Nero - Jacob Abbott

The Accession of Claudius

In the assassination of Caligula, the conspirators who combined to perpetrate the deed, had a much deeper design than that of merely gratifying their personal resentment and rage against an individual tyrant. They wished to effect a permanent change in the government, by putting down the army from the position of supreme and despotic authority which it had assumed, and restoring the dominion to the Roman Senate, and to the other civil authorities of the city, as it had been exercised by them in former years. Of course, the death of Caligula was the commencement, not the end, of the great struggle. The whole country was immediately divided into two parties. There was the party of the Senate, and the party of the army; and a long and bitter conflict ensued. It was for some time doubtful which would win the day.

In fact, immediately after Caligula was killed, and the tidings of his death began to spread about the palace and into the streets of the city, a considerable tumult arose, the precursor and earnest of the dissensions that were to follow. Upon the first alarm, a body of the emperor's guards that had been accustomed to attend upon his person, and whom he had strongly attached to himself by his lavish generosity in bestowing presents and rewards upon them, rushed forward to defend him, or if it should prove too late to defend him, to avenge his death. These soldiers ran toward the palace, and when they found that the emperor had been killed, they were furious with rage, and fell upon all whom they met, and actually slew several men. Tidings came to the theater, and the word was spread from rank to rank among the people that the emperor was slain. The people did not, however, at first, believe the story. They supposed that the report was a cunning contrivance of the emperor himself, intended to entrap them into some expression of pleasure and gratification, on their part, at his death, in order to give him an excuse for inflicting some cruel punishment upon them. The noise and tumult in the streets soon convinced them, however, that something extraordinary had occurred; they learned that the news of the emperor's death was really true, and almost immediately afterward they found, to their consternation, that the furious guards were thundering at the gates of the theater, and endeavoring to force their way in, in order to wreak their vengeance on the assembly, as if the spectators at the show were accomplices of the crime.

In the mean time Chærea and the other chief conspirators had fled to a secret place of retreat, where they now lay concealed. As soon as they had found that the object of their vengeance was really dead, and when they had satisfied themselves with the pleasure of cutting and stabbing the lifeless body, they stole away to the house of one of their friends in the neighborhood, where they could lie for a time secreted in safety. The life-guards sought for them everywhere, but could not find them. The streets were filled with tumult and confusion. Rumors of every kind, false and true, spread in all directions, and increased the excitement. At length, however, the consuls, who were the chief magistrates of the republic, succeeded in organizing a force and in restoring order. They took possession of the forum and of the capitol, and posted sentinels and guards along the streets. They compelled the emperor's guards to desist from their violence, and retire. They sent a herald clothed in mourning into the theater, to announce officially to the people the event which had occurred, and to direct them to repair quietly to their homes. Having taken these preliminary measures they immediately called the Senate together, to deliberate on the emergency which had occurred, and to decide what should next be done. In the mean time the emperor's guards, having withdrawn from the streets of the city, retired to their camp and joined their comrades. Thus there were two vast powers organized—that of the army in the camp, and that of the Senate in the city—each jealous of the other, and resolute in its determination not to yield, in the approaching conflict.

In times of sudden and violent revolution like that which attended the death of Caligula, the course which public affairs are to take, and the question who is to rise and who is to fall, seem often to be decided by utter accident. It was strikingly so in this instance, in respect to the selection, on the part of the army, of the man who was to take the post of supreme command in the place of the murdered emperor. The choice fell on Claudius, Agrippina's uncle. It fell upon him, too, as it would seem, by the merest chance, in the following very extraordinary manner.

Claudius, as has already been said, was Caligula's uncle; and as Caligula and Agrippina were brother and sister, he was, of course, Agrippina's uncle too. He was at this time about fifty years of age, and he was universally ridiculed and contemned on account of his great mental and personal inferiority. He was weak and ill-formed at his birth, so that even his mother despised him. She called him "an unfinished little monster," and whenever she wished to express her contempt for any one in respect to his understanding, she used to say, "You are as stupid as my son Claudius." In a word, Claudius was extremely unfortunate in every respect, so far as natural endowments are concerned. His countenance was very repulsive, his figure was ungainly, his manners were awkward, his voice was disagreeable, and he had an impediment in his speech. In fact, he was considered in his youth as almost an idiot. He was not allowed to associate with the other Roman boys of his age, but was kept apart, in some secluded portion of the palace, with women and slaves, where he was treated with so much cruelty and neglect that what little spirit nature had given him was crushed and destroyed. In fact, by common consent all seemed to take pleasure in teasing and tormenting him. Sometimes, when he was coming to the table at an entertainment, the other guests would combine to exclude him from the seats, in order to enjoy his distress as he ran about from one part of the table to another, endeavoring to find a place. If they found him asleep they would pelt him with olives and dates, or awaken him with the blow of a rod or a whip; and sometimes they would stealthily put his sandals upon his hands while he was asleep, in order that when he awoke suddenly they might amuse themselves with seeing him rub his face and eyes with them.

