Rome’s ruthless upstart was really a savvy insider, until fortune turned her back on him.
On October 18 in the year 31 CE, the Roman senate convened, prepared to confer ultimate power on the second man in the empire, Lucius Aelius Seianus. Over the previous decade and more, Sejanus (as he is known in English) had ruthlessly consolidated his power as the prefect in charge of the Praetorian Guard and as the right-hand man of the first citizen, Tiberius Caesar, who is known to us today as the second emperor of Rome.
Tiberius, cold, brilliant, proud, acerbic, inscrutable, “the saddest of men,” had never wanted to be first citizen, or princeps, despite being the greatest general of his day and in turn the stepson, son-in-law, and son by adoption of the immortal Augustus, the first princeps. When he reluctantly succeeded Augustus in 14 CE, he was already in his mid-fifties. He assiduously groomed his two unloved sons as his partners and successors, but both men died young.
Through the twenties, he came more and more to rely on the indispensable Sejanus to run the empire and to shield him from its demands. Increasingly withdrawn, he left Rome in 26, never to set foot within its sacred boundary again, and in 27 he settled his headquarters on the island of Capri. From being his “assistant in command,” Sejanus became by the year 30 his “partner in toil.” Sejanus was married to Tiberius’ niece and former daughter-in-law, his images were displayed, sacrificed to, and even worshipped in forums and legionary headquarters around the empire.
On January 1, 31, he entered upon the consulship, the highest magistracy at Rome, as colleague of the absent Tiberius, who since his accession had shared that annual office only twice, with his heirs presumptive. In the past two or three years, Tiberius had heaped a glittering and unprecedented array of honors and offices on “my Sejanus,” culminating in the grant of supreme military power. Now, in the early autumn of 31, Sejanus looked forward to the ultimate prize, the grant of tribunician power, the bundle of rights held only by Tiberius that would give him the essential civilian authority, the legitimacy, to run the republic: With that, he would become coruler of the Roman empire.
A letter duly arrived from Capri, and the senate met to confer the final power on fortune’s favorite. The senators cheered him wildly, and settled down to listen to Tiberius’ commands. The epistle was rambling and verbose, interweaving irrelevant matters with slight criticisms of Sejanus. Increasingly puzzled, the assembly grew nervous and men began to move away from Sejanus, but he sat unconcerned by the triviality of the complaints.
When the letter concluded at last with the request that two of his closest associates be punished and that Sejanus himself be kept under guard, a firestorm of abuse erupted. Stunned, he was led out of the senate. The mob attacked him in the street, and toppled and mutilated his statues before his eyes. Later that same day the senate met to condemn him, and he was executed. “His body was cast down the steps,” wrote Cassius Dio, relying on contemporaneous sources, “where the rabble abused it for three whole days and afterwards threw it into the river.” A bloodbath of his family, friends, and followers ensued and dragged on for years as old scores were settled.
There is no more colorless villain in Roman history than L. Aelius Seianus. Demonized after his horrific downfall, he is reduced by our sources to a paper-thin figure, a monster with no personality and but one feature, his boundless, all-consuming lust for power. Then, the ultimate historical indignity. With the single brilliant exception of a long passage in Juvenal’s 10th Satire, written some eight decades later, he is all but forgotten. He does not become a general example of the vanity of power, the mutability of fortune, the inevitability of retribution, nor is any subsequent villain damned as “a Sejanus.”
Modern inquiry has aggravated the injury by confining itself to the questions that interested our sources—the Annals of Tacitus, Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius, and the Roman History of Cassius Dio—with intense speculation about factional strife in Rome and extravagant conjecture about the nature and extent of Sejanus’ conspiracy (which many think did not exist at all). Yet, in all this, it is hard to see just what is interesting about the man. Were the senate, the people, and the armies of Rome held quiescent by fear and self-interest alone? Above all, Tiberius Caesar was a man of great intelligence, deep suspicions, and formidable culture. How could he, of all people, be enthralled by such a cipher, such a man without qualities?
