Monday 19 February 2018

A Very Palace Family by L.J. Trafford

On the 24th January 41AD Emperor Caligula was stabbed 32 times in a conspiracy that involved his personal secretary Callistus.

27 years later in 68 AD Caligula’s nephew, Nero, awoke to find his palace deserted. His Praetorian Prefect Nymphidius Sabinus had convinced the Guards to abandon their posts and lend their support to his rival, Galba.
Nero fled the city with a few trusted aids and committed suicide aged only 30.

Two Imperial deaths with one surprising thing in common. The secretary Callistus, a key part of the plot to assassinate Caligula, was the grandfather of Nymphidius Sabinus, the Prefect who convinced the Guards to desert Nero.
Removing unsuitable emperors was a family business. 

"So great was his wealth and the dread which he inspired that his power
 verged on the despotic." Josephus, The Jewish War.

Callistus was a palace freedman, that is a former Imperial slave. However, he did not start his life in Imperial service. He was sold by his previous master to the palace, “along with other rejects from the household staff” ,as Seneca puts it neatly.

It is tempting to think of the slaves and ex-slaves (freedmen and women) as a sort of civil service. Yes, they ran the bureaucracy that managed the rule of a vast empire, but this was a court. The nearer you were to the emperor the more powerful you were. Impress him and you could find yourself rapidly promoted.

Evidently Callistus impressed Caligula for he was freed by him and bestowed the names Gaius Julius, the emperor’s own. He’d also built up quite a fortune. Pliny the Elder name checks him as one of three imperial freedman who were wealthier than Marcus Crassus. Crassus, who lived in the first century BC, had boasted that only a man who could maintain a legion of soldiers on his yearly income was wealthy.
Callistus could evidently maintain two legions on the fortune he'd acquired. 

As Caligula’s secretary he was also at the centre of influence. "Such a power, indeed, as was in a manner equal to the power of the tyrant himself" So says Josephus.
Callistus used his position to gain a gleeful revenge on his former master, turning him away from his own door as unworthy. This was a very Roman humiliation, to be forced to pay court to one's former property and then to be turned away in front of all.  "The master sold Callistus, but how much has Callistus made his master pay for!"says Seneca.

So why did this former slave at the height of his influence involve himself in a plot to kill the man who had made it all possible, Caligula?
You didn’t get from the auctioneers block to one of the most powerful men in the empire without a dose of savvy self preservation. Callistus owned this in spades.

Despite having only reigned 4 years Caligula was fast running out of money. He’d ploughed through the healthy treasury left to him by his predecessor, Tiberius. Desperate for money the emperor had undertaken some novel ways to raise funds. He’d raised new taxes, insisted he was made a beneficiary in wills, set up a brothel in the palace and sold his sisters’ freedmen. 
The dripping with coinage Callistus must have watched this with increasing alarm.
Yes he was a trusted confident to the emperor, but how long would that last?

Caligula's erratic behaviour had led to the death of many high ranking Romans and even the emperor's sisters weren't safe; they'd both been exiled and their possessions sold.

The key mover in the plot was the Praetorian Prefect Cassius Chaera and his motivation for murdering the emperor was very, very personal: Caligula had made fun of his high pitched voice.

Though the plot did not originate with Callistus, he did nothing to prevent it and is named by multiple sources as having been involved.

On the 24th January 41AD at the seventh hour Caligula was convinced by friends to walk off the effects of a satisfactory banquet. In a covered walkway he stopped to watch a group of boys performing a dance. As he spoke to the boys Chaera came up behind him and stabbed him in the neck. Others then joined in. The emperor fell down to the ground and was repeatedly thrust at.
Caligula was dead.

Chaera and the other assassins were slain instantly by the emperor's German bodyguard. Caligula's wife and infant daughter were both brutally killed. In the confusion and chaos that followed the Praetorian Guard discovered Caligula's uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain. They declared him emperor.

Claudius trod a delicate path. He did execute those involved in his nephew's murder, but not Callistus. Callistus amazingly managed to persuade the new emperor that many times Caligula had ordered Claudius' death and only he, Callistus had been managed to prevent this murder. For this he was allowed to live and he work alongside two other notable palace freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas. 

Callistus continued to balance on the tricky tightrope that was palace politics. When Empress Messalina's extra marital dalliances resulted in a marriage whilst Claudius was out of town, Callistus opted not to inform the emperor."Callistus had learnt from his experience dating from the previous reign that power was better safeguarded by diplomatic than by vigorous means", as Tacitus puts it.

That diplomacy served him well. His colleagues Narcissus and Pallas both dramatically fell from favour and were executed.

And Callistus? We don't know the ending of that ultimate palace survivor and the fact that we don't, unlike his two contemporaries, suggests it was a peaceful, natural end. In the deadly world of palace politics Callitus had triumphed.

"I must dwell on him for a moment 
for he was intimately involved in Rome's imminent calamities. 
Tacitus, The Annals.

Callistus' grandson, Nymphidius Sabinus was cut from a very different cloth to his grandfather. His story is the very opposite of the canny, silver tongued freedman who survived through two reigns with his fortune intact. In 68AD Nymphidius Sabinus committed two very vigorous, extraordinary acts. One of which borders on the insane in its bold audaciousness.

Callistus had a daughter Nymphidia by one of the Imperial seamstresses. Nymphidia had a very particular role in the Imperial household, she was a prostitute. According to Tacitus she'd distributed her charms around the slaves and freedmen of the palace. She’d even seduced the young Caligula as a means of currying favour for her father. Some said her son was the product of that dalliance. Others that he was the son of a gladiator named Martinus.
We have very little information on Sabinus' early life. Possibly he served in the legions, possibly in Pannonia. Possibly is a much utilised word in ancient history.

