The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

LVI. He held all religious rites in contempt, except those of the Syrian
Goddess [636]; but at last he paid her so little reverence, that he made
water upon her; being now engaged in another superstition, in which only
he obstinately persisted. For having received from some obscure plebeian
a little image of a girl, as a preservative against plots, and
discovering a conspiracy immediately after, he constantly worshipped his
imaginary protectress as the greatest amongst the gods, offering to her
three sacrifices daily. He was also desirous to have it supposed that he
had, by revelations from this deity, a knowledge of future events. A few
months before he died, he attended a sacrifice, according to the Etruscan
rites, but the omens were not favourable.

LVII. He died in the thirty-second year of his age [637], upon the same
day on which he had formerly put Octavia to death; and the public joy was
so great upon the occasion, that the common people ran about the city
with caps upon their heads. Some, however, were not wanting, who for a
long time decked his tomb with spring and summer flowers. Sometimes they
placed his image upon the rostra, dressed in robes of state; at another,
they published proclamations in his name, as if he were still alive, and
would shortly return to Rome, and take vengeance on all his enemies.
Vologesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent ambassadors to the senate
to renew his alliance with the Roman people, earnestly requested that due
honour should be paid to the memory of Nero; and, to conclude, when,
twenty years afterwards, at which time I was a young man [638], some
person of obscure birth gave himself out for Nero, that name secured him
so favourable a reception (382) from the Parthians, that he was very
zealously supported, and it was with much difficulty that they were
prevailed upon to give him up.

* * * * * * *

Though no law had ever passed for regulating the transmission of the
imperial power, yet the design of conveying it by lineal descent was
implied in the practice of adoption. By the rule of hereditary
succession, Britannicus, the son of Claudius, was the natural heir to the
throne; but he was supplanted by the artifices of his stepmother, who had
the address to procure it for her own son, Nero. From the time of
Augustus it had been the custom of each of the new sovereigns to commence
his reign in such a manner as tended to acquire popularity, however much
they all afterwards degenerated from those specious beginnings. Whether
this proceeded entirely from policy, or that nature was not yet vitiated
by the intoxication of uncontrolled power, is uncertain; but such were
the excesses into which they afterwards plunged, that we can scarcely
exempt any of them, except, perhaps, Claudius, from the imputation of
great original depravity. The vicious temper of Tiberius was known to
his own mother, Livia; that of Caligula had been obvious to those about
him from his infancy; Claudius seems to have had naturally a stronger
tendency to weakness than to vice; but the inherent wickedness of Nero
was discovered at an early period by his preceptor, Seneca. Yet even
this emperor commenced his reign in a manner which procured him
approbation. Of all the Roman emperors who had hitherto reigned, he
seems to have been most corrupted by profligate favourites, who flattered
his follies and vices, to promote their own aggrandisement. In the
number of these was Tigellinus, who met at last with the fate which he
had so amply merited.

The several reigns from the death of Augustus present us with uncommon
scenes of cruelty and horror; but it was reserved for that of Nero to
exhibit to the world the atrocious act of an emperor deliberately
procuring the death of his mother.

Julia Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus, and married Domitius
Aenobarbus, by whom she had Nero. At the death of Messalina she was a
widow; and Claudius, her uncle, entertaining a design of entering again
into the married state, she aspired to an incestuous alliance with him,
in competition with Lollia Paulina, a woman of beauty and intrigue, who
had been married to C. Caesar. The two rivals were strongly supported by
their (383) respective parties; but Agrippina, by her superior interest
with the emperor’s favourites, and the familiarity to which her near
relation gave her a claim, obtained the preference; and the portentous
nuptials of the emperor and his niece were publicly solemnized in the
palace. Whether she was prompted to this flagrant indecency by personal
ambition alone, or by the desire of procuring the succession to the
empire for her son, is uncertain; but there remains no doubt of her
having removed Claudius by poison, with a view to the object now
mentioned. Besides Claudius, she projected the death of L. Silanus, and
she accomplished that of his brother, Junius Silanus, by means likewise
of poison. She appears to have been richly endowed with the gifts of
nature, but in her disposition intriguing, violent, imperious, and ready
to sacrifice every principle of virtue, in the pursuit of supreme power
or sensual gratification. As she resembled Livia in the ambition of a
mother, and the means by which she indulged it, so she more than equalled
her in the ingratitude of an unnatural son and a parricide. She is said
to have left behind her some memoirs, of which Tacitus availed himself in
the composition of his Annals.