The rise of Sejanus is told quickly. His father, Seius Strabo, was a leading member of the equestrian order, which formed most of the ruling class of Rome, ranking below only the six hundred senators and their families but far above the rest of society. Augustus and Tiberius relied on these “knights” (as they are known today), along with the senators, to run their burgeoning administration and to command their troops. Seius Strabo stood at their pinnacle as commander of Augustus’ headquarters or praetorium, hence his title of praefectus praetorio, praetorian prefect, essentially the executive officer of the first citizen. His wife, Sejanus’ mother, came from a prominent and well-connected senatorial family, and Sejanus had half-brothers who would hold the consulship.
When Tiberius acceded to sole power in 14, he appointed Sejanus praetorian prefect jointly with his father, and the son soon became sole prefect when Strabo was assigned the governorship of Egypt. In 20 or 23 Sejanus markedly increased his power by concentrating the Praetorian Guard, about ten thousand men and the only significant military force in Italy, into a single camp on the outskirts of the city. In 23, Drusus Caesar, Tiberius’ remaining son, died, and it was then that the prefect allegedly began his drive to domination. Long afterwards, he was charged with arranging Drusus’ demise.
The tale of his rise has three components. First, the corruption and destruction of Tiberius’ relatives and their supporters. Sejanus was alleged to have begun an affair with Drusus’ wife, the woman he would eventually marry, luring her with dreams of monarchy into accepting the murder of her husband. Gradually, he destroyed opposition within Tiberius’ family through the seduction, harassment, confinement, exile, and judicial murder of his nearest relatives, while his agents systematically removed their adherents and other opponents through a series of sinister treason trials. Second, he dispensed patronage on a massive scale, bestowing honors, offices, provinces, and armies on his clients. The leading men of the city, even the consuls, attended his levée, to discuss public business and to pass private requests on to the princeps. Whenever he and Tiberius passed over to the mainland from Capri, senators, knights, and ordinary citizens besieged them, only to be dismissed by Sejanus as “that filth in the forecourt,” but still they waited in fields or on the shore by night and by day, and fawned upon his doorkeepers until turned away. But third, above all, he tightened his grip on Tiberius himself, allegedly persuading the 66-year-old princeps to withdraw from Rome, never to return: Within a few years, men would begin to treat Sejanus as if he were already first citizen, dismissing the reclusive Tiberius on Capri as a mere nesiarch, the lord of an island. And in that fateful year of 26, Sejanus’ good fortune intervened.
As Tiberius and Sejanus moved southward toward Campania, they stopped at the grand and isolated imperial villa at Spelunca, on the coast about seventy-five miles south of Rome. There they dined in the seaside cave for which the villa was named, an enormous cavern elaborately outfitted and adorned with several enormous masterpieces of Greek sculpture which depicted the adventures of Odysseus. (The contents of the cave and its artistic program were revealed only in the mid 1950s, when thousands of fragments were discovered in situ and painstakingly reassembled to form the nucleus of the splendid museum at the modern Sperlonga.)
In the course of the banquet there was a sudden rockfall, and several guests and servants were crushed to death. When soldiers came to the rescue they discovered their prefect on his hands and knees, shielding his master with his body. Henceforward, Tiberius trusted him absolutely.
The portrait of Sejanus that emerges from this story is the sum of a handful of stereotypes—he is ruthless, determined, arrogant, lucky—but personality is nonexistent. Our surviving narratives are confined to the monster’s misdeeds, real and alleged, the deep intrigues, the crafty machinations, the subtle manipulation of the first citizen. Talents and accomplishments are lost or subverted, goals and motivations remain controversial. The shock of October 18 was enormous. But how did people perceive the man on October 17, when he seemed poised to grasp a share of supreme power? As one of his friends would remark, “Do not think of Sejanus’ last day, but of his sixteen years.”
The age was tremendously uncertain, poised between two worlds, the dying republic and the nascent monarchy. In 14 CE there was no “throne,” no “dynasty,” no “court,” no “emperor,” no “princes of the blood” or “heirs apparent,” indeed no office of “praetorian prefect” with its later portfolio of military, legal, and financial powers. All of that was developing rapidly from the time of Augustus onward, but was not yet institutionalized.
