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Chapter XXII

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
by
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter XXIV

 p416  Chapter XXIII

The Julio-Claudian Emperors

Tiberius, 14‑37 A.D. Augustus had left no doubt about his choice of a successor, though, true to his policy, he had not formally put forth the claim that he could name one. He had bequeathed the bulk of his estate to his stepson, Tiberius, whom he had adopted some ten years before, and he had secured for him the tribunicia potestas by which he could legally control the Senate, as well as the proconsular imperium, which placed the armies in his hands. It was an important question for the future of the state whether Tiberius would or would not assume that this unofficial designation was sufficient, or whether he would recognize the Senate or people as free and competent to select their princeps. What he did was at once to assume command of the armies, and to call a meeting of the Senate and place before it the question of the succession. Although the Senate hesitated to assume that it could designate Augustus' successor, Tiberius took the stand that it must do so, and by that day's procedure there was established the precedent, followed for two centuries, whereby the Senate came to be considered the power which "selected" the princeps. Tiberius to bring the Senate to action stated that the burden of rule was too heavy for him but that he would assume whatever part the Senate saw fit to lay upon him. Some senators preferred to consider this mere hypocrisy, and Asinius Gallus baldly asked Tiberius to state what part he desired. Tiberius refused to give an explicit answer and the play of futile remarks continued for some time, though everyone knew how it would end. The Senate finally bestowed the tribunicia potestas and the proconsular imperium anew — this time without limit — and the position of  p417 princeps senatus; then the consuls called upon the Senate, the magistrates, and the people to take the military oath of allegiance to Tiberius. This is a fair illustration of the practical method by which so many of Rome's constitutional precedents were shaped.

Tiberius was now fifty‑six, and though he lived twenty‑two years more his great work was already done and his fame and character established. In the wars in Germany and Pannonia he had proved himself one of Rome's greatest generals. His reliability, shrewdness, integrity, and his great wisdom in administrative affairs could not be questioned. But he was also known to be a haughty and cold man whom like the long line of Roman nobles from whom he descended by two distinguished families, would never unbend to seek popularity. It was also known that he had grown to be cynical and distrustful. His career could hardly have resulted in anything else. Called by Augustus to divorce a wife whom he loved in order to marry Julia for reasons of state, he had obeyed, and when thus elevated he had been flattered by all the young nobles as Augustus' possible successor. Then when Augustus had made it plain that his young grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, were first in his intentions, and Tiberius had withdrawn to Rhodes, flattery had suddenly given place to neglect and occasionally even to insults, until, on the death of the two youths and the recall of Tiberius to power, the old adulation was resumed. Those who had been guilty of such behavior were now in the Senate before him, and it is hardly strange that he felt no love for them and refused to assume gracious airs. His reign began in an era of suspicion and stiff ceremonies, and ended in hatred.

It did not increase his popularity that he at once transferred the elections of magistrates from the people to the Senate, nor did the Senate like it when he heeded the request of the two Greek provinces, Macedonia and Achaia, and took them under his own charge away from senatorial supervision.  p418 Moreover he lost favor with the army when in order to save expense he recognized the fact that army service was now virtually a life profession and extended the term again to twenty years. A dangerous mutiny at once broke out in almost all the northern armies, both in Pannonia where his son Drusus commanded, and in Germany where Germanicus, his nephew and adopted son, was proconsul. For a while it seemed that Tiberius' rule was at an end. Indeed Germanicus, who had inherited the extraordinary devotion which the Rhine army had paid the elder Drusus, was being urged by his soldiers to march upon Rome and assume control. This he loyally refused to do, and succeeded by his personal influence in checking the mutiny and having the ringleaders punished. He then, to engage their thoughts by means of other occupations, invaded Germany on the excuse of avenging the disgrace Varus had suffered. He succeeded in defeating the offenders and bringing back the eagles, and in fact marched his legions again to the river Elbe. When, however, he asked for permission to reconquer all the lost ground and make the Elbe once more the frontier as his father had done, Tiberius refused, saying that Augustus had decided upon the Rhine frontier, and that this decision could not be revoked. In fact Germanicus was recalled, and two military districts designated as Upper and Lower Germany, commanding both sides of the Rhine, were now formed. Four legions were stationed in each.

In the year 17 A.D. Germanicus was sent to the East with a maius imperium over the eastern provinces in order to settle all unfinished business there. He succeeded through wise diplomacy in placing a friendly king upon the throne of Armenia, and also in having the Parthian king acknowledge Rome's right to do this. Then he changed the client-kingdoms of Cappadocia and Commagene into provinces, since these regions commanded the roads to those far distant protectorates which seemed most likely to give  p419 trouble in the future. At this point, however, Cn. Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, quarreled with his superior and created friction that jarred the machinery of state for many a year. Piso seems to have made the reasonable guess that Tiberius could not eventually favor Germanicus over his own son Drusus, that while he was loyally carrying out the instructions of Augustus for the present, his parental instinct must finally assert itself and greet with relief any accident that might befall the popular Germanicus. Germanicus' wife also, Agrippina (the elder), who was a granddaughter of Augustus and exceedingly popular with the soldiers because of her affable and democratic bearing, had incurred the jealousy of many of the Roman women. Piso at any rate took the reins in his own hands and rescinded several of the orders of his superior, whereupon he was commanded to leave his province. When Germanicus soon after died a sudden death at Antioch suspicion fell upon Piso, and he was ordered to Rome to stand trial. He was acquitted on the charge of poisoning, but fearing that he would be convicted for disobedience to a superior he committed suicide. The people in their devotion to Germanicus were convinced of Piso's guilt on the first charge also, and attributed his escape to the supposed interference of Tiberius, who accordingly became the more disliked and distrusted.

