The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

The Satyricon of Petronius is one of the most curious productions in the
Latin language. Novel in its nature, and without any parallel in the
works of antiquity, some have imagined it to be a spurious composition,
fabricated about the time of the revival of learning in Europe. This
conjecture, however, is not more destitute of support, than repugnant to
the most circumstantial evidence in favour of its authenticity. Others,
admitting the work to be a production of the age of Nero, have questioned
the design with which it was written, and have consequently imputed to
the author a most immoral intention. Some of the scenes, incidents, and
characters, are of so extraordinary a nature, that the description of
them, without a particular application, must have been regarded as
extremely whimsical, and the work, notwithstanding its ingenuity, has
been doomed to perpetual oblivion: but history justifies the belief, that
in the court of Nero, the extravagancies mentioned by Petronius were
realized (395) to a degree which authenticates the representation given
of them. The inimitable character of Trimalchio, which exhibits a person
sunk in the most debauched effeminacy, was drawn for Nero; and we are
assured, that there were formerly medals of that emperor, with these
words, C. Nero August. Imp., and on the reverse, Trimalchio. The various
characters are well discriminated, and supported with admirable
propriety. Never was such licentiousness of description united to such
delicacy of colouring. The force of the satire consists not in poignancy
of sentiment, but in the ridicule which arises from the whimsical, but
characteristic and faithful exhibition of the objects introduced. That
Nero was struck with the justness of the representation, is evident from
the displeasure which he showed, at finding Petronius so well acquainted
with his infamous excesses. After levelling his suspicion on all who
could possibly have betrayed him, he at last fixed on a senator’s wife,
named Silia, who bore a part in his revels, and was an intimate friend of
Petronius upon which she was immediately sent into banishment. Amongst
the miscellaneous materials in this work, are some pieces of poetry,
written in an elegant taste. A poem on the civil war between Caesar and
Pompey, is beautiful and animated.

Though the Muses appear to have been mostly in a quiescent state from the
time of Augustus, we find from Petronius Arbiter, who exhibits the
manners of the capital during the reign of Nero, that poetry still
continued to be a favourite pursuit amongst the Romans, and one to which,
indeed, they seem to have had a national propensity.

——–Ecce inter pocula quaerunt
Romulidae saturi, quid dia poemata narrent.–Persius, Sat. i. 30.

—-Nay, more! Our nobles, gorged, and swilled with wine,
Call o’er the banquet for a lay divine!–Gifford.

It was cultivated as a kind of fashionable exercise, in short and
desultory attempts, in which the chief ambition was to produce verses
extempore. They were publicly recited by their authors with great
ostentation; and a favourable verdict from an audience, however partial,
and frequently obtained either by intrigue or bribery, was construed by
those frivolous pretenders into a real adjudication of poetical fame.

The custom of publicly reciting poetical compositions, with the view of
obtaining the opinion of the hearers concerning them, and for which
purpose Augustus had built the Temple of Apollo, was well calculated for
the improvement of taste and judgment, as well as the excitement of
emulation; but, conducted as it now was, it led to a general degradation
of poetry. Barbarism in (396) language, and a corruption of taste, were
the natural consequences of this practice, while the judgment of the
multitude was either blind or venal, and while public approbation
sanctioned the crudities of hasty composition. There arose, however, in
this period, some candidates for the bays, who carried their efforts
beyond the narrow limits which custom and inadequate genius prescribed to
the poetical exertions of their contemporaries. Amongst these were Lucan
and Persius.—-

LUCAN was the son of Annaeus Mela, the brother of Seneca, the
philosopher. He was born at Corduba, the original residence of the
family, but came early to Rome, where his promising talents, and the
patronage of his uncle, recommended him to the favour of Nero; by whom he
was raised to the dignity of an augur and quaestor before he had attained
the usual age. Prompted by the desire of displaying his political
abilities, he had the imprudence to engage in a competition with his
imperial patron. The subject chosen by Nero was the tragical fate of
Niobe; and that of Lucan was Orpheus. The ease with which the latter
obtained the victory in the contest, excited the jealousy of the emperor,
who resolved upon depressing his rising genius. With this view, he
exposed him daily to the mortification of fresh insults, until at last
the poet’s resentment was so much provoked, that he entered into the
conspiracy of Piso for cutting off the tyrant. The plot being
discovered, there remained for the unfortunate Lucan no hope of pardon:
and choosing the same mode of death which was employed by his uncle, he
had his veins opened, while he sat in a warm bath, and expired in
pronouncing with great emphasis the following lines in his Pharsalia:–

Scinditur avulsus; nec sicut vulnere sanguis
Emicuit lentus: ruptis cadit undique venis;
Discursusque animae diversa in membra meantis
Interceptus aquis, nullius, vita perempti
Est tanta dimissa via.–Lib. iii. 638.

