IN the year of the consulship of Caius Vipstanus and Caius Fonteius, Nero deferred no more a long meditated crime. Length of power had matured his daring, and his passion for Poppaea daily grew more ardent. As the woman had no hope of marriage for herself or of Octavia’s divorce while Agrippina lived, she would reproach the emperor with incessant vituperation and sometimes call him in jest a mere ward who was under the rule of others, and was so far from having empire that he had not even his liberty. “Why,” she asked, “was her marriage put off? Was it, forsooth, her beauty and her ancestors, with their triumphal honours, that failed to please, or her being a mother, and her sincere heart? No; the fear was that as a wife at least she would divulge the wrongs of the Senate, and the wrath of the people at the arrogance and rapacity of his mother. If the only daughter-in-law Agrippina could bear was one who wished evil to her son, let her be restored to her union with Otho. She would go anywhere in the world, where she might hear of the insults heaped on the emperor, rather than witness them, and be also involved in his perils.”
These and the like complaints, rendered impressive by tears and by the cunning of an adulteress, no one checked, as all longed to see the mother’s power broken, while not a person believed that the son’s hatred would steel his heart to her murder.
Cluvius relates that Agrippina in her eagerness to retain her influence went so far that more than once at midday, when Nero, even at that hour, was flushed with wine and feasting, she presented herself attractively attired to her half intoxicated son and offered him her person, and that when kinsfolk observed wanton kisses and caresses, portending infamy, it was Seneca who sought a female’s aid against a woman’s fascinations, and hurried in Acte, the freed-girl, who alarmed at her own peril and at Nero’s disgrace, told him that the incest was notorious, as his mother boasted of it, and that the soldiers would never endure the rule of an impious sovereign. Fabius Rusticus tells us that it was not Agrippina, but Nero, who lusted for the crime, and that it was frustrated by the adroitness of that same freed-girl. Cluvius’s account, however, is also that of all other authors, and popular belief inclines to it, whether it was that Agrippina really conceived such a monstrous wickedness in her heart, or perhaps because the thought of a strange passion seemed comparatively credible in a woman, who in her girlish years had allowed herself to be seduced by Lepidus in the hope of winning power, had stooped with a like ambition to the lust of Pallas, and had trained herself for every infamy by her marriage with her uncle.
Nero accordingly avoided secret interviews with her, and when she withdrew to her gardens or to her estates at Tusculum and Antium, he praised her for courting repose. At last, convinced that she would be too formidable, wherever she might dwell, he resolved to destroy her, merely deliberating whether it was to be accomplished by poison, or by the sword, or by any other violent means. Poison at first seemed best, but, were it to be administered at the imperial table, the result could not be referred to chance after the recent circumstances of the death of Britannicus. Again, to tamper with the servants of a woman who, from her familiarity with crime, was on her guard against treachery, appeared to be extremely difficult, and then, too, she had fortified her constitution by the use of antidotes. How again the dagger and its work were to be kept secret, no one could suggest, and it was feared too that whoever might be chosen to execute such a crime would spurn the order.
An ingenious suggestion was offered by Anicetus, a freedman, commander of the fleet at Misenum, who had been tutor to Nero in boyhood and had a hatred of Agrippina which she reciprocated. He explained that a vessel could be constructed, from which a part might by a contrivance be detached, when out at sea, so as to plunge her unawares into the water. “Nothing,” he said, “allowed of accidents so much as the sea, and should she be overtaken by shipwreck, who would be so unfair as to impute to crime an offence committed by the winds and waves? The emperor would add the honour of a temple and of shrines to the deceased lady, with every other display of filial affection.”
Nero liked the device, favoured as it also was by the particular time, for he was celebrating Minerva’s five days’ festival at Baiae. Thither he enticed his mother by repeated assurances that children ought to bear with the irritability of parents and to soothe their tempers, wishing thus to spread a rumour of reconciliation and to secure Agrippina’s acceptance through the feminine credulity, which easily believes what joy. As she approached, he went to the shore to meet her (she was coming from Antium), welcomed her with outstretched hand and embrace, and conducted her to Bauli. This was the name of a country house, washed by a bay of the sea, between the promontory of Misenum and the lake of Baiae. Here was a vessel distinguished from others by its equipment, seemingly meant, among other things, to do honour to his mother; for she had been accustomed to sail in a trireme, with a crew of marines. And now she was invited to a banquet, that night might serve to conceal the crime. It was well known that somebody had been found to betray it, that Agrippina had heard of the plot, and in doubt whether she was to believe it, was conveyed to Baiae in her litter. There some soothing words allayed her fear; she was graciously received, and seated at table above the emperor. Nero prolonged the banquet with various conversation, passing from a youth’s playful familiarity to an air of constraint, which seemed to indicate serious thought, and then, after protracted festivity, escorted her on her departure, clinging with kisses to her eyes and bosom, either to crown his hypocrisy or because the last sight of a mother on the even of destruction caused a lingering even in that brutal heart.
A night of brilliant starlight with the calm of a tranquil sea was granted by heaven, seemingly, to convict the crime. The vessel had not gone far, Agrippina having with her two of her intimate attendants, one of whom, Crepereius Gallus, stood near the helm, while Acerronia, reclining at Agrippina’s feet as she reposed herself, spoke joyfully of her son’s repentance and of the recovery of the mother’s influence, when at a given signal the ceiling of the place, which was loaded with a quantity of lead, fell in, and Crepereius was crushed and instantly killed. Agrippina and Acerronia were protected by the projecting sides of the couch, which happened to be too strong to yield under the weight. But this was not followed by the breaking up of the vessel; for all were bewildered, and those too, who were in the plot, were hindered by the unconscious majority. The crew then thought it best to throw the vessel on one side and so sink it, but they could not themselves promptly unite to face the emergency, and others, by counteracting the attempt, gave an opportunity of a gentler fall into the sea. Acerronia, however, thoughtlessly exclaiming that she was Agrippina, and imploring help for the emperor’s mother, was despatched with poles and oars, and such naval implements as chance offered. Agrippina was silent and was thus the less recognized; still, she received a wound in her shoulder. She swam, then met with some small boats which conveyed her to the Lucrine lake, and so entered her house.
There she reflected how for this very purpose she had been invited by a lying letter and treated with conspicuous honour, how also it was near the shore, not from being driven by winds or dashed on rocks, that the vessel had in its upper part collapsed, like a mechanism anything but nautical. She pondered too the death of Acerronia; she looked at her own wound, and saw that her only safeguard against treachery was to ignore it. Then she sent her freedman Agerinus to tell her son how by heaven’s favour and his good fortune she had escaped a terrible disaster; that she begged him, alarmed, as he might be, by his mother’s peril, to put off the duty of a visit, as for the present she needed repose. Meanwhile, pretending that she felt secure, she applied remedies to her wound, and fomentations to her person. She then ordered search to be made for the will of Acerronia, and her property to be sealed, in this alone throwing off disguise.
Nero, meantime, as he waited for tidings of the consummation of the deed, received information that she had escaped with the injury of a slight wound, after having so far encountered the peril that there could be no question as to its author. Then, paralysed with terror and protesting that she would show herself the next moment eager for vengeance, either arming the slaves or stirring up the soldiery, or hastening to the Senate and the people, to charge him with the wreck, with her wound, and with the destruction of her friends, he asked what resource he had against all this, unless something could be at once devised by Burrus and Seneca. He had instantly summoned both of them, and possibly they were already in the secret. There was a long silence on their part; they feared they might remonstrate in vain, or believed the crisis to be such that Nero must perish, unless Agrippina were at once crushed. Thereupon Seneca was so far the more prompt as to glance back on Burrus, as if to ask him whether the bloody deed must be required of the soldiers. Burrus replied “that the praetorians were attached to the whole family of the Caesars, and remembering Germanicus would not dare a savage deed on his offspring. It was for Anicetus to accomplish his promise.”
