The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

XXVI. He was twice married at a very early age, first to Aemilia Lepida,
the grand-daughter of Augustus, and afterwards to Livia Medullina, who
had the cognomen of Camilla, and was descended from the old dictator
Camillus. The former he divorced while still a virgin, because her
parents had incurred the displeasure of Augustus; and he lost the latter
by sickness on the day fixed for their nuptials. He next married Plautia
Urgulanilla, whose father had enjoyed the honour of a triumph; and soon
afterwards, Aelia Paetina, the daughter of a man of consular rank. But
he divorced them both; Paetina, upon some trifling causes of disgust; and
Urgulanilla, for scandalous lewdness, and the suspicion of murder. After
them he took in marriage Valeria Messalina, the daughter of Barbatus
Messala, his cousin. But finding that, besides her other shameful
debaucheries, she had even gone so far as to marry in his own absence
Caius Silius, the settlement of her dower being formally signed, in the
presence of the augurs, he put her to death. When summoning his
pretorians to his presence, he made to them this declaration: “As I have
been so unhappy in my unions, I am resolved to continue in future
unmarried; and if I should not, I give you leave to stab me.” He was,
however, unable to persist in this resolution; for he began immediately
to think of another wife; and even of taking back Paetina, whom he had
formerly divorced: he thought also of Lollia Paulina, who had been
married to Caius Caesar. But being ensnared by the arts of Agrippina,
(320) the daughter of his brother Germanicus, who took advantage of the
kisses and endearments which their near relationship admitted, to inflame
his desires, he got some one to propose at the next meeting of the
senate, that they should oblige the emperor to marry Agrippina, as a
measure highly conducive to the public interest; and that in future
liberty should be given for such marriages, which until that time had
been considered incestuous. In less than twenty-four hours after this,
he married her [531]. No person was found, however, to follow the
example, excepting one freedman, and a centurion of the first rank, at
the solemnization of whose nuptials both he and Agrippina attended.

XXVII. He had children by three of his wives: by Urgulanilla, Drusus and
Claudia; by Paetina, Antonia; and by Messalina, Octavia, and also a son,
whom at first he called Germanicus, but afterwards Britannicus. He lost
Drusus at Pompeii, when he was very young; he being choked with a pear,
which in his play he tossed into the air, and caught in his mouth. Only
a few days before, he had betrothed him to one of Sejanus’s daughters
[532]; and I am therefore surprised that some authors should say he lost
his life by the treachery of Sejanus. Claudia, who was, in truth, the
daughter of Boter his freedman, though she was born five months before
his divorce, he ordered to be thrown naked at her mother’s door. He
married Antonia to Cneius Pompey the Great [533], and afterwards to
Faustus Sylla [534], both youths of very noble parentage; Octavia to his
step-son Nero [535], after she had been contracted to Silanus.
Britannicus was born upon the twentieth day of his reign, and in his
second consulship. He often earnestly commended him to the soldiers,
holding him in his arms before their ranks; and would likewise show him
to the people in the theatre, setting him upon his lap, or holding him
out whilst he was still very young; and was sure to receive their
acclamations, and good wishes on his behalf. Of his (321) sons-in-law,
he adopted Nero. He not only dismissed from his favour both Pompey and
Silanus, but put them to death.

XXVIII. Amongst his freedmen, the greatest favourite was the eunuch
Posides, whom, in his British triumph, he presented with the pointless
spear, classing him among the military men. Next to him, if not equal,
in favour was Felix [536], whom he not only preferred to commands both of
cohorts and troops, but to the government of the province of Judaea; and
he became, in consequence of his elevation, the husband of three queens
[537]. Another favourite was Harpocras, to whom he granted the privilege
of being carried in a litter within the city, and of holding public
spectacles for the entertainment of the people. In this class was
likewise Polybius, who assisted him in his studies, and had often the
honour of walking between the two consuls. But above all others,
Narcissus, his secretary, and Pallas [538], the comptroller of his
accounts, were in high favour with him. He not only allowed them to
receive, by decree of the senate, immense presents, but also to be
decorated with the quaestorian and praetorian ensigns of honour. So much
did he indulge them in amassing wealth, and plundering the public, that,
upon his complaining, once, of the lowness of his exchequer, some one
said, with great reason, that “It would be full enough, if those two
freedmen of his would but take him into partnership with them.”

