Ancient History & Civilisation

The Mother of Nero


MESSALINA’S death convulsed the imperial household. Claudius was impatient of celibacy and easily controlled by his wives, and the ex-slaves quarrelled about who should choose his next one. Rivalry among the women was equally fierce. Each cited her own high birth, beauty, and wealth as qualifications for this exalted marriage. The chief competitors were Lollia Paulina,1 daughter of the former consul Marcus Lollius (II), and Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina (II). Their backers were Callistus and Pallas respectively. Narcissus supported Aelia Paetina,2 who was of the family of the Aelii Tuberones. The emperor continually changed his mind according to whatever advice he had heard last.

Finally, he summoned the disputants to a meeting and requested them to give reasoned opinions. At the meeting, Narcissus reminded Claudius that he had been married to Aelia Paetina before; that the union had been productive (a daughter, Claudia Antonia, had been born to them); that remarriage would necessitate no domestic innovations; and that, far from entertaining a stepmother’s dislike for Britannicus and Octavia, Paetina would cherish them next to her own children. Callistus objected that Claudius had divorced Paetina long ago and that this disqualified her – remarriage would make her arrogant, and Lollia was far more eligible since, being childless, she would be a mother to her stepchildren without jealousy. Pallas, proposing Agrippina, emphasized that the son whom she would bring with her was Germanicus’ grandson,3 eminently deserving of imperial rank; let the emperor ally himself with a noble race and unite two branches of the Claudian house, rather than allow this lady of proved capacity for child-bearing, still young, to transfer the glorious name of the Caesars to another family.

These arguments prevailed. Agrippina’s seductiveness was a help. Visiting her uncle frequently – ostensibly as a close relation – she tempted him into giving her the preference and into treating her, in anticipation, as his wife. Once sure of her marriage, she enlarged the scope of her plans and devoted herself to scheming for her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, whose father was Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. It was her ambition that this boy, the future Nero, should be wedded to the emperor’s daughter Octavia. Here criminal methods were necessary, since Claudius had already betrothed Octavia to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus (I) – and had won popularity for his distinguished record by awarding him an honorary Triumph, and giving a lavish gladiatorial display in his name. But with an emperor whose likes and dislikes were all suggested and dictated to him, anything seemed possible.

Lucius Vitellius had an eye for future despots. Using his post as censor to cloak his servile fabrications, he sought Agrippina’s favour by involving himself in her projects and prosecuting Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus. Silanus’ attractive but shameless sister, Junia Calvina, had until lately been married to Vitellius’ son: using this as a handle, Vitellius put an unsavoury construction on the unguarded (but not incestuous) affection between Silanus and his sister. Claudius, particularly ready to suspect the future husband of the daughter he loved, gave attention to the charge. Silanus, unaware of the plot, happened to be praetor for the year. Suddenly, though the roll of senators and the ceremonies terminating the census were long complete, an edict of Vitellius struck him off the senate. Simultaneously, Claudius cancelled Octavia’s engagement with Silanus, and he was forced to resign his office and was superseded for the one remaining day, in favour of Titus Clodius Eprius Marcellus.

Next year the consuls were Gaius Pompeius Longinus Gallus and Quintas Veranius (II). Rumour now strongly predicted Claudius’ marriage to Agrippina; so did their illicit intercourse. But they did not yet dare to celebrate the wedding. For marriage with a niece was unprecedented – indeed it was incestuous, and disregard of this might, it was feared, cause national disaster. Hesitation was only overcome when Lucius Vitellius undertook to arrange matters by methods of his own. He asked Claudius if he would yield to a decree of the Assembly and the senate’s recommendation. The emperor replied that he was a citizen himself and would bow to unanimity. Then Vitellius, requesting him to wait in the palace, entered the senate and stating that it was a matter of the highest national importance, asked permission to speak first.

‘In his exceedingly arduous duties,’ Vitellius said, ‘which cover the whole world, the emperor needs support, to enable him to provide for the public good without domestic worries. Could there be a more respectable comfort to our Censor – a stranger to dissipation or self-indulgence, law-abiding since earliest youth – than a wife, a partner in good and bad fortune alike, to whom he can confide his inmost thoughts, and his little children?’

These winning preliminaries were warmly applauded by the senate. Then Vitellius proceeded. ‘We agree unanimously, then, that the emperor should marry. The chosen lady must be aristocratic, capable of child-bearing, and virtuous. Agrippina’s exceptionally illustrious birth is indisputable. She has demonstrated her fertility. Her morals are equally outstanding. For the emperor – who knows no man’s wives but his own – her widowhood is welcome and providential. You have heard from your parents, indeed you have yourselves known, of the abduction of men’s wives at an emperor’s whim. The respectable arrangement which I propose is strikingly different. We can create a precedent: the nation presents the emperor with a wife! Marriage to a niece, it may be objected, is unfamiliar to us. Yet in other countries it is regular and lawful. Here also, unions between cousins, long unknown, have become frequent in course of time. Customs change as circumstances change – this innovation too will take root.’

At this, some senators ran out of the house enthusiastically clamouring that if Claudius hesitated they would use constraint. A throng of passers-by cried that the Roman public were similarly minded. Claudius delayed no longer. After receiving the crowd’s congratulations in the Forum, he entered the senate to request a decree legalizing future marriages with a brother’s daughter. However, only one other seeker after this sort of union is identifiable – a knight named Alledius Severus, whose motive was believed to be the hope of Agrippina’s favour.

From this moment the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman – and not a woman like Messalina who toyed with national affairs to satisfy her appetites. This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism. In public, Agrippina was austere and often arrogant. Her private life was chaste – unless power was to be gained. Her passion to acquire money was unbounded. She wanted it as a stepping-stone to supremacy.

On the wedding-day Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus committed suicide. For that day finally terminated his hopes of life – or perhaps he chose it to increase ill-feeling. His sister Junia Calvina was banished from Italy. Claudius ordained ritual prescribed by King Tullus Hostilius, including expiatory ceremonies by priests at the Grove of Diana. The emperor’s resuscitation, at this juncture, of punishments and expiations for Silanus’ incest provoked universal ridicule. Agrippina, however, was anxious not to be credited with bad actions only. So she now secured the recall of Lucius Annaeus Seneca1 from exile and his appointment to a praetorship. She judged that owing to his literary eminence this would be popular. She also had designs on him as a distinguished tutor for her young son Lucius Domitius Aheno-barbus (the future Nero). Seneca’s advice could serve their plans for supremacy; and he was believed to be devoted to her – in gratitude for her favours – but hostile to Claudius whose unfairness he resented.

It was now decided to act without further delay. A consul-designate, Lucius Mammius Pollio, was induced by lavish promises to propose a petition to Claudius, begging him to betroth Octavia to Domitius – an arrangement compatible with their ages and likely to lead to higher things. The arguments used closely resembled those recently employed by Lucius Vitellius. The engagement took place. In addition to their previous relationship, Domitius was now Claudius’ future son-in-law. By his mother’s efforts – and the intrigues of Messalina’s accusers, who feared vengeance from her son – he was becoming the rival of Britannicus.

