Nero - Jacob Abbott

The Expedition into Greece

As the excitement which had been produced by the discovery, real or pretended, of Piso's conspiracy, and by the innumerable executions which were attendant upon it, passed away, Nero returned to his usual mode of life, and in fact abandoned himself to the indulgence of his brutal propensities and passions more recklessly than ever. He spent his days in sloth, and his nights in rioting and carousals, and was rapidly becoming an object of general contempt and detestation. The only ambition which seemed to animate him was to excel, or rather to have the credit of excelling, as a player and singer on the public stage.

Not long after the period of the conspiracy described in the last two chapters, and when the excitement connected with it had in some measure subsided, the attention of the public began to be turned toward a great festival, the time for which was then approaching. This festival was celebrated with spectacles and games of various kinds, which were called the quinquennial games, from the circumstance that the period for the celebration of them recurred once in five years. A principal part of the performances on these occasions consisted of contests for prizes, which were offered for those who chose to compete for them. Some of these prizes were for those who excelled in athletic exercises, and in feats of strength and dexterity, while others were for singers and dancers, and other performers on the public stage. Nero could not resist the temptation to avail himself of this grand occasion for the display of his powers, and he prepared to appear among the other actors and mountebanks as a competitor for the theatrical prizes.

Performers on the public stage were regarded in ancient days much as they are now. They were applauded, flattered, caressed, and most extravagantly paid; but after all they formed a social class distinct from all others, and of a very low grade. Just as now great public singers are rewarded sometimes with the most princely revenues,—not twice or three times, but ten  times perhaps the amount ever paid to the highest ministers of state,—and receive the most flattering attentions from the highest classes of society, and are followed by crowds in the public streets, and enter cities escorted by grand processions, while yet there is scarce a respectable citizen of the better class who would not feel himself demeaned at seeing his son or his daughter on the stage by their side.

In the same manner public sentiment was such in the city of Rome, in Nero's day, that to see the chief military magistrate of the commonwealth publicly performing on the stage, and entering into an eager competition with the singing men and women, the low comedians, the dancers, the buffoons, and other such characters, that figured there, was a very humiliating spectacle. In fact, when the time for the quinquennial celebration approached, the government attempted to prevent the necessity of the emperor's actual appearing upon the stage, by passing in the Senate, among other decrees relating to the celebrations, certain votes awarding honorary crowns and prizes to Nero, by anticipation,—thus acknowledging him to be the first without requiring the test of actual competition. But this did not satisfy Nero. In fact, the honor of being publicly proclaimed victor was not probably the chief allurement which attracted him. He wished to enjoy the excitement and the pleasure of the contest,—to see the vast audience assembled before him, and held in charmed and enraptured attention by his performance; and to listen to and enjoy the triumphant grandeur of the applause which rolled and reverberated in the great Roman amphitheaters on such occasions with the sound of thunder. In a word it was the vanity of personal display, rather than ambition for an honorable distinction, that constituted the motive which actuated him.

He consequently disregarded the honorary awards which the Senate had decreed him, and insisted on actually appearing on the stage. His first performance was the reciting of a poem which he had composed. The poem was received, of course, with unbounded applause. Afterward he appeared on the stage in competition with the harpers and other musical performers. The populace applauded his efforts with the greatest enthusiasm, while the more respectable citizens were silent, or spoke to each other in secret murmurs of discontent and disapproval. There were a great many rules and restrictions which the candidates in these contests were required to observe; and though they were all proper enough for the class of men for whom they were intended, were yet such that the emperor, in subjecting himself to them, placed himself in a very low and degraded position, so as to become an object of ridicule and contempt. For example, after coming to the end of a performance on the harp, he would advance to the front of the stage, and there, after the manner customary among the players of that day, would kneel down in an imploring attitude, with his hands raised, as if humbly soliciting a favorable sentence from the audience, as his judges, and tremblingly waiting their decision. This, considering that the suppliant performer was the greatest potentate on earth, officially responsible for the government of half the world, and the audience before whom he was kneeling was mainly composed of the lowest rabble of the city, seemed to every respectable Roman, absurd and ridiculous to the last degree.

