I AM near the end of my long story. I have now been five years married to Agrippinilla, but they have been comparatively uneventful years, and I shall not write about them in too great detail. I have let Agrippinilla and my freedmen rule me. I have opened and shut my mouth and gestured with my arms like the little jointed marionettes they make in Sicily: but the voice has not been mine, nor the gestures. I must say at once that Agrippinilla has shown herself a remarkably able ruler of the tyrannical sort. When she comes into a room where a number of notables are gathered, and looks coldly around her, everyone quakes and springs to attention and studies how best to please her. She no longer needs to pretend affection for me. I soon made her realize that I had married her purely on political grounds; and, physically, she was repulsive to me. I was quite frank about it. I explained: ‘The fact is, that I got tired of being Emperor. I wanted someone to do most of the work for me. I married you not for your heart but for your head. It takes a woman to run an empire like this. There’s no reason for us to pretend amorous devotion to each other.’
‘That suits me,’ she said. ‘You’re not the sort of lover one dreams about.’
‘And you’re not quite what you were twenty-two years ago, my dear, when you were a bride for the first time. Still, you’ll last a little longer if you continue with that daily facial massage and those milk baths: Vitellius pretends to find you the most beautiful woman in Rome.’
‘And perhaps you’ll last too, if you don’t exasperate the people you depend on.’
‘Yes, we two have outlasted all the rest of our family,’ I agreed. ‘I don’t know how we’ve done it. I think we ought to congratulate each other, instead of quarrelling.’
‘You always begin it,’ she said, ‘by being what you call “honest”.’
Agrippinilla could not understand me. She soon found that it was unnecessary to coax or cheat or bully me if she wanted things done her way. I accepted her suggestions on almost every point. She could hardly believe her luck when I consented to betroth Lucius to Octavia: she knew what I really thought of Lucius. She could not make out why I consented. She was emboldened to go further and suggest that I should adopt him as my son. But that was already my intention. She first let Pallas sound, me on the subject. Pallas was tactful. He began speaking fondly of my brother Germanicus and of his adoption by my Uncle Tiberius at Augustus’s request, though Tiberius had a son of his own, Castor. He enlarged on the remarkable brotherly love that had sprung up between Germanicus and Castor and the generosity that Castor had shown to Germanicus’s widow and children. I knew at once what Pallas was driving at, and agreed that two loving sons were better than one. ‘But remember,’ I said, ‘that was not the end of the story. Germanicus and Castor were both murdered; and my Uncle Tiberius in his old age, as it might be myself, named another pair of loving brothers as his joint heirs – Caligula and Gemellus. Caligula had the advantage of being the elder. When the old man died Caligula seized the monarchy and killed Gemellus.’
That silenced Pallas for a while. When he tried a slightly different line, this time telling me what fast friends Lucius and Britannicus had become, I said, as if quite irrelevantly: ‘Do you know that the Claudian family has kept its descent direct in the male line, without adoptions, ever since the day of the original Appius Claudius, five whole cycles ago? There’s no other family in Rome can make the same boast.’
‘Yes, Caesar,’ Pallas said, ‘the Claudian family tradition is one of the least plastic things in a remarkably plastic world. But, as you wisely point out, “all things are subject to change”.’
‘Listen, Pallas. Why do you go on beating about the bush? Tell the Lady Agrippinilla that if she wishes me to adopt her son as my joint-heir with Britannicus I am ready to do so. As for plasticity, I’ve gone very soft in my old age. You can roll me in your hands like dough and fill me with whatever stuffing you like and bake me into Imperial dumplings.’
