Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.22


W. Eck, A. Caballos, and F. Fernández (edd.), Das senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre. Vestigia 48. Munich: Beck, 1996. Pp. 329, 20 pl. ISBN 0506-8010.


Reviewed by Harriet I. Flower, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA, H_Flower@acad.fandm.edu.

It was in the late 1980s that fragments of several copies of a new and fascinating decree of the senate inscribed on bronze started coming to light near Seville in the Roman province of Baetica. Like other recently discovered Spanish epigraphical texts (lex Flavia Irnitana, Tabula Siarensis, etc.) it was also discovered as a result of clandestine searches using metal detectors. However, by the early 1990s the Archaeological Museum in Seville was able to acquire all the fragments for restoration, study, and publication. The text in question turned out to be the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone patre of 10th December A.D. 20 which recorded the punishments imposed on Gn. Calpurnius Piso and his accomplices in the maiestas trial which is so amply described in Tacitus (Ann. 3.1-19). At 176 lines the new s. c. is one of the longest Latin inscriptions to survive. The historical and epigraphical importance of this document is hard to overestimate. We now possess an excellent text and evidence of six (or seven) copies, all from Baetica. Only Diocletian's edict on prices is preserved in more copies. Its unique character is revealed by the injunction to publish it in Rome, in the most important city of every province, and in the winter quarters of every legion of the Empire. The story of the finding and recovery of this text reads like a detective novel and only matches the suspense which many have felt in waiting for a full first edition with commentary.

In late 1996 two versions of a first edition were published, one in Spain (A. Caballos, W. Eck, F. Fernández, El Senadoconsulto de Gneo Pisón Padre, Sevilla: Europa Artes graficas, 1996, Pp. 315 with 21 pages of plates, ISBN 84-472-0332-8) and one in Germany. In what follows I shall be reviewing the German edition. The significance of the s. c. led to a joint publication effort by A. Caballos and F. Fernández in Seville and W. Eck in Munich. Although, the two versions are somewhat different in format and focus, they share a large core of material, notably the reconstituted text of the s. c. In each edition you will find the following reproduced in a similar manner: a diplomatic text of each of the six or seven copies, a reconstructed, composite text with a detailed commentary, a translation into the appropriate language, a prosopography of the individuals named in the s.c., a discussion of the chronology of events in 19 and 20, and the implications of the large number of copies attested in Baetica (none of which appears to be the one posted in the provincial capital of Cordoba).

Only the Spanish version has the following: a large format on art paper, lavish colour photographs of the text and the places where finds were apparently made, maps of Spain, details of the restoration work and an analysis of the metal of each tablet, an analysis of the letter styles of each inscription, a complete concordance to copy A, and a series of appendices on additional topics located throughout the volume including a list of legal documents found in Spain, excerpts of relevant passages from Tacitus, and a separate treatment of Irni, Olaurum, and El Tejar (including diagrams of pottery from each site).

Only the German version has: a spine that is sewn rather than glued, indexes, a more up-to-date bibliography, clearer black and white photos of the text, and appendix VIII on the political significance of the s. c. The German version is aimed at a more general analysis of the s. c., especially as a political document and it represents more closely the views of W. Eck, whose name appears first in its title (rather than in the alphabetical order of the Spanish version). As a result the German version is the logical one to use unless one has a specific interest in local conditions in Baetica or in the more technical aspects of metallurgy and paleography. Nevertheless, the two versions do complement each other as was the aim of the authors.

Having said all this, the reconstruction of the text and its interpretation rely on the collaboration of many scholars from different countries who were consulted and whose names appear throughout. The first edition of the s. c., therefore, marks an important new development in the way a text is edited, both in its presenting of all the evidence for how a new text is reconstructed at each stage, as well as in its drawing on the expertise of a large number of scholars and groups who held seminars to study the s.c. The format of the commentary itself is also somewhat unusual in that only a relatively small part of it is structured as commentary on individual lemmata taken from the text. The rest is essentially in essay format dealing with each section of the text separately. Many new ideas are also to be found in footnotes, which contain some of the most recent bibliographical references. What appears at the end is consequently a selected bibliography only.

