Characters and Events of Roman History/Nero
ON the 13th of October of 54 A.D., when Emperor Claudius died, the Senate chose as his successor his adopted son, Nero, a young man of seventeen, fat and short-sighted, who had until then studied only music, singing, and drawing. This choice of a child-emperor, who lacked imperial qualities and suggested the child kings of Oriental monarchies, was a scandalous novelty in the constitutional history of Rome. The ancient historians, especially Tacitus, considered the event as the result of an intrigue, cleverly arranged by Nero's mother, Agrippina, a daughter of Germanicus and granddaughter of Agrippa, the builder of the Pantheon. According to these historians, Agrippina, a highly ambitious woman, induced Claudius to marry her after Messalina's death, although she was a widow and had a child, and as soon as she entered the emperor's mansion she began to open the way for the election of her son. In order to exclude Britannicus, the son of Messalina, from succession, she persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero; then, with the help of the two tutors of the young man, Seneca and Burrhus, created in the Senate and among the Prætorians, a party favourable to her son; no sooner did she feel that she could rely on the Senate and the Prætorians, than she poisoned Claudius.
Too many difficulties prevent our accepting this version. To cite one of them will suffice: if Agrippina wished--as she surely did--that her son should succeed Claudius, she must also have wished that Claudius would live at least eight or ten years longer. As a great-grandson of Drusus, a grandson of Germanicus and the last descendant of his line, the only line in the whole family enjoying a real popularity, Nero was sure of election if he were of age at the death of Claudius. After the terrible scandal in which his mother had disappeared, Britannicus was no longer a competitor to be feared. There was only one danger for Nero, if Claudius should die too soon, the Senate might refuse to trust the Empire to a child.
I believe that Claudius died of disease, probably, if we can judge from Tacitus's account, of gastroenteritis, and that Agrippina's coterie, surprised by this sudden death, which upset all their plans, decided to put through Nero's election in spite of his youth, in order to insure the power to the line of Drusus, which had so much sympathy among the masses. As a matter of fact, the admiration for Drusus and his family triumphed over all other considerations: Nero became emperor at seventeen; but when the election was over, Rome--again according to the tales of the ancient historians--saw a still greater scandal than his election. The young man--and this is credible--hastened to engage as his master the first zither-player of Rome, Terpnos; continued his study of singing; and bought statues, pictures, bronzes, beautiful slaves, while his mother seized the actual control of the State.
Agrippina insisted on being kept informed of all affairs; directed the home and foreign policy; and if she did not reach the point of partaking in the sessions of the Senate, which would have been the supreme scandal, she called it to meet in her palace and, concealed behind a black curtain, listened to its discussions. In short, the Empire fell into the hands of a woman; Rome saw the evolution of customs, through which woman had for four centuries been freeing herself from her ancient slavery, suddenly a fact accomplished by her visible intervention in politics--the intervention that the great keepers of tradition, first among them Cato, had always decried as the most frightful cataclysm that could menace the city.
This story is also the exaggeration of a simpler truth. Even if Nero had been a very serious young man, at his age he could not by himself have governed the Empire; it would have been necessary for him to serve a long apprenticeship and to listen to experienced counsellors. Burrhus and Seneca, his two teachers, were naturally destined to be his counsellors; but why should not his mother also have helped him? Like all the women of her family, Agrippina was of superior mind, of high culture, and, as Tacitus himself admits, led a most respectable life, at least to the time of her marriage with Claudius. Brought up, as she was, in that family which for eighty years had been governing the Empire, she was well informed about affairs of State. Is it possible to suppose that such a woman would shut herself up in her home to weave wool, when, with her talent, her energy, her experience, she could be of so much service to her son and to the State? We do not need to attribute to Agrippina a monstrous ambition, as does Tacitus, in order to explain how the Empire was ruled during the first two years, by Seneca, Burrhus, and Agrippina; it was a natural consequence of the situation created by the premature death of Claudius. Tacitus himself is forced to recognise that the government was excellent.
Helping her son in the apprenticeship of the Empire, Agrippina did her duty; but during restless times when misunderstanding is almost a law of social life, it is often very dangerous to do one's duty. The period of Agrippina and Nero was full of confusion; though apparently quiet, Italy was deeply torn by the great struggle that gives the history of the Empire its marvellous character of actuality, the struggle between the old Roman military society and the intellectual civilisation of the Orient.
The ancient aristocratic and military Roman society had had so great and world-wide a success, that the ideas, the institutions and the customs, that had made it a perfect model of State, considered as an organ of political and military domination, exercised a great prestige on the following generations. Even during the time of which we speak, every one was forced after eight years of peace, to admit that the Empire had been created by those ideas, those institutions and those customs; that for the sake of the Empire they must be maintained, and alike in family as in State, must be opposed all that forms the essence of intellectual civilisation; that is to say, all that develops personal selfishness at the expense of collective interest--luxury, idleness, pleasure, celibacy, feminism, and at the same time, all that develops personality and intelligence at the expense of tradition--liberty of women, independence of children, variety of personal tendencies, and the critical spirit in all forms.