I have mentioned that a Parthian delegation had been sent to Rome to ask for Meherdates1 – a hostage in our hands – as their king. It now appeared before the senate. The delegates described their mission in these terms:

‘We know of the treaty between our two countries. Nor do we come as rebels against the Parthian royal house. We are calling upon the son of Vonones I, the grandson of Phraates IV, to destroy the tyranny of Gotarzes II, which nobles and populace alike find unendurable. He has exterminated his brothers and other near relations – not to speak of more distant kinsmen. Now he is turning even upon pregnant women and small children. A slovenly administrator and unsuccessful commander, he plunges into brutality to disguise his inertia.

‘You and we have an old, officially inaugurated friendship. We, your allies, rival you in power but take second place out of respect. Now we need your help. That is why Parthian kings’ sons are given you as hostages: so that, if our rulers at home become distasteful, we can apply to emperor and senate and receive a monarch trained in your culture.’

In response to these and similar assertions Claudius spoke about Roman supremacy and Parthian homage. He compared himself to the divine Augustus, recalling that Augustus too had been asked for a Parthian king. (About Tiberius, who had likewise sent one, he said nothing.) Meherdates was present: Claudius advised him to think of himself not as an autocrat among slaves, but as a guide of free men, and to be merciful and just – virtues all the more welcome to natives because of their unfamiliarity. Then, turning to the deputation, he commanded Rome’s foster-son as having hitherto shown exemplary character. But, he added, kings have to be endured however they are, since continual changes are undesirable; and Rome, having taken her fill of glory, wanted other countries also to be peaceful. He then instructed Gaius Cassius Longinus, imperial governor of Syria, to conduct the prince to the bank of the Euphrates.

At this period Cassius was pre-eminent as a jurist – military qualities are unrecognized in peace-time, in which good and bad soldiers are indistinguishable. Yet Cassius, as far as he could without a war, revived ancient discipline, organized manoeuvres, and took as much trouble and forethought as if an enemy were upon him. He felt he owed this to his ancestors, the Cassian family, of which the fame extended to that area.1 Summoning the men who had instigated the mission, Cassius encamped at Zeugma, the site of the most convenient river-crossing. The Parthian dignitaries joined him; so did Acbarus (Abgar V), the Arab king of Edessa.2 Cassius warned Meherdates to press on, since delay cools oriental enthusiasm and produces treachery. But the advice was disregarded by the ingenuous young man, who thought kingship meant self-indulgence, and allowed himself to be detained for many days at Edessa by its deceitful ruler. Carenes, governor of Mesopotamia, invited him in, stressing that everything would be easy if he came quickly. Yet instead of taking the short route to Mesopotamia, Meherdates made a detour to Armenia, which in that season, at the outset of winter, is forbidding.

Finally, exhausted by snow-bound mountainous territory, he and his men joined up with Carenes’ force near the plains. Crossing the Tigris, they went on through Adiabene; its king, lzates, had ostensibly allied himself with Meherdates but was privately a loyal supporter of Gotarzes. During the journey, Meherdates and Carenes captured the ancient Assyrian capital Ninos, and the famous fortress where the Persian Darius III had been finally defeated by Alexander.3 Meanwhile Gotarzes offered vows to the mountain deities on Mount Sunbulah. The chief cult is that of Hercules. At regular intervals he warns his priests by dreams to prepare, beside his temple, horses equipped for hunting. With quivers full of arrows fastened on them, these are let loose in the forest and only return at night, panting violently, their quivers empty. In a second dream the god reveals the course he has followed in the woods; and all along it wild beasts are found struck down.

Since, however, Gotarzes’ army was not yet strong enough, he took up a position protected by the river Adhaim (?), and, in spite of envoys taunting him to fight, contrived delays – moving from place to place, and sending agents to bribe the enemy forces to change sides. The monarchs of Adiabene and then Edessa deserted to him with their armies. Disloyalty was their national habit; besides, experience has shown that natives are readier to invite kings from Rome than to keep them.

Deprived of these powerful allies, and suspecting treason in his other associates too, Meherdates decided that his only hope was to stake everything on an engagement. Gotarzes felt confident after these defections, and accepted battle. The struggle was bloody, and long undecided. But finally Carenes, after routing his opponents, advanced too far; and fresh troops cut off his return. Meherdates, desperate, listened to the promises of a vassal of his father, Parraces, who then treacherously surrendered him in chains to the victorious Gotarzes. Gotarzes, sneering at Meherdates as no relative of his, no Parthian royalty but an alien Roman, allowed him to live – with his ears cut off. This was a demonstration of his clemency and our humiliation.

Gotarzes II soon fell ill and died. He was succeeded by the king of Media Atropatene, Vonones II, whose short and undistinguished reign contained no noteworthy victories or reverses. His successor was his son Vologeses I.

The king of the Crimean Bosphorus, Mithridates,1 had been deposed and was homeless. He now learnt that most of the kingdom’s Roman garrison under Aulus Didius Gallus had been withdrawn. Only a few battalions, under a Roman knight, Gaius Julius Aquila, were left with the exile’s young and inexperienced brother, King Cotys I. Mithridates despised both. He raised the tribes, enticed deserters, and finally collected an army and seized control of the neighbouring tribe, the Dandaridae, expelling its king. At this news Cotys and Aquila feared invasion was imminent. But they were conscious of their weakness. Zorsines, chief of the Siraci, had resumed hostilities against them; and now they too sought outside assistance, sending envoys to Eunones, chief of the Aorsi. Cotys and Aquila could point to the power of Rome, ranged against the rebel Mithridates; and an alliance was easily negotiated.

It was arranged the Eunones should fight cavalry battles, while all sieges were undertaken by the Romans. The combined forces advanced,Eunones’ tribesmen in the van and rear, auxiliary battalions and Bosphorans (armed in Roman fashion) forming the main body. They drove back the enemy and took Soza, a town of the Dandaridae which Mithridates had evacuated. Owing to the dubious loyalty of its inhabitants they decided to garrison it. Then they made for Zorsines’ tribe, crossed the river Panda, and besieged Uspe. This hill-town possessed a wall and moat. But the wall, being made not of stone but of wickerwork hurdles with earth between, was poor protection against attack; and it suffered from our firebrands and spears launched from lofty siege-towers. Indeed, only the interruption of hostilities by nightfall prevented the conclusion of the battle within a single day.

Next day, the townsmen of Uspe sent envoys asking for the free population to be spared but offering to hand over ten thousand slaves.1 The victorious Romans rejected this proposal on the grounds that it was barbarous to slaughter men who had surrendered, but hard to provide guards for such large numbers – better that they should be slain in normal warfare. So the soldiers, who had scaled the defences on ladders, were given orders to kill; and the inhabitants were exterminated.

This terrified the surrounding population. Armaments, fortifications, natural heights and obstacles, rivers, and cities had all failed to check invasion; nothing seemed safe. Zorsines long hesitated whether to support Mithridates in his extremity or save his own ancestral kingdom. Finally he put his own people’s interests first, gave hostages, and prostrated himself before the emperor’s statue. This was an important success for the Roman army. Unscathed and triumphant, it is reliably reported to have reached a point only three days from the river Don. But its return was less satisfactory. For on the voyage back, some ships went aground on the Crimean coast, where natives surrounded them and killed a battalion commander and numerous auxiliaries.

Resistance being hopeless, Mithridates considered to whose mercy he should appeal. He distrusted his brother Cotys I, who had betrayed him and then fought against him. And no Roman of sufficient importance for his promises to carry weight was available. So Mithridates turned to Eunones, who had no personal feud with him and had become stronger since his alliance with Rome. Adapting his dress and appearance as best he could to his critical situation, Mithridates entered Eunones’ palace and fell at his feet, crying: ‘Mithridates, whom the Romans have sought on land and sea for many years, voluntarily presents himself! Treat as you will the descendant of mighty Achae-menes.1 That descent is all my enemies have left me.’