I adopted Lucius. He is now called Nero. Recently I married him to Octavia, whom I had first, however, to let Vitellius adopt as his daughter, to avoid the technical crime of incest. On the night of their marriage the whole sky seemed on fire. A.D. 50 Lucius (or Nero as he was now called) did his best to win Britannicus’s friendship. But Britannicus saw through him and haughtily rejected his advances. He refused at first to address him as Nero, continuing to call him Lucius Domitius until Agrippinilla intervened and ordered him to apologize. Britannicus replied: ‘I shall apologize only if my father orders me to do so.’ I ordered him to apologize. I still saw very little of Britannicus. I had fought down my morbid suspicions about his being Caligula’s bastard – and loved him now as dearly as ever before. But I concealed my true feelings. I was determined to play Old King Log, and nothing must hinder my resolution. Sosibius was his tutor still and gave him an old-fashioned education. Britannicus was accustomed to the plainest foods and lay at night on a plank bed like a soldier. Horsemanship, fencing, military engineering, and early Roman history were his chief studies, but he knew the works of Homer and Ennius and Livy as well as or better than I did. In his holidays Sosibius took him down to my Capua estate, and there he learned about bee-keeping, stock-breeding, and farming. I allowed him no training in Greek oratory or philosophy. I told Sosibius: ‘The ancient Persians taught their children to shoot straight and speak the truth. Teach my son the same.’
Narcissus ventured to criticize me. ‘The sort of education that Britannicus is being given, Caesar, would have been all very well in the old days when, as you are so fond of quoting,
Under the oak sat Romulus
Eating boiled turnips with a will,
or even a few hundred years later when,
Called to fight his country’s foemen
Cincinnatus left the plough.
But surely in this new ninth cycle of Roman history it is a little out of date?’
‘I know what I am doing, Narcissus,’ I said.
As for Nero, I provided our young King Stork with the most appropriate tutor in the world. I had to send all the way to Corsica for this prodigy. You will guess his name, perhaps: Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Stoic – that flashy orator, that shameless flatterer, that dissolute and perverted amorist. I pleaded before the Senate myself for his forgiveness and recall. I spoke of the uncomplaining patience with which he had borne his eight years of exile, the rigorous discipline to which he had voluntarily subjected himself, and his deep sense of loyalty to my house. Seneca must have been astounded, after the two false moves he had recently made. For shortly after the publication of his Consolation to Polybius, Polybius had been executed as a criminal. Seneca had then tried to remedy the mistake by a panegyric on Messalina. A few days after it was published at Rome, Messalina followed Polybius into disgrace and death, and it was hurriedly withdrawn. Agrippinilla was quite ready to welcome Seneca as Nero’s teacher. She valued his talents as a teacher of rhetoric and took all the credit for his recall.
Nero is afraid of his mother. He obeys her in everything. She treats him with great severity. She is certain that she will rule through him after my death, just as Livia ruled first through Augustus and then through Tiberius. I can see farther than she can. I remember the Sibyl’s prophecy:
The hairy Sixth to enslave the State
Shall give Rome fiddlers and fear and fire.
His hand shall be red with a parent’s blood.
No hairy seventh to him succeeds
And blood shall gush from his tomb.
Nero will kill his mother. It was prophesied at his birth: Barbillus himself prophesied it, and Barbillus never makes a mistake. He was even right about the death of Messalina’s husband, was he not? Agrippinilla, being a woman, cannot command the Roman armies or address the Senate. She needs a man to do that for her. When I married her I knew that I could count on surviving so long as Nero was too young to step into my shoes.
Agrippinilla asked me to persuade the Senate to give her the title of Augusta. She did not expect me to give her what I had refused Messalina, but I did. She has taken upon herself other unheard of privileges. She sits on the tribunal beside me when I judge cases, and drives up the Capitoline Hill in a chariot. She has appointed a new Guards Commander to supersede Geta and Crispinus. His name is Burrhus and he is Agrippinilla’s man, body and soul. (He served with the Guards at Brentwood and there lost three fingers of his right hand to a British broad-sword.) Rome’s new Augusta has no rivals. Aelia Paetina is dead, perhaps poisoned: I do not know. Lollia Paulina was also removed: her champion, Callistus, having died, the other freedmen made no objection to her removal. She was accused of witchcraft and of circulating an astrological report that my marriage to Agrippinilla was fated to be disastrous to the country. I was sorry for Lollia, so in the speech that I made to the Senate I merely recommended her banishment. But Agrippinilla would not be cheated. She sent a Guards colonel to Lollia’s house and he made sure that she killed herself. He duly reported her death, but Agrippinilla was not satisfied. ‘Bring me her head,’ she ordered. The head was brought to her at the Palace. Agrippinilla took it by the hair and, holding it up to a window, opened the mouth. ‘Yes, that’s Lollia’s head, all right,’ she said complacently to me as I came into the room. ‘Here are those gold teeth that she had put in by an Alexandrian dentist to fill out her sunken left cheek. What coarse hair she had, like a pony’s mane. Slave, take this thing away. And the mat too: have the bloodstains scrubbed out.’
