IT was the execution of Silanus that encouraged Vinicianus to make his insurrection. When I reported in the Senate, the same day, that Silanus had intended to kill me but that my guards had frustrated his designs and that I had already executed him, a groan of astonishment rose, followed by a dismayed whisper, instantly smothered. This was the first execution of a senator since I had assumed the monarchy, and nobody believed Silanus capable of trying to murder me. It was felt that at last I was showing myself in my true colours and that a new reign of terror was about to start. I had recalled Silanus from Spain under the pretext of doing him a great honour but had really intended all the time to murder him. Just like Caligula! Naturally, I was quite unaware of all this feeling and even ventured on a little joke, saying how grateful I was to Narcissus for being so vigilant for my safety even in his sleep. ‘But for that dream I should not have sent for Silanus and consequently he would not have been frightened into giving himself away: he would have made his attempt on my life in a more considered manner. He had many opportunities for assassinating me, having lately been taken so deeply into my confidence that I spared him the indignity of being searched for weapons.’ The applause was hollow.
Vinicianus told his friends afterwards: ‘So the noble Appius Silanus is executed just because the Emperor’s Greek freedman has a bad dream. Are we to allow a creature as weak-minded as this pumpkin-headed Clau-Clau-Claudius to rule over us? What do you say?’
They agreed that a strong, experienced Emperor was needed, not a makeshift like myself, who knew nothing, learned nothing, and acted in a perfectly crazy way half the time. They began reminding each other of my most remarkable errors or eccentricities. Apart from those that I have already mentioned, they brought up, for instance, a decision that I had made a few days before when reviewing the jury-lists. It must here be explained that there were about 4,000 qualified jurymen at Rome and that these were obliged to attend trials when called upon, under penalty of a heavy fine: jury-service was extremely laborious and extremely unpopular. The jury-lists were first prepared by a first-rank magistrate, and this year more than half the men named in them came forward as usual to excuse themselves on one account or another; but in nineteen cases out of twenty their appeals were dismissed. The magistrate handed me the final lists for my scrutiny with a mark against the names of those whose appeal for exemption had been dismissed. I happened to notice that among the men who had willingly presented themselves for jury-service was one whom I knew to be the father of seven children. Under a law of Augustus’s he was exempt for the rest of his life; yet he had not pleaded for exemption or mentioned the size of his family. I told the magistrate: ‘Strike this man’s name off. He’s a father of seven.’ He protested: ‘But, Caesar, he has made no attempt to excuse himself.’ ‘Exactly,’ I said, ‘he wants to be a juryman. Strike him off.’ I meant, of course, that the fellow was concealing his immunity from what every honest man considered a very thankless and disagreeable duty and that he therefore was almost certain to have crooked intentions. Crooked jurymen could pick up a lot of money by bribes, for it was a commonplace that one interested juryman could sway the opinions of a whole bunch of uninterested ones; and the majority verdict decided a case. But the magistrate was a fool and simply reported my words, ‘He wants to be a juryman; strike him off,’ as a characteristic example of my fatuity.
Vinicianus and the other malcontents spoke, too, of my extraordinary decision in insisting that every man who appeared before me in court should give the usual preliminary account of his parentage, connexions, marriage, career, financial condition, present occupation, and so on – with his own mouth, as best he could, instead of calling upon some patron or lawyer to do it for him. My reasons for this decision should have been obvious: one learns more about a man from ten words which he speaks himself on his own behalf than from a ten-hour eulogy by a friend. It does not matter so much what he says in those ten words: what really counts is the way in which he says them. I had found that to have some knowledge before a case starts as to whether a man is slow-witted or glib, boastful or modest, self-possessed or timorous, capable or muddle-headed, is a great help to my understanding of what follows. But to Vinicianus and his friends I seemed to be doing the accused a great injustice by robbing him of the patronage or eloquence on which he counted.
