I noticed that many of the people executed by Nero were ordered to commit suicide or their deaths were made to look like a suicide. This is despite the fact that, in at least some cases, armed soldiers were sent to the condemned person. For example, several of the Pisonian conspirators were ordered to commit suicide:
- Piso (see Tacitus, The Annals, XV.59)
- Seneca the Younger (see Tacitus, The Annals, XV.63)
- Vestinus (see Tacitus, The Annals, XV.69)
- Lucan (see Tacitus, The Annals, XV.70)
Additionally, Nero ordered the execution of his ex-wife Octavia, but her death was made to look like a suicide (see Tacitus, The Annals, XV.64). Similarly, Nero ordered the execution of his mother Agrippina and framed it as a suicide (though the exact nature of her execution is uncertain).
It makes sense that Nero preferred to frame the deaths of Agrippina and Octavia as suicides since it might look bad for him to publicly execute his own mother and ex-wife (even if Agrippina may have been plotting to overthrow Nero). But why order some of the Pisonian conspirators to commit suicide? The people implicated in the conspiracy were plotting to assassinate their emperor, which would have given Nero ample reason to execute them. Furthermore, Nero did have some of the conspirators executed by the sword, e.g.:
I surveyed the executions ordered by the emperors preceding Nero to see if any of them had ordered suicides instead of executing people outright by the sword. However, I can't find a clear precedent for such an execution method:
- Throughout his life, Augustus ordered many executions (e.g. the proscriptions he ordered as part of the Second Triumvirate). As far as I can tell, none of the targeted individuals were ordered to commit suicide -- they were simply executed. There were, of course, a number of suicides by Augustus' defeated enemies (Cassius, Brutus, and Marcus Antonius), but they committed suicide to avoid capture.
- Tiberius also ordered executions (e.g. Sejanus and his supporters and relatives) but, again, none of those deaths seem to have been suicides.
- Caligula had many people executed, usually for plotting against him or because they were political threats to him. The only exception seems to be Macro, who was removed from office and consequently driven to suicide.
- There were several conspiracies against Claudius and the conspirators were generally executed. The only exception I can find is the usurper Scribonianus, who did commit suicide but only in order to avoid capture after his rebellion failed.
Since previous emperors did not hesitate to publicly execute conspirators against them, why did Nero order some executions by suicide? It seems a bit silly to send an armed soldier to a condemned person and have him stand around while the condemned bled to death, especially if Nero had precedent and justification to simply have the soldier slay the condemned person with his sword.