Nero - Jacob Abbott

The Childhood of Nero

During the time that Agrippina had been passing through the strange and eventful vicissitudes of her history, described in the preceding chapters, young Nero himself, as we shall henceforth call him, had been growing up an active and intelligent, but an indulged and ungoverned boy. His own father died when he was about three years old. This, however, was an advantage probably, rather than a loss to the boy, as Brazenbeard was an extremely coarse, cruel, and unprincipled man. He once killed one of his slaves for not drinking as much as he ordered him. Riding one day in his chariot through a village, he drove wantonly and purposely over a boy, and killed him on the spot. He defrauded all who dealt with him, and was repeatedly prosecuted for the worst of crimes. He treated his wife with great brutality. As has already been said, he received the announcement of the birth of his son with derision, saying that nothing but what was detestable could come from him and Agrippina; and when they asked him what name they should give the child, he recommended to them to name him Claudius. This was said in contempt, for Claudius was at that time despised by every one, as a deformed and stupid idiot, though he was subsequently made emperor in the manner that has been already explained. The manifestation of such a spirit, at such a time, on the part of her husband, pained Agrippina exceedingly,—but the more it pained her, the more Brazenbeard was gratified and amused. The death of such a father could, of course, be no calamity.

When Agrippina, Nero's mother, was banished from Rome by the order of Caligula, Nero himself did not accompany her, but remained behind under the care of his aunt Lepida, with whom he lived for a time in comparative neglect and obscurity. Though he belonged to one of the most aristocratic families of Rome, his mother being a descendant and heir of the Cęsars, he spent some years in a situation of poverty and disgrace. His education was neglected, as he received no instruction at this time except from a dancing-master and a barber, who were his only tutors. Of course, the formation of his moral character was wholly neglected,—nor, in fact, considering the character of those by whom he was surrounded, would it have been possible that any favorable influence should have been exerted upon him, if the attempt had been made.

At length when Caligula died and Agrippina was recalled from her banishment by Claudius, and reinstated in her former position at Rome, Nero emerged from his obscurity, and thenceforth lived with his mother in luxury and splendor in the capital. Nero was a handsome boy, and he soon became an object of great popular favor and regard. He often appeared in public at entertainments and celebrations, and when he did so he was always specially noticed and caressed. His companion, and in some respects his rival and competitor, at such times, was Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Messalina. Britannicus was two or three years younger than Nero, and being the son of the emperor was of course a very prominent and conspicuous object of attention whenever he appeared. But the rank of Nero was scarcely less high, since his mother was descended directly from the imperial family, while in age and personal appearance and bearing he was superior to his cousin.

One instance is specially noticed by the historians of those days, in which young Nero was honored with an extraordinary degree of public attention and regard. It was on the occasion of celebrating what might be called the centennial games. These games were generally supposed to be celebrated at each recurrence of a certain astronomical period, of about one hundred years' duration, called an age; but in reality it was at irregular though very distant intervals that they were observed. Claudius instituted a celebration of them early in his reign. There had been a celebration of them in the reign of Augustus, not many years before,—but Claudius, wishing to signalize his own reign by some great entertainment and display, pretended that Augustus had made a miscalculation, and had observed the festival at the wrong time; and he ordained, accordingly, that the celebration should take place again.

The games and shows connected with this festival extended through three successive days. They consisted of sacrifices and other religious rites, dramatic spectacles, athletic games, and military and gladiatorial shows. In the course of these diversions there was celebrated on one of the days what was called the Trojan game, in which young boys of leading and distinguished families appeared on horseback in a circus or ring, where they performed certain evolutions and feats of horsemanship, and mock conflicts, in the midst of the tens of thousands of spectators who thronged the seats around. Of course Britannicus and Nero were the most prominent and conspicuous of the boys on this occasion. Nero, however, in the estimation of the populace, bore off the palm. He was received with the loudest acclamations by the whole assembly, while Britannicus attracted far less attention. This triumph filled Agrippina's heart with pride and pleasure, while it occasioned to Messalina the greatest vexation and chagrin. It made Agrippina more than ever before the object of Messalina's hatred and hostility, and the empress would very probably before long have found some means of destroying her rival had she not soon after this become involved herself in the difficulties arising out of her connection with Silius, which resulted so soon in her own destruction.

