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Chapter 26

MY daughter Antonia had been married for some years to young Pompey but they had no children yet. One evening I visited her at her house, in Pompey’s absence, and it occurred to me how disconsolate and bored she now always looked. Yes, she agreed, she was bored, and very bored and more than bored. So I suggested that she would feel much happier if she had a child and told her that I thought it was her duty as a healthy young woman with servants and plenty of money to have not only one child but several. With a family of young children she need never complain of boredom. She flared up and said: ‘Father, only a fool would expect a field of corn to spring up where no seed has been sown. Don’t blame the soil, blame the farmer. He sows salt, not seed.’ And to my astonishment she explained that the marriage had never been properly consummated; and not only that, but she had been used in the vilest possible way by my son-in-law. I asked her why she had not told me of this before, and she said that she didn’t think that I would believe her, because I had never really loved her, not as I loved her half-brother and half-sister; and that young Pompey had boasted to her that he stood so well with me now that he could make me do anything he wanted and believe anything that he told me. So what chance had she? Besides, there would be the shame of having to testify in court to the horrible things that he had done to her, and she could not face that.

I grew angry, as any father would, and assured her that I loved her dearly, and that it was chiefly on her account that I treated Pompey with such respect and confidence. I swore on my honour that if only half of what she had told me was true I would take immediate vengeance on the scoundrel. And that her modesty would be spared: the matter would never go to court. What was the use of being an Emperor if I couldn’t use the privileges of my position to good private purpose occasionally, as a slight counterbalance to the responsibility and labour and pain that went with it? And at what hour was Pompey expected back?

‘He’ll be home at about midnight,’ said Antonia, miserably, ‘and by one o’clock he’ll be in his room. He’ll have a few drinks first. It’s nine chances in ten that he’ll take that disgusting Lycidas to bed with him: he bought him at the Asiaticus sale for twenty thousand gold pieces and he’s not had eyes for anyone else since. In a way it’s been a great relief to me. So you know how bad things must be when I say that I infinitely prefer him to sleep with Lycidas than with me. Yes, I was in love with Pompey once. Love’s a funny thing, isn’t it?’

‘Very well, then, my poor, poor Antonia. When Pompey’s in his room and settled down for the night, light a pair of oil lamps and put them on the window-sill of this room for a signal. Then leave the rest to me.’

She put the oil lamps on the window-sill an hour before dawn; then she came down and made the janitor open the front door. I was there. I brought Geta and a couple of Guards sergeants into the house with me and sent them upstairs while I waited in the hall below with Antonia. She had sent all the servants away except the janitor, who had been a slave-boy of mine. She was crying a little and we clasped hands as we anxiously listened for the sound of screams and scuffling from the bedroom. Not a sound was heard, but presently Geta came down with the sergeants and reported that my orders had been obeyed. Pompey and the slave Lycidas had been killed with a single javelin thrust.

This was the first time that I had used my power as Emperor to avenge a private wrong; but if I had not been Emperor I should have felt just the same and done whatever lay in my power to destroy Pompey; and though the law dealing with unnatural offences has fallen into abeyance for many years now, because no jury seems willing to convict, Pompey legally deserved to die. My only fault was that I executed him summarily; but that was the cleanest way of dealing with him. When a gardener comes across a filthy insect eating the heart out of one of his best roses he does not bring it to court before a jury of the gardeners: he crushes it then and there between his finger-nails. A few months later I married Antonia to Faustus, a descendant of the dictator Sulla, a modest, capable, and hard-working fellow who has turned out an excellent son-in-law. Two years ago he was Consul. They had a child, a boy, but it was very weakly and died, and Antonia has not been able to have another, because of the injury done to her by a careless midwife at the time of her delivery.

Shortly after this I executed Polybius, who was now my Minister of Arts, on Messalina’s giving me proof that he was selling citizenships for his own profit. It was a great shock when I found that Polybius had been playing me false. I had trained him up in my service from a child, and had trusted him implicitly. He had just helped me complete the official autobiography that the Senate had requested me to write for the national archives. I had treated him so familiarly, in fact, that one day when he and I were walking in the Palace grounds, discussing some antiquarian point or other, I did not dismiss him when the two Consuls came up to give me their customary morning greeting. This offended their dignity, but if I was not too proud to walk beside Polybius and listen to his opinions, why should they have been? I allowed him the greatest freedom, and I had never known him to abuse it, though once he was rather too free with his tongue in the Theatre. They were playing a comedy of Menander’s, and an actor had just delivered the line:

A prosperous whipstock scarce can be endured.

