Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Characters and events of Roman History by Guglielmo Ferrero

Part 2 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

the qualities that they displayed later: and yet, as long as Gaul
remained apart from the Empire, without continuous and numerous
communications with the vast Mediterranean world; as long as it
was split into so many petty rival states, occupied in serious wars
against the Germanic tribes, its fertility remained hidden in the
earth, and the ability of its inhabitants dissipated itself in
devastating wars, instead of spending itself in fruitful effort. All
that changed, and without any one's foresight or intent, when the
Roman policy, urged by the internal forces that stirred the Republic,
had destroyed that old order of things.

The ancients understood that peoples, like individual men, can
regulate their destiny only in part; that about us, above us, are
forces complex and obscure, which we can hardly comprehend, which
invest us, seize us, impel us whither we had not thought to go, now
to shipwreck on the rocks of misadventure, now to the discovery of
islands of happiness, or to find, like Columbus, an America on the
way to India. The Greeks called this power; the Latins, Fortuna, and
deified it; erected temples and made sacrifices to it; dedicated to
it a cult, of which Augustus was a devotee, and which contained more
secret wisdom of life than all the superb theories on human destiny
conceived by European genius in the delirium of this quarter-hour of
measureless might in which we are living. No, man is not the voluntary
artificer of his whole destiny; fortune and misfortune, triumph and
catastrophe, are never entirely proportioned to personal merit or
blame; every generation finds the world organised in a certain order
of interests, forces, traditions, relations, and as it enjoys the good
that preceding generations have accomplished, so in part it expiates
the errors they have committed; as it draws advantage from beneficent
forces acting outside of it and independent of its merit, so it
suffers from the sinister forces that it finds--even though blameless
itself--acting through the great mass of the world, among men and
their works. From this relation to the unseen follows a rule of wisdom
that modern men, full of unbounded pride, and persuaded that they
are the beginning and end of the universe, too often forget: we must
indeed press on with all our powers to the accomplishment of a great
task, for although our destiny is never entirely made by our own
hands, there is no destiny on the earth for the lazy; but, since
a part of what we are depends not on ourselves, but upon what the
ancients called Fortune, we dare never be too much elated over
success, nor abased by failure. The wheel of destiny turns by a
mysterious law, alike for families and for peoples: those in high
position may fall; those in low, may rise.

Certainly Caesar never suspected when he was fighting the Gauls, that
the great-grandsons of the vanquished would live in villas modelled on
the Roman, but more sumptuous; that the great Gallic nobles would have
the satisfaction of parading before the people that conquered them a
latinity more impressive and magnificent; and that some day the Gaul
put by him to fire and sword would get the better, in empire, in
wealth, in culture, of even Italy.


On the 13th of October of 54 A.D., when Emperor Claudius died, the
Senate chose as his successor his adopted son, Nero, a young man of
seventeen, fat and short-sighted, who had until then studied only
music, singing, and drawing. This choice of a child-emperor, who
lacked imperial qualities and suggested the child kings of Oriental
monarchies, was a scandalous novelty in the constitutional history of
Rome. The ancient historians, especially Tacitus, considered the event
as the result of an intrigue, cleverly arranged by Nero's mother,
Agrippina, a daughter of Germanicus and granddaughter of Agrippa, the
builder of the Pantheon. According to these historians, Agrippina,
a highly ambitious woman, induced Claudius to marry her after
Messalina's death, although she was a widow and had a child, and as
soon as she entered the emperor's mansion she began to open the way
for the election of her son. In order to exclude Britannicus, the son
of Messalina, from succession, she persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero;
then, with the help of the two tutors of the young man, Seneca and
Burrhus, created in the Senate and among the Praetorians, a party
favourable to her son; no sooner did she feel that she could rely on
the Senate and the Praetorians, than she poisoned Claudius.

Too many difficulties prevent our accepting this version. To cite one
of them will suffice: if Agrippina wished--as she surely did--that her
son should succeed Claudius, she must also have wished that Claudius
would live at least eight or ten years longer. As a great-grandson of
Drusus, a grandson of Germanicus and the last descendant of his line,
the only line in the whole family enjoying a real popularity, Nero was
sure of election if he were of age at the death of Claudius. After the
terrible scandal in which his mother had disappeared, Britannicus was
no longer a competitor to be feared. There was only one danger for
Nero, if Claudius should die too soon, the Senate might refuse to
trust the Empire to a child.

I believe that Claudius died of disease, probably, if we can judge
from Tacitus's account, of gastroenteritis, and that Agrippina's
coterie, surprised by this sudden death, which upset all their plans,
decided to put through Nero's election in spite of his youth, in order
to insure the power to the line of Drusus, which had so much sympathy
among the masses. As a matter of fact, the admiration for Drusus
and his family triumphed over all other considerations: Nero became
emperor at seventeen; but when the election was over, Rome--again
according to the tales of the ancient historians--saw a still
greater scandal than his election. The young man--and this is
credible--hastened to engage as his master the first zither-player
of Rome, Terpnos; continued his study of singing; and bought statues,
pictures, bronzes, beautiful slaves, while his mother seized the
actual control of the State.

Agrippina insisted on being kept informed of all affairs; directed
the home and foreign policy; and if she did not reach the point of
partaking in the sessions of the Senate, which would have been the
supreme scandal, she called it to meet in her palace and, concealed
behind a black curtain, listened to its discussions. In short, the
Empire fell into the hands of a woman; Rome saw the evolution of
customs, through which woman had for four centuries been freeing
herself from her ancient slavery, suddenly a fact accomplished by
her visible intervention in politics--the intervention that the great
keepers of tradition, first among them Cato, had always decried as the
most frightful cataclysm that could menace the city.

This story is also the exaggeration of a simpler truth. Even if Nero
had been a very serious young man, at his age he could not by himself
have governed the Empire; it would have been necessary for him to
serve a long apprenticeship and to listen to experienced counsellors.
Burrhus and Seneca, his two teachers, were naturally destined to be
his counsellors; but why should not his mother also have helped him?
Like all the women of her family, Agrippina was of superior mind, of
high culture, and, as Tacitus himself admits, led a most respectable
life, at least to the time of her marriage with Claudius. Brought up,
as she was, in that family which for eighty years had been governing
the Empire, she was well informed about affairs of State. Is it
possible to suppose that such a woman would shut herself up in her
home to weave wool, when, with her talent, her energy, her experience,
she could be of so much service to her son and to the State? We do not
need to attribute to Agrippina a monstrous ambition, as does Tacitus,
in order to explain how the Empire was ruled during the first two
years, by Seneca, Burrhus, and Agrippina; it was a natural consequence
of the situation created by the premature death of Claudius. Tacitus
himself is forced to recognise that the government was excellent.

Helping her son in the apprenticeship of the Empire, Agrippina did her
duty; but during restless times when misunderstanding is almost a
law of social life, it is often very dangerous to do one's duty. The
period of Agrippina and Nero was full of confusion; though apparently
quiet, Italy was deeply torn by the great struggle that gives the
history of the Empire its marvellous character of actuality, the
struggle between the old Roman military society and the intellectual
civilisation of the Orient.

The ancient aristocratic and military Roman society had had so great
and world-wide a success, that the ideas, the institutions and the
customs, that had made it a perfect model of State, considered as an
organ of political and military domination, exercised a great prestige
on the following generations. Even during the time of which we speak,
every one was forced after eight years of peace, to admit that the
Empire had been created by those ideas, those institutions and those
customs; that for the sake of the Empire they must be maintained,
and alike in family as in State, must be opposed all that forms
the essence of intellectual civilisation; that is to say, all
that develops personal selfishness at the expense of collective
interest--luxury, idleness, pleasure, celibacy, feminism, and at
the same time, all that develops personality and intelligence at the
expense of tradition--liberty of women, independence of children,
variety of personal tendencies, and the critical spirit in all forms.

In spite of the resistance offered by traditions, peace and wealth
favoured everywhere the diffusion of the intellectual civilisation of
the Hellenised Orient. The woman now become free, and the intellectual
man now become powerful, were the springs to set in motion this
revolution. Under Claudius, in vain had they exiled Seneca, the
brilliant philosopher and the peace-advocating humanitarian, who had
diffused in high Roman society so many ideas and sentiments considered
by the traditionalists pernicious to the force of the State; he had
come back far more powerful, and ruled the Empire. Husbands, burdened
by the excessive expenses, by the too frequent infidelities, by the
tyrannical caprices of their wives, in vain regretted the good old
time when husbands were absolute masters; the invading feminism
weakened everywhere the strength of the aristocratic and military

So contradiction was everywhere. The Republic had still its old
aristocratic constitution, but the nobility was no longer spurred by
that absorbing and exclusive passion for politics and war, which
had been its power. Society life, pleasure, amateur philosophy
and literature, mysticism, and, above all, sports, dissipated in a
thousand directions its energy and activity. Too many young men
were to be found in the nobility who, like Nero, preferred singing,
dancing, and driving, to caring for their clients or enduring the
troubles of public office.

Augustus and Tiberius had done their utmost to strengthen the great
Latin principle of parsimony in public and private life: in order to
set a good example they had lived very simply; they had caused new
sumptuary laws to be passed and tried to enforce the old ones;
they had spent the State moneys, not for the keeping of artists and
writers, nor for the building of monuments of useless size, but to
build the great roads of the Empire, to strengthen the frontiers;
they had made the public treasure into an aid fund for all suffering
cities, stricken by earthquake, fire, or flood. And yet the Oriental
influence, so favourable to unproductive and luxurious expenditure,
gained ground steadily. The merchant of Syrian and Egyptian objects
_de luxe_, in spite of the sumptuary laws, found a yearly increasing
patronage in all the cities of Italy. The exactingness of the desire
for public spectacles increased, even in secondary cities. The Italian
people were losing their peasant's petty avarice and growing fond
of things monumental and colossal, which was the great folly of the
Orient. They found the monuments of Rome poor; everywhere, even in
modest _municipia_, they demanded immense theatres, great temples,
monumental basilicas, spacious forums, adorned with statues. In spite
of the principles insisted upon with so much vigour by Augustus and
Tiberius, public finances had, thanks to the weak Claudius and the
extravagant Messalina, already gone through a period of great waste
and disorder.

These contradictions, and the psychological disorder that followed,
explain the discords and struggles very soon raging around the young
Emperor. The public began to feel shocked by the attention that
Agrippina gave to State affairs, as by a new and this time intolerable
scandal of feminism. Agrippina was not a feminist, as a matter of
fact, but a traditionalist, proud of the glory of her family, attached
to the ancient Roman ideas, desirous only of seeing her son develop
into a new Germanicus, a second Drusus. Solely the necessity of
helping Nero had led her to meddle with politics. But not in vain had
Cato declaimed so loudly in Rome against women who pretend to govern
states; not in vain had Augustus's domination been at least partly
founded on the great antifeminist legend of Antony and Cleopatra,
which represented the fall of the great Triumvir as the consequence of
a woman's influence. The public, although willing to give all possible
freedom to women in other things, still remained quite firm on this
point: politics must remain the monopoly of man. So to the popular
imagination, Agrippina soon became a sort of Roman Cleopatra. Many
interests gathered quickly to reinforce this antifeminist reaction,
which, although exaggerated, had its origin in sincere feeling.

Agrippina, as a true descendant of Drusus, meant to prepare her son
to rule the Empire according to the principles held by his great
ancestors. Among these principles was to be counted not only
the defence of Romanism and the maintenance of the aristocratic
constitution, but also a wise economy in the management of finances.
Agrippina is a good instance of that well-known fact--the British
have noticed it more than once in India--that in public administration
discreet and capable women keep, as a rule, the spirit of economy
with which they manage the home. This is why, especially in despotic
states, they rule better than men. Even before Claudius's death,
Agrippina had vigorously opposed waste and plunder; it also appears
that the reorganisation of finances after Messalina's death was due
chiefly to her.

The continuation under Nero of this severe regime displeased a great
number of persons, who dreamed of seeing again the easy sway of
Messalina. From the moment they were satisfied that Agrippina, like
Augustus and Tiberius, would not allow the public money to be stolen,
many people found her insistent interference in public affairs
unbearable. In short, Agrippina became unpopular, and, as always
happens, because of faults she did not have. A noble deed, which
she was trying to accomplish in defence of tradition, definitively
compromised her situation.

