Ancient History & Civilisation

NERO

1. Two branches of the Domitian family distinguished themselves – the Calvini and the Ahenobarbi. The Ahenobarbi were named after their founder, Lucius Domitius; according to tradition, he was once returning to Rome from the country when he met a pair of twins looking more like gods than men, who told him to inform the Senate and the people that a battle, whose outcome was as yet unknown, had now been won. In proof of their divinity, the twins stroked him on both sides of his chin and thereby turned his beard from black to the colour of bronze – a physical peculiarity which became dominant among his descendants.1 Having gained seven consulships, a triumph and two censorships, and been raised to patrician rank, they all continued to use the same cognomen, with no other praenomina than Gnaeus and Lucius. They gave an interesting twist to this practice by sometimes having successive members of the family known by the same praenomen and sometimes varying the two – for instance, we know that each of the first three Ahenobarbi was a Lucius, each of the second three was a Gnaeus, and after this Lucius alternated with Gnaeus. A closer study of the Domitian family history will reveal that, although Nero made a ghastly caricature of his ancestors’ virtues, many of his vices were inherited.

2. Let me go back quite a long way to Nero’s great–greatgreat–grandfather, Gnaeus Domitius. While tribune of the people, he deprived the pontifical college of their power to fill vacancies in the priesthood and awarded it to the people; he hated the college for not having appointed him to succeed his father. As consul, he subdued the Allobroges and the Arverni, and then rode through the province on an elephant with an escort of soldiers as though he were celebrating a triumph. Licinius Crassus, the orator, remarked, ‘should his bronze beard really surprise us? After all, he has an iron face and a heart of lead.’

Gnaeus’ son Lucius, while praetor, summoned Julius Caesar before the Senate at the close of his consulship to be examined on the charge of having defied the laws and auspices. Afterwards, when consul, he tried to remove Caesar from the command in Gaul, and had himself named as his successor by Caesar’s opponents. Then the civil war broke out and he was soon taken prisoner at Corfinium, but set free; whereupon he went to Massilia and supported the inhabitants during the difficult days of their siege. However, he abruptly deserted them, and fell a year later in the battle of Pharsalus. This Lucius was both harsh and remarkably indecisive. Once, in a fitof desperation, he attempted suicide by poison, but the prospect of immediate death so terrified him that he changed his mind and vomited up the dose – the family physician knew him well enough to have made it a mild one, which earned the wise fellow his freedom. Early in the civil war, when Pompey raised the question of how neutrals should be treated, Lucius was the sole senator who wanted them classified as enemies.

3. Lucius left one son, Gnaeus, without any doubt the best member of the family. Although aware of the conspiracy against Caesar, he took no part in the actual assassination; but he was condemned under the Pedian Law when he threw in his lot with his relatives Brutus and Cassius. After their deaths he continued to command and even to enlarge their fleet, which he would not surrender to Mark Antony until his associates had been everywhere routed, and then did so as though he were granting an immense favour. Of all those sentenced under the Pedian Law he alone was granted repatriation, and once home again he held all the highest offices in succession. When civil war broke out once more he became Antony’s legate and was later offered the supreme command by those who were embarrassed by Cleopatra’s presence; but a sudden illness made him wary of accepting it, although he never gave a definite refusal. Instead, he transferred his allegiance to Augustus, and died a few days afterwards. But even he had a slight stain on his reputation, since Antony declared that his real motive in changing sides was to be with Servilia Nais, his mistress.

4. His son, the Lucius Domitius who became Augustus’ chief executor, had been a famous charioteer in his youth and gained triumphal decorations for his part in the German campaign; but he was notorious for his arrogance, extravagance and extreme rudeness. While holding the office of aedile, he ordered Lucius Plancus, then censor, to make way for him in the street. As praetor and again as consul, he made equites and respectable married women act in stage farces. The cruelty of the wildanimal hunts presented by him in the Circus and elsewhere at Rome, and likewise of his gladiatorial contest, obliged Augustus– whose private warnings he had disregarded – to issue a cautionary edict.

5. Gnaeus Domitius, his son by Antonia the elder, became Nero’s father, and was a wholly despicable character. As a young man he served in the east on the staff of Augustus’ adopted son Gaius, 2 but forfeited his friendship by killing one of his own freedmen for refusing to drink as much as he was told. Yet even then he behaved no better. Once, driving through a village on the Via Appia, he whipped up his horses and deliberately ran over a boy, and when an eques criticized him rather freely in the Forum he gouged out his eye there and then. He was also remarkably dishonest, cheating his bankers of payment for goods they had bought him and, while praetor, even swindling victorious charioteers of their prize money. His sister openly teased him about this, and when the managers of the teams complained he decreed that in future all prizes must be paid on the spot. Just before Tiberius died he was charged with treason, adultery and incest with his sister Domitia Lepida; however, Gaius’ accession saved him, and he died of dropsy at Pyrgi, after the birth of Nero, his son by Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina.

6. Nero was born at Antium on 15 December, nine months after Tiberius’ death; the sun was rising and its earliest rays touched the newly born boy almost before he could be laid on the ground.3 People at once made a number of ominous predictions, and regarded as significant a comment made by his father Domitius in reply to friendly congratulations: namely that any child born to himself and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger. Another promise of ill luck occurred on the day of his ritual purification: when Agrippina asked her brother Gaius to give the boy whatever name he pleased, he glanced at his uncle Claudius (later emperor, and Nero’s adoptive father) and said with a grin, ‘I give him Claudius’ name.’4 Since Claudius was then the butt of the court, Agrippina was not amused and ignored the suggestion.

At the age of three Nero lost his father and inherited one–third of the estate; but Gaius, who was also named in the will, not only took everything, but banished Agrippina. Nero therefore grew up in very poor circumstances under the care of his aunt Domitia Lepida, who chose a dancer and a barber to be his tutors. However, when Claudius succeeded Gaius, Nero had his inheritance restored to him in full, and a legacy from his stepfather, Crispus Passienus, 5 left him well off. His mother’s recall from banishment allowed him to enjoy once more the benefits of her powerful influence, so much so that the story got about that Claudius’ wife Messalina, realizing that Nero would become a rival to her son Britannicus, had sent assassins to strangle him during his afternoon nap. They were driven away in terror, people said, by a snake which suddenly darted from beneath Nero’s pillow; but this was a mere surmise based on the discovery of a sloughed snakeskin close by. Agrippina persuaded him to have this skin set in a golden bracelet, which he wore for a long time on his right wrist. After she died he threw it away because it reminded him too vividly of her, but when his situation grew desperate he hunted for it in vain.

7. While still very young he gave an exceptionally good performance in the Troy Game at the Circus and earned loud applause. When he reached the age of eleven6 Claudius adopted him and appointed Annaeus Seneca, who was already a senator, as his tutor. On the following night, the story goes, Seneca dreamed that his pupil was really Gaius; and, indeed, Nero soon made sense of the dream by giving signs of a naturally cruel heart. Since Britannicus continued to call him ‘Ahenobarbus’ even after his adoption, he took revenge by trying to convince Claudius that Britannicus was a supposititious child; he also testified in public against his aunt Domitia Lepida just to please his mother, who had engineered the trial.7

Nero celebrated his formal introduction into public life by giving largesse to the people and a bounty to the troops, and leading a ceremonial parade of the praetorians, shield in hand. Afterwards, in the Senate, he made a speech of thanks to Claudius. While Claudius was consul, Nero pleaded two cases before him: one in Latin on behalf of the people of Bononia, the other in Greek on behalf of the Rhodians and Trojans. He first appeared on the tribunal as city prefect during the Latin Festival;8 eminent advocates brought him a number of important cases to try, instead of the dull and trivial ones that normally come up on such occasions – although Claudius had expressly forbidden this. Next, Nero married Octavia, and held games and a wild–beast hunt in the Circus on behalf of Claudius’ good health.

