Did you know that Roman Emperor Augustus witnessed a man attempt to feed a slave to lampreys as a punishment for breaking a cup. Augustus freed the slave and had the rest of the man’s cups broken.
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. This was deemed to be unacceptable cruelty, even by Roman standards. 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.
Ronald Syme suggests he may be identical with a “Publius Vedius” who appears in Cicero’s letters as a friend of Pompey. 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. One Vidius or Vedius, possibly the same person, is mentioned in a letter of 46 BC as involved in a dispute with the scholar-politician Curtius Nicias.
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. 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. 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.
Despite these services to the state, it was for his reputed luxury and cruelty that Vedius would become best known. He owned a massive villa on the Gulf of Naples, later described by the poet Ovid as “like a city”. Most notoriously, he kept a pool of lampreys into which slaves who incurred his displeasure would be thrown as food – 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”.
Nevertheless he retained, at least for a while, the friendship of Augustus, in whose honour he built a shrine or monument at Beneventum. 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”.
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