Her son resembled neither Agrippina nor the great men of her family.
He had a most indocile temperament, rebellious to tradition, in no
sense Roman. Little by little, Agrippina saw the young Emperor develop
into a precocious _debauche_, frightfully selfish, erratically vain,
full of extravagant ideas, who, instead of setting the example of
respect toward sumptuary laws, openly violated them all; and across
whose mind from time to time flashed sinister lightnings of cruelty.
Nero's youth--the fact is not surprising--did not resist the mortal
seductions of immense power and immense riches; but Agrippina, the
proud granddaughter of the conqueror of Germany, must have chafed
at the idea of her son's preferring musical entertainments to the
sessions of the Senate, singing lessons to the study of tactics and

She applied herself, therefore, with all her energy to the work of
tearing her son from his pleasures, and bringing about his return
to the great traditions of his family. Nero resisted: the struggle
between mother and son grew complicated; it excited the passion of the
public, which felt that this conflict had a greater importance than
any other family quarrel, that it was actually a struggle between
traditional Romanism and Oriental customs. Unfortunately, every one
sided with Nero: the sincere friends of tradition, because they did
not want the rule of a woman, whoever she might be; those that longed
for Messalina's times, because they saw personified in Agrippina the
austere and inflexible spirit of the _gens Claudia_. The situation was
soon without an issue. The accord of Agrippina with Seneca and Burrhus
was troubled, because the two teachers of the young Emperor, under
the impression of public malcontent, had somewhat withdrawn from her.
Nero, who was sullen, cynical, and lazy, feared his mother too much to
have the courage to oppose her openly, but he did not fear her enough
to mend his ways. The mother, on her side, was set to do her duty to
the end. Like all situations without an issue, this one was suddenly
solved by an unexpected event.

Insisting on wanting to make a Roman of this young _debauche_,
Agrippina made him into a murderer. Nero, progressing from one caprice
to another, finally imagined a great folly: to divorce Octavia and to
raise to her place a beautiful freed-woman called Acte. According to
one of the fundamental laws of the State, the great law of Augustus on
marriage, which forbade marriages between senators and freedwomen, the
union of Nero and Acte could be only a concubinage. Agrippina wanted
to avoid this scandal; and, as Nero persisted in his idea, it seems
that she actually thought of having him deposed and of securing the
choice of Britannicus, a very serious young man, as his successor. A
true Roman, Agrippina was ready to sacrifice her son for the sake of
the Republic.

The threat was, or appeared to be, so serious to Nero, that it made
him step over the threshold of crime. One day during a great dinner
to which he had been invited by Nero, Britannicus was suddenly seized
with violent convulsions. "It is an attack of epilepsy," said Nero
calmly, giving orders to his slaves to remove Britannicus and care
for him. The young man died in a few hours and every one believed that
Nero had poisoned him.

This dastardly crime aroused at first a sense of horror and fright
among the people, but the impression did not last long. In spite of
all his faults, Nero was liked. In Rome they had respected Augustus
and hated Tiberius; they had killed Caligula and jeered at Claudius;
Nero seemed to be the first of the Roman Emperors who stood a chance
of becoming popular. Contrary to Agrippina's ideas, it was his
frivolity that pleased the great masses, because this frivolity
corresponded to the slow but progressive decay of the old Roman
virtues in them. They expected from Nero a less hard, less severe,
less parsimonious government--in a word, a government less Roman than
the rule of his predecessors, a government which, instead of force,
glory, and wisdom, meant pleasure and ease.

So it happened that many soon forgot the unfortunate Britannicus, and
some even tried to justify Nero by invoking State necessity. Agrippina
alone remained the object of the universal hatred, as the sole cause
of so many misfortunes. Implacable enemies, concealed in the shadow,
were subtly at work against her; they organised a campaign of absurd
calumnies in the Court itself, and it is this campaign from which
Tacitus drew his material.

Some wretches finally dared even accuse her of conspiracy against
the life of her son. Agrippina, refusing to plead for herself, still
weathered the storm, because Nero was afraid of her, and though he
tried to escape from her authority, did not dare to initiate any
energetic move against her. To engage in a final struggle with so
indomitable a woman, another woman was necessary. This woman was
Poppaea Sabina, a very handsome and able dame of the great Roman
nobility. Poppaea represented Oriental feminism in its most dangerous
form: a woman completely demoralised by luxury, elegance, society
life, and voluptuousness, who eluded all her duties toward the species
in order to enjoy and make others enjoy her beauty.

Corrupted as that age was, Poppaea was more corrupt. As soon as she
observed the strong impression she had made on Nero, she conceived
the plan of becoming his wife; her beauty would then be admired by the
whole Empire, would be surrounded by a luxury for which the means of
her husband were not sufficient, and with which no other Roman dame
could compete. There was one obstacle--Agrippina.

Agrippina protected Octavia, a true Roman woman, simple and honest:
Agrippina would never consent to this absolutely unjustifiable
divorce. To force Nero to a decisive move against his mother, Poppaea
had her husband sent on some mission to Lusitania and became the
mistress of the Emperor. From that point the situation changed.
Dominated by Poppaea's influence, Nero found the courage to force
Agrippina to abandon his palace and seek refuge in Antony's house; he
took from her the privilege of Praetorian guards, which he himself
had granted her; he reduced to a minimum the number and time of his
visits, and carefully avoided being left alone with her. Agrippina's
influence, to the general satisfaction, rapidly declined, while Nero
gained every day in popularity. Agrippina, however, was too energetic
a woman peaceably to resign herself: she began a violent campaign
against the two adulterers, which deeply troubled the public. In Rome,
where Augustus had promulgated his stern law against adultery; in
Rome, where Augustus himself had been obliged to submit to his own
law, when he exiled his daughter and his grand-daughter and almost
exterminated the whole family; in Rome, a young man of twenty-two
dared all but officially introduce adultery and polygamy into the
Palatine! In her struggle against Nero, Agrippina once more stood on
tradition: and Nero was afraid.

Poppaea was probably the one who suggested to Nero the idea of killing
Agrippina. The idea had been, as it were, floating in the air for
a long time, because Agrippina was embarrassing to many persons and
interests. It was chiefly the party that wanted to sack the imperial
budget, to introduce the finance of great expenditure, which could not
tolerate this clever and energetic woman, who was so faithful to
the great traditions of Augustus and Tiberius, who could neither be
frightened nor corrupted. One should not consider the assassination of
Agrippina as a simple personal crime of Nero, as the result of his
and Poppaea's quarrels with his mother. This crime, besides personal
causes, had a political origin. Nero would never have dared commit
such a misdeed, in the eyes of the Roman almost a sacrilege, if he had
not been encouraged by Agrippina's unpopularity, by the violent hatred
of so many against his mother.

Nero hesitated long; he decided only when his freedman, Anicetus,
the commander of the fleet, proposed a plan that seemed to guarantee
secrecy for the crime: to have a ship built with a concealed trap. It
was the spring of the year 59 A.D.; the Court had moved to Baiae, on
the Gulf of Naples. If Nero succeeded in getting his mother on board
the vessel, Anicetus would take upon himself the task of burying
quickly below the waves the secret of her death; the people who hated
Agrippina would easily be satisfied with the explanations to be given

Nero executed his part of the plan in perfect cold-blood. He made
believe he had repented and was anxious for a reconciliation with his
mother; he invited her to Baiae and so profusely lavished kindnesses
and amiabilities upon her, that Agrippina finally believed in his

After spending a few days at Baiae, Agrippina decided to return to
Antium; in a very happy frame of mind and full of hopes that her son
would soon show himself to the world the man she had dreamed, the
descendant of Drusus, she boarded one evening the fatal ship; Nero
had escorted her thither and pressed her to his heart with the most
demonstrative tenderness.

A calm night diffused its starry shadows over the quiet sea, which
with subdued murmur lulled in their sleep the great summer homes
along the shore. The ship departed, carrying toward her sombre destiny
Agrippina, absorbed in her smiling dreams. When the moment came and
the wrecking machine was set to work, the vessel did not sink as fast
as they had hoped: it listed, overturning people and things. Agrippina
had time to understand the danger; with admirable presence of mind she
jumped overboard and escaped by swimming, while, during the confusion
on the boat, the hired murderers killed one of Agrippina's freedwomen,
mistaking her for Agrippina herself. The ship finally sank; the
murderers also took to the water; everything returned to its wonted
calm; the starry night still diffused its silent shadows; the sea
still cradled with subdued murmur the homes along the coast--all men
slept except one.

Within this one, Anxiety watched: a son was awaiting the news that
his mother was dead, and that he was free to celebrate a criminal
marriage. The escaped murderers soon brought the news so impatiently
expected--but Nero's joy was short. At dawn, a freedman of Agrippina
arrived at the Emperor's villa. Agrippina, picked up by a boat, had
succeeded in reaching one of her villas near by; she sent the freedman
to tell the Emperor about the accident and to assure him of her
safety. Agrippina alive! It was like a thunderbolt to Nero, and he
lost his head: he saw his mother hurrying on to Rome, denouncing
the abominable attempt to Senate and people, rousing against him the
Praetorian guard and the legions. Thoroughly frightened, he summoned
Seneca and Burrhus and laid before them the terrible situation. It
is easy to imagine the shock of the old preceptors. How could he
risk such a grave imprudence? And yet there was no time to lose in
reproaches. Nero begged for advice: Seneca and Burrhus were silent,
but they, also frightened, asked of themselves what Agrippina would
do. Would she not provoke a colossal scandal, which would ruin
everything? An expedient, the same one, occurred to both of them:
but so sinister was the idea that they dared not speak it. This time,
however, both the philosopher and the general were deceived as well as
Nero: Agrippina had guessed the truth and given up the struggle. What
could she, a lone woman do against an Emperor who did not stop even
at the plan of murdering his mother? She realised, during that awful
night, that only one chance of safety was left to her--to ignore what
had taken place; and she sent her freedman with the message that
meant forgiveness. But fear kept Nero and his counsellors from
understanding; and when they could easily have remedied the preceding
mistake, they compromised all by a supreme error. Finally Seneca, the
pacificator and humanitarian philosopher, thought he had found the way
of making half-openly the only suggestion which seemed wise to him: he
turned to Burrhus and asked what might happen, if an order were given
the Praetorians to kill Nero's mother. Burrhus understood that his
colleague, although the first to give the fatal advice, was trying
to shift upon him the much more serious responsibility of carrying it
out; since, if they reached the decision of having Agrippina disposed
of by the Praetorians, no one but he, the commander of the guard, could
utter the order. He therefore protested with the greatest energy that
the Praetorians would never lay murderous hands on the daughter of
Germanicus. Then he added cogitatively that, if it were thought
necessary, Anicetus and his sailors could finish the work already
begun. Thus Burrhus gave the same advice as Seneca, but he, like his
colleague, meant to pass on to some one else the task of execution. He
chose better than Seneca: Anicetus, if Agrippina lived, ran a serious
risk of becoming the scapegoat of all this affair. In fact, as soon as
Nero gave his assent, Anicetus and a few sailors hastened to the villa
of Agrippina and stabbed her.

The crime was abominable. Nero and his circle were so awed by it that
they attempted to make the people believe that Agrippina had
committed suicide, when her conspiracy against her son's life had been
discovered. This was the official version of Agrippina's death,
sent by Nero to the Senate. But this audacious mystification had no
success. The public divined the truth, and roused by the voice of
their age-long instincts, they cried out that the Emperor no less than
any peasant of Italy must revere his father and his mother. Through a
sudden turn of public feeling, Agrippina, who had been so much hated
during her life, became the object of a kind of popular veneration;
Nero, on the other hand, and Poppaea inspired a sentiment of profound

If Nero had found the living Agrippina unbearable, he soon realised
that his dead mother was much more to be feared. In fact, scared as he
was by the popular agitation, not only had he temporarily to give up
the plan of divorcing Octavia and marrying Poppaea, but felt obliged
to stay several months at Baiae, not daring to return to Rome. He was,
however, no longer a child: he was twenty-three years old and had some
talent. Men of intelligence and energy were also not wanting in his
_entourage_. The first shock once over, the Emperor and his coterie
rallied. The first impression had indeed been disastrous, but had
brought about no irreparable consequences--the only consequences that
count in politics. One could therefore hope that the public
would gradually forget this murder as they had forgotten that of
Britannicus. One only needed to help them forget. Nero resolved to
give Italy and Rome the administrative revolution that had found in
Agrippina so determined an opponent, the easy, splendid, generous
government that seemed to suit the popular taste.