Eck has already published three separate articles, dealing with the s. c. or related issues, all of which are reflected in what appears here ("Cn. Calpurnius Piso, cos. ord. 7 v. Chr. und die Lex Portorii Provinciae Asiae," EA 15 (1990), 139-46; "Das s. c. de Cn. Pisone patre und seine Publikation in der Baetica," Cahiers du Centre G. Glotz 4 (1993) 189-208; and "Plebs und Princeps nach dem Tod des Germanicus," in I. Malkin and Z. W. Rubinsohn (eds.), Leaders and Masses in the Roman World. Studies in Honor of Zvi Yavetz (Mnemosyne Suppl. 139, Leiden, 1995) 1-10). He is surely right to argue (279-87) that the unusual number of copies on bronze to come from Baetica is related to the special interests and zeal of the governor N. Vibius Serenus, who was attempting to win favour in Rome (and perhaps also to represent himself locally as a man in touch with events in the capital).

While it is not possible for the first edition to discuss all issues in a comprehensive manner, the result here is a remarkable achievement. The commentary is well-structured and cross-referenced between sections. Parallel passages from ancient authors, especially contemporary ones, are fully integrated and often quoted. Similarly, epigraphical parallels are most helpful. Each issue is raised and discussed with care and attention to detail and method, from the definition of Germanicus' imperium maius (lls. 30-7) to the striking evidence for Livia's direct influence which did indeed save Plancina from punishment (lls. 109-20).

Of particular interest for their clarity and precision are the various discussions throughout of the history of the text, how it was structured, how it was recorded, and how it was published in Spain. We are dealing with a composite document that was put together for publication to a targeted audience, and one that differed in interesting ways from that of the Tabula Siarensis of the previous year with its posthumous honours for Germanicus (265). The latter was aimed largely at the Roman citizens of the Empire who would be involved with honouring the memory of Germanicus. This new s. c. serves as a warning of the punishments applied to traitors and it was directed mainly at provincial cities and at the army, as well as the people in Rome itself.

The editing of such a long and significant new text is a major undertaking, which has been brought to a very successful conclusion here. Without in any way wishing to detract from the overall contribution, I would like to offer the following thoughts about matters both small and great. It is a little surprising that the German version has no maps at all, not even a general view of Spain. The prosopographical sections are a strong point of the work (it is Piso's three priesthoods which really show his social standing, 76); however, a newly drawn family tree of the Calpurnii Pisones would have been very helpful. Naturally the commentary focuses on the individuals mentioned in the s. c. but others, such as Piso's brother Lucius (cos. 1 B.C. and augur), who defended him, need to be kept in mind.

A very plausible argument is made for a marriage connection between L. Nonius Asprenas (suff. cos. 29 and later apparently made a patrician under Claudius) who appears as quaestor in the s. c. and Calpurnia, the daughter of Piso's son Gnaeus (later known as Lucius, cos. 27), who receives a dowry and peculium from her grandfather's estate. Yet surely much more could be said here. It is a striking confirmation of the continued social and political prominence of the Calpurnii Pisones that one of the official witnesses to Piso's disgrace would go on to marry his granddaughter.

Similarly, the date of Vibius Serenus' term in Baetica is discussed (101-3) as either 20/21 or 21/22 (he was exiled de vi publica in 23, Ann. 4.13.2). It is indeed possible that Vibius was in the senate for the honours voted to Germanicus and that he is also responsible for the Tabula Siarensis, as is suggested here. What is not discussed here is that the 21/22 date could suggest that he had also been in Rome for Piso's trial. His eagerness to display the s. c. we now have may stem from his own experience of the heated atmosphere in Rome at the time and his perception of the political importance of Piso's punishment.

Antonia, the mother of Germanicus, appears (lls. 140-2) in the thanks given by the senate to the various members of the domus Augusta. She is also mentioned in the Tabula Siarensis frag. I.5-8 where she receives a statue on the new arch in honour of Germanicus at the Circus Flaminius. However, from Tacitus Ann. 3.2 we learn that she was not seen in public and that his researches did not reveal her presence: matrem Antoniam non apud auctores rerum, non diurna actorum scriptura reperio ullo insigni officio functam. This contradiction creates a problem between the text of Tacitus and the epigraphical record. I have tried to address some of the issues raised about Tacitus' biasses elsewhere (H. I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture, Oxford, 1996 p. 250-2). The editors have unwavering faith in Tacitus as an historian both in matters of fact and of interpretation.

The commentary rightly identifies (182) the importance of the princeps' indulgentia as it appears for the first time in our epigraphical record (cf. also AE 1973, 137 for indulgentia in an erased inscription of Domitian in the University of Pennsylvania Museum). A similar discussion could also be helpful for the use of veneratio (l.60), a term not much found before this date and one that indicates the proper attitude to be adopted by Piso towards the princeps' son (cf. Pliny Pan. 54.2).