In spite of the resistance offered by traditions, peace and wealth favoured everywhere the diffusion of the intellectual civilisation of the Hellenised Orient. The woman now become free, and the intellectual man now become powerful, were the springs to set in motion this revolution. Under Claudius, in vain had they exiled Seneca, the brilliant philosopher and the peace-advocating humanitarian, who had diffused in high Roman society so many ideas and sentiments considered by the traditionalists pernicious to the force of the State; he had come back far more powerful, and ruled the Empire. Husbands, burdened by the excessive expenses, by the too frequent infidelities, by the tyrannical caprices of their wives, in vain regretted the good old time when husbands were absolute masters; the invading feminism weakened everywhere the strength of the aristocratic and military traditions.
So contradiction was everywhere. The Republic had still its old aristocratic constitution, but the nobility was no longer spurred by th at absorbing and exclusive passion for politics and war, which had been its power. Society life, pleasure, amateur philosophy and literature, mysticism, and, above all, sports, dissipated in a thousand directions its energy and activity. Too many young men were to be found in the nobility who, like Nero, preferred singing, dancing, and driving, to caring for their clients or enduring the troubles of public office.
Augustus and Tiberius had done their utmost to strengthen the great Latin principle of parsimony in public and private life: in order to set a good example they had lived very simply; they had caused new sumptuary laws to be passed and tried to enforce the old ones; they had spent the State moneys, not for the keeping of artists and writers, nor for the building of monuments of useless size, but to build the great roads of the Empire, to strengthen the frontiers; they had made the public treasure into an aid fund for all suffering cities, stricken by earthquake, fire, or flood. And yet the Oriental influence, so favourable to unproductive and luxurious expenditure, gained ground steadily. The merchant of Syrian and Egyptian objects de luxe, in spite of the sumptuary laws, found a yearly increasing patronage in all the cities of Italy. The exactingness of the desire for public spectacles increased, even in secondary cities. The Italian people were losing their peasant's petty avarice and growing fond of things monumental and colossal, which was the great folly of the Orient. They found the monuments of Rome poor; everywhere, even in modest municipia, they demanded immense theatres, great temples, monumental basilicas, spacious forums, adorned with statues. In spite of the principles insisted upon with so much vigour by Augustus and Tiberius, public finances had, thanks to the weak Claudius and the extravagant Messalina, already gone through a period of great waste and disorder.
These contradictions, and the psychological disorder that followed, explain the discords and struggles very soon raging around the young Emperor. The public began to feel shocked by the attention that Agrippina gave to State affairs, as by a new and this time intolerable scandal of feminism. Agrippina was not a feminist, as a matter of fact, but a traditionalist, proud of the glory of her family, attached to the ancient Roman ideas, desirous only of seeing her son develop into a new Germanicus, a second Drusus. Solely the necessity of helping Nero had led her to meddle with politics. But not in vain had Cato declaimed so loudly in Rome against women who pretend to govern states; not in vain had Augustus's domination been at least partly founded on the great antifeminist legend of Antony and Cleopatra, which represented the fall of the great Triumvir as the consequence of a woman's influence. The public, although willing to give all possible freedom to women in other things, still remained quite firm on this point: politics must remain the monopoly of man. So to the popular imagination, Agrippina soon became a sort of Roman Cleopatra. Many interests gathered quickly to reinforce this antifeminist reaction, which, although exaggerated, had its origin in sincere feeling.
Agrippina, as a true descendant of Drusus, meant to prepare her son to rule the Empire according to the principles held by his great ancestors. Among these principles was to be counted not only the defence of Romanism and the maintenance of the aristocratic constitution, but also a wise economy in the management of finances. Agrippina is a good instance of that well-known fact--the British have noticed it more than once in India--that in public administration discreet and capable women keep, as a rule, the spirit of economy with which they manage the home. This is why, especially in despotic states, they rule better than men. Even before Claudius's death, Agrippina had vigorously opposed waste and plunder; it also appears that the reorganisation of finances after Messalina's death was due chiefly to her.
The continuation under Nero of this severe régime displeased a great number of persons, who dreamed of seeing again the easy sway of Messalina. From the moment they were satisfied that Agrippina, like Augustus and Tiberius, would not allow the public money to be stolen, many people found her insistent interference in public affairs unbearable. In short, Agrippina became unpopular, and, as always happens, because of faults she did not have. A noble deed, which she was trying to accomplish in defence of tradition, definitively compromised her situation.
