In the year 36 or 37, at the end of Emperor Tiberius’ reign in Rome, a Roman knight by the name of Vibulenus Agrippa was brought before the Senate to stand trial for a severe crime. His case, along with many other prosecutions during the reign of Tiberius, was diligently recorded in The Annals of Imperial Rome, written by the Roman statesman and historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117).
The exact charges brought against Vibulenus Agrippa are unknown, but charges of treason ran rampant during the reign of Tiberius. Regardless of the specifics, if Vibulenus Agrippa was ultimately found guilty of the charge, the death penalty was the expected consequence.
Sometime during the trial, Vibulenus Agrippa lost all hope of being found not guilty. Again, the reason for this is not known. Was he guilty? Did he have enemies within the Senate pushing for his execution? The answer is vague. Nevertheless, exoneration seemed so far out of reach that Vibulenus Agrippa eventually decided to commit suicide. His decision was not an anomaly in the reign of Tiberius. According to Tacitus, countless high-profile Romans ultimately resorted to suicide in order to escape the shame of public execution. Vibulenus Agrippa, however, decided to bring about his own death in a very dramatic and memorable way.
Tacitus recorded the Roman knight’s final moments in great detail. It must be noted that Tacitus was regarded as one of the greatest orators of his age and, when he wrote, he sometimes prized artistry and drama over bland fact. As such, it is quite possible that Tacitus embellished Vibulenus Agrippa’s death scene for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, in his telling of events, Tacitus claimed that Vibulenus Agrippa managed to procure a powerful poison and kept it concealed on his person during one of his sessions before the Senate. Once the hearing had ended for the day, the defendant fished out the lethal substance and gave himself a fatal dose. The poison was said to have acted almost instantaneously and Vibulenus Agrippa collapsed to the floor in an unconscious stupor.
At this point, the prosecutors and other onlookers burst into a frenzy. They rushed in panic to the fallen man, hoping to keep him alive. Yet, their worry was apparently not for the man’s health—they were more concerned about carrying out their execution. According to Tacitus, when it was determined that Vibulenus Agrippa could not be saved, the prosecutors immediately moved for execution. The prosecutors allegedly tried to have Vibulenus Agrippa hanged (or more likely strangled) before the poison took full effect. Yet, if the Roman historian’s account was correct, Vibulenus Agrippa successfully ended his own life before the executioners could complete their work.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Cicero Denounces Catiline painted by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), c. 1889, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.