THE first death under the new emperor, that of Junius Silanus, proconsul of Asia, was, without Nero’s knowledge, planned by the treachery of Agrippina. Not that Silanus had provoked destruction by any violence of temper, apathetic as he was, and so utterly despised under former despotisms, that Caius Caesar used to call him the golden sheep. The truth was that Agrippina, having contrived the murder of his brother Lucius Silanus, dreaded his vengeance; for it was the incessant popular talk that preference ought to be given over Nero, who was scarcely out of his boyhood and had gained the empire by crime, to a man of mature age, of blameless life, of noble birth, and, as a point then much regarded, of the line of the Caesars. Silanus in fact was the son of a great-grandson of Augustus. This was the cause of his destruction. The agents of the deed were Publius Celer, a Roman knight, and Helius, a freedman, men who had the charge of the emperor’s domains in Asia. They gave the proconsul poison at a banquet, too openly to escape discovery.
With no less precipitation, Narcissus, Claudius’s freedman, whose quarrels with Agrippina I have mentioned, was driven to suicide by his cruel imprisonment and hopeless plight, even against the wishes of Nero, with whose yet concealed vices he was wonderfully in sympathy from his rapacity and extravagance.
And now they had proceeded to further murders but for the opposition of Afranius Burrus and Annaeus Seneca. These two men guided the emperor’s youth with an unity of purpose seldom found where authority is shared, and though their accomplishments were wholly different, they had equal influence. Burrus, with his soldier’s discipline and severe manners, Seneca, with lessons of eloquence and a dignified courtesy, strove alike to confine the frailty of the prince’s youth, should he loathe virtue, within allowable indulgences. They had both alike to struggle against the domineering spirit of Agrippina, who inflamed with all the passions of an evil ascendency had Pallas on her side, at whose suggestion Claudius had ruined himself by an incestuous marriage and a fatal adoption of a son. Nero’s temper however was not one to submit to slaves, and Pallas, by a surly arrogance quite beyond a freedman, had provoked disgust. Still every honour was openly heaped on Agrippina, and to a tribune who according to military custom asked the watchword, Nero gave “the best of mothers.” The Senate also decreed her two lictors, with the office of priestess to Claudius, and voted to the late emperor a censor’s funeral, which was soon followed by deification.
On the day of the funeral the prince pronounced Claudius’s panegyric, and while he dwelt on the antiquity of his family and on the consulships and triumphs of his ancestors, there was enthusiasm both in himself and his audience. The praise of his graceful accomplishments, and the remark that during his reign no disaster had befallen Rome from the foreigner, were heard with favour. When the speaker passed on to his foresight and wisdom, no one could refrain from laughter, though the speech, which was composed by Seneca, exhibited much elegance, as indeed that famous man had an attractive genius which suited the popular ear of the time. Elderly men who amuse their leisure with comparing the past and the present, observed that Nero was the first emperor who needed another man’s eloquence. The dictator Caesar rivalled the greatest orators, and Augustus had an easy and fluent way of speaking, such as became a sovereign. Tiberius too thoroughly understood the art of balancing words, and was sometimes forcible in the expression of his thoughts, or else intentionally obscure. Even Caius Caesar’s disordered intellect did not wholly mar his faculty of speech. Nor did Claudius, when he spoke with preparation, lack elegance. Nero from early boyhood turned his lively genius in other directions; he carved, painted, sang, or practised the management of horses, occasionally composing verses which showed that he had the rudiments of learning.
When he had done with his mimicries of sorrow he entered the Senate, and having first referred to the authority of the senators and the concurrence of the soldiery, he then dwelt on the counsels and examples which he had to guide him in the right administration of empire. “His boyhood,” he said, “had not had the taint of civil wars or domestic feuds, and he brought with him no hatreds, no sense of wrong, no desire of vengeance.” He then sketched the plan of his future government, carefully avoiding anything which had kindled recent odium. “He would not,” he said, “be judge in all cases, or, by confining the accuser and the accused within the same walls, let the power of a few favourites grow dangerously formidable. In his house there should be nothing venal, nothing open to intrigue; his private establishment and the State should be kept entirely distinct. The Senate should retain its ancient powers; Italy and the State-provinces should plead their causes before the tribunals of the consuls, who would give them a hearing from the senators. Of the armies he would himself take charge, as specially entrusted to him.”
He was true to his word and several arrangements were made on the Senate’s authority. No one was to receive a fee or a present for pleading a cause; the quaestors-elect were not to be under the necessity of exhibiting gladiatorial shows. This was opposed by Agrippina, as a reversal of the legislation of Claudius, but it was carried by the senators who used to be summoned to the palace, in order that she might stand close to a hidden door behind them, screened by a curtain which was enough to shut her out of sight, but not out of hearing. When envoys from Armenia were pleading their nation’s cause before Nero, she actually was on the point of mounting the emperor’s tribunal and of presiding with him; but Seneca, when every one else was paralysed with alarm, motioned to the prince to go and meet his mother. Thus, by an apparently dutiful act, a scandalous scene was prevented.
With the close of the year came disquieting rumours that the Parthians had again broken their bounds and were ravaging Armenia, from which they had driven Rhadamistus, who, having often possessed himself of the kingdom and as often been thrust out of it, had now relinquished hostilities. Rome with its love of talking began to ask how a prince of scarce seventeen was to encounter and avert this tremendous peril, how they could fall back on one who was ruled by a woman; or whether battles and sieges and the other operations of war could be directed by tutors. “Some, on the contrary, argued that this was better than it would have been, had Claudius in his feeble and spiritless old age, when he would certainly have yielded to the bidding of slaves, been summoned to the hardships of a campaign. Burrus, at least, and Seneca were known to be men of very varied experience, and, as for the emperor himself, how far was he really short of mature age, when Cneius Pompeius and Caesar Octavianus, in their eighteenth and nineteenth years respectively, bore the brunt of civil wars? The highest rank chiefly worked through its prestige and its counsels more than by the sword and hand. The emperor would give a plain proof whether he was advised by good or bad friends by putting aside all jealousy and selecting some eminent general, rather than by promoting out of favouritism, a rich man backed up by interest.”
Amidst this and like popular talk, Nero ordered the young recruits levied in the adjacent provinces to be brought up for the supply of the legions of the East, and the legions themselves to take up a position on the Armenian frontier while two princes of old standing, Agrippa and Antiochus, were to prepare a force for the invasion of the Parthian territories. The Euphrates too was to be spanned by bridges; Lesser Armenia was intrusted to Aristobulus, Sophene to Sohaemus, each with the ensigns of royalty. There rose up at this crisis a rival to Vologeses in his son Vardanes, and the Parthians quitted Armenia, apparently intending to defer hostilities.
All this however was described with exaggeration to the Senate, in the speeches of those members who proposed a public thanksgiving, and that on the days of the thanksgiving the prince should wear the triumphal robe and enter Rome in ovation, lastly, that he should have statues on the same scale as those of Mars the Avenger, and in the same temple. To their habitual flattery was added a real joy at his having appointed Domitius Corbulo to secure Armenia, thus opening, as it seemed, a field to merit. The armies of the East were so divided that half the auxiliaries and two legions were to remain in the province of Syria under its governor, Quadratus Ummidius; while Corbulo was to have an equal number of citizen and allied troops, together with the auxiliary infantry and cavalry which were in winter quarters in Cappadocia. The confederate kings were instructed to obey orders, just as the war might require. But they had a specially strong liking for Corbulo. That general, with a view to the prestige which in a new enterprise is supremely powerful, speedily accomplished his march, and at Aegeae, a city of Cilicia, met Quadratus who had advanced to the place under an apprehension that, should Corbulo once enter Armenia to take command of the army, he would draw all eyes on himself, by his noble stature, his imposing eloquence, and the impression he would make, not only by his wisdom and experience, but also by the mere display of showy attributes.
