In 2016, I visited Rome for a week. On a sunny Sunday, I rented a bike to ride the Via Appia Antica, or the Appian Way. This ancient road has led into Rome for 2,400 years.
Appia Antica is lined with the ruins of hundreds of monuments and memorials. As I rode along I snapped a photo of a particularly well-preserved memorial. It wasn’t until I got home that I inspected the photo carefully. It was not a great photo but the ancient memorial was captured in good detail. I looked at the figures and the names.
It featured a Roman man named Caius (Gaius) Rabirius Postumus Hermadorus. In the center was his wife, who had taken the name Rabiria Demaris. On the right was an image of their “Usia Prima Sacerdos”, or family god. She was Isis, the Egyptian goddess who leads the dead to the afterlife.
I had never heard of this Rabirius fellow. I wondered who he was, why his memorial was so nifty, and why he had taken an Egyptian goddess to represent his family.
My research took me on a fascinating journey into the most turbulent period in Roman history: the dawn of the Imperium. Rabirius may have been a nobody, but he was heavily involved with the most famous Romans of his day.
We should begin by backing up a bit and looking into Rabirius’ past…
He was born into a patrician family and was adopted by his uncle, a senator also named Gaius Rabirius. Old Rabirius was from a respected family and by 100 BCE had become a senator of Rome. At that time, the republic was in turmoil. The optimates (dedicated to representing the ruling elite) were squaring off against the populares (somewhat dedicated to representing the common citizens). Battle lines were being drawn.
Two great generals – Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius – represented the two sides. Sulla was an optimate who believed the republic should be ruled by wealthy patrician families. Marius, a general whose military reforms included opening the army to common plebeians, had become sympathetic to the cause of the populares. These two influential men had influential followers in the senate. Things were heating up.
In 100 BCE, Marius formed a political circle with the tribune of the plebs, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus. Marius became the anvil through which Saturninus pounded out new land reform laws that favored the plebeians, usually at the cost of the wealthy land-owning optimates. As you can imagine, the entrenched elite weren’t going to take this sitting down. Their champion Sulla had some friends, too. He also had soldiers willing to do anything for him.
After Saturninus pushed through a slate of new land reforms, Sulla stepped in. He and his optimate buddies drafted decrees that rolled back the land reforms and threatened violent reprisals against anyone who dared oppose them. The senate was split, with violence sure to follow.
In 99 BCE there were new elections. Saturninus and his pal Glaucia kept their seats. But in their zeal to win at any cost, they decided – during the election – to murder their political opponent, a man named Gaius Memmius. Now, Memmius was not a beloved character, but to slaughter him during the ballot count was a bit much, even for the people of Rome.
The voters of Rome went ballistic and demanded justice against the murderers. The senate declared Saturninus and Glaucia enemies of the state. The two men fled to a defensible building on the Capitoline hill. Roman sentries cut off their water supply and began a siege. Marius offered the men safe passage to the old senate house known as the Curia Hostilia. Marius assured Saturninus and Glaucius that if they went with him willingly they would receive a fair trial and possibly even exoneration. The two men agreed. Marius guided them safely to the Curia Hostilia.
Enter the elder Gaius Rabirius.
Rabirius was an old school optimate. He believed in the supremacy of the landed aristocracy and he was determined to see any populist reforms strangled in the crib. In his mind, he could not afford to have Saturninus and Glaucia escape justice. They were too dangerous and had to be stopped. So Rabirius and a group of his best friends climbed up the walls of the Curia Hostilia, peeled back some of the roof tiles and proceeded to rain huge rocks down onto Saturninus, Glaucia, and a bunch of their followers. They were literally shooting fish in a barrel and all the men inside the Curia were slaughtered in a horrific way.
Rome may have been a wild and wooly place where powerful men could get away with anything, but there were limits and Rabirius had crossed them. Saturninus and Glaucia were criminals, but daylight vigilantism in the Roman Forum was not a well-received practice. One of the men killed inside the Curia Hostilia had a nephew named Titus Labienus. Labienus was not happy that his uncle was summarily executed by a gang of wealthy optimates. Nonetheless, the optimates maintained a solid grip on Rome. Rabirius and his gang were unofficially (quietly) excused of their crimes. The fact that Rabirius and his pals remained not only free but able to retain their senate seats galled young Titus Labienus but the optimates were in control and there was little he could do.
