During the reign of Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37), lawyers could amass huge fortunes as prosecutors. Similar to a witch-hunt atmosphere, the rich and powerful in Tiberius’ empire threw countless accusations of criminality and treason at each other. The prosecutor that won these high-profile treason cases could expect to gain a portion of the defendant’s assets. In addition to the ill-gotten wealth, the act of prosecuting supposed traitors could also lead to honorary awards and government promotions.
Among the many prosecutors that participated in the judicial reign of terror was a man named Lucius Fulcinius Trio. The famous orator, Roman statesman and historian, Tacitus (approx. 56-117+), left a fairly detailed account of Trio’s law career in his book, The Annals of Imperial Rome. Even so, there are large gaps in the life story of Trio. For instance, we do not know when he was born, or which region he was from. In addition, Tacitus mainly remarked on high-profile prosecutions, so there is little information as to how many smaller trials Trio was involved in. Nevertheless, Tacitus recorded a period of about two decades from the lawyer’s life.
Lucius Fulcinius Trio had his first significant case in the year 16. By this point, he had already gained a reputation as a talented lawyer, but none of his earlier cases were worthy of comment, at least in the opinion of Tacitus. Trio’s big break came when, in the year 16, he prosecuted Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus for numerous malignant occult and magical practices, as well as treasonous plots, including a supposed attempt to use divination to foresee the death of the emperor. Before the trial was over, the defendant killed himself while under house arrest and his assets were divided among the prosecution team. In the aftermath of the trial, magicians and astrologers were expelled from Italy and September 13, the scheduled day of Libo’s execution, became a public holiday.
Four years after his big break, Lucius Fulcinius Trio joined another high-profile case. In the year 20, he was one of the lawyers in the prosecution team against Cnaeus Culpurnius Piso, who was charged with organizing the assassination (by poisoning) of the emperor’s son, Germanicus, which occurred a year earlier. In addition to the poisoning, Piso was charged with bribery, neglect of office and libel. Just like in Lucius Fulcinius Trio’s earlier case, the defendant killed himself before the trial was completed. As before, the lawyers obtained a share of Piso’s wealth, and Emperor Tiberius promised to support Trio in a future run for office.
After the Piso case, Trio began to rise in the hierarchy of government. Around the year 32, he was said to have completed a term as a Roman consul, one of the highest political positions in ancient Rome. Yet, he and his co-consul, Publius Memmius Regulus, spent their term of office charging each other with various vices and crimes, including treason. None of the accusations, however, became full-fledged criminal trials. Even so, after Trio and Regulus were out of office, an enterprising senator named Decimus Haterius Agrippa suggested that the Senate open investigations into both of the former consuls. Trio played down the earlier accusations, explaining that he and his colleague had only engaged in some political mudslinging. The majority of senators sided with the former consuls and called off any investigations.
As the years went on, Lucius Fulcinius Trio continued to make enemies. By the year 35 or 36, there were enough powerful people charging him with treasonous plotting that a prosecution seemed imminent. Facing this pressure, Trio ultimately decided to follow the path of those he had brought cases against in the past. In the end, Lucius Fulcinius Trio committed suicide. Yet, before he brought about his end, he allegedly wrote a long tirade against Emperor Tiberius and his administration. The angry note was curiously stowed away in his last will and testament. Although Trio’s heirs tried to have the bitter letter destroyed, Emperor Tiberius was said to have let it be read aloud.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Zoomed and cropped version of “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.