In the year 23, Drusus, the Emperor's only son, died, murdered as was later discovered by order of the praetorian prefect, L. Aelius Sejanus. This man was a knight from Etruria who had gained the complete confidence of Tiberius, and had conceived the bold scheme of removing the legitimate heirs of the emperor one by one and of finally seizing the reins of government himself. He induced Tiberius, who was now in poor health, to withdraw to Capri, and succeeded in making himself the only channel of communication between the emperor and the government. The tired emperor placed him in control of all armies by the  p420 gift of the proconsular imperium. In command of the police and secret service at Rome Sejanus was able to imprison all who were suspected of standing in his way. Even Agrippina and two of her sons were arrested on the charge of treason, and one son was presently put to death.

When finally Sejanus had the boldness to ask for the tribunicia potestas, which would have given him control of the Senate, Tiberius suspected what was on foot. He investigated, and learned enough to justify the arrest and execution of the traitor. When from Sejanus' own wife he received the evidence proving that Sejanus was the murderer of his son Drusus, his fury passed beyond all control. The friends of Sejanus, senators and knights who had so recently been the powerful men at Rome, were tried and executed in quick succession. When the deed was done Tiberius found that of male heirs there were left of a large family only one weak grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, and a somewhat older grandnephew, Caius (Caligula), who was the son of the popular Germanicus and Agrippina.

Tiberius lived six years more after the fall of Sejanus, but was hardly fit even for the merest routine of office. His unendurable experiences had utterly destroyed his judgment, and he listened to and paid for every vile rumor that treacherous informers cared to invent. For a century after his death he was remembered chiefly as the creator of the accursed institution of the "informers" (delatores), and he was blamed also for having enlarged the scope of the indictment for treason (laesa majestas) to include any mere expression of ill‑will toward the emperor. He never again could bear to enter Rome. It was in the year 37 when he was nearly 79 years of age that he came finally within a few miles of the city along the Appian Way. But he turned without entering Rome to go back to Capri. At Misenum he died. The Senate did not declare him Divus, as it had Caesar and Augustus.

On the whole it was Rome alone that suffered from his  p421 rule. The empire, whose needs he understood, received as a general thing good administrators from him. And peace continued on the frontiers, thanks largely to his former efficient work performed under the auspices of Augustus.

The reign was marked by an incident of which the government then took no notice, but which has since proved to be the most significant of the epoch. This was the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The religious import of this act lies beyond the scope of a historical survey of Rome, but since the trial took place in a Roman province and partly within Roman jurisdiction, the story should be told if only to illustrate the methods customarily followed at that time by the Roman government in giving free scope to local autonomy in the provinces. Judea was then autonomous, being governed by a senate (synedrion) of Jewish elders presided over by a high priest whose name was Caiaphas. The high priest usually was nominated by the Roman procurator. Augustus had gone so far in respecting the autonomy of the Jews — such was in fact his policy with all provincials — that he had forbidden his procurators to let any of his soldiers appear in Jerusalem, simply because the imperial image on the Roman standards was an offense to the Jewish religion. Pontius Pilate who was made procurator about 25 A.D. by Tiberius, probably at the suggestion of Sejanus, at first broke this rule, but was so severely criticized by the natives that he withdrew the garrison to Caesarea.

At the time in question he had apparently gone up to Jerusalem because of the great crowds that attended the passover festival, and he had a few of his soldiers with him. It happened that Jesus, who had been preaching throughout Palestine for some three years, had incurred the enmity of the ruling party at Jerusalem by his severe criticism. They had him arrested, brought before the synedrion, and tried on the charge (probably) of blaspheming Jehovah.  p422 According to their law this was a capital offense, and, though they had difficulty in finding satisfactory witnesses, Jesus himself made certain statements on cross examination which seemed to provide sufficient evidence against him. They accordingly condemned him to death. It had become customary, however, to permit the Roman procurator to review capital sentences. The fact that the highpriest was nominated by the procurator implied, though it did not formally require, such a review of capital cases. It was also the custom of the Roman procurator to confirm whatever action the synedrion took. In fact the procurator would probably not venture to offend the synedrion by reversing a decision unless he considered the case so important that he felt called upon to refer it to Rome. In this case Pilate saw no need of putting a man to death on the charge of blaspheming a deity that Rome knew nothing about, and he said so. The priests, however, tried to show that there were Roman interests involved, because if the culprit claimed to be the "Messiah" he thereby claimed to be a king of the Jews, consequently a traitor to Roman rule. Pilate could see no real danger to Rome even in such claims on the part of a poor and apparently lone preacher, and he begged the synedrion to dismiss the case, or at least to let him pardon the man under the customary passover amnesty. A flogging he said might suffice in such a case. They would not have it so. Now he saw another possible way out. Hearing that Jesus was originally from Galilee, where Herod and not the synedrion had jurisdiction, he sent the prisoner to Herod, but the latter preferred not to assume any responsibilities in the case, and sent him back. To Pilate the prisoner seemed not quite worth bothering the Roman courts about, and so he did what was customary and recognized the right of the synedrion to decide the matter according to their own laws. He confirmed the sentence, and his soldiers carried it out. It may be added that the soldiers of his few cohorts were mainly Palestinians,  p423 and that the gospel account is wholly plausible which represents them as in sympathy with the priests. As to the real teachings of Jesus, Pilate of course knew nothing. But it is not to be supposed that he would have been been interested if he had. Romans who prided themselves on their conquest of a world could hardly have comprehended the point of view of one who preached humility, meekness, and non‑resistance. Pilate might have remarked that this was a useful doctrine to preach to provincials, but it would be the last thing to inculcate among the rulers of the world if one wished to keep up their morale. That within three centuries the state would accept the doctrines of this lone and silent prisoner would have seemed beyond comprehension to any Roman of that day.