8. He had reached the age of sixteen when the news of Claudius’ death was made known, and he presented himself to the guards that day between the sixth and seventh hours – ugly omens having ruled out an earlier appearance. After being acclaimedimperatoron the palace steps, he was taken in a litter to the praetorian camp, where he briefly addressed the troops. He then visited the Senate House, where he remained until nightfall, refusing only one of the many high honours voted him, namely the title Father of His Country, and this because of his youth.

9. Nero started off with a parade of virtue, giving Claudius a lavish funeral, at which he delivered the oration in person, and then deifying him. He also exalted the memory of his father Domitius, and turned over all his public and private affairs to Agrippina’s management. On the day of his accession the password he gave to the military tribune on duty was ‘The Best of Mothers’, and she and he often rode out together through the streets in her litter. Nero founded a colony at Antium consisting of praetorian veterans, augmented by a group of rich retired primipilares, whom he had move from their previous homes; he also built a harbour there, at great expense.

10. As a further guarantee of his virtuous intentions, he promised to model his rule on the principles laid down by Augustus, and never missed an opportunity of being generous or merciful or of showing what a good companion he was. He lowered, if he could not abolish, some of the heavier taxes, and reduced by three–quarters the fee for denouncing evasions of the Papian Law. Moreover, he presented the people with 400 sesterces each, settled annual salaries on distinguished but impoverished senators – to the amount of 500,000 sesterces in some cases – and granted the praetorian cohorts a free monthly issue of grain. If asked to sign the usual execution order for a felon, he would sigh, ‘Ah, how I wish that I had never learned to write!’ He seldom forgot a face, and would greet men of whatever rank by name without a moment’s hesitation. Once, when the Senate passed a vote of thanks to him, he answered, ‘Wait until I deserve them!’ He allowed even the common people to watch him taking exercise on the Campus Martius, and often gave public declamations. Also, he recited his own poems, both at home and in the theatre – a performance which so delighted everyone that a special thanksgiving was voted him, as though he had won a great victory, and the passages he had chosen were printed in letters of gold on plaques dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus.

11. He gave an immense variety of entertainments – youth games, chariot races in the Circus, stage plays, a gladiatorial show – persuading even old men of consular rank, and old ladies too, to attend the youth games. He reserved seats for the equites at the Circus, and actually raced four–camel chariots! At the Great Games, as he called the series of plays devoted to the hope of his reigning for ever, parts were taken by men and women of both orders, and one well–known eques rode an elephant down a sloping tightrope. When he staged The Fire, a Roman play by Afranius, the actors were allowed to keep the valuable furnishings they rescued from the burning house. Throughout the games all kinds of gifts were scattered to the people – 1,000 assorted birds daily, and quantities of food parcels, besides vouchers for grain, clothes, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, transport animals, and even trained wild beasts – and finally for ships, blocks of tenements, and farms.

12. Nero watched from the top of the proscenium. The gladiatorial show took place in a wooden theatre near the Campus Martius, which had been built in less than a year, but no one was allowed to be killed during these combats, not even criminals. He did, however, make 400 senators and 600 equites, many of them rich and respectable, do battle in the arena, and some had to fight wild beasts and perform various duties about the ring. He staged a naval engagement on an artificial lake of salt water which had sea monsters swimming in it; also ballets by certain young Greeks, to whom he presented certificates of Roman citizenship when their show ended. In one of these an actor disguised as a bull actually mounted another who played Pasiphae and occupied a hollow wooden heifer – or that, at least, was the audience’s impression. In another, the actor who played Icarus, 9 while attempting his first flight, fell beside Nero’s couch and spattered him with blood.

Nero rarely presided at shows of this sort, but would recline in an enclosed platform and watch through a window; later, however, he opened it up. He was the first to establish in Rome a festival of competitions in music, athletics and horsemanship, modelled on the Greek ones and held every four years, which he called the Neronia; and he simultaneously opened his baths, which had a gymnasium attached, and provided free oil for equites and senators. Men of consular status, drawn by lot, organized the Neronia, and occupied the praetors’ seats. At the prize–giving, Nero descended to the orchestra stalls where the senators sat to accept the laurel wreath for Latin oratory and verse, which had been reserved for him by the unanimous vote of all the distinguished competitors. The judges also awarded him the wreath for a lyre solo, but he bowed reverently to them and said, ‘Pray lay it on the ground before Augustus’ statue.’ At an athletic competition held in the Saepta, oxen were sacrificed on a lavish scale; that was when he shaved his chin for the first time, put the hair in a pearl–studded gold box, and dedicated it to Jupiter Capitolinus. He had invited the Vestal Virgins to watch the athletics, explaining that the priestesses of Ceres were accorded the same privilege at Olympia.

13. The welcome given Tiridates when he visited Rome deserves inclusion in the list of Nero’s spectacles. Tiridates was an Armenian king whom he had lured to Rome with wonderful promises. Cloudy weather prevented Tiridates from being displayed to the people on the day fixed by edict; however, Nero brought him out as soon as possible afterwards. The praetorian cohorts were stationed in full armour around the temples of the Forum, while Nero occupied his curule chair on the Rostra, wearing triumphal dress and surrounded by military insignia and standards. Tiridates had to walk up a ramp and then prostrate himself in supplication; whereupon Nero stretched out his hand, drew him to his feet, kissed him, and replaced his turban with a diadem. When Tiridates’ supplication had been translated into Latin by an interpreter and publicly recited, he was taken to the theatre (where he made a further supplication) and offered a seat on Nero’s right. The people then hailed Nero as imperator and, after dedicating a laurel wreath in the Capitol, he closed the double doors of the Temple of Janus, as a sign that all war was at an end.

14. The first of Nero’s four consulships10 lasted for two months, the third for four, the second and the last for six. He let a year elapse between the first and second and between the third and fourth, but not between the second and third.

15. When he judged a case, he preferred to defer his judgement until the following day, and then give it in writing; and he ruled that, instead of a case being presented as a whole, first by one side and then by the other, every relevant charge should be debated separately. On withdrawing to study a problem of law, he never consulted openly with his judicial advisers, but made each of them write out an opinion, then mulled over these documents in private, came to his own conclusion, and passed it off as a majority opinion.

For a long time Nero excluded the sons of freedmen from the Senate, and forbade those who had held magistracies under his predecessors to do so again. If too many candidates competed for any high office, he kept the unsuccessful ones employed by giving them legions to command. It became his practice to appoint consuls for a period of six months, and when a consul died shortly before the Kalends of January he made no substitute appointment, to mark his disapproval of Caninius Rebilus’ one–day consulship.11He awarded triumphal decorations to men of quaestorian rank and even to some equites, though their services had not been of a military nature. The consuls were ordered to read certain of his speeches sent for the Senate’s information, thereby going over the heads of the quaestors, whose business it should have been.

16. Nero introduced his own new style of architecture: he had porches built out from the fronts of tenements and private houses to serve as firefighting platforms, subsidizing the work himself. He also considered a scheme for extending the city wall as far as Ostia, and cutting a canal which would allow ships to sail straight up to Rome.

During his reign a great many public abuses were suppressed by the imposition of heavy penalties, and among the novel enactments were sumptuary laws limiting private expenditure, the substitution of a simple cash distribution for public banquets, and a decree restricting the food sold in wine shops to green vegetables, dried beans and the like – whereas before all kinds of tasty snacks had been displayed. Punishments were inflicted on the Christians, 12 a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition. Nero also ended the licence which the charioteers had enjoyed for so long that they claimed it as a right: to wander merrily down the streets, swindling and robbing the populace. He likewise expelled from the city all pantomime actors and their hangers–on.

