Pictures from Roman Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Family of Patriots

The "Opposition" under the régime  of the Roman Empire was an aristocratic party; of popular  revolt against the despotism founded by Julius and consolidated by Augustus and his successor we scarcely hear. That despotism was indeed essentially democratic in its aim and temper. It courted the people, gave them peace and plenty, and even condescended to listen to their voices when they fancied themselves aggrieved.

But it found a bitter enemy in the worthier part of the nobility. When I say "worthier part." I pronounce no opinion on the respective merits of the Roman despots and the Roman oligarchs. It may well be doubted whether the world would have been benefited by the overthrow of the Empire in favour of the aristocratic conspirators who from time to time plotted against it. Still it is a fact that the nobles who hated the Empire were worthier than the nobles who accepted it. They were not satisfied with the safe and ignoble enjoyment of their large possessions. They looked back to the days when their ancestors had ruled the world, and they aspired to restore them. And it is possible to have respect for their aspirations. There are parties which are the better for living in the "cold shade of opposition," and the disaffected aristocrats of the Empire were vastly superior to the faction so foolish, so blind, so incapable, which represented the same class in the last century of the Republic. The subject of this chapter is a family that belonged to this class.


In the second year of Claudius (A.D. 42) an effort was made to change, if not the system of government, at least the person of the governor. The officer in command of the armies of Dalmatia bore one of the very noblest of Roman names, and claimed descent from the Camillus who had saved Rome from the Gauls. He sent a letter to the Emperor, bidding him abdicate his throne, and proclaimed the Republic in his camp. For five days the soldiers acquiesced, but the idea created no enthusiasm. At the end of that time the army was in revolt against their general, and either killed him or forced him to commit suicide; for the accounts differ. Among his officers was one Cæcina Paetus. We know nothing about him except that he had been Consul, that he was implicated in his superior's guilt, and was deemed of sufficient importance to be sent for to Rome and brought to trial before the Senate. But his wife was a remarkable woman. She was with her husband in the camp, and had doubtless shared his schemes. When he was being taken to Rome, she begged permission to accompany him. The officer in command refused. She urged her request. "A man of his rank," she said, "will of course have his attendants to wait upon him at table and dress him. You can save the expense; I will do everything myself."

Still meeting with refusal, she hired a fishing boat, and followed the ship in which her husband was being conveyed to Italy. The wife of Camillus turned "King's evidence," and testified against the accused. Arria turned fiercely upon her. "You!" she cried, "shall I listen to you who saw your husband killed in your arms, and yet endure to live?" The trial, of course, ended in condemnation. Paetus was allowed to put an end to his own life. He shrank from the pain. Arria snatched up a dagger and inflicted on herself a formidable wound. "My Paetus," she said, "it does not hurt." She was resolved not to survive her husband. Her son-in-law strove in vain to change her purpose. "If I had to die," he asked, "would you have your daughter die with me?" "Yes," she answered, "if she has lived as happily with you as I have with Paetus."

After this she was closely watched. "It is useless," she told her family, "you may make my death painful; but you cannot prevent it." As she said it she jumped up from her chair, and dashed her head violently against the opposite wall. Brought back to life, she said, "You see I was right; I shall find some way to die, however hard it may be, if you refuse me an easy one." It is a relief to turn to the picture of a devotion for which we can feel a less qualified sympathy. Some years before, her husband and her son had been dangerously ill. The son, a boy of singular promise, died; the physicians told her that her husband must not know it. She took all the charge of the funeral without his having a suspicion of the truth; answered his questions about the boy with a cheerful air—"He has slept well; he has taken his food with relish." When the tears that she was keeping back were too strong for her, she would leave the room and weep, and then come back again composed and calm, "as if," says Pliny, who tells the story, "she had left her bereavement outside the chamber door."


Paetus and Arria seen to have left one daughter, another Arria. Little is said of her, except that she was thoroughly loyal to the great traditions of her name. She had found a worthy husband in the Thrasea who has been mentioned in the preceding section. Lucius Fannius Thrasea Paetus was born at Patavium (Padua) about A.D. 15. Wealthy and noble, he naturally came to Rome to seek such a career as the Imperial system still left open to men of ability.

