Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Rise and Fall of Sejanus

"The rise and fall of Sejanus," says Tacitus in one of his most characteristic sentences, "were equally disastrous to the commonwealth of Rome." The country was peaceful before the days of his power; he desolated it with proscription and massacre. The Imperial family was prosperous; he made it by his intrigues like one of the doomed houses of tragedy. And then, when he was crushed by the master whom he had deceived, and Rome was rejoicing to be rid of him, she found herself the victim of a worse tyranny than ever. When Sejanus had fallen, Tiberius, perhaps because he had lost all faith in his fellow-men, became more cruel, more abandoned than before.

Aelius Sejanus was a Tuscan by birth. He obtained in his youth a commission in the Praetorian Guard, and rose from post to post till he became chief-in-command, first as his father's colleague and then alone. It was he who made the Praetorians the formidable force that many a time in after years gave the Empire at its will. He collected its scattered regiments into one corps, and gave it a camp outside the walls. He spared no pains to make himself the idol of the troops, not only in Rome, but in the provinces, and he succeeded so well, that his bust was commonly placed beside the Emperor's at headquarters to be common objects of veneration.

His ambition now began to soar higher, to an alliance with the throne, even to the throne itself. The alliance came within his grasp, and then was snatched away again by what must have seemed a trick of fortune. His daughter was betrothed to the young son of Claudius, the Emperor's nephew. But the boy met his death at Pompeii by a curious accident. He was amusing himself by throwing a pear into air and catching it in his mouth. The fruit fixed itself in his throat, and choked him. But this disappointment was soon forgotten in the excitement of greater schemes. Drusus, the Emperor's son, was a personal enemy. There had been an open quarrel between them, and the young prince, who was violent in temper and somewhat brutal in manner, had struck the powerful minister in the face. The insult was terribly avenged. Sejanus won away the affections of Livia, Drusus's wife, and then persuaded the wretched woman to poison her husband. The crime was committed, and for a time remained undiscovered. One obstacle was removed from the path of his ambition. As soon as etiquette permitted he made another step. He asked for the hand of the widow. The Emperor's answer was vague, but, on the whole, favourable. He pointed out the difficulties of the case, but declared that there was nothing which the high qualities and loyalty of Sejanus might not be held to deserve.

One difficulty, the deposition of Agrippina, was soon removed. Her temper, naturally haughty, had been embittered by wrongs of the cruellest kind. She gave mortal offence to the Emperor, on one occasion, we are told, by showing that she feared to be poisoned at his table. It was Sejanus who had warned her of the danger. Not long afterwards she was banished to an island, and her banishment was soon followed by her death. Nero, her eldest son, shared her fate; and Drusus, who was next to him in age, was kept in close and rigorous confinement at Rome.

Sejanus was now, so to speak, Vice-Emperor. Tiberius had buried himself in his island retreat (of which I shall say more in my next chapter) and his Minister was the visible representative of power. His ante-chambers were crowded from morning to night. The acquaintance of his freedmen and his doorkeepers was eagerly sought. The favour of the great man himself was counted a sure passport to power and wealth.

Then in a moment came the fall of this daring ambition. Tiberius satisfied himself—he had been first warned, it is said, by a letter from a kinswoman—that the man whom he had trusted, on whom he had heaped such honours as had never before been bestowed upon a subject, was preparing to overthrow him. The favourite was, or seemed to be, too powerful to be openly attacked. Possibly, Tiberius found a secret satisfaction in flattering and fooling him to the last. Nor can we feel a grain of pity for the man who was so basely ungrateful even to such a benefactor as Tiberius.

The Emperor, who had for many years refused to accept the dignity of the Consulship, allowed himself to be nominated again, and he made Sejanus his colleague. At the same time he gave him one of the high priesthoods. But meanwhile he had secured an instrument of his vengeance in one Macro, who held high command in the Praetorian Guard. He sent a letter to the Senate, accusing the favourite of treason. The reading of it was followed by a burst of applause; and Macro was at hand with his soldiers to arrest the accused. His fall was absolute and instantaneous. Not a voice, much less a hand, was raised in his defence. Scarcely the mockery of a trial was allowed him, before he was hurried off to his death. His statues, which had been erected in every quarter of the city, were thrown down from their pedestals, and, such was the popular fury against him, almost ground into powder.

Tiberius had schemes in reserve if his enemy should be found to have any following. The young Drusus was to be taken out of his dungeon, and shown to the troops and the populace as their new chief. He kept ships in readiness, in which to transport himself to some distant province, if his island retreat should become unsafe. Notwithstanding these precautions, he waited for the issue in intense anxiety, standing on the loftiest peak of the island, and watching for the preconcerted signals from the mainland, which were to show him what had happened. And, after all was over, it was nine months before he ventured to leave the house in which he had concealed himself.

Meanwhile a reign of terror prevailed at Rome. I dare not tell the piteous story of how even the innocent children of the fallen man, a boy and a girl were carried off to the scaffold. That all who were even distantly suspected of sharing his schemes should be involved in his doom was to be expected, but the crowd of flatterers who had courted him, because he had the ear of Caesar, were in sore perplexity. To acknowledge his acquaintance was enough, and yet it seemed impossible to deny it. It is a pleasure to read the courageous words in which one of the accused defended himself. "Whatever may happen," he said, "I will confess that I had the friendship of Sejanus, that I sought it, that I was glad to win it. I and others saw that his friends were the favourites of Caesar, that his enemies were miserable and degraded. To us he was Sejanus no longer; he was a kinsman of the Imperial House, Caesar's colleague and friend, who made and unmade men at his pleasure. Who were we that we should go behind the Emperor's judgment and hesitate to believe in the man whom he trusted? Punish, Sire, his accomplices in crime, but excuse his friends, as you excuse yourself." These bold words saved the speaker and, we may hope, some of his friends.