Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Trials and Traitors

It is pretty damn difficult to find information about trials in the Roman Empire? There's tons of info about the Republic, but for the Empire I've only figured out treason is a capital crime and punishable by death (no surprise here). I don't know what death - throwing from the Tarpinian rock, crucification? Was torture used not only on slaves but on a senator? What does seem to be correct is that the emperor can indeed pardon Caius Horatius. Though right now I'm in the mood of not having him do that.

There are days when I hate research.
The permanent criminal courts of the Republic fell into disuse under the empire. The Senate itself became the supreme criminal court, but cases could also be heard before the Emperor, sometimes in camera (which some Senators didn't much care for). Imperial whim is rather important here, and if the emperor wanted someone dead, strict procedure could often be passed over. The senatorial conspirators at the beginning of Hadrian's reign appear to have been tried in their absence, and subsequently executed outside Rome, I'd guess by soldiers. A case might not come to trial at all - pressure could be put on people to commit suicide, or perhaps it might be suggested that they choose to go into voluntary exile (this might be the case if the emperor wanted to save someone, rather than issuing a formal pardon, which would mean that the pardoned individual wouldn't have to leave Rome.

I doubt any Senator would have been executed through being thrown off the Tarpeian rock, crucified or killed in the arena - these were all punishments for lower classes. More likely people would be despatched in a straightforward way by soldiers (cf. the fate of Sejanus). Piso, tried for the murder of Germanicus, was persuaded to commit suicide rather than see his case through to the end. Similarly, on the whole, even if faced with a treason charge, I don't think Senators would in general be imprisoned (I don't believe Piso was, for instance).
Thank you very much. That helps a lot. I can go from there and look up Piso, fe.

I'd like to go for the drama of a court process, and I want Hadrian to pardon/save Caius Horatius, because he isn't perfectly sure about his guilt. Horatius' uncle (who confessed under torture) and brother are condemned, though. In that context, it should make sense to have Horatius sent to the Stanegate defenses in Britain as officer (not as high ranking as tribune, but cavalry prefect should work), disgraced but alive and with a chance to redeem himself.
Gabriele, help! They're spouting German over at Mel's Musings, and my German isn't good enough to follow it. Am I missing any jokes?
Not really, Doug. The girl's accusing Mel of anti semitism and stuff and tells him he should leave the other Mel in peace, whereof he reminded her in a very polite and correct German of the free speech laws in the US. That Mel III guy said some nasty things in bad German that basically are about the German girl should go play with herself. Not really funny.
I spent half a year studying that in school.

Unfortunately, I've forgotten everything.
I seem to recall that under Nero a senator's 16-year-old daughter was ordered to commit suicide, possibly for consulting a fortuneteller who predicted Nero's death. I am not sure what "ordered" meant in this context - presumably that if she didn't, she'd be done to death in some more unpleasant and degrading way.
and what about that we do not learn for school but for life saying? :-)

there are a number of examples for convicted (justly or not) members of the higher classes having got a hint that their suicide would be appreciated. I think it was a question of honour for a Roman to die by his/her own hands instead of being executed.
Gabriele - Somehow I get a morbid chuckle out of "justly or not." When it comes to imperial executions, justice was pretty much a tertiary consideration, if that.
Hi Gabriele. I just wanted to stop by and say thanks for pausing to make a couple of comments in my blog. I appreciate it.

I'm glad to see you take your research seriously--can only help the final product.

One interesting and unusual source on ancient Rome that I really like is the 19th-century Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani, himself a Roman. In case you're interested, here's a link:
Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

He covers only a few things, but provides insights and facts that I haven't seen in other sources.
Hadrian was one of the better emperors. Nothing in the way of the atrocities of a Nero or Caligula in his time. He gives Horatius a chance even though evidence speaks against him. Hadrian had several death sentences commuted into exile, so it works.

I should comment even more, your entries are so interesting, but I seldom have the time to come up with a reply worth the quality of your posts. :-) Though I'll have something about identity on my blog one of these days, triggered by your remarks.