Someone in the wings laughed pointedly at this. It must have been Mnester. At any rate everyone turned and stared at Polybius, who as my Minister of Arts had the task of keeping the actors in order: if an actor showed too much independence Polybius saw to it for me that he was severely whipped.

Polybius shouted back: ‘Yes, and Menander says in his Thessaly:

Who once were goatherds now have royal power.’

That was a hit at Mnester, who started life as a goatherd in Thessaly and was now known to be Messalina’s chief infatuation.

I did not know it then, but Messalina had been having sexual relations with Polybius too and he was stupid enough to be jealous of Mnester. So she got rid of him, as I have told you. My other freedmen took Polybius’s death as an affront to themselves – they formed a very close guild, always shielded each other loyally and never competed for my favour or showed any jealousy among themselves. Polybius had said nothing in his own defence, not wishing, I suppose, to incriminate his guild-brothers, many of whom must have been implicated in the same discreditable traffic in citizenships.

As for Mnester, it now happened on several occasions that when billed to dance he would fail to put in an appearance. It used to cause an uproar in the theatre. I must have been very stupid; though his absence always coincided with a sick headache of Messalina’s, which prevented her attendance too, it never occurred to me to draw the obvious conclusion. I had to apologize several times to the public and undertake that it would not occur again. On one occasion I said, in joke: ‘My Lords, you can’t accuse me of hiding him away at the Palace.’ This remark caused inordinate laughter. Everyone but myself knew where Mnester was. When I got back to the Palace Messalina used to send for me, and I would find her in bed in a darkened room with a damp cloth over her eyes. She would say in a faint voice: ‘What, my dear, do you mean to say Mnester didn’t dance again? Then I didn’t miss anything after all. I was lying here simply seething with envy. I got up once and started to dress, to come after all, but the pain was so frightful that I had to get back to bed. Was the play very dull without him?’

I would say: ‘We really must insist on his keeping his engagements: the City can’t be treated like this, time after time.’

Messalina would sigh: ‘I don’t know. He’s very highly strung, poor fellow. Just like a woman. Great artists are always like that. He gets sick headaches at the least provocation, he says. And if he felt only one-tenth as ill to-day as I have felt, it would be the greatest cruelty to insist on his dancing. It’s not shamming, either. He loves his work and he’s greatly distressed when he fails his public. Leave me now, dearest; I want to sleep if I can.’

So I would tiptoe out and nothing more would be said about Mnester until the same thing happened again. I never thought as highly of Mnester, though, as most people did. He has been compared to the great actor Roscius, who under the Republic attained to such eminence in his profession that he became a byword for artistic excellence. People, rather absurdly, still call a clever architect, or a learned historian, or even a smart boxer ‘a very Roscius’. Mnester was no Roscius except in that very loose sense. I admit that I never saw Roscius act. There is nobody now living who ever did. We must all depend on the verdict of our great-grandparents in discussing him, and they agree that Roscius’s chief aim in acting was ‘to keep in character’: and that noble king, or cunning pimp, or boastful soldier, or simple clown – whatever Roscius chose to be, that he was, to the life, without affectation. Whereas Mnester was a mass of mannerisms, very charming and graceful mannerisms, I’m sure, but in the final sense he was not an actor, he was just a pretty fellow with a neat pair of legs and a gift for choreographical improvisation.