The people, however, were filled with admiration of Nero, and they applauded his performance with the utmost enthusiasm. He was for a time a subject of conversation in every circle throughout the city, and many tales were told of his history and his doings. Among other things which were related of him, the story was circulated that Messalina became so excited against him in her jealousy and envy, that she sent two assassins to murder him in his sleep; and that the assassins, coming to him in a garden where he was lying asleep upon a pillow, were just putting their cruel orders into execution when they were driven away by a serpent that appeared miraculously at the moment to defend the child—darting out at the assassins from beneath the pillow. Others said that it was in his infancy that this occurrence took place, and that there were two serpents instead of one, and that they guarded the life of their charge lying with him in his cradle. One of the historians of the time states that neither of these stories was really true, but that they both originated in the fact that Nero was accustomed to wear, when a boy, a bracelet made of a serpent's skin, small and of beautiful colors,—and fastened, as they said, around the wearer's wrist with a clasp of gold.

However the fact may be in respect to Messalina's allowing her jealousy of Agrippina to carry her so far as to make direct attempts upon his life, there is no doubt that she lived in continual fear of the influence both of Nero and of his mother, on the mind of the emperor; and Agrippina was consequently compelled to submit to many indignities which the position and the power of Messalina enabled her to impose upon her enemies and rivals. At length, however, the fall of Messalina, and the entire revolution in the situation and prospects of Agrippina which was consequent upon it, changed altogether the position of Nero. It might have been expected, it is true, even after the marriage of Claudius with Agrippina, that Britannicus would have still maintained altogether the highest place in the emperor's regard, since Britannicus was his own son, while Nero was only the son of his wife. But Agrippina was artful enough to manage her indolent and stupid husband just as she pleased; and she soon found means to displace Britannicus, and to raise Nero in his stead, to the highest place, in precedence and honor. She persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero as his own son, as was stated in the last chapter. She obtained a decree of the Senate, approving and confirming this act. She then removed Britannicus from the court and shut him up in seclusion, in a nursery, under pretense of tender regard for his health and safety. In a word, she treated Britannicus in all respects like a little child, and kept him wholly in the background; while she brought her own son, though he was but little older than the other, very prominently forward, as a young man.

In those ancient days as now, there was an appropriate dress for youth, which was changed for that of a man when the subject arrived at maturity. The garment which was most distinctively characteristic of adult age among the Romans was called the toga; and it was assumed by the Roman youth, not as the dress of a man is by young persons now, in a private and informal manner, according as the convenience or fancy of the individual may dictate,—but publicly and with much ceremony, and always at the time when the party arrived at the period of legal majority; so that assuming the toga marked always a very important era of life. This distinction Agrippina caused to be conferred upon Nero by a special edict when he was only fourteen years of age, which was at a very much earlier period than usual. On the occasion of thus advancing him to the dress and to the legal capabilities of manhood, Agrippina brought him out in a special manner before the people of Rome at a great public celebration, and the more effectually to call public attention to him as a young prince of the highest distinction in the imperial family, she induced Claudius to bestow a largess upon the people, and a donative upon the army, that is a public distribution of money, to the citizens and to the soldiers, in Nero's name.

All this time Britannicus was kept shut up in the private apartments of the palace with nurses and children. The tutors and attendants whom Messalina his mother provided for him were one by one removed, and their places supplied by others whom Agrippina selected for the purpose, and whom she could rely upon to second her views. When inquired of in respect to Britannicus by those who had known him before, during his mother's lifetime, she replied that he was a weak and feeble child, subject to fits, and thus necessarily kept secluded from society.

