Tuesday 19 February 2019

The Terminators By L.J. Trafford

In a previous post I examined just how damn dangerous it is being a Roman emperor (click here).
You have a whoppingly high chance of an unnatural death and within that category you are far more likely to be deathed unnaturally by assassination than by any other way. 

 Given the high number of assassinations I thought it might be interesting to examine a few to see if they had anything in common, any key themes or motivations they all shared. I wanted to look at the how, the who and the why of the subject.

Then realising there are 24 emperors who met that end, I decided that we may need a bigger boat in the shape of a Part Two to this subject.

So welcome to Part One of The Terminators.

1) Julius Caesar

No piece on assassination in Ancient Rome is complete without looking at the most famous assassinations of all time; that of Julius Caesar. It’s so famous that it has become part of our cultural conversation. Phrases like “Et tu, Brutus?” and “Beware the Ides of March” are bandied around. That Shakespeare bloke write a play about it. Novelists continue to use it as the pivotal dramatic scene in their books. Who can blame them when it presents such epic themes.

The How

It was, as we all know, the Ides of March (aka 15th March 44 B.C.) Caesar had gone to the Senate House. The stage direction in the Shakespeare play is very to the point, several sharp points that is: 

CASCA first, then the other Conspirators and BRUTUS stab CAESAR 

Plutarch goes into far more detail:

Tullius tore Caesar's robe from his shoulders with both hands, and Casca, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one, near the shoulder. Caesar caught the handle of the dagger and cried out loudly in Latin: "Impious Casca, what doest thou?" Then Casca, addressing his brother in Greek, bade him come to his aid.

And now Caesar had received many blows and was looking about and seeking to force his way through his assailants, when he saw Brutus setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he dropped the hand of Casca which he had seized, covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes.

The conspirators, crowding eagerly about the body, and plying their many daggers, wounded one another, so that Brutus also got a wound in the hand as he sought to take part in the murder, and all were covered with blood. 

The assassination of Julius Caesar, painted by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888

The Who 
There were in total sixty conspirators. Which is rather a lot of people to keep a secret this big. But keep it they did.
The two you will have heard of are Cassius and Brutus. But the others we have names for are: Quintus Ligarius, Basilus, Casca, Casca Longus, Decimus Brutus, Cimber, Trebonis, Cassius’ brother Longuinus, Parmensis, Caecilius, Ruga, Spurius, Naso, Aquila, Petronius, Turullius, Laebeo

The key thing to note here is that all of these men are of good families, they are men of high standing who’d held the highest positions in Roman society. Cassius for example was a war hero, a member of Marcus Crassus’ doomed invasion of Parthia. After Crassus and the best part of three legions were exterminated by the Parthians it was Cassius who led the survivors of the slaughter to safety and held the enemy off from over running Syria.

Cimba had been the governor of Bithynia and Pontus.

Trebonius had served as Caesar’s legate in Gaul and held the governorship of Spain. Five months before taking part in the assassination Caesar had appointed him Consul, the highest position available.

Brutus was a close family friend to Caesar, his mother Servilia was Caesar’s long term mistress.
Decimus Brutus was even remembered in Caesar’s will.

Several of the conspirators had served with Caesar. Others had been on the wrong side of the recent civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Yet Caesar had forgiven them and appointed them to positions in government.

There’s a big question hanging in the air. Let’s answer it.

The Why
It’s the Why that makes Caesar’s assassination so interesting to the likes of Shakespeare and Robert Harris.
Caesar had returned to Rome the victor of the civil wars. He’d been given the title of Dictator. This was a position handed to others in the past, but on a purely temporary basis. Caesar had been made Dictator for life.
Rome had been ruled by Kings but the last of them, Tarquin had been cruel and tyrannical. He’d been killed by another Brutus, ancestor of our Brutus.
That Brutus had sworn that they would : “never tolerate Kings in Rome evermore, whether of that family of any other."  Livy.
Coin issued by Brutus two years after Caesar's murder

That killing had ushered in the Roman Republic, a system without kings where power was deliberately minimised and shared out so that no one man could overwhelm like Tarquin had.
The conspirators believed that Caesar wanted to make himself King and destroy the Republic. They aimed to get rid of him before he could do so. An anticipatory assassination to preserve the political system they had sworn to serve, to free the Roman people from a future tyranny.

It makes for good dramatic scenes as Brutus and co torment themselves with the terrible task they must complete to save Rome and her people from one man rule.

The Aftermath
With Caesar’s bloody corpse on the floor Brutus, himself saturated in blood, attempted to talk to the Senators present in the house. Unsurprisingly they are pretty freaked out by events and leg it. The conspirators then went to the Capitol Hill. They held up their bloody hands and daggers and declared liberty. Brutus began to make a speech.
And from that point on it all went wrong......

