The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

In the interior parts of Britain, the natives, under the command of
Caractacus, maintained an obstinate resistance, and little progress was
made by the Roman arms, until Ostorius Scapula was sent over to prosecute
the war. He penetrated into the country of the Silures, a warlike tribe,
who inhabited the banks of the Severn; and having defeated Caractacus in
a great battle, made him prisoner, and sent him to Rome. The fame of the
British prince had by this time spread over the provinces of Gaul and
Italy; and upon his arrival in the Roman capital, the people flocked from
all quarters to behold him. The ceremonial of his entrance was conducted
with great solemnity. On a plain adjoining the Roman camp, the pretorian
troops were drawn up in martial array: the emperor and his court took
their station in front of the lines, and behind them was ranged the whole
body of the people. The procession commenced with the different trophies
which had been taken from the Britons during the progress of the war.
Next followed the brothers of the vanquished prince, with his wife and
daughter, in chains, expressing by their supplicating looks and gestures
the fears with which they were actuated. But not so Caractacus himself.
With a manly gait and an undaunted countenance, he marched up to the
tribunal, where the emperor was seated, and addressed him in the
following terms:

“If to my high birth and distinguished rank, I had added the virtues of
moderation, Rome had beheld me rather as a friend than a captive; and you
would not have rejected an alliance with a prince, descended from
illustrious ancestors, and governing many nations. The reverse of my
fortune to you is glorious, and to me humiliating. I had arms, and men,
and horses; I possessed extraordinary riches; and can it be any wonder
that I was unwilling to lose them? Because Rome aspires to universal
dominion, must men therefore implicitly resign themselves to subjection?
I opposed for a long time the progress of your arms, and had I acted
otherwise, would either you have had the glory of conquest, or I of a
brave resistance? I am now in your (335) power: if you are determined to
take revenge, my fate will soon be forgotten, and you will derive no
honour from the transaction. Preserve my life, and I shall remain to the
latest ages a monument of your clemency.”

Immediately upon this speech, Claudius granted him his liberty, as he did
likewise to the other royal captives. They all returned their thanks in
a manner the most grateful to the emperor; and as soon as their chains
were taken off, walking towards Agrippina, who sat upon a bench at a
little distance, they repeated to her the same fervent declarations of
gratitude and esteem.

History has preserved no account of Caractacus after this period; but it
is probable, that he returned in a short time to his own country, where
his former valour, and the magnanimity, which he had displayed at Rome,
would continue to render him illustrious through life, even amidst the
irretrievable ruin of his fortunes.

The most extraordinary character in the present reign was that of Valeria
Messalina, the daughter of Valerius Messala Barbatus. She was married to
Claudius, and had by him a son and a daughter. To cruelty in the
prosecution of her purposes, she added the most abandoned incontinence.
Not confining her licentiousness within the limits of the palace, where
she committed the most shameful excesses, she prostituted her person in
the common stews, and even in the public streets of the capital. As if
her conduct was already not sufficiently scandalous, she obliged C.
Silius, a man of consular rank, to divorce his wife, that she might
procure his company entirely to herself. Not contented with this
indulgence to her criminal passion, she next persuaded him to marry her;
and during an excursion which the emperor made to Ostia, the ceremony of
marriage was actually performed between them. The occasion was
celebrated with a magnificent supper, to which she invited a large
company; and lest the whole should be regarded as a frolic, not meant to
be consummated, the adulterous parties ascended the nuptial couch in the
presence of the astonished spectators. Great as was the facility of
Claudius’s temper in respect of her former behaviour, he could not
overlook so flagrant a violation both of public decency and the laws of
the country. Silius was condemned to death for the adultery which he had
perpetrated with reluctance; and Messalina was ordered into the emperor’s
presence, to answer for her conduct. Terror now operating upon her mind
in conjunction with remorse, she could not summon the resolution to
support such an interview, but retired into the gardens of Lucullus,
there to indulge at last the compunction which she felt for her crimes,
and to meditate the entreaties by which she should endeavour to soothe
the resentment (336) of her husband. In the extremity of her distress,
she attempted to lay violent hands upon herself, but her courage was not
equal to the emergency. Her mother, Lepida, who had not spoken with her
for some years before, was present upon the occasion, and urged her to
the act which alone could put a period to her infamy and wretchedness.
Again she made an effort, but again her resolution abandoned her; when a
tribune burst into the gardens, and plunging his sword into her body, she
instantly expired. Thus perished a woman, the scandal of whose lewdness
resounded throughout the empire, and of whom a great satirist, then
living, has said, perhaps without a hyperbole,

Et lassata viris, necdum satiata, recessit.–Juvenal, Sat. VI.

It has been already observed, that Claudius was entirely governed by his
freedmen; a class of retainers which enjoyed a great share of favour and
confidence with their patrons in those times. They had before been the
slaves of their masters, and had obtained their freedom as a reward for
their faithful and attentive services. Of the esteem in which they were
often held, we meet with an instance in Tiro, the freedman of Cicero, to
whom that illustrious Roman addresses several epistles, written in the
most familiar and affectionate strain of friendship. As it was common
for them to be taught the more useful parts of education in the families
of their masters, they were usually well qualified for the management of
domestic concerns, and might even be competent to the superior
departments of the state, especially in those times when negotiations and
treaties with foreign princes seldom or never occurred; and in arbitrary
governments, where public affairs were directed more by the will of the
sovereign or his ministers, than by refined suggestions of policy.

From the character generally given of Claudius before his elevation to
the throne, we should not readily imagine that he was endowed with any
taste for literary composition; yet he seems to have exclusively enjoyed
this distinction during his own reign, in which learning was at a low
ebb. Besides history, Suetonius informs us that he wrote a Defence of
Cicero against the Charges of Asinius Gallus. This appears to be the
only tribute of esteem or approbation paid to the character of Cicero,
from the time of Livy the historian, to the extinction of the race of the
Caesars. Asinius Gallus was the son of Asinius Pollio, the orator.
Marrying Vipsania after she had been divorced by Tiberius, he incurred
the displeasure of that emperor, and died of famine, either voluntarily,
or by order of the tyrant. He wrote a comparison between his father and
Cicero, in which, with more filial partiality than justice, he gave the
preference to the former.


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.

«- Previous | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 | View All | Next -»

Be the first to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.