The Women of the Caesars Part 6

Agrippina, like a true Roman matron of the old type, looked upon the family merely as an instrument of political power, and therefore subjected her personal affections to the public interest. She began to cast her eyes upon Britannicus, the son of Messalina, who was now becoming a young man and who seemed to be more serious-minded than Nero. It was even muttered that she thought of giving her own son's place to the son of Messalina, when suddenly, in 55, Britannicus died at a dinner at which Nero was present. Was he poisoned by Nero, as Tacitus says? Although there is no lack of obscurities and improbabilities in the account of Tacitus, this time the accusation, if it is not true, is at least much more probable than the other accusations of the same kind. It is certain that the report that Britannicus had been poisoned was soon current at Rome, and that it was believed; and the death of Britannicus was likewise a fatal blow to Agrippina and her party. Tacitus tells us that the death of Britannicus caused Agrippina great terror and unspeakable consternation, and it is not difficult to divine the reasons. Nero now remained the last and only survivor of the family of Augustus, and it was therefore no longer possible to bring any effective opposition to bear upon him by setting up some other member of the family who would be capable of governing. The new n.o.bility, with its modern tendencies, now rapidly gained strength, and the influence of Agrippina declined proportionately.

As a result of the lofty qualities of genius and character with which she had been endowed, Agrippina had been able to hold the balance of power in the state as long as she had succeeded in keeping the emperor under her influence. This had been true in the cases of both Claudius and Nero. After Nero escaped from her influence, or, rather, after he had turned against her, her prestige and her power rapidly diminished, and her party lost greatly in size and in power. Although personally the emperor was youthful and weak, the dignity of his office made him more powerful than all the members of his family, however energetic and intelligent they might be. At this period, furthermore, Nero was supported by an entire party which was daily increasing in strength and in numbers, for, as always happens in eras of prosperity and peace, the temper of the time was tending toward a milder, gentler, more liberal government, and consequently one which would be less authoritative and severe.

Agrippina, however, was an energetic woman, not easily discouraged, and she continued the struggle. Consequently for two years longer, even in the midst of strife, intrigues, and suspicions, she preserved a considerable influence, and was able to check the progress of the government in its new direction. This was either because Nero, though no longer exactly obedient to his mother's will, was still too weak, too undecided, and too deeply involved in the ideas of his earlier education to attempt an open revolt against her, or it was because Seneca and Burrhus wisely sought to conciliate the ultra-conservative ideas of the mother with the newer tendencies of the son.

The definitive break with his mother and with her political ideas,--that is, with the ideas which had been professed by her ancestors,--came in 58, when Nero forgot Acte for Poppaea Sabina. The latter belonged to one of those great Roman families into which the new spirit and the new customs had most deeply penetrated. Rich, beautiful, avaricious of luxuries and pleasures, possessed of an unbridled personal ambition, she had attracted Nero to herself, and, in order to become empress, gave the uncertain youth the decisive impulse which was to transform the disciple of Agrippina and the grandson of Germanicus into the prodigal and dissolute emperor of history. She encouraged in him his desire to please the populace, and certainly never checked his love for Greece and the Orient, which resulted finally in his mania of everywhere imitating the example of Asia and of taking up again, though to be sure less wildly, the policies of Caligula. Tacitus tells us that she continually reproved Nero for his simple customs, his inelegant manners, and his rude tastes. She held up to him, both as an example and as a reproach, the elegance and luxury of her husband, who was indeed one of the most refined and pompous members of the degenerate Roman n.o.bility. Poppaea, in short, gave herself up to the task of reshaping the education of Nero and of destroying the results of Agrippina's patient labor. Nor was this all.

She even became, with her restricted intelligence, his adviser in politics. She persuaded him that the policy of authority and economy which his mother had desired was rendering him unpopular, and she suggested the idea of a policy of liberality toward the people which would win him the affection of the ma.s.ses. After he had fallen in love with Poppaea Sabina, Nero, who up to that time had shown no considerable initiative in affairs of state, elaborated and proposed to the senate many revolutionary projects for favoring the populace. He finally proposed that they abolish all the _vectigalia_ of the empire; that is, all indirect taxes, all tolls and duties of whatever sort.

The measure would certainly have been most popular, and there was much discussion about it in the senate; but the conservatives showed that the finances of the empire would be ruined and persuaded Nero not to insist. Nero, however, wished to bring about some reform which would help the ma.s.ses, and he gave orders in an edict that the rates of all the _vectigalia_ be published; that at Rome the pretor, and in the provinces the propretor and proconsul, should summarily decide all suits against the tax-farmers and that the soldiers should be exempt from these same _vectigalia_.

[Ill.u.s.tration: The death of Agrippina.]