Because although Caesar might have annoyed at least 60 of the posh types of Rome, he was very popular with the people. They weren’t keen on him being murdered, particularly when Caesar’s will was read out and they heard that he’d left every person in Rome a sum of money. Also Caesar, as a successful all conquering general, was held in great esteem by the army too.

Moving down to the Forum for further appeals they faced an increasingly hostile crowd. So hostile they were forced to flee.
The people continued demonstrated their displeasure with Caesar’s death with enough vigour that in the end the conspirators were forced to flee Rome.

Caught up in ideals of their own noble torment they had totally misread the mood. They had assumed that they would be congratulated on their act, that it would be recognised as the great noble deed it was. They’d anticipated a tyranny and acted. But they’d never anticipated or even considered that there might be an opposition. Certainly they hadn’t considered an opposition that might be more eloquent than they were, in the shape of Mark Antony, who might actively seek to punish them for murdering his friend.
They soon found themselves hunted down by Antony and, another beneficiary of Caesar’s will, his great nephew Octavius. They were both fully intent on avenging Caesar. Brutus and Cassius were both killed at the Battle of Philippi.

Was the assassination a success? 
The motivating aim of the assassination of Julius Caesar was to prevent him making himself king and destroying the Republic.
What followed Caesar’s assassination were a series of civil wars that resulted in one man, Caesar’s great nephew Octavius ruling Rome under the name of Augustus and forming a dynasty. The Republic as it had been was over. Rome was now a monarchy in all but name.
So no, it was not a success. It was an utter failure, hastening what it sought to prevent.

2) Caligula

Julius Caesar was assassinated for what he might become in order to preserve the state. Our next assassination is lacking noble ideals. Rome’s third Emperor Caligula had ruled Rome for 3 years and 10 months when he was assassinated at the age of 29. This is an interesting one because the reign is so short. Caesar took decades to build up sufficient resentment to be offed. Caligula manages to really annoy in 3 years and 10 months. Which I think we should take a moment to appreciate.

Right appreciated.

The How 

Suetonius has the tale for us.:

On the ninth day before the Kalends of February at about the seventh hour he hesitated whether or not to get up for luncheon, since his stomach was still disordered from excess of food on the day before, but at length he came out at the persuasion of his friends. 
In the covered passage  through which he had to pass, some boys of good birth, who had been summoned from Asia to appear on the stage, were rehearsing their parts, and he stopped to watch and to encourage them; and had not the leader of the troop complained that he had a chill, he would have returned and had the performance given at once.  
From this point there are two versions of the story: some say that as he was talking with the boys, Chaerea came up behind, and gave him a deep cut in the neck, having first cried, "Take that," and that then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, who was the other conspirator and faced Gaius, stabbed him in the breast. Others say that Sabinus, after getting rid of the crowd through centurions who were in the plot, asked for the watchword, as soldiers do, and that when Gaius gave him "Jupiter," he cried "So be it," and as Gaius looked around, he split his jawbone with a blow of his sword. 
As he lay upon the ground and with writhing limbs called out that he still lived, the others dispatched him with thirty wounds; for the general signal was "Strike again." Some even thrust their swords through his privates. 

It’s a bloody death isn’t it? Deliberately brutal – note the thrusting swords into his groin. 
Caligula really managed to piss people off, but who were they?

The Who 
Two are named by above, the Tribune Cornelius Sabinus and commander of the Guards, Cassius Chaera. Though you’d have thought the suspicious Romans wouldn’t have trusted a man named Cassius with their personal security. Suetonius says these two succeeded thanks “to the cooperation of the most powerful freedmen and the Guards’ Commanders” 
Bust of Caligula in the Louvre.
Photo by Clio20
I smell a bit of palace intriguing and plotting. Cassius Dio has a little more detail:
“There were a good many, of   course, in the conspiracy and privy to what was being done, among them Callistus and the prefect.

Practically all his courtiers were won over, both on their own account and for the common good. And those who did not take part in the conspiracy did not reveal it when they knew of it, and were glad to see a plot formed against him.” 

Callistus was Caligula’s secretary. See here for an article I wrote examining his slippery life.
So pretty much everyone knew it was going to happen within Caligula’s inner circle. But nobody took any steps to stop it.

The Why
Caligula is the poster boy for the demented ruler. A young man utterly unsuited to ruling who gets steadily more demented, steadily more autocratic and steadily more cruel.
A couple of anecdotes will suffice to give a flavour of Caligula’s rule and why people might want him dead:

At Puteoli, at the dedication of the bridge that he contrived, as has been said, after inviting a number to come to him from the shore, on a sudden he had them all thrown overboard; and when some caught hold of the rudders of the ships, he pushed them off into the sea with boathooks and oars. 

