Nero’s and Seneca’s downfall.
1. The Cosmopolitan on the Throne.
Nero was no longer a Roman national patriot in that exclusive sense in which the ancient Roman, in pride of his blood, claimed the privilege of superiority over the peoples of the earth. Virgil had expressed this sense of nationalism once more in some of his most bombastic verses, but already at the dawn and midnight edge, the dark masses that were to humble this pride were standing, and within the empire, the emperors began to work towards a reconciliation of rights and blood opposition. Nero, the philanthropist, boldly advanced on their path and wanted to bring forth the universal spirit of his world empire.
Just as Seneca praised the magnanimity with which the Romans expanded their urban nature to global interaction, in which human beings stand side by side as equals, so did the imperial disciple of the philosopher look down from his throne upon a community of human beings in which his “clemency” did not tolerate any difference in rights and sought to erase the memory of their previous defeat in the circle of the vanquished. But what guaranteed that a Roman ruler would always be at the head of this great community? That the community would once again fall apart or split in two, with the center of gravity shifting to the east?
The idea of dividing the world had already haunted and taken shape during the time of the civil wars and triumvirates, with Augustus buying the possession of the West by leaving the East to Antony. Barely a century had passed since Nero’s death when, at the court of the widow of Alexander Severus, the plan was considered to reconcile the brotherly strife between Geta and Caracalla by dividing the East and West between the two princes. In his passion for world unity, Nero no longer trusted Rome alone, with its dying or disillusioned dynasties, to hold together the peoples of the earth in the long term, and all unity of administration and centralization of power could not erase the difference between the Latin half in the West and the Greek half in the East.
Roman language and literature did not make comprehensive conquests in the East. Horace and Virgil were not popular poets among the Greeks, anyway, the latter possessed the originals that the Latins imitated. Also, for the eloquence of the forum and the senate, the descendants of Demosthenes and Aeschines could consider themselves as the masters of their Western pupils. Latin was the official language in Greece and Asia, through the law and through the administration and army bureaucracy, but in the community, cult, and household, Greek maintained its dominance. And although politically the subjugated peoples, the Greeks exercised a spell over the West with their schools, literature, and the artworks of their temples and public spaces, which made them victorious.
It is as if the waves of the Bosphorus were rolling over the axis around which the destinies of the East and the West revolve, and which with its centralizing power constantly draws the emancipated refugees of the West back under its spell. Justin and his author Trogus Pompeius had no bad idea when they spanned world history within the framework of the Macedonian union of East and West and their preparations and disruptions.
Before seven to eight decades pass after Nero’s death, we will see Greeks in philosopher robes enter Rome and dedicate their defense of the message that the Logos of Ephesians Heraklit has appeared in human form and has called the peoples of the world to his community to the emperors. And a century and a half later, Constantine the Great will take the lead of these preachers and confessors of the Greek-Oriental Logos and, far from the Roman Senate, establish his headquarters on the Bosporus. From this eastern center of the empire, for three centuries, alongside the emperors, the confessors of that Logos, with their dialectical disputes over its relation to the primal cause and human nature, will fill the world and prescribe to future generations the metaphysical basis of their faith.
Nero moved in this current, which was heading towards the Greek center of the empire, when he sought to bridge the gap between West and East, Hellenize Rome and realize his ideal of a united world in which the ruler of the West and Athens would join hands. He wanted to preempt dangers that he anticipated, but the bitter seriousness of which he still could not clearly conceive. At the same time, he continued the assimilation of Greek culture in Rome, which had made rapid progress since its beginning during the last Punic wars, through the civil wars and under the early emperors. We only need to recall the enthusiastic praise that Lucretius (Rer. Natur. 6, 1-33) dedicated to Athens as the consoler of the sick world and mother of Epicurus, the heart-purifier. Cicero revered the philosophy of Athens as his household goddess and companion throughout life. From Greece, the news of human rights and its superiority over law has come into the Roman lecture halls of the imperial era, and Seneca has given philosophical sanctification to the imperial leveling through his doctrine of universal equality borrowed from Stoicism and the Garden of Epicurus.
When Cicero’s friend Cornelius Nepos drew the contrast between Greek and Roman ways of life in the preface to his biographical sketches and in the section on Epaminondas, he had already lost some of his harshness. It was no longer entirely accurate when he described dance and music practice, in which Epaminondas was instructed by the most famous masters, as something that Roman custom considers to be debauchery. Nero was not the first to consider the old Romans a one-sided figure and to supplement them with the artistic versatility of the Greeks. Even during the time of the last Punic War, there were senators who combined Greek virtuosity with the seriousness of military rulers. For example, the Cato of that time referred to a senator who, having just dismounted from his warhorse, made himself a “jester” and performed a minuet. He appears, says the stern censor of the same, as a singer where he chooses, puts Greek verses on stage, performs farces, and makes puns. Scipio Aemilianus Africanus the Younger complained in a speech that people of this kind practiced dishonorable antics, went to the comedian school with stringed instruments, learned to dance and sing. Young girls and free boys flock to the same school: when I did not want to believe the account of this activity, says the conqueror of Carthage, I was taken to such a dancing school and truly saw there more than five hundred girls and boys, and among them a child, the son of a candidate for state office, not more than twelve years old, dancing with castanets. The triumphator Appius Claudius, a member of the Salian priesthood until his old age, was proud that he danced better than his colleagues in the processions of his priesthood. At Cicero’s time, three noble greats, including the son of the triumvir Crassus, boasted of being the most accomplished masters of the art of dance, and the dictator Sulla himself was, according to Macrobius, to whom we owe these notes on the early Hellenization of the nobility (Saturnal-3, 14), a virtuoso in singing and gave the actor Roscius, whom he held in esteem, a golden knight’s ring.
After the murder of his mother, Nero triumphantly returned to Rome as the victor over her alleged plots against his life. He then set the stage for the metamorphosis of Rome into a Greek form. The old Roman spirit, which his mother had preserved in the midst of the democratization and leveling of Roman society, no longer stood in his way. He was now free. According to Tacitus, when the fleet prefect Anicetus declared himself ready to carry out the deed, Nero exclaimed with a meaningful glance at his hesitant tutors Seneca and Burrus that he owed the actual assumption of power to a freedman. In his view, ruling meant transforming the world, and he was convinced that he was called to play the leading role in the more beautiful world that his imagination envisaged.
Tacitus (Annal. 14, 15) calls the Juvenalia that he gave in 59 AD to celebrate his first shave a preparatory attempt and transition, since he did not want to disgrace himself immediately by appearing on a public stage. He had therefore invited a select audience; the upper classes themselves took to the stage, and Tacitus reports with an angry expression on the dishonor of the high-born that no nobility, age, or fame in the highest state service prevented anyone from exposing himself like Greek and Latin stage heroes and acting and singing in an unmanly manner. Nero himself appeared as a singer and played the zither. Praetorians, soldiers, captains, and officers surrounded the scene; Burrus, with sadness on his face, as Tacitus puts it, also praised him. The author of the Caesar’s history also places the formation of the Augustiani corps in that time, consisting of knights who wanted to make their fortune and counted it an honor to praise the beauty of the prince and the divinity of his voice.
In the following year (60), the foundation of the Neronia took place, which were to be celebrated every five years and, after Domitian had renewed them as the Capitolian games, continued until the time of Constantine. They were entirely dedicated to the muses and followed the Greek model, featuring music, poetry, rhetoric, wrestling, and chariot racing (Suetonius, Nero 12. Tacitus, Annals 14, 20, 21). The audience was once again select, and the stage was set for the prince. On this occasion, Lucan was introduced to the court by reciting his poem in honor of Nero. Nero himself received the first prize in oratory without reciting a poem or giving a speech. During the repetition of the Neronia (Tacitus, Annals 16, 4) in 65 AD, the Senate wanted to spare him the appearance on the stage and offered him the prize in singing and oratory. However, Nero stated that he would put himself on an equal footing with the other competitors and receive the deserved praise from the judges. He first recited a poem and then appeared with all the ceremony of these virtuosos as a zither player.
Let us pause for a moment at Tacitus’ statement (Annal. 16, 4) that the audience rewarded the emperor’s artistic performance with an applause that was harmoniously tuned and moved in melodious figurations (certis modis plausuque composito). Suetonius, who (Nero Chap. 20) suggests that the prince formed the Agustian cohort from the knights only after the approval he received from the applause of the Alexandrian guests at his later performance in Naples, also describes them as harmoniously tuned (modulatae). Then, let us recall that Augustus (Suetonius Octav. 57), when returning from the province to the city, was greeted by the people with melodious songs, so we must not overlook a certain religious character in these tributes.
Indeed, the Neronia were a kind of cult to celebrate the deities that inspire poets and artists in their works. The five-year games that Augustus established at the site of his former headquarters after the victory at Actium and dedicated to the Actian Apollo, the original of the Neronia, were also holy and were called the “Actian religion” by Tacitus. However proud Nero was of his humanity and his human abilities, he could still reconcile it with his enthusiasm for art, so he enjoyed himself with his highest human achievements as a virtuoso, in the role of the select priest of the Muses and the god of light. His Augustiani, whose name recalls the priesthood of the Augustales, which Tiberius (Tacitus Annal. 2, 95) dedicated to the Julian family, were, as it were, the choir that followed the action of the high priest with an affirming shout.
(By the way! Later emperors, first Trajan, as can be seen from Pliny’s Panegyricus, received a similar tribute of melodiously tuned acclamations from the Senate within its four walls. Aelius Lampridius, in his Life of Alexander Severus (Chap. 6-9), has reported to us the choral or canon with which the Senate received this emperor in its midst, taken from the official state records.)
Let us pause for a moment at Tacitus’ assertion regarding the first Neronian celebration, where he, under the guise of old-fashioned sensibilities, laments the elaborate arrangements that lead to the corruption of the Roman elite. Finally, he admits that the Greek dress, which was prescribed for the audience of those performances, had become somewhat commonplace. The influx of nationalities in Rome had long pushed the Roman toga into the minority, and after the civil wars, the impoverished natives no longer attached any importance to the ceremonial dress that Virgil still glorified (Aeneid. 1, 281). “Look at the Romans,” Augustus once said, echoing the poet’s words, when he saw a swarm of people in dark mantles during a public meeting, “look at the masters of the world, the toga-wearing people.” Augustus’ command to the Aediles not to allow anyone with a mantle on the Forum and its surroundings did no more than Domitian’s later attempts to restore the toga to honor in the bustle of Rome; the dark covering remained dominant. The elite had learned from their villa life in Greek southern Italy to be comfortable in light draping, and even Claudius, who otherwise insisted on Roman decorum, lived entirely in the Greek style with his court when he visited Naples.