Though some of these reforms were just, this new policy was also the cause of the final rupture with his mother. Agrippina and Nero, to all intents and purposes, no longer saw each other, and Nero, on the few visits which he was obliged to pay her in order to save appearances, always arranged it so as never to be left alone in her presence. In this manner the influence of Agrippina continued to decline, while the popularity of Nero steadily increased as the result of his youth, of these first reforms, and of the hopes to which his prodigality had given rise. The public, whose memory is always brief, forgot what Agrippina had done and how she had brought back peace to the state, and began to expect all sorts of new benefits from Nero. Poppaea, encouraged by the increasing popularity of the emperor, insisted more boldly that Nero, in order to make her his wife, should divorce Octavia.

But Agrippina was not the woman to yield thus easily, and she continued the struggle against her son, against his paramour, and against the growing coterie which was gathering about the emperor. She opposed particularly the repudiation of Octavia, which, being merely the result of a pure caprice, would have caused serious scandal in Rome. But Nero was even now hesitating and uncertain. He still had too clearly before him the memory of the long authority of his mother; he feared her too much to dare step forth in open and complete revolt. At last Poppaea understood that she could not become empress so long as the mother lived, and from that moment the doom of Agrippina was sealed. Poppaea was goaded on by all the new friends of Nero, who wished to destroy forever the influence of Agrippina, and by her words and deeds she finally brought him to the point where he decided to kill his mother.

But to murder his mother was both an abominable and dangerous undertaking, for it meant killing the daughter of Germanicus--killing that woman whom the people regarded with a semi-religious veneration as a portent of fortune; for she was the daughter of a man whom only a premature death had prevented from becoming the head of the empire, and she had been the sister, the wife, and the mother of emperors. For this reason the manner of her taking-off had been long debated in order that it might remain secret; nor would Nero make his decision until a seemingly safe means had been discovered for bringing about the disappearance of Agrippina.

It was the freedman Anicetus, the commander of the fleet, who, in the spring of 59, made the proposal when Nero was with his court at Baiae, on the Bay of Naples. They were to construct a vessel which, as Tacitus says, should open artfully on one side. If Nero could induce his mother to embark upon that vessel, Anicetus would see to it that she and the secret of her murder would be buried in the depths of the sea. Nero gave his consent to this abominable plan. He pretended that he was anxious to become reconciled with his mother, and invited her to come from Antium, where she then was, to Baiae. He showed her all regard and every courtesy, and when Agrippina, rea.s.sured by the kindness of her son, set out on her return to Antium, Nero accompanied her to the fatal vessel and tenderly embraced her. It was a calm, starry night. Agrippina stood talking with one of her freedwomen about the repentance of her son and the reconciliation which had taken place, when, after the vessel had drawn some distance away from the sh.o.r.e, the plotters tried to carry out their infernal plan. What happened is not very clear. The seemingly picturesque description of Tacitus is in reality vague and confusing. It appears that the ship did not sink so rapidly as the plotters had hoped, and in the confusion which resulted on board, the emperor's mother, ready and resolute, succeeded in making her escape by casting herself into the sea and swimming away, while the hired a.s.sa.s.sins on the ship killed her freedwoman, mistaking her for Agrippina.

In any case, it is certain that Agrippina arrived safely at one of her villas along the coast, with the help, it seems, of a vessel which she had encountered as she swam, and that she immediately sent one of her freedmen to apprise Nero of the danger from which she had escaped through the kindness of the G.o.ds and his good fortune! Agrippina had guessed the truth, but for this one time she gave up the struggle and sent her messenger, that it might be understood, without her saying so, that she forgot and pardoned. Indeed, what means were left her, a lonely woman, of coping with an emperor who dared raise his hand against his own mother?

However, fear prevented Nero from understanding. No sooner had he learned that Agrippina had escaped than he lost his head. In his imagination he saw her hastening to Rome and denouncing the horrible matricide to the soldiers and the senate; and beside himself with terror, he sent for Seneca and Burrhus in order to take counsel with them. It is easy to imagine what the feelings of the two teachers of the youth must have been as they listened to the terrible story. Even they failed to understand that Agrippina recognized and declared herself conquered. They, too, feared that she would provoke the most frightful scandal which Rome had yet seen, and not knowing what advice to give, or rather seeing only a single way out, which was, however, too serious and horrible, they held their peace while Nero begged them to save him. At last Seneca, the humanitarian philosopher, turned to Burrhus and asked him what would happen if the pretorians should be ordered to kill Agrippina. Burrhus understood that Seneca, though he was the first to give the terrible advice, yet wished to leave to him the more serious responsibility of carrying it into execution; for Burrhus, as commander of the guards, would have had to give the order for the murder. He therefore hastened to say that the pretorians would never kill the daughter of Germanicus, and then added that if they really wished to do away with Agrippina, the best plan would be for Anicetus to carry out the work which he had begun. His advice was the same as Seneca's, but he turned over to a third person the very grave responsibility for its execution. He had, however, chosen this third person more wisely than Seneca, for Anicetus could not refuse. If Agrippina lived, it was he who ran the risk of becoming the scapegoat for all this b.l.o.o.d.y and horrible adventure.