—-Asunder flies the man.
No single wound the gaping rupture seems,
Where trickling crimson flows in tender streams;
But from an opening horrible and wide
A thousand vessels pour the bursting tide;
At once the winding channel’s course was broke,
Where wandering life her mazy journey took.–Rowe.

Some authors have said that he betrayed pusillanimity at the hour of
death; and that, to save himself from punishment, he (397) accused his
mother of being involved in the conspiracy. This circumstance, however,
is not mentioned by other writers, who relate, on the contrary, that he
died with philosophical fortitude. He was then only in the twenty-sixth
year of his age.

Lucan had scarcely reached the age of puberty when he wrote a poem on the
contest between Hector and Achilles. He also composed in his youth a
poem on the burning of Rome; but his only surviving work is the
Pharsalia, written on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. This
poem, consisting of ten books, is unfinished, and its character has been
more depreciated than that of any other production of antiquity. In the
plan of the poem, the author prosecutes the different events in the civil
war, beginning his narrative at the passage of the Rubicon by Caesar. He
invokes not the muses, nor engages any gods in the dispute; but
endeavours to support an epic dignity by vigour of sentiment, and
splendour of description. The horrors of civil war, and the importance
of a contest which was to determine the fate of Rome and the empire of
the world, are displayed with variety of colouring, and great energy of
expression. In the description of scenes, and the recital of heroic
actions, the author discovers a strong and lively imagination; while, in
those parts of the work which are addressed either to the understanding
or the passions, he is bold, figurative, and animated. Indulging too
much in amplification, he is apt to tire with prolixity; but in all his
excursions he is ardent, elevated, impressive, and often brilliant. His
versification has not the smoothness which we admire in the compositions
of Virgil, and his language is often involved in the intricacies of
technical construction: but with all his defects, his beauties are
numerous; and he discovers a greater degree of merit than is commonly
found in the productions of a poet of twenty-six years of age, at which
time he died.—-

PERSIUS was born at Volaterrae, of an equestrian family, about the
beginning of the Christian aera. His father dying when he was six years
old, he was left to the care of his mother, for whom and for his sisters
he expresses the warmest affection. At the age of twelve he came to
Rome, where, after attending a course of grammar and rhetoric under the
respective masters of those branches of education, he placed himself
under the tuition of Annaeus Cornutus, a celebrated stoic philosopher of
that time. There subsisted between him and this preceptor so great a
friendship, that at his death, which happened in the twenty-ninth year of
his age, he bequeathed to Cornutus a handsome sum of money, and his
library. The latter, however, accepting only the books, left the money
to Persius’s sisters.

Priscian, Quintilian, and other ancient writers, spear of Persius’s
satires as consisting of a book without any division. They have since,
however, been generally divided into six different satires, but by some
only into five. The subjects of these compositions are, the vanity of
the poets in his time; the backwardness of youth to the cultivation of
moral science; ignorance and temerity in political administration,
chiefly in allusion to the government of Nero: the fifth satire is
employed in evincing that the wise man also is free; in discussing which
point, the author adopts the observations used by Horace on the same
subject. The last satire of Persius is directed against avarice. In the
fifth, we meet with a beautiful address to Cornutus, whom the author
celebrates for his amiable virtues, and peculiar talents for teaching.
The following lines, at the same time that they show how diligently the
preceptor and his pupil were employed through the whole day in the
cultivation of moral science, afford a more agreeable picture of domestic
comfort and philosophical conviviality, than might be expected in the
family of a rigid stoic:

Tecum etenim longos memini consumere soles,
Et tecum primas epulis decerpere noctes.
Unum opus, et requiem pariter disponimus ambo:
Atque verecunda laxamus feria mensa.–Sat. v.

Can I forget how many a summer’s day,
Spent in your converse, stole, unmarked, away?
Or how, while listening with increased delight,
I snatched from feasts the earlier hours of night?–Gifford.

The satires of Persius are written in a free, expostulatory, and
argumentative manner; possessing the same justness of sentiment as those
of Horace, but exerted in the way of derision, and not with the admirable
raillery of that facetious author. They are regarded by many as obscure;
but this imputation arises more from unacquaintance with the characters
and manners to which the author alludes, than from any peculiarity either
in his language or composition. His versification is harmonious; and we
have only to remark, in addition to similar examples in other Latin
writers, that, though Persius is acknowledged to have been both virtuous
and modest, there are in the fourth satire a few passages which cannot
decently admit of being translated. Such was the freedom of the Romans,
in the use of some expressions, which just refinement has now exploded.–

Another poet, in this period, was FABRICIUS VEIENTO, who wrote a severe
satire against the priests of his time; as also one (399) against the
senators, for corruption in their judicial capacity. Nothing remains of
either of those productions; but, for the latter, the author was banished
by Nero.