After all, however, the inferiority of Claudius was not really so great as it seemed. He was awkward and ungainly, no doubt, to the last degree; but he possessed some considerable capacity for intellectual pursuits and attainments, and as he was pretty effectually driven away from society by the jests and ridicule to which he was subjected, he devoted a great deal of time in his retirement to study, and to other useful pursuits. He made considerable progress in the efforts which he thus made to cultivate his mind. He, however, failed to acquire the respect of those around him; and as he grew up he seemed to be considered utterly incapable of performing any useful function; and during the time when his nephew Caligula was emperor, he remained at court, among the other nobles, but still neglected and despised by all of them. It is said that he probably owed the preservation of his life to his insignificance, as Caligula would probably have found some pretext for destroying him, if he had not thought him too spiritless and imbecile to form any ambitious plans. In fact, Claudius said himself afterward, when he became emperor, that a great part of his apparent simplicity was feigned, as a measure of prudence, to protect himself from injury. When Claudius grew up he was married several times. The wife who was living with him at the time of Caligula's death was his third wife; her name was Valeria Messalina. She was his cousin. Claudius and Messalina had one child—a daughter, named Octavia. Claudius had been extremely unhappy in his connection with the wives preceding Messalina. He had quarreled with them and been divorced from them both. He had had a daughter by one of these wives and a son by the other. The son was suddenly killed by getting choked with a small pear. He had been throwing it into the air and attempting to catch it in his mouth as it came down, when at last it slipped down into his throat and strangled him. As for the daughter, Claudius was so exasperated with her mother at the time of his divorce from her, that he determined to disown and reject the child; so he ordered the terrified girl to be stripped naked, and to be sent and laid down in that condition at her wretched mother's door.

Claudius, as has already been stated, was present with Caligula at the theater, on the last day of the spectacle, and followed him into the palace when he went to look at the Asiatic captives; so that he was present, or at least very near, at the time of his nephew's assassination. As might have been expected from what has been said of his character, he was overwhelmed with consternation and terror at the scene, and was utterly incapacitated from taking any part, either for or against the conspirators. He stole away in great fright and hid himself behind the hangings in a dark recess in the palace. Here he remained for some time, listening in an agony of anxiety and suspense to the sounds which he heard around him. He could hear the cries and the tumult in the streets, and in the passages of the palace. Parties of the guards, in going to and fro, passed by the place of his retreat from time to time, alarming him with the clangor of their weapons, and their furious exclamations and outcries. At one time peeping stealthily out, he saw a group of soldiers hurrying along with a bleeding head on the point of a pike. It was the head of a prominent citizen of Rome whom the guards had intercepted and killed, supposing him to be one of the conspirators. This spectacle greatly increased Claudius's terror. He was wholly in the dark in respect to the motives and the designs of the men who had thus revolted against his nephew, and it was of course impossible for him to know how he himself would be regarded by either party. He did not dare, therefore, to surrender himself to either, but remained in his concealment, suffering great anxiety, and utterly unable to decide what to do.



At length, while he was in this situation of uncertainty and terror, a common soldier of the guards, named Epirius, who happened to pass that way, accidentally saw his feet beneath the hangings, and immediately, pulling the hangings aside, dragged him out to view. Claudius supposed now, of course, that his hour was come. He fell on his knees in an agony of terror, and begged the soldier to spare his life. The soldier, when he found that his prisoner was Claudius, the uncle of Caligula, raised him from the ground and saluted him emperor. As Caligula left no son, Epirius considered Claudius as his nearest relative, and consequently as the heir. Epirius immediately summoned others of the guard to the place, saying that he had found the new emperor, and calling upon them to assist in conveying him to the camp. The soldiers thus summoned procured a chair, and having placed the astonished Claudius in it, they raised the chair upon their shoulders, and began to convey it away. As they bore him thus along the streets, the people who saw them supposed that they were taking him to execution, and they lamented his unhappy fate. Claudius himself knew not what to believe. He could not but hope that his life was to be saved, but then he could not wholly dispel his fears.

