Lucius Verginius Rufus

Lucius Verginius Rufus (14-97): Roman senator, famous for his renunciation of the emperorship in 69 CE.

Dedication by Pylades to Jupiter for the victory of Verginius Rufus
Dedication by Pylades to Jupiter for the victory of Verginius Rufus

Lucius Verginius Rufus was born in the neighborhood of Como in northern Italy as the son of a Roman knight and was the first one of his family to enter the Senate. He was extremely successful, because he not only reached the lower magistracies, but also the highest one, the consulship, in 63. His earlier career is unknown to us, but he must have occupied all the lower magistracies and was at one stage involved in regulating the finances of Smyrna, a Greek town in Asia.

He probably also showed his military qualities. This can be deduced from the fact that in 65, the emperor Nero made him governor of a province with no less than three legions (XXI Rapax, IIII Macedonica and XXII Primigenia): Germania Superior, or the Rhineland between Switzerland and Remagen. This appointment would have been foolish if Verginius had not been an experienced soldier.

To these few facts, one can be added: he was befriended with a Roman knight named Lucius Caecilius Secundus, who died in the sixties. Verginius became the guard of his son Gaius, who received an excellent education and was later adopted by his uncle, an army officer and encyclopedist named Pliny the Elder. The boy used the name of his new father and is known as Pliny the Younger; he is the author of a charming collection of Latin epistles.

At that time, the Roman empire was still tranquil, and the only thing we know about this stage of Verginius' career is that he was involved in a quarrel with Nicetes, a famous Greek orator. Nero intervened, sent Nicetes to Germania Superior, where the two men forgave each other, settled the affair, and became friends. Nicetes was to be the teacher of Pliny.

However, in 64, Rome burnt down, and Nero spent lots of money to pay for the reconstruction of his capital (and his palace, the notorious Golden house). New taxes were introduced, and the Jews revolted. People who were unwilling to pay, were executed (e.g., several landowners in northern Africa). Nero's behavior was regarded as outrageous, especially after he discovered that several senators wanted to kill him. The emperor started to behave as a despot, and many senators felt that something had to be done.

One of them was Gaius Julius Vindex, an Aquitanian prince who had entered the Senate and was now governor of Gallia Lugdunensis. In the winter of 67/68, he decided to put an end to the oppression. Being a senator, he tried to do this constitutionally, so he first searched for a worthy successor to the throne. In April 68 he found his man: the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. Now, Vindex revolted.

He recruited soldiers and announced that he no longer obeyed the orders of Nero. The emperor responded by sending the First legion Italica, which had recently been constituted, to Lyon. When it arrived, however, another force had already suppressed the revolt.

The governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Verginius Rufus, set out to make war on Vindex; but when he reached Besançon, he proceeded to besiege the city, for the alleged reason that it had not received him. But Vindex came to the aid of the city against him and encamped not far off, whereupon they sent messages back and forth to each other and finally held a conference by themselves at which no one else was present and came to a mutual agreement against Nero, as was conjectured. After this Vindex set out with his army ostensibly to occupy the town; and the soldiers of Rufus, becoming aware of their approach and thinking the force was marching straight against them, marched out in their turn, on their own initiative, and falling upon them while they were off their guard and in disarray, cut down great numbers of them.

As the revolt continued, Vindex slew himself; for he felt exceedingly grieved because of the peril of his soldiers and was vexed at Fate because he had not been able to attain his goal in an undertaking of so great magnitude, namely the overthrow of Nero and the liberation of the Romans. This is the truth of the matter; but many afterwards inflicted wounds on his body, and so gave rise to the false impression that they themselves had killed him.note

This was the end of Vindex' rebellion and life. For Verginius, it was only the beginning.