He began by organising among the _jeunesse doree_ of Rome the
"festivals of youth." In these true demonstrations against the old
aristocratic education, now in the house of one and then in the garden
of another, the young patricians met under the Emperor's directions.
They sang, recited, and danced, displaying all the tendencies that
tradition held unworthy of a Roman nobleman. Later, Nero built in
the Vatican fields a private stadium, where he amused himself with
driving, and invited his friends to join him. He surrounded himself
with poets, musicians, singers; enormously increased the budget
of popular festivals; planned and started immense constructions;
introduced into all parts of the administration a new spirit of
carelessness and ease. Not only the sumptuary laws, but all laws
commanding the fulfilment of human duties toward the species, such as
the great laws of Augustus on marriage and adultery, were no longer
applied; the surveillance of the Senate over the governors, that of
the governors over the cities, slackened. In Rome, in all Italy, in
the provinces, the treasuries of the Republic, the possessions and
the funds of the cities, were robbed. In the midst of this unbridled
plundering, which appeared to make every man rich quickly, and without
work, a delirium of luxury and pleasure reigned: in Rome especially,
people lived in a continuous orgy; the nobility answered in crowds
the invitations of Nero; the Senate, the great houses, where the
conquerors of the world had been born, swarmed with young athletes and
drivers, who had no other ambition but that of adding the prize of a
race to the war trophies of their ancestors; the imperial palace was
invaded by a noisy horde of zitherists, actors, jockeys, athletes,
among whom Burrhus and, still more, Seneca, were beginning to feel
most ill at ease.

Agrippina's death, even though it had yet deferred Nero's marrying
Poppaea, had made possible the change in the government that a part of
the people wished. We owe to this new principle the immense ruins of
ancient Rome; but this fact does not authorise us to consider it a
Roman principle: it was, instead, a principle of Oriental civilisation
which had forced itself upon the Roman traditions after a long and
painful effort. The revolution, however, had been long preparing and
corresponded to the popular aspirations. It would, therefore, have
redounded to the advantage of the Emperor, who had dared to break
loose from a superannuated tradition, had not Agrippina's spectre
still haunted Rome. To their honour be it said, the people of Rome and
Italy had not yet become so corrupted by Oriental civilisation as to
forget parricide in a few festivals.

The party of tradition, though weakened, existed. They began a brave
fight against Nero, using the assassination of Agrippina as the
adverse party had exploited the antifeminist prejudices of the masses
against Agrippina herself. They denounced the parricide to the people,
in order to attack the champion of Orientalism and irritate against
him the indifferent mass, which, not understanding the great struggle
between the Orient and Rome, remained unstirred. Hoping the excitement
of spirit had somewhat subsided, Nero had finally carried out his old
plan of divorcing Octavia and marrying Poppaea; but the divorce caused
great popular demonstrations in Rome in favour of the abused wife and
against the intruder.

Moreover, thanks to his extravagance, Nero made things very easy for
his enemies, the defenders of tradition. His habits of dissipation
exaggerated all the faults of his character, chiefly his morbid need
of showing himself off, of defying the public, their prejudices, their
opinions. It is difficult to discern how much is true and how much is
false in the hideous stories of debauchery handed down to us by the
ancient writers, particularly Suetonius.

Although one might believe--and I believe it for my part--that there
is a great deal of exaggeration in such tales, it is certain that
Nero's personality played too conspicuous a part in his administrative
revolution. Ready as the people were to admire a more generous and
luxurious government than that of Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius,
they still liked to look to the chief of State as to a man of gravity
and austerity, who let others amuse themselves, though he himself be
bored. The vain and bizarre young man, who was always the guest of
honour at his own _fetes_, who never hesitated to satisfy his most
extravagant caprices, who spent so much money to divert himself,
shocked the last republican susceptibilities of Italy. The wise felt
alarmed: with such expenses, would it not all end in bankruptcy?
For all these causes, they soon began to reproach Nero for his
prodigality, although the people enjoyed it, just as they had been
malcontent with Tiberius for his parsimony. His caprices, ever
stranger, little by little roused even that part of the public which
was not fanatically attached to tradition. At that time Nero developed
his foolish vanity of actor, his caprice for the theatre, which soon
was to become an all-absorbing mania. The chief of the Empire, the
heir of Julius Caesar, dreamed of nothing else than descending from
the height of human grandeur to the scene of a theatre, to experience
before the public the sensations of those players whom the Roman
nobility had always regarded as instruments of infamous pleasure!

Disgusted with Nero's mismanagement and follies, Seneca took the death
of Burrhus as an opportunity to retire. Then Nero, freed from the
last person who still retained any influence over him, gave himself
up entirely to the insane swirl of his caprices. He ended one day by
presenting himself in the theatre of Naples. Naples was yet then a
Greek city. Nero had chosen it for this reason; he was applauded with
frenzy. But the Italians of the other cities protested: the chief of
the Empire appearing in a theatre, his hand on the zither and not
on the sword! Imagine what would be the impression if some day a
sovereign went on the stage of the _folies Bergeres_ as a "number" for
a sleight-of-hand performance!

Public attention, however, was turned from this immense scandal by a
frightful calamity--the famous conflagration of Rome, which began the
nineteenth of July of the year 64 and devastated almost all quarters
of the city for ten days. What was the cause of the great disaster?
This very obscure point has much interested historians, who have tried
in vain to throw light on the subject. As far as I am concerned, I
by no means exclude the hypothesis that the fire might have been
accidental. But when they are crushed under the weight of a great
misfortune, men always feel sure that they are the victims of human
wickedness: a sad proof of their distrust in their fellow men. The
plebs, reduced to utter misery by the disaster, began to murmur
that mysterious people had been seen hurrying through the different
quarters, kindling the fire and cumbering the work of help; these
incendiaries must have been sent by some one in power--by whom?

A strange rumour circulated: Nero himself had ordered the city to be
burned, in order to enjoy a unique sight, to get an idea of the fire
of Troy, to have the glory of rebuilding Rome on a more magnificent
scale. The accusation seems to me absurd. Nero was a criminal, but he
was not a fool to the point of provoking the wrath of the whole people
for so light a motive, especially after Agrippina's death. Tacitus
himself, in spite of his hatred of all Caesar's family and his
readiness to make them responsible for the most serious crimes, does
not venture to express belief in this story--sufficient proof that
he considers it absurd and unlikely. Nevertheless, the hatred that
surrounded Nero and Poppaea made every one, not only among the ignorant
populace, but also among the higher classes, accept it readily. It was
soon the general opinion that Nero had accomplished what Brennus and
Catiline's conspirators could not do. Was a more horrible monster ever
seen? Parricide, actor, incendiary!

The traditionalist party, the opposition, the unsatisfied, exploited
without scruple this popular attitude, and Nero, responsible for a
sufficient number of actual crimes, found himself accused also of
an imaginary one. He was so frightened that he decided to give the
clamouring people a victim, some one on whom Rome could avenge its
sorrow. An inquiry into the causes of the conflagration was ordered.
The inquest came to a strange conclusion. The fire had been started
by a small religious sect, recently imported from the Orient, a
sect whose name most people then learned for the first time: the

How did the Roman authorities come to such a conclusion? That is one
of the greatest mysteries of universal history, and no one will ever
be able to clear it. If the explanation of the disaster as accepted by
the people was absurd, the official explanation was still more so. The
Christian community of Rome, the pretended volcano of civil hatred,
which had poured forth the destructive fire over the great metropolis,
was a small and peaceful congregation of pious idealists.

A great and simple man, Paul of Tarsus, had taken up again among them
the great work in which Augustus and Tiberius had failed: he aimed at
the remaking of popular conscience, but used means until then unknown
in the Graeco-Latin civilisation. Not in the name of the ancestors, of
the traditions, of ideals of political power, did he seek to persuade
men to work, to refrain from vice, to live honestly and simply; but
in the name of a single God, whom man had in the beginning offended
through his pride, in the name of the Son of God, who had taken human
form and volunteered to die as a criminal on the cross, to appease
the Father's wrath against the rebellious creature. On the Graeco-Roman
idea of duty, Paul grafted the Christian idea of sin. Doubtless the
new theology must have seemed at first obscure to Greeks and Romans;
but Paul put into it that new spirit, mutual love, which the dry Latin
soul had hardly ever known, and he vivified it with the example of an
obscure life of sacrifice.

Paul was born of a noble Hebrew family of Tarsus, and was a man of
high culture. He had, to use a modern expression, simplified himself,
renounced his position in a time when few could resist the passion for
luxury, and taken up a trade for his living; with the scanty profit
from his work as a tent-maker, alone and on foot he made measureless
journeys through the Empire, everywhere preaching the redemption of
man. Finally, after numberless adventures and perils, he had come to
Rome and had, in the great city frenzied by the delirium of luxury and
pleasure, repeated to the poor, who alone were willing to hear him:
"Be chaste and pure, do not deceive each other, love one another, help
one another, love God."

If Nero had known the little society of pious idealists, he surely
would have hated it, but for other motives than the imaginary
accusations of his police. In this story St. Paul is exactly the
antithesis of Nero. The latter represents the atrocious selfishness of
rich, peaceful, highly civilised epochs; the former, the ardent moral
idealism which tries to react against the cardinal vices of power and
wealth through universal self-sacrifice and asceticism. Neither of
these men is to be comprehended without the other, because the moral
doctrine of Paul is partly a reaction against, the violent folly for
which Nero stood the symbol; but it certainly was not philosophical
considerations of this kind that led the Roman authorities to rage
against the Christians. The problem, I repeat, is insoluble. However
this may be, the Christians were declared responsible for the fire; a
great number were taken into custody, sentenced to death, executed in
different ways, during the festivals that Nero offered to the people
to appease them. Possibly Paul himself was one of the victims of this

This diversion, however, was of no use. The conflagration definitely
ruined Nero. With the conflagration begins the third period of
his life, which lasts four years. It is characterised by absurd
exaggerations of all kinds, which hastened the inevitable catastrophe.
One grandiose idea dominates it: the idea of building on the ruins a
new Rome, immense and magnificent, a true metropolis for the Empire.
In order to carry out this plan, Nero did not economise; he began to
spend in it the moneys laid aside to pay the legions. The people of
Italy, however, and even of Rome, which grew rich on these public
expenditures, did not show themselves thankful for this immense
architectural effort. Every one was sure that the new city would be
worse than the old one!

Nero himself, exasperated by this invincible hate, exhausted by his
own excesses, lost what reason he had still left, and his government
degenerated into a complete tyranny, suspicious, violent, and cruel.

Piso's conspiracy caused him to order a massacre of patricians, which
left terrible rancour in its wake; in an access of fury, he killed
Poppaea; he began to imagine accusations against the richest men of the
Empire, in order to confiscate their estates. His prodigality and the
general carelessness had completely disorganised the finances of the
Empire; he had to recur to all kinds of expedients to find money.
Finally he undertook a great artistic tour in Greece--that province
which had been the mother of arts--to play in its most celebrated
theatres. This time indignation burst all bounds. The armies of Gaul
and Spain, for a long time irregularly paid, led by their officers,
revolted. This act of energy sufficed. On the 9th of June, 68 A.D.,
abandoned by all the world, Nero was compelled to commit suicide.

So the family of Julius Caesar disappears from history. After so much
greatness, genius, and wisdom, the fall may seem petty and almost
laughable. It is absurd to lose the Empire for the pleasure of singing
in a theatre. And yet, bizarre as the end may seem, it was not the
result of the vices, the follies, and the crimes of Nero alone. In his
way, Nero himself was, like all members of his family, the victim of
the contradictory situation of his times.

It has been repeated for centuries, that the foundation of monarchy
was the great mission of Caesar's family. I believe this to be a great
mistake. The lot of the family would have been simple and easy, if it
had been able to found a monarchy. The family of Caesar had to solve
another problem, much more difficult,--in fact insoluble; a problem
that may be compared, from a certain point of view, to that which
confronted the Bonapartes in the nineteenth century. The Bonapartes
found old monarchical, legitimistic, theocratic Europe agitated by
forces which, although making it impossible for the ancient regime
to continue, were not yet able to establish a new society, entirely
democratic, republican, and lay. The family of Caesar found the
opposite situation: an old military and aristocratic republic, which
was changing into an intellectual and monarchical civilisation, based
on equality, but opposing formidable resistance to the forces of
transformation. In these situations the two families tried in all ways
to reconcile things not to be conciliated, to realise the impossible:
one, the popular monarchy and imperial democracy; the other, the
monarchical republic and Orientalised Latinity. The contradiction
was for both families the law of life, the cause of greatness; this
explains why neither was ever willing to extricate itself from it, in
spite of the advice of philosophers, the malcontent of the masses, the
pressure of parties, and the evident dangers. This contradiction
was also the fatality of both families, the cause of their ruin; it
explains the shortness of their power, their restless existence, and
the continuous catastrophes that opened the way to the final crash.

