The Pisonian conspiracy was a failed coup attempt against the Roman Emperor Nero that magnificently imploded in the year 65 AD. The central figure was a Senator named Gaius Calpurnius Piso, for whom the conspiracy is named (obviously). The unique feature of the Pisonian conspiracy is that it involved at least 40 different people from all walks of life: Senators, soldiers, philosophers, slaves, poets, and wealthy businessmen, among others. Up to that time, it was the most serious plot against the life of a Roman Emperor due to its far-reaching nature and the intricate planning that went into it. While it would not ultimately succeed, the Pisonian conspiracy paved the way for Nero's downfall only a few short years later.

What was so bad about Nero?

Most people know at least a little bit about Nero. Typically it has to do with the Great Fire of Rome that happened in 64 and that he was the first emperor to actively persecute Christians. Nero was widely blamed for the fire. It seems unlikely that he started or ordered the blaze, but in the aftermath, he began construction on a fabulous personal residence that would come to encompass nearly 20% of the city's territory. The living arrangements made for those whose homes were destroyed in the fire and whose property was built over have not been recorded. Nero was eager to blame the early Roman Christian community for the blaze since they were an unpopular group and soon began executing Christians as a type of guilt by association. None of these facts really do much to explain the origins of the conspiracy or why people wanted him dead, though. To understand why Nero was so reviled, you really have to get to know Nero.

Nero was born as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in the year 37. He was the nephew of the reigning emperor at the time, Caligula, as well as one of the few living male descendants of the first emperor Augustus. His mother, known as Agrippina the Younger, was Caligula's sister. When Caligula was murdered in a fit of rage by one of his disgruntled bodyguards, he was succeeded by his physically awkward but mentally sharp uncle Claudius. Agrippina was subsequently able to seduce Claudius and marry him, at which point he adopted Lucius as his own son and heir (ignoring his own natural son, Britannicus). As a result of the adoption, Lucius took on Claudius' cognomen Nero and is consequently known by that name to us. When it seemed like Claudius might disinherit Nero in favor of Britannicus, Agrippina had him poisoned, allowing Nero to ascend to the throne in 54.

The first five years of Nero's reign were controlled primarily by his mother, who basically served as his regent until he reached adulthood. The only problem is that she continued to do so after he attained the age of majority. Nero resented this, as you might well imagine, and the two frequently bickered about to what extent Agrippina should influence his policies. Agrippina even delved into the minutiae of Nero's sex life, forbidding him from seeing this or that woman and attempting to arrange marriages for him. Whenever Nero would fight back, Agrippina would talk about using her influence to dethrone him and replace him with someone else. While this might have been the ancient equivalent of "I'm going to turn this car around right now!," Nero took these provocations very seriously. When Agrippina informed Nero that she intended to produce Claudius' "lost" will that named Britannicus as his successor and have it read to the Senate, he had his stepbrother poisoned at a banquet in front of her.

This extreme response did not deter Agrippina, however, since she would go on to threaten Nero with replacement on at least two other occasions. She first cultivated the great grandson of Tiberius, Rubellius Plautus (whom Nero would exile and then assassinate) and later the men of the Junii Silani, who were descended from Augustus (at least two of whom Nero would either execute or force to commit suicide). Fed up with this interference, he eventually had her killed in 59 and then almost immediately divorced Octavia, the bride Agrippina had chosen for him. He was carrying on an affair with a woman named Poppaea Sabina who was the wife of his "friend" Otho. Given the circumstances, Otho did not object to divorcing his wife so Nero could marry her. Octavia's ouster was extremely unpopular in Rome as she was considered to be a virtuous Roman matron. Nero at first indicated that he might remarry her but instead had her executed in 62. Octavia's death was the impetus for the early organization of the Pisonian conspiracy.

Aside from all of this interpersonal family drama, Nero's interests and extracurricular activities were considered socially unacceptable for someone in his position. While he was content to be the ruler of the Roman world, his real passion was performance art. Nero trained in singing, painting, sculpture, poetry, lyre-playing, chariot-racing, acting, and any other number of things. While his predecessors all had certain artistic inclinations (e.g., Augustus and Tiberius both wrote poetry, Caligula occasionally drove a chariot, and Claudius wrote several books about Etruscan and Carthaginian history), they all kept these interests private and away from the public eye. Imperial poetry was not for mass public consumption and was intended for a very small circle of family and friends, if it was to be shared at all. Rhetoric and oratory were of course highly valued among the ancient nobility, but more for political purposes than anything else. Artistic endeavors such as these were not considered appropriate occupations; they were supposed to be occasional distractions that would chiefly be performed by slaves or freedmen with nothing better to do.