Agrippinilla also removed her sister-in-law Domitia Lepida, Messalina’s mother. Domitia Lepida was very attentive to Nero now and used to invite him frequently to her house, where she caressed and flattered him, and gave him a good time and reminded him of all that she had done for him when he was a penniless orphan. It was true that she had occasionally taken charge of him when her sister Domitia went out of town and could not be bothered to take the child with her. Agrippinilla, finding that her own maternal authority, which was based on sternness, was being threatened by Domitia Lepida’s auntish indulgences, had her accused of publicly cursing my marriage-bed and also of failing to restrain the slaves on her estate in Calabria from dangerous rioting: a magistrate and two of his staff who attempted to restore order there had been set on and beaten, and Domitia Lepida had locked herself up in the house and done nothing. I allowed her to be sentenced to death on these two charges (the first of which was probably a fabrication) because I was now aware of the assistance she had given Messalina in the Appius Silanus affair and other deceptions practised on me.
One act only of Agrippinilla’s I found it hard to take philosophically. When I heard of it I confess that tears came into my eyes. But it would have been foolish for old King Log to have gone back on his resolution at this point, and roused himself and taken vengeance. Vengeance cannot recall the dead to life again. It was the murder of my poor Calpurnia and her friend Cleopatra that made me weep. Someone set fire to their house one night and the two were trapped in their beds and burned to death. It was made to look like an accident; but it was clearly murder. Pallas, who told me about it, had the insolence to suggest that it was done by some friend of Messalina’s who knew the part that Calpurnia had played in bringing her to justice. I had been most neglectful of Calpurnia. I had not visited her once since that terrible afternoon. At my private order a handsome marble tomb was erected for her on the ruins of the burned villa, and on it I put a Greek epigram. It was the only one that I have ever composed except as a school exercise: but I felt that I had to do something out of the ordinary to express my great grief for her death and my gratitude for the love and devotion she had always shown me. I wrote:
‘A harlot’s love, a harlot’s lie’ –
Cast that ancient proverb by.
CALPURNIA’S heart was cleaner far,
Roman matrons, than yours are.
Last year, the year of Nero’s marriage, was marked by a world failure of crops* that all but exhausted our granaries. This year, though the harbour of Ostia was now completed, a strong northeast wind blowing for weeks on end prevented the Egyptian and African corn fleets from making our shores. The Italian harvest promised well, but was not yet ready to cut, and at one time there was only a fortnight’s corn supply left in the public granaries, though I had done everything possible to fill them. I was obliged to reduce corn rations to the lowest possible level. Then, as though I was not doing and had not always done everything possible to keep my fellow citizens well fed (building the harbour, for instance, in the face of general discouragement, and organizing the daily supply of fresh vegetables), I suddenly found myself regarded as a public enemy. I was accused of purposely starving the City. The crowd groaned and howled at me almost whenever I showed myself in public, and once or twice pelted me with stones and mud and mouldy crusts. On one occasion I narrowly escaped serious injury in the Market Place: my yeomen were set upon by a mob of 200 or 300 persons and had their rods of office broken over their own backs. I only just managed to get safely into the Palace by a postern gate not far off, from which a small party of armed Guardsmen dashed out to my rescue. In the old days I would have taken this greatly to heart. Now I just smiled to myself. ‘Frogs,’ I thought, ‘you are getting very frisky.’