Her son resembled neither Agrippina nor the great men of her family. He had a most indocile temperament, rebellious to tradition, in no sense Roman. Little by little, Agrippina saw the young Emperor develop into a precocious debauché, frightfully selfish, erratically vain, full of extravagant ideas, who, instead of setting the example of respect toward sumptuary laws, openly violated them all; and across whose mind from time to time flashed sinister lightnings of cruelty. Nero's youth--the fact is not surprising--did not resist the mortal seductions of immense power and immense riches; but Agrippina, the proud granddaughter of the conqueror of Germany, must have chafed at the idea of her son's preferring musical entertainments to the sessions of the Senate, singing lessons to the study of tactics and strategy.
She applied herself, therefore, with all her energy to the work of tearing her son from his pleasures, and bringing about his return to the great traditions of his family. Nero resisted: the struggle between mother and son grew complicated; it excited the passion of the public, which felt that this conflict had a greater importance than any other family quarrel, that it was actually a struggle between traditional Romanism and Oriental customs. Unfortunately, every one sided with Nero: the sincere friends of tradition, because they did not want the rule of a woman, whoever she might be; those that longed for Messalina's times, because they saw personified in Agrippina the austere and inflexible spirit of the gens Claudia. The situation was soon without an issue. The accord of Agrippina with Seneca and Burrhus was troubled, because the two teachers of the young Emperor, under the impression of public malcontent, had somewhat withdrawn from her. Nero, who was sullen, cynical, and lazy, feared his mother too much to have the courage to oppose her openly, but he did not fear her enough to mend his ways. The mother, on her side, was set to do her duty to the end. Like all situations without an issue, this one was suddenly solved by an unexpected event.
Insisting on wanting to make a Roman of this young debauché, Agrippina made him into a murderer. Nero, progressing from one caprice to another, finally imagined a great folly: to divorce Octavia and to raise to her place a beautiful freed-woman called Acte. According to one of the fundamental laws of the State, the great law of Augustus on marriage, which forbade marriages between senators and freedwomen, the union of Nero and Acte could be only a concubinage. Agrippina wanted to avoid this scandal; and, as Nero persisted in his idea, it seems that she actually thought of having him deposed and of securing the choice of Britannicus, a very serious young man, as his successor. A true Roman, Agrippina was ready to sacrifice her son for the sake of the Republic.
The threat was, or appeared to be, so serious to Nero, that it made him step over the threshold of crime. One day during a great dinner to which he had been invited by Nero, Britannicus was suddenly seized with violent convulsions. "It is an attack of epilepsy," said Nero calmly, giving orders to his slaves to remove Britannicus and care for him. The young man died in a few hours and every one believed that Nero had poisoned him.
This dastardly crime aroused at first a sense of horror and fright among the people, but the impression did not last long. In spite of all his faults, Nero was liked. In Rome they had respected Augustus and hated Tiberius; they had killed Caligula and jeered at Claudius; Nero seemed to be the first of the Roman Emperors who stood a chance of becoming popular. Contrary to Agrippina's ideas, it was his frivolity that pleased the great masses, because this frivolity corresponded to the slow but progressive decay of the old Roman virtues in them. They expected from Nero a less hard, less severe, less parsimonious government--in a word, a government less Roman than the rule of his predecessors, a government which, instead of force, glory, and wisdom, meant pleasure and ease.
So it happened that many soon forgot the unfortunate Britannicus, and some even tried to justify Nero by invoking State necessity. Agrippina alone remained the object of the universal hatred, as the sole cause of so many misfortunes. Implacable enemies, concealed in the shadow, were subtly at work against her; they organised a campaign of absurd calumnies in the Court itself, and it is this campaign from which Tacitus drew his material.
Some wretches finally dared even accuse her of conspiracy against the life of her son. Agrippina, refusing to plead for herself, still weathered the storm, because Nero was afraid of her, and though he tried to escape from her authority, did not dare to initiate any energetic move against her. To engage in a final struggle with so indomitable a woman, another woman was necessary. This woman was Poppæa Sabina, a very handsome and able dame of the great Roman nobility. Poppæa represented Oriental feminism in its most dangerous form: a woman completely demoralised by luxury, elegance, society life, and voluptuousness, who eluded all her duties toward the species in order to enjoy and make others enjoy her beauty.
Corrupted as that age was, Poppæa was more corrupt. As soon as she observed the strong impression she had made on Nero, she conceived the plan of becoming his wife; her beauty would then be admired by the whole Empire, would be surrounded by a luxury for which the means of her husband were not sufficient, and with which no other Roman dame could compete. There was one obstacle--Agrippina.