Nevertheless, the fame of these exploits performed by Nero as a public actor, spread gradually throughout the empire, and the subject attracted special attention in the cities of Greece, where games and public spectacles of every kind were celebrated with the greatest pomp and splendor. Several of these cities sent deputations to Rome, with crowns and garlands for the emperor, which they had decreed to him in honor of the skill and superiority which he had displayed in the histrionic art. Nero was extremely gratified at having such honors conferred upon him. He received the deputations which brought these tokens, with great pomp and parade, as if they had been embassadors from sovereign princes or states, sent to transact business of the most momentous concern. He gave them audience, in fact, before all others, and entertained them with feasts and spectacles, and conferred upon them every other mark of public consideration and honor. On one occasion, at a feast to which he had invited such a company of embassadors, one of them asked him to favor them with a song. The emperor at once complied, and sang a song for the entertainment of the company at the table. He was rapturously applauded, and was so delighted with the enthusiasm which his performance awakened, as to exclaim that the Greeks were, after all, the only people that really had a taste for music; none but they, he said, could understand or appreciate a good song.

The most renowned of all the celebrations of the ancient Greeks were the Olympic games. These games constituted a grand national festival, which was held once in four years on a plain in the western part of the Peloponnesus, called the Olympian Plain. This plain was but little more than a mile in extent, and was bordered on one side by rocky hills, and on the other by the waters of a river. Here suitable structures were erected for the exhibition of the spectacles and games, and for the accommodation of the spectators, and when the period for the celebrations arrived, immense multitudes assembled from every part of Greece to witness the solemnities. The spectators, however, were all men; for with the exception of a few priestesses who had certain official duties to perform, no females were allowed to be present. The punishment for an attempt to evade this law was death; for if any woman attempted to witness the scene in disguise, the law was that she was to be seized, if detected, and hurled down a neighboring precipice, to be killed by the fall. It is said, however, that only one case of such detection ever occurred, and in that case the woman was pardoned in consideration of the fact that her father, her brothers, and her son had all been victors in the games.

The games continued for five days. The general arrangements were made, and the umpires were appointed, by the government of Elis, which was the state in which the Olympian plain was situated. There was a gymnasium in the vicinity, where those who intended to enter the lists as competitors were accustomed to put themselves in training. This training occupied nearly a year, and for thirty days previous to the public exhibition the exercises were conducted at this gymnasium in the same manner and form as at the games themselves. There was a large and regularly organized police provided to preserve order, and umpires appointed with great formality, to decide the contests and make the awards. These umpires were inducted into office by the most solemn oaths. They bound themselves by these oaths to give just and true decisions without fear or favor.

The festival was opened, when the time arrived, in the evening, by the offering of sacrifices,—the services being conducted in the most imposing and solemn manner. On the following morning at daybreak the games and contests began. These consisted of races—in chariots, on horseback, and on foot,—the runners being in the latter case sometimes dressed lightly, and sometimes loaded with heavy armor;—of matches in leaping, wrestling, boxing, and throwing the discus;—and finally, of musical and poetical performances of various kinds. To obtain the prize in any of these contests was considered throughout the whole Grecian world as an honor of the highest degree.

The period for the celebration of these games began to draw nigh, as it happened, not long after the time when the deputations from Greece came to Nero with the compliments and crowns decreed to him in token of their admiration of his public performances at Rome,—and it is not at all surprising that his attention and interest were strongly awakened by the approach of so renowned a festival. In short he resolved to go to Greece, and display his powers before the immense and distinguished audiences that were to assemble on the Olympic plains.

He accordingly organized a very large retinue of attendants and followers, and prepared to set out on his journey. This retinue was in numbers quite an army; but in character it was a mere troop of actors, musicians and buffoons. It was made up almost wholly of people connected in various ways with the stage, so that the baggage which followed in its train, instead of being formed of arms and munitions of war, as was usual when a great Roman commander had occasion to pass out of Italy, consisted of harps, fiddles, masks, buskins, and such other stage property as was in use in those times,—while the company itself was formed almost entirely of comedians, singers, dancers, and wrestlers, with an immense retinue of gay and dissipated men and women, who exemplified every possible stage of moral debasement and degradation. With this company Nero crossed to the eastern shore of Italy, and there, embarking on board the vessels which had been prepared for the voyage, he sailed over the Adriatic sea to the shores of Greece.

He landed at Cassiope, a town in the northern part of the island of Corcyra. Here there was a temple to Jupiter, and the first of Nero's exploits was to go there and sing, being impatient, it would seem, to give the people of Greece a specimen of his powers immediately on landing. After this he passed over to the continent, and thence advanced into the heart of Greece, playing, singing, and acting in all the cities through which he passed. As there were yet some months to elapse before the period for celebrating the Olympic games, Nero had ample time for making this tour. He was of course everywhere received with the most unbounded applause, for of course those only, in general, who were most pleased with such amusements, and were most inclined to approve of Nero's exhibiting himself as a performer, came together in the assemblies which convened to hear him. Thus it happened that the virtuous, the cultivated, and the refined, remained at their homes; while all the idle, reckless, and dissolute spirits of the land flocked in crowds to the entertainments which their imperial visitor offered them. These men, of course, considered it quite a triumph for them that so distinguished a potentate should take an active part in ministering to their pleasures; and thus wherever Nero went he was sure to be attended by crowds, and his performances, whether skillful or not, could not fail of being extravagantly extolled in conversation, and of eliciting in the theaters thunders of applause. The consequence was that Nero was delighted with the enthusiasm which his performances seemed everywhere to awaken. To be thus received and thus applauded in the cities of Greece, seemed to satisfy his highest ambition.