Waterloo and Sedan, the exile of Julia and the tragic failure of
Tiberius's government, all the misfortunes great and small which
struck the two families, were always consequences of the insoluble
contradiction they tried to solve. You have had a perfectly
characteristic example of it in the brief story I have been telling
you. Agrippina becomes an object of universal hatred and dies by
assassination because she defends tradition; her son disregards
tradition and, chiefly for this very reason, is finally forced to kill
himself. Doubtless the fate of the Bonapartes is less tragic, because
they, at least, escaped the infamous legend created by contemporary
hatred against Caesar's family, and artfully developed by the
historians of successive generations. I hope to be able to prove
in the continuation of my _Greatness and Decline of Rome_, that
the history of Caesar's family, as it has been told by Tacitus and
Suetonius, is a sensational novel, a legend containing not much more
truth than the legend of Atrides. The family of Caesar, placed in the
centre of the great struggle going on in Rome between the old Roman
militarism, and the intellectual civilisation of the Orient,
between nationalism and cosmopolitism, between Asiatic mysticism
and traditional religion, between egoism over-excited by culture and
wealth, and the supreme interests of the species, had to injure too
many interests, to offend too many susceptibilities. The injured
interests, the offended susceptibilities, revenged themselves through
defaming legends.

The case of Nero is particularly instructive. He was half insane and
a veritable criminal: it would be absurd to attempt in his favour
the historical rehabilitation to which other members of the family,
Tiberius for instance, have a right. And yet it has not been enough
for succeeding generations that he atoned for his follies and crimes
by death and infamy. They have fallen upon his memory: they have
overlooked that extenuating circumstance of considerable importance,
his age when elected; they have gone so far as to make him into a
unique monster, no longer human and even the Antichrist!

Surely he first shed Christian blood; but if we consider the tendency
he represented in Roman history, we can hardly classify him among the
great enemies of Christianity. Unwittingly, Augustus and Tiberius were
two great enemies of the Christian teachings, because they sought
by all means to reinforce Roman tradition, and struggled
against everything that would one day form the essence of
Christianity--cosmopolitism, mysticism, the domination of intellectual
people, the influence of the philosophical and metaphysical spirit
on life. Nero, on the contrary, with his repeated efforts to
spread Orientalism in Rome, and chiefly with his taste for art, was
unconsciously a powerful collaborator of future Christian propaganda.
We must not forget this: the masses in the Empire became Christian
only because they had first been imbued with the Oriental spirit.

Nero and St. Paul, the man that wished to enjoy all, and the man
that suffered all, are in their time two extreme antitheses: with
the passing of centuries, they become two collaborators. While one
suffered hunger and persecution to preach the doctrine of redemption,
the other called to Italy and to Rome, to amuse himself, the
goldsmiths, weavers, sculptors, painters, architects, musicians, whom
Rome had always rebuffed.

Both disappeared, cut off by the violent current of their epoch;
centuries went by: the name of the Emperor grew infamous, while that
of the tent-maker radiated glory. In the midst of the immense disorder
that accompanied the dissolution of the Roman Empire, as the bonds
among men relaxed, and the human mind seemed to be incapable of
reasoning and understanding, the disciples of the saint realised
that the goldsmiths, weavers, sculptors, painters, architects, and
musicians of the Emperor could collect the masses around the churches
and make them patiently listen to what they could still comprehend of
Paul's sublime morality. When you regard St. Mark or Notre Dame or any
other stupendous cathedral of the Middle Ages, like museums for the
work of art they hold, you see the luminous symbol of this paradoxical
alliance between victim and executioner.

Only through the alliance of Paul and Nero could the Church dominate
the disorder of the Middle Ages, and, from antiquity to the modern
world, carry through that formidable storm the essential principles
from which our civilisation developed: a decisive proof that, if
history in its details is a continuous strife, as a whole it is the
inevitable final reconciliation of antagonistic forces, obtained in
spite of the resistance of individuals and by sacrificing them.

Julia and Tiberius

"He walked with head bent and fixed, the face stern, a taciturn man
exchanging no word with those about him.... Augustus realised these
severe and haughty manners, and more than once tried to excuse them
in the Senate and to the people, saying that they were defects of
temperament, not signs of a sinister spirit."

This is the picture that Suetonius gives us of Tiberius, the man
who, in 9 B.C., after the death of Agrippa and Drusus, stood next to
Augustus, his right hand and pre-established successor. At that time
Augustus was fifty-four years old; not an old man, but he was ill and
had presided over the Republic for twenty-one years. Many people must
have asked themselves what would happen if Augustus should die,
or should definitely retire to private life. The answer was not
uncertain: since Rome was engaged in the conquest of Germany, the
chief of the Empire and of the army ought to be a valiant general and
a man of expert acquaintance with Germanic affairs. Tiberius was the
first general of his time and knew Germany and the Germans better than
any other Roman.

The passage from Suetonius, just quoted, indicates that Tiberius was
not altogether popular, yet it was the accepted opinion that Rome
and Italy might well be content to rely upon so capable a general and
diplomat, if Augustus failed. This attitude, however, changed when
the death of Drusus entirely removed the alternative of choice between
himself and Tiberius, and the latter, up to that time universally
admired, began to be met, even among the nobility, by a strong
opposition. How can this apparently inexplicable fact be made clear?
The theory of corruption so dear to the ancients, which I have already
explained, gives us the key to the mystery. Those who have been
disposed to see in that theory merely a plaything of poets, orators,
philosophers, will now realise that it had power enough to kill the
person and destroy the family of the first citizen of the Empire. That
kind of continuous fear of luxury, of amusements, of prodigality, on
account of which the ancients called corruption so many things that
we define as progress, was not a sentiment always equally alive in the
mind of the multitude. The Romans, like ourselves, loved to live and
to enjoy; this is so true that philosophers and legislators constantly
took pains to remind them of the danger of allowing too much liberty
to the appetites; but more effective than the counsels of philosophers
and the threats of the law, great public calamities inspired in the
masses, at least temporarily, a spirit of puritanism and austerity.
Of this the consequences of the battle of Actium afforded noteworthy

Those who have read the fourth volume of _The Greatness and Decline of
Rome_ may perhaps remember how I have described the conservative
and traditionalist movement of the first decade of the government
of Augustus. Frightened by the revolution, men's minds had reverted
precipitously to the past. A new party, which one might call the
traditionalist, had sought to re-establish the old-time order, in the
state, in customs, in ideas; to combat the corruption of customs; and
of this party Augustus had been the right arm. Indeed, to so great
an extent had this party stirred up public spirit and prevailed upon
those in power that in 18 B.C. it succeeded in passing some great
social laws on luxury, on matrimony, on dress. With these laws, Rome
proposed to remake, by terrible measures, the old, prolific, austere
nobility of the aristocratic era. The _lex de maritandis_ _ordinibus_
aimed with a thousand vexatious restrictions to constrain the nobility
to marry and have children; the _lex sumptuaria_ studied to restrain
extravagance; the _lex de adulteriis_ proclaimed martial law in the
family, menacing an unfaithful wife and her accomplice with exile for
life and the confiscation of half their substance; legislation of the
harshest, this, which should scourge Rome to blood, to keep her from
falling anew into the inveterate vices from which the civil wars were

The impression of the civil wars could not last forever. In fact,
in the decade that followed the promulgation of the social laws, the
puritan fervour, which had up to that time heated all Italy, began
to cool. Wealth increased; the confidence that order and peace were
actually re-established, spread everywhere; the generation that had
seen the civil wars, disappeared; peace and growing prosperity stirred
in the next generation a desire for freedom and pleasure that would
not endure the narrow traditionalism and the puritanism of the
preceding generation; consequently also the laws of 18 B.C. became

To understand this change in public spirit which had such serious
consequences, there is no better way than by studying the most
celebrated writer of this new generation, Ovid, who represents it most
admirably both in life and works. Ovid was born at Sulmona in 43 B.C.
He was about the same age as Tiberius,--of a knight's family--that
is, of the wealthy middle class. He was destined by his father to the
study of oratory and jurisprudence, evidently to make a political man
of him, a senator, a future consul or proconsul, and to contribute to
the great national restoration that his generation proposed to itself
and of which Augustus was architect, preparing a new family for the
political aristocracy that was governing the Empire. Ovid's father
had all the requirements demanded by law and custom: a considerable
fortune, the half-nobility of the equestrian order, an intelligent
son, the means to give him the necessary culture--a favourable
combination of circumstances which was wholly undone by a bit of
unforeseen contrariety, the son's invincible inclination for what his
father called, with little respect, a "useless study," literature.
The young man had indifferently studied oratory and law, gone to Rome,
married, made friendships in the high society of the capital, been
elected to the offices preceding the quaestorship; but when the time
arrived for presenting himself as candidate for the quaestorship
itself--that is, the time for beginning the true _curriculum_ of the
magistracies, he had declared that he would rather be a great poet
than a consul, and there was no persuading him farther on the long
road opened to political ambitions.

With the episode of Julia and Tiberius in mind, I have stated that
Ovid's life epitomises the new generation, because it shows us
in action the first of the forces that dissolved the aristocratic
government and the nobility artificially reconstituted by Augustus
at the close of the civil wars--intellectualism. The case of Ovid
demonstrates that intellectual culture, literature, poetry, instead
of being, for the Roman aristocracy, as in older times, a simple
ornament, secondary to politics, had already a prime attraction for
the man of genius; that even among the higher classes, devoted by
tradition only to military and political life, there appeared, by the
side of the leaders in war and politics, the professional literary
man. The study of Ovid's work shows something even more noteworthy:
that, profiting by the discords in the ruling class, these literary
men feared no longer to express and to re-enforce the discontent,
the bad feeling, the aversion, that the efforts of the State to
re-establish a more vigorous social order was rousing in one part of
the public.

Ovid's first important work was the _Amores_, which was certainly out
by the year 8 B.C. although in a different form from that in which
we now have it. To understand what this book really was when it was
published, one must remember that it was written, read, and what
is more, _admired_, ten years after the promulgation of the _lex de
maritandis ordinibus_ and of the _lex de adulteriis_; it should be
read with what remains of the text of those laws in hand.

We are astonished at the book, full of excitements to frivolity, to
dissipation, to pleasure, to those very activities that appeared to
the ancients to form the most dangerous part of the "corruption."
Extravagances of a libertine poet? The single-handed revolt of a
corrupt youth, which cannot be considered a sign of the times? No. If
there had not been in the public at large, in the higher classes, in
the new generation, a general sympathy with this poetry, subversive of
the solemn Julian laws, Ovid would never have been recognised in the
houses of the great, petted and admired by high society. The great
social laws of Augustus, the publication of which had been celebrated
by Horace in the _Carmen Seculare_, wounded too many interests,
tormented too many selfishnesses, intercepted too many liberties.

His revolutionary elegies had made Ovid famous, because these
interests and these selfishnesses finally rebelled with the new
generation, which had not seen the civil wars. Other incidents before
and after the publication of the _Amores_ also show this reaction
against the social laws. Therefore Augustus proposed about this time
to abolish the provision of the _lex de maritandis ordinibus_ that
excluded celibates from public spectacles; and by his personal
intervention sought to put a check upon the scandalous trials for
adultery that his law had originated--two acts that were so much
admired by a part of the public that statues were erected to him by
popular subscription.