There was a princeps, ostensibly the first citizen of the old republic. He performed an astonishing range of public functions, held a bundle of supreme powers headed by the military command and the civilian tribunician power, and enjoyed a preemptive authority. Hence, we know Augustus’ new monarchy as the principate, not the empire. The princeps’ family, the House of the Caesars, was accorded certain public honors and privileges. There was no anointed successor as such, but rather a colleague, normally a near relative by blood or marriage, who as a sort of junior partner would be awarded enough of the powers of the princeps to carry on when the first citizen died—as Tiberius had indeed “succeeded” Augustus in 14, and as his sons Germanicus and Drusus Caesar were prepared to succeed him. As a military commander, the princeps employed a private agent to run his headquarters as praetorian prefect, and this is where the uncertainty enters, after the death of Augustus.
Tiberius, unlike Augustus, came from the heart of the old republican aristocracy. His sentiments were republican, his interests scholarly, his personality prickly and retiring. In 14, he was exhausted by a lifetime of public service, and scholars agree that he genuinely did not want to be first citizen (he would have been appalled to be remembered as the second “emperor” of Rome). He repeatedly said that heading the empire was like holding a wolf by the ears: You didn’t know which was worse, to hold on or to let go. If he let go, the horrendous civil wars of the late republic would surely break out again, so he soldiered on, hoping to train up a junior partner he could trust. His sons both proved unsatisfactory and died prematurely, leaving the aging Tiberius surrounded by a family of young children, but with no obvious successor. It was then that a man whom he saw every day, supremely efficient, supremely trustworthy, took advantage both of the vagaries of fate and of the great uncertainty of the age: Who would succeed to an office that did not exist?
As praetorian prefect, Sejanus’ power lay in his proximity, and control of access, to Tiberius, but there are two important qualifications. First, we think of the commander of the Praetorian Guard as “all-powerful,” and the soldiers were always a threat, but the guards are mostly absent from the tales of his machinations at Rome and were remarkably quiescent at his fall—indeed they rioted soon after because Tiberius had not trusted them. In these early days, the prefects were not so much commanders of the praetorian cohorts as administrators of the headquarters, responsible for the safety of the princeps. So, there is no reason to suppose that Sejanus was anything but an efficient administrator.
Second, and more important, the posthumous propaganda made much of him as an upstart, a “municipal adulterer” whose marital designs polluted the nobility of the House of the Caesars. Actually, the opposite was the case, for he came from the heart of the aristocracy. True, his father was a knight, not a senator, but he was the leader of the equestrian order and related by blood and marriage to a range of senatorial families; his mother was of senatorial blood; and Sejanus himself was tied by marriage and adoptions to yet other senators. That is to say, he did not come to control the aristocracy through fear and favor alone: He was one of them. Even as the fateful letter was read in the senate and the uproar began, the consul was afraid to put anything to a vote, according to Cassius Dio, “for he [Sejanus] had many relatives and friends.”
It is within the Roman aristocracy and its traditions that we catch a glimpse of the man and his dangerous attraction. Two curious threads bind together several of his supporters. Much of the literature of the period is lost, but we know that three of his allies were accomplished poets, one of them also a renowned orator: Mamercus Scaurus, Lentulus Gaetulicus, Pomponius Secundus. Forgotten today, they were the literary heavyweights of their age, but they were something else, aristocrats representing the bluest of blood. Around them we can arrange a host of other orators, poets, historians, all of them senior senators as well. Their high rank is in the best tradition of Latin literature, most of it up until then produced by senators or knights, men with the requisite wealth, leisure, and education. What is surprising is their association with Aelius Seianus: lively company for a civil servant. Most of all, he enjoyed the intimate friendship of another noble author and passionate lover of learning, one who routinely discussed at the dinner table what he had read during the day, a man praised by the great contemporary Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria as unsurpassed for his wisdom and erudition: Tiberius Caesar. Could Tiberius possibly have described Sejanus as “a part of my own body and soul” if Sejanus were not too a man of aristocratic culture?