The imperial compulsion that senators and knights were subject to when appearing on stage, as Tacitus and Dio Cassius report, probably did not take place in the way these writers want their readers to believe. The great mime writer Laberius, whom Julius Caesar urged to also appear as an actor after his dictatorship, lamented in his moving prologue about the compulsion that, in his old age, forced him, who had been unable to be moved by ambition, gifts, fear, violence, or orders, to a position from which he would no longer see his hearth as a knight, which he still was that day (Macrobius, Saturn. 2, 7). Laberius lamented that he, to whom the gods themselves could not deny anything, as a man could not refuse anything. Since Augustus, the emperors had made futile efforts to stem the flow of knights and noblewomen to the stage; Tiberius (Suetonius, Tiber. 35) punished young men of the senatorial and equestrian orders who sought to incur disgraceful judgments to indulge their passion for the stage and arena with exile. Caligula’s passion for dance and tragic theater revived among the higher classes such a lively desire to appear in public that Claudius could no longer hold them back.
The obsession with which the high nobility in France under Louis XV maintained an intimate relationship with dancers, singers, and actresses and laid their fortunes at their feet is an example of the dissolution of class differences in the early stages of imperialism and the voluntary relinquishment of the upper echelons of their ruling position, which they no longer felt capable of handling. With the recent maturity of imperialism, numerous marriages have replaced this free association.
In this adjustment, Rome went so far with ancient ruthlessness that the nobility themselves took to the stage, whose brilliance and changing life images enchanted them. Although some friends of the old days may have still lamented the degeneration of their peers, the people must have cheered when they saw knights and senators making themselves common as actors and appearing as their equals. The time of internal peace, which was also reflected in the harmony between the prince and the Senate and the display of wealth, received a fantastic expression in the artistic image of universal equality.
“As Merivale says, when his people, after describing the humiliation which Nero inflicted on the nobility through temptation or pressure to take the stage, were sufficiently corrupted, he himself ascended to the public stage to crown the general degeneration.
But he was the prince of democracy, the first in the world community of equals. When the nobles and knights were seized with vertigo at the sight of the surging masses that dragged the social heights into their whirlpool, and could not resist the desire to plunge into this whirlpool, Nero felt himself the leader and moderator of this leveling and considered it his duty to show himself as the pinnacle in the exercise of the highest art.
However, he demonstrated patience in waiting, in which he was also a master. It was not until 64 AD, the tenth year of his reign and the fourth after the opening of his private stage, that he went to Naples (Tacitus Annal. 15.33) to appear there as an artist before the public, as a Greek city. Until then, he had watched the art performances of his nobility, as well as their gladiatorial exercises, from his box in his standing wooden amphitheater in Rome. That he also “placed” the senators and knights in the arena, which he opened for their desire for combat, as Suetonius (Nero 12) expresses it, or forced them to perform, as Dio Cassius (61.17) claims, is an exaggeration of later times, and the former’s statement that he put 400 senators and 600 knights to fight is entirely baseless.
After the success of his debut in Naples, he showed himself to the great public of Rome in his favorite roles as “mad Hercules, circling Canace, Orestes the matricide, as blinded Oedipus.” Let us now allow him to celebrate his triumphs on the classical soil of Greece from the autumn of 66 to the spring of 68, collecting the laurels of all the combat games that the Greeks had to postpone to the same year because of him, placing the land of art, whose freedom he proclaimed in Corinth, alongside Rome as an equal sister, and finally taking on the task, which other absolutist nation-benefactors tried and never completed, of piercing the Corinthian Isthmus to promote free trade, leaving it unfinished when the restless signs of the West called him home.”
Let us turn to another aspect of his imperialist populism!
In the following century, we encounter a Christian circle that awaits the imminent arrival of a thousand-year period in which an almighty ruler will take away the worries of possession and work from the children of his realm and grant them effortless enjoyment of all the gifts of nature. The city of this thousand-year empire will shine brighter than the sun, moon, and stars and sparkle with gold and precious stones. The voluntary fruits of the earth will beckon for enjoyment, streams full of wine will flow into the plain, and rivers will overflow with milk (Lactant. Divin. Instit. 7, 24); the citizens of the empire will revel in the defeat and enslavement of their enemies alongside their enjoyment of earthly goods.
A prelude to this happy age was Nero’s interaction with his people. During large theater performances, he (Sueton Nero 11) had small tablets with instructions for food, clothing, and jewelry, and finally, houses and lands thrown to the people. The Circus Maximus, the Campus Martius, and the streets were his dining room, and the people were his guests with whom he banqueted and fraternized. When he sailed down the Tiber to Ostia or along the Gulf of Baiae, arbors and improvised guest halls were erected on the banks, with noble women standing in front of them, portraying themselves as hostesses and inviting passersby to enter. The feast arranged by Tigellinus (Tacit. Annal. 15, 37) on Agrippa’s pond was famous. The guests dined on a raft that was pulled by magnificently decorated ships. In the evening, the company gathered in the forest and villas on the banks, while the scenery was enlivened by singing performances and illuminations.
“Feasting and drinking,” says Merivale, “were not the only excesses that he shamelessly and publicly displayed. He had already morally corrupted the citizens to such a degree that they were no longer offended even by the most naked displays of lust.” Although the English historian allows for the possibility that some of the descriptions by Suetonius and Tacitus may be attributed to the exaggerations of later outraged moralists and the lavish imagination of the storytellers, the fact that prostitution was encouraged, recommended, and even enforced is to him beyond doubt.
However, let us consider only the scene that Suetonius (Nero 29) and Dio Cassius (63,13) describe from such country and garden parties, which is also embellished by the brief epitome of Aurelius Victor (cap. 5), and we cannot doubt the rich contribution that the opponents of Nero’s had to these extravagant descriptions. The fact that the prince allowed himself to be placed in the skin of a wild animal and then attacked the genitals of boys and girls who were tied to stakes from a cave seems too much in the taste of the crassest popular imagination for us to consider a young emperor who was not devoid of intelligence capable of such perversion. The same imagination could not imagine the imperial country parties without the evening finale, where prostitutes displayed themselves naked during the park’s illumination, and noblewomen were at the guests’ disposal, and even that market, in whose stalls at the Augustus pond Nero offered the guests a selection of brilliant gifts in exchange for tokens, had to end (Tacit. Annal. 14, 15) with the debauchery of noblewomen.
When imperialism stages the conclusion of the history of nations, the people find a table already set. The democratic absolutism of Athens began with the extortion of its allies, the marble embellishment of the capital city, and the free theater for the city’s population under Pericles, and ended a century later with bread distributions. Caesar stormed the Mediterranean coastlands to disarm the aristocracy and to bring home the promised booty for the people. Augustus would have been lost if he had not gained control of Cleopatra’s treasury to satisfy his army and the “toga-wearing” people. Later, he made unsuccessful efforts to end the grain doles to the people and only managed to limit them, allowing the tenants of state lands and corn dealers to continue to exist.
This was the case during the time of Nero and remained so afterwards, such as with Aurelian, the conqueror of Zenobia, who contemplated using public funds to terrace the land from the Etrurian mountains to the Alps and donate the wine produced to the people (Fl. Vopisc. Aurel cap. 48). Although the prefect of the Praetorian Guard dissuaded him from implementing this plan, which would have almost literally realized that Christian fantasy of vineyards, by saying that he would also have to give young chickens and geese to the people along with the wine, the emperor did manage to provide wine to the people at a low price in the temple of the sun that he built.
A man like Nero, who wanted to merge the genius of the Western and Eastern worlds, maintained harmony with the Senate until the last years of his reign, fraternized with the people, did not neglect the administration of the provinces, and had a good eye in choosing great army commanders, could hardly have lived in such a depraved private environment as ancient authors claim. No court, says Tacitus (Annal. 14, 13), was ever so rich in bad people” as this one, but men like Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, and Vespasian would not have lasted more than a few weeks in a court whose corruption modern historians compete to describe.
The reputation that Petronius gained as an arbiter of taste at court does not quite match the prevailing assumption that this witty man only excelled at arranging banquets. If Tacitus (Annal. 16, 17) presents the matter as the charming and avoidance of excess and oppression that made his arrangements at banquets exemplary for Nero, he must also provide traits that indicate that conversation was his strength, and his secret lay in making intellectual exchange the main thing even at banquets. His posture and words were marked by a casual laissez-faire, unpretentiousness, and a lack of insistence on dignity and pathos. He captivated the company when, in his humorous mood, he portrayed a significant picture that reflected the ordinary world in his naive yet great nature, and he surprised listeners with the natural truth of a painting that revealed deeper and noble aspects of human interaction hidden from the ordinary eye.
Rarely would there have been such a sophisticated conversation at a great court as there was at Nero’s court during his evenings or nights. Lucan was just the man to illustrate Petronius’s genre pictures with his resounding and fiery accents and to review the adventures and deserved fates of the great men of the last hundred years. Seneca, who infused his writings with historical anecdotes and details from the history of the rulers during the civil wars and the early imperial period, would not have failed to supplement the descriptions of the witty genre painter and the stormy poet and bring them together into a comprehensive picture. They had all seen and observed the world, were interested in the secrets of nature and distant parts of the world, up to the problem of the sources of the Nile, and had rich material for stimulating hypotheses and world constructions. Nero may have concluded with his latest poem and perhaps even sung a song with his somewhat hoarse and purring voice, as the authors say.
If we can infer from the loyalty and competence of Helius, whom Nero left behind in Rome as his alter ego during his year and a half of Herculean labors on the artistic arena of Greece, and from the military diplomacy of Polyklet, the former imperial household slaves were also significant men. For example, Nero sent the latter with considerable reinforcements to the northern army camp when the legate Sueton and the procurator Paulinus disagreed about the conduct of the war in Britain, relying on him to establish a peaceful relationship with the natives whom Sueton had driven to despair with his victories. Polyklet knew how to assert the authority entrusted to him against the general and, at the same time, gain respect (terribilis; Tacitus Annal. 14, 39) from the soldiers who loved to ridicule the former household slaves on military missions.
Tacitus aimed his excursions against the “creatures” of the court, especially Vatinius. He called him (Annal. 15, 34) a “dirty monster, a product of the hostelries, a person with foolish ideas, at whom the court initially amused itself and ridiculed, but who, through the suspicion of the good, gained favor, money, and influence, and rose to the top among the bad elements of the court.” He was the democratic court jester of the emperor, and Nero felt both tickled and elevated when he mocked him as one of his own enemies, a born aristocrat and a senator. When Nero returned to Rome after his theatrical debut in Naples, Vatinius had already come so far that he gave a fencing game in Benevento, which was attended by the emperor.