As a matter of fact, Anicetus accepted. The freedman whom Agrippina had sent to announce her misfortune was imprisoned and put in chains, in order to convey the impression that he had been captured carrying concealed weapons and in the act of making an attempt upon the emperor's life by the order of his mother. Anicetus then hastened to the villa of Agrippina and surrounded it with a body of sailors. He entered the house, and with two officers rushed into the room where Agrippina, reclining upon a couch, was talking with a servant, and killed her. Tacitus tells us that when Agrippina saw one of the officers unsheathe his sword, she asked him to thrust her through the body which had borne her son.

Thus died the last woman of the house of Augustus, and, with the exception of Livia, the most remarkable feminine figure in that family.

She died like a soldier, on duty and at her post, bravely defending the social and political traditions of the Roman aristocracy and the time-honored principles of Romanism against the influx of those new forces of a later age which were seeking to orientalize the ancient Latin republic. She died for her family, for her caste, and for Rome, without even having the reward of being remembered with dutiful regard by posterity; for in this struggle she had sacrificed not merely her life, but even her honor and her fame. Such, furthermore, was the common destiny of all the members of this family, and if we except Livia and Augustus, the privileged pair who founded it, we are at a loss to know whether to call it the most fortunate or the most unhappy of all the families of the ancient world. It is impossible for the historian who understands this terrible drama, filled with so many catastrophes, not to feel a certain impression of horror at the vindictive ferocity that Rome showed to this house, which, in order to bring back Rome's peace and to preserve her empire, had been fated to exalt itself a few degrees above the ordinary level of the ancient aristocracy. Men and women, the young and the old, the knaves and the large-hearted, the sages and the fools of the family, alike, all without exception, were persecuted and plotted against. And again, if we except the persons of the two founders, and those who, like Drusus and Germanicus, had the good fortune to die young, Rome deprived them all, deprived even Antonia, of either their life or their greatness or their honor, and not infrequently it robbed them of all these three together. Those who, like Tiberius and Agrippina, defended the ancient Roman tradition, were hated, hounded, and defamed with a no less angry fury than Caligula and Nero, who sought to destroy it. No one of them, whatever his tendencies or intentions, succeeded in making himself understood by his times or by posterity; it was their common fate to be misunderstood, and therefore horribly calumniated. The destiny of the women was even more tragic than that of the men, for the times demanded from them, as a compensation for the great honor of belonging to this privileged family, that they possess all the rarest and most difficult virtues.

What was the cause of all this? we ask. How were so many catastrophes possible, and how could tradition have erred so grievously? It is almost a crime that posterity should virtually always have studied and pondered this immense tragedy of history on the basis of the crude and superficial falsification of it which Tacitus has given us. For few episodes in general history impress so powerfully upon the mind the fact that the progress of the world is one of the most tragic of its phenomena. Especially is such knowledge necessary to the favored generations of prosperous and easy times. He who has not lived in those years when an old world is disappearing and a new one making its way cannot realize the tragedy of life, for at such times the old is still sufficiently strong to resist the a.s.saults of the new, and the latter, though growing, is not yet strong enough to annihilate that world on the ruins of which alone it will be able to prosper. Men are then called upon to solve insoluble problems and to attempt enterprises which are both necessary and impossible. There is confusion everywhere, in the mind within and in the world without. Hate often separates those who ought to aid one another, since they are tending toward the same goal, and sympathy binds men together who are forced to do battle with one another. At such times women generally suffer more than men, for every change which occurs in their situation seems more dangerous, and it is right that it should be so. For woman is by nature the vestal of our species, and for that reason she must be more conservative, more circ.u.mspect, and more virtuous than man. There is no state or civilization which has comprehended the highest things in life which has not been forced to instil into its women rather than into its men the sense for all those virtues upon which depend the stability of the family and the future of the race. And for every era this is a question of life and death. In such periods when one world is dying and another coming to birth, all conceptions become confused, and all attempts bring forth bizarre results. He who wishes to preserve, often destroys, so that virtue seems vice, and vice seems virtue. Precisely for this reason it is more difficult for a woman than for a man to succeed in fulfilling her proper mission, for she is more exposed to the danger of losing her way and of missing her particular function; and since she is more likely to fail in realizing her natural destiny, she is more likely to be doomed to a life of misfortune.

Such was the fate of the family of Augustus, and such especially was the fate of its women. The strangers who visit Rome often go out on Sunday afternoons to listen to the excellent music that can be heard in a room which is situated in one of the little streets near the Piazza del Popolo and which used to be called the Corea. This hall was built over an ancient Roman ruin of circular form which any one can still see as he enters. That ruin is the entrance to the tomb which Augustus built on the Flaminian Way for himself and his family. Nearly all of the personages whose story we have told were buried in that mausoleum.

If any reader who has followed this history should one day find himself at Rome, listening to a concert in that old Corea, which has now been renamed after the Emperor Augustus, let him give a thought to those victims of a terrible story of long ago, and may he remember that here, where at the beginning of the twentieth century he listens to the flow of rivers of sweet sound--here only, twenty centuries ago, could the members of the family of Augustus find refuge from their tragic fate, and after so much greatness, resolved to dust and ashes, rest at last in peace.

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