Caius Caligula, 37‑41 A.D. The four years of Caligula's rule offer nothing of interest. While the young madman entertained himself with murder and theft, the empire beyond Italy merely continued in its appointed course, thanks to the fact that Augustus had created a durable organization with which Caligula had little time to interfere, thanks also to the fact that when he did interfere there were responsible proconsuls holding office who were ready to modify his orders in the interest of the empire even at the risk of their own lives.

The young man had been unfortunate in his bringing up. Germanicus, his father, had died when he was but seven years of age, and like all the children of Germanicus he was spoiled by the foolish devotion of the populace. In fact his nickname of "Little Boots" came of his fond mother's dressing him in a diminutive uniform to please the soldiery. Later his mother, Agrippina, and his two elder brothers were imprisoned by Sejanus, and the boy lived some time with his grandmother, Antonia, who, having spent her childhood in Cleopatra's court, harbored several eastern princelings then being "educated" at Rome. It was not a  p424 wholesome influence, this intimacy with Syrian lordlings who talked of Oriental customs, of autocratic privileges, and worshiped eastern Baals. Then Tiberius, now grown suspicious of the real parentage of his sole surviving grandson, brought Caligula, who was his grandnephew, to his disagreeable entourage at Capri. There he lived for seven years, learning to study the whims of a morbid tyrant who meanwhile allowed Agrippina, his mother, and his two elder brothers to be put to death.

He was twenty-five when Tiberius died. The emperor to be sure had not adopted him, but he made him co‑heir with his grandson, who was younger. This fact provided the senators with the excuse of selecting the son of the beloved Germanicus rather than the descendant of the hated Tiberius. They accordingly annulled the will of Tiberius, gave Caligula the title of Imperator, and formally voted him the powers and offices which Augustus had received from the Senate. Henceforth this was the formula by which emperors were elected by the Senate.

All the world was happy. Gaius at once assured the Senate that he would recognize its participation in the government in the same way as Augustus had done, and that informers should be banished. Tiberius had frugally filled the treasury; it is said to have had about one hundred million dollars then. The young emperor at once spent a large part of this sum in games, donations to citizens and soldiers, and in public banquets. He made his co‑heir and cousin harmless by adopting him as his son. After he had ruled some six months he fell dangerously ill, and when he recovered he seemed to be completely altered; whether the sickness had deranged a mind never very firm, or whether he simply chose this occasion to break from his advisers and follow his own whims we do not know. At any rate the hypothesis of insanity seems alone adequate to explain some of the deeds that followed. It is hardly worth while  p425 to enumerate his acts, but some of the more significant ones that left consequences of a political or social nature may perhaps be noted.

One of these first things he now did was to order his adopted son murdered. Presently he gave a series of gladiatorial games in which he commanded citizens who displeased him to enter the arena. Several Roman provinces, among them Judea, Commagene, and Pontus were restored to the native princelings whom he had met as playfellows in Antonia's house. Herod Agrippa benefited especially by this, a man who spent much of his time at Rome and knew how to please the emperor. Caligula's religious pranks came to be particularly offensive, betraying the effects of his early association with Orientals. He built a temple on the Capitoline to his own sacred person, and ordered his statue worshiped throughout the world. The Jews alone refused, and only his timely death saved the nation from extermination for the offense. From his own home on the Palatine he built a bridge across the Forum to the Capitolinea so that he might the more conveniently visit his "brother" Jupiter. He, too, was the first to invite to Rome the worship of Oriental divinities. The Isis-temple of the Campus Martius, which later came to be a very important center of mysticism, was now built.

A reign of terror began before his first year had ended. Men were murdered at his secret orders, or they were commanded to commit suicide, or ordered to fight in the arena. Then finding the treasury low he had men killed for their possessions. The easiest method to procure the money was to have the Senate condemn men for lèse majesté upon evidence provided by his spies, for this method entailed the confiscation of the goods of the condemned. Consequently he reintroduced the custom of rewarding men for secret "information."

This could of course not continue forever. In fact his  p426 own sisters, for whom he had procured divine honors, joined a conspiracy against him in the third year of his rule. He was then in Gaul pretending to be earning military glory. Soon after his return a more successful plot was formed, and he was struck down by an officer of his praetorian cohort in a corridor of his own house.