If Tacitus does not even want to give him a little bit of skill in verse, and tells that he gathered insignificant poets who had to keep an eye on his impromptus and verse attempts in his dwelling and fabricate a makeshift poem from them (Annal. 14, 16), that is quite poor and also contradicted by Suetonius (Nero 52), who has seen poems by Nero’s hand with diligent corrections. His assertion (Annal. Ibid.) that the emperor dedicated the time after the table to philosophers to amuse himself with their learned disputes is very poorly placed, given his familiar interaction with Seneca and Lucan.
2. Seneca’s downfall.
The glance that Nero cast at his teacher that night when a freedman promised him the death of his mother marked a turning point in Seneca’s fate. This time, he stood there at a loss and left his pupil, who reached out his hand for the entire empire, to fend for himself. As the chief state secretary, he did help him once again overcome the difficulty of how to explain the murder of his mother to the Senate. Burrus also provided his support, bringing the commanders and chiefs of the Praetorian Guard to Nero and congratulating him on his success. However, Nero accepted these services as a routine duty of his officials and marched firmly and confidently towards the barrier that separated him from the capital.
The assertion by Tacitus (Annal. 14, 10) that Seneca sat silently after receiving news of the execution of his mother, often rising shuddering and like a man out of his mind, full of anxiety about the disaster that the day would bring, has as much historical value as his vivid descriptions of the crushing effects of a couple of night-time messages regarding conspiracies on him. From the one and a half years of the Greek journey, we are given almost only anecdotes of the life-threatening compulsion to which the listeners were exposed during the emperor’s artistic performances, and of his attacks on the lives of competitors or even on the statues of earlier victors, so that we cannot believe the reports of Nero’s conscience scruples, which are said to have prevented him from being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries or from visiting Athens as the seat of the Erinyes (Sueton, Nero 34, Dio Cassius 63, 14).
It was only after the break with the Senate that the news spread among the people that Agrippina had fallen at the hands of her son, and satirical verses circulated about the new Orestes and Alcmene, who killed his mother after having made her his wife in incest. Nero, however, looked down on these pasquinades, as well as on literary attacks in general, with cold contempt and did not hesitate to appear as a singer in the roles of Orestes and the mother’s husband Oedipus. He was content to punish the actor Datus, who, on the Atellane stage, made a movement of drinking and swimming during the verses: “farewell father, farewell mother,” with reference to the end of Claudius and Agrippina, and pointed to the Senate benches during the words: “the underworld draws you down by the legs,” with exile from Rome and Italy (Sueton, ibid. 39).
Seneca had also cold-bloodedly disregarded all concerns when, by Agrippina’s side, he deprived the son of Claudius of his rights; but in his student, he saw a master rise who was even better at suppressing all doubts. The teacher had adorned his involvement in the intrigues of the Claudian court with the interest of virtue, which was to ascend the throne with his pupil; Nero, on the other hand, showed what the belief in humanity can achieve and that before the power of the person, right and crime sink into an indifferent nothingness.
The next goal he marched towards was the elimination of his wife, Octavia. To put Poppaea on the throne, he had murdered her mother; however, Burrus wanted nothing to do with the dismissal of Claudius’s daughter and once dryly said, when Nero brought up the divorce, that then he would have to give back Octavia’s dowry, which was the power. After three years of waiting, the commander of the Praetorian Guard freed the prince (62 AD). Burrus was fed up with life at Nero’s court and behaved towards him with deliberate coldness on his deathbed; when Nero, during his daily visits to his sickbed, once asked him the usual question about his condition, he answered, turning away from him: “I am well.”
Seneca was now without support, and his downfall was inevitable. In his childish pragmatism, Tacitus cannot explain this turn of events differently than through the whispers of the bad elements of the court, who pointed out to the prince the wealth of his teacher, the beauty of his park, and the splendor of his villas. Then the state minister is said to have strived for the first prize in eloquence and to have practiced more than usual in the art of verse since Nero had developed a taste for it. It is also known that the schoolmaster accompanied the prince’s singing with his ridicule and did not want to recognize his mastery in horsemanship.
Seneca, who like his pupil lived in Greece with his innermost thoughts, but saw in Greek wisdom the salvation of the world, would not have been satisfied with the idea of Hellenizing Rome and unifying the world through the introduction of Greek boxing and the construction of gymnasiums (as in Rome and Ravenna), as his student did. Nero’s belief in the world-uniting power of circus performances and zither and flute playing would have pained him. But to mock the emperor’s singing performances, to ridicule his circus driving, to sit down and write verses because his pupil has a passion for this art?
The matter was different and more serious. Sophonius Tigellinus, whose name is the emblem of the coming period, already had so much influence before the death of Burrus that he was able to bring his son-in-law Cossutianus Capito into the Senate and through him, at the beginning of the year of the old Praetorian’s death, bring the first charge of high treason since Nero’s ascension to the throne before the Senate. It concerned (Tacit. 14, 48, 49) the Praetor Antistius, who had read out satirical poems about the emperor in aristocratic society. The Senate’s decision was to banish the author, and Nero’s only concern was to give a hint to the aristocratic circles in which, as this incident shows, there was agitation.
Tigellinus, who, after Burrus’ death, with Fanius Rufus, a supporter of the old Claudian era, received joint command of the Praetorium, expressed himself on the understanding of his office, when it was soon to be a major blow against the aristocracy, (Tacit. Annal. 14, 57) that his focus was on the person of the ruler and its safety, and he did not look in any other direction. This also indicated Seneca’s consideration for the Senate. The new prefect was loyal to the emperor, Seneca saw the princeps senatus in the ruler. It was the same difference that Alexander the Great had in mind when he said that Parmenio loved Alexander, but Kraterus loved the king.
Seneca was only hurt by the accusations against him before the emperor, particularly the reference to his wealth. This touched a wound that had not yet healed since a fierce battle in the Senate and would continue to pain him throughout his life. In 58 AD, P. Suilius had struck this wound in the middle of the Senate. This man, an informer, i.e., prosecutor for the emperor in the Senate, had fought against any fees for legal advocacy on behalf of the aristocracy under Nero’s predecessor. When the compromise that Claudius had achieved in this matter was rescinded in the first year of Nero’s reign, and any remuneration for the efforts of advocates was forbidden by Senate decree, tension arose between Suilius and Seneca, to whom the former attributed the blame for favoring the aristocracy. This tension finally erupted into open conflict four years later (58 AD). Suilius, who carried the banner of Claudian democratic rule even under Nero, accused Seneca, then a powerful leader of the Senate, of accumulating millions during his four years of royal friendship by asking him which wisdom or philosophical principles made it possible for him to deny the defender of the citizens the reward for his honorable efforts. He then pointed to usury and the immense interest rates he drew from his debtors in Italy and the provinces. (This last accusation is consistent with Dio Cassius’s assertion (62.2) that the Britons’ rebellion under Nero was also caused by Seneca imposing 10,000,000 denarii on them at high interest rates and then collecting everything with harshness).
Seneca considered that declaration of war so important that he aimed to annihilate the bold and dangerous opponent. At first, he wanted to overthrow Suilius by accusing him of embezzlement during his administration of Asia. However, since summoning witnesses would prolong the trial, Seneca’s numerous allies tried to ruin Suilius for his urban offenses, namely the blood guilt he had incurred as an accuser of senators and knights under Claudius. However, they only managed to obtain a fairly mild exile to the Balearic Islands as punishment.
The weak outcome of the trial offered Seneca no real compensation for the most sensitive blow his reputation had suffered, and it was easy to see that the Emperor had little desire to become particularly heated against the former servant of his adoptive father. The minister therefore turned to the public, dedicated his work “On the Happy Life” to his older brother Gallio, and in a large part of it addressed the question (ch. 21), “why does this person and that person engage in philosophy and yet live as a rich man? Why does he teach contempt for wealth and yet have it?” His answer is weak and moves along the stoic principle that “among indifferent things there are also some that have some value in themselves and that one thing is superior to another.” Only once does he become bitter when he writes (ch. 23): “The wise man will give away what he has, what are you pricking up your ears for? what are you holding out your pockets for? he will give to those who are good or whom he can make good. He will remember that we must give an account of giving as well as of receiving. He will have open pockets, but not perforated ones, so that much goes in but nothing comes out.”
(By the way, a question for those who see the proconsul of Achaia Gallio, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (ch. 18, 12), as Seneca’s brother, whether such an official, when a fever attack is announced, can immediately (Seneca Epist. 104) go aboard ship and leave the fever-stricken land of Achaia with the witty remark: “the disease comes from the locality, not from the body”?)
His treatment of the property issue in the essay “On Benefits” is finer and more noble than in the work dedicated to his brother. Here (6, 3) he bases himself on the principle that “everything that inflames the toil of men is not their own, but only a trust”, and he gives the answer to the question of how one can make it one’s own: “Give it away. Once you have given it away, it is a benefit. Before that, it is only a common name. It is just a house, a slave, money.”
He felt his wealth, as he found everything around him at the court, even the Prince himself, a stranger after Tigellinus’ arrival, to be a burden. He begged Nero, whose grace he owed it to, to take back his possessions as his own and to allow him to devote his remaining time to the refinement of his spirit. The flattery of the Prince, who could not accept the offer and asked him to continue to provide him with the support of his experience, could not deceive him about the new situation, and he held himself since then in that seclusion from which he dedicated his Lucilius to the wisdom of secrecy. “Do not let others notice your leisure,” he writes among other things (Epist. 68). “The title of philosophy is irrelevant; give your intention any other name; call it sickness, weakness, lazy unwillingness. Do as the animals do, which, to make themselves invisible, scatter the footprints around their lair in disorder.”
The death of Burrus and Seneca’s resignation did not yet give Nero the sufficient security for the blow he had been plotting against his wife Octavia for more than three years. There were still noble men who, being related to the imperial house, could arouse the sympathy of the people for the victim of princely cruelty and turn their own eyes to the throne.
Antonia, Octavia’s older sister, daughter of Claudius from his fourth wife Aelia Petina, Messalina’s predecessor, was married to a descendant of the dictator Sulla. Faustus Sulla had already been accused in 55 of conspiring with Pallas and Burrus to overthrow Nero and seize the throne, but was acquitted by an in-house court of the emperor, to whom he did not attach much weight, Burrus himself having been appointed as an assessor (Tacit. 13, 23). However, a certain suspicion seems to have arisen in Nero later on and increased over the years, for in 58 he took the fabricated offense of Sulla’s men, who were supposed to have wanted to watch over him on his way back from one of his nocturnal city wanderings, as a pretext to exile him to Massilia, where he had him murdered in 62 because of the proximity of Germany and the legions there, which his name, like his connection with the Claudian house, could have brought to his side.