Nero put on his manly-gown, in the year after his adoption by me. I allowed the Senate to vote him the privilege of becoming Consul at the age of twenty, so at sixteen he was Consul-Elect. I awarded him honorary triumphal dress and appointed him Leader of Cadets, as Augustus had appointed his grandsons, Gaius and Lucius. In the Latin holidays, too, when the Consuls and other magistrates were out of the City, I made him City Warden as Augustus had also done with his grandsons, to give them a first taste of magistracy. It was customary to bring no important cases before the City Warden, but to wait for the return of the proper magistrates. Nero, however, managed a whole series of complicated cases which would have tested the judgement of the most experienced legal officers in the City, and gave remarkably shrewd decisions. This gained him popular admiration, but it was perfectly clear to me, as soon as I heard about it, that the whole affair had been stage-managed by Seneca. I do not mean that the cases were not genuine, but Seneca had reviewed them carefully beforehand and arranged with the lawyers as to just what points they should bring out in their speeches, and had then coached Nero in his cross-examination of witnesses and his summing-up and judgement. Britannicus had not yet come of age. I kept him from the society of boys of his own age and rank as much as possible: he only met them under the eye of his tutors. I did not wish him to catch the Imperial infection to which I was purposely subjecting Nero. I let it go about that he was an epileptic. Public flattery was all concentrated now on Nero. Agrippinilla was delighted. She thought that I hated Britannicus for his mother’s sake.
There was a big riot about the sale of bread. It was a quite unnecessary riot, though, and according to Narcissus, who loathed Agrippinilla (and found to his surprise that I encouraged him in this), it was instigated by her. It happened when I was suffering from a chill, and Agrippinilla came to my room and suggested that I should issue an edict to reassure and quiet the populace. She wanted me to say that I was not seriously ill and that, even if my illness took a serious turn and I died, Nero was now capable of conducting public affairs under her guidance. I laughed in her face. ‘You are asking me to sign my own death warrant, my dear? Come on, then, give me the pen. I’ll sign it. When’s the funeral to be?’
‘If you don’t wish to sign it, don’t,’ she said. ‘I’m not forcing you.’
‘Very well, then, I won’t,’ I said. ‘I’ll inquire into that bread riot and see who really started it.’
She walked angrily out. I called her back. ‘I was only joking. Of course I’ll sign! By the way, has Seneca taught Nero his funeral oration yet? Or not yet? I’d like to hear it first, if none of you mind.’
Vitellius died of a paralytic stroke. A senator who was either drunk or crazy, I can’t say which, had suddenly accused him before the House of aiming at the monarchy. The charge appears to have been directed at Agrippinilla, but naturally no one dared to support it, much as Agrippinilla was hated, so the accuser was himself outlawed. However, Vitellius took the matter to heart and the stroke followed soon after. I visited him as he lay dying. He was unable to move a finger but talked quite good sense. I asked him the question that I had always meant to ask: ‘Vitellius, in a better age you would have been one of the most virtuous men alive: how was it, then, that your upright nature acquired a sort of permanent stoop from playing the courtier?’
He said: ‘It was inevitable under a monarchy, however benevolent the monarch. The old virtues disappear. Independence and frankness are at a discount. Complacent anticipation of the monarch’s wishes is then the greatest of all virtues. One must either be a good monarch like yourself, or a good courtier like myself – either an Emperor or an idiot.’
I said: ‘You mean that people who continue virtuous in an old-fashioned way must inevitably suffer in times like these?’
‘Phaemon’s dog was right.’ That was the last thing he said before he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered.
I could not be content until I had hunted down the reference in the library. It appears that Phaemon the philosopher had a little dog whom he had trained to go to the butcher every day and bring back a lump of meat in a basket. This virtuous creature, who would never dare to touch a scrap until Phaemon gave it permission, was one day set upon by a pack of mongrels who snatched the basket from its mouth and began to tear the meat to pieces and bolt it greedily down. Phaemon, watching from an upper window, saw the dog deliberate for a moment just what to do. It was clearly no use trying to rescue the meat from the other dogs: they would kill it for its pains. So it rushed in among them and itself ate as much of the meat as it could get hold of. In fact, it ate more than any of the other dogs, because it was both braver and cleverer.
The Senate honoured Vitellius with a public funeral and a statue in the Market Place. The inscription that is carved on it reads:
LUCIUS VITELLIUS, TWICE CONSUL,
HE ALSO GOVERNED SYRIA.