Eunones was moved by his distinction, reversed fortunes, and dignified plea. Raising the suppliant, he congratulated Mithridates for trusting him and his tribe with such an appeal. Eunones then sent envoys to Claudius with a letter. ‘Friendships between Roman emperors and the kings of great nations’, he wrote, ‘originate from their comparable grandeur. You and I are also partners in victory. The happiest ending of a war is a pardon; Zorsines, for example, though conquered, was not despoiled. Mithridates deserves harder treatment, and for him I ask no power or royal position. But spare him a triumphal procession or capital punishment.’

Claudius was generally conciliatory to foreign notables. But he could not decide whether to accept Mithridates as a prisoner, with the promise of his life, or to recapture him by force. Resentment of his aggression, and the desire for revenge, inclined the emperor to the latter course. But on the other side it was argued that the war involved would be in a land without roads or harbours, against savage chieftains of nomad tribes in barren country. Delays would be wearisome, haste perilous – victory inglorious, but defeat humiliating. Better, ran this argument, to seize the opportunity offered, and let Mithridates live, as a destitute exile to whom every further day of life would be an additional punishment.

Claudius was impressed by these points, and wrote informing the ex-king’s captor that though Mithridates merited a death sentence, and the emperor had the means to enforce it, it was traditional Roman policy to show mercy to suppliants no less than resolution against enemies: ‘it was against whole nations and kingdoms, not individuals, that Triumphs were earned’. Then Mithridates was handed over and conducted to Rome by the imperial finance agent in Pontus, Junio Chilo.

However, he is reported to have addressed the emperor with more spirit than his situation warranted. One observation became publicly known: ‘I have not been brought back to you; I have come back. If you disbelieve this, let me go – and then try to catch me!’ When he was displayed to the public beside the platform in the Forum among his guards, his expression remained undaunted. The insignia of consul and praetor respectively were conferred upon Junius Chilo and Gaius Julius Aquila.

Agrippina hated Lollia Paulina as a rival for the emperor’s hand; and Agrippina was a relentless enemy. In this same year she found an accuser to prosecute Lollia. The charges were association with Chaldaean astrologers and magicians, and the consultation of Apollo’s statue at Clarus concerning Claudius’ marriage. The emperor did not give the defendant a hearing. He himself spoke at length about her noble connections – omitting her marriage with Gaius, but pointing out that her mother was the sister of Lucius Volusius Saturninus (I), her great-uncle Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messallinus, and she herself the former wife of Publius Memmius Regulus. But he added that her projects were a national danger and that her potentialities for mischief must be eliminated. She must therefore, he said, have her property confiscated and leave Italy. She was left with five million sesterces out of her vast property. Another noblewoman, Calpurnia (II), was struck down because the emperor had praised her looks. Since, however, he had spoken casually and without designs on her, Agrip-pina’s anger stopped short of extreme measures. In Lollia Paulina’s case, however, a colonel of the Guard was sent to enforce her suicide.

Also condemned at this time was Gaius Cadius Rufus, a governor of Bithynia, who was charged by its people for extortion. Another province, Narbonese Gaul, received a privilege for its deferential attitude to the senate: senators originating from it were allowed to visit their homes without the emperor’s permission, as was already permitted to members from Sicily. Ituraea and Judaea, on the deaths of their monarchs, Sohaemus and Agrippa (I)1 respectively, were incorporated in the province of Syria.

It was decided to reintroduce and perpetuate the ‘Augury for the Welfare of Rome’, suspended for the last seventy-five years. Claudius

also extended the city boundary.1 Here he followed an ancient custom whereby those who have expanded the empire are entitled to enlarge the city boundary also. Yet no Roman commander except Sulla and the divine Augustus had ever exercised this right, however great their conquests.

There are various traditions concerning the pretensions or renown of the kings in this respect. The original foundation, and Romulus’ boundary, are noteworthy. The furrow indicating the city’s limits started from the Cattle Market, because oxen are employed for ploughing (the bronze statue of a bull is displayed there), and ran outside the great altar of Hercules. Then there were stones at regular intervals marked along the base of the Palatine Hill to the altar of Consus, the old Council House, the shrine of the Lares, and the Forum. The Forum and Capitol are believed to have been included in the city not by Romulus but by Titus Tatius.2 Subsequently the city boundaries grew as Roman territory expanded. The limits established by Claudius are easily traceable and are indicated in public records.

In the following year Gaius Antistius Vetus (II) and Marcus Suillius Nerullinus became consuls. The adoption of Lucius Domitius Aheno-barbus was now hurried forward. Pallas, pledged to Agrippina as organizer of her marriage and subsequently her lover, took the initiative. He pressed Claudius to consider the national interests and furnish the boy Britannicus with a protector: ‘Just as the divine Augustus, though supported by grandsons, advanced his stepsons, and Tiberius, with children of his own, adopted Germanicus; so Claudius too ought to provide himself with a young future partner in his labours.’ The emperor was convinced. Echoing the ex-slave’s arguments in the senate, he promoted Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus above his own son, who was three years younger.

Thanks were voted to the emperor. More remarkable was the compliment that the young man received: legal adoption into the Claudian family with the name of Nero. Authorities noted that this was the first known adoption into the patrician branch of the Claudii,1 which had come down without a break from Attus Clausus. And now Agrippina, too, was honoured with the title of Augusta. After these developments no one was hard-hearted enough not to feel distressed at Britannicus’ fate. Gradually deprived even of his slaves’ services, Britannicus saw through his stepmother’s hypocrisy and treated her untimely attentions cynically. He is said to have been intelligent. This may be true. But it is a reputation which was never tested, and perhaps he only owes it to sympathy with his perils.

Agrippina now advertised her power to the provincials. She had a settlement of ex-soldiers established at the capital of the Ubii and named after her. This was her birthplace. Incidentally, it had been her grandfather Agrippa to whom the tribe had submitted after crossing the Rhine.

At this time, too, a marauding raid by the Chatti alarmed Upper Germany. The imperial governor Publius Pomponius Secundus sent German levies from the tribes of the Vangiones and Nemetes, and auxiliary cavalry, with orders to cut off the raiders or, if they dispersed, to surround them unawares. The troops carried out his orders keenly. They divided into two columns. The left-hand column surprised a newly returned enemy band, somnolent after an orgy over the spoils. Particularly satisfactory was the recovery, after forty years of enslavement, of a few survivors from the disaster of Publius Quinctilius Varus. The contingent which had taken the shorter, right-hand, route inflicted a worse defeat on the enemy, which had risked an open engagement. Laden with plunder after this achievement, the column returned to the Taunus mountains.

Pomponius was waiting there with his Roman brigades. He hoped that eagerness to retaliate might induce the Chatti to risk battle. But they were afraid of being trapped between the Romans and their perpetual enemies the Cherusci. So they sent a delegation to Rome with hostages. Pomponius was awarded an honorary Triumph – a small part of his reputation with posterity, which values his poetry more.