In the mean time, the soldiers went steadily forward with their burden. When one set of bearers became fatigued, they set down the chair, and others relieved them. No one molested them, or attempted to intercept them in their progress, and at length they reached the camp. Claudius was well received by the whole body of the army. The officers held a consultation that night, and determined to make him emperor. At first he was extremely unwilling to accept the proffered honor, but they urged it upon him, and he was at length induced to accept it. Thus the army was once more provided with a head, and prepared to engage anew in its conflict with the civil authorities of the city.

The particulars of the conflict that ensued we can not here describe. It is sufficient to say that the army prevailed, and that Claudius soon found himself in full possession of the power from which his nephew had been so suddenly deposed.

One of the first measures which the new emperor adopted, was to recall Agrippina from her banishment at Pontia, where Caligula had confined her, and restore her to her former position in Rome. Her husband, Brazenbeard, died about this time, and young Brazenbeard, her son, afterward called Nero, the subject of this history, was three years old. Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina, was a little younger.

Messalina, the wife of Claudius, hated Agrippina, considering her, as she did, her rival and enemy. The favor which Claudius showed to Agrippina, in recalling her from her banishment, and treating her with consideration and favor at Rome, only inflamed still more Messalina's hatred. She could not, however, succeed in inducing Claudius to withdraw his protection from his niece; for Claudius, though almost entirely subject to the influence and control of his wife in most things, seemed fully determined not to yield to her wishes in this. Agrippina continued, therefore, to live at Rome, in high favor with the court, for several years,—her little son advancing all the time in age and in maturity, until at length he became twelve years old. At this time, another great change took place in his own and his mother's condition. Messalina became herself, by her wickedness and infatuation, the means of raising her rival into her own place as wife of the emperor. The result was accomplished in the following manner.

Messalina had long been a very dissolute and wicked woman, having been accustomed to give herself up to criminal indulgences and pleasures of every kind, in company with favorites whom she selected from time to time among the courtiers around her. For a time she managed these intrigues with some degree of caution and secrecy, in order to conceal her conduct from her husband. She gradually, however, became more and more open and bold. She possessed a great ascendency over the mind of her husband, and could easily deceive him, or induce him to do whatever she pleased. She persuaded him to confer honors and rewards in a very liberal manner upon those whom she favored, and to degrade, and sometimes even to destroy, those who displeased her. She would occasionally resort to very cunning artifices to accomplish her ends. For example, she conceived at one time a violent hatred against the husband of her mother. His name was Silanus. He was not the father of Messalina, but a second husband of Messalina's mother; and, being young and attractive in person, Messalina at first loved him, and intended to make him one of her favorites and companions. Silanus, however, would not accede to her wishes, and her love for him was then changed into hatred and thirst for revenge. She accordingly determined on his destruction; but as she knew that it would be difficult to induce Claudius to proceed to extremities against him, on account of his intimate relationship to the family, she contrived a very artful plot to accomplish her ends. It was this:

She sent word to Silanus, on a certain evening, that the emperor wished him to come to the palace, to his private apartment, the next morning, at a very early hour. The emperor wished to see him, the messenger said, on business of importance.

Just before the time which had been appointed for Silanus to appear, a certain officer of the household, named Narcissus, whom Messalina had engaged to assist her in her plot, came into the emperor's apartment, with an anxious countenance, and in a very hurried manner, and said to Claudius, whom he waked out of sleep by his coming, that he had had a very frightful dream—one which he deemed it his duty to make known to his master without any delay. He dreamed, he said, that a plot had been formed for assassinating the emperor; that Silanus was the contriver of it, and that he was coming early that morning to carry his design into effect. Messalina, who was present with her husband at the time, listened to this story with well-feigned anxiety and agitation, and then declared, with a countenance of great mysteriousness and solemnity, that she had had precisely the same dream for two or three nights in succession, but that, not being willing to do Silanus an injury, or to raise any unjust suspicions against him, she had thus far forborne to speak of the subject to her husband. She was, however, now convinced, she said, that Silanus was really entertaining some treasonable designs, and that the dreams were tokens sent from heaven to warn the emperor of his danger.

Claudius, who was of an extremely timid and nervous temperament, was very much alarmed by these communications; and his terrors were greatly increased by the appearance of a servant who announced to him at that moment that Silanus was then coming in. The coming of Silanus to the palace at that unseasonable hour was considered by the emperor as full confirmation of the dreams which had been related to him, and as proof of the guilt of the accused; and under the impulse of the sudden passion and fear which this conviction awakened in his mind, he ordered Silanus to be seized and led away to immediate execution. These commands were obeyed. Silanus was hurried away and dispatched by the swords of the soldiers, without ever knowing what the accusation was that had been made against him.

