Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Doom of Nero

We have perhaps paid too much attention to the enormities of Caligula and Nero. Yet the mad freakishness of the one and the cowardly dissimulation of the other give to their stories a dramatic interest which seems to render them worth repeating. Nero, one of the basest and cruelest of the Roman emperors, is one of the best known to readers, and the interest felt in him is not alone due to the story of his life, but as well to that of his death, which we therefore here give.

A conspiracy against him among some of the noblest citizens of Rome was discovered and punished with revengeful fury. It was followed, a few years afterwards, by a revolt of the armies in Gaul and Spain. This was in its turn quelled, and Nero triumphed in imagination over all his enemies. But he had lost favor alike with the army and the people, and an event now happened that threw the whole city into a ferment of anger against him.

Food was scarce, and the arrival of a ship from Alexandria, supposed to be loaded with corn, filled the people with joy. It proved instead to be loaded with sand for the arena. In their disappointment the people broke at first into scurrilous jests against Nero, and then into rage and fury. A wild clamor filled the streets. On all aides rose the demand to be delivered from a monster. Even the Prætorian guards, who had hitherto supported the emperor, began to show signs of disaffection, and were wrought to a spirit of revolt by two of the choice companions of Nero's iniquities, who now deserted him as rats desert a sinking ship. The senate was approached and told that Nero was no longer supported by his friends, and that they might now regain the power of which they had been deprived.

Some whisper of what was afloat reached Nero's ears. Filled with craven fury, he resolved to massacre the senate, to set fire again to the city, and to let loose his whole collection of wild beasts. He proposed to fly to Egypt during the consternation that would prevail. A trusted servant, to whom he told this design, revealed it to the senate. It filled them with fear and rage. Yet even in so dire a contingency they could not be prevailed upon to act with vigor, and all might have been lost by their procrastination and timidity but for the two men who had organized the revolt.

These men, Nymphidius and Tigellinus by name, went to the palace, and with a show of deep affliction informed Nero of his danger. "All is lost," they said: "the people call aloud for vengeance; the Prætorian guards have abandoned your cause; the senate is ready to pronounce a dreadful judgment. Only one hope remains to you, to fly for your life, and seek a retreat in Egypt"

It was as they said; revolt was everywhere in the air, and affected the armies near and far. Nero sought assistance, but sought it in vain. The palace, lately swarming with life, was now deserted. Nero wandered through its empty chambers, and found only solitude and gloom. Conscience awoke in his seared heart, and he was filled with horror and remorse. Of all his late crowd of courtiers only three friends now remained with him,—Sporus, a servant; Phaon, a freedman; and Epaphroditus, his secretary.

" 'My wife, my father, and my mother doom me dead!' " he bitterly cried, quoting a line from a Greek tragedy.

With a last hope be bade the soldiers on duty to hasten to Ostia and prepare a ship, on which be might embark for Egypt. The men refused.

" 'Is it, then, so wretched a thing to die?' " said one of them, quoting from Virgil.

This refusal threw Nero into despair. He hurried to the Servilian gardens, with a vial of deadly poison, which, on getting there, he had not the courage to take. He returned to the palace and threw himself on his bed. Then, too agitated to lie, he sprang up and called for some friendly hand to end his wretched life. No one consented, and in his wild despair he called out, in doleful accents, "My friends desert me, and I cannot find an enemy"

The world had suddenly fallen away from the despicable Nero. A week before he had ordered it at his will, now "none so poor to do him reverence." His craven terror would have been pitiable in any one to whom the word pity could apply. In frantic dread he rushed from the palace, as if with intent to fling himself into the Tiber. Then as hastily he returned, saying that he would fly to Spain, and yield himself to the mercy of Galba, who commanded the revolted army. But no ship was to be had for either Spain or Egypt, and this plan was abandoned as quickly as formed.

These and other projects passed in succession through his distracted brain. One of the most absurd of them was to go in a mourning garb to the Forum, and by his powers of eloquence seek to win back the favor of the people. If they would not have him as emperor, he might by persuasive oratory obtain from them the government of Egypt.

Full of hope in this new project, he was about to put it into effect, when a fresh reflection filled his soul with horror. What if the populace should, without waiting to hear his harmonious accents and unequalled oratory, break out in sudden rage and rend him limb from limb? Might they not assail him in the palace? Might not a seditious mob be already on its way thither, bent on bloody work? Whither should he fly? Where find refuge?

Turning in despair to his companions, he asked them, wildly, "is there no hiding place, no safe retreat, where I may have leisure to consider what is to be done?"

Phaon, his freedman, told him that he owned an obscure villa, at a distance of about four miles from Rome, where he might remain for a time in concealment.

This suggestion, in Nero's state of distraction, was eagerly embraced,—in such haste, indeed, that he left the palace without an instant's preparation, his feet destitute of shoes, and no garment but his close tunic, his outer garments and imperial robe having been discarded in his distraction. The utmost he did was to snatch up an old rusty robe as a disguise, covering his head with it, and holding a handkerchief before his face. Thus attired, he mounted his horse and fled in frantic fear, attended only by the three men we have mentioned, and a fourth named Neophytus.

Meanwhile, the revolt in the city was growing more and more decided. When the coming day showed its first faint rays, the Prætorian guards, who had been on duty in the palace, left their post and marched to the camp. Here, under the influence of Nymphidius, Galba was nominated emperor. This was an important innovation in the government of Rome. Hitherto the imperial dignity had remained in the family of Cæsar, descending by hereditary transmission. Nero was the last of that family to wear the crown. Henceforth the army and its generals controlled the destinies of the empire. The nomination of Galba by the Prætorian guard signalized the new state of things, in which the emperors would largely be chosen by that guard or by some army in the field.