It has always been considered a very extraordinary proof of mental and moral degradation on the part of Nero, that he could thus descend from the exalted sphere of responsibility and duty to which his high official station properly consigned him, in order to mingle in such scenes and engage in such contests as were exhibited in the ordinary theaters and circuses in Greece. It is however not so surprising that he should have been willing to appear as a competitor at the Olympic games: so prominent were these games above all the other athletic and military celebrations of that age, and so great was the value attached to the honor of a victory obtained in them. There was, it is true, no value in the prize itself, that was bestowed upon the victors. There was no silver cup, or golden crown, or sum of money staked upon the issue. The only direct award was a crown of olive leaves, which, at the close of the contest, was placed upon the head of the victor. Everything pertaining to this crown was connected with the most imposing and peculiar ceremonies. The leaves from which the garland was made were obtained from a certain sacred olive-tree, which grew in a consecrated grove in Olympia. The tree itself had been originally brought, it was said, from the country of the Hyperboreans, by Hercules, and planted in Olympia, where it was sacredly preserved to furnish garlands for the victors in the games. The leaves were cut from the tree by a boy chosen for the purpose. He gathered the leaves by means of a golden sickle, which was set apart expressly to this use. When the time arrived for the crowning of the victor, the candidate was brought forward in presence of a vast concourse of spectators, and placed upon a tripod, which was originally formed of bronze, but in subsequent ages was wrought in ivory and gold. Branches of palm-trees, the usual symbols of victory, were placed in his hands. His name and that of his father and of the country whence he came, were proclaimed with great ceremony by the heralds. The crown was then placed upon his head, and the festival ended with processions and sacrifices and a public banquet given in honor of the occasion. On his return to his own country, the victor entered the capital by a triumphal procession, and was usually rewarded there by immunities and privileges of the most important character.

At length the time arrived for the celebration of the Olympic games, and Nero repaired to the spot, following the vast throngs that were proceeding thither from every part of Greece, and there entered into competition with all the common singers and players of the time. The prize for excellence in music was awarded to him. It was, however, generally understood that the judges were bribed to decide in his favor. Nero entered as a competitor, too, in the chariot race; and here he was successful in winning the prize; though in this case it was decreed to him in plain and open violation of all rule. He undertook to drive ten horses in this race; but he found the team too much for him to control. The horses became unmanageable; Nero was thrown out of his carriage and was so much hurt that he could not finish the race at all. He, however, insisted that accidents and casualties were not to be taken into the account, and that inasmuch as he should certainly have outran his competitors if he had not been prevented by misfortune, he claimed that the judges should award him the prize. Greatly to his delight the judges did so. It is true they were bound by the most solemn oaths to make just and true decisions; but it has been seldom found in the history of the world that official oaths constitute any serious barrier against the demands or encroachments of emperors or kings.

When the games were ended Nero conferred very rich rewards upon all the judges.

These successes at the Olympic games, nominal and empty as they really were, seemed to have inflamed the emperor's vanity and ambition more than ever. Instead of returning to Rome he commenced another tour through the heart of Greece, singing and playing in all the cities where he went, and challenging all the most distinguished actors and performers to meet him and contend with him for prizes.

Of course the prizes were always awarded to Nero on this tour, as they had been at the Olympic games. Nero sent home regular dispatches after each of his performances, to inform the Roman Senate of his victories, just as former emperors had been accustomed to send military bulletins to announce the progress of their armies, and the conquests which they had gained in battle; and with a degree of vanity and folly which seems almost incredible, he called upon the Senate to institute religious celebrations and sacrifices in Rome, and great public processions, in order to signalize and commemorate these great successes, and to express the gratitude of the people to the gods for having vouchsafed them. Not satisfied with expecting this parade of public rejoicing in Rome, he called upon the Senate to ordain that similar services should be held in all the cities and towns throughout the empire.

