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Casperius Aelianus, Trajan and the mutiny of 97.

The most puzzling event in the brief reign of the emperor Nerva was surely the mutiny of the praetorian guard in AD 97. In 2001, Berriman & Todd proposed a radical interpretation of the insurrection, which holds that Casperius Aelianus was Trajan's agent. (1) It is my purpose to critically review this proposal, and to draw attention to a passage in the Panegyricus and, in particular, to a neglected statement in the Epitome de Caesaribus (12.7-8) that seem to militate against such an interpretation. It will be seen that the older scholarly view of Schwarte (1979)--that Casperius was an agent of Cornelius Nigrinus--still has considerable merit.

The standard view of the soldiers' mutiny in 97 sees it as a humiliating blow to Nerva's authority as emperor, but not as a coup by Trajan; rather, Nerva adopted Trajan to restore order. (2) The thesis of Schwarte presented the idea that Cornelius Nigrinus, the possible governor of Syria at this time, was the senator and rival of Trajan behind Casperius Aelianus. (3) Alffoldy & Halfmann (1973) first proposed him as a candidate for the Syrian governor about whom Pliny was warned (Ep. 9.13). (4) Th is view has wide support. (5)

In contrast to this, Berriman & Todd propose a bold new interpretation of the mutiny: they argue that the timing of the event was a 'carefully planned rising' and in fact a 'coup against Nerva'. Casperius Aelianus was an agent of Trajan, and performed the task of negotiating with Nerva to force his adoption. This explains the fact that Casperius was apparently left unmolested at Rome in the months after the mutiny, although Trajan later decided to put him out of the way as a sacrifice 'in the name of reconciliation' with Nerva. (6) There is no denying that this thesis is persuasively argued, and that Berriman & Todd's study must be addressed in future discussions of the issue. Nevertheless, I conclude it is implausible that Casperius was an agent of Trajan and had forced his adoption.

The fundamental obstacle in the way of accepting Berriman & Todd's thesis is the evidence of Pliny's Panegyricus. The relevant passage deserves to be quoted at length:

Magnum quidem illud saeculo dedecus, magnum rei publicae vulnus impressum est: imperator et parens generis humani obsessus, captus, inclusus, ablata mitissimo seni servandorum hominum potestas ereptumque principi illud in principatu beatissimum, quod nihil cogitur. si tamen haec sola erat ratio, quae te publicae salutis gubernaculis admoveret, prope est, ut exclamem tanti fuisse. corrupta est disciplina castrorum, ut tu corrector emendatorque contingeres; inductum pessimum exemplum, ut optimum opponeretur; postremo coactus princeps, quos nolebat, occidere, ut daret principem, qui cogi non posset. olim tu quidem adoptari merebare; sed nescissemus, quantum tibi deberet imperium, si ante adoptatus esses. exspectatum est tempus, quo liqueret non tam accepisse te beneficium quam dedisse. confugit in sinum tuum concussa res publica, ruensque imperium super imperatorem imperatoris tibi voce delatum est. imploratus adoptione et accitus es, ut olim duces magni a peregrinis externisque bellis ad opem patriae ferendam revocari solebant. (7)

The great blot on our age, the deadly wound inflicted on our realm, was the time when an emperor and father of the human race was besieged in his palace, arrested and confined; from the kindest of elderly men was snatched his authority to preserve mankind, from a prince was removed the greatest blessing of princely power, the knowledge that he cannot be forced against his will. Yet if this were the only means whereby you were to be brought to steer the ship of state, I am still ready to declare that the price was not too high. Army discipline broke down so that you could come to correct and improve it; a shocking example was set so that you could counter it with a better; finally, a ruler was forced to put men to death against his will in order to provide one on whom force should never prevail. Your merits did indeed call for your adoption as successor long ago; but had you been adopted then, we should never have known the empire's debt to you. We had to wait for the moment which would show you not so much the beneficiary as the benefactor. The country reeled under its blows to take refuge in your embrace; the empire which was falling with its emperor was put into your hands at the emperor's word; for it was through your adoption that you yielded to entreaties and allowed yourself to be recalled, like the great generals of the past who were summoned from distant wars abroad to bring aid to their homeland.

(Plin. Pan. 6.1-4) (8)

Pliny emphasises the scandalous mutiny of the praetorians; according to him, the event precipitated the adoption of Trajan, who corrected the discipline of the soldiers. We should note the vehemence of Pliny's language concerning the mutiny ('that great disgrace of the age'). If Casperius had been Trajan's agent and the insurrection orchestrated by Trajan or his supporters, and this was publicly known, can we really believe that Pliny would have given such prominence to the event in a panegyric published and delivered in readings for the public? (9) If such were the case, Pliny's absurd lies publicly insulted and humiliated the emperor, by drawing attention to the underhand manner by which he had seized the throne from a defenceless old man. Pliny can hardly have been so inept and impolitic. He could easily have omitted reference to the event in these sections of the Panegyricus and instead emphasised other reasons for Trajan's accession--the most obvious of which would have been divine providence, his military virtue and personal qualities. But, even if the role of Trajan and his alleged agent Casperius was not publicly known by the time of the publishing of Pliny's Panegyricus, the thesis of Berriman & Todd faces other problems.