At the same period Vannius was ejected from the kingdom of the Suebi which Drusus had given him. In the early years of his reign his people had loved and honoured Vannius. Then continuous power had made him tyrannical; and internal disputes, combined with the enmity of his neighbours, brought him down. His downfall was due to Vibilius, king of the Hermunduri, and to his own sister’s sons, Vangio and Sido. Claudius received repeated appeals from Vannius, but refused to intervene between the native combatants. However, he promised Vannius a safe refuge if he were ejected. The emperor also instructed the imperial governor of Pannonia, Sextus Palpellius Hister, to post a division with picked local auxiliaries on the Danube bank, in order to protect the losers – and intimidate the winners, in case success emboldened them to break the peace with Rome also.

For numberless hordes, Lugii and other tribes, were closing in, drawn by the reputation of the opulent kingdom which Vannius had enriched for thirty years by plunder and taxation. Since his own infantry and Sarmatian cavalry from the tribe of the Jazyges were no match for the enemy’s numbers, he decided to gain time by conducting defensive warfare from his strongholds. His cavalry, however, had no patience for sieges, and wandered over the surrounding plains. There the hostile Lugii and Hermunduri converged on them, and a battle became unavoidable. Vannius came down from his fortresses, but was defeated – though applauded, in his misfortune, for fighting personally at close quarters and receiving frontal wounds.

Vannius took refuge with the Roman fleet waiting on the Danube. His dependants soon followed and were settled, with grants of land, in Pannonia. His nephews shared his kingdom. To us they were steadfastly loyal. With their subjects, they were popular while winning power, unpopular (more markedly) after they had won it. Their characters had changed – or absolutism was producing its results.


In Britain1 the situation inherited by the imperial governor Publius Ostorius Scapula was chaotic. Convinced that a new commander, with an unfamiliar army and with winter begun, would not fight them, hostile tribes had broken violently into the Roman province. But Ostorius knew that initial results are what produce alarm or confidence. So he marched his light auxiliary battalions rapidly ahead, and stamped out resistance. The enemy were dispersed and hard pressed. To prevent a rally, or a bitter treacherous peace which would give neither general nor army any rest, Ostorius prepared to disarm all suspects and reduce the whole territory as far as the Trent1 and Severn.

The first to revolt against this were the Iceni. We had not defeated this powerful tribe in battle, since they had voluntarily become our allies. Led by them, the neighbouring tribes now chose a battlefield at a place protected by a rustic earthwork, with an approach too narrow to give access to cavalry. The Roman commander, though his troops were auxiliaries without regular support, proposed to carry these defences. At the signal, Ostorius’ infantry, placed at appropriate points and reinforced by dismounted cavalrymen, broke through the embankment. The enemy, imprisoned by their own barrier, were overwhelmed – though with rebellion on their consciences, and no way out, they performed prodigies of valour. During the battle the governor’s son, Marcus Ostorius Scapula, won the Citizen’s Oak-Wreath for the saving of a Roman’s life.

This defeat of the Iceni quieted others who were wavering between war and peace. The Roman army then struck against the Decangi,2 ravaging their territory and collecting extensive booty. The enemy did not venture upon an open engagement and, when they tried to ambush the column, suffered for their trickery. Ostorius had nearly reached the sea facing Ireland when a rising by the Brigantes recalled him. For, until his conquests were secured, he was determined to postpone further expansion. The Brigantes subsided; their few peace-breakers were killed, and the rest were pardoned.

But neither sternness nor leniency prevented the Silures from fighting. To suppress them, a brigade garrison had to be established.3 In order to facilitate the displacement of troops westward to man it, a strong settlement of ex-soldiers was established on conquered land at Camulodunum. Its mission was to protect the country against revolt and familiarize the provincials with law-abiding government. Next Ostorius invaded Silurian territory.

The natural ferocity of the inhabitants was intensified by their belief in the prowess of Caratacus,1 whose many undefeated battles – and even many victories – had made him pre-eminent among British chieftains. His deficiency in strength was compensated by superior cunning and topographical knowledge. Transferring the war to the country of the Ordovices, he was joined by everyone who found the prospect of a Roman peace alarming. Then Caratacus staked his fate on a battle. He selected a site where numerous factors – notably approaches and escape-routes – helped him and impeded us. On one side there were steep hills. Wherever the gradient was gentler, stones were piled into a kind of rampart. And at his front there was a river without easy crossings. The defences were strongly manned.

The British chieftains went round their men, encouraging and heartening them to be unafraid and optimistic, and offering other stimulants to battle. Caratacus, as he hastened to one point and another, stressed that this was the day, this the battle, which would either win back their freedom or enslave them for ever. He invoked their ancestors, who by routing Julius Caesar had valorously preserved their present descendants from Roman officials and taxes – and their wives and children from defilement. These exhortations were applauded. Then every man swore by his tribal oath that no enemy weapons would make them yield – and no wounds either.

This eagerness dismayed the Roman commanders disconcerted as he already was by the river-barrier, the fortifications supplementing it, the overhanging cliffs, and the ferocious crowds of defenders at every point. But our soldiers shouted for battle, clamouring that courage could overcome everything; and their colonels spoke to the same effect, to encourage them further.

After a reconnaissance to detect vulnerable and invulnerable points, Ostorius led his enthusiastic soldiers forward. They crossed the river without difficulty, and reached the rampart. But then, in an exchange of missiles, they came off worse in wounds and casualties. However, under a roof of locked shields, the Romans demolished the crude and clumsy stone embankment, and in the subsequent fight at close quarters the natives were driven to the hill-tops. Our troops pursued them closely. While light-armed auxiliaries attacked with javelins, the heavy regular infantry advanced in close formation. The British, unprotected by breastplates or helmets, were thrown into disorder. If they stood up to the auxiliaries they were cut down by the swords and spears of the regulars, and if they faced the latter they succumbed to the auxiliaries’ broadswords and pikes. It was a great victory. Caratacus’ wife and daughter were captured: his brother surrendered. He himself sought sanctuary with Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes. But the defeated have no refuge. He was arrested, and handed over to the conquerors.

The war in Britain was in its ninth year. The reputation of Caratacus had spread beyond the islands and through the neighbouring provinces to Italy itself. These people were curious to see the man who had defied our power for so many years. Even at Rome his name meant something. Besides, the emperor’s attempts to glorify himself conferred additional glory on Caratacus in defeat. For the people were summoned as though for a fine spectacle, while the Guard stood in arms on the parade ground before their camp. Then there was a march past, with Caratacus’ petty vassals, and the decorations and neck-chains and spoils of his foreign wars. Next were displayed his brothers, wife, and daughter. Last came the king himself. The others, frightened, degraded themselves by entreaties. But there were no downcast looks or appeals for mercy from Caratacus. On reaching the dais he spoke in these terms.

‘Had my lineage and rank been accompanied by only moderate success, I should have come to this city, as friend rather than prisoner, and you would not have disdained to ally yourself peacefully with one so nobly born, the ruler of so many nations. As it is, humiliation is my lot, glory yours. I had horses, men, arms, wealth. Are you surprised I am sorry to lose them? If you want to rule the world, does it follow that everyone else welcomes enslavement? If I had surrendered without a blow before being brought before you, neither my downfall nor your triumph would have become famous. If you execute me, they will be forgotten. Spare me, and I shall be an everlasting token of your mercy!’

Claudius responded by pardoning him and his wife and brothers. Released from their chains, they offered to Agrippina, conspicuously seated on another dais nearby, the same homage and gratitude as they had given the emperor. That a woman should sit before Roman standardswas an unprecedented novelty. She was asserting her partnership in the empire her ancestors had won.

