Between his descriptions of wars and imperial intrigues, the Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), enjoyed filling his pages with various crimes that occurred within the Roman Empire. He stated several reasons why he recorded the crimes. For one, the accounts reinforced his idea that Rome had become corrupt and morally degraded in the time period in which he was writing about. On the other hand, he believed that seemingly trivial and insignificant events, such as criminal trials, could influence the direction of history, as a whole, and therefore were worth examining. It must also not be forgotten that Tacitus was one of the most accomplished orators of his day, so he must have known that the scandal and drama of great crime stories would be of great entertainment value to his readers.
While writing about events in the last decade of Emperor Nero’s life, Tacitus took some time to write about an interesting crime that involved murder and slavery. The event in question took place in Rome around the year 61 or 62, not long after Boudicca led her destructive, but ultimately unsuccessful, rebellion in Britain. The incident that occurred that year would ultimately rile up the masses and force Emperor Nero to take a side in a debate between law and morality.
According to Tacitus, a City Prefect named Lucius Pedanius Secundus owned a large household of slaves. This Pedanius, as Tacitus referred to him, somehow inspired the bitterest kind of hate in one of his many slaves. The historian mentioned two theories as to how this occurred. In the first account, Pedanius refused to let one of his slaves buy freedom, even though he had promised to release the slave for a predetermined price, which the slave had obtained. In the alternate version, Pedanius and the unnamed slave were both competing for the very same person’s affection and the slave was infuriated because he was losing the competition of courtship. Whatever the cause of the animosity, the slave eventually murdered Lucius Pedanius Secundus.
According to Roman law, not only the murderer, but also every single slave in Pedanius’ large household, would be held responsible for the crime. Therefore, all of Pedanius’ slaves (young and old, men and women) were condemned to execution. This verdict, sentencing to death many innocents, caused rioting to break out in the streets of Rome. The angry citizens were said to have had enough strength to besiege the senate-house, itself. Faced with the angry mob, the senators quickly began to debate whether the slaves should be shown mercy or if the ancient custom of execution should be upheld. When the senators ultimately decided in favor of upholding the executions, the rioters picked up stones or any other available weapons and put themselves between the slaves and the authorities.
With an armed conflict seemingly imminent in the streets, Emperor Nero sent out his troops to clear the roadways and to ensure that the executions were carried out. Caught up in the bloodlust, some of the more extreme senators also proposed that freed former slaves of Pedanius should also be expelled from Italy. Nero, however, rejected this second proposal.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Annals of Imperial Rome (Chapter 10) by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.