Without a Trace: 10 People the Romans Tried to Erase from History

Bronze copy of the inscription outlining Piso’s memory sanctions: the “Senatus consultum de pisone patre”. Eagle Project

Gnaus Calpurnius Piso

From the illustrious family of the Calpurnii Pisones, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso was your quintessential aspiring Roman politician. He was a close friend of the Emperor Tiberius, holding the consulship with him in 7 BC, and went on to receive a prestigious promotion to become governor of Syria in 17 AD. But while he got along wonderfully with the emperor, his relationship was Tiberius’s heir apparent, the dashing young warrior prince Germanicus, was sour. Piso deeply resented Germanicus’s power and influence and the two gradually drifted apart, with Piso officially renouncing their friendship (which I suppose is the ancient equivalent of unfriending him) around 19 AD.

In October the same year, Germanicus fell sick in Antioch. Many, including Germanicus himself, believed he’d been poisoned by Piso, and his rapid decline and agonising death only served to confirm this. With the whole of Rome was mourning their darling prince, Piso began acting suspiciously. He was recalled to Rome by the emperor but prevaricated, sending his son on ahead while he spent time wandering around Greece and Anatolia with his army. Ultimately he returned to Rome where he was brought to trial and found guilty. He was then ordered to commit suicide; a sentence he carried out on himself in 20 AD.

We have a remarkable piece of evidence for the memory sanctions taken against Piso: a giant Latin inscription, of which several copies have survived completely intact. Known as the Senatus consultum de pisone patris (the senatorial edict concerning Piso), it decreed that all his portraits, public and private and across the entire Empire, be destroyed, presumably a considerable number given Piso’s political standing. It also forbade his imago (probably referring to his death mask) to be displayed anywhere, even at his funeral as was traditional in Roman funerary practice.

As well as removing his image, the Senate set out to expunge his very existence, not just as a politician but as a member of the respected Calpurnii Pisones family. The edict decreed that women weren’t allowed to mourn him, as they were expected to do when the paterfamilias passed, and Piso’s eldest son was asked to change his name to end his line. Piso’s name was erased from a series of inscriptions, including one beneath a statue of Germanicus in Rome’s Campus Martius. Finally, any extensions he’d built onto his private property were ordered to be destroyed, preventing him from leaving even an architectural legacy.