Ancient History & Civilisation

Nero and his Helpers


NERO had long desired to drive in four-horse chariot races. Another equally deplorable ambition was to sing to the lyre, like a professional ‘Chariot-racing’, he said, ‘was an accomplishment of ancient kings and leaders – honoured by poets, associated with divine worship. Singing, too, is sacred to Apollo: that glorious and provident god is represented in a musician’s dress in Greek cities, and also in Roman temples.’

There was no stopping him. But Seneca and Burrus tried to prevent him from gaining both his wishes by conceding one of them. In the Vatican valley, therefore, an enclosure was constructed, where he could drive his horses, remote from the public eye. But soon the public were admitted – and even invited; and they approved vociferously. For such is a crowd: avid for entertainment, and delighted if the emperor shares their tastes. However, this scandalous publicity did not satiate Nero, as his advisers had expected. Indeed, it led him on. But if he shared his degradation, he thought it would be less; so he brought on to the stage members of the ancient nobility whose poverty made them corruptible. They are dead, and I feel I owe it to their ancestors not to name them. For though they behaved dishonourably, so did the man who paid them to offend (instead of not to do so). Well-known knights, too, he induced by huge presents to offer their services in the arena. But gifts from the man who can command carry with them an obligation.

However, Nero was not yet ready to disgrace himself on a public stage. Instead he instituted ‘Youth Games’.1 There were many volunteers. Birth, age, official career did not prevent people from acting – in Greek or Latin style – or from accompanying their performances with effeminate gestures and songs. Eminent women, too, rehearsed indecent parts. In the wood which Augustus had planted round his Naval Lake, places of assignation and taverns were built, and every stimulus to vice was displayed for sale. Moreover, there were distributions of money. Respectable people were compelled to spend it; disreputable people did so gladly. Promiscuity and degradation throve. Roman morals had long become impure, but never was there so favourable an environment for debauchery as among this filthy crowd. Even in good surroundings people find it hard to behave well. Here every form of immorality competed for attention, and no chastity, modesty, or vestige of decency could survive.

The climax was the emperor’s stage debut. Meticulously tuning his lyre, he struck practice notes to the trainers beside him. A battalion attended with its officers. So did Burrus, grieving – but applauding. Now, too, was formed the corps of Roman knights known as the Augustiani. These powerful young men, impudent by nature or ambition, maintained a din of applause day and night, showering divine epithets on Nero’s beauty and voice. They were grand and respected as if they had done great things.

But the emperor did not obtain publicity by his theatrical talents only. He also aspired to poetic taste. He gathered round himself at dinner men who possessed some versifying ability but were not yet known. As they sat on, they strung together verses they had brought with them, or extemporized – and filled out Nero’s own suggestions, such as they were. This method is apparent from Nero’s poems themselves, which lack vigour, inspiration, and homogeneity. To philosophers, too, he devoted some of his time after dinner, enjoying their quarrelsome assertions of contradictory views. There were enough of such people willing to display their glum features and expressions for the amusement of the court.

At about this time there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus (II), whose expulsion from the senate I have mentioned elsewhere.1 During an exchange of taunts – characteristic of these disorderly country towns – abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best. Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital. Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair. The senate passed it to the consuls. When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled.

Cyrene secured the expulsion of a governor, Pedius Blaesus, from the senate for violating their treasury of Aesculapius and accepting bribes and solicitations to falsify the recruiting rolls. Cyrene also prosecuted another ex-praetor, Acilius Strabo, who had been sent by Claudius to adjudicate on the ancestral royal estates which had been left, with the whole kingdom, to Rome by King Ptolemy Apion. 1 Neighbouring landowners who had occupied these estates cited their longstanding usurpation as fair title. The adjudicator decided against them. So they reviled him. The senate answered that it did not know Claudius’ instructions – reference must be made to the emperor. Nero upheld the adjudicator, but wrote that nevertheless he would help the provincial landowners by legalizing their occupation.

The deaths now occurred of two famous men, Cnaeus Domitius Afer and Marcus Servilius Nonianus (II). Both were great orators with distinguished records, Domitius as advocate, Servilius – after a long legal career – as Roman historian; also as man of taste, wherein he displayed a marked contrast with his otherwise equally brilliant rival.

In the following year, when Nero (for the fourth time) and Cossus Cornelius Lentulus (II) were consuls, a five-yearly stage-competition was founded at Rome on the Greek model. Like most innovations, its reception was mixed. Some recalled with approval the criticism of Pompey, among his elders, for constructing a permanent theatre, whereas previously performances had been held with improvised stage and auditorium, or (to go back to the remoter past) spectators had stood – since seats, it was feared, would keep them idle for days on end. ‘As for the shows,’ said objectors, ‘let them continue in the old Roman way, whenever it falls to the praetors to celebrate them, and provided no citizen is obliged to compete. Traditional morals, already gradually deteriorating, have been utterly ruined by this imported laxity! It makes everything potentially corrupting and corruptible flow into the capital – foreign influences demoralize our young men into shirkers, gymnasts, and perverts.

‘Responsibility rests with emperor and senate. They have given immorality a free hand. Now they are compelling the Roman upper class to degrade themselves as orators or singers on the stage. It only remains to strip and fight in boxing-gloves instead of joining the army. Does expert attention to effeminate music and songs contribute to justice, or does it make the knights who serve as judges give better verdicts? And this vileness continues even at night! Good behaviour has no time left for it. In these promiscuous crowds, debauchees are emboldened to practise by night the lusts they have imagined by day’

This licence was just what most people approved – though they put it more respectably. ‘But our ancestors, too,’ they suggested, ‘did not shrink from such public entertainment as contemporary resources permitted. Ballet-dancers were imported from Etruria, horse-racing from Thurii. Ever since the annexation of Greece and Asia,1 performances have become more ambitious. Two hundred years have passed since the Triumph of Lucius Mummius – who first gave that sort of show here – and during that time no upper-class Roman has ever demeaned himself by professional acting. As for a permanent theatre, it was more economical than the construction and demolition of a new one every year, at vast expense.

