Sempronio Denso, the centurion who died defending the emperor alone

One of the things that most caught my attention in 1981, when the attack on US President Ronald Reagan took place, was seeing how his bodyguards jumped on him to cover him from the shots with their bodies. Since then we have all seen similar scenes often on film and television; What most do not know is that in reality it is not something as new as it seems and already in ancient Rome there was a similar case -substituting firearms for other white ones, obviously- with the emperor Galba and a Praetorian guard called Dense Sempronium.

We are in the 1st century AD It has been many decades since Rome left behind the republican period to become an empire; specifically since in the year 27 BC the Senate granted Octavio -by then already renamed Octavian- the cognomen of Augustus, making him emperor. Henceforth, reaching the throne would be an obsession for many nobles and generals, which is curious considering that, statistically, it was buying a ticket for a probable death. Thirty-seven assassinations proved this, not counting the civil wars caused by seizing power.

In the year 68, Nero had just returned from a trip to Greece when he learned that the governors of Gaul Lugdunense and Hispania Tarraconense, Gaius Julius Vindex and Servio Sulpicio Galba, had risen up against him, claiming the republic. Vindex was defeated by the detached legions in Germania of Virginio Rufo, whose soldiers asked him to proclaim himself emperor. He refused but the situation was already heated and the new prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Ninfidio Sabino, supported Galba. The Senate deposed Nero, who ended up committing suicide, and Galba took his place.

He was a wealthy aristocrat who had some prestige for having survived Caligula and earned Claudius’ respect. Still, and despite receiving senatorial recognition, he encountered some unexpected opponents; Among them was Publius Clodio Macron, proconsul of Africa and one of those who also rebelled against Nero. Galba had him assassinated, just as he did with Fonteyo Capitón, commander of the Germania inferior. Even Ninfidio Sabino was against him after the new emperor installed one of his Spanish friends as second prefect, but he too ended up losing his life and Galba was able to focus on ruling Rome.

However, his management was clumsy. Already old and not very bright, on top of that he surrounded himself with bad advisers (Kovaliov describes them as “a bunch of useless”) and between one and the other they wanted to solve the two main government problems with unpopular measures. To clean up finances, which needed urgent intervention, a strict austerity policy was applied that sowed discontent; To restore discipline in the army, it was decided to change the cadres of the Germanic legions with the same result. Both aspects were fatally combined when trying to show a position of strength, refusing to pay the Praetorians their support and the Germanic legions the reward they asked for having defeated Vindex.

Faced with what they considered stingy and ungrateful, the troops refused to renew their oath of allegiance and asked the Senate for another emperor, turning all eyes to the general Aulus Vitellius. Galba, who was a widower and had no children – his two sons had died – naively thought that everything would be solved with a successor and chose one of his youngest but also most inexperienced advisers: Lucius Calpurnius Piso Liciniano, thirty-one years old. and belonging to one of the oldest families in the nobilites Roman, reprisalized by Nero. The adrogatio -adoption- took place in just ten days, in the camp of the Praetorian Guard.

Praetorians make Claudius (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema) emperor/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

That bet not only did not go well, but it turned out to be counterproductive and meant the final sentence for the emperor, since the other great candidate to become heir was not satisfied with the decision and began to conspire. His name was Marco Salvio Otón and he was quite a character, perhaps to compensate for his gangly physical appearance (bald, bowlegged and short, he tried to simulate it by dressing up a lot, using a toupee, shaving his hair and trying to look impeccable; “like a woman”, according to Suetonius). Otho, from a patrician family dating back to the Etruscans, had also suffered repression under Nero, though not so much for political reasons as for sentimental ones, since his wife, the famous Poppea, divorced him to become the emperor’s mistress. .

The fact is that Otto, who had helped Galba from his position as governor of Lusitania, did not get the prize he expected, so he began to bribe Praetorians to get their support, even though he did not have as many resources as the other. On the morning of January 15, 69, just five days after Piso’s official adoption, Otto appeared at the Praetorian camp, where amid some confusion he was proclaimed emperor. Immediately afterwards, he took charge of a detachment that went out in search of Galba, who, aware of the events, was heading there to try to stop the coup, although another version says that Otto himself tricked him into coming, assuring him that he had managed to restore the order. order.

