The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Domitian by J.C. Rolfe, with comments and clarifications.

Summary of Domitian’s life (from Wikipedia)

Domitianus (Domitian) lived from 51 to 96 AD and reigned as Roman emperor from 81 to 96. The son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, his two predecessors on the throne, he was the third and final member of the Flavian dynasty. Domitian’s authoritarian style of ruling put him at odds with the senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.

Domitian had an early moment of prominence in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, aged just 18, after Vitellius was assassinated and before Vespasian arrived in Rome to take power, when he was acclaimed ‘Caesar’ and nominally ran the government. Once Vespasian arrived in Rome and was enthroned, though, Domitian reverted to playing a minor and largely ceremonial role during the reigns of his father and brother.

After Titus died on 13 September 81, Domitian was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. His 15-year reign was to be the longest since that of Tiberius. As emperor, Domitian:

  • strengthened the economy by revaluing the Roman coinage
  • expanded the border defences of the empire
  • initiated a massive building program to restore the damaged city of Rome

Significant wars were fought in Britain, where his general Agricola attempted to conquer Caledonia (Scotland), and in Dacia, where Domitian was unable to secure a decisive victory against King Decebalus.

Domitian’s government exhibited strong authoritarian characteristics. Religious, military, and cultural propaganda fostered a cult of personality. He nominated himself perpetual censor in an effort to control public and private morals.

As a result Domitian was popular with the people and the army but considered a tyrant by members of the senate. Domitian’s reign came to an end in 96 when he was assassinated by court officials. He was succeeded the same day by his advisor, Nerva.

After his death Domitian’s memory was condemned to oblivion by the Senate while senatorial and equestrian authors such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius propagated the view of Domitian as a cruel and paranoid tyrant. The later part of his rule was regularly described as a ‘tyranny’. (In the Penguin translation of the Epigrams of Martial, Peter Howell says that in his day, 1964, Domitian had a reputation little short of Hitler’s for evil tyranny.)

Modern revisionists have characterised Domitian as a ruthless but efficient autocrat whose cultural, economic and political programs laid the foundation of the peaceful second century.

The Life of Domitian by Suetonius

(1) Domitian was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of November [24 October] of the year when his father was consul elect and was about to enter on the office in the following month [51 AD] in a street of the sixth region called ‘the Pomegranate’, in a house which he afterwards converted into a temple of the Flavian family.

Domitian is said to have passed the period of his boyhood and early youth in great poverty and infamy for it is said that he did not possess a single piece of plate.

It is a well-known fact that Claudius Pollio, a man of praetorian rank, against whom Nero’s poem ‘The One-eyed Man’ is directed, preserved a letter in Domitian’s handwriting and sometimes exhibited it, in which the future emperor promised him an assignation [i.e. sex]. And some people claim that Domitian was also debauched [i.e. abused] by Nerva, who succeeded him.

In the war with Vitellius Domitian took refuge in the Capitol with his paternal uncle, Sabinus, and a part of the forces under him. When Vitellius’s forces stormed the hill and the temple of Jupiter was set alight, Domitian hid during the night with the guardian of the shrine. In the morning, disguised in the tunic of a follower of Isis​ and mingling with the priests of that fickle superstition, he went across the Tiber with a single companion to the mother of one of his school-fellows. There he was so effectually concealed that, although he was closely followed he could not be found, in spite of a thorough search. [For more on this episode, see Tacitus’s Histories.]

It was only after the Flavian forces took Rome that Domitian ventured out. After being hailed as ‘Caesar’,​ he assumed the office of city praetor with consular powers, but only in name, turning over all the judicial business to his next colleague.

Domitian exercised all the tyranny of his high position​ (i.e. son of the emperor) so lawlessly that it was even then apparent what sort of a man he was going to be. For example, after making free with the wives of many men, he went so far as to marry Domitia Longina who was the wife of Aelius Lamia. And in a single day he assigned more than twenty positions in the city and in the provinces, which led Vespasian to say more than once that he was surprised that his son did not appoint the emperor’s successor along with the rest.

(2) Domitian began an expedition against Gaul and the Germanies which was uncalled for and from which his father’s friends dissuaded him, simply to make himself equal to his brother Titus in power and rank. For this he was reprimanded and, to give him a better realisation of his youth​ (aged 18) and position, he was made to live with his father. When they appeared in public Domitian followed the emperor’s chair and that of his brother in a litter. He also attended their triumph over Judaea riding on a white horse. Of his six consul­ships before he became emperor only one was a regular one,​ and he obtained that only because his brother gave place to him and recommended his appointment.

Domitian made a pretence of modesty and especially of an interest in poetry, an art which had previously been as unfamiliar to him as it was later despised and rejected, and he even gave readings in public.

Yet in spite of all this, when Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, had asked for auxiliaries against the Alani and for one of Vespasian’s sons as their leader, Domitian made every effort to have himself sent rather than Titus and, when the affair came to nothing, he tried by gifts and promises to induce other eastern kings to make the same request.

On the death of his father and his older brother, Titus, succeeding, Domitian hesitated for some time whether to offer a largess​ to the soldiers twice as large as the one his brother gave. He often said that he had been left a partner in the imperial power [i.e. alongside his brother] but that the will had been tampered with.​

And from that time on he never ceased to plot against his brother secretly and openly, until Titus was seized with a dangerous illness whereupon Domitian ordered that he be left for dead before he had actually drawn his last breath. And after Titus’s death Domitian bestowed no honour upon him, save that of deification, and he often attacked his memory in ambiguous phrases, both in his speeches and in his edicts.

(3) At the beginning of his reign Domitian used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly-sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Caesar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply, ‘Not even a fly.’

He had his wife Domitia honoured with the title ‘Augusta’. He had had a son by her in his second consulship, whom he lost the second year after he became emperor. He divorced her because of her love for the actor, Paris, but could not bear the separation and soon took her back, alleging that the people demanded it. [It was for lampooning this actor, Paris, that the satirist Juvenal was, according to some biographies, exiled to Egypt.]

In his administration of the government Domitian for some time showed himself inconsistent, with about an equal number of virtues and vices, but eventually he turned the virtues into vices. For so far as one may guess, it was contrary to his natural disposition​ but he was made rapacious through need and cruel through fear.

(4) Domitian constantly gave grand costly entertainments, both in the amphitheatre​ and in the Circus, where in addition to the usual races between two-horse and four-horse chariots, he also exhibited two battles, one between forces of infantry and the other by horsemen, and he even gave a naval battle in the amphitheatre.

As well as these, he gave hunts of wild beasts, gladiatorial shows at night by the light of torches, and not only combats between men but between women as well. He was always present, too, at the games given by the quaestors, which he revived after they had been abandoned for some time, and invariably granted the people the privilege of calling for two pairs of gladiators from his own school, and brought them in last, in all the splendour of the court.

During the whole of every gladiatorial show there always stood at his feet a small boy clad in scarlet, with an abnormally small head, with whom he used to talk a great deal, and sometimes seriously. At any rate, he was overheard to ask him if he knew why he had decided at the last appointment day to make Mettius Rufus prefect of Egypt.

He often gave sea-fights almost with regular fleets, having dug a lake near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats. He continued to witness the contests even in heavy rains.

Domitian also celebrated the Secular games reckoning the time, not according to the year when Claudius had last given them, but by the previous calculation of Augustus. In the course of these, to make it possible to finish a hundred races on the day of contests in the Circus, he diminished the number of laps from seven to five.

Domitian also established a quinquennial contest in honour of Jupiter Capitolinus of a threefold character, comprising music, riding, and gymnastics, and with considerably more prizes than are awarded nowadays. For there were competitions in prose declamation​ both in Greek and in Latin, between lyre-players, between choruses of such players and in the lyre alone without singing. In the stadium there were races even between women.

Domitian presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. By his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales (established for the worship of the deified Flavian emperors) similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.

Domitian celebrated the Quinquatria​ every year in honour of Minerva at his Alban villa, and established for her a college of priests, from which men were chosen by lot to act as officers and give splendid shows of wild beasts and stage plays, besides holding contests in oratory and poetry.

Domitian made a present to the people of three hundred sesterces each on three occasions, and in the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills gave a plenti­ful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights and smaller ones to the commons, and he himself was the first to begin to eat. On the following day he scattered gifts of all sorts of things​ to be scrambled for, and since the greater part of these fell where the people sat, he had five hundred tickets thrown into each section occupied by the senatorial and equestrian orders.

(5) Domitian restored many splendid buildings which had been destroyed by fire, among them the Capitolium, which had again been burned [rebuilt after having been burned down in 69, the Capitoline temple was again burned down in 80]. In all cases he gave the new buildings the inscription of his own name only, with no mention of the original builder.

He also built a new temple on the Capitoline hill in honour of Jupiter Custos and the forum which now bears the name of Nerva [who finished and dedicated it]. He had built a temple to the Flavian family, a stadium, an Odeum [or music hall] and a pool for sea-fights.​ From the stone used in this last the Circus Maximus was afterwards rebuilt, when both sides of it had been destroyed by fire.

(6) Domitian’s campaigns he undertook partly without provocation and partly of necessity. That against the Chatti was uncalled for, while the one against the Sarmatians was justified by the destruction of a legion with its commander. He made two against the Dacians, the first when Oppius Sabinus an ex-consul was defeated, and the second on the overthrow of Cornelius Fuscus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to whom he had entrusted the conduct of the war. After several battles of varying success he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians.​ [Tacitus says that Domitian’s unjustified triumph over the Germans (and the Dacians) was a laughing-stock; Agricola, chapter 39.] His victories over the Sarmatians he commemorated merely by the offering of a laurel crown to Jupiter of the Capitol.

A civil war which was set on foot by Lucius Antonius, governor of Upper Germany, was put down in the emperor’s absence by a remarkable stroke of good fortune; for at the very hour of battle the Rhine suddenly thawed and prevented his barbarian allies from crossing over to Antonius. Domitian learned of this victory through omens before he actually had news of it, for on the very day when the decisive battle was fought a magnificent eagle enfolded his statue at Rome with its wings, uttering exultant shrieks. Soon afterwards the report of Antony’s death became so current that several went so far as to claim that they had seen his head brought to Rome.

(7) Domitian made many innovations in common customs. He abolished the distribution of food to the people​ and revived the custom of holding formal dinners.​ He added two factions of drivers in the Circus, with gold and purple as their colours, to the four former ones.​ He forbade the appearance of actors on the stage, but allowed the practice of their art in private houses. He prohibited the castration of males, and kept down the price of the eunuchs that remained in the hands of the slave dealers.

Once, upon the occasion of a plenti­ful wine crop attended with a scarcity of grain, thinking that the fields were neglected through too much attention to the vineyards, he made an edict forbidding anyone to plant more vines in Italy and ordering that the vineyards in the provinces be cut down, or that only half of them should be left standing; but he did not persist in carrying out the measure.​

Domitian opened some of the most important offices of the court​ [i.e. those that had formerly been restricted to the senatorial order] to freedmen and Roman knights.

He prohibited the uniting of two legions in one camp and the deposit of more than 1,000 sesterces by any one soldier at headquarters because it was clear that Lucius Antonius had been especially led to attempt a revolution by the amount of such deposits in the combined winter quarters of two legions.

He increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year [i.e. raised the amount from nine to twelve aurei: an aureus contained 100 sesterces.]

(8) Domitian administered justice scrupulously and conscientiously, frequently holding special sittings on the tribunal in the Forum. He rescinded such decisions of the Hundred Judges as were made from interested motives [i.e. to curry favour with the rich or powerful]. He often warned the arbiters​ not to grant claims for freedom made under false pretences. He degraded jurors who accepted bribes, together with all their associates.​

He also induced the tribunes of the commons to prosecute a corrupt aedile for extortion, and to ask the senate to appoint jurors in the case. He took such care to exercise restraint over the city officials and the governors of the provinces, that at no time were they more honest or just, whereas after his time we have seen many of them charged with all manner of offences.

In his role as censor he undertook the correction of public morals. He:

  • put an end to the licence at the theatres, where the general public occupied the seats reserved for the knights
  • did away with the prevailing publication of scurrilous lampoons in which distinguished men and women were attacked, and imposed ignominious penalties on their authors
  • expelled an ex-quaestor from the senate because he was given to acting and dancing
  • deprived notorious women of the use of litters, as well as of the right to receive inheritances and legacies
  • struck the name of a Roman knight from the list of jurors because he had taken back his wife after divorcing her and charging her with adultery
  • condemned several men of both orders, offenders against the Scantinian law
  • the incest of Vestal virgins, condoned even by his father and his brother, he punished severely in divers ways, at first by capital punishment and afterwards in the ancient fashion

For while Domitian allowed the sisters Oculata and Varronilla free choice of the manner of their death and banished their lovers, he later ordered that Cornelia, a chief-vestal who had been acquitted once but after a long interval again arraigned and found guilty, be buried alive and her lovers were beaten to death with rods in the Comitium – with the exception of an ex-praetor whom he allowed to go into exile, because he admitted his guilt while the case was still unsettled and the examination and torture of the witnesses had led to no result.

To protect the gods from being dishonoured with impunity by any sacrilege, Domitian caused a tomb which one of his freedmen had built for his son from stones intended for the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol to be destroyed by the soldiers and the bones and ashes contained in it thrown into the sea.

(9) In the earlier part of his reign Domitian so shrank from any form of bloodshed that while his father was still absent from the city, he planned to issue an edict that no oxen should be offered up, recalling the line of Virgil:

‘Ever yet an impious race did slay and feast upon bullocks.’

He was equally free from any suspicion of love of gain or of avarice, both in private life and for some time after becoming emperor. On the contrary, he often gave strong proofs not merely of integrity, but even of liberality.

He treated all his intimates most generously and there was nothing which he urged them more frequently, or with greater insistence, than that they should be niggardly in none of their acts. He would not accept inheritances left him by those who had children. He even annulled a legacy in the will of Rustus Caepio, who had provided that his heir should yearly pay a specified sum to each of the senators on his entrance into the House.​

He cancelled the suits against those who had been posted as debtors to the public treasury for more than five years and would not allow a renewal except within a year and on the condition that an accuser who did not win his suit should be punished with exile.

Scribes of the quaestors who carried on business, which had become usual although contrary to the Clodian law,​ he pardoned for past offences.

Parcels of land which were left unoccupied here and there after the assignment of lands to the veterans he granted to their former owners as by right of possession. He checked false accusations designed for the profit of the privy purse​ and inflicted severe penalties on offenders, and a saying of his was current, that an emperor who does not punish informers hounds them on.

(10) But Domitian did not continue this course of mercy or integrity, although he turned to cruelty somewhat more speedily than to avarice. He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master [who he had had executed for having an affair with his wife].

He executed Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out.

A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games,​ he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: ‘A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.’

Domitian put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia; Salvidienus Orfitus; Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial.

He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife,​ the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: ‘I practise continence’, and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: ‘Are you too looking for a wife?’

He put to death:

  • Salvius Cocceianus because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle
  • Mettius Pompusianus because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal
  • Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named ‘Lucullean’ after his own name
  • Junius Rusticus because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men – and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy

He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife. He executed Flavius Sabinus, too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.

After his victory in the civil war Domitian became even more cruel and to discover any conspirators who were in hiding, tortured many of the opposite party by a new form of inquisition, inserting fire in their privates, and he cut off the hands of some of them.

Of the more conspicuous only two were pardoned, a tribune of senatorial rank and a centurion, who the more clearly to prove their freedom from guilt, showed that they were of shameless unchastity and could therefore have had no influence with the general or with the soldiers.

(11) Domitian’s savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner.

When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: ‘Pray, shall we hear this base slave to‑morrow?’

To abuse men’s patience the more insolently, he never pronounced an unusually dreadful sentence without a preliminary declaration of clemency, so that there came to be no more certain indication of a cruel death than the leniency of his preamble.