UNSWERVINGLY LOYAL TO HIS EMPEROR
I must tell about the Fucine Lake. I had lost all real interest in it by now, but one day Narcissus, who was in charge of the work, told me that the contractors reported that the channel was dug through the mountain at last: we had only to raise A.D. 53 the sluice-gates and let the water rush out, and the whole lake would become dry land. Thirteen years, and 30,000 men constantly at work! ‘We’ll celebrate this, Narcissus,’ I said.
I arranged a sham sea-fight, but on a most magnificent scale. Julius Caesar had first introduced this sort of spectacle at Rome, exactly 100 years before. He dug a basin in Mars Field, which he flooded from the Tiber, and arranged for eight ships, called the Tyrian fleet, to engage eight more, called the Egyptian fleet. About 2,000 fighting men were used, exclusive of rowers. When I was eight years old Augustus gave a similar show in a permanent basin on the other side of the Tiber, measuring 1,200 feet by 1,800, with stone seats around it like an amphitheatre. There were twelve ships a side this time, called Athenians and Persians. Three thousand men fought in them. My show on the Fucine Lake was going to dwarf both spectacles. I didn’t care about economy now. I was going to have a really magnificent show for once. Julius’s and Augustus’s fleets had been composed of light craft only, but I gave orders for twenty-four proper war vessels of three banks of oars each to be constructed, and twenty-six smaller vessels; and I cleared the prisons of 1,900 able-bodied criminals to fight in them under the command of famous professional sword-fighters. The two fleets, each consisting of twenty-five vessels, were to be known as the Rhodians and the Sicilians. The hills around the lake would make a fine natural amphitheatre; and though it was a very long way from Rome, I was sure that I could draw an audience there of at least 200,000 people. I advised them by an official circular to bring their own food with them in baskets. But 1,900 armed criminals are a dangerous force to handle. I had to take the whole Guards Division out there and station some of them on shore and the rest on rafts lashed together across the lake. The line of rafts was a semicircle which made a proper naval basin of the southwestern end of the lake, where it tapered to the point at which the channel had been cut. The whole lake would have been too big: it spread over 200 square miles. The Guards on the rafts had catapults and mangonels ready to sink any vessel that tried to ram the line and escape.
The great occasion finally came; I proclaimed a ten-days’ public holiday. The weather was fine and the number of spectators was more like 500,000 than 200,000. They came from all over Italy, and I must say that it was a wonderfully well-behaved and well-dressed gathering. To prevent overcrowding, I divided up the lake-shore into what I called colonies and put each colony under a magistrate; the magistrates had to make arrangements for communal cooking and sanitation and so on. I built a large canvas field-hospital for the wounded survivors of the battle and for accidents on shore. Fifteen babies were born in that hospital and I made them all take the additional name of Fucinus or Fucina.
Everything was in position by ten o’clock on the morning of the fight. The fleets were manned and came rowing up in parallel lines towards the President, namely, myself, who was sitting on a high throne dressed in a suit of golden armour with a purple cloak over it. My throne was at a point where the shore curved out into the lake and gave the widest view. Agrippinilla sat beside me on an other throne, wearing a long mantle of cloth of gold. The two flagships came close up to us. The crew shouted: ‘Greetings, Caesar. We salute you in Death’s shadow.’
I was supposed to nod gravely, but I was feeling in a gay humour that morning. I answered: ‘And the same to you, my friends.’
The rascals pretended to understand this as a general pardon. ‘Long live Caesar,’ they shouted joyfully. I did not at the moment realize what they meant. The combined fleets sailed past me cheering and then the Sicilians formed up on the west and the Rhodians on the east. The signal for battle was given by a mechanical silver Triton that suddenly appeared from the lake-bottom, when I pressed a lever and blew a golden trumpet. That caused huge excitement among the audience. The fleets met, and expectation ran high. And then – what do you think happened then? They simply sailed through each other, cheering me and congratulating each other! I was angry. I jumped down from my throne and rushed along the shore shouting and cursing. ‘What do you think that I got you all here for, you scoundrels, you scum, you rebels, you bastards? To kiss each other and shout loyal shouts? You could have done that just as well in the prison-yard. Why don’t you fight? Afraid, eh? Do you want to be given to the wild beasts instead? Listen, if you don’t fight now, by God, I’ll make the Guards put up a show. I’ll make them sink every one of your ships with their siege-engines and kill every man Jack who swims ashore.’
