After the tumultuous reign of Emperor Nero (r. 54-68), and the subsequent Year of the Four Emperors—Galba (r. 68-69), Otho (r. 69), Vitellius (r.69) and Vespasian (r. 69-79)—several Roman senators and philosophers began to openly question the role of emperors and autocrats in the Roman Empire. A prominent Roman family that produced several men by the name of Helvidius Priscus joined this reform movement and emerged as a thorn in the side of the emperors of Rome. The first Helvidius Priscus, known as Helvidius Priscus the Elder, turned into an increasingly vocal critic as the years progressed under Vespasian’s rule. Friction between Helvidius Priscus the Elder and Emperor Vespasian reached dangerous levels in the mid 70s, when it became increasingly apparent that the emperor intended to set up a new dynasty and was grooming his sons, Titus (r. 79-81) and Domitian (r. 81-96), to take power in a hereditary succession. It is not known exactly what types of speeches Helvidius Priscus was making during that tense time, but Emperor Vespasian became aware of the senator’s criticism and he did not like what he heard. What happened next was explained in propagandic fashion by the extremely pro-Vespasian source, Suetonius (c. 70-130+):
“[Emperor Vespasian] showed great leniency towards Helvidius Priscus, who on his return from Syria was the only man to greet him simply as ‘Vespasian,’ and who throughout his praetorship omitted all courteous mention of him from his official orders. However, feeling himself, as it were, reduced to the ranks by Priscus’ insufferable rudeness, Vespasian flared up at last, banished him, and eventually gave orders for his execution. Nevertheless, he meant to save him, and wrote out a reprieve; but this was not delivered owing to a mistaken report that Priscus had already been executed” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Divus Vespasian, chapter 15).
Regardless of what Vespasian had or had not meant to do, Helvidius Priscus the Elder was executed around the year 75 for speaking too vocally about issues that the emperor did not want his subjects debating. Although Helvidius Priscus the Elder was gone, his family carried on his mission of resistance. The late senator’s widow was Fannia (whose father, Thrasea Paetus, had been similarly executed by Emperor Nero in the year 66), and she raised the next generation of the family to be just as fiery and outspoken as the last. Helvidius Priscus the Elder was succeeded by Helvidius Priscus the Younger, who wholeheartedly embraced the spirit of his namesake. The younger Helvidius pulled together a circle of vocal and literarily-inclined critics of Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96). Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio were among the most important of these friends and allies. These two courageous figures decided to write and publish glowing eulogies about past senators who did not kowtow to emperors. The works of these men were closely related to Helvidius Priscus the Younger, for the subjects of the eulogies happened to be members of his family—Helvidius Priscus the Elder and Thrasea Paetus. The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56/57-117+) wrote of the eulogies produced by Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio, as well as Emperor Domitian’s response to the publications. Tacitus stated, “We have read that when eulogies were written—of Paetus Thrasea by Arulenus Rusticus and of Priscus Helvidius by Herennius Senecio—they were treated as capital offences, and the savage punishment extended beyond the authors to their very books: the triumviri were given the job of burning those masterpieces of literary art in the Comitium and the Forum” (Tacitus, Agricola, section 2). As Tacitius’ quote conveys, the texts of Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio were viewed by Emperor Domitian and his allies as a most serious crime, and the consequences of publishing such controversial texts would be deadly. Helvidius Priscus the Younger, who reportedly had also been writing controversial literature of his own, joined his friends as a target of the angered emperor’s deadly persecution.
In the aftermath of the publication of the inflammatory writings, Arulenus Rusticus, Herennius Senecio and Helvidius Priscus the Younger were put on trial. Fannia, the aforementioned widow of the elder Helvidius, and Fannia’s mother Arria, were also brought to court, as was Arulenus Rusticus’ brother (Mauricus) and wife (Gratilla). At the end of the trials, Rusticus, Senecio and Helvidius Priscus the Younger were all executed in the year 93. Everyone else mentioned above survived the trials, but they all were sent into exile (along with many other Roman philosophers) and did not return to Rome until after Domitian’s assassination in 96.
Helvidius Priscus the Younger was survived by three children—two daughters and a son, all quite young at the time. The family moved back to Rome during the reign of Emperor Nerva (r. 96-98), and the young children of Helvidius Priscus the Younger were known to have settled down, married, and prepared to start new families. Yet, the family’s lethal luck continued. This time, however, the deaths came not from politics or intrigue, but from cruel nature. It was the daughters of Helvidius Priscus the Younger who next fell to the dismal fate that seemed to plague their family. They allegedly met near identical and simultaneous deaths during childbirth. The avid letter-writer, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), recorded the news of their deaths, writing, “This premature death of Helvidius’s daughters is tragic—both sisters giving birth to girls and dying in labour. I am deeply distressed, and not unduly, for these were noble young women in the flower of their youth and I must mourn to see them the victims of their motherhood” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 4.21). The two newborn girls, thankfully, survived their tragic births. As for Helvidius Priscus the Younger’s last child, his son, the boy was said to have had good health and decided to be more reserved in his political activism than his forebears.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Print of Marcus Anthonius, by John Murphy in 1787, after Benjamin West (c. 1738-1820), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- 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.
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.