by Graham Newman A n audible hum reverberated off the marbled walls of the Roman Senate as the greatest murder trial in history was about to begin. Germanicus Julius Caesar—grandson of Caesar Augustus, heir to the throne of Emperor Tiberius, and beloved avenger of the Teutoberg Forest massacre—lay dead, struck down (some said) by the poison of an assassin. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso—Senator, former consul, and Governor of Syria—stood accused of the murder, driven (some said) by insatiable arrogance and jealousy. On this March morning of 20 A.D., the Senate was to serve as the jury. The Emperor was to serve as the judge. And all of Rome was yearning to serve as the executioner. • • • We find ourselves at this dramatic moment in legal history thanks to a wildly unpredictable collis ion course between Germanicus and Piso. Both men were born into families of wealth and privilege the likes of which have rarely existed in history. Both men were also born into wealth and privilege at a time when possession of either could mean a death sentence. Germanicus, born in 15 BC as the grandson of Caesar Augustus, was fingered at an early age as a natural and talented heir to the Imperial throne. His father, Drusus, won military renown against the Germanic tribes on the far side of the Rhine, thus earning himself and his sons the corresponding cognomen. Germanicus was married to Agrippina—the beautiful daughter of Augustus’s famed general, Marcus Agrippa—and the two instantly became the toast of Roman high society. So impressive was the young man that Augustus forced his adopted son (and eventual heir) Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, thus securing for him a clear line to Roman power. Piso, 28 years older, was not born into Rome’s ruling family, but his ancestors—the Calpurnii—were among Rome’s most distinguished senatorial clans and had produced ten consuls prior to Piso’s entry into adult life. Piso’s father had famously opposed Julius Caesar, serving first alongside Pompey and then with Brutus and Cassius, but Augustus granted him a rare pardon and went on to name the elder Piso as consul in 23 BC. Born of two different generations, Piso had a head start on Germanicus in the rough and tumble (and often lethal) world of Roman politics. He and his father survived the era of executions during the Roman Civil War (perhaps thanks to their relation to Julius Caesar’s third wife, Calpurnia) and Piso used his advantageous birth to join the Senate and ascend to the consulship by the age of 36. Piso later served as Governor of Spain and as Proconsul of Africa and became particularly famous for an irascible pompousness that would drive him even to oppose the emperor’s proposed legislation in public. By any measure, Piso was a highly distinguished statesman with a reputation for not blanching in the face of Rome’s most ruthless rulers. Germanicus, by contrast, was only a child when Piso served as consul. Yet his was the more fortunate birth in both lineage and timing. In 9 A.D., while Germanicus was in his early years as a military officer (standard service for all Roman noblemen), three Roman legions were completely annihilated at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest. It was a humiliating defeat for both the Roman military and Roman prestige. Revenge was in order. Five years later, the duty of avenging Rome’s defeat would fall to Germanicus. Now a seasoned general, Germanicus led a series of attacks deep into German territory from 14 to 16 A.D. He ruthlessly slaughtered the tribes responsible for Rome’s defeat, retrieved two of the three lost “golden eagles” of the destroyed legions, and bathed himself in popularity in the streets of Rome. So popular had Germanicus become that ancient Roman historians speculate he was a threat to the security of Tiberius’s rule. Thus, in 17 A.D., Tiberius removed the prodigy from command in Germany and transferred him to legions in Syria—then at Published in The Justice Bulletin, Winter 2015. © 2015 by the South Carolina Association for Justice. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the South Carolina Association for Justice. AVENGING GERMANICUS: THE MURDER TRIAL OF GNAEUS CALPURNIUS PISO the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Simultaneously, Tiberius appointed as Governor of Syria the insufferably arrogant Piso. It was an odd decision fraught with potential for a clash of egos. For the first time, Germanicus and Piso would meet in public life, and the stage for our murder trial would be set. • • • The decision to try Piso’s murder allegations within the Senate building had been made by Emperor Tiberius, himself. This was a departure from typical Roman protocol, as Roman trials were typically conducted in open air fora as a sort of public spectacle. Occasionally the emperor would preside over trials, but more typically a “praetor”—a mid-level Roman official—would serve as judge. Jury trials had