeared he ousted the old and tiresome ones. However, these and other judgements on the guilty I reserve for their proper place.

At this time, Asinius Gallus, to whose children Agrippina was aunt, asked that the emperor should reveal his fears to the Senate and allow them to be dispersed. Tiberius loved none of his virtues, as he saw them, as much as his ability to dissemble, hence the irritation with which he responded to this attempt to disclose what he chose to conceal. But Sejanus smoothed the matter over, not from love of Gallus, but so as to wait on the emperor’s deliberations, knowing that slow as he was in pondering an issue, once he acted ruthless deeds followed swiftly on the heels of ominous words.

At about this time, Julia the Younger died, who after conviction for adultery had been sentenced by her grandfather Augustus and deported to the island of Trimerus (in the Isole Tremiti archipelago) off the coast of Apulia. There she endured twenty years of exile, sustained by Livia’s resources; Livia who worked against her step-children covertly while they flourished, yet showed compassion openly for them in their ruin.

Book IV:LXXII Revolt of the Frisians

In that same year, the Frisian tribe, on the far bank of the Rhine, broke the peace, due more to our greed than their resistance to obedience. Given their limited resources, Drusus had levied a modest tribute, comprising ox-hides for military use. No one had paid any attention to the size or strength required of these, until a chief centurion, Olennius, appointed to govern the Frisians, specified giant auroch hides as the standard to be applied.

This demand, onerous to anyone, was less tolerable still among the Germans, whose wild forests yield huge creatures, but whose domesticated beasts are small in size. First their cattle, then their fields, then their wives and children passed into servitude.

Hence arose anger and complaint, and when no relief was given, they resorted to arms. Those soldiers supervising the tribute were seized and nailed to the gibbet. Olennius anticipated his danger by flight, taking refuge in a fort, named Flevum (Velsen, Netherlands), where a significant force of Romans and allies guarded the North Sea coast.

Book IV:LXXIII Roman losses

As soon as this became known to Lucius Apronius, the governor of Lower Germany, he called for detachments of legionaries from the Upper Province, and a picked body of allied horse and foot, and transported both forces together down the Rhine into Frisian territory, where the siege of the fortress had been lifted and the rebels had departed to defend their own lands.

He then built causeways and bridges across the neighbouring estuaries to allow the transport of his heavily armed troops. And a ford having being discovered in the meantime, he ordered the Canninefates’ cavalry and all the German infantry serving with us to work their way behind the enemy rear, who being then in line of battle repelled the auxiliary squadrons and the legionary cavalry sent to their aid.

Now three light cohorts, then a further two, and finally, after some time, the rest of the allied horse were sent in: enough troops if launched at once but, arriving at intervals, far from steadying the scattered men the movement caused them to be carried away in the fugitives’ panic. Apronius placed the last of his auxiliaries under the command of Cethegus Labeo, legate of the Fifth legion, and he, dangerously threatened by the insecurity of his position, sent messengers begging for the support of the legions.

The men of the Fifth outstripped the rest, repelled the enemy in a sharp encounter, and rescued the cohorts and cavalry exhausted from their wounds. The Roman general attempted no revenge, nor did he bury his dead, though many a tribune, prefect and leading centurion had fallen. It was later learnt from deserters that nine hundred Romans, who had fought on till the next day, had been killed in the grove, they called Baduhenna’s, and a further four hundred, occupying the villa of Cruptorix, who was once in our pay, fearing treachery, had fallen to each other’s swords.

Book IV:LXXIV Tiberius and Sejanus scorn to visit Rome

The Frisian name was then famous throughout Germany, while Tiberius hid our losses rather than entrust the military strategy to anyone else. The Senate too showed no interest in an embarrassing episode on the fringes of empire: since anxieties nearer home filled their minds, for which a remedy was found in mere sycophancy. Thus, while they were being consulted on diverse matters, they voted an altar to Mercy, and one to Friendship, with statues of Tiberius and Sejanus on either side, accompanied by a host of petitions requesting the pair to grant, with urgency, the opportunity for audience. 

Neither of them however came down to Rome or even the outskirts of Rome: it was considered sufficient for them to leave their island and be seen on the nearby coast of Campania. There the senators went, with the knights and a large section of the populace, their anxieties focused on Sejanus, to whom access was now more difficult, and effected only by bribery and collaboration in his plans.

It was evident to all that his insolence increased at the sight of this atrocious servility openly displayed; indeed in Rome it is usual to scurry around, and the size of the city renders it uncertain what anyone is about. But here scattered about the shore or the plain, they endured, day and night alike, the regard or disdain of his officials, until that too was denied them, and they returned to Rome, those whom he had failed to honour with word or look, in a state of trepidation; those few overshadowed by the deadly issue of his unhappy friendship, fatally cheerful.

Book IV:LXXV Agrippina the Younger’s marriage

As for other matters, Tiberius after personally bestowing Agrippina the Younger, the daughter of Germanicus, and his own granddaughter by adoption, on Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, ordered the marriage to be celebrated in Rome. In Domitius he had chosen a man who, above and beyond the antiquity of his line, was a blood-relative of the Caesars, boasting Octavia the Younger as his grandmother and, through her, Augustus as his great-uncle.

End of the Annals Book IV: LIX-LXXV