Vedius Pollio

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Publius Vedius Pollio
Vedius Pollio.jpg
Coin showing Vedius Pollio (left)
Born 1st century BC
Died 15 BC
Residence Gulf of Naples, Italy
Nationality Ancient Roman

Publius Vedius Pollio (died 15 BC) was a Roman equestrian of the 1st century BC, and a friend of the Roman emperor Augustus, who appointed him to a position of authority in the province of Asia. In later life he became known for his luxurious tastes and cruelty to his slaves – when they displeased him, he had them fed to lampreys that he maintained for that purpose, which was deemed to be an exceedingly cruel act. When Vedius tried to apply this method of execution to a slave who broke a crystal cup, Emperor Augustus (Pollio's guest at the time) was so appalled that he not only intervened to prevent the execution but had all of Pollio's valuable drinking vessels deliberately broken. This incident, along with Augustus's demolition of the massive villa he inherited after Vedius's death in 15 BC, were frequently referred to in antiquity in discussions of ethics and of the public role of Augustus.


Publius Vedius Pollio was born in the 1st century BC. His father was a freedman, also named Publius, but he himself attained membership of the equestrian order.[1][2]

Ronald Syme suggests he may be identical with a "Publius Vedius" who appears in Cicero's letters as a friend of Pompey.[3] In 50 BC, while Cicero was travelling near Laodicea as governor of Cilicia, this Vedius came out to meet him with a large retinue that included several wild asses and a baboon in a chariot. Cicero was not impressed. "I never saw a more worthless man," he wrote to his friend Atticus, adding a salacious anecdote: before meeting Cicero, Vedius had left some items with one Vindulus, who had meanwhile died. When Vindulus's heir examined the contents of the house, he discovered among Vedius's possessions five portrait-busts of married ladies, including Junia Secunda, the wife of Marcus Lepidus. Cicero took these to be trophies representing women Vedius had slept with.[4]

One Vidius or Vedius, also possibly the same person, is mentioned in a letter of 46 BC as involved in a dispute with the scholar-politician Curtius Nicias.[5]

Vedius Pollio's first certain appearance in history comes after Octavian (later Augustus) became sole ruler of the Roman world in 31 BC; at some point Vedius held authority in the province of Asia on behalf of the emperor.[6] For a mere equestrian to govern this province was anomalous, and there were presumably special circumstances; Vedius' term of office could have been in 31–30 BC before the appointment of a regular proconsular governor, or after a major earthquake in 27 BC.[7] He later returned to Rome, and when Alexander and Aristobulus, the sons of Herod the Great, came to the city in about 22 BC, they may have stayed with him.[8]

Despite these services to the state, it was for his reputed luxury and cruelty that Vedius would become best known.[1] He owned a massive villa on the Gulf of Naples, later described by the poet Ovid as "like a city".[9] Most notoriously, he kept a pool of lampreys into which slaves who incurred his displeasure would be thrown as food[10] – a particularly unpleasant means of death, since the lamprey "clamps its mouth on the victim and bores a dentated tongue into the flesh to ingest blood".[11]

Nevertheless he retained, at least for a while, the friendship of Augustus, in whose honour he built a shrine or monument at Beneventum.[2] On one occasion, Augustus was dining at Vedius' home when a cup-bearer broke a crystal glass. Vedius ordered him thrown to the lampreys, but the slave fell to his knees before Augustus and pleaded to be executed in some more humane way. Horrified, the emperor had all of Vedius's expensive glasses smashed and the pool filled in. According to Seneca, Augustus also had the slave freed; Dio merely remarks that Vedius "could not punish his servant for what Augustus also had done".[12]

Vedius died in 15 BC. Among his many heirs, Augustus received a large part of Vedius's estate, including his villa on the Gulf of Naples, along with instructions to erect a suitable monument on the site. The emperor demolished the house and constructed in its place a colonnade in honour of his wife Livia, which he dedicated in 7 BC.[13]


Vedius's treatment of his slaves and Augustus's conduct towards him became popular subjects for anecdotes in antiquity. During or shortly after Augustus's reign, Ovid praised his demolition of Vedius's house as a grand statement against immoral luxury made even at the emperor's own cost.[14] Scott notes that in replacing the house with a public monument Augustus merely "carried out the terms of the will", and argues that any suggestion he wished to censure Vedius's memory may have been mere "gossip".[15]

Also in the 1st century AD, Vedius's story was used by the philosopher Seneca the Younger and the encyclopedist Pliny the Elder. In two ethical treatises, Seneca used Vedius's treatment of the cup-bearer and Augustus's response to illustrate the extremes to which anger could lead and the need for clemency.[16] Pliny the Elder mentioned Vedius's lampreys in his Natural History while treating varieties of fish, noting the man's friendship with Augustus while ignoring the story of the latter's clemency.[17] Pliny was no admirer of Augustus and his handling of the story has been seen as "a gratuitous jibe" at the emperor.[18] In a highly rhetorical passage, the Christian writer Tertullian stated that after executing slaves, Vedius had his lampreys "cooked straight away, so that in their entrails he himself might have a taste of his slaves' bodies too".[19]

In several works, Adam Smith cited Augustus's intervention to save the cup-bearer in support of an argument that the condition of slaves was better under a monarchy than a democracy. He embellished the story by claiming that Augustus manumitted all of Vedius's slaves, a statement not based on any ancient source, in one 1763 lecture even estimating the value of the property their master thus lost.[20]


  1. ^ a b Dio 54.23.1.
  2. ^ a b Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 9.1556, translated by Braund, no. 431.
  3. ^ Syme, p. 23.
  4. ^ Cicero, Letters to Atticus 6.1.
  5. ^ Cicero, Letters to Friends 9.10, with Syme, pp. 25–26, 28.
  6. ^ Syme, p. 28. A proconsul of Asia under Claudius cited an enactment of Vedius Pollio, confirmed by Augustus, as a precedent (Braund, no. 586).
  7. ^ Syme, p. 28; Momigliano et al., p. 1584.
  8. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 15.343 says they stayed in "the house of Pollio", which could refer to either Vedius or Asinius Pollio. See Syme, p. 30.
  9. ^ Ovid, Fasti 6.641.
  10. ^ Dio 52.23.2; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.39; Seneca the Younger, On Clemency 1.18.2.
  11. ^ Africa, p. 71, citing M. W. Hardisty; I. C. Potter (1971). The Biology of Lampreys. New York. pp. vol. I, pp. 147–161. ISBN 0-12-324801-9. 
  12. ^ Seneca the Younger, On Anger 3.40 (= Braund, no. 432); Dio 52.23.2–4.
  13. ^ Dio 52.23.5–6, 55.8.2; Ovid, Fasti 6.639–648.
  14. ^ Ovid, Fasti 6.645–648.
  15. ^ Scott, p. 460.
  16. ^ Seneca the Younger, On Anger 3.40 (= Braund, no. 432); On Clemency 1.18.2.
  17. ^ Pliny the Elder, Natural History 9.39.
  18. ^ Africa, p. 71.
  19. ^ Tertullian, On the Mantle 5.6, translated by Vincent Hunink.
  20. ^ Africa, pp. 73–74.