Anicetus, without a pause, claimed for himself the consummation of the crime. At those words, Nero declared that that day gave him empire, and that a freedman was the author of this mighty boon. “Go,” he said, “with all speed and take with you the men readiest to execute your orders.” He himself, when he had heard of the arrival of Agrippina’s messenger, Agerinus, contrived a theatrical mode of accusation, and, while the man was repeating his message, threw down a sword at his feet, then ordered him to be put in irons, as a detected criminal, so that he might invent a story how his mother had plotted the emperor’s destruction and in the shame of discovered guilt had by her own choice sought death.
Meantime, Agrippina’s peril being universally known and taken to be an accidental occurrence, everybody, the moment he heard of it, hurried down to the beach. Some climbed projecting piers; some the nearest vessels; others, as far as their stature allowed, went into the sea; some, again, stood with outstretched arms, while the whole shore rung with wailings, with prayers and cries, as different questions were asked and uncertain answers given. A vast multitude streamed to the spot with torches, and as soon as all knew that she was safe, they at once prepared to wish her joy, till the sight of an armed and threatening force scared them away. Anicetus then surrounded the house with a guard, and having burst open the gates, dragged off the slaves who met him, till he came to the door of her chamber, where a few still stood, after the rest had fled in terror at the attack. A small lamp was in the room, and one slave-girl with Agrippina, who grew more and more anxious, as no messenger came from her son, not even Agerinus, while the appearance of the shore was changed, a solitude one moment, then sudden bustle and tokens of the worst catastrophe. As the girl rose to depart, she exclaimed, “Do you too forsake me?” and looking round saw Anicetus, who had with him the captain of the trireme, Herculeius, and Obaritus, a centurion of marines. “If,” said she, “you have come to see me, take back word that I have recovered, but if you are here to do a crime, I believe nothing about my son; he has not ordered his mother’s murder.”
The assassins closed in round her couch, and the captain of the trireme first struck her head violently with a club. Then, as the centurion bared his sword for the fatal deed, presenting her person, she exclaimed, “Smite my womb,” and with many wounds she was slain.
So far our accounts agree. That Nero gazed on his mother after her death and praised her beauty, some have related, while others deny it. Her body was burnt that same night on a dining couch, with a mean funeral; nor, as long as Nero was in power, was the earth raised into a mound, or even decently closed. Subsequently, she received from the solicitude of her domestics, a humble sepulchre on the road to Misenum, near the country house of Caesar the Dictator, which from a great height commands a view of the bay beneath. As soon as the funeral pile was lighted, one of her freedmen, surnamed Mnester, ran himself through with a sword, either from love of his mistress or from the fear of destruction.
Many years before Agrippina had anticipated this end for herself and had spurned the thought. For when she consulted the astrologers about Nero, they replied that he would be emperor and kill his mother. “Let him kill her,” she said, “provided he is emperor.”
But the emperor, when the crime was at last accomplished, realised its portentous guilt. The rest of the night, now silent and stupified, now and still oftener starting up in terror, bereft of reason, he awaited the dawn as if it would bring with it his doom. He was first encouraged to hope by the flattery addressed to him, at the prompting of Burrus, by the centurions and tribunes, who again and again pressed his hand and congratulated him on his having escaped an unforeseen danger and his mother’s daring crime. Then his friends went to the temples, and, an example having once been set, the neighbouring towns of Campania testified their joy with sacrifices and deputations. He himself, with an opposite phase of hypocrisy, seemed sad, and almost angry at his own deliverance, and shed tears over his mother’s death. But as the aspects of places change not, as do the looks of men, and as he had ever before his eyes the dreadful sight of that sea with its shores (some too believed that the notes of a funereal trumpet were heard from the surrounding heights, and wailings from the mother’s grave), he retired to Neapolis and sent a letter to the Senate, the drift of which was that Agerinus, one of Agrippina’s confidential freedmen, had been detected with the dagger of an assassin, and that in the consciousness of having planned the crime she had paid its penalty.
He even revived the charges of a period long past, how she had aimed at a share of empire, and at inducing the praetorian cohorts to swear obedience to a woman, to the disgrace of the Senate and people; how, when she was disappointed, in her fury with the soldiers, the Senate, and the populace, she opposed the usual donative and largess, and organised perilous prosecutions against distinguished citizens. What efforts had it cost him to hinder her from bursting into the Senate-house and giving answers to foreign nations! He glanced too with indirect censure at the days of Claudius, and ascribed all the abominations of that reign to his mother, thus seeking to show that it was the State’s good fortune which had destroyed her. For he actually told the story of the shipwreck; but who could be so stupid as to believe that it was accidental, or that a shipwrecked woman had sent one man with a weapon to break through an emperor’s guards and fleets? So now it was not Nero, whose brutality was far beyond any remonstrance, but Seneca who was in ill repute, for having written a confession in such a style.
Still there was a marvellous rivalry among the nobles in decreeing thanksgivings at all the shrines, and the celebration with annual games of Minerva’s festival, as the day on which the plot had been discovered; also, that a golden image of Minerva with a statue of the emperor by its side should be set up in the Senate-house, and that Agrippina’s birthday should be classed among the inauspicious days. Thrasea Paetus, who had been used to pass over previous flatteries in silence or with brief assent, then walked out of the Senate, thereby imperilling himself, without communicating to the other senators any impulse towards freedom.
There occurred too a thick succession of portents, which meant nothing. A woman gave birth to a snake, and another was killed by a thunderbolt in her husband’s embrace. Then the sun was suddenly darkened and the fourteen districts of the city were struck by lightning. All this happened quite without any providential design; so much so, that for many subsequent years Nero prolonged his reign and his crimes. Still, to deepen the popular hatred towards his mother, and prove that since her removal, his clemency had increased, he restored to their ancestral homes two distinguished ladies, Junia and Calpurnia, with two ex-praetors, Valerius Capito and Licinius Gabolus, whom Agrippina had formerly banished. He also allowed the ashes of Lollia Paulina to be brought back and a tomb to be built over them. Iturius and Calvisius, whom he had himself temporarily exiled, he now released from their penalty. Silana indeed had died a natural death at Tarentum, whither she had returned from her distant exile, when the power of Agrippina, to whose enmity she owed her fall, began to totter, or her wrath was at last appeased.
While Nero was lingering in the towns of Campania, doubting how he should enter Rome, whether he would find the Senate submissive and the populace enthusiastic, all the vilest courtiers, and of these never had a court a more abundant crop, argued against his hesitation by assuring him that Agrippina’s name was hated and that her death had heightened his popularity. “He might go without a fear,” they said, “and experience in his person men’s veneration for him.” They insisted at the same time on preceding him. They found greater enthusiasm than they had promised, the tribes coming forth to meet him, the Senate in holiday attire, troops of their children and wives arranged according to sex and age, tiers of seats raised for the spectacle, where he was to pass, as a triumph is witnessed. Thus elated and exulting over his people’s slavery, he proceeded to the Capitol, performed the thanksgiving, and then plunged into all the excesses, which, though ill-restrained, some sort of respect for his mother had for a while delayed.
He had long had a fancy for driving a four-horse chariot, and a no less degrading taste for singing to the harp, in a theatrical fashion, when he was at dinner. This he would remind people was a royal custom, and had been the practice of ancient chiefs; it was celebrated too in the praises of poets and was meant to show honour to the gods. Songs indeed, he said, were sacred to Apollo, and it was in the dress of a singer that that great and prophetic deity was seen in Roman temples as well as in Greek cities. He could no longer be restrained, when Seneca and Burrus thought it best to concede one point that he might not persist in both. A space was enclosed in the Vatican valley where he might manage his horses, without the spectacle being public. Soon he actually invited all the people of Rome, who extolled him in their praises, like a mob which craves for amusements and rejoices when a prince draws them the same way. However, the public exposure of his shame acted on him as an incentive instead of sickening him, as men expected. Imagining that he mitigated the scandal by disgracing many others, he brought on the stage descendants of noble families, who sold themselves because they were paupers. As they have ended their days, I think it due to their ancestors not to hand down their names. And indeed the infamy is his who gave them wealth to reward their degradation rather than to deter them from degrading themselves. He prevailed too on some well-known Roman knights, by immense presents, to offer their services in the amphitheatre; only pay from one who is able to command, carries with it the force of compulsion.