Domitian had brought some men charged with treason into the senate and when he had introduced the matter by saying that he would find out that day how dear he was to the members, he had no difficulty in causing them to be condemned to suffer the ancient method of punishment.​ Then, appalled at the cruelty of the penalty, he interposed a veto, to lessen the odium, in these words (for it will be of interest to know his exact language): ‘Allow me, Fathers of the senate, to prevail on you by your love for me to grant a favour which I know I shall obtain with difficulty, namely that you allow the condemned men free choice of the manner of their death; for thus you will spare your own eyes and all men will know that I was present at the meeting of the senate.’

(12) Reduced to financial straits by the cost of his buildings and shows, as well as by the additions which he had made to the pay of the soldiers, Domitian tried to lighten the military expenses by diminishing the number of his troops. But perceiving that in this way he exposed himself to the attacks of the barbarians, and nevertheless had difficulty in easing his burdens, he had no hesitation in resorting to every sort of robbery. The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the prince.

Estates of those in no way connected with him were confiscated if but one man came forward to declare that he had heard from the deceased during his lifetime that Caesar was his heir.

Besides other taxes, that on the Jews​ [Titus had imposed a tax of two drachmas per head on Jews for permission to practise their religion] was levied with the utmost rigour, and people were prosecuted who, without publicly acknowledging that faith, yet lived as Jews [a possible reference to Christians who the Romans didn’t distinguish from the Jews], as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people.​

I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised.

From his youth Domitian was far from being of an affable disposition, but was on the contrary presumptuous and unbridled both in act and in word. When his father’s concubine Caenis​ returned from Histria and offered to kiss him as usual, he held out his hand to her.

(13) When he became emperor, Domitian did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother, and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had ‘recalled her to his divine couch’ [meaning the couch which held the household gods].

Domitian delighted to hear the people in the amphitheatre shout on his feast day:​ ‘Good Fortune attend our Lord​ and Mistress.’

Even more, in the Capitoline competition,​ when all the people begged him with great unanimity to restore Palfurius Sura who had been banished some time before from the senate, and on that occasion received the prize for oratory, he deigned no reply, but merely had a crier bid them be silent.

With no less arrogance he began a circular letter in the name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.’ And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation.

​He allowed no statues to be set up in his honour in the Capitol, except of gold and silver and of a fixed weight. He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of Rome, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: ‘It is enough’ [the Greek word for enough sounds like the Roman word for arch].

Domitian held the consul­ship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. Of these the seven middle ones were in successive years, but all of them he filled in name only, continuing none beyond the first of May and few after the Ides of January. Having assumed the surname Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them ‘Germanicus’ and ‘Domitianus’, because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter.​

(14) In this way Domitian became an object of terror and hatred to all, but he was overthrown at last by a conspiracy of his friends and favourite freedmen, to which his wife was also privy.

He had long since had a premonition of the last year and day of his life, and even of the very hour and manner of his death. In his youth astrologers had predicted all this to him, and his father once even openly ridiculed him at dinner for refusing mushrooms, saying that he showed himself unaware of his destiny in not rather fearing the sword. Therefore he was at all times timorous and worried, and was disquieted beyond measure by even the slightest suspicions. It is thought that nothing had more effect in inducing him to ignore his proclamation about cutting down the vineyards​ than the circulation of notes containing the following lines:

‘Gnaw at my root, an you will; even then shall I have juice in plenty
To pour upon thee, O goat, when at the altar you stand.’​ [a quote from Ovid’s Fasti]

It was because of this same timorousness that although he was most eager for all such honours, he refused a new one which the senate had devised and offered to him, a decree that whenever he held the consul­ship Roman knights selected by lot should precede him among his lictors and attendants, clad in the trabea​ and bearing lances.

As the time when he anticipated danger drew near, becoming still more anxious every day, he lined the walls of the colonnades in which he used to walk with phengite stone, to be able to see in its brilliant surface the reflection of all that went on behind his back. And he did not give a hearing to any prisoners except in private and alone, even holding their chains in his hands. Further, to convince his household that one must not venture to kill a patron even on good grounds, he condemned Epaphroditus, his confidential secretary, to death, because it was believed that after Nero was abandoned​ Epaphroditus had actually held the dagger with which Nero stabbed himself.

(15) Finally Domitian put to death his own cousin Flavius Clemens, suddenly and on a very slight suspicion, almost before the end of his consul­ship. And yet Flavius was a man of most contemptible laziness and Domitian had openly named his sons, who were then very young, as his successors, changing their former names and calling the one Vespasian and the other Domitian. And it was by this deed in particular that he hastened his own destruction.

For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported that at last he cried: ‘Well, let him now strike whom they will.’ The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb.​ The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew suddenly fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste​ had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful omen, not without the mention of bloodshed.

Domitian dreamed that Minerva, whom he worshipped with superstitious veneration, came forth from her shrine and declared that she could no longer protect him since she had been disarmed by Jupiter.

But there was nothing by which he was so much disturbed as a prediction of the astrologer Ascletarion and what befell him. When this man was accused before the emperor and did not deny that he had spoken of certain things which he had foreseen through his art, he was asked what his own end would be. When Ascletarion replied that he would shortly be rent by dogs, Domitian ordered him killed at once but, to prove the fallibility of his art, he ordered that Ascletarion’s funeral be attended to with the greatest care.​ While this was being done, it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse, which was only partly consumed. An actor of farces called Latinus, who happened to pass by and see the incident, told it to Domitian at the dinner table, with the rest of the day’s gossip.

(16) The day before he was killed Domitian gave orders to have some apples which were offered to him kept until the following day, and added: ‘If only I am spared to eat them’. Then, turning to his companions, he declared that on the following day the moon would be stained with blood in Aquarius and that a deed would be done of which men would talk all over the world. At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany who, when consulted about the lightning strokes, had foretold a change of rulers and condemned him to death.

While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead and had drawn blood, he said: ‘May this be all.’

Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off. Then he dismissed all his attendants and went to his bedroom, where he was slain.

(17) Concerning the nature of the plot and the manner of his death, this is about all that became known. As the conspirators were deliberating when and how to attack him, whether at the bath or at dinner, Stephanus, steward of his niece, Domitilla, and at the time under accusation for embezzlement, offered his aid and counsel.

To avoid suspicion, he wrapped up his left arm in woollen bandages for some days, pretending that he had injured it, and concealed in them a dagger. Then pretending to betray a conspiracy and for that reason being given an audience, he stabbed the emperor in the groin as he was reading a paper which the assassin handed him and stood in a state of amazement.

As the wounded prince attempted to resist, he was slain with seven wounds by Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.

A boy who was engaged in his usual duty of attending to the Lares in the bedroom and so was a witness of the murder, gave this additional information. He was bidden by Domitian, immediately after he was dealt the first blow, to hand him the dagger hidden under his pillow and to call the servants. But he found nothing at the head of the bed save the hilt and in any case all the doors were closed.

Meanwhile the emperor grappled with Stephanus and bore him to the ground, where they struggled for a long time, Domitian trying now to wrest the dagger from his assailant’s hands and now to gouge out his eyes with his lacerated fingers.

Domitian was slain on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of October (18 September) in the forty-fifth year of his age and the fifteenth of his reign (96 AD).

His corpse was carried out on a common bier by those who bury the poor, and his nurse Phyllis cremated it at her suburban estate on the Via Latina. But his ashes she secretly carried to the temple of the Flavian family and mingled them with those of Julia, daughter of Titus, whom she had also reared.

(18) Domitian was tall of stature, with a modest expression and a high colour.​ His eyes were large, but his sight was somewhat dim. He was handsome and graceful too, especially when a young man, and in his whole body with the exception of his feet, the toes of which were somewhat cramped. In later life he had the further disfigurement of baldness, a protruding belly, and spindling legs, though the latter had become thin from a long illness.

Domitian was so conscious that the modesty of his expression was in his favour that he once made this boast in the senate: ‘So far, at any rate, you have approved my heart and my countenance.’

He was so sensitive about his baldness that he regarded it as a personal insult if anyone else was twitted with that defect in jest or in earnest.

(19) Domitian was incapable of exertion and seldom went about the city on foot, while on his campaigns and journeys he rarely rode on horseback but was regularly carried in a litter.

He took no interest in arms, but was particularly devoted to archery.​ There are many who have more than once seen him slay a hundred wild beasts of different kinds on his Alban estate, and purposely kill some of them with two successive shots in such a way that the arrows gave the effect of horns. Sometimes he would have a slave stand at a distance and hold out the palm of his right hand for a mark, with the fingers spread; then he directed his arrows with such accuracy that they passed harmlessly between the fingers.

(20) At the beginning of his rule Domitian neglected liberal studies although he provided for having the libraries, which were destroyed by fire, renewed at very great expense, seeking everywhere for copies of the lost works, and sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them.

Yet he never took any pains to become acquainted with history or poetry or even to acquire an ordinarily good style.

He read nothing except the memoirs and transactions of Tiberius Caesar. For his letters, speeches and proclamations he relied on others’ talents.

Yet his conversation was not inelegant and some of his sayings were even noteworthy.

‘How I wish that I were as fine looking as Maecius thinks he is.’

He declared too that the head of a certain man, whose hair had changed colour in such a way that it was partly reddish and partly grey, was like ‘snow on which mead had been poured.’

(21) Domitian used to say that the lot of princes was most unhappy, since when they discovered a conspiracy, no one believed them unless they had been killed.​

Whenever he had leisure he amused himself with playing at dice, even on working days and in the morning hours. He went to the bath before the end of the forenoon and lunched to the point of satiety, so that at dinner he rarely took anything except a Matian apple​ and a moderate amount of wine from a jug. He gave numerous and generous banquets, but usually ended them early; in no case did he protract them beyond sunset, or follow them by a drinking bout. In fact, he did nothing until the hour for retiring except walk alone in a retired place.

(22) Domitian was excessively lustful. His constant sexual intercourse he called ‘bed-wrestling’ as if it were a kind of exercise.

It was reported that he depilated his concubines with his own hand and swam with common prostitutes.

After persistently refusing his niece, who was offered him in marriage when she was still a maid, because he was entangled in an intrigue with Domitia, he seduced her shortly afterwards when she became the wife of another, and that too during the lifetime of Titus.

Later, when she was bereft of father and husband, he loved her ardently and without disguise, and even became the cause of her death by compelling her to get rid of a child of his by abortion.

(23) The people received the news of his death with indifference but the soldiers were greatly grieved and at once attempted to call him the Deified Domitian. They insisted on the execution of his murderers.

The senators, on the contrary, were so overjoyed that they raced to fill the House where they did not refrain from attacking the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging reproaches. They even had ladders brought and his shields​ and images torn down before their eyes and smashed on the ground. Finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased and all record of him obliterated.​

A few months before he was killed, a raven perched on the Capitolium and cried ‘All will be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows:

‘High on the gable Tarpeian​ a raven but lately alighting,
Could not say “It is well,” only declared “It will be.”‘

Domitian himself, it is said, dreamed that a golden hump grew out on his back, and he regarded this as an infallible sign that the condition of the empire would be happier and more prosperous after his time. And this was soon shown to be true through the uprightness and moderate rule of the emperors who succeeded him.


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Life of Otho by Suetonius

A sub-edited version of the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation of Suetonius’s Life of Otho by J.C. Rolfe, with added notes and comments.

Summary

Marcus Otho (April 32 to April 69) was the seventh Roman emperor. He ruled for three months from 15 January to 16 April 69. He was the second emperor of the Year of the Four Emperors (69).

A member of a noble Etruscan family, Otho was, as a young man, a friend and courtier of the young emperor Nero. But when Nero wanted to have an affair with Otho’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, the emperor dispatched him to the governorship of the remote province of Lusitania (roughly modern-day Portugal) in 58. By all accounts Otho ruled there moderately and well.

During the revolts of 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, the governor of neighbouring Hispania Tarraconensis, and accompanied him on his march to Rome, where he Galba was acclaimed emperor on 8 June. Six months later, at the start of 69, Otho mounted a coup during which Galba was murdered.

Otho inherited the problem of the rebellion of Vitellius, commander of the army in Germania Inferior, who had also risen against Galba, at the start of the year (69). To crush this rebellion, Otho led an army north to meet Vitellius’s legions marching south from Germany. The two sides met at the Battle of Bedriacum on 14 April 69. Initial fighting resulted in 40,000 casualties and the retreat of his forces. His officers and supporters urged him to fight on but Otho refused and, early the next morning, committed suicide in his tent rather than spill more Roman blood, an act which was hailed as a noble sacrifice. As a result Vitellius was proclaimed emperor, the third of the year 69 so far.

The Life of Otho by Suetonius

[Like most Roman texts, this is divided up into short, numbered sections called ‘chapters’.]

1. The ancestors of Otho came from an old and illustrious family in the town of Ferentium​ and were descended from the princes of Etruria.​ His grandfather, Marcus Salvius Otho, whose father was a Roman knight but whose mother was of lowly origin and perhaps not even free-born, became a senator through the influence of Livia Augusta in whose house he was reared, but did not advance beyond the grade of praetor.

His father, Lucius Otho, came from a distinguished family on his mother’s side, with many power­ful connections, and was so beloved by Tiberius and so like him in appearance, that he was believed by many to be the emperor’s son.

In the regular offices at Rome, the proconsulate of Africa, and several special military commands, Lucius conducted himself with extreme severity. In Illyricum he even had the courage to punish some soldiers with death, because in the rebellion of Camillus,​ repenting of their defection, they had killed their officers on the ground that these officers were the ringleaders in the revolt against Claudius. Lucius had them executed in his presence at his headquarters, because of this act of mutiny, although he knew that they had been promoted by Claudius precisely because of this very act. By this deed, while he increased his reputation, Otho’s father lost favour at court.

But then he speedily regained it by detecting the treachery of a Roman knight, whose slaves betrayed their master’s plan to assassinate the emperor.​ As reward for this, the senate conferred a very unusual honour on him by setting up his statue in the palace and Claudius enrolled him among the patricians and, after praising him in the highest terms, added these words: ‘He is a man of greater loyalty than I can even pray for in my own children.’

By Albia Terentia, a woman of an illustrious line, Lucius had two sons, Lucius Titianus and a younger, called Marcus, who had the same surname as himself. (He also had a daughter whom he betrothed to Drusus, son of Germanicus, almost before she was of marriageable age).

2. The future emperor Otho was born on the fourth day before the Kalends of May [28 April] in the consulate of Camillus Arruntius and Domitius Ahenobarbus [32 AD]. From his earliest youth Otho was so extravagant and wild that his father often flogged him. They say that he used to rove about Rome at night and lay hands on anyone whom he met who was feeble or drunk and toss him in a blanket.

After his father’s death, Otho pretended love for an influential freedwoman of the court, although she was an old woman and almost decrepit, so that he might win her favour. Having, through her, wormed his way into Nero’s good graces, Otho easily took the first place among the emperor’s friends because of the similarity of their characters – although some people claim it was also through having immoral relations with the emperor.

3. Otho was privy to all the emperor’s plans and secrets and on the day which Nero had chosen for the murder of his mother he gave both of them a most elaborate banquet in order to avert suspicion.

Also, when Poppaea Sabina, who up to that time had been Nero’s mistress, was separated from her husband, on the emperor’s orders Otho pretended marriage with her to prove cover for their affair. In the event, Otho became so devoted to Poppaea that he couldn’t endure the thought of having Nero as a rival. The result was that he not only wouldn’t admit servants whom Nero sent to fetch Poppaea, but that on one occasion he even shut out the emperor himself, who stood before his door mingling threats and entreaties and demanding the return of his trust.

Therefore Nero annulled the marriage​ and, under colour of appointment as governor, banished Otho to Lusitania, worried that if he inflicted a severer punishment he would make the whole farce public. Even as it was, the affair was published abroad in this couplet:

‘Why, do you ask, in feigned honour does Otho in banishment languish?
With his own wedded wife he had begun an intrigue.’

With the rank of quaestor, Otho governed Lusitania for ten years with remarkable moderation and integrity.

