Sumptuously housed on the Palatine Hill—the origin of our word “palace”—is His Highness Claudius Nero, Head of the State, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, Empowered to act as Tribune of the People, and Head of the State Religion: in modern times commonly called “the Emperor.” Every day and night his palace is surrounded by a regiment of the Imperial Guards, and attached to his person is a special corps for bodyguard, and orderlies.
In practice, whatever be the theory, he possesses the control of legislation and appointments; upon him practically depends all recognised distinction of social rank. Down below, to the side of the Forum, is the Senate-House, in which there gathers, twice each month, and oftener if summoned, the great deliberative body which, in spite of all disturbances, civil wars, and limitations or broadenings of its power, is the continuation of the assembly of grave Roman fathers who first met some eight hundred years before. These men, who are of birth and wealth and commonly of sound public training, are the nominal upholders and directors of the commonwealth, still left to perform many functions and to administer the more peaceful provinces in their own way—especially if they relieve the emperor of trouble—but in practice controlled by His Highness whenever and however it suits his purpose.
They and the emperor form a partnership in authority, but the Senate is very distinctly the junior partner. They lend him advice or sanction when he seeks it, and they sometimes act as a break on his impetuosity. It is not well to alienate them, for they are proud; they are jointly, sometimes individually, powerful; and their moral weight with army and public is not to be despised. Thus stands the central government, while socially there follows the order of the Knights, depending for their rank upon the emperor, and in many cases serving in his employ. Below these the populace, of whose rights and liberties the emperor is an official champion to whom theoretically any Roman citizen can appeal against a sentence of death or against cruel wrong. It is hard to conceive of a stronger position for one man to hold.
When we survey this vast aggregation of various provinces, with their differences of race, language, religion, and habits; when we remember that it was on the whole strictly, energetically, and legally administered; it is hard—even allowing for a wise Senate and capable ministers—to realise a man competent for the position. Yet Augustus had been conspicuously successful, and Tiberius not less so; Claudius, despite a certain weakness, cannot by any means be called a failure; after Nero, Vespasian and Titus were capable enough; while Trajan deserves nothing but admiration. On the other hand Caligula, it is true, had had more than a touch of the madman in his composition, and had believed himself to be omnipotent and on a level with Jupiter. Nero had begun well, but had been led by vanity, vice, and extravagance to an astounding pitch of folly and oppression. Nevertheless it must be remarked, and it should be firmly emphasised, that what is called the tyranny of Caligula and Nero is mainly—and in Caligula’s case almost solely—a tyranny affecting the Romans themselves, affecting the lives and property of the Roman senators and other prominent persons, and affecting the lives and honour of their wives and daughters.
The outcry against these two emperors comes from the Romans, not from the subject peoples. At least in Caligula’s case the provinces were as peaceful and prosperous as at other times. It is true that the madman once meant to insist on the Jews putting up his own statue in the temple at Jerusalem, but this was because his vanity was aggrieved by their unwillingness. Under Nero the case is much the same. His tyranny for the most part took the shape of cruelty, insult, and plunder in Rome itself. It was only when he was becoming hopelessly in debt that he began to plunder the provinces as well as Italy by demanding contributions of money, and in particular to seize upon Greek works of art without paying for them. It is a mistake to think of Nero as habitually and without scruple trampling under his blood-stained foot the rights and privileges of the provinces, or grinding from them the last penny, or harrying, slaying, and violating throughout the empire. There is nothing to show that, during the greater part of his reign, the provinces at large felt any material difference between the rule of Nero and the rule of Claudius, or that they rejoiced particularly in his fall. In many quarters he was a favourite. In the latter half of his reign he made himself a brute beast, and often a fool, in the eyes of respectable Romans. But it was, as still more with Caligula, rather in his immediate environment that his tyranny was felt to be intolerable; that is to say, among the men and women who had the misfortune to come in his way with sufficient attraction of purse or beauty to awaken his cupidity. And these were the Romans themselves, senators and knights, not the populace, and in but a small degree, if at all, the provincials in Spain or Greece or Palestine.
Perhaps this is the time to look for a little while at this Nero, whose name has deservedly passed into a byword for heartless bestiality. In the year 64 he is 27 years of age, and has been seated on the throne for ten years. Four years more are to elapse before he perishes with the cry, “What an artist the world is losing!” In his early years his vicious propensities, inherited from an abominable father, had been kept in check partly by his preceptor, the philosopher Seneca, and by Burrus, the commander of the Imperial Guards, partly by his domineering and furious-tempered mother, Agrippina, who seems to have so closely resembled the mother of Lord Byron. But at this date he had got rid of both his tutors. Burrus was dead, probably by poison, and Seneca was in forced retirement. The emperor had also caused his own mother to be murdered. Poisoning, strangling, drowning, or a command—explicit or implied—to depart this life, were his ways of shaking off any incubus upon a free indulgence of his will. His follies and vices had revealed themselves from the first, and had gone to outrageous lengths, but now he is entirely unhampered in exhibiting them.