Meantime both sent messages to king Vologeses, advising him to choose peace rather than war, and to give hostages and so continue the habitual reverence of his ancestors towards the people of Rome. Vologeses, wishing to prepare for war at an advantage, or to rid himself of suspected rivals under the name of hostages, delivered up some of the noblest of the Arsacids. A centurion, Insteius, sent perhaps by Ummidius on some previous occasion, received them after an interview with the king. Corbulo, on knowing this, ordered Arrius Varus, commander of a cohort, to go and take the hostages. Hence arose a quarrel between the commander and the centurion, and to stop such a scene before foreigners, the decision of the matter was left to the hostages and to the envoys who conducted them. They preferred Corbulo, for his recent renown, and from a liking which even enemies felt for him. Then there was a feud between the two generals; Ummidius complained that he was robbed of what his prudence had achieved, while Corbulo on the other hand appealed to the fact that Vologeses had not brought himself to offer hostages till his own appointment to the conduct of the war turned the king’s hopes into fears. Nero, to compose their differences, directed the issue of a proclamation that for the successes of Quadratus and Corbulo the laurel was to be added to the imperial “fasces.” I have closely connected these events, though they extend into another consulship.
The emperor in the same year asked the Senate for a statue to his father Domitius, and also that the consular decorations might be conferred on Asconius Labeo, who had been his guardian. Statues to himself of solid gold and silver he forbade, in opposition to offers made, and although the Senate passed a vote that the year should begin with the month of December, in which he was born, he retained for its commencement, the old sacred associations of the first of January. Nor would he allow the prosecution of Carinas Celer, a senator, whom a slave accused, or of Julius Densus, a knight, whose partiality for Britannicus was construed into a crime.
In the year of his consulship with Lucius Antistius, when the magistrates were swearing obedience to imperial legislation, he forbade his colleague to extend the oath to his own enactments, for which he was warmly praised by the senators, in the hope that his youthful spirit, elated with the glory won by trifles, would follow on to nobler aspirations. Then came an act of mercy to Plautius Lateranus, who had been degraded from his rank for adultery with Messalina, and whom he now restored, assuring them of his clemency in a number of speeches which Seneca, to show the purity of his teaching or to display his genius, published to the world by the emperor’s mouth.
Meanwhile the mother’s influence was gradually weakened, as Nero fell in love with a freedwoman, Acte by name, and took into his confidence Otho and Claudius Senecio, two young men of fashion, the first of whom was descended from a family of consular rank, while Senecio’s father was one of the emperor’s freedmen. Without the mother’s knowledge, then in spite of her opposition, they had crept into his favour by debaucheries and equivocal secrets, and even the prince’s older friends did not thwart him, for here was a girl who without harm to any one gratified his desires, when he loathed his wife Octavia, high born as she was, and of approved virtue, either from some fatality, or because vice is overpoweringly attractive. It was feared too that he might rush into outrages on noble ladies, were he debarred from this indulgence.
Agrippina, however, raved with a woman’s fury about having a freedwoman for a rival, a slave girl for a daughter-in-law, with like expressions. Nor would she wait till her son repented or wearied of his passion. The fouler her reproaches, the more powerfully did they inflame him, till completely mastered by the strength of his desire, he threw off all respect for his mother, and put himself under the guidance of Seneca, one of whose friends, Annaeus Serenus, had veiled the young prince’s intrigue in its beginning by pretending to be in love with the same woman, and had lent his name as the ostensible giver of the presents secretly sent by the emperor to the girl. Then Agrippina, changing her tactics, plied the lad with various blandishments, and even offered the seclusion of her chamber for the concealment of indulgences which youth and the highest rank might claim. She went further; she pleaded guilty to an ill-timed strictness, and handed over to him the abundance of her wealth, which nearly approached the imperial treasures, and from having been of late extreme in her restraint of her son, became now, on the other hand, lax to excess. The change did not escape Nero; his most intimate friends dreaded it, and begged him to beware of the arts of a woman, was always daring and was now false.
It happened at this time that the emperor after inspecting the apparel in which wives and mothers of the imperial house had been seen to glitter, selected a jewelled robe and sent it as a gift to his mother, with the unsparing liberality of one who was bestowing by preference on her a choice and much coveted present. Agrippina, however, publicly declared that so far from her wardrobe being furnished by these gifts, she was really kept out of the remainder, and that her son was merely dividing with her what he derived wholly from herself.
Some there were who put even a worse meaning on her words. And so Nero, furious with those who abetted such arrogance in a woman, removed Pallas from the charge of the business with which he had been entrusted by Claudius, and in which he acted, so to say, as the controller of the throne. The story went that as he was departing with a great retinue of attendants, the emperor rather wittily remarked that Pallas was going to swear himself out of office. Pallas had in truth stipulated that he should not be questioned for anything he had done in the past, and that his accounts with the State were to be considered as balanced. Thereupon, with instant fury, Agrippina rushed into frightful menaces, sparing not the prince’s ears her solemn protest “that Britannicus was now of full age, he who was the true and worthy heir of his father’s sovereignty, which a son, by mere admission and adoption, was abusing in outrages on his mother. She shrank not from an utter exposure of the wickedness of that ill-starred house, of her own marriage, to begin with, and of her poisoner’s craft. All that the gods and she herself had taken care of was that her stepson was yet alive; with him she would go to the camp, where on one side should be heard the daughter of Germanicus; on the other, the crippled Burrus and the exile Seneca, claiming, forsooth, with disfigured hand, and a pedant’s tongue, the government of the world.” As she spoke, she raised her hand in menace and heaped insults on him, as she appealed to the deified Claudius, to the infernal shades of the Silani, and to those many fruitless crimes.
Nero was confounded at this, and as the day was near on which Britannicus would complete his fourteenth year, he reflected, now on the domineering temper of his mother, and now again on the character of the young prince, which a trifling circumstance had lately tested, sufficient however to gain for him wide popularity. During the feast of Saturn, amid other pastimes of his playmates, at a game of lot drawing for king, the lot fell to Nero, upon which he gave all his other companions different orders, and such as would not put them to the blush; but when he told Britannicus to step forward and begin a song, hoping for a laugh at the expense of a boy who knew nothing of sober, much less of riotous society, the lad with perfect coolness commenced some verses which hinted at his expulsion from his father’s house and from supreme power. This procured him pity, which was the more conspicuous, as night with its merriment had stript off all disguise. Nero saw the reproach and redoubled his hate. Pressed by Agrippina’s menaces, having no charge against his brother and not daring openly to order his murder, he meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.
It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina, her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.
And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven against a crime which many were even inclined to forgive when they remembered the immemorial feuds of brothers and the impossibility of a divided throne. It is related by several writers of the period that many days before the murder, Nero had offered the worst insult to the boyhood of Britannicus; so that his death could no longer seem a premature or dreadful event, though it happened at the sacred board, without even a moment for the embraces of his sisters, hurried on too, as it was, under the eyes of an enemy, on the sole surviving offspring of the Claudii, the victim first of dishonour, then of poison. The emperor apologised for the hasty funeral by reminding people that it was the practice of our ancestors to withdraw from view any grievously untimely death, and not to dwell on it with panegyrics or display. For himself, he said, that as he had now lost a brother’s help, his remaining hopes centred in the State, and all the more tenderness ought to be shown by the Senate and people towards a prince who was the only survivor of a family born to the highest greatness.