Agrippina protected Octavia, a true Roman woman, simple and honest: Agrippina would never consent to this absolutely unjustifiable divorce. To force Nero to a decisive move against his mother, Poppæa had her husband sent on some mission to Lusitania and became the mistress of the Emperor. From that point the situation changed. Dominated by Poppæa's influence, Nero found the courage to force Agrippina to abandon his palace and seek refuge in Antony's house; he took from her the privilege of Prætorian guards, which he himself had granted her; he reduced to a minimum the number and time of his visits, and carefully avoided being left alone with her. Agrippina's influence, to the general satisfaction, rapidly declined, while Nero gained every day in popularity. Agrippina, however, was too energetic a woman peaceably to resign herself: she began a violent campaign against the two adulterers, which deeply troubled the public. In Rome, where Augustus had promulgated his stern law against adultery; in Rome, where Augustus himself had been obliged to submit to his own law, when he exiled his daughter and his grand-daughter and almost exterminated the whole family; in Rome, a young man of twenty-two dared all but officially introduce adultery and polygamy into the Palatine! In her struggle against Nero, Agrippina once more stood on tradition: and Nero was afraid.
Poppæa was probably the one who suggested to Nero the idea of killing Agrippina. The idea had been, as it were, floating in the air for a long time, because Agrippina was embarrassing to many persons and interests. It was chiefly the party that wanted to sack the imperial budget, to introduce the finance of great expenditure, which could not tolerate this clever and energetic woman, who was so faithful to the great traditions of Augustus and Tiberius, who could neither be frightened nor corrupted. One should not consider the assassination of Agrippina as a simple personal crime of Nero, as the result of his and Poppæa's quarrels with his mother. This crime, besides personal causes, had a political origin. Nero would never have dared commit such a misdeed, in the eyes of the Roman almost a sacrilege, if he had not been encouraged by Agrippina's unpopularity, by the violent hatred of so many against his mother.
Nero hesitated long; he decided only when his freedman, Anicetus, the commander of the fleet, proposed a plan that seemed to guarantee secrecy for the crime: to have a ship built with a concealed trap. It was the spring of the year 59 A.D.; the Court had moved to Baiæ, on the Gulf of Naples. If Nero succeeded in getting his mother on board the vessel, Anicetus would take upon himself the task of burying quickly below the waves the secret of her death; the people who hated Agrippina would easily be satisfied with the explanations to be given them.
Nero executed his part of the plan in perfect cold-blood. He made believe he had repented and was anxious for a reconciliation with his mother; he invited her to Baiæ and so profusely lavished kindnesses and amiabilities upon her, that Agrippina finally believed in his sincerity.
After spending a few days at Baiæ, Agrippina decided to return to Antium; in a very happy frame of mind and full of hopes that her son would soon show himself to the world the man she had dreamed, the descendant of Drusus, she boarded one evening the fatal ship; Nero h ad escorted her thither and pressed her to his heart with the most demonstrative tenderness.
A calm night diffused its starry shadows over the quiet sea, which with subdued murmur lulled in their sleep the great summer homes along the shore. The ship departed, carrying toward her sombre destiny Agrippina, absorbed in her smiling dreams. When the moment came and the wrecking machine was set to work, the vessel did not sink as fast as they had hoped: it listed, overturning people and things. Agrippina had time to understand the danger; with admirable presence of mind she jumped overboard and escaped by swimming, while, during the confusion on the boat, the hired murderers killed one of Agrippina's freedwomen, mistaking her for Agrippina herself. The ship finally sank; the murderers also took to the water; everything returned to its wonted calm; the starry night still diffused its silent shadows; the sea still cradled with subdued murmur the homes along the coast--all men slept except one.
Within this one, Anxiety watched: a son was awaiting the news that his mother was dead, and that he was free to celebrate a criminal marriage. The escaped murderers soon brought the news so impatiently expected--but Nero's joy was short. At dawn, a freedman of Agrippina arrived at the Emperor's villa. Agrippina, picked up by a boat, had succeeded in reaching one of her villas near by; she sent the freedman to tell the Emperor about the accident and to assure him of her safety. Agrippina alive! It was like a thunderbolt to Nero, and he lost his head: he saw his mother hurrying on to Rome, denouncing the abominable attempt to Senate and people, rousing against him the Prætorian guard and the legions. Thoroughly frightened, he summoned Seneca and Burrhus and laid before them the terrible situation. It is easy to imagine the shock of the old preceptors. How could he risk such a grave imprudence? And yet there was no time to lose in reproaches. Nero begged for advice: Seneca and Burrhus were silent, but they, also frightened, asked of themselves what Agrippina would do. Would she not provoke a colossal scandal, which would ruin everything? An expedient, the same one, occurred to both of them: but so sinister was the idea that they dared not speak it. This time, however, both the philosopher and the general were deceived as well as Nero: Agrippina had guessed the truth and given up the struggle. What could she, a lone woman do against an Emperor who did not stop even at the plan of murdering his mother? She realised, during that awful night, that only one chance of safety was left to her--to ignore what had taken place; and she sent her freedman with the message that meant forgiveness. But fear kept Nero and his counsellors from understanding; and when they could easily have remedied the preceding mistake, they compromised all by a supreme error. Finally Seneca, the pacificator and humanitarian philosopher, thought he had found the way of making half-openly the only suggestion which seemed wise to him: he turned to Burrhus and asked what might happen, if an order were given the Prætorians to kill Nero's mother. Burrhus understood that his colleague, although the first to give the fatal advice, was trying to shift upon him the much more serious responsibility of carrying it out; since, if they reached the decision of having Agrippina disposed of by the Prætorians, no one but he, the commander of the guard, could utter the order. He therefore protested with the greatest energy that the Prætorians would never lay murderous hands on the daughter of Germanicus. Then he added cogitatively that, if it were thought necessary, Anicetus and his sailors could finish the work already begun. Thus Burrhus gave the same advice as Seneca, but he, like his colleague, meant to pass on to some one else the task of execution. He chose better than Seneca: Anicetus, if Agrippina lived, ran a serious risk of becoming the scapegoat of all this affair. In fact, as soon as Nero gave his assent, Anicetus and a few sailors hastened to the villa of Agrippina and stabbed her.