Thus Messalina succeeded by artifice and cunning in accomplishing her ends, in cases where she could not rely on her direct influence upon the mind of the emperor. In one way or the other she almost always effected whatever she undertook, and gradually came to exercise almost supreme control. Whom she would she raised up, and whom she would she put down. In the mean time she lived herself, a life of the most guilty indulgence and pleasure. For a long time she concealed her wickedness from the emperor. He vas very easily deceived, and though Messalina's character was perfectly well known to others, he himself continued blind to her guilt. At length, however, she began to grow more and more bold. She became satiated, as one of her historians says of her, with the common and ordinary forms of vice, and wished for something new and unusual to give piquancy and life to her sensations. At length, however, she went one step too far, and brought upon herself in consequence of it a terrible destruction.

It was about seven years after the accession of Claudius that the event occurred. The favorite of Messalina at this time was a young Roman senator named Caius Silius. Silius was a very distinguished young nobleman, and a man of handsome person and of very graceful and accomplished manners and address. He was in fact a very general favorite, and Messalina, when she first saw him, conceived a very strong affection for him. He was, however, already married to a beautiful Roman lady named Junia Silana. Silana had been, and was still at this time, an intimate friend of Agrippina, Nero's mother; though in subsequent times they became bitter enemies. Messalina made no secret of her love for Silius. She visited him freely at his house, and received his visits in return; she accompanied him to public places, evincing everywhere her strong regard for him in the most undisguised and open manner. At length she proposed to him to divorce his wife, in order that she herself might enjoy his society without any limitation or restraint. Silius hesitated for a time about complying with these proposals. He was well aware that he must necessarily incur great danger, either by complying or by refusing to comply with them. To accede to the empress's proposals, would be of course to place himself in a position of extreme peril; and the fate of Silanus was a warning to him of what he had to fear from her wrath, in case of a refusal. He concluded that the former danger was on the whole the least to be apprehended, and he accordingly divorced his wife, and gave himself up wholly to Messalina's will.

This arrangement being made, all things for a time went on smoothly and well. Claudius himself lived a very secluded life, and paid very little attention to his wife's pursuits or pleasures. He lived sometimes in retirement in his palace, devoting his time to his studies, or to the plans and measures of government. He seems to have honestly desired to promote the welfare and prosperity of the republic, and he made many useful regulations and laws which promised to be conducive to this end. Sometimes he was absent for a season from the city,—visiting fortresses and encampments, or inspecting the public works, such as aqueducts and canals, which were in progress of construction. He was particularly interested in certain operations which he planned and conducted at the mouths of the Tiber for forming a harbor there. The place was called Ostia, that word in the Latin tongue denoting mouths. To form a port there he built two long piers, extending them in a curvilinear form into the sea, so as to inclose a large area of water between them, where ships could lie at anchor in safety. Light-houses were built at the extremities of these piers. It is a curious circumstance that in forming the foundation of one of these piers, the engineers whom Claudius employed sunk an immense ship which Caligula had formerly caused to be built for the purpose of transporting an obelisk from Egypt to Rome,—the obelisk which now stands in front of St. Peter's Church, and is the admiration and wonder of all visitors to Rome. As the obelisk was formed of a single stone, a vessel of a very large size and of an unusual construction was necessary for the conveyance of it; and when this ship had once delivered its monstrous burden, it had no longer any useful function to perform on the surface of the sea, and the engineers accordingly filled it with stones and gravel, and sunk it at the mouth of the Tiber, to form part of the foundation of one of Claudius's piers. As it is found that there is no perceptible decay, even for centuries, in timber that is kept constantly submerged in the water of the sea, it is not impossible that the vast hulk, unless marine insects have devoured it and carried it away, lies imbedded where Claudius placed it, still.

While the emperor was engaged in these and similar pursuits and occupations, Messalina went on in her career of dissipation and indulgence from bad to worse, growing more and more bold and open every day. She lived in a constant round of entertainments and of gayety—sometimes receiving companies of guests at her own palace, and sometimes making visits with a large retinue of attendants and friends, at the house of Silius. Of course, every one paid court to Silius, and assumed, in their intercourse with him, every appearance that they entertained for him the most friendly regard. It is always so with the favorites of the great. While in heart they are hated and despised, in form and appearance they are caressed and applauded. Silius was intoxicated with the emotions that the giddy elevation to which he had arrived so naturally inspired. He was not, however, wholly at his ease. He could not but be aware that lofty as his position was, it was the brink of a precipice that he stood upon. Still he shut his eyes in a great measure to his danger and went blindly on. The catastrophe, which came very suddenly at last, will form the subject of the next chapter.