Nero - Jacob Abbott

The Fate of the Conspirators

As soon as Nero had obtained all the information which he and his officers could draw from Scevinus and Natalis, and had sent to all parts of the city to arrest those whom the forced disclosures of these witnesses accused, he thought of Epicharis, who, it will be recollected, had been sent to prison, and who was still in confinement there. He ordered Epicharis to be told that concealment was no longer possible,—that Scevinus and Natalis had divulged the plot in full, and that her only hope lay in amply confessing all that she knew.

This announcement had no effect upon Epicharis. She refused to admit that she knew any thing of any conspiracy.

Nero then ordered that she should be put to the torture. The engines were prepared and she was brought before them. The sight of them produced no change. She was then placed upon the wheel, and her frail and delicate limbs were stretched, dislocated, and broken, until she had endured every form of agony which such engines could produce. Her constancy remained unshaken to the end. At length, when she was so much exhausted by her sufferings that she could no longer feel the pain, she was taken away to be restored by medicaments, cordials, and rest, in order that she might recover strength to endure new tortures on the following day.

In the mean time, panic and excitement reigned throughout the city. Nero doubled his guards; he garrisoned his palace; he brought out bodies of armed men, and stationed them on the walls of the city and in the public squares, or marched them to and fro about the streets. As fast as men were accused they were put to the question, and as each one saw that the only hope for safety to himself was in freely denouncing others, the names of supposed confederates were revealed in great numbers, and as fast as these names were obtained the men were seized and imprisoned or executed—the innocent and the guilty together.

On the very first announcement that the plot had been discovered, those of the conspirators who were still at large made all haste to the house of Piso. They found him prostrate in consternation and despair. They urged him immediately to come forth, and to put himself at the head of an armed force, and fight for his life. Desperate as such an undertaking might be, no other alternative, they said, was now left to him. But all was of no avail. The conspirators could not arouse him to action. They were obliged to retire and leave him to his fate. He opened the veins in his arm, and bled to death while the soldiers whom Nero had sent were breaking into his house to arrest him.

Being thus deprived of their leader, the conspirators gave up all hope of effecting the revolution, and thought only of the means of screening themselves from Nero's vengeance.



In the mean time, Epicharis had so far recovered during the night, that on the following morning it was determined to bring her again to the torture. She was utterly helpless,—her limbs having been broken by the execution of the day before. The officers accordingly put her into a sort of sedan chair, or covered litter, in order that she might be carried by bearers to the place of torture. She was borne in this way to the spot, but when the executioners opened the door of the chair to take her out, they beheld a shocking spectacle. Their wretched victim had escaped from their power. She was hanging by the neck, dead. She had contrived to make a noose in one end of the cincture with which she was girded, and fastening the other end to some part of the chair within, she had succeeded in bringing the weight of her body upon the noose around her neck, and had died without disturbing her hearers as they walked along.

In the mean time the various parties that were accused were seized in great numbers, and were brought in for trial before a sort of court-martial which Nero himself, with some of his principal officers, held for this purpose in the gardens of the palace. The number of those accused was so large that the avenues to the garden were blocked up with them, and with the parties of soldiers that conducted them, and multitudes were detained together at the gates, in a state, of course, of awful suspense and agitation, waiting their turns. It happened singularly enough that among those whom Nero summoned to serve on the tribunal for the trial of the prisoners were two of the principal conspirators, who had not yet been accused. These were Subrius Flavius and Fenius Rufus, whom the reader will perhaps recollect as prominent members of the plot. Flavius was the man who had once undertaken to kill the emperor in the streets, and while standing near him at the tribunal, he made signs to the other conspirators that he was ready to stab him to the heart now, if they would but say the word. But Rufus restrained him, anxiously signifying to him that he was by no means to attempt it. Rufus in fact seems to have been as weak-minded and irresolute as Flavius was desperate and bold.

In fact although Rufus, when summoned to attend in the garden, for the trial of the conspirators, did not dare to disobey, he yet found it very difficult to summon resolution to face the appalling dangers of his position. He took his place at last among the others, and with a forced external composure which ill concealed the desperate agitation and anxiety which reigned in his soul, he gave himself to the work of trying and condemning his confederates and companions. For a time no one of them betrayed him. But at length during the examination of Scevinus, in his solicitude to appear zealous in Nero's cause he overacted his part, so far as to press Scevinus too earnestly with his inquiries, until at length Scevinus turned indignantly toward him saying—

"Why do you  ask these questions? No person in Rome knows more about this conspiracy than you, and if you feel so devoted to this humane and virtuous prince of yours, show your gratitude by telling him, yourself, the whole story."