Claudius, 41‑54 A.D. Caligula was the last acknowledged heir of the Julian line. The Senate, therefore, met to decide the future form of the government. Many advocated a return to a republican form, while various groups began to advance the candidacy of different nobles for the principate. While the Senate was wrangling, the praetorian guards settled the matter. They searched out Claudius, a brother of Germanicus, who had managed to escape the eye of Sejanus by feigning indolence and stupidity. Claudius, after recovering from his first fright, accepted the invitation to the throne, and promised each guardsman a large gift of money. He was then brought before the Senate, and elected by compulsion according to the same formula as Caligula had been.

From the point of view of the Senate Claudius proved to be no better than his predecessor, for though a man of mild manners, he was soon found to be subservient to a wife full of jealous intrigues, the infamous Messalina, who took the occasion to retaliate upon the ladies that had stood nearer the throne in the preceding reign. So the trials for lèse majesté continued.

The power of the imperial freedmen also increased to unendurable bounds under Claudius' facile régime. It will be remembered that while the Senate had Roman quaestors and aediles to administer their bureaus and departments, Augustus had organized his bureaus as a part of his personal household. His own financial agent — who according to business custom was a freedman — continued to be the fiscal agent even after the enormous revenues of a dozen  p427 provinces came into his hands. Such agents and secretaries naturally secured ever great power as the emperor's power grew. Under Caligula and Claudius they might well be called cabinet secretaries, ex‑slaves though they were. Pallas, the financial agent (a rationibus) of Claudius, thus grew to be a finance minister who looked after most of the income and expenses of the empire. He was powerful enough to procure for his brother Felix, also a freedman, the governorship of Judea. (It was before him that St. Paul was tried.) Narcissus was Claudius' private secretary (ab epistulis), and hence assumed charge of all the correspondence with provinces, generals, and foreign potentates, being in fact a kind of Secretary of State. Finally Callistus, Caligula's filthy-handed freedman who had aided Claudius to the throne, now became his secretary of petitions (a libellis). In that capacity he was able to sell at a good price the privilege of appealing to the emperor. On such men Claudius was largely dependent, since he had had no experience in affairs of state, and these men seem to have made the greatest possible profit out of their positions. But it is also easy to comprehend how bitter was the experience of senators who were compelled to flatter, bribe, and kotow before freedmen if they wished an interview with the emperor or desired to have a petition presented. How coarse was the society of the imperial court, where freedmen could by hints of disaster compel nobles to entertain them in their own families, we can picture by reading the fragments of Petronius' novel called "Trimalchio's Banquet." It was written during the reign of Claudius, and though the scene is not laid at Rome, it is doubtless intended to give an impression of conditions at the Roman court. The senators therefore did not feel that Claudius was in any respect a better ruler than Caligula.

Claudius, however, despite his subservience to Messalina and his freedmen, concerned himself deeply about the Empire,  p428 as Caligula had not done. During his many years of secluded life he had read Roman history eagerly, he had a mind stored full of examples of what great things had been done in the past, and he had imbibed a certain feeling of responsibility for the high office that he now held. Lacking constructive imagination he at least decided to adopt what he considered wise precedents from the examples of older Romans — especially of Julius Caesar — and thus to accomplish something of moment during his reign.

He was clearly following Caesar's example when in 46 he invaded Britain in person with an army of four legions, for Augustus had decided to abandon this island. The emperor finding himself less courageous than he had expected to be withdrew after 16 days, but his skilful officers continued the attacks upon the Kentish troops of Cymbeline (Cunobelinus) until a respectable province was established, and the Roman armies continued from that time to advance in the island until most of it was conquered. He also followed Caesar's precedent in extending citizenship widely in Gaul, though we may infer that his personal observations made in his march through Gaul may have been the decisive factor. The Senate of course did not like it when he compelled them to admit several Aeduan chiefs into their august body. A fragment of the speech made upon this occasion has survived. It is pedantic and rambling, but the purpose of it we can hardly fail to admire. But we can also comprehend the attitude of the Senate which — to quote Seneca — feared that he would not cease till he had put all the Gauls, Germans, and Britons in togas.

He also adopted a part of Caesar's program for internal improvements. Most notable is great deepwater harbor at the mouth of the Tiber which Caesar had projected but never begun. In connection with this Claudius proposed subsidiaries to shipbuilders and to shipowners who carried a certain amount of grain to Rome. It would be  p429 interesting to know whether this first instance at Rome of extending state‑aid to commerce was adopted with a view to promoting Roman commerce in general. The few facts that we have seem to lead to the inference that Claudius was here chiefly interested in seeing the urban crowds satisfied with grain, and that he did not conceive of a general commercial policy. Finally he deserves to be remembered for the aqueduct which brought water to Rome at a year level than before. Many stately arches of this work still stand, lending a peculiar fascination to the scenery of the Roman Campagna. Unfortunately some of the contractors did their portions dishonestly, and as a consequence some sections quickly decayed, destroying the value of the whole structure.

While Claudius was occupied with these works his infamous young wife was planning to elevate her paramour, Gaius Silius, to the throne. She had carried the game so far under his dull gaze as even to go through a wedding ceremony with Silius, pretending to Claudius that she was merely taking measures to save his own life since an oracle had threatened an early death to "the husband of Messalina." Narcissus finally revealed to Claudius the real intentions of the woman, and procured permission to take command of the guard for one day. On that day Messalina was arrested and put to death.