Still, not yet wishing to disgrace himself on a public stage, he instituted some games under the title of “juvenile sports,” for which people of every class gave in their names. Neither rank nor age nor previous high promotion hindered any one from practising the art of a Greek or Latin actor and even stooping to gestures and songs unfit for a man. Noble ladies too actually played disgusting parts, and in the grove, with which Augustus had surrounded the lake for the naval fight, there were erected places for meeting and refreshment, and every incentive to excess was offered for sale. Money too was distributed, which the respectable had to spend under sheer compulsion and which the profligate gloried in squandering. Hence a rank growth of abominations and of all infamy. Never did a more filthy rabble add a worse licentiousness to our long corrupted morals. Even, with virtuous training, purity is not easily upheld; far less amid rivalries in vice could modesty or propriety or any trace of good manners be preserved. Last of all, the emperor himself came on the stage, tuning his lute with elaborate care and trying his voice with his attendants. There were also present, to complete the show, a guard of soldiers with centurions and tribunes, and Burrus, who grieved and yet applauded. Then it was that Roman knights were first enrolled under the title of Augustani, men in their prime and remarkable for their strength, some, from a natural frivolity, others from the hope of promotion. Day and night they kept up a thunder of applause, and applied to the emperor’s person and voice the epithets of deities. Thus they lived in fame and honour, as if on the strength of their merits.
Nero however, that he might not be known only for his accomplishments as an actor, also affected a taste for poetry, and drew round him persons who had some skill in such compositions, but not yet generally recognised. They used to sit with him, stringing together verses prepared at home, or extemporised on the spot, and fill up his own expressions, such as they were, just as he threw them off. This is plainly shown by the very character of the poems, which have no vigour or inspiration, or unity in their flow.
He would also bestow some leisure after his banquets on the teachers of philosophy, for he enjoyed the wrangles of opposing dogmatists. And some there were who liked to exhibit their gloomy faces and looks, as one of the amusements of the court.
About the same time a trifling beginning led to frightful bloodshed between the inhabitants of Nuceria and Pompeii, at a gladiatorial show exhibited by Livineius Regulus, who had been, as I have related, expelled from the Senate. With the unruly spirit of townsfolk, they began with abusive language of each other; then they took up stones and at last weapons, the advantage resting with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited. And so there were brought to Rome a number of the people of Nuceria, with their bodies mutilated by wounds, and many lamented the deaths of children or of parents. The emperor entrusted the trial of the case to the Senate, and the Senate to the consuls, and then again the matter being referred back to the Senators, the inhabitants of Pompeii were forbidden to have any such public gathering for ten years, and all associations they had formed in defiance of the laws were dissolved. Livineius and the others who had excited the disturbance, were punished with exile.
Pedius Blaesus was also expelled from the Senate on the accusation of the people of Cyrene, that he had violated the treasury of Aesculapius and had tampered with a military levy by bribery and corruption. This same people prosecuted Acilius Strabo who had held the office of praetor, and had been sent by Claudius to adjudicate on some lands which were bequeathed by king Apion, their former possessor, together with his kingdom to the Roman people, and which had since been seized by the neighbouring proprietors, who trusted to a long continued licence in wrong, as if it constituted right and justice. Consequently, when the adjudication was against them, there arose a bitter feeling towards the judge, but the Senate replied that they knew nothing of the instructions given by Claudius, and that the emperor must be consulted. Nero, though he approved Strabo’s decision, wrote word that nevertheless he was for relieving the allies, and that he waived all claim to what had been taken into possession.
Then followed the deaths of two illustrious men, Domitius Afer and Marcus Servilius, who had flourished through a career of the highest honours and great eloquence. The first was a pleader; Servilius, after long practice in the courts, distinguished himself by his history of Rome and by the refinement of his life, which the contrast of his character to that of Afer, whom he equalled in genius, rendered the more conspicuous.
In Nero’s fourth consulship with Cornelius Cossus for his colleague, a theatrical entertainment to be repeated every five years was established at Rome in imitation of the Greek festival. Like all novelties, it was variously canvassed. There were some who declared that even Cnius Pompeius was censured by the older men of the day for having set up a fixed and permanent theatre. “Formerly,” they said, “the games were usually exhibited with hastily erected tiers of benches and a temporary stage, and the people stood to witness them, that they might not, by having the chance of sitting down, spend a succession of entire days in idleness. Let the ancient character of these shows be retained, whenever the praetors exhibited them, and let no citizen be under the necessity of competing. As it was, the morality of their fathers, which had by degrees been forgotten, was utterly subverted by the introduction of a lax tone, so that all which could suffer or produce corruption was to be seen at Rome, and a degeneracy bred by foreign tastes was infecting the youth who devoted themselves to athletic sports, to idle loungings and low intrigues, with the encouragement of the emperor and Senate, who not only granted licence to vice, but even applied a compulsion to drive Roman nobles into disgracing themselves on the stage, under the pretence of being orators and poets. What remained for them but to strip themselves naked, put on the boxing-glove, and practise such battles instead of the arms of legitimate warfare? Would justice be promoted, or would they serve on the knights’ commissions for the honourable office of a judge, because they had listened with critical sagacity to effeminate strains of music and sweet voices? Night too was given up to infamy, so that virtue had not a moment left to her, but all the vilest of that promiscuous throng dared to do in the darkness anything they had lusted for in the day.”
Many people liked this very licence, but they screened it under respectable names. “Our ancestors,” they said, “were not averse to the attractions of shows on a scale suited to the wealth of their day, and so they introduced actors from the Etruscans and horse-races from Thurii. When we had possessed ourselves of Achaia and Asia, games were exhibited with greater elaboration, and yet no one at Rome of good family had stooped to the theatrical profession during the 200 years following the triumph of Lucius Mummius, who first displayed this kind of show in the capital. Besides, even economy had been consulted, when a permanent edifice was erected for a theatre, in preference to a structure raised and fitted up yearly at vast expense. Nor would the magistrates, as hitherto, exhaust their substance, or would the populace have the same motive for demanding of them the Greek contests, when once the State undertakes the expenditure. The victories won by orators and poets would furnish a stimulus to genius, and it could not be a burden for any judge to bestow his attention on graceful pursuits or on legitimate recreations. It was to mirth rather than to profligacy that a few nights every five years were devoted, and in these amid such a blaze of illumination no lawless conduct could be concealed.”
This entertainment, it is true, passed off without any notorious scandal. The enthusiasm too of the populace was not even slightly kindled, for the pantomimic actors, though permitted to return to the stage, were excluded from the sacred contests. No one gained the first prize for eloquence, but it was publicly announced that the emperor was victorious. Greek dresses, in which most people showed themselves during this festival, had then gone out of fashion.
A comet meantime blazed in the sky, which in popular opinion always portends revolution to kingdoms. So people began to ask, as if Nero was already dethroned, who was to be elected. In every one’s mouth was the name of Rubellius Blandus, who inherited through his mother the high nobility of the Julian family. He was himself attached to the ideas of our ancestors; his manners were austere, his home was one of purity and seclusion, and the more he lived in retirement from fear, the more fame did he acquire. Popular talk was confirmed by an interpretation put with similar credulity on a flash of lightning. While Nero was reclining at dinner in his house named Sublaqueum on the Simbruine lake, the table with the banquet was struck and shattered, and as this happened close to Tibur, from which town Plautus derived his origin on his father’s side, people believed him to be the man marked out by divine providence; and he was encouraged by that numerous class, whose eager and often mistaken ambition it is to attach themselves prematurely to some new and hazardous cause. This alarmed Nero, and he wrote a letter to Plautus, bidding “him consider the tranquillity of Rome and withdraw himself from mischievous gossip. He had ancestral possessions in Asia, where he might enjoy his youth safely and quietly.” And so thither Plautus retired with his wife Antistia and a few intimate friends.
