In the year 69, Emperor Vespasian and his Flavian Dynasty came to power after a year of civil war between powerful generals, a period known as the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and, finally, Vespasian). After coming to power through such chaotic means, the Flavian Dynasty understandably shed some of the carefully crafted façade of the earlier Roman Principate, and decided to rule more openly as a military dictatorship. Therefore, treason trials were resumed and more restraining measures were put in place against possible threats to the imperial family, especially during the reign of the last Flavian Emperor, Domitian (r. 81-96). Although many people were sentenced to death during the reign of the Flavian Emperors, two executed men named Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio particularly stood out to contemporary scholars of the age.
Renowned writers of the 1st century, such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, all wrote about the case of Rusticus and Senecio. One reason that these specific executions hit the scholars so hard was that they had been acquaintances of Rusticus and Senecio, and, in the case of Pliny, close friends. Additionally, Rusticus and Senecio were sentenced to death as a consequence of the literature that they wrote, and therefore the case directly affected the scholarly and literary community to which Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger belonged.
Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio drew the suspicion of Emperor Domitian after they wrote admiring pieces that honored deceased rebellious senators. Rusticus chose as the subject of his text Senator Thrasea Paetus, who was executed in 66, after years of being a public critic of Emperor Nero. As for Senecio, the individual he idolized in his text was a bit more sensational for the days of the Flavian Dynasty. Herennius Senecio praised Senator Helvidius Priscus the Elder, who was executed in 75 for his outspoken resistance against Emperor Vespasian, the father of Domitian. Such glowing accounts of rebellious senators put Rusticus and Senecio at odds with the Flavian emperors, as well as pro-Flavian senators. Yet, for vague reasons, Emperor Domitian did not only question the loyalty of Rusticus and Senecio, but he also was suspicious of many people connected to the two controversial writers.
In the year 93, Arulenus Rusticus, Herennius Senecio, and even Helvidius Priscus the Younger (son of the senator executed by Vespasian) were all put on trial. Also tried was Fannia, the widow of the elder Priscus, and Fannia’s mother Arria, as well as Arulenus Rusticus’ brother (Mauricus) and wife (Gratilla). At the end of the trials, Rusticus, Senecio and Priscus the Younger were all executed. Everyone else mentioned above survived the trials, but they all were sent into exile and did not return to Rome until after Domitian’s assassination in 96.
For Tacitus, the tragedy was not so much the deaths of Rusticus and Senecio—they knew the risks of challenging an all-powerful regime—but instead the lack of Roman resistance against censorship in literature and oration. Following the execution of Rusticus and Senecio, the literary works that they wrote were gathered and burned by the government. Writing of the Rusticus and Senecio trial, as well of the subsequent burning of their books, Tacitus wrote: “We have indeed left an impressive example of subservience. Just as Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, so have we plumbed the depths of slavery, robbed by informers even of the interchange of speech” (Agricola, section 2).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Archimedes before his death with the Roman soldier – copy of a Roman mosaic from the 2nd century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.