Verginius was many repeated times saluted emperor by his soldiers and was pressed to take the title upon him, but he declared that he neither would assume that honor himself, nor see it given to any other than whom the Senate should elect.note

This was honorable behavior, and the legionaries were forced to accept it. Meanwhile, however, Nero had panicked and made himself impossible. In June, the Senate recognized Galba as the new ruler of the empire, and Nero committed suicide. Our sources say that Verginius was recalled during the autumn because he was considered to be too dangerous to remain with an army, but this is probably not true; it is more probable that his time in office was simply over. But we cannot have certainty about this. (He was succeeded by Hordeonius Flaccus.)

More or less at the same time as hi return to Rome, Galba was murdered and Marcus Salvius Otho proclaimed emperor (January 69). Verginius, now consul for the second time, loyally supported the man of the Senate's choosing, but his position became untenable when Otho was defeated by the army of another emperor, Vitellius. Oddly enough, he had more or less been responsible for the rise of Vitellius.

What had happened was this. By refusing the emperorship, Verginius left the soldiers in a very difficult position, because Galba knew that they had loyally supported Nero, and interpreted this as obstruction of his accession. The fact that Verginius had been recalled, even when it was his time to retire, had done little to acquiesce them. The soldiers were angry, and killed the governor of Germania Inferior, Fonteius Capito, because he refused the purple too. (Others believed that Galba had him executed because he believed that Capito wanted to revolt, which amounts to the same: the soldiers were distrusted.) So, the seven legions of the two Rhine provinces felt uneasy and hailed the new governor of Germania Inferior as their new emperor, Vitellius.

In April 69, Otho's troops were defeated by the legions of Vitellius, and the defeated soldiers arrested the consul Verginius -we do not know why- but he managed to escape. During the next days, he did what a consul had to do: recommend the victor to the Senate, which duly recognized Vitellius, and visit the new emperor at Pavia. The soldiers of the legions that he had once commanded almost threatened to kill the man who had refused the emperorship when they had offered it to him, but Vitellius saved the consul.

However, it was not wise to return to Rome, which was now occupied by Vitellian soldiers who hated the man who had despised their offer and had sided with their enemy Otho. This did not change when the emperor Vespasian succeeded Vitellius in the last days of 69. He was regarded as one who was capax imperii, capable of being emperor, and this made him suspect.

Verginius retreated to an estate at Alsium (a small coastal town northwest of Rome, modern Ladispoli), where he studied, composed poems, and had a literary salon. The younger Pliny and his teacher Quintilian must have belonged to his visitors. The historians of the age of Vespasian often praised Verginius, which caused Pliny to remark:

For thirty years after his hour of glory he lived on to read about himself in history and verse, so that he was a living witness of his fame to come.note

In 96, Vespasian's son and successor Domitian was killed, and succeeded by the emperor Nerva, who was the first emperor to be chosen by the Senate. He asked Verginius to be consul with him in 97, as a signal to the generals of the armies that there had been generals in the past who had refused the imperial purple and preferred to obey the Senate. However, when Verginius was to keep his speech, he dropped the book he was carrying, bent down to pick it up, slipped on the polished floor, fell, and broke his hip. During the last months of his life, he suffered terribly, but people admired the way he faced the pain that finally killed him.

He received a state funeral and the speech was delivered by the consul Cornelius Tacitus, himself a promising author who had recently published a Life of Agricola, and may well have benefited from Verginius' literary patronage. Pliny characterizes his guard with the remark that he died "full in years and rich in honors, even those which he refused".

His virtues had been suspected and resented by certain of the emperors, but he had escaped arrest and lived to see a truly good and friendly ruler safely established [...]. He had reached the age of eighty-three, living in close retirement and deeply respected by us all, and his health was good, apart from a trembling of the hands, not enough to trouble him.note

Verginius had written his own epigraph:

Here lies Rufus, who once defeated Vindex
and set free the imperial power
not for himself, but for his country.

He left his home at Alsium to Pliny, who gave it to his mother-in-law. When he paid her a visit nine years after Verginius' death, Pliny discovered that the modest tomb lay still unfinished.

This page was created in 2002; last modified on 4 August 2020.