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Chapter 13

THE Alexandrian Greeks sent instructions to their envoys, who were still in Rome, to congratulate me on my victories in Germany, to complain of the insolent behaviour of the Jews towards them (there had been a recrudescence of trouble in the city), to ask my permission for the re-establishment of the Alexandrian Senate, and once more to offer me temples endowed and furnished with priests. They intended several other lesser honours for me besides this supreme one, among them being two golden statues, one representing the ‘Peace of Claudius Augustus’, the other ‘Germanicus the Victor’. The latter statue I accepted because it was principally an honour to my father and brother, whose victories had been far more important than mine, and personally won, and because the statue’s features were theirs, not mine. (My brother had been the living image of my father, everyone agreed.) As usual, the Jews sent a counter-embassy, congratulating me on my victories, thanking me for my generosity to them in the matter of the circular letter I had written about religious toleration for all Jews, and accusing the Alexandrians of having provoked these new disturbances by interrupting their religious worship with ribald songs and dances outside the synagogues on holy days. I shall here attach my exact answer to the Alexandrians, to show how I now handled questions of this sort:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Emperor, High Pontiff, Protector of the People, Consul Elect, to the City of Alexandria, greetings.

Tiberius Claudius Barbillus, Apollonius son of Artemidorus, Chaeremon son of Leonides, Marcus Julius Asclepiades, Gaius Julius Dionysius, Tiberius Claudius Phanias, Pasion son of Potamon, Dionysius son of Sabbion, Tiberius Claudius Apollonius son of Ariston, Gaius Julius Apollonius, and Hermaiscus son of Apollonius, your envoys, have delivered me your decree and spoken to me at length about the City of Alexandria, recalling the goodwill which for many years past, as you know, I have always felt towards you; for you are naturally loyal to the House of Augustus, as many things go to prove. Especially there has been an exchange of amity between your city and my immediate family: I need only mention in this context my brother Germanicus Caesar whose goodwill towards you was shown more plainly than by any of us: he came to Alexandria and addressed you with his own lips. For this reason I gladly accepted the recent honours you offered me, though I am usually not partial to honours.

In the first place I permit you to keep my birthday as a ‘Day of Augustus’ in the way mentioned in your own proclamation. Next, I agree to your erecting, in the places stated, the statues to myself and other members of my family, for I see that you have been zealous to establish memorials of your loyalty to my House on all sides. Of the two golden statues, that representing the Peace of Claudius Augustus, made at the suggestion and plea of my friend Barbillus, I have refused as appearing somewhat offensive to my fellow-men, and it is now to be dedicated to the Goddess Roma; the other shall be carried in your processions in whatever way you think best, on the appropriate birthdays; and you may provide it with a throne too, suitably decorated. It would perhaps be foolish, while accepting these great honours at your hands, to refuse to introduce a Claudian tribe and sanction sacred precincts for each Egyptian district; so I permit you to do both these things and, if you wish, to set up, too, the equestrian statue of my Governor, Vitrasius Pollio. Also, I give my consent to the erection of the four-horse chariots which you wish to establish in my honour at the frontiers: one at Taposiris in Libya, one at the Pharos in Alexandria, the third at Pelusium in Lower Egypt. But I must ask you not to appoint a High Priest for my worship or to build temples in my honour, for I do not wish to be offensive to my fellow men and it is quite clear to my mind that shrines and temples have, throughout history, been built in honour of the Gods, as their peculiar due.

As for the requests which you are so anxious for me to grant, these are my decisions: all Alexandrians who had officially come of age before I entered on the monarchy I confirm in their citizenship with all the privileges and amenities that this carries with it; the only exceptions being such pretenders, born of slave mothers, as may have contrived to intrude themselves among the free-born. And it is also my pleasure that all those favours which were granted you by my predecessors shall be confirmed, and those favours too which were granted by your former kings and City Prefects and confirmed by the God Augustus. It is my pleasure that the ministers of the Temple of the God Augustus of Alexandria shall be chosen by lot, like the ministers of his Temple at Canopus. I commend your plan for making the municipal magistracies triennial as a very sensible one; for the magistrates will behave with the greater prudence during their terms of office for knowing that when it ends they will be called upon to account for any maladministration of which they may have been guilty. As for the question about re-establishing the Senate, I am unable to say offhand what your custom was under the Ptolemies, but you know as well as I do that you have not had a Senate under any one of my predecessors of the House of Augustus. So since this is an entirely novel proposal and I am not sure whether it will prove either to your advantage or mine to adopt it, I have written to your City Prefect, Aemilius Rectus, to hold an inquiry and report whether a Senatorial Order should be formed, and, if so, in what way it should be formed.

