Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Great Conspiracy

By the time that Nero had been eight years upon the throne his follies and cruelties had made, as we may readily believe, many enemies. The Roman populace, indeed, viewed his excesses, almost to the end of his reign, with a sympathetic indulgence; but the upper classes regarded him with an almost unanimous hatred and contempt. Some had a genuine abhorrence of his vices and crimes; others felt a special disgust at the silly pranks, the acting and harp-playing, by which he lowered the dignity of the ruler of Rome; many had received those personal affronts which supply even more cogent motives than the indignation of the moralist or the pride of the patriot. And as the Emperor fell more and more into disfavour with all that was best and noblest in Rome, all eyes were turned on a man who seemed to be not unworthy to occupy the throne which he had disgraced.

Caius Calpurnius Piso was one of the most popular men in Rome, and, though not of a character that wholly approved itself to sterner judges, not wholly unworthy of his popularity. He did not belong to the highest nobility, the class still represented by the Fabii and the Scipios, but his family, originally plebeian, had long been distinguished in the State. A Piso had served with some credit in the Second Punic War; the head of the house in the next generation had attained the dignity of the Consulship. For the two centuries and a half that followed, the family had produced an abundance of soldiers and statesmen. The name occurs fourteen times in the list of Consuls. A daughter of the house was the famous Calpurnia who became the second wife of the Dictator Julius; the brother of this lady filled the office of Prefect of the City during twenty years of the reign of Tiberius, and died in extreme old age without either forfeiting the favour of his suspicious master or the good-will of his countrymen. Calpurnius Piso had a handsome face and a commanding presence; he was a wealthy man who knew how to give away; his courtesy was unfailing. He had a great gift of eloquence, and was careful to exercise it, not in conducting prosecutions, an occupation to which a certain stigma was attached, but in defending the accused. And he was not so strict in his habits of life as to rouse the shame or the suspicion of a generation devoted to pleasure. He loved splendour and display; he could on occasion be frivolous; his code of morals was lax. No one needed to dread that with Piso on the throne, a life of rigorous virtue would become the fashion at court.

Piso had no reason to love the Caesars. Caligula, invited to his wedding feast, had robbed him of his wife, and then sent him into exile. But the idea of conspiracy had never occurred to him. He was not ambitious; he was even indolent, though certainly not wanting in courage. But when the succession to the throne was offered to him, he did not refuse; thenceforward he became the head, though, it is true, only the nominal head, of the movement.

One of the leading members of the conspiracy was Plautius Lateranus, probably a kinsman of the distinguished soldier who had conquered Southern Britain for Claudius, a man of high character, free from self-seeking aims, and solely anxious to rid his country of a tyrant who was humiliating and ruining it. Another was Faenius Rufus, one of the joint prefects of the Praetorian Guard, a man of honorable life, who had gained some distinction as a soldier, but now found his position endangered by the arts and calumnies of Nero's odious favorite Sophronius Tigellinus. The Prefect was ably seconded by some of his subordinate officers among whom may be mentioned Subrius, who held the rank of Tribune, about equivalent to that of Colonel, and Aspers a centurion or captain. A more distinguished name is that of the poet Lucan. Tacitus tells us that his motive was revenge. The Emperor, himself a versifier of some skill, was jealous of the superior reputation of the poet of the Pharsalia, and had forbidden him to recite in public. This was the wrong for which he sought retaliation. That he had no very exalted motive we are inclined to believe, when we find that while the Emperor was still friendly, the poet thought no flattery too fulsome for him, and when we hear the deplorable story of his cowardice in the hour of trial. The plot was already formed in the summer of 64, the year of the Great Fire of Rome.

One of the most energetic of the conspirators, the Tribune Subrius, proposed to kill the Emperor with his own hand. One opportunity offered itself when Nero, availing himself of the lurid background supplied by the conflagration, was singing to his own music in one of the chambers of the Palace "The Sack of Troy," another shortly afterwards, when the Palace itself had caught fire, and Nero, in the confusion of the scene, had become separated from his bodyguard. The attempt was postponed, whether by Subrius' own desire, or by the wish of his comrades, we cannot say. Tacitus makes on the occasion the profound remark that it is the anxiety for personal safety that makes these attempts against the powerful so often fail.

No further step was taken for several months. The conspiracy continued to extend, and the secret was kept with wonderful success. A Greek freedwoman of the name of Epicharis had somehow become acquainted with the scheme, and had thrown herself into with energy. There is something mysterious about the intervention of this woman. The historian says he does not know how she became privy to the plot. He was equally ignorant of her motives, simply saying that up to that time she had shown no thought or care for higher things.


Epicharis had somehow become acquainted with the scheme.