Nero's institution of a competitive festival called the Neronia in the year 60 (at which he performed and won all the prizes) was highly offensive to his aristocratic contemporaries. He justified this by claiming that the god Apollo was a lyre-player, indicating the divine provenance of performance. He took to the stage in both male and female roles, including one in which he was required to "give birth." He also unironically performed the part of Orestes, the son of the Trojan War hero Agamemnon. The various tragedies written about Orestes were all based on the story that he murdered his mother Clytemnestra. Failure to take his performances seriously was dangerous; the crowds that attended them were filled with informers and several people were put to death for either mocking him or not applauding enthusiastically enough. The future emperor Vespasian was caught asleep at one of these events and subsequently was relieved of his military command and exiled.

Despite all of this, Nero was not universally loathed. His Hellenistic ideals made him extremely popular in the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire. He was also reasonably popular with the common people for the first few years of his reign as he did much to curtail the power of the aristocracy and alleviated the heavy tax burden on the plebians. His constant celebrations provided gainful employment for low-class performers and gave the common people some regular form of entertainment to enjoy. He even got to enjoy some military and diplomatic successes. He concluded a war with the Parthian Empire on extremely favorable terms and was able to install his preferred candidate on the throne of Armenia, which was an extremely important buffer state between the two empires. He also put down a major revolt in the province of Britannia under the leadership of the native queen Boudica.

The Conspirators

One reason why this particular plot against Nero's life did not succeed is that the people involved in it had very little in common aside from wanting Nero removed from power. The Pisonian conspiracy encompassed both noble and opportunistic motivations. Some conspirators wanted to restore the dignity of the office of the Princeps and a few may have even thought they could bring back the Roman Republic and do away with the empire altogether. Still others were simply in it for personal gain. Physically killing Nero would not have been too hard, but replacing him in his office would be extremely difficult. Who would fill the void?

Gaius Calpurnius Piso had no misgivings about it: he would succeed Nero as emperor. This was awkward for one particular reason, however: all of the Roman Emperors up to that point were members of the same bloodline, the Julio-Claudian dynasty. All of them owed their thrones to their relationships with Augustus. Aside from Nero, there was by this time only one other living male blood descendant of Augustus, Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus. Nero had exiled him and put him under house arrest at the beginning of his reign. Piso did not let the existence of another Julio-Claudian deter him, though. His family, the Calpurnii, was one of the oldest, noblest, and most respected in ancient Rome. They claimed descent from the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, and were politically prominent at every point of Rome's existence. He had been exiled by Caligula several years earlier but was allowed to return by Claudius. He was an extremely wealthy man and was reasonably popular. He was about 45 or 50 at the time of the conspiracy, so he would have carried with him a degree of maturity and gravitas that the youthful and impetuous Nero clearly lacked. To overcome the issue of his non-royal status, he would marry Claudius' surviving daughter Antonia, who was one of the last living female Julio-Claudians capable of producing an heir.

It was one thing to declare one's self emperor and it was another thing entirely to back up the claim. To this end, Piso enlisted the aid of Lucius Faenius Rufus, one of the leaders of the Praetorian Guard, the personal imperial bodyguard. He shared this position with a man named Ofonius Tigellinus, who was well-known as one of Nero's closest allies and advisors. Involving Rufus was extremely dangerous but unfortunately necessary. Evidently, Rufus and Tigellinus did not have a particularly good working relationship, since the latter was viewed as cruel and dictatorial in his dealings with others. Rufus probably wanted Nero gone as a way to get rid of Tigellinus, who enjoyed the emperor's support and confidence for his entire career. It was Rufus' job to sway the Praetorians in Piso's favor after Nero's death, which likely would have been accomplished by massive bribery and the simultaneous assassination (or banishment) of Tigellinus.

Another sympathetic Praetorian was the tribune Subrius Flavus. Flavus had had a distinguished military and political career and had served honorably under Claudius and Nero. According to the historian Tacitus, Flavus developed his hatred for Nero around the year 60 when he first started to perform in public. He evidently wanted to assassinate Nero as early as a performance during the year 62, but he realized he would be unable to escape the crowded theater if he did. Flavus seems to have had no actual interest in installing Piso as emperor. More than anything, he wanted to get rid of Nero and restore some sense of dignity and stability to the state.

While there were many people close to Nero that sought his ouster, the betrayal that seems to have hurt him the most was that of his boyhood teacher Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Seneca is famous today -- as he was during his life -- as one of the foremost philosophers of the Stoic school of thought. While Seneca's works are regarded as classics of their type, he was pretty hypocritical in the way he conducted himself. Like many prominent orators of the day, he made a career for himself as a lawyer and often found himself embroiled in various legal disputes. In 38, he overstepped and took part in a lawsuit against a friend of Caligula. Caligula removed him from public life, but did not have him killed since he thought he was much older than he really was and that he would die soon anyway. He quickly made an enemy of Claudius after Caligula's death and was consequently banished to the provinces for supposedly carrying on an affair with Claudius' niece Livilla. After Claudius married Agrippina -- who knew Seneca socially and perhaps more intimately -- she recalled him to Rome and made him Nero's private tutor. When Claudius was killed, Seneca wrote a very mean-spirited satirical play called the Pumpkinification of Claudius in which he was ridiculed and judged by the gods and his predecessors for his failings as a ruler and as a man. The story concludes when the shade of Caligula appears and offers Claudius a job as Hades' accountant. Nero hated Claudius and this rude mockery was clearly intended to flatter the new emperor, who brought Seneca into his inner circle.