It was now that Aulus Plautius returned home after four years’ command in Britain and I had the pleasure of persuading the Senate to grant him a triumph. It was not, however, a full triumph, as I should have liked, but a lesser triumph, or ovation. If a general’s services are too great to be rewarded merely with triumphal ornaments and yet have not, for some technical reason, entitled him to a full triumph, he is given this lesser sort. For example, if the war has not yet been completely finished; or if there has been insufficient bloodshed; or if the enemy is not considered a worthy one – as, long ago, after the defeat of the revolted slaves under Spartacus, though, indeed, Spartacus gave our armies more trouble than many a great foreign nation. In the case of Aulus Plautius, the objection was that his conquests were not yet secure enough to allow him to withdraw his troops. So instead of a chariot with four horses, he rode into the City on horseback, and he wore a myrtle wreath, not one of laurel, and carried no sceptre. The Senate did not head the procession, and there was no corps of trumpeters, and when the procession was done Aulus sacrificed a ram, not a bull. But otherwise the proceedings were the same as in a full triumph, and to show that it was no jealousy of mine that prevented him from winning the same honour as I had done, I came to meet him as he rode down the Sacred Way and offered him my congratulations and let him ride on my right side (the more honourable position) and myself supported him as he went on his knees up the Capitol steps. I also acted as his host at the banquet, and when the banquet was over, again put him on my right side when we brought him home to his house by torchlight.

Aulus was very grateful to me for this, but even more grateful, he told me in private, for having hushed up the scandal of his wife and the Christian love-feast (followers of that Jewish sect were now called Christians) and for having left her to his jurisdiction. He said that when a woman is unavoidably parted from her husband – her health had not allowed her to go to Britain – she is apt to feel lonely and take strange fancies into her head and fall an easy prey to religious charlatans, especially the Jewish and Egyptian sort. But she was a good woman and a good wife and he trusted that she would soon be cured of this nonsense. He was right. Two years later I arrested all the leading Christians in Rome, together with all the orthodox Jewish missionaries, and sent them out of the country, and Aulus’s wife was a great help to me in rounding them up.

The chief emotional appeal of Christianity was that this Joshua, or Jesus, was said to have risen from the dead, as no man had ever done before, except in legends: after being crucified he had visited his friends apparently none the worse for his experience, had eaten and drunk to prove that he was no vision and then gone up to Heaven in a blaze of glory. And there was no proof that these were all lies, because, as it happened, there had been an earthquake just after the crucifixion, which had dislodged a heavy stone from the mouth of the tomb where the corpse had been put. The guard had fled in panic, and when they came back the corpse was gone; evidently it had been stolen. Once a story like this begins to circulate in the East it is difficult to stop it, and it would have been undignified to argue against its absurdity in a public edict; but I did publish a strong order in Galilee, where the Christians were most numerous, making it a capital offence to violate graves. But I must waste no more time over these ridiculous Christians: I must continue with my own story.

I must tell about the three letters which I added to the Roman alphabet, and about the great Saecular Games I celebrated, and about the census I took of Roman citizens, and about my revival of the ancient religious art of soothsaying which had now fallen into neglect, and about various important edicts of mine and laws which I inspired the Senate to pass. But perhaps it would be better first to finish briefly my account of Britain; now that Aulus Plautius has been brought safely home what happened there subsequently will not interest my readers greatly. I sent out one Ostorius to take Aulus’s place, and he had a most difficult time. Plautius had completed the conquest of the plain of South Britain, but, as I say, the mountain tribes of Wales and the warlike North-Midlanders persisted in raiding the frontiers of the new province; Caractacus had married the daughter of the King of South Wales and was leading the South Welsh army in person. As soon as he arrived Ostorius announced that he would disarm all British provincials whose loyalty he suspected; he would thus be free to send his main forces against the tribes beyond the frontier, leaving only small garrisons behind. This announcement was generally resented, and it was understood by the Icenians, who were free allies of ours, that the disarmament rule would be extended to them too. They made a sudden rising, and Ostorius at Colchester found himself threatened by a large army of north-eastern tribes, with not one regular regiment at hand: they were all away in the centre or far west of the island and he had nobody with him but French and Batavians. However, he chose to risk an immediate battle and came off victorious. The Icenian confederacy sued for peace and was granted easy terms, and Ostorius then pushed his regular regiments north, annexing the entire Midlands, and halting on the frontier of the Brigantians. The Brigantians are a savage and powerful federation of tribes who occupy the north of the island as far as its narrowest point; beyond them, the wild mountainous land that spreads out again, unexplored and frightful, for another few hundred miles is inhabited by those red-headed terrors, the Goidels. Ostorius made an expedition to the River Dee in the west and was plundering the valley of that river, which flows north to the Irish Sea, when he heard that the Brigantians were on the move behind him. He turned back and defeated a considerable force of them, capturing several hundred men, including some leading noblemen and a son of the King. The King of the Brigantians pledged himself to ten years of honourable peace if the prisoners were returned; and Ostorius accepted this, but kept the prince and five noblemen as hostages under the title of guests. He was then free to conduct operations in the Welsh hills against Caractacus. He used three out of his four regular regiments, basing one at Caerleon on the Usk, and two at Shrewsbury on the Severn. The remainder of the island was garrisoned only by auxiliaries, except for the Ninth, at Lincoln, and a colony of time-expired veterans at Colchester, where they had been given lands, live stock, and captives to work for them. This colony was the first Roman municipality in Britain, and I sent a letter sanctioning the foundation there of a temple to the God Augustus.