In short, this new movement of public opinion explains the opposition
exerted from this time on against Tiberius and makes us understand how
there arose the conflict in which this mysterious personage was to be
entangled for the rest of his life, and to lose, by no fault of his
own, so great a part of his reputation. I hope to prove that the
Tiberius of Tacitus and Suetonius is a fantastic personality, the hero
of a wretched and improbable romance, invented by party hatred;
that Tiberius remained, as a German historian has defined it, an
undecipherable enigma, simply because there has never been the will to
recognise how much alive the aristocratic republican traditions
still were, and what force they still exerted in the State and in the

Tiberius was but an authentic Claudius--that is, a true descendant of
one of the oldest, the proudest, the most aristocratic families of the
Roman nobility, a man with all the good qualities and all the defects
of the old Roman aristocracy, a man who regarded things and men with
the eyes of a senator of the times of Scipio Africanus--a living
anachronism, a fossil, if you will, from a by-gone age, in a world
that wished to tolerate no more either the vices or the virtues of the
old aristocracy. He thought that the Empire ought to be governed by a
limited aristocracy of diplomats and warriors, rigidly authoritative,
exclusively Roman, which should know how to check the general
corrupting of customs, the current extravagance and dissipation,
beginning its task by imposing upon itself an inexorable
self-discipline. Even though he belonged to the generation of Ovid--to
the generation that had not seen the civil wars--Tiberius, by
singular exception, kept aloof from the undisciplined frivolity of his
contemporaries. He desired the severe application of the social
laws of the year 18, as of all the traditional norms of aristocratic
discipline. His generation therefore soon found him an enemy,
especially after Drusus's death seemed to leave neither doubt nor
choice as to the successor of Augustus. From this contemporary
attitude arises the tacit aversion in the midst of which, after the
lapse of so many centuries, we still feel Tiberius living and working,
an aversion which steadily grows even while he renders the most signal
services to the Empire.

There was between him and his generation irreconcilable discord.
However, it is not likely that this blind and secret hatred alone
could have seriously injured Tiberius, whose power and merits were so
great, if it had not been considerably helped by incidents of various
nature. The first and most important of these was the discord that had
arisen, shortly after the death of Drusus, between Tiberius and his
wife Julia, the daughter of Augustus and the widow of Agrippa.

Tiberius had married her against his will in the year 11, after the
death of Agrippa, by order of Augustus, and had at first tried to
live in accord with her; the attempt was vain, and the spirits of the
husband and wife were soon parted in fatal disagreement. "He lived at
first," writes Suetonius, "in harmony with Julia; but soon grew cool
toward her, and finally the estrangement reached such a point after
the death of their boy born at Aquileia, that Tiberius lived in a
separate apartment"--a separation, as we would call it, in "bed and
board." What was the reason of this discord? No ancient historian has
revealed it; however, we can guess with sufficient probability from
what we know of the characters of the pair and the discord that
divided Roman society. If Tiberius was not the monster of Capri, Julia
was certainly not the miserable Bacchante of the scandalous Roman
chronicle. Macrobius has pictured her in human lights and shadows, a
probable image, describing her as a highly cultured woman, lavish
in tastes and expenditure, fond of beautiful literature, of the
fine arts, and of the company of handsome and elegant young men. She
belonged to the new generation of which Ovid was spokesman and poet;
while Tiberius represented archaic traditionalism, the spirit of a
past generation.

It is easy to understand how these two persons, incarnating the
irreconcilable opposition of two epochs, two _morales_, two societies,
of Roman militarism and of Oriental culture, could not live together.
A man like Tiberius, severe, simple, who detested frivolous pleasures,
caring more for war than for society life, could not live in peace
with this beautiful and vivacious creature, who loved luxury,
prodigality, brilliant company. It is not rash to suppose that
the _lex sumptuaria_ of the year 18 was the first grave cause of
disagreement. Julia, given, as Macrobius describes her, to profuse
expenditure and pretentious elegance, could not take this law
seriously; while it was the duty of Tiberius, who always protested by
deed as by word against the barren pomp of the rich, to see that his
wife serve as an example of simplicity to the other matrons of Rome.

Very soon there occurred an accident, not uncommon in unfortunate
marriages, but which for special reasons was, in the family of
Tiberius, far more than wontedly dangerous. Tacitus tells us that
after Julia was out of favour with Tiberius, she contracted a relation
with an elegant young aristocrat, one Sempronius Gracchus, of the
family of the famous tribunes. Accepting as true the affirmation of
Tacitus, in itself likely, we can very well explain the behaviour and
acts of Tiberius in these years. The misdoing of Julia offended
not only the man and husband, but placed also the statesman, the
representative of the traditionalist party, in the gravest perplexity.

According to the _lex de adulteriis_, made by Augustus in the year
18, the husband ought either to punish the unfaithful wife himself or
denounce her to the praetor. Could he, Tiberius, provoke so frightful
a scandal in the house of the "First Citizen of the Republic"; drive
from Rome, defamed, the daughter of Augustus, the most noted lady of
Rome, who had so many friends in all circles of its society? Suetonius
speaks of the disgust of Tiberius for Julia, "_quam neque criminari
aut demittere auderet_"--whom he dared neither incriminate nor
repudiate. On the other hand, did not he, the intransigeant
traditionalist, who kept continually reproving the nobility for their
laxity in self-discipline, merit rebuke, for allowing this thing to
go on, not applying the law? The difficulty was serious; the _lex de
adulteriis_ began to be a torment to its creators. Unable to separate
from, unwilling to live with, this woman who had traduced him and whom
he despised, Tiberius was reduced to maintaining a merely apparent
union to avoid the scandal of a trial and divorce.

This proceeding, however, was an expedient in that condition of things
both insufficient and dangerous. The discord between Tiberius and
Julia put into the hands of the young nobility, up to that time
unarmed, a terrible weapon against the illustrious general, who was,
meanwhile, fighting the Germans. The young nobility, inimical to the
social laws and to Tiberius, rallied about Julia, and the effects of
this alliance were not slow in appearing. Julia had had five sons by
Agrippa, of whom the eldest two, Caius and Lucius, had been adopted
by Augustus. In the year 6 B.C., the eldest, Caius, reached the age of
fourteen. He was therefore but a lad; notwithstanding his youth, there
was suddenly brought forward the strange, almost incredible, proposal
to make a law by which he might at once be elected consul for the year
754 A.U.C, when he would be twenty years old.

Who made this proposal? Augustus, if we believe Suetonius, out of
excessive fondness for his adopted sons. Dion, on the contrary, tells
these things differently. He says that from the beginning Augustus
opposed the law, and so leads us to doubt that it was either proposed
or desired by that Prince. The facts are that a party in Rome kept
insisting till Augustus supported this law with his authority, and
that from the first he was unwilling to be accessory to an election
that overturned without reason every Roman constitutional right.

Who then were these strange admirers of a child of fourteen, who to
make him consul did not hesitate to do violence to tradition, to the
laws, to good sense, and, finally, to the adoptive father? It was the
opposition to Tiberius, the party of the young nobility and Julia, who
were seeking a rule less severe, and, if not the abolition, at least
the mitigated application of the great social laws. They aimed to put
forward the young Caius, to set him early before public attention, to
hasten his political career, in order to oppose a rival to Tiberius;
to prepare another collaborator and successor of Augustus, to make
Tiberius less indispensable and therefore less powerful.

In brief, here was the hope of using against Tiberius at once the
maternal pride and affection of Julia, the tenderness of Augustus, and
the popularity of the name of Caesar, which Caius carried. The people
had never greatly loved the name of the Claudii, a haughty line of
invincible aristocrats, always hard and overbearing with the poor,
always opposed to the democratic party. The party against Tiberius
hoped that when to a Claudius there should be opposed a Caesar, the
public spirit would revert to the dazzling splendour of the name.

Now we understand why Augustus had at first objected. The privileges
that he had caused to be conceded to Marcellus, to Drusus, to
Tiberius, were all of less consequence than those demanded for
Caius and had all been justified either by urgent needs of State, or
services already rendered; but how could it be tolerated that without
any reason, without the slightest necessity, there should be made
consul a lad of fourteen, of whom it would be difficult to predict
even whether he would become a man of common sense? Moreover Augustus
could not so easily bring himself to offend Tiberius, who would not
admit that the chief of the Republic should help his enemies offer him
so great an affront. How could it be, that while he, amid fatigues
and perils in cold and savage regions, was fighting the Germans and
holding in subjection the European provinces, that _jeunesse doree_
of good-for-nothings, cynics, idlers, poets, which infested the new
generation, was conniving with his wife to set against him a child
of fourteen?--to gain, as it were, sanction from a law that the State
would not be safe till by the side of this Claudius should be placed a
Caesar, beardless and inexpert, as if the name of the latter outweighed
the genius and experience of the former? And Augustus, the head of the
Republic, would he have tolerated such an outrage? Tiberius not only
resisted the law but exacted the open disapproval of Augustus; in
fact, at the beginning, Augustus stood out against it as Tiberius
wished; but difficulties grew by the way and became grave.

Julia and her friends knew how to dispose public opinion ably in
their own favour, to intrigue in the Senate, to exploit the increasing
unpopularity of the social laws, of the spreading aversion to Tiberius
and the admiration for other members of Augustus's family. The
proposal to make Caius consul became in a short time so popular
for one or another of these reasons, and as the symbol of a future
government less severe and traditionalistic, that Augustus felt less
and less able to withstand the current. On the other hand, to yield
meant mortally to offend Tiberius. Finally, as was his wont, this
astute politician thought to extricate himself from the difficulty by
a transaction and an expedient. Dion, shortly after having said that
Augustus finally yielded to the popular will, adds that, to make Caius
more modest, he gave Tiberius the tribunician power for five years and
charged him with subduing the revolt in Armenia. Augustus's idea is
clear: he was trying to please everybody--the partisans of Caius Caesar
by not opposing the law, and Tiberius, by giving the most splendid
compensation, making him his colleague in place of Agrippa.

Unfortunately, Tiberius was not the man to accept this compensation.
No honour could make up for the insult Augustus had done him, though
yielding but in part to his enemies, because by so doing even Augustus
had seemed to think it necessary to set him beside a lad of fourteen;
he would go away; they might do as they pleased and charge Caius with
directing the war in Germany. Indignant at the timid opportunism of
Augustus, disgusted with the wife whom he could neither accuse nor
repudiate, Tiberius demanded permission of Augustus to retire to
Rodi to private life, saying that he was tired and in need of repose.
Naturally Augustus was frightened, begged and pleaded with him to
remain, sent his mother Livia to beseech him, but every effort was
futile; Tiberius was obstinate, and finally, since Augustus did not
permit his departure, he threatened to let himself die of hunger.
Augustus still tried to stand firm; one day, two days, three days, he
let him fast without giving the required consent. At the end of the
fourth day, Augustus had to recognise that Tiberius had serious intent
to kill himself, and yielded. The Senate granted him permission to
depart; and Tiberius at once started for Ostia, "without saying a
word," writes Suetonius, "to those who accompanied him, and kissing
but a few."

It would be impossible to decide whether this retaliation of
Tiberius's self-love was equal to the offence; and perhaps it is
useless to discuss the point. It is certain, however, that the
consequences of the departure of Tiberius were weighty. The first
result was that the party of the young nobility, the party averse to
the laws of the year 18, found itself master of the field; perhaps
because the opposing party lost with Tiberius its most authoritative
leader; perhaps because Augustus, irritated against Tiberius, inclined
still more toward the contrary party; perhaps because public opinion
judged severely the departure of Tiberius, who, already little
admired, became decidedly unpopular. Julia and her friends triumphed,
and not content with having conquered, wished to domineer; shortly
afterward they obtained the concession of the same privileges as those
granted to Caius for his younger brother Lucius. At the same
time, Augustus prepared to make Caius and Lucius his two future
collaborators in place of Tiberius; Ovid set his hand to a book still
more scandalous and subversive than the _Amores_, the _Ars Amandi_;
public indulgence covered with its protection all those accused on
grounds of the laws of the year 18; and finally, the two boys, Caius
and Lucius, became popular, like great personages, all over
Italy. There have been found in different cities of the peninsula
inscriptions in their honour, one of which, very long and curious, is
at Pisa; it is full of absurd eulogies of the two lads, who had as yet
done nothing, good or bad. Italy must have been tired enough of a too
conservative government, which had lasted twenty-five years, of an
Empire reconquered by traditional ideas, if, in order to protest, it
lionised the two young sons of Agrippa in ways that contradicted every
idea and sentiment of Roman tradition.

