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Piso’s Conspiracy

In spite of the changes in the court and Nero’s growing involvement with the stage, it was not until 65 that real problems broke out.

In 65, Nero uncovered a conspiracy. At the head of the conspiracy was L. Calpurnius Piso, an aristocratic orator who had won fame and popularity in the law courts. He was not a Julio-Claudian and had no claim for imperial office other than his political standing.

Most conspiracies are shrouded in doubt: by their nature, they are secretive. The suppression of a conspiracy looks like a purge. But in this case, there were good sources. Nero published the information he had and those involved who survived and returned from exile confirmed the details. The story is given in great detail in Tacitus, Annales, 15. 48–74.

Tacitus gives us the names of the leading figures:

  • Calpurnius Piso: noble senator.
  • Subrius Flavus, tribune of a praetorian cohort.
  • Sulpicius Asper, a praetorian centurion.
  • Lucanus Annaeus, poet and nephew of Seneca.
  • Plautius Lateranus, consul-designate.
  •  Flavius Scaevinus, senator
  • Afranius Quintianus, senator
  • Tullius Senecio, eques.
  • Cervarius Proculus, eques.
  • Vulcatius Araricus, eques.
  • Julius Augurinus, eques.
  • Munatius Gratus, eques.
  • Antonius Natalis, eques.
  • Marcius Festus, eques.
  • Gavius Silvanus, tribune of the praetorians.
  • Statius Proximus, tribune of the praetorians.
  • Maximus Scaurus, centurion of the praetorians.
  • Venetus Paulus, centurion of the praetorians.
  • Faenius Rufus, praetorian prefect.
  • Epicharis, freedwoman.
  • Atilla, mother of Lucan
  • Glitius Gallus
  • Annius Pollio

This was a formidable group, and we would assume it not to be a complete list. The leading senators were joined by leading figures among the praetorians and notably the joint commander of the praetorian guard.

But they could not agree where and when to strike.

Epicharis tried to recruit an officer from the fleet at Misenum and he alerted Nero.

Still, they did not act.

Nero was a visitor to Piso’s villa at Baiae. Still, they did not act.

Finally, they chose the day of the games in honour of Ceres. Lateranus, Scaevinus and the various praetorians were to do the deed, then fetch Piso from the temple of Ceres, from which he was to emerge with Antonia, daughter of Claudius.

Then, it went wrong. Scaevinus had secured daggers from a temple. He ordered his freedman to have them sharpened. He revised his will. He gave money to his favourites. He prepared bandages. Even the least suspicious would have thought something was happening.

The freedman informed and Scaevinus was arrested. He denied everything, but he had had a long and private conversation with Antonius Natalis. Natalis was arrested and their stories did not match. The instruments of torture were readied and confession flowed.

Seneca was implicated.

Epicharis was brought in. After a day of torture, she managed to kill herself.

Still the conspirators did not strike. Faenius Rufus was in the interrogations and with Nero, but he did not kill him. Piso would not go the camp and make a public display of revolt. As a squadron of new recruits arrived (Nero had lost faith in the established troops), Piso killed himself.

Nero sent word to Seneca. Seneca denied complicity, but Nero was unsure. He sent Gavius Silvanus, who reported to Rufus before going. Rufus sent him on.

Inevitably and eventually, the praetorians were implicated. Rufus was arrested. Those centurions involved were slowly rounded up.

The consul, Vestinus, was added to the list of those to die, though he was not involved. He killed himself without complaint.

How not to Murder an Emperor

Tacitus provides us with an extraordinarily detailed account of the conspiracy. His account raises issues:

  • Why were so many people involved?
  • Why did the conspirators not act earlier?
  • Why did the conspirators not act as the conspiracy unravelled?

It is evident that the conspirators wanted to control the situation after the death of Nero. The conspiracy was not just to remove Nero, but it was to establish Piso as emperor. In consequence, everything had to be right for the coup to take place. These men were risking their lives for political gain. There was every reason for them to be sure.

The need to control the situation meant that they needed to gain support from the two most powerful groups in the city: the senators and the army. It was essential that they controlled the army so as to avoid a repeat of the disorder that followed the murder of Gaius.

It was perhaps this concern that stopped them acting as the conspiracy came to light. Perhaps they thought it would never get so far. There was a balance to be struck between the reckless uncertainty of an under-planned assassination attempt and the uncertainty of discovery.

We should note that there was no thought of restoring the Republic in this conspiracy: those days had gone.

Throughout, the Roman elite showed themselves to be very good at dying nobly, but very bad at conspiracy.

Imperial Consequences

For Nero, the consequences were terrible. Many of those closest to him had showed that they would prefer him dead and replaced by someone from outside the imperial family. Crushing the conspiracy was a great success, but the conspiracy itself highlighted the scale of the opposition, its closeness to the emperor, and its nobility, even if it was startling in its incompetence.

Justifiably, he could see enemies everywhere.


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