Rufus was perfectly overwhelmed at this sudden charge, and could not say a word. He attempted to speak, but he faltered and stammered, and then sank down into his seat, pale and trembling, and covered with confusion. Nero and the other members of the tribunal were convinced of his guilt. He was seized and put in irons, and after the same summary trial to which the rest were subjected, condemned to die. He begged for his life with the most earnest and piteous lamentations, but Nero was relentless, and he was immediately beheaded.

The conspirator Flavius displayed a very different temper. When he came to be accused, at first he denied the charge, and he appealed to his whole past character and course of life as proof of his innocence. Those who had informed against him, however, soon furnished incontestable evidence of his guilt, and then changing his ground, he openly acknowledged his share in the conspiracy and gloried in it even in the presence of Nero himself. When Nero asked him how he could so violate his oath of allegiance and fidelity as to conspire against the life of his sovereign, he turned to him with looks of open and angry defiance and said—

"It was because I hated and detested you, unnatural monster as you are. There was a time when there was not a soldier in your service who was more devoted to you than I. But that time has passed. You have drawn upon yourself the detestation and abhorrence of all mankind by your cruelties and your crimes. You have murdered your mother. You have murdered your wife. You are an incendiary. And not content with perpetrating these enormous atrocities, you have degraded yourself in the eyes of all Rome to the level of the lowest mountebank and buffoon, so as to make yourself the object of contempt as well as abhorrence. I hate and defy you."

Nero was of course astonished and almost confounded at hearing such words. He had never listened to language like this before. His astonishment was succeeded by violent rage, and he ordered Flavius to be led out to immediate execution.

The centurion to whom the execution was committed conducted Flavius without the city to a field, and then set the soldiers at work to dig the grave, as was customary at military executions, while he made the other necessary preparations. The soldiers, in their haste, shaped the excavation rudely and imperfectly. Flavius ridiculed their work, asking them, in a tone of contempt, if they considered that the proper way to dig a military grave. And when at length, after all the preparations had been made, and the fatal moment had arrived, the tribune who was in command called upon him to uncover his neck and stand forth courageously to meet his fate—he replied by exhorting the officer himself to be resolute and firm. "See," said he, "if you can show as much nerve in striking the blow, as I can in meeting it." To cut down such a man, under such circumstances, was of course a very dreadful duty, even for a Roman soldier, and the executioner faltered greatly in the performance of it. The decapitation should have been effected by a single blow; but the officer found his strength failing him when he came to strike, so that a second blow was necessary to complete the severance of the head from the body. The tribune was afraid that this, when represented to Nero, might bring him under suspicion, as if it indicated some shrinking on his part from a prompt and vigorous action in putting down the conspiracy; and so on his return to Nero he boasted of his performance as if it had been just as he intended. "I made the traitor die twice," said he, "by taking two blows to dispatch him."

But perhaps the most melancholy of all the results of this most unfortunate conspiracy, was the fate of Seneca. Seneca, it will be remembered, had been Nero's instructor and guardian in former years, and subsequently one of his chief ministers of state. He was now almost seventy years of age, and besides the veneration in which he was held on this account, and the respect that was paid to the exalted position which he had occupied for so long a period, he was very highly esteemed for his intellectual endowments and for his private character. His numerous writings, in fact, had acquired for him an extensive literary fame.

But Nero hated him. He had long wished him out of the way. It was currently reported, and generally believed, that he had attempted to poison him. However this may be, he certainly desired to find some occasion of proceeding against him, and such an occasion was furnished by the developments connected with this conspiracy.

Natalis, in the course of his testimony, said that he supposed that Seneca was concerned in the plot, for he recollected that he was once sent to him, while he was confined to his house by illness, with a message from Piso. The message was, that Piso had repeatedly called at his, that is, Seneca's house, but had been unable to obtain admittance. The answer which Seneca had returned was, that the reason why he had not received visitors was, that the state of his health was very infirm, but that he entertained none but friendly feelings toward Piso, and wished him prosperity and success.

Nero determined to consider this as proof that Seneca was privy to the conspiracy, and that he secretly abetted it. At least he determined, for a first step, to send an officer with a band of armed men to arrest him, and to lay the crime to his charge. Seneca was not in the city at this time. He had been absent in Campania, which was a beautiful rural region, south of Rome, back from Misenum. He was, however, that very day on his return to Rome, and Silvanus, the officer whom Nero sent to him, met him on the way, at a villa which he possessed a few miles from Rome. The name of this villa was Nomentanum. Seneca had stopped at the villa to spend the night, and was seated at the table with Paulina his wife, when Silvanus and his troop arrived.