About the same time an excessive love of luxurious gratification involved Nero in disgrace and danger. He had plunged for a swim into the source of the stream which Quintus Marcius conveyed to Rome, and it was thought that, by thus immersing his person in it, he had polluted the sacred waters and the sanctity of the spot. A fit of illness which followed, convinced people of the divine displeasure.
Corbulo meanwhile having demolished Artaxata thought that he ought to avail himself of the recent panic by possessing himself of Tigranocerta, and either, by destroying it, increase the enemy’s terror, or, by sparing it, win a name for mercy. Thither he marched his army, with no hostile demonstrations, lest might cut off all hope of quarter, but still without relaxing his vigilance, knowing, as he did, the fickle temper of the people, who are as treacherous, when they have an opportunity, as they are slow to meet danger. The barbarians, following their individual inclinations, either came to him with entreaties, or quitted their villages and dispersed into their deserts. Some there were who hid themselves in caverns with all that they held dearest. The Roman general accordingly dealt variously with them; he was merciful to suppliants, swift in pursuit of fugitives, pitiless towards those who had crept into hiding-places, burning them out after filling up the entrances and exits with brushwood and bushes. As he was on his march along the frontier of the Mardi, he was incessantly attacked by that tribe which is trained to guerilla warfare, and defended by mountains against an invader. Corbulo threw the Iberians on them, ravaged their country and punished the enemy’s daring at the cost of the blood of the foreigner.
Both Corbulo and his army, though suffering no losses in battle, were becoming exhausted by short supplies and hardships, compelled as they were to stave off hunger solely by the flesh of cattle. Added to this was scarcity of water, a burning summer and long marches, all of which were alleviated only by the general’s patient endurance. He bore indeed the same or even more burdens than the common soldier. Subsequently, they reached lands under cultivation, and reaped the crops, and of two fortresses in which the Armenians had fled for refuge, one was taken by storm; the other, which repulsed the first attack, was reduced by blockade. Thence the general crossed into the country of the Tauraunites, where he escaped an unforeseen peril. Near his tent, a barbarian of no mean rank was discovered with a dagger, who divulged under torture the whole method of the plot, its contrivance by himself, and his associates. The men who under a show of friendship planned the treachery, were convicted and punished.
Soon afterwards, Corbulo’s envoys whom he had sent to Tigranocerta, reported that the city walls were open, and the inhabitants awaiting orders. They also handed him a gift denoting friendship, a golden crown, which he acknowledged in complimentary language. Nothing was done to humiliate the city, that remaining uninjured it might continue to yield a more cheerful obedience.
The citadel, however, which had been closed by an intrepid band of youths, was not stormed without a struggle. They even ventured on an engagement under the walls, but were driven back within their fortifications and succumbed at last only to our siege-works and to the swords of furious assailants. The success was the easier, as the Parthians were distracted by a war with the Hyrcanians, who had sent to the Roman emperor, imploring alliance, and pointing to the fact that they were detaining Vologeses as a pledge of amity. When these envoys were on their way home, Corbulo, to save them from being intercepted by the enemy’s picquets after their passage of the Euphrates, gave them an escort, and conducted them to the shores of the Red Sea, whence, avoiding Parthian territory, they returned to their native possessions.
Corbulo too, as Tiridates was entering the Armenian frontier through Media, sent on Verulanus, his lieutenant-general with the auxiliaries, while he himself followed with the legions by forced marches, and compelled him to retreat to a distance and abandon the idea of war. Having harried with fire and sword all whom he had ascertained to be against us, he began to take possession of Armenia, when Tigranes arrived, whom Nero had selected to assume the sovereignty. Though a Cappadocian noble and grandson of king Archelaus, yet, from having long been a hostage at Rome, he had sunk into servile submissiveness. Nor was he unanimously welcomed, as some still cherished a liking for the Arsacids. Most, however, in their hatred of Parthian arrogance preferred a king given them by Rome. He was supported too with a force of a thousand legionaries, three allied cohorts and two squadrons of cavalry, that he might the more easily secure his new kingdom. Parts of Armenia, according to their respective proximities, were put under the subjection of Pharasmanes, Polemo, Aristobulus, and Antiochus. Corbulo retired into Syria, which province, as being vacant by the death of its governor Ummidius, was intrusted to him.
One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources. In Italy meanwhile the old town of Puteoli obtained from Nero the privileges of a colony with an additional name. A further enrolment of veterans in Tarentum and Antium did but little for those thinly peopled places; for most scattered themselves in the provinces where they had completed their military service. Not being accustomed to tie themselves by marriage and rear children, they left behind them homes without families. For whole legions were no longer transplanted, as in former days, with tribunes and centurions and soldiers of every grade, so as to form a state by their unity and mutual attachment, but strangers to one another from different companies, without a head or any community of sentiment, were suddenly gathered together, as it might be out of any other class of human beings, and became a mere crowd rather than a colony.
As at the elections for praetors, now generally under the Senate’s control there was the excitement of a particularly keen competition, the emperor quieted matters by promoting the three supernumerary candidates to legionary commands. He also raised the dignity of the Senate, by deciding that all who appealed from private judges to its house, were to incur the same pecuniary risk as those who referred their cause to the emperor. Hitherto such an appeal had been perfectly open, and free from penalty.
At the close of the year Vibius Secundus, a Roman knight, on the accusation of the Moors, was convicted of extortion, and banished from Italy, contriving through the influence of his brother Vibius Crispus to escape heavier punishment.
In the consulship of Caesonius Paetus and Petronius Turpilianus, a serious disaster was sustained in Britain, where Aulius Didius, the emperor’s legate, had merely retained our existing possessions, and his successor Veranius, after having ravaged the Silures in some trifling raids, was prevented by death from extending the war. While he lived, he had a great name for manly independence, though, in his will’s final words, he betrayed a flatterer’s weakness; for, after heaping adulation on Nero, he added that he should have conquered the province for him, had he lived for the next two years. Now, however, Britain was in the hands of Suetonius Paulinus, who in military knowledge and in popular favour, which allows no one to be without a rival, vied with Corbulo, and aspired to equal the glory of the recovery of Armenia by the subjugation of Rome’s enemies. He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.
On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.
Suetonius while thus occupied received tidings of the sudden revolt of the province. Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, famed for his long prosperity, had made the emperor his heir along with his two daughters, under the impression that this token of submission would put his kingdom and his house out of the reach of wrong. But the reverse was the result, so much so that his kingdom was plundered by centurions, his house by slaves, as if they were the spoils of war. First, his wife Boudicea was scourged, and his daughters outraged. All the chief men of the Iceni, as if Rome had received the whole country as a gift, were stript of their ancestral possessions, and the king’s relatives were made slaves. Roused by these insults and the dread of worse, reduced as they now were into the condition of a province, they flew to arms and stirred to revolt the Trinobantes and others who, not yet cowed by slavery, had agreed in secret conspiracy to reclaim their freedom. It was against the veterans that their hatred was most intense. For these new settlers in the colony of Camulodunum drove people out of their houses, ejected them from their farms, called them captives and slaves, and the lawlessness of the veterans was encouraged by the soldiers, who lived a similar life and hoped for similar licence. A temple also erected to the Divine Claudius was ever before their eyes, a citadel, as it seemed, of perpetual tyranny. Men chosen as priests had to squander their whole fortunes under the pretence of a religious ceremonial. It appeared too no difficult matter to destroy the colony, undefended as it was by fortifications, a precaution neglected by our generals, while they thought more of what was agreeable than of what was expedient.