17. A new and effective check on forgery was discovered about this time. Every signed tablet now contained three leaves: the contract was written on the first, which was open, and also on the third, which had to be linked with the second by a linen thread passed through three holes bored in both and then sealed. If the contract on the first page appeared to have been tampered with, it was checked against that on the third, the seals which hid it being broken in the presence of a magistrate.

Provisions were also made that the first two pages of every will offered for witnesses to sign should bear only the testator’s name, and that no one drafting a will for signature by anyone else might insert in it a legacy for himself. Moreover, litigants were ordered to pay their advocates at a fixed, reasonable rate, and no charge was to be made for seats in court. Further, all treasury suits, which had previously been settled by the treasury officials themselves, were in future to come before a board of arbitration in the Forum, and every appeal from the verdict of a jury was to be addressed to the Senate.

18. Nero felt no ambition to extend the Roman empire; he even considered withdrawing his forces from Britain, yet kept them there because such a decision might have reflected on the glory won by his adoptive father Claudius. The sole additions made during his reign to the list of provinces were the kingdom of Pontus, ceded to him by Polemon, and that of the Cottian Alps on the death of Cottius.

19. Nero planned only two tours: one to Alexandria, the other to Achaia. A warning portent made him cancel the Alexandrian voyage on the very day when his ship should have sailed: during his farewell round of the temples he had sat down in the shrine of Vesta, but when he rose to leave, the hem of his toga caught fire and then a temporary blindness overcame him. While in Achaia he tried to have a canal cut through the Isthmus of Corinth; he addressed a gathering of praetorians, urging them to undertake the task, and then took a mattock himself and, at a trumpet blast, broke the ground and carried off the first basket of earth on his back. He had also planned an expedition to the Caspian Gates, 13 enrolling a new legion of Italian–born recruits, all six feet tall, which he called ‘The Phalanx of Alexander the Great’.

I have assembled this catalogue of Nero’s acts – some forgivable, some even praiseworthy – in order to segregate them from his follies and crimes, which I must now begin to list.

20. Music formed part of his childhood curriculum, and he early developed a taste for it. Soon after his accession, he summoned Terpnus, the greatest lyre player of the day, to sing to him when dinner had ended, for several nights in succession, until very late. Then, little by little, he began to study and practise himself, and conscientiously undertook all the usual exercises for strengthening and developing the voice. He would also lie on his back with a slab of lead on his chest, use enemas and emetics to keep down his weight, and refrain from eating apples and every other food considered deleterious to the vocal cords. Ultimately, though his voice was still feeble and husky, he was pleased enough with his progress to nurse theatrical ambitions, and would quote to his friends the Greek proverb ‘Unheard melodies are never sweet.’ His first stage appearance was at Neapolis, where, disregarding an earthquake which shook the theatre, he sang his piece through to the end. He often performed at Neapolis, for several consecutive days too, and even while giving his voice a brief rest he could not stay away from the theatre, but went to dine in the orchestra, where he promised the crowd in Greek that, when he had downed a drink or two, he would give them something to make their ears ring. So captivated was he by the rhythmic applause of some Alexandrian sailors from a fleet which had just put in that he sent to Egypt for more. He also chose a few young equites and more than 5,000 ordinary youths, whom he divided into claques to learn the various Alexandrian methods of applause– they were known respectively as ‘Bees’, ‘Roof tiles’ and ‘Brickbats’– and to provide it liberally whenever he sang. It was easy to recognize them by their pomaded hair, splendid dress and absence of rings on their left hands. The equites who led them earned 400,000 sesterces a performance.

21. Appearances at Rome meant so much to Nero that he held the Neronia again before the scheduled date. When the crowd clamoured to hear his heavenly voice, he answered that he would perform in the gardens later if anyone really wanted to hear him; but when the guards on duty seconded the appeal, he delightedly agreed to oblige them. He wasted no time in getting his name entered on the list of competing lyre players, and dropped his ticket into the urn with the others. Praetorian prefects carried his lyre as he went up to play, and a group of military tribunes and close friends accompanied him. After takinghis place and briefly beggingthe audience’s kind attention, he announced through Cluvius Rufus, a man of consular rank, that he was going to sing Niobe, 14 which he did, until almost the tenth hour. He then put off the rest of the competition and the award of the prize to the following year, which would give him another opportunity to sing. But, since a year was a long time to wait, he continued to make frequent appearances. He toyed with the idea of playing opposite professional actors in private shows, because a praetor had offered him 1 million sesterces if he would consent. And he did actually appear in tragedies, taking the parts of heroes and gods, sometimes even of heroines and goddesses, wearing masks modelled on his own face or that of whatever woman happened to be his current mistress. Among his performances were Canace in childbirth, Orestes the matricide, Oedipus blinded and Hercules raving.15 There is a story that a young recruit on guard in the wings recognized him in the rags and fetters demanded by the part of Hercules and dashed boldly to his assistance.

22. Horses had been Nero’s main interest since childhood; whatever his tutors might do, they could never stop his chatter about the chariot races at the Circus. When scolded by one of them for telling his fellow pupils about a Green charioteer who had the misfortune to get dragged by his team, Nero untruthfully explained that he had been discussing Hector.16 At the beginning of his reign he used every day to play with model ivory chariots on a board, and came up from the country to attend all the races, even minor ones, at first in secret and then without the least embarrassment, so that there was never any doubt at Rome when he would be in residence. He frankly admitted that he wished the number of prizes increased; as a result, the races were multiplied so that the contests now lasted until a late hour and the faction managers no longer thought it worthwhile to bring out their teams except for a full day’s racing. Very soon Nero set his heart on driving a chariot himself in a regular race, and after a preliminary trial in the palace gardens before an audience of slaves and hoi polloi he made a public appearance at the Circus Maximus; on this occasion one of his freedmen replaced the magistrate who dropped the napkin as the starting signal.

However, these amateur incursions into the arts at Rome did not satisfy him, and he headed for Achaia, as I mentioned above. His main reason was that the cities which regularly sponsored musical contests had adopted the practice of sending him every available prize for lyre playing; he always accepted these with great pleasure, giving the delegates the earliest audience of the day and invitations to private dinners. They would beg Nero to sing when the meal was over, and applaud his performance to the echo, which made him announce, ‘The Greeks alone are worthy of my genius; they really listen to music.’ So he sailed off hastily, and as soon as he arrived at Cassiope he gave his first song recital before the altar of Jupiter Cassius, after which he went the round of all the contests.

23. He ordered those contests which normally took place only at long intervals to be held during his visit, even if it meant repeating them, and broke tradition at Olympia by introducing a musical competition into the athletic games. When his freedman Helius advised him that he was urgently needed at Rome, he would not be distracted by official business, but wrote back, ‘Yes, you have made yourself quite plain. I am aware that you want me to go home; you will do far better, however, if you encourage me to stay until I have proved myself worthy of my reputation.’ No one was allowed to leave the theatre during his recitals, however pressing the reason, and the gates were kept barred. We hear of women in the audience giving birth and of men being so bored with the music and the applause that they furtively dropped down from the wall at the rear or shammed dead and were carried away for burial. Nero’s stage fright and general nervousness, his jealousy of rivals, and his awe of the judges were more easily seen than believed. He treated his fellow competitors as though they were his equals, and would fuss over them, pay court to them, abuse them behind their backs, and sometimes insult them to their faces; if any were particularly good singers, he would bribe them not to do themselves justice. Before every performance he would address the judges with the utmost deference: he had done what he could, he said, and the issue was now in Fortune’s hands; but since they were men of judgement and experience, they would know how to eliminate the factor of chance. When they told him not to worry he felt a little better, but still anxious, and mistook the silence of some for severity and the embarrassment of others for disfavour, admitting that he suspected every one of them.