Then the senate met. It devoted numerous complimentary speeches to the capture of Caratacus. This was hailed as equal in glory to any previous Roman general’s exhibition of a captured king. They cited the display of Syphax by Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus and of Perseus by Lucius Aemilius Paullus (I).1 Ostorius received an honorary Triumph. But now his success, hitherto unblemished, began to waver. Possibly the elimination of Caratacus had caused a slackening of energy, in the belief that the war was over. Or perhaps the enemy’s sympathy with their great king had whetted their appetite for revenge.

In Silurian country, Roman troops left to build forts under a divisional chief of staff were surrounded, and only saved from annihilation because neighbouring fortresses learnt of their siege and speedily sent help. As it was, casualties included the chief of staff, eight company-commanders, and the pick of the men. Shortly afterwards a Roman foraging party was put to flight. So were cavalry toops sent to its rescue. Ostorius threw in his light auxiliary battalions, but even so did not check the rout until the regular brigades joined in. Their strength made the struggle equal and eventually gave us the advantage. However, night was coming on, so the enemy escaped almost undamaged.

Battle followed battle. They were mostly guerrilla fights, in woods and bogs. Some were accidental – the results of chance encounters. Others were planned with calculated bravery. The motives were hatred or plunder. Sometimes these engagements were ordered by the generals; sometimes they knew nothing of them.

The Silures were exceptionally stubborn. They were enraged by a much-repeated saying of the Roman commander that they must be utterly exterminated, just as the Sugambri2 had once been annihilated or transplanted to the Gallic provinces. Two auxiliary battalions, which their greedy commanders had taken plundering with insufficient precautions, fell into a trap laid by the Silures. Then they began, by gifts of spoils and prisoners, to tempt other tribes to join their rebellion.

At this point, exhausted by his anxious responsibilities, Ostorius died. The enemy exulted that so considerable a general, if not defeated in battle, had at least been eliminated by warfare. On hearing of the governor’s death the emperor, not wanting to leave the province masterless, appointed Aulus Didius Gallus to take over. Didius made for Britain rapidly. But he found a further deterioration. For in the interval a Roman brigade commanded by Manlius Valens had suffered a reverse. Reports were magnified – the enemy magnified them, to frighten the new general; and the new general magnified them to increase his glory if he won, and improve his excuse if resistance proved unbreakable. Again the damage was due to the Silures: until deterred by Didius’ arrival, they plundered far and wide.

However, since Caratacus’ capture the best strategist was Venutius who as I mentioned earlier, was a Brigantian.1 While married to the tribal queen, Cartimandua, he had remained loyal and under Roman protection. But divorce had immediately been followed by hostilities against her and then against us. At first, the Brigantes had merely fought among themselves. Cartimandua had astutely trapped Venutius’ brother and other relatives. But her enemies, infuriated and goaded by fears of humiliating feminine rule, invaded her kingdom with a powerful force of picked warriors. We had foreseen this, and sent auxiliary battalions to support her. The engagement that followed had no positive results at first but ended more favourably. A battle fought by a regular brigade under Caesius Nasica likewise had a satisfactory ending. Didius, of impressive seniority and incapacitated by age, was content to act through subordinates and on the defensive.

(These campaigns were conducted by two imperial governors over a period of years. But I have described them in one place since piecemeal description would cast a strain on the memory. Now I return to the chronological succession of events.)

Next came the year when Claudius held his fifth consulship (his colleague was Servius Cornelius Salvidienus Orfitus); Nero now prematurely assumed adult costume, to qualify himself for an official career. The emperor willingly yielded to the senate’s sycophantic proposal that Nero should hold the consulship at nineteen and meanwhile, as consul-designate, already possess its status outside the city, and be styled Prince of Youth.1 Furthermore gifts were made to the troops and public in Nero’s name, and at Games held in the Circus he was allowed to attract popular attention by wearing triumphal robes, whereas Britannicus was dressed as a minor. So the crowd, seeing one in the trappings of command and the other in boy’s clothes, could deduce their contrasted destinies.

Now, too, all colonels, staff-officers, and company-commanders of the Guard who showed sympathy with Britannicus’ predicament were eliminated on various fictitious grounds; sometimes promotion was the pretext. Even former slaves loyal to him were removed. The excuse for this was a meeting between the two boys at which Nero had greeted Britannicus by that name, but Britannicus addressed him as ‘Domitius’. Agrippina complained vigorously to her husband. This was a first sign of unfriendliness, she said, a contemptuous neglect of the adoption, a contradiction – in the emperor’s own home – of a national measure, voted by the senate and enacted by the people. Disaster for Rome would ensue, she added, unless malevolent and corrupting teachers were removed. Disturbed by these implied accusations, the emperor banished or executed all Britannicus’ best tutors and put him under the control of his stepmother’s nominees.

Nevertheless, Agrippina did not yet venture to make her supreme attempt until she could remove the commanders of the Guard, Lusius Geta and Rufrius Crispinus, whom she regarded as loyal to the memory of Messalina and to the cause of Messalina’s children. So Agrippina asserted to Claudius that the Guard was split by their rivalry and that unified control would mean stricter discipline. Thereupon the command was transferred to Sextus Afranius Burrus, who was a distinguished soldier but fully aware whose initiative was behind his appointment. Agrippina also enhanced her own status. She entered the Capitol in a ceremonial carriage.2 This distinction, traditionally reserved for priests and sacred emblems, increased the reverence felt for a woman who to this day remains unique as the daughter of a great commander and the sister, wife, and mother of emperors.

However, her chief supporter, Lucius Vitellius, greatly influential but extremely old, was now prosecuted by a junior senator, Junius Lupus – so precarious is a great man’s position. The charges were treason and designs on the throne. The emperor would have listened but for the pleas, or rather menaces, of Agrippina, who instead induced him to outlaw the accuser. Vitellius had not asked for more than that.

This year witnessed many prodigies. Ill-omened birds settled on the Capitol. Houses were flattened by repeated earthquakes, and as terror spread the weak were trampled to death by the panic-stricken crowd. Further portents were seen in a shortage of com, resulting in famine. The consequent alarm found open expression when Claudius, administering justice, was surrounded by a frenzied mob; driven to the far corner of the Forum, he was hard pressed until a detachment of troops forced a way for him through the hostile crowd. It was established that there was no more than fifteen days’ supply of food in the city. Only heaven’s special favour and a mild winter prevented catastrophe. And yet surely Italy once exported food for the army to distant provinces! The trouble, now, is not infertile soil. The fact is that we prefer to cultivate Africa and Egypt – thereby staking Rome’s survival on the hazards of navigation.

In this year war broke out between the Armenians and Iberians, and seriously disturbed relations between Rome and Parthia. The king of Parthia was now Vologeses I, a Greek concubine’s son, who had obtained the throne with the agreement of his brothers. Pharasmanes had long ruled over Iberia. His brother Mithridates held Armenia with our support. Pharasmanes had a son Radamistus, a tall handsome youth of great physical strength, skilled in his countrymen’s accomplishments and well thought of among the adjacent peoples. Frequently and violently – too much so for his ambitions to remain a secret – he complained that his father’s longevity kept him off the humble Iberian throne.

