During the reigns of Augustus (r. 31 BCE -14 CE) and Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37), there lived a poet by the name of Clutorius Priscus. He belonged to the class of Roman knights (equites), which placed him one step below the lofty senators in social status. There is no way of knowing when Clutorius began writing poetry, but he had managed to make a name for himself as a poet by the time of Tiberius. His reputation became so great that Emperor Tiberius decided to give Clutorius patronage to support a poem that the poet was crafting about the death of Germanicus (the emperor’s adopted son), who was widely believed to have been fatally poisoned in the year 19 by order of the then Roman governor of Syria, Cnaeus Culpernius Piso. According to the Roman historian and statesman, Tacitus (c. 56-117), the poem was immediately popular, and was still well known even during the historian’s own life.
Unfortunately, the success of the poem made Clutorius careless. When, around the year 21, Emperor Tiberius’ other son, Drusus, fell deathly ill, Clutorius Priscus saw it as an opportunity to gain more wealth and recognition. Secretly, without obtaining any support or permission from the emperor, Clutorius began writing another mournful poem about the death of an imperial prince—this time, however, the subject of the piece happened to still be alive. He was apparently very proud of his work. On a certain day, the poet allegedly began to brag to a group of noble women about the countless money he would be raking in if only Drusus would die.
Unfortunately for Clutorius, there had been an informant among the women with whom he had shared his secret. The Senate soon held a trial, accusing Clutorius Priscus of treason. During that trial, all of the women who had heard Clutorius speak of his latest poem came forward to give statements, with only one (a certain Vitellia) denying the charge. In the end, the Senate was convinced of the poet’s guilt, but they remained divided on what punishment fit the crime. Marcus Aemilius Lepidus argued for a more lenient sentencing. To him, exile, outlawry and seizure of property were enough punishment for the foolish poet. The then consul-elect, Deciumus Haterius Agrippa, however, argued that traitors deserved no less than death. The vast majority of the senators, unfortunately, sided with the latter point of view.
Drusus eventually recovered his illness, but Clutorius would never recover from the poem. Around the year 22, the Roman Senate had Clutorius Priscus executed as punishment for his ethically questionable poem. After the deed was done, the previously neutral Emperor Tiberius now chastised the Senate for condemning the poet to death, and praised the more merciful argument of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Ironically, Clutorius Priscus may have had the last laugh—Drusus did, indeed, meet an early end. Drusus died in the year 23, after supposedly being poisoned by his wife, Livilla, on the urging of Emperor Tiberious’ treacherous chief advisor, Sejanus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (“Sappho and Alcaeus,” a poet playing to a crowd, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.