As for the question as to who must bear responsibility for the recent riots and the feud or – to speak frankly – the war that has been waged between you and the Jews, I have been unwilling to commit myself to a decision on this matter, though your envoys, especially Dionysius, son of Theon, pleaded your cause with great spirit in the presence of their Jewish opponents. But I must reserve for myself a stern indignation against whichever party it was that started this new disturbance; and I wish you to understand that if both parties do not desist from this destructive and obstinate hostility I shall be compelled to show you what a benevolent ruler can do when roused to righteous anger. I therefore once more beg you Alexandrians to show a friendly tolerance to the Jews who have been your neighbours in Alexandria for so many years, and offer no outrage to their feelings whilst they are engaged in worshipping their God according to their ancestral rites. Let them practise all their national customs as in the days of the God Augustus, for I have confirmed their right to do so after an impartial hearing of both sides in the dispute. On the other hand, I desire the Jews to press for no privileges in excess of those that they already hold, and never again to send me a separate embassy as if you and they lived in different cities – a quite unheard of procedure! – nor to enter competitors for athletic and other contests at Public Games. They must content themselves with what they have, enjoying the abundance supplied by a great city of which they are not the original inhabitants; and they must not introduce any more Jews from Syria or from other parts of Egypt into the city, or they will fall more deeply under my suspicion than at present. If they fail to take this warning I shall certainly take vengeance on them as deliberately fomenting a world-wide plague. So long therefore as both sides abstain from this antagonism and live in mutual forbearance and goodwill, I undertake to show the same friendly solicitude for the interests of Alexandria as my family has always shown in the past.

I must testify here to the constant zeal for your interests which my friend Barbillus has now once again shown in his exertions on your behalf and also to a similar zeal on the part of my friend Tiberius Claudius Archibus.


This Barbillus was an astrologer of Ephesus, in whose powers Messalina had complete faith, and I must admit that he was a very clever fellow, second only in the accuracy of his prognostications to the great Thrasyllus. He had studied in India and among the Chaldees. His zeal for Alexandria was due to the hospitality he had been shown by the principal men of the city when forced, many years before, to leave Rome because Tiberius had banished from Italy all astrologers and soothsayers except his favourite Thrasyllus.

I received a letter from Herod a month or two later formally congratulating me on my victories, on the birth of my son, and on having won the title of Emperor by my victories in Germany. He enclosed his usual private letter:

What a great warrior you are, Marmoset, to be sure! You just have to put pen to paper and order a campaign, and presto! banners wave, swords fly from their scabbards, heads roll on the grass, towns and temples go up in flames! What fearful destruction you would cause if one day you were to mount on an elephant and take the field in person! I remember your dear mother once speaking of you, not very hopefully, as a future conqueror of the Island of Britain. Why not? For myself, I contemplate no military triumphs. Peace and security are all that I ask. I am busy putting my dominion in a state of defence against a possible Parthian invasion. Cypros and I are very happy and well, and so are the children. They are learning to be good Jews. They learn faster than I do, because they are younger. By the way, I don’t like Vibius Marsus, your new Governor of Syria. I am afraid that he and I will fall out one day soon if he doesn’t mind his own business. I was sorry when Petronius’s term came to an end: a fine fellow. Poor Silas is still in confinement. I have given him the pleasantest possible prison quarters, however, and allowed him writing materials as a vent for his sense of my ingratitude. Not parchment or paper, of course, only a wax-tablet, so that when he comes to the end of one complaint he must scrape it off before starting on another.

You are extremely popular here with the Jews and the severe phrases in your letter to the Alexandrians were not taken amiss: Jews are quick at reading between the lines. I have heard from my old friend Alexander the Alabarch that copies were circulated to the various city-wards of Alexandria to be posted up, with the following endorsement by the City Prefect:

Proclamation by Lucius Aemilius Rectus

Since the whole populace was unable owing to its numbers to assist at the reading of that most sacred and gracious letter to the City, I have found it necessary to post it up publicly so that individual readers may admire the Majesty of our God Caesar Augustus and show their gratitude for His goodwill towards the City.