The crime was abominable. Nero and his circle were so awed by it that they attempted to make the people believe that Agrippina had committed suicide, when her conspiracy against her son's life had been discovered. This was the official version of Agrippina's death, sent by Nero to the Senate. But this audacious mystification had no success. The public divined the truth, and roused by the voice of their age-long instincts, they cried out that the Emperor no less than any peasant of Italy must revere his father and his mother. Through a sudden turn of public feeling, Agrippina, who had been so much hated during her life, became the object of a kind of popular veneration; Nero, on the other hand, and Poppæa inspired a sentiment of profound horror.
If Nero had found the living Agrippina unbearable, he soon realised that his dead mother was much more to be feared. In fact, scared as he was by the popular agitation, not only had he temporarily to give up the plan of d ivorcing Octavia and marrying Poppæa, but felt obliged to stay several months at Baiæ, not daring to return to Rome. He was, however, no longer a child: he was twenty-three years old and had some talent. Men of intelligence and energy were also not wanting in his entourage. The first shock once over, the Emperor and his coterie rallied. The first impression had indeed been disastrous, but had brought about no irreparable consequences--the only consequences that count in politics. One could therefore hope that the public would gradually forget this murder as they had forgotten that of Britannicus. One only needed to help them forget. Nero resolved to give Italy and Rome the administrative revolution that had found in Agrippina so determined an opponent, the easy, splendid, generous government that seemed to suit the popular taste.
He began by organising among the jeunesse dorée of Rome the "festivals of youth." In these true demonstrations against the old aristocratic education, now in the house of one and then in the garden of another, the young patricians met under the Emperor's directions. They sang, recited, and danced, displaying all the tendencies that tradition held unworthy of a Roman nobleman. Later, Nero built in the Vatican fields a private stadium, where he amused himself with driving, and invited his friends to join him. He surrounded himself with poets, musicians, singers; enormously increased the budget of popular festivals; planned and started immense constructions; introduced into all parts of the administration a new spirit of carelessness and ease. Not only the sumptuary laws, but all laws commanding the fulfilment of human duties toward the species, such as the great laws of Augustus on marriage and adultery, were no longer applied; the surveillance of the Senate over the governors, that of the governors over the cities, slackened. In Rome, in all Italy, in the provinces, the treasuries of the Republic, the possessions and the funds of the cities, were robbed. In the midst of this unbridled plundering, which appeared to make every man rich quickly, and without work, a delirium of luxury and pleasure reigned: in Rome especially, people lived in a continuous orgy; the nobility answered in crowds the invitations of Nero; the Senate, the great houses, where the conquerors of the world had been born, swarmed with young athletes and drivers, who had no other ambition but that of adding the prize of a race to the war trophies of their ancestors; the imperial palace was invaded by a noisy horde of zitherists, actors, jockeys, athletes, among whom Burrhus and, still more, Seneca, were beginning to feel most ill at ease.
Agrippina's death, even though it had yet deferred Nero's marrying Poppæa, had made possible the change in the government that a part of the people wished. We owe to this new principle the immense ruins of ancient Rome; but this fact does not authorise us to consider it a Roman principle: it was, instead, a principle of Oriental civilisation which had forced itself upon the Roman traditions after a long and painful effort. The revolution, however, had been long preparing and corresponded to the popular aspirations. It would, therefore, have redounded to the advantage of the Emperor, who had dared to break loose from a superannuated tradition, had not Agrippina's spectre still haunted Rome. To their honour be it said, the people of Rome and Italy had not yet become so corrupted by Oriental civilisation as to forget parricide in a few festivals.
