It is an impressive feat that a lowborn Roman civilian managed to achieve a high level of notoriety during the very same century that featured the rise of brutal authoritarian dictators such as Sulla, Julius Caesar and Augustus, amidst waves of bloodshed and civil war. Nevertheless, a certain Vedius Pollio, made a place for himself in the history books by simply being an audaciously cruel man.
Multiple ancient sources wrote about Vedius Pollio. Some of the earliest writers to mention the man’s scandalous behavior were Ovid and Seneca, but Pliny, Tertullian and Cassius Dio also commented about Vedius Pollio’s life.
From what was recorded, we know that Vedius Pollio was born low in the Roman social hierarchy. He was the son of a freedman, but he likely achieved the more prestigious rank of equestrian, or knight, during his lifetime. From means unknown, Pollio built for himself an enormous fortune and owned a sprawling estate, with land within and outside of Rome. Somehow, likely because of his money, Vedius Pollio befriended Augustus, the authoritarian ruler of the Roman Empire. Pollio is thought to have worked for Augustus in the Asian territories of the empire, but what he did for the emperor in those regions remains vague.
What made Vedius Pollio infamous, however, was his installation of a tank or a pond on his property in which he placed eels or lampreys. The shocking things he did with those creatures seems more fitting in the lair of a James Bond movie villain rather than in a villa of rich ancient Rome. The accounts are so outlandish that it is hard to tell if they are truth or fiction. After all, simple false rumors can eventually morph into folklore and myth. Nevertheless, the name of Vedius Pollio was recorded into history as the depraved Roman who had a hobby of feeding live humans to his flesh-hungry eels and lampreys. There is no known count for how many people Pollio supposedly fed to his aquatic pets, but ancient commentators suggested multiple instances, and the animals allegedly were specifically trained to eat humans.
In one story, Pollio was hosting Augustus when a servant (or possibly a slave) dropped a crystal goblet that was meant for the emperor. When the goblet shattered upon hitting the floor, the enraged Pollio immediately sentenced the servant to death by eel. The servant, understandably horrified, begged the emperor for protection. Augustus may have been a dictator who habitually sentenced people to execution, but he had a clearer sense of right and wrong than Vedius Pollio—he decided to save the servant. The quick-thinking emperor called for some more of Pollio’s goblets to be brought forth and personally smashed them to bits so that he had committed the same offense as the servant and shared in the blame. For the moment, the servant was spared.
When Vedius Pollio died in 15 BCE, he left his property to Augustus. The emperor had Pollio’s estate in Rome demolished and built a portico for his wife, Livia, on the spot.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Roman History (Book 54, chapter 23) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.