Of his early life we know no details. That he held the usual offices we may infer from the fact that in A.D. 47 we find him a member of the Senate. In that year he undertook the cause of the Cilician provinces against their infamous governor Capito, and conducted it with such energy and success that the accused was condemned. It was a great triumph for Thrasea, but Capito bided his time for vengeance. It was soon evident to shrewd observers that he would not have to wait long. Thrasea began to show in the Senate the independent temper which was certain sooner or later to bring him into collision with the ruling powers. He resisted a motion brought forward by authority. It was but a trifling matter, but the courtiers angrily resented his interference. Thrasea avowed to his friends that his assertion of independence in small matters was to pave the way to a similar course in affairs of importance. A small Opposition was gathering about him. Outside the Senate his home became the centre of a "liberal" circle.

One of its most distinguished members was the young Helvidius Priscus, an ardent disciple of the Stoic school of thought, who lived so faithfully up to his belief that Thrasea and Arria fixed upon him as a fit husband for their only child, their daughter Fannia.

Topics more dangerous than philosophy were discussed at these gatherings. The politics of the circle were distinctly republican. The birthdays of famous champions of liberty, of the elder Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, of the younger Brutus who slew the Dictator Julius, and of his associate Cassius, were kept with high festivity. No vintage was too precious for the cups in which their memory was toasted. "Wine," says Juvenal, when he would describe the very costliest kind, "such as Thrasea and Helvidius used to drink in high state on the birthdays of the Bruti and of Cassius."

In 59 A.D., came the serious occasion which was sure to occur sooner or later. Nero had reached the climax of wickedness by the murder of his mother. The Senators vied with each other in offering shameful flatteries to the criminal and insults to the dead. This was more than Thrasea could bear: before his turn came to speak he left the Senate-house. Nero took no notice at the time, but he did not forget it.

By his action in the matter of Agrippina, Thrasea, says Tacitus, "imperilled himself without teaching courage to his colleagues," yet his example was not wholly fruitless. In A.D. 62, a certain Antistius was convicted of having recited at a banquet some scurrilous verses about Nero. The penalty of death was proposed, but Thrasea carried the Senate with him when he moved as an amendment that the milder punishment of exile should be substituted.

In the following year he had a warning of Nero's hatred. The Empress Poppæa had given birth to a daughter, and the Senate went in a body to congratulate the Emperor on the event. Thrasea was forbidden to enter the palace. After this he retired as much as possible from public life, but he could not escape his fate. Indeed he gave great offence to the Emperor by absenting himself from the funeral of Poppæa. He was not one of those who suffered after Piso's conspiracy, but the end was not long delayed. No definite charge was made. His acts of independence, his marked absence from the Senate, were the offences brought up against him. The circle of friends debated whether the accused should or should not present himself in the Senate to hear and answer the accusations brought against him. The result was not doubtful; the only question was whether he should better consult his own dignity and the interests of liberty by his presence or absence.

The more fiery spirits among his friends advised him to go and defy his enemies. One of them even offered to veto the proceedings in his capacity of tribune. This last offer Thrasea refused. "He had lived his life," he said; "his younger friends had theirs before them." The question itself he left for further deliberation. As a matter of fact, he did not go. Probably he would not have been permitted to enter the house, which on the day of trial was beleaguered with troops. Of course the verdict of guilty was returned. Thrasea was condemned to death, but allowed to execute his sentence with his own hand. Helvidius was banished. The officers who brought him the news of his condemnation found him in his gardens, surrounded by a numerous company of friends. He received the message with philosophic calm, even expressing some satisfaction that his son-in-law's life had been spared. His friends he recommended to leave him at once, lest the society of a condemned man should endanger their lives. To his wife, who was eager to follow the example of her mother and die with her husband, he counselled life. "Do not rob our daughter," he said, "of your help and comfort."

His son-in-law and his intimate friend, the Stoic philosopher Demetrius, with whom he had been discussing the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, were kept to be with him to the last.

