Voorburg Gallery



Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo   (? - 67AD)

Domitius Corbulo is recognized as one of the greatest Generals in Roman History. His eastern campaigns against Parthia brought him a reputation for discipline and valor in the old Roman tradition. Over the course of his eastern career Corbulo was governor of Cappadocia-Galatia and Syria, he commanded Roman legions in successful campaigns against Armenia and Parthia, and was recognized throughout the Empire as a great General. All these titles and abilities combined with the successes he achieved had brought Corbulo to a height of popularity and power that most Emperors would never tolerate. Nero had given Corbulo these positions willingly and was confident of his loyalty. Only after the Pisonian conspiracy did Nero's confidence begin to waver, and finally end when he had Corbulo killed in 67AD. Corbulo survival in the face of his continuing success is an astonishing feat. The question is how Corbulo achieved this success and fame in the face of an Imperial government that had been historically opposed to anyone rivaling the Emperor in glory, fame, and especially military achievement? His survival and eventual downfall are best examined under three areas: first, the family and political connections that aided his rise and fall; secondly, the individual actions taken by Corbulo in order to assure Nero of his loyalty; thirdly the benefits that Nero received by having Corbulo as commander of the east. All these elements combined to create a confidence in Nero that allowed able governors and commanders to survive. Corbulo's family connections suggested a promising career for him. Born into a senatorial family his farther had held praetorian rank.

Corbulo himself was to hold the Consulship in 39. Although this makes him about forty at the time, young for a Consul, it has been suggested that his half sister, Milonia Caesonia used her influence as the then mistress of Caligula on Corbulo's behalf.

Over the next Twelve years four out of five of Corbulo's half brothers ascended to the Consulship, so by the winter of 54 AD when the Armenia crisis broke out, Corbulo's surviving half brothers were all senators of consular rank and influential men in a position to support their brother if they wished too. The influence of Corbulo's half brother P. Suillius Rufus must have been considerable due to his having been Germanicus Caesar's Quaestor. This gave Suillius a connection to the memory and deeds of one of the most loved Romans of the early Empire. Suillius also had strong influence and power during the reign of Claudius due to his friendship with the Emperor.

At the beginning of Nero's reign, just after Claudius's death Suillius would still have much of his power and could of used it on Corbulo's behalf. Corbulo's marriage to the daughter of Cassius Longius would have given him a powerful ally. His father-in-law being from one of the oldest and noblest families in Rome. Corbulo's excellent military record from his campaign in Germany and the triumph he received made him an excellent and capable candidate for the eastern command. It was however, his powerful family connections that gave him the edge against rivals for the eastern command such as Gaius Suetonius Paulinus who later commanded in Britain. His family connections gave him friends in influential places to espouse his cause, which would lead to Corbulo's appointment in the east and some powerful victories against Armenia and Parthia. These same family connections that stood Corbulo in such good stead in 54 would later link him to conspiracies against Nero which would lead to Corbulo's death in 67. The first crack in Nero's confidence of Corbulo's loyalty came when the exiled Plautus who was living in Asia, was accused by the Praetorian prefect Tigellinus of designs on the imperial throne. Nero sent sixty soldiers to kill him, but during the time it took them to get there and back rumors began to abound that Plautus had joined Corbulo and now had a mighty army at his back and had designs on the Imperial throne.

Although these rumors proved to be untrue, seeds of doubt were implanted in Nero's mind about Corbulo's loyalty. Fortunately for Corbulo at this time a new crisis had developed and Parthia was invading Armenia. Corbulo was at war and any thought Nero may have had to recall him would be unpopular and imprudent in the face of Parthian aggression. Continuing his success after he rescued the other army commander Paetus, Corbulo's reputation was at a high level, and it was perhaps his success in this crisis that prevented a recall from Nero. Nothing would save Corbulo however, from his connections with the two plots discovered against Nero in 65. Cassius Longius, Corbulo's farther-in-law was indicated in the Pisonian conspiracy and was exiled in 65.

Clearly Corbulo's relation by marriage to Cassius Longius would implicate Corbulo, but this was doubly compounded when a second plot was discovered in Beneventum. This plot was lead by Annius Vinicianus Corbulo's son-in-law.

Nero may have dismissed the rumors about Plautus in 62, but now Corbulo had family connections in both plots. The end was clearly nearing for Corbulo and two years later he was summoned to Greece and took his own life on being shown the order for his execution. Corbulo met a violent end by the order of Nero, but only after fifteen years of service in the east. The great power wielded by Corbulo during that time relied on the good will of Nero. In order for Corbulo to maintain that good will he took great pains to demonstrate his loyalty and subordinate nature to Nero. Corbulo's power offered him multiple chances to raise a rebellion if he wished but at no time did he do so and only once was there a rumor of his involvement in one, which concerned Plautus and has already been discussed. Dio Cassius states, "... he [Corbulo] grieved everybody else in this one particular, that he kept faith with Nero; for people were so anxious to secure him as emperor..."