Educated slightly in philosophy, but better in music and letters, he could speak, like others of his day, Greek as well as his native Latin. His aim was to be an “artist,” but if the want of balance which too often goes with what is called the “artistic temperament” ever manifested itself in its worst form, it was in Nero. Apart from his passion for music and verse, he developed an early mania for horse-racing, and when he was caught talking in school—where such conversation was forbidden—about a charioteer who had fallen out of his chariot and been dragged along the ground, he explained that he was discussing the passage in Homer where Achilles drags the body of Hector round the walls of Troy. In after life he carried both forms of mania to amazing lengths. The highest form of music was then represented by singing to the harp. Nero’s ambition was no less than to compete with the champion minstrels of the world. As he remarked, “music is not music unless it is heard,” and he decided to make public appearances upon the stage like any professional. Whenever he did so, a number of energetic youths, salaried for the purpose, were distributed among the audience as claqueurs—the words actually used for them being perhaps translatable as “boomers” or “rattlers.”
He acted parts in plays—a proceeding which would correspond to an appearance in opera—and made a peregrination through Greece and back by way of Naples as an exponent of the art of singing to the harp. While upon this tour, whenever he was performing in the theatre, the doors were shut, and no one might leave the building for any reason whatever. “Many,” says the memoir-writer, “got so tired of listening and praising that they jumped down from the wall, or pretended to be dead, so as to get carried out.” Naturally he always won the prize, and, on his side, it should be remarked that he honestly believed he had earned it. He practised assiduously, took hard physical training, regulated his diet for the cultivation of his voice, which was not naturally of the best, and probably became not at all a bad amateur. His monstrous self-conceit did the rest. Besides singing to the harp, he was prepared to perform upon the flute and the bagpipes, and to give a dance afterwards. All this, of course, was undignified and ridiculous, but it was scarcely tyranny. Doubtless there was sufficient suffering among the audience, but that cruelty was hardly deliberate.
In the Roman noble, whose ideal of behaviour included dignity and gravity, these public appearances perhaps often aroused more indignation and scorn than did his sensual vices. The same contempt was often evoked by other proceedings of a similar nature. His insatiable fondness for horse-racing, or rather chariot-racing, induced him to appear also as a charioteer. First he practised in his extensive private park or gardens, which were situated across the Tiber on the ground now approximately occupied by St. Peter’s and the Vatican. When he appeared at the Olympic games driving a team of ten horses, he was thrown out of the car, and had to be lifted into it again. Though he was eventually compelled to abandon the race, he was, of course, crowned victor all the same. He dabbled also in painting and modelling. We must not dwell too long upon his eccentricities. One might describe how in his earlier years he often put on mufti and roamed the streets at night with a few choice Mohawks, broke into shops, and insulted respectable citizens, throwing them into the drains if they resisted; how, being unrecognized, he once received a sound thrashing from a person of the senatorial order, and was thereafter attended on such occasions by police following at a distance. One might describe his dicing at £3 or £4 a pip, or his banquets, at one of which he paid as much as £30,000 for roses from Alexandria. After the great conflagration which swept over a large part of Rome in this very year 64 he began to build his enormous Golden House, in which stood a colossal effigy of himself 120 feet high, and in which the circuit of the colonnade made three Roman miles.
Whether he deliberately set fire to the city in order to make room for this stupendous palace is open to doubt. It was naturally believed at the time, and, in order to divert suspicion from himself, he turned it upon those persons for whom the Roman populace had at that moment the greatest contempt, because, as the historian puts it, of their pestilent superstition and of a profound suspicion that they harboured a “hatred of the human race.” These were the new sect of the Christians, and with burning Christians did Nero proceed to light up his gardens on one famous night, as a means of placating the populace whom he had offended, but who for the most part loved him for his misplaced generosity in the matter of “bread and sports.” The tolerant attitude of the Romans towards foreign religions will be discussed in its own place; but the cruelty of a Nero in the year 64 can hardly be put down as properly a religious persecution in any way typical of the Roman government. The sensual vices of Nero are indescribable, and that word must suffice. His extravagances, whether in lavish presents or in personal expenditure, soon rendered him bankrupt. He had no means of paying the soldiers or meeting his own appetites.
Then began, or increased, his attacks on wealthy persons, his executions and banishments of senators and other wealthy men, and his flimsy pretexts for all manner of confiscation. The Senate he hated and the Senate hated him. Nevertheless, so far as the empire itself was concerned, no systematic or widespread oppression can have been perceptible. His officers and the officers of the Senate were apparently all the time governing and administering the law and the taxation throughout the empire in as sound and steady a way as if an Augustus sat upon the throne. If we wish to picture Nero to ourselves, here is his description: “He was of a fairly good height; his skin was blotched, and his odour unpleasant; his hair was inclined to be yellow; his face was more handsome than attractive; his eyes were grayish-blue and short-sighted; his neck was fat; he was protuberant below the waist; his legs were very slender; his health was good.” Such was the man to whom St. Paul elected to have his case referred, when at Caesarea he exercised his privilege as a Roman citizen and appealed to the titular protector of the commons. “Thou hast appealed unto Caesar, and unto Caesar shalt thou go.” There is indeed no great probability that the apostle was ever brought directly before this precious emperor. We may perhaps draw from bur inner consciousness elaborate and interesting pictures of the two men confronting each other, but we must not forget that they will be pure imagination. The appeal of a citizen did not imply such right to an interview, for the Caesar in such minor cases commonly delegated his powers to other judicial authorities at Rome. Paul’s object was gained if his case was safely removed from the local influences of Judaea and the weaker policy of its governor, the “agent of Caesar,” to the capital with its broader-minded men and its superiority to small bribes and local interference.