The meeting took place in the Forum but it was not exactly a battle. Tacitus recounts that the passers-by fled in disarray before what was coming, taking refuge in the basilicas and temples, while the signifer of the cohort escorting the emperor he tore from the banner and threw the effigy of the emperor to the ground. It was the signal for desertion, so Galba, who was accompanied by Piso and some collaborators, remained defenseless in the square, at the height of Lake Curcio (a kind of sacred well where, according to mythology, the homonymous character immolated by Rome following the design of an oracle). In the midst of the chaos, he even fell from the sedan chair that was transporting him and dozens of men rushed at the group ready to finish him off.

This is where Sempronio Denso appears, of whom hardly anything is known other than his position and the heroic end he had. Denso was a centurion in the Praetorian Guard and had been assigned by Galba to Piso’s escort. When the others fled, he stayed at his post doing his duty and honoring other historical Romans who also knew how to rise to the difficult circumstances they had to live through, such as Horacio Cocles defending the Sublicio bridge alone to give time his soldiers to destroy it and prevent the Etruscan army from reaching Rome, or Mucius Scaevola, who voluntarily burned his hand in the flames of a brazier to demonstrate to the Etruscan king Porsenna the determination of the Romans not to surrender.

The account of what happened varies a little depending on the author who narrates it, so that we do not know the order of the deaths of Galba and Denso. Suetonius does not mention the latter. Plutarch provides the information that the centurion was single and had never received any special favor from Galba, guided in those dramatic moments only by his oath of allegiance. He says that he first exhorted the assassins to lay down their arms and then, his words being useless, he faced them sword in hand until his legs were wounded and he could no longer stand, whereupon they killed the emperor. .

Tacitus also doesn’t tell us anything about Denso’s life, after all, a socially minor character in that episode. He himself says that there are several versions “according to the hatred or admiration that each one had for him” to the emperor, so that in one Galba would have implored clemency and time to gather the gold that he had promised to the troops, while in another he would make a display of cold blood challengingly offering his murderers the neck. He also speculates on the names of several soldiers as possible material authors of his death, although the truth is that Galba’s corpse was stabbed by almost everyone and was practically torn to pieces.

Then it was the turn of one of his faithful, the consul Tito Vinio, and finally Tacitus reviews the courageous performance of Sempronio Denso, who wielding a simple pugio (an auxiliary dagger used by legionaries but whose use was also widespread outside the army) held off the attackers giving Piso time to take refuge in the Temple of Vesta. The hiding place was of no use to him because there he was pursued by two soldiers named Sulpicio Floro and Estayo Murco, who dragged him out, slitting his throat while his fellow criminals exultantly displayed the emperor’s head on a pike.

Lake Curcio today/Photo: Ursus on Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, Dio Cassio is quite sparing and limits himself to saying, like Tacitus, that Galba was the first to fall and that only the centurion Sempronio Denso defended him until he could not continue and was killed trying to cover the wall with his body. of the emperor Just like the bodyguards that he commented at the beginning. Casio concludes that he cites the name of that man because he is worth remembering.

The heads of the victims were carried around nailed to pikes by the criminals in the midst of the general revelry but it seems that, despite being the main beneficiary, Otón did not welcome that orgy of blood with joy; After all, Galba and Tito Vinio had been his friends, so he only showed satisfaction at the end of Piso. Tacitus says that about one hundred and twenty people claimed a reward from him, claiming responsibility for the deaths without imagining that they would all be executed shortly.

Because Otto barely held power for three months before Aulus Vitellius, a mediocre soldier but who had the support of the Germanic legions -which at that point did and undid as they pleased-, overthrew him after a quick campaign. Otto committed suicide and the new emperor got rid of all those who constituted a danger by expeditious methods, which included the dissolution of the Praetorian Guard, reorganizing it with people he trusted. However, Vitellius was, according to Kovalev, “a complete nonentity and his career owed more than anything to the influences enjoyed by his father during the reign of Claudius”for which reason he also endured little on the throne: eight months later, in December, he was defeated by Vespasian and assassinated by his troops, who would become the fourth emperor in the same year.


stories (Tacit)/parallel lives (Plutarch)/roman history (Cassius Dio)/Life of the twelve Caesars (Suetonius)/History of Rome (Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliev)

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