Strangely enough, what shocked them most of all my Imperial misdemeanours was my action in the case of the silver chariot. This is the story. As I happened to pass through the Goldsmiths’ Street one day I saw about 500 citizens gathered around a shop. I wondered what the attraction could be and told my yeomen to move the crowd on, because it was blocking the traffic. They did so, and I found that the shop was exhibiting a chariot entirely plated with silver, except for the rim of the body, which was gold. The axle was silver-plated too, ending in golden dog-heads with amethyst eyes; the spokes were ebony carved in the form of negroes with silver girdles, and even the lynchpins were of gold. The silver sides of the body were embossed with scenes illustrating a chariot-race in the Circus and the felloes of the wheels were decorated with a golden inlay of vine-leaves. The extremities of the yoke and pole – silver-plated too – were golden cupids’ faces with turquoise eyes. This wonderful vehicle was for sale at 100,000 gold pieces. Someone whispered to me that it had been commissioned by a rich senator and already paid for, but that he had asked the goldsmiths to expose it for sale for a few days (at a far higher price than he had actually paid) because he wished publicly to advertise its costliness before taking possession of it. This seemed likely: the goldsmiths themselves would not have built so expensive a thing on the mere chance of its finding a millionaire buyer. In my capacity as Director of Public Morals I had a perfect right to do what I then did. I made the goldsmiths, in my presence, strip off the gold and silver with a hammer and chisel and sell it by weight to the competent Treasury official, whom I sent for, to be melted down into coin. There were loud cries of protest, but I silenced them by saying: ‘A car of this weight will damage the public pavements: we must lighten it a bit.’ I had a pretty shrewd notion who the owner was: it was Asiaticus, who now felt it safe to make no secret of his immense riches, though he had successfully concealed them from Caligula’s greedy eyes by parcelling them out into hundreds of small deposits which he left with scores of different bankers in the names of his freedmen or friends. His present ostentation was a direct incitement to popular disorder. The extraordinary additions he had made to the Gardens of Lucullus, which he had now bought! They had been considered only second in beauty to the Gardens of Sallust; but Asiaticus boasted, ‘When I have finished with the Gardens of Lucullus, the Gardens of Sallust will seem by contrast to be little better than a few acres of waste land.’ He put in such fruits, flowers, fountains, and fish-pools as Rome had never seen before. It occurred to me that when food was scarce in the City nobody would like to see a jolly senator with a big belly driving about in a silver car with golden axle-ends and lynchpins. A man wouldn’t be human if he didn’t at least feel a desire to pull out the lynchpins. I still think that I did right in this instance. But the destruction by me of a work of art – the goldsmith was a famous craftsman, the same who had been entrusted by Caligula with the modelling and casting of his golden statue – was regarded as a wanton act of barbarism and caused far more resentment among these friends of Vinicianus than if I had hauled a dozen common citizens out of the crowd and had them knocked to pieces with hammer and chisel and sold as meat to the butchers. Asiaticus himself did not express any irritation, and was indeed careful not to acknowledge ownership of the chariot, but Vinicianus made the most of my crime. He said: ‘He’ll be pulling our gowns off our backs next and unravelling the wool to sell to the weavers again. The man’s insane. We must get rid of him.’
Vinicius was not in the party of malcontents either. He guessed that he was under my suspicion for having proposed himself as Emperor in opposition to me, and was now very careful not to offend me in the slightest particular. Besides, he must have known that it was no use trying to get rid of me yet. I was still extremely popular with the Guards, and took so many precautions against assassination – a constant escort of soldiers, careful searchings for weapons, a taster against poison at every meal – and my household was so faithful and alert, besides, that a man would have had to be extremely lucky as well as ingenious to take my life and escape with his own. There had been two unsuccessful attempts by individuals recently, both made by knights whom I had threatened to degrade from the order for sexual offences. One waited at the gate of Pompey’s Theatre to murder me as I came out. That was not a bad idea, but one of my soldiers saw him snatch the hollow top off a stick that he was carrying, showing it to be really a short javelin; he rushed at him and struck him on the head just as he was about to hurl the thing at me. The other attempt was made in the Temple of Mars where I was sacrificing. The weapon on this occasion was a hunting-knife, but the man was immediately disarmed by the bystanders.
The only way to get rid of me, in fact, was by force of arms, and where were troops to be found to oppose me? Vinicianus thought that he knew the answer to the question. He would get help from Scribonianus. This Scribonianus was a first cousin of little Camilla, whom my grandmother Livia had poisoned long ago on the day that she and I were to have been betrothed. When I was in Carthage, the year before my brother died, Scribonianus had been very insulting to me because he had just distinguished himself in a battle against Tacfarinas, in which I had been unable to take part; and his father, Furius Camillus, who was Governor of the province of Africa, had thereupon made him beg my pardon in public. He had been forced to obey, because in Rome a father’s word is law, but he had never forgiven me and on two or three occasions since then had behaved very unpleasantly to me. Under Caligula he had been foremost among my tormentors at the Palace: nearly all the booby-traps and similar practical jokes that I had been plagued with were of his contrivance. So you may imagine that when Scribonianus, whom Caligula had recently sent to command the Roman forces in Dalmatia, heard of my election as Emperor he was not only jealous and disgusted but alarmed for his own safety. He began to wonder whether, when his term of command expired and he had to return to Rome, I was the sort of man to forgive him his insults; and if so, whether my forgiveness might not be less easy to bear even than my anger. He decided to pay me the usual respects due to a Commander-in-Chief but to do everything possible to win the personal loyalty of the forces under his command: when the time came to recall him he would write to me what Gaetulicus had once written to the Emperor Tiberius from the Rhine: ‘You can count on my loyalty so long as I retain my command.’
