Tiberius was a Roman Emperor who ruled from 14-37, and his character and actions are still debated to this day. To some, he was a sympathetic figure—his brother died slowly from a broken leg, Tiberius was forced by Augustus to divorce the love of his life in order to marry another woman, and his only child from that first marriage was assassinated. Yet, to others, Tiberius was a bloodthirsty maniac who enjoyed scheming from the shadows and murdering innocents. Two incidents, in particular, contributed to Tiberius’ negative public image. For one, the man oddly withdrew to a life of isolation on the island of Capri around the year 27, only a little more than half way through his reign. The other major critique of the emperor was the numerous suspicious trials of alleged treason that occurred during the period of his rule.
The Annals of Imperial Rome by the Roman statesman and historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117), is one of the oldest surviving sources on this period of Roman history. For full disclosure, Tacitus was heavily biased against Tiberius, as well as the emperor’s mother, Livia. Yet, the historical information from which Tacitus reached his biased conclusions is considered trustworthy. Therefore, according to Tacitus, the first major victim of Tiberius’ Treason Trials was a man named Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus.
This man, who Tacitus thankfully calls “Libo,” was a well-connected individual. He had blood ties to the imperial Julian family, but also to Caesar’s old foe, Pompey. In fact, Tacitus claimed that Libo was the grand-nephew of Augustus’ first wife, Scribonia, as well as the great-grandson of Pompey the Great. Yet, despite his laudable lineage and wealth, Libo reportedly only had one passion—the occult.
Of his supernatural interests, Libo was said to have been particularly drawn to divination and fortune telling. According to Tacitus, the curious Libo sought out astrologers, necromancers, oneiromancers (dream readers) and other teachers of magical rituals. Apparently, Libo’s pursuit of otherworldly knowledge brought him into bad company—Firmius Catus (a fellow fan of the occult) and a man named Junius (affiliated with necromancy) would both later testify against Libo during his treason trial.
Tacitus wrote that Catus was the ringleader of the group that set in motion Libo’s doom, but it was Junius, the supposed necromancer, who started the legal proceedings. He informed on Libo to a prosecutor named Lucius Fulcinius Trio, and Trio quickly demanded that the senate begin an investigation into Libo’s behavior. In 16 CE, Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus was formally accused of subversive plotting against the emperor and was brought to trial before the senate.
Libo went to his friends and relatives, but he could not find anyone with political clout to speak on his behalf—Tacitus claimed this was caused by fear of Tiberius, who would be in attendance. By the time of the trial, Libo had supposedly fallen ill and had to be carried on a litter to the senate. He was said to have needed to lean on his brother in order to walk into the building. During the session, Libo’s accusers were almost all familiar faces, such as Catus, Junius and Trio, but others had come forward to join the prosecution team. Tacitus specifically mentioned Fonteius Agrippa and Gaius Vibius Serenus as being involved, and even some of Libo’s slaves were tortured and brought in to testify. They argued that Libo’s interest in divination was to obtain a favorable prediction about his own future wealth and political power. They also produced written evidence that supposedly proved that Libo had been hatching sinister plans against the emperor and other notable people in the empire. The handwriting on this document was verified as being that of Libo by one of the tortured slaves, but Tacitus thought this and other pieces of evidence brought before the trial were woefully inadequate.
Nevertheless, when the trial was adjourned, Libo was put under house arrest until the next session. At that time, Libo already knew there was not much hope for clearing his name. Therefore, in hopeless despair, Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus committed suicide by stabbing himself to death soon after the Praetorian Guard escorted him to his home. After the grim deed was done, Emperor Tiberius allegedly chastised the action of the deceased, proclaiming that he would never have let the trial end in execution. Nevertheless, very little respect was shown to the fallen. The people who led the prosecution seized Libo’s property and senators among this group were also granted supernumerary praetorships. The senate also decreed that statues of Libo could not be used in funeral parades, and they barred the Scribonius family from ever using the name “Drusus,” which happened to be the name of Tiberius’ son. Perhaps worst of all, September 13, the day of Libo’s suicide, was formally made into a public holiday.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Mural of a Roman court painted by Albert Herter (1871-1950), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.