Nero - Jacob Abbott

Extreme Depravity

There was nothing in the attendant circumstances that were connected with the act of Nero in murdering his mother, which could palliate or extenuate the deed in the slightest degree. It was not an act of self-defense. Agrippina was not doing him, or intending to do him any injury. It was not an act of hasty violence, prompted by sudden passion. It was not required by any political necessity as a means for accomplishing some great and desirable public end. It was a cool, deliberate, aid well-considered crime, performed solely for the purpose of removing from the path of the perpetrator of it an obstacle to the commission of another crime. Nero murdered his mother in cool blood, simply because she was in the way of his plans for divorcing his innocent wife, and marrying adulterously another woman.

For some time after the commission of this great crime, the mind of Nero was haunted by dreadful fears, and he suffered continually, by day and by night, all the pangs of remorse and horror. He did not dare to return to Rome, not knowing to what height the popular indignation, that would be naturally excited by so atrocious a deed, might rise; or what might be the consequences to him if he were to appear in the city. He accordingly remained for a time on the coast at Neapolis, the town to which he had retired from Baić. From this place he sent various communications to the Roman Senate, explaining and justifying what he called the execution of his mother. He pretended that he had found her guilty of treasonable conspiracies against him and against the state, and that her death had been imperiously demanded, as the only means of securing the public safety. The senators hated Nero and abhorred his crimes; but they were overawed by the terrible power which he exercised over them through the army, which they knew was entirely subservient to his will, and by their dread of his ruthless and desperate character. They passed resolves approving of what he had done. His officers and favorites at Rome sent him word that the memory of Agrippina was abhorred at the capital, and that in destroying her, he was considered as having rendered a great service to the state. These representations in some measure reassured his mind, and at length he returned to the city.

In due time he divorced Octavia, and married Poppća. Octavia, however, still remained at Rome, residing in apartments assigned her in one of the imperial palaces. Her high birth and distinguished position, and, more than all, the sympathy that was felt for her in her misfortunes, made her an object of great attention. The people put garlands upon her statues in the public places in the city, and pulled down those which were placed at Nero's command upon those of Poppća. These and other indications of the popular feeling, inflamed Poppća's hatred and jealousy to such a degree, that she suborned one of Octavia's domestics to accuse her mistress of an ignominious crime. When thus accused, other women in Octavia's service were put to the rack to compel them to testify against her. They, however, persevered, in the midst of their tortures, in asserting her innocence. Poppća, nevertheless, insisted that she should be condemned, and at last, by way of compromising the case, Nero consented to banish her from the city.

She was sent to a villa on the sea-coast, in the neighborhood of the place where Anicetus was stationed with his fleet. But Poppća would not allow her to live in peace even as an exile. She soon brought a charge against her of having formed a conspiracy against the government of Nero, and of having corrupted Anicetus, with a view of obtaining the co-operation of the fleet in the execution of treasonable designs. Anicetus himself testified to the truth of this charge. He said that Octavia had formed such a plan, and that she had given herself up, in person, wholly to him, in order to induce him to join in it. Octavia was accordingly condemned to die.

Notwithstanding the testimony of Anicetus, Octavia was not at the time generally believed to be guilty of the charge on which she was condemned. It was supposed that Anicetus was induced, by promises and bribes from Nero and Poppća, to fabricate the story, in order that they might have a pretext for putting Octavia to death. However this may be, the unhappy princess was condemned, and the sentence pronounced upon her was, that she must die.

The life of Octavia, lofty as her position was in respect to earthly grandeur, had been one of uninterrupted suffering and sorrow. She had been married to Nero when a mere child, and during the whole period of her connection with her husband he had treated her with continual unkindness and neglect. She had at length been cruelly divorced from him, and banished from her native city on charges of the most ignominious nature, though wholly false—and before this last accusation was made against her there seemed to be nothing before her but the prospect of spending the remainder of her days in a miserable and hopeless exile. Still she clung to life, and when the messengers of Nero came to tell her that she must die, she was overwhelmed with agitation and terror.

She begged and implored them with tears and agony, to spare her life. She would never, she said, give the emperor any trouble, or interfere in any way with any of his plans. She gave up willingly all claims to being his wife and would always consider herself as only his sister. She would live in retirement and seclusion in any place where Nero might appoint her abode, and would never occasion him the slightest uneasiness whatever. The executioners cut short these entreaties by seizing the unhappy princess in the midst of them, binding her limbs with thongs, and opening her veins. She fainted, however, under this treatment, and when the veins were opened the wretched victim lay passive and insensible in the hands of her executioners, and the blood would not flow. So they carried her to a steam-bath which happened to be in readiness near at hand, and shutting her up in it, left her to be suffocated by the vapor.

Thus the great crowning crime of Nero's life,—for the murder of Agrippina, the adulterous marriage with Poppća, and the subsequent murder of Octavia, are to be regarded as constituting one single though complicated crime,—was consummate and complete. It was a crime of the highest possible atrocity. To open the way to an adulterous marriage by the deliberate and cruel murder of a mother, and then to seal and secure it by murdering an innocent wife,—blackening her memory at the same time with an ignominy wholly undeserved, constitute a crime which for unnatural and monstrous enormity must be considered as standing at the head of all that human depravity has ever achieved.