In this reign, the conquest of the Britons still continued to be the
principal object of military enterprise, and Suetonius Paulinus was
invested with the command of the Roman army employed in the reduction of
that people. The island of Mona, now Anglesey, being the chief seat of
the Druids, he resolved to commence his operations with attacking a place
which was the centre of superstition, and to which the vanquished Britons
retreated as the last asylum of liberty. The inhabitants endeavoured,
both by force of arms and the terrors of religion, to obstruct his
landing on this sacred island. The women and Druids assembled
promiscuously with the soldiers upon the shore, where running about in
wild disorder, with flaming torches in their hands, and pouring forth the
most hideous exclamations, they struck the Romans with consternation.
But Suetonius animating his troops, they boldly attacked the inhabitants,
routed them in the field, and burned the Druids in the same fires which
had been prepared by those priests for the catastrophe of the invaders,
destroying at the same time all the consecrated groves and altars in the
island. Suetonius having thus triumphed over the religion of the
Britons, flattered himself with the hopes of soon effecting the reduction
of the people. But they, encouraged by his absence, had taken arms, and
under the conduct of Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, who had been treated
in the most ignominious manner by the Roman tribunes, had already driven
the hateful invaders from their several settlements. Suetonius hastened
to (384) the protection of London, which was by this time a flourishing
Roman colony; but he found upon his arrival, that any attempt to preserve
it would be attended with the utmost danger to the army. London
therefore was reduced to ashes; and the Romans, and all strangers, to the
number of seventy thousand, were put to the sword without distinction,
the Britons seeming determined to convince the enemy that they would
acquiesce in no other terms than a total evacuation of the island. This
massacre, however, was revenged by Suetonius in a decisive engagement,
where eighty thousand of the Britons are said to have been killed; after
which, Boadicea, to avoid falling into the hands of the insolent
conquerors, put a period to her own life by means of poison. It being
judged unadvisable that Suetonius should any longer conduct the war
against a people whom he had exasperated by his severity, he was
recalled, and Petronius Turpilianus appointed in his room. The command
was afterwards given successively to Trebellius Maximus and Vettius
Bolanus; but the plan pursued by these generals was only to retain, by a
conciliatory administration, the parts of the island which had already
submitted to the Roman arms.

During these transactions in Britain, Nero himself was exhibiting, in
Rome or some of the provinces, such scenes of extravagance as almost
exceed credibility. In one place, entering the lists amongst the
competitors in a chariot race; in another, contending for victory with
the common musicians on the stage; revelling in open day in the company
of the most abandoned prostitutes and the vilest of men; in the night,
committing depredations on the peaceful inhabitants of the capital;
polluting with detestable lust, or drenching with human blood, the
streets, the palace, and the habitations of private families; and, to
crown his enormities, setting fire to Rome, while he sung with delight in
beholding the dreadful conflagration. In vain would history be ransacked
for a parallel to this emperor, who united the most shameful vices to the
most extravagant vanity, the most abject meanness to the strongest but
most preposterous ambition; and the whole of whose life was one continued
scene of lewdness, sensuality, rapine, cruelty, and folly. It is
emphatically observed by Tacitus, “that Nero, after the murder of many
illustrious personages, manifested a desire of extirpating virtue
itself.”

Among the excesses of Nero’s reign, are to be mentioned the horrible
cruelties exercised against the Christians in various parts of the
empire, in which inhuman transactions the natural barbarity of the
emperor was inflamed by the prejudices and interested policy of the pagan
priesthood.

(385) The tyrant scrupled not to charge them with the act of burning
Rome; and he satiated his fury against them by such outrages as are
unexampled in history. They were covered with the skins of wild beasts,
and torn by dogs; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve
for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his gardens for this
spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by this dreadful
illumination. Sometimes they were covered with wax and other combustible
materials, after which a sharp stake was put under their chin, to make
them stand upright, and they were burnt alive, to give light to the
spectators.