Epicharis became impatient of the procrastination of her fellow conspirators. After urging them in vain to speedy action, she determined to take the matter into her own hands. Looking about for a place where she might commence operations, she thought that she had found one in the naval station at Misenum. Among the captains of the ships of war that formed the squadron of the Lower or Tuscan Sea was one Volusius Proculus—he had been an accomplice of the Emperor in the murder of his mother Agrippina, probably as one of the subordinate officers of the yacht in which she made her last voyage.

He had received, it would seem, promotion, but not so rapid or so great as his services seemed to him to demand. Epicharis made the acquaintance of this Proculus, or, it may be, renewed an intimacy that had existed at some time. The man enlarged on his services to the Emperor, complained of Nero's ingratitude, and hinted, not obscurely, at a cherished purpose of revenge. He boasted of his influence among his colleagues; many, he declared, would join him if he gave the word; and it would be easy to dispose of the Emperor, who was fond of making boat excursions in the neighbourhood, and was therefore often without any body-guard. Talk so openly treasonable encouraged Epicharis to speak plainly. She enlarged on the enormities of Nero, who had degraded the Senate and ruined the people. The time of his punishment was come, she continued, and there were hands prepared to inflict it. If Proculus was ready to exert himself in the cause, and to commend it to the most energetic of his comrades, he might certainly look for a fitting reward. All this indicated, not obscurely, that a conspiracy against Nero was on foot. Epicharis, however, had the prudence not to mention any names.

She had mistaken her man. In fact the past of Proculus had been such that he had everything to fear and nothing to hope from a new régime. A man who had taken part in the murder of Agrippina could not escape the punishment which was to fall on the chief mover in that crime. He must have seen this himself, for he went straight to Nero, and told him the whole story. Epicharis was arrested, and confronted with the informer. But her prudence in concealing the names of the conspirators stood her in good stead. Proculus could give no details, and she met his story with a flat denial. As nothing had been proved, no further steps were taken. But Nero's suspicions were roused. The accusation had not indeed been proved but it might be true nevertheless. He ordered Epicharis to be kept in custody.

The news of what had happened convinced the conspirators of the necessity for immediate action. A meeting was held, and it was proposed to assassinate the Emperor at Baiae, a well-known watering place which he was in the habit of frequenting. His favorite residence in this place was a villa belonging to Piso. Here it was his custom to throw off the cumbersome trappings of state, dispensing in particular with the presence of his body-guard, when he went to the bath or sat down to dinner. But Piso refused to countenance the scheme. He refused to allow, as he put it, such a profanation of the rights of hospitality, such an insult to the gods of the home. "What we do," he cried, "we do for the sake of our country; let us slay the tyrant in the palace which he has reared out of the spoils of his countrymen, or in the streets of Rome." Piso's real reason for refusing his consent to this hopeful scheme was quite different. He was afraid of a powerful rival in the succession to the throne in the person of Lucius Silanus, a man whose claims, he could not but feel, were superior to his own. He was a direct descendant of Augustus and a man of the highest character.

It was not improbable that if he (Piso) should be discredited by an act which seemed to savour of impiety, the choice of those who stood outside the conspiracy might fall to a claimant so distinguished. Another suggestion, leading practically to the same result, was that Piso dreaded the republican proclivities of Vestinus, one of the consuls of the year. Vestinus was a man of energy, and he might be able to bring about a restoration of the old constitution, under which he would himself in virtue of his office, be called to play a distinguished part. Vestinus, it should be observed, was not privy to the plot, and would not therefore be bound by any agreement to which the conspirators might have come.

The resolution ultimately taken was to assassinate the Emperor during the festivities of the Games of Ceres. The Emperor did not often leave his palace but he would be sure to visit the circus on one or other of the two days on which the Games were held in that place, and it would be easy to approach him in the midst of the general gaiety of the show. It was arranged that Lateranus should seek an audience for the purpose of petitioning for a grant of money from the Emperor's purse towards relieving his embarrassments. He was to fall on his knees, and by a seeming accident throw the Emperor to the ground. His huge strength and stature would make it easy for him to prevent the victim rising again. The military members of the conspiracy, and any others who might feel their courage equal to the occasion, were then to run up and finish the work. Piso was to be in waiting meanwhile at the temple of Ceres, which was in the near neighbourhood of the Circus. As soon as the deed had been perpetrated, Faenius, the Prefect of the Praetorians, with his officers, was to carry him to the camp, and claim from the troops a recognition of the new Emperor. According to some accounts it was arranged that Antonia, the sole survivor of the children of Claudius, should accompany him.