But another wife must be found for Claudius. Agrippina, the sister of Caligula, who was ambitious to win a high place for her son Nero, then only eleven, had the audacity to suggest herself to Pallas as a suitable spouse, though she was the Emperor's niece. Claudius consented and the Senate was induced to pass a decree declaring virtuous what had hitherto been a sin. Her one aim was now to secure the succession to her son in preference to Claudius' own son Britannicus. She recalled Seneca — once Rome's foremost teacher — from exile to educate her son, she had  p430 Nero betrothed to Octavia, the daughter of Claudius, and had him given the proconsular imperium when he was but thirteen years of age. Two years later the wedding took place, and in 54 Claudius died, apparently poisoned to make room for the boy who was now ready for the throne. Nero was presented by his sponsors, not to the Senate but to the praetorian cohort. Here he was acclaimed Emperor, and he paid the expected donative. The Senate accepted the choice perforce and added such imperial powers as had not yet been bestowed upon him in childhood.

Nero, 54‑68 A.D. Nero's reign began, as was now the custom, with the recall of exiles, political amnesty, assurances that the rights of the Senate would be observed, many games and festivals, and general rejoicing that another tyrant was gone. Nero's promises to the Senate were couched in the carefully phrased paragraphs written by Nero's former tutor, Seneca, who now as intimate adviser in affairs of state, became practically prime minister. It was fortunate for Rome that Nero happened upon an adviser of high principles and broad views of state, for the young ruler seemed impressionable and desirous of following his precepts. Seneca also exerted his influence in retaining as prefect of the praetorian cohort and head of the army Afranius Burrus, a stern and honest soldier who chose men of integrity for high military posts, and supported Seneca's policies loyally. Thus the era of freedmen rule came to an end. However, a full restoration of the Senate to its share in the government was thwarted by the Senate itself, for, selected at it had been by emperors who had honored only the subservient, it consisted of spineless men who never dared vote on any question without first having extracted an expression of opinion from Nero.

Agrippina also created trouble. Her whim had been law in the days of Claudius, and she insisted upon having it so now. Nero seemed inclined to do deference to her,  p431 and since her influence was destructive of all principles of equitable government, Seneca and Burrus set themselves the task, at the risk of their own lives, of weakening her power and training Nero to assert himself and to assume a responsible rôle. This policy succeeded all too well. The young man's impulsive and imperious temperament, inherited from such ancestors as Mark Antony and Domitius, soon proved that it needed a bridle rather than a spur, for when Agrippina, rebuffed by him, threatened to throw her influence in favor of Britannicus, Nero had his possible rival poisoned — at least the deed was charged to Nero by most of the Roman historians.

Seeing that their pupil was breaking all bounds, Seneca and Burrus changed their tactics. As they knew, Nero was inordinately proud of his ability to write verses, to play the lyre, and to sing. They now encouraged his vanity in these pastimes, partly to bring out humaner qualities, partly to keep him from affairs of state wherein his warped judgment and impetuosity could only create mischief. Accordingly the policies of state were largely shaped by these two men for some time, and, except for the gruesome murder of his cousin, the first five years of Nero's incumbency deserved the name of the "golden quinquennium" as Hadrian, a good judge, called it.

It is to be noted that Seneca and Burrus were both from the provinces, Seneca being from Spain, Burrus from Gaul, though doubtless both were descendants of Italians. This circumstance may account for their interest in the empire at large, which had been too much neglected by Claudius and Caligula. Claudius in fact had permitted Armenia to fall from the position of a Roman protectorate into the control of Parthia. This had made the Mesopotamian state very dangerously strong in the East. No sooner was Rome in more responsible hands than Domitius Corbulo, a very able general, was sent to reorganize the army of the East,  p432 and lay claim to Roman suzerainty in Armenia. The task of reshaping the army was perhaps the more difficult of the two, for the troops billeted about in the cities of Syria had lost all idea of discipline in riotous living. Corbulo drilled the army for two years, then invaded Armenia. After several campaigns he compelled Parthia to acknowledge Rome's right to crown the king of Armenia. With this provision, Tiridates, Parthia's candidate, was permitted to reign.

This forward policy was also continued in Britain with some success. Unfortunately, while the governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was absent, the procurator stirred the natives to the point of rebellion by his harsh exactions. Boudicca (Boadicea) the chieftainess of the Iceni, headed a well-planned revolt (61 A.D.) which destroyed the Roman towns from Colchester (Camulodunum) to London (Londinium) and caused the death, it is said, of 70,000 Romans. Suetonius soon returned and suppressed the revolt, and Rome, accepting the lesson wisely, sent governors with instructions to employ conciliatory methods more and the sword less. It may be worth noting how vast the emigration from Italy must have been at this time, when, in a province so far distant and invaded only eighteen years before, there were to be found 70,000 Romans in a relatively small district north of the Thames.

