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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:

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.

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    One reason that comes to mind that the suicide would keep the estate of the deceased in the family instead of falling to the state. So it would be the 'mildest form' of death penalty keeping the family fortune and the prospects of the heirs in tact. Just conjecture, though. – Bookeater Oct 5 '16 at 20:07
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    Suicide also offers a number of advantages to the Emperor: a) no official recognition of the conspiration (or at least its size); if your hold of power is not as good as you wished there is no good in telling that many influential people did conspire against you, b) no execution means no trial; those who could be close to the victim (his gens) or afraid of what he could declare now are safer and have less reason to revolt to ensure their survival and will (hopefully) have learnt that becoming a conspirator is a bad idea; and so limit the damage caused by the repression. – SJuan76 Oct 6 '16 at 0:13
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    Also, could you check if the "suicided" were Senators or similar? It is possible that Nero just wanted to avoid antagonizing the Senate which still was, formally, the legal power of Rome. – SJuan76 Oct 6 '16 at 0:20
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    @SJuan76 I can't find a strong correlation between "suicided" and senators. Piso and was a senator and "suicided", and Vestinus was consul when he was "suicided"...but Plautius Lateranus was a consul-elect and was executed (without even a chance to say goodbye to his children, according to Tacitus). Part of the difficulty in making a correlation may be that some of the ones executed were offered suicide but refused to do so out of defiance. – Null Oct 7 '16 at 15:45
  • @null A consul-elect is also a senator, and a rather senior one. – Felix Goldberg Mar 14 '17 at 7:08
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No contemporary author offered a reason why Nero would have ordered that some of the conspirators should be "executed by suicide". However, the Pisonian conspirators were by no means the only high-ranking Romans that he ordered to commit suicide. Another high-profile example that springs to mind is the general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo.


One of the things that set the Pisonian conspiracy apart from the plots and conspiracies that preceded it in the reigns of earlier emperors was its scale.

Our most complete account of the conspiracy comes from Tacitus (Annals, Book XV). We know that there were at least 41 people involved in the Pisonian Conspiracy. There may well have been many others, but according to Cassius Dio, Tigellinus allowed others to go free in return for substantial bribes:

... many, as I have stated, were put to death, and many others, purchasing their lives from Tigellinus for a great price, were released.

Of those conspirators we know, it is not always easy to determine their rank. It seems that 20 were Senators, 9 were Equites, 8 were soldiers, and 4 were women (including the freedwoman Epicharis who managed to commit suicide while being held in captivity and tortured). The conspiracy had succeeded in bringing together representatives of the Senatorial class, the Equites, and the military.

For convenience, I've listed the conspirators below, grouped according to their fate:


Executed or forced to commit suicide (19):

  • Gaius Calpurnius Piso (S),
  • Plautius Lateranus (S),
  • Marcus Annaeus Lucanus ("Lucan") (S),
  • Afranius Quintianus (S),
  • Flavius Scaevinus (S),
  • Seneca the Younger (S),
  • Marcus Vestinus Atticus(S),
  • Claudius Senecio (E),
  • Vulcatius Araricus (E),
  • Julius Augurinus (E),
  • Munatius Gratus (E),
  • Marcius Festus (E),
  • Faenius Rufus (M),
  • Subrius Flavus (M),
  • Sulpicius Asper (M),
  • Maximus Scaurus (M),
  • Venetus Paulus (M),
  • Antonia (W),
  • Epicharis (F).

Exiled or denigrated (17):

  • Novius Priscus (S),
  • Annius Pollio (S),
  • Glitius Gallus (S),
  • Rufrius Crispinus (S),
  • Cluvidienus Quietus (S),
  • Julius Agrippa (S),
  • Blitius Catulinus (S),
  • Petronius Pricus (S),
  • Julius Altinus (S),
  • Caesennius Maximus (S),
  • Cornelius Martialis (S),
  • Flavius Nepos (S),
  • Statius Domitius (S),
  • Verginius Flavus (E),
  • Musonius Rufus (E),
  • Caedicia (W),
  • Pompeius (M).

Pardoned or acquitted (5):

  • Antonius Natalis (E),
  • Cervarius Proculus (E),
  • Statius Proxumus (M),
  • Gavius Silvanus (M), (Subsequently committed suicide)
  • Acilia (W).

E - Equites; S - Senator; M - Soldiers (miles); W - Women of Senatorial rank; F - Freedwoman;


Even if some of these were just Nero taking the opportunity of settling scores (as is suggested by Tacitus), this was a large-scale conspiracy that included popular Senators, senior military figures and individuals with privileged access to the emperor's person. It has rightly been described as "The beginning of the end for Emperor Nero" (albeit with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight).

The very existence of the conspiracy weakened the emperor's position. What Nero could not afford was a series of public trials that could inspire further opposition.

It has to be said that we do not know exactly how many of the 19 who paid the ultimate price in the aftermath of the conspiracy were actually ordered to commit suicide. In the case of Piso himself, we do know that he was ordered to commit suicide by Nero. As Vasily Rudich puts it:

Gaius Piso died in the customary manner - by severing his own veins. No less a custom by this time, and one he followed obediently - "for his love of his wife", we are told - was posthumous flattery of the emperor by the condemned in a testamentary document with the aim of securing the physical safety of the surviving members of the family, and even some piece of their inheritance, if by chance the entire estate was not to be confiscated.

  • [Rudich, 2005, p106]

For many of the other conspirators, Tacitus is less clear. He states that Subrius Flavus, Sulpicius Asper, and the Centurions were executed according to military discipline. We are given some detail regarding the suicides of Seneca and Vestinus. Lucan's suicide is implied, as are those of Senecio, Quintianus and Scaevinus. For the remainder, he tells us only that:

the rest of the conspirators, met their end, doing and saying nothing that calls for remembrance.

  • [Tacitus, Annals, XV, 70]

A further important factor that may have influenced Nero's decision is suggested the statement in Tacitus that he was worried about the negative effect of the publicity surrounding the executions. When Seneca's wife Pompeia Paullina attempted to emulate her husband's suicide, she was prevented from doing so on Nero's orders because he:

had no private animosity against Paulina, and did not wish to increase the odium of his cruelty

  • [Tacitus, Annals, XV, 64]

So, why would Nero order some executions by suicide?

From Nero's viewpoint, the suicides offered several benefits:

  1. The posthumous flattery from the victim (referred to above) could be used as propaganda to deflect people from the fact of the conspiracy (at the very least, it would feed Nero's ego!).
  2. The fact of the suicide could be used as evidence of guilt, and so he might hope that it wouldn't further "increase the odium of his cruelty".
  3. There was no need for a public trial which might inspire further opposition.
  4. The scale of the conspiracy could be concealed.
  5. The conspirators still ended up dead.

Sources

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    Good that someone has finally tried to answer this question. I checked David Shotter's 'Nero' and H.H. Scullard's 'From the Gracchi to Nero' - they also give no reason for the suicides so I'm upvoting this answer as it is the most helpful that we are likely to get. Only Miriam Griffin, in 'Nero: The End of a Dynasty' says anything which might be relevant: 'To commit suicide in order to avoid evil actions or even the recognition of illegal power was orthodox Stoic conduct,' - perhaps Nero, in a perverse way, thought he was avoiding 'evil actions' by not just executing them. – Lars Bosteen Oct 24 '17 at 3:47

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