Fast forward to 63 BCE. The still-seething Labineus had become Tribune of the Plebs and hatched a plan with his new pal, a populist Roman senator named Julius Caesar. He wanted Caesar to provide justice for his uncle’s killer, that awful old man Gaius Rabirius, who still sat smugly in the senate house.
Caesar was from an influential family and though he was sympathetic to the populares he also considered himself a law-and-order kind of guy. He had his own ambitions and wanted to teach the senate an object lesson in political power – and he wanted to do it legally. This would put the senate on notice that Rome was no longer a free-for-all and that civic reforms could not be summarily reversed by the optimates.
So Caesar revived a very old criminal statute known as Perduello, a form of high treason. On the senate floor, he leveled the charge of Perduello at Gaius Rabirius. If convicted, the punishment was death – and not just any death. Those guilty of Perduello would be thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, a seventy foot cliff at the summit of the Capitoline Hill. The lucky ones died instantly. Those who survived the fall would be left to die slowly. No one would assist them. Their assets would be seized and their houses razed to the ground. The elder Gaius Rabirius was in a world of shit.
In addition to being a craven murderer, Gaius Rabirius was also a resourceful man. He knew the optimates in the senate still held sway. He reached out to them and they responded.
To lead his legal defense, Rabirius hired the best damn attorney in all of Rome: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was not just a lawyer; he was considered one of the greatest orators and political thinkers of his age. His reputation resounds down the millennia and most Roman scholars consider him to be one of the most thoughtful and brilliant Romans who ever lived. Cicero took the case. He liked hard cases.
There was no point in trying to prove the innocence of Gaius Rabirius. He was caught red-handed at the Curia Hostilia those many years ago. There were hundreds of witnesses. There was zero doubt he had led the murders of Saturninus and Glaucia. So Cicero took another tack: obfuscate and re-direct. His speech in defense of Gaius Rabirius survives and is known as “Pro Rabirio Reo Perduellionis” (“In Defense of Rabirius Accused of Treason”). In it, Cicero asks the senate to recall recent acts of political murder that went not only unpunished, but became damn near codified. Before he levels a claim of hypocrisy at his fellow senators, he proceeds to ramble through a huge chunk of Roman history, replete with its vendettas, conspiracies, and extra-legal murders.
If this is the history and hallmark of Rome, Cicero asks, who are we to condemn Gaius Rabirius for continuing this state of affairs? By what right does Rome resurrect this outdated charge of Perduello? Why now? And why Rabirius? Is it because of…maybe…I dunno…a hypocritical political vendetta maybe? Hmm?
It was a convincing argument but it may not have been enough to exonerate Rabirius. Before the verdict could be read, the flag on the Janiculum hill suddenly lowered, a signal that the Senate assembly was immediately dissolved. No conclusion of guilt could be leveled against Gaius Rabirius.
Now we return to the story of Gaius Rabirius’ adopted son Gaius Rabirius Postumus.
Young Gaius Rabirius Postumus studied hard. He learned oration and law and got pretty good at it. His father’s acquittal kept the family name pure, so young Rabirius had a good chance of making his own mark in the senate. And he did. But just like his uncle, his impetuous nature would lead him into serious trouble.
When young Gaius Rabirius Postumus came to power, many of the same players were still on the senate stage. Cicero was still a respected senator, as was Julius Caesar. Famed Stoic senator Cato the Younger was known to never miss a session. Young Gaius Rabirius Postumus took a seat alongside his new colleagues. Rabirius was in the optimate majority, but all fresh-faced young senators needed powerful political allies. You had to hitch a ride on the biggest star you could find. Young Rabirius chose Gnaeus Pompey Magnus – Pompey the Great. Pompey was the grandaddy of the conservative optimates. A good choice.
Pompey was a tremendously successful and ruthless general. He had fought brilliantly in foreign wars as well as a civil wars at the head of Sulla’s armies during pitched battles between the populares and optimates. He put down rebellions in Sicily and Africa. He mopped up Spartacus’ slave army during the Third Servile War, hunting down and massacring 6,000 men, women, and children. He wiped out Mediterranean piracy, then soundly defeated Mithridates in Armenia, ending decades of military failures with a resounding victory. He “pacified” Syria and Judea and enjoyed no less than three triumphs in Rome.