Among the conspirators was a certain Flavius Scaevinus described by the historian as an indolent debauchee, whose complicity in a dangerous enterprise, so alien was it to all his habits of life, surprised everyone that knew him. Scaevinus demanded that he should have the honour and privilege of striking the first blow against the tyrant, and for some reason of which we have no knowledge, except that he had the rank of a senator, the demand was conceded. On this he commenced a series of almost incredibly foolish acts. He took down from the walls of the Temple of Fortune at Ferentinum with which his family had probably some connection, a dagger presented, it may be, by an ancestor as a votive offering. This he ostentatiously carried about with him, hinting that it was destined for some great achievement. On the day before that on which the deed was to be done, he handed the weapon to a freedman of the name of Milichus with an injunction that it should be sharpened. Before doing this he had executed a new will. This done, he sat down to a meal of more than usual magnificence, and the meal ended, sent for his favorite slaves, enfranchised some, and made handsome presents of money to others. His manner was sad and depressed; and though he made an effort to talk gaily, it was evident he had some very serious matter on his mind. His next proceeding was to order the freedman to prepare bandages for wounds, and the appliances by which blood is staunched. These strange proceedings roused the suspicions of Milichus, though it is possible the man had already some knowledge of the plot. Anyhow he now began to speculate on the gain he might make out of the affair. A handsome price in wealth or influence might be made out of the information which he had at his command. In comparison with this his patron's life and his own debt of gratitude for the freedom received at his hands went for little. For a while, however, he hesitated; for a freedman to betray his patron was regarded as an atrocious crime. The advice of his wife, however, determined him. "Other freedmen and slaves," she said, "were present and saw all that you saw. It will be no good to Scaevinus for you to keep silence. Anticipate all other informers, and you will secure your reward."

The day had dawned before the freedman had overcome his scruples. Then he hurried, accompanied by his wife, who was unwilling, it would seem, to let him out of her sight, to the Servilian Gardens, where Nero was then residing. At first he was refused admittance; but, finally, on his urgent representation that he was the bearer of information of the last importance, was taken to Epaphroditus, one of the Emperor's favorite freedmen. To him he told his story, and the freedman, recognising its importance, introduced him to Nero. By way of giving some proof of the truth of his tale, he produced the actual dagger which he had been ordered, he said, to sharpen. Scaevinus was promptly arrested, brought into Nero's presence and confronted with his accuser. He was prepared with a reply. "The dagger," he said, "is a weapon which has been long regarded in my family with great veneration. I have been accustomed to keep it in my bed-chamber. The freedman has fraudulently taken it away, and has now invented this story about it. As for the will it is not the first by any means I have made. I do it just as the idea occurs to me. I have often given presents of money to some of my slaves, and set others free; if I did so yesterday on a larger scale than usual, it was on account of the embarrassments in which I find myself. My means are greatly reduced; my creditors are pressing me, and I greatly fear that my will might not be held good in respect either of the emancipations or the legacies. My meal was, I confess, on a somewhat extravagant scale: but this is my way; I enjoy myself in a fashion that stern moralists do not quite approve. As for the bandages for wounds that is a mere fiction, invented because Milichus, after playing the part of an informer was also to perform that of a witness."

This was Scaevinus' tale, and he told it with such firmness that it gained general credit. When he turned on his accuser, inveighing against him as a wicked and unscrupulous fellow who would not hesitate to invent a false charge, he carried his hearers with him. Milchus was confounded, but his wife came to his rescue. "Ask Scaevinus," she suggested, "what was the subject discussed at his frequent interviews with Antonius Natalis, and whether both he and his friends are not on intimate terms with Piso?" Natalis, well-known to be Piso's most trusted agent, was promptly sent for. He and Scaevinus were separately examined; as their accounts did not tally, they were formally arrested and threatened with torture, torture being legal when the accused was charged with compassing the death of the Emperor. Their fortitude gave way. Natalis was the first to turn informer. He was deeper in the secrets of the conspiracy than his companion, and better able to ply the infamous trade. He named Piso first and then Seneca, either because he had actually carried messages from Piso to him, or because he knew that Nero would gladly hear any evidence that might involve the guilt of his old tutor. When Scaevinus heard that Natalis had confessed, he made haste to secure his own safety, and gave the names of the other accomplices. Among these were the poet Lucan, and Senecio, who had long enjoyed the Emperor's intimate friendship. At first they strenuously denied the charge. But a promise of pardon broke down their firmness. Each with disgraceful weakness gave up the names of their dearest friends, Lucan actually informing against his own mother.