This was the reaction of people after his razing of Artaxata, the Armenian capitol. Clearly Corbulo's achievements were winning him fame and respect. It is surprising and significant that none of the ancient authors dwell on any fears of Nero's about Corbulo's power. Dio in fact states that Nero was supremely confident that Corbulo would remain loyal and not revolt.

Perhaps the Plautus rumor in 62, having turned out to be false had a dual effect , raising Nero's doubts about Corbulo's loyalty at first but later when the rumors proved to be untrue allayed some of Nero's fears, because Corbulo had a chance to  rebel if he had wished but had not. Again Dio states that Corbulo could have been made Emperor after Tiridates, the Parthian claimant to the Armenian throne, paid homage to the statues of Nero signifying Corbulo's political and military victories.

At this moment of great popularity Corbulo chooses a prudent move to ensure Nero's confidence by assigning his son-in-law Annius to escort Tiridates to Rome thus in effect providing a voluntary hostage. This was before the plot in 65 of course. By continually refusing to start any rebellion and showing loyalty to Nero by sending Annius to Rome, Corbulo must have alleviated significantly any fears Nero had about his power. Besides just not rebelling Corbulo went to great lengths in order to defer to Nero in important political decisions. When Vologaesus sued for a truce from Corbulo, his response was that only if Vologaesus sent an embassy to Nero.

On another occasion when suing for peace Tiridates and Corbulo met, and Corbulo agreed to the truce on the condition that Tiridates pay homage to a statue of Nero and agree to go to Rome.

These precedents show Corbulo unwilling to make any major decision without Nero's approval. Corbulo's urging of Vologaesus to send Tiridates to Rome point to a genuine attempt on Corbulo's behalf to end the war and send Tiridates to Rome. There the Emperor could deal with him as he wished and perhaps gain some glory and honor by the political triumph that Nero would be seen to be making, and in actuality which Nero did. The visit by Tiridates proved to be huge successes, allowing Nero to put on a magnificent display of Roman grandeur and humbling Tiridates by having him prostrate himself before Nero.

The visit was a great achievement for Nero, and it was due to Corbulo's effort. Corbulo's Feats had once again ingratiated him with Nero for however short a time by giving Nero what he wanted, praise and glory with a show of grandeur in which Nero was able to play the lyre and drive a chariot in front of Tiridates.

Corbulo was skillful when he attained his success in the east because he always deferred to Nero's authority and actually personally encouraged Tiridates to Rome which enhanced Nero's prestige, and ingratiated Corbulo further with Nero. Perhaps Corbulo's greatest key to surviving under Nero, was the Emperor's need for him. There can be little doubt that Corbulo was a great general who the Parthians and Armenians both respected and feared. His brilliant successes stand in stark contrast to the bitter defeat of Lucius Caesennius Paetus. Paetus had been given the govnership of Cappedocia-Galatia and thus was in charge of the Armenian offensive, his forces were thoroughly routed at Artaxata by Vologaesus. The disgrace which the Romans felt for the loss was great.

After Corbulo's stunningly successful invasion of Armenia beforehand, Paetus defeat heavily emphasized the necessity for Corbulo presence in the east. Corbulo latter managed to negotiate Tiridates visit to Rome by threat of force, which resulted in Nero granting the Armenian crown to Tiridates. Paetus defeat must have impressed upon Nero the need for Corbulo in the east, and the glory and honors that Nero gained allayed any fears of rebellion, and thus Corbulo survived. Corbulo survived for thirteen years as a man of power and popularity under Nero. During his tenure he neither complained about Nero or rose against him in rebellion. Nero was willing to trust him. The careful steps Corbulo took to ensure Nero's support we have seen, and there is no signs of disloyalty in the ancient authors. Nero was willing to believe in Corbulo's loyalty not just because Corbulo sent hostages or refused to rebel but because Corbulo was at heart very loyal. When serving as commander of lower Germany during Claudius' reign. Corbulo dealt with rebellion in the district on his arrival but was restrained from penetrating deep into Germany because if successful, his achievement would be to great for Claudius to stomach.

Corbulo was deeply angry about his chance for victory being taken away. Nero almost immediately upon rising to the Imperial throne granted Corbulo an important command. Then upon success Nero did not withdraw Corbulo but gave him greater honor in the form of the govnership of Syria. Corbulo had good reasons to maintain loyalty to an Emperor that had allowed Corbulo to excel at what he was best at without a deep worry of Imperial anger. The third factor in Corbulo's long survival is the benefits which Nero received from Corbulo's successes and his confidence in Corbulo's loyalty. The glory and triumph's Nero received due to Corbulo's efforts were great. Nero was quite confident in his strong commanders until after the two conspiracies of 65. His popularity with the people was great which enhanced Nero's confidence, and in the end if Nero did want to kill Corbulo he would have to get him away from his army. The Rewards and fame that Nero received due to Corbulo's Successes were great. After Corbulo's dramatic success in Armenia in 58 AD, having driven Tiridates from the kingdom. Nero was hailed as victor and the senate decreed thanksgiving. Nero was voted statues, arches, and a succession of Consulships.

