The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

XX. Among the other liberal arts which he was taught in his youth, he
was instructed in music; and immediately after (350) his advancement to
the empire, he sent for Terpnus, a performer upon the harp [582], who
flourished at that time with the highest reputation. Sitting with him
for several days following, as he sang and played after supper, until
late at night, he began by degrees to practise upon the instrument
himself. Nor did he omit any of those expedients which artists in music
adopt, for the preservation and improvement of their voices. He would
lie upon his back with a sheet of lead upon his breast, clear his stomach
and bowels by vomits and clysters, and forbear the eating of fruits, or
food prejudicial to the voice. Encouraged by his proficiency, though his
voice was naturally neither loud nor clear, he was desirous of appearing
upon the stage, frequently repeating amongst his friends a Greek proverb
to this effect: “that no one had any regard for music which they never
heard.” Accordingly, he made his first public appearance at Naples; and
although the theatre quivered with the sudden shock of an earthquake, he
did not desist, until he had finished the piece of music he had begun.
He played and sung in the same place several times, and for several days
together; taking only now and then a little respite to refresh his voice.
Impatient of retirement, it was his custom to go from the bath to the
theatre; and after dining in the orchestra, amidst a crowded assembly of
the people, he promised them in Greek [583], “that after he had drank a
little, he would give them a tune which would make their ears tingle.”
Being highly pleased with the songs that were sung in his praise by some
Alexandrians belonging to the fleet just arrived at Naples [584], he sent
for more of the like singers from Alexandria. At the same time, he chose
young men of the equestrian order, and above five thousand robust young
fellows from the common people, on purpose to learn various kinds of
applause, called bombi, imbrices, and testae [585], which they were to
practise in his favour, whenever he performed. They were (351) divided
into several parties, and were remarkable for their fine heads of hair,
and were extremely well dressed, with rings upon their left hands. The
leaders of these bands had salaries of forty thousand sesterces allowed

XXI. At Rome also, being extremely proud of his singing, he ordered the
games called Neronia to be celebrated before the time fixed for their
return. All now becoming importunate to hear “his heavenly voice,” he
informed them, “that he would gratify those who desired it at the
gardens.” But the soldiers then on guard seconding the voice of the
people, he promised to comply with their request immediately, and with
all his heart. He instantly ordered his name to be entered upon the list
of musicians who proposed to contend, and having thrown his lot into the
urn among the rest, took his turn, and entered, attended by the prefects
of the pretorian cohorts bearing his harp, and followed by the military
tribunes, and several of his intimate friends. After he had taken his
station, and made the usual prelude, he commanded Cluvius Rufus, a man of
consular rank, to proclaim in the theatre, that he intended to sing the
story of Niobe. This he accordingly did, and continued it until nearly
ten o’clock, but deferred the disposal of the crown, and the remaining
part of the solemnity, until the next year; that he might have more
frequent opportunities of performing. But that being too long, he could
not refrain from often appearing as a public performer during the
interval. He made no scruple of exhibiting on the stage, even in the
spectacles presented to the people by private persons, and was offered by
one of the praetors, no less than a million of sesterces for his
services. He likewise sang tragedies in a mask; the visors of the heroes
and gods, as also of the heroines and goddesses, being formed into a
resemblance of his own face, and that of any woman he was in love with.
Amongst the rest, he sung “Canace in Labour,” [586] “Orestes the Murderer
of his Mother,” “Oedipus (352) Blinded,” and “Hercules Mad.” In the last
tragedy, it is said that a young sentinel, posted at the entrance of the
stage, seeing him in a prison dress and bound with fetters, as the fable
of the play required, ran to his assistance.