He was no whit more respectful or mild towards the senate, allowing some who had held the highest offices to run in their togas for several miles beside his chariot and to wait on him at table, standing napkin in hand either at the head of his couch, or at his feet. 

If you really want to know more I’d recommend Mary Beard’s documentary for the BBC or alternatively the soft porn film Caligula starring Malcolm McDowell. It’s terrible in the sort of eye popping way Caligula’s court probably was. 

To recap Caligula was possibly mad, definitely cruel and getting rid of him was for the public good. But is that really the why of the situation? No, no its not.

Let us look at chief assassinator and aptly named Cassius.

Chaerea was an old-fashioned sort of man to begin with, and he had his own special cause for resentment. For Gaius was in the habit of calling him a wench, though he was the hardiest of men, and whenever it was Chaerea's turn to command the guard, would give him some such watchword as "Love" or "Venus” 
Cassius Dio

And here’s Suetonius:  

For Gaius used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy by every form of insult. When he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him "Priapus" or "Venus," and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, he would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion. 

There’s your why for you.
And a good life lesson. Never taunt or humiliate the man who is responsible for your personal safety. Oh and who carries a sword as part of his job

The Aftermath
The only people seemingly not in on the plot were Caligula’s German bodyguard. Who realising their epic job fail tried to make amends by a general massacre. First up were Cassius and Sabinus and their fellow dagger welders. Then some “inoffensive senators” as Suetonius puts it. RIP inoffensive senators.
Then random people, our sources don’t indicate whether they were offensive or not.

In the style of Caesar’s assassins Caligula’s murderers had given absolutely no thought to what happened next. Which I think underlines the personal nature of the assassination, this is not about politics or an unsuitable ruler. It’s about revenge.
Revenge doth not run a government and in the chaos that followed Caligula’s death there were two very different views of what should happen

The Senators rushed to the Senate House and declared the Republic should be restored and there no longer be emperors. Hadn’t Caligula’s rule showed in fully bloody horror the evil of a one man rule?

The Praetorian Guard had in the meantime found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and made him Emperor. 

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor by Lawrence Alma-Tadema{{PD-US}}
Was it a success?

If Cassius’ aim was to inflict revenge and pain on the man who’d taunted him then yes it was an amazingly successful assassination.
Also for all those freedmen like Callistus who involved themselves in the plot they rid themselves of a demented boss.
The lesson from Caligula’s assassination is that if you set the bar low for the outcome of your plot, then you can consider it a wild success.

3) Domitian 96AD

Rome’s 11th Emperor fared much better than Caligula in clocking up 15 years of rule before annoying enough people to get killed. 
Statue of Domitian
Photo by Steerpike

The How
In order to assassinate a ruler you need to get close to him. In Caesar’s case his killers knew his schedule and waited for the optimum time and place to get their daggers in. With Caligula it was his own Guards who assassinated him, so they were by his side anyway. In the case of Domitian the ‘how to get close’ part of the plot is really quite ingenious and thought out:

“To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him, and stood in a state of amazement. “ 

Element of surprise rating 8/10. Domitian really did not see this coming. Had the event ended there it would have been an incredibly neat affair. But Domitian wasn’t going quietly.

“The emperor grappled with Stephanus and bore him to the ground, where they struggled for a long time, Domitian trying now to wrest the dagger from his assailant's hands and now to gouge out his eyes with his lacerated fingers.” 

Ouchy. Several other conspirators then rushed in and helped finish Domitian off in a very messy way.
If you’re wondering how we know all this . Well there was a witness . One of the Imperial slaves, a young boy, was tending to the household shrine when it all kicked off.

The Who

The man who did the stabbing was Stephanus, a former steward of Domitian’s exiled niece.
But he was far from the only one involved. Helping him finish off Domitian were Clodianus, Maximus, Satur and a gladiator from the Imperial school. All of them were palace staff.

They were the do-ers but they weren’t the plotters. They were much higher up the Imperial ladder:
Parthenius, Domitian’s chamberlain
Sigerus, another chamberlain
And Entellus, head of petitions.

We know a little bit about Parthienus, for the poet Martial courts his influence in the hope of getting his poems before the Emperor.


This is that toga much celebrated in my little books, that toga so well known and loved by my readers. It was a present from Parthenius; a memorable present to his poet long ago; in it, while it was new, while it shone brilliantly with glistening wool, and while it was worthy the name of its giver, I walked proudly conspicuous as a Roman knight. 

Martial even writes a poem to celebrate the birthday of Parthienus’ infant son, Burrus.
So here we have three senior members of Domitian’s staff planning his murder and employing other members of the palace staff to enact it.
I think we need to know why.