been commonplace for over a century when the dictator Sulla instituted the first permanent criminal courts with jurors to be chosen from members of the Senate. Here, however, the entire Senate would sit in judgment of Piso—again, and extraordinary fact. But this was no ordinary case. Tiberius shuttered the doors of the Roman Senate not only in recognition of the magnitude of the allegations (and the importance of the victim), but out of sheer self defense. The streets of the Roman forum were thronged with admirers of Germanicus calling for vengeance. Public angst was at a fever pitch thanks, primarily, to a remarkable public relations campaign coordinated by Germanicus’s widow, the beautiful Agrippina. Germanicus died in Antioch, the seat of government of the Syrian province. Before departing for Rome, Agrippina displayed his naked body to the masses, proclaiming that blue splotches covering his skin were evidence of poisoning. Gathering their children and the ashes of her deceased husband, Agrippina commenced a winding voyage from Syria to Italy, making sure the news of her husband’s alleged murder arrived before she did. Then, spectacularly, she ordered the convoy to land at Brundisium (modern Brindisi) at the heel of the Italian peninsula. Agrippina then walked, with her husband’s ashes, the entire length of the Appian Way to the Roman capital, rallying public support and stoking public anger with each village she passed along the way of her weeks-long journey. The evidence of Germanicus’s murder was varied. As was predicted, he and Piso hated each other from the beginning. While Germanicus was supreme commander of the legions of the east, Piso was his administrative equivalent—at least in Syria. Rome had not yet become the military autocracy it would be in later years and thus Germanicus was forced to rely upon Piso for strategic support for his military endeavors. Ever disagreeable, Piso was not interested in promoting the budding career of Germanicus. The two began openly feuding over a variety of disputes, firing off letters to Rome complaining of one another, and actively undermining each other throughout the Syrian province. Then, in September of 19 A.D., Germanicus fell violently ill shortly after a formal dinner in which Piso and his wife were guests. His suffering was painful, accompanied by terrible stomach cramps, vomiting, and ultimately blue splotches covering his body. Bizarrely, Germanicus’s attendants then claimed to have discovered evidence of a sort of witchcraft spread throughout Piso’s gubernatorial residence: disinterred human remains, cinders smeared with blood, and the name “Germanicus” scrawled on lead tablets. This led Germanicus to one conclusion: he was being poisoned by some instrument of Piso. As he struggled for survival, Germanicus ordered Piso to return to leave Syria Published in The Justice Bulletin, Winter 2015. © 2015 by the South Carolina Association for Justice. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the South Carolina Association for Justice. AVENGING GERMANICUS: THE MURDER TRIAL OF GNAEUS CALPURNIUS PISO and formally renounced any friendship between the two men. But the writing was upon the wall for Germanicus and, as he died in the halls of his accursed palace, Rome’s most beloved citizen uttered a curse for the fleeing Piso. “If my doors, are to be besieged, if I must gasp out my last breath under my enemies’ eyes, what will then be the lot of my most unhappy wife, of my infant children? Poisoning seems tedious; he is in eager haste to have the sole control of the province and the legions. But Germanicus is not yet fallen so low, nor will the murderer long retain the reward of the fatal deed.” Piso was at sea when Germanicus died in the imperial palace at Antioch. And despite Germanicus’s conclusions to the contrary, evidence that Piso had poisoned his rival was limited to the enmity between the two men and the curious objects of a sort of Eastern voodoo discovered throughout the palace. But upon hearing of Germanicus’s death, Piso swung ‘round his convoy and returned to Syria intent on seizing control of the government and the Roman legions in the absence of Germanicus. Unwittingly, Piso was also confirming in observers’ minds Germanicus’s predictions of Piso’s motive for murder. Piso’s return to Syria was accompanied by great hostility from Germanicus’s lieutenants as the men felt certain he was to blame for their leader’s untimely demise. Rather than attempting rapproachment with these leaders, Piso responded hotly and raised an army of mercenaries from the local populace in order to defend what he felt was his right to rule Syria. But Piso’s hastily assembled force wisely declined to fight the seasoned Roman veterans and the Roman noble was left with no option but to agree to the demands of the legions: that he return to Rome post-haste to stand trial not only for the murder of Ger- manicus, but now also armed rebellion against the Roman