The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

XXXVI. Nor did he proceed with less cruelty against those who were not
of his family. A blazing star, which is vulgarly supposed to portend
destruction to kings and princes, appeared above the horizon several
nights successively [610]. He felt great anxiety on account of this
phenomenon, and being informed by one Babilus, an astrologer, that
princes were used to expiate such omens by the sacrifice of illustrious
persons, and so avert the danger foreboded to their own persons, by
bringing it on the heads of their chief men, he resolved on the
destruction of the principal nobility in Rome. He was the more
encouraged to this, because he had some plausible pretence for carrying
it into execution, from the discovery of two conspiracies against him;
the former and more dangerous of which was that formed by Piso [611], and
discovered at Rome; the other was that of Vinicius [612], at Beneventum.
The conspirators were brought to their trials loaded with triple fetters.
Some ingenuously confessed the charge; others avowed that they thought
the design against his life an act of favour for which he was obliged to
them, as it was impossible in any other way than by death to relieve a
person rendered infamous by crimes of the greatest enormity. The
children of those who had been condemned, were banished the city, and
afterwards either poisoned or starved to death. It is asserted that some
of them, with their tutors, and the slaves who carried their satchels,
were all poisoned together at one dinner; and others not suffered to seek
their daily bread.

XXXVII. From this period he butchered, without distinction or quarter,
all whom his caprice suggested as objects for his cruelty; and upon the
most frivolous pretences. To mention only a few: Salvidienus Orfitus was
accused of letting (367) out three taverns attached to his house in the
Forum to some cities for the use of their deputies at Rome. The charge
against Cassius Longinus, a lawyer who had lost his sight, was, that he
kept amongst the busts of his ancestors that of Caius Cassius, who was
concerned in the death of Julius Caesar. The only charge objected
against Paetus Thrasea was, that he had a melancholy cast of features,
and looked like a schoolmaster. He allowed but one hour to those whom he
obliged to kill themselves; and, to prevent delay, he sent them
physicians “to cure them immediately, if they lingered beyond that time;”
for so he called bleeding them to death. There was at that time an
Egyptian of a most voracious appetite, who would digest raw flesh, or any
thing else that was given him. It was credibly reported, that the
emperor was extremely desirous of furnishing him with living men to tear
and devour. Being elated with his great success in the perpetration of
crimes, he declared, “that no prince before himself ever knew the extent
of his power.” He threw out strong intimations that he would not even
spare the senators who survived, but would entirely extirpate that order,
and put the provinces and armies into the hands of the Roman knights and
his own freedmen. It is certain that he never gave or vouchsafed to
allow any one the customary kiss, either on entering or departing, or
even returned a salute. And at the inauguration of a work, the cut
through the Isthmus [613], he, with a loud voice, amidst the assembled
multitude, uttered a prayer, that “the undertaking might prove fortunate
for himself and the Roman people,” without taking the smallest notice of
the senate.

XXXVIII. He spared, moreover, neither the people of Rome, nor the
capital of his country. Somebody in conversation saying–

Emou thanontos gaia michthaeto pyri
When I am dead let fire devour the world–

“Nay,” said he, “let it be while I am living” [emou xontos]. And he
acted accordingly: for, pretending to be disgusted with the old
buildings, and the narrow and winding streets, he set the city on fire so
openly, that many of consular rank caught his own household servants on
their property with tow, and (368) torches in their hands, but durst not
meddle with them. There being near his Golden House some granaries, the
site of which he exceedingly coveted, they were battered as if with
machines of war, and set on fire, the walls being built of stone. During
six days and seven nights this terrible devastation continued, the people
being obliged to fly to the tombs and monuments for lodging and shelter.
Meanwhile, a vast number of stately buildings, the houses of generals
celebrated in former times, and even then still decorated with the spoils
of war, were laid in ashes; as well as the temples of the gods, which had
been vowed and dedicated by the kings of Rome, and afterwards in the
Punic and Gallic wars: in short, everything that was remarkable and
worthy to be seen which time had spared [614]. This fire he beheld from
a tower in the house of Mecaenas, and “being greatly delighted,” as he
said, “with the beautiful effects of the conflagration,” he sung a poem
on the ruin of Troy, in the tragic dress he used on the stage. To turn
this calamity to his own advantage by plunder and rapine, he promised to
remove the bodies of those who had perished in the fire, and clear the
rubbish at his own expense; suffering no one to meddle with the remains
of their property. But he not only received, but exacted contributions
on account of the loss, until he had exhausted the means both of the
provinces and private persons.