Rubellius Plautus, son of Rubellius Blandus, who had been given Julia, daughter of Tiberius’ son Drusus, in marriage, suffered a similar fate. Plautus had been accused in 55 AD, when the struggle between Nero and his mother was uncertain, of being involved in a conspiracy against the throne and Nero’s life. He was said to have been selected by Agrippina to join her in marrying into her family and overthrowing her ungrateful son. The mother of the emperor managed to dispel the uncertainty which the accusation brought upon herself in a conversation with her son, and Nero did not act on Plautus’ involvement in the accusation. But not forever. Five years later, he could no longer bear the seclusion in which Plautus lived with his wife Antistia, who had been brought home in the meantime, and who could not prevent the growth of his reputation and the general respect he earned through his strict and morally pure behavior. A few lines from Nero’s hand, in which he recommended his inheritance in Asia as a suitable place for freeing the capital from disturbing rumors and for nurturing his youthful family happiness, drove him (in 60 AD) to Asia, where the murderers sent by Nero found him in the company of the Greek Köranus and Musonius, who had urged him not to trust the illusions of his Roman friends and father-in-law Antistius Vetus, that a bold decision on his part would bring all of Asia to his side.
Now only the act of violence against Octavia could follow, which he justified in his report to the Senate by his obligation to watch over the welfare of the state. He himself led the proceedings against Octavia as the head of the household; Tigellin assisted him with the formalities. First, the unfortunate young woman was accused of adultery with the flutist Eucarus, and then, when no sufficient testimony was found, she was dismissed on the grounds of infertility and sent to Campania. When the popular rumor of her recall caused a riot against the Palatium and the new empress, the last resort was used against Poppea’s victim. Anicetus, the fleet prefect who had agreed to murder Agrippina, was forced by Nero to fabricate Octavia’s adulterous relationship with him and the killing of the fruit of their union. The Emperor then sentenced Octavia to exile on Pandateria, where she soon met a violent death.
Octavia walks through Nero’s history like a speechless shadow. No word is reported from her, no action, and there is no expression on her face. When Tacitus says of her that there was no movement in her face when her brother Britannicus collapsed fatally, because despite her immature years she had already learned to conceal her emotions, even the seemingly speaking motionlessness of that moment is only a fiction like the entire scene of her brother’s murder. From the moment she helped to overthrow and replace her mother with her future stepmother, then deprived her brother of his right to the throne, finally chained herself to the robber and was overtaken by a freedwoman, Acte, until she was tortured for more than three years by a female usurper, Poppaea, and perhaps, if we can believe Suetonius (Nero 35), suffered under the wild rage of her husband, who tried to strangle her several times, we see her only in a state of paralysis under the pressure of her situation, without being able to guess whether she felt horror in front of her husband or whether he himself regarded the victim, which Agrippina and Seneca had tied to him, with a movement of horror. The careless report of Suetonius (loc. cit.), that Nero soon or early (cito) rejected her company, cannot even clarify this question for us.
Her older sister, Antonia, is not entirely distant from a later conspiracy, the Pisonian, and is likely to have been active on Sulla’s side, making connections to overthrow the man who was ruinous for her father and brother. Whether Octavia ever thought of stirring up the memory of her father among the nobility and people against her husband, we do not know, and she herself remains a mystery to us. From her moment of death, Tacitus (Annal. 14, 64) wants to report to us the words with which she called for the pity and mercy of her murderers on Pandataria: as a widow, she was only the sister of the prince; she had also invoked her and her former husband’s common origin from the Germanic tribes of the Tiberian house for help, and thought of the name of Agrippina, whom she had to endure an unhappy but not yet deadly marriage during her lifetime. However, this genealogical appeal to the murderers is nothing more than one of those many unsupported speeches in which Tacitus seeks to accommodate his pragmatic reflections.
Once Seneca’s resignation sealed the rupture of the peaceful relationship with the Senate, the state of war demanded one sacrifice after another. The earlier denunciations of the relatives of the imperial house would have been completely impossible if the eyes of many were not focused on them; the calls from Rome to Rubellius Plautus also prove that the aristocratic circles were busy with plans for a rebellion, and Nero, who could not remain unaware of these movements, was thus dragged ever deeper into his bloody defense system.
There was another family related to the Julian house, the Junii. Appius Junius Silanus was married to Aemilia Lepida, a great-granddaughter of Augustus from the line of Julia and Agrippa. Of his three sons, Lucius, who had been engaged to Octavia, was pushed out of the Senate on the instigation of Agrippina when she was close to achieving her goal of the marriage bed and the throne of Claudius. He was murdered on the wedding day of his enemy (in 48 AD). Marcus was immediately slaughtered on the orders of the Empress Mother as proconsul of Asia upon Nero’s accession to the throne. Now only Decimus Junius Silanus Torquatus was left, whom the emperor had accused of high treasonous plans through a majestas prosecutor while he was on his theater trip to Naples in 64 AD. Decimus, who was said to have shown his ambition beyond the private sphere by organizing his household administration on the model of the emperor’s chancellery, cabinet, and finance office, cut his veins before his conviction.
So now everything that belonged to or was blood-related to the imperial house was almost cleared away. But in the whole aristocratic Rome, the emperor seemed to be uneasy. He had originally had the idea of crossing over to Greece and collecting his art trophies there. However, the incident with Decimus Silanus brought him back to Rome, where he staged a scene in the Temple of Vesta, letting himself be determined by disturbing visions to stay with the people, his people who feared for him.
That was a hint for the restless nobles! However, the emergency and excitement caused by the city’s fire brought a pause to this state of war.
4. The Fire of Rome and the Christians.
The poets, rhetoricians, and philosophers of the early imperial era founded a spiritual Rome, on whose fertile soil the archetypes that came to the masses of the empire in the formulas of the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles flourished. Tacitus, on the other hand, who has no idea of this Roman Christianity, suddenly introduces veritable Christians onto the scene, and the interpreters, both secular and spiritual, who share his ignorance of that early Christianity, have been laboring in vain to solve the mystery of where those guests of pagan and Jewish Rome come from.
For us, the question is initially only whether Tacitus’s statements really deserve the name of a report.
Even the occasion that, according to his account, brought those Christians to light, cannot create a favorable opinion of his report on the origin of these guests. It is a work of appearance and legend that is supposed to motivate the bloody scene of Christian persecution. If that motive dissolves into mist, will the tragic consequence be able to assert itself?
The entire section is designed to convince readers that Nero instigated the fire that broke out in Rome on July 18, 64, and that the people were not entirely wrong to consider him the author of the disaster and thereby force other people, namely those Christians, to be scapegoats.
The beginning of the section immediately makes it uncertain whether the fire was accidental or ordered, and at least does not rule out the decision against Nero, as it relies on the fact that there are supporters for both explanations. If the public saw itself prevented from extinguishing the fire by the appearance of dark figures and some people who claimed to be following higher orders unashamedly threw fuel into the houses, it should be an open question whether these people were following a command or merely using one to pursue their predatory profession – what impression must, however, be made by the defiant confidence of these dark figures!
The prince, who was staying in Antium at the beginning of the fire, did indeed come to Rome upon receiving news of the event, but “not until” (Tacitus, Annals 15.38-43) his house, which connected the Palatine with the imperial inheritance of the Maecenatian gardens, caught fire. Although he then did everything possible to alleviate and control the disaster, as Tacitus later unintentionally reveals (Annals 15.50), running through all parts of the city at night without an escort and taking effective measures to provide shelter and nourishment for the homeless masses in his gardens and palatial houses, as well as in the colossal buildings of Agrippa, all of it was in vain and the rumor spread that he had mounted his stage during the fire and sung the burning of Troy as a counterpoint to the day’s misfortune. What kind of villainy, then, must he have been capable of, which everyone knew, and what historical effect does the scene contain, as he presents a poetic counterpart to the general misfortune at home?
When the fire, which had been brought under control after six days of effort, broke out again on the property of Tigellinus, “it seemed” as if Nero was once again intent on the complete destruction of the city and desiring the glory of founding a completely new city, which would naturally bear his name.
Once again, Seneca had to appear and testify to the godlessness with which Nero allegedly plundered the temples of Greece to adorn the new Rome with statues. To remove any appearance of complicity in this crime, Seneca supposedly requested leave to retire to a rural life in a distant land, and then feigned illness and bedridden status when his request was denied. However, he had already rarely been seen in the city, and shortly thereafter, according to our author’s own account, he was undisturbed in Campania, coming to Rome only for special business. It is more likely that he disposed of the burden of his money, which he allegedly gave to the prince for his buildings, on the occasion of the new city construction.
Finally, that praetorian colonel who played a leading role in the Pisonian conspiracy must deliver a penetrating and painful blow to the prince, as Tacitus (Annal. 15, 67) notes with true relish. When Nero asked him why he had allowed himself to renounce his allegiance, he is said to have replied, “I have hated you ever since you became a murderer of mother and wife, charioteer, comedian and arsonist.” According to our author, nothing hit Nero’s ear more sensitively than accusations he could not bear. Nothing? But he had long been used to the accusation of matricide, and nobody could shake his belief in his virtuosity, so only the blot of arson remained! If only Tacitus hadn’t put that memory into the mouth of the brave colonel! Dio Cassius, who like Tacitus and Suetonius portrays the prince as the intentional author of the fire, has probably given us the answer of that Flavius Subrius in an older, more reliable form (62, 24): “I do not wish to serve a charioteer and zither player.”
This is how Tacitus uses his art to weigh the scales, which he initially only presents to the readers as wavering, to the disadvantage of Nero. The pragmatism with which he moves under the horrors and storms of imperialism often has the naivety of a child who scares himself in the dusk and wants to scare others; but the horror picture he has composed from Nero’s connections to the Roman fire has the character of petty malice.
Now let us turn to his image of the Christians!
It is striking that during the time when the city had just been reduced to ashes and the ruins were still smoking, we hear nothing of an outburst of anger from the people against the allegedly hated Christians. Nero, on the other hand, came up with the idea of exposing the hated ones and blaming them for the disaster, and only later, after the damage had been healed by his strong measures and by the generosity with which he supported all classes, according to their rank, in the reconstruction of their houses. Only the alleged stubbornness with which the belief in his instigation of the fire persisted, despite all evidence of his involvement and care, is said to have left him no peace.