Pharasmanes, in his advancing years, felt nervous about his son’s popularity and eagerness for power. So he diverted the young man’s hopes to Armenia – recalling that he himself, after routing the Par­thians, had put his brother Mithridates there. But force, he said, must wait – better set a trap and catch Mithridates unawares. So Radamistus counterfeited a breach with his father and, alleging that he could not face his stepmother’s hostility, proceeded to his uncle Mithridates. There he was treated with great friendliness and honoured as a son –while he seduced the Armenian noblemen into rebellion against his unsuspecting host.

The next step was a pretended reconciliation with his father. Radamistus returned to Pharasmanes, reporting that all that plotting could do had been done, and force must do the rest. Pharasmanes invented a pretext for war. He alleged that, during hostilities against the neighbouring king of Albania, his brother Mithridates had opposed his appeal for Roman help, and must pay for this with his life. Then, at the head of a large force given him by his father, Radamistus suddenly burst into Armenia.

He drove the terrified Mithridates out of the open country into the fortress of Gorneae. Strongly situated and well garrisoned, it was under the Roman commander of an auxiliary battalion, Caelius Pollio, and a company-commander Casperius. Natives are totally ignorant of that branch of military art which we understand so thoroughly, siege-equipment and tactics, and Radamistus’ attacks on the fortifications proved costly failures. So he began a blockade. But force created no impression, so he tried tempting Caelius Pollio’s acquisitiveness. Casperius protested against this criminal bribery, aimed at the overthrow of an allied king and the Armenian realm given him by Rome. But his superior officer pleaded the enemy’s strength; and Radamistus pleaded his father’s orders. Casperius arranged a truce and left, intending to deter Pharasmanes from war, or, failing that, to report the Armenian situation to the imperial governor of Syria.

Relieved of supervision now that the company-commander had gone, Caelius Pollio urged Mithridates to make terms. He stressed the bonds of brotherhood, Pharasmanes’ seniority, and their other family ties (Mithridates was married to a daughter of Pharasmanes, and Radamistus to a daughter of Mithridates), and argued that the Iberians, though at present in the ascendancy, were inclined for peace. ‘You know Armenian treachery,’ he said. ‘Your only protection is an ill-provisioned fort. Do not attempt the hazards of warfare! Accept a bloodless agreement’. Mithridates hesitated, suspecting the inten#­tions of Caelius, who had seduced one of his royal concubines and was considered purchasable for any outrage.

Meanwhile Casperius reached Pharasmanes, and demanded that the Iberians should raise the siege. Their king’s public answers were ambiguous but on the whole acquiescent. Privately, however, Pharasmanes warned Radamistus by messenger to prosecute the siege with all urgency. The wage of treachery was therefore raised, and Pollio by secret bribery induced his men to demand peace and threaten to lay down arms. Mithridates was forced to agree to a day and place for a meeting; and he left the fort.

When they met, Radamistus threw himself into Mithridates’ arms with pretended devotion, greeting him as father-in-law and parent, and swearing that neither by the sword nor by poison would he attack him. Then Radamistus conducted him into a wood nearby; everything was ready for a sacrifice there, he said, so that the gods might witness and ratify their agreement. By tradition, kings meeting to become allies join hands and have their thumbs tied and fastened tightly by a knot. The blood, flowing into the extremities, is released by a slight cut and licked by the two participants. The exchange of blood is held to confer a mystic sanction on the alliance. On this occasion, the man fastening the cords pretended to slip, and grasping Mithridates round the knees pulled him down. Then others ran up and shackled him. He was dragged away by his fetters – natives consider this particularly degrading – amid insults and blows from the populace who had suffered from his stern rule. Others, however, felt pity for this overwhelming change of fortune.

Mithridates’ wife followed with their small children, filling the air with her cries. They, too, were imprisoned, in separate covered carriages, to await Pharasmanes’ orders. In his criminal heart brotherly and fatherly feelings were outweighed by acquisitiveness. However, Pharasmanes spared himself the sight of the murders. Radamistus apparently remembered his oath. He employed neither sword nor poison against his sister and uncle. Instead, he heaped heavy clothing on their prostrate bodies and smothered them. Mithridates’ sons too were killed, for weeping at their parents’ deaths.

When Gaius Ummidius Durmius Quadratus, imperial governor of Syria, learnt that Mithridates had fallen by treachery and that his murderers held Armenia, he summoned his council. Reporting what had happened, he asked for advice whether punitive action should be taken. A few members were concerned for our national honour. Most, however, advocated prudence. Their argument was that foreigners’ crimes were to be welcomed and that discord should actually be inculcated: indeed emperors had often made a gift of his same Armenia, ostensibly from generosity, really to unsettle the natives. Let Radamistus, they suggested, keep his ill-gotten gains, secured at the price of loathing and infamy – that was better for Rome than if he had won them gloriously. This view was accepted. However, for fear of seeming to condone the crime – or receiving contrary orders from Claudius – a delegation was sent to bid Pharasmanes evacuate Armenia and recall his son.

The governor of Cappadocia was a knight called Julius Paelignus. Though as contemptible for his stupidity as for his absurd appearance, he was extremely intimate with Claudius, who before his accession had amused his idle leisure with the company of such buffoons. Paelignus now collected local auxiliaries with a view to recovering Armenia. However, his ravages caused the provincials worse suffering than the enemy. Then his troops deserted him. Left defenceless against native attacks he fled to Radamistus – who gave him costly presents. Captivated, Paelignus urged Radamistus to assume the insignia of kingship; and the ceremony took place, with Paelignus standing by as authorizer and henchman.

When this disgraceful news became known, Quadratus felt it must be shown that all Romans were not like Paelignus; and he sent a division to handle the disturbed position as circumstances suggested. Crossing the Taurus mountains rapidly, its commander, Helvidius Priscus (I), dealt with the situation, more by diplomacy than by force. But then he was recalled to Syria, in case he provoked a Parthian war.

For Vologeses believed that he had an opportunity to invade Armenia – once ruled by his ancestors, now criminally seized by a foreigner. He collected an army and prepared to establish his brother Tiridates on the throne (this would mean that every branch of his family had its kingdom1). The Parthians crossed the frontier. The Iberians were driven back without a fight, and Artaxata and Tigranocerta submitted. Then, however, followed a terrible winter; and the inefficient supply system of the Parthians caused an epidemic. Vologeses was compelled to evacuate the country and Armenia was once more without a government. In came Radamistus, more savage than ever –treating the people as traitors who would, in time, revolt again.

However, though slavery was nothing new, the patience of the Armenians was not unlimited. They surrounded the palace in arms. Swift hones were all that saved Radamistus. They carried him and his wife away. But she was pregnant. At first she endured the journey as best she could, for terror of her enemies and love of her husband. But the continuous galloping soon shook and jarred her so terribly that she begged to be rescued from the humiliations of captivity by an honourable death. Radamistus admired her courage: sick with fear of leaving her to someone else, he embraced, comforted and encouraged her. But he was a man of violence; and finally, in the vehemence of his love, he drew his sabre, stabbed her, dragged her to the bank of the river Aras, and hurled her in – so that even her corpse should not be taken. Then he rode full speed to his own land of Iberia.

But Zenobia (that was his wife’s name) was found by shepherds in a backwater. She lived; she was still breathing. Concluding from her noble appearance that she was someone distinguished, they bandaged her wound and applied rustic remedies. When they learnt her name and story they took her to the city of Artaxata. From there she was officially conducted to Tiridates, who received her kindly and gave her royal honours.