The party of tradition, though weakened, existed. They began a brave fight against Nero, using the assassination of Agrippina as the adverse party had exploited the antifeminist prejudices of the masses against Agrippina herself. They denounced the parricide to the people, in order to attack the champion of Orientalism and irritate against him the indifferent mass, which, not understanding the great struggle between the Orient and Rome, remained unstirred. Hoping the excitement of spirit had somewhat subsided, Nero had finally carried out his old plan of divorcing Octavia and marrying Poppæa; but the divorce caused great popular demonstrations in Rome in favour of the abused wife and against the intruder.
Moreover, thanks to his extravagance, Nero made things very easy for his enemies, the defenders of tradition. His habits of dissipation exaggerated all the faults of his character, chiefly his morbid need of showing himself off, of defying the public, their prejudices, their opinions. It is difficult to discern how much is true and how much is false in the hideous stories of debauchery handed down to us by the ancient writers, particularly Suetonius.
Although one might believe--and I believe it for my part--that there is a great deal of exaggeration in such tales, it is certain that Nero's personality played too conspicuous a part in his administrative revolution. Ready as the people were to admire a more generous and luxurious government than that of Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius, they still liked to look to the chief of State as to a man of gravity and austerity, who let others amuse themselves, though he himself be bored. The vain and bizarre young man, who was always the guest of honour at his own fêtes, who never hesitated to satisfy his most extravagant caprices, who spent so much money to divert himself, shocked the last republican susceptibilities of Italy. The wise felt alarmed: with such expenses, would it not all end in bankruptcy? For all these causes, they soon began to reproach Nero for his prodigality, although the people enjoyed it, just as they had been malcontent with Tiberius for his parsimony. His caprices, ever stranger, little by little roused even that part of the public which was not fanatically attached to tradition. At that time Nero developed his foolish vanity of actor, his caprice for the theatre, which soon was to become an all-absorbing mania. The chief of the Empire, the heir of Julius Cæsar, dreamed of nothing else than descending from the height of human grandeur to the scene of a theatre, to experience before the public the sensations of those players whom the Roman nobility had always regarded as instruments of infamous pleasure!
Disgusted with Nero's mismanagement and follies, Seneca took the death of Burrhus as an opportunity to retire. Then Nero, freed from the last person who still retained any influence over him, gave himself up entirely to the insane swirl of his caprices. He ended one day by presenting himself in the theatre of Naples. Naples was yet then a Greek city. Nero had chosen it for this reason; he was applauded with frenzy. But the Italians of the other cities protested: the chief of the Empire appearing in a theatre, his hand on the zither and not on the sword! Imagine what would be the impression if some day a sovereign went on the stage of the folies Bergères as a "number" for a sleight-of-hand performance!
Public attention, however, was turned from this immense scandal by a frightful calamity--the famous conflagration of Rome, which began the nineteenth of July of the year 64 and devastated almost all quarters of the city for ten days. What was the cause of the great disaster? This very obscure point has much interested historians, who have tried in vain to throw light on the subject. As far as I am concerned, I by no means exclude the hypothesis that the fire might have been accidental. But when they are crushed under the weight of a great misfortune, men always feel sure that they are the victims of human wickedness: a sad proof of their distrust in their fellow men. The plebs, reduced to utter misery by the disaster, began to murmur that mysterious people had been seen hurrying through the different quarters, kindling the fire and cumbering the work of help; these incendiaries must have been sent by some one in power--by whom?
A strange rumour circulated: Nero himself had ordered the city to be burned, in order to enjoy a unique sight, to get an idea of the fire of Troy, to have the glory of rebuilding Rome on a more magnificent scale. The accusation seems to me absurd. Nero was a criminal, but he was not a fool to the point of provoking the wrath of the whole people for so light a motive, especially after Agrippina's death. Tacitus himself, in spite of his hatred of all Cæsar's family and his readiness to make them responsible for the most serious crimes, does not venture to express belief in this story--sufficient proof that he considers it absurd and unlikely. Nevertheless, the hatred that surrounded Nero and Poppæa made every one, not only among the ignorant populace, but also among the higher classes, accept it readily. It was soon the general opinion that Nero had accomplished what Brennus and Catiline's conspirators could not do. Was a more horrible monster ever seen? Parricide, actor, incendiary!
The traditionalist party, the opposition, the unsatisfied, exploited without scruple this popular attitude, and Nero, responsible for a sufficient number of actual crimes, found himself accused also of an imaginary one. He was so frightened that he decided to give the clamouring people a victim, some one on whom Rome could avenge its sorrow. An inquiry into the causes of the conflagration was ordered. The inquest came to a strange conclusion. The fire had been started by a small religious sect, recently imported from the Orient, a sect whose name most people then learned for the first time: the Christians.