‘If – as now suggested – the State pays for shows, it will save the purses of officials and give the public less opportunity to ask them for Greek contests. Prizes for oratory and poetry will encourage talent. And why should it be degrading even for a judge to listen with legitimate enjoyment to fine words? These nights – not many, out of a period of five years – are for gaiety, not immorality. Besides, in such a blaze of lights, surreptitious immorality is impossible.’

Certainly, the display took place without any open scandal. Nor was there any partisan rioting, since the ballet-dancers, though allowed back on the stage, were banned from these sacred contests. The first prize for oratory was not awarded, but the emperor was declared winner. Greek clothes, which had been greatly worn during the competition, subsequently went out of fashion.

A brilliant comet now appeared. The general belief is that a comet means a change of emperor. So people speculated on Nero’s successor as though Nero were already dethroned. Everybody talked of Rubellius Flautus, a Julian on his mother’s side. His personal tastes were old-fashioned, his bearing austere, and his life respectable and secluded. Retirement, due to fear, had enhanced his reputation. The talk about the comet was intensified by equally superstitious reactions to a flash of lightning, which struck and broke the table at which Nero was dining in his mansion at Sublaqueum near the Simbruine Lakes. Since this was near Tibur, the birthplace of Plautus’ father, the belief arose that the Divine Will had marked Plautus out. He was frequently courted by those whose devouring and often misguided ambitions attach them prematurely to new and hazardous causes. Nero was worried. He wrote asking Plautus, in the interests of the city’s peace, to withdraw from malevolent gossip to enjoy his youthful years in the safety and calm of his family estates in Asia. So there Plautus went, with his wife, Antistia Pollitta, and his closest friends.

Nero, in these days, endangered and discredited himself by an extravagent eccentricity: he bathed in the source of the Marcian Aqueduct.1 His immersion therein was held to have polluted the sanctity of its holy waters. The divine anger was apparent when he became seriously ill.

When Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo (II) had demolished Artaxata, he decided to utilize the panic thus created in order to capture Tigranocerta. For if he destroyed it, he would increase the enemy’s terror; if he spared it, he would be praised as merciful. So he started out. With-out relaxing precautions, he avoided hostilities so that the Armenians might hope to be pardoned. He knew they were unstable – slow to face danger, but quick to change sides when opportunity offered. The natives, according to their dispositions, offered submission, or evacuated their villages and withdrew into the wilds. Some hid themselves and their families in caves.

Corbulo varied his treatment. To suppliants he was lenient; fugitives he chased. Those in hiding he ruthlessly burnt out after stuffing the mouths and exits of their caves with bushes and faggots. The Mardi, experienced brigands, harassed him as he skirted their borders. Mountains protect their country from attack, but Corbulo launched the Iberians to devastate it, and thus punished the tribe’s rash hostility without sacrificing Roman lives. Nevertheless, though he and his army suffered no losses in battle, over-exertion was wearing them out – also inadequate rations, for meat was all that kept them alive. Moreover, water was short, it was a blazing summer, and marches were long. The only compensation was the endurance of the general, who bore as much as the rank and file, and more.

Finally, however, they reached cultivated territory, where they harvested the crops. Here the Armenians had taken refuge in two forts. One was successfully assaulted, the other taken by siege. When they passed on to the district of Tauraunitis, Corbulo escaped from an unexpected threat to his life. A native of some importance was discovered near his tent with a weapon. Under torture he disclosed a conspiracy to murder Corbulo, incriminating others as well as himself. These plotters of treachery behind friendly appearances were tried and executed.

Soon afterwards a deputation from Tigranocerta announced that its gates were open and its population awaited Corbulo’s orders. They gave him a golden crown as a sign of welcome. He accepted it politely and spared the citizens’ property, hoping thereby to win their loyalty. However, another fortress, Legerda, manned by a formidable garrison, was not overcome without a fight. The defenders even risked battle in the open. Then, driven inside their walls, they only capitulated when the Romans erected a siege-mound and forced an entrance.

These victories came the more easily because Parthia was engaged in a war with the Hyrcanians. These sent a mission to the emperor requesting an alliance and citing as a pledge of friendship their diversion of Vologeses. On their return journey Corbulo feared the Hyrcanian delegates would be intercepted by enemy forces if they crossed the Euphrates. So he gave them an escort to the Caspian sea, across which they returned home without entering Parthian territory.

However, Tiridates now entered Armenia on the far side, from Media Atropatene. But Corbulo, sending auxiliaries ahead under Lucius Verulanus Severus and himself following rapidly with Roman troops, forced him to withdraw and abandon all hope of fighting. Burning and ravaging districts known to be unfriendly, Corbulo was occupying Armenia when Tigranes V – Nero’s nominee for its throne – made his appearance. Through a member of the Cappadocian royal family (he was the great-grandson of Archelaus), Tigranes’ long residence at Rome as a hostage had made him as docile as a slave. In any case, the Parthian royal house still had its supporters. So his welcome was not unanimous. However, the majority loathed Parthian arrogance and preferred a king appointed by Rome.

Tigranes was given a guard of a thousand Roman regulars, three auxiliary battalions of infantry, and two cavalry regiments. The new ruler was further protected by the allocation of Armenia’s frontier zones to the adjoining kings, Pharasmanes of Iberia, Polemo II of Pontus, Aristobulus of Lesser Armenia, and Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene. Corbulo retired to Syria, the imperial governorship of which was open to him, its incumbent, Gaius Ummidius Durmius Quadratus having died.