XXXIX. To these terrible and shameful calamities brought upon the people
by their prince, were added some proceeding from misfortune. Such were a
pestilence, by which, within the space of one autumn, there died no less
than thirty thousand persons, as appeared from the registers in the
temple of Libitina; a great disaster in Britain [615], where two of the
principal towns belonging to the Romans were plundered; and a (369)
dreadful havoc made both amongst our troops and allies; a shameful
discomfiture of the army of the East; where, in Armenia, the legions were
obliged to pass under the yoke, and it was with great difficulty that
Syria was retained. Amidst all these disasters, it was strange, and,
indeed, particularly remarkable, that he bore nothing more patiently than
the scurrilous language and railing abuse which was in every one’s mouth;
treating no class of persons with more gentleness, than those who
assailed him with invective and lampoons. Many things of that kind were
posted up about the city, or otherwise published, both in Greek and
Latin: such as these,

Neron, Orestaes, Alkmaion, maetroktonai.
Neonymphon [616] Neron, idian maeter apekteinen.

Orestes and Alcaeon–Nero too,
The lustful Nero, worst of all the crew,
Fresh from his bridal–their own mothers slew.

Quis neget Aeneae magna de stirpe Neronem?
Sustulit hic matrem: sustulit [617] ille patrem.

Sprung from Aeneas, pious, wise and great,
Who says that Nero is degenerate?
Safe through the flames, one bore his sire; the other,
To save himself, took off his loving mother.

Dum tendit citharam noster, dum cornua Parthus,
Noster erit Paean, ille Ekataebeletaes.

His lyre to harmony our Nero strings;
His arrows o’er the plain the Parthian wings:
Ours call the tuneful Paean,–famed in war,
The other Phoebus name, the god who shoots afar. [618]

Roma domus fiet: Vejos migrate, Quirites,
Si non et Vejos occupat ista domus.

All Rome will be one house: to Veii fly,
Should it not stretch to Veii, by and by. [619]

(370) But he neither made any inquiry after the authors, nor when
information was laid before the senate against some of them, would he
allow a severe sentence to be passed. Isidorus, the Cynic philosopher,
said to him aloud, as he was passing along the streets, “You sing the
misfortunes of Nauplius well, but behave badly yourself.” And Datus, a
comic actor, when repeating these words in the piece, “Farewell, father!
Farewell mother!” mimicked the gestures of persons drinking and swimming,
significantly alluding to the deaths of Claudius and Agrippina: and on
uttering the last clause,

Orcus vobis ducit pedes;
You stand this moment on the brink of Orcus;

he plainly intimated his application of it to the precarious position of
the senate. Yet Nero only banished the player and philosopher from the
city and Italy; either because he was insensible to shame, or from
apprehension that if he discovered his vexation, still keener things
might be said of him.

XL. The world, after tolerating such an emperor for little less than
fourteen years, at length forsook him; the Gauls, headed by Julius
Vindex, who at that time governed the province as pro-praetor, being the
first to revolt. Nero had been formerly told by astrologers, that it
would be his fortune to be at last deserted by all the world; and this
occasioned that celebrated saying of his, “An artist can live in any
country;” by which he meant to offer as an excuse for his practice of
music, that it was not only his amusement as a prince, but might be his
support when reduced to a private station. Yet some of the astrologers
promised him, in his forlorn state, the rule of the East, and some in
express words the kingdom of Jerusalem. But the greater part of them
flattered him with assurances of his being restored to his former
fortune. And being most inclined to believe the latter prediction, upon
losing Britain and Armenia, he imagined he had run through all the
misfortunes which the fates had decreed him. But when, upon consulting
the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, he was advised to beware of the seventy-
third year, as if he were not to die till then, never thinking of Galba’s
age, he conceived such hopes, not only of living to advanced years, but
of constant and singular good fortune, that having lost some things of
great value by shipwreck, he scrupled not to say amongst his friends,
that (371) “the fishes would bring them back to him.” At Naples he heard
of the insurrection in Gaul, on the anniversary of the day on which he
killed his mother, and bore it with so much unconcern, as to excite a
suspicion that he was really glad of it, since he had now a fair
opportunity of plundering those wealthy provinces by the right of war.
Immediately going to the gymnasium, he witnessed the exercise of the
wrestlers with the greatest delight. Being interrupted at supper with
letters which brought yet worse news, he expressed no greater resentment,
than only to threaten the rebels. For eight days together, he never
attempted to answer any letters, nor give any orders, but buried the
whole affair in profound silence.