How did the Roman authorities come to such a conclusion? That is one of the greatest mysteries of universal history, and no one will ever be able to clear it. If the explanation of the disaster as accepted by the people was absurd, the official explanation was still more so. The Christian community of Rome, the pretended volcano of civil hatred, which had poured forth the destructive fire over the great metropolis, was a small and peaceful congregation of pious idealists.
A great and simple man, Paul of Tarsus, had taken up again among them the great work in which Augustus and Tiberius had failed: he aimed at the remaking of popular conscience, but used means until then unknown in the Græco-Latin civilisation. Not in the name of the ancestors, of the traditions, of ideals of political power, did he seek to persuade men to work, to refrain from vice, to live honestly and simply; but in the name of a single God, whom man had in the beginning offended through his pride, in the name of the Son of God, who had taken human form and volunteered to die as a criminal on the cross, to appease the Father's wrath against the rebellious creature. On the Græco-Roman idea of duty, Paul grafted the Christian idea of sin. Doubtless the new theology must have seemed at first obscure to Greeks and Romans; but Paul put into it that new spirit, mutual love, which the dry Latin soul had hardly ever known, and he vivified it with the example of an obscure life of sacrifice.
Paul was born of a noble Hebrew family of Tarsus, and was a man of high culture. He had, to use a modern expression, simplified himself, renounced his position in a time when few could resist the passion for luxury, and taken up a trade for his living; with the scanty profit from his work as a tent-maker, alone and on foot he made measureless journeys through the Empire, everywhere preaching the redemption of man. Finally, after numberless adventures and perils, he had come to Rome and had, in the great city frenzied by the delirium of luxury and pleasure, repeated to the poor, who alone were willing to hear him: "Be chaste and pure, do not deceive each other, love one another, help one another, love God."
If Nero had known the little society of pious idealists, he surely would have hated it, but for other motives than the imaginary accusations of his police. In this story St. Paul is exactly the antithesis of Nero. The latter represents the atrocious selfishness of rich, peaceful, highly civilised epochs; the former, the ardent moral idealism which tries to react against the cardinal vices of power and wealth through universal self-sacrifice and asceticism. Neither of these men is to be comprehended without the other, because the moral doctrine of Paul is partly a reaction against, the violent folly for which Nero stood the symbol; but it certainly was not philosophical considerations of this kind that led the Roman authorities to rage against the Christians. The problem, I repeat, is insoluble. However this may be, the Christians were declared responsible for the fire; a great number were taken into custody, sentenced to death, executed in different ways, during the festivals that Nero offered to the people to appease them. Possibly Paul himself was one of the victims of this persecution.
This diversion, however, was of no use. The conflagration definitely ruined Nero. With the conflagration begins the third period of his life, which lasts four years. It is characterised by absurd exaggerations of all kinds, which hastened the inevitable catastrophe. One grandiose idea dominates it: the idea of building on the ruins a new Rome, immense and magnificent, a true metropolis for the Empire. In order to carry out this plan, Nero did not economise; he began to spend in it the moneys laid aside to pay the legions. The people of Italy, however, and even of Rome, which grew rich on these public expenditures, did not show themselves thankful for this immense architectural effort. Every one was sure that the new city would be worse than the old one!
Nero himself, exasperated by this invincible hate, exhausted by his own excesses, lost what reason he had still left, and h is government degenerated into a complete tyranny, suspicious, violent, and cruel.
Piso's conspiracy caused him to order a massacre of patricians, which left terrible rancour in its wake; in an access of fury, he killed Poppæa; he began to imagine accusations against the richest men of the Empire, in order to confiscate their estates. His prodigality and the general carelessness had completely disorganised the finances of the Empire; he had to recur to all kinds of expedients to find money. Finally he undertook a great artistic tour in Greece--that province which had been the mother of arts--to play in its most celebrated theatres. This time indignation burst all bounds. The armies of Gaul and Spain, for a long time irregularly paid, led by their officers, revolted. This act of energy sufficed. On the 9th of June, 68 A.D., abandoned by all the world, Nero was compelled to commit suicide.
So the family of Julius Cæsar disappears from history. After so much greatness, genius, and wisdom, the fall may seem petty and almost laughable. It is absurd to lose the Empire for the pleasure of singing in a theatre. And yet, bizarre as the end may seem, it was not the result of the vices, the follies, and the crimes of Nero alone. In his way, Nero himself was, like all members of his family, the victim of the contradictory situation of his times.