A neglected passage of the Epitome de Caesaribus sheds light on Casperius Aelianus's role in the mutiny, to which Berriman & Todd do not pay sufficient attention:

Cumque [sc. milites] interfectores Domitiani ad exitium poscerentur, ... vehementer [sc. Nerva] obstitit dictitans aequius esse mori quam auctoritatem imperii foedare proditis potentiae sumendae auctoribus. Sed milites neglecto principe requisitos Petronium uno ictu, Parthenium..., redempto magnis sumptibus Casperio.

(Epit. de Caes. 12.7-8). (10)

When the soldiers demanded the murderers of Domitian for execution, ... [Nerva] vehemently resisted, repeatedly saying that he would rather die than disgrace his imperial authority, by betraying those responsible for his assuming power. However, disregarding the emperor, the soldiers killed those whom they sought: Petronius with one blow, and Parthenius.... Casperius had been bribed at great expense.

Work on the sources of the Epitome de Caesaribus has established that a major source for this section on Nerva was the Severan consular biographer Marius Maximus, who could have given a considerably more open and detailed account of Nerva's reign than other writers contemporary with Pliny. (11) The quality of the Epitome de Caesaribus certainly becomes better with the use of Maximus, and the alleged bribery of Casperius Aelianus should be given greater scrutiny.

The textual problems in this sentence of the Epitome have no doubt contributed to modern neglect of its significance. Pichlmayr & Gruendel (1966) regarded the word redempto as corrupt in surviving MSS, but curiously both the readings redempto and Casperio are attested in at least one manuscript from the three major groups (viz. M, N, and [pi]R); furthermore, in the manuscript group M, four codices have the reading redempto. (12) A recent, more radical emendation of the line is redempti magnis sumptibus <a> Casperio ('[the soldiers] having been bribed at great expense by Casperius'). (13) On the historical side, it is unlikely that the praetorians needed to be bribed by Casperius to avenge Domitian, given Suetonius' statement about their willingness to do just that (Dom. 23.1). The reading redempto magnis sumptibus Casperio does have textual support, and is the most natural way to understand the text. The conclusion must be that the Epitome de Caesaribus reports that Casperius Aelianus had been bribed to lead the insurrection, and this tradition may well be historical, although there is admittedly no clue as to the identity of who had given the bribe. As we have seen above, Schwarte argued that the Syrian governor Cornelius Nigrinus was responsible. (14) If, however, Trajan or his agents had been responsible for bribing Casperius, then Pliny's reference to the mutiny in the Panegyricus would have been doubly offensive to the emperor, by drawing attention to his sordid dealings with Casperius, and his role in avenging Domitian, against whom the senate had passed a damnatio memoriae.

Finally, there is the tradition in Dio Cassius (68.3.4) that Nerva saw Trajan as the instrument of revenge against Casperius Aelianus for the humiliation he had been forced to endure. Dio reports that Nerva sent Trajan a letter which quoted the line of Homer where Chryses prayed to Apollo to take vengeance on the Greeks, with the implication quite clear. (15)

In summary, the view that Casperius Aelianus was Trajan's agent faces serious difficulties in the prominence that Pliny gave to the event in his Panegyricus, and in the violence done to the primary sources.


Alffoldy G. & Halfmann, H. 1973. 'M. Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatius Maternus, General Domitians und Rivale Trajans.' Chiron 3:331-373.

Baldwin, B. 1993. 'The Epitome de Caesaribus, from Augustus to Domitian.' QUCC 43:81-101.

Barnes, T.D. 1976. 'The Epitome de Caesaribus and its sources.' CPh 71: 258-268.

Berriman A. & Todd, M. 2001. 'A very Roman coup: the hidden war of imperial succession, AD 96-8.' Historia 50:312-331.

Birley, A.R. 1997. 'Marius Maximus: the consular biographer.' ANRW 2.34.3:2678-2757.

Bonamente, G. 2003. 'Minor Latin historians of the fourth century A.D.' In G. Marasco (ed.), Greek and Roman Historiography in Late Antiquity: Fourth to Sixth Century A.D., 85-125. Leiden: Brill.

Collins, A.W. 2009. 'The palace revolution: the assassination of Domitian and the accession of Nerva.' Phoenix 63.1-2, 73-106.