He then enriched his most powerful friends with liberal presents. Some there were who reproached men of austere professions with having on such an occasion divided houses and estates among themselves, like so much spoil. It was the belief of others that a pressure had been put on them by the emperor, who, conscious as he was of guilt, hoped for merciful consideration if he could secure the most important men by wholesale bribery. But his mother’s rage no lavish bounty could allay. She would clasp Octavia to her arms, and have many a secret interview with her friends; with more than her natural rapacity, she clutched at money everywhere, seemingly for a reserve, and courteously received tribunes and centurions. She honoured the names and virtues of the nobles who still were left, seeking apparently a party and a leader. Of this Nero became aware, and he ordered the departure of the military guard now kept for the emperor’s mother, as it had formerly been for the imperial consort, along with some German troops, added as a further honour. He also gave her a separate establishment, that throngs of visitors might no longer wait on her, and removed her to what had been Antonia’s house; and whenever he went there himself, he was surrounded by a crowd of centurions, and used to leave her after a hurried kiss.
Of all things human the most precarious and transitory is a reputation for power which has no strong support of its own. In a moment Agrippina’s doors were deserted; there was no one to comfort or to go near her, except a few ladies, whether out of love or malice was doubtful. One of these was Junia Silana, whom Messalina had driven from her husband, Caius Silius, as I have already related. Conspicuous for her birth, her beauty, and her wantonness, she had long been a special favourite of Agrippina, till after a while there were secret mutual dislikes, because Sextius Africanus, a noble youth, had been deterred from marrying Silana by Agrippina, who repeatedly spoke of her as an immodest woman in the decline of life, not to secure Africanus for herself, but to keep the childless and wealthy widow out of a husband’s control. Silana having now a prospect of vengeance, suborned as accusers two of her creatures, Iturius and Calvisius, not with the old and often-repeated charges about Agrippina’s mourning the death of Britannicus or publishing the wrongs of Octavia, but with a hint that it was her purpose to encourage in revolutionary designs Rubellius Plautus, who his mother’s side was as nearly connected as Nero with the Divine Augustus; and then, by marrying him and making him emperor, again seize the control of the State. All this Iturius and Calvisius divulged to Atimetus, a freedman of Domitia, Nero’s aunt. Exulting in the opportunity, for Agrippina and Domitia were in bitter rivalry, Atimetus urged Paris, who was himself also a freedman of Domitia, to go at once and put the charge in the most dreadful form.
Night was far advanced and Nero was still sitting over his cups, when Paris entered, who was generally wont at such times to heighten the emperor’s enjoyments, but who now wore a gloomy expression. He went through the whole evidence in order, and so frightened his hearer as to make him resolve not only on the destruction of his mother and of Plautus, but also on the removal of Burrus from the command of the guards, as a man who had been promoted by Agrippina’s interest, and was now showing his gratitude. We have it on the authority of Fabius Rusticus that a note was written to Caecina Tuscus, intrusting to him the charge of the praetorian cohorts, but that through Seneca’s influence that distinguished post was retained for Burrus. According to Plinius and Cluvius, no doubt was felt about the commander’s loyalty. Fabius certainly inclines to the praise of Seneca, through whose friendship he rose to honour. Proposing as I do to follow the consentient testimony of historians, I shall give the differences in their narratives under the writers’ names. Nero, in his bewilderment and impatience to destroy his mother, could not be put off till Burrus answered for her death, should she be convicted of the crime, but “any one,” he said, “much more a parent, must be allowed a defence. Accusers there were none forthcoming; they had before them only the word of a single person from an enemy’s house, and this the night with its darkness and prolonged festivity and everything savouring of recklessness and folly, was enough to refute.”
Having thus allayed the prince’s fears, they went at daybreak to Agrippina, that she might know the charges against her, and either rebut them or suffer the penalty. Burrus fulfilled his instructions in Seneca’s presence, and some of the freedmen were present to witness the interview. Then Burrus, when he had fully explained the charges with the authors’ names, assumed an air of menace. Instantly Agrippina, calling up all her high spirit, exclaimed, “I wonder not that Silana, who has never borne offspring, knows nothing of a mother’s feelings.
Parents do not change their children as lightly as a shameless woman does her paramours. And if Iturius and Calvisius, after having wasted their whole fortunes, are now, as their last resource, repaying an old hag for their hire by undertaking to be informers, it does not follow that I am to incur the infamy of plotting a son’s murder, or that a Caesar is to have the consciousness of like guilt. As for Domitia’s enmity, I should be thankful for it, were she to vie with me in goodwill towards my Nero. Now through her paramour, Atimetus, and the actor, Paris, she is, so to say, concocting a drama for the stage. She at her Baiae was increasing the magnificence of her fishponds, when I was planning in my counsels his adoption with a proconsul’s powers and a consul-elect’s rank and every other step to empire. Only let the man come forward who can charge me with having tampered with the praetorian cohorts in the capital, with having sapped the loyalty of the provinces, or, in a word, with having bribed slaves and freedmen into any wickedness. Could I have lived with Britannicus in the possession of power? And if Plautus or any other were to become master of the State so as to sit in judgment on me, accusers forsooth would not be forthcoming, to charge me not merely with a few incautious expressions prompted by the eagerness of affection, but with guilt from which a son alone could absolve me.”
There was profound excitement among those present, and they even tried to soothe her agitation, but she insisted on an interview with her son. Then, instead of pleading her innocence, as though she lacked confidence, or her claims on him by way of reproach, she obtained vengeance on her accusers and rewards for her friends.
The superintendence of the corn supply was given to Faenius Rufus, the direction of the games which the emperor was preparing, to Arruntius Stella, and the province of Egypt to Caius Balbillus. Syria was to be assigned to Publius Anteius, but he was soon put off by various artifices and finally detained at Rome. Silana was banished; Calvisius and Iturius exiled for a time; Atimetus was capitally punished, while Paris was too serviceable to the emperor’s profligacy to allow of his suffering any penalty. Plautus for the present was silently passed over.
Next Pallas and Burrus were accused of having conspired to raise Cornelius Sulla to the throne, because of his noble birth and connection with Claudius, whose son-in-law he was by his marriage with Antonia. The promoter of the prosecution was one Paetus, who had become notorious by frequent purchases of property confiscated to the exchequer and was now convicted clearly of imposture. But the proved innocence of Pallas did Pallas did not please men so much, as his arrogance offended them. When his freedmen, his alleged accomplices, were called, he replied that at home he signified his wishes only by a nod or a gesture, or, if further explanation was required, he used writing, so as not to degrade his voice in such company. Burrus, though accused, gave his verdict as one of the judges. The prosecutor was sentenced to exile, and the account-books in which he was reviving forgotten claims of the exchequer, were burnt.
At the end of the year the cohort usually on guard during the games was withdrawn, that there might be a greater show of freedom, that the soldiery too might be less demoralised when no longer in contact with the licence of the theatre, and that it might be proved whether the populace, in the absence of a guard, would maintain their self-control. The emperor, on the advice of the augurs, purified Rome by a lustration, as the temples of Jupiter and Minerva had been struck by lightning.