Meanwhile Nero had fallen under the influence of Poppaea Sabina, the beautiful and unscrupulous wife of Salvius Otho. Her husband proved to be no obstacle in her way. She secured for him the lucrative and far‑distant governorship of Lusitania. To become Empress in fact, however, she must have Agrippina removed, Octavia divorced, and perhaps Seneca and Burrus would also have to be made powerless. The contest for the control over Nero began between Agrippina and Poppaea. The latter won, of course, and compelled Nero to promise her the death of  p433 his mother. From any legal point of view, Agrippina had earned death on more than one count of treason and murder. But she was not slain by any legal process. Nero ordered a freedman to have her drowned, and when this attempt failed she was struck down by a blow of the dagger at Nero's explicit command. Seneca and Burrus were called in after the deed was done and ordered to explain to the Senate that it was an execution carried out in the interest of the state. They might have refused, and resigned from office. But this would not only have entailed the death of both but would have thrown the whole government into the hands of Nero, or rather, of Poppaea. They chose the more moderate course and advised the Senate to accept the execution as legal.

Octavia still stood in the way. And when Poppaea demanded her removal Burrus courageously insisted that if Nero put away the daughter of Claudius he "at least restore to her the Empire which was her dowry." Unfortunately Burrus died in 62, and Tigellinus, a man of the lowest character, was put in his place. Against Poppaea and Tigellinus Seneca's insistent arguments and warnings had little influence. He finally saw that the struggle was hopeless and retired to private life. Octavia was then divorced and banished, and Nero married Poppaea. This raised such a riot of criticism at Rome that Poppaea demanded the death of the innocent woman. Some ridiculous charges were accordingly trumped up against her and she was executed (62). The Senate decreed the customary thanksgiving to the gods.

Two years after this the greater part of Rome burned. When Nero confiscated a large section of the burned area for a private park it was of course charged that it was he who had ordered the city destroyed, but this accusation at least seems groundless. The fire started behind the Palatine, swept back over the packed hovels of the Aventine as  p434 well as north over the imperial palace, then down across a part of the Forum, over the newer palatial sections of the Esquiline, and across the Campus Martius, where many large "business blocks," apartment houses, and public buildings had recently sprung up. There were enough of the old timber houses to carry such a fire in a strong wind, and roofs of timber were still largely in use even in public buildings and temples. And even when the concrete walls did not fall, it was found that the marble so extensively used as a veneer in recent buildings crumbled in the intense heat.

The work of reconstruction was carried out in an effective way, with liberal aid from the state treasury. The rubbish was gathered in barges and floated down the river to the marshes near Ostia. Surveyors and architects were employed to lay out wider streets on a more regular plan. Wise restrictions were laid down as to material, and open spaces were provided so as to hinder a recurrence of the disaster; and as the streets would, when widened, be too open for Rome's warm climate, Nero provided for the liberal construction of porticoes along the shop-fronts. What one can less readily admire was his confiscation of a vast area extending from the Palatine to upper Esquiline for an imperial park. Here he laid out what we would call "Italian gardens" with woods, lakes, flower gardens, and porticoes all about a series of palaces. The whole was called the "Domus Aurea" because of the lavish display of gold and precious adornment of every kind. It was the decaying ornamentation of some of the surviving rooms of this domus that suggested to Raphael the adornment for the corridors and the stanze of the Vatican palace.

The fire has been remembered chiefly in connection with the legend that Nero came to Rome to view it from his high tower, singing arias from his own tragedy on the "Fall of Troy" while the city burned. Whether or not the story  p435 is true it at least seemed to contemporaries so consistent with Nero's nature as to gain general credence. Of more importance is the fact that the fire was instrumental in disclosing the existence of the Christians in a most unfortunate manner. When Nero was being accused of having burned the city, his advisers decided to prove his innocence by finding some culprit to bear the charge. Someone happened to suggest that there was at Rome a peculiar religious sect called Christians that had spoken freely of a general holocaust destined soon to come. Some of these people were haled to court and examined. No definite evidence was found as regards the fire, but it was discovered that these Christians believed that the world in general and the whole Roman empire in particular were doomed to an impending destruction as punishment for sin, that they placed the law of the Jewish scriptures over and above Roman law, that they avoided service in Rome's armies which entailed labor on their sabbath, and that for religious reasons they refused to take part in Roman festivals, and finally that they refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. These things clearly established the proof that, whether or not the Christians had burned Rome, they could plausibly be charged with "treason" as that term had been applied by Caligula and Nero. The court could condemn them for treason, and the report could be circulated afterward that they were being put to death on the charge of burning Rome. Moreover, since Christians refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor, there was a ready method at hand for discovering them. One need only bring forth a statue of the emperor and order a simple sacrifice. Cross-examination and witnesses were not required. To be sure, the Romans had never before demanded orthodoxy in religion, nor had they put men to death for refusing to accept the imperial cult. Nor were these the vital questions now. The important  p436 thing was to find some scapegoat; the Christians were "traitors" if not incendiaries, they could be put to death on the charge of lèse majesté, and finally they could be discovered by a very easy method: they accordingly would serve the immediate purpose. A great number of them were quickly found, and being mostly slaves and freedmen they were put to death in the most horrible manner that Nero's imagination could devise. This was the first "religious" persecution in Roman history; but it is not quite correct to call it religious in a real sense. The group was to be sure a religious sect, but the occasion was an accident that had nothing to do with creeds, and the charge seems to have been treason as interpreted not by Roman law but by the tyranny of autocrats. The misfortune for the future of the sect was that the official records henceforth contained the general judgment that confession of Christianity was declared to be per se a confession of treason, and from this time on it was possible for prejudiced magistrates to employ this imperial precedent without going through any preliminary trial to establish a proof of treason. And, as we have seen, the charge that a person was a Christian could without full examination of the charges be established by the simplest of methods.