Eck, W. 2002. 'An emperor is made: senatorial politics and Trajan's adoption by Nerva in 97.' In G. Clark & T. Rajak (edd.), Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World. Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffin, 211-226. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eck, W. 2010. 'Prosopography.' In A. Barchiesi & W. Scheidel (edd.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies, 146-159. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eck W. & Pangerl, A. 2005. 'Zwei Konstitutionen fur die Truppen Nieder mosiens vom 9. September 97.' ZPE 151:185-192.

Eck W. & Pangerl, A. 2008. 'Eine Konstitution fur die Auxiliartruppen Syriens unter dem Statthalter Cornelius Nigrinus aus dem Jahr 93.' ZPE 165:219-226.

Festy, M. 1999. Abrege des Cesars. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Garzetti, A. 1974. From Tiberius to the Antonines: A History of the Roman Empire, AD 14-192. London: Methuen.

Grainger, J.D. 2003. Nerva and the Roman Succession Crisis AD 96-99. London: Routledge.

Griffin, M.T. 2000. 'Nerva to Trajan.' In A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey & D. Rathbone (edd.), CAH 11.84-131. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, B.W. 1993. The Emperor Domitian. London: Routledge.

Mynors, R.A.B. 1964. XII Panegyrici Latini, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pichlmayr, F. & Gruendel, R. 1966. Liber de Caesaribus, praecedunt origo gentis Romanae, et Liber de viris illustribus urbis Romae, subsequitur Epitome de Caesaribus. Leipzig: Teubner.

Radice, B. 1976. Pliny. Letters and Panegyricus in Two Volumes. II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Roche, P. (ed.). 2011. Pliny's Praise: The Panegyricus in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schwarte, K.H. 1979. 'Trajans Regierungsbeginn und der Agricola des Tacitus.' Bonner Jahrbucher 179:139-175.

A.W. Collins

University of Queensland

(1) Berriman & Todd 2001:312-31.

(2) See Garzetti 1974:304-05. See also Eck 2002:211-26.

(3) See Schwarte 1979:147-48. For new evidence on Nigrinus' governorship of Syria, see Eck & Pangerl 2008:219-26.

(4) Alfoldy & Halfmann 1973:33 1-73.

(5) E.g. see Griffin 2000:94; Eck 2002:212; Eck 2010:154. Cf. Grainger 2003:93-94, who proposes the view that Publius Cornelius Nigrinus Curiatus Maternus was not a rival of Trajan; he posits that Cornelius Nigrinus left his post in Syria to participate in the negotiations over Nerva's succession, and to take up a second consulship in September or October 97. Grainger argues that Nigrinus threw his weight behind the candidacy of Trajan. But the ']terno' mentioned in the military diploma cited by Grainger in support of a second consulship for Nigrinus should be regarded as L. Pomponius Maternus, and Grainger's view seems implausible. See Eck & Pangerl 2005:185-92, at 191-92. It can also be noted that A. Bucius Lappius Maximus had been rewarded with a second consulship in 95, and was probably the most respected vir militaris of Domitian's reign. That he considered himself capax imperii would not be surprising, and his long military service under Domitian, which had been amply rewarded, no doubt stood him in good stead with the soldiers. See Collins 2009:90-92; Jones 1993:59; and Grainger 2003:96-97, for a list of possible candidates for the throne in 97.

(6) See Berriman & Todd 2001:326-329.

(7) The Latin text follows the edition of Mynors 1964.

(8) Translation follows Radice 1976:337, 339.

(9) We know that Pliny gave public readings of the Panegyricus (see Pliny, Ep. 3.18), which was an expanded version of the actio gratiarum addressed to Trajan and given in September 100.

(10) For the Latin text, see Pichlmayr & Gruendel 1966:147.

(11) On Marius Maximus as a source of the Epitome de Caesaribus and Eutropius, see Barnes 1976:261-63; Birley 1997:2724; Baldwin 1993:82; Bonamente 2003: 100 and 102.

(12) See the editions of Festy 1999:20; and Pichlmayr & Gruendel 1966:147, with apparatus. See also Festy 1999:lxxxv-lxxxvi on the reliability and derivation of the manuscript groups. On the textual problems, see also Schwarte 1979:145, n. 40.

(13) But even on this textual emendation, if the text says that Casperius bribed the praetorians, there may well have been some powerful senatorial backer behind him. See Festy 1999:20, with apparatus.

(14) See Schwarte 1979:147-48. For new evidence on Nigrinus' governorship of Syria, see Eck & Pangerl 2008:219-26.

(15) Dio 68.3.4: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. For the most recent work on the Panegyricus, see Roche 2011.
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Author:Collins, A.W.
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Date:Jan 1, 2013
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