In the consulship of Quintus Volusius and Publius Scipio, there was peace abroad, but a disgusting licentiousness at home on the part of Nero, who in a slave’s disguise, so as to be unrecognized, would wander through the streets of Rome, to brothels and taverns, with comrades, who seized on goods exposed for sale and inflicted wounds on any whom they encountered, some of these last knowing him so little that he even received blows himself, and showed the marks of them in his face. When it was notorious that the emperor was the assailant, and the insults on men and women of distinction were multiplied, other persons too on the strength of a licence once granted under Nero’s name, ventured with impunity on the same practices, and had gangs of their own, till night presented the scenes of a captured city. Julius Montanus, a senator, but one who had not yet held any office, happened to encounter the prince in the darkness, and because he fiercely repulsed his attack and then on recognizing him begged for mercy, as though this was a reproach, forced to destroy himself. Nero was for the future more timid, and surrounded himself with soldiers and a number of gladiators, who, when a fray began on a small scale and seemed a private affair, were to let it alone, but, if the injured persons resisted stoutly, they rushed in with their swords. He also turned the licence of the games and the enthusiasm for the actors into something like a battle by the impunity he allowed, and the rewards he offered, and especially by looking on himself, sometimes concealed, but often in public view, till, with the people at strife and the fear of a worse commotion, the only remedy which could be devised was the expulsion of the offending actors from Italy, and the presence once more of the soldiery in the theatre.
During the same time there was a discussion in the Senate on the misconduct of the freedmen class, and a strong demand was made that, as a check on the undeserving, patrons should have the right of revoking freedom. There were several who supported this. But the consuls did not venture to put the motion without the emperor’s knowledge, though they recorded the Senate’s general opinion, to see whether he would sanction the arrangement, considering that only a few were opposed to it, while some loudly complained that the irreverent spirit which freedom had fostered, had broken into such excess, that freedmen would ask their patrons’ advice as to whether they should treat them with violence, or, as legally, their equals, and would actually threaten them with blows, at the same time recommending them not to punish. “What right,” it was asked, “was conceded to an injured patron but that of temporarily banishing the freedman a hundred miles off to the shores of Campania? In everything else, legal proceedings were equal and the same for both. Some weapon ought to be given to the patrons which could not be despised. It would be no grievance for the enfranchised to have to keep their freedom by the same respectful behaviour which had procured it for them. But, as for notorious offenders, they deserved to be dragged back into slavery, that fear might be a restraint where kindness had had no effect.”
It was argued in reply that, though the guilt of a few ought to be the ruin of the men themselves, there should be no diminution of the rights of the entire class. “For it was,” they contended, “a widely diffused body; from it, the city tribes, the various public functionaries, the establishments of the magistrates and priests were for the most part supplied, as well as the cohorts of the city-guard; very many too of the knights and several of the senators derived their origin from no other source. If freedmen were to be a separate class, the paucity of the freeborn would be conspicuously apparent. Not without good reason had our ancestors, in distinguishing the position of the different orders, thrown freedom open to all. Again, two kinds of enfranchisement had been instituted, so as to leave room for retracting the boon, or for a fresh act of grace. Those whom the patron had not emancipated with the freedom-giving rod, were still held, as it were, by the bonds of slavery. Every master should carefully consider the merits of each case, and be slow to grant what once given could not be taken away.”
This view prevailed, and the emperor replied to the Senate that, whenever freedmen were accused by their patrons, they were to investigate each case separately and not to annul any right to their common injury. Soon afterwards, his aunt Domitia had her freedman Paris taken from her, avowedly by civil law, much to the emperor’s disgrace, by whose direction a decision that he was freeborn was obtained.
Still there yet remained some shadow of a free state. A contest arose between Vibullius, the praetor, and Antistius, a tribune of the people; for the tribune had ordered the release of some disorderly applauders of certain actors, whom the praetor had imprisoned. The Senate approved the imprisonment, and censured the presumption of Antistius. Tribunes were also forbidden to usurp the authority of praetors and consuls, or to summon from any part of Italy persons liable to legal proceedings. It was further proposed by Lucius Piso, consul-elect, that tribunes were not to try any case in their own houses, that a fine imposed by them was not to be entered on the public books by the officials of the exchequer, till four months had expired, and that in the meantime appeals were to be allowed, which the consuls were to decide.
Restrictions were also put on the powers of the aediles and a limit fixed to the amount of bail or penalty which curule and plebeian aediles could respectively exact. On this, Helvidius Priscus, a tribune of the people, followed up a personal quarrel he had with Obultronius Sabinus, one of the officials of the exchequer, by insinuating that he stretched his right of confiscation with merciless rigour against the poor. The emperor then transferred the charge of the public accounts from these officers to the commissioners.
The arrangement of this business had been variously and frequently altered. Augustus allowed the Senate to appoint commissioners; then, when corrupt practices were suspected in the voting, men were chosen by lot for the office out of the whole number of praetors. This did not last long, as the lot strayed away to unfit persons. Claudius then again appointed quaestors, and that they might not be too lax in their duties from fear of offending, he promised them promotion out of the usual course. But what they lacked was the firmness of mature age, entering, as they did, on this office as their first step, and so Nero appointed ex-praetors of approved competency.
During the same consulship, Vipsanius Laenas was condemned for rapacity in his administration of the province of Sardinia. Cestius Proculus was acquitted of extortion, his accusers dropping the charge. Clodius Quirinalis, having, when in command of the crews at Ravenna, caused grievous distress to Italy by his profligacy and cruelty, just as if it were the most contemptible of countries, forestalled his doom by poison. Caninius Rebilus, one of the first men in legal knowledge and vastness of wealth, escaped the miseries of an old age of broken health by letting the blood trickle from his veins, though men did not credit him with sufficient resolution for a self-inflicted death, because of his infamous effeminacy. Lucius Volusius on the other hand died with a glorious name. There was his long life of ninety-three years, his conspicuous wealth, honourably acquired, and his wise avoidance of the malignity of so many emperors.
During Nero’s second consulship with Lucius Piso for his colleague, little occurred deserving mention, unless one were to take pleasure in filling volumes with the praise of the foundations and timber work on which the emperor piled the immense amphitheatre in the Field of Mars. But we have learnt that it suits the dignity of the Roman people to reserve history for great achievements, and to leave such details to the city’s daily register. I may mention that the colonies of Nuceria and Capua were strengthened by an addition of veterans; to every member of the city populace four hundred sesterces were given, and forty million paid into the exchequer to maintain the credit of the citizens.
A tax also of four per cent. on the sale of slaves was remitted, an apparent more than a real boon, for as the seller was ordered to pay it, purchasers found that it was added as part of the price. The emperor by an edict forbade any magistrate or procurator in the government of a province to exhibit a show of gladiators, or of wild beasts, or indeed any other public entertainment; for hitherto our subjects had been as much oppressed by such bribery as by actual extortion, while governors sought to screen by corruption the guilty deeds of arbitrary caprice.
The Senate next passed a decree, providing alike for punishment and safety. If a master were murdered by his slaves, all those who were enfranchised by his will and lived under the same roof, were to suffer the capital punishment with his other slaves. Lucius Varius, an ex-consul, who had been crushed in the past under charges of extortion, was restored to his rank as a senator. Pomponia Graecina, a distinguished lady, wife of the Plautius who returned from Britain with an ovation, was accused of some foreign superstition and handed over to her husband’s judicial decision. Following ancient precedent, he heard his wife’s cause in the presence of kinsfolk, involving, as it did, her legal status and character, and he reported that she was innocent. This Pomponia lived a long life of unbroken melancholy. After the murder of Julia, Drusus’s daughter, by Messalina’s treachery, for forty years she wore only the attire of a mourner, with a heart ever sorrowful. For this, during Claudius’s reign, she escaped unpunished, and it was afterwards counted a glory to her.