The soldiers surrounded the house, so as to prevent all possibility of escape, and posted sentinels at the doors. Silvanus and some of his associates then went in, and entering the hall where Seneca was at supper, they informed him for what purpose they were come. Silvanus repeated what Natalis had testified in respect to the messages which had passed between Seneca and Piso. Seneca admitted that the statement was true, but he declared that the word which he had sent to Piso was only an ordinary message of civility and friendliness; it meant nothing more. Finding that no farther explanation could be obtained, Silvanus left Seneca in his villa, with a strong guard posted around the house, and returned to Rome to report to Nero.

When Nero had heard the report, he asked Silvanus whether Seneca appeared sufficiently terrified by the accusation to make it probable that he would destroy himself that night. Silvanus answered no. "He displayed," said he, "no marks of fear. There was no agitation, no sign of regret, no token of sorrow. His words and looks bespoke a mind calm, confident and firm."

"Go to him," rejoined Nero, "and tell him that he must make up his mind to die."

Silvanus was thunderstruck at receiving this order. He could not believe it possible that Nero would really put to death a man so venerable in years and wisdom, who had been to him all his life, in the place of a father. Instead of proceeding directly to Seneca's house he went to consult with the captain of the guard, who, though really one of the conspirators, had not yet been accused, and was still at liberty, though trembling with apprehension at the imminence of his danger. The captain, after hearing the case, said that nothing was to be done but to deliver the message. Silvanus then went to Seneca's villa, but not being able to endure the thought of being himself the bearer of such tidings, sent in a centurion with the message.

Seneca received it with calm composure, and immediately made preparations for terminating his life. His wife Paulina insisted on sharing his fate. He gathered his friends around him to give them his parting counsels and bid them farewell, and ordered his servants to make the necessary preparations for opening his veins. Then ensued one of those sad and awful scenes of mourning and death, with which the page of ancient history is so often darkened—forming pictures, as they do, too shocking to be exhibited in full detail. The calm composure of Seneca, was contrasted on the one hand with the bitter anguish and loud lamentations of his domestics and friends, and on the other with Paulina's mute despair. When the veins were opened, the blood at first would not flow, and various artificial means were resorted to, to accelerate the extinction of life; at last, however, Seneca ceased to breathe. The domestics of the family then begged and entreated the soldiers with many tears, that they might be allowed to save Paulina if it were not too late. The soldiers consented; so the women bound up her wounds, as she lay insensible and helpless before them, and thus stopping the farther effusion of blood, they watched over her with assiduous care, in hopes to restore her. They succeeded. They brought her back to life, or rather to a semblance of life; for she never really recovered so as to be herself again, during the few lonely and desolate years through which she afterward lingered.

There was another Roman citizen of the highest rank who fell an innocent victim to the angry passions which the discovery of this plot awakened in Nero's mind. It was the consul Vestinus. Vestinus was a man of great loftiness of character, and had never evinced that pliancy of temper, and that submissiveness to the imperial will, which Nero required. His position, too, as consul, which was the highest civil office in the commonwealth, gave him a vast influence over the people of Rome, so that Nero feared as well as hated him. In fact, so great was his independence of character, and his intractability, as it was sometimes called, that the conspirators, after mature deliberation, had concluded not to propose to him to engage in the plot. But, though he was thus innocent, Nero did not certainly know the fact, and, at any rate, such an opportunity to effect the destruction of a hated rival, was too good to be lost. Very soon, therefore, after the disclosure of the conspiracy had been made, Nero sent a tribune, at the head of five hundred men, to arrest the consul.

This large force was designated for the service, partly because,—on account of the high rank and office of the accused,—Nero did not know what means of resistance the consul might be able to command, and partly because his house, which was situated in the most public part of the city, overlooking the Forum, was in itself a sort of citadel, of which the various officers of Vestinus's household, and his numerous retainers, constituted a sort of garrison. It happened that, at the time when Nero sent his troop to make the arrest, Vestinus was entertaining a large party of friends at supper. The festivities were suddenly interrupted, and the whole company were thrown into a state of the most frightful excitement and confusion, by the sudden onset of this large body of armed men, who besieged the doors, blocked up all the avenues of approach, and, surrounding and guarding the house on every side, shut all the inmates in, as if they were investing the castle of an enemy. Certain soldiers of the guard were then sent in to Vestinus in the banqueting-room, to inform him that the tribune wished to speak with him on important business.

The consul knew the character of Nero, and the feelings which the tyrant entertained toward him too well, and saw too clearly the advantage which the discovery of the conspiracy gave to Nero, not to perceive at once that his fate was sealed; and the action which he took in this frightful emergency comported well with his insubmissive and intractable character. Instead of obeying the summons of the tribune, he repaired immediately to a private apartment, summoned his physician, directed a bath to be prepared, ordered the physician to open his veins, lay down in the bath to promote the flowing of the blood, and in a few minutes ceased to breathe.