Nero gradually recovered from the remorse and horror with which the commission of these atrocities at first overwhelmed him; and in order to hasten his relief he plunged recklessly into every species of riot and excess, and in the end hardened himself so completely in crime, that during the remainder of his life he perpetrated the most abominable deeds without any apparent compunction whatever. He killed Poppća herself at last with a kick, which he gave her in a fit of passion at a time when circumstances were such with her that the violence brought on a premature and unnatural sickness. He afterward ordered her son to be drowned in the sea, by his slaves, when he was a fishing, because he understood that the boy, in playing with the other children, often acted the part of an emperor. His general Burrus he poisoned. He sent him the poison under pretense that it was a medical remedy for a swelling of the throat under which Burrus was suffering. Burrus drank the draught under that impression and died. He destroyed by similar means in the course of his life great numbers of his relatives and officers of state, so that there was scarcely a person who was brought into any degree of intimate connection with him that did not sooner or later come to a violent end.

During his whole reign Nero neglected the public affairs of the empire almost altogether,—apparently regarding the vast power, and the immense resources that were at his command, as only means for the more complete gratification of his own personal propensities and passions. The only ambition which ever appeared to animate him was a desire for fame as a singer and actor on the stage.

At the time when he commenced his career it was considered wholly beneath the dignity of any Roman of rank to appear in any public performance of that nature; but Nero, having conceived in his youth a high idea of his merit as a singer, devoted himself with great assiduity to the cultivation of his voice, and, as he was encouraged in what he did by the flatterers that of course were always around him, his interest in the musical art became at length an extravagant passion. He submitted with the greatest patience to the rigorous training customary in those times for the development and improvement of the voice; such as lying for long periods upon his back, with a weight of lead upon his breast, in order to force the muscles of the chest to extraordinary exertion, for the purpose of strengthening them—and taking medicines of various kinds to clear the voice and reduce the system. He was so much pleased with the success of these efforts, that he began to feel a great desire to perform in public upon the stage. He accordingly began to make arrangements for doing this. He first appeared in private exhibitions, in the imperial palaces and gardens, where only the nobility of Rome and invited guests were present. He, however, gradually extended his audiences, and at length came out upon the public stage,—first, however, in order to prepare the public mind for what they would have otherwise considered a great degradation, inducing the sons of some of the principal nobility to come forward in similar entertainments. He was so pleased with the success which he imagined that he met with in this career that he devoted a large part of his time during his whole life to such performances. Of course, his love of applause in his theatrical career, increased much too fast to be satisfied with the natural and ordinary means of gratifying it, and he accordingly made arrangements, most absurdly, to create for his performances a fictitious and counterfeit celebrity. At one time he had a corps of five thousand men under pay to applaud him, in the immense circuses and amphitheaters where he performed. These men were regularly trained to the work of applauding, as if it were an art to be acquired by study and instruction. It was an art, in fact, as they practiced it,—different modes of applause being designated for different species of merit, and the utmost precision being required on the part of the performers, in the concert of their action, and in their obedience to the signals. He used also to require on the days when he was to perform, that the doors of the theater should be closed when the audience had assembled, and no egress allowed on any pretext whatever. Such regulations of course excited great complaint, and much ridicule; especially as the sessions at these spectacles were sometimes protracted and tiresome to the last degree. Even sudden sickness was not a sufficient reason for allowing a spectator to depart, and so it was said that the people used sometimes to feign death, in order to be carried out to their burial. In some cases, it was said, births took place in the theaters, the mothers having come incautiously with the crowd to witness the spectacles, without properly considering what might be the effect of the excitement, and then afterward not being permitted to retire.

Besides singing and acting on the stage, Nero took part in every other species of public amusement. He entered as a competitor for the prize in races and games of every kind. Of course he always came off victor. This end was accomplished sometimes by the secret connivance of the other competitors, and sometimes by open bribery of the judges. Nero's ridiculous vanity and self-conceit seemed to be fully gratified by receiving the prize, without any regard whatever to the question of deserving it. He used to come back sometimes from journeys to foreign cities, where he had been performing on the stage at great public festivals, and enter Rome in triumph, with the garlands, and crowns, and other decorations which he had won, paraded before him in the procession, in the manner in which distinguished commanders had been accustomed to display the trophies of their military victories, when returning from foreign campaigns.

In fact it was only in the perpetration of such miserable follies as these that Nero appeared before the public at all, and in his private conduct and character he sank very rapidly, after he came into power, to the very lowest degree of profligacy and vice. After having spent the evening in drinking and debauchery, he would sally forth into the streets at midnight, as has already been stated, to mingle there with the vilest men and women of the town in brawls and riots. On these excursions he would attack such peaceable parties as he chanced to meet in the streets, and if they made resistance, he and his companions would beat them down and throw them into canals or open sewers. Sometimes in these combats he was beaten himself, and on one occasion he came very near losing his life, having been almost killed by the blows dealt upon him by a certain Roman senator, whose wife he insulted as she was walking with her husband in the street. The senator, of course, did not know him. He used to go to the theater in disguise, in company with a gang of companions of similar character to himself, and watch for opportunities to excite or encourage riots or tumults there. Whenever he could succeed in urging these tumults on to actual violence he would mingle in the fray, and throw stones and fragments of broken benches and furniture among the people.