In conclusion, the departure of Tiberius, and the severe judgment the
public gave it, still further weakened the conservative party, already
for some years in decline, by a natural transformation of the public
spirit. Perhaps the party of tradition would have been entirely spent,
had not events soon reminded Rome that its spirit was the life of the
military order. The departure of Tiberius, the man who represented
this spirit, rapidly disorganised the army and the external policy
of Rome. Up to that time Augustus had had beside him a powerful
helper--first Agrippa, afterwards Tiberius; but then he found himself
alone at the head of the Empire, a man already well on in years; and
for the first time it appeared that this zealous bureaucrat, this
fastidious administrator, this intellectual idler, who could do an
enormous amount of work on condition that he be not forced to issue
from his study and encounter currents of air too strong for him, was
insufficient to direct alone the politics of an immense empire, which
required, in addition to the sagacity of the administrator and the
ingenuity of the legislator, the resoluteness of the warrior and the
man of action.

The State rapidly fell into a stupor. In Germany, where it was
necessary to proceed to the ordering of the province, everything was
suspended; the people, apparently subdued, were not bound to pay any
tribute, and were left to govern themselves solely and entirely
by their own laws--a strange anomaly in the history of the Roman
conquests, which only the departure of Tiberius can explain. At such
a distance, when he was no longer counselled by Tiberius who so well
understood German affairs, Augustus trusted no other assistants,
fearing lack of zeal and intelligence; distrusting himself also, he
dared initiate nothing in the conquered province. The Senate, inert
as usual, gave it not a thought. So Germany remained an uncertainty,
neither a province nor independent, for fifteen years, a fact wherein
is perhaps to be found the real cause of the catastrophe of Varus,
which ruined the whole German policy of Rome.

Furthermore, in Pannonia and Dalmatia, when it was known that the most
valiant general of Rome was in disgrace at Rodi, the malcontents took
fresh courage, reopened an agitation that could but terminate in
a revolt, much more dangerous than any preceding. In the Orient,
Palestine arose in 4 B.C., on the death of Herod the Great, against
his son, Archelaus, and against the Hellenised monarchy, demanding
to be made a Roman province like Syria, and a frightful civil war
illumined with its sinister glare the cradle of Jesus. The governor
of Syria, Quintilius Varus, threw himself into Judea and succeeded in
crushing the revolt; but Augustus, unable to bring himself either to
give full satisfaction to the Hebrew people or to execute entirely the
testament of Herod, decided as usual on a compromise: he divided
the ancient kingdom of Herod the Great among three of his sons, and
changed Archelaus's title of king to the more modest one of ethnarch.
Then new difficulties arose with the Empire of the Parthians. In
short, vaguely, in every part of the Empire and beyond its borders,
there began to grow the sense that Rome was again weakening; a sense
of doubt due to the decadence of the spirit of tradition and of the
party representing it; to the new spirit of the new generation; and
finally, to the absence of Tiberius, the one capable general of the
time, which gradually disorganised even the western armies, the best
in the Empire.

This dissolution of the State naturally fed in the traditionalist
party the hope of reconquering. Tiberius had sincere friends and
admirers, especially among the nobility, less numerous than those of
Julia, but more serious, because his merits were real. Many people
among the higher classes--even though, like Augustus, they considered
the obduracy of Tiberius excessive--thought that Rome no more
possessed so many examples of illustrious men as to be able to retire
its best general at thirty-seven. Very soon there arose in the circles
about Augustus, in the Senate, in the comitia, a bitter contention
between Tiberius's friends and his enemies; this was really a struggle
between the traditionalist party, which busied itself conserving,
together with the traditions of the old Romanism, the military and
political power of Rome, and the party of the young nobility, which,
without heeding the external dangers, wished to impel habits, ideas,
the public spirit, toward the freer, broader forms of the Oriental
civilisation, even at the risk of dissolving the State and the army.
Julia and Tiberius personify the two parties; between them stands
Augustus, who ought to decide, and is more uncertain than ever.
Theoretically Augustus always inclined more toward Tiberius, but from
disgust at his departure, from solicitude for domestic peace, from
his little sympathy with his step-son, he was driven to the opposite

In this duel, what was the behaviour and the part of Livia, the mother
of Tiberius? The ancient historians tell us nothing; it is, at all
events, hardly probable that Livia remained an inactive witness of
the long struggle waged to secure the return of Tiberius and his
reinstatement in the brilliant position once his. Moreover, Suetonius
says that during his entire stay at Rodi, Tiberius communicated with
Augustus by means of Livia. At any rate, the party of Tiberius was
not long in understanding that he could not re-enter Rome, as long as
Julia was popular and most powerful there; that to reopen the gates of
Rome to the husband, it was necessary to drive out the wife. This was
a difficult enterprise, because Julia was upheld by the party already
dominant; she had the affection of Augustus; she was the mother
of Caius and Lucius Caesar, the two hopes of the Republic, whose
popularity covered her with a respect and a sympathy that made her
almost invulnerable. Tiberius, instead, was unpopular. However, there
is no undertaking impossible to party hate. Exasperated by the growing
disfavour of public opinion, the party of Tiberius decided on a
desperate expedient to which Tiberius himself would not have dared set
hand; that is, since Julia had a paramour, to adopt against her the
weapon supplied by the _lex Julia de adulteriis_, made by her father,
and so provoke the terrible scandal that until then every one had
avoided in fear.

Unfortunately, we possess too few documents to write in detail the
history of this dreadful episode; but everything becomes clear enough
if one sees in the ruin of Julia a kind of terrible political and
judicial blackmailing, tried by the friends of Tiberius to remove the
chief obstacle to his return, and if one takes it that the friends
of Tiberius succeeded in procuring proofs of the guilt of Julia and
carried them to Augustus, not as to the head of the State, but to the

Dion Cassius says that "Augustus finally, although tardily, came to
recognise the misdeeds of his daughter," which signifies that at a
given moment, Augustus could no longer feign ignorance of her sins,
because the proofs were in the power of irreconcilable enemies, who
would have refused to smother the scandal. These mortal enemies of
Julia could have been no other than the friends of Tiberius. Julia had
violated the law on adultery made by himself; Augustus could doubt it
no more.

To understand well the tragic situation in which Augustus was placed
by these revelations, one must remember various things: first that
the _lex de adulteriis_, proposed by Augustus himself, obliged the
father--when the husband could not, or would not--to punish the guilty
daughter, or to denounce her to the praetor, if he had not the courage
to punish her himself; second, that this law arranged that if the
father and the husband failed to fulfil their proper duty, any one
whoever, the first comer, might in the name of public morals make
the denunciation to the praetor and stand to accuse the woman and her
accomplice. Tiberius, the husband, being absent at Rodi, he, Augustus,
the father, must become the Nemesis of his daughter--must punish her
or denounce her; if not, the friends of Tiberius could accuse her
to the praetor, hale her before the quaestor, unveil to the public the
shame of her private life.

What should he do? Many a father had disdainfully refused to be the
executioner of his own daughter, leaving to others the grim office of
applying the _lex Julia_. Could he imitate such an example? He was the
head of the Republic, the most powerful man of the Empire, the founder
of a new political order; he could decide peace and war, govern the
Senate at his pleasure, exalt or abase the powerful of the earth with
a nod; and exactly for this reason he dared not evade the bitter task.
He feared the envy, the moral and levelling prejudices of the middle
classes, which needed every now and then to slaughter in the courts
some one belonging to the upper classes, in order to delude themselves
that justice is equal for all. To him had been granted the greatest
privileges; but precisely on this account was it dangerous to try to
cover his daughter with a privileged protection as prey too delicate
for public attack. And then, if he himself gave the example of
disobeying his law, who would observe it? The tremendous scandal would
unnerve all the moral force of his legislation, which was the base
of his prestige. The moment was terrible. Imagine this old man of
sixty-two wearied by forty-four years of public life, embittered
by the difficulties that sprang up about him, disquieted by the
dissolution of State of which he was the impotent witness, finding
himself all at once facing these alternatives--either destroy his
daughter, or undo all the political work over which he had laboured
for thirty years; and no temporising possible!

Augustus was not a naturally cruel man, but before these alternatives
his mind seems to have been for a moment convulsed by an access of
grief and rage, the distant echo of which has come down to us. One
moment, as Suetonius says, he had the idea of killing Julia. Then
reason, pity, affection, gentler habits, prevailed. He did not give
the sentence of death, but he was too practised a politician not
to understand that she could not be saved; and as he had immolated
Cicero, Lepidus, Antony, so he immolated her also to the necessity
of preserving before Italy his prestige of severe legislator and
impartial magistrate. To avoid the trial, he resolved to punish her
himself with his power of _pater familias_ according to the _lex
Julia_, exiling her to Pandataria and announcing the divorce to her
in the name of Tiberius. He then despatched to the Senate a record of
what he had done, and went away to the country, where he remained a
long time, says Suetonius, seeing no one, the prey to profound grief.

It seems that Julia's fall was a surprise to the public. In a day
it learned that the highly popular daughter of Augustus had been
condemned to exile by her father. This unexpected revelation let
a storm loose in the metropolis. Even though there were not then
published in Rome those vile newspapers, the pests of modern
civilisation, that hunt their _soldi_ in the mud and slime of the
basest human passions, the taste for scandalous revelations, the
envy of genius and fortune, the pleasure of wreaking cruelty upon
the unarmed, the low delight in pouring the basest feelings upon the
honour of a woman abandoned by all--these passions animated minds
then, as they do to-day; nor were there then wanting, more than
now, wretches that profited by them, to gather money or satisfy bad
instincts, without being able to dispose of a single, miserable
sheet of paper. On every side delators sprang up, and an epidemic of
slanders embittered Rome; every man who had name or wealth or some
relation with the family of Augustus, ran the risk of being accused as
a lover of Julia. Several youths of high society, frightened by these
charges, committed suicide; others were condemned. About Julia
were invented and spread the most atrocious calumnies, which formed
thereafter the basis for the infamous legends that have remained
in history attached to her name. The traditionalist party naturally
abetted this furor of accusations and inventions, made to persuade the
public that a fearful corruption was hidden among the upper classes
and that to cure it fire and sword must be used without pity.

The friends of Julia, the party of the young nobility, disconcerted at
first by the explosion, did not delay to collect themselves and react;
the populace of Rome made some great demonstrations in favour of Julia
and demanded her pardon of Augustus. Many indeed, recognising that her
punishment was legal, protested against the ferocity of her enemies,
who had not hesitated to embitter with so terrible a scandal the old
age of Augustus; protested against the mad folly of incrimination with
which every part of Rome was possessed. Most people turned, the more
envenomed, against Tiberius, attacking him with renewed fury as the
cause of all the evil. He it was, they insisted, who had conceived the
abominable scandal, willed it, imposed it upon Rome and the Empire!

If Livia and the friends of Tiberius had thought to bring him in
by the gate where Julia went out, they were not slow in recognising
themselves deceived. The fall of Julia struck Tiberius on the rebound
in his distant island. His unpopularity, already great, grew by all
the disgust that the scandal about Julia had provoked, and became
so formidable that one day about this time the inhabitants of Nimes
overturned his statues. It was the beginning of the Christian era, but
a dark silence brooded over the Palatine; the defamed Julia was making
her hard way to Pandataria; Tiberius, discredited and detested, was
wasting himself in inaction at Rodi; Augustus in his empty house,
disgusted, distrustful, half paralysed by deep grief, would hear to
no counsels of peace, of indulgence, of reconciliation. Tiberius and
Julia were equally hateful to him, and as he did not allow himself
to be moved by the friends of Julia, who did not cease to implore her
pardon, so he resisted the friends of Tiberius, who tried to persuade
him to reconciliation. What mattered it to him if the administration
of the State fell to pieces on all sides; if Germans threatened
revolt; if Rome had need of the courage, of the valour, of the
experience of Tiberius?

Tiberius from his retreat in Rodi kept every one in Rome afraid,
beginning with Augustus. Too rich, too eager now for pleasures and
comforts, Rome was almost disgusted with the virtues and the
defects that had in fact created it, and which survived in
Tiberius--aristocratic pride, the spirit of rigour in authority,
military valour, simplicity. Peace had come, extending everywhere,
with wealth, the desire for enjoyment, happiness, pleasure, freedom,
loosening everywhere the firmest bonds of social discipline,
persuading Rome to lay down the heavy armour it had worn for so many

In this family quarrel, which comprises a struggle of everlasting
tendencies, Julia represented the new spirit that will prevail,
Tiberius, the old, destined to perish; but for the time being, both
spirits, however opposed, were necessary; for peace did not expand its
gifts in the Empire without the protection of the great armies
that fought on the Rhine and on the Danube. If the spirit of peace
refreshed Rome, Italy, the Provinces, only the old aristocratic and
military spirit could keep the Germans on the Rhine. As in all great
social conflicts, the two opposing parties were both, in a certain
measure and each from its own point of view, right. Just for that
reason, the equilibrium could be found only by a continual struggle
in which men on one side and on the other were destined in turn to
triumph or fall according to the moment; a struggle in which Augustus,
fated to act the part of judge--that is, to recognise, with a final
formal sanction, a sentence already pronounced by facts--had against
his will in turn to condemn some and reward others.