At first, Seneca tried to instill Nero with the fundamentals of Stoicism, but it quickly became clear that his words either had no effect or were being used to justify his behavior. He had hoped that Nero would consult him on important matters of state, but this role was taken over by Agrippina and Seneca was relegated to playing the referee during their arguments. He hated all of Nero's hobbies but realized that he would never be able to completely remove them, so he reluctantly agreed to help Nero receive charioteer training. To Seneca, this was at least a masculine pursuit that could possibly toughen him up a little bit. After the murder of Agrippina (which he was forced to defend on legal grounds in public to the Senate) and Nero's debut in the theater, Seneca asked to be allowed to retire. He was rebuffed and brought up on charges of embezzlement and corruption and then exiled. Exactly what role he played in the conspiracy is unknown; he likely had no involvement in it other than knowledge that there was some type of plot. His nephew, the famed poet Lucan, was actively involved in the plot. It's probable that he was deemed guilty by association even if he had no particular part in its planning or (aborted) execution. Lucan was a friend of Piso's family and had written poems and treatises that expressed nostalgia for the days of the Republic, though his main motivation in joining the coup seems to have been a personal artistic rivalry with Nero.

There were several others involved in the conspiracy, all with disparate roles, positions, and motives. The Senator Flavius Scaevinas hosted the conspirators at his home and the freedwoman Epicharis -- the mistress of Seneca's brother -- tried to recruit a high-ranking officer into the plot. Claudius Senecio, a low-born intimate of Nero's who facilitated his various affairs, evidently grew tired of being forced to procure women for the emperor. After three years in the making, everything seemed to be coming together.

Failure and Aftermath

The plan was fairly straightforward. Scaevinus would hail and approach Nero at his private viewing box during a gladiatorial event. He would then knife him to death and escape. Meanwhile, Piso would be in the custody of Rufus and Flavus, where he would be escorted to the Praetorian camp and be presented as the new emperor. With the support of the Praetorians, the conspirators would go to the Senate house and have Piso officially declared the new Augustus and he would wed Antonia. Everything would have gone swimmingly except for (a) too many people knew what was going on and too many people were talking about it and (b) the conspirators waited too long to act.

There are conflicting reports as to how the plot was discovered, though it is completely plausible that all of them are true and serve as an example of the familiar saying "loose lips sink ships." The first cracks began to appear when Epicharis, apparently tired of waiting for the conspiracy to move forward, tried to involve Volusius Proculus in the conspiracy. Proculus was a fleet commander in the Roman Navy who had at one point expressed to Epicharis his concern that Nero had it out for him. There would be almost no reason for Epicharis -- a former slave and a female to boot -- and a high ranking military official from Misenum to know each other casually and to even discuss something like this, which leads me to believe that she was probably his mistress as well. Proculus immediately reported her and she was questioned and imprisoned, though she refused to divulge any details.

The plan went into overdrive when it was discovered that Nero's wife Poppaea was pregnant. A living imperial heir would make Nero's status virtually unassailable and Piso would be completely unable to make a serious claim for the throne. The date was set for the 19th of April, the last day of the Cereal Games, a weeklong event that featured chariot racing, gladiator battles, and (of course) theatrical presentations. It is said that one of the centurions (unnamed by the ancient sources) involved in the conspiracy heard a plea for mercy from someone about to executed on Nero's orders. The centurion told him to take heart and informed him that Nero would be dead soon and he would be free. The prisoner (also unnamed) somehow communicated this to another member of the guard.

The real downfall of the plot was due to Scaevinus' bizarre behavior in the days before it was all supposed to happen. He rewrote his will, freed most of his slaves, gave his friends and family monetary gifts, and asked his freedman Milichus to have his dagger sharpened and polished. Milichus was aware of the plot (since the conspirators met at Scaevinus' house, where he lived) but was unsure of its date. Scaevinus' actions convinced him it would happen quickly and after consulting his wife (who informed him that it would be better to reveal the conspiracy than to be considered a conspirator if it failed) demanded an audience with Nero. In ancient Rome, slaves and freedmen were not considered reliable sources of information. There was a contradictory belief that loyal slaves would lie to protect their masters and that disgruntled ones would lie to embarrass or entrap them. Because of this, all slaves had to be physically tortured before their testimony would be considered legally valid.