Meanwhile, without any evident cause, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell prostrate and turned its back to the enemy, as though it fled before them. Women excited to frenzy prophesied impending destruction; ravings in a strange tongue, it was said, were heard in their Senate-house; their theatre resounded with wailings, and in the estuary of the Tamesa had been seen the appearance of an overthrown town; even the ocean had worn the aspect of blood, and, when the tide ebbed, there had been left the likenesses of human forms, marvels interpreted by the Britons, as hopeful, by the veterans, as alarming. But as Suetonius was far away, they implored aid from the procurator, Catus Decianus. All he did was to send two hundred men, and no more, without regular arms, and there was in the place but a small military force. Trusting to the protection of the temple, hindered too by secret accomplices in the revolt, who embarrassed their plans, they had constructed neither fosse nor rampart; nor had they removed their old men and women, leaving their youth alone to face the foe. Surprised, as it were, in the midst of peace, they were surrounded by an immense host of the barbarians. All else was plundered or fired in the onslaught; the temple where the soldiers had assembled, was stormed after a two days’ siege. The victorious enemy met Petilius Cerialis, commander of the ninth legion, as he was coming to the rescue, routed his troops, and destroyed all his infantry. Cerialis escaped with some cavalry into the camp, and was saved by its fortifications. Alarmed by this disaster and by the fury of the province which he had goaded into war by his rapacity, the procurator Catus crossed over into Gaul.
Suetonius, however, with wonderful resolution, marched amidst a hostile population to Londinium, which, though undistinguished by the name of a colony, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels. Uncertain whether he should choose it as a seat of war, as he looked round on his scanty force of soldiers, and remembered with what a serious warning the rashness of Petilius had been punished, he resolved to save the province at the cost of a single town. Nor did the tears and weeping of the people, as they implored his aid, deter him from giving the signal of departure and receiving into his army all who would go with him. Those who were chained to the spot by the weakness of their sex, or the infirmity of age, or the attractions of the place, were cut off by the enemy. Like ruin fell on the town of Verulamium, for the barbarians, who delighted in plunder and were indifferent to all else, passed by the fortresses with military garrisons, and attacked whatever offered most wealth to the spoiler, and was unsafe for defence. About seventy thousand citizens and allies, it appeared, fell in the places which I have mentioned. For it was not on making prisoners and selling them, or on any of the barter of war, that the enemy was bent, but on slaughter, on the gibbet, the fire and the cross, like men soon about to pay the penalty, and meanwhile snatching at instant vengeance.
Suetonius had the fourteenth legion with the veterans of the twentieth, and auxiliaries from the neighbourhood, to the number of about ten thousand armed men, when he prepared to break off delay and fight a battle. He chose a position approached by a narrow defile, closed in at the rear by a forest, having first ascertained that there was not a soldier of the enemy except in his front, where an open plain extended without any danger from ambuscades. His legions were in close array; round them, the light-armed troops, and the cavalry in dense array on the wings. On the other side, the army of the Britons, with its masses of infantry and cavalry, was confidently exulting, a vaster host than ever had assembled, and so fierce in spirit that they actually brought with them, to witness the victory, their wives riding in waggons, which they had placed on the extreme border of the plain.
Boudicea, with her daughters before her in a chariot, went up to tribe after tribe, protesting that it was indeed usual for Britons to fight under the leadership of women. “But now,” she said, “it is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. Roman lust has gone so far that not our very persons, nor even age or virginity, are left unpolluted. But heaven is on the side of a righteous vengeance; a legion which dared to fight has perished; the rest are hiding themselves in their camp, or are thinking anxiously of flight. They will not sustain even the din and the shout of so many thousands, much less our charge and our blows. If you weigh well the strength of the armies, and the causes of the war, you will see that in this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.”
Nor was Suetonius silent at such a crisis. Though he confided in the valour of his men, he yet mingled encouragements and entreaties to disdain the clamours and empty threats of the barbarians. “There,” he said, “you see more women than warriors. Unwarlike, unarmed, they will give way the moment they have recognised that sword and that courage of their conquerors, which have so often routed them. Even among many legions, it is a few who really decide the battle, and it will enhance their glory that a small force should earn the renown of an entire army. Only close up the ranks, and having discharged your javelins, then with shields and swords continue the work of bloodshed and destruction, without a thought of plunder. When once the victory has been won, everything will be in your power.”
Such was the enthusiasm which followed the general’s address, and so promptly did the veteran soldiery, with their long experience of battles, prepare for the hurling of the javelins, that it was with confidence in the result that Suetonius gave the signal of battle.
At first, the legion kept its position, clinging to the narrow defile as a defence; when they had exhausted their missiles, which they discharged with unerring aim on the closely approaching foe, they rushed out in a wedge-like column. Similar was the onset of the auxiliaries, while the cavalry with extended lances broke through all who offered a strong resistance. The rest turned their back in flight, and flight proved difficult, because the surrounding waggons had blocked retreat. Our soldiers spared not to slay even the women, while the very beasts of burden, transfixed by the missiles, swelled the piles of bodies. Great glory, equal to that of our old victories, was won on that day. Some indeed say that there fell little less than eighty thousand of the Britons, with a loss to our soldiers of about four hundred, and only as many wounded. Boudicea put an end to her life by poison. Poenius Postumus too, camp-prefect of the second legion, when he knew of the success of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, feeling that he had cheated his legion out of like glory, and had contrary to all military usage disregarded the general’s orders, threw himself on his sword.
The whole army was then brought together and kept under canvas to finish the remainder of the war. The emperor strengthened the forces by sending from Germany two thousand legionaries, eight cohorts of auxiliaries, and a thousand cavalry. On their arrival the men of the ninth had their number made up with legionary soldiers. The allied infantry and cavalry were placed in new winter quarters, and whatever tribes still wavered or were hostile were ravaged with fire and sword. Nothing however distressed the enemy so much as famine, for they had been careless about sowing corn, people of every age having gone to the war, while they reckoned on our supplies as their own. Nations, too, so high-spirited inclined the more slowly to peace, because Julius Classicanus, who had been sent as successor to Catus and was at variance with Suetonius, let private animosities interfere with the public interest, and had spread an idea that they ought to wait for a new governor who, having neither the anger of an enemy nor the pride of a conqueror, would deal mercifully with those who had surrendered. At the same time he stated in a despatch to Rome that no cessation of fighting must be expected, unless Suetonius were superseded, attributing that general’s disasters to perverseness and his successes to good luck.
Accordingly one of the imperial freedmen, Polyclitus, was sent to survey the state of Britain, Nero having great hopes that his influence would be able not only to establish a good understanding between the governor and the pro-curator, but also to pacify the rebellious spirit of the barbarians. And Polyclitus, who with his enormous suite had been a burden to Italy and Gaul, failed not, as soon as he had crossed the ocean, to make his progresses a terror even to our soldiers. But to the enemy he was a laughing-stock, for they still retained some of the fire of liberty, knowing nothing yet of the power of freedmen, and so they marvelled to see a general and an army who had finished such a war cringing to slaves. Everything, however, was softened down for the emperor’s ears, and Suetonius was retained in the government; but as he subsequently lost a few vessels on the shore with the crews, he was ordered, as though the war continued, to hand over his army to Petronius Turpilianus, who had just resigned his consulship. Petronius neither challenged the enemy nor was himself molested, and veiled this tame inaction under the honourable name of peace.
That same year two remarkable crimes were committed at Rome, one by a senator, the other by the daring of a slave. Domitius Balbus, an ex-praetor, from his prolonged old age, his childlessness and his wealth, was exposed to many a plot. His kinsman, Valerius Fabianus, who was marked out for a career of promotion, forged a will in his name with Vinicius Rufinus and Terentius Lentinus, Roman knights, for his accomplices. These men had associated with them Antonius Primus and Asinius Marcellus. Antonius was a man of ready audacity; Marcellus had the glory of being the great-grandson of Asinius Pollio, and bore a character far from contemptible, except that he thought poverty the greatest of all evils. So Fabianus, with the persons whom I have named and some others less distinguished, executed the will. The crime was proved against them before the Senate, and Fabianus and Antonius with Rufinus and Terentius were condemned under the Cornelian law. Marcellus was saved from punishment rather than from disgrace by the memory of his ancestors and the intercessions of the emperor.
That same day was fatal also to Pompeius Aelianus, a young ex-quaestor, suspected of complicity in the villanies of Fabianus. He was outlawed from Italy, and from Spain, where he was born. Valerius Pontius suffered the same degradation for having indicted the defendants before the praetor to save them from being prosecuted in the court of the city-prefect, purposing meanwhile to defeat justice on some legal pretext and subsequently by collusion. A clause was added to the Senate’s decree, that whoever bought or sold such a service was to be just as liable to punishment as if he had been publicly convicted of false accusation.