The Why
Though a capable administrator Domitian had become increasingly paranoid. Though justifiably so given in 89AD a Roman General named Saturnius had initiated a revolt against him. That was fairly easily suppressed but it clearly left its mark on Domitian, not least in his party hosting, which had taken a turn towards macabre: 
Bust of Domitian
Photo by Jastrow

He prepared a room that was pitch black on every side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of the same colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests alone at night without their attendants. 

And first he set beside each of them a slab shaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest's name and also a small lamp, such as hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered like phantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took up their stations at their feet. 
After this all the things that are commonly offered at the sacrifices to departed spirits were likewise set before the guests, all of them black and in dishes of a similar colour. 
Cassius Dio

Yikes. Senators were executed, relatives exiled and a Vestal Virgin buried alive under Domitian’s increasingly paranoid rule: 

He used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed. 

Domitian had a particularly bad relationship with the Senate. The writers Tacitus and Pliny the Younger both served in the Senate under Domitian and it’s clear from them just how frightening it was. Nobody knew when he might pick on them.
But, as we’ve seen, the blow when it came, came not from the persecuted Senators but rather his closest advisers. We are supplied with the reason: 

He had first banished and now slew Epaphroditus, Nero's freedman, accusing him of having failed to defend Nero; for he wished by the vengeance that he took on Nero's behalf to terrify his own freedmen long in advance, so that they should venture no similar deed. Yet it availed him naught, for he became the object of a conspiracy in the following year 
Cassius Dio

Epaphroditus was a freedman of Nero, who had accompanied the emperor on his final flight from Rome. As the soldiers had closed in on Nero, Epaphroditus had assisted him into suicide. This was 27 years before. That’s quite a statement. Clear as glass. And aimed directly at his own staff.
What we can conclude from their actions, particularly Parthienus the recipient of Martial’s kind poems, was that they saw it as a him or us scenario.
This is born out by this little tale:

He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner. 
The message was clear. It could be any of them. So they acted.

The Aftermath

Stephanus and the others who had physically attacked Domitian were instantly slain by the Guards.
There was undoubtedly a bit of chaos but the very same day that Domitian was murdered, Marcus Cocceius Nerva was proclaimed by the Senate as Emperor. Take a moment to take that in. THE VERY SAME DAY. 
Statue of Nerva
Photo by Carole Raddato

Was it a Claudius behind the curtain scenario or something quite different? Nerva was 66 years old, an experienced feature of the government and very firmly loyal to the Flavian dynasty of which Domitian was the last. Had he been lined up before hand by Parthienus, Sigerus and Enntellus?

Cassius Dio says yes:

They discussed the matter with various men, and when none of them would accept it (for all were afraid of them, believing that they were testing their loyalty), they betook themselves to Nerva. For he was at once of the noblest birth and of a most amiable nature 

It would certainly explain the speed of the ascension.
Nerva ruled for 2 years, dying naturally at age 67. He became the first of what Edward Gibbon called the Five Good Emperors, an era of prosperity and peace.

So it was a success then? 
As with the other assassinations let us go back to the principle aim. The conspirators were motivated by fear for their lives from an increasingly paranoid boss.
That boss was removed. So a tick for that one.
However did it save their lives? Not Stephanus it didn’t. He was instantly killed. And the chief plotter Parthienus? He lasted incredibly until October the following year when the Praetorian Guard who’d been firm supporters of Domitian stormed the palace and insisted Nerva hand him over.
Domitian had been wildly popular with the army, mainly because he had massively increased their pay, so the question here is surely why did it take so long for them to revenge their emperor?

The answer is quite chilling: because they didn’t know Parthienus was involved. Remember he was the plotter, he didn’t actually take part in the killing. Domitian’s former Chamberlain spent a whole year knowing what he had done and no doubt wondering whether that would be uncovered. That’s got to be stressful. We have to wonder whether he was betrayed by someone on the inside, another palace employee letting the great secret slip?

Nerva was given little choice in the matter, held at knife point by soldiers
Parthienus was handed over. He was executed in a particularly horrible way.

So no it did not save Parthienus’ life for long either. Though maybe if he hadn’t been betrayed we might never have known the man who brought Martial a toga was also behind an Emperor’s murder.

Here we end part one of The Terminators......

L.J. Trafford is the author of the Four Emperors series. Of which assassination and general massacres feature highly.

1 comment:

Susan Price said...

As informative about today's politics as those of the past. Excuse me, I've got a new shoehorn. But, an elite acting in self-interest without any shred of a plan for the future? We've even had one political assasination.

Maybe we should try anarchy.