Nero Claudius Caesar


I. Two celebrated families, the Calvini and Aenobarbi, sprung from the
race of the Domitii. The Aenobarbi derive both their extraction and
their cognomen from one Lucius Domitius, of whom we have this tradition:
–As he was returning out of the country to Rome, he was met by two young
men of a most august appearance, who desired him to announce to the
senate and people a victory, of which no certain intelligence had yet
reached the city. To prove that they were more than mortals, they
stroked his cheeks, and thus changed his hair, which was black, to a
bright colour, resembling that of brass; which mark of distinction
descended to his posterity, for they had generally red beards. This
family had the honour of seven consulships [548], one triumph [549], and
two censorships [550]; and being admitted into the patrician order, they
continued the use of the same cognomen, with no other praenomina [551] than those of Cneius and Lucius. These, however, they assumed with
singular irregularity; three persons in succession sometimes adhering to
one of them, and then they were changed alternately. For the first,
second, and third of the Aenobarbi had the praenomen of Lucius, and again
the three following, successively, that of Cneius, while those who came
after were called, by turns, one, Lucius, and the other, Cneius. It
appears to me proper to give a short account of several of the family, to
show that Nero so far degenerated from the noble qualities of his
ancestors, that he retained only their vices; as if those alone had been
transmitted to him by his descent.

II. To begin, therefore, at a remote period, his great-grandfather’s
grandfather, Cneius Domitius, when he was tribune of the people, being
offended with the high priests for electing another than himself in the
room of his father, obtained the (338) transfer of the right of election
from the colleges of the priests to the people. In his consulship [552],
having conquered the Allobroges and the Arverni [553], he made a progress
through the province, mounted upon an elephant, with a body of soldiers
attending him, in a sort of triumphal pomp. Of this person the orator
Licinius Crassus said, “It was no wonder he had a brazen beard, who had a
face of iron, and a heart of lead.” His son, during his praetorship
[554], proposed that Cneius Caesar, upon the expiration of his
consulship, should be called to account before the senate for his
administration of that office, which was supposed to be contrary both to
the omens and the laws. Afterwards, when he was consul himself [555], he
tried to deprive Cneius of the command of the army, and having been, by
intrigue and cabal, appointed his successor, he was made prisoner at
Corsinium, in the beginning of the civil war. Being set at liberty, he
went to Marseilles, which was then besieged; where having, by his
presence, animated the people to hold out, he suddenly deserted them, and
at last was slain in the battle of Pharsalia. He was a man of little
constancy, and of a sullen temper. In despair of his fortunes, he had
recourse to poison, but was so terrified at the thoughts of death, that,
immediately repenting, he took a vomit to throw it up again, and gave
freedom to his physician for having, with great prudence and wisdom,
given him only a gentle dose of the poison. When Cneius Pompey was
consulting with his friends in what manner he should conduct himself
towards those who were neuter and took no part in the contest, he was the
only one who proposed that they should be treated as enemies.

III. He left a son, who was, without doubt, the best of the family. By
the Pedian law, he was condemned, although innocent, amongst others who
were concerned in the death of Caesar [556]. Upon this, he went over to
Brutus and Cassius, his near relations; and, after their death, not only
kept together the fleet, the command of which had been given him some
time before, but even increased it. At last, when the party had
everywhere been defeated, he voluntarily surrendered it to (339) Mark
Antony; considering it as a piece of service for which the latter owed
him no small obligations. Of all those who were condemned by the law
above-mentioned, he was the only man who was restored to his country, and
filled the highest offices. When the civil war again broke out, he was
appointed lieutenant under the same Antony, and offered the chief command
by those who were ashamed of Cleopatra; but not daring, on account of a
sudden indisposition with which he was seized, either to accept or refuse
it, he went over to Augustus [557], and died a few days after, not
without an aspersion cast upon his memory. For Antony gave out, that he
was induced to change sides by his impatience to be with his mistress,
Servilia Nais. [558]

IV. This Cneius had a son, named Domitius, who was afterwards well known
as the nominal purchaser of the family property left by Augustus’s will
[559]; and no less famous in his youth for his dexterity in chariot-
driving, than he was afterwards for the triumphal ornaments which he
obtained in the German war. But he was a man of great arrogance,
prodigality, and cruelty. When he was aedile, he obliged Lucius Plancus,
the censor, to give him the way; and in his praetorship, and consulship,
he made Roman knights and married women act on the stage. He gave hunts
of wild beasts, both in the Circus and in all the wards of the city; as
also a show of gladiators; but with such barbarity, that Augustus, after
privately reprimanding him, to no purpose, was obliged to restrain him by
a public edict.