The same year saw many impeached. One of these, Publius Celer, prosecuted by the province of Asia, the emperor could not acquit, and so he put off the case till the man died of old age. Celer, as I have related, had murdered Silanus, the pro-consul, and the magnitude of this crime veiled his other enormities. Cossutianus Capito was accused by the people of Cilicia; he was a man stained with the foulest guilt, and had actually imagined that his audacious wickedness had the same rights in a province as he had claimed for it at Rome. But he had to confront a determined prosecution, and at last abandoned his defence. Eprius Marcellus, from whom Lycia demanded compensation, was so powerfully supported by corrupt influence that some of his accusers were punished with exile, as though they had imperilled an innocent man.
Nero entered on his third consulship with Valerius Messala, whose great-grandfather, the orator Corvinus, was still remembered by a few old men, as having been the colleague of the Divine Augustus, Nero’s great-grandfather, in the same office. But the honour of a noble house was further increased by an annual grant of five hundred thousand sesterces on which Messala might support virtuous poverty. Aurelius Cotta, too, and Haterius Antonius had yearly stipends assigned them by the emperor, though they had squandered their ancestral wealth in profligacy.
Early in this year a war between Parthia and Rome about the possession of Armenia, which, feebly begun, had hitherto dragged on, was vigorously resumed. For Vologeses would not allow his brother Tiridates to be deprived of a kingdom which he had himself given him, or to hold it as a gift from a foreign power, and Corbulo too thought it due to the grandeur of Rome that he should recover what Lucullus and Pompeius had formerly won. Besides, the Armenians in the fluctuations of their allegiance sought the armed protection of both empires, though by their country’s position, by resemblance of manners, and by the ties of intermarriage, they were more connected with the Parthians, to whose subjection, in their ignorance of freedom, they rather inclined.
Corbulo however had more to struggle against in the supineness of his soldiers than in the treachery of the enemy. His legions indeed, transferred as they had been from Syria and demoralised by a long peace, endured most impatiently the duties of a Roman camp. It was well known that that army contained veterans who had never been on piquet duty or on night guard, to whom the rampart and the fosse were new and strange sights, men without helmets or breastplates, sleek money-making traders, who had served all their time in towns. Corbulo having discharged all who were old or in ill-health, sought to supply their places, and levies were held in Galatia and Cappadocia, and to these were added a legion from Germany with its auxiliary cavalry and light infantry. The entire army was kept under canvas, though the winter was so severe that the ground, covered as it was with ice, did not yield a place for the tents without being dug up. Many of the men had their limbs frost-bitten through the intensity of the cold, and some perished on guard. A soldier was observed whose hands mortified as he was carrying a bundle of wood, so that sticking to their burden they dropped off from his arms, now mere stumps. The general, lightly clad, with head uncovered, was continually with his men on the march, amid their labours; he had praise for the brave, comfort for the feeble, and was a good example to all. And then as many shrank from the rigour of the climate and of the service, and deserted, he sought a remedy in strictness of discipline. Not, as in other armies, was a first or second offense condoned, but the soldier, who had quitted his colours, instantly paid the penalty with his life. This was shown by experience to be a wholesome measure, better than mercy; for there were fewer desertions in that camp than in those in which leniency was habitual.
Meanwhile Corbulo kept his legions within the camp till spring weather was fairly established, and having stationed his auxiliary infantry at suitable points, he directed them not to begin an engagement. The charge of these defensive positions he entrusted to Paccius Orfitus, who had held the post of a first-rank centurion. Though this officer had reported that the barbarians were heedless, and that an opportunity for success presented itself, he was instructed to keep within his entrenchments and to wait for a stronger force. But he broke the order, and on the arrival of a few cavalry squadrons from the nearest forts, who in their inexperience insisted on fighting, he engaged the enemy and was routed. Panic-stricken by his disaster, those who ought to have given him support returned in precipitate flight to their respective encampments. Corbulo heard of this with displeasure; he sharply censured Paccius, the officers and soldiers, and ordered them to have their quarters outside the lines. There they were kept in disgrace, and were released only on the intercession of the whole army.
Tiridates meantime who, besides his own dependencies, had the powerful aid of his brother Vologeses, ravaged Armenia, not in stealthy raids as before, but in open war, plundering all whom he thought loyal to Rome, while he eluded an action with any force which was brought against him, and thus flying hither and thither, he spread panic more widely by rumour than by arms. So Corbulo, frustrated in his prolonged efforts to bring on an engagement and compelled, like the enemy, to carry hostilities everywhere, divided his army, so that his generals and officers might attack several points simultaneously. He at the same time instructed king Antiochus to hasten to the provinces on his frontier, as Pharasmanes, after having slain his son Rhadamistus as a traitor to prove his loyalty to us, was following up more keenly than ever his old feud with the Armenians. Then, for the first time, we won the friendship of the Moschi, a nation which became pre-eminently attached to Rome, and they overran the wilds of Armenia. Thus the intended plans of Tiridates were wholly reversed, and he sent envoys to ask on behalf of himself and of the Parthians, why, when hostages had lately been given and a friendship renewed which might open up a way to further acts of good will, he was thus driven from Armenia, his ancient possession.
“As yet,” he said, “Vologeses had not bestirred himself, simply because they preferred negotiation to violence. Should however war be persisted in, the Arsacids would not want the courage and good fortune which had already been proved more than once by disaster to Rome.” Corbulo in reply, when he was certain that Vologeses was detained by the revolt of Hyrcania, advised Tiridates to address a petition to the emperor, assuring him that he might reign securely and without bloodshed by relinquishing a prospect in the remote future for the sake of one more solid within his reach.
As no progress was made towards a final settlement of peace by the interchange of messages, it was at last decided to fix a time and a place for an interview between the leaders. “A thousand troopers,” Tiridates said, “would be his escort; what force of every kind was to be with Corbulo, he did not prescribe, provided they came in peaceful fashion, without breastplates and helmets.” Any human being, to say nothing of an old and wary general, would have seen through the barbarian’s cunning, which assigned a limited number on one side and offered a larger on the other, expressly with a treacherous intent; for, were they to be exposed to a cavalry trained in the use of arrows, with the person undefended, numbers would be unavailing. Corbulo however, pretending not to understand this, replied that they would do better to discuss matters requiring consideration for their common good, in the presence of the entire armies, and he selected a place partly consisting of gently sloping hills, suited for ranks of infantry, partly, of a spreading plain where troops of cavalry could manoeuvre. On the appointed day, arriving first, he posted his allied infantry with the king’s auxiliaries on the wings, the sixth legion in the centre, with which he had united three thousand men of the third, brought up in the night from another camp, with one eagle, so as to look like a single legion. Tiridates towards evening showed himself at some distance whence he could be seen rather than heard. And so the Roman general, without any conference, ordered his troops to retire to their respective camps.
