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Vedius Pollio

"This same year Vedius Pollio died, a man who in general had done nothing deserving of remembrance, as he was sprung from freedmen, belonged to the knights, and had performed no brilliant deeds; but he had become very famous for his wealth and for his cruelty, so that he has even gained a place in history. Most of the things he did it would be wearisome to relate, but I may mention that he kept in reservoirs huge lampreys that had been trained to eat men, and he was accustomed to throw to them such of his slaves as he desired to put to death. Once, when he was entertaining Augustus, his cup-bearer broke a crystal goblet, and without regard for his guest, Pollio ordered the fellow to be thrown to the lampreys. Hereupon the slave fell on his knees before Augustus and supplicated him, and Augustus at first tried to persuade Pollio not to commit so monstrous a deed. Then, when Pollio paid no heed to him, the emperor said, 'Bring all the rest of the drinking vessels which are of like sort or any others of value that you possess, in order that I may use them,' and when they were brought, he ordered them to be broken. When Pollio saw this, he was vexed, of course; but since he was no longer angry over the one goblet, considering the great number of the others that were ruined, and, on the other hand, could not punish his servant for what Augustus also had done, he held his peace, though much against his will."

Dio, Roman History (LIV.23)

When one thinks of fishponds, it is this notorious incident that most often is recounted, as it was by the ancients (also Pliny, IX.77; Seneca, De ira, III.40; De clementia, I.18; Tertullian, De pallio, V.6). Although translated as "lampreys" above, murenae can refer to eels and morays, which likely were the actual denizens of Pollio's fishpond.

"Learn this, you age to come: where Livia’s Colonnade
Now stands, there was once a vast palace.
A site that was like a city: it occupied a space
Larger than that of many a walled town.
It was levelled to the soil, not because of its owner’s treason,
But because its excess was considered harmful.
Caesar countenanced the demolition of such a mass,
Destroying its great wealth to which he was heir.
That’s the way to censure vice, and set an example,
When the adviser himself does as he advises."

Ovid, Fasti (VI.639ff)

Dio relates that at the death of Pollio in 15 BC his property was bequeathed to Augustus, as was expected of an amicus who sought to acknowledge the generosity of the emperor during his lifetime. Although the villa in Campania was retained, the mansion in Rome was razed, so that Pollio "should have no monument in the city."

It is the luxuria of the house that Augustus found so offensive, its display at odds with the new civic and moral order that he sought to impose. To be sure, Vitruvius correlates the magnificence of a house with the social position of its owner. Those of nobles should be particularly spacious because of the public business to be conducted there (De architectura, VI.5.2). But such ostentation by the newly rich, deriving from wealth rather than nobility, no doubt threatened the traditional social order.

The enormous townhouse, with its prominent position on the slope of the Oppian Hill in the Subura, a congested neighborhood of small shops, brothels and taverns, was torn down. Instead of private luxury, there would be public munificence and in its place was constructed a magnificent portico, with gardens and works of art, its colonnades shaded by a single vine, said to produce twelve amphorae of juice a year (Pliny, XIV.11). Dedicated to Livia, the wife of Augustus, in 7 BC, the Porticus Liviae was a monument to marital concord and fidelity, which is why Ovid's only other mention of the portico is so ill-advised. In the Ars amatoria (I.71), he had recommended it as one of the best places to pick up young women!

 

In these fragments from the marble map of Rome, one can discern an outer wall enclosing a double row of columns. On the long sides are two semi-circular exedrae and a central square niche, all fronted by another row of columns. Along the southern wall is another semi-circular apse opposite a broad flight of steps from the Clivus Suburanus. The rectangular feature in the center may been a fountain or possibly the shrine to Concordia (Aedes Concordiae) built by Livia and presented to Augustus.


The wall fresco above dates to about AD 125-150 and is in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Rome). It suggests the terror that the servant must have felt at having been condemned to the pool.


References: "Contesting Time and Space" by Carole E. Newlands, in Ovid's Fasti: Historical Readings at its Bimillennium (2002) edited by Geraldine Herbert-Brown; La Pianta Marmorea di Roma Antica: Forma Urbis Romae (1960) by Gianfilippo Carettoni, Antonio M. Colini, Lucos Cozza, and Guglielmo Gatti.

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