In the person of Nero, it is observed by Suetonius, the race of the
Caesars became extinct; a race rendered illustrious by the first and
second emperors, but which their successors no less disgraced. The
despotism of Julius Caesar, though haughty and imperious, was liberal and
humane: that of Augustus, if we exclude a few instances of vindictive
severity towards individuals, was mild and conciliating; but the reigns
of Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero (for we except Claudius from part of the
censure), while discriminated from each other by some peculiar
circumstances, exhibited the most flagrant acts of licentiousness and
perverted authority. The most abominable lust, the most extravagant
luxury, the most shameful rapaciousness, and the most inhuman cruelty,
constitute the general characteristics of those capricious and detestable
tyrants. Repeated experience now clearly refuted the opinion of
Augustus, that he had introduced amongst the Romans the best form of
government: but while we make this observation, it is proper to remark,
that, had he even restored the republic, there is reason to believe that
the nation would again have been soon distracted with internal divisions,
and a perpetual succession of civil wars. The manners of the people were
become too dissolute to be restrained by the authority of elective and
temporary magistrates; and the Romans were hastening to that fatal period
when general and great corruption, with its attendant debility, would
render them an easy prey to any foreign invaders.

But the odious government of the emperors was not the only grievance
under which the people laboured in those disastrous times: patrician
avarice concurred with imperial rapacity to increase the sufferings of
the nation. The senators, even during the commonwealth, had become
openly corrupt in the dispensation of public justice; and under the
government of the emperors pernicious abuse was practised to a yet
greater extent. That class being now, equally with other Roman citizens,
dependent on the sovereign power, their sentiments of duty and (386)
honour were degraded by the loss of their former dignity; and being
likewise deprived of the lucrative governments of provinces, to which
they had annually succeeded by an elective rotation in the times of the
republic, they endeavoured to compensate the reduction of their
emoluments by an unbounded venality in the judicial decisions of the
forum. Every source of national happiness and prosperity was by this
means destroyed. The possession of property became precarious; industry,
in all its branches, was effectually discouraged, and the amor patriae,
which had formerly been the animating principle of the nation, was almost
universally extinguished.

It is a circumstance corresponding to the general singularity of the
present reign, that, of the few writers who flourished in it, and whose
works have been transmitted to posterity, two ended their days by the
order of the emperor, and the third, from indignation at his conduct.
These unfortunate victims were Seneca, Petronius Arbiter, and Lucan.

SENECA was born about six years before the Christian aera, and gave early
indication of uncommon talents. His father, who had come from Corduba to
Rome, was a man of letters, particularly fond of declamation, in which he
instructed his son, and placed him, for the acquisition of philosophy,
under the most celebrated stoics of that age. Young Seneca, imbibing the
precepts of the Pythagorean doctrine, religiously abstained from eating
the flesh of animals, until Tiberius having threatened to punish some
Jews and Egyptians, who abstained from certain meats, he was persuaded by
his father to renounce the Pythagorean practice. Seneca displayed the
talents of an eloquent speaker; but dreading the jealousy of Caligula,
who aspired to the same excellence, he thought proper to abandon that
pursuit, and apply himself towards suing for the honours and offices of
the state. He accordingly obtained the place of quaestor, in which
office incurring the imputation of a scandalous amour with Julia Livia,
he removed from Rome, and was banished by the emperor Claudius to
Corsica.

Upon the marriage of Claudius with Agrippina, Seneca was recalled from
his exile, in which he had remained near eight years, and was appointed
to superintend the education of Nero, now destined to become the
successor to the throne. In the character of preceptor he appears to
have acquitted himself with ability and credit; though he has been
charged by his enemies with having initiated his pupil in those
detestable vices which disgraced the reign of Nero. Could he have indeed
been guilty of such immoral conduct, it is probable that he would not so
easily have (387) forfeited the favour of that emperor; and it is more
reasonable to suppose, that his disapprobation of Nero’s conduct was the
real cause of that odium which soon after proved fatal to him. By the
enemies whom distinguished merit and virtue never fail to excite at a
profligate court, Seneca was accused of having maintained a criminal
correspondence with Agrippina in the life-time of Claudius; but the chief
author of this calumny was Suilius, who had been banished from Rome at
the instance of Seneca. He was likewise charged with having amassed
exorbitant riches, with having built magnificent houses, and formed
beautiful gardens, during the four years in which he had acted as
preceptor to Nero. This charge he considered as a prelude to his
destruction; which to avoid, if possible, he requested of the emperor to
accept of the riches and possessions which he had acquired in his
situation at court, and to permit him to withdraw himself into a life of
studious retirement. Nero, dissembling his secret intentions, refused
this request; and Seneca, that he might obviate all cause of suspicion or
offence, kept himself at home for some time, under the pretext of
indisposition.

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