Julia will remain at Pandataria, and Tiberius will return to Rome
when the danger on the Rhine becomes too threatening, yet without much
lessening the conclusive vengeance of Julia. That will come in the
long torment of the reign of Tiberius; in the infamy that will pursue
him to posterity. After having been pitilessly hated and persecuted in
life, this man and this woman, who had personified two social forces
eternally at war with each other, will both fall in death into the
same abyss of unmerited infamy: tragic spectacle and warning lesson on
the vanity of human judgments!

Wine in Roman History

In history as it is generally written, there are to be seen only great
personages and events, kings, emperors, generals, ministers, wars,
revolutions, treaties. When one closes a huge volume of history,
one knows why this state made a great war upon that; understands the
political thinking, the strategic plans, the diplomatic agreements
of the powerful, but would hardly be able to answer much more simple
questions: how people ate and drank, how the warriors, politicians,
diplomats, were clad, and in general how men lived at any particular

History does not usually busy itself with little men and small facts,
and is therefore often obscure, unprecise, vague, tiresome. I believe
that if some day I deserve praise, it will be because I have tried
to show that everything has value and importance; that all phenomena
interweave, act, and react upon each other--economic changes and
political revolutions, costumes, ideas, the family and the state,
land-holding and cultivation. There are no insignificant events
in history; for the great events, like revolutions and wars, are
inevitably and indissolubly accompanied by an infinite number of
slight changes, appearing in every part of a nation: if in life there
are men without note, and if these make up the great majority of
nations--that which is called the "mass"--there is no greater mistake
than to believe they are extraneous to history, mere inert instruments
in the hands of the oligarchies that govern. States and institutions
rest on this nameless mass, as a building rests upon its foundations.

I mean to show you now by a typical case the possible importance of
these little facts, so neglected in history. I shall speak to you
neither of proconsuls nor of emperors, neither of great conquests nor
of famous laws, but of wine-dealers and vine-tenders, of the fortuned
and famous plant that from wooded mountain-slopes, mirrored in the
Black Sea, began its slow, triumphal spread around the globe to
its twentieth century bivouac, California. I shall show you how the
branches and tendrils of the plant of Bacchus are entwined about the
history and the destiny of Rome.

For many centuries the Romans were water-drinkers. Little wine was
made in Italy, and that of inferior quality: commonly not even the
rich were wont to drink it daily; many used it only as medicine during
illness; women were never to take it. For a long time, any woman in
Rome who used wine inspired a sense of repulsion, like that excited in
Europe up to a short time ago by any woman who smoked. At the time
of Polybius, that is, toward the middle of the second century B.C.,
ladies were allowed to drink only a little _passum_,--a kind of sweet
wine, or syrup, made of raisins. About the women too much given to the
beverage of Dionysos, there were terrifying stories told. It was said,
for instance, that Egnatius Mecenius beat his wife to death, because
she secretly drank wine; and that Romulus absolved him (Pliny, _Nat.
Hist._, bk. 14, ch. 13). It was told, on the word of Fabius Pictor,
who mentioned it in his annals, that a Roman lady was condemned by
the family tribunal to die of hunger, because she had stolen from
her husband the keys of the wine-cellar. It was said the Greek judge
Dionysius condemned to the loss of her dower a wife who, unknown to
her husband, had drunk more than was good for her health: this story
is one which shows that women began to be allowed the use of wine as a
medicine. It was for a long time the vaunt of a true Roman to despise
fine wines. For example, ancient historians tell of Cato that, when
he returned in triumph from his proconsulship in Spain, he boasted
of having drunk on the voyage the same wine as his rowers; which
certainly was not, as we should say now, either Bordeaux or Champagne!

Cato, it is true, was a queer fellow, who pleased himself by throwing
in the face of the young nobility's incipient luxury a piece of almost
brutal rudeness; but he exaggerated, not falsified, the ideas and the
sentiments of Romanism. At that time, it was a thing unworthy of a
Roman to be a practised admirer of fine wines and to show too great
a propensity for them. Then not only was the vine little and ill
cultivated in Italy, but that country almost refused to admit its
ability to make fine wines with its grapes. As wines of luxury, only
the Greek were then accredited and esteemed--and paid for, like French
wines to-day; but, though admiring and paying well for them, the
Romans, still diffident and saving, made very spare use of them.
Lucullus, the famous conqueror of the Pontus, told how in his father's
house--in the house, therefore, of a noble family--Greek wine was
never served more than once, even at the most elegant dinners.
Moreover, this must have been a common custom, because Pliny says,
speaking of the beginning of the last century of the Republic, "Tanta
vero vino graeco gratia erat ut singulae potiones in convitu darentur";
that is, translating literally, "Greek wine was so prized that only
single potions of it were given at a meal." You understand at once the
significance of this phrase; Greek wine was served as to-day--at least
on European tables--Champagne is served; it was too expensive to give
in quantity.

This condition of things began to change after Rome became a world
power, went outside of Italy, interfered in the great affairs of the
Mediterranean, and came into more immediate contact with Greece and
the Orient. By a strange law of correlation, as the Roman Empire
spread about the Mediterranean, the vineyard spread in Italy;
gradually, as the world politics of Rome triumphed in Asia and Africa,
the grape harvest grew more abundant in Italy, the consumption of
wine increased, the quality was refined. The bond between the
two phenomena--the progress of conquest and the progress of
vine-growing--is not accidental, but organic, essential, intimate.
As, little by little, the policy of expansion grew, wealth and culture
increased in Rome; the spirit of tradition and of simplicity weakened;
luxury spread, and with it the appetite for sensations, including that
of the taste for intoxicating beverages.

We have but to notice what happens about us in the modern world--when
industry gains and wealth increases and cities grow, men drink more
eagerly and riotously inebriating beverages--to understand
what happened in Italy and in Rome, as gradually wars, tribute,
blackmailing politics, pitiless usury, carried into the peninsula the
spoils of the Mediterranean world, riches of the most numerous and
varied forms. The old-time aversion to wine diminished; men and
women, city-dwellers and countrymen, learned to drink it. The cities,
particularly Rome, no longer confined themselves to slaking their
thirst at the fountains; as the demand and the price for wine
increased, the land-owners in Italy grew interested in offering the
cup of Bacchus, and as they had invested capital in vineyards,
they were drawn on by the same interest to excite ever the more the
eagerness for wine among the multitude, and to perfect grape-culture
and increase the crop, in imitation of the Greeks. The wars and
military expeditions to the Orient not only carried many Italians,
peasants and proprietors, into the midst of the most celebrated
vineyards of the world, but also transported into Italy slaves and
numerous Greek and Asiatic peasants who knew the best methods of
cultivating the vine, and of making wines like the Greek, just as the
peasants of Piedmont, of the _Veneto_, and of Sicily, have in the last
twenty years developed grape-culture in Tunis and California.

Pliny, who is so rich in valuable information on the agricultural and
social advances of Italy, tells us that it opened its hills and plains
to the triumphal entrance of Dionysus between 130 and 120 B.C., about
the time that Rome entered into possession of the kingdom of Pergamus,
the largest and richest part of Asia Minor, left to it by bequest
of Attalus. Thenceforward, for a century and a half, the progress of
grape-growing continued without interruption; every generation poured
forth new capital to enlarge the inheritance of vineyards already
grown and to plant new ones. As the crop increased, the effort was
redoubled to widen the sale, to entice a greater number of people to
drink, to put the Italian wines by the side of the Greek.

At the distance of centuries, these vine-growing interests do not
appear even in history; but they actually were a most important factor
in the Roman policy, a force that helps us explain several main
facts in the history of Rome. For example, vineyards were one of the
foundations of the imperial authority in Italy. That political form
which was called with Augustus the principality, and from which was
evolved the monarchy, would not have been founded if in the last
century of the Republic all Italy had not been covered with vineyards
and olive orchards. The affirmation, put just so, may seem strange and
paradoxical, but the truth of it will be easy to prove.

The imperial authority was gradually consolidated, because, beginning
with Augustus, it succeeded in pacifying Italy after a century of
commotion and civil wars and of foreign invasions, to which the
secular institutions of the Republic had not known how to oppose
sufficient defence; so that, little by little, right or wrong, the
authority of the _Princeps_, as supreme magistrate, and the power of
the Julian-Claudian house, which the supreme magistrate had organised,
seemed to the Italian multitude the stable foundation of peace
and order. But why was Italy, beginning with the time of Caesar, so
desperately anxious for peace and order? It would be a mistake to see
in this anxiety only the natural desire of a nation, worn by anarchy,
for the conditions necessary to a common social existence. The
contrast of two episodes will show you that during the age of Caesar
annoyance at disorder and intolerance of it had for a special reason
increased in Italy. Toward the end of the third century B.C., Italy
had borne on its soil for about seventeen years the presence of
an army that went sacking and burning everywhere--the army of
Hannibal--without losing composure, awaiting with patience the hour
for torment to cease. A century and a half later, a Thracian slave,
escaping from the chain-gang with some companions, overran the
country,--and Italy was frightened, implored help, stretched out its
arms to Rome more despairingly than it had ever done in all the years
of Hannibal.

What made Italy so fearful? Because in the time of Hannibal it had
chiefly cultivated cereals and pastured cattle, while in the days of
Spartacus a considerable part of its fortune was invested in vineyards
and olive groves. In pastoral and grain regions the invasion of an
army does relatively little damage; for the cattle can be driven in
advance of the invader, and if grain fields are burned, the harvest of
a year is lost but the capital is not destroyed. If, instead, an army
cuts and burns olive orchards and vineyards, which are many years in
growing, it destroys an immense accumulated capital. Spartacus was
not a new Hannibal, he was something much more dangerous; he was a new
species of _Phylloxera_ or of _Mosca olearia_ in the form of brigand
bands that destroyed vines and olives, the accumulated capital of
centuries. Whence, the emperor became gradually a tutelary deity of
the vine and the olive, the fortune of Italy. It was he who stopped
the barbarians still restless and turbulent on the frontiers of Italy,
hardly over the borders; it was he who kept peace within the country
between social orders and political parties; it was he who looked
after the maintenance and guarding of the great highways of the
peninsula, periodically clearing them of robbers and the evil-disposed
that infested them; and the land-owners, who held their vineyards
and olive groves more at heart than they did the great republican
traditions, placed the image of the Emperor among those of their
Lares, and venerated him as they had earlier revered the Senate.

Still more curious is the influence that this development of Italian
viticulture exercised on the political life of Rome; for example,
in the barbarous provinces of Europe, wine was an instrument
of Romanisation, the effectiveness of which has been too much
disregarded. In Gaul, in Spain, in Helvetia, in the Danube provinces,
Rome taught many things: law, war, construction of roads and cities,
the Latin language and literature, the literature and art of
Greece; more, it also taught to drink wine. Whoever has read the
_Commentaries_ of Caesar will recall that, on several occasions, he
describes certain more barbarous peoples of Gaul as prohibiting the
importation of wine because they feared they would unnerve and
corrupt themselves by habitual drunkenness. Strabo tells us of a great
Gaeto-Thracian empire that a Gaetic warrior, Borebiste by name, founded
in the time of Augustus beyond the Danube, opposite Roman possessions;
while this chieftain sought to take from Greek and Latin civilisation
many useful things, he severely prohibited the importation of wine.
This fact and others similar, which might be cited, show that these
primitive folk, exactly like the Romans of more ancient times, feared
the beverage which so easily intoxicates, exactly as in China all wise
people have always feared opium as a national scourge, and so many in
France would to-day prohibit the manufacture of absinthe.