V. By the elder Antonia he had Nero’s father, a man of execrable
character in every part of his life. During his attendance upon Caius
Caesar in the East, he killed a freedman of his own, for refusing to
drink as much as he ordered him. Being dismissed for this from Caesar’s
society, he did not mend his habits; for, in a village upon the Appian
road, he suddenly whipped his horses, and drove his chariot, on purpose,
(340) over a poor boy, crushing him to pieces. At Rome, he struck out
the eye of a Roman knight in the Forum, only for some free language in a
dispute between them. He was likewise so fraudulent, that he not only
cheated some silversmiths [560] of the price of goods he had bought of
them, but, during his praetorship, defrauded the owners of chariots in
the Circensian games of the prizes due to them for their victory. His
sister, jeering him for the complaints made by the leaders of the several
parties, he agreed to sanction a law, “That, for the future, the prizes
should be immediately paid.” A little before the death of Tiberius, he
was prosecuted for treason, adulteries, and incest with his sister
Lepida, but escaped in the timely change of affairs, and died of a
dropsy, at Pyrgi [561]; leaving behind him his son, Nero, whom he had by
Agrippina, the daughter of Germanicus.

VI. Nero was born at Antium, nine months after the death of Tiberius
[562], upon the eighteenth of the calends of January [15th December],
just as the sun rose, so that its beams touched him before they could
well reach the earth. While many fearful conjectures, in respect to his
future fortune, were formed by different persons, from the circumstances
of his nativity, a saying of his father, Domitius, was regarded as an ill
presage, who told his friends who were congratulating him upon the
occasion, “That nothing but what was detestable, and pernicious to the
public, could ever be produced of him and Agrippina.” Another manifest
prognostic of his future infelicity occurred upon his lustration day
[563]. For Caius Caesar being requested by his sister to give the child
what name he thought proper–looking at his uncle, Claudius, who (341)
afterwards, when emperor, adopted Nero, he gave his: and this not
seriously, but only in jest; Agrippina treating it with contempt, because
Claudius at that time was a mere laughing-stock at the palace. He lost
his father when he was three years old, being left heir to a third part
of his estate; of which he never got possession, the whole being seized
by his co-heir, Caius. His mother being soon after banished, he lived
with his aunt Lepida, in a very necessitous condition, under the care of
two tutors, a dancing-master and a barber. After Claudius came to the
empire, he not only recovered his father’s estate, but was enriched with
the additional inheritance of that of his step-father, Crispus Passienus.
Upon his mother’s recall from banishment, he was advanced to such favour,
through Nero’s powerful interest with the emperor, that it was reported,
assassins were employed by Messalina, Claudius’s wife, to strangle him,
as Britannicus’s rival, whilst he was taking his noon-day repose. In
addition to the story, it was said that they were frightened by a
serpent, which crept from under his cushion, and ran away. The tale was
occasioned by finding on his couch, near the pillow, the skin of a snake,
which, by his mother’s order, he wore for some time upon his right arm,
inclosed in a bracelet of gold. This amulet, at last, he laid aside,
from aversion to her memory; but he sought for it again, in vain, in the
time of his extremity.

VII. When he was yet a mere boy, before he arrived at the age of
puberty, during the celebration of the Circensian games [564], he
performed his part in the Trojan play with a degree of firmness which
gained him great applause. In the eleventh year of his age, he was
adopted by Claudius, and placed under the tuition of Annaeus Seneca
[565], who had been made a senator. It is said, that Seneca dreamt the
night after, that he was giving a lesson to Caius Caesar [566]. Nero
soon verified his dream, betraying the cruelty of his disposition in
every way he could. For he attempted to persuade his father that his
brother, Britannicus, was nothing but a changeling, because the latter
had (342) saluted him, notwithstanding his adoption, by the name of
Aenobarbus, as usual. When his aunt, Lepida, was brought to trial, he
appeared in court as a witness against her, to gratify his mother, who
persecuted the accused. On his introduction into the Forum, at the age
of manhood, he gave a largess to the people and a donative to the
soldiers: for the pretorian cohorts, he appointed a solemn procession
under arms, and marched at the head of them with a shield in his hand;
after which he went to return thanks to his father in the senate. Before
Claudius, likewise, at the time he was consul, he made a speech for the
Bolognese, in Latin, and for the Rhodians and people of Ilium, in Greek.
He had the jurisdiction of praefect of the city, for the first time,
during the Latin festival; during which the most celebrated advocates
brought before him, not short and trifling causes, as is usual in that
case, but trials of importance, notwithstanding they had instructions
from Claudius himself to the contrary. Soon afterwards, he married
Octavia, and exhibited the Circensian games, and hunting of wild beasts,
in honour of Claudius.

