Marcus Aponius Saturninus, the man whose sleeping nods during an auction were turned into bids by Caligula

Caligula’s reign has gone down in history as a period of terror and madness that some books and movies have taken advantage of: naming his horse consul, putting his legions to collect shells on the beach, forcing senators’ wives to prostitute…

Current historiography questions the veracity of all these episodes because they were recounted by political enemies, in the case of Seneca the young man, or much later authors such as Suetonius and Dio Cassius, who were also patricians. However, there are some anecdotes that may be more credible and one of them is the one that starred Marco Aponio Saturnino, a wealthy senator who was about to go to ruin for falling asleep before the emperor.

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of Germanicus (Tiberius’ adopted son) and Agrippina, was born in AD 12 and earned the nickname Caligula (Botita) by wearing small calligae military (sandals) while accompanying his father on the Germania campaign. He did not get along with Tiberius but, even so, he named him his successor along with his cousin Tiberius Gemelo.

Caligula got rid of his partner – who was a child – and began a reign that was initially quite prosperous. But in AD 37 he became seriously ill and when he recovered he had changed, perhaps because a conspiracy tried to overthrow him by taking advantage of the power vacuum.

From there it is when the rosary of executions, deaths, exiles begins, the majority without trial, although the emperor still had the lucidity to undertake an ambitious political and administrative reform that was very popular as it implied clarity in the expenses, abolition of certain tributes, aid to the plebs, etc.

Unfortunately, this emptied the coffers of the state and two years later Rome was hit by a deep economic crisis that degenerated into famine due to a defective grain supply; Suetonius attributes it to the fact that all the cars were requisitioned, while Seneca says that it was because the ships were used to build the famous floating bridge that linked the port of Puteoli with Bayas, saving five kilometers of sea.

It was in this context that Caligula tried to get money from wherever he went, squeezing the wealthy classes; the aforementioned prostitution of his women would have been a lesson for the remiss. However, that was insufficient, so, in addition to sanctioning the collectors considered negligent, a wide range of measures was adopted that included requesting donations, creating new taxes (for legal proceedings, weddings and brothels), appropriating wills left to Tiberio and oblige the centurions to deliver to the treasury the spoils obtained in the campaign. To all these initiatives was added one that interests us specifically because it was the one that affected Marco Aponio Saturnino: auctioning off gladiators.

Copper quadrant minted to celebrate the abolition of taxes in the year 38 / Image: Classical Numismatic Group on Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know much about Aponius. The few data that there are are given by Tacitus and not directly, since their stories they begin in the year 69, just when Galba succeeds Nero. Tacitus calls him consul but it is not known exactly when he held that position.

Some authors explain it by suggesting that he must have been suffect consul between the years 63 and 66, which is plausible given that this magistracy was a stepping stone to access the Senate – Tacitus himself is an example – and Appian did indeed become a senator, as his father had been before (the consuls suffecti were those chosen to exercise temporarily, either by dismissal of the holder, or by his death, or by resignation).

It is known that Lucio Anneo Seneca intervened on his behalf to be admitted among the arvales, an ancient priestly brotherhood whose origins date back to the cult of Dea Dia, an agrarian divinity who was later assimilated to Ceres (the Roman version of Demeter), derived from the first twelve flames (mysterical priests in charge of the sacred fire) that legendaryly evoked the twelve children of Faustus and Aca Larentia, the couple of shepherds who found Romulus and Remus.

Faustus and Aca Larentia meet Romulus and Remus (Pietro da Cortona)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, in the year 69 Aponius was appointed -surely by Galba- governor of the Danubian province of Mesia, which included part of present-day Bulgaria and Serbia. With the three legions commanded by Lucio Tetio Juliano, Fulvo Aurelio and Numisio Lupo, he managed to expel the invading Roxolans (a Sarmatian tribe) from there, which earned him a triumph and the erection of a statue that same year but with Otto already reigning. As can be seen, this character had to live the so-called Year of the Four Emperors, since Otto was as short-lived as his predecessor and something similar can be said of the next, Vitellius, whose candidacy for the throne he supported.

This was made known to him in a letter in which he was informed of the defection of the Legion III, although when the balance of the war for power began to lean towards Vespasian, his rival, Aponius not only changed sides but personally joined the army of one of his loyalists, Marco Antonio Primo. Those troops were in the northern part of the Italian peninsula, from where they advanced against Vitellius and defeated him that fall at the Battle of Bedriacum, in present-day Lombardy. This opened the gate to Cremona for them, which they pillaged before continuing on to Rome.

