Monday, August 24, 2015

Murder in the Palace

My archaeological journey to Rome is now months behind me and going through my notes and photos I am down to a few topics where I have to admit....I was just looking at amazing things and not knowing what they really were.

One of the hardest places to interpret was the Palatine Hill, essentially an entire hill devoted to the Imperial Palace.  So much history, so many remarkable men, women and events.  So few explanatory sign boards....

It struck me as a perfect place for one of those slightly cheesy "ghost tours" where enthusiastic, under employed actors hold forth on all manner of Dark Deeds committed in the general area and in a fashion somewhat akin to how they tell it.

For purposes of our Murder in the Palatine tour I have converted a few of my photos to black and white.

Scene One 96 AD

Domitian was one of the more paranoid of Roman Emperors, and that is saying quite a bit.  In addition to the usual measures - torturing suspected plotters for instance - he went so far as to keep a sword under his pillow at all times and to have metal surfaces around the Palace polished to a bright, mirror like burnish so that he could see the reflections of anyone sneaking up on him!

It did him little good in the end.  A trusted servant approached him claiming to have a document that outlined yet another plot.  Taking it eagerly Domitian did not see the servant pull a dagger from under bandages on his arm.  But he probably did notice when the servant, Suetonius tells us his name was Stephanus, stabbed him in the groin.

History does not record what was actually written in the distracting document.

Scene Two 212 AD

Caracalla and Geta never got along.  Only 11 months apart in age perhaps they never settled into the usual older brother - younger brother dynamic that often, but not always, establishes boundaries.

When their father Septimus Severus died there was going to be trouble.  The boys did try to rule jointly but their animosity eventually became too much to contain.  They divided the Palace up into halves, each guarded by their adherents.  Supposedly each tried to have the other's cooks finish the job with poison.

Probably Geta was not without fault, but it is Caracalla who is remembered by history so his foul deeds are recorded.  After an attempt to kill his brother during Saturnalia festivities Caracalla sent word to Geta asking that they meet in their mother's private apartments.  Lulled into letting his guard down, Geta turned up....only to be murdered in his mother's arms by Caracalla's henchmen.

Scene Three 238 AD

The sons of Septimus Severus are widely blamed for ushering in an era of imperial chaos.  Indeed, Caracalla himself was assasinated in 217 and the next three Emperors met similar fates after fairly short rules.  But that was nothing compared to the year 238, when no fewer than six men exchanged the Imperial Purple for a burial shroud.  Maximinus and his similarly named son, were respectively Emperor and Caesar.  Both were murdered.  Gordian II died in battle and upon hearing the news his co-emperor Gordian I committed suicide.  That left the Senate in Rome with a deterioriating situation.  Between barbarian incursions and additional Usurpers something had to be done.

So they appointed two of their own, Pupienus and Balbinus to rule as Co-Emperors.  Balbinus was to muster troops to defend Rome with Pupienus was to run the civil administration.  After some initial success - they did bump off Maximinus - the two men fell out.  Again, they occupied separate wings of the Palace, each fearing the other's dagger.  With things going to Hades in a hand basket the Praetorians stormed into the Palace.  Finding the two Emperors futilely arguing with each other they decided to kill them both.

The full list?  It is hard to judge just how many Emperors were killed in the Palace.  For sure there were more in the early part of the Empire, despite those being more tranquil times in general.  Later Emperors usually ruled from the saddle and met their deaths far from Rome.  And the very late ones had abandoned the Eternal City altogether for Constantinople or Ravenna.  But in addition to the above, one might reasonably expect a Ghost Tour of the Palace to also encounter the shades of:

Caligula.  Stabbed to death in 41 AD while addressing a troupe of actors.

Claudius.  Widely felt to have been fed poisoned mushrooms by his wife in 54 AD.

Commodus.  After an earlier attempt to poison him failed, conspirators took the more direct route and had him strangled in his bathtub by his wrestling partner. This event in 192 AD seems to have set up a pattern...

Pertinax in 193 AD was met at the Palace gate by some Praetorians who claimed they had only gotten half pay.  Efforts to negotiate with these malignant trick or treaters did not go well at all...

Didius Julianus.  After the murder of Pertinax the Praetorians decided to have an auction.  The highest bidder would get to be Emperor.  Didius probably should not have participated in this fatal ancient ebay.  His prize was three months on the throne before soldiers decided that he was only a spineless puppet and killed him too.

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