What we do know is that in 65AD the Praetorian Prefect, Faenius Rufus, was executed for his part in a conspiracy to murder emperor Nero and Sabinus was appointed to this suddenly vacant role. To emphasis the importance of a Praetorian Prefect it is worth noting that the later emperor Vespasian appointed his son and heir, Titus, Prefect.  How had Sabinus gained such a prominent role? From slave on an auctioneers block to the emperor's praetorian prefect in three generations is quite some social progress.

I think we are looking at the workings of a court again. Sabinus was the third generation of a palace family, he must have inherited some of his grandfather's wealth and clients. Also his mother had generated much goodwill amongst the powerful palace freedmen, possibly that worked to his advantage. 

Bust of Nero. 
Shortly after Sabinus' appointment Nero left Rome on a tour of Greece. The emperor returned in 68AD. He would commit suicide on the 9th June of that year and he did so because of the actions of Nymphidius Sabinus.

In 68AD a Roman Governor of a Gallic province, Julius Vindex, began a revolt against the emperor. Surprisingly he was not putting himself forward as a replacement. Instead he threw his support behind the Spanish Governor, Galba. Though Vindex's revolt was crushed other provinces began to fall behind Galba's claim.

Faced with this developing situation Sabinus weighed up his options; remain loyal to the emperor who had promoted him or throw his lot behind Galba?
Either pathway was fraught with danger. Nobody knew whether Nero was done for, he maintained strong support with the eastern legions even as the western sided with Galba. Chose the wrong emperor than the new one was unlikely to forget that stand.

Sabinus considered, then he acted, offering his guards a monetary incentive for their loyalty to this course.

"On the morning of the 9th June emperor Nero awoke at around midnight. Finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends. Since no reply came back from anyone, he went himself to their rooms with a few followers. But finding that all the doors were closed and that no one replied to him, he returned to his own chamber, from which now the very caretakers had fled, taking with them even the bed-clothing." Suetonius. 

With no personal bodyguard Nero made a dangerous flight out of the city. At the home of one of his freedmen he killed himself.
The political instinct of Callistus had been inherited by his grandson. Sabinus had chosen well.

And there Sabinus' story might have ended. He might have served as Prefect in Galba's reign and beyond. Perhaps he might have generated as much influence, wealth and notoriety as his grandfather.
But that is not what happened. Plutarch has the fullest account of what did and it is not a cheering story. 

When Nero died, Galba was in Spain. He remained in the provinces until October 68AD. With the new emperor absent this left Rome under the control of Sabinus. Whilst Callistus had wielded vast power behind the closed doors of the palace Sabinus openly enacted his. One of his very first actions was to force his fellow Praetorian Prefect, Tigellinus, to step aside.
This was just the start of Sabinus asserting himself.

He gave huge banquets to the high born of the city, insisted that the Senators and consuls pay court to him, fell into a fury when official documents were sent out without his seal on them and took upon the title 'benefactor'
He even decided Nero's favourite, the cross dressing eunuch Sporus, should be his consort.
Sabinus was getting above himself.

Inevitably word of Sabinus' grandiosity in Rome reached Galba. He was not pleased. He was so displeased he decided to appoint his own man, Cornelius Laco as Prefect.
Sabinus was out of Imperial favour and out of a job. All the power and prestige he'd acquired in the last few months looked set to melt away. One can't help think that his grandfather, that arch diplomat, would never have played his cards so obviously.

Sabinus acted again and it was a bold move yet again. He decided to declare himself emperor.
His claim to the purple was dubious in the extreme and based solely on his claim he was the natural son of Caligula. Yes, it was true Nymphidia had dallianced with that emperor but Sabinus was illegitimate, the son of a prostitute.

What an earth made him do it? Fear of what Galba might do to him when he reached Rome? Humiliation that he'd been so easily discarded by the emperor he felt he'd created?
Insanity brought on by stress?
Either way it was a plan doomed to fail. Rome was not about to accept the son of a slave prostitute as emperor. Callistus had known how to execute power from the positions open to him as an ex slave, he knew where the line was. Sabinus did not and he leaped straight over that line to his doom.

As he wrote a speech to his troops explaining this plan, one of his own tribunes, Antonius Honoratus, was making a speech of his own to the Guards. Honoratus pointed out that given the Guards had only deposed Nero two months previously might it look ever so slightly venal to remove another emperor quite so quickly? They had sworn their loyalty to Galba, their honour. That meant something, didn't it? The guards were swayed by Honoartus's reasoning. 

The Praetorian Guard.
Sabinus was ignorant of these events .When he turned up at the Praetorian Camp ready to make his coronation speech, he had no idea he was facing a hostile audience. He soon was.

Opening the gates he was confronted with his Guards. They shouted allegiance to Galba.
Sabinus ran. He was pursued and felled by a spear. On the ground the Guards hacked at him repeatedly.
When he was dead his body was dragged through the streets and put on public display.

Such was the gruesome end of Callistus' grandson.

Yet for all his gross mistakes Sabinus ended up having the greater impact on history than his grandfather. 
That bounty he'd promised his Guards for deposing Nero was never paid by Galba. The stern emperor declaring, "He levied his troops , he did not buy them." It was a fatal mistake for it left the guards open to bribery by another source. Enter Marcus Salvius Otho and enter 69AD: The Year of the Four Emperors. A year of calamity, treason, battles and carnage. A year made possible by the actions of the grandson of a slave once plucked off the auctioneers block for a few sesterces. 

For those interested in Nymphidius Sabinus, my first book Palatine covers his extraordinary actions in bringing about the fall of Nero.

L.J. Trafford


Sue Purkiss said...


Richard Majece said...

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