Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Death of Nero

It was not by his crimes but by his follies that Nero wore out the patience of his people. They endured him when he poisoned his half-brother Britannicus, when he murdered his innocent wife and the mother who had sold her very soul to purchase the throne for him, when he slew or compelled to suicide the best and noblest of Rome—Corbulo, the great general who had saved the Eastern provinces from Parthia, Lucan the rival of Virgil, and Seneca, the most eloquent of philosophers. Even when he set Rome on fire to build on its ruins a city more to his liking, they bore with him. But when he displayed himself as a player and singer, and that not only before his countrymen, which was bad enough, but before the foreigner, his subjects would endure him no longer.

As the end approached he had the curious warnings which fail to warn, and only mock the man who is doomed to ruin with useless fears. He would lose his throne, one soothsayer told him. "Then my art shall support me," he replied, and he applied himself with more diligence than ever to his singing and harp-playing. He consulted the oracle at Delphi, which still professed to foretell the future, and it bade him beware of "the seventy-third year."

Naturally he thought that it was his own seventy-third year that was meant, and, as he was then barely thirty, he saw a large vista of life before him. He became incredibly confident. Some valuables belonging to him were lost about this time at sea. "The fish will bring them back," he said. But a deep discontent was stirring in the provinces. Gaul rose against him under its pro-consul Vindex. He was at Naples when the news reached him. At first he did nothing. For eight days he would give no orders, but seemed simply trying to forget the whole matter. Then he sent a letter to the Senate begging it to avenge him; but the wrong which seemed to touch him most, was a reflection on him as a musician. "Did you ever know a better?" he asked everyone. The news from the provinces grew worse, and he returned in hot haste to Rome. Then what was really the crushing blow fell upon him. Gaul was nearly helpless, for it was overpowered by the huge armies that guarded the frontier of the Rhine. Vindex actually perished before the prince against whom he had risen. But when Spain under its governor Galba, one of the old Roman nobility, declared against the tyrant, his fate was sealed. This he seemed to know. When he heard that Galba was in arms, he fell speechless to the ground. (It was Galba who fulfilled the prophecy of the "seventy-third year." That was exactly his age.) All attempt at comfort failed. In vain he was reminded that there had been revolts against other emperors. He saw no hope. "I shall lose my throne," he cried, "and live to see it." Then he ordered the wildest schemes of revenge. To put to death all the provincial governors, to massacre all the exiles and every native of Gaul that was in the city, to invite the senators to a banquet and poison them in a mass, to set the city on fire and let loose at the same time the wild beasts that were kept for the shows—such were some of his plans.

But he determined on action. He deposed the two consuls, and appointed himself in their place, and began to prepare to take the field. He equipped companies of women like Amazons, and levied a scarcely more trustworthy force of slaves. Of course baggage-waggons to convey the stage furniture for his performances were not forgotten. His terror awoke the conscience that had been slumbering within him. His sleep had hitherto been dreamless. Now it was disturbed by hideous sights. Now he seemed to be steering a ship, and his mother wrenched the rudder out of his hand; at another time his murdered wife Octavia drew him into some misty darkness, nor was he able to resist.

Within a few days there was not an army that had not revolted. His thoughts now wavered between suicide and escape. He sent to Locusta, the hag who had supplied him with poisons, and obtained from her a deadly drug which he put away in a box of gold. Then he sought to discover whether any of the officers of his Praetorian Guard would accompany him in the flight to some unknown region which he meditated. Some were silent; some openly refused; one even cried, "Is death then so terrible? To fly to the Parthian king, to throw himself at Galba's feet, to address the people and ask pardon for his misdeeds, begging to have the Empire restored to him, or, at least, to be made Governor of Egypt, were plans that suggested themselves to him. He actually prepared his speech, but never delivered it, fearing to be torn in pieces on his way to the forum.

He put off his decision to the next day and retired to his chamber. Waking about midnight, he found his body-guard had left him. He sent messages to some of his courtiers, which no one answered; he went himself to their houses, but the doors were fast closed against him. He returned to his chamber. His attendants had pillaged it, taking even the golden poison-box. He resolved to die, but could not even find a gladiator to deal the fatal blow. "Have I then neither a friend nor an enemy?" he cried in his despair. Then again the love of life returned, and he thought of escape. A freedman suggested his villa in the suburbs, and Nero started for it on horseback. He was barefooted, with a faded cloak thrown over his shirt, and his head wrapped about with a napkin. The shock of an earthquake and a thunderstorm added a horror to the night, and more terrible than either were the shouts of the Praetorians invoking curses upon Nero and blessings upon Galba. His horse started at corpse in the way; the napkin fell from his face, and a soldier recognised and saluted him.

While waiting to get into the villa he drank from a puddle in the road. "So this is Nero's beverage!" he cried. At last he crept into a wretched little chamber, and lay down to rest on a palliasse of straw. He was hungry and thirsty, but could not eat the coarse bread that was offered to him. A little tepid water he swallowed.

His companions did not forget what was due to a Roman's sense of dignity, and implored him to put an end to his life, and so escape the insults which would be showered upon him. He consented so far as to order a trench to be dug for his grave, and other preparations to be made. Again and again, as the dismal work went on, he exclaimed: "What an artist the world is losing!"

At last he was stung into action. The freedman who was giving him this miserable hospitality received a letter from the city. Questioned as to its contents, he replied: "The Senate has declared you a public enemy, and decreed that you should be punished in the ancient fashion." "What is that?" asked Nero. He was told that the criminal was stripped, with his head thrust into a fork, and flogged to death. The prospect terrified him. He caught up two daggers, which he had brought with him, and tried their edge. But his courage failed. "The time is not come," he said. First he bade a companion begin the funeral lamentation; then, again, begged some one to set him the example of dying with courage; finally, he tried to brace himself to the deed. "It is base to live;" "This ill beseems Nero;" "Nero, rouse yourself." More powerful than anything was the sound of a horse's hoof. A trooper had been sent to take him alive. He hurriedly murmured a verse from Homer—

"I hear the sound of some swift-footed steed,"

and thrust a poniard into his throat, a freedman helping to drive home the blow. He was dying when the officer sent to arrest him rushed into the room, and endeavoured to staunch the blood. "Too late!" he cried; "and this is your fidelity!" With these words he breathed his last, his eyes stiffening with so horrible a look that all who saw it were struck with terror.

And yet this monster was regretted! The Roman populace, when they wanted to compliment a favourite, greeted him as another Nero; and more than once the security of the Empire was disturbed by the rumour that Nero had returned to claim his throne.