24. He strictly observed the rules, never daring to clear his throat and even using his arm to wipe the sweat from his brow. Once, while acting in a tragedy, he dropped his sceptre and quickly recovered it, but was terrified of disqualification. The accompanist, however, swore that the slip had passed unnoticed amid the audience’s enthusiastic shouts of approval, so he took heart again. Nero insisted on announcing his own victories, and this emboldened him to enter the competition for heralds. To destroy every trace of previous winners in these contests he ordered all their statues and busts to be taken down, dragged away with hooks, and hurled into public privies. On several occasions he took part in the chariot racing, and at Olympia he drove a ten–horse team, a novelty for which he had censured King Mithridates in one of his own poems. He lost his balance, fell from the chariot, and had to be helped in again; but, though he failed to stay the course and retired before the finish, the judges nevertheless awarded him the prize. On the eve of his departure, he presented the whole province with its freedom and conferred Roman citizenship as well as large cash rewards on the judges. It was during the Isthmian Games at Corinth that he stood in the middle of the stadium and personally announced these benefits.

25. Returning to Italy, Nero entered Neapolis with a team of white horses, since it was there that he had made his debut as a singer, and ordered part of the city wall to be razed – which is the Greek custom whenever the victor in any of the sacred games comes home. He repeated the same performance at Antium, at Alba Longa and finally at Rome. For his processional entry into Rome he chose the chariot which Augustus had used in his triumph nearly a hundred years previously, and wore a Greek mantle spangled with gold stars over a purple robe. The Olympian wreath was on his head, the Pythian wreath in his right hand, and the others were carried before him, 17 with placards explaining where and against whom he had won them, what songs he had sung, and in what plays he had acted. Nero’s chariot was followed by his regular claque, who shouted that they were Augustiani and the soldiers of his triumph.18 The procession passed through the Circus Maximus (he had the entrance arch pulled down to allow more room), then by way of the Velabrum and the Forum to the Palatine Hill and the Temple of Apollo. Victims were sacrificed in his honour all along the route, which was sprinkled with perfume, and the people showered him with songbirds, ribbons and sweetmeats as compliments on his voice. He hung the wreaths above the couches in his sleeping quarters, and set up several statues of himself playing the lyre. He also had a coin struck with the same device. After this, it never occurred to him that he ought to refrain from singing or even sing a little less, but he saved his voice by addressing the troops only in written orders or in speeches delivered by someone else, and would attend no entertainment or official business unless he had a voice trainer standing by, telling him when to spare his vocal cords and when to protect his mouth with a handkerchief. Whether he offered people his friendship or plainly indicated his dislike for them often depended on how generously or how feebly they had applauded.

26. His insolence, lust, extravagance, greed and cruelty he at first revealed only gradually and secretly, to be sure, as though merely youthful mistakes; but even then there could be no doubt that these were the faults of his character, not of his age. As soon as night fell he would snatch a hat or cap and make a round of the taverns or prowl the streets in search of mischief – and not always innocent mischief either, because one of his games was to attack men on their way home from dinner, stab them if they offered resistance, and then drop their bodies down the sewers. He would also break into shops, afterwards opening a miniature market in his home with the stolen goods, dividing them up into lots, auctioning them himself, and squandering the proceeds. During these escapades he often risked being blinded or killed – once he was beaten almost to death by a senator whose wife he had molested, which taught him never to go out after dark unless an escort of military tribunes was following him at a discreet distance. He would also secretly visit the theatre by day, in a sedan chair, and watch the quarrels among the pantomime actors, cheering them on from the top of the proscenium; then, when they came to blows and fought it out with stones and broken benches, he joined in the fun by throwing things on the heads of the crowd. On one occasion he fractured a praetor’s skull.

27. Gradually Nero’s vices gained the upper hand: he no longer tried to laugh them off or hide or deny them, but turned quite brazen. His feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with an occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow–cooled water. Sometimes he would drain the artificial lake in the Campus Martius or the other in the Circus, and hold public dinner parties there, with prostitutes and dancing girls from all over the city serving as waitresses. Whenever he floated down the Tiber to Ostia or cruised past Baiae, he had a row of temporary brothels erected along the shore, where a number of noblewomen, pretending to be madams, stood waiting to solicit his business. He also forced his friends to provide him with dinners; one of them spent 4 million sesterces on a turban party, and another even more on a rose banquet.

28. Not satisfied with seducing freeborn boys and married women, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria. He nearly contrived to marry the freedwoman Acte, by persuading some friends of consular rank to swear falsely that she came of royal stock. Having tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castration, he went through a wedding ceremony with him – dowry, bridal veil and all – which the whole court attended, then brought him home and treated him as a wife. A rather amusing joke is still going the rounds: the world would have been a happier place had Nero’s father Domitius married that sort of wife. He dressed Sporus in the fine clothes normally worn by an empress, and took him in his own litter not only to every Greek assize and fair, but eventually through the Sigillaria19at Rome, kissing him amorously now and then. The passion he felt for his mother Agrippina was notorious, but her enemies would not let him consummate it, fearing that, if he did, she would become even more powerful and ruthless than hitherto. So he found a new mistress who was said to be her exact image; some say that he did, in fact, commit incest with Agrippina every time they rode in the same litter – the state of his clothes when he emerged proved it.

29. Nero was as prodigal with his own chastity as with that of others, and after befouling every part of his body he at last invented a novel game: he was released from a den dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was finished off – shall we say – by his freedman Doryphorus. Doryphorus now married him – just as he himself had married Sporus – and on the wedding night he imitated the screams and moans of a girl being deflowered. According to my informants he was convinced that no one could remain sexually chaste or pure in any respect, but that most people concealed their secret vices; hence, if anyone confessed to obscene practices, Nero forgave him all his other crimes.

30. He believed that fortunes were made to be squandered, and whoever could keep track of his expenses seemed to him a stingy miser; ‘True gentlemen’, he said, ‘always throw their money about.’ He professed deep admiration for his uncle Gaius merely because he had run through Tiberius’ vast fortune, and he never thought twice himself about giving away or wasting money. Believe it or not, he spent 800,000 sesterces a day on King Tiridates, and made him a parting gift of more than 100 million. He presented Menecrates the lyre player and Spiculus the gladiator with houses and estates worthy of men who had celebrated triumphs, and showed equal generosity to his monkey–faced moneylender Paneros, whom he later buried in almost royal style. Nero never wore the same clothes twice; he would stake 400,000 gold pieces on each pip of the winning throw at dice; and when he went fishing he used a golden net strung with purple and scarlet thread. He seldom travelled, it is said, with a train of fewer than 1,000 carriages; the mules were shod with silver, the muleteers wore Canusian wool, and he was escorted by Mazacian horsemen20 and outriders with jingling bracelets and medallions.

31. His wastefulness showed most of all in the architectural projects. He built a house stretching from the Palatine to the Esquiline which he called ‘The Passageway’, and when it burned down soon afterwards he rebuilt it under the new name of ‘The Golden House’.21 The following details will give some notion of its size and magnificence. A huge statue of himself, 120 feet high, stood in the entrance hall, and a threefold portico ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands – where every variety of domestic and wild animal roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother–of–pearl. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon his guests. The main dining room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, just like the sky. Sea water or sulphur water was always on tap in the baths. When the palace had been decorated throughout in this lavish style, Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark, ‘Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!’