It took Ostorius three years to subdue South and Mid Wales. Caractacus was a brave enemy, and when he was forced up into North Wales with the remnants of his army he managed to fire the tribes there with his own courage. But Ostorius eventually defeated him in a last battle, in which we too lost heavily, and captured his wife, his daughter, a brother-in-law, and two of his nephews in the British camp. Caractacus himself fought his way north-east in a desperate rear-guard action and appeared a few days later at the court of the Queen of the Brigantians (her father, the King, had died and she was the only member of the royal house surviving, apart from the hostage prince in Ostorius’s hands, so they had made her Queen). He urged her to continue the war, but she was no fool. She had him put in chains and sent him to Ostorius as a proof of her loyalty to the oath her father had sworn. Ostorius in return sent her back the noble hostages, one of whom she married. Her brother, the prince, she put to death because he was known to have shown cowardice on the field of battle, unlike her new husband, who had only been captured after receiving seven wounds and accounting for five Roman soldiers. This Queen, whose name is Cartimandua, has proved a most loyal ally. She quarrelled with her husband because he said that he did not regard himself as bound by the old King’s oath to maintain peace with us. He could not persuade the Brigantians to make war on us, so he went down to South Wales and started a fresh revolt there. Our garrison at Caerleron was suddenly attacked in great force. The enemy were beaten off, but our losses included a battalion commander and eight captains of the Second. Not long after this two battalions of French auxiliaries, out foraging, were surprised and annihilated. Ostorius, worn out by three years of incessant fighting, took these reverses too much to heart: he fell sick and died, poor fellow, though it must have been some comfort to him that he was awarded triumphal ornaments just before this. That was two years ago. I sent out a general called Didius to take over the command of the province, but while he was on his way the Fourteenth were beaten in a pitched battle and had to retreat to their camp, leaving prisoners in the hands of the enemy.

Cartimandua’s husband then left South Wales and made an attack on Cartimandua herself, who had earned his anger by putting to death two of his brothers who were plotting against her. She appealed for help to Didius, and he sent her four battalions of the Ninth and two of Batavians. With these and her own forces she defeated her husband, captured him, and made him swear vassalage to herself and friendship to the Romans. She then pardoned him, and they are reigning together again with apparent friendliness: there have been no border raids reported since. Meanwhile Didius has restored order in South Wales.

So let me now take leave of my province of Britain, which has cost us heavily in men and money and has so far yielded small returns except in glory. But I regard the occupation as a good investment for Rome in the long run, and if we treat the natives with justice and good faith they will become valuable allies and, eventually. valuable citizens. The riches of a country do not only lie in corn, metals, and cattle. What the Empire needs most is men, and if she can add to her resources by the annexation of a country where an honest, warlike, and industrious race is bred, that is a better acquisition than any spice island of the Indies or gold-bearing territory of Central Asia. The faith that Queen Cartimandua and her nobles have shown, and the courage in adversity of King Caractacus, are the happiest possible auguries of the future.