Despite Nero's efforts to clear himself his subjects were still suspicious; in fact the cruelty of his persecution awakened only pity for the victims. The lavish waste of treasure in his "golden house," when his people were suffering from want and the state treasury was empty, did not count in his favor. New confiscations of property and added taxes did not suffice to cover the bills. Nero consequently helped himself by debasing the coins that he issued, reducing the weight of the denarius about 15 per cent and mixing in this smaller coin about 10 per cent of cheap alloy. Thus it appears that he paid for his contracts and for army service in coins that would before long bring their future possessors  p437 only 75 per cent of what the standard coins had brought. This was a trick which later emperors did not fail to improve upon till, after two centuries, the denarius was worth only about one‑fiftieth of the Augustan coin.

It is not surprising that Rome was rife with rumors of conspiracy. An unsuccessful one in the year 65, led by a senator of the old family of Piso, resulted in many deaths. In fact it was badly organized and too openly discussed to succeed, and when Tigellinus started on his hunt for victims he found a horde of cowardly members who were willing to betray their fellows in the hope of immunity. The only loyal member, it seems, who refused to give testimony under torture was a Greek harlot of the name of Epicharis who strangled herself rather than betray her trust. Among those who fell were Lucan the poet, a nephew of Seneca, and Lucan's father, Annaeus Mela. Seneca, though apparently guiltless, was also implicated by Poppaea who still hated him. Receiving a command to die he opened his veins, and his wife, Paulina, followed his example, though she was rescued before death resulted. Petronius also, the author of the brilliant novel from which we have quoted a few phrases above, was ordered to die, though there was no proof of his participation in the plot. Writing out an elaborate list of Nero's crimes as he knew them, he sent it to the emperor, and inviting his friends to a banquet he indulged in one last evening of jesting while the blood was slowly flowing from his wrist. The stern and independent Thrasea would hardly have associated with the actual plotters, most of whom he despised, but Nero was tired of his refusal to participate in the Senate's servility. Soranus and his daughter Servilia suffered at the same time. But such persecution only made a religion out of a cold philosophy, and the sect gained many new adherents.

 p438  The next year Nero turned to less harmful amusements. He had for several years given private exhibitions of his playing and singing. Now he shocked the city by appearing in public and inviting all Rome to attend. And as the recital seemed to him a success he set out for Greece to win the prizes for poetry at all the old centers of culture. Of course he took all the prizes and this so pleased him that at the Isthmian games he proclaimed the "freedom of the Greeks" as Flamininus had done over two centuries before. Achaia was no longer a province, the tribute to Rome was canceled and the cities of Greece became for a while independent states.

It was about this time that a serious revolt broke out in Judea. The causes were many. The Jews were in hard straits since they had not only to pay the regular Roman tribute, but also a tithe to their priests and something in support of a king — the line of Herod having been restored by Caligula. Furthermore both Roman procurators and the kings supported the more liberal Sadducee nobility because it was sympathetic with Hellenistic practices, whereas the Pharisees stood strictly for Jewish custom and spoke incessantly of independence. The clash came when Nero decided that the Jewish minority of Caesarea (the residence of the Roman procurator) should have no part in the government of that city. A riot ensued in which the Greeks of the city massacred the Jews — 20,000 it is said. The Jews of Jerusalem retorted by killing the Greeks and Romans, including the Roman garrison, of Jerusalem. Presently riots between Jews and Gentiles broke out in Damascus, Alexandria and a number of other cities. The legatus of Syria was sent down to establish order in Jerusalem but was quickly defeated by an army of zealots. In 67 Flavius Vespasian, a tried officer, was placed in command of an army of 50,000. In a year he regained Galilee and the sea coast, and then proceeded to hem in Jerusalem by cutting off Samaria and  p439 the trans-Jordan area. He was on the point of laying siege to Jerusalem itself when the death of Nero called him to a different task.

Nero's absence in Greece furnished an opportunity for renewed plotting against his life at home. Secret messengers were constantly passing between Rome and various armies. Nero was warned that he must return home. On charges, regarding which we have no information, he ordered the execution of three of his best generals, Corbulo who had served the state well in the East, and the two commanders of the Rhine armies. Soon after his return to Rome Nero learned that Julius Vindex, now an officer in Gaul, though the son of a Celt, had raised a revolt in Gaul and that Galba, the proconsul of Spain, had given his adherence to the movement. The conspiracy seems at first to have been formed against Nero alone, but after a great many Gauls had joined, it gradually became a separatist movement aimed at winning complete independence for Gaul. When this turn came, Verginius Rufus, the commander of Upper Germany, felt that loyalty to the state was his first duty, and, though his own troops offered him the throne of Rome if he would join the conspiracy he not only refused, but suppressed the Gallic revolt. Galba, however, though 73 years of age, continued to muster forces with which to attack Rome. Nero, who might readily have defended himself against the small Spanish army, utterly lost command of the situation and of himself. He went into hiding, thereby losing the respect of his followers, who felt that their own doom was sealed unless their leader would stand up for his own position. The Senate saw their opportunity, met hastily and condemned the coward to death. On being told of this decree he tried to take his own life but had not the courage to strike, and was finally dispatched by his freedman at his own orders. He was then 31 years of age and had reigned for fourteen  p440 years. In the latter years of that short period he had won such fame for his stupid brutality that history has placed him beside such tyrants as Richard the Third and Philip the Second; but he lacked the physical courage of the former as he lacked the pernicious energy of the latter. Nero was not a mere accident. He was a representative descendant of such unscrupulous nobles as could survive in power through the peculiar selective processes established by autocracy. And it was the strongest indictment against Julius Caesar that his work and example tended directly toward creating a world in which those best adapted for survival were such men as Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