He also had men at work on a covered bath surrounded by porticoes and stretching from Misenum to Lake Avernus; all the hot springs in the Baiae district would be canalized to feed it. Another project would have connected Lake Avernus with Ostia by a ship canal 160 miles long and broad enough for two quinqueremes to pass. Prisoners from every part of the empire were to be used for this task, even those convicted of capital crimes.

Nero’s confidence in the national resources was not the only cause of his furious spending; he had also been excited by tales of a great hidden treasure, vouched for by a Roman eques who swore that the hoard brought by Queen Dido to Carthage centuries before, when she fled from Tyre, still lay untouched in certain huge African caves and could easily be retrieved.

32. When this hope failed to materialize, Nero found himself bankrupt; his financial difficulties were such that he could not lay hands on enough money even for the soldiers’ pay or the veterans’ benefits, and he therefore resorted to robbery and blackmail.

First he made a law that if a freedman died who had taken the name of a family connected with his own and could not show adequate reason, five–sixths of the estate, not merely one–half, should be forfeited to him. Next, he seized the estates of those who had shown ingratitude by not bequeathing him enough, and fined the legal specialists responsible for writing and dictating such wills. Moreover, any man whose words or deeds offered the least handle to an informer was charged with maiestas. He took back the presents he had given to Greek cities in acknowledgement of prizes won at musical or athletic contests. On one market day he sent an agent to sell a few ounces of the amethystine and Tyrian purple dyes which he had forbidden to be used, and then closed the businesses of the dealers who had bought them. It is said that he once noticed a lady wearing this illegal colour at one of his recitals, pointed her out to his assistants, and had her dragged off – whereupon she was stripped not only of her clothes but of her entire property. His invariable formula, when he appointed a magistrate, was, ‘You know my needs, don’t you? You and I must see that nobody is left with anything.’ Finally he robbed numerous temples of their treasures and melted down the gold and silver images, among them the household gods of Rome – which Galba, however, had recast soon afterwards.

33. Claudius was the first victim of his murderous career: though Nero may not have been actually responsible for his poisoning, he knew all about it, as he later made clear by appreciatively quoting a Greek proverb which calls mushrooms (the source of the poison) ‘the food of the gods’.22 And he did his utmost to insult Claudius’ memory, accusing him at some times of stupidity and at others of cruelty. It was a favourite joke of his that Claudius had ceased ‘to linger on’ among men, lengthening the initial syllable of the verb morari so that it meant ‘to play the fool’. Nero annulled many of Claudius’ decrees and edicts on the ground that he had been a doddering old idiot, and enclosed the place where he had been cremated with nothing better than a low rubble wall.

He tried to poison Britannicus, no less because he was jealous of his voice, which was far more musical than his own, than for fear that the common people might be less attached to Claudius’ adopted son than to his real one. The drug came from an expert poisoner named Lucusta, and when its action was not so rapid as he expected – the effect was violently laxative – he called for her, complaining that she had given him medicine instead of poison, and beat her with his own hands. Lucusta explained that she had reduced the dose to make the crime less obvious; ‘Oho!’ he said. ‘so you think that I am afraid of the Julian law?’ Then he led Lucusta into his bedroom and stood over her while she concocted the fastest–working poison in her pharmacopoeia. This he administered to a kid, but when it took five hours to die he made her boil down the brew again and again. At last he tried it on a pig, which died on the spot, and that night at dinner he had what remained poured into Britannicus’ cup. Britannicus dropped dead at the very first taste, but Nero lyingly assured the guests that the poor boy had ‘long been subject to these epileptic seizures’. Britannicus was buried hastily and without ceremony on the following day during a heavy shower of rain, and Nero granted Lucusta, in return for her services, immunity and some sizeable estates, and actually supplied her with students.

34. The over–watchful, over–critical eye that Agrippina kept on whatever Nero said or did proved more than he could stand. He first tried to embarrass her by frequent threats to abdicate and go into retirement in Rhodes. Then, having deprived her of all honour and power, and even of her Roman and German bodyguard, he expelled her from the Palatine; after which he did everything possible to annoy her, sending people to pester her with lawsuits while she stayed in Rome, and when she took refuge on her country estates making them constantly drive or sail past the windows, disturbing her with jeers and catcalls. In the end her threats and violent behaviour terrified him into deciding that she must die. He tried to poison her three times, but she had always taken the antidote in advance; so he rigged up a machine in the ceiling of her bedroom which would dislodge the panels and drop them on her while she slept. However, someone gave the secret away. Then he had a collapsible cabin boat designed which would either sink or fall in on top of her. Under pretence of a reconciliation, he sent the most friendly note inviting her to celebrate the Quinquatrus with him at Baiae, and on her arrival he made one of his captains stage an accidental collision with the galley in which she had sailed. Then he protracted the feast until a late hour, and when at last she said, ‘I really must get back to Bauli’ he offered her his collapsible boat instead of the damaged galley. Nero was in a very happy mood as he led Agrippina down to the quay, and even kissed her breasts before she stepped aboard. He sat up all night, on tenterhooks of anxiety, waiting for news of her death. At dawn Lucius Agermus, her freedman, entered joyfully to report that, although the ship had foundered, his mother had swum to safety, and that he need have no fears on her account. For want of a better plan, Nero ordered one of his men to drop a dagger surreptitiously beside Agermus, whom he arrested at once on a charge of attempted murder. After this he arranged for Agrippina to be killed, and made it seem as if she had sent Agermus to assassinate him but committed suicide on hearing that the plot had miscarried. Other more gruesome details are supplied by reliable authorities: it appears that Nero rushed off to examine Agrippina’s corpse, handling her legs and arms critically and, between drinks, discussing their good and bad points. Though encouraged by the congratulations which poured in from the army and the Senate and People, he was never thereafter able to free his conscience from the guilt of this crime. He often admitted that the Furies23 were pursuing him with whips and burning torches, and he set Persian mages at work to conjure up his mother’s ghost and make her stop haunting him. During his tour of Greece he dared not participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries when a herald ordered all criminals present to withdraw before the ceremonies began.

Having disposed of his mother, Nero proceeded to murder his aunt Domitia.24 He found her confined to bed with severe constipation. The old lady stroked his downy beard affectionately – he was already full grown – murmuring, ‘Whenever you celebrate your coming of age and present me with this, I shall die happy.’ Nero turned to his courtiers and said laughingly, ‘In that case I must shave at once’– which he did. Then he ordered the doctors to give her a laxative of fatal strength, seized her property before she was quite dead, and avoided all legal complications by tearing up the will.

35. After Octavia, he took two more wives –first Poppaea Sabina, a quaestor’s daughter, at that time married to an eques, and then Statilia Messalina, great–great–granddaughter of Augustus’ general Statilius Taurus, who had twice been consul and won a triumph. To marry Statilia he was obliged to murder her husband, the consul Atticus Vestinus. Life with Octavia had soon bored him, and when his friends criticized his treatment of her he retorted, ‘The title of wife ought surely to be enough for her.’ He tried to strangle her on several occasions, but finally announced that she was barren and divorced her. This act made him so unpopular and caused so great a scandal that he banished Octavia and finally had her executed on a charge of adultery. Her innocence was proved by the refusal of the witnesses to testify against her, even under torture; so he bribed his old tutor Anicetustoconfess (falsely) that hehad tricked herintoinfidelity. Though he doted on Poppaea, whom he married twelve days after his divorce from Octavia, he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and feeling very ill, because she dared complain that he came home late from the races. Poppaea had borne him a daughter, Claudia Augusta, who died in infancy.