After having been tortured and still sticking to his story, Tigellinus arrested Scaevinus and brought him before Nero. Scaevinus easily dismissed Milichus as a former slave with an axe to grind and convinced Nero of his innocence. Milichus told Nero to arrest Antonius Natalis -- who Scaevinus used as an alibi -- and ask him for a separate account of the events in question. When this was done and their accounts didn't match up, everything started to unwind. Natalis was offered clemency in exchange for naming all of the other conspirators, which he readily agreed to do. Epicharis was brought out and tortured, but still refused to provide more information. With nearly every bone in her body broken, she committed suicide by hanging so no information could be extracted. Piso, Rufus, Flavus, and many others were rounded up. Nero was aghast; why were so many people trying to kill him? He personally interviewed most of the accused conspirators. When he spoke to Flavus, he asked him why he would wish him dead. Tacitus records Flavus' response:

"Because I hate you! Nobody served you more loyally than I when you deserved my love. Yet when you became a matricide, a wife-killer, a racer, an actor, and an arsonist, then did you force me to hate you."

In total, 19 of the conspirators were either executed or forced to commit suicide, including all of the ones mentioned above (except for Natalis). When Seneca committed suicide, Nero expressly ordered his wife not to follow him, revealing either some form of lingering affection for his old teacher or at least some desire to appear merciful. Lucan attempted to gain clemency for himself by naming still more conspirators, but this was unsuccessful. An additional 17 were exiled and had their aristocratic status and citizenship revoked. A total of 5 -- chiefly the earliest informers and the most tangentially involved -- were pardoned. While Nero had faced a couple of local revolts from individual tribes or provinces, this was his first experience with a major plot to dethrone and kill him, which made him even more unbalanced. The aforementioned Vespasian forced his son Titus to divorce his wife, who was a cousin of one of the conspirators. Nero restored Vespasian to favor in 67 and appointed him to put down a revolt in the province Judea.

Later that same year, the pregnant Poppaea died, evidently as a result of Nero kicking her in the stomach after she complained about him spending too much time at the races. The next year, he had his last male blood relative, Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, killed. After Poppaea's death, he proposed a marriage to his stepsister Antonia, but (seeing the treatment her sister and Poppaea received) she refused. For this, she was declared complicit in treason, likely a reference to the Pisonian conspiracy, and killed. With this action, Nero became the last living Julio-Claudian. He then castrated a handsome young man named Sporus, called him "Poppaea," and married him. This bizarre and vexatious behavior drove the Senate and the army over the edge.

In 67, the governor of Gaul (Gaius Julius Vindex) announced that he was acclaiming the governor of Hispania -- a man named Galba -- emperor. Vindex used the same arguments that Flavus had used to support his attempt at overthrowing Nero. While the Pisonian conspiracy was serious enough, Vindex's revolt could have sparked another civil war. Nero had to mobilize his legions to put down the revolt, and while he was able to accomplish this, he couldn't hold on for long. Before Vindex declared him emperor, Galba had not demonstrated any interest in having the position. Through no fault of his own, however, he was now a traitor and Nero's legions were heading his way. Fortunately for him, more legions and provinces declared in his favor and Nero fell from power in Rome when the Senate declared him a public enemy in 68. This meant that all legal protections afforded to normal citizens were removed from him and that it was the obligation of any free citizen encountering him to grievously harm or kill him. Despairing at his situation, Nero committed suicide after declaring "what an artist the world is losing in me!" With Nero's death, the formerly sacred Augustan bloodline dried up forever. Galba was offered the throne by the Senate, but he too would overthrown the next year. The Roman Empire then descended into chaos with three more civil wars that year before Vespasian finally won out against his competitors and restored a sense of stability to the Roman world. His own dynasty would rule the Roman Empire for the next 27 years.

It is ironic that while neither the Pisonian conspiracy nor Vindex's revolt were successful on their own terms, Nero's downfall was complete within three years. Had the group of conspirators been smaller and perhaps more ideologically cohesive, we might very well read about Piso's reign today. Strangely, Nero considered Piso a personal friend. The two often spent time together privately and indeed shared similar artistic interests. Piso had an ample number of opportunities to kill Nero himself at any point between 62 and 65, but never did. This demonstrates that Piso was not really concerned with the diminishing prestige of the office of the emperor, but rather that he was personally ambitious and probably feared he would be seen as a crass usurper if he personally wielded the blade. As later events would prove, however, personally assassinating a Roman emperor was not at all a bar to assuming the office. For students of history, though, the Pisonian conspiracy still ranks as one of the most botched assassination attempts ever and should be carefully studied by those planning to overthrow their powerful friends as to how not to proceed.


Sources:

Nero. Malitz, J├╝rgen.
De Vitae Caesarum. Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius.
Annales. Tacitus, Publius Cornelius.

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