Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe… All these names have in common being fictional detectives, born from the fertile imagination of writers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Other characters could be added to them who solved crimes without being dedicated to it professionally, such as Miss Marple, Father Brown, or William of Baskerville. But today we are going to talk about someone who really existed and who is part of History with a capital H, although he also investigated and solved a murder: Tiberius. Yes, the Emperor of Rome.

Tiberius Julius Caesar was the successor of Augustus on the throne. He was not the natural son of Augustus, but rather of his wife Livia Drusilla, who had him with a previous husband – a fervent supporter of Mark Antony – and who was adopted as heir after the deaths of Gaius Caesar and Lucius Julius Caesar, plus the exile of Agrippa Postumus, the emperor’s grandsons. Tiberius co-ruled with his stepfather for a year until the latter’s death in 14 AD allowed him to wear the purple in solitude. It seemed like a good choice, as he was an austere and traditionalist man who also distinguished himself in military arts, as demonstrated in the Cantabrian Wars, Germania, Illyria, Macedonia, and Dalmatia.

His shyness did not prevent him from being a good speaker – he delivered his father’s funeral speech in the Forum, despite being only nine years old – or from acquiring a great culture that allowed him to speak Greek as well as Latin, write poetry, and sponsor several poets. He was also a skilled horseman. All these qualities contrasted with some physical defects, as although he was tall and athletically built, he suffered from nearsightedness and advanced baldness that embarrassed him – like Julius Caesar, he combed his hair forward – not to mention the well-known dermatological problems that spoiled his face.

Furthermore, as time passed, his character became more cynical and bitter, showing signs of being tired of ruling; historians often recall that he never fully recovered from the forced separation from his beloved Vipsania, the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (close friend and right-hand man of Augustus). The final blow was the premature death of his son Drusus at the age of nine, which led him to abandon Rome and seclude himself in his villa in Capri, leaving political affairs in the hands of Lucius Aelius Sejanus (my partner, he called him, unaware that it was he who poisoned the young boy) and completely withdrawing from public life to embrace a rather depraved one, if we are to believe the questionable testimonies of Suetonius.

But two years before his retirement, which he fully began in 26 AD, he starred in a curious detective episode when he personally investigated the death of the wife of a newly elected praetor senator. His name was Marcus Plautius Silvanus and his unfortunate wife was Apronia, the daughter of Lucius Apronius, another distinguished senator who had served Augustus, first in the Illyrian Revolt of 7 AD as legate of General Gaius Vibius Postumus and eight years later, under Tiberius’ reign, in the German campaign under Aulus Caecina Severus and Gaius Silius, even being rewarded with a triumph upon his return.

Lucius Apronius had a son, Lucius Apronius Caesianus, who would develop his political career during the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, distinguishing himself militarily in the war against the Numidian Tacfarinas and being one of Sejanus’s closest friends, which allowed him to survive his Machiavellian actions, although Dion Cassius recounts that an excess of confidence with Tiberius, by making a joke about his baldness during the Floralia festivities – where a licentious and frivolous atmosphere prevailed – cost him a conviction.

Apart from this son, Lucius Apronius had two daughters. The first, Apronia Caesia, married Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Getulicus, who besides being a politician and a military man was a poet – he inspired Martial – and a writer – Tacitus and Suetonius cite him among their sources – but ended up executed by Caligula for being involved in the conspiracy of 39 AD against him. The other, Apronia (at that time girls were not yet given differentiated names, they carried their father’s nomen feminized and if there were several in the family they were distinguished by cardinals or by nicknames), married the aforementioned Marcus Plautius Silvanus in 24 AD.

His father, who bore the same name and had been consul and proconsul of Asia in the time of Augustus (fighting in Illyria alongside Tiberius and obtaining a triumph), had him with his wife Larcia (who also gave him a daughter, Plautia Urgulanilla, famous for being the first wife of Emperor Claudius). Little is known about Marcus Plautius Silvanus Jr., such as belonging to a gens of plebeian origin whose members claimed descent from Leucon – the offspring born from the union between the god Neptune and the Thessalian princess Themisto – and whose most illustrious representative to date had been Aulus Plautius, the general who led the conquest of Britannia and its first governor.