There was no family relationship which Nero did not criminally abuse. When Claudius’ daughter Antonia refused to take Poppaea’s place, he had her executed on a charge of attempted rebellion; he likewise destroyed every other member of his family, including relatives by marriage. Among them was young Aulus Plautius, whom he raped before having him put to death, remarking, ‘Now Mother may come and kiss my successor’;he claimed that Agrippina had been in love with Aulus and had induced him to make a bid for the throne. There was also his stepson, Rufrius Crispinus, Poppaea’s child by her former husband. Nero had the boy’s own slaves drown him on a fishing expedition simply because he was said to have played at being a general and an emperor. He banished Tuscus, the son of his wet nurse and now procurator of Egypt, for daring to use the baths which he had built in preparation for Nero’s visit to Alexandria. When his teacher Seneca repeatedly asked leave to retire and had surrendered all his estates, Nero swore that he had no cause to suspect the old man, whom he would rather die than harm; but he drove him to commit suicide nevertheless. He promised Burrus, the praetorian prefect, a cough mixture, but sent poison instead, and he also poisoned the food and drink of the rich old freedmen who had originally arranged for him to be adopted as Claudius’ heir and were now acting as his advisers.25

36. Nero was no less cruel to strangers than to members of his family. A comet, popularly supposed to herald the death of some person of outstanding importance, appeared several nights running and greatly disturbed him. His astrologer Balbillus observed that monarchs usually avoided portents of this kind by executing their most prominent subjects and thus directing the wrath of heaven elsewhere; so Nero resolved on a wholesale massacre of the nobility. What fortified him in this decision and seemed to justify it was that he had discovered two plots against his life. The earlier and more important of the two was the Pisonian conspiracy in Rome; the other was the Vinician conspiracy at Beneventum.26 When brought up for trial, the conspirators were loaded with three sets of chains. Some, while admitting their guilt, claimed that the only way they could help a man so thoroughly steeped in evil as Nero was to kill him. All children of the condemned men were banished from Rome and then starved to death or poisoned; it is well known that a group of them were killed at a single lunch, along with their tutors and attendants, and that others were prevented from seeking sustenance.

37. After this, nothing could restrain Nero from murdering anyone he pleased, on whatever pretext. Here are a few instances only: Salvidienus Orfitus was charged with leasing three shops, which formed part of his house, close to the Forum, as offices for the representatives of certain allied states; and a blind legal expert, Cassius Longinus, with keeping a mask of Gaius Cassius, one of Julius Caesar’s murderers, attached to the family tree; and Thrasea Paetus for looking like a cross old schoolmaster. Those whom he ordered to commit suicide were never given more than an hour’s grace. To insure against delays he made doctors ‘take care’ of any who were found still alive – which in Nero’s vocabulary meant opening their veins. He was eager, it is said, to get hold of a certain Egyptian – a sort of ogre who would eat raw flesh and practically anything else he was given – and watch him tear live men to pieces and then devour them. These ‘successes’, as Nero called them, went to his head, and he boasted that no previous ruler had ever realized the extent of his power. Often he hinted broadly that it was not his intention to spare the remaining senators, but would one day wipe out the entire senatorial order and let equites and freedmen govern the provinces and command the armies instead. He certainly never gave senators the kisses they expected when he set out on a journey or returned from one, and never bothered to answer their greetings. In his announcement of the Isthmus–canal project to a huge crowd, he loudly voiced the hope that it might benefit himself and the Roman people, but made no mention of the Senate.

38. Nero showed no greater mercy to the common folk, or to the very walls of Rome. Once, in the course of a general conversation, someone quoted the line ‘When I am dead, may fire consume the earth,’ but Nero said that the first part of the line should read ‘While I yet live’, and soon converted this fancy into fact. Pretending to be disgusted by the drab old buildings and narrow, winding streets of Rome, he brazenly set fire to the city, and though a number of former consuls caught his attendants trespassing on their property with tow and blazing torches, they dared not interfere. He also coveted the sites of several granaries, solidly built in stone, near the Golden House; having knocked down their walls with siege engines, he set the interiors ablaze. This terror lasted for six days and seven nights, causing many people to take shelter in the tombs. Not only did a vast number of tenements burn down, but houses which had belonged to famous generals and were still decorated with their trophies; temples too, dating back to the time of the kingship, and others dedicated during the Punic and Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument of historical interest that had hitherto survived. Nero watched the conflagration from the tower in the Gardens of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called ‘the beauty of the flames’, then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang The Fall of Troy from beginning to end. He offered to remove corpses and rubble free of charge, but allowed nobody to search among the ruins even of his own home; he wanted to collect as much loot as possible himself. Then he opened a fire–relief fund and insisted on contributions, which bled the provincials white and practically beggared all private citizens.

39. Fate made certain unexpected additions to the disasters of Nero’s reign. In a single autumn, 30,000 deaths from plague were registered at the Grove of Libitina. Two important British garrison towns were taken by storm, and huge numbers of Romans and allies were massacred. The legions in Armenia were shamefully defeated and sent beneath the yoke, and Syria was almost lost at the same time.

Amid all this, it was strange and quite striking that there was nothing which Nero seemed to mind less than curses and insults, and that there was no one to whom he was more lenient than those who attacked him in jokes and lampoons. Many things of this sort, in both Greek and Latin, were posted up on walls or passed from mouth to mouth. Here are a few examples:

Alcmaeon, Orestes and Nero are brothers,
Why? Because all of them murdered their mothers.27

*

Count the numerical values
   Of the letters in Nero’s name, 28
And in ‘murdered his own mother’:
   You will find their sum is the same.

*

Aeneas the Trojan hero
   Carried off his aged father;
His remote descendant Nero
   Likewise carried off (or rather
Let Death carry off ) his mother:
Heroes worthy of each other.29

*

Though Nero may pluck the chords of a lyre,
   And the Parthian king the string of a bow,
He who chants to the lyre with heavenly fire
   Is Apollo as much as his far–darting foe.

*

The palace is spreading and swallowing Rome!
Let us all flee to Veii and make it our home.
Yet the palace is growing so damnably fast
That it threatens to gobble up Veii at last.

He never tried to trace the authors, and when an informer handed the Senate a short list of their names he gave instructions that they should be let off lightly. Once, as he crossed a street, Isidorus the Cynic loudly taunted him with ‘In your song about Nauplius30you make good use of ancient ills, but in all practical matters you make ill use of modern goods.’ Again, the comedian Datus, acting in an Atellan farce, illustrated the first line of the song ‘Goodbye Father, goodbye Mother’ with gestures of drinking and swimming – Claudius had been poisoned, Agrippina nearly drowned – and the last line, ‘Hell guides your feet,’ with a wave of his hand towards the senators whom Nero planned to massacre. Nero may have been impervious to insults of this sort or he may merely have pretended not to care, for fear of encouraging others to be equally witty; at any rate, he did no more than banish Datus and Isidorus from Italy.

40. At last, after nearly fourteen years of Nero’s misrule, the earth rid herself of him. The first move was made by the Gauls under Julius vindex, the praetorian governor of the province.

Nero’s astrologers had told him that he would one day be removed from public office, and were given the famous reply ‘A simple craft will keep a man from want.’ This referred doubtless to his lyre playing, which, although it might be only a pastime for aprinceps, would have to support him if he were reduced to earning a livelihood. Some astrologers forecast that, if forced to leave Rome, he would find another throne in the east; one or two even particularized that of Jerusalem.31 Others assured him that he would recoup all his losses, a prediction on which he based high hopes, for when he seemed to have lost the provinces of Britain and Armenia, but managed to regain them both, he assumed that the disasters foretold had already taken place. Then the oracle of Apollo at Delphi warned him to beware the seventy–third year, and assuming that this referred to his own seventy–third year, not Galba’s, he looked forward cheerfully to a ripe old age and an unbroken run of good luck – so much so that when he lost some very valuable objects in a shipwreck, he hastened to tell his friends that the fish would fetch them back to him.