XXII. He had from his childhood an extravagant passion for horses; and
his constant talk was of the Circensian races, notwithstanding it was
prohibited him. Lamenting once, among his fellow-pupils, the case of a
charioteer of the green party, who was dragged round the circus at the
tail of his chariot, and being reprimanded by his tutor for it, he
pretended that he was talking of Hector. In the beginning of his reign,
he used to amuse himself daily with chariots drawn by four horses, made
of ivory, upon a table. He attended at all the lesser exhibitions in the
circus, at first privately, but at last openly; so that nobody ever
doubted of his presence on any particular day. Nor did he conceal his
desire to have the number of the prizes doubled; so that the races being
increased accordingly, the diversion continued until a late hour; the
leaders of parties refusing now to bring out their companies for any time
less than the whole day. Upon this, he took a fancy for driving the
chariot himself, and that even publicly. Having made his first
experiment in the gardens, amidst crowds of slaves and other rabble, he
at length performed in the view of all the people, in the Circus Maximus,
whilst one of his freedmen dropped the napkin in the place where the
magistrates used to give the signal. Not satisfied with exhibiting
various specimens of his skill in those arts at Rome, he went over to
Achaia, as has been already said, principally for this purpose. The
several cities, in which solemn trials of musical skill used to be
publicly held, had resolved to send him the crowns belonging to those who
bore away the prize. These he accepted so graciously, that he not only
gave the deputies who brought them an immediate audience, but even
invited them to his table. Being requested by some of them to sing at
supper, and prodigiously applauded, he said, “the Greeks were the only
people who has an ear for music, and were the only good judges of him and
his attainments.” Without delay he commenced his journey, and on his
arrival at Cassiope [587], (352) exhibited his first musical performance
before the altar of Jupiter Cassius.

XXIII. He afterwards appeared at the celebration of all public games in
Greece: for such as fell in different years, he brought within the
compass of one, and some he ordered to be celebrated a second time in the
same year. At Olympia, likewise, contrary to custom, he appointed a
public performance in music: and that he might meet with no interruption
in this employment, when he was informed by his freedman Helius, that
affairs at Rome required his presence, he wrote to him in these words:
“Though now all your hopes and wishes are for my speedy return, yet you
ought rather to advise and hope that I may come back with a character
worthy of Nero.” During the time of his musical performance, nobody was
allowed to stir out of the theatre upon any account, however necessary;
insomuch, that it is said some women with child were delivered there.
Many of the spectators being quite wearied with hearing and applauding
him, because the town gates were shut, slipped privately over the walls;
or counterfeiting themselves dead, were carried out for their funeral.
With what extreme anxiety he engaged in these contests, with what keen
desire to bear away the prize, and with how much awe of the judges, is
scarcely to be believed. As if his adversaries had been on a level with
himself, he would watch them narrowly, defame them privately, and
sometimes, upon meeting them, rail at them in very scurrilous language;
or bribe them, if they were better performers than himself. He always
addressed the judges with the most profound reverence before he began,
telling them, “he had done all things that were necessary, by way of
preparation, but that the issue of the approaching trial was in the hand
of fortune; and that they, as wise and skilful men, ought to exclude from
their judgment things merely accidental.” Upon their encouraging him to
have a good heart, he went off with more assurance, but not entirely free
from anxiety; interpreting the silence and modesty of some of them into
sourness and ill-nature, and saying that he was suspicious of them.

XXIV. In these contests, he adhered so strictly to the rules, (354) that
he never durst spit, nor wipe the sweat from his forehead in any other
way than with his sleeve. Having, in the performance of a tragedy,
dropped his sceptre, and not quickly recovering it, he was in a great
fright, lest he should be set aside for the miscarriage, and could not
regain his assurance, until an actor who stood by swore he was certain it
had not been observed in the midst of the acclamations and exultations of
the people. When the prize was adjudged to him, he always proclaimed it
himself; and even entered the lists with the heralds. That no memory or
the least monument might remain of any other victor in the sacred Grecian
games, he ordered all their statues and pictures to be pulled down,
dragged away with hooks, and thrown into the common sewers. He drove the
chariot with various numbers of horses, and at the Olympic games with no
fewer than ten; though, in a poem of his, he had reflected upon
Mithridates for that innovation. Being thrown out of his chariot, he was
again replaced, but could not retain his seat, and was obliged to give
up, before he reached the goal, but was crowned notwithstanding. On his
departure, he declared the whole province a free country, and conferred
upon the judges in the several games the freedom of Rome, with large sums
of money. All these favours he proclaimed himself with his own voice,
from the middle of the Stadium, during the solemnity of the Isthmian