The way in which the hated Christians are introduced is abrupt and confusing. “First,” it is said, “those who confessed were arrested.” Aside from the fact that those who confessed did not need to be arrested, grabbed, or seized, what did they confess to? Commentators, both secular and spiritual, are divided into two points that are mentioned throughout the entire section. Some believe that they confessed to the crime of arson, which was Nero’s plan, while others believe that they confessed to their religious beliefs. However, the author says that they were “handed over not so much for arson as for hatred of the human race,” in accordance with their confession. So they had confessed to their beliefs, but it remains an incomprehensible surplus that they were still subjected to investigation after they had already confessed, and after a huge number of people who could only be apprehended as accomplices to that conviction had been indicated, making any judicial formalities unnecessary.
So what had helped Nero in his fear of the persistent popular belief in his arson? Neither in their confession nor in the police or judicial (and entirely unnecessary) investigation or determination was any mention made of the city’s misfortune. In fact, when they were tortured to death by Nero in his gardens, the people bestowed their sympathy upon them and regretted that they were being sacrificed not for the common good, but for the pleasure of the emperor’s bloody spectacle. Only the author takes the opportunity to give these objects of public pity another blow and to call their exemplary punishment (for their superstition) deserved.
This is not history, and it cannot be made into one.
Tacitus has nothing terrible or shameful to say about the supposed Christians of Nero’s time, except for what he accused the Jews of in his earlier work, namely hatred towards all other nations (Hist. 5, 5). And the fact that the founder of the Christian name was sentenced to death under Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate is likely to have been taken from the same state archives in which, according to Tertullian (Apologet. 21), the fact that at the moment of Jesus’ death, at noon, the sun was darkened, was recorded.
When historians have struggled in vain with the confusion of Tacitus’ Christian portrayal and imposed an equally chimerical and baseless connection to it, they ultimately (like Schiller) follow the path of Gibbon and assume that our author has transferred the color of the later Domitianic persecution to a calamity that affected a community in which Christianity and Judaism were not yet sharply distinguished. However, firstly, the Roman reaction of Domitian, as I will demonstrate in the section on the Flavian period, only affected certain heights of society, and only then those souls that had attached Romanism to the monotheistic law and combined with it an inwardness and renunciation of the world that was originally foreign to Judaism.
The distorted image presented by Tacitus can only be explained in the context of the influences of the time in which he wrote his Annals, during Trajan’s reign in the second decade of the second century. By then, there were indeed Christian elements in Rome, and he might have heard of a Christ and his fate under Pontius Pilate. He could have also formed the opinion that the disaster, which seemed to have been suffocated in the death of this Christ, had later broken out again and spread to Rome, the gathering place of all that was impure. Suetonius’ biography of Nero (chapters 16-17), written under the same influences and during the same time, also mentions the punishment of the Christians as adherents of a new and shameful superstition, among the police measures taken by this emperor.
Therefore, in the portrayal of Christianity in its development in relation to the second century imperial system, we can only conclude our judgment on that episode of the Neronian era.
Moreover, if we consider Tacitus to have been influenced by the Trajanic period in this episode, it does not necessarily mean that there was a massive slaughter of Jews under Nero. Dio Cassius, who goes further than Tacitus in the section on the fire of Rome, and who repeats Suetonius’s direct accusations against Nero as an arsonist, believed he had no reason to mention a persecution of Christians and Jews on this occasion. If Josephus had positive information about Nero’s arson, he would have mentioned the calamity that befell the city in order to include it among the Emperor’s crimes. If the Jews had suffered as a result of this catastrophe, up to being crucified and dressed in burning garments, he would have mentioned the case.
I only mention in passing, with regard to historians who assume the early existence of a Christian community in Rome in accordance with the New Testament’s “Acts of the Apostles,” my critique of this text (Berlin, 1850). If they form an image of this community from the greetings of the apostle Paul at the end of his letter to the Romans, I remind them of the result of my critique of this letter (“Critique of the Pauline Epistles,” Berlin 1852), which shows that it gradually developed by the addition of heterogeneous articles to the fundamental article, and that the Gnostic Marcion still had this letter in Rome without the last two chapters in 140. These chapters, including the sixteenth consisting only of greetings, were created after 140, and the community in the house of Narcissus, which is usually seen as belonging to Claudius’s freedman, is therefore very late.
5. The Death of Seneca.
Let us now turn from the Christian-hating people of Tacitus to Tertullian’s Christian, the teacher of human love, Seneca. His end is near. A fortunate fate had once again led him away from the abyss, where he walked and sometimes stumbled, in order to reshape the world from the lofty heights of earthly power. He lived in solitude, which he often glorified during his court life, and talked with his Lucilius about the fusion of Stoic courage with the gentleness and inner peace of Epicurus.
However, he was tempted again, and he could not resist. He put himself in danger and perished.
In Stoic circles, there were two different movements at work. The teachers and preachers of the sect, such as Musonius and Köranus, who urged Rubellius Plautus to submit to the death blow, held fast to the school’s political renunciation and wanted to know nothing but the work on one’s own soul. However, the aristocratic leaders were not always satisfied with this silent despair at the world’s course and understood under the philosophical manliness the means to reform the empire and to bless it with the freedom of the old times.
This trend was known at the court. When Tigellin demanded the blow against Plautus, he said that he gave the appearance of an old Roman spirit and confessed to the party and presumption of the Stoics, who made the spirits restless and eager for innovation (Tacitus Annal. 14, 57). Similarly, Cossutianus fired Nero’s rage against Thrasea with the words that he was the leader of the innovators who, in order to overthrow the imperial power, showed off their freedom, and when they had overthrown it, they turned against freedom itself (Tacitus Annal. 16, 22).
Seneca had in one of his letters to Lucilius (Ep. 73) aligned himself with those who renounce the world and remain silent, and declared it a mistake to believe that “the followers of philosophy are rebellious and disobedient people who despise authority. On the contrary, nobody is more grateful to the philosophers than they are, for it is thanks to them that they are allowed to live in peace and tranquility. Therefore, it is necessary for those whose lofty goal is to live rightly, and who benefit from public safety, to honor the author of this good (the prince) as a father,” continues the wise man.
However, Seneca succumbed to the temptation that brought him back into public life. The agitation that had been stirring in the aristocracy and the equestrian order for some time had finally taken shape as a conspiracy, which found its center, actually only its name, in Gnaeus Piso. Its strength lay in the military. Capable colonels and commanders of the Praetorian Guard, who had become estranged and alienated from the prince by his excesses, provided support for the enterprise and guided it secretly according to their own views. Piso, from the illustrious Calpurnii family, one of Rome’s great men who created a large clientele through their financial power and advocacy in the courts, fond of splendor and not averse to the pleasures of his time, seemed insufficient for them to replace Nero. Even Fanius Rufus, Tigellin’s colleague in command, did not feel safe beside his favor at the court and brought his unblemished name to the secret association.
Piso himself had inherited from his ancestors the desire for power and claims that, despite their greater toughness and willpower, they had not been able to satisfy. That Calpurnian, who, after the civil war under Augustus, refused to accept offices and honors, still allowed himself to be persuaded by the prince to take on the consulship. His son Cneius, in his pride (Tacitus Annal. 2, 43), scarcely gave the Tiber the priority and saw his children far below him; he was that tough nobleman who, on Tiberius’ orders, was sent as an advisor with his nephew Germanicus on his oriental journey and used his position to torture the weak-willed prince to death, and then preempted the outcome of the investigation in the Senate by committing suicide. The current Piso, the nominal head of the conspiracy, was well aware of his intellectual insignificance, feared competitors, and viewed, for example, the reputation of L. Junius Silanus, nephew of Decimus Junius Torquatus, formed by C. Cassius with suspicion, as the young man, the last scion of the Junian family, could attract the eyes of the uninvolved people in the event of his success.
In certain circles of the conspirators, the name of Antonia was mentioned, but it seems that they did not know exactly what to do with her in the end, as Piso’s affection for his wife stood in the way of the plan to marry him to the daughter of Claudius.
The women seem to have harbored a real bitterness against Nero because of his harsh treatment of Octavia, such as that servant of this unfortunate woman, who, when asked about her mistress’s relationship with Eucarus, spat in Tigellinus’ face in the presence of the judge, saying, “My mistress’s shame is purer than your mouth!” A similar bitterness seems to have guided that Epicharis, who urged the hesitant members of the Pisonian conspiracy forward and made advances on the current fleet prefect of Misenum, Volusius Proculus, urging him to prepare the fleet crews against Nero, whom she saw as having inadequately rewarded him for his participation in his predecessor’s plot against Agrippina. She was also the only person from whom no name could be extracted by torture after the disclosure of the conspiracy, and she strangled herself in the straps of the torture chair.
The first report came from the house of a participating senator, Scävinus. On the eve of the conspiracy, he had drawn attention to himself by a special celebration and by alternating between deep thoughtfulness and seemingly cheerful frivolity. He had sealed his will, granted freedom to his favorite slaves and gifted others with money. After a more than usually lavish meal, he had had his rusty dagger sharpened and his bandages prepared by his freedman Milichus. Milichus reported these suspicious circumstances to the emperor and, in the immediate confrontation with his master, added as further indications Scävinus’ secret consultations with the knight Natalis and both their intimate friendship with Piso.
Later, the public wondered how Scävinus, known for his extravagant lifestyle, had become involved in the conspiracy. His testimony during the interrogation, that he had worked on his will several times and had given his slaves more money this time because his fortune was dwindling and he could no longer trust the will with the pressure from creditors, proves that he was also in debt.
Natalis, after whose citation Piso opened his veins, finally revealed Seneca’s name. His testimony provides the best explanation of the conspiracy. He was the messenger between the philosopher and Piso. When Seneca was ill, Piso sent him to express his regret that he was making himself inaccessible. However, Seneca replied that exchanging words and having frequent conversations would not be beneficial for either of them. Furthermore, Seneca’s own well-being depended on Piso’s survival.
The nominal leader of the plot had also been afraid of Seneca, and in his reticence had seen a sign that he had his own intentions. Seneca had kept himself in the background and had wanted to wait and see if the promises made to him would be fulfilled.
Seneca had just arrived from Campania at a villa near Rome on that day. His evasive explanation, which Nero immediately demanded from him through the Praetorian prefect Granius Silvanus, was not enough for him, and he ordered the prefect to return to Seneca and command him to bid farewell to life.
At that moment, the military side of the conspiracy had not yet been discovered, and Fanius Rufus was still a member of the court presided over by Nero, and was conducting the questioning of the detainees. It was only when he pressed Scävinus for further information that the military aspect of the plot was revealed. When the senator mocked Rufus to his face, saying that no one could serve the emperor better than he could with revelations, it was then that the military members of the conspiracy began to be uncovered.