Then Nero remembered the charge which Proculus had brought against Epicharis. The woman was brought into court, and tortured. But the cruellest pains could not wring a word from her lips. She met all questions with an obstinate denial. As she was being brought from her dungeon on the following day, she contrived to fasten a bandage round her neck, and then, suddenly springing from the chair in which she was being carried, to strangle herself. Her frame was doubtless already enfeebled by the severity of the sufferings which she had already undergone. The historian bitterly contrasts the noble courage of the freedwoman with the weakness and cowardice of the high-born Senators who had not scrupled to betray their nearest and dearest. She, under the pressure of the fiercest torments, had done her best to save men who were, for the most part, utter strangers to her. They, before they had felt a touch of the rack, had hurried to give up to death kinsfolk and friends.

Nero terrified at the multitude of the names which he heard from the informers, doubled his guards. Rome was in a state of siege. The walls were guarded by troops; the port of Ostia and the river were strictly watched. The suburbs and the neighbouring towns were continually visited by soldiers, especially Germans, for the Emperor was more disposed to trust barbarians than his own countrymen. Whole troops of chained prisoners were dragged through the streets of the city, and kept in waiting outside the Emperor's residence. When they attempted to defend themselves, they found that the very slightest evidence was sufficient to condemn them. If they had been seen to smile when they saw a conspirator, if they had uttered a chance word which could be twisted into a suspicious meaning, if they had dined with a guilty person, or sat by his side at the Games, it was enough to prove the charge. Nero and his infamous minister Tigellinus conducted the cross-examination with a savage persistence, and were assisted by the Prefect Faenius, himself, as will be remembered, a prominent conspirator. No informer had yet mentioned his name, and in the desperate hope of escaping, he pressed his former associates with incessant questions. The tribune Subrius was in attendance on him, and with a significant gesture enquired whether he should not cut down the Emperor as he sat on the judgment-seat. This energetic soldier had already his hand on the hilt of his sword when the Prefect checked the impulse.

Already another chance had been lost. The news of the treachery of Milichus had been carried without delay to the conspirators. The more energetic among them urged Piso to act at once. "Go," they said, "to the Forum and address the people, or to the camp and make an appeal to the soldiers. We will second you and others will soon follow our example. Set the affair in motion and it will be half accomplished. Nero has made no provision against such an attempt. Even brave men are overwhelmed by a sudden attack. Where will that stage-player, with only Tigellinus and his profligate train to back him, find means to resist? Things that seem impossible while you sit still are often achieved by the mere effort. As for hoping that where so many are in the plot the secret will be kept, it is absurd. The threats of torture, the promise of reward, will break down all resolves. In a few hours Nero's creatures will be here. They will bind you; they will put you to a shameful death. How much more noble to stand or fall with your country, to perish as the champion of freedom. The soldiers may fail you, the populace may desert; but you will at least make posterity respect you." All this fell upon deaf ears. Piso retired to his house, and prepared to meet his fate with courage. The executioners soon came. Nero unable to trust the veterans with whom Piso, he knew, was popular, had sent some recruits to do the bloody deed. The victim was permitted to put an end to his life by opening the veins in his arms. Lateranus was punished next. He was hurried off from his home without being allowed to bid farewell to his family. The tribune who slew him was actually one of the conspirators; but Lateranus met his fate in dignified silence without a word of reproach to his executioner.

Seneca perished the same day. I have described his last hours in the next chapter. The Prefect Faenius did not long escape detection. Scaevinus turned upon him with the words: "No one knows the truth better than you. Surely you ought to confess your guilt to so kind a prince." The Prefect could hardly stammer out a few words of defiance. Other witnesses were found to corroborate Scaevinus, and he was promptly seized and before long executed.

The Tribune Subrius was the next victim. At first he denied the charge: "Am I likely," he cried, "to have cast in my lot with such a set of cowards?" When the evidence against him proved to be too strong, he confessed his share in the conspiracy, and gloried in what he had done. Nero asked him why he had broken his soldier's oath of fidelity. "Because I hated you. No one among your soldiers could have been more loyal to you while you deserved regard. But I began to hate you when you murdered your mother and your wife, when you exhibited yourself as a chariot-driver, an actor, an incendiary." Nero was confounded by this freedom of speech; ready to commit crime, he had never been used to hear it properly characterised. A fellow tribune was ordered to administer the death-stroke. The grave that was to receive his corpse had already been dug. "It is too shallow and too narrow," he cried, "even this you could not do properly." The executioner bade him hold out his head bravely. "I only hope," said the dauntless soldier, "that you will strike as bravely as I shall submit."

Lucan who had been permitted to open his veins, breathed his last repeating some of his own verses, in which he had described a soldier bleeding to death.

The Great Conspiracy was crushed. If the energetic Subrius had been in the place of the indolent Piso it would almost as certainly have succeeded, and possibly would have spared the world the year of bloodshed which followed, four years later, the fall of Nero.