To move on to more general considerations, the following questions remain. Despite the many striking similarities between Tacitus and the s. c., which reveal that he was familiar with its content, the relationship between his narrative and the inscription will still be a matter for further analysis. It is revealing that he focuses so heavily on the charge of murder (poisoning) while this accusation only appears in the mouth of Germanicus (l. 28) in the s. c. The difference in emphasis is one of the first things that strikes the reader of the two texts.

Was Piso actually charged with murder or not? This central question is not of great concern to the editors who assume that the murder charge was simply subsumed under maiestas as it dealt with the person of Germanicus, the princeps' son and Piso's superior officer (145-55). At the same time, they rightly note that Tacitus' main source is the acta senatus and that he does note that the charge could not be proved (Ann. 3.14.1). The s. c. obviously represents the "official" version which simply did not dwell on this matter, although, and partly because, it was such a topic of discussion outside the senate. Nevertheless, this treatment does not seem entirely satisfactory. Rather, we should ask what the official charges were. From the s. c. it does not appear that Piso was charged with murder (poisoning) nor was there much need as he was quite easily convicted on a classic charge of maiestas, as a governor who had abandoned his province and then tried to retake it by force from the next incumbent (167ff.).

It need not surprise us that Tacitus found a discussion of a possible murder in the acta senatus. It is well known that in Roman trials of all kinds evidence of almost any wrongdoing, whether criminal or not, could and was regularly introduced as evidence (e.g., Cic. Pro Caelio). In Piso's own case we know that his previous life was extensively scrutinized although no charge or conviction stemmed from anything he did before he arrived in Syria in 17 (Ann. 3.13.1-2 cf. p. 148). His earlier career was simply introduced as background information relevant to a charge as serious as maiestas but did not appear in the s. c. which spoke only of conviction and punishment. It is somewhat problematic to imagine formal "charges" that disappeared from the record because they were not proved.

It is also pertinent to consider whether Tiberius could have afforded a full scale murder trial in the explosive atmosphere after Germanicus' death. It seems questionable that Piso had anything to do with the death of Germanicus (Syme, Augustan Aristocracy, Oxford, 1986, 374), and this much emerged in the trial. The s. c., therefore, reveals how Tacitus has chosen to shape his narrative and its slant with a focus on the rumours of murder which fascinated the public at the time and led to their violent demonstrations against Piso during his trial.

Not everyone will agree with Eck's final "reading" of the political situation in 19-20 which emerges from the commentary but is summarized and presented in its own right in appendix VIII (289-303). His idea is essentially that Piso was "framed" by a combination of individuals, notably Germanicus' friends (at 154 even planting body parts to incriminate Piso), and circumstances, notably Tiberius' need for a scapegoat. Nevertheless, he offers a fascinating and thought provoking reconstruction. His interpretation is based on two premises: 1. the relative importance of Tacitus' account as opposed to that of the s. c. and 2. the character of Piso, his actions and motivations. The result is that Eck is sceptical towards the s. c. which he sees as a highly partisan, political document. He reads it as a response to criticisms and rumours, which presents a highly idealized version of events. This version excuses all, including Germanicus and the soldiers in Syria, while putting blame solely on Piso. Eck's method is to use Tacitus to "correct" this "official" version.

Meanwhile, his Piso is an intelligent and upright man whose actions have been systematically misrepresented and falsified. Eck does not believe Piso acted rashly or incorrectly, let alone that he committed any self-destructive act. Piso had no prior quarrel with Germanicus and must, therefore, be seen as acting on instructions from Tiberius (290: "Ein Mord lediglich aus persönlichen Motiven konnte keinen Sinn ergeben. So musste ein höherer Auftraggeber wirksam gewesen sein"). While there is much that is perceptive about the individual arguments used in the commentary, the overall interpretation will probably remain controversial.