The announcement of the consul's death, when it came to be reported to Nero, of course gave him great satisfaction. He continued the guards, however, still about the house, keeping the guests imprisoned in the banqueting-room for many hours. Of course, during all this time, the minds of these guests were in a state of extreme distress and apprehension, inasmuch as every one of them must necessarily have felt in immediate danger. When the anxiety and agitation which they felt, was reported to Nero, he was greatly entertained by it, and said that they were paying for their consular supper. He kept them in this state of suspense until nearly morning, and then ordered the guards to be withdrawn.

The number of victims who were sacrificed to Nero's resentment in consequence of this conspiracy, was very large; so that the streets were filled with executions and with funeral processions for many days. Universal grief and panic prevailed, and yet no one dared to manifest the slightest indications of sorrow or of fear. The people supposed that pity for the sufferers, or anxiety for themselves, would be interpreted as proofs that they had been concerned in the conspiracy; for multitudes of those who had been put to death, were condemned on pretexts and pretended proofs of the most frivolous character. Every one, therefore, even of those whose nearest and dearest friends had been killed, was compelled to assume all the appearances of extravagant joy that so wicked a plot against the life of so wise and excellent a prince, had been exposed, and the guilty devisers of it brought to punishment. Parents whose sons had been slain, and wives and children who had lost their husbands and fathers were thus compelled to unite in the congratulations and expressions of joy which were everywhere addressed to the emperor. Processions were formed, addresses were made, sacrifices were offered, games, spectacles, and illuminations without number were celebrated, to testify to the general rejoicing; and thus the city presented all the outward appearances of universal gladness and joy, while, in truth, the hearts of men were everywhere overwhelmed with anxiety, grief, and fear.

When at length a sufficient number of the citizens of Rome had been destroyed, Nero assembled the army, and after making an address to the troops on the subject of the conspiracy, and on his happy escape from the danger, he divided an immense sum of money from the public treasury among the soldiers, so as to give a very considerable largess to each man. He also distributed among them a vast amount of provisions from the public granaries. This act, and the connection between Nero and the troops which it illustrates, explain what would otherwise seem an inscrutable mystery, namely, how it can be possible for one man to bring the immense population of such an empire as that of ancient Rome so entirely under his power, that any number of the most prominent and influential of the citizens shall be seized and beheaded, or thrust through the heart with swords and daggers at a word or a nod from him. The explanation is, the army. Give to the single tyrant one or two hundred thousand desperadoes, well banded together, and completely armed, under a compact between them by which he says, "Help me to control, to domineer over, and to plunder the industrial classes of society, and I will give you a large share of the spoil," and the work is very easy. The governments that have existed in the world have generally been formed on this plan. They have been simply vast armies authorized to collect their own pay by the systematic plunder of the millions whose peaceful industry feeds and clothes the world. The remedy which mankind is now beginning to discover and apply is equally simple. The millions who do the work are learning to keep the arms in their own hands, and to forbid the banding together of masses of troops for the purpose of exalting pride and cruelty to a position of absolute and irresponsible power.

In Nero's case, so great was the awe which the terrible power of the Roman legions inspired, that even the Senate bowed humbly before it, and joined in the general adulation of the hated tyrant. They decreed oblations and public thanksgivings; they erected new temples to express their gratitude to the gods for so signal a deliverance; they instituted new games and festivities to express the general joy, and erected statues and monuments in honor of those who had contributed to the discovery of the plot. The knife or dagger which Milichus had produced as the one by which Nero was to have been slain, was preserved as a sacred relic. A suitable inscription was placed upon it, and it was deposited, with all solemnity, in one of the temples of the city, there to remain a memorial of the event for all future generations. In a word, the tyrant's escape from death called forth all the outward manifestations of joy which could have been deserved by the greatest public benefactor.

And yet, notwithstanding all this, such was the estimate which public sentiment really entertained of the true character of Nero, that it was considered extremely doubtful at the time, and has, in fact, been so considered ever since, whether there ever was any conspiracy at all. It was very extensively believed that the whole pretended discovery of the plot was an ingenious device on the part of Nero, to furnish him with plausible pretexts for destroying a great number of men who were personally obnoxious to him. And were it not almost impossible to believe that such monstrous wickedness and tyranny as that of Nero could riot so long over Romans without arousing them to some desperate attempts to destroy him, we might ourselves adopt this view, and suppose that this celebrated plot was wholly a fabrication.