It has been repeated for centuries, that the foundation of monarchy was the great mission of Cæsar's family. I believe this to be a great mistake. The lot of the family would have been simple and easy, if it had been able to found a monarchy. The family of Cæsar had to solve another problem, much more difficult,--in fact insoluble; a problem that may be compared, from a certain point of view, to that which confronted the Bonapartes in the nineteenth century. The Bonapartes found old monarchical, legitimistic, theocratic Europe agitated by forces which, although making it impossible for the ancient regime to continue, were not yet able to establish a new society, entirely democratic, republican, and lay. The family of Cæsar found the opposite situation: an old military and aristocratic republic, which was changing into an intellectual and monarchical civilisation, based on equality, but opposing formidable resistance to the forces of transformation. In these situations the two families tried in all ways to reconcile things not to be conciliated, to realise the impossible: one, the popular monarchy and imperial democracy; the other, the monarchical republic and Orientalised Latinity. The contradiction was for both families the law of life, the cause of greatness; this explains why neither was ever willing to extricate itself from it, in spite of the advice of philosophers, the malcontent of the masses, the pressure of parties, and the evident dangers. This contradiction was also the fatality of both families, the cause of their ruin; it explains the shortness of their power, their restless existence, and the continuous catastrophes that opened the way to the final crash.
Waterloo and Sedan, the exile of Julia and the tragic failure of Tiberius's government, all the misfortunes great and small which struck the two families, were always consequences of the insoluble contradiction they tried to solve. You have had a perfectly characteristic example of it in the brief story I have been telling you. Agrippina becomes an object of universal hatred and dies by assassination because she defends tradition; her son disregards tradition and, chiefly for this very reason, is finally forced to kill himself. Doubtless the fate of the Bonapartes is less tragic, because they, at least, escaped the infamous legend created by contemporary hatred against Cæsar's family, and artfully developed by the historians of successive generations. I hope to be able to prove in the continuation of my Greatness and Decline of Rome, that the history of Cæsar's family, as it has been told by Tacitus and Suetonius, is a sensational novel, a legend containing not much more truth than the legend of Atrides. The family of Cæsar, placed in the centre of the great struggle going on in Rome between the old Roman militarism, and the intellectual civilisation of the Orient, between nationalism and cosmopolitism, between Asiatic mysticism and traditional religion, between egoism over-excited by culture and wealth, and the supreme interests of the species, had to injure too many interests, to offend too many susceptibilities. The injured interests, the offended susceptibilities, revenged themselves through defaming legends.
The case of Nero is particularly instructive. He was half insane and a veritable criminal: it would be absurd to attempt in his favour the historical rehabilitation to which other members of the family, Tiberius for instance, have a right. And yet it has not been enough for succeeding generations that he atoned for his follies and crimes by death and infamy. They have fallen upon his memory: they have overlooked that extenuating circumstance of considerable importance, his age when elected; they have gone so far as to make him into a unique monster, no longer human and even the Antichrist!
Surely he first shed Christian blood; but if we consider the tendency he represented in Roman history, we can hardly classify him among the great enemies of Christianity. Unwittingly, Augustus and Tiberius were two great enemies of the Christian teachings, because they sought by all means to reinforce Roman tradition, and struggled against everything that would one day form the essence of Christianity--cosmopolitism, mysticism, the domination of intellectual people, the influence of the philosophical and metaphysical spirit on life. Nero, on the contrary, with his repeated efforts to spread Orientalism in Rome, and chiefly with his taste for art, was unconsciously a powerful collaborator of future Christian propaganda. We must not forget this: the masses in the Empire became Christian only because they had first been imbued with the Oriental spirit.
Nero and St. Paul, the man that wished to enjoy all, and the man that suffered all, are in their time two extreme antitheses: with the passing of centuries, they become two collaborators. While one suffered hunger and persecution to preach the doctrine of redemption, the other called to Italy and to Rome, to amuse himself, the goldsmiths, weavers, sculptors, painters, architects, musicians, whom Rome had always rebuffed.
Both disappeared, cut off by the violent current of their epoch; centuries went by: the name of the Emperor grew infamous, while that of the tent-maker radiated glory. In the midst of the immense disorder that accompanied the dissolution of the Roman Empire, as the bonds among men relaxed, and the human mind seemed to be incapable of reasoning and understanding, the disciples of the saint realised that the goldsmiths, weavers, sculptors, painters, architects, and musicians of the Emperor could collect the masses around the churches and make them patiently listen to what they could still comprehend of Paul's sublime morality. When you regard St. Mark or Notre Dame or any other stupendous cathedral of the Middle Ages, like museums for the work of art they hold, you see the luminous symbol of this paradoxical alliance between victim and executioner.
Only through the alliance of Paul and Nero could the Church dominate the disorder of the Middle Ages, and, from antiquity to the modern world, carry through that formidable storm the essential principles from which our civilisation developed: a decisive proof that, if history in its details is a continuous strife, as a whole it is the inevitable final reconciliation of antagonistic forces, obtained in spite of the resistance of individuals and by sacrificing them.