In 23 AD, he was appointed duumvir (public office simultaneously held by two men in Roman cities and colonies) of Trebula Suffenas, the Sabine city from which his family originated (and which even before being annexed by Rome was governed through a system of dual authority, the two meddiss). The following year, he was elected praetor and in the meantime married Fabia Numantina, a patrician daughter of Paulus Fabius Maximus (a lieutenant of Octavian in Hispania, where he founded the cities of Lucus Augusti, now Lugo, and Bracara Augusta, the Portuguese Braga) who later became proconsul of Asia.

Paulus Fabius Maximus belonged to one of the oldest gens in Rome, the Fabia, and was also married to Marcia Sempronia Atanina, who was Augustus’s maternal first cousin. Therefore, his daughter Fabia Numantina was a good match for Marcus Plautius Silvanus and married him (in second marriage, as she had previously been married to Sextus Apuleius, a great-grandnephew of Augustus). However, it was a short-lived marriage because, apparently, they divorced shortly before he assumed the praetorship. The dates are always confusing, but Tacitus says that by the time he received the office, he had remarried with the aforementioned Apronia.

Nor was this new marriage destined to last long; in 24 AD, Apronia died falling from a window. When questioned, the widower declared he knew nothing as he was asleep at the time, suggesting that perhaps it was a suicide.

However, everything seemed suspicious, and surprisingly, it was the emperor himself who took action, deciding to personally inspect the bedroom. Tiberius went to the scene of the incident and found a messy, disturbed room, which he considered clear evidence of a struggle. Consequently, he referred the case to the Senate to open a trial.

Marcus Plautius Silvanus then changed his story and blamed his ex-wife, Fabia Numantina, for having visited them and initiated a violent argument that ended in a homicidal assault by her. Whether true or not, this complicated matters because Fabia, let’s remember, was related to Augustus. It was advisable to get out of that uncomfortable situation quickly and discreetly before the trial began to avoid the foreseeable scandal; and that was taken care of by Urgulanilla, the accused’s grandmother.

Urgulanilla was an intimate friend of Livia Drusilla (the wife of Augustus), a woman of great cunning and power whom some historians consider more than likely to have come up with the idea that was applied: to have Marcus Plautius Silvanus receive a dagger and urge him to take his own life, in one of those examples of taking Roman virtus to the extreme. He complied immediately, and it seemed that with his death everything ended, but there was still a bitter epilogue that affected two other women.

The first was the aforementioned Fabia Numantina, who, according to Tacitus, had to endure a humiliation: being accused of witchcraft for “having caused her ex-husband, through magic potions and incantations, the madness attack that led him to push his wife out of the window”. Tiberius personally presided over the trial, although in the end, she was acquitted of all charges. The other, as a consequence of the resolution of the previous case, was Plautia Urgulanilla, the aforementioned sister of Marcus Plautius Silvanus, who was also implicated in the murder of her sister-in-law according to rumors.

With Fabia Numantina exonerated, Plautia Urgulanilla’s position in the imperial family was compromised, and her husband, the future Emperor Claudius, divorced her. There was no explicit evidence against her, so she was accused of adultery and immoral conduct with a freedman of hers named Botero.

Claudius claimed that he was the true father of her son and repudiated the child, ordering him to be left on the threshold of his mother’s house; it is not known if he survived that order.

After that detective initiative, Tiberius left Rome and settled on Capri, beginning the last and most controversial stage of his rule, which paradoxically weighed more on popular mentality. Therefore, few mourned his death in 37 AD, despite leaving a consolidated empire, economically buoyant, with state coffers overflowing, and secure borders. And a murder solved.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 15, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando el emperador romano Tiberio investigó y resolvió un caso de asesinato


Tácito, Anales | Dion Casio, Historia romana | Suetonio, Vidas de los doce césares | Gregorio Marañón, Tiberio. Historia de un resentimiento | Ronald Syme, The Augustan aristocracy | Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | Wikipedia

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