Vinicianus was a personal friend of Scribonianus’s and kept him informed by letter of what was happening at Rome. When Silanus was executed Vinicianus wrote:
I have bad news for you, my dear Scribonianus. Claudius, after disgracing the dignity of Rome by his stupidity, ignorance, and clowning, and by his complete dependence on the advice of a pack of Greek freed-men, a spendthrift rogue of a Jew, Vitellius his fellow boozer, and Messalina his lustful and ambitious girl-wife, has committed his first important murder. Poor Appius Silanus was recalled from his command in Spain, kept hanging about the Palace in suspense for a month or two and then suddenly hauled out of bed early one morning and summarily executed. Claudius came into the House yesterday and actually joked about it. All the right-minded men in the City agree that Silanus must be avenged, and consider that if a suitable leader appeared the whole nation would welcome him with open arms. Claudius has turned things completely upside-down and one almost wishes Caligula back again. Unfortunately he has the Guards to rely upon at present, and without troops we can do nothing. Assassination has been unsuccessfully tried: he is such a coward that one can’t bring so much as a bodkin into the Palace without having it removed by searchers in the vestibule. We look to you to come to our rescue. If you were to march on Rome with the Seventh and Eleventh Regiments and whatever local forces you are able to muster, all our troubles would be over. Promise the Guards a bounty as big as the one that Claudius gave them and they will desert to you at once. They despise him as a meddling civilian and he hasn’t given them more than a single gold piece a man, to drink his health with on his birthday, since his original act of enforced generosity. As soon as you land in Italy – the transport difficulty can easily be got over – we shall join you with a volunteer force and provide you with all the money you may need. Don’t hesitate. Now is the time before matters get any worse. You can reach Rome before Claudius is able to send for reinforcements from the Rhine; and anyhow I don’t think that he would get any if he did send for them. The Germans are said to be planning their revenge, and Galba isn’t the man to leave his post on the Rhine when the Chattians are on the move. And Gabinius won’t go if Galba stays: they always work in partnership. So the revolution promises to be bloodless. I do not wish to appeal to you by warnings as to your own personal safety, for I know that you put the honour of Rome before self-interest. But it is as well for you to know that Claudius a few nights ago told my cousin Vinicius: ‘I don’t forget old scores. When a certain Governor returns to Rome from his command in the Balkans, mark my words, he’s going to pay with his blood for the tricks he once played me.’ One thing more. Don’t have any compunction about leaving the province undefended. The regiments need not be away long, and why not take a large number of hostages with you to discourage the provincials from rising in your absence? It’s not as though Dalmatia were a frontier province, either. Let me know at once if you are with us, and ready to earn as glorious a name as your great ancestor Camillus, becoming the second saviour of Rome.
Scribonianus decided to take the risk. He wrote to Vinicianus that he would need 150 transports from Italy besides what vessels he could commandeer in Dalmatian ports. He would also need 1,000,000 gold pieces in bounty money to persuade the two regular regiments – each 5,000 strong – and the 20,000 Dalmatian levies whom he would call to the colours, to break their allegiance to me. So Vinicianus and his fellow conspirators – six senators and seven knights, and ten knights and six senators whom I had degraded from their Orders – now left Rome unobtrusively under the pretence of visiting their country estates. The first news that I had of the rebellion was a letter which reached me from Scribonianus, addressed in the most insolent terms: calling me an impostor and an imbecile and ordering me to lay down all my offices immediately and retire to civil life. He told me that I had proved my lamentable incapacity for the task that had been entrusted to me by the Senate in a moment of confusion and aberration, and that he, Scribonianus, now repudiated his allegiance and was on the point of sailing to Italy with a force of 30,000 men to restore order and decent government to Rome and the rest of the world. If I resigned my monarchy, on receipt of this notice, my life would be spared and the same amnesty granted me and mine as I had been wisely persuaded to grant my political opponents on my accession.
The first thing that I did on reading this letter was to burst out laughing. Good heavens, what a delightful experience that would be, to retire into private life again and live quietly and easily under an orderly government with Messalina and my books and my children! Certainly, of course, and by all means, I would resign if Scribonianus thought himself capable of governing better than I. And to be able to loll back in my chair, so to speak, and watch someone else struggling with the impossible task which I had never wished to undertake and which had proved more burdensome, anxious, and thankless than I can easily convey in words! It was as though King Agamemnon had leaped forward when Laocöon and his two children were struggling with the two great serpents sent by an angry God to destroy them and had shouted out: ‘Here, leave those splendid creatures for me to deal with. You aren’t worthy to fight with them. Leave them alone, I say, or it will be the worse for you.’ But could I trust Scribonianus to keep his word about the amnesty and spare my life and that of my family? And would his government be as orderly and decent as he expected it to be? And what would the Guards have to say on the matter? And was Scribonianus as popular at Rome as he seemed to think? Would the serpents, in fact, consent to leave Laocöon and his children and coil, instead, about the body of this Agamemnon?