Soon afterwards one of his own slaves murdered the city-prefect, Pedanius Secundus, either because he had been refused his freedom, for which he had made a bargain, or in the jealousy of a love in which he could not brook his master’s rivalry. Ancient custom required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution, when a sudden gathering of the populace, which was for saving so many innocent lives, brought matters to actual insurrection. Even in the Senate there was a strong feeling on the part of those who shrank from extreme rigour, though the majority were opposed to any innovation. Of these, Caius Cassius, in giving his vote, argued to the following effect:—
“Often have I been present, Senators, in this assembly when new decrees were demanded from us contrary to the customs and laws of our ancestors, and I have refrained from opposition, not because I doubted but that in all matters the arrangements of the past were better and fairer and that all changes were for the worse, but that I might not seem to be exalting my own profession out of an excessive partiality for ancient precedent. At the same time I thought that any influence I possess ought not to be destroyed by incessant protests, wishing that it might remain unimpaired, should the State ever need my counsels. To-day this has come to pass, since an ex-consul has been murdered in his house by the treachery of slaves, which not one hindered or divulged, though the Senate’s decree, which threatens the entire slave-establishment with execution, has been till now unshaken. Vote impunity, in heaven’s name, and then who will be protected by his rank, when the prefecture of the capital has been of no avail to its holder? Who will be kept safe by the number of his slaves when four hundred have not protected Pedanius Secundus? Which of us will be rescued by his domestics, who, even with the dread of punishment before them, regard not our dangers? Was the murderer, as some do not blush to pretend, avenging his wrongs because he had bargained about money from his father or because a family-slave was taken from him? Let us actually decide that the master was justly slain.
“Is it your pleasure to search for arguments in a matter already weighed in the deliberations of wiser men than ourselves? Even if we had now for the first time to come to a decision, do you believe that a slave took courage to murder his master without letting fall a threatening word or uttering a rash syllable? Granted that he concealed his purpose, that he procured his weapon without his fellows’ knowledge. Could he pass the night-guard, could he open the doors of the chamber, carry in a light, and accomplish the murder, while all were in ignorance? There are many preliminaries to guilt; if these are divulged by slaves, we may live singly amid numbers, safe among a trembling throng; lastly, if we must perish, it will be with vengeance on the guilty. Our ancestors always suspected the temper of their slaves, even when they were born on the same estates, or in the same houses with themselves and thus inherited from their birth an affection for their masters. But now that we have in our households nations with different customs to our own, with a foreign worship or none at all, it is only by terror you can hold in such a motley rabble. But, it will be said, the innocent will perish. Well, even in a beaten army when every tenth man is felled by the club, the lot falls also on the brave. There is some injustice in every great precedent, which, though injurious to individuals, has its compensation in the public advantage.”
No one indeed dared singly to oppose the opinion of Cassius, but clamorous voices rose in reply from all who pitied the number, age, or sex, as well as the undoubted innocence of the great majority. Still, the party which voted for their execution prevailed. But the sentence could not be obeyed in the face of a dense and threatening mob, with stones and firebrands. Then the emperor reprimanded the people by edict, and lined with a force of soldiers the entire route by which the condemned had to be dragged to execution. Cingonius Varro had proposed that even all the freedmen under the same roof should be transported from Italy. This the emperor forbade, as he did not wish an ancient custom, which mercy had not relaxed, to be strained with cruel rigour.
During the same consulship, Tarquitius Priscus was convicted of extortion on the prosecution of the Bithynians, to the great joy of the senators, who remembered that he had impeached Statilius, his own pro-consul. An assessment was made of Gaul by Quintus Volusius, Sextius Africanus, and Trebellius Maximus. There was a rivalry, on the score of rank, between Volusius and Africanus. While they both disdained Trebellius, they raised him above themselves.
In that year died Memmius Regulus, who from his solid worth and consistency was as distinguished as it is possible to be under the shadow of an emperor’s grandeur, so much so, in fact, that Nero when he was ill, with flatterers round him, who said that if aught befell him in the course of destiny, there must be an end of the empire, replied that the State had a resource, and on their asking where it was specially to be found, he added, “in Memmius Regulus.” Yet Regulus lived after this, protected by his retiring habits, and by the fact that he was a man of newly-risen family and of wealth which did not provoke envy. Nero, the same year, established a gymnasium, where oil was furnished to knights and senators after the lax fashion of the Greeks.
In the consulship of Publius Marius and Lucius Asinius, Antistius, the praetor, whose lawless behaviour as tribune of the people I have mentioned, composed some libellous verses on the emperor, which he openly recited at a large gathering, when he was dining at the house of Ostorius Scapula. He was upon this impeached of high treason by Cossutianus Capito, who had lately been restored to a senator’s rank on the intercession of his father-in-law, Tigellinus. This was the first occasion on which the law of treason was revived, and men thought that it was not so much the ruin of Antistius which was aimed at, as the glory of the emperor, whose veto as tribune might save from death one whom the Senate had condemned. Though Ostorius had stated that he had heard nothing as evidence, the adverse witnesses were believed, and Junius Marullus, consul-elect, proposed that the accused should be deprived of his praetorship, and be put to death in the ancient manner. The rest assented, and then Paetus Thrasea, after much eulogy of Caesar, and most bitter censure of Antistius, argued that it was not what a guilty prisoner might deserve to suffer, which ought to be decreed against him, under so excellent a prince, and by a Senate bound by no compulsion. “The executioner and the halter,” he said, “we have long ago abolished; still, there are punishments ordained by the laws, which prescribe penalties, without judicial cruelty and disgrace to our age. Rather send him to some island, after confiscating his property; there, the longer he drags on his guilty life, the more wretched will he be personally, and the more conspicuous as an example of public clemency.”
Thrasea’s freespokenness broke through the servility of the other senators. As soon as the consul allowed a division, they voted with him, with but few exceptions. Among these, the most enthusiastic in his flattery was Aulus Vitellius, who attacked all the best men with abuse, and was silent when they replied, the usual way of a cowardly temper. The consuls, however, did not dare to ratify the Senate’s vote, and simply communicated their unanimous resolution to the emperor. Hesitating for a while between shame and rage, he at last wrote to them in reply “that Antistius, without having been provoked by any wrong, had uttered outrageous insults against the sovereign; that a demand for punishment had been submitted to the Senate, and that it was right that a penalty should be decreed proportioned to the offence; that for himself, inasmuch as he would have opposed severity in the sentence, he would not be an obstacle to leniency. They might determine as they pleased, and they had free liberty to acquit.”
This and more to the same effect having been read out, clearly showing his displeasure, the consuls did not for that reason alter the terms of the motion, nor did Thrasea withdraw his proposal, or the Senate reject what it had once approved. Some were afraid of seeming to expose the emperor to odium; the majority felt safe in numbers, while Thrasea was supported by his usual firmness of spirit, and a determination not to let his fame perish.
A similar accusation caused the downfall of Fabricius Veiento. He had composed many libels on senators and pontiffs in a work to which he gave the title of “Codicils.” Talius Geminus, the prosecutor, further stated that he had habitually trafficked in the emperor’s favours and in the right of promotion. This was Nero’s reason for himself undertaking the trial, and having convicted Veiento, he banished him from Italy, and ordered the burning of his books, which, while it was dangerous to procure them, were anxiously sought and much read. Soon full freedom for their possession caused their oblivion.
But while the miseries of the State were daily growing worse, its supports were becoming weaker. Burrus died, whether from illness or from poison was a question. It was supposed to be illness from the fact that from the gradual swelling of his throat inwardly and the closing up of the passage he ceased to breathe. Many positively asserted that by Nero’s order his throat was smeared with some poisonous drug under the pretence of the application of a remedy, and that Burrus, who saw through the crime, when the emperor paid him a visit, recoiled with horror from his gaze, and merely replied to his question, “I indeed am well.” Rome felt for him a deep and lasting regret, because of the remembrance of his worth, because too of the merely passive virtue of one of his successors and the very flagrant iniquities of the other. For the emperor had appointed two men to the command of the praetorian cohorts, Faenius Rufus, for a vulgar popularity, which he owed to his administration of the corn-supplies without profit to himself; and Sofonius Tigellinus, whose inveterate shamelessness and infamy were an attraction to him. As might have been expected from their known characters, Tigellinus had the greater influence with the prince, and was the associate of his most secret profligacy, while Rufus enjoyed the favour of the people and of the soldiers, and this, he found, prejudiced him with Nero.