In the following year the consuls were Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix and Lucius Salvius Otho Titianus. Lucius Arruntius Furius Scribonianus was now exiled for inquiring from astrologers about the emperor’s death. The charge was also extended to his mother, Vibia, recalcitrant (it was alleged) against her earlier sentence of expulsion. The fact that Scribonianus’ father, Lucius Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus, had rebelled in Dalmatia1 was cited by the emperor to illustrate his mercy in again sparing this disaffected family. But the exile did not survive long. Did Scribonianus die naturally or by poison? People spread their own beliefs. The senate passed a severe, but futile, decree banning astrologers from Italy.

The emperor, in a speech, praised senators who voluntarily abandoned their rank through poverty. Those however who, by not retiring, showed shamelessness as well as indigence were expelled. Next Claudius proposed to the senate that women marrying slaves should be penalized. It was decided that the penalty for such a lapse should be enslavement, if the man’s master did not know, and the status of an ex-slave if he did. The emperor revealed that this proposal was due to Pallas; to whom accordingly rewards of an honorary praetorship and fifteen million sesterces were proposed by the consul-designate Marcius Barea Soranus. Publius Cornelius Lentulus Scipio (II) added the suggestion that Pallas should be given the nation’s thanks because, though descended from Arcadian kings, he preferred the national interests to his antique lineage, and let himself be regarded as one of the emperor’s servants. Claudius reported that Pallas was content with that distinction only, and preferred not to exceed his former modest means. So the senate’s decree was engraved in letters of bronze; it loaded praises for old-world frugality on a man who had once been a slave and was now worth three hundred million sesterces.

Pallas’ brother, the knight Antonius Felix,1 who was the governor of Judaea, showed less moderation. Backed by vast influence, he believed himself free to commit any crime. However, the Jews had shown unrest and had rioted when Gaius ordered the erection of his own statue in the Temple. Gaius died before the order had been carried out, but there remained fears that a later emperor would repeat it. Moreover, Felix stimulated outbreaks by injudicious disciplinary measures. His bad example was imitated by Ventidius Cumanus, who controlled part of the province. For Judaea was divided: the Samaritans came under Felix and the Galileans under Ventidius.

These tribes had a long-standing feud, which their contempt for their present rulers now allowed to rage unrestrained. They ravaged each other’s territory with invading robber gangs, setting traps for one another and sometimes openly clashing, and then depositing their thefts and plunder with the Roman officials. At first the two men were pleased. Then, as the situation became graver, they intervened with troops – which suffered reverses. War would have flamed up throughout the province if the imperial governor of Syria had not intervened.

Jews who had ventured to kill Roman soldiers were executed without hesitation. The cases of Cumanus and Felix were more embarrassing. For Claudius, learning the causes of the revolt, had empowered Quadratus to deal with these officials himself. He displayed Felix as one of the judges, his position on the bench being intended to silence his accusers. Cumanus was condemned for the irregularities of both. Then the Judaean province was peaceful again.

Shortly afterwards the wild Cilician tribes of the Cietae, which had often caused disturbances, fortified a mountainous position under their chief Troxoboris, and descended from it upon the cities and the coast. There they boldly attacked cultivators, townsmen, and often traders and ship-owners. They besieged Anemurium, and defeated a cavalry force under Curtius Severus sent to its relief from Syria; for the rough ground impeded cavalry operations and favoured the Cilicians who were on foot. Finally Antiochus Epiphanes IV of Commagene, the dependent monarch who controlled the coast, by offering inducements to the rank and file and tricking their leader, split the native forces, and after executing the chief and a few of his associates pardoned and pacified the rest.

A tunnel through the mountain between the Fucine Lake and the river Liris had now been completed. To enable a large crowd to see this impressive achievement a naval battle was staged on the lake itself, like the exhibition given by Augustus on his artificial lake adjoining the Tiber, though his ships and combatants had been fewer. Claudius equipped warships manned with nineteen thousand combatants, surrounding them with a circle of rafts to prevent their escape. Enough space in the middle, however, was left for energetic rowing, skilful steering, charging, and all the incidents of a sea-battle. On the rafts were stationed double companies of the Guard and other units, behind ramparts from which they could shoot catapults and stone-throwers. The rest of the lake was covered with the decked ships of the marines.

The coast, the slopes, and the hill-tops were thronged like a theatre by innumerable spectators, who had come from the neighbouring towns and even from Rome itself– to see the show or pay respects to the emperor. Claudius presided in a splendid military cloak, with Agrippina in a mantle of cloth of gold. Though the fighters were criminals they fought like brave men. After much blood-letting, they were spared extermination.

After the display, the waterway was opened. But careless construction­became evident. The tunnel had not been sunk to the bottom of the lake or even halfway down. So time had to be allowed for the deepening of the channel. A second crowd was assembled, this time to witness an infantry battle fought by gladiators on pontoons. But, to the horror of banqueters near the lake’s outlet, the force of the out-rushing water swept away everything in the vicinity – and the crash and roar caused shock and terror even farther afield. Agrippina took advantage of the emperor’s alarm to accuse Narcissus, the controller of the project, of illicit profits. He retorted by assailing her dictatorial, feminine excess of ambition.

Next year, when the consuls were Decimus Junius Silanus Torquatusand Quintus Haterius Antoninus, Nero, aged sixteen, married the emperor’s daughter Octavia. Eager to make a brilliant name as learned and eloquent, Nero successfully backed Ilium’s application to be exempted from all public burdens, fluently recalling the descent of Rome from Troy and of the Julii from Aeneas, and other more or less mythical traditions. Nero’s advocacy also secured for the settlement of Bononia, which had been burnt down, a grant often million sesterces. Next the Rhodians – continually liberated or subjected in accordance with their services in foreign wars, or lapses into disorder at home – recovered their freedom. And Phrygian Apamea, overwhelmed by an earthquake, was granted remission of taxes for five years.

But Agrippina’s intrigues were still driving Claudius to the most brutal behaviour. Titus Statilius Taurus (II), famous for his wealth, had gardens which she coveted. So she broke him. The prosecutor she used as her instrument was Tarquitius Priscus. When Taurus was governor of Africa, Tarquitius had been his deputy; now that they were back he accused Taurus of a few acts of extortion but more especially of magic. Unable any longer to endure undeserved humiliation by a lying accuser, the defendant, without awaiting the senate’s verdict, took his own life. The senate, however, so detested the informer that they expelled him – although Agrippina was his supporter.

On several occasions this year the emperor was heard saying that the decisions of knights who were his agents should be as valid as his own judgements. And in case these should be regarded as chance utterances, the senate decreed on the subject in more detailed and comprehensive terms than hitherto. The divine Augustus had conferred jurisdiction on those who governed Egypt, their judgements to rank with those of senatorial officials. Later, in other provinces and in Rome as well, knights were ceded many judicial cases hitherto heard by governors and praetors respectively. Now Claudius handed over to the knights all the powers which had so often caused rioting and fighting, as, for instance, when the laws of Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (I) gave them a monopoly of places on the Bench and the law of Quintus Servilius Caepio restored them to the senate.1 This was the principal issue in the fighting between Marius and Sulla. In earlier days, however, the struggle had been between classes, and the results extorted applied to a whole class. Julius Caesar’s protégés, Gaius Oppius and Lucius Cornelius Balbus (I), were the first individuals important enough to decide issues of peace and war. Later names of powerful members of the order, such as Gaius Matius and Publius Vedius Pollio, are not worth mentioning since Claudius now gave even ex-slaves, placed in control of his personal estates, equal authority with himself and the law.