In short, Pompey was the very definition of a victorious Roman general. Now that he sat as one of the two consuls of Rome, young Gaius Rabirius Postumus danced his way into Pompey’s sphere and gained favor. It’s good to have powerful friends, but Rabirius would soon learn that if you pledge yourself to the Godfather, it may not work out as well as you expect.
In 58 BCE, there were some stirrings in Egypt. The Ptolemaic King of Egypt (Ptolemy XII Auletes, which means “flute-player”) was in some serious trouble. When Rome conquered his brother’s kingdom of Cyprus, Ptolemy XII did – and said – nothing. He was in the thrall of his Roman overlords. This ethnic treachery was very unpopular with the Egyptians. How can you trust a man who betrays his own brother? But Ptolemy XII’s excessive taxes were even less popular.
Ptolemy XII needed those taxes to pay back his many Roman creditors. Among those creditors was young Gaius Rabirius Postumus, who had sunk a huge chunk of his family fortune into Ptolemy’s debt obligations, hoping for a massive return once the Egyptian king got his shit together and stabilized his rule. But that wasn’t going to happen. The Roman debt drove the taxes, which angered a mob already enraged about his political capitulation to the Roman foreigners. The Egyptian people had had enough. They stormed the palace and the king ran off to Rome with his soon-to-be-famous daughter, Cleopatra. His other daughter, Berenice IV, took the Egyptian throne. This was really bad news for young Gaius Rabirius Postumus. His fortune was evaporating before his eyes.
In Rome, Pompey housed Ptolemy XII and the cute-as-a-button Cleopatra. Pompey stood up in the senate house, decrying the unfairness of Ptolemy’s exile. After all, he was a friend of Rome who kept his mouth shut about all that nastiness in Cyprus! He should be reinstated, by force if necessary!
But the senate was well aware of what was going on. The Pompey faction was dumb enough to lend Ptolemy huge sums of money, and they lost that bet. In the senate’s mind, it was tough nuggets. They would not spill Roman blood to reinstate a king whose poor judgment and sloppy accounting had gotten his dumb ass kicked out of Egypt. It was all a ploy to claw back their investment losses, and that’s not good enough for war. The senate house filled with a resounding NO.
This did not sit well with young Rabirius. Pompey could afford the losses but Rabirius and his fellow back-benchers were ruined. Rabirius pleaded with Pompey to come up with some kind of solution. There must be a way to get Ptolemy XII back on the throne and get the tax revenue rolling again. Pompey had an idea…
Back in the old days when Pompey was fighting pirates on the Mediterranean, there was a very skillful and discreet commander named Aulus Gabinius. The two men saw eye-to-eye and like Pompey, Gabinius was a very ambitious fellow. Pompey drew up a plan. He convinced the deposed Egyptian king to pay Gabinius 10,000 talents to bankroll a mercenary army to attack Egypt and restore his throne. This deal was illegal, but by keeping his own money out of the equation, Pompey had some plausible deniability.
Gabinius put together a private invasion force, which included a young commander named Marc Antony – a man who would one day return to Egypt in a very big way. The Roman mercenaries sailed to Egypt and sacked Alexandria. Berenice IV surrendered the palace and begged for her father’s mercy. Ptolemy XII took back his throne and had his daughter Berenice and all her entourage executed. The dust settled and commander Marc Antony was introduced to the 14-year-old Cleopatra. Yet that romance would have to wait: Marc Antony had big things happening in Rome, so he sailed home.
Gabinius’ men stayed on in Alexandria to protect the throne of Ptolemy XII and they became known as the Gabiniani. (These 2500 soldiers went native pretty quickly and would one day support Ptolemy’s son, the adolescent Ptolemy XIII, against Julius Caesar in the fight to place Cleopatra on the throne.)
Anyway, now that Ptolemy XII was back in charge, the problem of his debts still remained. Gaius Rabirius Postumus was particularly pushy about it. He sent endless letters demanding payment. Ptolemy responded with claims of poverty. The treasury was bare. The best the king could do was IOU’s and promises. This did not sit well with the frustrated Rabirius. He took his complaints to Pompey the Great, who told the young upstart to work something out with Ptolemy. Pompey had done what he promised to do; the rest was up to Rabirius.
To shut up his annoying Roman creditor, Ptolemy made Rabirius an offer: come to Egypt and serve as the Minister of Finance. Surely the smart young Roman would have no problem levying taxes and maybe skimming a bit off the top to make back those losses. Rabirius knew nothing about national finance, but this was the only path offered to restore his fortune, so he accepted.
