The Pisonian Conspiracy: The Beginning of the End For Emperor Nero

Nero and Agrippina. University of Oxford

The Plan’s Outline

The day of the Circensian Games was supposed to be Nero’s final day on earth. It was a celebration of Ceres and a golden opportunity to assassinate the Emperor. At this stage in his reign, he was something of a recluse who rarely left the palace, but he remained a regular at the exhibitions at the Circus.

The nature of the spectacle meant it was relatively easy to approach the Emperor. Plautius Lateranus planned to ask Nero for financial aid and throw himself at the Roman leader’s feet. While Nero was caught off guard, Lateranus would grab the Emperor, throw him to the ground and pin him down. Next, a host of tribunes and centurions would run over and stab Nero to death. Then Piso would arrive and seek the approval of the crowd.

Betrayal

Tacitus writes that the betrayal came from the house of Flavius Scaevinus, one of the conspirators, although he did not give up the plot voluntarily.  The day before the plot was to take place; Scaevinus returned home and asked his freedman Milichus to sharpen his dagger. Then he hosted an elaborate dinner and gave his favourite slaves money; and in some cases, freedom. Finally, he told his servants that he wanted dressings for wounds and appliances for halting hemorrhages.

It is not known whether Milichus already knew about the plot or if his master’s instructions made him suspicious; Tacitus asserts the latter scenario. In any case, he listened to his wife’s advice and decided to tell Nero everything he knew. The following morning, he went to the Servilian Gardens but was initially turned away. Eventually, he persuaded the porters to let him speak to the emperor’s freedman, Epaphroditus. Milichus ended up in front of Nero and told the emperor about the grave danger coming his way. He even showed Scaevinus’ dagger and demanded that the plotters be caught and punished.

Nero wasted no time in sending soldiers to the house of Scaevinus, and they brought him in front of the Emperor. Scaevinus claimed the dagger was a weapon that had been in the family for generations and denied any knowledge of a plot. Tacitus wrote that Scaevinus did an excellent job in batting away allegations to the point that Milichus’ accusation was in danger of falling apart. However, his wife reminded him of a long meeting between Scaevinus and Antonius Natalis; both men were friends with Piso.

Natalis was summoned, and he and Scaevinus were questioned separately. They were thrown in prison when their stories didn’t add up. After the threat of torture, Natalis broke and named Piso and a man named Annaeus Seneca; otherwise known as the famous philosopher, Seneca the Younger. Perhaps he included Seneca to curry favor with Nero who hated him. Eventually, Scaevinus also cracked and named the rest of the conspirators. The likes of Lucanus and Quintianus eventually admitted their role in the plot and gave further details in return for leniency. However, Nero was not in a lenient mood as the plotters learned to their cost.