Nero refused the Consulships, so as not to monopolize the chief office.

Even without the consulships however, the esteem and honors were great for the young Emperor, and it is certain he would have enjoyed the praises and genuine feelings of happiness of the senators as well as the general populace. For Tiridates acquiescence to Nero's statue and the end of hospitalities it implied, Nero was hailed imperator and held a triumph.

Nero's fore most preoccupation was with his art and his voice.

The artist Nero must have loved the attention and praises being heaped upon him for the event. The visit of Tiridates as we have seen put Nero into the spot light once again, and allowed him to perform in public. Nero would also have been seen as a capable Emperor who knew how to keep the Empire secure. The rewards that Nero received kept Corbulo in his position and assured Nero of his loyalty. Nero's popularity with the common people of Rome and especially the Greeks must have given him a sense of confidence that his own self image was greater than Corbulo's or anyone else's. In the final passage of Suetonius's life of Nero, it states that after his death, people for a long time laid flowers at his grave and had statues of Nero made. Also King Vologaesus requested that Nero be honored by the Senate, and that two decades after his death the Parthians harbored a man claiming to be Nero because his name was so magical to them.

M.P. Charlesworth argues that this desiderium (the belief that someone will return after their apparent death) displayed by the Parthians and to a great degree by the Greeks emphases that Nero was popular. This due to the fact that a belief or desire that someone will return is an indication that they want him to return.

These strong popular support bases for Nero must have given him confidence enough to trust Corbulo. The other side to the coin however, is that when Nero was touring Greece the support and admiration of the Greeks probably gave Nero the confidence to finally do away with Corbulo when he was summoned to Greece in 67. Nero's confidence allowed powerful and able commanders to survive. In such an environment Corbulo could flourish without too much fear of Imperial jealousy. Bernard Henderson established that there was no evidence of jealousy when in 60 AD Corbulo was given the govnership of Syria in order to have a watchful eye on the east.

This appointment shows a vigorous confidence in Nero of himself. In the same year he appointed Servius Sulpicius Galba as governor of Hispania Tarracenesis.

The Emperors belief in himself was a key aspect to survival for effective commanders. Miriam Griffin establishes that once Nero's confidence was damaged in 65 AD by the conspiracies of Piso and Annius, the Emperor soon changed his policy of appointing able commanders to a policy of appointing complacent ones.

Corbulo wouldn't live long enough to see Roman defeats in a Judean insurrection, as Nero began to appoint less able Governors and commanders in 67 he summoned his able commanders to Greece where the Scribonii and Corbulo were driven to suicide. After 65, with the two conspiracies having been discovered, Corbulo's position seemed far less secure than it had been. The two final years of Corbulo's survival hinged on two factors, first that Tiridates was visiting Rome in 66 and Nero was busy entertaining him, and after all it was Corbulo's achievements that had brought Tiridates to Rome in the first place. Secondly, Corbulo was in the east surrounded by an army he trained and loyal to him. Only when Nero was in Greece and was know to be planing an expedition to Ethiopia, did he have all loyal supporters around him and the excuse to call Corbulo to him, perhaps on a pretext of military advice for Ethiopia.

Historically Emperors had been hostile to overly successful commanders and in the case of Corbulo, Claudius had stopped his campaign plans due to fear of rebellion. Nero had been different and allowed room for able commanders to advance. Corbulo's survival had hinged on the rewards and benefits Nero received from Corbulo's successes. Receiving these benefits and honors Nero was at the center of adulation and praise, which Nero thrived on. His confidence was strengthened by the loyalty and admiration of the common Roman people, and later the Greeks and Orientals. Further, Corbulo had declined to rebel in the past when occasion had presented itself. Corbulo's loyalty was believable to Nero because it was in some ways true. Corbulo had great reason to support Nero since the Emperor had allowed Corbulo to conduct more campaigns and continued to place him in key positions, where as Claudius had restrained him. All these elements combined to create a confident Nero who was willing to allow Corbulo continue to achieve successes and thrive. In the end however the family connections that had put Corbulo in high standing at the start of Nero's reign would connect him with the Pisonian and Annius conspiracies against Nero in 65. These two conspiracies shook Nero's confidence, and Nero's confidence in his position and power had been the key that had allowed Domitius Corbulo to survive. Once that confidence was shaken and Nero felt threatened Nero reversed his policy of appointing able commanders, and summoned his best generals to Greece. Among these generals Corbulo was summoned and on his arrival he meet his death.