Rabirius sailed to Alexandria and got to work. He wanted his money back ASAP so the first thing he did was ramp up taxation toot sweet. It had apparently not occurred to him that this same greedy behavior had caused the recent overthrow of the king, but Rabirius gambled that the well-armed Roman Gabiniani soldiers would quell any citizen revolts.
So the taxes went up and up, and Rabirius skimmed off the top with wild abandon. He wanted to rebuild his lost investment as quickly as humanly possible and he assumed the Gabiniani would guarantee his authority to do so. He was wrong.
Within a year, there was another massive citizen revolt. The Gabiniani were unwilling to suppress it. Ptolemy, being a wily fellow, knew the people had no love for Romans so he pointed the finger of blame directly at Rabirius. What the king didn’t expect was an armed attack on the treasury. Fearful of reprisals should a Roman senator get murdered on his watch, the king quickly shut Rabirius in a prison cell to save him from the angry mob.
The king calmly informed the mob that Rabirius would go on trial like any other criminal. But the king was also keenly aware that if Rabirius was convicted and executed, his other Roman creditors would go ballistic and he may even lose the support of Rome. So in late autumn, he had Rabirius secretly released from prison and hustled onto a ship bound for Rome.
Back in Rome, Gaius Rabirius Postumus was an unhappy camper. He had escaped Alexandria with his life, but he still lost a huge chunk of his fortune. Being an irascible fellow, he started complaining in the senate house. He used what authority he had as a senator and friend of Pompey to whip up support for his selfish cause. After all, how could they allow this Greek-Egyptian sometimes-king to cheat a distinguished senator of Rome?
This was not a smart move.
Pompey’s enemies got wind of Rabirius’ whining and put it all together. Clearly, the Pompey faction was playing fast and loose with senatorial power. But the populares in the senate had to move carefully. The restoration of Ptolemy XII may have been unsanctioned but it was also successful and popular. The senate would be hard pressed to condemn Pompey for winning yet another brilliant campaign, even if it was illegal. The people of Rome wouldn’t have it.
But a Roman senator bilking a province? That was a crime, albeit selectively enforced. They decided to enforce it.
Gaius Rabirius Postumus was duly accused of De Repetundis, also known as extortion. Roman governors often engaged in extortion (if not wholesale theft) when they ruled a province. But if the governor’s greed led to instability, they were sometimes accused of De Repetundis. The penalty was usually a massive fine, and sometimes exile. Like his adoptive father before him, Gaius Rabirius Postumus was in a world of shit.
Rather than gaining sympathy from the Roman senate, Rabirius now faced a serious charge. And there was only one man who could get him out of it: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Like his father before him, Rabirius needed the sharp mind of Rome’s greatest lawyer to get his dumb ass out of the soup.
However, Rabirius had a hurdle: money. He had escaped Alexandria without a penny of his ill-gotten tax-skimming gains. So he leaned on his wife, Rabiria Demaris. Her family was rich as hell. Surely they could help? And they did. Cicero got his retainer and took the job. His defense of Rabirius was strikingly similar to his defense of the elder Rabirius and it also survives to this day as “Pro Rabirio Postumo”. In it, he re-frames Rabirius as a hapless, rash fellow who was merely doing his best to secure his assets as any man would. There’s plenty of “who among us?” interrogatories and obfuscations. It was another piece of Ciceronian legal theater and it worked like a charm.
It is not known if Gaius Rabirius Postumus ever got his fortune restored, but he did get acquitted, and he did build a lovely memorial for himself, his wife, and his newly adopted Egyptian goddess on the Via Appia Antica. It’s hard to prove, but I suspect part of Rabirius’ penance was to accept Isis as the family god. He surely had no love for Egypt, so it seems likely the adoption of Isis was forced upon him.
Regardless, the memorial still stands on the Via Appia Antica for all to see. Tourists take snapshots, but few have ever heard of him and even fewer know his story. Gaius Rabirius Postumus may have been a footnote in Roman history, but around him swirled the timeless stories of mighty men like Pompey, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Ptolemy, and Cleopatra. He was a player in the game at a moment in history when a thriving republic became an unapologetic empire.
Next time you are in Rome, rent a bike and head down the Via Appia Antica. Just past the Via Degli Eugenii is a monument to the Rabirii. Stop and take a look. There is the face of a man who, though a fool and a scoundrel, was a moving cog in the machine that built western civilization.