Sometimes, indeed, on great public occasions, both Nero and Britannicus appeared together, but even in these cases the arrangements were so made as to impress the public mind more forcibly than ever with an idea of the vast superiority of Nero, in respect to rank and position. On one such occasion, while Britannicus was carried about clothed in the dress of a child, and with attendants characteristic of the nursery, Nero rode on horseback, richly appareled in the triumphal robes of a general returning from a foreign campaign.

Agrippina was one day made very angry with Britannicus, for what might seem a very trifling cause. It seems that Britannicus, though young, was a very intelligent boy, and that he understood perfectly the policy which his step-mother was pursuing toward him, and was very unwilling to submit to be thus supplanted. One day, when he and Nero were both abroad, attending some public spectacle or celebration, they met, and Nero accosted his cousin, calling him Britannicus. Britannicus, in returning the salutation, addressed Nero familiarly by the name Domitius;—Domitius Ahenobarbus having been his name before he was adopted by Claudius. Agrippina was very indignant when she heard of this. She considered the using of this name by Britannicus, as denoting, on his part, a refusal to acknowledge his cousin as the adopted son of his father. She immediately went to Claudius with earnest and angry complainings. "Your own edict," said she, "sanctioned and confirmed by the Senate, is disavowed and annulled, and my son is subjected to public insult by the impertinence of this child." Agrippina farther represented to Claudius, that Britannicus never would have thought of addressing her son in such a manner, of his own accord. His doing it must have arisen from the influence of some of the persons around him who were hostile to her; and she made use of the occasion to induce Claudius to give her authority to remove all that remained of the child's instructors and governors, who could be suspected of a friendly interest in his cause, and to subject him to new and more rigorous restrictions than ever.

One of the most imposing of all the spectacles and celebrations which Claudius instituted during his reign, was the one which signalized the opening of the canal by which the Fucine lake was drained. The Fucine lake was a large but shallow body of water, at the foot of the Appenines, near the sources of the Tiber. It was subject to periodic inundations, by which the surrounding lands were submerged. An engineer had offered to drain the lake, in consideration of receiving for his pay the lands which would be laid dry by the operation. But Claudius, who seemed to have quite a taste for such undertakings, preferred to accomplish the work himself. The canal by which the water should be conveyed away, was to be formed in part by a deep cut, and partly by a tunnel through a mountain; and inasmuch as in those days the power now chiefly relied upon for making such excavations, namely, the explosive force of gunpowder, was not known, any extensive working in solid rock was an operation of immense labor. When the canal was finished, Claudius determined to institute a grand celebration to signalize the opening of it for drawing off the water; and as he could not safely rely on the hydraulic interest of the spectacle for drawing such a concourse to the spot as he wished to see there, he concluded to add to the entertainment a show more suited to the taste and habits of the times. He made arrangements accordingly for having a naval battle fought upon the lake, for the amusement of the spectators, just before the opening of the canal, which was to draw off the water. Thus the battle was to be the closing scene, in which the history and existence of the lake were to be terminated forever.

Ships were accordingly built, and an immense number of men were designated and set apart for fighting the battle. These men consisted of convicts and prisoners of war—men whom it was, in those days, considered perfectly just and right to employ in killing one another for the amusement of the emperor and his guests. A sort of bulwark was built all around the shore, and the emperor's guards were stationed upon it, to prevent the escape of the combatants, and to turn them back to their duty if any of them should attempt, when pressed hard in the battle, to escape to the land. The fleet of galleys was divided into two antagonistic portions, and the men in each were armed completely, as in a case of actual war. At the appointed time, hundreds of thousands of people assembled from all the surrounding country to see the sight. They lined the shores on every side, and crowned all the neighboring heights. The contest, of course, might be waged with all the fury and fatal effect of a real battle without endangering the spectators at all, as there were in those days no flying bullets, or other swift-winged missiles, like those which in modern times take so wide a range beyond the limits of the battle. The deadly effect of all that was done in an ancient combat was confined of course to those immediately engaged. Then there was, besides, nothing to intercept the vision. No smoke was raised to obscure the view, but the atmosphere above and around the combatants remained as pure and transparent at the end of the combat as at the beginning.

