Here, you will discover how Junia Silana’s plot with Rubellius Plautus opens a window on the nature of the imperial court…You will also see how correctly to use the word 'notwithstanding'!
What WAS the ‘imperial court’?
‘The nature of the imperial court under Claudius and Nero’ – which is a theme of your GCSE – is a very complicated issue, not least because it is very hard to say what ‘the imperial court’ was.
- Sometimes when you read about it, it is clearly restricted to the Emperor’s family and courtiers – their relationships and interactions. This is the focus favoured by TV and film, which are thus able to focus in on its larger-than-life personalities, and on its intrigues and scandals.
- Another author will, however, be talking about the imperial household (i.e. the role of the emperor, and his freedmen and advisers, in the government and administration of the Empire). With Augustus, the focus of state politics moved from Senate into the ‘imperial court’, so these authors place the entire political history of the empire under the roof of the ‘imperial court’.
- In yet another interpretation, however, the emphasis might be upon the Imperial dynasty – the struggle for the succession and the gradual development from princeps to a hereditary monarchy.
Tacitus and Suetonius
Tacitus believed that the principate was evil. Bessie Walker (1952) argued convincingly that he had been shocked and embittered by the savage despotism of the emperor Domitian (whom Tacitus had served), and that he anachronistically imposed on the early empire his prejudices about his own time. We can SEE how he used his literary techniques to present a dark, biased interpretation of the imperial court; we can only guess to what degree he was violating the factual record.
Meanwhile, Suetonius comes across as a writer primarily interested in scandal and spectacle. His accounts of Claudius and Nero present both of them as Jekyll-and-Hyde characters – in the first half of their biography they are rational, even successful rulers, in the second half they are monsters, guilty of (especially in Nero’s case) libido, luxuria, avaritia and saevitia.
In Tacitus and Suetonius the emperor rules as a monster of corruption and tyranny. The imperial court seethes with sex and plots. Delatores (accusers) denounce culprits and innocent alike, who are then poisoned, murdered or executed without trial or justice.
Murder, execution and the succession
Is it possible to draw ANYTHING valid from the primary record? We need to proceed with caution, for we cannot trust a word that Tacitus or Suetonius write - it is not just that they are manipulating the facts, they are probably guilty of suppressing facts, and of inventing others.
So let’s start with a generality: there was clearly a big problem with the succession in the early principate.
Your set-texts are full of it in the reign of Claudius, vide the prominence given to:
- The betrothal (ad48) and marriage (ad53) of Octavia to Nero
- The adoption of Nero in ad49, and subsequent marginalisation of Britannicus (notably the ‘Ahenobarbus’ affair of ad51)
- The murder of Claudius
- Britannicus’s murder
- The murder of Antonia, Claudius’s daughter
- The abuse and death of Aulus Plautius
- The murder of Rufrius Crispinus
And as soon as you accept that there was a huge issue over the succession, moreover, it casts a light on some of the apparently indiscriminate murders of the reigns - in the reign of Claudius:
- The defamation and suicide of Lucius Silanus was directly linked to the marriage of Claudius to Agrippina; but he was also from a very noble family (who clearly regarded themselves as a viable alternative to the Julio-Claudians).
- The exile and forced suicide of Lollia Paulina is presented not only as a rival for marriage to Agrippina, but also as a danger to the state.
- Domitia Lepida,who is said have been ruined ‘for purely feminine reasons’, was in fact also the grandniece of Augustus and ‘the equal of Agrippina in [dynastic] status’.
- Appius Silanus, although he is presented as a sex-dupe of Messalina, also carried the nomen Silanus, and was a governor of Spain – so he had the armies as well as the status to be a challenger.
- Julia, Drusus’s daughter, and Julia Livilla, Germanicus’s daughter both presented a clear dynastic alternative branch to the ruling family.
- The reason for the execution of Gnaeus Pompeius is unknown, but his wife was Claudia Antonia (Claudius's daughter by his second wife) and executed at the same time was his mother Scribonia (and Scribonius was another elite nomen).
- Junius Silanus was also from the Silanus family, and was being touted as an alternative to Nero.
Not all the executions and murders can be interpreted as political/dynastic. Narcissus, Seneca and Burrus were ministers who had outlived their usefulness and perhaps knew where too many skeletons were buried. Cadius Rufus and Taurus seem to have been corrupt governors. Agrippina’s exiling of Calpurnia may well have been personal malice, and Nero’s murder of Domitia (if it was not simply old age or medical incompetence) does indeed look like unadulterated cruelty. And who knows what Gaius Silius and Messalina were thinking of – maybe it WAS infatuation!
But, these notwithstanding, even a ‘resisting reading’ of Tacitus and Suetonius makes it clear that the early emperors felt themselves insecure on the throne. It may well be that we are seeing an attempt to move from an emperor who is proclaimed on merit as princeps civitatis to a hereditary succession. Or it may just be that Claudius and Nero had no long-term strategy and merely were eliminating threats as they arose. But taking the evidence as a whole, even allowing for misrepresentation and inaccuracies, it is hard to deny that a good deal of the emperor’s attention seems to have been taken up with securing himself politically/dynastically.
Sex and conviction
The other thing which it is hard not to come away from Tacitus and Suetonius with is the impression that the imperial court was a hotbed of sexual excess. Suetonius in particular revels in the libido of Nero – Rubria, Sporus, Agrippina etc.