XLI. Being roused at last by numerous proclamations of Vindex, treating
him with reproaches and contempt, he in a letter to the senate exhorted
them to avenge his wrongs and those of the republic; desiring them to
excuse his not appearing in the senate-house, because he had got cold.
But nothing so much galled him, as to find himself railed at as a pitiful
harper, and, instead of Nero, styled Aenobarbus: which being his family
name, since he was upbraided with it, he declared that he would resume
it, and lay aside the name he had taken by adoption. Passing by the
other accusations as wholly groundless, he earnestly refuted that of his
want of skill in an art upon which he had bestowed so much pains, and in
which he had arrived at such perfection; asking frequently those about
him, “if they knew any one who was a more accomplished musician?” But
being alarmed by messengers after messengers of ill news from Gaul, he
returned in great consternation to Rome. On the road, his mind was
somewhat relieved, by observing the frivolous omen of a Gaulish soldier
defeated and dragged by the hair by a Roman knight, which was sculptured
on a monument; so that he leaped for joy, and adored the heavens. Even
then he made no appeal either to the senate or people, but calling
together some of the leading men at his own house, he held a hasty
consultation upon the present state of affairs, and then, during the
remainder of the day, carried them about with him to view some musical
instruments, of a new invention, which were played by water [620] (372)
exhibiting all the parts, and discoursing upon the principles and
difficulties of the contrivance; which, he told them, he intended to
produce in the theatre, if Vindex would give him leave.

XLII. Soon afterwards, he received intelligence that Galba and the
Spaniards had declared against him; upon which, he fainted, and losing
his reason, lay a long time speechless, apparently dead. As soon as
recovered from this state stupefaction he tore his clothes, and beat his
head, crying out, “It is all over with me!” His nurse endeavouring to
comfort him, and telling him that the like things had happened to other
princes before him, he replied, “I am beyond all example wretched, for I
have lost an empire whilst I am still living.” He, nevertheless, abated
nothing of his luxury and inattention to business. Nay, on the arrival
of good news from the provinces, he, at a sumptuous entertainment, sung
with an air of merriment, some jovial verses upon the leaders of the
revolt, which were made public; and accompanied them with suitable
gestures. Being carried privately to the theatre, he sent word to an
actor who was applauded by the spectators, “that he had it all his own
way, now that he himself did not appear on the stage.”

XLIII. At the first breaking out of these troubles, it is believed that
he had formed many designs of a monstrous nature, although conformable
enough to his natural disposition. These were to send new governors and
commanders to the provinces and the armies, and employ assassins to
butcher all the former governors and commanders, as men unanimously
engaged in a conspiracy against him; to massacre the exiles in every
quarter, and all the Gaulish population in Rome; the former lest they
should join the insurrection; the latter as privy to the designs of their
countrymen, and ready to support (373) them; to abandon Gaul itself, to
be wasted and plundered by his armies; to poison the whole senate at a
feast; to fire the city, and then let loose the wild beasts upon the
people, in order to impede their stopping the progress of the flames.
But being deterred from the execution of these designs not so much by
remorse of conscience, as by despair of being able to effect them, and
judging an expedition into Gaul necessary, he removed the consuls from
their office, before the time of its expiration was arrived; and in their
room assumed the consulship himself without a colleague, as if the fates
had decreed that Gaul should not be conquered, but by a consul. Upon
assuming the fasces, after an entertainment at the palace, as he walked
out of the room leaning on the arms of some of his friends, he declared,
that as soon as he arrived in the province, he would make his appearance
amongst the troops, unarmed, and do nothing but weep: and that, after he
had brought the mutineers to repentance, he would, the next day, in the
public rejoicings, sing songs of triumph, which he must now, without loss
of time, apply himself to compose.

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