In the Asian province one of its famous cities, Laodicea, was destroyed by an earthquake in this year, and rebuilt from its own resources without any subvention from Rome.

In the same year, in Italy, the ancient town of Puteoli was given the status of a Roman settlement and named after Nero.1 The settlements at Tarentum and Antiurn, too, were augmented by ex-soldiers. But this did not arrest their depopulation. For most of the settlers emigrated to the provinces in which they had served – leaving no children, since they were unaccustomed to marrying and bringing up families. Once these settlements had consisted of whole brigades of soldiers drawn up in their ranks behind their officers – a new community based on consent and comradeship. But now colonists came from various units and were unknown to each other. Without leaders, without loyalty, they were a mere concentration of aliens rather than a Roman settlement.

At this year’s election of praetors at Rome there were three more candidates than posts,2 and feelings were accordingly violent. Praetors were normally elected by the senate. Now, however, the emperor restored harmony by appointing the three supernumeraries to brigade commands. He increased the senate’s prerogatives by ordering that its appellants from civil courts must deposit the same sum as those appealing to himself (previously appeals to the senate had been unrestricted and subject to no sanction). At the end of the year a knight called Vibius Secundus was convicted for extortion on a charge brought by the Mauretanians, and expelled from Italy. The influence of his brother Quintus Vibius Crispus saved him from a worse sentence.


The following year, when the consuls were Lucius Caesennius Paetus and Publius Petronius Turpilianus, witnessed a serious disaster in Britain. The imperial governor Aulus Didius Gallus had, as I have said, merely held his own. His successor Quintus Veranius (II) had only conducted minor raids against the Silures when death terminated his operations. His life had been famous for its austerity. But his testamentary last words were glaringly self-seeking, for they grossly flattered Nero and added that Veranius, if he had lived two years longer, would have presented him with the whole province.

The new imperial governor of Britain was Gaius Suetonius Paulinus. Corbulo’s rival in military science, as in popular talk – which makes everybody compete – he was ambitious to achieve victories as glorious as the reconquest of Armenia. So Suetonius planned to attack the island of Mona, which although thickly populated had also given sanctuary to many refugees.

Flat-bottomed boats were built to contend with the shifting shallows, and these took the infantry across. Then came the cavalry; some utilized fords, but in deeper water the men swam beside their horses. The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with dishevelled hair like Furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses.

This weird spectacle awed the Roman soldiers into a sort of paralysis. They stood still – and presented themselves as a target. But then they urged each other (and were urged by the general) not to fear a horde of fanatical women. Onward pressed their standards and they bore down their opponents, enveloping them in the flames of their own torches. Suetonius garrisoned the conquered island. The groves devoted to Mona’s barbarous superstitions he demolished. For it was their religion to drench their altars in the blood of prisoners and consult their gods by means of human entrails.

While Suetonius was thus occupied, he learnt of a sudden rebellion in the province. Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, after a life of long and renowned prosperity, had made the emperor co-heir with his own two daughters. Prasutagus hoped by this submissiveness to preserve his kingdom and household from attack. But it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a beginning, his widow Boudicca1 was flogged and their daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the whole country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves.

And the humiliated Iceni feared still worse, now that they had been reduced to provincial status. So they rebelled. With them rose the Trinobantes and others. Servitude had not broken them, and they had secretly plotted together to become free again. They particularly hated the Roman ex-soldiers who had recently established a settlement at Camulodunum. The settlers drove the Trinobantes from their homes and land, and called them prisoners and slaves. The troops encouraged the settlers’ outrages, since their own way of behaving was the same – and they looked forward to similar licence for themselves. Moreover, the temple erected to the divine Claudius was a blatant stronghold of alien rule, and its observances were a pretext to make the natives appointed as its priests drain the whole country dry.

It seemed easy to destroy the settlement; for it had no walls. That was a matter which Roman commanders, thinking of amenities rather than needs, had neglected. At this juncture, for no visible reason, the statue of Victory at Camulodunum fell down – with its back turned as though it were fleeing the enemy. Delirious women chanted of destruction at hand. They cried that in the local senate-house outlandish yells had been heard; the theatre had echoed with shrieks; at the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement had been seen in ruins. A blood-red colour in the sea, too, and shapes like human corpses left by the ebb tide, were interpreted hopefully by the Britons – and with terror by the settlers.

Suetonius, however, was far away. So they appealed for help to the imperial agent Catus Decianus. He sent them barely two hundred men, incompletely armed. There was also a small garrison on the spot. Reliance was placed on the temple’s protection. Misled by secret prorebels, who hampered their plans, they dispensed with rampart or trench. They omitted also to evacuate old people and women and thus leave only fighting men behind. Their precautions were appropriate to a time of unbroken peace.

Then a native horde surrounded them. When all else had been ravaged or burnt, the garrison concentrated itself in the temple. After two days’ siege, it fell by storm. The ninth Roman division, commanded by Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, attempted to relieve the town, but was stopped by the victorious Britons and routed. Its entire infantry force was massacred, while the commander escaped to his camp with his cavalry and sheltered behind its defences. The imperial agent Catus Decianus, horrified by the catastrophe and by his unpopularity, withdrew to Gaul. It was his rapacity which had driven the province to war.