During the visit of Nero to Greece, he engaged in one undertaking which might be denominated a useful enterprise, though he managed it with such characteristic imbecility and folly, that it ended, as might have been foreseen, in a miserable failure. The plan which he conceived, was to cut through the Isthmus of Corinth, so as to open a ship communication between the Ionian and the Ęgean seas. Such a canal, he thought, would save for many vessels the long and dangerous voyage around the Peloponnesus, and thus prevent many of the wrecks which then annually took place on the shores of the Peninsula, and which were often attended with the destruction of much property and of many lives.

The plan might thus have been a very good one, had any proper and efficient means been adopted for carrying it into execution; but in all that he did in this respect, Nero seems to have looked no farther than to the performance of pompous and empty ceremonies in commencing the work. He convened a great public assembly on the ground. He entertained this assembly with spectacles and shows. He then placed himself at the head of his life-guards, and, after a speech of great promise and pretension, he advanced at the head of a procession, singing and dancing by the way, to the place where the first ground was to be broken. Here he made three strokes with a golden pick-axe, which had been provided for the occasion, and putting the earth which he had loosened into a basket, he carried it away to a short distance, and threw it out upon the ground. This ceremony was meant for the commencement of the canal; and when it was over, the company dispersed, and Nero was escorted by his guards back to the city of Corinth, which lay at a few miles' distance from the scene.

Nothing more was ever done. Nero issued orders, it is true, that all the criminals, convicts, and prisoners in Greece, should be transported to the Isthmus, and set to work upon this canal; and some Jewish captives were actually employed there for a time; but, for some reason or other, nothing was done. The actual work was never seriously undertaken.

In the mean time, Nero had left the government at Rome in the hands of a certain ignoble favorite, named Helius, who, being placed in command of the army during his master's absence, held the lives and fortunes of all the inhabitants at his supreme disposal, and, as might have been expected, he pursued such a career of cruelty and oppression, in his attempts to overawe and subject those who were under his power, that a universal feeling of hostility and hatred was awakened against him. Things at last assumed so alarming an attitude, that Helius was terrified in his turn, and at length he began to send for Nero to come home. Nero at first paid no attention to these requests. The danger, however, increased; the crisis became extremely imminent, so that a general insurrection was anticipated. Helius sent messengers after messengers to Nero, imploring him to return, if he wished to save himself from ruin;—but all the answer that he could obtain from Nero was, that, if Helius truly loved him, he would not envy him the glory that he was acquiring in Greece; but, instead of hastening his return, would rather wish that he should come back worthy of himself, after having fully accomplished his victories. At last Helius, growing desperate in view of the impending danger, left Rome, and, traveling with all possible dispatch, night and day, came to Nero in Greece, and there made such statements and disclosures in respect to the condition of things at Rome, that Nero at length reluctantly concluded to return.

He accordingly set out in grand state on his journey westward, escorted by his body-guard, and with his motley and innumerable horde of singers, dancers, poets, actors, and mountebanks in his train. He brought with him the prizes which he had won in the various cities of Greece. The number of these prizes, it was said, was more than eighteen hundred. On his way through Greece, when about to return to Rome, he went to Delphi, to consult the sacred oracle there, in respect to his future fortunes. The reply of the Pythoness was, "Beware of seventy-three."  This answer gave Nero great satisfaction and pleasure. It meant, he had no doubt, that he had no danger to fear until he should have attained to the age of seventy-three; and as he was yet not quite thirty, the response of the oracle seemed to put so far away the evil day, that he thought he might dismiss it from his mind altogether. So he repaid the oracle for the flattering prediction with most magnificent presents, and pursued his journey toward Rome with a mind quite at ease.

The ships in which he embarked to cross the Adriatic on his return to Italy encountered a terrible storm, by which they were dispersed, and many of them were destroyed. Nero himself had a very narrow escape, as the ship which he was in came very near being lost. To see him in this danger seems greatly to have pleased some of his attendants, for so imperious and cruel was his temper, that he was generally hated by all who came under his power. These men hated him so intensely that they were willing, as it would appear, to perish themselves, for the pleasure of witnessing his destruction; and in the extreme moments of danger they openly manifested this feeling. The vessel, however, was saved, and Nero, as soon as he landed, ordered these persons all to be slain.

