The Tale Of An Ancient Roman Man’s Suspicious Death And The Efforts Of His Mother To Have His Accused Murderers Prosecuted

In the time of the Roman emperor, Trajan (r. 98-117), a strange incident occurred in which a prominent man—whose name is unfortunately not known—died unexpectedly due to mysterious causes. The deceased man was outlived by his mother (whose name is also unknown), and the grieving mom eventually became convinced that poison was involved in her son’s ambiguous demise. As the dead Roman and his mother were prominent and influential members of society, the authorities quickly began to investigate the suspicious death and inquire about the surrounding circumstances. Although the mother was convinced that foul play had occurred, she and her legal supporters would need evidence to prove their case in court. Nevertheless, the mother and her lawyers never discovered the key evidence they were hoping to find. They did, perhaps, find some possibly suspicious portions of text in the deceased man’s last will and testament, but even this claim apparently lacked corroborating evidence to prove the accusation that the will might have been tampered with. Despite the shaky evidence, the mother used her influence to have the case brought to court and a trial was scheduled to occur. The defendants of the trial would be the mother’s prime suspects, namely a group of freedmen who had been in the service of her deceased son. These defendants, claimed the prosecution, had the means and opportunity to poison the deceased man and tamper with his will.

Emperor Trajan, who evidently may have been an acquaintance of the grieving mother, put a certain Julius Servianus in charge of judging the case. Additionally, the prosecution included Julius Africanus, an able lawyer from a respected family. Yet, the defendants were not neglected—in their legal team was the talented and accomplished statesman and lawyer, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who specialized in inheritance law and would have been a vital asset in defending against the allegations concerning the deceased man’s will. Pliny, an avid letter writer, commented on the case to his friends in existent missives. Although he did not explicitly opine on his perception of his clients’ guilt or innocence, he did make it known that he believed it was an easily defendable case due to the lack of evidence. Putting his theory into action in court, Pliny the Younger was able to either have the trial ended or possibly reached some sort of acquittal for his clients.  On this, Pliny vaguely wrote, “The inquiry was stopped after the court had come to a decision in favour of the defendants” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 7.6). Yet, even though the court was willing to put the matter to rest, the grieving mother was not ready to end her fight against the accused freedmen.

Using her prominence and access to the highest echelons of government, the mother was able to somehow convince Emperor Trajan to have the case retried. This time, the emperor evidently had his trusted agent, Suburanus, act as the judge. Once again, Pliny the Younger decided to help represent the defendants in court. To Pliny’s surprise and curiosity, the grieving mother’s legal team had been able to reopen the case due to claims that new evidence had been found. Yet, when the court and the defense pressed for the new evidence to be produced, it appeared that the prosecution did not actually have anything new and was only rehashing the same inadequate evidence from the previous trial. The mother’s lawyer, Julius Africanus, allegedly talked on and on during the second trial—way over the proper time limits of the court—and even asked the judge to allow him “one more word,” which turned into an additional long period of lawyerly testimony. After Julius Africanus had finished his elaborate speeches, Pliny the Younger took the bold and risky tactic of simply remaining silent. After the court and crowd had become adequately curious about the ploy, Pliny the Younger explained his silence by saying, “’I should have spoken in reply,’ I [Pliny] said, ‘If Africanus had added his ‘one more word,’ for this, I am sure, would have contained all the fresh evidence’” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 7.6). This jab, criticizing Julius Africanus’ overly-lengthy speech and pointing out the unchanged lack of evidence in the case, was apparently received well by the court and the audience.

Unfortunately, Pliny the Younger did not clearly describe the end of the trial. In his letter’s narrative, Pliny concluded his account of the case by claiming his speech, criticizing Julius Africanus and the lack of evidence, elicited some of the most memorable applause that he ever received over his long career in law. Ending in this manner, Pliny neglected to mention the fates of the defendants in their second trial. Yet, as Pliny the Younger introduced this tale in his letter with the curious statement of, “I can indeed remember certain criminal cases when I did my clients more good by saying nothing than I could have done by the most elaborate speech” (Letters, 7.6), the likely scenario is that Pliny’s clients received a positive outcome. It is unknown if the grieving mother ever tried to reopen the case again or if she sought out new suspects for her poisoning theory.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, by Jacques Louis David (c. 1748-1825), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Stockholm Sweden).


  • The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.

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