4. Then, at last, an opportunity for revenge arose. Otho was the first to espouse Galba’s cause [when the latter rose in rebellion against Nero], but at the same time conceived ambitions of imperial power for himself due to the troubled state of the times. He was encouraged in his hopes by the astrologer Seleucus for this astrologer had not only promised Otho some time before that he would survive Nero but now unexpectedly appeared and made the further promise that he, Otho, would soon become emperor himself.

Accordingly, Otho let slip no opportunity for flattery or attention to anyone. Whenever he entertained the prince at dinner he gave a gold piece to each man of the cohort on guard and put all the soldiers under obligation in one form or another. Chosen to be judge by a man who was involved in a law case with his neighbour about a part of his estate, Otho bought the whole property and presented it to him. As a result there was hardly anyone who did not both think and openly declare that he alone was worthy to succeed to the empire.

5. After the fall of Nero, Otho hoped to be adopted by Galba and looked forward to it from day to day. But when Galba adopted Piso instead [on 10 January 69] and Otho at last lost that hope, he resorted to force, spurred on not merely by feelings of resentment but also by the greatness of his debts. For he flatly declared that he could not keep on his feet unless he became emperor, and that it made no difference whether he fell at the hands of the enemy in battle or at those of his creditors in the Forum.

Otho had extorted a million sesterces from one of the emperor’s slaves a few days before for getting him a steward­ship. This was the entire capital for his great undertaking. At first the enterprise was entrusted to five of his bodyguard, then to ten others, two being chosen by each of the first five. To all of them 10,000 sesterces were paid at once and they were promised 50,000 more. These then won others over to Otho’s cause, giving him confidence that more would join him when the business was afoot.

6. Otho had been inclined to seize the army camp immediately after the adoption of Piso and set upon Galba as he was dining in the palace, but he had been deterred out of consideration for the cohort which was on guard at the time, and a reluctance to increase its ill repute. For it was while that same cohort was at its post that both Galba had been slain and Nero had been abandoned. The intervening time​ was lost owing to bad omens and the warnings of Seleucus.

Accordingly, when the day was set [15 January 69], after admonishing his confederates to await him in the Forum at the golden mile-post​ near the temple of Saturn, Otho called upon Galba in the morning and was welcomed as usual with a kiss. He also attended the emperor as he was offering sacrifice and heard the predictions of the soothsayer.

Then a freedman announced that the architects had come, which was the signal agreed on, and going off as if to inspect a house which was for sale, he rushed from the palace by a back door and hastened to the appointed place. Others say that he feigned an attack of fever and asked those who stood near him to give that excuse, in case he should be missed.

Then, hurriedly entering a closed sedan such as women use, Otho hurried to the camp but got out when the bearers’ strength flagged and started to run. His shoe came untied and he stopped, whereupon without delay he was at once taken up on the shoulders of his companions and hailed as emperor. In this way he arrived at headquarters, amid acclamations and drawn swords, while everyone whom he met fell in, just as though he were an accomplice and a participator in the plot. He then sent emissaries to kill Galba and Piso and made no further promises in the assembly to win the loyalty of the soldiers than to declare that he would only take whatever [i.e. as much power as] they would give him.

7. Next, as the day was drawing to its close, Otho entered the senate and, after giving a brief account of himself, alleging that he had been carried off in the streets and forced to undertake the throne. He promised that he would exercise power in accordance with the general will then proceeded to the palace.

When in the midst of the other adulations of those who congratulated and flattered him, he was hailed by the common mob as Nero, he made no sign of dissent. On the contrary, according to some writers he even made use of that surname in his commissions and his first letters to some of the governors of the provinces. He allowed Nero’s busts and statues to be set up again and reinstated his procurators and freedmen in their former posts, while the first grant that he signed as emperor was one of 50 million to complete the construction of Nero’s Golden House.

It is said that he had a fearful dream that night, uttered loud groans, and was found by those who ran to his aid lying on the ground beside his couch. It is said that he tried by every kind of expiatory rite to propitiate the shade of Galba, by whom he dreamed that he was ousted and thrown out and that, on the next day, as he was taking the auspices, a great storm arose and he had a bad fall.

8. Now at about this same time the armies in Germany swore allegiance to Vitellius [Otho overthrew Galba on 15 January 69; the German legions had acclaimed Vitellius on 1 January].

When Otho learned of this, he persuaded the senate to send a deputation to say that an emperor had already been chosen and to counsel peace and harmony. But in spite of this he offered Vitellius by messengers and letters a share in the imperial dignity and proposed to become his son-in‑law. But when it became clear that war was inevitable and the generals and troops which Vitellius had sent in advance were approaching Rome he was given a proof of the affection and loyalty of the praetorians towards himself which almost resulted in the destruction of the senate.

It had been resolved that some arms should be removed and carried back​ on shipboard by the marines but as these were being taken out​ in the camp towards nightfall, some suspected treachery and started a riot. Then, suddenly, all the soldiers hastened to the palace without any particular leader, demanding the death of the senators. After putting to flight some of the tribunes who attempted to stop them, and killing others just as they were, all blood-stained, the soldiers burst right into the dining-room demanding to know where the emperor was and they could not be quieted until they had seen him.​

Otho began his expedition against Vitellius with energy and in fact too hastily, without any regard even for the omens, and in spite of the fact that the sacred shields had been taken out but not yet put back, which for ages has been considered unlucky.

  • He began on the very day, too, when the worshippers of the Mother of the Gods​ begin their wailing and lamentation, and also with most unfavourable auspices. For having offered up a victim to father Dis he had good omens whereas in such a sacrifice, adverse indications are more favourable.
  • And when he first left Rome, Otho was delayed by floods of the Tiber, while at the twentieth milestone he found the road blocked by fallen buildings.

9. Although no one doubted that the proper course was to protract the war, since the enemy were hard pressed by hunger and by the narrowness of their quarters – Otho rashly decided to fight a decisive battle as soon as possible, either because he could not endure the continued worry and hoped that the war could be ended before the arrival of Vitellius, or from inability to resist the impetuosity of his soldiers, who clamoured for the fight. He himself did not take part in any of the battles but remained behind at Brixellum.

He was victorious in three minor battles – in the Alps, near Placentia, and ‘at Castor’s’, as the place is called – but they were irrelevant to the main contest. In the final and decisive struggle at Bedriacum he was defeated, but through treachery. For hope of a conference was offered and when his soldiers were led out in the belief that they were to discuss terms of peace a battle was forced upon them unexpectedly, just as they were exchanging greetings with the foe.

After the defeat, Otho at once resolved to take his own life, rather from a feeling of shame (as many have thought with good reason) and an unwillingness to persist in a struggle for imperial power at the expense of such danger to life and property, than from any despair of success or distrust of his troops. For despite the defeat, he still had a fresh and strong force which he had held in reserve for a second attempt, while other legions were on their way from Dalmatia, Pannonia, and Moesia. Even the defeated troops were not so crushed as not to be able to fight on and, even without further support, undertake to avenge their disgrace.

10. My father Suetonius Laetus took part in that war as a tribune of the equestrian order in the Thirteenth legion. He used often to say afterwards that Otho, even when he was a private citizen, so loathed civil strife that at the mere mention of the fate of Brutus and Cassius at a banquet he shuddered and that he would not have engaged with Galba if he had not felt confident that the affair could be settled peacefully. Moreover that Otho was led to hold his life cheap at that time by the example of a common soldier. This man on bringing news of the defeat of the army was believed by no one but was accused by the soldiers of falsehood and cowardice and fleeing the battle. At which, to prove his honesty, the soldier fell on his sword at the emperor’s feet. My father used to say that at this sight Otho cried out that he would no longer endanger the lives of such brave men who had deserved so well.

Having therefore advised his brother, his nephew, and his friends one by one to look out each for his own safety as best they could, Otho embraced and kissed them all and sent them away. Then, going to a retired place, he wrote two notes, one of consolation to his sister, and one to Nero’s widow Messalina, whom he had intended to marry, commending to her his corpse and his memory. Then he burned all his letters to prevent them from bringing danger or harm to anyone at the hands of the victor. He also distributed what money he had with him among his servants.

11. When Otho had thus made his preparations and was resolved to die, learning from a disturbance which meantime arose that those who were beginning to depart and leave the camp were being seized and detained as deserters, he said: ‘Let us add this one more night to our life’ (these were his very words), and he forbade the offering of violence to anyone. Leaving the door of his bedroom open until a late hour, he gave the privilege of speaking with him to all who wished to come in.

After that, quenching his thirst with a draught of cold water, he caught up two daggers and, having tried the point of both of them, put one under his pillow. Then, closing the doors, he slept very soundly. When he at last woke up at about daylight he stabbed himself with a single stroke under the left breast and breathed his last. He was hastily buried (for such were his orders) in the thirty-eighth year of his age and on the ninety-fifth day of his reign.

12. Neither Otho’s person nor his bearing suggested such great courage. He is said to have been of moderate height, splay-footed and bandy-legged, but almost feminine in his care of his person. He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head that no one suspected it. They say that he used to shave every day and smear his face with moist bread, beginning the practice with the appearance of the first down so as never to have a beard. Also that he used to celebrate the rites of Isis publicly in the linen garment prescribed by the cult.

I am inclined to think that it was because of these habits that a death so little in harmony with his life excited the greater wonder. Many of the soldiers who were present kissed his hands and feet as he lay dead, weeping bitterly and calling him the bravest of men and an incomparable emperor, and then at once slew themselves beside his bier. Many of those who were absent too, on receiving the news attacked and killed one another from sheer grief.

In short, the greater part of those who had hated Otho most bitterly while he lived, praised him to the skies when he was dead. It was even commonly declared that he had put an end to Galba not so much for the sake of ruling as of restoring the republic and liberty.

Thought

Nothing became Otho’s life so much as the leaving it. When you read that many of his soldiers committed suicide to copy and honour him, your first reaction is simply to disbelieve it. But the Roman cult of principled suicide goes way beyond what we can really understand.

[Suetonius’s Life of Otho should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Histories by Tacitus

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long term) in 97, during the short reign of Nerva (ruled 96 to 98).

It was about this point that he embarked on a career as a writer, producing two historical monographs – a biography of his father-in-law Julius Agricola which, because the latter had served as governor of Britain, contains much interesting information about the tribes and geography of ancient Britain; and the Germania, an ethnographic study of the tribes of Germany, both published in 98.

Tacitus returned to public life during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). In 100 he and his friend, Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile. Pliny wrote in a letter a few days later that Tacitus had spoken ‘with all the majesty which characterises his usual style of oratory’.

Tacitus spent the next decade or so researching his two major works, the Histories and the Annals but in 112 to 113 was back in public service, recorded as holding the highest civilian governorship, of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ i.e. western Turkey. He probably died in the 120s, though the precise date is not known.

The point of recounting all this is to emphasise that Tacitus understood military and political power from the inside. He was a noted public speaker, lawyer and prosecutor, and held senior administrative posts. This profound understanding of all aspects of the Roman political system explains why Tacitus’s histories feel so authoritative and rich. He is speaking from deep experience of how Roman government worked, along with all the scheming, backstabbing and politicking which accompanied it.

The Histories

Together, the Histories and Annals were designed to give a continuous, year-by-year history of Rome under the rule of the first 12 emperors, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian i.e. from 14 to 96 AD, taking in the ten emperors in between (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

Tacitus composed the Annals second but they deal with the earlier period, Augustus to Nero (14 to 68). He composed the Histories first but they deal with the later period, Galba to Domitian (68 to 96).

Both books are missing large sections. The Annals is missing a big chunk in the middle, covering the last two years of Tiberius, the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47). Very frustrating.

But the Histories are even more mutilated. Originally 12 or 14 books in length, all that survive are the first four books and part of the fifth so that, instead of the 30 or so years from 68 to 96, all we have is just the first two years of his intended period, namely a brief summary of 68, all of 69 and some of 70.

The 1964 Penguin Classics paperback translation by British historian Kenneth Wellesley (1911 to 1995) is 260 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for just 2 years, so straightaway you know the Histories are going to cover the period in great detail.

If it’s a shame that we’ve lost most of the Histories and thus Tacitus’s accounts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, looking on the bright side, what we do have is a detailed account of a pivotal moment, the so-called Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, when, following Nero’s suicide in June 68, four successive military leaders contested the imperial throne.

Nero was the last representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled Rome since 27 BC, but it was not only a dynasty that was overthrown; such was the chaos that it looked to contemporaries as if the unified, centralised structure of the Roman Empire itself might come to an end.

Four emperors died violently:

  • Nero in June 68, suicide (1. 4)
  • Galba in January 69, murdered by soldiers (1.41)
  • Otho in April 69, suicide (2.49)
  • Vitellius in December 69, murdered by soldiers (3.85)

Synopsis

Nero overthrown

In summer 68 reports reached Nero that the governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had rebelled against him. In order to gain support Vindex declared he was rebelling in support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. The commander of the Germania Superior army, Lucius Verginius Rufus, remained loyal to Nero and led his army against Vindex and appears to have beaten him at the battle of Vesontio, where Vindex was killed. But in the meantime, momentum had shifted to Galba. Other army leaders swung behind him and the senate declared for him. Abandoned by the legions in Italy, Nero fled to a villa outside Rome and, hearing hostile troops approaching, committed suicide rather than be dragged back to Rome and executed.

Reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba (8 June 68 to 15 January 69)

So the senate declared for Galba and he undertook the long march from Spain to the capital, where he was acclaimed emperor in June 68. However, Galba was:

  • old – he was 70 when he came to power
  • ruled badly and inconsistently, swayed by a cabal of corrupt advisers
  • didn’t pay the army as generously as it was expecting, especially the all-important Praetorian Guard which, as a result, turned against him (1.4)c

More importantly, on 1 January 69, the same day that Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. The following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of their province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

In a bid to secure his position, on 10 January Galba held a ceremony to adopt the 31-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his successor but it didn’t work. Just 5 days later, on 15 January, Galba was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (1.41). His successor, Piso, fled to the Temple of Vesta, but was dragged out and killed (1.43). Their heads were cut off and paraded round on pikes.

Reign of Marcus Otho (15 January to 16 April 69)

Tacitus’s account describes in detail how his successor, Marcus Otho, based in Rome, organised the conspiracy to assassinate Galba. Otho had been close to the centre of power for over a decade. He had initially been a friend and courtier of the young Nero, but Nero had an affair with and eventually married his wife, Poppaea Sabina, so had had Otho was dispatched to be governor the remote province of Lusitania in 58.

According to Tacitus Otho ruled Lusitania moderately for a decade. In the turmoil of summer 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, who was governor of neighbouring, Hispania Tarraconensis, and he accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, not unreasonably expecting a reward for his support. He was, therefore, aggrieved when Galba overlooked him to adopt Piso.

However, all these personal motives were dwarfed when Otho, now appointed emperor, read Galba’s imperial correspondence and for the first time realised the scale of the revolt of the army in Germany. Vitellius was leading his legions on a march on Rome à la Galba. Otho made an effort to negotiate, offering Vitellius a share in ruling the empire. When this was rejected, he assembled a fleet to control the coast and led his legions north where they undertook savage attacks on the civilians in the region.

Tacitus gives a detailed account of the movements of the legions of the various armies, Vitellius’s under the ambitious Aulus Caecina Alienus, Otho’s under Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus defeated Caecina at a battle near Cremona but Caecina was then joined by the other Vitellian army led by Fabius Valens for the key battle of the campaign which took place at Bedriacum on 14 April 69.

It was a disaster for Otho’s forces, with the historian Dio Cassius claiming that 40,000 Roman soldiers were killed on both sides. (Tacitus makes the interesting point that in a civil war there’s less point, in fact it’s illegal, to take prisoners and ransom to their families, as you can in war against foreigners. So you might as well just kill them.) The next day Otho’s forces surrendered and swore allegiance to Vitellius (2.45).

Otho had retained substantial forces at his main base at Brixellum, a few miles from the battlefield and they advised him to fight on but Otho, reluctant to be responsible for more Roman lives lost, chose to commit suicide. Otho was mocked during his life for his debauched lifestyle and flamboyant homosexuality. But his suicide struck the true Roman Stoic note and was remembered and praised. Tacitus treats Otho’s death nobly and gives him a stirring speech to his men (2.46 to 49):

It may be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously.

(A note on the Roman cult of suicide: Tacitus claims that a number of troops committed suicide beside Otho’s funeral pyre, and at the other Othonian camps both high and low committed suicide in order ‘to share his glory.’)

Reign of Aulus Vitellius (19 April to 20 December 69)

With Otho dead, Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate. Tacitus then enjoys himself hugely recounting the multiple instances of Vitellius’s disgraceful debauchery, spending fortunes on games and entertainments, listening to whoever flattered him most, letting the troops he’d brought to the capital run rampant and lose all discipline. Among the numerous executions and appointments, Vitellius failed to defuse the long-running rivalry between the two generals who had won his victory at Bedriacum, Caecina and Valens.

Indeed, as Tacitus repeatedly points out, it proved to be easier to claim the throne than to hold onto it. Vitellius’s claim was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the East (Judaea and Egypt) who proclaimed their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasian, emperor instead.

Vespasian had a formidable reputation as a military commander, having played a key role in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43, and he was involved in suppressing the Jewish rebellion (which had started in 66) when Nero committed suicide.

Leaving his son (and future emperor) Titus, in charge of the siege of the Jews in Jerusalem, Vespasian recruited the governor of Syria, Mucianus, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, to his cause, and sent them to march on Rome, the third such march by Roman legions in 12 months.

Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its vital grain supply when his troops entered Italy from the north-east under Primus’s leadership. With his determination, personal courage and charisma, Primus emerges as the ‘hero’, as Wellesley puts it, of book 3 of the Histories. After a confused series of clashes and manoeuvres, Primus’s legions defeated Vitellius’s army at the second battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69. They then stormed and sacked the nearby town of Cremona in scenes of chaos, rapine and then fire. Tacitus is ashamed of the utter destruction wrought by Roman troops on a venerable Roman city (3.33).

Meanwhile the two generals who had led Vitelius to the throne, Caecina and Valens, both abandoned him in different ways. Caecina led the first Vitellian forces north but betrayed them and his emperor by going over to the Vespasians. Valens was slow to leave Rome and when he learned of the defeat of the Vitellians at Bedriacum he abandoned his legions and took ship to Monaco, with a plan to enter Narbonensian Gaul and raise a general rebellion of the Gaulish and German tribes against Vespasian. As Tacitus comments, this would have been catastrophic if it had succeeded (3.41) but it didn’t. Valens’s ship was overtaken by a flotilla of fast Vespasian galleys. With his capture the wind went out of the Vitellian forces:

With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. (3.44)

Tacitus emphasises that Vitellius still had ample forces around Rome and if he had crossed the Apennines to attack the exhausted Flavian troops before reinforcements had arrived, could quite possibly have won. But he hadn’t a clue about military matters and surrounded himself with flattering courtiers who refused admittance to the centurions and commanders who could have given him sound advice (3.56).

Tacitus describes the confused scenes in Rome when Vitellius came down from the palace dressed in black, made an impassioned speech to the people, but was prevented by them, the Praetorian Guard and the German auxiliaries, from abdicating as he wanted to. (3.67-68) If his wish had been carried out much bloodshed and destruction would have been avoided.

If Vitellius had found it as easy to convert his follower as to give way himself, the army of Vespasian would have entered the capital without bloodshed. (3.66)

But Vitellius’s supporters’ obstinacy meant that the Flavian forces had to fight their way into Rome, destroying property and spreading carnage as they went.

The extraordinary story of Sabinus and Domitian

Vespasian had an older brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, who had had a successful public career. Throughout the year he had remained in Rome as successive rulers rose and fell. Staying with him was his nephew, Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian. Tacitus tell us that Vitellius was well aware of their presence but took no action against them so that his, Vitellius’s, extended family, living in various provinces, would also be unharmed.

But Sabinus wasn’t stupid and had reached out to the anti-Vitellian factions in the nobility and, when news came that Vitellius had abdicated, he mobilised these individuals and cohorts (‘the leading senators, a number of knights and representatives of the urban troops and of the watch’) and they declared for Vespasian as emperor. Then came the news that Vitellius had been forced to remain in power and the position of Sabinus’s little troupe became desperate. Scuffles between the opposing forces turned into fighting and Sabinus led his force up to the Capitoline Hill where they barricaded themselves in, where he was joined by his family and Domitian.

There followed an intense siege of the hill by the pro-Vitellian forces (3.71). Nobody knows whether it was the attackers or defenders who resorted to fire but somehow a fire started and spread to surrounding buildings, above all the venerable Temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest. This ancient building, full of tributes and testimonials from centuries of Roman history and military achievement, was burned to the ground.

This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. (3.72)

Eventually the Vitellians stormed the hill, while panic-stricken Flavians fled or hid or disguised themselves. Sabinus was seized along with his lieutenant, Quintius Atticus, put in chains and dragged before the now-powerless emperor who spoke calmly to them but was unable to stop them being dragged off by the impassioned mob, which stabbed and hacked Sabinus to death, cut off his head and threw his body onto the Gemonian Steps. Thus the end of a great Roman patriot, one among thousands of victims of Vitellius’s inability to rein in his own followers.

The fate of his nephew, Vespasian’s son and the future emperor Domitian, is even more colourful. As the besiegers broke in, Domitian hid in the house of the caretaker of the temple. Helped by a freedman he put on ‘a linen mantle’ and pretended to be a priest in order to get through the lines and then hide at the house of one of the family dependants. Once Vespasian was in power, Domitian demolished the caretaker’s house and built a small temple to Jupiter the Preserver. When he himself became emperor, he had a bigger temple erected to Jupiter the Guardian, with a statue depicting himself ‘under the protecting arm of the god’ (3.74).

So Primus’s legions were forced to fight their way into Rome with much bloodshed and destruction and, seizing the forlorn emperor-in-name-only Vitellius, they dragged him to the same Gemonian Steps where Sabinus’s body had been thrown a few days earlier, and there hacked him to death, on 20 December 69.

Throughout book 3 Tacitus describes how the Flavian side, although generally victorious in battle, was guilty of disagreement and delay, especially how Primus waited for the arrival of Mucianus and his Syrian troops. Other leaders heard of Vitellius’s abdication and thought the war was over. Tacitus finds it hard to apportion blame, but the combined effect was delay which was ‘fatal’ and had ‘tragic’ consequences of ‘unrelieved disaster’ i.e. the siege of the Capitol, the burning of the temple, the execution of Sabinus, and the eventual storming of Rome. The advance guard attacked the city walls on the evening of 19 December 68.

Next day the Flavian armies forced entry to the city at various gates amid scenes of rape and massacre. Tacitus vividly describes how the fighting took place in front of the entire population which watched it like spectators applauding a mock battle in the arena (3.83). Next day Domitian came out of hiding and was awarded the title Caesar but real power rested with the head of the conquering army, Antonius Primus. Within a few days the governor of Syria, Municianus arrived, and power shifted to him as official representative of Vespasian. Tacitus shows how the day-to-day business of politics i.e. speechifying, backstabbing, conspiring, senators prosecuting each other, carried on unchanged.

Reign of Vespasian (July 69 to June 79)

Vespasian ruled for ten years, establishing the Flavian dynasty (which lasted 27 years) which consisted of himself, his eldest son Titus (79 to 81) and second son, Domitian (81 to 96), survivor of the escapades on the Capitoline Hill. In fact Vespasian was the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son; the succession of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty had all been by adoption. Vespasian:

  • reformed Rome’s financial system of Rome
  • brought the campaign against the Jews to a successful conclusion with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 and the mass suicide of Jewish resisters at Masada in 74
  • initiated ambitious construction projects including commissioning the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Civilis’ revolt

But Tacitus doesn’t get round to any of this in what we have of his account. Instead, book 4 of his narrative focuses on developments in Germany. Here, months before the Flavian forces had even triumphed in Italy, a Romanised Batavian prince named Gaius Julius Civilis led a rebellion of German and Gaulish tribes which, at one point, threatened the complete independence of Gaul from Rome.

Tacitus describes the complex sequence of events by which Civilis united the tribes and then their attacks on Roman strongholds (notably the long siege of the Roman camp of Vetera), along with the appalling mismanagement on the Roman side, punctuated by mutinies by dissident soldiers (4.12 to 37).

Back in Rome

Tacitus cuts back to Rome to describe the start of the new year (70 AD) and the nominal consulships of Vespasian and his son Titus. However, as both were still absent in the East, it was Vespasian’s 18-year-old Domitian who found himself titled ‘Caesar’ and officiating at the first meetings of the Senate. Tacitus lists the usual senate business of making speeches, arguing about who was guilty of what crimes and betrayals during the reigns of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, feuds and prosecutions.

Vespasian, still in Egypt supervising Rome’s corn supply, was told bad things about Domitian arrogating too much power to himself, which threatened to turn him against his son, but this is the peg for Titus to make a speech asking clemency for his brother, on the basis that emperor’s needed to keep family close and well as the only true support they had (4.52). Tacitus then describes the reconsecration of the great temple of Jupiter (4.53).

More Civilis’ revolt

The interlude in Rome over, Tacitus returns to Julius Civilis’s rebellion on the Rhine (4.55 to 80). This continues to be very complex, in terms of the continually changing alliance between the tribes and their leaders (Civilis, Classicus, Tutor), the multiple military encounters at different locations, and the fact that one Roman legion is persuaded to defect to the tribals.

Despite setbacks the Romans won a hard-fought battle when the German coalition (the Batavi, Ubii, Lingones, Bructeri and Tencteri) attacked the Roman camp at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The Roman commander was Quintus Petillius Cerealis who rallied his troops to hold the narrow bridge over the Rhine before counter-attacking and destroying the German camp (4.77). But there were other German and Gaulish forces scattered around the Rhineland, not least in Cologne, so the war was far from over.

Book 4 ends with a few short passages describing Vespasian’s ongoing sojourn in Egypt and some anthropology about the origin of the popular god Serapis, but the war on the Rhine far from resolved.

Book 5

The Jews

The fifth book, of which only the first 26 chapters survive, opens by ignoring the situation in Germany and shifting the scene about 2,000 miles East to Jerusalem. The Jews had risen against Roman rule in 66 AD. Tacitus picks up the story at the start of 70 AD as Vespasian dispatches Titus to Judaea to undertake the siege of Jerusalem. This would fall amid general bloodshed in August of that year although Tacitus’s history breaks off before then.

First though Tacitus treats his readers to an extended history of the Jews, review of their religion and traditions which, as Wellesley puts it, is a ‘fascinating farrago of truth and lies’ (introduction, page 14). But Tacitus gets it right about the Jews’ seven-day week, their monotheism, their fierce attachment to discriminatory customs such as circumcision, eschewing pork, not ‘marrying out’ and so on.

All this leads up to a description of Titus, having pacified the rest of Judaea, arriving before the impressive walled city of Jerusalem which itself contains the citadel within a city of the Temple complex. The city is packed with refugees from the other Jewish cities Roman armies had reduced, and Titus sets about mounting a siege in the approved Roman fashion. (5.13)

Back to Civilis’ revolt

At this point the text leaves Titus to return to the war in Germany. Here there are many more battles and skirmishes between Civilis’s tribes and Romans, including a close escape when Cerealis’s camp is invaded. But the Romans survived and attacked the island in the Rhine estuary where the Batavians lived, devastating it.

As summer turned into autumn Cerealis kept up a flow of secret correspondence with the Germans offering them peace and a return to the status quo ante. The chiefs of the German tribes are coming to realise that they cannot defeat the Romans and have been led into a ruinous unwinnable war by Civilis. The narrative breaks off as Civilis calls Cerealis to a conference at either side of a ruined bridge at Nabalia and begins to justify his actions…

In other words we don’t get to see Titus conclude the siege of Jerusalem or Vespasian set sail for, let alone arrive at, Rome.

The Agricola

In 78 Vespasian appointed as governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who aggressively expanded Roman territory far into Scotland. In the same year the young historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter. Twenty years later, in an act of filial duty, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola which survives in its entirety and contains much invaluable information about the first century British, their tribes and customs. This book, the Agricola, was published around 98 AD. It was the first of his historical works.

Tacitus shares his editorial decisions

A very winning habit of Tacitus’s is to share with the reader the balance of the evidence in front of him and his opinions about it, particularly when it is questionable. He steps out of his narrative, as it were, and we get a strong sense of his personality, brisk, logical, hard-headed:

  • Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives’ tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. (2.50)
  • Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as ‘concern for peace’ and ‘patriotism’. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius’s affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. (2.101)
  • I find that some widely read historians vouch for the truth of the following story…(3.51)

Tacitus tells us (3.25) that for the detail of the fighting he follows the account of Lucius Vipstanus Messalla, a Roman of senatorial status, who was directly involved in the war, being temporary commander of the legion VII Claudia stationed in Moesia which entered the civil war on the Flavian side, and who wrote an account of the war once it was over. This history is now lost but young Tacitus befriended the older man and used it as one of the prime sources for this history.

Sententiae

Sententia is the Roman word for the kind of pithy general statement about human life, the universe etc that we call by the names proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims or apophthegms. The plural form is sententiae. 1) A sententia is a general reflection on life which can arise from the previous narrative, acting as a kind of summary, summarising events or someone’s character in a pithy generalisation. So after describing the differing views among the army and its commanders in the East, he summarises:

Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted war. (2.7)

2) A bit more squarely in the definition is this example where Tacitus describes the feverish rumours in Rome as Vitellius marched against Otho and then explains it by using a generalisation that his elite, crowd-despising, aristocratic audience would heartily endorse:

The cheers and cries of the crowd followed the usual pattern of flattery in being overdone and insincere…The passion for self-abasement operated as it does among domestic slaves, for each individual was prompted by selfishness and the decencies of public life now meant nothing. (1.89)

Hear hear, old chap. In fact the emptiness of public acclamation and the crassly craven behaviour of all mobs is a recurring theme and you can hear in Tacitus’s voice the scorn of a republican lamenting the hollow mob rule which the imperial form of government encouraged:

  • This was merely the accepted tradition whereby any emperor, no matter who he was, was acclaimed with extravagant applause and empty demonstration. (1.32)
  • [The defeated Othonian army turn on their leaders, blaming everyone except themselves.] This, of course, is typical of the mob. (2.44)
  • [On the entry of the despicable Vitellius into Rome] The lower classes are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval. (2.90)
  • In moments of fear the voice of wisdom and the gossip of the mob are listened to with equal alacrity. (3.58)

3) Or a sententia can be included in a flow of argument as a kind of proof. An author may cite a sententia summarising a common opinion or experience, with a view to winning the reader over to his point of view or recruiting the reader to his framework, his analysis:

  • Suspicion and hatred must always be the reaction of rulers towards the man talked of as the next in succession. (p.35)
  • Man’s character is such that he will always prefer to believe in mysteries. (1.22)
  • The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other. (2.29)
  • Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness. (4.3)
  • As good men derive their effectiveness from their virtues, so those who are really evil, derive theirs from their vices. (3.77)

This type assert a view of human nature or society which he uses as evidence to bolster his interpretation.

4) Or Tacitus may sometimes be consciously creating new generalisations to express his point of view. This was part of the new, briefer, more pithy style expected of Silver Age authors. (In Latin literature the Golden Age is said to have lasted from 70 BC to 18 AD, especially the long reign of Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD; while the Silver Age is said to be the period from about 18 to 133 AD.)

Cicero write long, flowing, declamatory prose. Tacitus also writes long sentences, but more packed with information than concern for writerly balance. And they are frequently punctuated by shorter, pithy reflections and summaries. With sententia:

  • No one has ever made good use of power evilly gained. (1.30)
  • As is so often the case with brazen falsehoods, certain individuals asserted that they had been present when the deed was done and had witnessed it. (p.40)
  • Once killing starts it is difficult to draw the line. (1.39)
  • Discipline, however inflexible in peace-time, is relaxed in civil conflicts, where agents are ready to discourage disloyalty on either side, and treachery goes unpunished. (1.51)
  • There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor’s displeasure. (2.38)
  • Revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives [or ‘the practice of virtue]. (4.1)

Tacitus frequently made me smile with his droll comments on human nature. On several occasions emperors tried to smother bad news about defeats in the field, but banning rumour only ’caused it to multiply’. (3.54) That Homo sapiens, eh? Those mobs, those crowds, those foolish fickle humans.

Pithy

Sometimes Tacitus is just wonderfully brief and punchy.

  • A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. (3.15)
  • Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting. (3.45)
  • [Of Vitellius] Emperor no longer, he was merely the cause of the fighting. (3.70)

Conclusions

1. Instability of the emperor

Tacitus draws the major conclusion from all these events right at the beginning: the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex and then Galba revealed the secret of the principate which had been concealed throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was that: it was possible for an emperor to be chosen from outside Rome (1.4). More specifically, it set the pattern for centuries to come, of new emperors being acclaimed by provincial armies then marching on Rome to establish their claim.

For some periods of time ‘dynasties’ endured which ordered the succession through biological or adopted relatives. But throughout 400 year history of the Roman Empire from this year onwards, simmering beneath the appearance of stability, was the threat of the violent rise of a provincial leader to overthrow the central imperial power.

2. Instability of the army

The second conclusion, closely related to the first, is that the troops were motivated not by ideology or loyalty but, above all, by the promise of loot. Time after time in the 280 pages of this narrative, commanders, governors and emperors are threatened by their own men, surrounded, mobbed, shouted at, with the soldiers’ goal almost always being the same: loot. Vitellius was unable to control the praetorian guard or German auxiliaries in Rome, and then Antonius Primus was unable to stop the sack and fire and massacre of the triumphant army as it ransacked every house looking for valuables or women to rape.

As the narrative proceeds Tacitus gives evermore examples of the terrible discipline into which all the legions and cohorts, on all sides, seemed to fall.

The troops clamoured for immediate action and threatening their officers had by now become a habit. (4.34)

3. Permanent war

Stepping back a bit, I might be missing the wood for the trees because I suppose the biggest take home from this long text is that Rome was a military empire engaged in almost constant warfare. All of Rome’s politicians and statesmen were expected to take command of armies engaged in real warfare at the drop of a hat (even Cato in North Africa, even Cicero during his year in Asia). It was a militaristic culture in which the activity of war dominated all aspects of politics and culture to an extent I don’t think we moderns can really understand.

Reading experience and translations

Once you bed down into it, Tacitus’s account is gripping. He is, after all, reporting a very dramatic series of events:

The story upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason and even in peace, sinister. (1.2)

The course of events allows him to stage melodramatic scenes and give stirring speeches to key characters at decisive moments. But he is a master of narrative. Possibly because the subject matter itself is gripping and fast-moving, but I found the Histories a much more enjoyable read than the more diffuse and sometimes repetitive Annals (all those informers, all those treason trials, all those forced suicides – even Tacitus himself admitted to getting bored with his own narrative).

Take the couple of chapters describing the abortive rising of Sabinus and the other pro-Flavians when they thought Vitellius had abdicated, which leads into the siege of the Capitoline Hill, the fire destroying the Temple of Jupiter, Sabinus arrest and lynching and the daredevil escape of young Domitian. This is a wonderfully dramatic and exciting story and Tacitus tells it clearly and vividly.

Some of the narrative’s power must be down to Wellesley’s translation which enlivens the bare Latin with colloquial English phrases (‘old wives’ tales’, ‘run for the hills’, ‘discipline went to pieces’ 4.1, ‘he was the last man to make trouble’, 4.38, ‘Marcellus looking daggers, Crispus all smiles’ 4.43) which really bring the narrative to life, giving it a more popular, colourful vibe than I suspect a literal translation would.

Also, it appears that at least some of the pithiness which I so enjoy derives from Wellesley. Here’s Anthony Kline’s translation of the first phrase of book 3 chapter 79. I assume Kline gives a literal translation of the Latin which explains why it is rather flat and factual.

Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief.

And here’s Wellesley’s version:

The night was far advanced before Antonius, marching to the rescue down the Flaminian Way, reached Saxa Rubra. It was too late. (3.79)

You can see that Wellesley has altered it in several ways, two of which stand out. 1) ‘The night was far advanced’ sounds like a boy’s own adventure trope, on a par with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ It introduces a dash of Victorian adventure story flavour. 2) Where Kline has the flat ‘but now too late to bring relief’ Wellesley makes this phrase into a separate, clipped sentence, creating the taut, laconic style of a thriller. He does this throughout the text, sprinkling tough punchy little sentences which convey an enjoyable sense of narrative threat and suspense:

The explosion was not long in coming. (4.32)

In other words, Wellesley’s translation (as far as I can tell) tends to turn Tacitus into a gripping adventure story and ripping yarn, which is part of what makes his version such a compelling read. Along with Rolfe Humphries’ Englishing of Lucretius and Peter Green’s versions of Ovid, it’s one of the most enjoyable translations I’ve read.


Credit

The Histories of Tacitus, translated by Kenneth Wellesley, was published by Penguin Books in 1964. All quotes are from the 1986 revised paperback edition.

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The Life of Nero by Suetonius

Executive summary

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD. He was the fifth Roman emperor and the final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, reigning from 54 AD until his suicide in 68, aged just 33.

He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, one of the daughters of Germanicus and sister to the emperor Gaius (Caligula). After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Germanicus’ brother Claudius – who was Agrippina’s uncle – took the throne. Claudius took his niece as his fourth wife in 49 AD.

A year later Claudius was persuaded by Agrippina to adopt her son, Lucius Domitius, and make him his heir. Nero was 13 when he was adopted. When Claudius died (in October 54) it was widely believed that Agrippina poisoned him to ensure her son succeeded to the throne before Claudius’s biological son by his third wife, Britannicus, came of age and presented a more natural successor. A year later, Nero had Britannicus murdered to secure his position.

Nero was 17 when he came to the throne. In the early years of his reign Nero was advised and guided by his mother Agrippina, his tutor Seneca the Younger, and his praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus and ruled moderately and well. But he soon sought to rule independently and to rid himself of restraining influences. His power struggle with his mother was eventually resolved when he had her murdered in 59. Both the murder of Britannicus and Agrippina have elements of farcical ineptitude (see below).

Nero was popular with the members of his Praetorian Guard and lower-class commoners in Rome and its provinces. He organised lavish games, he periodically gave money to the people, he carried out modernising building works. But he was deeply resented by the Roman aristocracy.

The historically closest sources we have – Suetonius in his Lives and Tacitus in his Annals – describe Nero as tyrannical, self-indulgent, and debauched. But then, they were all written under the aegis of the dynasty which succeeded the Julio-Claudians – the Flavians – and so, to some extent, represent propaganda for that dynasty with the aim of rubbishing the emperors which came before.

After his increasingly debauched, spendthrift and reckless rule alienated the aristocracy, Nero was declared a public enemy by the Roman Senate, and forced to flee Rome to a country estate where he committed suicide at the age of 33.

Nero’s death led to chaos as three military commanders vied for supremacy, in what came to be called the Year of Four Emperors, AD 69, the rivals being Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.

I’ve reviewed Suetonius’s biographies of the four emperors who preceded Nero, namely Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius and along the way given several summaries of Suetonius’s approach. This is to give a brisk overview of his subject’s biography before moving on to look at specific areas of the emperor’s person – his appearance, family history and relationships, personality, quotes, the omens which surrounded his birth and death, and much other gossip and scandal.

Suetonius’s life of Nero is 57 (short) chapters long. It can be divided into five sections or parts:

  • the first five chapters describe Nero’s male forebears among the Ahenobarbi family
  • chapters 6 to 19 describe ‘Nero’s less atrocious acts’, many actually deserving praise
  • then, at chapter 20, Suetonius lets rip and commences a lurid account of Nero’s ‘follies and crimes’
  • chapters 40 to 49 give a long drawn-out description of his moral collapse following the revolt in Gaul, his abandonment by servants and friends, his flight from Rome and suicide
  • 50 to 57 describe his funeral and the aftermath

Suetonius’s life of Nero

The first five chapters describe Nero’s make forebears from the Ahenobarbi family:

  • Nero’s great-great-great grandfather, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, when tribune of the commons in 104 BC, was enraged at the priests for choosing someone else as pontifex maximus, so he transferred the right of filling vacancies in the priesthoods from the colleges themselves to the people in the Tribal Assembly (the law was subsequently repealed by Sulla). Having defeated the Allobroges and the Arverni in his consul­ship, he rode through the province on an elephant, attended by a throng of soldiers, in a kind of triumphal procession
  • His son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (98 to 48 BC), when consul in 54 BC, tried to deprive Caesar of the command of the armies in Gaul. The senate appointed him to succeed Caesar as governor of further Gaul and when Caesar invaded Italy in 49, he was the only one of the aristocratic party who showed any energy or courage, organising the defense of Corfinium. When Corfinium was taken Caesar characteristically granted him clemency but he rejoined the aristocratic party. He was killed at the battle of Pharsalus and is mentioned in one of Cicero’s speeches as a principled example of the old Republic.
  • He left a son, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (died 31 BC) who was beyond all question better than the rest of the family. He was condemned among those involved in Caesar’s assassination and so went to join Brutus and Cassius. Upon their defeat he surrendered the republican fleet to Mark Antony. This Ahenobarbus successively held all the highest offices including consul in 32 BC. When the civil war between Augustus and Anthony broke out, he was appointed one of Antony’s lieutenants, but defected to Octavian just a few days before the decisive battle of Actium. Although Antony was upset by this betrayal, he still sent him all his gear, his friends and his attendants. (This incident is described in Plutarch’s Life of Anthony, chapter 63.) He died just a few days later.
  • Gnaeus had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (49 BC to 25 AD) who was later well known for being named in Augustus’ will as the purchaser of his goods and chattels. He won the insignia of a triumph in the war in Germany. He gave a gladiatorial games so cruel that Augustus admonished him. He married Antonia the Elder (niece of emperor Augustus) and had a son:
  • This man, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (2 BC to 41 AD) was widely hated: while on the staff of Gaius Caesar out East he murdered one of his own freedmen for refusing to drink as much as he ordered. In a village on the Appian Way, suddenly whipping up his team, he purposely ran over and killed a boy. In the Roman Forum he gouged out the eye​ of a Roman knight for being too outspoken in chiding him. When praetor he defrauded the victors in the chariot races of their prizes. Just before the death of Tiberius he was charged with treason, adultery and incest with his sister Lepida, but escaped owing to the change of rulers. Domitius married his first cousin once removed, Agrippina the Younger, Caligula’s sister, after her thirteenth birthday in 28. He was far older than her at the time. Tiberius arranged the marriage. Nine years later his son by Agrippina, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was born.

6. Nero was born at on 15 December 37, nine months after the death of Tiberius. When shown the baby his father is supposed to have remarked that ‘any child born to him and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger’. At the age of three Nero’s father died but his fellow heir Gaius seized all the property.

He had a troubled upbringing in this cursed family. First Gaius banished his mother so that young Domitius was brought up in relative poverty in the house of his aunt Lepida, who assigned him as tutors a dancer and a barber. But when Claudius became emperor, in 41, he restored to Nero his father’s legacy added to it, and recalled his mother from exile.

There is a widely attested legend that Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, came to regard the boy Nero as a rival to her own son, Britannicus, and so sent assassins to murder him, and that they were at the cradle when they were scared away by a snake which suddenly appeared from under his pillow. [A clear copy of the legend of Hercules strangling snakes as a baby.]

[After Claudius had Messalina executed, in 48 AD, for bigamously marrying the senator Gaius Silius and plotting against him, he proceeded to take this same Agrippina as his fourth wife, despite her being his niece, marrying her on New year’s Day 49. At this point Domitius became Claudius’s step-son and Agrippina persuaded Claudius to formally adopted him as his son and heir. This was when the boy was given an entirely new name, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.]

7. Domitius/Nero was ten years old when he was adopted by Claudius and assigned the senator and writer Annaeus Seneca as tutor. He almost immediately began a campaign to discredit Britannicus and his surviving relatives.

Nero entered public life aged just 14, reviewing march pasts of the army, pleading the cause of towns with cases before Claudius, appearing as a judge. When he turned 16 (in 53), Nero married Claudius’s daughter (i.e. his own step-sister), Claudia Octavia. He gave games and a beast-baiting in the Circus.

8. Nero was just 17 when the death of Claudius was announced. Most commentators think Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina because she was worried Britannicus would soon come of age and Claudius would change his mind and make his biological son heir. Nero was hailed emperor on the steps of the Palace, carried in a litter to the praetorian camp, made a brief address to the soldiers, and proceeded to the Senate House where he was awarded all manner of honours.

9. He started off with displays of filial duty, giving Claudius a magnificent funeral then paying the highest honours to the memory of his father Domitius. He left to his mother the management of all public and private business. He often rode with her through the streets in her litter. He curried favour with the Praetorian Guard, such a key player in Roman politics since it had been consolidated by Sejanus, by establishing a colony for them at Antium and building a harbour there at great expense.

10. Nero proclaimed he would model his rule on Augustus. He was conspicuously generous. He abolished some taxes and lowered others. popularity. He lowered rewards paid to informers. He distributed a largess of 400 sesterces to the commons and granted the poorest senators a salary. Like Augustus he had a good memory and greeted men of all ranks by name. Wise and popular moves.

11. Nero gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales,​ chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays and a gladiatorial show. He organised races for chariots drawn by four camels. At the Great Festival (Ludi Maximi) he organised a series of plays devoted to the eternity of the Empire.

12. At the gladiatorial show Nero had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he did compel 400 senators and 600 Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Some were forced to fight with the wild beasts or perform various services in the arena. He arranged a huge naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it. And numerous dances which were a kind of ballet based on legendary themes (the life of the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus).

He inaugurated the ‘Neronia’, a festival of competitions in music, gymnastics and horsemanship, modelled on the Greek ones. Nero recited his own poetry and was unanimously awarded the prize for oratory. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta he shaved his chin for the first time, to the accompaniment of a great sacrifice of bullocks, and put the wispy hairs in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it to the Capitoline Jupiter.

13. Suetonius describes the elaborate ceremonial surrounding the entrance of Tiridates, king of Armenia, into Rome and his obeisance before Nero on a sumptuously decorated platform and then again, in the Theatre. After which Nero to great applause closed the doors of the temple of Janus to signify that the whole empire was at peace.

14. Nero held four consul­ships.

15. Nero was secretive about deciding law cases, insisting on being given full written explanations of both sides of a case and retiring to consider them in private. He began to tamper with the constitution. He refused to admit the sons of freedmen to the senate. He began to appoint consuls for six months instead of the customary 12. He conferred the triumphal regalia even on men of the rank of quaestor, as well as on some of the knights, and sometimes for other than military services. When he sent speeches to be read to the senate he did so via consuls instead of the quaestors, as had been customary.

16. Nero introduced a new style of architecture to Rome, building porches out in front of houses and apartment blocks whose flat roofs allowed fires to be fought. He considered extending the city walls as far as the port of Ostia and to bring the sea from there to Rome by a canal.

During his reign many abuses were put down. Sumptuary laws limited private expenditures. Expensive public banquets were replaced by a distribution of grain. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition. He ended the licence afforded to chariot drivers, of being able to walk down the street cheating and robbing the people. All pantomime actors and their hangers-on were expelled from the city.

17. Nero made many legal reforms including promulgating protection against forgers, preventing will writers from adding clauses benefiting themselves, and that customers should pay a fixed and reasonable fee for the services of their lawyers.

18. Nero showed no interest in extending the bounds of the empire and considered withdrawing the army from Britain and only changed his mind because it would have diminished the memory of his adoptive father, Claudius. Two minor territorial extensions occurred when the kingdom of Pontus was ceded to Rome by its king, Polemon, and when part of the Alps reverted to Roman control on the death of its king, Cottius.

19. Nero planned two foreign tours but cancelled one to Alexandria after bad omens. He went to Greece where he proposed building a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, going so far as to breaking ground with a mattock and to carrying off a basket­ful of earth upon his shoulders before an audience of the Praetorian Guard. He also prepared for an expedition to the Caspian Gates, after enrolling a new legion of raw recruits of Italian birth, each six feet tall, which he grandly called ‘the phalanx of Alexander the Great.’

Chapter 20 marks a dividing point in the biography. Up to this point Suetonius had listed Nero’s respectable and positive achievements, many of which deserved praise. But from this point onwards, Suetonius announces that he will catalogue Nero’s ‘follies and crimes’.

Nero the performer

20. Nero enjoyed music. As soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest lyre-player of the day, made him perform over successive nights over dinner, and then began to take lessons. And perform the exercises required, namely: lying on his back with a slab of lead on his chest; using enemas and emetics to keep down his weight; refrained from eating apples and other fruits considered damaging to the health (!) Despite all this his voice remained weak and husky.

Nero made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake. He was impressed by the rhythmical clapping of crowds from Alexandria and commissioned some knights and 5,000 commoners to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause. They were divided into ‘the bees’ (who made a loud humming noise), ‘the roof-tiles’ (who clapped with hollow hands) and ‘the bricks’ (who clapped with flat palms). They were ordered to attend all Nero’s performances and applaud loudly after his performance. You could tell them by their thick hair, splendid dress, and the absence of rings on their left hands. The knights who led them were paid 400 gold pieces for each performance.

21. Nero repeated the Neronian games so he could sing at them. ​He arranged it so the crowd clamoured to hear him, dropped his name into the urn to take pot luck along with everyone else, but made sure he was called and then came forward, attended by prefects of the Praetorian Guard carrying his lyre, had an ex-consul announce him and then performed the song of Niobe until late in the afternoon.

He toyed with performing opposite professional actors in public shows. He did actually perform in tragedies, taking the parts of mortals and gods, sometimes even goddesses, wearing masks modelled on his own, or women’s masked based on his lover of the moment. He performed in ‘Canace in Childborth’, ‘Orestes the Matricide’, ‘The Blinding of Oedipus’ and the ‘Frenzy of Hercules’. There’s a story that , the last of these plays, a young recruit, seeing the emperor in rags and fetters, dashed forward to his assistance. [Like so many Roman anecdotes, a bit too good to be true.]

22. Nero was obsessed with horse racing from an early age and played with toys of chariots and horses. Once in power, he attended every race day and made no secret of his wish to have the number of races and prizes increased.

He desperately wanted to drive a chariot himself and, after practicing in the privacy of his own grounds, made a public appearance at the Circus Maximus (when one of his freedmen replaced the magistrate who usually took the job of dropping the napkin to start the race).

He went to Greece because all the cities which held musical competitions had swiftly adopted the sycophantic practice of awarding the emperor top prize. He declared that ‘the Greeks were the only ones who had an ear for music and that they alone were worthy of my efforts.’

So he took ship to Greece and immediately on arriving at Cassiope gave his first recital before the altar of Jupiter Cassius, and then went the round of all the contests.

23. During his visit to Greece Nero used his power to make the Greeks hold competitions between the usual intervals and introduced a musical competition into the Olympic Games. When his advisers told him he was needed back at Rome he angrily told them he had to remain performing in Greece until he had proved himself worthy of Nero.

No one was allowed to leave a theatre when Nero was performing. So Suetonius shares comic stories of women giving birth to children there, some secretly dropping down from the back wall, some even feigning death in order to be carried out. He sucked up to his rivals, praising them to their faces but badmouthing them behind their backs. When they were particularly good performers, he bribed them to sing badly. He addressed the judges in deferential terms but was surprisingly nervous before each performance.

24. Nero took the competitions very seriously, scrupulously observing the rules most scrupulously, never daring to clear his throat nor wipe the sweat from his brow with his arm (both actions which lost the competitor points). To obliterate the memory of all other victors in games​ he had their statues and busts taken down and placed in public lavatories.

Nero drove a chariot in many places. At Olympia he drove a ten-horse team, a novelty. He fell from the chariot, had to be helped back into it and failed to complete the course, but he received the prize just the same. The judges weren’t stupid. On his departure he presented the entire province with freedom​ and gave the judges Roman citizen­ship and money. He announced these gifts in in person during the Isthmian Games, standing in the middle of the stadium.

25. Arriving back at Naples, Nero ordered part of the wall to be razed so he could ride white horses through the gap, as was customary with victors in the sacred games.​ He entered Antium, then Albanum and finally Rome in the same manner. In Rome he rode in the same chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic wreath, the Pythian wreath in his right hand. Other wreaths were borne before him with placards describing where he won them, what he sang, who the competition was. He processed through the city to the cheers of the adoring crowd and the accompaniment of lavish sacrifices.

He placed the victor’s wreaths above the couches in his sleeping quarters and set up several statues of himself playing the lyre, and had a coin struck with the same image.

[What an extraordinary travesty and mockery of the military triumphs of the preceding centuries.]

In order to preserve his voice, Nero never addressed the soldiers except by letter or in a speech delivered by others, he never did anything for amusement or in earnest without a voice trainer by his side, to warn him to spare his vocal organs and hold a handkerchief to his mouth. He made friends or enemies according to how enthusiastically they applauded him.

Delinquent behaviour

26. Meanwhile, Nero performed his first acts of wantonness, lust, extravagance, avarice and cruelty in secret. Some might say boys will be boys, but this was the true Nero coming out.

When night fell, he took a cap or wig and went from tavern to tavern, roaming the streets performing pranks, but these weren’t harmless. He used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers. He broke into shops then sold the loot openly in the market. After he was beaten almost to death by a senator whose wife he had maltreated, he thenceforth had a squad of tribunes follow him at a distance and unobserved.

He attended the theatre in the upper part of the proscenium. When fights broke out on stage (fighting with stones and broken benches) Nero himself threw many missiles at the people and even broke a praetor’s head.

Lavish feasts

27. Slowly Nero’s decadent behaviour became more overt and entrenched. His feasts lasted from noon till midnight with breaks for a swim in a warm bath or, if it was summer, into snow-cooled water. Sometimes he drained the artificial lakes in the Campus Martius or the Circus and held banquets there, including prostitutes and dancing girls as guests.

Whenever he cruised down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, he had rows of temporary brothels set up along the shore, where married women, pretending to be inn-keepers, solicited him to come ashore. [This is the kind of story which seems superficially colourful but as soon as you think about the practicalities, seems wildly impractical.]

He forced his friends to hold lavish banquets: one friend spent 4 million sesterces on a banquet where everyone wore turbans were distributed, another spent even more on a rose dinner.

Sex

28. Not satisifed with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin, Rubria. Then he tried to marry the freed-woman Acte by bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth.

He tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castrating him and then went through a marriage ceremony with him, dowry, bridal veil and all, took him back to the palace attended by a huge crowd and lived with him as man and wife. This gave rise to a joke that the world would have been a better place if Nero’s father had taken that kind of wife.

Nero dressed this Sporus in all the finery of an empress and took him everywhere with him in his litter, kissing him openly in public.

It was no secret that he lusted after his mother. it was said that only her enemies held him back, fearing that she would gain such control over him that her power would be absolute. So Nero added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look just like Agrippina. Others said that they had incestuous relations whenever he rode in a litter with his mother; you could tell by the stains when he emerged.

29. Nero ran through every type of obscenity and invented new ones. He devised a game in which he dressed in the skin of wild animals, was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women who were bound to stakes. When he had worked himself up to a frenzy he was ‘finished off’ by his freedman Doryphorus.

In fact he got this Doryphorus to marry him, as he had married Sporus, and on their ‘wedding night’ imitated the screams and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered. Like perverts, abusers, wife beaters and misogynists everywhere, he thought all men were secretly just like him, but kept their vices hidden.

Extravagance

30. Nero believed money should be lavished on riotous extravagance. He thought it the mark of a true gentleman to waste and squander. He admired his uncle (his mother Agrippina’s brother, Gaius aka Caligula) because in less than four years he ran through the huge fortune it had taken Tiberius 30 years to amass.

He spent 8,000 gold pieces a day on King Tiridates and on his departure from Rome gave him more than a million. He gave the lyre-player Menecrates and the gladiator Spiculus houses and estates worthy of men who had celebrated triumphs. He was equally generous to the monkey-faced usurer Paneros and later on, had him buried with almost regal splendour.

Nero never wore the same garment twice. He staked 4,000 gold pieces on each throw of the dice. When he went fishing he used a golden net. It was said that he never made a journey with less than a thousand carriages. His mules were shod with silver and their drivers clad in wool from Canusium. He was attended by outriders with jingling bracelets and trappings.

Building works

31. Nero’s wastefulness was most on show in his architectural projects. He built a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called ‘The Passageway’. After it burned down, he had it rebuilt and named it the Golden House.

The entrance hall was large enough to hold a statue of himself 120 feet high. The triple-pillared colonnade ran for a mile. A huge lake was surrounded with buildings designed to represent entire cities and by a landscaped garden containing ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodland, where every type of domestic animal roamed at large.

Parts of the house were inlaid with gold and studded with precious jewels. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory. The panels could be drawn back to rain down dried flowers or perfume. The main banqueting hall was circular and its roof revolved day and night in time with the sky.

When this enormous luxury palace was completed he uttered some immortal words which can go down as the motto for every sybarite and decadent ever since: ‘Good. Now at last I can begin to live like a human being!’

He also began a covered bath, surrounded by colonnades, which stretched from Misenum to Lake Avernus. The plan was to divert all the hot springs in the Baiae region to feed it. Another grand project was to build a ship canal from Avernus all the way to Ostia, 160 miles long and wide enough for two quinqueremes to pass. Prisoners from all over the empire were to be brought in to build it.

He was led on to these wild extravagances by the promises of a Roman knight, who declared that the enormous wealth which queen Dido had taken with her in her flight from Tyre was hidden away in huge caves in Africa and could be easily recovered.

32. When this hope, inevitably, proved false, Nero found himself destitute, discovered that he didn’t even have enough money for the soldiers’ pay or veterans benefits. So he found himself forced to resort to false accusations and robbery. He increased taxes and excises. He seized the estates of anyone rich who died without leaving him enough in their will, and fined lawyers who wrote unsatisfactory wills.

Any man whose words or deeds left him exposed to accusation by an informer was accused of treason. He recalled the lavish gifts he had given to the Greek cities. He decoyed marketeers into buying amethystine or Tyrian dyes (both illegal under the sumptuary laws) then closed them all down and seized their goods. Once he spotted an aristocratic lady wearing this illegal colour at one of his recitals and had her dragged off, stripped off her clothes, but also of her estates.

When he appointed magistrates his instructions were simple: ‘You know my needs; let us leave no-one with any possessions.’ In the end he was forced to strip temples of their gifts and melted down the images of gold and silver, among them the household gods of Rome itself. (Galba, soon afterwards, had them all recast and restored).

Murdering Claudius

33. Claudius himself was the first victim of Nero’s murderous career, for even if Nero wasn’t directly involved in his uncle’s poisoning, he knew all about it, as he later admitted. For he used to mockingly praise mushrooms (the dish by which Claudius was poisoned) as ‘the food of the gods’. After the initial phase of filial duty was over, he took to openly insulting Claudius as stupid and cruel. He joked that he hoped Claudius wasn’t still ‘playing the fool’ in heaven. Nero annulled many of Claudius’s edicts on the ground that he was a doddering old idiot.

Murdering Britannicus

Nero attempted to poison Britannicus for two reasons: a) trivially, he was jealous that Britannicus’s voice was better than his b) he worried that, as he grew up, the people would come to prefer the natural son of Claudius to him, the adoptive one. The Suetonius gives what purports to be a detailed account of how Nero commissioned an arch-poisoner named Locusta to kill his half-brother and, when it didn’t work, flogged her with his own hand. He forced her to devise a stronger and stronger poison, which they tried on a goat – it took 5 hours to work, so he had her reduce it further, and try on a pig, which died on the spot.

That night at dinner Nero administered it to Britannicus who dropped dead at the very first taste. Nero assured the horrified guests that Britannicus was having an epileptic fit but the next day had him hastily buried in a pouring rainstorm, without any ceremony. He rewarded Locusta for her services with a large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils to study the art of poison.

Murdering Agrippina

34. The over-watchful, over-protective eye that his mother, Agrippina the Younger, shone on Nero eventually proved more than he could bear. At first he tried to intimidate her by threatening to retire to Rhodes (as his grandfather Tiberius had done 60 years earlier). He then deprived her of all honours, even of her Roman and German guard. He forbade her to live with him and drove her from the Palace.

He bribed men to annoy her with lawsuits while she remained in the city, and after she had retired to the country, to pass her house by land and sea and break her rest with abuse and mockery. At last, terrified by her violence and threats, he determined to have her life, and after thrice attempting it by poison and finding that she had made herself immune by antidotes, he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom, contriving a mechanical device for loosening its panels and dropping them upon her while she slept.

When this leaked out through some of those connected with the plot, he devised a collapsible boat, to destroy her by shipwreck or by the falling in of its cabin. Then he pretended a reconciliation and invited her in a most cordial letter to come to Baiae and celebrate the feast of Minerva​ with him. He then instructed his captains to wreck the galley in which she had come, by running into it as if by accident. So she had to return to Bauli in the craft he offered her. He saw her off in high spirits, then spent the night anxiously waiting for news.

When he learned that the ship had foundered, alright, but Agrippina had escaped by swimming, he had a dagger thrown down beside her freedman who had brought the news, and ordered that he had made an attempt on his life. The freedman was promptly arrested, tortured, admitted being part of a plot to assassinate the emperor, his mother was part of it, and so she too was executed, giving out that she had tried to assassinate him but then committed suicide when she learned the plan had failed. He is said to have travelled to her house and handled her limp limbs, assessing her looks, between swigs of wine.

However, her memory haunted him and gave him bad dreams. He told confidants that he was hounded by his mother’s ghost and by the whips and blazing torches of the Furies. He even had rites performed by Persian magicians, in an effort to summon her shade and entreat it for forgiveness.

Then he murdered his aunt, Domitia Lepida. He visited her when she was confined to her bed with constipation and ordered her doctors to poison her, seizing her property before she was cold, suppressing her will, that nothing might escape him.

Nero’s wives

35. Besides Octavia Nero later took two wives, Poppaea Sabina, daughter of an ex-quaestor and married to a Roman knight, and then Statilia Messalina. To take Statilia he had to murder her husband Atticus Vestinus while he held the office of consul.

He soon grew tired of living with Octavia. He made several attempts to strangle her, then divorced her on the ground of barrenness. This was unpopular, so then he banished her. And finally he had her put to death on a charge of adultery that was so shameless and unfounded, that even when her slaves were tortured they refused to validate it.

Nero dearly loved Poppaea, whom he married twelve days after his divorce from Octavia, yet he caused her death by kicking her when she was pregnant and ill, because she had scolded him for coming home late from the races.

There is no kind of relation­ship that he did not violate in his career of crime. He put to death Antonia, daughter of Claudius, for refusing to marry him after Poppaea’s death, charging her with an attempt at revolution. He treated in the same way all others who were in any way connected with him by blood or by marriage.

Among these was the young Aulus Plautius, whom he forcibly defiled before his death, saying ‘Let my mother come now and kiss my successor,’ implying that Agrippina had loved Plautius and that this had roused him to hopes of the throne.

Rufrius Crispinus, a mere boy, his stepson and the child of Poppaea, he ordered to be drowned by the child’s own slaves while he was fishing, because it was said that he used to play at being a general and an emperor.

He banished his nurse’s son Tuscus, because when procurator in Egypt, he had bathed in some baths which were built for a visit of Nero’s.

He drove his tutor Seneca to suicide, although when the old man often pleaded to be allowed to retire and offered to give up his estates, Nero had sworn most solemnly that he was wrong to suspect him and that he would rather die than harm him.

He sent poison to Burrus, prefect of the Guard, in place of a throat medicine which he had promised him. The old and wealthy freedmen who had helped him first to his adoption and later to the throne, and aided him by their advice,​ he killed by poison, administered partly in their food and partly in their drink.

36. Two conspiracies against Nero’s life were uncovered. The earlier and more dangerous of these was that of Piso at Rome; the other was set on foot by Vinicius at Beneventum. The conspirators made their defence in fetters, some voluntarily admitting their guilt, some saying they were doing a favour to man so steeped in evil as Nero. The children of those who were condemned were banished or put to death by poison or starvation: a number are known to have been murdered all together at a single meal along with their tutors and attendants.

37. After this Nero showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whoever he pleased on any pretext whatever. Salvidienus Orfitus was charged with having let to certain states as headquarters three shops which formed part of his house near the Forum; Cassius Longinus, a blind jurist, with retaining in the old family tree of his house the mask of Gaius Cassius, the assassin of Julius Caesar; Paetus Thrasea with having a sullen expression.

To those ordered to die he never granted more than an hour’s respite, and to avoid any delay, he brought physicians who were ordered to ‘attend to’ such as lingered – that was the phrase he used for killing them by opening their veins.

Puffed up by success, Nero boasted that no prince had ever known the power he, Nero, now enjoyed. He broadly hinted that he would not spare the senate, but would one day blot out the whole order from the State and hand over the rule of the provinces and command of the armies to the Roman knights and his freedmen.

He even made vows ‘for himself and the people of Rome’, leaving the senate out of the traditional formula.

The great fire of Rome

38. Displeased with the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city. Some granaries near the Golden House, whose location he desired, were demolished and set on fire. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs.

An immense number of common dwellings, houses of great military leaders along with all their treasures and insignia, along with the temples of the gods, and ancient monuments of historical interest, all went up in flames. Nero watched the fire from the tower of Maecenas​, exulting in ‘the beauty of the flames’ and sang the entire ‘Sack of Ilium’ in his regular stage costume.

He set out to profit from the disaster so, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost, he allowed no one to approach the ruins of their own property so he could loot them. And he demanded such exorbitant contributions from the provinces for the rebuilding that he nearly bankrupted them.

39. Disaster was added to disaster. A plague killed 30,000. In Britain two important towns were sacked and great numbers of citizens and allies were butchered. (The towns were Camulodunum [Meldon] and Verulamium [St. Albans]. According to the historian Xiphilinus, 80,000 perished).

A Roman army was defeated in Armenia and Syria was all but lost.

The Gaulish revolt

40. After the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off, and the first steps began in Gaul. Gaul at that time was governed by Julius Vindex as propraetor who now rose against the emperor, sending him a series of increasingly abusive messages. When he heard of the Gaul rebellion, at first Nero was delighted, thinking this would give him the opportunity to fleece the rebellious provinces. When it escalated, he did his best to ignore it.

41. At last a series of insulting edicts of Vindex prompted him to address the senate (but only by letter) to avenge him and the state. When more urgent despatches reached Antium Nero finally repaired to the capital. But here he didn’t address either the senate (in the House) or the people (in the Forum) but invited some of the leading men to his house where, after a hasty consultation about Gaul, he spent the rest of the day exhibiting a new type of water-organ.

42. But when news arrived that the Roman governor Galba was leading a revolt in Spain, Nero fainted. When he regained consciousness, Nero abandoned hope, tearing his robe, declaring that it was all over with him. But instead of taking active steps to quell the rebellions he continued his luxurious habits and whenever good news arrived from the provinces, he gave lavish feasts and composed comic songs about the leaders of the revolt.

43. At the start of the revolt Nero made wild and characteristically brutal plans. He planned to depose all army commanders and all provincial governors and have them all executed, then massacre all exiles everywhere and kill all the Gauls then present in Rome.

[What this clearly demonstrates is Nero’s inability to manage the subtlety and detail of individual men with individual grievances. Augustus and Tiberius knew their officials, knew their strengths and weaknesses and allegiances, knew how to manage them, play them off against each other, keep their ambition under control. In fact they knew that that’s what being Roman emperor consisted of – unending man management, of army leaders, provincial governors, and the jockeying factions in the Senate. Caligula and Nero didn’t understand this and had no interest in it. If anyone stood in their way they just had them killed. Which explains Nero’s blunt, sweeping and ineffective response to the revolts.]

Maybe Suetonius exaggerates when he said Nero also considered poisoning the entire senate and setting Rome on fire again. You feel the heavy hand of Flavian propaganda in such tales. Or maybe they were popular rumours. But they testify to Nero’s inability to manage specific rebel leaders and situations with anything approaching subtlety or intelligence.

Instead, Nero dismissed the two consuls and appointed himself sole consul. He left a feast leaning on the shoulders of his comrades, and declaring that all he need do was confront the rebellious army and fall to his knees weeping for them to realise they loved him and asking forgiveness. Next day he would be dancing and singing hymns of praise, so he was just off to compose a few in preparation.

44. In preparing for his campaign Nero was mainly concerned with finding enough wagons to carry all his musical instruments, and arranging for all his concubines to have male haircuts and be issued with Amazonian axes and shields.

He issued a general conscription which was largely ignored so compelled every household to contribute a certain number of slaves and part of their incomes. All tenants of private houses and apartments had to pay a year’s rent to the Treasury.

45. This aroused bad feeling against Nero which was compounded when he profited from the high cost of grain. A rumour went round that while the people were starving a ship had arrived from Alexandria, bringing sand for the court wrestlers. Graffiti, slogans and angry jokes at his expense proliferated.

46. Nero was frightened by bad dreams, auspices and omens. He dreamed:

  • that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands
  • that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness
  • that he was covered with a swarm of winged ants
  • that a Spanish horse he was fond of was changed into an ape
  • that the doors of the Mausoleum (built to house the dead of the royal family) flew open and a voice called him to enter
  • on the Kalends of January the city gods toppled over and in front of the assembled people the keys of the Capitol could not be found

In his last public appearance as a singer he performed ‘Oedipus in Exile’ which ends with the line:

Wife, father, mother drive me to my death.

Seeing as how he had murdered his (adoptive) father, Claudius, his own mother (Agrippina the Younger), had his first wife Octavia murdered then kicked to death Poppaea.

47. When word came that the other armies had revolted, Nero tore up the dispatches, pushed over his table, smashing his favourite ‘Homeric’ cups, ordered some poison from the arch-poisoner Locusta, to keep with him, and went into the Servilian gardens, where he tried to induce the tribunes and centurions of the Guard to accompany him in his flight. They refused.

He considered other plans: to go as a suppliant to the Parthians; or to Galba; or to appear to the people on the rostra, dressed in black, and beg for pardon for his past offences. Maybe they would allow him the prefecture of Egypt. Afterwards a speech composed for this purpose was found in his writing desk, but it is thought that he didn’t dare deliver it for fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.

Next morning Nero awoke to discover his guard of soldiers had abandoned him. He sent for his friends but no-one replied. He roamed round the palace but doors were bolted, no-one answered his calls. Back at his rooms he found even the caretakers had absconded, taking his bed linen and the box of poison.

He called for the gladiator Spiculus​ or any other trained executioner to put an end to him, but none came and he ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber.

48. But Nero abandoned that plan and said he needed to go somewhere quiet to gather his thoughts. His freedman Phaon suggested his villa in the suburbs, just four miles away. So Nero pulled on a faded cloak, covered his head, and set off on horseback accompanied by just four attendants, one of whom was Sporus.

The short journey was eventful, with a mild earthquake and a flash of lightning; then shouting from an army camp in favour of Galba. Then his horse took fright at the smell of a corpse which had been thrown out into the road.

They arrived at Phaon’s villa and made their way through brambles to the back door. Nero scooped water from a pool, quipping that this was ‘Nero’s own special brew.’ Once inside the villa he sank down on a couch with a common mattress, over which an old cloak had been thrown. Though suffering from hunger and renewed thirst, he refused some coarse bread which was offered him, but drank a little lukewarm water.

49. At last, as it became clear his enemies were closing in, Nero bad his servants dig a grave and assemble wood for a pyre. As he watched this being done he wept and said again and again: ‘What an artist the world is losing!’

Then a runner brought a letter from Phaon announcing that he had been declared a public enemy by the senate and that, when caught, he would be punished ‘in the ancient style’. When he asked what that meant, his servants told him it meant the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a fork​ and then beaten to death with rods.

Terrified, Nero seized two daggers but couldn’t bring himself to use them. He ordered one of his slaves to set an example by killing himself, but none of them would. He reproached himself for his cowardice, lamenting that this sordid end didn’t become the great artist Nero at all.

Then they heard a troop of cavalry approaching up the road to arrest him and, with the help of his private secretary, Epaphroditus, he stabbed himself in the throat. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in. As this centurion placed a cloak to the wound, Nero gasped: ‘Tool ate! But what loyalty!’ Then he died.

Burial

50. Nero was buried at a cost of 200,000 sesterces and laid out in white robes embroidered with gold, which he had worn on the Kalends of January. His ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens.

51. Nero was about average height, his body was marked with pimples and smelt bad. His hair was light blond, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes blue and somewhat weak. His neck was thick and squat, his belly prominent and his legs very slender.

His health was good. For all his riotous excess he was only ill three times during the fourteen years of his reign, and even then not enough to give up wine or any of his usual habits.

He was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls, and during the trip to Greece let it grow long and hang down behind.

He often gave audiences in an unbelted silk dressing gown and slippers.

52. When a boy he studied the usual liberal arts except philosophy which his mother Agrippina told him was no subject for a future ruler.

His tutor Seneca kept him from reading the early orators in order to make himself appear better to the boy, so Nero turned to poetry. He wrote poetry easily, with great facility. Some people claimed that he passed off other writer’s work as his own but “notebooks and papers have come into my possession which contain some of Nero’s best-known poems in his own handwriting. Many erasures and cancellations as well as words substituted above the lines, prove that he was neither copying nor dictating but are written just as people write when they are thinking and composing.”

[a) what an extraordinary thought, that Suetonius had before him on the table the actual notebooks of Nero; b) Have any of Nero’s poems survived?]

Nero also took more than an amateur’s interest in painting and sculpture.

53. But Nero’s dominant characteristic was his thirst for popularity and his jealousy of anyone who caught the public eye for any achievement whatsoever. Not content with singing, playing the lyre and chariot racing, he studied and practised wrestling constantly, watching contests from right next to the ring.

It is said that he planned to emulate the exploits of Hercules and had had a lion specially trained so he could safely face it naked in the amphitheatre and, in front of the whole population of Rome, kill it with a club or even strangle it with his bare hands.

54. Towards the end of his reign Nero publicly vowed that if he retained his power, he would celebrate his victory by giving a performance on the water-organ, the flute, and the bagpipes, and that on the last day he would appear as an actor and dance ‘Vergil’s Turnus’. Some claim he had the actor Paris put to death because he saw him as a dangerous rival.

55. Nero’s obsession with immortality and undying fame made him name many places and things after himself: he renamed the month of April Neroneus and was tempted to rename Rome Neropolis.

56. Nero despised all cults except that of the Syrian goddess Atagarsis but he eventually changed his mind even about her and urinated on her image. He came instead to have a superstitious belief which he kept to the end: for an unknown commoner sent him the gift of a little image of a girl as a protection against plots. As it happened a plot was revealed immediately afterwards so Nero took to worshipping this little image as if she were a powerful goddess and sacrificed to her three times a day.

57. Nero died at the age of 31, on the anniversary of the murder of Octavia. Such was the public rejoicing that the public ran through the streets wearing liberty caps​ and cheering. Yet for a long time afterwards, some secret admirers garlanded his tomb with spring and summer flowers and had statues made of him which they placed on the rostra wearing his characteristic fringed toga.

Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent envoys to the senate to renew his alliance, asked that honour be paid to the memory of Nero. In fact, Suetonius tells us that 20 years later, when he was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared in Parthia claiming to be Nero and such was the power of his name to Parthian ears that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him to the Romans only with great reluctance.


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography.

Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy

There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide

In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Roman reviews

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert (1877)

I’ve got the old 1961 Penguin translation by Robert Baldick. It has no notes but a handy nine-page introduction in which Baldick places the Tales in the context of Flaubert’s life and work.

Born in 1821, Flaubert spent his whole adult life living off a small private income in the remote Normandy village of Croisset and devoting his life to literature. But he was far from successful. His first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), was prosecuted for immorality and sold and misunderstood as a salacious scandal. His historical novel. Salammbô (1862), was condemned by critics as tedious, by the clergy as pagan and by archaeologists as inaccurate. The book he considered his masterpiece and laboured over longest, Sentimental Education (1869) was greeted with critical abuse and criticised for its cynical immorality (readers confusing Flaubert’s unflinching depiction of bourgeois immorality with endorsement). His religious fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), was greeted with blank incomprehension and mostly ignored. It is, as I can testify, difficult to read through to the end. And his one and only play, The Candidate (1874), was taken off after four disastrous performances.

The 1870s were a hard time for the middle-aged author. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the Prussians occupied his house in Croisset, humiliatingly, and made Flaubert run errands for them. As the decade progressed a number of his best friends died, and his much-loved mother passed away in 1872.  In 1875 the husband of his beloved niece (Flaubert never married or had children) was threatened with bankruptcy and so Flaubert sold a number of his properties to raise money to save him, even considering selling up his beloved house in Croisset.

In other words the mid-1870s found Flaubert at a financial, emotional and artistic low point. And yet he not only wrote these three short tales relatively quickly but, when they were published, the volume turned out to be his most critically acclaimed and popular book. In fact, it turned out to be the last book he published during his lifetime.

The three tales in this short volume are A Simple Heart, Saint Julian the Hospitator and Hérodias. It’s not difficult to see them as recapitulating, in compressed form, the styles and settings of his previous novels: A Simple Heart is set in the same rural Normandy as Madame Bovary; Herodias is set in the barbaric and exotic ancient world of Salammbô; Saint Julian the Hospitator is a medieval folk story which echoes the early medieval setting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

A Simple Heart

Also known as Le perroquet (the Parrot) in French, this is the story of a servant girl named Felicité. Brought up in poverty, her parents die, she is brusquely wooed by a neighbourhood lad, who wins her heart but then marries another, rich, woman. Devastated, Felicité leaves the farm where she lives and walks to the nearest town, Pont-l’Évèque, where she gets a job with the first woman she speaks to, a widow, Madame Aubain.

The story describes Felicité’s fifty years of loyal service to the widow, particularly in bringing up the widow’s two small children, Paul and Virginie. Paul becomes a difficult adolescent and young man, perpetually getting into debt. Virginie is a frail little girl whose poor health necessitates several trips to the seaside, vividly described.

One day Felicité bumps into her sister, married with two children of her own. Realising she’s in a comfortable position, the sister encourages her children to visit Felicité and sponge off her at every opportunity. Felicité, in her simplicity, dotes on her nephew, Victor, who grows into a strapping young man and sets off to sea. Felicité makes the long hard journey to Le Havre to wave him off.

Later she is given a letter telling her that Victor died on the sea voyage. Yellow fever, then overbled by zealous doctors. Then Madame Aubain’s daughter, Virginie, catches pneumonia and dies. Grief for the poor little girl brings mistress and servant together into a new sympathy.

A neighbouring aristocrat, who was once posted as a diplomat to America and brought back with him a coloured servant and a parrot, makes a few social calls to Madame Aubain, because she has a certain status in the neighbourhood, on one occasion bringing the parrot to show off to all and sundry.

Felicité is enchanted by the parrot and tells everyone about it. This reaches the ears of the wife of the diplomat. When he is posted to a new job, he is only too happy to dump the parrot on this simple woman, seeing that it is noisy, dirty and temperamental.

Felicité tends the parrot with love, through summer and winter. When her mistress, Madame Aubain, dies, the parrot becomes a talisman for all the losses in her life – Madame, Victor, Virginie.

