June 09, 2003
A Happy Anniversary

Today is the 1949th anniversary of the death of Nero. Suetonius' account in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars is well worth reading. It's too long to quote here, and is not available on the web (except in Latin), but highlights include:

  • The Delphic Oracle told Nero to "fear the 73rd year", which didn't worry him but should have. He was around 30 when he was overthrown and succeeded (though not for long) by the 73-year-old Galba.
  • "He was at Naples when he learned of the uprising of the Gallic provinces, on the anniversary of his mother's murder, and received the news with such calmness and indifference that he incurred the suspicion of actually rejoicing in it, because it gave him an excuse for pillaging those wealthy provinces according to the laws of war." (40.4)
  • The revolting governor of Gaul was named Vindex -- pronounced 'Windex', a fact that always amuses students. (Galba was governor of Spain and joined the revolt a bit later.)
  • When Nero should have been planning military operations, he spent his time writing satirical verses about Galba and Vindex, which were set to "licentious music", performed publicly, and written down for posterity, though they have not survived to our time.
  • Public opinion was hostile, partly because in the middle of a severe grain shortage a ship arrived from Alexandria (source of most of Rome's grain) full of sand for the court wrestlers. (45.1)
  • It was taken as a very bad omen that the last piece Nero sang in public was "Oedipus in Exile", and the last line of it was "Wife, father, mother drive me to my death". Nero had murdered all three, at least if we count Claudius as his father -- he was Nero's uncle by birth, stepfather by marriage, and father by adoption --, and he was widely rumored to have slept with his mother, too.

In the end, he cannot even find anyone to defend him, though his freedman Phaon does lend him his country house to hide in. Here's the last part of the long and sordid story (49.1-4, quoted from the Loeb facing text of J. C. Rolfe, as recently revised by Donna W. Hurley):

At last, while his companions one and all urged him to save himself as soon as possible from the indignities that threatened him he bade them dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, collect any bits of marble that could be found, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: "What an artist the world is losing!" [Qualis artifex pereo!]

While he hesitated, a letter was brought to Phaon by one of his couriers. Nero snatching it from his hand read that he had been pronounced a public enemy by the senate, and that they were seeking him to punish him in the ancient fashion; and he asked what manner of punishment that was. When he learned that the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a fork [= V-shaped wooden frame] and then beaten to death with rods, in mortal terror he seized two daggers which he had brought with him, and then, after trying the point of each, put them up again, pleading that the fated hour had not yet come. Now he would beg Sporus to begin to lament and wail, and now entreat someone to help him take his life by setting him the example; anon he reproached himself for his cowardice in such words as these: "To live is a scandal and shame -- this does not become Nero, does not become him -- one should be resolute at such times -- come, rouse thyself!" And now the horsemen were at hand who had orders to take him off alive. When he heard them, he quavered [a line from the Iliad]:

"Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!"

and drove a dagger into his throat, aided by Epaphroditus, his private secretary. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in, and as he placed a cloak to the wound, pretending that he had come to aid him, Nero merely gasped: "Too late!" and "This is fidelity!" With these words he was gone, with eyes so set and staring from their sockets that all who saw him shuddered with horror.

Sporus was his wife in a gay marriage. He also had a husband, Doryphorus, which means "spear-bearer": probably not his real name.

Some day when I have time to spare I'll quote Tacitus' account (Annals 14.3-9) of how Nero arranged to murder his mother with a specially-designed collapsible ship. Unfortunately, she ducked under the furniture when the lead-lined dining-room ceiling fell, and swam to shore when the ship suddenly tipped over on its side, so he had to have her stabbed to death in the usual way. He had wanted to make it look like an accident, since he had already used the old poisoned-mushroom trick on his stepfather (the emperor Claudius) and his cousin (Claudius' son Britannicus, his adoptive brother and the more directly legitimate heir).

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 09, 2003 09:07 PM