Nero heard of the Gallic revolt on the anniversary of his mother’s murder. He was in Neapolis at the time, and took the news so phlegmatically that everyone diagnosed satisfaction at finding a good excuse to declare war on such rich provinces and strip them clean. Going straight to the gymnasium, he was soon engrossed in watching the athletic contests, and when a far more serious dispatch reached him at dinner time he still showed no sign of disturbance beyond a threat to punish the rebels. In fact for eight days he wrote no orders and issued no special announcements, apparently trying to ignore the whole affair.

41. At last a series of insulting edicts signed by Vindex must have made some impression on him: in a letter to the Senate he urged them to avenge himself and the commonwealth, but pleaded an infected throat as an excuse for not appearing in person. Two taunts really went home: an insulting claim that he was a bad lyre player, and a reference to him as ‘Ahenobarbus’ rather than ‘Nero’. Yet he told the Senate that he had already intended to renounce his adoptive name and resume that of his family; as for his lyre playing, he replied that he could hardly deserve Vindex’s taunt (which proved the other accusations just as false) after his long and painstaking cultivation of the art, and asked several senators whether they knew of any better performer than himself. When further urgent dispatches arrived in quick succession he hurried back to Rome in a state of terror. On the way, however, he happened to notice a group of monumental sculpture which represented a beaten Gaul being dragged along, head first, by a mounted Roman; this lucky sign sent him into a transport of joy, and he lifted his hands in gratitude to heaven. When, therefore, he arrived in the city, he neglected to address either the Senate or the people; instead, he summoned the leading citizens to his home where, after a brief discussion of the Gallic situation, he devoted the remainder of the session to demonstrating a completely new type of water organ and explaining the mechanical complexities of several different models. He even remarked that he would have them installed in the theatre, ‘if Vindex has no objection’.

42. But when news arrived of the revolt of Galba and the Spanish provinces, he fainted dead away and remained mute and insensible for a long while. Coming to himself, he tore his clothes and beat his forehead, crying that all was now over. His old nurse tried to console him by pointing out that many rulers in the past had experienced similar setbacks, but Nero insisted that to lose the supreme power while still alive was something that had never happened to anyone else before. Yet he made not the slightest attempt to alter his lazy and extravagant life. On the contrary, he celebrated whatever good news came in from the provinces with the most lavish banquets imaginable, and composed comic songs about the leaders of the revolt, which he set to bawdy tunes and sang with appropriate gestures; these have since become popular favourites. Then he stole into the theatre and sent a message to an actor who was being loudly applauded that he was taking advantage of his leader’s absence from the stage on business of state by pushing himself forward.

43. Atthe first news of revolt Nero is said to have formed several appalling, though characteristic, schemes for dealing with the situation. Thus he intended to recall all army commanders and provincial governors and execute them on a charge of conspiracy, and to slaughter all exiles everywhere, for fear they might join the rebels, and all Gallic residents at Rome, because they might be implicated in the rising. He further considered giving the army free permission to pillage the Gallic provinces; poisoning the entire Senate at a banquet; and setting fire to the city again, but first letting wild beasts loose in the streets to hinder the citizens from coping with the blaze. However, he had to abandon these schemes, not because he scrupled to carry them out, but because he realized their impracticability in view of the military campaign soon to be forced on him. So he dismissed the consuls from office before their term ended and took over both consulships himself, declaring, ‘It stands to reason: only a consul can subdue Gaul.’ But one day, soon after assuming the consular insignia, he left the dining room with his arms around two friends’ shoulders, and remarked that when he reached Gaul he would at once step unarmed in front of the embattled enemy and weep, and weep. This would soften their hearts and win them back to loyalty, and on the next day he would stroll among his joyful troops singing paeans of victory, which he really ought to be composing now.

44. In his military preparations he was mainly concerned with finding enough wagons to carry his stage equipment and arranging for the concubines who would accompany him to have male haircuts and be issued with Amazonian shields and axes. When this was settled, Nero called the Roman people to arms; but since not a single eligible recruit came forward, he forcibly enlisted a number of slaves, choosing the best from each household and refusing exemption even to stewards or secretaries. All classes had to pay an income tax, and every tenant of a private house or flat was told that he owed a year’s rent to the imperial exchequer. Nero insisted on being paid in none but newly minted coins, or in silver and gold of high standard; hence many people would not contribute anything, protesting that he would do much better if he reclaimed the fees from his informers.

45. He aggravated popular resentment by profiteering in grain, which was already priced far too high. And, unluckily for him, word went around during the general shortage of food that a ship from Alexandria had just unloaded a cargo of sand for the imperial wrestlers.

Nero was now so universally loathed that no abuse could be found bad enough for him. Someone tied a tress of hair to the head of one of his statues, with a note attached in Greek: ‘This is a real contest for once, and you are going to lose!’ A leather bag was draped around the neck of another statue, with a similar note reading, ‘I have done what I could, but you deserve the sack.’32 Insults were scrawled on columns about his crowing having aroused even the cocks, and many people played the trick of pretending to have trouble with their slaves at night and shouting out, ‘Vengeance is coming!’33

46. The implications of auspices, of omens old and new, and of his own dreams began to terrify Nero. In the past he had never known what it was to dream, but after killing his mother he dreamed that he was steering a ship and that someone tore the tiller from his hands. Next, his wife Octavia pulled him down into thick darkness, where hordes of winged ants swarmed over him. Then the statues of the nations, which had been dedicated in the Theatre of Pompey, began to hem him in and prevent him from getting away, while his favourite Asturian horse turned into an ape, or all except the head, which whinnied a tune. Finally, the doors of the Mausoleum opened by themselves and a voice from inside called, ‘Enter, Nero!’

On the Kalends of January the household gods, which had just been decorated, tumbled to the ground during preparations for the sacrifice, and as Nero was taking the auspices Sporus gave him a ring engraved with Proserpine’s descent to the underworld.34 Then a great crowd gathered to pay their annual vows to Nero, but the keys of the Capitol were mislaid. Again, while his speech against Vindex was being read in the Senate, a passage running ‘the criminals will soon incur the punishment and die the death which they so thoroughly deserve’ was hailed on all sides with cries of ‘Augustus, you will do so!’ People also noticed that Nero, at his latest public appearance, sang the part of Oedipus in exile and ended with the line ‘Wife, mother, father, do my death compel!’35

47. When a dispatch bringing the news that the other armies had also revolted was brought him at lunch, he tore it up, pushed over the table, and sent smashing to the ground two of his ‘Homeric’ drinking cups – so called because they were engraved with scenes from Homer. He made Lucusta give him some poison, which he put in a golden box, and then crossed to the Servilian gardens, where he tried to persuade the tribunes and centurions of the praetorians to flee with him – because his most faithful freedmen had gone ahead to equip a fleet at Ostia. Some answered evasively, others flatly refused; one even shouted out the line ‘Is it so terrible a thing to die?’36

Nero had no idea what to do. A number of alternatives offered – for example, throwing himself on the mercy of the Parthians or of Galba, or appearing pathetically on the Rostra to beg the people’s pardon for his sins – they might at least make him prefect of Egypt, he thought, if they could not find it in their hearts to forgive him altogether. A speech to this effect was later found among the papers in his writing case, and the usual view is that only fear of being torn to pieces before he reached the Forum prevented him from delivering it.

Nero suspended his deliberations until the following day, but woke at midnight to find that his bodyguard had deserted him. He leaped out of bed and summoned his friends. When they did not appear, he went with a few members of his staff to knock at their doors. But nobody either opened or answered. He returned to his room. By now even the servants had absconded with the bed linen and the box of poison. He shouted for Spiculus the gladiator or any other trained executioner to end his misery at one blow. No one came. ‘What? Have I then neither friends nor enemies left?’ he cried, and dashed out, apparently intending to hurl himself into the Tiber.