Retiring to his chamber, he severed the veins in both arms. As the blood flowed forth, he took some on his hand, and sprinkled it on the ground as a libation, with the words, "To Jupiter, who sets me free."

After a few more words, from which we only learn that his death was tedious and painful, the narrative of Tacitus breaks off.


Helvidius returned from his banishment, which he seems to have spent with his wife Fannia at Apollonia in Macedonia, after the death of Nero.

His first act was to indict Marcellus, the man who had been the instrument of Nero's vengeance on Thrasea. But the accused was too powerful to be overthrown. The establishment of Vespasian on the throne did not please him. A vigorous Emperor put the prospect of a republic into a remote distance. All that he could do now was to assert his independence, and this he did, with a boldness that certainly bordered on rashness. Tacitus cannot praise him too highly; but Suetonius, who was of another temper from the republican historian, speaks of his violent language. When the new Emperor came to Rome, Helvidius, alone among the Senators, saluted him by the name which he had borne before his elevation to the throne. This attitude he continued to maintain. At last Vespasian was provoked into forbidding him to enter the Senate. Helvidius answered him with characteristic courage.

The dialogue between them is thus given by Epictetus:—

Helvidius. "You can expel me from the Senate; but while I am yet a member, I must attend its meetings."

Vespasian. "Attend, then, but be silent."

Helvidius. "Do not then ask me for my opinion."

Vespasian. "But I am bound to ask you."

Helvidius. "Then I am bound to say what seems to me right."

Vespasian. "If you say it, I will kill you."

Helvidius. "Have I ever claimed to be immortal? Do your part, and I will do mine. Your part is to kill, mine is to die without fear. Yours is to send me into exile, mine to go into exile without grief."

And Vespasian did first send him into exile and then kill him. When it was too late, the fatal order was recalled. The second messengers were met by the false report of the victim's death, and did not prosecute their journey. Had they done so, his life would have been spared. Vespasian never ceased to regret his act.


The wife of Helvidius had accompanied him in his second exile. After his death she was permitted to return to Rome. But it was not long before a third period of exile followed. One of the little band of liberal thinkers had written the biography of Helvidius. He was brought to trial for the offence, and pleaded that he had been requested to write by Fannia, the widow. She was summoned before the Senate. "Did you ask him to write?" thundered the prosecutor. "I did," said the dauntless woman. "Did you give him the diaries of Helvidius?" "I did." "Did your mother know of it?" "She did not." She was banished for her share in the matter, and the books were burnt by the public executioner. But Fannia contrived to save some copies, and carried them with her to her place of banishment.

After the death of Domitian, she and her mother returned. Pliny took up their case in the Senate, and endeavoured to obtain the punishment of those who had driven them into exile. In this he did not succeed, but the rest of their lives was at least spent in safety and honour. The last glimpse that we get of Fannia shows a side of her character that we might, perhaps, not otherwise have realised. We see her the tender, affectionate woman.

"I am grievously troubled," Pliny writes, "by the ill-health of Fannia. She fell into this while nursing Junia. The Vestal Virgins, when so seriously ill that they are compelled to leave the Hall of Vesta, are committed to the care and guardianship of matrons. It was while diligently discharging this duty that Fannia imperilled her own life. She suffers from continual fever, from a harassing cough, and the greatest weakness. Her spirit only is unbroken—a spirit absolutely worthy of Thrasea, her father, and Helvidius, her husband. A purer, holier, nobler, braver woman never was! And at the same time, how delightful she is, how courteous!—how she combines in herself, a thing that is given only to a few to do, all that is venerable and all that is sweet! Another thing that troubles me, is that, in her I seem about to lose again her mother; she recalls that noble woman to us so perfectly, that were we to lose her, it would open that old wound afresh and inflict a new. I honoured both, I loved both; which I honoured and loved most I cannot say, and they would not have me distinguish."

Whether Fannia lived or died we do not know, but Pliny speaks as if he had little hope.

My story has been a sad one, but it at least shows that there were noble men and women even in the worst days of Rome.