The death of Burrus was a blow to Seneca’s power, for virtue had not the same strength when one of its companions, so to say, was removed, and Nero too began to lean on worse advisers. They assailed Seneca with various charges, representing that he continued to increase a wealth which was already so vast as to be beyond the scale of a subject, and was drawing to himself the attachment of the citizens, while in the picturesqueness of his gardens and the magnificence of his country houses he almost surpassed the emperor. They further alleged against him that he claimed for himself alone the honours of eloquence, and composed poetry more assiduously, as soon as a passion for it had seized on Nero. “Openly inimical to the prince’s amusements, he disparaged his ability in driving horses, and ridiculed his voice whenever he sang. When was there to be an end of nothing being publicly admired but what Seneca was thought to have originated? Surely Nero’s boyhood was over, and he was all but in the prime of youthful manhood. He ought to shake off a tutor, furnished as he was with sufficiently noble instructors in his own ancestors.”
Seneca, meanwhile, aware of these slanders, which were revealed to him by those who had some respect for merit, coupled with the fact that the emperor more and more shunned his intimacy, besought the opportunity of an interview. This was granted, and he spoke as follows:—
“It is fourteen years ago, Caesar, that I was first associated with your prospects, and eight years since you have been emperor. In the interval, you have heaped on me such honours and riches that nothing is wanting to my happiness but a right use of it. I will refer to great examples taken not from my own but from your position. Your great-grandfather Augustus granted to Marcus Agrippa the calm repose of Mitylene, to Caius Maecenas what was nearly equivalent to a foreign retreat in the capital itself. One of these men shared his wars; the other struggled with many laborious duties at Rome; both received awards which were indeed splendid, but only proportioned to their great merits. For myself, what other recompense had I for your munificence, than a culture nursed, so to speak, in the shade of retirement, and to which a glory attaches itself, because I thus seem to have helped on the early training of your youth, an ample reward for the service.
“You on the other hand have surrounded me with vast influence and boundless wealth, so that I often think within myself, Am I, who am but of an equestrian and provincial family, numbered among the chief men of Rome? Among nobles who can show a long succession of glories, has my new name become famous? Where is the mind once content with a humble lot? Is this the man who is building up his garden terraces, who paces grandly through these suburban parks, and revels in the affluence of such broad lands and such widely-spread investments? Only one apology occurs to me, that it would not have been right in me to have thwarted your bounty.
“And yet we have both filled up our respective measures, you in giving as much as a prince can bestow on a friend, and I in receiving as much as a friend can receive from a prince. All else only fosters envy, which, like all things human, sinks powerless beneath your greatness, though on me it weighs heavily. To me relief is a necessity. Just as I should implore support if exhausted by warfare or travel, so in this journey of life, old as I am and unequal even to the lightest cares, since I cannot any longer bear the burden of my wealth, I crave assistance. Order my property to be managed by your agents and to be included in your estate. Still I shall not sink myself into poverty, but having surrendered the splendours which dazzle me, I will henceforth again devote to my mind all the leisure and attention now reserved for my gardens and country houses. You have yet before you a vigorous prime, and that on which for so many years your eyes were fixed, supreme power. We, your older friends, can answer for our quiet behaviour. It will likewise redound to your honour that you have raised to the highest places men who could also bear moderate fortune.”
Nero’s reply was substantially this:—“My being able to meet your elaborate speech with an instant rejoinder is, I consider, primarily your gift, for you taught me how to express myself not only after reflection but at a moment’s notice. My great-grandfather Augustus allowed Agrippa and Maecenas to enjoy rest after their labours, but he did it at an age carrying with it an authority sufficient to justify any boon, of any sort, he might have bestowed. But neither of them did he strip of the rewards he had given. It was by war and its perils they had earned them; for in these the youth of Augustus was spent. And if I had passed my years in arms, your sword and right hand would not have failed me. But, as my actual condition required, you watched over my boyhood, then over my youth, with wisdom, counsel, and advice. And indeed your gifts to me will, as long as life holds out, be lasting possessions; those which you owe to me, your parks, investments, your country houses, are liable to accidents. Though they seem much, many far inferior to you in merit have obtained more. I am ashamed to quote the names of freedmen who parade a greater wealth. Hence I actually blush to think that, standing as you do first in my affections, you do not as yet surpass all in fortune.
“Yours too is a still vigorous manhood, quite equal to the labours of business and to the fruit of those labours; and, as for myself, I am but treading the threshold of empire. But perhaps you count yourself inferior to Vitellius, thrice a consul, and me to Claudius. Such wealth as long thrift has procured for Volusius, my bounty, you think, cannot fully make up to you. Why not rather, if the frailty of my youth goes in any respect astray, call me back and guide yet more zealously with your help the manhood which you have instructed? It will not be your moderation, if you restore me your wealth, not your love of quiet, if you forsake your emperor, but my avarice, the fear of my cruelty, which will be in all men’s mouths. Even if your self-control were praised to the utmost, still it would not be seemly in a wise man to get glory for himself in the very act of bringing disgrace on his friend.”
To these words the emperor added embraces and kisses; for he was formed by nature and trained by habit to veil his hatred under delusive flattery. Seneca thanked him, the usual end of an interview with a despot. But he entirely altered the practices of his former greatness; he kept the crowds of his visitors at a distance, avoided trains of followers, seldom appeared in Rome, as though weak health or philosophical studies detained him at home.
When Seneca had fallen, it was easy to shake the position of Faenius Rufus by making Agrippina’s friendship a charge against him. Tigellinus, who was daily becoming more powerful and who thought that the wicked schemings which alone gave him strength, would be better liked if he could secure the emperor’s complicity in guilt, dived into Nero’s most secret apprehensions, and, as soon as he had ascertained that Plautus and Sulla were the men he most dreaded, Plautus having been lately sent away to Asia, Sulla to Gallia Narbonensis, he spoke much of their noble rank and of their respective proximity to the armies of the East and of Germany. “I have no eye,” he said, “like Burrus, to two conflicting aims, but only to Nero’s safety, which is at least secured against treachery in Rome by my presence. As for distant commotions, how can they be checked? Gaul is roused at the name of the great dictator, and I distrust no less the nations of Asia, because of the renown of such a grandfather as Drusus. Sulla is poor, and hence comes his surpassing audacity; he shams apathy, while he is seeking an opening for his reckless ambition. Plautus again, with his great wealth, does not so much as affect a love of repose, but he flaunts before us his imitations of the old Romans, and assumes the self-consciousness of the Stoics along with a philosophy, which makes men restless, and eager for a busy life.”
There was not a moment’s delay. Sulla, six days afterwards, was murdered by assassins brought over to Massilia, while he was reclining at the dinner-table, before he feared or heard of his danger. The head was taken to Rome, and Nero scoffed at its premature grey hairs as if they were a disfigurement.
It was less of a secret that there was a design to murder Plautus, as his life was dear to many. The distance too by land and sea, and the interval of time, had given rise to rumours, and the popular story was that he had tampered with Corbulo, who was then at the head of great armies, and would be a special mark for danger, if illustrious and innocent men were to be destroyed. Again Asia, it was said, from its partiality for the young man, had taken up arms, and the soldiers sent to do the crime, not being sufficient in number or decided in purpose, and, finding themselves unable to execute their orders, had gone over to the new cause. These absurdities, like all popular gossip, gathered strength from the idle leisure of a credulous society.
