The Annals by Tacitus - book XIThe Annals

By Tacitus

Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

BOOK XI

A.D. 47, 48

Messalina believed that Valerius Asiaticus, who had been twice consul,
was one of Poppaea’s old lovers. At the same time she was looking
greedily at the gardens which Lucullus had begun and which Asiaticus
was now adorning with singular magnificence, and so she suborned Suilius
to accuse both him and Poppaea. With Suilius was associated Sosibius,
tutor to Britannicus, who was to give Claudius an apparently friendly
warning to beware of a power and wealth which threatened the throne.
Asiaticus, he said, had been the ringleader in the murder of a Caesar,
and then had not feared to face an assembly of the Roman people, to
own the deed, and challenge its glory for his own. Thus grown famous
in the capital, and with a renown widely spread through the provinces,
he was planning a journey to the armies of Germany. Born at Vienna,
and supported by numerous and powerful connections, he would find
it easy to rouse nations allied to his house. Claudius made no further
inquiry, but sent Crispinus, commander of the Praetorians, with troops
in hot haste, as though to put down a revolt. Crispinus found him
at Baiae, loaded him with chains, and hurried him to Rome.

No hearing before the Senate was granted him. It was in the emperor’s
chamber, in the presence of Messalina, that he was heard. There Suilius
accused him of corrupting the troops, of binding them by bribes and
indulgences to share in every crime, of adultery with Poppaea, and
finally of unmanly vice. It was at this last that the accused broke
silence, and burst out with the words, “Question thy own sons, Suilius;they
will own my manhood.” Then he entered on his defence. Claudius he
moved profoundly, and he even drew tears from Messalina. But as she
left the chamber to wipe them away, she warned Vitellius not to let
the man escape. She hastened herself to effect Poppaea’s destruction,
and hired agents to drive her to suicide by the terrors of a prison.
Caesar meanwhile was so unconscious that a few days afterwards he
asked her husband Scipio, who was dining with him, why he sat down
to table without his wife, and was told in reply that she had paid
the debt of nature.

When Claudius began to deliberate about the acquittal of Asiaticus,
Vitellius, with tears in his eyes, spoke of his old friendship with
the accused, and of their joint homage to the emperor’s mother, Antonia.
He then briefly reviewed the services of Asiaticus to the State, his
recent campaign in the invasion of Britain, and everything else which
seemed likely to win compassion, and suggested that he should be free
to choose his death. Claudius’s reply was in the same tone of mercy.
Some friends urged on Asiaticus the quiet death of self-starvation,
but he declined it with thanks. He took his usual exercise, then bathed
and dined cheerfully, and saying that he had better have fallen by
the craft of Tiberius or the fury of Caius Caesar than by the treachery
of a woman and the shameless mouth of Vitellius, he opened his veins,
but not till he had inspected his funeral pyre, and directed its removal
to another spot, lest the smoke should hurt the thick foliage of the
trees. So complete was his calmness even to the last.

The senators were then convoked, and Suilius proceeded to find new
victims in two knights of the first rank who bore the surname of Petra.
The real cause of their destruction was that they had lent their house
for the meetings of Mnester and Poppaea. But it was a vision of the
night that was the actual charge against one of them. He had, it was
alleged, beheld Claudius crowned with a garland of wheat, the ears
of which were turned downwards, and, from this appearance, he foretold
scanty harvests. Some have said that it was a vine-wreath, of which
the leaves were white, which he saw, and that he interpreted it to
signify the death of the emperor after the turn of autumn. It is,
however, beyond dispute that in consequence of some dream, whatever
it was, both the man and his brother perished.

Fifteen hundred thousand sesterces and the decorations of the praetorship
were voted to Crispinus. Vitellius bestowed a million on Sosibius,
for giving Britannicus the benefit of his teaching and Claudius that
of his counsels. I may add that when Scipio was called on for his
opinion, he replied, “As I think what all men think about the deeds
of Poppaea, suppose me to say what all men say.” A graceful compromise
this between the affection of the husband and the necessities of the
senator.

Suilius after this plied his accusations without cessation or pity,
and his audacity had many rivals. By assuming to himself all the functions
of laws and magistrates, the emperor had left exposed everything which
invited plunder, and of all articles of public merchandise nothing
was more venal than the treachery of advocates. Thus it happened that
one Samius, a Roman knight of the first rank, who had paid four hundred
thousand sesterces to Suilius, stabbed himself in the advocate’s house,
on ascertaining his collusion with the adversary. Upon this, following
the lead of Silius, consul-elect, whose elevation and fall I shall
in due course relate, the senators rose in a body, and demanded the
enforcement of the Cincian law, an old enactment, which forbade any
one to receive a fee or a gift for pleading a cause.
The Annals by Tacitus