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Lucius Aelius Sejanus

by Max Paschall

Praetorian Prefect from 23-31 A.D., Sejanus received extraordinary power and trust from the emperor Tiberius. While in self-imposed exile on Capri, Tiberius entrusted Sejanus with the almost complete control of imperial affairs. But Sejanus betrayed that trust by continuously scheming to gain the throne, even poisoning Tiberius' son. Tiberius eventually discovered the truth about his "partner" and ended his ambition and his life in 31 A.D.

Sejanus started his career with his father as prefect (head) of the praetorian guard under Tiberius in the year 14 A.D. When his father was re-appointed as prefect of Egypt, Sejanus inherited the job as sole head of the praetorian guard in 23 A.D.. In his eight-year career Sejanus would unleash an infamous hell on the city of Rome.

In 19 A.D. Germanicus, Tiberius heir apparent, died under suspicious circumstances. Most likely, Tiberius had him poisoned because he believed Germanicus' popularity was a threat to his rule. It was also suspected that Tiberius had had Germanicus killed for the popular general's wasting of the Imperial treasury for a fleet of 1,000 ships which he failed to use. Sejanus was assigned to kill Germanicus' sons, but was only partially successful. Gaius, better known as "Caligula" (little boot), one of Germanicus' sons that survived, later became emperor. Six other children with Caligula escaped with there lives from Antioch, where the elimination of Germanicus and his family were supposed to occur.

Sejanus, according to Suetonius, was not particularly liked by Tiberius, however, in a speech to the Senate the emperor referred to him as "the partner of my labors." As time went on, Tiberius trusted Sejanus more and more. Meanwhile, Sejanus was gathering power for himself and eliminating all his potential rivals to the throne.

During an argument with Drusus, Drusus simply came over to Sejanus and socked him out of rage. After this Sejanus and Drusus were finding themselves often in conflict. Sejanus even began an affair with Drusus' wife, Livilla. As their affair became more involved, their fear of discovery grew. Sejanus even had two illegitimate children (Tiberius and Germanicus Gemellus) with Livilla. Ancient sources tell us most people thought they were sons of Drusus, but that even Tiberius was skeptical. Sejanus and Livilla planned and eventually gave Drusus a slow acting poison that killed him on the 14th of September, 23 A.D. Sejanus had eliminated his greatest contender for power.

Also in 23 A.D. Sejanus, with the consent of Tiberius, gathered all nine praetorian cohorts which were spread all over Italy at the time, and put them into one barracks inside the capitol. This arrangement would continue for the next 450 years.

Though Sejanus' mother was very distinguished, and his father very successful, he was still from an equestrian family and considered of "low birth." In the year 20 (according to Tacitus), to get an imperial marriage into his own family, Sejanus had his daughter betrothed to Claudius Drusus, the eldest son of Claudius. Only a few days before the ceremony was to occur, however, Claudius Drusus choked on a pear and died. Sejanus then had his sister, Aelia Paetina, married to Claudius (who was not yet emperor) himself. But none of these efforts brought Sejanus any closer to the throne. In 25 Sejanus requested Tiberius' approval to marry Livilla but to the prefect's dismay the emperor denied it due to his low birth.

In 27 Tiberius self-imposed his own exile (or semi-retirement) to Capri for the rest of his life, and left Sejanus as his agent to carry out his orders. Tiberius lived on the resort island of Capri for the rest of his years while all hell broke loose in the eternal city. In the Year 29, Tiberius's mother, Livia, died. Without her watching, Sejanus increasingly felt free to conduct his devious work without the risk of being caught.

For a long time the populace had written graffiti "Rendite nos Germanicum!", or in English "Give us back Germanicus," all over the city. Germanicus' wife, Agrippina, had lead riots against Tiberius for eliminating the beloved Germanicus. Tiberius's popularity and PR was going down the drain, so to speak. Tiberius had a dupondius struck for Agrippina with the personification IVSTITIA, or Justice (alluding to her search for it). When this did not appease her, Sejanus and Tiberius accused her of having an affair with Ascinius Gallus, a man who had aspired to the throne since Augustus's reign. The emperor and Sejanus finally defamed her and had Agrippina and her eldest son Nero Caesar arrested. She was so severely punished that she lost an eye in one of the many floggings she received from a centurion. In 29 she was banished, along with Nero Caesar, to the island of Pandataria where in 30 or 31 both were starved to death. Evidently, Pandataria was the island of exile for Agrippina's mother, Julia, after she had committed promiscuity.

In the year 31 Sejanus' schemes grew bolder and he conspired to overthrow the emperor himself. After Nero Caesar's death Sejanus was betrothed to his wife Livia Julia (although, it is not perfectly clear whether Sejanus was betrothed to Livia Julia, or her mother Livilla). In either case, it seems he was still carrying on an affair with Livilla. Sejanus had finally married into the imperial household and had also been named joint consul with Tiberius in 31. He must have believed the empire was within his grasp.

But then, at the peak of his power, Antonia, sister-in-law of Tiberius, evidently found a document revealing his plot to overthrow the aging emperor. Antonia happily showed it to the emperor. In response, Tiberius cunningly offered Sejanus' occupation to one of the Praetorian Guard, Naevius Sertorius Macro, if he would have Sejanus arrested. Sejanus was finally executed on the 18th of October, 31 A.D.. Sejanus' partisans and family were arrested and executed one by one. Statues of Sejanus were destroyed and his name and portraits around the city and the empire defaced. When his first wife, Apicata, was arrested, and when about to die she revealed that Sejanus and Livilla had murdered the emperor's son, Drusus.

The coins of Sejanus did not have his portrait on them but instead had him named as joint consul with Tiberius in 31. Many of these coins are defaced in a damnatio memoriae. Unfortunately his coins are extremely rare. Only 19 are known, though we are bound to find others.


  1. www.numismatiklanz.com

  2. Drew Cardinale (My Latin teacher!)

  3. COINAGE and HISTORY of the ROMAN EMPIRE, by David L. Vagi, Vol. I

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