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Piso Pontifex

(48 BCE - 32 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Bust of Pontifex Pontifex
Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen | Under Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.
Bust of Pontifex Pontifex found in the Papyrus Villa in Herculaneum.

Lucius Calpurnius Piso Pontifex was born in 48 BCE. He was a Roman senator and commander at the beginning of the Principate. He was the son of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, consul in 58 BCE, and the brother of Calpurnia Pisonia, who became the third wife of Julius Caesar.

Probably before becoming consul, Piso was proconsul of the province of Gallia Transpadana, where in Milan he presided over a murder trial. The culprit was defended by the orator Gaius Albutius Silus, a citizen of Novara. His zeal in defence led to such thunderous applause from the packed court that, despite their best efforts, the lictors failed to maintain order in the forum.

In 15 BCE Piso was elected consul along with Marcus Livius Drusus Libo. Just before or after his consulate, he campaigned against the Windels. They were a people of Celtic origin who lived in northern Rhaetia between the Danube, Ine and the Alps. It was at this time that it was conquered by Tiberius and Drusus.

Thracian War

In the years 13-11 BCE or 12-10 BCE, Piso fought against the Thracians. At that time Vologeses, the leader of the tribe of Bessians, and his followers rebelled. He defeated and killed Rescuporis II, the ruler of the Sapai tribe, in battle, and forced his uncle, Remetalces I, to flee. In pursuit of him, he invaded the Thracian Chersonesos, where he caused great devastation. Due to these events, Piso, who was then governor of Pamphylia and probably Galatia, was ordered to march against him. When the Bessians heard that Piso was approaching, they first retreated to their homeland. Then Piso entered their country, and although at first he was defeated, he conquered them one by one and devastated both their lands and the lands of the neighbouring tribes who had joined the revolt. Over three years, fighting both within city walls and in the open field, cutting down multitudes of enemies, Piso forced all these tribes to surrender. By ending the uprising, he simultaneously restored the security of Asia and the peace of Macedonia. For these successes, he was awarded supplications and triumphal badges (ornamenta triumphalia). Remetalces I then received from Augustus the lands of his deceased nephew, with certain additions, so that he became king over all the people of Thrace.

Tiburtine Stone

If the Tiburtine Stone (a fragment of the tombstone of an unknown Roman senator from the time of Augustus) speaks of Piso, it means that he was then proconsul of Asia and legate of Syria. His viceroy of Asia would have placed himself in this situation in 9/8 BCE or 8/7 BCE, and the governorship of Syria in 4-1 BCE. To confirm Piso Pontifex’s governorship of Asia, one of the epigrams of Antipater of Thessalonica is quoted, but it is not unambiguous. The inscription from Stratonikea in Caria regarding the governor of Asia mentions Lucius Calpurnius Piso, but it probably refers to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Augur, who is known to have been the proconsul of Asia. There are also two inscriptions (from Hierapolis-Kastabala in Cilicia Pedia and a yet unpublished one from Oenoanda in Lycia) that speak of Piso as legatus pro praetore and honor him as a benefactor and patron. The first is sometimes cited as a confirmation of the governorship of Syria by Piso Pontifex, but it is also possible that it refers to him as legate of Galatia-Pamphylia and not Syria, just as the second inscription undoubtedly can refer only to the governorship of Galatia-Pamphylia. Ronald Syme, however, believes that the inscription from Hierapolis-Castabala may also refer to another Lucius Piso.

City Prefect

For fifteen years, from 17 CE until 32 CE, Piso was praefectus urbi(commander of the city guard) and his task was to maintain security in Rome. It was widely believed that he was given the position because he was expected to feast and drink with Tiberius for two days straight after he became emperor. According to Seneca, Piso was drunk constantly from the moment he first became drunk. He would spend most of the night revelling and then sleep until almost six o’clock. This was what his every morning was supposed to look like. At the same time, however, together with Tacitus and Welleius Paterculus, he emphasizes that he performed his service as thoroughly as possible, being the prefect of the city. He never uttered servile statements for his benefit, and when the situation forced him to do so, he knew how to do them wisely. It was the gentle exercise of this office and not the honour of triumph which he had earned in Thrace, that was the chief claim to his fame. Suetonius and Josephus incorrectly determine the time when Piso was prefect of the capital.

Writers’ supervisor

Antipater of Thessalonica, acting as a philosophy teacher in Rome, was a client of Piso. As an ambassador of his native city, he was sent to it and offered Piso a poem celebrating his victory over Bess. Piso was pleased with what he heard because Antipater joined his circle of friends and of his over a hundred epigrams, many of them mentioned Piso.

According to Pomponius Porphyry, it was to this Piso and his two sons that Horace addressed his letter “On Poetic Art” (De arte poetica). Porphyry also wrote that Piso was himself a poet and a protector of the liberal arts. Recently, however, scholars have agreed with the opinion of philologists from the 19th century, who see the addressees as Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, consul in 23 BCE, and his sons: Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, consul in 7 BCE and Piso Augur, consul in 1 BCE.

Similarly, the saying of Octavian Augustus quoted by Plutarch refers to one of the above Piso’s, although it is not known exactly which one. As Piso was carefully building the house, from the foundation to the roof, Augustus said to him, “You give me great joy by building Rome as if it were eternal”.

Piso died of natural causes in 32 CE, being a high priest, which was rare for such a distinguished position at that time. By resolution of the Roman Senate, Piso was honoured with a public funeral.

His daughter Calpurnia married Nonius Asprenas, additional consul in 6 CE.

  • Hazel John, Who's who in the Roman World, 2002

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