There now likewise flourished a lyric poet, CAESIUS BASSUS, to whom
Persius has addressed his sixth satire. He is said to have been, next to
Horace, the best lyric poet among the Romans; but of his various
compositions, only a few inconsiderable fragments are preserved.

To the two poets now mentioned must be added POMPONIUS SECUNDUS, a man of
distinguished rank in the army, and who obtained the honour of a triumph
for a victory over a tribe of barbarians in Germany. He wrote several
tragedies, which in the judgment of Quintilian, were beautiful


I. The race of the Caesars became extinct in Nero; an event
prognosticated by various signs, two of which were particularly
significant. Formerly, when Livia, after her marriage with Augustus, was
making a visit to her villa at Veii [639], an eagle flying by, let drop
upon her lap a hen, with a sprig of laurel in her mouth, just as she had
seized it. Livia gave orders to have the hen taken care of, and the
sprig of laurel set; and the hen reared such a numerous brood of
chickens, that the villa, to this day, is called the Villa of the Hens
[640]. The laurel groves flourished so much, that the Caesars procured
thence the boughs and crowns they bore at their triumphs. It was also
their constant custom to plant others on the same spot, immediately after
a triumph; and it was observed that, a little before the death of each
prince, the tree which had been set by him died away. But in the last
year of Nero, the whole plantation of laurels perished to the very roots,
and the hens all died. About the same time, the temple of the Caesars
[641] being struck with lightning, the heads of all the statues in it
fell off at once; and Augustus’s sceptre was dashed from his hands.

II. Nero was succeeded by Galba [642], who was not in the remotest
degree allied to the family of the Caesars, but, without doubt, of very
noble extraction, being descended from a great and ancient family; for he
always used to put amongst his other titles, upon the bases of his
statues, his being great-grandson to Q. Catulus Capitolinus. And when he
came to (401) be emperor, he set up the images of his ancestors in the
hall [643] of the palace; according to the inscriptions on which, he
carried up his pedigree on the father’s side to Jupiter; and by the
mother’s to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

III. To give even a short account of the whole family, would be tedious.
I shall, therefore, only slightly notice that branch of it from which he
was descended. Why, or whence, the first of the Sulpicii who had the
cognomen of Galba, was so called, is uncertain. Some are of opinion,
that it was because he set fire to a city in Spain, after he had a long
time attacked it to no purpose, with torches dipped in the gum called
Galbanum: others said he was so named, because, in a lingering disease,
he made use of it as a remedy, wrapped up in wool: others, on account of
his being prodigiously corpulent, such a one being called, in the
language of the Gauls, Galba; or, on the contrary, because he was of a
slender habit of body, like those insects which breed in a sort of oak,
and are called Galbae. Sergius Galba, a person of consular rank [644],
and the most eloquent man of his time, gave a lustre to the family.
History relates, that, when he was pro-praetor of Spain, he perfidiously
put to the sword thirty thousand Lusitanians, and by that means gave
occasion to the war of Viriatus [645]. His grandson being incensed
against Julius Caesar, whose lieutenant he had been in Gaul, because he
was through him disappointed of the consulship [646], joined with Cassius
and Brutus in the conspiracy against him, for which he was condemned by
the Pedian law. From him were descended the grandfather and father of
the emperor Galba. The grandfather was more celebrated for his
application to study, than (402) for any figure he made in the
government. For he rose no higher than the praetorship, but published a
large and not uninteresting history. His father attained to the
consulship [647]: he was a short man and hump-backed, but a tolerable
orator, and an industrious pleader. He was twice married: the first of
his wives was Mummia Achaica, daughter of Catulus, and great-grand-
daughter of Lucius Mummius, who sacked Corinth [648]; and the other,
Livia Ocellina, a very rich and beautiful woman, by whom it is supposed
he was courted for the nobleness of his descent. They say, that she was
farther encouraged to persevere in her advances, by an incident which
evinced the great ingenuousness of his disposition. Upon her pressing
her suit, he took an opportunity, when they were alone, of stripping off
his toga, and showing her the deformity of his person, that he might not
be thought to impose upon her. He had by Achaica two sons, Caius and
Sergius. The elder of these, Caius [649], having very much reduced his
estate, retired from town, and being prohibited by Tiberius from standing
for a pro-consulship in his year, put an end to his own life.

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