But Suetonius, undismayed, marched through disaffected territory to Londinium. This town did not rank as a Roman settlement, but was an important centre for business-men and merchandise. At first, he hesitated whether to stand and fight there. Eventually, his numerical inferiority – and the price only too clearly paid by the divisional commander’s rashness – decided him to sacrifice the single city of Londinium to save the province as a whole. Unmoved by lamentations and appeals, Suetonius gave the signal for departure. The inhabitants were allowed to accompany him. But those who stayed because they were women, or old, or attached to the place, were slaughtered by the enemy. Verulamium suffered the same fate.

The natives enjoyed plundering and thought of nothing else. Bypassing forts and garrisons, they made for where loot was richest and protection weakest. Roman and provincial deaths at the places mentioned are estimated at seventy thousand. For the British did not take or sell prisoners, or practise other war-time exchanges. They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn, and crucify – as though avenging, in advance, the retribution that was on its way.

Suetonius collected the fourteenth brigade and detachments of the twentieth, together with the nearest available auxiliaries – amounting to nearly ten thousand armed men – and decided to attack without further delay. He chose a position in a defile with a wood behind him. There could be no enemy, he knew, except at his front, where there was open country without cover for ambushes. Suetonius drew up his regular troops in close order, with the light-armed auxiliaries at their flanks, and the cavalry massed on the wings. On the British side, cavalry and infantry bands seethed over a wide area in unprecedented numbers. Their confidence was such that they brought their wives with them to see the victory, installing them in carts stationed at the edge of the battlefield.

Boudicca drove round all the tribes in a chariot with her daughters in front of her. ‘We British are used to woman commanders in war,’ she cried. ‘I am descended from mighty men! But now I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body, and my outraged daughters. Nowadays Roman rapicity does not even spare our bodies. Old people are killed, virgins raped. But the gods will grant us the vengeance we deserve! The Roman division which dared to fight is annihilated. The others cower in their camps, or watch for a chance to escape. They will never face even the din and roar of all our thousands, much less the shock of our onslaught. Consider how many of you are fighting – and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do! – let the men live in slavery if they will.’

Suetonius trusted his men’s bravery. Yet he too, at this critical moment, offered encouragements and appeals. ‘Disregard the clamours and empty threats of the natives!’ he said. ‘In their ranks, there are more women than fighting men. Unwarlike, unarmed, when they see the arms and courage of the conquerors who have routed them so often, they will break immediately. Even when a force contains many divisions, few among them win the battles – what special glory for your small numbers to win the renown of a whole army! Just keep in close order. Throw your javelins, and then carry on: use shield-bosses to fell them, swords to kill them. Do not think of plunder. When you have won, you will have everything.’

The general’s words were enthusiastically received: the old battle-experienced soldiers longed to hurl their javelins. So Suetonius confidently gave the signal for battle. At first the regular troops stood their ground. Keeping to the defile as a natural defence, they launched their javelins accurately at the approaching enemy. Then, in wedge formation, they burst forward. So did the auxiliary infantry. The cavalry, too, with lances extended, demolished all serious resistance. The remaining Britons fled with difficulty since their ring of wagons blocked the outlets. The Romans did not spare even the women. Baggage animals too, transfixed with weapons, added to the heaps of dead.

It was a glorious victory, comparable with bygone triumphs. According to one report almost eighty thousand Britons fell. Our own casualties were about four hundred dead and a slightly larger number of wounded. Boudicca poisoned herself. Poenius Postumus, chief-of-staff of the second division which had not joined Suetonius, learning of the success of the other two formations, stabbed himself to death because he had cheated his formation of its share in the victory and broken regulations by disobeying his commander’s orders.

The whole army was now united. Suetonius kept it under canvas to finish the war. The emperor raised its numbers by transferring from Germany two thousand regular troops, which brought the ninth division to full strength, also eight auxiliary infantry battalions and a thousand cavalry. These were stationed together in new winter quarters, and hostile or wavering tribes were ravaged with fire and sword. But the enemy’s worst affliction was famine. For they had neglected to sow their fields and brought everyone available into the army, intending to seize our supplies. Still, the savage British tribesmen were disinclined for peace, especially as the newly arrived imperial agent Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, successor to Catus Decianus, was on bad terms with Suetonius, and allowed his personal animosities to damage the national interests. For he passed round advice to wait for a new governor who would be kind to those who surrendered, without an enemy’s bitterness or a conqueror’s arrogance. Classicianus also reported to Rome that there was no prospect of ending the war unless a successor was appointed to Suetonius, whose failures he attributed to perversity – and his successes to luck.

So a former imperial slave, Polyclitus, was sent to investigate the British situation. Nero was very hopeful that Polyclitus’ influence would both reconcile the governor and agent and pacify native rebelliousness. With his enormous escort, Polyclitus was a trial to Italy and Gaul. Then he crossed the Channel and succeeded in intimidating even the Roman army. But the enemy laughed at him. For them, freedom still lived, and the power of ex-slaves was still unfamiliar. The British marvelled that a general and an army who had completed such a mighty war should obey a slave.

But all this was toned down in Polyclitus’ reports to the emperor. Retained as governor, Suetonius lost a few ships and their crews on the shore, and was then superseded for not terminating the war. His successor, the recent consul Publius Petronius Turpilianus, neither provoking the enemy nor provoked, called this ignoble inactivity peace with honour.

The same year witnessed two noteworthy crimes at Rome. One of the audacious perpetrators was a senator, the other a slave. Domitius Balbus was a former praetor whose age, wealth, and childlessness exposed him to fraudulence. His relative Valerius Fabianus (a man destined for an official career) forged Domitius’ will. Two knights, Vinicius Rufinus and Terentius Lentinus, who were Valerius’ accomplices, brought in Marcus Antonius Primus, a man ready for anything, and Marcus Asinius Marcellus, who had the distinction of being the great-grandson of Gaius Asinius Pollio (I) and was respected – apart from his belief that poverty was the supreme misfortune. So with these associates, and others of less account, Valerius sealed the document. When this was proved in the senate, the forgers were all convicted under the Cornelian law1 against falsification, except Marcellus, who escaped punishment owing to the emperor’s intervention in memory of his ancestors. Disgrace he did not escape.