Even more curious is the lost world revealed by a passing remark in one source, that someone purchased one of Sejanus’ eunuchs, named Paezon, for 50 million sesterces. The sum is huge, millions, however it be translated into dollars; the slave’s name, “Boytoy,” is arresting; but one of Sejanus’ eunuchs? Employing eunuchs for a range of household tasks, including sexual services, was a relatively recent fad, influenced by the court practices of eastern kings. What distinguishes the masters at Rome is, not surprisingly, their elevated rank. During the century or so in which the practice flourished, all those known to have retained eunuchs were senators (including future emperors) or very distinguished knights. Whatever the sexual tastes of the master might be, displaying a “pack of eunuchs” was a mark of the highest rank: Sejanus’ immediate predecessor in this was Maecenas, the minister and confidant of Augustus, and up until then the most powerful knight in Roman history.
We thus have a rather partial image of a world swept away in the cataclysm of 31, of Sejanus the aristocrat, the man of culture, flamboyant even in his kingly habits. But even more, we can see him as a brilliant politician and demagogue in the grand tradition of the old republic. His official image in the twenties was that of the tireless, hard-working, indispensable public servant, someone whom Tiberius of all men would appreciate. His supreme public virtues were constant industry and constant vigilance, along with a demeanor of noble serenity and becoming modesty. His model here seems to have been Marcus Agrippa, the leading general, closest friend, and eventually son-in-law of Augustus: that is, the indefatigable number two, marked out as colleague and successor, and in fact a man of obscure equestrian origins. But in the accumulation of distinctions, particularly in his last three years (29–31), Sejanus went far beyond Agrippa. He received formal embassies from Rome, his birthday became a public holiday, he shared the consulship with Tiberius himself. Never having had any previous senatorial experience, he was set to be consul every five years. Exceptionally, his statue was set up everywhere, oaths and vows were made in his name, prayers and sacrifices were made on his behalf, and it is here that we find a hint of the dangerously popular politician: From 29 onwards, people began to swear by the “Fortune of Sejanus.”
This Fortune of Sejanus was no abstraction, but a real goddess with a mission. The prefect owned what he believed to be an extremely ancient statue of the goddess Fortuna that had supposedly belonged to the legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius, some six centuries earlier. Servius, like Sejanus, was a new man, and he was, more than any other figure in Roman history, Fortune’s favorite, for whom he founded no fewer than ten temples in gratitude.
Servius Tullius was first and foremost a popular king, the champion of his people against the aristocracy. He and the people were particularly identified with the Aventine Hill in Rome, where he had erected a great temple to Diana, dedicated on his birthday, which was henceforward a holiday for slaves. And it was on the Aventine, as a mysterious inscription informs us, that Sejanus held the election that formally made him consul in 31, a radical departure from tradition and surely a direct bid for popularity.
Thus Sejanus ostentatiously presented himself as the successor of Servius Tullius, the people’s friend. And he presumably emphasized the tradition that made Servius an Etruscan, not Roman, by birth, for Sejanus too was Etruscan, a native of Vulsinii, where the local goddess was Nortia, the Etruscan version of the Roman goddess Fortuna. But in the end, Fortune deserted Servius Tullius, who died horribly. Shortly before his own demise, Sejanus sacrificed to the very statue that Servius had owned, and the statue turned her back on him as well.
Opinions differ as to whether Sejanus was conspiring in the end to overthrow Tiberius, and despite the stories, we shall never know for sure what prompted the first citizen to remove him so suddenly and savagely. But what should be clear is that the man was not an aberration, an upstart driven purely by lust for power, devoid of character, marring the reign of a nonexistent dynasty. He was rather the opposite, and far more dangerous: a true insider and a real contender for supreme power. Long afterwards, the poet Juvenal would paint a dazzling picture of the chaos following his catastrophe, the terrified associates, the innumerable statues broken into pieces, the body dragged by a hook.
“But what of the Roman mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and they hate those who are condemned. This same people, if Nortia [i.e., Fortune] had favored her Etruscan, if the old Princeps had been smothered in his false security, would at this very hour be calling Sejanus ‘Augustus.’” What then? As it was, Tiberius would die some six and a half years later, in 37, leaving as his heirs two unloved grandsons, Tiberius Gemellus and Gaius. Gaius, his grandson by adoption, by blood his great-nephew, soon removed Gemellus and carried on alone as Rome’s third “emperor.” The mob adored him as their “star,” their “chick, their “baby,” their “foster son,” their “Little Boots”—also known as Caligula.