Around the year 58, a dramatic crime of passion occurred in the city of Rome. The main source that recorded this crime was Tacitus. Even though he was only one or two years old at the time of the crime, the notoriety of the infamous murder must have lingered. After decades had passed, Tacitus preserved the crime in writing with a surprisingly detailed account of the killing in his Annals of Imperial Rome.
According to the historian, the victim of the murderous crime that occurred in the year 58 was a noblewoman named Pontia. Although she was a married woman, Pontia became engaged in a serious affair with a Roman tribune named Octavius Sagitta. The tribune was so enamored with Pontia that he offered her a fortune (of unknown quantity) in hopes that it would convince her to leave her husband. The tribune’s intention was to marry Pontia, and she apparently made similar promises. Pontia, indeed, took the money and even divorced her husband. Yet, she resisted the tribune’s offers of marriage. Tacitus claimed she was waiting to see if men of greater influence would take notice of her availability and the newfound fortune she possessed. While Pontia waited for other suitors, Octavius Sagitta’s reputation and status plummeted.
With his wealth gone and his name tarnished, Sagitta unsurprisingly became a bitter man. On an unfortunate night, the tribune invited his former lover to visit him one last time. Tacitus dramatically claimed that during this late night meeting, Pontia agreed to let Octavius Sagitta have his money’s worth of pleasure for the fortune that he had given her, on the condition that they would afterward part forever. Although this was the supposed plan, Sagitta had unfortunately not initiated this encounter for mere pleasure. At some point on that fateful evening, Octavius Sagitta viciously stabbed Pontia to death. His victim, however, had not traveled alone that night—Pontia’s maid frantically rushed into the room when she heard unnerving sounds. After stabbing the maid, too, the tribune fled the building and disappeared into the night.
Sometime after sunrise, the victims were discovered. Pontia was beyond help, but her maid was still alive, although she was in critical condition. Rumors about Pontia’s affairs had been rampant, so Octavius Sagitta was immediately a prime suspect. Instead of confessing, the tribune framed an ex-slave as the murderer, although Tacitus suggests this unnamed man may have volunteered to take the blame. Unbelievably, this scheme apparently worked and some people began to believe that the tribune was innocent. Nevertheless, the injured maid recovered and testified against Octavius Sagitta. Upon hearing the maid’s testimony, the Roman Senate found Sagitta guilty of murder.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Caesar Walking to his death, painted by Abel de Pujol (1785–1861), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.