As I have told you, my legs have always been weak, and one is shorter than the other, and I am not accustomed to use them much, and I am old and rather stout now, and besides all this I was wearing an extremely heavy corselet, and the ground was uneven, so you can imagine what sort of a figure I cut – stumbling top-heavily along, with frequent falls, shouting at the top of my not very melodious voice, red and stuttering with anger! However, I succeeded in making them fight, and the spectators cheered me with, ‘Well done, Caesar! Well run, Caesar!’
I recovered my good humour and joined in the laugh against myself. You should have seen the murderous look on Agrippinilla’s face. ‘You boor,’ she muttered as I climbed back on my throne. ‘You idiotic boor. Have you no dignity? How do you expect the people to respect you?’
I answered politely: ‘Why, of course, as your husband, my dear, and as Nero’s father-in-law.’
The fleets met. I shall not describe the battle in much detail, but both sides fought splendidly. The Sicilians rammed and sank nine of the big Rhodian vessels, losing three of their own, and then cornered the remainder close to where we were sitting and boarded them one by one. The Rhodians repelled them time and time again, and the decks were slippery with blood, but finally they were beaten and by three o’clock the Sicilian flag was run up on the last vessel. My field hospital was full. Nearly 5,000 wounded were carried ashore. I pardoned the remainder, except the survivors of three big Rhodian vessels who had not put up a proper fight before being rammed, and six of the Sicilian lighter craft who had consistently avoided combat. Three thousand men had been killed or drowned. When I was a lad I couldn’t bear the sight of bloodshed. I don’t mind it at all now: I get so interested in the fighting.
Before letting the water out of the lake I thought that I had better satisfy myself that the channel was deep enough to carry it off. I sent out someone to take careful soundings in the middle of the lake. He reported that the channel would have to be dug at least a yard deeper if we were not to be left with a lake a quarter of its present size! So the whole spectacle had been wasted. Agrippinilla blamed Narcissus and accused him of fraud. Narcissus blamed the engineers who, he said, must have been bribed by the contractors to send in a false report as to the depth of the lake, and protested that Agrippinilla was being most unjust to him.
I laughed. It didn’t matter. We had witnessed a most enjoyable show and the channel could be dug to the proper depth within a few months. Nobody was to blame, I said: probably there had been a natural subsidence of the lake-bottom. So we all went home again and in four months’ time back we came. On this occasion I did not have enough criminals available for a big sea-battle, and did not wish to repeat the spectacle on a smaller scale, so I had another idea. I built a long, wide pontoon-bridge across the end of the lake and arranged for two forces of two battalions apiece, called Etruscans and Samnians, appropriately dressed and armed, to fight on it. They marched towards each other along the bridge, to the accompaniment of martial music, and engaged in the centre, where the bridge widened out to 100 yards or so, and there fought a vigorous battle. The Samnians twice took possession of this battle-field, but Etruscan counter-attacks forced them back and eventually the Samnians were on the run, losing heavily, some run through by bronze-headed Etruscan lances or chopped down by two-headed Etruscan battle-axes, some thrown off the bridge into the water. My orders were that no combatant must be permitted to swim ashore. If he was thrown into the water he must either drown or climb back on the bridge. The Etruscans were victorious and erected a trophy. I gave all the victors their freedom, and a few of the Samnians, too, who had fought particularly well.
Then at last the moment came for the water to be let out of the lake. A huge wooden dining-hall had been erected close to the sluice-gates and the tables were spread with a magnificent luncheon for me and the Senate, and the families of senators, and a number of leading knights and their families, and all senior Guards officers. We would dine to the pleasant sound of rushing water. ‘You’re sure that the channel is deep enough now?’ I asked Narcissus.
‘Yes, Caesar. I’ve taken the soundings myself.’
So I went to the sluice-gates and sacrificed and uttered a prayer or two – they included an apology to the nymph of the lake, whom I now begged to act as guardian deity of the farmers who would till the recovered land – and finally lent a hand to the crank at which a group of my Germans was posted, and gave the order, ‘Heave away!’