Fourteenth day of August, in the second year of the reign of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Emperor.

They’ll make you a God in spite of yourself; but keep your health and spirits, eat well, sleep sound, and trust nobody.


Herod’s schoolboy taunt about the ease with which I had won my title of Emperor touched me in a sensitive spot. His reminder of my mother’s remark influenced me too: it touched me in a superstitious spot. She had once – many years before – declared in a fit of annoyance when I was telling her of my proposal for adding three new letters to the Latin alphabet: ‘There are three notably impossible things in this world: the first that shops should stretch across the Bay of Naples yonder, the second that you should conquer the island of Britain, the third that a single one of your ridiculous new letters should ever be put into general circulation.’ Yet the first impossible thing had already come to pass – on the day that Caligula built his famous bridge from Bauli to Puteoli and lined it with shops. The third impossible thing could be accomplished any day that I pleased, merely by asking the Senate’s permission – and why not the second?

A letter came from Marsus a few days later marked ‘urgent and confidential’. Marsus was a capable governor, and an upright man though a most uncongenial companion – reserved, cold in his manner, perpetually sarcastic, and without either follies or vices. I had given him his appointment in gratitude for the prominent part he had taken more than twenty years before, while commanding a regiment in the East, in bringing Piso to trial for the murder of my brother Germanicus. He wrote:

… My neighbour, your friend King Herod Agrippa, is, I am informed, fortifying Jerusalem. You are probably aware of this, but I write to make it plain to you that the fortifications when completed will make the city impregnable. I wish to make no accusations of disloyalty against your friend King Herod, but as Governor of Syria I view the matter with alarm. Jerusalem commands the route to Egypt, and if it were to fall into irresponsible hands Rome would be in grave danger. Herod is said to fear a Parthian invasion: he has, however, already amply protected himself against this most improbable occurrence by a secret alliance with his royal neighbours on the Parthian frontier. No doubt you approve of his friendly advances to the Phoenicians: he has made enormous gifts to the city of Beirut and is building an amphitheatre there, also porticoes and public baths. It is difficult for me to understand his motives for courting the Phoenicians. However, for the present the chief men of Tyre and Sidon appear to have little trust in him. Perhaps they have good reason: it is not for me to say. At the risk of your displeasure I shall continue to report on political events to the south and east of my command as they come to my attention.

This made most uncomfortable reading, and my first feeling was one of anger against Marsus for disturbing my confidence in Herod; but when I thought things over the feeling changed to one of gratitude. I did not know what to think about Herod. On the one hand, I was confident that he would keep his oath of friendship, publicly sworn in the Market Place, with me; on the other hand, he was obviously engaged in some private scheme of his own which in the case of any other man I would call thoroughly treasonable. I was glad that Marsus was keeping his eyes open. I said nothing about the business to anyone, not even to Messalina, and wrote to Marsus merely: ‘I have your letter. Be discreet. Report further events.’ To Herod I wrote a sly letter:

I shall probably take your kind advice about Britain, my dear Brigand, and if I do invade that unfortunate isle I shall certainly ride on the back of an elephant. It will be the first elephant ever seen in Britain and no doubt cause widespread admiration. I am glad to hear good news of your family; don’t worry about that Parthian invasion on their account. If I hear news of trouble in that quarter I shall send at once to Lyons for your Uncle Antipas to go out and quell it in his seventy-thousand-and-first suit of armour; so Cypros can sleep sound at night in that confidence and you can stop work on your fortifications at Jerusalem. We don’t want Jerusalem made too strong, do we? Suppose that there was a sudden raid made by your brigand cousins from Edom, and they managed to get into Jerusalem just before you’d built the final bastion – why, we’d never get them out again, not even with siege-engines and tortoises and rams – and then what about the trade-route to Egypt? I am sorry that you dislike Vibius Marsus. How is your amphitheatre at Beirut progressing? I shall take your advice about trusting absolutely nobody, with the possible exceptions of my dear Messalina, Vitellius, Rufrius, and my old schoolfellow the Brigand, in whose self-accusations of roguery I have never and shall never believe, and to whom I shall always affectionately sign myself his


Herod replied in his usual bantering style, as if he did not care one way or the other about the fortifications: but he must have known that my playful letter was not as playful as it pretended to be; and he must have known, too, that Marsus had been writing to me about him. Marsus replied shortly to my short note, reporting that work on the fortifications had now been discontinued.