I hurriedly convened the Senate and addressed them: ‘My Lords, before reading you this letter, I must tell you that I am most ready to agree to the demands contained in it and should welcome the rest and security that it somewhat severely promises me. The only reason, indeed, that would induce me to decline the propositions made by this Furius Camillus Scribonianus would be a strong feeling on your part that the country would be worse rather than better off if I did so. I admit that until last year I was shamefully ignorant of the arts of government and of legal and military procedure; and though I am daily learning, my education is still in arrears. There are no men of my age and rank who could not teach me plenty of technical commonplaces with which I am totally unfamiliar. But that is the fault of my original bad health and the poor opinion that my brilliant – and now in part deified – family had of my wits when I was a boy; it has not been due to any shirking of my duties to our fatherland. And even when I did not expect ever to be raised to responsible office I improved myself by private study with, I think you will grant, commendable application. I take the liberty of suggesting that my family were mistaken: that I never was an imbecile. I won a verbal testimony to that effect from the God Augustus shortly after his visit to Postumus Agrippa on his island, and from the noble Asinius Pollio in the Apollo Library three days before his death – who however advised me to assume a mask of stupidity, like the first Brutus, as a protection against certain persons who might wish to remove me if I showed too great intelligence. My wife Urgulanilla, too, whom I divorced for her sullen temper, unfaithfulness, and general brutality, took the trouble to record in her will – I can show it you if you wish – her conviction that I was no fool. The Goddess Livia Augusta’s last words to me on her death-bed, or perhaps, I should say “shortly before her Apotheosis”, were: “To think that I ever called you a fool”. I admit that my sister Livilla, my mother Antonia Augusta, my nephew the late Emperor Gaius, and my uncle Tiberius, his predecessor, never revised their ill opinion of me; and that the two last-named recorded the same in official letters to this House. My uncle Tiberius refused me a seat among you, on the ground that no speech that I could make could be anything but a trial of your patience and a waste of your time. My nephew Gaius Caligula did allow me a seat, because I was his uncle and he wished to seem magnanimous. But he ruled that I should speak last of all in any debate, and said in a speech which, if you do not remember it, you will find recorded in the archives, that if any member wished to ease himself during any session would he please in future have the good manners to contain himself and not distract attention by running out in the middle of an important speech – his own, for example – but wait until the signal for a general lapse of attention was given by the Consul’s calling on Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus (as I was then known) to give his opinion on the matter in hand. Well, you took his advice, I remember, not supposing that I had any feelings to wound, or thinking that they had been so often wounded before that I must by now be armoured all over like Tiberius’s wingless dragon; or perhaps agreeing with my nephew that I was indeed an imbecile. However, the considered opinions to the contrary of the two Gods, Augustus and Livia – for which, however, you have to take my word because they are nowhere recorded in writing – surely outweigh those of any number of mere mortals? I should be inclined to hold it blasphemous for anyone here to contradict them. Not that blasphemy is a criminal offence nowadays – we have changed that; but it is at least bad manners and perhaps dangerous if the Gods happen to overhear. Besides, my nephew and uncle both met violent deaths and were not mourned, and their speeches and letters are no longer quoted with the respect with which the God Augustus’s speeches and letters are quoted, and much of their legislation has lapsed. They were lions in their day, my Lords, but now they are dead and in the words of the Jewish proverb that the God Augustus was fond of quoting – he borrowed it from King Herod the Great of Judaea, for whose wit he had as much respect as I have for the wit of King Herod Agrippa, his grandson – A live dog is worth more than a dead lion. I am not a lion – you know that. But I consider that I have not made so bad a watch-dog; and to say that I have grossly mismanaged national affairs or that I am an imbecile is, I think, an insult to you rather than to me, because you pressed the monarchy on me and have on many occasions since congratulated me on my successes and rewarded me with many great honours, including that of Father of the Country. If the father is an imbecile, surely his children will have inherited the taint?’
I then read Scribonianus’s letter and glanced around inquiringly. Everyone had been looking extremely uncomfortable during my speech, though nobody ventured to do other than applaud, protest, or show surprise at the points where this seemed to be expected. You, my readers, will no doubt be thinking what no doubt they all were thinking: ‘What a curious speech to make on the eve of a rebellion! Why should Claudius have insisted on raking up a matter which we might be expected to have forgotten about altogether – his supposed imbecility? Why did he find it necessary to remind us that this family once regarded him as mentally incapable, and to read the passages of Scribonianus’s letter referring to this, and why did he lower himself by arguing about it?’ Yes, it looked very suspicious, as though I really knew that I was an imbecile and was trying to persuade myself that I wasn’t. But I knew just what I was doing. I was, in fact, being rather clever. I had in the first place spoken extremely frankly, and unexpected frankness about oneself is never unacceptable. I was reminding the Senate what sort of a man I was – honest and devoted; not clever, but not self-seeking – and what sort of men they themselves were – clever but self-seeking, and neither honest nor devoted nor even courageous. Cassius Chaerea had warned them not to hand over the monarchy to an idiot and they had disregarded his advice for fear of the Guards – yet things on the whole had turned out very well, so far. Prosperity was returning to Rome, justice was being evenly dispensed, the people were contented, our armies were victorious abroad, I was not playing the tyrant in any extravagant way; and, as I told them in the discussion that followed, I had perhaps travelled farther, hobbling on my lame leg, than most men would have travelled on a sound pair; because, only too conscious of my disability, I allowed myself no halts or slackening of pace. On the other hand, I wished to show them by my speech that they were perfectly free to dismiss me if they pleased; and my undignified frankness about my own shortcomings should encourage them not to be harsh or revengeful when I was a private citizen once more.
Several loyal speeches were made, all in rather guarded terms, for fear of the vengeance of Scribonianus, should he force me to resign. Only Vinicius spoke out strongly:
‘My Lords, I think that many of us must be feeling keenly the reproach that the Father of the Country has been, however gently, heaping on us. I confess that I am heartily ashamed that I misjudged him before his accession and that I thought him unfitted for the offices which he has since so nobly filled. It is incredible to me now that his mental powers were ever underrated by any of us, and the only explanation that I can offer is that he deceived us, first by his great modesty and next by his deliberate self-depreciation in the reign of the late Emperor. You know the proverb “No man cries ‘Stinking Fish’.” That proverb was discredited under Caligula, when no wise man with fish in his basket would cry it as anything but stinking, for fear Caligula should become greedy or jealous. Valerius Asiaticus concealed his wealth, Tiberius Claudius concealed his wit; I had nothing to conceal except my disgust of tyranny, but I concealed that until the time came for action. Yes, we all cried “Stinking fish”. Caligula is dead now, and under Claudius frankness has come into its own. I shall be frank. My cousin Vinicianus spoke violently against Claudius lately in my presence and suggested his deposition. I reproached him angrily but did not report the matter to the House, because there is no treason-law now in force, and, after all, he is my cousin. Free speech must be indulged, especially in the case of kinsmen. Vinicianus is not here to-night. He has left the City. I fear that he has gone to join Scribonianus. Six of his intimate friends are also absent, I notice. They must have gone with him. Yet what are seven discontented men – seven against five hundred? A negligible minority. And is theirs a genuine discontent or is it personal ambition?
‘I condemn my cousin’s action on three counts: the first, that he is ungrateful; the second, that he is disloyal; the third, that he is foolish. His ingratitude: the Father of the Country freely forgave him for supporting me as a candidate for the monarchy and has shown great tolerance since of his impertinent and obstructive speeches in this House. His disloyalty: he engaged himself by an oath to obey Tiberius Claudius Caesar as the Head of the State. A breach of this oath could only be excused in the unlikely event of Caesar flagrantly breaking his oath to rule justly, with respect for the common good; Caesar has not broken his oath. Disloyalty to Caesar is therefore impiety to the Gods by whom Vinicianus swore, and enmity to the State, which is more content than ever before to be ruled by Caesar. His folly: though it is possible that Scribonianus may persuade a few thousand of his troops by lies and bribes to invade Italy and may even win a few military successes, does any member of this honourable House really believe that he is destined to be our Emperor? Does anyone believe that the Guards, our chief bulwark, will secede to him? The Guards are not fools: they know when they are well off. The Senate and People are not fools either: they know that under Claudius they are enjoying a liberty and prosperity consistently denied them by his immediate predecessors. Scribonianus cannot impose himself on the City except by promising to redress existing wrongs, and it will puzzle him to find any wrongs to redress. As I see the case, my Lords, this promised revolt is actuated by personal jealousy and personal ambition. We are now asked not merely to exchange an Emperor who has proved himself in every way worthy of our admiration and obedience for one of whose capacities we know little and whose intentions we suspect, but to run the risk of a bloody Civil War. For supposing that Caesar were persuaded to resign, would the armies necessarily acknowledge Scribonianus as their commander? There are several men of rank far more capable of undertaking the monarchy than Scribonianus. What is there to prevent some other corps-commander with four regular regiments at his back, instead of Scribonianus’s two, from setting himself up as a rival Emperor and marching on Rome? And even if Scribonianus’s attempt were to succeed, which I regard as most unlikely, what of Vinicianus? Would he be content to bow the knee to the haughty Scribonianus? Has he not perhaps offered his support only on the understanding that the Empire shall be shared between them? And if so, may we not expect another death-duel to be fought, as once between Pompey and the God Julius Caesar, and again between Mark Antony and the God Augustus? No, my Lords. This is a case where our loyalty, our gratitude, and our interest go hand in hand. We must loyally support Tiberius Claudius Caesar if we wish to earn the thanks of the country, the approval of the Gods, and our own self-congratulations later when Vinicianus and Scribonianus have met the traitors’ deaths that they so richly deserve.’
Then Rufrius spoke. ‘I regard it as unfortunate that the possibility of the Guards’ disloyalty has been so much as mentioned in this House. As their Commander I repudiate the notion that even a single man will forget his duty to the Emperor. You must recall, my Lords, that it was the Guards who first called upon Tiberius Claudius Caesar, now the Father of the Country, to undertake the supreme command of the Army, and that this House was for a time unwilling to confirm their choice. It therefore ill befits a senator to suggest that the Guards will be disloyal. No, as they were the first to acclaim Tiberius Claudius Caesar Emperor, so they will be the last to desert his cause. And if news reaches the Camp that the Senate has decided to offer the supreme command to any other person – in that case, my Lords, I advise you immediately on reaching the decision either to fortify this edifice as best you can with barricades of benches and piles of cobble-stones, or to adjourn sine die and scatter in all directions.’
So I was given a unanimous vote of confidence and the Senate authorized me to write to Scribonianus, informing him that he was suspended from his command and must return to Rome forthwith to explain himself. But Scribonianus never received my letter. He was already dead.
I shall tell you what had happened. Having succeeded, as he thought, in making himself very popular with his troops by relaxation of discipline, plenty of free entertainments and a wine-ration increased at his own expense, he had paraded the Seventh and Eleventh Regiments together in the local amphitheatre and told them that his life was in danger. He read them Vinicianus’s letter, or most of it, and asked them whether they would stand by him in his attempt to deliver Rome from a tyranny which seemed to be rapidly becoming as capricious and cruel as that of Caligula. ‘The Republic must be restored,’ he shouted. ‘Only under the Republic has true liberty ever been enjoyed.’ He sowed with the sack, as the saying is, and some of the seed seemed to sprout at once. The common soldiers smelt money in his tones: they liked money, and it seemed most unjust that so generous a commander should be sacrificed to my anger or jealousy. They cheered him loudly, and also cheered Vinicianus, who had once commanded the Eleventh Regiment; and swore to follow them both, if need be, to the ends of the earth. Scribonianus promised them ten gold pieces each, on the spot, a further forty each on arrival in Italy, and a further 100 each on the day that they marched victoriously into Rome. He paid out the ten gold pieces and sent them back to camp, ordering them to hold themselves in readiness for the coming campaign. The call would come as soon as the transports arrived from Italy and the native levies were under arms. But Scribonianus had made a great mistake in underrating the loyalty and intelligence of his men. True, they could be easily worked up into a state of temporary indignation on his behalf and were not above accepting gifts in coin while in that mood; but an overt breach of their soldiers’ oath was a different matter. That wasn’t so easily bought. They would follow him to the ends of the earth; but not to Rome, its centre. It would take more than ten gold pieces a man to persuade them to embark for Italy, with a promise of forty more on landing. To leave their province and invade Italy was to make rebellion, and the punishment for unsuccessful rebellion was death – death in battle, or death under the executioner’s sword – perhaps even death by flogging or crucifixion if the Emperor felt like making an example of them.
A meeting of officers was called to decide whether to follow Scribonianus or not. Some sympathy was expressed for him, but no great desire to resort to rebellion. In any case nobody wanted the Republic to be restored. Scribonianus had told them that he counted on their support, and hinted that he would give them over to the just fury of the common soldiers if they refused to join him in so glorious a cause as the restoration of ancient Roman liberties. They decided to play for time. They sent him a deputation informing him that they were not yet agreed among themselves, but would let him know of their common decision – if he would forgive them their conscientious hesitations – on the day that the expedition sailed. Scribonianus told them to please themselves – he had plenty of capable men to put in their places – but warned them that if they declined to join him they must be prepared to die for their obstinacy. More important than this meeting of officers, there was also held a secret meeting of standard-bearers, sergeants, and corporals, all men of over twelve years’ service and most of them married to Dalmatian women, because all their service had been done here: a Roman legion was almost never shifted from one province to another. The Seventh and Eleventh, in fact, looked on Dalmatia as their permanent home and had no interests or ideas beyond making themselves as comfortable as possible there and defending their possessions.
The Eagle-bearer of the Seventh addressed the meeting: ‘Lads, you don’t really intend to follow the General to Italy, do you? It looks like a very foolish adventure to me, quite apart from the matter of regimental honour. We’ve sworn allegiance to Tiberius Claudius Caesar, haven’t we? He’s proved himself a decent man, hasn’t he? He may have a down on old Scribonianus, but who knows on which side the right lies? Old Scribonianus can have his downs, we’ve all noticed. Why not leave the two of them to settle their own differences? I’m ready to fight Germans, Moors, Parthians, Jews, Britons, Arabians, Chinese – send me where you like – that’s my job as an enlisted man. But I’m not going to do any fighting in Italy against the Guards Division. The Emperor’s very popular with them, I’m told, and besides it’s ridiculous in my opinion to think of us and them fighting each other. The General ought never to have asked us. Personally, I haven’t spent that gift of his, and I don’t intend to do so. My vote is that we call the whole business off.’
Everyone agreed. But the young soldiers and the hard cases – old soldiers with bad characters – had grown so excited now with the hope of easy money and plenty of loot that the question before the meeting was how to call the rebellion off without putting themselves into a false position. Someone had a sensible idea. A mutiny among these very regiments thirty years before had been quelled suddenly by an ominous sign from Heaven – an eclipse, followed by torrential rain: why not now provide another ominous sign to discourage the rebellion? So they decided on a suitable one.
Five days later the order came from Scribonianus for the regiments to march down to the port fully armed, rationed, and equipped, prepared to embark at once for Italy. The Eagle-bearers of the Seventh and Eleventh simultaneously reported to their commanders that they had been unable that morning to dress the Eagles in the customary way with laurel garlands. The garlands had fallen off as soon as they tied them on, and immediately withered away! Then the standard-bearers also came running in pretended consternation to report another miracle: the standards had refused to be pulled out from the earth into which they had been stuck! The officers were only too pleased to hear of these dreadful omens and reported them to Scribonianus. Scribonianus flew into a rage and came rushing into the camp of the Eleventh. ‘You say that the standards refuse to be moved, you liars? It’s because you’re a pack of cowards and haven’t the courage of dogs. Look! Who says that this standard can’t be moved?’ He went up to the nearest standard and heaved at it. He heaved and tugged and strained until the veins stood out on his forehead like cords: but he couldn’t so much as budge the thing. As a matter of fact, it had been secretly planted in concrete on the night of the meeting, and so had all the other standards, with earth heaped above. The concrete had set like rock.
Scribonianus saw that all was lost. He shook his fist at Heaven and running down to the port jumped aboard his private yacht and told his crew to cast off and stand out to sea at once. He was making for Italy, intending, I suppose, to warn Vinicianus of his failure. But instead the crew put him ashore at the island of Lissa, near Corfu, suspecting that his plans had gone astray and not wishing to have anything more to do with him. One freedman alone remained with him and was present when he committed suicide. Vinicianus also killed himself when the news reached him a day or two later; so did most of his fellow-rebels. The revolt was over.
I shall not pretend that I did not spend an anxious ten days between addressing the Senate and hearing the happy news of Scribonianus’s failure. I grew very excitable, and if it had not been for Xenophon’s exertions I should probably have had a serious return of my old nervous trouble. But he dosed me with this and that and kept me well massaged and encouraged me, in his dry way, to have no fears for the future; and so steered me through without serious damage to my health. A verse of Homer’s stuck in my head and I kept repeating it to everyone I met:
Do thou resist that man with all thy might
Who, unprovoked, provokes thee to a fight.
I even gave it to Rufrius one day as a watchword. Messalina teased me about it, but I had an answer ready: ‘It stuck in Homer’s mind too. He used it again and again. Once in the Iliad and two or three times in the Odyssey.’ Messalina’s devotion was a great comfort, and so were the loyal shouts of the citizens and the soldiers whenever I appeared in public, and the confidence that the Senate seemed to feel in me.
I rewarded the Seventh and Eleventh by asking the Senate to rename them ‘The Loyal Claudian Regiments’, and on Messalina’s insistence (Vitellius agreed with her that it was no occasion for an amnesty) I put to death the principal rebels who survived. I did not, however, execute them summarily, as I had executed Silanus, but gave them each in turn a formal trial. The procedure that I adopted was to read the charge sitting on a chair of state with the Consuls standing one on either side of me. I would then retire to my ordinary seat and the Consuls would call for their own chairs of state and conduct the trial as judges. I happened to be suffering from a severe cold, which reduced my voice, never very strong, to a whisper; but I had Narcissus, Polybius, and the Guards colonels at my side, and if I wished to cross-examine a prisoner or witness I would hand one of them a list of questions to ask on my behalf, or whisper them to him. Narcissus made the best mouthpiece, so I employed him more often than the rest: this caused a misunderstanding. He was later represented by my enemies as having conducted the prosecution on his own initiative – a mere freedman prosecuting noble Romans, what a scandal! Narcissus certainly had a very assured, independent manner and I must admit that I joined in the general laugh against him, when Scribonianus’s faithful freedman, whom he was cross-examining, proved his master in repartee.
NARCISSUS: You were a freedman of Furius Camillus Scribonianus’s? You were present at his death?
FREEDMAN: I was.
NARCISSUS: You were in his confidence about this intended rebellion? You knew who his confederates were?
FREEDMAN: You wish to suggest that I was unworthy of his confidence? That if he had confederates, as you call them, in this alleged rebellion I should betray them?
NARCISSUS: I suggest nothing. I am asking you a plain question of fact.
FREED MAN: Then I give you a plain answer. I do not remember.
NARCISSUS: Not remember?
FREEDMAN: His last words to me were: ‘Whatever I have said to you in this matter, forget. Let my secrets die with me.’
NARCISSUS: Ah, then I may assume that you were in his confidence.
FREEDMAN: Assume whatever you like. It does not interest me. My master’s dying injunctions were to forget. I have obeyed him implicitly.
NARCISSUS (striding forward angrily into the middle of the floor, so that he actually obscured my view of the witness): A very honest freedman, by Hercules. And tell me, fellow, what would you have done if Scribonianus had made himself Emperor?
FREEDMAN (with sudden warmth): I should have stood behind him, fellow, and kept my mouth shut.
Fifteen rebel noblemen or ex-noblemen were put to death, but only one of these was a senator, one Juncus, a magistrate of the first rank, and I made him resign his office before I condemned him. The other senators had committed suicide before arrest. Contrary to the usual custom, I did not confiscate the estates of the executed rebels, but let their heirs inherit as if they had decently killed themselves. In three or four cases, indeed, where their estates were found to be greatly encumbered by debt – the reason probably for their participation in the rebellion – I actually made the heirs a present of money. It has been said that Narcissus took bribes to cover up evidence of guilt against certain rebels: this is certainly an invention. I conducted the preliminary inquiries myself with Polybius’s help and took down depositions. Narcissus did not have the opportunity of suppressing any evidence. Messalina, however, had access to the papers and may have destroyed some of them; I cannot say whether she did or not. But neither Narcissus nor Polybius handled them except in my presence. It has also been said that freedmen and citizens were put to the torture in an attempt to extract evidence from them. This is also untrue. A few slaves were racked, but not to force them to give evidence against their masters, only to make them give evidence against certain freedmen whom I suspected of perjury. The origin of the report that I tortured freedmen and citizens must probably be found in the case of certain of Vinicianus’s slaves to whom he gave their freedom, when he saw that the rebellion had failed, to prevent them giving evidence against him under torture; he pre-dated their freedom, in the deed of manumission, by twelve months. This was an illegal procedure, or at any rate the men were still liable to be examined under torture, by a law passed under Tiberius to prevent this sort of evasion. One so-called citizen was put to torture when it was discovered that he had no claims to be regarded as such. Juncus indeed protested at his trial that he had been grossly maltreated in prison. He appeared swathed in bandages, with severe cuts on his face, but Rufrius testified that it was a downright lie; the injuries were due to his having resisted arrest – leaping naked from a bedroom window at Brindisi and trying to break through a quickset hedge. Two Guards captains confirmed this.
However, Juncus had his revenge on Rufrius. ‘If I must die, Rufrius,’ he said, ‘then I shall take you with me.’ Then he turned to me: ‘Caesar, your trusted Commander of the Guards hates and despises you as much as I do. Paetus and I interviewed him, on Vinicianus’s behalf, asking him whether on the arrival of the forces from Dalmatia he would bring over the Guards to our side. He undertook to do so, but only on condition that he, Scribonianus, and Vinicianus should share the Empire between them. Deny this, Rufrius, if you dare.’
I arrested Rufrius on the spot. At first he tried to laugh off the charge, but Paetus, one of the rebel knights awaiting trial, supported Juncus’s evidence, and finally he broke down and pleaded for mercy. I gave him the mercy of being his own executioner.
A few women were also executed. I did not see why a woman’s sex should protect her from punishment if she had been guilty of fomenting rebellion, particularly a woman who had not married a man in the strict form of marriage but had kept her independence and her own property, and so could not plead coercion. They were brought to the scaffold in chains, just like their husbands, and on the whole showed much greater courage in facing death. One woman, Arria, Paetus’s wife but a close friend of Messalina’s, married in the strict form, could no doubt have won a pardon if she had dared to sue for one. But no, she preferred to die with Paetus. Paetus, as a reward for his evidence in the case of Rufrius, was allowed to commit suicide before any charge was formally brought against him. He was a coward and could not nerve himself to fall on his sword. Arria snatched it from him and drove it home under her own ribs. ‘Look, Paetus,’ she said as she died, ‘it doesn’t hurt.’
The most distinguished person to die because of complicity in this rebellion was my niece Julia (Helen the Glutton). I was glad to have a good excuse for getting rid of her. It was she who had betrayed her husband, my poor nephew Nero, to Sejanus and had got him banished to the island where he died. Tiberius afterwards showed his contempt for her by giving her in marriage to Blandus, a vulgar knight of no family. Helen was jealous of Messalina’s beauty as well as of her power: she had lost her own great beauty because of her passion for food and her indolence, and become excessively stout; however, Vinicianus was one of those little rat-like men who have the same love for women of abundant charms as rats have for large pumpkins; and if he had become Emperor, as he intended, knowing himself more than a match for Rufrius and Scribonianus combined, Helen the Glutton would have become his Empress. It was Vinicianus who betrayed her to Messalina, as a token of his loyalty to us.