A real battle was accordingly regarded by the Romans as the most sublime and imposing of spectacles, and hundreds of thousands of spectators flocked to witness the one which Claudius arranged for them on the Fucine lake. He himself presided, dressed in a coat of mail; and Agrippina sat by his side, clothed in a magnificent robe, which the historian states was woven from threads of gold, without the admixture of any other material. The signal was given, and the battle was commenced. There was some difficulty experienced, as usual in such cases, in getting the men to engage, but they became sufficiently ferocious at last to satisfy all the spectators, and thousands were slain. At length the emperor gave orders that the battle should cease, and the survivors were informed that their lives were spared.

It was fortunate, on the whole, for Claudius, that he did not rely wholly on the simple drawing off of the water from the lake for the amusement of the immense assemblage that he had convened, for it was found, when, after the close of the battle, the canal was opened, that the water would not run. The engineers had made some mistake in their measurements or their calculations, and had left the bed of the canal in some part of its course too high, so that the water, when the sluices were opened, instead of flowing off into the river to which the canal was intended to conduct it, remained quietly in the lake as before.

The assembly dispersed, and the work on the canal was resumed with a view of making it deeper. In the course of a year the excavation was completed, and all was made ready for a new trial. Claudius summoned a new assembly to witness the operation, and at this time, instead of a naval conflict, he made provision for a great combat of gladiators, to be fought on immense floating platforms which were built upon the lake near the outlet which the engineers had made. In the end, however, the second attempt to make the water flow, proved more unfortunate than the first. The channel had been made very deep and wide, so that the water was inclined to move, when once put in motion, with the utmost impetuosity and force; and it so happened, that in some way or other, the means which the engineer had relied upon for controlling it were insufficient, and when the gates were opened every thing suddenly gave way. The water rushed out in an overwhelming torrent, as in an inundation—and undermined and carried away the platforms and stagings which had been erected for the seats of the spectators. A scene of indescribable tumult and confusion ensued. The emperor and empress, with the guests and spectators, fled precipitously together, and all narrowly escaped being carried down into the canal.

It is by no means difficult to imagine what sort of a character a boy must necessarily form, brought up under such influences and surrounded by such scenes as those which thus prevailed at the court of Claudius. It proved in the end that Nero experienced the full effect of them. He became proud, vain, self-willed, cruel, and accustomed to yield himself without restraint to all those wicked propensities and passions which, under such circumstances, always gain dominion over the human soul.

Besides Britannicus, it will be recollected that Messalina had left another child,—a daughter named Octavia, who was two or three years younger than her brother, and of course about five years younger than Nero. Agrippina did not pursue the same course of opposition and hostility toward her which she had adopted in regard to Britannicus. She determined, at the outset, upon a very different plan. Britannicus was necessarily a rival and competitor for Nero; and every step in advance which he should make, could not operate otherwise than as an impediment and obstacle to Nero's success. But Octavia, as Agrippina thought, might be employed to further and aid her designs, by being betrothed, and in due time married, to her son.

The advantages of such a scheme were very obvious,—so obvious in fact that the design was formed by Agrippina at the very beginning,—even before her own marriage with the emperor was fully effected. There was one serious obstacle in the way, and that was that Octavia was already betrothed to a very distinguished young nobleman named Lucius Silanus. Agrippina, after having, by various skillful manœuvers, succeeded in enlisting the public officers who would act as judges in his case, caused Silanus to be accused of infamous crimes. The historians say that the evidence which was adduced against him was of the most trivial character. Still he was condemned. He seems to have understood the nature and the cause of the hostility which had suddenly developed itself against him, and to have felt at once all the hopelessness of his condition. He killed himself in his despair on the very night of the marriage of Claudius with Agrippina.

The empress found afterward no serious difficulty in accomplishing her design. She obtained the emperor's consent to a betrothal of Nero to Octavia; but as they were yet too young to be married, the ceremony was postponed for a short time. At length in about five years after the marriage of Agrippina herself, Nero and Octavia were married. Nero was at that time about sixteen years of age. His bride of course was only eleven.