Caractacus was brought to Rome, and I decreed a general holiday to celebrate his arrival. The whole City came out to look at him. The Guards Division was on parade, outside the Camp, and I was sitting on a tribunal platform erected for the occasion at the Camp gate. Trumpeters sounded and in the distance a small procession was moving across the turf towards me. First came a detachment of captured British soldiers; then Caractacus’s household thegns; then wagons heaped with trappings and collars and weapons – not only Caractacus’s own, but all that he had won in wars with his neighbours, captured in that camp at Cefn Carnedd; then Caractacus’s wife, daughter, brother-in-law, and nephews, and lastly Caractacus himself, carrying his head high and looking neither to the right nor the left until he came to my platform. There he made a dignified obeisance, and asked permission to address me. I granted him permission and he spoke in a frank and noble way, in such remarkably fluent Latin, too, that I positively envied him: I am a wretched speaker and always get entangled in my sentences.

‘Caesar, you see me here in chains before you, suing for my life, after having resisted your country’s arms for seven long years. I might well have held out for seven years longer if I had not trusted Queen Cartimandua to respect the sacred guest-right of our island. In Britain when a man claims hospitality at any house, and is given salt and bread and wine, the host then holds himself answerable for his guest’s life with his own. A man took refuge once at my father Cymbeline’s court and, after having eaten his salt, revealed himself as the murderer of my grandfather. But my father said: “You are my guest. I cannot harm you.” Queen Cartimandua by putting me in these chains and sending me here did more honour to you as her ally than to herself as the Queen of the Brigantians.

‘I make a voluntary confession of my own faults. The letter that my brother Togodumnus wrote to you, and that I did not dissuade him from sending, was as foolish as it was discourteous. We were young and proud then and trusting to hearsay we underestimated the strength of your Roman armies, the loyalty of your generals, and your own great qualities as a commander. If I had matched the glory of my lineage and of my own feats with a becoming moderation in prosperity I should no doubt have entered this City as a friend, not as a captive; nor would you then have disdained to welcome me royally, as a son of my father Cymbeline whom your God Augustus honoured as an ally and overlord like him of many a conquered tribe.

‘For my prolonged resistance to you, once I found that you were bent on annexing my kingdom and the kingdoms of my allies, I have no apologies to offer. I had men and arms, chariots, horses, and treasure: do you wonder that I was unwilling to part with them? You Romans aim at extending your sway over all mankind, but it does not follow that all mankind will immediately accept that sway. You must first prove your right to rule, and prove it with the sword. It has been a long war between us, Caesar, and your armies have pursued me from tribe to tribe, and from fort to fort, and I have taken heavy toll of them; but now I am caught and the victory is yours at last. If I had surrendered to your lieutenant Aulus Plautius at that first engagement on the Medway I should have been proved an unworthy foe and Aulus Plautius would not have sent for you, and so you would never have celebrated your deserved triumph. Therefore respect your enemy, now that he is humbled, grant him his life, and your noble clemency will never be forgotten either by your own country or by mine. Britain will reverence the clemency of the victor, if Rome approves the courage of the conquered.’

I called Aulus to me. ‘For my part I am willing to let this brave king go free. To restore him to his throne in Britain would be everywhere regarded as weakness, so that I cannot do. But I am inclined to let him stay here in Rome as a guest of the City, with a pension suited to his needs; and also to release his family and household thegns. What do you say?’

Aulus answered: ‘Caesar, Caractacus has shown himself a gallant enemy. He has tortured or executed no prisoners, poisoned no wells, fought fair, and kept faith. If you release him I shall be proud to take him by the hand and offer him my friendship.’

I freed Caractacus. He thanked me gravely: ‘I wish for every Roman citizen a heart like yours.’ That night he and his family dined at the Palace. Aulus was there too and we old campaigners fought the battle of Brentwood over again as the wine went round. I told Caractacus how nearly he and I had met in a hand-to-hand conflict. He laughed and said: ‘If I had only known! But if you are still eager for the fight, I’m your man. To-morrow morning on Mars Field, you on your mare and me on foot? The disparity of our ages will make that fair.’ Another remark of his has since become famous: ‘I cannot understand, my Lords, how as rulers of a City as glorious as this is, with its houses like marble cliffs, its shops like royal treasuries, its temples like the dreams that our Druids report when they return from magical visits to the Kingdom of the Dead, you can ever find it in your hearts to covet the possession of our poor island huts.’

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