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- Imperial Purple - 6/15 -
were priests there, aqueducts, baths, theatres and games, all the marvel of imperial elegance and vice. When the aborigine wandered that way, his seduction was swift.
The enemy that submitted became a subject, not a slave. Rome commanded only the free. If his goods were taxed, his goods remained his own, his personal liberty untrammelled. His land had become part of a new province, it is true, but provided he did not interest himself in such matters as peace and war, not only was he free to manage his own affairs, but that land, were it at the uttermost end of the earth, might, in recompense of his fidelity, come to be regarded as within the Italian territory; as such, sacred, inviolate, free from taxes, and he a citizen of Rome, senator even, emperor!
Conquest once solidified, the rest was easy. Tattered furs were replaced by the tunic and uncouth idioms by the niceties of Latin speech. In some cases, where the speech had been beaten in with the hilt of the sword, the accent was apt to be rough, but a generation, two at most, and there were sweethearts and swains quoting Horace in the moonlight, naively unaware that only the verse of the Greeks could pleasure the Roman ear.
The principalities and kingdoms that of their own wish [a wish often suggested, and not always amicably either] became allies of Rome and mingled their freedom with hers, entered into an alliance whereby in return for Rome's patronage and protection they agreed to have a proper regard for the dignity of the Roman people and to have no other friends or enemies than those that were Rome's--a formula exquisite in the civility with which it exacted the renunciation of every inherent right. A king wrote to the senate: "I have obeyed your deputy as I would have obeyed a god." "And you have done wisely," the senate answered, a reply which, in its terseness, tells all.
Diplomacy and the plow, such were Rome's methods. As for herself she fought, she did not till. Italy, devastated by the civil wars, was uncultivated, cut up into vast unproductive estates. From one end to the other there was barely a trace of agriculture, not a sign of traffic. You met soldiers, cooks, petty tradesmen, gladiators, philosophers, patricians, market gardeners, lazzaroni and millionaires; the merchant and the farmer, never. Rome's resources were in distant commercial centres, in taxes and tribute; her wealth had come of pillage and exaction. Save her strength, she had nothing of her own. Her religion, literature, art, philosophy, luxury and corruption, everything had come from abroad. In Greece were her artists; in Africa, Gaul and Spain, her agriculturists; in Asia her artisans. Her own breasts were sterile. When she gave birth it was to a litter of monsters, sometimes to a genius, by accident to a poet. She consumed, she did not produce. It was because of that she fell.
"Save a monster, what can you expect from Agrippina and myself?"
It was Domitius, Nero's father, who made this ingenious remark. He was not a good man; he was not even good-looking, merely vicious and rich. But his viciousness was benign beside that of Agrippina, who poisoned him when Nero's birth ensured the heritage of his wealth.
In all its galleries history has no other portrait such as hers. Caligula's sister, his mistress as well, exiled by him and threatened with death, her eyes dazzled and her nerves unstrung by the impossibilities of that fabulous reign, it was not until Claud, her uncle, recalled her and Messalina disappeared, that the empress awoke. She too, she determined, would rule, and the jus osculi aiding, she married out of hand that imbecile uncle of hers, on whose knee she had played as a child.
The day of the wedding a young patrician, expelled from the senate, killed himself. Agrippina had accused him of something not nice, not because he was guilty, nor yet because the possibility of the thing shocked her, but because he was betrothed to Octavia, Claud's daughter, who, