Nero  

13 October 54 - 9 June 68



54-68

Nero

Proclaiming Claudius Emperor
A Christian Dirce
Henryk Siemiradzki

Upon the death of Claudius, Nero, though but seventeen years of age, began his reign, A. D. 54, with general approbation. He appeared just, liberal, and humane. When a warrant for the execution of a criminal was brought him to sign, he was heard to cry out, with seeming concern, "Would to heaven that I had never learned to write !" But as he increased in years, his crimes increased in equal proportion.

The execution of his own mother, Agrippina was the first alarming instance he gave of his cruelty. Failing in an attempt to get her drowned at sea, he ordered her to be put to death in her palace. He went in person to gaze on her dead body, and was heard to say that he never thought his mother had been so handsome.

A great part of the city was consumed by fire in his time; and most historians ascribe the conflagration to him. He used every art to throw the odium of so detestable an action upon the Christians, who were at that time increasing in Rome. Nothing could be more dreadful than the persecution raised against them upon this false accusation. Some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and in that figure devoured by dogs. Some were crucified and others burnt alive.

When the day was not sufficient for their tortures, says Tacitus, the flames in which they perished served to illuminate the night; while Nero, dressed in the habit of a charioteer, regaled himself with their tortures from his gardens, and entertained the people at one time with their sufferings, at another with the games of the circus.

A conspiracy formed against Nero, by Piso, a man of great power and integrity, which was prematurely discovered, opened a new train of suspicion that destroyed many of the principal families in Rome. The two most remarkable personages who fell on this occasion were Seneca, the philosopher, and Lucan the poet, his nephew.

Nero, either having real testimony against him, or else hating him for his virtues, sent a tribune to Seneca, informing him that he was suspected as an accomplice in the conspiracy. The tribune found the philosopher at table with Paulina, his wife, and informing him of his business, Seneca replied, without any emotion, that his welfare depended upon no man; that he had never been accustomed to indulge the errors of the emperor, and would not do it now.

When this answer was brought to Nero, he demanded whether Seneca seemed afraid to die. The tribune replied that he did not appear in the least terrified. Then go to him again, cried the emperor, and give him orders to die.

Accordingly he sent a centurion to Seneca, signifying that it was the emperor's pleasure that he should die. Seneca seemed no way discomposed. He endeavored to console his wife, and exhort her to a life of persevering virtue. But she seemed resolved not to survive him, and pressed her request to die with him so earnestly, that Seneca who had long looked upon death as a benefit, at last gave his consent, and the veins of both their arms were opened at the same time.

As Seneca was old and much enfeebled by the austerities of his life, the blood flowed slowly, so that he caused the veins of his legs and thighs to be opened also. His pains were long and violent, but they were not capable of repressing his fortitude or his eloquence. He dictated a discourse to two secretaries, which was read with great avidity after his death, but has since perished in the wreck of ancient literature.

His agonies being now drawn out to a great length, he demanded poison from his physician; but this also failed of its effect, he was from this carried into a warm bath, which only served to prolong his sufferings; at length he was put into a dry stove, the vapor of which quickly despatched him.

His wife Paulina having fallen into a swoon, with the loss of blood, had her arms bound up by her domestics, and by this means survived her husband for some years; but by her conduct, she seemed always mindful of her own love and his example.

The death of Lucan was not less remarkable. The veins of his arms being opened, after he had lost a great quantity of blood, perceiving his legs and hands already dead, while the vital parts continued warm and vigorous, he called to mind a description in his own poem, the Pharsalia, of a person dying in similar circumstances, and expired while he was repeating that beautiful passage.

The death of Petronius A. D. 66, is very remarkable. This person, the author of a work, entitled Satyricon, was an Epicurean both in principle and practice. In so luxurious a court as Nero's, he was noted for his refinements in luxury. He was accused of being privy to Piso's conspiracy, and committed to prison. Petronius could not endure the anxiety of suspense, and resolved upon putting himself to death.

He opened his veins, and then closed them, with the utmost cheerfulness and tranquillity. He conversed with his friends, and in no action or word appeared like a dying person. Shortly after him, Numicius Thermos was put to death, as likewise Barea Soranus, and Paetus Thrasea. The destroying the two last, Tacitus calls an attack upon virtue itself. Thrasea died in the midst of his friends, conversing and reasoning on the nature of the soul. The death of the valiant Corbulo, who had gained Nero so many victories over the Parthians, followed next; nor did the empress Pappea escape.

9 June 68

The death of Nero

Such were the cruelties that marked the reign of Nero, that at length human nature grew weary of bearing her persecutor, and the whole world seemed to rouse by common consent to rid the earth of such a monster.

Servius Sulpicius Galba, who was at that the governor of Spain, was remarkable for his wisdom in peace, and his courage in war; but he for some years had seemed willing to court obscurity, giving himself up to an inactive life, and avoiding all opportunity of signalizing his valor.

But willing to rid his country of a monster, he accepted the invitation of Vindex to march with an army to Rome. The moment he declared against Nero, the tyrant considered himself as undone. He received the account while at supper, and being struck with terror, overturned the table with his foot, breaking two crystal vases of immense value. He then fell into a swoon, from which, when he recovered, he tore his clothes and struck his head, crying out that he was utterly undone.

He called for Locusta to furnish him with poison; and thus prepared for the worst, he retired to the Caevilian gardens, with a resolution of flying into Egypt. Being prevented in this, and the revolt becoming general, he went from house to house, but all doors were shut against him, and being reduced to a state of desperation, he desired that one of his favorite gladiators might come and despatch him; but this request there was found none to obey. Alas ! cried he, have I neither friend nor enemy ? And then running desperately, seemed resolved to plunge headlong into the Tiber.

But his courage failed, and he made a sudden stop, as if willing to collect his reason, and asked for some secret place where he might resume his courage, and meet death with a becoming fortitude. In his distress, Pharon, one of his freedmen, offered him his country house about four miles distant.

Nero accepted his offer and hiding his face with his handkerchief, mounted a horse. His journey, though short, was crowded with adventures. An earthquake gave him the first alarm. The lightning flashed in his face. Round him he heard nothing but confused noises from the camp, and the cries of the soldiers, imprecating a thousand evils upon him. A passenger meeting him, cried, There go men in pursuit of Nero. Another asked him if there was any news of Nero in the city. He now, quitting his horse, entered a thicket that led towards the back part of Pharon's house, through which he crept, among reeds and brambles.

During this interval, the senate finding the praetorian guards had taken part with Galba, declared him emperor, and condemned Nero to die, more majorium; that is, according to the rigor of the ancient laws. When he was told of the resolution of the senate, he asked the messenger what was meant by being punished according to the rigor of the ancient laws? To this he was answered, that the criminal was to be stripped naked, with his head fixed in a pillory, and in that posture scourged to death.

Nero entreated that some of his attendants would die, to give him courage by his example; and then, reproaching his own cowardice, cried out, Does this become Nero ? is this trifling well timed ? - no, no, let me be courageous.

The soldiers, who were sent in pursuit of him, were then just approaching the house; when, hearing the sound of the horses' feet, he set a dagger to his throat, with which, by the assistance of Epaphroditus, his freedman and secretary, he gave himself a mortal wound. He was not quite dead, when one of the centurions entering the room and pretending he came to his relief, attempted to stop the blood with his cloak. But Nero, regarding him with a stern countenance, said, It is now too late. Is this your fidelity ? Upon which, with his eyes fixed, and frightfully staring, he expired, even in death a ghastly spectacle of innoxious tyranny. He reigned a little more than thirteen years, and died in the thirty second year of his age.

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