The officer who was to bring the death sentence to Seneca did not go straight to the villa outside Rome, but first went to the praetorium of Fanius, who was still a member of the court, and asked him if he should carry out the emperor’s order. Fanius told him to do so, and to spare himself and Seneca the pain of the sight, he sent a captain into the villa to deliver the message.
The military members of the conspiracy seem to have truly believed in the philosopher’s calling to rule. They treated Piso’s pretensions with the same arrogance that the military later showed in making their own emperor. For example, Flavius Subrius said that it made no difference whether they sent the zither player or the tragedian (Piso also performed in tragic roles).
Seneca died a slow death; the blood would not flow freely from his opened veins, and the poison kept by his trusted physician did not work in his dying body. In the end, he was suffocated by the fumes of a hot bath, from which he gave a few drops to the “liberator Jupiter.” According to a regulation from the time of his glory and power, he was immediately burned without any ceremony. Such a power of thought and language still animated him in his dying moments that he dictated a series of sentences to summoned scribes, which were published as the legacy of his wisdom and were still circulating at the time of Tacitus (Annals 15, 64).
His wife Paulina, who embraced him at the farewell, could not be dissuaded from dying with him; however, Nero, upon hearing of this, gave the order to tie off the wounds in order to avoid being held responsible for this scandal. She remained as a witness to this episode of the bloody trial in which the Pisonian conspiracy was suppressed, with her corpse-like appearance for a long time afterward.
Seneca’s older brother Gallio was accused of complicity in the conspiracy in the Senate when the course of imperial revenge had weakened, but he was let off lightly once more because the majority of the assembled senators did not wish to reopen the hardened wound in the emperor’s mind. Dio Cassius (62, 25) later reports that he was eventually dropped.
The younger brother Mela concludes the tragedy of the Annia family as a victim of the family’s understanding of money. The zeal with which he alarmed the debtors of his son Lukan, who was involved in the conspiracy and convicted, by collecting their obligations, provoked one of them to seek revenge by accusing him before Nero with forged letters that indicated his complicity with his son. He opened his veins in terror over this kind of payment and relieved the creditors of their anxiety.
6. Seneca and the Satire on Claudius’ Ascension to Heaven.
Posterity has sometimes suspected Seneca of sacrificing his inner peace to his belief in his calling to rule and of often denying the severity of his moral teachings at the courts of two emperors. But from a Christian-religious standpoint, there is least right to condemn the man who laid the foundation for Christian Rome. The community that inherited his moral teachings also inherited the Stoic conviction of the supremacy of the wise man’s claim to world domination.
Tertullian declared, in the sense of renouncing the world, with which the community appeared (Apologet. cap. 21), “that the Caesars would have confessed their faith in Christ if they were not necessary to the world, or if the Christians could have been Caesars.” However, after the leaders of the community had practiced the condemnation of all divergent opinions and then used the imperial power to destroy those who did not fully support their doctrinal provisions, the stoic principle awoke in them that the wise man was the true king, with unprecedented force. And after they succeeded in making the secular kings their servants in the Middle Ages, they surprise the present by renewing the stoic belief in the sublimity of spiritual sovereignty, even against the secular bond of kings.
So let the stone fall that one wants to throw at Seneca, and spare the Roman Levite the Pharisee gaze.
In addition, Seneca is now plagued with the attributed “Ludus” (fun, jest, gaudium) about the death of Emperor Claudius, about his experiences in the council of the gods on Olympus, and his banishment to the underworld. For example, Schiller accuses him (in his treatise on Nero, p. 295, 296) that he “had thrown mud at the dead emperor, who had once pardoned him and tolerated him at court in the last years and had raised him to positions of honor, and had expressed approval of the murder of the unfortunate man through bland jokes.”
The essay, a masterpiece of lightness of language and agility of overbearing delivery, would discredit anyone else who might have written it, but written by Seneca’s hand, it would remain a blot on his name.
This passage describes a satire written by Seneca, soon after Nero’s ascension to power, in which he glorifies the young emperor. The plot involves Mercury coming to fetch the dying Claudius, and while Klotho makes a joke about the emperor’s struggles with death, Lachesis allows Nero to live on and Apollo sings to the lyre of Nero’s qualities as the world’s savior. The description of Claudius’s experiences in the heavens is full of allusions to his physical deformities. He is portrayed as a monster with an awkward gait and a voice like a sea monster’s, and his fever, which has plagued him throughout his life, is also referenced, as are his Gaulish origins. In the underworld, he is degraded to the status of a slave, and Aekus devises a new punishment for him, in which he is forever playing dice with an empty cup.
It is unlikely that Seneca, who was himself once a candidate for execution during the reign of Caligula and was never of strong physical constitution, would have made fun of someone else’s infirmity. Furthermore, would he have allowed Mercury to utter the frivolous words, as he was taking the dying Claudius from Clotho, that he had been fighting death for all of his 64 years? Could the protector of slaves have sentenced the deceased emperor to eternal slavery, and to that end, invent the refined hierarchical structure that allows Caligula to claim his successor as his slave, subjecting him to beatings and slaps by witnesses, and then giving him to his freedman as a scribe? Is it also conceivable that the defender of human rights and the solidarity of the human race could have ridiculed Claudius for admitting the Gallic Aedui to the Senate, and could have put into Clotho’s mouth the taunt that he had yet to fulfill his favorite desire and give citizenship to all Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards, and Britons?
It is also crucial that Seneca’s writings nowhere betray a trace of the light humor that pervades the “Ludus,” despite all its bitterness and low tendency; on the other hand, the often intricate structure and combination of Seneca’s points are entirely foreign to the Ludus. Furthermore, when Seneca castigates the elevation of the great men up to Augustus against the Republic countless times as the fruit of self-interest, he does so with sharpness and striking power; he is no longer capable of characterizing the emperors. His attacks against Caligula, for example, whom he particularly dislikes and to whom he has devoted numerous barbs, are weak, and the points are dull. How awkward and feeble, for example, is his sentence about this emperor in the treatise “de Ira” (1.16): “Cajus Caesar was angry with heaven because his thunderclap disturbed the ballet dance, in which he preferred to participate rather than to watch, and the play he was staging was frightened by lightning that did not take the right path” (namely, on his head).
He only mentions Claudius twice (apart from the letter to Polybius). The one in the treatise on Benefits (1.15) is at most incriminating: “Crispus Passienus used to say that he would rather have the respect of some people than a favor, and the favor of others than their respect, and he gave the example: “I prefer the respect of the deified Augustus, but I prefer a favor from Claudius.” “But I,” Seneca continues, “believe that it is not desirable for anyone to seek a favor whose respect is worthless. So what then? Should he not accept the favor offered by Claudius? Indeed! But just like fortune, which, as you well know, can change in an instant.”
This is not beautiful, but as the saying goes, it is not a mortal sin. It is unbecoming for a significant man and punishes itself through its stiff and anxious affectation.
In short, two authors could not differ more in language and style than Seneca and the author of the Ludus.
The Ludus was attributed to Seneca only after its isolated discovery because it was believed to be the “Apokolokynthosis” (i.e. Pumpkinification), which Dio Cassius (60, 33) attributes to Nero’s teacher in a context where his brother Gallio’s pun about the deification of Claudius is mentioned. But firstly, as A. Stahr, whose discussion of this issue in his “Agrippina” I agree with, has pointed out, the tone and content of this work, which also has no connection with the Ludus according to its title, remain completely unknown, and secondly, the notes about Seneca in Dio’s later abbreviated and interpreted history book are recognized as unreliable.
7. Nero’s End.
Caligula acted in accordance with that later evangelical saying, that the kingdom of heaven must suffer violence and robbers belong to its conquest. He reached with bold hand into heaven and brought its glories home. But when he looked down upon his earthly world in the fullness of his divinity, he grew angry and knew nothing better to do with it than to wish for a single neck, so that he as judge of the world could do away with it with a single blow.
Nero approached it differently. He wanted to serve from below. Like Tiberius, who called himself the servant of the state, he considered himself the servant of humanity. Being a human among humans was his highest aim. But he, too, grew angry. The last representatives of those families who once wielded the scepter of the world did not want to acknowledge the omnipotence that he attributed to himself as the head of humanity; for him, the world was therefore divided into proud rebels and the good people, who joyfully bore his gentle yoke.
The suppression of the Pisonian conspiracy marks a turning point in Nero’s reign, whose subsequent course is only a lingering of the wound inflicted on the aristocratic party. After the death of Seneca, the consul Atticus Vestinus, an enterprising man whose zeal for freedom Piso feared would thwart his enterprise and who probably knew of the conspiracy but did not approve of it, also fell. The following year (66), Petronius, who was in Cumae when he came to meet the emperor on a trip to Campania, supposedly because of his relationship with Scavinus, Piso’s associate, also fell. However, Tacitus is not very credible when he (Annal. 16, 19, 20) suggests that the emperor deliberated for a long time on the malicious revelations of his sexual refinements in the victim’s will and finally attributed them to Silia, the wife of a senator and alleged friend of Petronius. If the refinements of the imperial bed were really a fact and not just the talk of the public, they would have had to be known to the confidant of the palace without the help of that woman.
Then it was Thrasea Paetus’ turn, whose alleged tragedy Tacitus had already dedicated an in-depth analysis to since the fall of Agrippina, without giving the most basic idea of the development of the drama and the final crisis and accusation, as Schiller has impressively and brilliantly demonstrated. The last Junius, the nephew of Decimus, L. Silanus, on whose reputation and influence Piso was jealous, was also sentenced by the Senate to exile with C. Cassius, his Stoic tutor, and was killed on his way to exile while Cassius remained until Vespasian’s rise to power.
The time had now come when voluntary accusers of majesty were emerging, who, like Aquilius Regulus (Tacit. Hist. 4, 42), still called it negligence that Nero was struggling and fragmenting himself and the informers with individual houses of the great, while the whole Senate could be overthrown with a single word. This situation corresponds to Suetonius’ statement (Nero, chap. 37), that the emperor often threw out the remark during his Greek journey that he would not spare the rest of the senators and would completely eradicate the order, and at the inauguration of his enterprise on the Isthmus, in his blessing, he thought only of himself and the Roman people, ignoring the Senate.
During his stay in Greece, this state of war claimed the lives of the two brothers Scribonius Rufus and Proculus, as well as Domitius Corbulo, all three summoned to court and forced to their deaths. In addition to their illustrious lineage, their significant military positions, with the Scribonian as governor of both Germanias, and Corbulo’s in Syria, along with the power he had gained from commanding the Illyrian and Egyptian legions, as well as his military and diplomatic successes in settling the relations between Rome and Parthia and establishing Armenia as a vassal state, contributed to their downfall.