On landing he gathered together the scattered remnants of his company, and organizing a new escort, he advanced toward Rome, in a grand triumphal march, displaying his prizes and crowns in all the great cities through which he passed, and claiming universal homage. When he arrived at the gates of Rome, he made preparations for a grand triumphal entry to the city, in the manner of great military conquerors. A breach was made in the walls for the admission of the procession. Nero rode in the triumphal chariot of Augustus, with a distinguished Greek harpist by his side, who wore an Olympic crown upon his head, and carried another crown in his hand. Before this chariot marched a company of eighteen hundred men, each of them carrying one of the crowns which Nero had won, with an inscription for the spectators to read, signifying where the crown had been won, the name of the emperor's competitor, the title of the song which he had sung, and other similar particulars. In this way he traversed the principal streets, exhibiting himself and his trophies to the populace, and finally when he arrived at his house, he entered it with great pomp and parade, and caused the crowns to be hung up upon the innumerable statues of himself which had been erected in the courts and halls of the building. Those which he valued most highly he placed conspicuously around his bed in his bedchamber, in order that they might be the last objects for his eyes to rest upon at night, and the first to greet his view in the morning.

As soon as he became established in Rome again, he began to form new plans for developing his powers and capacities as a musician, in the hope of gaining still higher triumphs than those to which he had already attained. Far from giving his time and attention to the public business of the empire, he devoted himself with new zeal and enthusiasm to the cultivation of his art. In doing this it was necessary, according to the customs and usages in respect to the training of musicians that prevailed in those days, that he should submit to rules and exercises most absurd and degrading to one holding such a station as his; and as accounts of his mode of life circulated among the community, he became an object of general ridicule and contempt. In order to strengthen his lungs and improve his voice he used to lie on his back with a plate of lead upon his chest, that the lungs, working under such a burden, might acquire strength by the effort. He took powerful medicines, such as were supposed in those days to act upon the system in such a manner as to produce clearness and resonance in the tones of the voice. He subjected himself to the most rigid rules of diet,—and gave up the practice of addressing the senate and the army, which the Roman emperors often had occasion to do, for fear that speaking so loud might strain his voice and injure the sweetness of its tones. He had a special officer in his household, called his Phonascus, meaning his voice-keeper. This officer was to watch him at all times, caution him against speaking too loud or too fast,—prescribe for him, and in every way take care that his voice received no detriment. During all this time Nero was continually performing in public, and though his performances were protracted and tedious to the last degree, all the Roman nobility were compelled always to attend them, under pain of his horrible displeasure.

As Nero went on thus in the career which he had chosen,—neglecting altogether the affairs of government, and giving himself up more and more every year to the most expensive dissipation; his finances became at length greatly involved, and he was compelled to resort to every possible form of extortion, in order to raise the money that he required. His pecuniary embarrassments became, at length, very perplexing, and they were finally very much increased by the extraordinary folly which he displayed in giving credence to the dreams and promises of a certain adventurer who came to him from Africa. The name of this man was Bessus. He was a native of Carthage. He came, at one time, to Rome, and having contrived, by means of presents and bribes which he offered to the officers of Nero's household, to obtain an audience of the emperor, he informed him that he had intelligence of the highest importance to communicate, which was, that on his estate in Africa, there was a large cavern, in which was stored an immense treasure. This treasure consisted, he said, of vast heaps of golden ingots, rude and shapeless in form, but composed of pure and precious metal. The cavern, he said, which contained these stores, was very spacious, and the gold lay piled in it in heaps, and sometimes in solid columns, towering to a prodigious height. These treasures had been deposited there, he said, by Dido, the ancient Carthaginian queen, and they had remained there so long, that all knowledge of them had been lost. They had been reserved, in a word, for Nero, and were all now at his disposal ready to be brought out and employed in promoting the glory and magnificence of his reign.

Nero readily gave credit to this story, and, inasmuch as in the exuberance of his exultation he made known this wonderful discovery to those around him, the tidings of it soon spread throughout the city, and produced the most intense excitement among all classes. Nero immediately began to fit out an expedition to proceed to Africa, and bring the treasure home. Galleys were equipped to convey it, and a body of troops was designated to escort it, and suitable officers appointed to proceed with Bessus to Carthage, and superintend the transportation of the metal. These preparations necessarily required some time, and during the interval Bessus was of course the object at Rome of universal attention and regard. Nero himself, finding that he was about to enter upon the possession of such inexhaustible treasures, dismissed all concern in respect to his finances, and launched out into wilder extravagance than ever. He raised money for the present moment, by assigning shares in the treasure at exorbitant rates of discount, and thus borrowed and expended with the most unbounded profusion.

At length the expedition sailed for Carthage, taking Bessus with them,—but all search for the cavern, when they arrived, was unavailing. It proved that all the evidence which Bessus had of the existence of the cave, and of the heaps of gold contained in it, was derived from certain remarkable dreams which he had had,—and though Nero's commissioners dug into the ground most faithfully in every place on the estate which the dreams had indicated, no treasure, and not even the cavern, could ever be found.