The action of the Prætorian guard was supported by the senate. That body, awaking from its late timidity, determined to mark the day with a decree worthy of its past history. With unanimous decision they pronounced Nero a tyrant who had trampled on all laws, human and divine, and condemned him to suffer death with all the rigor of the ancient laws.

While this revolution was taking place in the city the terror-stricken Nero was still in frantic flight. He passed the Prætorian camp near enough to hear loud acclamations, among which the name of Galba reached his ear. As the small cavalcade hastened by a man early at work in the fields, he looked up and said, "These people must be hot in pursuit of Nero." A short distance farther another hailed them, asking, "What do they say of Nero in the city?"

A more alarming event occurred soon. As they drew near Phaon's house the horse of Nero started at a dead carcass beside the road, shaking down the handkerchief by which he had concealed his face. The movement revealed him to a veteran soldier, then on his way to Rome, and ignorant of what was taking place in the city. He recognized and saluted the emperor by name.

This incident increased Nero's fear. His route of flight would now be known. He pressed his horse to the utmost speed until Phaon's house was close at hand. They now halted and Nero dismounted, it being thought unsafe for him to enter the house publicly. He crossed a field overgrown with reeds, and, being tortured with thirst, scooped up some water from a muddy ditch and drank it, saying, dolefully, "Is this the beverage which Nero has been used to drink?"

Phaon advised him to conceal himself in a neighboring sandpit, from which could be opened for him a subterraneous passage to the house, but Nero refused, saying that he did not care to be buried alive. His companions then made an opening in the wall on one side of the house, through which Nero crept on his hands and knees. Entering a wretched chamber, he threw himself on a mean bed, which was covered with a tattered coverlet, and asked for some refreshment.

All they could offer him was a little coarse bread, so black that the sight of it sickened his dainty taste, and some warm and foul water, which thirst forced him to drink. His friends meanwhile were in little less desperation than himself. They saw that no hope was left and that his place of concealment would soon be known, and entreated him to avoid a disgraceful death by taking his own life.

Nero promised to do so, but still sought reasons for delay. His funeral must be prepared for, he said, and bade them to dig a grave, to prepare wood for a funeral pile, and bring marble to cover his remains. Meanwhile he piteously bewailed his unhappy lot; sighed and shed tears copiously; and said, with a last impulse of vanity, "What a musician the world will lose!"

While he thus in cowardly procrastination delayed the inevitable end, a messenger, whom Phaon had ordered to bring news from Rome, arrived with papers. These Nero eagerly seized and read. He found himself dethroned, declared a public enemy, and condemned to suffer death with the rigor of ancient usage. Such was the decree of the senate, which hitherto had been his subservient slave.

"Ancient usage?" he asked. "What do they mean? What kind of death is that?"

"It is this," they told him. "Every traitor, by the law of the old republic, with his head fastened between two stakes, and his body stripped naked, was slowly flogged to death by the lictors' rods."

Dread of this terrible and ignominious punishment roused the trembling wretch to some semblance of courage. He produced two daggers, which he had brought with him, and tried their points. Then he replaced them in their scabbards, saying, "The fatal moment is not yet come."

Turning to Sporus, he said, "Sing the melancholy dirge, and offer the last obsequies to your friend." Then, rolling his eyes wildly around, he exclaimed, "Why will not some one of you kill himself, and teach me how to die?"

He paused a moment. No one seemed inclined adopt his suggestion. A flood of tears burst from his eyes. Starting up, he cried, in a tone of wild despair, "Nero, this is infamy; you linger in disgrace; this is no time for dejected passions; this moment calls for manly fortitude."

These words were hardly spoken when the sound of horses was heard advancing rapidly towards the house. Theatrical to the end, he repeated a line from Homer which the noise of hoofs recalled to his mind. At length, driven to desperation, he seized his dagger and stabbed himself in the throat,—but cowardice made the stroke too feeble. Epaphroditus now lent his aid, and the next thrust was a mortal one.

It was time. The horses were those of pursuers. The senate, informed of his probable place of refuge, had sent soldiers in haste to bring him back to Rome, there to suffer the punishment decreed. In a minute afterwards a centurion entered the room, and, seeing Nero prostrate and bleeding, ran to his aid, saying that he would bind the wound and save his life.

Nero looked up languidly, and said, in faint tones, "You come too late. Is this your fidelity?" In a moment more he expired.

In the words of Tacitus, "The ferocity of his nature was still visible in his countenance. His eyes fixed and glaring, and every feature swelled with warring passions, he looked more stern, more grim, more terrible than ever."

Nero was in his thirty-second year. He had reigned nearly fourteen years. Tacitus says of him, "The race of Cæsars ended with Nero; he was the last, and perhaps the worst, of that illustrious house."

The tidings of his death filled Rome with joy. Men ran wildly about the streets, their heads covered with liberty caps. Acclamations of gladness resounded in the Forum. Icelus, Galba's freedman and agent in Rome, whom Nero had thrown into prison, was released and took control of affairs. He ordered that Nero's body should be burned where he had died, and this was done so quickly and secretly that many would not believe that he was dead. The report got abroad that he had escaped to Asia or Egypt, and from time to time impostors appeared claiming to be Nero. The Parthians were deluded by one of these impostors and offered to defend his cause. Another made trouble in the Greek islands. Nero's profligate companions in Rome, who alone mourned his death, while affecting to believe him still alive raised a tomb to his memory, which for several years they annually dressed with the flowers of spring and summer. But the world at large rejoiced in its delivery from the rule of a monster of iniquity.