I took my second Consulship in March, which is the New Year, but resigned the office two months later in favour of the next senator due for it: I was too busy to be bothered with the routine duties it involved. This was the year that my A.D. 42 daughter Octavia was born, that the Vinicianus–Scribonianus rising took place, and that I added Morocco to the Empire as a province. I shall first tell briefly what happened in Morocco. The Moors had risen again under a capable general named Salabus, who had led them in the previous campaign. Paulinus, who was commanding the Roman forces, overran the country as far as the Atlas range, but was unable to come to grips with Salabus himself and suffered heavy losses from ambushes and night attacks. His term of command presently expired and he had to return to Rome. He was succeeded by one Hosidius Geta whom I instructed, before he set out, not on any account to allow Salabus to become another Tacfarinas. (Tacfarinas was the Numidian who, under Tiberius, had earned three Roman generals the laurel-crown by allowing himself to be defeated by them in apparently decisive engagements, but who always reappeared at the head of his reconstituted army as soon as the Roman forces were withdrawn; however, a fourth general ended the business by catching and killing Tacfarinas himself.) I said to Geta: ‘Don’t be satisfied with partial successes. Search out Salabus’s main force, crush it and kill or capture Salabus. Chase him all round Africa if necessary. If he runs off inland to the country where they say that men’s heads sprout from under their armpits, why, follow him there. You’ll easily recognize him by his having his head in a different place.’ I also said to Geta: ‘I won’t attempt to direct your campaign: but one word of advice – don’t be bound by hard-and-fast campaigning rules like Augustus’s general Aelius Gallus who marched to the conquest of Arabia as if Arabia were a second Italy, or Germany. He loaded up his men with the usual entrenching tools and heavy armour instead of water-skins and extra corn-rations, and even brought a train of siege-engines. When colic attacked the men and they began boiling the bad water that they found in the wells, to make it safer to drink, Aelius came along and cried: “What! boiling your water! No disciplined Roman soldier boils his water! And using dried dung for fuel? Unheard of! Roman soldiers collect brushwood or else go without a fire.” He lost the greater part of his force. The interior of Morocco is a dangerous quarter too. Suit your tactics and equipment to the country.’

Geta took my advice in the most literal way. He chased Salabus from end to end of Morocco, defeating him twice, and on the second occasion only just failing to capture him. Salabus then fled to the Atlas mountains and crossed them into the unexplored desert beyond, instructing his men to hold the pass while he collected reinforcements from his allies, the desert nomads. Geta left a detachment near the pass and with the hardiest of his men struggled across another, more difficult, pass a few miles away and went in faithful search of Salabus. He had taken as much water with him as his men and mules could possibly carry, cutting down his equipment to the least possible weight. He reckoned on finding some water at least, but followed Salabus’s criss-cross track in the desert sands for more than 200 miles before he saw so much as a thorn-bush growing. The water began to give out and the men to weaken. Geta concealed his anxiety, but realized that even if he retreated at once, and gave up all hope of capturing Salabus, he had not enough water to see him safely back. The Atlas was 100 miles off, and only a divine miracle could save him.

Now, at Rome when there is a drought we know how to persuade the Gods to send rain. There is a black stone called the Dripping Stone, captured originally from the Etruscans and stored in a temple of Mars outside the City. We go in solemn procession and fetch it within the walls, where we pour water on it, singing incantations and sacrificing. Rain always follows – unless there has been some slight mistake in the ritual, as is frequently the case. But Geta had no Dripping Stone with him, so he was completely at a loss. The nomads were accustomed to going without water for days at a time and knew the country perfectly besides. They began to close in on the Roman force; they cut off, killed, stripped, and mutilated a few stragglers whom the heat had driven out of their wits.

Geta had a black orderly who had been born in this very desert but had been sold as a slave to the Moors. He could not remember where the nearest water was, because he had been sold when only a child. But he said to Geta, ‘General, why don’t you pray to Father Gwa-Gwa!’ Geta inquired who this person might be. The man replied that he was the God of the Deserts who gave rain in time of drought. Geta said, ‘The Emperor told me to suit my tactics to the country. Tell me how to invoke Father Gwa-Gwa and I shall do so at once.’ The orderly told him to take a little pot, bury it up to the neck in the sand and fill it with beer, saying as he did so: ‘Father Gwa-Gwa, we offer you beer.’ Then the men were to fill their drinking vessels with all the water that they had with them in their water-skins except enough to dip their fingers in and sprinkle on the ground. Then everyone must drink and dance and adore Father Gwa-Gwa, sprinkling the water and drinking every drop in the skins. Geta himself must chant: ‘As this water is sprinkled, so let rain fall! We have drunk our last drop, Father. None remains. What would you have us do? Drink beer, Father Gwa-Gwa, and make water for us, your children, or we die!’ For beer is a powerful diuretic and these nomads had the same theological notions as the early Greeks who considered that Jove made water when it rained; so that the same word (with a mere difference in gender) is still used in Greek for Heaven and for chamberpot. The nomads considered that their God would be encouraged to make water, in the form of rain, by offering him a drink of beer. The sprinkling of water, like our own lustrations, was to remind him how rain fell, in case he had forgotten.

Geta in desperation called his tottering force together and inquired whether anyone happened to have a little beer with him. And by good luck a party of German auxiliaries had a pint or two hoarded in a water-skin; they had brought it with them in preference to water. Geta made them give it up to him. He then equally distributed all the water that was left, but the beer he reserved for Father Gwa-Gwa. The troops danced and drank the water and sprinkled the necessary drops on the sand, while Geta uttered the prescribed formula of invocation. Father Gwa-Gwa (his name apparently means ‘Water’) was so pleased and impressed by the honour paid him by this imposing force of perfect strangers that the sky was immediately darkened with rain-clouds and a downpour began which lasted for three days and turned every sandy hollow into a brimming pool of water. The army was saved. The nomads, taking the abundant rain as an undeniable token of Father Gwa-Gwa’s favour towards the Romans, came humbly forward with offers of alliance. Geta refused this unless they first delivered up Salabus to him. Salabus was presently brought to the camp in bonds. Presents were exchanged between Geta and the nomads and a treaty made; then Geta marched back without further loss to the mountains, where he caught Salabus’s men, who were still holding the pass, in the rear, killing or capturing the whole detachment. The other Moorish forces, seeing their leader brought back to Tangier as a prisoner, surrendered without further fighting. So two or three pints of beer had saved the lives of more than 2,000 Romans and gained Rome a new province. I ordered the dedication of a shrine to Father Gwa-Gwa in the desert beyond the mountains, where he ruled; and Morocco, which I now divided up into two provinces – Western Morocco with its capital at Tangier and Eastern Morocco with its capital at Caesarea – had to furnish it with a yearly tribute of 100 goat-skins of the best beer. I awarded Geta triumphal ornaments and would have asked the Senate to confer on him the hereditary title of Mauras (‘of Morocco’) had he not exceeded his powers by putting Salabus to death at Tangier without first consulting me. There was no military necessity for this act; he only did it for vainglory.

I mentioned just now the birth of my daughter Octavia. Messalina had come to be much courted by the Senate and People, because it was well known that I had delegated to her most of the duties which fell to me in my capacity as Director of Public Morals. She acted, in theory, only as my adviser, but had, as I have explained, a duplicate seal of mine to ratify documents with; and within certain limits I let her decide what knights or senators to degrade for social offences and whom to appoint to the resulting vacancies. She had now also undertaken the laborious task of deciding on the fitness of all candidates for the Roman Citizenship. The Senate wished to vote her the title of Augusta and made the birth of Octavia the pretext. Much as I loved Messalina, I did not think that she had yet earned this honour: it was something for her to look forward to in middle life. She was as yet only seventeen, whereas my grandmother Livia had earned the title only after her death and my mother in extreme old age. So I refused it to her. But the Alexandrians, without asking my permission – and once the thing was done I could not undo it – struck a coin with my head on the obverse and on the reverse a full-length portrait of Messalina in the dress of the Goddess Demeter, holding in the palm of one hand two figurines representing her little boy and girl, and in the other a sheaf of corn representing fertility. This was a flattering play on the name Messalina – the Latin word messis meaning the corn-harvest. She was delighted.

She came to me shyly one evening, peeped up at my face without saying anything, and at last asked, plainly embarrassed, and after one or two false starts: ‘Do you love me, dearest husband?’

I assured her that I loved her beyond anyone else in the world.

‘And what did you tell me, the other day, were the Three Main Pillars of the Temple of Love?’

‘I said that the Temple of True Love was pillared on kindness, frankness, and understanding. Or rather I quoted the philosopher Mnasalcus as having said so.’

‘Then will you show me the greatest kindness and understanding that your love for me is capable of showing? My love will have to provide only the frankness. I’ll come straight to the point. If it’s not too hard for you, would you – could you possibly – allow me to sleep in a bedroom apart from you for a little while? It isn’t that I don’t love you every bit as much as you love me, but now that we have had two children in less than two years of marriage, oughtn’t we to wait a little before we risk having a third? It is a very disagreeable thing to be pregnant: I have morning-sickness and heartburn and my digestion goes wrong, and I don’t feel I could go through that again just yet. And, to be honest, quite apart from this dread, I somehow feel less passionately towards you than I did. I swear that I love you as much as ever, but now it’s rather as my dearest friend and as the father of my children than as my lover. Having children uses up a lot of a woman’s emotions, I suppose. I’m not hiding anything from you. You do believe me, don’t you?’

‘I believe you, and I love you.’

She stroked my face. ‘And I’m not like any ordinary woman, am I, whose business is merely to have children and children and children until she wears out? I am your wife – the Emperor’s wife – and I help him in his Imperial work, and that should take precedence over everything, shouldn’t it? Pregnancy interferes with work terribly.’

I said rather ruefully: ‘Of course, my dearest, if you really feel like that, I am not the sort of husband to insist on forcing anything on you. But is it really necessary for us to sleep apart? Couldn’t we at least occupy the same bed, for company’s sake?’

‘O Claudius,’ she said, nearly crying, ‘it has been difficult enough for me to make up my mind to ask you about this, because I love you so much and don’t want to hurt you in the least. Don’t make it more difficult. And now that I have frankly told you how I feel, wouldn’t it be dreadfully difficult for you if you had violently passionate feelings for me while we were sleeping together and I could not honestly return them? If I repulsed you, that would be as destructive of our love as if I yielded against my will; and I am sure you would feel very remorseful afterwards if anything happened to destroy my love for you. No, can’t you see now how much better it would be for us to sleep apart until I feel about you again as I used to do? Suppose, just to distance myself from temptation, I were to move across to my suite in the New Palace? It’s more convenient for my work to be over there. I can get up in the morning and go straight to my papers. This lying-in has put me greatly behind-hand with my Citizens’ Roll.’

I pleaded: ‘How long do you think you will want to be away?’

‘We’ll see how it works out,’ she said, kissing the back of my neck tenderly. ‘Oh, how relieved I am that you aren’t angry. How long? Oh, I don’t know. Does it matter so much? After all, sex is not essential to love if there is any other strong bond between lovers such as common idealistic pursuit of Beauty or Perfection. I do agree with Plato about that. He thought sex positively an obstruction to love.’

‘He was talking of homosexual love,’ I reminded her, trying not to sound depressed.

‘Well, my dear,’ she said lightly, ‘I do a man’s work, the same as you, and so it comes to much the same thing, doesn’t it? And as for a common idealism, we have to be very idealistic indeed to get through all this drudgery in the name of attempted political perfection, don’t we? Well, is that really settled? Will you really be a dear, dear Claudius, and not insist on my sharing your bed – in a literal sense, I mean? In all other senses I am still your devoted little Messalina, and do remember that it has been very, very painful for me to ask you this.’

I told her that I respected and loved her all the more for her frankness, and of course she must have her way. But that naturally I should be impatient for the time when she felt again for me as she once had done.

‘Oh, please don’t be impatient,’ she cried. ‘It makes it so difficult for me. If you were impatient I should feel that I was being unkind to you, and should probably pretend feelings that I didn’t have. I may be an exception, but somehow sex doesn’t mean much to me. I suspect, though, that many women get bored with it – without ceasing to love their husbands or to want their husbands to love them. But I’ll always continue to be suspicious of other women. If you were to have affairs with other women I think I should go mad with jealousy. It isn’t that I mind the thought of your sleeping with someone other than me; it’s the fear that you might come to love her better than me, not merely regarding her as a pleasant sexual convenience, and then want to divorce me. I mean, if you were to sleep with a pretty housemaid occasionally, or some nice clean woman too low in rank for me to be jealous of, I should be very glad, really delighted, to think that you were having a nice time with her; and if you and I ever slept together after wards we wouldn’t consider it as anything that had come between us. We’d merely think of it as a measure that you had taken for the sake of your health – like a purge or an emetic. I shouldn’t expect you even to tell me the woman’s name, in fact I’d prefer you not to, so long as you first promised not to have doings with anyone about whom I would have a right to feel jealous. Wasn’t that how Livia is said to have felt about Augustus?’

‘Yes, in a way. But she never really loved him. She told me so. That made it easier for her to be attentive to him. She used to pick out young women from the slave-market and bring them secretly into his bedroom at night. Syrians, mostly, I believe.’

‘Well, you’re not asking me to do that, are you? I’m human, after all.’

This was how Messalina played, very cleverly and very cruelly, on my blind love for her. She moved over to the New Palace that very evening. And for a long time I said nothing further, hoping that she would come back to me. But she said nothing, only indicating by her tender behaviour that a very fine understanding existed between us. As a great concession she did sometimes consent to sleep with me. It was seven years before I heard so much as a whisper of what went on in her suite at the New Palace, when the old cuckold-husband was away at his work or safely snoring in his bed at the Old Palace.

And this brings me to the story of the fate of Appius Silanus, an ex-Consul who had been Governor of Spain since Caligula’s reign. It may be recalled that it was marriage with this Silanus that Livia had made the bribe for Aemilia’s betrayal of Postumus: Aemilia was Augustus’s great-granddaughter, whom as a boy I had nearly married. Through Aemilia, Silanus had become the father of three boys and two girls, now all grown up. Except for Agrippinilla and her little son, they were the only surviving descendants of Augustus. Tiberius had regarded Silanus as a danger because of his illustrious connexions and had arranged to have him accused of treason in company with several other senators, including Vinicianus. However, the evidence against them broke down and they escaped with nothing worse than a bad fright. At the age of sixteen Silanus had been the handsomest youth in Rome; at the age of fifty-six he was still remarkably fine-looking, his hair only slightly grizzled, his eyes bright, and his step and carriage like those of a man in the prime of life. He was now a widower, Aemilia having died of a cancer. One of his daughters, Calvina, had married a son of Vitellius’s.

One day, shortly before little Octavia’s birth, Messalina had said to me: ‘The man whom we really need at Rome is Appius Silanus. I wish you could recall him and keep him permanently at the Palace as an adviser. He’s remarkably intelligent and quite wasted in Spain.’

I said: ‘Yes, that isn’t a bad plan: I admire Silanus, and he’s a man of great influence in the Senate. But how can we persuade him to come and live with us? We can’t very well plant him in the Palace as we might plant a new secretary or accountant. There must be some sort of honourable pretext for his presence.’

‘I’ve thought of that, and I’ve got a brilliant idea. Why not connect him with the family by marrying him to my mother? She’d like to marry again: she’s only thirty-three. And she’s your mother-in-law, so it would be a great honour for Silanus. Do say that you think it a good idea.’

‘Well, if you can make it right with your mother.…’

‘I have already asked her about it. She says that she’d be charmed.’

So Silanus came to Rome and I married him to Domitia Lepida, Messalina’s mother, and assigned them a suite in the New Palace, next to Messalina’s. I soon noticed that Silanus was very ill at ease with me. He readily did any services that I asked him to do, such as paying surprise visits to the lower courts on my behalf to see that justice was being properly done, or inspecting and reporting upon housing conditions in the poorer quarters of the City, or attending the public auction of property confiscated by the State, to see that the auctioneers did not play any tricks; but he seemed unable to look me in the face and always avoided any intimacy with me. I was rather offended. But after all I could not have been expected to guess the truth: which was that Messalina had only asked me to send for Silanus from Spain because she had been in love with him as a girl, and that she had married him to her mother merely as a means of having easy access to him, and that ever since his arrival she had been pressing him to sleep with her. To think of it! Her own step-father and a man five years my senior, with a granddaughter not much younger than Messalina herself! Naturally, his manner to me was queer, since Messalina had told him that she had moved over to the New Palace at my orders, and that I had myself suggested that she should become his mistress! She explained that I wanted to keep her amused while I had a silly affair with that Julia, once the wife of my nephew Nero, whom we used to call Helen, to distinguish her from the other Julias, but now called Heluo because she was such a glutton. Apparently Silanus believed this story, but he firmly refused to sleep with his daughter-in-law, in spite of her beauty, even at the Emperor’s suggestion: he said that he was of an amorous but not an impious nature.

‘I’ll give you ten days to make up your mind about it,’ Messalina threatened. ‘If you refuse me at the end of that time I shall tell Claudius. You know how vain he has become since they made him Emperor. He wouldn’t like to hear that you’d scorned his wife. He’d certainly kill you, wouldn’t he, Mother?’

Domitia Lepida was entirely under Messalina’s thumb, and bore her out. Silanus believed them. His experiences under Tiberius and Caligula had made him a secret anti-monarchist, though he was not a man who mixed much in politics. He fully believed that nobody could now find himself at the head of the State without giving way very soon to tyranny, cruelty, and lust. By the ninth day he had not yet yielded to Messalina, but had worked himself up into such a state of nervous desperation that he had, it appears, fully resolved to kill me.

My secretary Narcissus was a witness of Silanus’s distracted state that evening; he overtook him in a corridor of the Palace muttering unintelligibly to himself, ‘Cassius Chaerea – Old Cassius. Do so – but not alone.’ Narcissus was busy at the moment working out something in his head, and heard the words but did not consider them fully. They stuck in his mind and, as often happens in cases of this sort, when he went to bed that night without having thought about them again, they came into his dream and enlarged themselves into a terrifying picture of Cassius Chaerea handing Silanus his bloody sword and shouting ‘Do so! Strike! Strike again. Old Cassius is with you! Death to the tyrant! ‘and of Silanus then rushing at me and hacking me to pieces. The dream was so vivid and so violent that Narcissus leaped out of bed and came hurrying to my bedroom to tell me about it.

The shock of being suddenly awakened just before dawn and told in a terrified voice about this nightmare – I was sleeping alone and not sleeping very well either – put me into a cold sweat of horror. I called for lights – hundreds of lights – and sent at once for Messalina. She was terrified too at this hasty summons; afraid that I had found her out, I suppose. It must have been a great relief to her when I merely told her of Narcissus’s dream. She shuddered. ‘No! Did he really dream that? O Heavens! That’s the same terrible nightmare that I’ve been trying to remember every morning for the last seven days! I always wake up screaming, but I can’t ever remember what I was screaming about. It must be true. Of course it must. It’s a divine warning. Send for Silanus at once and make him confess.’

She ran from the room to give the message to one of her freedmen. I know now that she told him to say: ‘The ten days are over. The Emperor now orders you to his presence immediately and asks for an explanation.’ The freedman did not understand what ten days were meant, but delivered the message, arousing Silanus from his sleep. Silanus cried: ‘Come? Indeed I will!’ He dressed hurriedly, thrusting something into the fold of his robe and rushed stumbling and wild-eyed ahead of the messenger to my rooms. The freedman was alert. He stopped a slave-boy. ‘Run like lightning to the Council Chamber and tell the guards there to search Appius Silanus when he arrives.’ The Guards found the hidden dagger and arrested him. I tried him then and there. It was, of course, impossible for him to explain the dagger, but I asked him whether he had anything to say in his defence. His only defence was to rage and splutter inarticulately, cursing me for a monster and Messalina for a she-wolf. When I asked him why he had wished to kill me he would only answer: ‘Give me back my dagger, tyrant. Let me use it on my own breast!’ I sentenced him to execution. He died, poor fellow, because he did not have the sense to speak out.

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