Nero had now cleaned up around him and stood alone, until Helius, who had unsuccessfully presented the necessity of his return in a letter, personally sought him out in Greece and convinced him to return home.
There was unrest in Gaul. When the prince with the Greek triumphal wreaths made his triumphant entry into Naples in March 68, the news came that C. Julius Vindex, the governor of Gaul, a romanized Gaul, had raised the banner of rebellion. In Rome, he received the news of Galba’s uprising in Spain. The Gaul, the forerunner of the Batavian Claudius Civilis, who would soon establish a Rhine confederation with Gaul and Germany, had risen for the liberation of his country and lured Galba with the idea of acquiring the imperial throne in collaboration with him. Galba, for his part, wanted to use the Gaul’s uprising for his own elevation against Nero without giving him any assurances for his own possible plans. However, when Vindex fell with his national army through Virginius Rufus and his legions, Galba, who was deprived of his support, despaired of his cause, and only Nero’s hesitation was saved by swift military operations.
The people in Rome were left to the confusing rumors of further uprisings and betrayals. Nero seems to have reserved the Praetorian Guard as his personal reserve while slowly advancing troops against Galba. Nymphidius, the successor of Fanius Rufus, used the leisure of that corps to his own ends, taking advantage of the uncertainty hanging over Rome. In the period between Nero’s death and Galba’s arrival, he himself reached for the imperium, but was killed in the Praetorian Camp after Galba’s arrival. Tigellinus, who had hidden in the background during Nero’s final days, earned the favor of the new emperor by rescuing Galba’s daughter during the interregnum’s chaos, and may have also pleased the Senate. However, he also met a bloody end and cut his throat in Sinuessa when the people demanded revenge against him from Otho.
The colorful collection of anecdotes that embellish the last weeks, days, and hours of Nero’s life, such as the one where he supposedly called senators and knights to his palace during the Gallic uprising, as if he wanted to consult with them about the events of the day, only to reveal to them that he had discovered a way to produce a stronger and brighter sound from a water organ, is the work of a playful imagination that enjoyed using the fruitful theme of the foolish virtuoso in contrast to the Gallic rebellion and the approach of Galba as variations. That anecdote from Dio Cassius is even formed according to the same pattern as the one Juvenal used where Domitian asks a night council about how to serve a large turbot and the one where Caligula, according to Dio Cassius (95, 5), summons senators to an important consultation only to meet them dancing out of his cabinet and perform a solo dance.
It is certain that Nero, at the age of thirty years, five months, and twenty-six days, on June 9, 68 AD, ended his life by suicide in the villa of a freedman outside Rome, where he had fled in his last desperation. Epaphroditus was reputed to have assisted him in this act of mercy, which the freedman paid for bitterly in the last year of Domitian’s reign.
His third wife, Statilia Messalina, widow of the consul Vestinus whom he had married after the death of Poppaea in 65 AD, survived him and lived a quiet and scholarly life of retirement. We do not know what became of Antonia, Octavia’s sister. Suetonius (Nero 35) says that Nero had her executed as a conspirator after she had refused his proposal of marriage following the death of Poppaea.
As soon as Nero closed his eyes, the people awoke from the stupor of the last days. The jubilation of the senators and knights brought them back to themselves and forced even the ephemeral rulers of the next months to pay homage to his memory. Icelus, Galba’s freedman, thrown into prison in the tumult of the last days and released after Nero’s death, now an authority figure, “allowed” the last wish of the dead to be fulfilled, to be burned (Suetonius, Nero 49:50). His two wet nurses and Acte placed the remains in the ancestral tomb of the Domitii. Otho, although he had joined the uprising against Nero with Galba in Lusitania, relied on his previous association with the prince he had betrayed in his rivalry against the winner of the day. He gave himself the name Nero in his first edicts to the prefects, was happy when the people and soldiers called him “Nero Otho,” had the statues of his outlawed friend erected again, and obtained a Senate resolution restoring the statues of Poppaea to this honour (Suetonius, Otho 7; Tacitus, Histories 1, 78). Vitellius, the former flatterer of the imperial singer, organized a funeral for him to the delight of the people, with the Augustals of the Julian house serving (Tacitus, ibid. 2, 95). Indeed, from afar came the urgent request of Vologesus, the Parthian king, for the care of Nero’s memory.
Suetonius tells (Nero 57) that there were still many people who adorned his grave with flowers in the spring and summer, and appeared on the stage of the orator with his image or his edicts, as if he were still alive and about to return soon to destroy his enemies.
The same compiler tells at the end of his biography of Nero that he himself, as a young man, witnessed twenty years after Nero’s death that a pseudo-Nero found lively interest and support among the Parthians and was only surrendered after serious negotiations. According to Tacitus (Hist. 2, 8, 9), during the civil war between Otho and Vitellius, Greece and Asia were disturbed by the rumor that Nero was returning, and a slave or freedman who actually claimed to be Nero and held out on the island of Cytherus with deserters and slaves was made harmless.
8. Nero as Antichrist.
Nero had always striven for the highest attainable position, but he could not have foreseen that a community appearing after him, which claimed, like Rome, to encompass the entire earth, would assign him a role in their “divine comedy” of the last things, whose brilliance and fire would pale his favorite roles on the Roman stage.
I consider it probable that the author of the “Revelation of John” had Nero in mind as the Antichrist or his forerunner with his beast with seven heads and ten horns, but this incorporation of the last of the Julii into the biblical drama was only possible after Tacitus had presented his horrific depiction of the Nero’s persecution of Christians. And after these inspirations for a bloody and fiery portrayal of the struggles of a final judgment, those preliminary studies had to be drafted that present Nero, the matricide, as returning from the Euphrates and ascending to the place of God in the fourth and fifth books of the Sibylline Song Collection. The form of the latter image in the fifth book originated from the chronological surroundings in the last time of Hadrian, so the Revelation of John was created later, at the earliest in the middle of the reign of Marcus Aurelius. However, we can only focus here on the fact that the woman of the Apocalypse, the great Babylon, sitting on the beast and drunken with the blood of the saints (Revelation 13:8) is the Rome of the seven hills, and we can only be interested in the contrast that the vengeance of the apocalyptist against the adversary of his God forms with our portrayal of the eternal city as the birthplace of Roman Christianity during the time of the first Caesars.
The Christian church had no regard for the universalistic, humanitarian, and self-advancing direction of Nero’s government, and in its excitement against the Roman seat of evil and godlessness, which was also fueled by Tacitus, it did not consider that Seneca and his predecessors had paved the way for them there.
Seneca’s sayings shine in the Gospels and Pauline epistles; his structure of contrast between the old and new law determined the organization of the same theme in the Sermon on the Mount, and his struggle with flesh and sin inspired the author of the Epistle to the Romans to intensify the contrast between flesh and spirit. In the rhetorical schools, the break with the law is decisive, echoing in the Gospel’s renunciation of Moses’ law. Augustus, the peace prince, and the jealousy with which the emperors guarded their princely privilege, directed the Romans to care for their spiritual well-being and elicited from the despairing, who believed they were standing at the end of the world after the fall of the Republic, the cry for a new spiritual world. Finally, in the leveling of the social classes, the belief in human rights was born, and in the interaction between human beings, a communication between high and low, a need for mutual affiliation emerged, of which the republics of antiquity, including the oriental theocracies, had no conception.
Does this ascetic, self-denying Rome, seeking an immaterial homeland, deserve the name of the mother of all prostitution on earth? And in the death that under Nero swept away the old families to the point of erasing the memory of them and also seized the imperial line until the last scion of the Caesar family threw himself onto the general burial ground, was not a new Rome born, freed from the jealousy of its former greatness, which became the rightful place for a new universal community?
The fruit of this ancient Rome will ripen in the following section among the no longer anonymous Christians. Before that, a few words about three poets of the Neronian era who also worked for Christianity.
9. Persius, Lucan and Petronius.
A poet may have only received the inspiration of the muses in a meager manner, yet still be an interesting witness to the state of mind of his time. Aulus Persius Flaccus works hard; his images are anxiously constructed and dryly executed. He is melancholy because the world does not conform to his Stoic ideal, and he concludes that everything, from the nobility and knights to the soldier and common people, has degenerated, gone astray and become corrupt. Should he therefore be rejected and dismissed as “the right ideal of a haughty and faint-hearted youth devoted to poetry”, as Mommsen does? Or should he, like Schiller, be discarded as a “juvenile versifier who has borrowed all the noble arrogance and self-satisfaction from the Stoics as a faithful imitator”? And if one were to relate this position of Persius to the world of humanity with the Gospels and Epistles, which also call for repentance and condemn all to sin, and wanted to treat the entire series with the same rejection as Persius, what would the historian have accomplished with this summary process?
The sayings of Persius with the mood expressed in them are valuable, because they belong to the circle of tools that have stimulated and nourished the production of the evangelical and so-called Pauline sayings. His saying (Sat. 2, 71 ff.): “Let us offer to the gods a mind for justice and duty, a sacred peace of the inner self, and a heart consecrated by the nobility of virtue,” his call “It is for freedom” (Sat. 5, 73 ff.), not the one given by the praetor or the illusion of arbitrariness, correspond to a direction that wanted to be free from the ancient temple and state service. His exclamation (Sat. 2, 61 ff.): “Earthly souls, who are alienated from heavenly things, what good does it do to transfer our nature into the temples and to bring offerings to the gods from this sinful fleshly life?” the application of that doctrine which Numa received from Pythagoras about the perversity of ascribing pleasure to the gods in the blood of animals (Ovid’s Metamorph. 15, 27 ff.) explains the gradual alienation of the time from the sacrificial cult. Finally, the intimate relationship of the solitary ascetic and Etruscan who died in his twenty-eighth year (62 AD) with Thrasea opens up a view into certain Stoic circles of Rome, which will be of service to us in the later summary presentation of the budding of the Christian blossom.
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus also belongs to the boys and reprobates. His judgment on political matters is called “childish” by Schiller; perhaps the fact that the subject (the civil war) was nothing in itself just stirred the young man’s vanity; he wanted to make it into something by his stirring declamation.
Lucan already had his enemies in antiquity. Martial speaks (Epigr. 14, 194) of those who do not want to consider him a poet. Servius (on Virgil) believes that he does not deserve his place among poets because he seems to have composed history, not a poem. However, it is dangerous that even the man of refined taste, Petronius, has doubted the poetic value of his “Civil War”, the Pharsalia. For it is evident that the ballad sung by the elderly poet of his Satyricon, Eumolpus, is a satire of Lucan’s work, and the utterance of the same singer, “The Civil War is an enormous undertaking; whoever tries it without complete poetic training will collapse under the burden; it is not enough to put historical facts into verse, for that is the task of the historian,” must, in any case, hit the historical posture of the Lucan work. The remark that the flashes of thought must not stand out from the whole, but must appear as the body’s own luminosity, also points in this direction.