48. Changing his mind once more, however, he said that all he wanted was some secluded spot where he could collect his thoughts at leisure. Phaon, an imperial freedman, suggested his own suburban villa, four miles away, between the Via Salaria and the Via Nomentana. Nero jumped at the offer. He was barefoot and wearing only a tunic, but he simply pulled on a faded cloak and hat, took horse, and trotted off, holding a handkerchief over his face. Only four companions went with him, including Sporus. Suddenly a slight earth tremor was felt and lightning flashed in their eyes, which terrified Nero. Then from the nearby camp he heard soldiers shouting about the defeat which Galba would inflict on him. He heard one man exclaim as they passed, ‘Those fellows are in pursuit of Nero,’ and another, ‘What’s the latest news of him in the city?’ Then Nero’s horse took fright at the smell of a dead body lying by the roadside, which made him expose his face. He was immediately recognized and saluted by a praetorian veteran. They reached a lane leading to Phaon’s villa and, abandoning their horses, followed a path which ran through a briar patch and a plantation of reeds to the rear wall of the house. Because the going was difficult Nero made them spread a cloak for him to walk on. When begged by Phaon to lie low for a while in a gravel pit, he answered, ‘No, I refuse to go underground before I die.’ While the servants tunnelled through the wall, he scooped up some water in his hands from a neighbouring pool and drank it, saying, ‘This is Nero’s own special brew.’ Then he pulled out all the thorns from his ragged cloak and crawled into the villa by way of the tunnel. Finding himself in a slave’s bedroom, beside a couch with a poor mattress over which an old cape had been thrown, he sank down on it and, although hungry, refused some coarse bread; but he confessed himself still thirsty, and sipped a little warm water.

49. Finally, when his companions unanimously insisted on his trying to escape from the miserable fate threatening him, he ordered them to dig a grave at once, of the right size for his body, and then collect any pieces of marble that they could find and fetch wood and water for the disposal of the corpse. As they bustled about obediently, he muttered through his tears, ‘Dead! And so great an artist!’

A runner brought a letter to Phaon. Nero tore it from the man’s hands and read that, having been declared a public enemy by the Senate, he would be punished in ancient style when arrested. He asked what ‘ancient style’ meant, and learned that the executioners stripped their victim naked, thrust his head into a wooden fork, and then flogged him to death with sticks. In terror, he snatched up the two daggers which he had brought along and tried their points, but threw them down again, protesting that the fatal hour had not yet come. Then he begged Sporus to weep and mourn for him, and also begged one of them to set him an example by committing suicide first. He kept moaning about his cowardice and muttering, ‘How ugly and vulgar my life has become!’; ‘This is certainly not fitting for Nero, not fitting at all’; ‘I have to keep a stiff upper lip in all this’; ‘Come, pull yourself together!’ By this time the troop of cavalry who had orders to take him alive were coming up the road. Nero gasped, ‘Hark to the sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses.’37 Then, with the help of his secretary Epaphroditus, he stabbed himself in the throat and was already half–dead when a cavalry officer entered, pretending to have rushed to his rescue, and staunched the wound with his cloak. Nero muttered, ‘Too late! But, ah, what fidelity!’ So speaking, he died, with eyes glazed and bulging from their sockets, a sight which horrified everybody present. He had made his companions promise, whatever happened, not to let his head be cut off, but to have him buried all in one piece. Galba’s freedman Icelus, who had been imprisoned when the first news came of the revolt and was now at liberty again, granted this indulgence.

50. They laid Nero on his pyre, dressed in the goldembroidered white robes which he had worn on the Kalends of January; the funeral cost 200,000 sesterces. Ecloge and Alexandria, his old nurses, helped Acte, his mistress, to carry the remains to the Pincian Hill, which can be seen from the Campus Martius. His coffin, of white porphyry, stands there in the Domitian family tomb behind a rail of Thasian stone and overshadowed by an altar of Luna marble.

51. Nero was of fairly average height, with a pustular and malodorous body and blondish hair; his face was pretty rather than handsome, his eyes blue–grey and rather weak; he had a squat neck, a protuberant belly, and spindly legs. His health was amazingly good: for all his extravagant indulgence, he had only three illnesses in fourteen years, and none of them serious enough to stop him from drinking wine or breaking any other regular habit. He did not take the least trouble to dress in an appropriate fashion, but always had his hair set in rows of curls, and when he visited Achaia he let it grow long and hang down his back. He often appeared in public wearing an unbelted silk dressing gown and slippers, with a scarf tied around his neck.

52. As a boy, Nero studied most of the usual subjects except philosophy, which Agrippina warned him was no proper pursuit for a future ruler. His teacher Seneca hid the works of the old orators from him, intending to be admired himself as long as possible. So Nero turned his hand to poetry, and would dash off verses without any effort. It is often claimed that he published other people’s work as his own, but notebooks and loose pages have come into my possession which contain some of Nero’s best–known poems in his own handwriting and have clearly been neither copied nor dictated: many erasures and cancellations, as well as words substituted above the lines, prove that he was thinking things out for himself. Nero also took more than an average interest in painting and sculpture.

53. His greatest weaknesses were his thirst for popularity and his jealousy of men who caught the public eye by any means whatsoever. After he had swept the board of all public prizes offered for acting, most people expected him to compete as an athlete at the next Olympian games; he was in fact also an enthusiastic wrestler, and every time he watched a contest in the gymnasium during his tour of Greece he would squat on the ground in the stadium like the umpires, and if any pair of competitors worked away from the centre of the ring he would push them back himself. Figuring that he was already thought to rival Apollo in singing and the Sun in chariot racing, he now apparently planned to imitate the deeds of Hercules, for according to one story he had a lion so carefully trained that he could safely face it naked before the entire amphitheatre, and then either kill it with his club or else strangle it.38

54. Just before the end he even took a public oath that if he managed to keep his throne he would celebrate the victory with a music festival, performing successively on water organ, reed pipe and bagpipes, and on the last day would dance the role of Turnus from Virgil.39 Some people say he killed the actor Paris because he considered him a serious professional rival.

55. Nero’s unreasonable craving for immortal fame made him change a number of well–known names in his own favour. The month of April, for instance, became ‘Neroneus’, and Rome was on the point of being renamed ‘Neropolis’.

56. He despised all religious cults except that of the Syrian Goddess, and one day he showed that he had changed his mind even about her by urinating on the divine image. He had come, instead, to rest a superstitious belief – the only one, as a matter of fact, to which he ever remained faithful – in the statuette of a girl sent him by an anonymous plebeian as a charm against conspiracies. It so happened that a conspiracy came to light immediately afterwards; so he began to worship the girl as though she were a powerful goddess, and sacrificed to her three times a day, expecting people to believe that she gave him knowledge of the future. He did inspect some entrails once, a few months before his death, but they contained no omen at all favourable to him.

57. Nero died at the age of thirty–two, on the anniversary of Octavia’s murder. In the widespread general rejoicing, citizens ran through the streets wearing caps of liberty.40 But a few faithful friends used to lay spring and summer flowers on his grave for some years, and had statues made of him wearing his toga, which they put up on the Rostra; they even continued to circulate his edicts, pretending he was still alive and would soon return to confound his enemies. What is more, King Vologaesus of Parthia, on sending ambassadors to ratify his alliance with Rome, particularly requested the Senate to honour Nero’s memory. In fact twenty years later, when I was a young man, a mysterious individual came forward claiming to be Nero, 41 and so magical was the sound of his name in the Parthians’ ears that they supported him to the best of their ability and were most reluctant to concede Roman demands to hand him over.

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