But it was not just the emperors who seem to have been sexual perverts. If we are to believe your set-texts on Tacitus and Suetonius:
- Messalina was a nymphomaniac who beat a professional prostitute in a sex competition and got caught with her lover Silius in the middle of a Bacchanalian orgy.
- Agrippina was guilty a range of sexual crimes, including an adulterous affair with Pallas and incest with her uncle and son.
- Domitia Lepida was as ‘immoral, notorious and vicious’ as Agrippina.
- Gnaeus Pompeius was stabbed while in bed with his young male lover.
- Julia, Drusus’s daughter was exiled for incest and immorality.
- Julia Livilla was exiled for adultery with Seneca.
One thing that you cannot help noticing is how often alleged sexual immorality is connected to a political/dynastic killing. Even in the cases where the primary sources agree that the accused was innocent, we see this linking of a political/dynastic threat to an accusation of immorality:
- Appius Silanus was said to have refused to lie with Messalina.
- Lucius Silanus was unjustly accused of incest with his sister Junia Calvina.
- Nero exiled Octavia for adultery, though nobody believed it.
This is not true in every case – Junius Silanus and Britannicus are presented as purely political/dynastic murders, and Lollia Paulina was accused of consulting astrologers. Tacitus hated overweening women, and it is more-than-likely that he exaggerated the sexual immorality of Messalina and Agrippina to discredit them in the eyes of the reader.
These notwithstanding, the connection of adultery and incest to political and dynastic convictions is clearly too common to be chance or defamation.
One possible explanation is known as damnatio memoriae – the attempt to destroy (or at least permanently blacken) the memory of a fallen enemy. This might have been an attempt to get the public ‘on side’ for the execution/murder/exile – whereas the plebs might even have sympathised with someone plotting against the ruling family, they would all have supported an action to defend Rome’s strict traditional moral code.
The other possible explanation is legal. One way an emperor could condemn a political opponent was by invoking the law of maiestas (treason). But the maiestas law needed an act of treason, so it had to wait until upon an actual conspiracy or rebellion – i.e. until it was too late. Moreover, it had fallen into disrepute under Tiberius and Caligula; Claudius never used it at all, and Nero only after ad62.
However, what is often forgotten is that incest and adultery were not just immoral in ancient Rome, they were illegal – the ‘Julian Laws’ existed to prevent such things. It is clear that these laws were more significant than perhaps we would assume today. When he describes Nero’s plot to murder Britannicus, Suetonius has Nero say: ‘Obviously I am afraid of the Julian law’. This has confused historians because, in killing Britannicus, Nero was not doing anything relevant to the Julian Laws. He was, however, doing many other things which DID break the Julian Laws – perhaps his point to Locusta was that he needed to kill Britannicus quickly before Britannicus accused him of sex crimes.
In a situation, therefore, where the maiestas law was not available, or inappropriate, how did an emperor get rid of a political/dynastic rival? One way, of course, was marriage – to bring them into the Family. But, when that did not bring them sufficiently on board, an accusation of adultery or incest gave ample grounds to exile or execute them. This does not tell us whether the accusations were true or not, but it does perhaps help us to understand why the Annals and Suetonius’s Lives are so full of adultery and incest.
Junia Silana’s plot with Rubellius Plautus
In ad55, as Agrippina’s power was waning, there occurs in Tacitus an event which might seem very confusing and obscure if we did not appreciate the centrality of these key factors – dynastic danger and sexual accusation – to the imperial court.
Junia, the story goes, had fallen out with Agrippina. In a description which by now must be becoming familiar, we are told that Junia was famous for 'her noble birth, her beauty and her immorality’, and that the quarrel was over money and a young aristocrat – one Sextius Africanus.
However, for once, it is not Junia who is the victim of the intrigue, but Agrippina. The plot is convoluted to say the least. Two delatores (otherwise anonymous clients called Iturius and Calvisius) accuse Agrippina. They claim that Agrippina had persuaded Rubellius Plautus to share her bed and join her in a revolution. One of Domitia’s freedmen is then recruited to use his contacts with an actor friend of Nero’s to inform the emperor of the ‘plot’.
In this complicated story, Tacitus implicates Agrippina in the key elements of a dynastic and moral intrigue.
- Rubellius Plautus was the son of the executed Julia (above); the conspirators had thus linked Agrippina into a rival dynastic line calculated to alarm the emperor.
- Plautus was (happily) married to the daughter of a prominent senator; an affair with Agrippina would have been both scandalous and adulterous.
In the event, Agrippina convinced Nero that he had nothing to fear, and Tacitus makes it clear that he thought in this case she was innocent. But that’s to miss the point.
The story of Junia Silana’s plot with Rubellius Plautus shows that, in the imperial court, not only courtiers, but even people as important as the emperor’s mother, were desperately vulnerable to delatores. It thus sheds a light on the atmosphere of fear and intrigue which must have pervaded the court. It also makes the court seem a very dangerous and savage place – where an accusation could result, without trial, in one’s exile, murder or execution.
It makes us wonder also, however, whether the impression of sexual immorality is not a modern misinterpretation of what was really going on. It may have been that the imperial court was a place of moral decadence. But it seems more likely that an accusation of immorality was merely the 'usual legal mechanism' to get rid of a rival.