On the same day a young ex-quaestor, Pompeius Aelianus, was condemned for complicity in the same crime and banned from Italy and his home country, Spain. Valerius Ponticus was excluded from Italy for conducting prosecutions before the praetor to avoid trial by the City Prefect – a procedure which, while preserving legality for the time being, aimed at ultimate acquittal by collusion. A clause was added to the relevant senatorial decree making anyone who bought or sold such connivance liable to the same penalty as if convicted by false accusation in a criminal case.

Soon afterwards the City Prefect, Lucius Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by one of his slaves. Either Pedanius had refused to free the murderer after agreeing to a price, or the slave, infatuated with some man or other, found competition from his master intolerable. After the murder, ancient custom required that every slave residing under the same roof must be executed. But a crowd gathered, eager to save so many innocent lives; and rioting began. The senate-house was besieged. Inside, there was feeling against excessive severity, but the majority opposed any change. Among the latter was Gaius Cassius Longinus, who when his turn came spoke as follows:

‘I have often been here, senators, when decrees deviating from our ancestral laws and customs were mooted. I have not opposed them. Not that I had any doubts about the superiority – in every matter whatsoever – of ancient arrangements, and the undesirability of every change. But I did not wish, by exaggerated regard for antique usage, to show too high an opinion of my own profession, the law. Nor did I want, by continual opposition, to weaken any influence I may possess. I wanted to keep it intact in case the country needed my advice.

‘It needs it today! A man who has held the consulship has been deliberately murdered by a slave in his own home. None of his fellow-slaves prevented or betrayed the murderer, though the senatorial decree threatening the whole household with execution still stands. Exempt them from the penalty if you like. But then, if the City Prefect was not important enough to be immune, who will be? Who will have enough slaves to protect him if Pedanius’ four hundred were too few? Who can rely on his household’s help if even fear for their own lives does not make them shield us?

‘Or was the assassin avenging a wrong? For that is one shameless fabrication. Tell us next that the slave had been negotiating about his patrimony, or he had lost some ancestral property! We had better call it justifiable homicide straightaway.

‘When wiser men have in past times considered and settled the whole matter, will you dare to refute them? Pretend, if you like, that we are deciding a policy for the first time. Do you believe that a slave can have planned to kill his master without letting fall a single rash or menacing word? Or even if we assume he kept his secret – and obtained a weapon unnoticed – could he have passed the watch, opened the bedroom door, carried in a light, and committed the murder, without anyone knowing? There are many advance notifications of crimes. If slaves give them away, we can live securely, though one among many, because of their insecurity; or, if we must die, we can at least be sure the guilty will be punished.

‘Our ancestors distrusted their slaves. Yet slaves were then born on the same estates, in the same homes, as their masters, who had treated them kindly from birth. But nowadays our huge households are international. They include every alien religion – or none at all. The only way to keep down this scum is by intimidation. Innocent people will the, you say. Yes, and when in a defeated army every tenth man is flogged to death, the brave have to draw lots with the others. Exemplary punishment always contains an element of injustice. But individual wrongs are outweighed by the advantage of the community.’

No one dared speak up against Cassius. But there were protesting cries of pity for the numbers affected, and the women, and the young, and the undoubted innocence of the majority. Yet those favouring execution prevailed. However, great crowds ready with stones and torches prevented the order from being carried out. Nero rebuked the population by edict, and lined with troops the whole route along which those condemned were taken for execution. Then it was proposed by Cingonius Varro that the ex-slaves, too, who had been under the same roof should be deported from Italy. But the emperor vetoed this – the ancient custom had not been tempered by mercy, but should not be aggravated by brutality.

Bithynia, this year, secured the condemnation of its governor, Tarquitius Priscus, for extortion. The senate, remembering that he had once accused his own governor, Titus Statilius Taurus (II), was delighted. In Gaul, a census was carried out by Quintus Volusius Saturninus, Titus Sextius Africanus, and Lucius Trebellius Maximus. The aristocratic Volusius and Sextius were rivals, and both despised Trebellius, who took advantage of their bickering to get the better of them.

Publius Memmius Regulus now died. His influence, dignity and good name had attained the greatest glory which the all-overshadowing imperial grandeur permits. Indeed, when Nero was ill, and sycophantic courtiers declared that his death would mean the end of the empire, the emperor answered that the State had a support; and when they asked what he meant, he replied: ‘Memmius Regulus.’ Yet Regulus survived unharmed. For he was inactive, his family was only recently ennobled, and his resources were too insignificant to attract envy.

Another event of this year was the dedication of a gymnasium by Nero. Oil was distributed to senators and knights on a truly Greek scale of extravagance. In the following year, when the consuls were Publius Marius Celsus and Lucius Afinius Gallus, the praetor Antistius Sosianus, whose disorderly behaviour as tribune I have mentioned, wrote verses satirizing the emperor, and read them aloud at a large dinner-party given by Marcus Ostorius Scapula. Antistius was charged with treason by Cossutianus Capito, who on the entreaty of his father-in-law Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus1 had recently been made a senator. This was the first revival of the treason law. The intention – people believed – was not so much to ruin Antistius as to enable the emperor to gain credit by using his tribune’s authority to veto the senate’s adverse verdict.