The king either suspecting a stratagem from these simultaneous movements in different directions, or intending to cut off our supplies as they were coming up from the sea of Pontus and the town of Trapezus, hastily withdrew. He could not however make any attack on the supplies, as they were brought over mountains in the occupation of our forces. Corbulo, that war might not be uselessly protracted, and also to compel the Armenians to defend their possessions, prepared to destroy their fortresses, himself undertaking the assault on the strongest of all in that province named Volandum. The weaker he assigned to Cornelius Flaccus, his lieutenant, and to Insteius Capito, his camp-prefect. Having then surveyed the defences and provided everything suitable for storming them, he exhorted his soldiers to strip of his home this vagabond foe who was preparing neither for peace nor for war, but who confessed his treachery and cowardice by flight, and so to secure alike glory and spoil. Then forming his army into four divisions, he led one in the dense array of the “testudo” close up to the rampart, to undermine it, while others were ordered to apply scaling ladders to the walls, and many more were to discharge brands and javelins from engines. The slingers and artillerymen had a position assigned them from which to hurl their missiles at a distance, so that, with equal tumult everywhere, no support might be given from any point to such as were pressed. So impetuous were the efforts of the army that within a third part of one day the walls were stripped of their defenders, the barriers of the gates overthrown, the fortifications scaled and captured, and all the adult inhabitants massacred, without the loss of a soldier and with but very few wounded. The nonmilitary population were sold by auction; the rest of the booty fell to the conquerors.
Corbulo’s lieutenant and camp-prefect met with similar success; three forts were stormed by them in one day, and the remainder, some from panic, others by the consent of the occupants, capitulated. This inspired them with confidence to attack the capital of the country, Artaxata. The legions however were not marched by the nearest route, for should they cross the river Avaxes which washes the city’s walls by a bridge, they would be within missile-range. They passed over it at a distance, where it was broad and shallow.
Meantime Tiridates, ashamed of seeming utterly powerless by not interfering with the siege, and afraid that, in attempting to stop it, he would entangle himself and his cavalry on difficult ground, resolved finally to display his forces and either give battle on the first opportunity, or, by a pretended flight, prepare the way for some stratagem. Suddenly, he threw himself on the Roman columns, without however surprising our general, who had formed his army for fighting as well as for marching. On the right and left flanks marched the third and sixth legions, with some picked men of the tenth in the centre; the baggage was secured within the lines, and the rear was guarded by a thousand cavalry, who were ordered to resist any close attack of the enemy, but not to pursue his retreat. On the wings were the foot-archers and the remainder of the cavalry, with a more extended line on the left wing, along the base of some hills, so that should the enemy penetrate the centre, he might be encountered both in front and flank. Tiridates faced us in skirmishing order, but not within missile-range, now threatening attack, now seemingly afraid, with the view of loosening our formation and falling on isolated divisions. Finding that there was no breaking of our ranks from rashness, and that only one cavalry officer advanced too boldly, and that he falling pierced with arrows, confirmed the rest in obedience by the warning, he retired on the approach of darkness.
Corbulo then encamped on the spot, and considered whether he should push on his legions without their baggage to Artaxata and blockade the city, on which, he supposed, Tiridates had fallen back. When his scouts reported that the king had undertaken a long march, and that it was doubtful whether Media or Albania was its destination, he waited for daylight, and then sent on his light-armed troops, which were meanwhile to hover round the walls and begin the attack from a distance. The inhabitants however opened the gates of their own accord, and surrendered themselves and their property to the Romans. This saved their lives; the city was fired, demolished and levelled to the ground, as it could not be held without a strong garrison from the extent of the walls, and we had not sufficient force to be divided between adequately garrisoning it and carrying on the war. If again the place were left untouched and unguarded, no advantage or glory would accrue from its capture. Then too there was a wonderful occurrence, almost a divine interposition. While the whole space outside the town, up to its buildings, was bright with sunlight, the enclosure within the walls was suddenly shrouded in a black cloud, seamed with lightning-flashes, and thus the city was thought to be given up to destruction, as if heaven was wroth against it.
For all this Nero was unanimously saluted emperor, and by the Senate’s decree a thanksgiving was held; statues also, arches and successive consulships were voted to him, and among the holy days were to be included the day on which the victory was won, that on which it was announced, and that on which the motion was brought forward. Other proposals too of a like kind were carried, on a scale so extravagant, that Caius Cassius, after having assented to the rest of the honours, argued that if the gods were to be thanked for the bountiful favours of fortune, even a whole year would not suffice for thanksgivings, and therefore there ought to be a classification of sacred and business-days, that so they might observe divine ordinances and yet not interfer with human affairs.
A man who had struggled with various calamities and earned the hate of many, was then impeached and condemned, but not without angry feelings towards Seneca. This was Publius Suilius. He had been terrible and venal, while Claudius reigned, and when times were changed, he was not so much humbled as his enemies wished, and was one who would rather seem a criminal than a suppliant. With the intent of crushing him, so men believed, a decree of the Senate was revived, along with the penalty of the Cincian law against persons who had pleaded for hire. Suilius spared not complaint or indignant remonstrance; freespoken because of his extreme age as well as from his insolent temper, he taunted Seneca with his savage enmity against the friends of Claudius, under whose reign he had endured a most righteously deserved exile. “The man,” he said, “familiar as he was only with profitless studies, and with the ignorance of boyhood, envied those who employed a lively and genuine eloquence in the defence of their fellow-citizens. He had been Germanicus’s quaestor, while Seneca had been a paramour in his house. Was it to be thought a worse offence to obtain a reward for honest service with the litigant’s consent, than to pollute the chambers of the imperial ladies? By what kind of wisdom or maxims of philosophy had Seneca within four years of royal favour amassed three hundred million sesterces? At Rome the wills of the childless were, so to say, caught in his snare while Italy and the provinces were drained by a boundless usury. His own money, on the other hand, had been acquired by industry and was not excessive. He would suffer prosecutions, perils, anything indeed rather than make an old and self-learned position of honour to bow before an upstart prosperity.”
Persons were not wanting to report all this to Seneca, in the exact words, or with a worse sense put on it. Accusers were also found who alleged that our allies had been plundered, when Suilius governed the province of Asia, and that there had been embezzlement of public monies. Then, as an entire year had been granted to them for inquiries, it seemed a shorter plan to begin with his crimes at Rome, the witnesses of which were on the spot. These men charged Suilius with having driven Quintus Pomponius by a relentless prosecution into the extremity of civil war, with having forced Julia, Drusus’s daughter, and Sabina Poppaea to suicide, with having treacherously ruined Valerius Asiaticus, Lusius Saturninus and Cornelius Lupus, in fact, with the wholesale conviction of troops of Roman knights, and with all the cruelty of Claudius. His defence was that of all this he had done nothing on his own responsibility but had simply obeyed the emperor, till Nero stopped such pleadings, by stating that he had ascertained from his father’s notebooks that he had never compelled the prosecution of a single person.
Suilius then sheltered himself under Messalina’s orders, and the defence began to collapse. “Why,” it was asked, “was no one else chosen to put his tongue at the service of that savage harlot? We must punish the instruments of atrocious acts, when, having gained the rewards of wickedness, they impute the wickedness to others.”
And so, with the loss of half his property, his son and granddaughter being allowed to retain the other half, and what they had inherited under their mother’s or grandmother’s will being also exempted from confiscation, Suilius was banished to the Balearic isles. Neither in the crisis of his peril nor after his condemnation did he quail in spirit. Rumour said that he supported that lonely exile by a life of ease and plenty. When the accusers attacked his son Nerullinus on the strength of men’s hatred of the father and of some charges of extortion, the emperor interposed, as if implying that vengeange was fully satisfied.
