The Case of Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus
The Romans were also suspicious about arcane foreign practices- even if they were very similar to their own. Public augury, where state defined diviners discerned the will of the gods from natural phenomena was perfectly respectable. However, foreign practices such as astrology were regarded as suspect- especially when they employed in private. Such methods became increasingly common as Rome’s empire expanded and eastern diviners and magicians came to its capital.
Emperor Tiberius also had a somewhat contradictory attitude to divination and the arcane arts. He believed in them, as he kept his own astrologer, Thrasyllus of Mendes. However, his belief in the effectiveness of astrology also made Tiberius paranoid about the use unauthorized horoscopes could be put to – especially those that predicted his death. This paranoia reached its peak in 16AD when the emperor instigated the first of series of treason trials based on the private use of divination and magic.
The trial was that of Marcus Scribonius Libo Drusus, an event that, according to Tacitus “initiated an evil which for many years corroded public life.” Libo was a wealthy aristocrat, distantly affiliated to the imperial family through his great-grandfather Pompey and his great aunt, Scribonia, the emperor Augustus’s first wife. Besides liking to drink, gamble and live the high life, Libo was fascinated by the new range of occult activities now available in Rome. Through a friend Firmius Catus, he became interested in “astrologers, predictions, magician’s rites and readers of dreams.’
While Libo was oblivious to the dangers of his new hobby, Catus was undoubtedly aware. He encouraged his friend- at the same time gathering evidence against him. For Catus was a junior senator with ambitions. He eventually approached the emperor with what he knew, in the hopes of gaining imperial favor. Tiberius, however, had already heard of Libo’s unwise occult antics. He decided to keep this distant relative close so he could watch him, making him a praetor and inviting him to dine at the palace.
Finally, Libo damned himself. He approached a man called Junius to practice necromancy on his behalf- and Junius went straight to an ambitious prosecutor, Lucius Fulcinius Trio. Trio charged Libo with having a document containing “mysterious or sinister marks against the names of imperial personages and senators.” Libo knew he was doomed, for the report; taken with his other activities implied he was seeking Tiberius’s death. His friends turned their backs on him, leaving him alone and unrepresented at his trial.
Having grasped the reality of his actions a little too late, Libo killed himself just before the court delivered its verdict. However, his property was still divided amongst his accusers- setting a profitable president for future informers. The idea of profit also appealed to Tiberius. However, whatever the emperor’s motives for the trial or his personal beliefs about Libo’s intentions, Tiberius was taking no chances. That very year, he expelled all magicians and diviners from Italy- except for his own. Tiberius may have now felt safe from death by magic. However, his nephew and adopted son did not.