Conspiracies raise problems
- Veracity: was it real?
The conspiracy of Caepio and Murena is more difficult than most. In part, this relates to the date of the conspiracy and whether there is a link with Augustus’ decision to resign the consulship.
Other imperial conspiracies: Conspiracy of Lepidus [Maecenas]); Conspiracy of Saturninus; Conspiracy of Gaetulicus; Assassination of Gaius; Messalina’s Fall; Piso Conspiracy; the generals and Nero’s end. Allegations of conspiracy influenced imperial relations with the senate.
The conspiracy is retold in Cassius Dio (54.3) under 22 BC. Dio is sometimes a little loose in his chronology and especially for the period 23-19. There is no internal evidence that would suggest that Dio’s date is wrong, but there is a coincidental piece of evidence that would point to 23 BC as a date of the conspiracy. The evidence turns on the identity of Murena. Although this is a small technical point, exploring the issue opens up the Roman aristocracy and the Augustan circle to our view.
What was Murena’s name
Dio discusses Licinius Murena. He says that he is the brother of both Terentia, who was wife of Maecenas, and Proculeius, who was a leading figure of the Augustan court. Terentia was rumoured to be Augustus’ lover.
Roman names follow regular patterns within families. The brother of Terentia should be called Terentius. We might assume that Proculeius was a half-brother or adopted into another family.
Velleius Paterculus (2.91), in a brief reference, says that the conspiracy was led by Lucius Murena.
Suetonius, Augustus 19, talks of the conspiracy of Varro Murena. In ch. 66, Suetonius mentions Maecenas falling from favour because he betrayed knowledge of the conspiracy to his wife, Terentia. That also puts her at the centre of the story.
To add to the excitement, we have other combinations of the names.
- In 25 BC Terentius Varro campaigned against the Salassi, an Alpine tribe (Dio, 53.25).
- The family of the Varrones Murenae appear frequently in the Republican period, sometimes in combination with the name Terentius, as do the Terentii Varrones.
- A Varro appears as governor in Syria, c. 25 BC (Josephus, Jewish War 1.20.4; Antiquities 15.10.1).
- A further Varro appears on a senatorial decree of 25 BC in relation to Mytilene.
- The Capitoline Fasti (consular list) for 23 BC gives a name of a consul who appears either not to have served (perhaps because he died) or to have been removed from office. That consul is A. T[erentius] Varro Murena. All other sources reference Piso as the consul alongside Augustus in the first six months of the year.
What is at stake?
The reference to a consul who did not become a consul is so unusual that it demands an unusual explanation. It makes it tempting to identify the consul removed from office in 23 BC with the conspirator. If that is true, the involvement of a consul or someone about to be consul in a conspiracy would make the conspiracy even more startling and important. .
This is an attractive reconstruction since:
- This Terentius could be a brother of Terentia.
- The oddity of the removal from office would be explained if he were the conspirator.
- Consequently, the conspiracy would be dated to 23 BC, before Augustus resigned.
- A conspiracy involving a consul would be a very major event.
- Even if Dio and Velleius cannot agree on the name, they are sure it began with L (Lucius or Licinius). The inscription clearly has an A and that can hardly have been a mistake.
- No source suggests that the conspirator was consul.
- We have any number of Varrones Murenae to play with: One in the Alps, one in Syria, and possibly one in Rome a few years earlier.
- Dio dates the conspiracy to 22 BC. Since it was a major event, could he have got the date wrong?
If the conspirator was a Licinius or Lucius Terentius Varro Murena, the conspiracy could be in 22 BC.
Whatever his exact name, the conspirator was closely connected to the imperial inner circle. His siblings included Terentia, lover of Augustus, wife of Maecenas, and Proculeius, a leading member of the inner circle. We would connect him with the Aulus Terentius Varro Murena identified as consul for 23. It is likely that another sibling was either governor in Syria or in the Alps and that our man had the other command. He defended Primus (in 23?), which was an important trial. He must have been very prominent in the senate to be asked (by Primus) to defend him. He was sufficiently sure of himself to be cross with Augustus at the trial.
Cause of the Conspiracy
The cause seems related to the trial of Primus. Augustus’ actions had condemned Primus, who presumably went into comfortable exile. But would that be enough to cause Murena to conspire?
The problem is likely to have been as much personal as political. Romans looked to their friends to defend them in court. Murena would have been annoyed that Primus was condemned. if he believed Primus, then Augustus could be seen as having lied to condemn Murena’s friend. Perhaps more significantly, if Primus was also a friend of Augustus, then Augustus had betrayed him. The political cost was likely to break up the circle of friends who were at the centre of power. That would certainly justify harsh words. Would it justify conspiracy?
But the conventional narrative works from ‘the fact’ of the conspiracy. The sources assume that Murena was guilty. We do not need to make the same assumption.
Unusually, we know that the key information against Murena was laid by a man called Castricius. We know this because some time later Augustus intervened to get him out of trouble in a court case (Suetonius, Augustus 56).
- Was Augustus more than usually indebted to this man?
- Did he invent the evidence that rid Augustus of an angry, powerful former friend?
Murena was forewarned that Augustus was out to get him. Augustus told Maecenas, and perhaps others. Maecenas told Terentia and Terentia told her brother. We know that Fannius Caepio fled.
- But how do we imagine that happening? Castricius turns up with information. Maecenas rushes out and tells his wife. She sends out runners, and all before the guards turn up?
- Do we imagine that Augustus lost patience and consulted on what to do, and then Maecenas told his wife that Murena and Caepio should leave?
- Might this be a purge rather than a conspiracy?
- Would Maecenas and Terentia have acted so had they believed that Murena intended to kill Augustus?
The ‘trial’ of the conspirators is somewhat mysterious. They were condemned in their absence. Dio implausibly suggests that they were condemned because it was thought they they might flee and then hunted down when they did flee. It seems more likely that there was trial after the fact. Some jurors refused to condemn.
Caepio fled with two slaves. One fought against those who tried to capture him. He was freed by Caepio’s father. The other ran away. He was crucified by Caepio’s father. This looks like a claim that he was son was innocent.
Whenever we date the conspiracy, however we evaluate its veracity, whoever we think Murena was, this was an event that struck at the inner circle of Augustan power. In itself, it was a crisis in the heart of the regime.