Next he proposed to exempt Cos from taxation. In a lengthy discourse about its ancient history, he said that its first inhabitants had been Argives – or perhaps Coeus, the father of the goddess Latona; then Aesculapius had brought the art of healing, which had achieved remarkable distinction among his descendants. The emperor indicated their names and the periods at which each had lived. Then he added that a member of the same family was his own doctor, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon: in response to whose petition the people of Cos would in future be exempted from all taxation, holding their island as a sacred place, and serving the god alone. Claudius might, of course, have recalled their frequent assistance to Rome, and the victories they had shared with us. But he preferred not to disguise behind external arguments the favour which, with his usual indulgence, he had conceded to an individual.

The Byzantines, on the other hand, when their protests against oppressive burdens were given a hearing, reviewed all their services to Rome. Beginning with their treaty with Rome at the time of our war against the king of Macedonia known, owing to his dubious origin, as pseudo-Philip,1 they then recounted their services against Antiochus III, Perseus, and Aristonicus, their assistance to Marcus Antonius Creticus in the Pirate War, to Sulla, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, and Pompey, and finally, in more recent times, to the Caesars. The reason for these services had been their situation at a convenient crossing-point for generals and their armies and supplies. For the Greeks had founded Byzantium at the narrowest part of the strait between Europe and Asia. When they asked Pythian Apollo where to found a city, the oracle replied ‘opposite the land of the blind’. This riddle referred to Chalcedon, whose inhabitants had arrived in the region earlier and had seen the superb site first but chosen an inferior one. Byzantium had originally been rich and prosperous. It has a fertile soil and a productive sea, since great numbers of fish, coming from the Black Sea and scared by shelving rocks under the surface on the winding Asiatic coast, swim away from it into the harbours on the European side. But subsequently financial burdens became oppressive; and now they begged for exemption or alleviation. The emperor supported them, arguing that their exhaustion from recent wars in Thrace2 and the Crimean Bosphorus entitled them to relief. A remission of tribute was granted for five years.

In the following year the consuls were Marcus Asinius Marcellus and Manius Acilius Aviola. A series of prodigies indicated changes for the worse. Standards and soldiers’ tents were set on fire from the sky. A swarm of bees settled on the pediment of the Capitoline temple. Half-bestial children were born, and a pig with a hawk’s claws. A portent, too, was discerned in the losses suffered by every official post: a quaestor, aedile, tribune, praetor, and consul had all died within a few months. Agrippina was particularly frightened – because Claudius had remarked in his cups that it was his destiny first to endure his wives’ misdeeds, and then to punish them. She decided to act quickly.

First, however, out of feminine jealousy, she destroyed Domitia Lepida,1 who regarded herself as Agrippina’s equal in nobility – she was daughter of Antonia (I), and grand-niece of Augustus; cousin once removed of Agrippina; and sister of Agrippina’s former husband Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. In beauty, age, and wealth there was little between the two women. Moreover both were immoral, disreputable, and violent, so they were as keen rivals in vicious habits as in the gifts bestowed on them by fortune. But their sharpest issue was whether aunt or mother should stand first with Nero. Lepida sought to seduce his youthful character by kind words and indulgence. Agrippina on the other hand, employed severity and menaces – she could give her son the empire, but not endure him as emperor.

However, the charge against Lepida was attempting the life of the empress by magic, and disturbing the peace of Italy by failing to keep her Calabrian slave-gangs in order. On these charges she was sentenced to death – in spite of vigorous opposition by Narcissus. His suspicions of Agrippina continually grew deeper. ‘Whether Britannicus or Nero comes to the throne’, he was said to have told his friends, ‘my destruction is inevitable. But Claudius has been so good to me that I would give my life to help him. The criminal intentions for which Messalina was condemned with Gaius Silius have re-emerged in Agrippina. With Britannicus as his successor the emperor has nothing to fear. But the intrigues of his stepmother in Nero’s interests are fatal to the imperial house – more ruinous than if I had said nothing about her predecessor’s unfaithfulness. And once more there is unfaithfulness. Agrippina’s lover is Pallas. That is the final proof that there is nothing she will not sacrifice to imperial ambition – neither decency, nor honour, nor chastity.’

Talking like this, Narcissus would embrace Britannicus and pray he would soon be a man. With hands outstretched – now to the boy, now to heaven – he besought that Britannicus might grow up and cast out his father’s enemies, and even avenge his mother’s murderers. Then Narcissus’ anxieties caused his health to fail. He retired to Sinuessa, to recover his strength in its mild climate and health-giving waters.

Agrippina had long decided on murder. Now she saw her opportunity. Her agents were ready. But she needed advice about poisons. A sudden, drastic effect would give her away. A gradual, wasting recipe might make Claudius, confronted with death, love his son again. What was needed was something subtle that would upset the emperor’s faculties but produce a deferred fatal effect. An expert in such matters was selected – a woman called Locusta, recently sentenced for poisoning but with a long career of imperial service ahead of her. By her talents, a preparation was supplied. It was administered by the eunuch Halotus who habitually served the emperor and tasted his food.

Later, the whole story became known. Contemporary writers stated that the poison was sprinkled on a particularly succulent mushroom. But because Claudius was torpid – or drunk – its effect was not at first apparent; and an evacuation of his bowels seemed to have saved him. Agrippina was horrified. But when the ultimate stakes are so alarmingly large, immediate disrepute is brushed aside. She had already secured the complicity of the emperor’s doctor Xenophon; and now she called him in. The story is that, while pretending to help Claudius to vomit, he put a feather dipped in a quick poison down his throat. Xenophon knew that major crimes, though hazardous to undertake, are profitable to achieve.

The senate was summoned. Consuls and priests offered prayers for the emperor’s safety. But meanwhile his already lifeless body was being wrapped in blankets and poultices. Moreover, the appropriate steps were being taken to secure Nero’s accession. First Agrippina, with heart-broken demeanour, held Britannicus to her as though to draw comfort from him. He was the very image of his father, she declared. By various devices she prevented him from leaving his room and likewise detained his sisters, Claudia Antonia and Octavia. Blocking every approach with troops, Agrippina issued frequent encouraging announcements about the emperor’s health, to maintain the Guard’s morale and await the propitious moment forecast by the astrologers.

At last, at midday on October the thirteenth, the palace gates were suddenly thrown open. Attended by Sextus Afranius Burrus, commander of the Guard, out came Nero to the battalion which, in accordance with regulations, was on duty. At a word from its commander, he was cheered and put in a litter. Some of the men are said to have looked round hesitantly and asked where Britannicus was. However, as no counter-suggestion was made, they accepted the choice offered them. Nero was then conducted into the Guards’ camp. There, after saying a few words appropriate to the occasion – and promising gifts on the generous standard set by his father – he was hailed as emperor.1 The army’s decision was followed by senatorial decrees. The provinces, too, showed no hesitation.

Claudius was voted divine honours, and his funeral was modelled on that of the divine Augustus – Agrippina imitating the grandeur of her great-grandmother Livia, the first Augusta. But Claudius’ will was not read, in case his preference of stepson to son should create a public impression of unfairness and injustice.

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