The host testified that he had heard nothing. Yet contrary witnesses were believed, and one of the consuls-designate, Quintus Junius Marullus, moved Antistius’ deposition from the praetorship, to be followed by execution in the ancient manner. There was general agreement. But Thrasea, after highly complimenting Nero and vigorously blaming Antistius, argued that under so excellent an emperor the senate was liable to no compulsion, and need not inflict the maximum punishment deserved. The executioner and the noose were obsolete, said Thrasea; the laws had extablished penalties which exempted judges from brutality and avoided undesirable anachronisms; so let Antistius have his property confiscated and be sent to an island, where every prolongation of his guilty life would intensify his personal misery but splendidly illustrate official mercy.

Thrasea’s independence made others less servile. So his proposal, when the consul put the vote, was carried. Among the few dissentients the worst sycophant was Aulus Vitellius.2 Like other cowards he insulted anyone decent, but kept quiet when answered back. However, the consuls did not venture to confirm the senate’s decree, but wrote informing Nero of the general view. Anger and discretion fought within him. Finally he sent the following reply: ‘Antistius, unprovoked, has grossly abused the emperor. The senate was asked to punish him. It ought to have fixed a punishment fitting the enormity of the crime. But I will not amend your leniency. Indeed, I should not have allowed anything else. Decide as you please. You could have acquitted him if you wished.’

These and similar comments were read out. Nero was clearly offended. Yet the consuls did not change the motion. Thrasea did not alter his proposal, and the others, too, adhered to their decision. Some wanted to avoid showing the emperor in an unfavourable light. The majority saw safety in numbers. Thrasea was showing his usual resolution – and conformity with his reputation.

Aulus Didius Gallus Fabricius Veiento fell to a similar charge, namely the inclusion in a so-called will of numerous insults against senators and priests. His accuser, Gaius Terentius Tullius Geminus, added that Veiento had accepted bribery, in return for his influence with the emperor regarding official promotions. This led Nero to deal with the case himself. He found Veiento guilty, expelled him from Italy, and ordered his writings to be burnt. These were eagerly sought for and read – while it was dangerous to have them. When, later, the ban became obsolete, they were forgotten.

The situation of the country was deteriorating every day; and a counteracting influence now vanished, with the death of Burrus. Whether natural causes or poison killed him is uncertain. The gradually increasing tumour in his throat, which blocked the passage and stopped his breathing, suggested natural causes. But the general view was that Nero, ostensibly proposing a medical treatment, had instructed that Burrus’ throat should be painted with a poisonous drug. The patient, it was said, had detected the crime, and when the emperor visited him had turned his face away and only answered Nero’s inquiries with the words: ‘I am doing all right.’

The death of Burrus caused great public distress. His merits were dwelt on – also the inferiority of his successors, one harmless but ineffective and the other a notorious criminal. For the emperor now appointed two commanders of the Guard – Faenius Rufus because he was popular (having managed the corn supply without personal profit), and Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus because Nero found his unending immoralities and evil reputation fascinating. Each commander behaved as expected. Tigellinus was the more influential with the emperor, in whose private debaucheries he participated. Rufus was liked by Guardsmen and civilians: which went against him with Nero.

Burrus’ death undermined the influence of Seneca. Decent standards carried less weight when one of their two advocates was gone. Now Nero listened to more disreputable advisers. These attacked Seneca, first for his wealth, which was enormous and excessive for any subject, they said, and was still increasing; secondly, for the grandeur of his mansions and beauty of his gardens, which outdid even the emperor’s; and thirdly, for his alleged bids for popularity. They also charged Seneca with allowing no one to be called eloquent but himself. ‘He is always writing poetry,’ they suggested, ‘now that Nero has become fond of it. He openly disparages the emperor’s amusements, underestimates him as a charioteer, and makes fun of his singing. How long must merit at Rome be conferred by Seneca’s certificate alone? Surely Nero is a boy no longer! He is a grown man and ought to discharge his tutor. His ancestors will teach him all he needs.’ Seneca knew of these attacks. People who still had some decency told him of them. Nero increasingly avoided his company.

Seneca, however, requested an audience, and when it was granted, this is what he said. ‘It is nearly fourteen years, Caesar, since I became associated with your rising fortunes, eight since you became emperor. During that time you have showered on me such distinctions and riches that, if only I could retire to enjoy them unpretentiously, my prosperity would be complete.

‘May I quote illustrious precedents drawn from your rank, not mine? Your great-great-grandfather Augustus allowed Marcus Agrippa to withdraw to Mytilene, and allowed Gaius Maecenas the equivalent of retirement at Rome itself.1 The one his partner in wars, the other the bearer of many anxious burdens at Rome, they were greatly rewarded, for great services. I have had no claim on your generosity, except my learning. Though acquired outside the glare of public life, it has brought me the wonderful recompense and distinction of having assisted in your early education.

‘But you have also bestowed on me measureless favours, and boundless wealth. Accordingly, I often ask myself: “Is it I, son of a provincial knight1, who am accounted a national leader? Is mine the unknown name which has come to glitter among ancient and glorious pedigrees? Where is my old self, that was content with so little? Laying out these fine gardens? Grandly inspecting these estates? Wallowing in my vast revenues?” I can only find one excuse. It was not for me to obstruct your munificence.

‘But we have both filled the measure – you, of what an emperor can give his friend, and I, of what a friend may receive from his emperor. Anything more will breed envy. Your greatness is far above all such mortal things. But I am not; so I crave your help. If, in the field or on a journey, I were tired, I should want a stick. In life’s journey, I need just such a support.

‘For I am old and cannot do the lightest work. I am no longer equal to the burden of my wealth. Order your agents to take over my property and incorporate it in yours. I do not suggest plunging myself into poverty, but giving up the things that are too brilliant and dazzle me. The time now spent on gardens and mansions shall be devoted to the mind. You have abundant strength. For years the supreme power has been familiar to you. We older friends may ask for our rest. This, too, will add to your glory – that you have raised to the heights men content with lower positions.’

