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Priscus, Helvi'dius

2. The son-in-law of Thrasea Paetus, and, like him, distinguished by his love of liberty, which he at length sealed with his blood. He was born at Tarracina 1, and was the son of a certain Cluvius, who had filled the post of chief centurion (primipilus). His name shows that he was adopted by an Helvidius Priscus, perhaps by the Helvidius who is mentioned above. In his youth he devoted himself with energy to the higher branches of study, not, says Tacitus, to disguise an idle leisure under a pompous name, but in order to enter upon public duties with a mind fortified against misfortune. He chose as his teachers of philosophy those who taught that nothing is good but what is honourable, nothing bad but what is disgraceful, and who did not reckon power, nobility, or any external things, either among blessings or evils. In other words he embraced with ardour the Stoic philosophy. So distinguished did he become for his virtue and nobleness of soul, that when quaestor he was chosen by Thrasea Paetus as his son-in-law; and by this connection he was still further strengthened in his love of liberty. He was quaestor in Achaia during the reign of Nero, and by the way in which he discharged the duties of his office, gained the love of the provincials. (Comp. Schol. ad Juv. 5.36.) Having obtained the tribuneship of the plebs in A. D. 56, he exerted his influence to protect the poor against the severe proceedings of Obultronius Sabinus, the quaestor of the treasury. The name of Priscus is not mentioned again for a few years. His freedom of speech and love of independence could not prove pleasing to the court, and he, therefore, was not advanced to any of the higher offices of the state. It appears that he and his fatherin-law were even imprudent enough to celebrate in their houses republican festivals, and to commemorate the birth-days of Brutus and Cassius.

"Quale coronati Thrasea Helvidinsque bibebant
Brutorum et Cassii natalibus." (Juv. 5.36.)

These proceedings reached the ears of the emperor ; Thrasea was put to death [THRASEA], and Priscus banished from Italy (A. D. 66). He retired with his wife, Fannia, to Apollonia in Macedonia, where he remained till the death of Nero. He was recalled to Rome by Galba (A. D. 68), and one of his first acts was to bring to trial Eprius Marcellus, the accuser of his father-in-law; but as the sentiments of Galba were doubtful, he dropped the accusation. On the murder of Galba at the beginning of the following year (A. D. 69), he obtained from Otho the corpse of the emperor, and took care that it was buried (Plut. Galb. 28). In the course of the same year he was nominated praetor for the next year, and as praetor elect ventured to oppose Vitellius in the senate. After the death of Vitellius in December, A. D. 69, Priscus again attacked his old enemy Eprius Marcellus. The contest between them arose respecting the manner in which the ambassadors were to be chosen who were to be sent to Vespasian; Priscus maintaining that they should be appointed by the magistrates, Marcellus that they should be chosen by lot, fearing that if the former method were adopted he might not be appointed, and might thus appear to have received some disgrace. Marcellus carried his point on this occasion. Priscus accused him, shortly afterwards, of having been one of the informers under Nero, but he was acquitted, in consequence of the support which he received from Mucianus and Domitian.

Although Vespasian was now emperor, and no one was left to dispute the throne with him, Priscus did not worship the rising sun. During Vespasian's continued absence in the East, Priscus, who was now praetor (A. D. 70), opposed various measures which had been brought forward by others with a view of pleasing the emperor. Thus he maintained that the retrenchments in the public expences, which were rendered necessary by the exhausted state of the treasury, ought to be made by the senate, and not left to the emperor, as the consul elect had proposed; and he also brought forward a motion in the senate that the Capitol should be rebuilt at the public cost, and only with assistance from Vespasian. It may be mentioned, in passing, that later in the year Priscus, as praetor, dedicated the spot on which the Capitol was to be built. (Tac. Hist. 4.53.) On the arrival of the emperor at Rome, Priscus was the only person who saluted him by his private name of Vespasian ; and, not content with omitting his name in all the edicts which he published as praetor, he attacked both the person and the office of the emperor. Such conduct was downright folly; he could not by smart speeches and insulting acts restore the republic; and if his sayings and doings have been rightly reported, he had only himself to thank for his fate. Thus we are told by one of his admirers that Vespasian having forbidden him on one occasion from appearing in the senate, he replied, "You can expel me from the senate, but, as long as I am a member of it, I must go into the house."--"Well, then, go in, but be silent."--"Don't ask me for my opinion, then, and I will be silent."--"But I must ask you."--"Then I must say what seems to me just."--"But if you do I will put you to death."--"Did I ever say to you that I was immortal? You do your part, and I will do mine. Yours is, to kill; mine, to die without fear; yours is, to banish; mine, to go into exile without sorrow." (Epictet. Dissert. 1.2.) After such a specimen of the way in which he bearded the emperor, we cannot be surprised at his banishment. His wife Fannia followed him a second time into exile. It appears that his place of banishment was at no great distance from the capital; and he had not been long in exile before he was executed by order of Vespasian. It would seem that the emperor was persuaded by some of the enemies of Priscus to issue the fatal mandate ; for shortly afterwards he sent messengers to recall the executioners; and his life would have been saved, had it not been for the false report that he had already perished.

The life of Priscus was written by Herennius Senecio at the request of his widow Fannia; and the tyrant Domitian, in consequence of this work, subsequently put Senecio to death, and sent Fannia into exile for the third time. Priscus left a son, who is called simply Helvidius, without any surname, and is therefore spoken of under HELVIDIUS.

Further Information

Tac. Ann. 13.28, 16.28, 33, 35, Hist. 2.91, 4.5-9, 43, 44, Agric. 2, Dial. de Orat. 5; D. C. 65.7, 66.12, 67.13; Vesp. 15; Plin. Ep. 7.19.

1 * This statement depends only upon a correction of the text of Tacitus (Tac. Hist. 4.5). Some manuscripts have Tarentium or Tarentinae municipio ; but we find in the Florentine manuscript, Carecinae municipio, which has been altered, with much probability, into Tarracinae municipio.

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hide References (8 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Tacitus, Annales, 13.28
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.28
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.33
    • Tacitus, Annales, 16.35
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 4.53
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 7.19
    • Plutarch, Galba, 28
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (1):
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 4.5
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