After a while, when he had grown more bold and desperate in his wickedness, he began to lay aside all disguise, and at last he actually seemed to take a pride and pleasure in exhibiting the scenes of riot and excess in which he engaged, in the most impudent manner before the public gaze. He used to celebrate great feasts in the public amphitheaters, and on the arena of the circus, and carouse there in company with the most dissolute men and women of the city—a spectacle to the whole population. There was a large artificial lake or reservoir in one part of the city, built for the purpose of exhibiting mimic representations of the manœuvers of fleets, and naval battles, for the amusement of the people at great public celebrations. There were, of course, numerous ranges of seats around the margin of this lake for the accommodation of the spectators. Nero took possession of this structure for some of his carousals, in order to obtain greater scope for ostentation and display. The water was drawn off on such occasions and the gates shut, and then the bottom of the reservoir was floored over to make space for the tables.

The sums of money which Nero spent in the pursuit of sensual pleasures were incalculable. In fact there were no bounds to his extravagance and profusion. He had command, of course, of all the treasure of the empire, and he procured immense sums besides, by fines, confiscations, and despotic exactions of various kinds; and as he undertook no public enterprises—being seldom engaged in foreign wars, and seldom attempting any useful constructions in the city—the vast resources at his command were wholly devoted to the purposes of ostentatious personal display, and sensual gratifications. The pomp and splendor of his feasts, his processions, his journeys of pleasures and the sums that he is said to have lavished sometimes in money and jewels, and sometimes in villas, gardens, and equipages, upon his favorites, both male and female, are almost incredible. On some of the pleasure excursions which he took to the mouth of the Tiber, he would have the banks of the river lined with booths and costly tents all the way from the river to the sea. These tents were provided with sumptuous entertainments, and with beds and couches for repose; and they were all attended by beautiful girls who stood at the doors of them inviting Nero and his party to land, as they passed along the river in their barges. He used to fish with a golden net, which was drawn by silken cords of a rich scarlet color. Occasionally he made grand excursions of pleasure through Italy or into Greece, in the style of royal progresses. In these expeditions he sometimes had no less than a thousand carts to convey his baggage—the mules that drew them being all shod with silver, and their drivers dressed in scarlet clothes of the most costly character. He was attended, also, on these excursions, by a numerous train of footmen, and of African servants, who wore rich bracelets upon their arms, and were mounted on horses splendidly caparisoned.



One of the most remarkable of the events which occurred during Nero's reign was what was called the burning of Rome,—a great conflagration, by which a large part of the city was destroyed. It was very generally believed at the time that this destruction was the work of Nero himself,—the fruit of his reckless and willful depravity. There is, it is true, no very positive proof that the fire was set by Nero's orders, though one of the historians of the time states that confidential servants belonging to Nero's household were seen, when the fire commenced, going from house to house with combustibles and torches, spreading the flames. He was himself at Antium at the time, and did not come to Rome until the fire had been raging for many days. If it is true that the fire was Nero's work, it is not supposed that he designed to cause so extensive a conflagration. He intended, perhaps, only to destroy a few buildings that covered ground which he wished to occupy for the enlargement of his palaces; though it was said by some writers that he really designed to destroy a great part of the city, with a view to immortalize his name by rebuilding it in a new and more splendid form. With these motives, if these indeed were his motives, there was doubtless mingled a feeling of malicious gratification at any thing that would terrify and torment the miserable subjects of his power. When he came to Rome from Antium at the time that the conflagration was at its height, he found the whole city a scene of indescribable terror and distress. Thousands of the people had been burned to death or crushed beneath the ruins of the fallen houses. The streets were filled with piles of goods and furniture burnt and broken. Multitudes of men, though nearly exhausted with fatigue, were desperately toiling on, in hopeless endeavors to extinguish the flames, or to save some small remnant of their property,—and distracted mothers, wild and haggard from terror and despair, were roaming to and fro, seeking their children,—some moaning in anguish, and some piercing the air with loud and frantic outcries. Nero was entertained by the scene as if it had been a great dramatic spectacle. He went to one of the theaters, and taking his place upon the stage he amused himself there with singing and playing a celebrated composition on the subject of the burning of Troy. At least it was said and generally believed in the city that he did so, and the minds of the people were excited against the inhuman monster to the highest pitch of indignation. In fact, Nero seems to have thought at last that he had gone too far, and he began to make efforts in earnest to relieve the people from some portion of their distress. He caused great numbers of tents to be erected in the parade-ground for temporary shelter, and brought fresh supplies of corn into the city to save the people from famine. These measures of mercy, however, came too late to retrieve his character. The people attributed the miseries of this dreadful calamity to his desperate maliciousness, and he became the object of universal execration.