Eventually, the parrot also dies and she has it stuffed. On Madame Aubain’s death her son, Paul, and his greedy wife, had come to strip the house of all its valuables. They threatened to sell it but never quite manage to and so Felicité lives on, in increasing poverty, as the house crumbles around her, and the rain and wind get in, with the cage holding the dead parrot hung on the wall, as she grows old, deaf, lame, tended by a kindly neighbour.

Finally, one spring, come the weeks of the annual Corpus Christi festival, where temporary altars are erected around the town. One is set up just outside Felicité’s derelict house. Over the freezing winter, sleeping in a wet bed, she has contracted her final illness. As the neighbour tends her, Felicité hears the sound of the bells celebrating mass at the altar outside, her eyes open for one last time and she has a vision of the Holy Ghost as a huge green parrot, its wings open to welcome her to heaven – and dies.

Flaubert wrote to friends that the story was not intended in any way to be satirical or ironic, but as a straightforward depiction of a good woman, a good, heart and a good life. I grew up in a small village near a convent which was also a nursing home where very elderly patients were tended by the nuns. The nuns used to totter up to the village shop where I worked. My mother took us to visit the old ladies, lying quietly in rows of beds in the oak-panelled ward. I recognise the atmosphere of simple, feminine goodness. Goodness is simple, after all. Don’t hurt others.

Flaubert’s style is pared back to the bone. There are no metaphors or similes. Events are told in a brisk, no-nonsense prose. As with his other books, it is the descriptions I like most, the word paintings. Here is a description of winter.

On either side of the road stretched an endless succession of apple trees, all stripped of their leaves, and there was ice in the ditches. Dogs were barking around the farms; and Felicité, with her hands tucked under her mantle, her little black sabots and her basket, walked briskly along the middle of the road. (p.48)

Simple. Vivid.

Saint Julian the Hospitator

The medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitator (or Hospitalier) is portrayed in a stained glass window in Rouen cathedral, which Flaubert saw as a boy. In the 1840s he mentioned to friends the idea of writing about it, and he tucked away details about medieval hunting, weapons and castles from his omnivorous reading, for this purpose.

The story has all the fairy tale quality of a medieval legend. At Julian’s birth he is predicted to do great things. His father is told that he will marry into the family of a great emperor, while his mother is told he will be a saint.

But early on Julian displays violent tendencies. As a boy he kills a mouse which irritates him by appearing in the castle chapel. Then he stones a pigeon. His father introduces him to hunting and he takes to it with devilish enthusiasm, amassing an armoury of weapons, hunting dogs, and going out every day to massacre as much wildlife as possible, climaxing in his pointless massacre of an entire valley of deer. A stag approaches him with a doe and fawn and Julian shoots dead all of them. With his dying breath, the stag curses Julian, predicting that he will kill his own parents.

Soon afterwards Julian is wangling a heavy swords down from its fixture on the wall and drops it, narrowly missing his father. Then, on a misty day, he throws a javelin at what he takes to be the wings of a passing swan but are in fact the tails of the elaborate medieval head-dress worn by his mother. It pins the head dress to the castle wall while his mother shrieks and faints. Terrified at what might happen next, Julian flees the castle.

Julian enlists with a passing troop of soldiers of fortune, experiences hunger, thirst and battle, soon he commands a great army. Meanwhile, the emperor of Occitania is defeated by the Caliph of Cordoba and thrown in prison. Julian leads his army to the rescue, defeating the Caliph (and cutting his head off) before liberating the Emperor. Julian turns down all the rewards he’s offered until the Emperor produces his beautiful young daughter, at which Julian agrees to marry her and accept a nice castle.

The couple live together in happiness, but Julian categorically refuses to go on any hunts or kill any wildlife – still haunted by fear of the curse. Until one day, under the influence of his wife’s incessant nagging, he finally gives in and takes up his rusty weapons and goes for a hunt.

This turns into a strange visionary adventure. He finds himself wandering into a magical valley where the spirits of all the animals he’s ever killed surround him. Again and again he tries to shoot things but the weapons don’t work, or the animals dodge out the way.

Frustrated at his inability to kill anything, bewildered and upset by his vision of the spirits of the dead, Julian returns to the castle, and climbs the stairs to his bedroom, hoping his beautiful wife will calm him.

But leaning over their bed in the dawn light he strokes her face only to feel a long beard – and realises there are two bodies in the bed, a man and a woman. She has betrayed him! All his pent-up frustration makes him see red and in a frenzy he stabs his wife and her lover to death.

Then turns to see… his wife standing in the doorway holding a torch!!

She explains that while he was away hunting an old married couple came to the castle. Tired and dirty, it was his mother and father who had been seeking him all across Europe ever since he ran away from home. Touched by their story, his wife gave them dinner and then their own bed to sleep in.

So Julian has just murdered his own parents – exactly as foretold.

Next morning, Julian hands her instructions to perform a state funeral for his parents, wills her all his properties and possessions, then leaves. He wanders the world, begging like a monk, performing numerous good deeds. Eventually he comes to a wide river on the bank of which is a derelict boat, and it crosses his mind to repair it and to become a ferryman: it is a simple, practical good deed. So he repairs the boat, builds a hut, and lives off the donations given him by grateful travellers.

One day a figure calls from the other side of the river and, when Julian arrives, he discovers a hideously disfigured leper. Nonetheless, Julian rows him across. The leper is hungry. Julian gives him food. The leper is tired. Julian offers him his bed. The leper is cold. Julian offers him his clothes. The leper is still cold and asks for body warmth. Despite the obvious risk that he will contract this appalling disease, Julian hugs the leper to warm him up.

At which point the leper’s eyes take on the brightness of stars, his hair spreads out like the rays of the sun, and his breath smells like roses. Julian experiences superhuman joy as he is borne up to heaven by none other than Jesus Christ himself.

**********

Baldick’s introduction points out that Flaubert, as usual, made copious notes about all the factual aspects of the story, especially medieval hunting. And, as so often, this is regurgitated into paragraphs which read like extracts from an encyclopedia:

His father made up a pack of hounds for him. There were twenty-four  greyhounds of Barbary, speedier than gazelles, but liable to get out of temper; seventeen couples of Breton dogs, great barkers, with broad chests and russet coats flecked with white. For wild-boar hunting and perilous doublings, there were forty boarhounds as hairy as bears.

The red mastiffs of Tartary, almost as large as donkeys, with broad backs and straight legs, were destined for the pursuit of the wild bull. The black coats of the spaniels shone like satin; the barking of the setters equalled that of the beagles. In a special enclosure were eight growling bloodhounds that tugged at their chains and rolled their eyes, and these dogs leaped at men’s throats and were not afraid even of lions.

But in a work like this it doesn’t much matter, since a lot of medieval literature is exactly as encyclopedic and factual as this (think of Gawayne and the Green Knight with its highly factual accounts not only of three hunts, but of how the kills from each chase were gutted and prepared for table). The oddity of the factual interludes among the fairy-tale story actually make sense in a tale like this.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Saint Julian the Hospitaller kills his father and mother and confesses to his wife by Stefano d’Antonio di Vanni (c.1460)

Hérodias

Hérodias is another of Flaubert’s bracing fantasias of the evocative place names, wild landscapes and barbaric behaviour of the ancient world.

The sun, rising behind Machaerus, spread a rosy flush over the sky, lighting up the stony shores, the hills, and the desert, and illumining the distant mountains of Judea, rugged and grey in the early dawn. Engedi, the central point of the group, threw a deep black shadow; Hebron, in the background, was round-topped like a dome; Eschol had her pomegranates, Sorek her vineyards, Carmel her fields of sesame; and the tower of Antonia, with its enormous cube, dominated Jerusalem.

This time it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Part one establishes the uneasy relationship between the Jewish king of Palestine, Herod Antipas, and the forces which surround him:

  • his main military enemies are the Parthians to the east
  • the native inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, pass in voiceless but ominous caravans of camels
  • the Roman Empire has conquered Palestine and allowed Herod and other members of his family to ‘rule’ different parts of it, under their ultimate control; Herod is permanently fearful that the Romans are planning to replace him
  • he has to cope with the endlessly squabbling factions among the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the two main groups – the Sadducees and Pharisees

Above all, he struggles to control his haughty wife, Herodias. She was married to Herod’s half-brother and rival, Herod II, who has been imprisoned by the Romans. Herodias divorced him and has married Herod Antipas – in flagrant breach of all Jewish marriage law, prompting vicious criticism from religious leaders.

Now, as they stand looking out from the battlements of their hilltop fortress, Herodias tries to arouse her husband, but he is indifferent to her charms. Instead he gazes at a nubile, dark-haired serving girl hanging washing down in the town below the fort. Herodias notices and is angered.

But she has a deeper grounds for anger with her husband. Herod has imprisoned Jokanaan, the religious fanatic who the Latins call John the Baptist – but refuses to execute him, despite the fact that he waged a campaign of insults against her. Here’s an example of his anti-Herodias vituperation:

‘Ah! Is it thou, Jezebel? Thou hast captured thy lord’s heart with the tinkling of thy feet. Thou didst neigh to him like a mare. Thou didst prepare thy bed on the mountain top, in order to accomplish thy sacrifices! The Lord shall take from thee thy sparkling jewels, thy purple robes and fine linen; the bracelets from thine arms, the anklets from thy feet; the golden ornaments that dangle upon thy brow, thy mirrors of polished silver, thy fans of ostrich plumes, thy shoes with their heels of mother-of-pearl, that serve to increase thy stature; thy glittering diamonds, the scent of thy hair, the tint of thy nails – all the artifices of thy coquetry shall disappear, and missiles shall be found wherewith to stone the adulteress!’

(Note Flaubert’s lifelong addiction to exclamation marks at the end of every sentence spoken by his historical characters.)

In part two the Roman governor Vitellius, arrives. We are given, as you’d expect with Flaubert, factually precise descriptions of his armed guard and their uniforms and weapons, as a well as a comic description of his greedy fat son, Aulus.

It is Herod’s birthday and food is being brought up to the citadel in for a feast, alongside a throng of guests including leaders of the local Sadducees and Pharisees. Flaubert conveys the dirt and confusion of a first-century Palestine castle.

Unfortunately, Vitellius wants to see every aspect of Antipas’s mountain-top fortress and is surprised by what he finds. He is suspicious of the caves full of weapons, and the fine herd of a hundred snow white horses – is Herod planning some kind of rebellion? Sweating with anxiety, Herod assures him these are all for defence in case the Jews rebel.

Then Vitellius is astonished when, upon ordering Herod to open up his prison cells, he discovers the one in which the filthy dirty Jokanaan is kept. As daylight enters his deep dungeon, the Baptist starts up prophesying the overthrow of Herod, the day of Judgement to come, and the start of an era of milk and honey i.e. the advent of Jesus — though none of his listeners, of course, understand him.

Jokanaan then catches sight of Herodias among the throng and launches into another long diatribe against her filthy incest (divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother).

The third and final part of the story describes in detail Herod Antipas’s birthday feast (which features ox kidneys, dormice, wild-ass stew, Syrian sheep’s tails and nightingales), attended by Vitellius, fat Aulus who has picked up a pretty slave boy in the kitchens, and the various worthies from Antipas’s kingdom.

Conversation turns to the latest news, rumours of the miracles and wonders worked by various magi and fakirs around Palestine.

The comfortable well-educated audience laugh at these stories of miracle-working peasants, but are surprised when one of the guests, a certain Jacob, stands up to proclaim that Jesus is the true Messiah. He knows because Jesus cured his daughter of a fatal illness.

Vitellius asks what a messiah is. The learned Jews present explain how it cannot be so, since the Messiah will, according to the scriptures, be a) a son of David and b) preceded by Elias.

But Elias has come, claims Jacob: and his name is Jokanaan!

At this dramatic moment, the fat proconsul’s son, Aulus is violently sick and all gather round to offer their help and advice. When he is quite finished throwing up, Aulus drinks some refreshing iced water and returns to guzzling . Flaubert does a good job of conveying the rich mix of religions and beliefs swirling among the guests, who include German pagans, Romans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Platonists, followers of Mithras, of the god Azia and so on.

The conversation degenerates into a drunken argument. The Pharisees are so infuriated with Roman impiety that they smash up their plates, while Vitellius gets cross that his Galilan interpreter refuses to translate to the Jews his increasingly offensive remarks.

Herod Antipas is trying to calm Vitellius down by showing him a rare medal with Tiberius’s face on it which Herodias gave to him for precisely this purpose, when Herodias herself dramatically pulls back the panels of the golden balcony and appears among slaves carrying torches.

The male guests are just taking in this surprising and inappropriate appearance of a woman at an all-male feast when, at the other end of the hall, a beautiful young girl appears and starts dancing to the music of a flute and castanets. It is Herodias’s daughter, Salomé.

The graceful dancer appeared transported with the very delirium of love and passion. She danced like the priestesses of India, like the Nubians of the cataracts, or like the Bacchantes of Lydia. She whirled about like a flower blown by the tempest. The jewels in her ears sparkled, her swift movements made the colours of her draperies appear to run into one another. Her arms, her feet, her clothing even, seemed to emit streams of magnetism, that set the spectators’ blood on fire.

Suffice to say that Salomé inflames them all with her youthful, athletic and erotic dancing, and especially Herod, who has never seen her before (Herodias having had her raised far from court for precisely this reason).

Herod is entranced, bewitched. When she dances up to him he offers her anything, his wealth, his throne, in return for her favours. Salome dances round him and laughs: ‘I want the head of… Jokanaan.’

Herod is horrified but then – realises that executing the Baptist might actually help him. It will show Vitellius that he can be decisive, it will please the Sadducees and Pharisees by sticking up for orthodox religion and, of course, it will placate his difficult wife.

So he orders his executioner to go and do the deed. This man returns in terror claiming Jokanaan is protected by a dragon, at which the entire company yells abuse at him. So the poor man goes back and this time carries out the task – returning with Jokanaan’s decapitated head held up by the hair.

Herod places it on a silver salver from the feast table and hands it to Salomé, who smiles and laughs and Antipas realises that she is the beautiful black-haired young woman he had glimpsed on a town rooftop back at the start of the story.

The tray and head are passed round among the guests who each react differently, a comic moment coming when the drunk, dazed eyes of Aulus look at the blank, dead eyes of the Baptist. The feast ends. The candles are quenched. The guests depart, leaving Herod alone staring at the head.

Off in a corner, the Essene, a minor figure who has been loitering in the background for most of the story, quietly prays for the soul of the Baptist. Two messengers from Galilee arrive and are shown to him. We don’t learn the message they bring but the implication is that they bring news of Jesus.

Herod finally stands and walks out the feast room. The two messengers and the Essene, clearly believes in Jesus and in Jokanaan’s prophetic role, pick up his bloody head and carry it off with them.

Then the three, taking with them the head of John the Baptist, set out upon the road to Galilee; and as the burden was heavy, each man bore it awhile in turn.

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

Herodias and her daughter by Ernest Lee Major (1881)

It is easy to see the thread connecting the sensual sadism of Salammbô with much the same themes embodied in the story of Salomé. Given that the depiction of heterosexual sex in fiction at this time was illegal, any hints at homosexuality ditto, and lesbianism wasn’t even acknowledged – one way of looking at the late-nineteenth century obsession with Salomé is that its setting in the remote historical past, allowed the expression of ‘transgressive’ images of sexuality which were simply impossible if set anywhere remotely contemporary (as Flaubert had found out to his cost when the relatively tame Madame Bovary was prosecuted for immorality).

Another interpretation might see it as sensationalist titillation for its own sake, as sexist soft porn.

But as always with Flaubert, the interest is as much or more in the deadpan delivery of the story, in the minutely itemised details of clothes and places, languages and customs, than in the actual plot.

This explains why Salomé’s dance and John’s beheading occur only on the last two pages of this thirty-five page story. The interest isn’t really in this grotesque (or plain tacky) deed itself: it is the careful build-up of background detail which the text is really interested in.

Christianity

And it’s easy to overlook the simple fact that all three stories are about Christianity. Flaubert, as a cynical modern man, was not a practicing Catholic. But maybe his imagination was.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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