About the same time Octavius Sagitta, a tribune of the people, who was enamoured to frenzy of Pontia, a married woman, bribed her by most costly presents into an intrigue and then into abandoning her husband. He had offered her marriage and had won her consent. But as soon as she was free, she devised delays, pretended that her father’s wishes were against it, and having secured the prospect of a richer husband, she repudiated her promises. Octavius, on the other hand, now remonstrated, now threatened; his good name, he protested, was lost, his means exhausted, and as for his life, which was all that was left to him, he surrendered it to her mercy. When she spurned him, he asked the solace of one night, with which to soothe his passion, that he might set bounds to it for the future. A night was fixed, and Pontia intrusted the charge of her chamber to a female slave acquainted with her secret. Octavius attended by one freedman entered with a dagger concealed under his dress. Then, as usual in lovers’ quarrels, there were chidings, entreaties, reproaches, excuses, and some period of the darkness was given up to passion; then, when seemingly about to go, and she was fearing nothing, he stabbed her with the steel, and having wounded and scared away the slave girl who was hurrying to her, rushed out of the chamber. Next day the murder was notorious, and there was no question as to the murderer, for it was proved that he had passed some time with her. The freedman, however, declared the deed was his, that he had, in fact, avenged his patron’s wrongs. He had made some impression by the nobleness of his example, when the slave girl recovered and revealed the truth. Octavius, when he ceased to be tribune, was prosecuted before the consuls by the father of the murdered woman, and was condemned by the sentence of the Senate under “the law concerning assassins.”
A profligacy equally notorious in that same year proved the beginning of great evils to the State. There was at Rome one Sabina Poppaea; her father was Titus Ollius, but she had assumed the name of her maternal grandfather Poppaeus Sabinus, a man of illustrious memory and pre-eminently distinguished by the honours of a consulship and a triumph. As for Ollius, before he attained promotion, the friendship of Sejanus was his ruin. This Poppaea had everything but a right mind. Her mother, who surpassed in personal attractions all the ladies of her day, had bequeathed to her alike fame and beauty. Her fortune adequately corresponded to the nobility of her descent. Her conversation was charming and her wit anything but dull. She professed virtue, while she practised laxity. Seldom did she appear in public, and it was always with her face partly veiled, either to disappoint men’s gaze or to set off her beauty. Her character she never spared, making no distinction between a husband and a paramour, while she was never a slave to her own passion or to that of her lover. Wherever there was a prospect of advantage, there she transferred her favours. And so while she was living as the wife of Rufius Crispinus, a Roman knight, by whom she had a son, she was attracted by the youth and fashionable elegance of Otho, and by the fact too that he was reputed to have Nero’s most ardent friendship. Without any delay the intrigue was followed by marriage.
Otho now began to praise his wife’s beauty and accomplishments to the emperor, either from a lover’s thoughtlessness or to inflame Nero’s passion, in the hope of adding to his own influence by the further tie which would arise out of possession of the same woman. Often, as he rose from the emperor’s table, was he heard repeatedly to say that he was going to her, to the high birth and beauty which had fallen to his lot, to that which all men pray for, the joy of the fortunate. These and like incitements allowed but of brief delay. Once having gained admission, Poppaea won her way by artful blandishments, pretending that she could not resist her passion and that she was captivated by Nero’s person. Soon, as the emperor’s love grew ardent, she would change and be supercilious, and, if she were detained more than one or two nights, would say again and again that she was a married woman and could not give up her husband attached as she was to Otho by a manner of life, which no one equalled. “His ideas and his style were grand; at his house everything worthy of the highest fortune was ever before her eyes. Nero, on the contrary, with his slave girl mistress, tied down by his attachment to Acte, had derived nothing from his slavish associations but what was low and degrading.”
Otho was now cut off from Nero’s usual familiar intercourse, and then even from interviews and from the royal suite, and at last was appointed governor of the province of Lusitania, that he might not be the emperor’s rival at Rome. There he lived up to the time of the civil wars, not in the fashion of his disgraceful past, but uprightly and virtuously, a pleasure-loving man when idle, and self-restrained when in power.
Hitherto Nero had sought a veil for his abominations and wickedness. He was particularly suspicious of Cornelius Sulla, whose apathetic temper he interpreted as really the reverse, inferring that he was, in fact, an artful dissembler. Graptus, one of the emperor’s freedmen, whose age and experience had made him thoroughly acquainted with the imperial household from the time of Tiberius, quickened these apprehensions by the following falsehood. The Mulvian bridge was then a famous haunt of nightly profligacy, and Nero used to go there that he might take his pleasures more freely outside the city. So Graptus, taking advantage of an idle panic into which the royal attendants had chanced to have been thrown on their return by one of those youthful frolics which were then everywhere practised, invented a story that a treacherous attack had been planned on the emperor, should he go back by the Flaminian road, and that through the favour of destiny he had escaped it, as he went home by a different way to Sallust’s gardens. Sulla, he said, was the author of this plot. Not one, however, of Sulla’s slaves or clients was recognised, and his character, despicable as it was and incapable of a daring act, was utterly at variance with the charge. Still, just as if he had been found guilty, he was ordered to leave his country, and confine himself within the walls of Massilia.
During the same consulship a hearing was given to two conflicting deputations from Puteoli, sent to the Senate by the town council and by the populace. The first spoke bitterly of the violence of the multitude; the second, of the rapacity of the magistrates and of all the chief citizens. That the disturbance, which had gone as far as stoning and threats of fire, might not lead on to bloodshed and armed fighting, Caius Cassius was appointed to apply some remedy. As they would not endure his rigour, the charge of the affair was at his own request transferred to the brothers Scribonii, to whom was given a praetorian cohort, the terror of which, coupled with the execution of a few persons, restored peace to the townspeople.
I should not mention a very trivial decree of the Senate which allowed the city of Syracuse to exceed the prescribed number in their gladiatorial shows, had not Paetus Thrasea spoken against it and furnished his traducers with a ground for censuring his motion. “Why,” it was asked, “if he thought that the public welfare required freedom of speech in the Senate, did he pursue such trifling abuses? Why should he not speak for or against peace and war, or on the taxes and laws and other matters involving Roman interests? The senators, as often as they received the privilege of stating an opinion, were at liberty to say out what they pleased, and to claim that it should be put to the vote. Was it the only worthy object of reform to provide that the Syracusans should not give shows on a larger scale? Were all other matters in every department of the empire as admirable as if Thrasea and not Nero had the direction of them? But if the highest affairs were passed by and ignored, how much more ought there to be no meddling with things wholly insignificant.”
Thrasea in reply, when his friends asked an explanation, said “that it was not in ignorance of Rome’s actual condition that he sought to correct such decrees, but that he was giving what was due to the honour of the senators, in making it evident that those who attended even to the merest trifles, would not disguise their responsibility for important affairs.”
That same year, repeated demands on the part of the people, who denounced the excessive greed of the revenue collectors, made Nero doubt whether he should not order the repeal of all indirect taxes, and so confer a most splendid boon on the human race. But this sudden impulse was checked by the senators, who, having first heartily praised the grandeur of his conception, pointed out “that the dissolution of the empire must ensue if the revenues which supported the State were to be diminished; for as soon as the customs were swept away, there would follow a demand for the abolition of the direct taxes. Many companies for the collection of the indirect taxes had been formed by consuls and tribunes, when the freedom of the Roman people was still in its vigour, and arrangements were subsequently made to insure an exact correspondence between the amount of income and the necessary disbursements. Certainly some restraint, they admitted, must be put on the cupidity of the revenue collectors, that they might not by new oppressions bring into odium what for so many years had been endured without a complaint.”