Up came the gates and the water rolled crashing into the channel. An immense cheer went up. We watched for a minute or two and then I said to Narcissus: ‘Congratulations, my dear Narcissus. Thirteen years’ work and thirty thousand – –’
I was interrupted by a roar like thunder, followed by a general shriek of alarm.
‘What’s that?’ I cried.
He caught me by the arm without ceremony and fairly dragged me up the hill. ‘Hurry!’ he screamed. ‘Faster, faster!’ I looked to see what was the matter, and a huge brown-and-white wall of water, I wouldn’t like to say how many feet high, on the model of the one that runs yearly up the Severn River in Britain, was roaring up the channel. Up the channel, mark you! It was some time before I realized what had happened. The sudden rush of water had overflowed the channel a few hundred yards down, forming a large lake in a fold of the hills. Into this lake, its foundations sapped by the water, slid a whole hillside, hundreds of thousands of tons of rock, completely filling it and expelling the water with awful force.
All but a few of us managed to scramble to safety, though with wet legs – only twenty persons were drowned. But the dining-chamber was torn to pieces and tables and couches and food and garlands carried far out into the lake. Oh, how vexed Agrippinilla was! She blazed up at Narcissus, telling him that he had arranged the whole thing on purpose to conceal the fact that the channel was still not dug deep enough, and accused him of putting millions of public money into his own pocket, and Heaven only knows what else besides.
Narcissus, whose nerves were thoroughly upset now, lost his temper too and asked Agrippinilla who she thought she was – Queen Semiramis? or the Goddess Juno? or the Commander-in-Chief of the Roman Armies? ‘Keep your paws out of this pie,’ he screamed at her.
I thought it all a great joke. ‘Quarrelling won’t give us back our dinners,’ I said.
I was more amused than ever when the engineers reported that it would take two more years to cut a new passage through the obstruction. ‘I’m afraid that I’ll not be spared to exhibit another fight on these waters, my friends,’ I said gravely. Somehow, the whole business seemed beautifully symbolic. Labour in vain, like all the industrious work that I had done in my early years of monarchy as a gift to an undeserving Senate and People. The violence of that wave gave me a feeling of the deepest satisfaction. I liked it better than all the sea-fighting and bridge-fighting.
Agrippinilla was complaining that a precious set of gold dishes from the Palace had been carried away by the wave and only a few pieces recovered: the others were at the lake-bottom. ‘Why, that’s nothing to worry about,’ I teased. ‘Listen! You take off those beautiful shining clothes of yours – I’ll see that Narcissus doesn’t steal them – and I’ll make the Guards keep the crowd back and you can give a special diving display from the sluice-gate. Everyone will enjoy that tremendously: they like nothing so much as the discovery that their rulers are human after all. … But, my dear, why not? Why shouldn’t you? Now, don’t lose your temper. If you can dive for sponges, you can dive for gold dishes, surely? Look, that must be one of your treasures over there, shining through the water, quite easy to get. There, where I’m throwing this pebble!’
To console Agrippinilla for her losses, I gave her, some days later, a very valuable present – a snow-white nightingale, the first ever reported of that colour. Narcissus, as an apology for his rudeness, gave her a talking blackbird. The blackbird talked almost as well as a parrot, and the white nightingale sang quite as well as the ordinary brown sort. Agrippinilla could not easily conceal her delight in these birds. My family, by the way, has always shown a weakness for pet animals. There was Augustus with his watchdog, Typhon; Tiberius with his wingless dragon; Caligula with the horse Incitatus. My sister Livilla kept a thievish, mischievous marmoset; my brother Germanicus a black squirrel, and my mother Antonia a large pet carp. This fish would answer to its name, which was ‘Leviathan’, swimming up from its lair among the water-lilies in its pool and allowing my mother to feed and tickle it. It was a present from Herod Agrippa, who had fixed a little pair of jewelled ear-rings in its gills. She used to claim that when it opened and shut its mouth it was addressing her, and that she understood it. I never had a pet myself. I have always felt that in these cases one gives more than one gets, and there is a temptation to believe the creature both more affectionate and more sagacious than it really is.