The substance of Nero’s reply was this. ‘My first debt to you is that I can reply impromptu to your premeditated speech. For you taught me to improvise as well as to make prepared orations. True, my great-great-grandfather Augustus permitted Agrippa and Maecenas to rest after their labours. But he did so when he was old enough to assure them, by his prestige, of everything – of whatever kind – that he had given them. Besides, he certainly deprived neither of the rewards which they had earned from him in the wars and crises of Augustus’ youthful years. If my life had been warlike, you too would have fought for me. But you gave what our situation demanded: wisdom, advice, philosophy, to support me as boy and youth. Your gifts to me will endure as long as life itself! My gifts to you, gardens and mansions and revenues, are liable to circumstances.

‘They may seem extensive. But many people far less deserving than you have had more. I omit, from shame, to mention ex-slaves who flaunt greater wealth. I am even ashamed that you, my dearest friend, are not the richest of all men. You are still vigorous and fit for State affairs and their rewards. My reign is only beginning. Or do you think you have reached your limit? If so you must rank yourself below Lucius Vitellius, thrice consul, and my generosity below that of Claudius, and my gifts as inferior to the lifelong savings of Lucius Volusius Saturninus (II).

‘If youth’s slippery paths lead me astray, be at hand to call me back! You equipped my manhood; devote even greater care to guiding it! If you return my gifts and desert your emperor, it is not your unpretentiousness, your retirement, that will be on everyone’s lips, but my meanness, your dread of my brutality. However much your self-denial were praised, no philosopher could becomingly gain credit from an action damaging to his friend’s reputation.’

Then he clasped and kissed Seneca. Nature and experience had fitted Nero to conceal hatred behind treacherous embraces. Seneca expressed his gratitude (all conversations with autocrats end like that). But he abandoned the customs of his former ascendancy. Terminating his large receptions, he dismissed his entourage, and rarely visited Rome. Ill-health or philosophical studies kept him at home, he said.

After Seneca’s elimination it was easy to bring down the commander of the Guard Faenius Rufus, who was accused of friendship with Agrippina. Faenius’ colleague Tigellinus became more powerful every day. But he felt that his criminal aptitudes – the only qualities he possessed – would influence the emperor more if he could make them partners in crime. Studying Nero’s fears, Tigellinus found he chiefly dreaded Rubellius Plautus and Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix. One had been recently removed to Asia, the other to southern Gaul. Tigellinus enlarged on their aristocratic origins, and their present proximity to the armies of the east and of Germany respectively.

‘I have no divided allegiance like Burrus,’ he said. ‘My only thought is your safety! At Rome this may in some degree be ensured by vigilance on the spot. But how can one suppress sedition far away? The dictator Sulla’s name has excited the Gauls. For the peoples of Asia Drusus’ grandson is just as unsettling. Sulla’s poverty increases his daring. He pretends to be lazy – yet he is only biding his time for a coup. Plautus is rich, and does not pretend to like retirement. He parades an admiration of the ancient Romans, but he has the arrogance of the Stoics, who breed sedition and intrigue.’

Action was not long delayed. Five days later, Sulla was murdered at dinner. Assassins had reached Massilia before the alarm. His head was transported to Nero, who joked that it was disfigured by premature greyness.

The plans for Plautus’ death were less secret. More people were interested in his safety. Besides, the length and duration of the land and sea journeys encouraged rumours. The story was invented that Plautus had escaped to Corbulo who, having mighty armies behind him, would be in the gravest peril if there was to be a massacre of blameless notables. Asia, it was said, had risen in Plautus’ support; the few, unenthusiastic, soldiers sent to murder him had failed to carry out their orders and had joined the rebellion. Idle credulity, as usual, amplified these fictitious rumours.

Meanwhile an ex-slave of Plautus, helped by favourable winds, outstripped the staff-officer of the Guard who had been sent against him, and brought a message from Plautus’ father-in-law Lucius Antistius Vetus. ‘Escape a passive end while there is a way out!’ advised Antistius. ‘Sympathy for your great name will make decent men back you and brave men help you. Meantime, disdain no possible support. Sixty soldiers have been sent. If you can repulse them, much can happen – even a war can develop – before Nero receives the news and sends another force. In short, either you save yourself by this action, or at least a bold end is as good as a timid one.’

But Plautus remained unimpressed. Either he felt helpless – an unarmed exile – or the suspense wearied him. Or perhaps he believed that his wife and children, whom he loved, would be more leniently treated if the emperor were not upset by an alarm. One account states that his father-in-law sent further messages saying that Plautus was in no danger. Or his philosophical friends, the Greek Coeranus and the Etruscan Gaius Musonius Rufus, may have recommended an imperturbable expectation of death rather than a hazardous anxious life.

The killers found him at midday, stripped for exercise. Supervised by the eunuch Pelago whom Nero had put in charge of the gang – like a slave set over a monarch’s underlings – the officer slew him as he was. The victim’s head was brought to Nero. I will quote the actual words he uttered when he saw it. ‘Nero,’ he said, ‘how could such a long-nosed man have frightened you?’1

Indeed, the fears which had caused the emperor to postpone his wedding with Poppaea were now dispelled. He planned to marry her quickly, after eliminating Octavia his wife. Octavia’s conduct was unassuming; but he hated her, because she was popular and an emperor’s daughter. First Nero wrote to the senate emphasizing his perpetual solicitude for the national interests, and – without admitting their murder – denouncing Sulla and Plautus as agitators. On these grounds the senate voted a thanksgiving, and the two men’s expulsion from the senate. This was a mockery which caused greater disgust even than the crimes. Hearing of their decree, Nero concluded that all his misdeeds were accounted meritorious. So he divorced Octavia for barrenness, and married Poppaea.