However, it is only a joke related to the caricature poem of Eumolpus when Petronius lets the elderly poet say that the poet must torture the reader with the intervention of the gods and give the appearance of an inspired prophet. The time of this machinery of the gods was forever gone, and no one knew it better than Petronius.
It was nonetheless a bold idea of Lucan’s to make real historical figures with their feelings, passions, and reflections on their own right and actions the subject of an epic, even if the attempt failed. Far from being “nothing in itself,” the civil war as a collision of power that feels superior to the old forms and of law, which remains certain in its defeat, is a topic that will never cease to arouse the most intense, even passionate interest of the world. However, Lucan had to fail because the subject is too big and comprehensive for poetry and can only be tackled by prose.
Imperialism did not find Homer, whom Alexander the Great called for in vain, and it will not find him. It cannot escape its business of trickery, deception, outwitting, and deceit, and this machinery is not a subject for poetry. Lucan chose the representative of law, the Senate, as his hero. One may laugh at the weak and declining Senate in the heroic role, and also at the idea of making a council the actor of an epic. But people will not stop calling for this actor, despite all the mistakes and errors, and then: the idea that Lucan had in mind was fulfilled in that Senate which, beyond the ocean, created a new world in the face of England’s imperialistic arrogance.
Pompey appears as the agent of the Senate and, driven by the impatience of the party that forces him into battle against his plan, he falls into misfortune, a beautiful hero! one exclaims, and again Lucan’s idea has become a reality in the general who, in agreement with the council in Philadelphia, defeated England and the imperialism of the old world.
Cato stands at first, until the death of Pompey frees him and he devotes himself entirely to freedom (Pharsal. 9, 29-30), forming with Caesar the fighting pair that Rome will keep since the day of Pharsalus, and remains uninvolved and unable to choose between Pompey and Caesar. An empty, melancholy position for a hero, one exclaims again: but from the pain of this isolated figure came the wish that is very close to later Christian views, that his head should bear the punishment of all others and that his death should atone for the guilt of the general ruin that led to civil war (2, 306 ff.).
The solution to the bloody collision that drives the poem is given right at the beginning. It reads: Nero. Around him, the warring brothers fought, he is the spoils of civil war, and the atrocities of war paved the way for his reign, just as after the battle with the Titans, the gods took over and obeyed the Thunderer of the Heavens. Even when the Prince of Peace reigns as a divine star in the sky, he will maintain peace for humanity, in which they will find their salvation, and the bond of love will unite the nations (1, 33 ff.).
It does not help to dissolve the work into two sections, in order to eliminate the alleged contradiction of this theodicy of civil wars within the body of the poem. In the first three books, the poet is said to be a supporter of Caesar, while he represents the Pompeian interest in the last seven books. Even in the first three books, Caesar enters Rome as an intruder, robber, and violator of rights, while Pompey stands on the side of the legitimate Senate.
Seneca saw the leaders of the civil wars, such as his nephew, as Titans of self-will and wickedness, in Caesar as a multiplied Catilina (ad Marciam, 20), in Cato as the last representative of freedom (e.g. de constant. Sap. 2. Epist. 104), and in the future the bond of love among peoples. Both were convinced that Nero would close the Janus temple in harmony with the Senate for the internal wars. The reversal, which was indicated by the entrance of Poppaea into the Palatium, clarified to Lucan as to Seneca that they had been deceived. The legend that Nero’s jealousy of Lucan’s poetic talent led to the break-up had no more value than most of the court anecdotes of Suetonius and Tacitus.
When Lucan was faced with the choice between Cato’s and Brutus’ daggers and reached for the latter, his poem had become a historical document to him, and it would have seemed petty to him to delete or change its beginning.
He was sure of his eternity. In that passage where he (9, 980-986) calls on Caesar not to envy him his holy posthumous reputation, he assures that “as long as the honors of the Smyrnaean seer (Homer) endure, those who come after us will read me and you; our Pharsalia will live forever”.
“Me and you and ours” – that is meant seriously. Immediately before, he had described how Caesar, in pursuit of his defeated opponent at Ilium, visits the immortalized sites of Homer and pays tribute to the celebrated heroes of the Iliad; thus, he believes, my Pharsalia will also remain the monument of your own, my Pharsalia the protest of the seer against your victory of violence at Pharsalus – a compelling connection which does not allow the assumption that the poet turns against Nero’s alleged poet envy and promises his poems the same eternity as his own.
Lucan was 27 years old when he died because of his involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy. He is said to have initially steadfastly denied his involvement and, when promised impunity, to have reported his own mother Acilia to excuse his restraint. Perhaps this anecdote was only an official fabrication to ruin the man’s reputation even in death. Acilia allowed the government to pass by without acquitting it (Tacit. Annal. 15, 56.71).
The tumultuous and future-filled time of Nero had the fortune that only a few epochs have been given. A master of humor, Petronius, has given us its image, and the charm of his simple language, the artistically processed exuberance of his life images, and the kindness of his attitude and sympathy for the noble impulses of his time give us so much that we almost forget the loss of the greater part of his work in enjoyment. Only the Don Quixote of the Spaniard and the humorous creations of Shakespeare are to be placed alongside him. Ferdinand Raimund can be added to this list, in German dimension, as an equal.
In the one half of the fragment that has been preserved, the master passes through the scene like the sun, where adventurers sacrifice their pleasure and in the service of their deity show the self-sacrificing ardor of martyrs; impartially like the sun, he illuminates the joys and sorrows of their cult and takes pleasure in the judgments of the student and the dissolute poet about the fate of language, art, and science.
The banquet of the freedman Trimalchio can be called the feast of the citizen world inspired by the ideas of the Neronian era. Petronius, in innocent exuberance, has the freedman recite Seneca’s death sermons and boast about the philosopher’s admonitions on the brevity of life. Trimalchio has to show off the etiquette of his wine jug: “Falernian from Opimius’ year, a hundred years old,” so he can clap his hands over his head and groan, “so the wine lives longer than mankind.” A slave must bring him a movable human skeleton so that he can throw it on the table a few times and make changing figures, exclaiming, “we miserable creatures, how man is so nothing; we will all be like that when the underworld takes us.” Seneca, who understands how far the wise man can indulge in a little drunkenness, will not mind if Petronius spices up the philosopher’s thoughts on death with an invitation to wine and the cry of “Water out, wine in!” “Ah, ah! What is man! An inflated bladder!” cries a guest who came from a comrade’s funeral, whose bladder had lost its contents.
Like Seneca, Manilius also gets his share of the heavenly machinery, and Trimalchio arouses the cheers of the company with his bold explanation of the zodiac and the enumeration of what each of the twelve signs brings into being. The host dismisses the controversies of the rhetorical schools in a snap, and the tailor Echion dismisses the gladiatorial games, which appear as worn-out ghosts, for whose rabble the small citizen claps with one hand, believing he has given even more than the host.
But a theme runs through the whole gibberish in which the banquet of freedmen reveals their wisdom; their foolish chatter is interwoven with the expression of pride in being able to be human among humans. Trimalchio blesses the memory of his patron, who wanted him to be a man among men. “I am a man among men, I can hold my head high,” says the freedman Hermeros, and he still rejoices today when he remembers the forty years of service in which no one could tell whether he was free or unfree. “That was fighting and toiling,” he exclaims; being born a free man is no art and as easy as “come here!”
One joke and boast of Trimalchio’s grants freedom. He calls out to the beautiful slave, who is adorned with grape leaves and ivy, presents himself as Bromius or Lyaeus, carries grapes around in a basket, and sings verses of his master, “Dionysus is free!” and then triumphs: “Now you will not deny that I have the Father Liber!”
“Friends,” he exclaimed, as he had his slaves come into the hall and take the guests’ cushions after the table was cleared, “the slaves are also human and have drunk the same milk as we, even though a bad ‘fatus’ is upon them; but if I remain alive, they shall soon taste free water. In sum, I will free them all in my will.”
Seneca celebrates his humanity and his friendliness towards slaves at Trimalchio’s banquet with a brilliant triumph.
The 16th century of our era has something in common with the first century of the Roman imperial period. In both periods of history, the personality sheds the shell in which antiquity raised it, and great minds have portrayed this liberation work in humorous creations. However, the later ones did not surpass the poetic product of the Neronian era, as it still stands above the local liberation attempts of the Renaissance and the later revolutionary era with its world-embracing idea.
Cervantes initially pursues only a literary goal in his Don Quixote, and aims to discourage the public from reading chivalric romances, which were in vogue at the time. Only incidentally, by imbuing his knight’s exaltation with a noble-minded sympathy for all kinds of suffering, and giving his faithful squire enough common sense to criticize his lord’s chivalric mission, he holds up a series of mirrors to the public in which the noble, enduring core of the Middle Ages, its excesses, and its recoil from realistic personality come to light.
But Cervantes was not able to unify these various reflections.
In contrast, Petron’s Trimalchio himself takes great pleasure in oscillating between boasting and kindness, grandeur and helpfulness for the suffering, and observing and expressing the intermingling of his plain common sense and his human kindness. He is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in one person, and even his squires, the freedmen at his table, burst into hearty laughter as they knock at the gates of a new historical world with their coarse humanity and stride broadly through it.
Cervantes also made sure to make his knight a plaything of others and ultimately have his feats of genius suggested by strangers. That the errant hero prepares for battle with the plague spirits of the world in the Black Mountain by fasting and penance is still the inspiration of his own mind. However, in the second part, where he admits to his squire that his descent into the cave of Montesinos and his liberation of the prisoners of the underworld were mere illusions, the problematic turn begins, which ultimately leads the author to the point where the knight’s ascension to heaven and his triumphal entry into Barcelona, before being dealt the fatal blow by the Knight of the Moon, are seen as mere whimsical arrangements by the ducal couple and the gentlemen of that seaside city.
Trimalchio’s humanistic foolishness and his liberating largesse, on the other hand, stem from his own genius, and at his table, Petron has let the clearest, most understandable, and at the same time greatest subject that could exist play out, the emergence of a new world from ancient Rome.
We owe the German aftermath of Spanish and English humor to Ferdinand Raimund. His subject is the eternally comprehensible foolishness and goodness of the human heart, and in one person, the Austrian poet has almost provided a brother to Trimalchio – in Longimanus, who with his follies and demonstrations of kindness in his sky of clouds comes closest to Roman poetry.