As it was, one of Plautus’s freedmen, thanks to swift winds, arrived before the centurion and brought him a message from his father-in-law, Lucius Antistius. “He was to avoid the obvious refuge of a coward’s death, and in the pity felt for a noble name he would soon find good men to help him, and daring spirits would rally round him. Meantime no resource was to be rejected. If he did but repel sixty soldiers (this was the number on the way), while tidings were being carried back to Nero, while another force was on its march, many events would follow which would ripen into war. Finally, by this plan he either secured safety, or he would suffer nothing worse by daring than by cowardice.”
But all this had no effect on Plautus. Either he saw no resource before him, an unarmed exile as he was, or he was weary of an uncertain hope, or was swayed by his love of his wife and of his children, to whom he thought the emperor, if harassed by no anxiety, would be more merciful. Some say that another message came to him from his father-in-law, representing that no dreadful peril hung over him, and that two teachers of philosophy, Coeranus from Greece and Musonius from Etruria, advised him to await death with firmness rather than lead a precarious and anxious life. At all events, he was surprised at midday, when stripped for exercise. In that state the centurion slew him in the presence of Pelago, an eunuch, whom Nero had set over the centurion and his company, like a despot’s minister over his satellites.
The head of the murdered man was brought to Rome. At its sight the emperor exclaimed (I give his very words), “Why would you have been a Nero?” Then casting off all fear he prepared to hurry on his marriage with Poppaea, hitherto deferred because of such alarms as I have described, and to divorce his wife Octavia, notwithstanding her virtuous life, because her father’s name and the people’s affection for her made her an offence to him. He wrote, however, a letter to the Senate, confessing nothing about the murders of Sulla and Plautus, but merely hinting that both had a restless temper, and that he gave the most anxious thought to the safety of the State. On this pretext a thanksgiving was decreed, and also the expulsion from the Senate of Sulla and Plautus, more grievous, however, as a farce than as an actual calamity.
Nero, on receiving this decree of the Senate and seeing that every piece of his wickedness was regarded as a conspicuous merit, drove Octavia from him, alleging that she was barren, and then married Poppaea. The woman who had long been Nero’s mistress and ruled him first as a paramour, then as her husband, instigated one of Octavia’s servants to accuse her an intrigue with a slave. The man fixed on as the guilty lover was one by name Eucaerus, an Alexandrine by birth, skilled in singing to the flute. As a consequence, her slave-girls were examined under torture, and though some were forced by the intensity of agony into admitting falsehoods, most of them persisted in upholding the virtue of their mistress. One of them said, in answer to the furious menaces of Tigellinus, that Octavia’s person was purer than his mouth. Octavia, however, was dismissed under the form of an ordinary divorce, and received possession of the house of Burrus and of the estates of Plautus, an ill-starred gift. She was soon afterwards banished to Campania under military surveillance. This led to incessant and outspoken remonstrances among the common people, who have less discretion and are exposed to fewer dangers than others from the insignificance of their position. Upon this Nero, though he did not repent of his outrage, restored to Octavia her position as wife.
Then people in their joy went up to the Capitol and, at last, gave thanks to the gods. They threw down the statues of Poppaea; they bore on their shoulders the images of Octavia, covering them with flowers, and setting them up in the forum and in the temples. There was even a burst of applause for the emperor, men hailing the recalled Octavia. And now they were pouring into the Palace in crowds, with loud shoutings, when some companies of soldiers rushed out and dispersed the tumultuous throng with blows, and at the point of the sword. Whatever changes had been made in the riot, were reversed, and Poppaea’s honours restored. Ever relentless in her hatred, she was now enraged by the fear that either the violence of the mob would burst on her with yet fiercer fury, or that Nero would be swayed by the popular bias, and so, flinging herself at his knees, she exclaimed that she was not in the position of a rival fighting for marriage, though that was dearer to her than life, but that her very life was brought into jeopardy by the dependants and slaves of Octavia, who had assumed the name of the people, and dared in peace what could hardly happen in war. “Those arms,” she said, “have been taken up against the emperor; a leader only is wanting, and he will easily be found in a commotion. Only let her whose mere beck, though she is far away, stirs up tumult, quit Campania, and make her way in person to Rome. And, again, what is my sin? What offense have I caused any one? Is it that I am about to give to the house of the Caesars a lawful heir? Do the people of Rome prefer that the offspring of an Egyptian fluteplayer should be raised to the imperial throne? In a word, if it be expedient, Nero should of his own choice rather than on compulsion send for her who ruled him, or else secure his safety by a righteous vengeance. The beginning of a commotion has often been quieted by slight precautions; but if people once despair of Octavia being Nero’s wife, they will soon find her a husband.”
Her various arguments, tending both to frighten and to enrage, at once alarmed and incensed her listener. But the suspicion about the slave was of little weight, and the torture of the slave-girls exposed its absurdity. Consequently it was decided to procure a confession from some one on whom could also be fastened a charge of revolutionary designs. Fittest for this seemed the perpetrator of the mother’s murder, Anicetus, commander, as I have already mentioned, of the fleet at Misenum, who got but scant gratitude after that atrocious deed, and subsequently all the more vehement hatred, inasmuch as men look on their instruments in crime as a sort of standing reproach to them.
The emperor accordingly sent for Anicetus, and reminded him of his former service. “He alone,” he said, “had come to the rescue of the prince’s life against a plotting mother. Close at hand was a chance of winning no less gratitude by ridding him of a malignant wife. No violence or weapons were needed; only let him confess to an intrigue with Octavia.” Nero then promised him a secret but ample immediate recompense, and some delightful retreat, while he threatened him with death in case of refusal. Anicetus, with the moral insensibility of his nature and a promptness inspired by previous atrocities, invented even more than was required of him, and confessed before friends whom the prince had called in, as a sort of judicial council. He was then banished to Sardinia, where he endured exile without poverty, and died a natural death.
Nero meanwhile declared by edict that the prefect had been corrupted into a design of gaining over the fleet, and added, in forgetfulness of his late charge of barrenness against Octavia, that, conscious of her profligacies, she had procured abortion, a fact he had himself ascertained. Then he confined her in the island of Pandataria. No exile ever filled the eyes of beholders with tears of greater compassion. Some still remembered Agrippina, banished by Tiberius, and the yet fresher memory of Julia, whom Claudius exiled, was present to men’s thoughts. But they had life’s prime for their stay; they had seen some happiness, and the horror of the moment was alleviated by recollections of a better lot in the past. For Octavia, from the first, her marriage-day was a kind of funeral, brought, as she was, into a house where she had nothing but scenes of mourning, her father and, an instant afterwards, her brother, having been snatched from her by poison; then, a slave-girl raised above the mistress; Poppaea married only to insure a wife’s ruin, and, to end all, an accusation more horrible than any death.
And now the girl, in her twentieth year, with centurions and soldiers around her, already removed from among the living by the forecast of doom, still could not reconcile herself to death. After an interval of a few days, she received an order that she was to die, although she protested that she was now a widow and only a sister, and appealed to their common ancestors, the Germanici, and finally to the name of Agrippina, during whose life she had endured a marriage, which was miserable enough indeed, but not fatal. She was then tightly bound with cords, and the veins of every limb were opened; but as her blood was congealed by terror and flowed too slowly, she was killed outright by the steam of an intensely hot bath. To this was added the yet more appalling horror of Poppaea beholding the severed head which was conveyed to Rome.
And for all this offerings were voted to the temples. I record the fact with a special object. Whoever would study the calamities of that period in my pages or those of other authors, is to take it for granted that as often as the emperor directed banishments or executions, so often was there a thanksgiving to the gods, and what formerly commemorated some prosperous event, was then a token of public disaster. Still, if any decree of the Senate was marked by some new flattery, or by the lowest servility, I shall not pass it over in silence.
That same year Nero was believed to have destroyed by poison two of his most powerful freedmen, Doryphorus, on the pretext of his having opposed the marriage with Poppaea, Pallas for still keeping his boundless wealth by a prolonged old age. Romanus had accused Seneca in stealthy calumnies, of having been an accomplice of Caius Piso, but he was himself crushed more effectually by Seneca on the same charge. This alarmed Piso, and gave rise to a huge fabric of unsuccessful conspiracies against Nero.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55