Thanks for the link.
Gabriele, I don't know much about this subject, except that during the reign of Tiberius, there were a large number of treason trials - the trials of the 'maiestas' (Law of Treason) ...mentioned in Tacitus.
Gabriele - Ah, Hadrian. I haven't headed down to the previous snippets yet, so I just assumed we were dealing with one of the Julio-Claudians, who treated the world to arguably the most extravagant soap opera of all time.
yep, Tiberius was a pit paranoid and smelled treason everywhere. While Caligula had rich nobles condemned to get their money and missed the real conspirators. :-)

there were a few decent emperors (like the Good Five: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius), but a lot of them were indeed anything from incapable idiots to downright lunatics, and those got a lot more popular. Nice and honest obviously isn't as much fun as lunatic. :-)
Gabriele - First of all I think you need to be very careful not to over-romanticize Hadrian. Ever since Gibbon, he's been seen as a paragon of noble imperial majesty (especially on this island, where his association with the Wall results in his being treated almost as an honorary Briton). But this was not how many of his contemporaries saw him. For all his administrative and intellectual virtues, he also showed both at the beginning and the end of his reign that he could be ruthless with potential opposition, and his treatment of Apollodorus of Damascus, hounded and eventually killed for being foolish enough to tell the emperor what he truly thought of Hadrian's architectural designs, demonstrates that Hadrian could be vindictive. By his death, he was widely hated, at least in the Senatorial order, who tried to block his deification. They perhaps saw in him not a continuation of Trajan, but a return to the bad old days of Nero (with whom Hadrian had much in common, such as a desire to indulge an 'un-Roman' philhellenism) and Domitian.

That said, I think you need a better reason for Hadrian to spare Horatius, and give him another chance rather than send him off into exile and forget about him, than a slight question over his guilt. This would a political trial before the Senate, where there's not going to be much of a presumption of innocence, and actual guilt is not necessarily the prime factor in determining the outcome. If his brother and uncle have already been convicted and condemned, the Senate is likely to do the same for Caius. I can't see Hadrian intervening simly out of magnanimity, so he needs a better reason to intervene (which may simply be that three executions will provoke too much hostility in the Senate, where two he can get away with, but that still wouldn't explain the further chance given to Horatius). If Hadrian's going to intervene, then this might well happen before the case comes to trial (the Piso case and Tiberius' intervention on behalf of Piso's children may be illustrative here). Of course, it could be that everything in Rome happens when Hadrian is on one of his long trips around the provinces, thus preventing him intervening until the last moment. That would provide a dramatic climax to the trial. But unfortunately I think it sinks the rest of your set-up.

The problem, I think, is that it isn't credible that anyone who has been tried for treason, let alone convicted and sentenced, would be allowed to command troops without having done something inbetween to redeem himself. Even a cavalry prefect has quite a bit of responsibility - he'll be in charge of a fort (incidentally, in this period, Vindolanda appears to have been an infantry fort), and the senior local representative of the Roman empire. He might be exiled to Britain, but to the non-military south-east, I'd think. What I can buy is the notion of Horatius having a cloud over him because of the fate of his brother and uncle, and being sidelined because of that, without actually being tried himself.

There's also the social status aspect. Anyone in whose trial the emperor takes a personal interest would be in the senatorial order. But cavalry prefects of auxiliary units belonged to the equestrian order. So such a post would be, strictly speaking, beneath Horatius. So it would be a disgrace for him to be forced into the post (he wouldn't be relegated from the senatorial order - any Roman would choose suicide over that, I feel). I have to say, I don't know of any precedent for a senatorial individual holding such an equestrian post, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility. You would, of course, need to find some reason for Horatius accepting such a post. Perhaps in return for Hadrian commuting his brother's sentence?

So, my advice would be to lose Horatius' own trial. You don't need it to drive your plot, and it stretches credibility a little too far. If you want courtroom drama, you have the brother and uncle's trial.
thank you very much for your valuable input. I'm still playing around with ideas here, and I've yet to finish reading the books about Law / Crime and Punishment in the Roman Empire I got from the library.

