Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso

Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (Latin: Cn. Calpurnius Cn. f. Cn. n. Piso,[1] ca. 44 BC/43 BC - AD 20), was a Roman statesman during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. He was consul in 7 BC;[2] subsequently, he was governor of Hispania and proconsul of Africa. He belonged to one of Rome's most distinguished Senatorial families, whose members included Calpurnia, third wife of Julius Caesar.


He was a member of the gens Calpurnia, specifically among the Calpurnii Pisones. His father and grandfather both shared his name, with his father being Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso (consul in 23 BC), and his grandfather being one of the participants in the Catiline Conspiracy. He had a brother, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who was an augur and became consul in 1 BC.[1][3]

Piso was married to Plancina, a woman of noble rank and wealth. By Plancina, Piso had two sons, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who after Piso's death had to take the name of Lucius Calpurnius Piso,[4] and Marcus Calpurnius Piso.


Piso held many positions under Augustus and Tiberius. He was in charge of the imperial mint and in 7 BC he was made consul with Tiberius, and was sent by Augustus as legate to Hispania.[1][5] At some date between 5 BC and AD 2 he was admitted to the College of Pontiffs.[6]

In 3 BC he was proconsul of the province of Africa, and of Hispania Tarraconensis in AD 9.[7][5] According to Tacitus, he was cruel to the people of Spain, but during his trial in AD 20 such claims were discounted as "old and irrelevant".[8]

Though he was given many appointments throughout his career, he was known to have a temper. In AD 16, he argued against Tiberius that the senate should be able to conduct business without the emperor if the emperor was away from Rome. It was only after a lengthy debate between Piso and senators close to Tiberius that he lost the debate.[7]

Governorship of Syria

In AD 17, heir designate Germanicus was given command of the eastern portion of the Empire and Piso was appointed as his legate and made governor of Syria so that he could help.[9] This appointment came with the command of four legions. Though both he and Germanicus were of the same rank, Germanicus had greater authority (imperium maius). Tacitus suggests that Piso was appointed to act as a check on Germanicus, and that he was given secret instructions by Tiberius to thwart and control him.[10]

In the summer of 19, Germanicus had left to take care of matters in Egypt, and when he returned he found that Piso had ignored his orders to the cities and the legions. Germanicus was furious and ordered Piso's recall to Rome.[9] During the feud, Germanicus fell ill and, though Piso had left the province, Germanicus claimed Piso had poisoned him. Piso received a letter from Germanicus renouncing their friendship (amicitia). On 10 October, Germanicus died from the illness. Upon hearing of Germanicus' death, he returned to resume command of Syria.[11]


As the death of Germanicus occurred during their feud most people suspected him of having poisoned Germanicus, although this was never proven. The armed attempt by Piso to regain control of Syria immediately after the death of Germanicus only aroused more indignation. This, the rumors of him poisoning Germanicus, and his conduct going back as far as his governorship of Spain were all taken up by the delatores in their accusations against him. It wasn't long before the matter was taken to the Emperor.

Tiberius was forced to order an investigation, and after briefly hearing both sides, decided to defer the case to the senate. Tiberius made no effort to conceal his sentiments: the Pisones were longtime supporters of the Claudians, with their support going back to the early days of Octavian. A public trial was held, and Tiberius made allowances for Piso to summon witnesses of all social orders, including slaves, and he was given more time to plea than the prosecution, but it made no difference: before the sentencing, Piso had died. He committed suicide, though Tacitus supposes that Tiberius may have had him murdered, fearing his own implication in Germanicus' death.[12][13]

The accusations brought against Piso are numerous, including:[14][15]

Although the murder of Germanicus was one of the accusations brought against him, he was only actually found guilty of abandoning and reentering Syria without authorisation to wage war, and for violating Germanicus' imperium, for, although they were both of proconsular rank, his authority was less than that of Germanicus, to whom the senate had given greater authority (imperium maius) in the eastern provinces before his departure in AD 17.[16][17]