XXV. On his return from Greece, arriving at Naples, because he had
commenced his career as a public performer in that city, he made his
entrance in a chariot drawn by white horses through a breach in the city-
wall, according to the practice of those who were victorious in the
sacred Grecian games. In the same manner he entered Antium, Alba, and
Rome. He made his entry into the city riding in the same chariot in
which Augustus had triumphed, in a purple tunic, and a cloak embroidered
with golden stars, having on his head the crown won at Olympia, and in
his right hand that which was given him at the Parthian games: the rest
being carried in a procession before him, with inscriptions denoting the
places where they had been won, from whom, and in what plays or musical
performances; whilst a train followed him with loud acclamations, crying
out, that “they (355) were the emperor’s attendants, and the soldiers of
his triumph.” Having then caused an arch of the Circus Maximus [588] to
be taken down, he passed through the breach, as also through the Velabrum
[589] and the forum, to the Palatine hill and the temple of Apollo.
Everywhere as he marched along, victims were slain, whilst the streets
were strewed with saffron, and birds, chaplets, and sweetmeats scattered
abroad. He suspended the sacred crowns in his chamber, about his beds,
and caused statues of himself to be erected in the attire of a harper,
and had his likeness stamped upon the coin in the same dress. After this
period, he was so far from abating any thing of his application to music,
that, for the preservation of his voice, he never addressed the soldiers
but by messages, or with some person to deliver his speeches for him,
when he thought fit to make his appearance amongst them. Nor did he ever
do any thing either in jest or earnest, without a voice-master standing
by him to caution him against overstraining his vocal organs, and to
apply a handkerchief to his mouth when he did. He offered his
friendship, or avowed (356) open enmity to many, according as they were
lavish or sparing in giving him their applause.

XXVI. Petulancy, lewdness, luxury, avarice, and cruelty, he practised at
first with reserve and in private, as if prompted to them only by the
folly of youth; but, even then, the world was of opinion that they were
the faults of his nature, and not of his age. After it was dark, he used
to enter the taverns disguised in a cap or a wig, and ramble about the
streets in sport, which was not void of mischief. He used to beat those
he met coming home from supper; and, if they made any resistance, would
wound them, and throw them into the common sewer. He broke open and
robbed shops; establishing an auction at home for selling his booty. In
the scuffles which took place on those occasions, he often ran the hazard
of losing his eyes, and even his life; being beaten almost to death by a
senator, for handling his wife indecently. After this adventure, he
never again ventured abroad at that time of night, without some tribunes
following him at a little distance. In the day-time he would be carried
to the theatre incognito in a litter, placing himself upon the upper part
of the proscenium, where he not only witnessed the quarrels which arose
on account of the performances, but also encouraged them. When they came
to blows, and stones and pieces of broken benches began to fly about, he
threw them plentifully amongst the people, and once even broke a
praetor’s head.

XXVII. His vices gaining strength by degrees, he laid aside his jocular
amusements, and all disguise; breaking out into enormous crimes, without
the least attempt to conceal them. His revels were prolonged from mid-
day to midnight, while he was frequently refreshed by warm baths, and, in
the summer time, by such as were cooled with snow. He often supped in
public, in the Naumachia, with the sluices shut, or in the Campus
Martius, or the Circus Maximus, being waited upon at table by common
prostitutes of the town, and Syrian strumpets and glee-girls. As often
as he went down the Tiber to Ostia, or coasted through the gulf of Baiae,
booths furnished as brothels and eating-houses, were erected along the
shore and river banks; before which stood matrons, who, like bawds and
hostesses, allured him to land. It was also his custom to invite (357)
himself to supper with his friends; at one of which was expended no less
than four millions of sesterces in chaplets, and at another something
more in roses.

XXVIII. Besides the abuse of free-born lads, and the debauch of married
women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He was upon the
point of marrying Acte [590], his freedwoman, having suborned some men of
consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. He gelded the boy
Sporus, and endeavoured to transform him into a woman. He even went so
far as to marry him, with all the usual formalities of a marriage
settlement, the rose-coloured nuptial veil, and a numerous company at the
wedding. When the ceremony was over, he had him conducted like a bride
to his own house, and treated him as his wife [591]. It was jocularly
observed by some person, “that it would have been well for mankind, had
such a wife fallen to the lot of his father Domitius.” This Sporus he
carried about with him in a litter round the solemn assemblies and fairs
of Greece, and afterwards at Rome through the Sigillaria [592], dressed
in the rich attire of an empress; kissing him from time to time as they
rode together. That he entertained an incestuous passion for his mother
[593], but was deterred by her enemies, for fear that this haughty and
overbearing woman should, by her compliance, get him entirely into her
power, and govern in every thing, was universally believed; especially
after he had introduced amongst his concubines a strumpet, who was
reported to have a strong resemblance to Agrippina [594].——–

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