I try not to romanticise Hadrian. But I see his ruthlessness as less whimsical than some of the other emperors'. He believed in the guilt of the conspirators, imho.

Vindolanda was basically an infantry fort, but there is proof that a cohort of the First Vardullian cavalry also was stationed there. (I admit, I have a soft spot for cavalry, but then, the Vardulli recruited from the Gascony and would be used to boggy terrain and thus be a military asset in fighting the tribes.)

I do want to Horatius to have a position that is below his rank if I can get away with that.

Since that chapter will also introduce the antag, Publius Valerius Messala, I could perhaps indeed lose Horatius' trial without losing the tension and conflict. However it turns out, it should be better than the originally planned chapter with Horatius' arrival in Vindolanda (or Eburacum). Moreover, a trial in the beginning will tie in with the end.
A further dig into the garrisons of Vindolanda does show that you're right about there being cavalry there (see However, I don't think it would be the base of operations for a cavalry prefect. As far as cohors I Vardullorum, which was a cohors equitata, a mixed infantry/cavalry unit, is concerned, it generally seems to be agreed that it was just some of the cavalry elements that were present, rather than the whole unit, which will have been based somewhere else on the Stanegate. I doubt it was even the whole of the cavalry part of the unit, as some online sources suggest. It's also worth noting that the presence of the unit at all is only an inference from debts owed to someone in Vindolanda by equites Vardulli, albeit a reasonable one. I also notice that at least one online source suggests that the Batavian cohorts at Vindolanda were cohortes equitatae, but this seems to be an amplification of a hypotheis of Alan Bowman and David Thomas, the publishers of the Vindolanda tablets, which they subsequently discarded. Certainly neither Paul Holder, The Roman Army in Britain, nor Guy de la Bedoyere, Companion to Roman Britain, suggest that this was the case.

Good luck with working it all out!
I have checked the Vindolanda sources, including A Band of Brothers, and while the info is still incomplete, the main unit during my time was the First Tungrian infantry. Obviously stengthened by some Vardulli cavalry, though the First Vardullians may have been spread among several of the Stanegate forts and maybe even the interior ones like Bremenium.

Now, we do know the name of the prefectus castrorum for Vindolanda for 120AD, it's Flavius Conianus Priscinus, so I can't have Horatius be fort prefect. Also, if I'm not mistaken that is a centurial position and thus way below a man of senatorial rank. They usually started as tribunus laticlavus (the rank Horatius' opponent Valerius Messala will hold).

I want to have Horatius degraded, but not beyond what his dignity under certain circumstances could accept. Even in historical fiction there's a point where a writer must put the story over the facts. I try to stick as close as possible to what is known, and if I have to deviate, I will make every effort to keep it within the frame of plausibility. I think with incomplete and partly contradictory sources, I can get away with a Vardulli cavalry cohort at the Stanegate, and its prefect stationed basically in Vindolanda. I can always explain such things in an afterword.

A treason trial which gets everything wrong is another matter, especially since there should be a way out - like not having Horatius accused of treason himself, but have him fall with the fall of his family in some way.

I have Holder's book and several by de la Bédoyère, but not the one you name. Have to check that out. Thanks again for your help.
Oh yes, even if the reference to equites Vardulli doesn't indicate that they were based at Vindolanda, they were almost certainly somewhere on the Stanegate, possibly, as you note, several somewheres. Depending on how the unit is split, I suppose it's conceivable that the prefect could choose to operate out of Vindolanda, though you'll have to work out where he's going to live - he can't live in the commanding officer's house, as that's occupied by the prefect in charge of the Tungrians. Alternatively, perhaps you should consider another Stanegate fort, such as Corbridge, where the Vardulli were later in the second century, and where I bet we don't know who was the commanding officer in AD 120.