In accordance with the lex Iulia maiestatis, the senate had his property proscribed, forbade mourning on his account, removed images of his likeness, such as statues and portraits, and his name was erased from the base of one statue in particular as part of his damnatio memoriae. Additionally, the senate instructed the curatores locorum publicorum iudicandorum to remove and destroy structures built above Porta Fontinalis to connect his properties. Yet, in a show of clemency not unlike that of the emperor, the senate had Piso's property returned and divided equally between his two sons, on condition that his daughter Calpurnia be given 1,000,000 sesterces as dowry and a further 4,000,000 as personal property. His wife Plancina was absolved.[14][17]Allegedly Munatia Plancina was convicted of very serious crimes. But her powerful friend Livia fought for her and exerted pressure on Tiberius. Therefore, her acquittal was foreseeable and she dissociated herself from her husband Piso who committed suicide.[18] A recently discovered senate resolution also confirms that Munatia Plancina owed her impunity to the recommendation of Tiberius, who had been pressed by Livia to act in this way.[19] But after the death of Livia in 29 AD, Plancina no longer had such a powerful protectress. So in 33 AD Tiberius renewed the charge. Plancina committed suicide before the judgement.[20][21]

His accomplices, a Visellius Karus and a Sempronius Bassus, were to be declared outlaws for committing treason. Their property was to be sold with profits consigned to the aerarium. It is unclear whether or not their case was handled by a judicial authority, such as a quaestio, or by the senate as well.[14][note 1]


Piso was a man of violent temper, without an idea of obedience, and a natural arrogance. He saw himself as superior to the children of Tiberius.[10] Piso's marriage to Plancina, a woman of noble rank and wealth, only inflamed his ambition.

Piso in fiction

He was played by John Phillips in the ITV series The Caesars and by Stratford Johns in the BBC TV serial I, Claudius.


  1. For his accomplices, the senate advises a magistrate, the praetor, of how to handle them, whereas with Piso the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre handles him directly, only mentioning magistrates as far as carrying out his damnatio memoriae was concerned (Rowe 2002, pp. 16–17).


  1. Smith 1876, p. 375
  2. Sherk 1984, p. 160
  3. Syme 1986, p. 368
  4. Tacitus, The Annals 3.16
  5. Hornblower, Spawforth & Eidinow 2012, p. 270
  6. Martha W. Hoffman Lewis, The Official Priests of Rome under the Julio-Claudians (Rome: American Academy, 1955), p. 30
  7. Dando-Collins 2008, p. 45
  8. Tacitus, Annals 3.13-14
  9. Lott 2012, pp. 342–343
  10. Tacitus, Annals 2.43
  11. Lott 2012, p. 267
  12. Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Tiberius 52
  13. Tacitus, Annals III.15-16
  14. Rowe 2002, pp. 9–17
  15. Senatus Consultum de Pisone (The Senate's decree against Gnaeus Piso senior)
  16. Rowe 2002, p. 11
  17. Ando, Tuori & Plessis 2016, p. 340
  18. Tacitus, The Annals 3.15 compare 3.17
  19. Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone patre, lines 109-120
  20. Tacitus, The Annals 6.26
  21. Cassius Dio, Roman History 58.22


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Ando, Clifford; Tuori, Kaius; Plessis, Paul J. du, eds. (2016), Oxford Handbook of Law and Society, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198728689
  • Dando-Collins, Stephen (2008), Blood of the Caesars: How the Murder of Germanicus Led to the Fall of Rome, Wiley, ISBN 9780470137413
  • Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Antony; Eidinow, Esther, eds. (2012), The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199545568
  • Lott, J. Bert (2012), Death and Dynasty in Early Imperial Rome: Key Sources, with Text, Translation, and Commentary, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521860444
  • Rowe, Greg (2002), Princes and Political Cultures: The New Tiberian Senatorial Decrees, University of Michigan Press, ISBN 0472112309
  • Sherk, Robert K. (1984), Rome and the Greek East to the death of Augustus, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-27123-3
  • Shotter, David (1992), Tiberius Caesar, London: Routledge, ISBN 9780203625026
  • Syme, Ronald (1986), The Augustan Aristocracy, Clarendon Press, ISBN 9780198147312
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1876). "Piso". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 3. pp. 375–376.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Piso". Encyclopædia Britannica. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Political offices
Preceded by
Gaius Marcius Censorinus,
and Gaius Asinius Gallus
Consul of the Roman Empire
7 BC
with Tiberius Claudius Nero II
Succeeded by
Decimus Laelius Balbus,
and Gaius Antistius Vetus
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