XXIX. Being entirely governed by these freedmen, and, as I have already
said, by his wives, he was a tool to others, rather than a prince. He
distributed offices, or the command of armies, pardoned or punished,
according as it suited their interests, (322) their passions, or their
caprice; and for the most part, without knowing, or being sensible of
what he did. Not to enter into minute details relative to the revocation
of grants, the reversal of judicial decisions, obtaining his signature to
fictitious appointments, or the bare-faced alteration of them after
signing; he put to death Appius Silanus, the father of his son-in-law,
and the two Julias, the daughters of Drusus and Germanicus, without any
positive proof of the crimes with which they were charged, or so much as
permitting them to make any defence. He also cut off Cneius Pompey, the
husband of his eldest daughter; and Lucius Silanus, who was betrothed to
the younger Pompey, was stabbed in the act of unnatural lewdness with a
favourite paramour. Silanus was obliged to quit the office of praetor
upon the fourth of the calends of January [29th Dec.], and to kill
himself on new year’s day [539] following, the very same on which
Claudius and Agrippina were married. He condemned to death five and
thirty senators, and above three hundred Roman knights, with so little
attention to what he did, that when a centurion brought him word of the
execution of a man of consular rank, who was one of the number, and told
him that he had executed his order, he declared, “he had ordered no such
thing, but that he approved of it;” because his freedmen, it seems, had
said, that the soldiers did nothing more than their duty, in dispatching
the emperor’s enemies without waiting for a warrant. But it is beyond
all belief, that he himself, at the marriage of Messalina with the
adulterous Silius, should actually sign the writings relative to her
dowry; induced, as it is pretended, by the design of diverting from
himself and transferring upon another the danger which some omens seemed
to threaten him.

XXX. Either standing or sitting, but especially when he lay asleep, he
had a majestic and graceful appearance; for he was tall, but not slender.
His grey looks became him well, and he had a full neck. But his knees
were feeble, and failed him in walking, so that his gait was ungainly,
both when he assumed state, and when he was taking diversion. He was
outrageous in his laughter, and still more so in his wrath, for then he
foamed at the mouth, and discharged from his nostrils. He also stammered
in his speech, and had a tremulous motion (323) of the head at all times,
but particularly when he was engaged in any business, however trifling.

XXXI. Though his health was very infirm during the former part of his
life, yet, after he became emperor, he enjoyed a good state of health,
except only that he was subject to a pain of the stomach. In a fit of
this complaint, he said he had thoughts of killing himself.

XXXII. He gave entertainments as frequent as they were splendid, and
generally when there was such ample room, that very often six hundred
guests sat down together. At a feast he gave on the banks of the canal
for draining the Fucine Lake, he narrowly escaped being drowned, the
water at its discharge rushing out with such violence, that it overflowed
the conduit. At supper he had always his own children, with those of
several of the nobility, who, according to an ancient custom, sat at the
feet of the couches. One of his guests having been suspected of
purloining a golden cup, he invited him again the next day, but served
him with a porcelain jug. It is said, too, that he intended to publish
an edict, “allowing to all people the liberty of giving vent at table to
any distension occasioned by flatulence,” upon hearing of a person whose
modesty, when under restraint, had nearly cost him his life.

XXXIII. He was always ready to eat and drink at any time or in any
place. One day, as he was hearing causes in the Forum of Augustus, he
smelt the dinner which was preparing for the Salii [540], in the temple
of Mars adjoining, whereupon he quitted (324) the tribunal, and went to
partake of the feast with the priests.

He scarcely ever left the table until he had thoroughly crammed himself
and drank to intoxication; and then he would immediately fall asleep,
lying upon his back with his mouth open. While in this condition, a
feather was put down his throat, to make him throw up the contents of his
stomach. Upon composing himself to rest, his sleep was short, and he
usually awoke before midnight; but he would sometimes sleep in the
daytime, and that, even, when he was upon the tribunal; so that the
advocates often found it difficult to wake him, though they raised their
voices for that purpose. He set no bounds to his libidinous intercourse
with women, but never betrayed any unnatural desires for the other sex.
He was fond of gaming, and published a book upon the subject. He even
used to play as he rode in his chariot, having the tables so fitted, that
the game was not disturbed by the motion of the carriage.

