Trial of Junius Silanus

Let us take the trial of Junius Silanus as a test case for  early trials under Tiberius. The trial is recounted in Annales 3.66-69.

Reading that passage, we see that:

  • Silanus is guilty of corruption and is accused by the people of Asia.
  • He is subsequently accused of offences against the divine spirit (numen) of Augustus and the maiestas of Tiberius.
  • He is accused by a coalition of named and prominent individuals.
  • One of those (Mamercus) quotes precedents for the trial from the golden age of the Republic. Why?
  • Junius Otho, one of the prosecutors, is associated with Sejanus and is accused of being of the lower classes.  Why?
  • When deciding on the sentence, Tiberius quoted Augustan precedent. Why? Notably, he asked Lucius Calpurnius Piso (brother of the disgraced Cnaeus), who was still in the imperial inner circle.
  • The initial proposal was for exile to an uninhabited island. This was ameliorated on the intervention of Junia, Silanus’ sister, who was a vestal virgin.

Observations and questions:

  • Tiberius does almost nothing. Can the trial be said to be his fault?
  • Silanus was immensely well-connected and from one of the leading families of the city.
  • He was guilty.
  • What is the objection to the trial?
    • It is clearly a political trial. The original accusation is inflated by Silanus’ enemies in the senate.
    • The use of a charge of maiestas stops people defending Silanus and makes it a case that goes to the heart of his relationship with Tiberius (and Augustus). Maiestas is normally translated as ‘treason’, but it is really an offence against the majesty of the Roman people. This was a wide remit and could include the use of offensive language, acts demeaning to the imperial family, or planning revolt. If his enemies could set the scope of maiestas wide enough, then Silanus could be made guilt of a very serious and potentially capital charge. But it set a precedent, which could be used in other trials.
    • The quotation of Republican precedents shows an unease: it is as if the prosecutor is saying that although this looks unusual and tyrannous, it was the sort of action that Republican heroes would engage in.
    • Sejanus’ dark influence is mentioned, but not elaborated upon.
    • It seems evident that the objection is the political implications of the trial.
    • What might Tiberius have done? Stopped the trial, as he did  with the trial of Ancharius Priscus: was this a case of one law for those Tiberius disliked, and another for those who liked? If this was the case, what sort of regime was this?

The account links the trial into factional fighting among the senators, but this is also somehow related to the increasingly tyrannical atmosphere in the regime.



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