Accordingly the emperor issued an edict that the regulations about every branch of the public revenue, which had hitherto been kept secret, should be published; that claims which had been dropped should not be revived after a year; that the praetor at Rome, the propraetor or proconsul in the provinces, should give judicial precedence to all cases against the collectors; that the soldiers should retain their immunities except when they traded for profit, with other very equitable arrangements, which for a short time were maintained and were subsequently disregarded. However, the repeal of the two per cent. and two-and-a-half per cent. taxes remains in force, as well as that of others bearing names invented by the collectors to cover their illegal exactions. In our transmarine provinces the conveyance of corn was rendered less costly, and it was decided that merchant ships should not be assessed with their owner’s property, and that no tax should be paid on them.
Two men under prosecution from Africa, in which province they had held proconsular authority, Sulpicius Camerinus and Pomponius Silvanus, were acquitted by the emperor. Camerinus had against him a few private persons who charged him with cruelty rather than with extortion. Silvanus was beset by a host of accusers, who demanded time for summoning their witnesses, while the defendant insisted on being at once put on his defence. And he was successful, through his wealth, his childlessness, and his old age, which he prolonged beyond the life of those by whose corrupt influence he had escaped.
Up to this time everything had been quiet in Germany, from the temper of the generals, who, now that triumphal decorations had been vulgarised, hoped for greater glory by the maintenance of peace. Paulinus Pompeius and Lucius Vetus were then in command of the army. Still, to avoid keeping the soldiers in idleness, the first completed the embankment begun sixty-three years before by Drusus to confine the waters of the Rhine, while Vetus prepared to connect the Moselle and the Arar by a canal, so that troops crossing the sea and then conveyed on the Rhone and Arar might sail by this canal into the Moselle and the Rhine, and thence to the ocean. Thus the difficulties of the route being removed, there would be communication for ships between the shores of the west and of the north.
Aelius Gracilis, the governor of Belgica, discouraged the work by seeking to deter Vetus from bringing his legions into another man’s province, and so drawing to himself the attachment of Gaul. This result he repeatedly said would excite the fears of the emperor, an assertion by which meritorious undertakings are often hindered.
Meantime, from the continued inaction of our armies, a rumour prevailed that the commanders had been deprived of the right of leading them against the enemy. Thereupon the Frisii moved up their youth to the forests and swamps, and their non-fighting population, over the lakes, to the river-bank, and established themselves in unoccupied lands, reserved for the use of our soldiers, under the leadership of Verritus and Malorix, the kings of the tribe, as far as Germans are under kings. Already they had settled themselves in houses, had sown the fields, and were cultivating the soil as if it had been their ancestors’, when Dubius Avitus, who had succeeded Paulinus in the province, by threatening them with a Roman attack if they did not retire into their old country or obtain a new territory from the emperor, constrained Verritus and Malorix to become suppliants. They went to Rome, and while they waited for Nero, who was intent on other engagements, among the sights shown to the barbarians they were admitted into Pompey’s theatre, where they might behold the vastness of the Roman people. There at their leisure (for in the entertainment, ignorant as they were, they found no amusement) they asked questions about the crowd on the benches, about the distinctions of classes, who were the knights, where was the Senate, till they observed some persons in a foreign dress on the seats of the senators. Having asked who they were, when they were told that this honour was granted to envoys from those nations which were distinguished for their bravery and their friendship to Rome, they exclaimed that no men on earth surpassed the Germans in arms or in loyalty. Then they went down and took their seat among the senators. The spectators hailed the act goodnaturedly, as due to the impulsiveness of a primitive people and to an honourable rivalry. Nero gave both of them the Roman franchise, and ordered the Frisii to withdraw from the territory in question. When they disdained obedience, some auxiliary cavalry by a sudden attack made it a necessity for them, capturing or slaughtering those who obstinately resisted.
Of this same territory, the Ampsivarii now possessed themselves, a tribe more powerful not only from their numbers, but from having the sympathy of the neighbouring peoples, as they had been expelled by the Chauci and had to beg, as homeless outcasts, a secure exile. Their cause was pleaded by a man, famous among those nations and loyal to Rome, Boiocalus by name, who reminded us that on the Cheruscan revolt he had been imprisoned by the order of Arminius, that afterwards he had served under the leadership of Tiberius and of Germanicus, and that to a fifty years’ obedience he was adding the merit of subjecting his tribe to our dominion. “What an extent of plain,” he would say, “lies open into which the flocks and herds of the Roman soldiers may some day be sent! Let them by all means keep retreats for their cattle, while men are starving; only let them not prefer a waste and a solitude to friendly nations. Once these fields belonged to the Chamavi; then to the Tubantes; after them to the Usipii. As heaven is for the gods, so the earth has been given to mankind, and lands uninhabited are common to all.” Then looking up to the sun and invoking the other heavenly bodies, he asked them, as though standing in their presence, “whether they wished to behold an empty soil; rather let them submerge it beneath the sea against the plunderers of the land.”
Avitus was impressed by this language and said that people must submit to the rule of their betters; that the gods to whom they appealed, had willed that the decision as to what should be given or taken from them, was to rest with the Romans, who would allow none but themselves to be judges. This was his public answer to the Ampsivarii; to Boiocalus his reply was that in remembrance of past friendship he would cede the lands in question. Boiocalus spurned the offer as the price of treason, adding, “We may lack a land to live in; we cannot lack one to die in.” And so they parted with mutual exasperation. The Ampsivarii now called on the Bructeri, the Tencteri, and yet more distant tribes to be their allies in war. Avitus, having written to Curtilius Mancia, commander of the Upper army, asking him to cross the Rhine and display his troops in the enemy’s rear, himself led his legions into the territory of the Tencteri, and threatened them with extermination unless they dissociated themselves from the cause. When upon this the Tencteri stood aloof, the Bructeri were cowed by a like terror. And so, as the rest too were for averting perils which did not concern them, the Ampsivarian tribe in its isolation retreated to the Usipii and Tubantes. Driven out of these countries, they sought refuge with the Chatti and then with the Cherusci, and after long wanderings, as destitute outcasts, received now as friends now as foes, their entire youth were slain in a strange land, and all who could not fight, were apportioned as booty.
The same summer a great battle was fought between the Hermunduri and the Chatti, both forcibly claiming a river which produced salt in plenty, and bounded their territories. They had not only a passion for settling every question by arms, but also a deep-rooted superstition that such localities are specially near to heaven, and that mortal prayers are nowhere more attentively heard by the gods. It is, they think, through the bounty of divine power, that in that river and in those forests salt is produced, not, as in other countries, by the drying up of an overflow of the sea, but by the combination of two opposite elements, fire and water, when the latter had been poured over a burning pile of wood. The war was a success for the Hermunduri, and the more disastrous to the Chatti because they had devoted, in the event of victory, the enemy’s army to Mars and Mercury, a vow which consigns horses, men, everything indeed on the vanquished side to destruction. And so the hostile threat recoiled on themselves. Meanwhile, a state in alliance with us, that of the Ubii, suffered grievously from an unexpected calamity. Fires suddenly bursting from the earth seized everywhere on country houses, crops, and villages, and were rushing on to the very walls of the newly founded colony. Nor could they be extinguished by the fall of rain, or by river-water, or by any other moisture, till some countrymen, in despair of a remedy and in fury at the disaster, flung stones from a distance, and then, approaching nearer, as the flames began to sink, tried to scare them away, like so many wild beasts, with the blows of clubs and other weapons. At last they stript off their clothes and threw them on the fire, which they were the more likely to quench, the more they had been soiled by common use.
That same year, the fact that the tree in the Comitium, which 840 years before had sheltered the infancy of Romulus and Remus, was impaired by the decay of its boughs and by the withering of its stem, was accounted a portent, till it began to renew its life with fresh shoots.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14