The year of civil wars: Galba, Otho, Vitellius; 68‑69 A.D. There had now passed some thirty years of irresponsible tyranny which had fairly crushed Rome, and made her ready for any form of subjection. But the armies and provinces and their governors were not wholly crushed. The news of Nero's death raised the hopes of frontier officers in several provinces, but in the absence of means of quick communication plans made in far distant provinces were only too likely to fail of coördination. Each provincial army had time to reach its own decision and set out towards Rome before news came of what was being done elsewhere. Galba was acknowledged emperor by the Senate at once, but before this was generally known, the legati of Numidia and of lower Germany had decided to claim the throne for themselves. Galba had the former executed, the latter was put to death by his own officers. Galba indeed proved himself unsatisfactory before long. Thinking it necessary to be firm and act with energy he had several senators executed for lending their support to his rivals: he was also disliked by the Rhine legions for having supported Vindex, whom they considered a traitor to Rome. He neither satisfied the populace with donations nor checked his somewhat overbearing friends, and when finally he chose Piso as his heir, a man of small claim to experience in affairs  p441 of state, he thereby offended Otho who had been the first to declare himself in favor of Galba. Accordingly a revolt broke out almost simultaneously at Rome and on the Rhine. At Rome the agents of Otho secured the adhesion of the praetorian cohorts, who slew Galba.

The Senate then took what seemed to be the prudent course and conferred the powers of empire upon Otho. On the Rhine, however, the troops of the Lower Province had two weeks before saluted their commander Aulus Vitellius as emperor. He had been their commander only a few weeks and had made a good impression. Neither man was fit for the position. Otho had revealed his quality when he accepted Lusitania from Nero in return for Poppaea; Vitellius, recommended chiefly by the fact that he was the son of a very distinguished father, was too indolent even to lead his loyal troops to the impending conflict. It was his capable officers, Caecina and Valens, that marched the legions down into Italy. The opposing forces met before Cremona just three months after Otho's accession. The generals of Vitellius won the desperate battle, and Otho took his own life.

Vitellius, however, affable, lazy, and extravagant, was far from being adequate for the position into which he had been pushed. Mucianus, the governor of Syria, who knew that failure was impending, urged Flavius Vespasianus, for whom he had very high esteem, to claim the position. All the governors of the Eastern provinces, including the prefect of Egypt, men who had learned to know the sturdy general, declared for him, and Mucianus volunteered to lead the armies to Italy, leaving Titus, Vespasian's son, to continue the siege of Jerusalem. No sooner did the news of this revolt spread than the legions of Danube acknowledged Vespasian, and under the command of Antonius Primus, a subordinate officer, set out to defeat Vitellius before ever Vespasian's troops could arrive. It was  p442 from all appearances a foolhardy thing to attempt, for Vitellius still had the main part of the victorious Rhine army with him. But Caecina, his general, espoused the enemy's cause, and though he did not succeed in betraying his army, his legions were without a commander when the contest came on. The opposing armies again met outside Cremona, and such was the eagerness for battle that although they met at night-fall, after several days of forced marches, they nevertheless dashed against each other, and fought all that night in the light of the moon. Strange tales are told of how they would stop when a cloud made it too dark to fight, how they then conversed across the lines, brought up food which they shared with each other, and then returned to the fray. At daybreak the Flavian army routed the enemy, broke into Cremona and looted and burned till they were exhausted. This was a natural consequence of building armies largely of barbarian troops.

Antonius Primus now offered Vitellius terms of peace, but while Vitellius carried on negotiations slowly, unable, it seems, to come to a decision, his own guards at Rome attacked Sabinus, the brother of Vespasian, who represented the Flavians, stormed the Capitoline, burned the temple of Jupiter, and put Sabinus to death. Antonius then attacked Rome, broke through the walls and fought his way from street to street to the Palatine. The barbarian cohorts behaved as they had done at Cremona. Vitellius was killed, and fifty thousand Romans are said to have fallen. Soon however Mucianus arrived with his eastern army and established order. It is a pity that he had been preceded by Antonius. Vespasian was granted all the usual powers by the Senate. The original record of the senatus consultum has, by good fortune, survived. It is the famous inscription which Cola di Rienzi showed to the Romans thirteen centuries later in order to prove by its terms that even in imperial days the Roman people had been sovereign  p443 and had by free choice elected their emperors. It would probably have amused Vespasian had he been told that this vote, taken under compulsion by terrified senators, would later provide the proof for such an argument. Vespasian soon after arrived in person. Rome had at last found a successor worthy of Augustus.


Thayer's Note:

a There is general agreement today that no actual bridge existed, but probably only a series of short pedestrian walkways; Lanciani lays out the details in Pagan and Christian Rome, pp101-102. See also, more noncommittally, Platner & Ashby's A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, s.v. Pons Caligulae.


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