VIII. He was seventeen years of age at the death of that prince [567],
and as soon as that event was made public, he went out to the cohort on
guard between the hours of six and seven; for the omens were so
disastrous, that no earlier time of the day was judged proper. On the
steps before the palace gate, he was unanimously saluted by the soldiers
as their emperor, and then carried in a litter to the camp; thence, after
making a short speech to the troops, into the senate-house, where he
continued until the evening; of all the immense honours which were heaped
upon him, refusing none but the title of FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY, on
account of his youth,

IX. He began his reign with an ostentation of dutiful regard to the
memory of Claudius, whom he buried with the utmost pomp and magnificence,
pronouncing the funeral oration himself, and then had him enrolled
amongst the gods. He paid likewise the highest honours to the memory of
his father Domitius. He left the management of affairs, both public and
private, to his mother. The word which he gave the first day of his
reign to the tribune on guard, was, “The (343) Best of Mothers,” and
afterwards he frequently appeared with her in the streets of Rome in her
litter. He settled a colony at Antium, in which he placed the veteran
soldiers belonging to the guards; and obliged several of the richest
centurions of the first rank to transfer their residence to that place;
where he likewise made a noble harbour at a prodigious expense. [568]

X. To establish still further his character, he declared, “that he
designed to govern according to the model of Augustus;” and omitted no
opportunity of showing his generosity, clemency, and complaisance. The
more burthensome taxes he either entirely took off, or diminished. The
rewards appointed for informers by the Papian law, he reduced to a fourth
part, and distributed to the people four hundred sesterces a man. To the
noblest of the senators who were much reduced in their circumstances, he
granted annual allowances, in some cases as much as five hundred thousand
sesterces; and to the pretorian cohorts a monthly allowance of corn
gratis. When called upon to subscribe the sentence, according to custom,
of a criminal condemned to die, “I wish,” said he, “I had never learnt to
read and write.” He continually saluted people of the several orders by
name, without a prompter. When the senate returned him their thanks for
his good government, he replied to them, “It will be time enough to do so
when I shall have deserved it.” He admitted the common people to see him
perform his exercises in the Campus Martius. He frequently declaimed in
public, and recited verses of his own composing, not only at home, but in
the theatre; so much to the joy of all the people, that public prayers
were appointed to be put up to the gods upon that account; and the verses
which had been publicly read, were, after being written in gold letters,
consecrated to Jupiter Capitolinus.

(344) XI. He presented the people with a great number and variety of
spectacles, as the Juvenal and Circensian games, stage-plays, and an
exhibition of gladiators. In the Juvenal, he even admitted senators and
aged matrons to perform parts. In the Circensian games, he assigned the
equestrian order seats apart from the rest of the people, and had races
performed by chariots drawn each by four camels. In the games which he
instituted for the eternal duration of the empire, and therefore ordered
to be called Maximi, many of the senatorian and equestrian order, of both
sexes, performed. A distinguished Roman knight descended on the stage by
a rope, mounted on an elephant. A Roman play, likewise, composed by
Afranius, was brought upon the stage. It was entitled, “The Fire;” and
in it the performers were allowed to carry off, and to keep to
themselves, the furniture of the house, which, as the plot of the play
required, was burnt down in the theatre. Every day during the solemnity,
many thousand articles of all descriptions were thrown amongst the people
to scramble for; such as fowls of different kinds, tickets for corn,
clothes, gold, silver, gems, pearls, pictures, slaves, beasts of burden,
wild beasts that had been tamed; at last, ships, lots of houses, and
lands, were offered as prizes in a lottery.

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