Empire. • • • These were the allegations leveled against the proud Piso on the March morning in 20 A.D., as Emperor Tiberius began to address the Senate much as a judge would instruct a jury today. “Piso,” he said, “was my father’s representative and friend, and was appointed by myself, on the advice of the Senate, to assist Germanicus in the administration of the East. Whether he there had provoked the young prince by wilful opposition and rivalry, and had rejoiced at his death or wickedly destroyed him, is for you to determine with minds unbiassed. … “Consider this too, whether Piso dealt with the armies in a revolutionary and seditious spirit; whether he sought by intrigue popularity with the soldiers; whether he attempted to repossess himself of the province by arms, or whether these are falsehoods which his accusers Published in The Justice Bulletin, Winter 2015. © 2015 by the South Carolina Association for Justice. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the South Carolina Association for Justice. have published with exaggeration. … And I implore you not to take as proven charges alleged, merely because the case is intimately bound up with my affliction.” Tiberius then turned to the lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution. “Do you, whom ties of blood or your own true-heartedness have made his advocates, help him in his peril, every one of you, as far as each man’s eloquence and diligence can do so. To like exertions and like persistency I would urge the prosecutors.” With these instructions to advocates and jury, the trial began. Similar to today’s criminal trials, the prosecuting attorneys opened the trial with statements to the jury. In this instance, the prosecutors were close friends and former lieutenants of the deceased Germanicus—but Romans did not perceive this to constitute a conflict. The prosecutors presented to the Senate their own observations of the means by which Piso undermined Germanicus at every turn and even attempted to seize control of the Syrian government and its legions upon Germanicus’s death. Senators would rise in anger during the presentations to openly berate Piso, who—as a former counsel—sat on the first of three benches which flanked both walls of the long hall. Tiberius had given the prosecutors two days in which they might present their cases for murder and rebellion. And, as the second day drew to a close, the ev- idence seemed clear that Piso had, in fact, sought to seize control of the Syrian province by force. But the evidence of murder was scant. The prosecutors had recounted the physical markings on Germanicus’s body, the man’s dying blame of Piso, the strange signs of witchcraft at Piso’s residence, and the enmity between the two men. But the prosecutors could not place a vial of poison in the hands of Piso. In fact, the prosecutors had no witnesses beyond themselves. A suspected sorceress named “Martina” had been seized by Germanicus’s champions in the aftermath of his death. But Martina died en route to Rome—some said via suicide, others said via murder. Thus as the prosecutors rested their case against Piso, speculation ran throughout the capital as to whether the public clamor for Piso’s head would, in fact, be enough to generate a verdict of “guilty” as to the charge of murder. Escorted back to his residence by a military tribune who served as his guard during the trial, Piso now had three days to defend himself from these charges. His lawyers—seasoned advocates of the Senate—would surely pull apart the allegations of Germanicus’s associates. But they would never get the chance… • • • The morning Piso was to begin his defense, he was found dead in his chambers. His throat was slashed and a Roman sword—a “gladius”—was found next to his body along with what appeared to be a suicide note. But the note did not admit to orchestrating the death of Germanicus. “Crushed by a conspiracy of my foes,” Piso’s note began, “and the odium excited by a lying charge, since my truth and innocence find no place here, I call the immortal gods to witness that towards you Caesar, I have lived loyally…”. But whether Piso was guilty or innocent, the prosecution of the allegations he murdered Rome’s beloved Germanicus was now at an end. Never again would the Roman Senate be the setting of such a momentous trial. But Piso’s trial by jury, Tiberius’s exhortations of impartiality of the jury and zealous advocacy of the lawyers, and the concerns of public influence on the proceeding have passed down to us through the ages as a legal heritage. In cases of public magnitude, the gravity of such concerns weighs just as heavily today as it did on that March morning in 20 A.D. v Graham Newman is an attorney with Chappell, Smith and Arden, PA in Columbia, South Carolina. Published in The Justice Bulletin, Winter 2015. © 2015 by the South Carolina Association for Justice. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the South Carolina Association for Justice.