Dominating Nero as his wife, as she had long dominated him as his mistress, Poppaea incited one of Octavia’s household to accuse Octavia of adultery with a slave – an Alexandrian flute-player called Eucaerus was designated for the role. Octavia’s maids were tortured, and though some were induced by the pain to make false confessions, the majority unflinchingly maintained her innocence. One retorted that the mouth of Tigellinus, who was bullying her, was less clean than any part of Octavia. Nevertheless, she was put away. First, there was an ordinary divorce: she received the ominous gifts of Burrus’ house and Rubellius Plautus’ estates. Soon, however, she was banished to Campania, under military surveillance.

Now indiscretion is safer for the Roman public than for their superiors, since they are insignificant; and they protested openly and loudly. This seemed to recall Nero to decency, and he proposed to make Octavia his wife again. Happy crowds climbed the Capitol, thankful to heaven at last. They overturned Poppaea’s statues and carried Octavia’s on their shoulders, showering flowers on them and setting them in the Forum and temples.

Even the emperor was acclaimed and worshipped again. Indeed a noisy crowd invaded the palace. But detachments of troops clubbed them and forced them back at the point of the sword. Then the changes the rioters had inspired were reversed, and Poppaea reinstated. Always a savage hater, she was now mad with fear of mass violence and Nero’s capitulation to it. She fell at his feet crying: ‘Now that things have reached this pass, it is not marriage I am fighting for, but what, to me, means less than my marriage – my life. It is in danger from Octavia’s dependants and slaves! They pretend to be the people of Rome! They commit, in peace-time, outrages that could hardly happen even in war! The emperor is their target – they only lack a leader. And once disorders begin one will easily be found, when she leaves Campania and proceeds to the capital! Even her distant nod causes riots.

‘What have I done wrong? Whom have I injured? Or is all this because I am going to give an authentic heir to the house of the Caesars? Would Rome prefer an Egyptian flute-player’s child to be introduced into the palace? If you think it best, take back your directress voluntarily – do not be coerced into doing so. Or else, safeguard yourself! Punish suitably. No severity was needed to end the first troubles. But now, once they lose hope of Nero keeping Octavia, they will find her another husband.’

Poppaea’s arguments, playing on Nero’s alarm and anger in turn, duly terrified and infuriated him. But the suspicions concerning Octavia’s slave came to nothing; the examination of her servants proved fruitless. So it was decided to extract a confession of adultery from someone against whom a charge of revolution could also be concocted. A suitable person seemed to be the aforementioned Anicetus, fleet-commander at Misenum and instrument of Nero’s matricide. After the crime he had been fairly well regarded. Later, however, he was in serious disfavour; for the sight of a former accomplice in terrible crimes is a reproach.

Nero summoned him, and reminded him of his previous job – Anicetus alone had protected his emperor against his mother’s plotting. Now, said Nero, he could earn equal gratitude by eliminating a detested wife. No violence or weapons were needed. Anicetus only had to confess adultery with Octavia. Great rewards were promised – though at present they were unspecified – and an agreed place of retirement. Refusal would mean death. Anicetus’ warped character found no difficulty in a further crime. Indeed, the confession which he made to Nero’s friends, assembled as a council of state, even exceeded his instructions. Then he was removed to comfortable exile in Sardinia, where he died a natural death.

Nero reported in an edict that Octavia had tried to win over the fleet by seducing its commander, and then, nervous about her unfaithfulness, had procured an abortion (the emperor forgot his recent charge of sterility). She was then confined on the island of Pandateria.

No exiled woman ever earned greater sympathy from those who saw her. Some still remembered the banishment of the elder Agrippina by Tiberius and, more recently, of Julia Livilla by Claudius.1 Yet they had been mature women with happy memories which could alleviate their present sufferings. But Octavia had virtually died on her wedding day. Her new home had brought her nothing but misery. Poison had removed her father, and very soon her brother. Maid had been preferred to mistress. Then she, Nero’s wife, had been ruined by her successor. Last came the bitterest of all fates, this accusation.

So this girl, in her twentieth year, was picketed by company-commanders of the Guard and their men. She was hardly a living person any more – so certain was she of imminent destruction. Yet still she lacked the peace of death. The order to the arrived a few days later. She protested that she was a wife no longer – Nero’s sister only. She invoked the Germanici, the relations she shared with Nero. Finally she even invoked Agrippina, in whose days her marriage had been unhappy, certainly, but at least not fatal. But Octavia was bound, and all her veins were opened. However, her terror retarded the flow of blood. So she was put into an exceedingly hot vapour-bath and suffocated. An even crueller atrocity followed. Her head was cut off and taken to Rome for Poppaea to see.

How long must I go on recording the thank-offerings in temples on such occasions? Every reader about that epoch, in my own work or others, can assume that the gods were thanked every time the emperor ordered a banishment or murder; and, conversely, that happenings once regarded joyfully were now treated as national disasters. Nevertheless, when any senatorial decree reaches new depths of sycophancy or abasement, I will not leave it unrecorded.

In the same year Nero was believed to have poisoned two of his most prominent ex-slaves – Doryphorus for opposing the emperor’s marriage with Poppaea, and Pallas for reserving his own immense riches for himself by living so long.

Seneca was secretly denounced by Romanus as an associate of Gaius Calpurnius Piso. But Seneca more effectively turned the same charge against his accuser. However, the incident alarmed Piso – and by so doing initiated a far-reaching, disastrous conspiracy against Nero.

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