This hesitation and fear disappeared among the Gauls, after their
country was annexed to the Empire; disappeared or was weakened among
all the other peoples of the Danube and Rhine regions, and even in
Germany, when they fell under Roman dominion; even also while they
preserved independence, as little by little the Roman influence
intensified in strength. By example, with the merchants, in
literature, Rome poured out everywhere the ruddy and perfumed drink
of Dionysos, and drove to the wilds and the villages, remote and poor,
the national mead--the beverage of fermented barley akin to modern

The Italian proprietors who were enlarging their vineyards--especially
those of the valley of the Po, where already at the time of Strabo the
grape-crop was very abundant--soon learned that beyond the Alps lived
numerous customers. Under Augustus, Arles was already a large market
for wines, both Greek and Italian; during the same period, there
passed through Aquileia and Leibach considerable trade in Italian wine
with the Danube regions. In the Roman castles along the Rhine, among
the multitudes of Italians who followed the armies, there was not
wanting the wine-dealer who sought with his liquor to infuse into the
torpid blood of the barbarian a ray of southern warmth. Everywhere
the Roman influence conquered national traditions; wine reigned on the
tables of the rich as the lordly beverage, and the more the Gauls, the
Pannonians, the Dalmatians, drank, the more money Italian proprietors
made from their vineyards.

I have said that Rome diffused at once its wine and its literature:
it also diffused its wine through its literature, a fact upon which
I should like to dwell a moment, since it is odd and interesting
for diverse reasons. We always make a mistake in judging the great
literary works of the past. Two or three centuries after they were
written, they serve only to bring a certain delight to the mind;
consequently, we take for granted they were written only to bring us
this delight. On the contrary, almost all literary works, even the
greatest, had at first quite another office; they served to spread
or to counteract among the author's contemporaries certain ideas and
sentiments that the interests of certain directing forces favoured or
opposed; indeed very often the authors were admired and remunerated
far more for these services rendered to their contemporaries than for
the lofty beauty of the literary works themselves.

This is the case with the odes of Horace. To understand all that they
meant to say to contemporaries, one must imagine Roman society as it
was then, hardly out of a century of conquests and revolutions, in
disorder, unbalanced, and still crude, notwithstanding the luxuries
and refinements superficially imitated from the Orient; a society
eager to enjoy, yet still ill educated to exercise upon itself that
discipline of good taste, without which civilisation and its pleasures
aggravate more than restrain the innate brutality of men. During the
first period of peace, arrived after so great disturbance, that
poetry so perfect in form, which analysed and described all the
most exquisite delights of sense and soul, infused a new spirit of
refinement into habits, and co-operated with laborious education
in teaching even the stern conquerors of the world to enjoy all the
pleasures of civilisation, alike literature and love, the luxury of
the city and the restfulness of the villa, fraternal friendship and
good cookery. It taught, too--this master poetry of the senses--to
enjoy wine, to use the drink of Dionysos not to slake the thirst, but
to colour, with an intoxication now soft, now strong, the most diverse
emotions: the sadness of memories, the tendernesses of friendship, the
transports of love, the warmth of the quiet house, when without the
furious storm and the bitter cold stiffen the universe of nature.

In the poetry of Horace, therefore, wine appears as a proteiform god,
which penetrates not only the tissues of the body but also the inmost
recesses of the mind and aids it in its every contingency, sad or
gay. Wine consoles in ill fortune (i., 7), suffuses the senses with
universal oblivion, frees from anxiety and the weariness of care,
fills the empty hours, and warms away the chill of winter (i., 9). But
the wine that has the power to infuse gentle forgetfulness into the
veins, has also the contrasting power of rousing lyric fervour in the
spirit, the fervour heroic, divining, mystic (iii., 2). Finally, wine
is also a source of power and heroism, as well as of joy and sensuous
delight; a principle of civilisation and of progress (ii., 14).

I wish I could repeat to you all the Dionysic verse of this old poet
from Venosa, whose subjects and motives, even though expressed in the
choicest forms, may seem common and conventional in our time and to
us, among whom for centuries the custom of drinking wine daily with
meals has been a general habit. But these poems had a very different
significance when they were written, in that society in which many did
not dare drink wine commonly, considering it as a medicine, or as a
beverage injurious to the health, or as a luxury dangerous to morals
and the purse; in that time when entire nations, like Gaul, hesitated
between the invitations of the ruddy vine-crowned Bacchus, come with
his legions victorious, and the desperate supplications of Cervisia,
the national mead, pale and fleeing to the forests. In those times and
among those men, Horace with his dithyrambics affected not only the
spirit but the will, uniting the subtle suggestion of his verses to
all the other incentives and solicitations that on every side were
persuading men to drink. He corroded the ancient Italian traditions,
which opposed with such repugnance and so many fears the efforts of
the vintners and the vineyard labourers to sell wine at a high price;
in this way he rendered service to Italian viticulture.

The books of Horace, while he was still living, became what we might
call school text-books; that is, they were read by young students,
which must have increased their influence on the mind. Imagine that
to-day a great European poet should describe and extol in magnificent
verses the sensuous delight of smoking opium; should deify, in a
mythology rich in imagery, the inebriating virtues of this product.
Imagine that the verses of this poet were read in the schools: you
may then by comparison picture to yourself the action of the poems of

The political and military triumph of Rome in the Mediterranean world
signified therefore the world triumph of wine. So true is this, that
in Europe and America to-day the sons of Rome drink wine as their
national daily beverage. The Anglo-Saxons and Germans drink it in
the same way as the Romans of the second century B.C., on formal
occasions, or as a medicine. When you see at an European or American
table the gold or the ruby of the fair liquor gleaming in the glasses,
remember that this is another inheritance from the Roman Empire and
an ultimate effect of the victories of Rome; that probably we should
drink different beverages if Caesar had been overcome at Alesia or
if Mithridates had been able decisively to reconquer Asia Minor from
Rome. It astonishes you to see between politics and enology, between
the great historical events and the lot of a humble plant, so close a

I can show you another aspect of this phenomenon, even stranger and
more philosophical. I have already said that at the beginning of the
first century before Christ, although Italy had already planted many
vineyards and gathered generous crops, Italian wines were still little
sought after, while the contrary was true of the Greek. Pliny writes:

The wines of Italy were for long despised.... Foreign wines
had great vogue for some time even after the consulate of
Opimius [121 B.C.], and up to the times of our grandfathers,
although then Falernian was already discovered.

In the second half of the last century of the Republic and the first
half of the first century B.C., this condition of things changed;
Italian wines rose to great fame and demand, and took from the Greek
the pre-eminence they so long had held. Finally, this pre-eminence
formed one of the spoils of world conquest, and that not one of the
meagrest. Pliny, writing in the second half of the first century, says
(bk. 14, ch. 11):

Among the eighty most celebrated qualities of wine made in all
the world, Italy makes about two thirds; therefore in this it
outdoes other peoples.

The first wines that came into note seem to have been those of
southern Italy, especially Falernian, and Julius Caesar seems to have
done much to make it known. Pliny tells us (bk. 14, ch. 15) that, in
the great popular banquet offered to celebrate his triumph after his
return from Egypt, he gave to every group of banqueters a cask of
Chian and an _amphora_ of Falernian, and that in his third consulate
he distributed four kinds of wine to the populace, Lesbian, Chian,
Falernian, and Mamertine; two Greek qualities and two Italian. It is
evident that he wished officially to recognise national wines as equal
to the foreign, in favour of Italian vintners; so that Julius Caesar,
that universal man, has a place not only in the history of the great
Italian conquests, but also in that of Italian viticulture.

The wines of the valley of the Po were not long in making place for
themselves after those of southern Italy. We know that Augustus drank
only Rhetian wine; that is, of the Valtellina, one of the valleys
famous also to-day for several delicious wines; we know that Livia
drank Istrian wine.

I have said that Italy exported much wine to Gaul, to the Danube
regions, and to Germany; to this may be added another remark,
both curious and interesting. _The Periplus of the Erytrian Sea_,
attributed to Arrianus, a kind of practical manual of geography,
compiled in the second century A.D., tells us that in that century
Italian wine was exported as far as India; so far had its fame spread!
There is no doubt that the wealth in the first and second century
A.D., which flowed for every section of Italy, came in part from the
nourishing vineyards planted upon its hills and plains; and that
the Italians, who had gone to the Orient for reasons political and
financial, had fallen upon yet greater fortune in contrabanding
Bacchus from the superb vineyards of the AEgean islands, and
transporting him to the hills of Italy; a new seat whereon the
capricious god of the vine rested for two centuries, until he took
again to wandering, and crossed the Alps.

We may at this juncture ask ourselves if this enologic pre-eminence of
Italy was the result only of a greater skill in cultivating the vine
and pressing the grapes. I think not. It does not seem that Italy
invented new methods of wine-making; it appears, instead, that it
restricted itself to imitating what the Greeks had originated. On the
other hand, it is certain, at least in northern and central Italy,
that, although the vine grows, it does so less spontaneously and
prosperously than in the AEgean islands, Greece, and Asia Minor,
because the former regions are relatively too cold.

The great fame of the Italian wines had another cause, a political:
the world power and prestige of Rome. This psychological phenomenon
is found in every age, among all peoples, and is one of the most
important and essential in all history. What is beautiful and what is
ugly? What is good and what is bad? What is true and what is false?
In every period men must so distinguish between things, must adopt
or repudiate certain ideas, practise or abandon certain habits, buy
certain objects and refuse others; but one should not believe that
all peoples make these discernments spontaneously, according to their
natural inclination. It always happens that some nations succeed, by
war, or money, or culture, in persuading the lesser peoples about them
that they are superior; and strong in this admiration, they impose
upon their susceptible neighbours, by a kind of continuous suggestion,
their own ideas as the truest, their own customs as the noblest, their
own arts as the most perfect.

For this reason chiefly, wars have often distant and complicated
repercussions on the habits, the ideas, the commerce of nations. War,
to which so many philosophers would attribute a divine spirit, so
many others a diabolic, appears to the historian as above all a
means--allow me the phrase, a bit frivolous, but graphic--of noisy
_reclame_, advertisement for a people; because, although a more
civilised people may be conquered by one more barbarous, less
cultured, less moral; although, also, the superiority in war may
be relative, and men are not on the earth merely to give each other
blows, but to work, to study, to know, to enjoy; yet the majority
of men are easily convinced that he who has won in a war is in
everything, or at least in many things, superior to him who has lost.
So it happened, for example, after the late Franco-Prussian War, that
not only the armies organised or reorganised after 1870 imitated even
the German uniform, as they had earlier copied the French, but in
politics, science, industry, even in art, everything German was more
generously admired. Even the consumption of beer heavily increased
in the wine countries, and under the protection of the Treaty of
Frankfurt, the god Gambrinus has made some audacious sallies into the
territories sacred to Dionysos.

The same thing occurred in regard to wine in the ancient world. Athens
and Alexander the Great had given to Greek wine the widest reputation,
all the peoples of the Mediterranean world being persuaded that that
was the best of all. Then the centre of power shifted to the west,
toward the city built on the banks of the Tiber, and little by little
as the power of Rome grew, the reputation of its wine increased, while
that of Greece declined; until, finally, with world empire, Italy
conquered pre-eminence in the wine market, and held it with the
Empire; for while Italy was lord, Italian wine seemed most excellent
and was paid for accordingly.

This propensity of minor or subject peoples to imitate those dominant
or more famous, is the greatest prize that rewards the pre-eminent
for the fatigue necessary to conquer that place of honour; it is the
reason why cultured and civilised nations ought naturally to seek
to preserve a certain political, economic, and military supremacy,
without which their intellectual superiority would weaken or at least
lose a part of its value. The human multitude in the vast world are
not yet so intelligent and refined as to prize that which is beautiful
and grand for its own sake; and they are readily induced to admire as
excellent what is but mediocre, if behind it there is a force to be
feared or to impose it. Indeed, we may observe in the modern world a
phenomenon analogous to that in historic Italy. What, in succeeding
centuries, have been the changes in the enologic superiority conquered
by Rome?

Naturally I cannot recount the whole story, although it would be
interesting; but will only observe that contemporary civilisation
confirms the law by which predominance in the Latin world and the
pre-eminence of wine are indissolubly bound together in history.

Paris is the modern Rome, the metropolis of the Latin world. France
continues, as far as can be done in modern times, the ancient sway of
Rome, irradiating round so much of the globe, by commerce, literature,
art, science, industry, dominance of political ideas, the influence
of the Latin world, making tributaries to Latin culture of barbarous
peoples, and nations too young for leadership or grown too old; and
France has inherited the pre-eminence in wines, although it lies at
the farthest confines of the vine-bearing zone, beyond which the tree
of Bacchus refuses to live. Do you realise that in all the wide belt
of earth where vineyards flourish, only the dry hills of Champagne
ripen the delicious effervescent wine that refigures in modern

Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest