The Annals, by P. Cornelius Tacitus

BOOK XI, A.D. 47, 48

The Eleventh Book of the Annals opens with the seventh year of Claudius’s reign. The power of his wife Messalina was then at its height. She was, it seems, jealous of a certain Poppaea Sabina, who is mentioned in Book XIII., as “having surpassed in beauty all the ladies of her day.” This Poppaea was the daughter of the Poppaeus Sabinus alluded to in Book VI., and the mother of the more famous Poppaea, afterwards the wife of the emperor Nero. Messalina contrived to involve this lady and her lover, Valerius Asiaticus, in a ruinous charge. Asiaticus had been twice consul, once under Caius Caesar, a second time under Claudius in A.D. 46. He was rich as well as noble. The Eleventh Book, as we have it, begins with the account of his prosecution by means Messalina, who with the help of Lucius Vitellius, Vitellius, father of the Vitellius, afterwards emperor, effected his ruin.]

MESSALINA believed that Valerius Asiaticus, who had been twice consul, was one of Poppaea’s old lovers. At the same time she was looking greedily at the gardens which Lucullus had begun and which Asiaticus was now adorning with singular magnificence, and so she suborned Suilius to accuse both him and Poppaea. With Suilius was associated Sosibius, tutor to Britannicus, who was to give Claudius an apparently friendly warning to beware of a power and wealth which threatened the throne. Asiaticus, he said, had been the ringleader in the murder of a Caesar, and then had not feared to face an assembly of the Roman people, to own the deed, and challenge its glory for his own. Thus grown famous in the capital, and with a renown widely spread through the provinces, he was planning a journey to the armies of Germany. Born at Vienna, and supported by numerous and powerful connections, he would find it easy to rouse nations allied to his house. Claudius made no further inquiry, but sent Crispinus, commander of the Praetorians, with troops in hot haste, as though to put down a revolt. Crispinus found him at Baiae, loaded him with chains, and hurried him to Rome.

No hearing before the Senate was granted him. It was in the emperor’s chamber, in the presence of Messalina, that he was heard. There Suilius accused him of corrupting the troops, of binding them by bribes and indulgences to share in every crime, of adultery with Poppaea, and finally of unmanly vice. It was at this last that the accused broke silence, and burst out with the words, “Question thy own sons, Suilius;they will own my manhood.” Then he entered on his defence. Claudius he moved profoundly, and he even drew tears from Messalina. But as she left the chamber to wipe them away, she warned Vitellius not to let the man escape. She hastened herself to effect Poppaea’s destruction, and hired agents to drive her to suicide by the terrors of a prison. Caesar meanwhile was so unconscious that a few days afterwards he asked her husband Scipio, who was dining with him, why he sat down to table without his wife, and was told in reply that she had paid the debt of nature.

When Claudius began to deliberate about the acquittal of Asiaticus, Vitellius, with tears in his eyes, spoke of his old friendship with the accused, and of their joint homage to the emperor’s mother, Antonia. He then briefly reviewed the services of Asiaticus to the State, his recent campaign in the invasion of Britain, and everything else which seemed likely to win compassion, and suggested that he should be free to choose his death. Claudius’s reply was in the same tone of mercy. Some friends urged on Asiaticus the quiet death of self-starvation, but he declined it with thanks. He took his usual exercise, then bathed and dined cheerfully, and saying that he had better have fallen by the craft of Tiberius or the fury of Caius Caesar than by the treachery of a woman and the shameless mouth of Vitellius, he opened his veins, but not till he had inspected his funeral pyre, and directed its removal to another spot, lest the smoke should hurt the thick foliage of the trees. So complete was his calmness even to the last.

The senators were then convoked, and Suilius proceeded to find new victims in two knights of the first rank who bore the surname of Petra. The real cause of their destruction was that they had lent their house for the meetings of Mnester and Poppaea. But it was a vision of the night that was the actual charge against one of them. He had, it was alleged, beheld Claudius crowned with a garland of wheat, the ears of which were turned downwards, and, from this appearance, he foretold scanty harvests. Some have said that it was a vine-wreath, of which the leaves were white, which he saw, and that he interpreted it to signify the death of the emperor after the turn of autumn. It is, however, beyond dispute that in consequence of some dream, whatever it was, both the man and his brother perished.

Fifteen hundred thousand sesterces and the decorations of the praetorship were voted to Crispinus. Vitellius bestowed a million on Sosibius, for giving Britannicus the benefit of his teaching and Claudius that of his counsels. I may add that when Scipio was called on for his opinion, he replied, “As I think what all men think about the deeds of Poppaea, suppose me to say what all men say.” A graceful compromise this between the affection of the husband and the necessities of the senator.

Suilius after this plied his accusations without cessation or pity, and his audacity had many rivals. By assuming to himself all the functions of laws and magistrates, the emperor had left exposed everything which invited plunder, and of all articles of public merchandise nothing was more venal than the treachery of advocates. Thus it happened that one Samius, a Roman knight of the first rank, who had paid four hundred thousand sesterces to Suilius, stabbed himself in the advocate’s house, on ascertaining his collusion with the adversary. Upon this, following the lead of Silius, consul-elect, whose elevation and fall I shall in due course relate, the senators rose in a body, and demanded the enforcement of the Cincian law, an old enactment, which forbade any one to receive a fee or a gift for pleading a cause.

When the men, at whom this strong censure was levelled, loudly protested, Silius, who had a quarrel with Suilius, attacked them with savage energy. He cited as examples the orators of old who had thought fame with posterity the fairest recompense of eloquence. And, “apart from this,” he said, “the first of noble accomplishments was debased by sordid services, and even good faith could not be upheld in its integrity, when men looked at the greatness of their gains. If law suits turned to no one’s profit, there would be fewer of them. As it was, quarrels, accusations, hatreds and wrongs were encouraged, in order that, as the violence of disease brings fees to the physician, so the corruption of the forum might enrich the advocate. They should remember Caius Asinius and Messala, and, in later days, Arruntius and Aeserninus, men raised by a blameless life and by eloquence to the highest honours.”

So spoke the consul-elect, and others agreed with him. A resolution was being framed to bring the guilty under the law of extortion, when Suilius and Cossutianus and the rest, who saw themselves threatened with punishment rather than trial, for their guilt was manifest, gathered round the emperor, and prayed forgiveness for the past.

When he had nodded assent, they began to plead their cause. “Who,” they asked, “can be so arrogant as to anticipate in hope an eternity of renown? It is for the needs and the business of life that the resource of eloquence is acquired, thanks to which no one for want of an advocate is at the mercy of the powerful. But eloquence cannot be obtained for nothing; private affairs are neglected, in order that a man may devote himself to the business of others. Some support life by the profession of arms, some by cultivating land. No work is expected from any one of which he has not before calculated the profits. It was easy for Asinius and Messala, enriched with the prizes of the conflict between Antony and Augustus, it was easy for Arruntius and Aeserninus, the heirs of wealthy families, to assume grand airs. We have examples at hand. How great were the fees for which Publius Clodius and Caius Curio were wont to speak! We are ordinary senators, seeking in the tranquillity of the State for none but peaceful gains. You must consider the plebeian, how he gains distinction from the gown. Take away the rewards of a profession, and the profession must perish.” The emperor thought that these arguments, though less noble, were not without force. He limited the fee which might be taken to ten thousand sesterces, and those who exceeded this limit were to be liable to the penalties of extortion.

About this same time Mithridates, of whom I have before spoken as having ruled Armenia, and having been imprisoned by order of Caius Caesar, made his way back to his kingdom at the suggestion of Claudius and in reliance on the help of Pharasmanes. This Pharasmanes, who was king of the Iberians and Mithridates’ brother, now told him that the Parthians were divided, and that the highest questions of empire being uncertain, lesser matters were neglected. Gotarzes, among his many cruelties, had caused the death of his brother Artabanus, with his wife and son. Hence his people feared for themselves and sent for Vardanes. Ever ready for daring achievements, Vardanes traversed 375 miles in two days, and drove before him the surprised and terrified Gotarzes. Without moment’s delay, he seized the neighbouring governments, Seleucia alone refusing his rule. Rage against the place, which indeed had also revolted from his father, rather than considerations of policy, made him embarrass himself with the siege of a strong city, which the defence of a river flowing by it, with fortifications and supplies, had thoroughly secured. Gotarzes meanwhile, aided by the resources of the Dahae and Hyrcanians, renewed the war; and Vardanes, compelled to raise the siege of Seleucia, encamped on the plains of Bactria.

Then it was that while the forces of the East were divided, and hesitated which side they should take, the opportunity of occupying Armenia was presented to Mithridates, who had the vigorous soldiers of Rome to storm the fortified heights, while his Iberian cavalry scoured the plain. The Armenians made no resistance after their governor, Demonax, had ventured on a battle and had been routed. Cotys, king of Lesser Armenia, to whom some of the nobles inclined, caused some delay, but he was stopped by a despatch from Claudius, and then everything passed into the hands of Mithridates, who showed more cruelty than was wise in a new ruler. The Parthian princes however, just when they were beginning battle, came to a sudden agreement, on discovering a plot among their people, which Gotarzes revealed to his brother. At first they approached each other with hesitation; then, joining right hands, they promised before the altars of their gods to punish the treachery of their enemies and to yield one to the other. Vardanes seemed more capable of retaining rule. Gotarzes, to avoid all rivalry, retired into the depths of Hyrcania. When Vardanes returned, Seleucia capitulated to him, seven years after its revolt, little to the credit of the Parthians, whom a single city had so long defied.

He then visited the strongest governments, and was eager to recover Armenia, but was stopped by Vibius Marsus, governor of Syria, who threatened war. Meanwhile Gotarzes, who repented of having relinquished his throne, at the solicitation of the nobility, to whom subjection is a special hardship in peace, collected a force. Vardanes marched against him to the river Charinda; a fierce battle was fought over the passage, Vardanes winning a complete victory, and in a series of successful engagements subduing the intermediate tribes as far as the river Sindes, which is the boundary between the Dahae and the Arians. There his successes terminated. The Parthians, victorious though they were, rebelled against distant service. So after erecting monuments on which he recorded his greatness, and the tribute won from peoples from whom no Arsacid had won it before, he returned covered with glory, and therefore the more haughty and more intolerable to his subjects than ever. They arranged a plot, and slew him when he was off his guard and intent upon the chase. He was still in his first youth, and might have been one of the illustrious few among aged princes, had he sought to be loved by his subjects as much as to be feared by his foes.

The murder of Vardanes threw the affairs of Parthia into confusion, as the people were in doubt who should be summoned to the throne. Many inclined to Gotarzes, some to Meherdates, a descendant of Phraates, who was a hostage in our hands. Finally Gotarzes prevailed. Established in the palace, he drove the Parthians by his cruelty and profligacy to send a secret entreaty to the Roman emperor that Meherdates might be allowed to mount the throne of his ancestors.

It was during this consulship, in the eight hundredth year after the foundation of Rome and the sixty-fourth after their celebration by Augustus that the secular games were exhibited. I say nothing of the calculations of the two princes, which I have sufficiently discussed in my history of the emperor Domitian; for he also exhibited secular games, at which indeed, being one of the priesthood of the Fifteen and praetor at the time, I specially assisted. It is in no boastful spirit that I mention this, but because this duty has immemorially belonged to the College of the Fifteen, and the praetors have performed the chief functions in these ceremonies. While Claudius sat to witness the games of the circus, some of the young nobility acted on horseback the battle of Troy. Among them was Britannicus, the emperor’s son, and Lucius Domitius, who became soon afterwards by adoption heir to the empire with the surname of Nero. The stronger popular enthusiasm which greeted him was taken to presage his greatness. It was commonly reported that snakes had been seen by his cradle, which they seemed to guard, a fabulous tale invented to match the marvels of other lands. Nero, never a disparager of himself, was wont to say that but one snake, at most, had been seen in his chamber.

Something however of popular favour was bequeathed to him from the remembrance of Germanicus, whose only male descendant he was, and the pity felt for his mother Agrippina was increased by the cruelty of Messalina, who, always her enemy, and then more furious than ever, was only kept from planning an accusation and suborning informers by a new and almost insane passion. She had grown so frantically enamoured of Caius Silius, the handsomest of the young nobility of Rome, that she drove from his bed Junia Silana, a high-born lady, and had her lover wholly to herself. Silius was not unconscious of his wickedness and his peril; but a refusal would have insured destruction, and he had some hope of escaping exposure; the prize too was great, so he consoled himself by awaiting the future and enjoying the present. As for her, careless of concealment, she went continually with a numerous retinue to his house, she haunted his steps, showered on him wealth and honours, and, at last, as though empire had passed to another, the slaves, the freedmen, the very furniture of the emperor were to be seen in the possession of the paramour.

Claudius meanwhile, who knew nothing about his wife, and was busy with his functions as censor, published edicts severely rebuking the lawlessness of the people in the theatre, when they insulted Caius Pomponius, an ex-consul, who furnished verses for the stage, and certain ladies of rank. He introduced too a law restraining the cruel greed of the usurers, and forbidding them to lend at interest sums repayable on a father’s death. He also conveyed by an aqueduct into Rome the waters which flow from the hills of Simbrua. And he likewise invented and published for use some new letters, having discovered, as he said, that even the Greek alphabet had not been completed at once.

It was the Egyptians who first symbolized ideas, and that by the figures of animals. These records, the most ancient of all human history, are still seen engraved on stone. The Egyptians also claim to have invented the alphabet, which the Phoenicians, they say, by means of their superior seamanship, introduced into Greece, and of which they appropriated the glory, giving out that they had discovered what they had really been taught. Tradition indeed says that Cadmus, visiting Greece in a Phoenician fleet, was the teacher of this art to its yet barbarous tribes. According to one account, it was Cecrops of Athens or Linus of Thebes, or Palamedes of Argos in Trojan times who invented the shapes of sixteen letters, and others, chiefly Simonides, added the rest. In Italy the Etrurians learnt them from Demaratus of Corinth, and the Aborigines from the Arcadian Evander. And so the Latin letters have the same form as the oldest Greek characters. At first too our alphabet was scanty, and additions were afterwards made. Following this precedent Claudius added three letters, which were employed during his reign and subsequently disused. These may still be seen on the tablets of brass set up in the squares and temples, on which new statutes are published.

Claudius then brought before the Senate the subject of the college of “haruspices,” that, as he said, “the oldest of Italian sciences might not be lost through negligence. It had often happened in evil days for the State that advisers had been summoned at whose suggestion ceremonies had been restored and observed more duly for the future. The nobles of Etruria, whether of their own accord or at the instigation of the Roman Senate, had retained this science, making it the inheritance of distinct families. It was now less zealously studied through the general indifference to all sound learning and to the growth of foreign superstitions. At present all is well, but we must show gratitude to the favour of Heaven, by taking care that the rites observed during times of peril may not be forgotten in prosperity.” A resolution of the Senate was accordingly passed, charging the pontiffs to see what should be retained or reformed with respect to the “haruspices.”

It was in this same year that the Cherusci asked Rome for a king. They had lost all their nobles in their civil wars, and there was left but one scion of the royal house, Italicus by name, who lived at Rome. On the father’s side he was descended from Flavus, the brother of Arminius; his mother was a daughter of Catumerus, chief of the Chatti. The youth himself was of distinguished beauty, a skilful horseman and swordsman both after our fashion and that of his country. So the emperor made him a present of money, furnished him with an escort, and bade him enter with a good heart on the honours of his house. “Never before,” he said, “had a native of Rome, no hostage but a citizen, gone to mount a foreign throne.” At first his arrival was welcome to the Germans, and they crowded to pay him court, for he was untainted by any spirit of faction, and showed the same hearty goodwill to all, practising sometimes the courtesy and temperance which can never offend, but oftener those excesses of wine and lust in which barbarians delight. He was winning fame among his neighbours and even far beyond them, when some who had found their fortune in party feuds, jealous of his power, fled to the tribes on the border, protesting that Germany was being robbed of her ancient freedom, and that the might of Rome was on the rise. “Is there really,” they said, “no native of this country to fill the place of king without raising the son of the spy Flavus above all his fellows? It is idle to put forward the name of Arminius. Had even the son of Arminius come to the throne after growing to manhood on a hostile soil, he might well be dreaded, corrupted as he would be by the bread of dependence, by slavery, by luxury, by all foreign habits. But if Italicus had his father’s spirit, no man, be it remembered, had ever waged war against his country and his home more savagely than that father.” By these and like appeals they collected a large force. No less numerous were the partisans of Italicus. “He was no intruder,” they said, “on an unwilling people; he had obeyed a call. Superior as he was to all others in noble birth, should they not put his valour to the test, and see whether he showed himself worthy of his uncle Arminius and his grandfather Catumerus? He need not blush because his father had never relinquished the loyalty which, with the consent of the Germans, he had promised to Rome. The name of liberty was a lying pretext in the mouths of men who, base in private, dangerous in public life, had nothing to hope except from civil discord.”

The people enthusiastically applauded him. After a fierce conflict among the barbarians, the king was victorious. Subsequently, in his good fortune, he fell into a despot’s pride, was dethroned, was restored by the help of the Langobardi, and still, in prosperity or adversity, did mischief to the interests of the Cheruscan nation.

It was during the same period that the Chauci, free, as it happened, from dissension at home and emboldened by the death of Sanquinius, made, while Corbulo was on his way, an inroad into Lower Germany, under the leadership of Gannascus. This man was of the tribe of the Canninefates, had served long as our auxiliary, had then deserted, and, getting some light vessels, had made piratical descents specially on the coast of Gaul, inhabited, he knew, by a wealthy and unwarlike population. Corbulo meanwhile entered the province with careful preparation and soon winning a renown of which that campaign was the beginning, he brought his triremes up the channel of the Rhine and the rest of his vessels up the estuaries and canals to which they were adapted. Having sunk the enemy’s flotilla, driven out Gannascus, and brought everything into good order, he restored the discipline of former days among legions which had forgotten the labours and toils of the soldier and delighted only in plunder. No one was to fall out of the line; no one was to fight without orders. At the outposts, on guard, in the duties of day and of night, they were always to be under arms. One soldier, it was said, had suffered death for working at the trenches without his sword, another for wearing nothing as he dug, but his poniard. These extreme and possibly false stories at least had their origin in the general’s real severity. We may be sure that he was strict and implacable to serious offences, when such sternness in regard to trifles could be believed of him.

The fear thus inspired variously affected his own troops and the enemy. Our men gained fresh valour; the barbarians felt their pride broken. The Frisians, who had been hostile or disloyal since the revolt which had been begun by the defeat of Lucius Apronius, gave hostages and settled down on territories marked out by Corbulo, who, at the same time, gave them a senate, magistrates, and a constitution. That they might not throw off their obedience, he built a fort among them, while he sent envoys to invite the Greater Chauci to submission and to destroy Gannascus by stratagem. This stealthy attempt on the life of a deserter and a traitor was not unsuccessful, nor was it anything ignoble. Yet the Chauci were violently roused by the man’s death, and Corbulo was now sowing the seeds of another revolt, thus getting a reputation which many liked, but of which many thought ill. “Why,” men asked, “was he irritating the foe? His disasters will fall on the State. If he is successful, so famous a hero will be a danger to peace, and a formidable subject for a timid emperor.” Claudius accordingly forbade fresh attacks on Germany, so emphatically as to order the garrisons to be withdrawn to the left bank of the Rhine.

Corbulo was actually preparing to encamp on hostile soil when the despatch reached him. Surprised, as he was, and many as were the thoughts which crowded on him, thoughts of peril from the emperor, of scorn from the barbarians, of ridicule from the allies, he said nothing but this, “Happy the Roman generals of old,” and gave the signal for retreat. To keep his soldiers free from sloth, he dug a canal of twenty-three miles in length between the Rhine and the Meuse, as a means of avoiding the uncertain perils of the ocean. The emperor, though he had forbidden war, yet granted him triumphal distinctions.

Soon afterwards Curtius Rufus obtained the same honour. He had opened mines in the territory of the Mattiaci for working certain veins of silver. The produce was small and soon exhausted. The toil meanwhile of the legions was only to a loss, while they dug channels for water and constructed below the surface works which are difficult enough in the open air. Worn out by the labour, and knowing that similar hardships were endured in several provinces, the soldiers wrote a secret despatch in the name of the armies, begging the emperor to give in advance triumphal distinctions to one to whom he was about to entrust his forces.

Of the birth of Curtius Rufus, whom some affirm to have been the son of a gladiator, I would not publish a falsehood, while I shrink from telling the truth. On reaching manhood he attached himself to a quaestor to whom Africa had been allotted, and was walking alone at midday in some unfrequented arcade in the town of Adrumetum, when he saw a female figure of more than human stature, and heard a voice, “Thou, Rufus, art the man who will one day come into this province as proconsul.” Raised high in hope by such a presage, he returned to Rome, where, through the lavish expenditure of his friends and his own vigorous ability, he obtained the quaestorship, and, subsequently, in competition with well-born candidates, the praetorship, by the vote of the emperor Tiberius, who threw a veil over the discredit of his origin, saying, “Curtius Rufus seems to me to be his own ancestor.” Afterwards, throughout a long old age of surly sycophancy to those above him, of arrogance to those beneath him, and of moroseness among his equals, he gained the high office of the consulship, triumphal distinctions, and, at last, the province of Africa. There he died, and so fulfilled the presage of his destiny.

At Rome meanwhile, without any motive then known or subsequently ascertained, Cneius Nonius, a Roman knight, was found wearing a sword amid a crowd who were paying their respects to the emperor. The man confessed his own guilt when he was being torn in pieces by torture, but gave up no accomplices, perhaps having none to hide.

During the same consulship, Publius Dolabella proposed that a spectacle of gladiators should be annually exhibited at the cost of those who obtained the quaestorship. In our ancestors’ days this honour had been a reward of virtue, and every citizen, with good qualities to support him, was allowed to compete for office. At first there were no distinctions even of age, which prevented a man in his early youth from becoming a consul or a dictator. The quaestors indeed were appointed while the kings still ruled, and this the revival by Brutus of the lex curiata plainly shows. The consuls retained the power of selecting them, till the people bestowed this office as well as others. The first so created were Valerius Potitus and Aemilius Mamercus sixty-three years after the expulsion of the Tarquins, and they were to be attached to the war-department. As the public business increased, two more were appointed to attend to affairs at Rome. This number was again doubled, when to the contributions of Italy was added the tribute of the provinces. Subsequently Sulla, by one of his laws, provided that twenty should be elected to fill up the Senate, to which he had intrusted judicial functions. These functions the knights afterwards recovered, but the quaestorship was obtained, without expense, by merit in the candidates or by the good nature of the electors, till at Dolabella’s suggestion it was, so to speak, put up to sale.

In the consulship of Aulus Vitellius and Lucius Vipstanus the question of filling up the Senate was discussed, and the chief men of Gallia Comata, as it was called, who had long possessed the rights of allies and of Roman citizens, sought the privilege of obtaining public offices at Rome. There was much talk of every kind on the subject, and it was argued before the emperor with vehement opposition. “Italy,” it was asserted, “is not so feeble as to be unable to furnish its own capital with a senate. Once our native-born citizens sufficed for peoples of our own kin, and we are by no means dissatisfied with the Rome of the past. To this day we cite examples, which under our old customs the Roman character exhibited as to valour and renown. Is it a small thing that Veneti and Insubres have already burst into the Senate-house, unless a mob of foreigners, a troop of captives, so to say, is now forced upon us? What distinctions will be left for the remnants of our noble houses, or for any impoverished senators from Latium? Every place will be crowded with these millionaires, whose ancestors of the second and third generations at the head of hostile tribes destroyed our armies with fire and sword, and actually besieged the divine Julius at Alesia. These are recent memories. What if there were to rise up the remembrance of those who fell in Rome’s citadel and at her altar by the hands of these same barbarians! Let them enjoy indeed the title of citizens, but let them not vulgarise the distinctions of the Senate and the honours of office.”

These and like arguments failed to impress the emperor. He at once addressed himself to answer them, and thus harangued the assembled Senate. “My ancestors, the most ancient of whom was made at once a citizen and a noble of Rome, encourage me to govern by the same policy of transferring to this city all conspicuous merit, wherever found. And indeed I know, as facts, that the Julii came from Alba, the Coruncanii from Camerium, the Porcii from Tusculum, and not to inquire too minutely into the past, that new members have been brought into the Senate from Etruria and Lucania and the whole of Italy, that Italy itself was at last extended to the Alps, to the end that not only single persons but entire countries and tribes might be united under our name. We had unshaken peace at home; we prospered in all our foreign relations, in the days when Italy beyond the Po was admitted to share our citizenship, and when, enrolling in our ranks the most vigorous of the provincials, under colour of settling our legions throughout the world, we recruited our exhausted empire. Are we sorry that the Balbi came to us from Spain, and other men not less illustrious from Narbon Gaul? Their descendants are still among us, and do not yield to us in patriotism.

“What was the ruin of Sparta and Athens, but this, that mighty as they were in war, they spurned from them as aliens those whom they had conquered? Our founder Romulus, on the other hand, was so wise that he fought as enemies and then hailed as fellow-citizens several nations on the very same day. Strangers have reigned over us. That freedmen’s sons should be intrusted with public offices is not, as many wrongly think, a sudden innovation, but was a common practice in the old commonwealth. But, it will be said, we have fought with the Senones. I suppose then that the Volsci and Aequi never stood in array against us. Our city was taken by the Gauls. Well, we also gave hostages to the Etruscans, and passed under the yoke of the Samnites. On the whole, if you review all our wars, never has one been finished in a shorter time than that with the Gauls. Thenceforth they have preserved an unbroken and loyal peace. United as they now are with us by manners, education, and intermarriage, let them bring us their gold and their wealth rather than enjoy it in isolation. Everything, Senators, which we now hold to be of the highest antiquity, was once new. Plebeian magistrates came after patrician; Latin magistrates after plebeian; magistrates of other Italian peoples after Latin. This practice too will establish itself, and what we are this day justifying by precedents, will be itself a precedent.”

The emperor’s speech was followed by a decree of the Senate, and the Aedui were the first to obtain the right of becoming senators at Rome. This compliment was paid to their ancient alliance, and to the fact that they alone of the Gauls cling to the name of brothers of the Roman people.

About the same time the emperor enrolled in the ranks of the patricians such senators as were of the oldest families, and such as had had distinguished ancestors. There were now but scanty relics of the Greater Houses of Romulus and of the Lesser Houses of Lucius Brutus, as they had been called, and those too were exhausted which the Dictator Caesar by the Cassian and the emperor Augustus by the Saenian law had chosen into their place. These acts, as being welcome to the State, were undertaken with hearty gladness by the imperial censor. Anxiously considering how he was to rid the Senate of men of notorious infamy, he preferred a gentle method, recently devised, to one which accorded with the sternness of antiquity, and advised each to examine his own case and seek the privilege of laying aside his rank. Permission, he said, would be readily obtained. He would publish in the same list those who had been expelled and those who had been allowed to retire, that by this confounding together of the decision of the censors and the modesty of voluntary resignation the disgrace might be softened.

For this, the consul Vipstanus moved that Claudius should be called “Father of the Senate.” The title of “Father of the Country” had, he argued, been indiscriminately bestowed; new services ought to be recognized by unusual titles. The emperor, however, himself stopped the consul’s flattery, as extravagant. He closed the lustrum, the census for which gave a total of 5,984,072 citizens. Then too ended his blindness as to his domestic affairs. He was soon compelled to notice and punish his wife’s infamies, till he afterwards craved passionately for an unhallowed union.

Messalina, now grown weary of the very facility of her adulteries, was rushing into strange excesses, when even Silius, either through some fatal infatuation or because he imagined that, amid the dangers which hung over him, danger itself was the best safety, urged the breaking off of all concealment. “They were not,” he said, “in such an extremity as to have to wait for the emperor’s old age. Harmless measures were for the innocent. Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity. They had accomplices in all who feared the same fate. For himself, as he had neither wife nor child, he was ready to marry and to adopt Britannicus. Messalina would have the same power as before, with the additional advantage of a quiet mind, if only they took Claudius by surprise, who, though unsuspicious of treachery, was hasty in his wrath.”

The suggestion was coldly received, not because the lady loved her husband, but from a fear that Silius, after attaining his highest hopes, would spurn an adulteress, and soon estimate at its true value the crime which in the midst of peril he had approved. But she craved the name of wife, for the sake of the monstrous infamy, that last source of delight to the reckless. She waited only till Claudius set out for Ostia to perform a sacrifice, and then celebrated all the solemnities of marriage.

I am well aware that it will seem a fable that any persons in the world could have been so obtuse in a city which knows everything and hides nothing, much more, that these persons should have been a consul-elect and the emperor’s wife; that, on an appointed day, before witnesses duly summoned, they should have come together as if for the purpose of legitimate marriage; that she should have listened to the words of the bridegroom’s friends, should have sacrificed to the gods, have taken her place among a company of guests, have lavished her kisses and caresses, and passed the night in the freedom which marriage permits. But this is no story to excite wonder; I do but relate what I have heard and what our fathers have recorded.

The emperor’s court indeed shuddered, its powerful personages especially, the men who had much to fear from a revolution. From secret whisperings they passed to loud complaints. “When an actor,” they said, “impudently thrust himself into the imperial chamber, it certainly brought scandal on the State, but we were a long way from ruin. Now, a young noble of stately beauty, of vigorous intellect, with the near prospect of the consulship, is preparing himself for a loftier ambition. There can be no secret about what is to follow such a marriage.” Doubtless there was thrill of alarm when they thought of the apathy of Claudius, of his devotion to his wife and of the many murders perpetrated at Messalina’s bidding. On the other hand, the very good nature of the emperor inspired confident hope that if they could overpower him by the enormity of the charge, she might be condemned and crushed before she was accused. The critical point was this, that he should not hear her defence, and that his ears should be shut even against her confession.

At first Callistus, of whom I have already spoken in connection with the assassination of Caius Caesar, Narcissus, who had contrived the death of Appius, and Pallas, who was then in the height of favour, debated whether they might not by secret threats turn Messalina from her passion for Silius, while they concealed all else. Then fearing that they would be themselves involved in ruin, they abandoned the idea, Pallas out of cowardice, and Callistus, from his experience of a former court, remembering that prudent rather than vigorous counsels insure the maintenance of power. Narcissus persevered, only so far changing his plan as not to make her aware beforehand by a single word what was the charge or who was the accuser. Then he eagerly watched his opportunity, and, as the emperor lingered long at Ostia, he sought two of the mistresses to whose society Claudius was especially partial, and, by gifts, by promises, by dwelling on power increased by the wife’s fall, he induced them to undertake the work of the informer.

On this, Calpurnia (that was the woman’s name), as soon as she was allowed a private interview, threw herself at the emperor’s knees, crying out that Messalina was married to Silius. At the same time she asked Cleopatra, who was standing near and waiting for the question, whether she knew it. Cleopatra nodding assent, she begged that Narcissus might be summoned. Narcissus entreated pardon for the past, for having concealed the scandal while confined to a Vettius or a Plautius. Even now, he said, he would not make charges of adultery, and seem to be asking back the palace, the slaves, and the other belongings of imperial rank. These Silius might enjoy; only, he must give back the wife and annul the act of marriage. “Do you know,” he said “of your divorce? The people, the army, the Senate saw the marriage of Silius. Act at once, or the new husband is master of Rome.”

Claudius then summoned all his most powerful friends. First he questioned Turranius, superintendent of the corn market; next, Lusius Geta, who commanded the praetorians. When they confessed the truth, the whole company clamoured in concert that he must go to the camp, must assure himself of the praetorian cohorts, must think of safety before he thought of vengeance. It is quite certain that Claudius was so overwhelmed by terror that he repeatedly asked whether he was indeed in possession of the empire, whether Silius was still a subject.

Messalina meanwhile, more wildly profligate than ever, was celebrating in mid-autumn a representation of the vintage in her new home. The presses were being trodden; the vats were overflowing; women girt with skins were dancing, as Bacchanals dance in their worship or their frenzy. Messalina with flowing hair shook the thyrsus, and Silius at her side, crowned with ivy and wearing the buskin, moved his head to some lascivious chorus. It is said that one Vettius Valens climbed a very lofty tree in sport, and when they asked him what he saw, replied, “A terrible storm from Ostia.” Possibly such appearance had begun; perhaps, a word dropped by chance became a prophecy.

Meanwhile no mere rumour but messengers from all parts brought the news that everything was known to Claudius, and that he was coming, bent on vengeance. Messalina upon this went to the gardens of Lucullus; Silius, to conceal his fear, to his business in the forum. The other guests were flying in all directions when the centurions appeared and put every one in irons where they found them, either in the public streets or in hiding. Messalina, though her peril took away all power of thought, promptly resolved to meet and face her husband, a course in which she had often found safety; while she bade Britannicus and Octavia hasten to embrace their father. She besought Vibidia, the eldest of the Vestal Virgins, to demand audience of the supreme pontiff and to beg for mercy. Meanwhile, with only three companions, so lonely did she find herself in a moment, she traversed the whole length of the city, and, mounting on a cart used to remove garden refuse, proceeded along the road to Ostia; not pitied, so overpoweringly hideous were her crimes, by a single person.

There was equal alarm on the emperor’s side. They put but little trust in Geta, who commanded the praetorians, a man swayed with good case to good or evil. Narcissus in concert with others who dreaded the same fate, declared that the only hope of safety for the emperor lay in his transferring for that one day the command of the soldiers to one of the freedmen, and he offered to undertake it himself. And that Claudius might not be induced by Lucius Vitellius and Largus Caecina to repent, while he was riding into Rome, he asked and took a seat in the emperor’s carriage.

It was currently reported in after times that while the emperor broke into contradictory exclamations, now inveighing against the infamies of his wife, and now, returning in thought to the remembrance of his love and of his infant children, Vitellius said nothing but, “What audacity! what wickedness!” Narcissus indeed kept pressing him to clear up his ambiguities and let the truth be known, but still he could not prevail upon him to utter anything that was not vague and susceptible of any meaning which might be put on it, or upon Largus Caecina, to do anything but follow his example. And now Messalina had presented herself, and was insisting that the emperor should listen to the mother of Octavia and Britannicus, when the accuser roared out at her the story of Silius and her marriage. At the same moment, to draw Caesar’s eyes away from her, he handed him some papers which detailed her debaucheries. Soon afterwards, as he was entering Rome, his children by Messalina were to have shown themselves, had not Narcissus ordered their removal. Vibidia he could not repel, when, with a vehemently indignant appeal, she demanded that a wife should not be given up to death without a hearing. So Narcissus replied that the emperor would hear her, and that she should have an opportunity of disproving the charge. Meanwhile the holy virgin was to go and discharge her sacred duties.

All throughout, Claudius preserved a strange silence; Vitellius seemed unconscious. Everything was under the freedman’s control. By his order, the paramour’s house was thrown open and the emperor conducted thither. First, on the threshold, he pointed out the statue of Silius’s father, which a decree of the Senate had directed to be destroyed; next, how the heirlooms of the Neros and the Drusi had been degraded into the price of infamy. Then he led the emperor, furious and bursting out in menace, into the camp, where the soldiers were purposely assembled. Claudius spoke to them a few words at the dictation of Narcissus. Shame indeed checked the utterance even of a righteous anger. Instantly there came a shout from the cohorts, demanding the names of the culprits and their punishment. Brought before the tribunal, Silius sought neither defence nor delay, but begged that his death might be hastened. A like courage made several Roman knights of the first rank desirous of a speedy doom. Titius Proculus, who had been appointed to watch Messalina and was now offering his evidence, Vettius Valens, who confessed his guilt, together with Pompeius Urbicus and Saufellus Trogus from among her accomplices, were ordered to execution. Decius Calpurnianus too, commander of the watch, Sulpicius Rufus, who had the charge of the Games, and Juncus Virgilianus, a senator, were similarly punished.

Mnester alone occasioned a pause. Rending off his clothes, he insisted on Claudius looking at the scars of his stripes and remembering his words when he surrendered himself, without reserve, to Messalina’s bidding. The guilt of others had been the result of presents or of large promises; his, of necessity. He must have been the first victim had Silius obtained empire.

Caesar was touched by his appeal and inclined to mercy, but his freedmen prevailed on him not to let any indulgence be shown to a player when so many illustrious citizens had fallen. “It mattered not whether he had sinned so greatly from choice or compulsion.” Even the defence of Traulus Montanus, a Roman knight, was not admitted. A young man of pure life, yet of singular beauty, he had been summoned and dismissed within the space of one night by Messalina, who was equally capricious in her passions and dislikes. In the cases of Suilius Caesoninus and Plautius Lateranus, the extreme penalty was remitted. The latter was saved by the distinguished services of his uncle; the former by his very vices, having amid that abominable throng submitted to the worst degradation.

Messalina meanwhile, in the gardens of Lucullus, was struggling for life, and writing letters of entreaty, as she alternated between hope arid fury. In her extremity, it was her pride alone which forsook her. Had not Narcissus hurried on her death, ruin would have recoiled on her accuser. Claudius had returned home to an early banquet; then, in softened mood, when the wine had warmed him, he bade some one go and tell the “poor creature” (this is the word which they say he used) to come the morrow and plead her cause. Hearing this, seeing too that his wrath was subsiding and his passion returning, and fearing, in the event of delay, the effect of approaching night and conjugal recollections, Narcissus rushed out, and ordered the centurions and the tribunes, who were on guard, to accomplish the deed of blood. Such, he said, was the emperor’s bidding. Evodus, one of the freedmen, was appointed to watch and complete the affair. Hurrying on before with all speed to the gardens, he found Messalina stretched upon the ground, while by her side sat Lepida, her mother, who, though estranged from her daughter in prosperity, was now melted to pity by her inevitable doom, and urged her not to wait for the executioner. “Life,” she said, “was over; all that could be looked for was honour in death.” But in that heart, utterly corrupted by profligacy, nothing noble remained. She still prolonged her tears and idle complaints, till the gates were forced open by the rush of the new comers, and there stood at her side the tribune, sternly silent, and the freedman, overwhelming her with the copious insults of a servile tongue.

Then for the first time she understood her fate and put her hand to a dagger. In her terror she was applying it ineffectually to her throat and breast, when a blow from the tribune drove it through her. Her body was given up to her mother. Claudius was still at the banquet when they told him that Messalina was dead, without mentioning whether it was by her own or another’s hand. Nor did he ask the question, but called for the cup and finished his repast as usual. During the days which followed he showed no sign of hatred or joy or anger or sadness, in a word, of any human emotion, either when he looked on her triumphant accusers or on her weeping children. The Senate assisted his forgetfulness by decreeing that her name and her statues should be removed from all places, public or private. To Narcissus were voted the decorations of the quaestorship, a mere trifle to the pride of one who rose in the height of his power above Pallas and Callistus.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04