It is notable that both the s. c. and Tacitus speak of Piso's proud and fierce nature and his arrogant behaviour (293 c. f. l.27 with Ann. 2.43.3 and 55.1 etc.). Attempts to explain his behaviour as consistently correct but misrepresented/misunderstood can seem far from convincing. To cite two examples: Piso's punishment of soldiers without trial (lls. 49-52), notably his decision to crucify a centurion, and his rejoicing at the news of Germanicus' death (lls. 57-68). The incident with the soldiers clearly occurs in Syria, probably during Piso's return after Germanicus' death. It is hard to see (at 170-1) how Piso could have been justified in executing officers and men who refused to fight fellow Romans. Traditional punishments for refusal to face an enemy can not necessarily be taken to apply in this case. (171: "Unter normalen Umständen hätte der Senat über die disziplinarischen Maßnahmen gegen Soldaten, auch die Todesurteile, kein Wort verlohren. Im Rahmen der konkreten Situation aber diente das Vorgehen Pisos als zusätzlicher Beweis für sein illegales Handeln und als Erklärung dafür, weshalb andere Soldaten seinen Befehlen gehorchten.")

Eck argues that there was no problem with Piso's behaviour on Kos when he sacrificed after hearing the news of Germanicus' death since he would not have received news of the official iustitium yet (181-6; 185: "Freilich gilt auch hier wieder, daß Piso selbstverständlich gar nicht rechtzeitig über das iustitium unterrichtet sein konnte."). This is clearly true in a literal way but any Roman citizen should have realized the kind of mourning that would be appropriate and inevitable for the son of the princeps. Certainly, ordinary Romans in the city were ready to mourn before rumours had been officially confirmed (Ann. 2.82). Both Piso's initial behaviour and his proud bearing upon his return to the city were surely key in influencing the senate's attitude to him.

So was Piso guilty, and if so, what was his crime? Certain actions of his were at the time and remain hard to explain away. Whatever the circumstances of his departure from Syria, he returned there after the new governor, Cn. Sentius Saturninus, had taken control (Ann. 2.74.1). An armed confrontation took place between his forces and those of Sentius (Ann. 2.80-1). This was clearly a case of maiestas under the laws of the Republic. It is hard to see how Piso could have thought that his actions would have been easily justifiable. Certainly his slow return to Rome was in sharp contrast to his rapid arrival in his province (Ann. 2.55.1).

Few will disagree that the s. c. is indeed a highly rhetorical and idealized version of what happened. It represents the "official" version but it also admits circumstances which a more revisionist account would simply have omitted completely (cf. Velleius Paterculus 2.98 on Piso's son), such as the role of Livia in obtaining a pardon for Plancina (lls. 109-20) and the evident restlessness amongst the plebs (lls. 155-8). Meanwhile, Tacitus has his own biasses (especially with regard to Tiberius) and he is not a contemporary source. It is true that he used the acta senatus but he chose which material to record and which to omit. At the same time he is clearly using many other sources, including oral traditions which he heard as a boy (Ann. 3.16.1). His special interest in public opinion is marked and does not obviously rely on any contemporary, written sources.

Tacitus is also concerned with the literary and rhetorical effect of his narrative. In this area, perhaps understandably, the commentary does not have much to say. (Bibliography which could be cited includes J. Ginsburg, Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus, Salem, NH 1981, and C. B. R. Pelling, "Tacitus and Germanicus" in T. J. Luce and A. J. Woodman eds., Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition, Princeton, 1993, 59-85). Those who have been looking at Tacitus from a more literary perspective will not be surprised to learn that the events of the years 19 and especially 20 do not appear in strict chronological order within the year (109-21). Rather, Tacitus (Ann. 3.19.4) has deliberately juxtaposed Drusus' ovatio (which we can date to 28th May, Fast. Ost.) as well as the death of his mother Vipsania, with Piso's trial (which we now know ended on 10th December). For a different discussion see now A. J. Woodman and R. H. Martin, The Annals of Tacitus Book 3, Cambridge 1996, 69-77 with a useful bibliography.

What the new s. c. does do is afford us the opportunity to see what the full extent of the senate's actions were and to compare Tacitus' narrative with some of the "official" sources that he had access to. He is clearly reacting against the language, tone, and purpose of the s. c. Some parts of the Annals effectively present his "reading" of this material and of the personalities involved. Like the authors of the decree he also is influenced by public opinion and the strong reactions people had at the time. Rumours were rife but there is no particular reason to believe that ordinary people knew "the truth" of the matter any more than the senate did. There is a complex interplay between Tacitus and the s. c. which operates on a number of levels.

The German edition bears a fitting dedication to Sir Ronald Syme many of whose ideas about Piso, Germanicus, Tacitus , and Tiberius are confirmed by the new text. This edition also offers much in the same tradition of fine scholarship. There are few students of Roman history and culture who would not benefit greatly from the study of the inscription with this commentary and its interpretative essays. It has been worth waiting for.