XXXIV. His cruel and sanguinary disposition was exhibited upon great as
well as trifling occasions. When any person was to be put to the
torture, or criminal punished for parricide, he was impatient for the
execution, and would have it performed in his own presence. When he was
at Tibur, being desirous of seeing an example of the old way of putting
malefactors to death, some were immediately bound to a stake for the
purpose; but there being no executioner to be had at the place, he sent
for one from Rome, and waited for his coming until night. In any
exhibition of gladiators, presented either by himself or others, if any
of the combatants chanced to fall, he ordered them to be butchered,
especially the Retiarii, that he might see their faces in the agonies of
death. Two gladiators happening to kill each other, he immediately
ordered some little knives to be made of their swords for his own use.
He took great pleasure in seeing men engage with wild beasts, and the
combatants who appeared on the stage at noon. He would therefore come to
the theatre by break of day, and at noon, dismissing the people to
dinner, continued sitting himself; and besides those who were devoted to
that sanguinary fate, he would match others with the beasts, upon slight
or sudden occasions; as, for instance, the carpenters and their (326)
assistants, and people of that sort, if a machine, or any piece of work
in which they had been employed about the theatre did not answer the
purpose for which it had been intended. To this desperate kind of
encounter he forced one of his nomenclators, even encumbered as he was by
wearing the toga.

XXXV. But the characteristics most predominant in him were fear and
distrust. In the beginning of his reign, though he much affected a
modest and humble appearance, as has been already observed, yet he durst
not venture himself at an entertainment without being attended by a guard
of spearmen, and made soldiers wait upon him at table instead of
servants. He never visited a sick person, until the chamber had been
first searched, and the bed and bedding thoroughly examined. At other
times, all persons who came to pay their court to him were strictly
searched by officers appointed for that purpose; nor was it until after a
long time, and with much difficulty, that he was prevailed upon to excuse
women, boys, and girls from such rude handling, or suffer their
attendants or writing-masters to retain their cases for pens and styles.
When Camillus formed his plot against him, not doubting but his timidity
might be worked upon without a war, he wrote to him a scurrilous,
petulant, and threatening letter, desiring him to resign the government,
and betake himself to a life of privacy. Upon receiving this
requisition, he had some thoughts of complying with it, and summoned
together the principal men of the city, to consult with them on the
subject.

XXXVI. Having heard some loose reports of conspiracies formed against
him, he was so much alarmed, that he thought of immediately abdicating
the government. And when, as I have before related, a man armed with a
dagger was discovered near him while he was sacrificing, he instantly
ordered the heralds to convoke the senate, and with tears and dismal
exclamations, lamented that such was his condition, that he was safe no
where; and for a long time afterwards he abstained from appearing in
public. He smothered his ardent love for Messalina, not so much on
account of her infamous conduct, as from apprehension of danger;
believing that she aspired to share with Silius, her partner in adultery,
the imperial dignity. (326) Upon this occasion he ran in a great fright,
and a very shameful manner, to the camp, asking all the way he went, “if
the empire were indeed safely his?”

XXXVII. No suspicion was too trifling, no person on whom it rested too
contemptible, to throw him into a panic, and induce him to take
precautions for his safety, and meditate revenge. A man engaged in a
litigation before his tribunal, having saluted him, drew him aside, and
told him he had dreamt that he saw him murdered; and shortly afterwards,
when his adversary came to deliver his plea to the emperor, the
plaintiff, pretending to have discovered the murderer, pointed to him as
the man he had seen in his dream; whereupon, as if he had been taken in
the act, he was hurried away to execution. We are informed, that Appius
Silanus was got rid of in the same manner, by a contrivance betwixt
Messalina and Narcissus, in which they had their several parts assigned
them. Narcissus therefore burst into his lord’s chamber before daylight,
apparently in great fright, and told him that he had dreamt that Appius
Silanus had murdered him. The empress, upon this, affecting great
surprise, declared she had the like dream for several nights
successively. Presently afterwards, word was brought, as it had been
agreed on, that Appius was come, he having, indeed, received orders the
preceding day to be there at that time; and, as if the truth of the dream
was sufficiently confirmed by his appearance at that juncture, he was
immediately ordered to be prosecuted and put to death. The day
following, Claudius related the whole affair to the senate, and
acknowledged his great obligation to his freedmen for watching over him
even in his sleep.

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