The Year of the Four Emperors/Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

Primus also managed to conquer the capital, ordering the execution of Vitellius and taking control alongside Domitian, Vespasian’s youngest son. The arrival from Syria of Governor Gaius Licinius Mucianus to assume command, relegating his leader’s own scion, did not sit well with him and he left. By then, Aponius had shorn out of that game of thrones; game in which he actively participated, since he tried to take advantage of the confusion to incite the murder of some old personal enemies of his. One of them was the aforementioned Lucius Tetius Julianus.

In the year 69, the same thing happened to Lucio Tetio Juliano as to the other Roman soldiers: he was not sure who to choose in the civil war. He was legate of the Legion VII Claudiaone of those who expelled the Roxolans from Mesia, and he must have had some serious problem with Aponius because the latter tried to make him forget his initial Vitellian militancy by proving to be more Vespasianist than anyone, for which he accused Tetius of intriguing in favor of Vitellius.

Certainly, the loyalty of Tetio was not yet firm and that would cost him later to be removed from his position as praetor by Mucianus (although Vespasian reinstated it). However, Aponio’s move went wrong; not only did he fail to get himself killed, but Marco Antonio Primo instigated a mutiny against him in the legion and had to flee.

In the midst of such uproar, the governor of Mesia, Aponius Saturninus, dares to the worst of misdeeds, sending a centurion to kill Tetio Juliano, legate of the VII legion, due to rivalries that he intended to disguise with the cause of the match. Juliano, upon discovering the danger, and after summoning men who knew those places, escapes through the impassable areas of Mesia to the other side of the Hemo mountains…

stories (Tacit)

From then on, the track is lost and only some sources place him as proconsul of the province of Asia (the western end of Anatolia, which included Bithynia, Pontus, Cappadocia, Galatia, Paflagonia and Commagene, plus the last remains of the Seleucid Empire), albeit at an uncertain date between AD 73 and 74, leading others to suggest that he may have died shortly after escaping, or in any case did not live much longer. Serve all this as an introduction to the character.

Now it’s time to go back in time and return to the times of Caligula, to that year 39 in which Rome suffered the onslaught of hunger and the emperor desperately sought resources. We said before that one of the many ideas he had for it was to hold a public auction of gladiators belonging to the ludus imperial. Ludus was the term with which the Romans referred to the school where the magister o Doctors trained the gladiators under the orders of a lanista (the director of the center). The state had its own ludus and, in fact, the ruins of the Ludus Magnus founded by Domitian in the last quarter of the 1st century can still be seen today next to the Colosseum.

Ruins of the Ludus Magnus/Image: Jastrow on Wikimedia Commons

Well, that auction was attended by a man named Aponius Saturninus; it is not known if he was the same one we have been talking about, although the coincidence of dates makes it probable. It also so happens that Marco Aponius Saturninus was an immensely rich man, having inherited from his father -a senator, let us remember- a fortune that included lands in the Roman province of Egypt (which extended to Cyrenaica -Libya- for the west), not in vain nicknamed in ancient times the barn of rome.

The fact is that Aponius must have been tired and during the bids he began to nod sleepily, something not recommended when an emperor like Caligula is present. Realizing what was happening, he made one of those jokes that have given so much play to writers and filmmakers, ordering the auctioneer to consider each head of Aponio as one more bid.

The process went on like this for a long time, so that when it was over and Aponius woke up, he found that he had bought, without even realizing it, thirteen gladiators. The worst, however, was not the merchandise but the price paid for it: no less than nine million sesterces.

A sestertius of the year 38 d. C. with the effigy of Caligula/Image: Classical Numismatic Group in Wikimedia Commons

A sestertius was equal to a quarter of a denarius and two and a half asses, with the salary of a High Imperial legionnaire approaching a denarius a day. A slave used to cost a few thousand sesterces. For reference, it is worth saying that the value of the properties of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the victor of Spartacus and one of the richest men in ancient Rome, was estimated at around two hundred million sesterces. It is not known how the gladiators acquired by Aponius turned out, but one thing is certain: his money was very welcome by Caligula… who must have had a great time too.


stories (Tacit)/roman history (Casius Dio)/lives of the twelve caesars (Suetonius)/69 AD: The Year of Four Emperors (Gwyn Morgan)/history of rome (Sergei Ivanovich Kovalyov)/Wikipedia

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