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39: Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, erotic poet

October 14th, 2009 Headsman

On an uncertain date likely around early October* in 39 A.D., former Roman Consul Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus (not to be confused with Publius Cornelius Lentulus) was executed at the order of Caligula for his part in some sort of plot long lost to history.

In his public life, Gaetulicus was a Machiavellian politician connected to the fallen Praetorian Guard captain Sejanus (their kids were at one point engaged to be married). He evidently survived the post-Sejanus purge with an adroit bit of written diplomacy to the Praetorian’s patron-cum-executioner the Emperor Tiberius, tactfully pointing out that the Emperor had made the same errant choice of alliance. Thus did Gaetulicus retain both his head and his career.

After a decade milking his German province, and Tiberius shuffled off the mortal coil and young Caligula now ruling the empire, Gaetulicus seemingly** involved himself in something treasonable with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the latter a recent fave of Caligula and briefly his designated heir.

Or, if you credit scandal-mongering Roman historian Cassius Dio‘s description of the Emperor’s deadly northward road trip, he did it out of some whim of rivalry or opportunity for pecuniary advantage.

Gaius had now spent practically all the money in Rome and the rest of Italy, gathered from every source from which he could in any way get it, and as no source of revenue in considerable amount or practicable to collect could be found there, and his expenses were pressing him hard, he set out for Gaul, ostensibly because the hostile Germans were stirring up trouble, but in reality with the purpose of exploiting both Gaul with its abounding wealth and Spain also. However, he did not openly announce his expedition beforehand, but went first to one of the suburbs and then suddenly set out on the journey, taking with him many actors, many gladiators, horses, women, and all the other trappings of luxury. When he reached his destination, he did no harm to any of the enemy — in fact, as soon as he had proceeded a short distance beyond the Rhine, he returned, and then set out as if to conduct a campaign against Britain, but turned back from the ocean’s edge, showing no little vexation at his lieutenants who won some slight success — but upon the subject peoples, the allies, and the citizens he inflicted vast and innumerable ills. In the first place, he despoiled those who possessed anything, on any and every excuse; and secondly, both private citizens and cities brought him large gifts voluntarily, as it was made to appear. He murdered some men on the ground that they were rebelling, and others on the ground that they were conspiring against him; but the real complaint was one and the same for the whole people — the fact that they were rich. By selling their possessions himself, he realized far greater sums than would otherwise have been the case; for everybody was compelled to buy them at any price and for much more than their value, for the reasons I have mentioned. Accordingly, he sent also for the finest and most precious heirlooms of the monarchy and sold them off by auction, selling with them the fame of the persons who had once used them. Thus he would make some comment on each one, such as, “this belonged to my father,” “this to my mother,” “this to my grandfather,”, “this to my great-grandfather,” “this Egyptian piece was Antony’s, the prize of victory for Augustus.” At the same time he also explained the necessity of selling them, so that no one could persist in pretending to be poor; and thus he made them buy the reputation of each article along with the thing itself.

In spite of all this he did not secure any surplus, but kept up his customary expenditures, not only for other objects that interested him — exhibiting, for example, some games at Lugdunum — but especially for the legions. For he had gathered together two hundred thousand troops, or, as some say, two hundred and fifty thousand. He was acclaimed imperator by them seven times, as his whim directed, though he had won no battle and slain no enemy. To be sure, he did once by a ruse seize and bind a few of the foe, whereas he used up a large part of his own force, striking some of them down one at a time and butchering others then masse. Thus, on one occasion, when he saw a crowd of prisoners or some other persons, he gave orders in the famous phrase, that they should all be slain “from baldhead to baldhead.” At another time he was playing at dice, and finding that he had no money, he called for the census lists of the Gauls and ordered the wealthiest of them to be put to death; then, returning to his fellow-gamesters, he said: “Here you are playing for a few denarii, while I have taken in a good one hundred and fifty millions.” So these men perished without any consideration. Indeed, one of them, Julius Sacerdos, who was fairly well off, yet not so extremely wealthy as to become the object of attack on that account, was slain simply because of a similarity of names. This shows how carelessly everything was done. As for the others who perished, there is no need of my naming over most of them, but I will mention those of whom history requires some record. In the first place, then, he put to death Lentulus Gaetulicus, who had an excellent reputation in every way and had been governor of Germany for ten years, for the reason that he was endeared to the soldiers. Another of his victims was Lepidus, that lover and favourite of his, the husband of Drusilla, the man who had together with Gaius maintained improper relations with the emperor’s other sisters, Agrippina and Julia, the man whom he had allowed to stand for office five years earlier than was permitted by law and whom he kept declaring he would leave as his successor to the throne. To celebrate this man’s death he gave the soldiers money, as though he had defeated some enemies, and sent three daggers to Mars Ultor in Rome. He deported his sisters to the Pontian Islands because of their relations with Lepidus, having first accused them in a communication to the senate of many impious and immoral actions. Agrippina was given Lepidus’ bones in an urn and bidden to carry it back to Rome, keeping it in her bosom during the whole journey.

It’s a pity that the details of this affair, whatever they were, have been lost to history. The History of Rome podcast treats this episode among a review of Caligula’s gnarly reign

According to Post-Augustan Poetry, Gaetulicus

was consul in 26 A.D., and for ten years was legatus in Upper Germany, where his combination of firmness and clemency won him great popularity. He conspired against Caligula while holding this command, and was put to death. Pliny the younger speaks of him as the writer of sportive and lascivious erotic verse, and Martial writes of him in very similar terms. His mistress was named Caesennia, and was herself a poetess.

Only a fragment (which I have not been able to locate online) of a Latin verse describing Britain remains affirmatively attributed to this poet, though he is sometimes speculatively identified with the “Gaetulicus” to whom some epigrams in the Greek Anthology (or “Palatine Anthology”) are attributed e.g.

TO APHRODITE EUPLOIA

Guardian of the seabeach, to thee I send these cakes, and the gifts of
a scanty sacrifice; for to-morrow I shall cross the broad wave of the
Ionian sea, hastening to our Eidothea’s arms. But shine thou
favourably on my love as on my mast, O Cyprian, mistress of the bride-
chamber and the beach.

* Date ballparked by public sacrifices offered in Rome on October 27 “to mark the exposure of the evil plots of Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus against Gaius Germanicus.” (Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire, which speculates at some length on what the dimensions of a Gaetulicus plot might have been.)

** Though Lepidus was executed at about the same time, and Cassius Dio suggests a connection, it’s not completely clear that they conspired together. Since Cassius Dio (and Suetonius, who also connects them in Life of Claudius), wrote generations after the events themselves, we want for dependable information.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Treason

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