Praefectus castrorum was indeed a post held by someone who had served as a centurion and attained primus pilus rank. However, from everything I'm able to find, it's a post within a legion. So you would have found a praefectus castrorum within one of the legionary fortresses such as York or Chester, but not in a smaller fort like Vindolanda. Flavius Conianus Priscinus, I should think, was prefect of the cohort based at Vindolanda, and commanded the fort by virtue of his command of the unit.

Like all posts associated with the auxilia, this was an equestrian post, and, as I said, I don't know of any case of someone from the senatorial order taking such a post. I wonder if perhaps the solution to this little quandary isn't to make the Horatii not a Senatorial family, but a promoinent equestrian one. Such a family might still attract the emperor's personal attention (contrary to what I said in a previous comment, but I'm allowed to change my mind!), but still allow Caius to take an equestrian post in the army (perhaps the downgrading is that he was up for a much more important equestrian post, maybe in the imperial administration).

Anyway, I hope you're enjoying this debate as much as I am!
Tony, I'm enjoying this debate very much. I specialised in Medieavel history before I got all those Roman empire novel plotbunnies, so I have to do quite a bit of research.

I'm not dead set on Horatius being of a senatorial family. What I want is that he loses some of his and his family's dignitas and has to strive hard to regain it. A successful military command should help him there, but the personal conflict for him starts when he's obliged to commit atrocities he cannot condone.
Sounds like an equestrian family suddenly finding themselves on the way down in the world gives you what you want then. (Plus, if you keep Messala as of senatorial rank, there's an extra source of tension between the two.)
Oh, and today I found a reference that suggests that, contrary to what I've said before, senators could be relegated to equestrian status (and equestrians kicked out of that order), or could resign their status. So that would allow you to have Horatius start off as either senatorial or equestrian.
You must have a nice library at home. :-)

I had some vague memory about that but since I wasn't sure whether it was a fiction or non-fiction book, I didn't give it much value.
I actually got that reference from the Wikipedia entry on Claudius, but yes, I do have a nice library. And I have been dipping into it a lot over the last few days to clarify the whole relationship between the senatorial and equestrian orders. It's surprisingly hard to find one clear discussion of this, but what I've learned leads me to suspect that I've given a slightly false picture, making it appear more rigidly hierarchic than it was. So I'll set out how I now think it worked, as you might find it useful.

Membership of the Senate was based on two criteria, having held the office of quaestor and fulfilling the property qualification, and was subject to there being a vacancy. Once someone was a member, he was so for life, unless he was ejected for some moral or criminal offence, or fell below the property requirement. If there weren't enough ex-quaestors to fill vacancies, people who met the property qualification could be adlected into the Senate (this was how provincials often got into the Senate in the imperial period).

Strictly speaking, the senatorial order consisted only of people currently in the Senate, and sons, descendants and of the relatives of Senators who were not Senators themselves were in the equestrian order. However, these people did form a somewhat separate group within that order, and dominated those posts, such as the tribuni laticlavi, that formed part of the cursus honorem leading to the Senate. Conversely, the senatorially-related were rarely to be found in those equestrian posts, such as commands in the auxilia, that did not act as stepping stones to the Senate.

Membership of the equestrian order was almost entirely dependent upon a property qualification (less than that required for the Senate), subject to a few restrictions, of which the most important was that freedmen could not be equestrians, though their sons could.

The other thing to note is that entitlement to these qualifications wasn't always tightly policed. Senators and equestrians were supposed to resign their status if they fell below the propery qualifications, but often they didn't. Freedmen who were rich enough would claim equestrian status, and no doubt ex-quaestors would turn up for Senate meetings whether or not they had been offically admitted. Usually it took the emperor acting in the role of censor to sort matters out (that is what Claudius was doing when he persuaded Senators to resign their position, in advance of him forcibly removing them off the rolls).
Thanks Tony, it's very kind of you to help me with my research.

I've done that, too: once on trail of a problem, no matter whether your own or someone else's, one can't let go. Must be something in the brains of history 'geeks' (or any other geeks). *grin*
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)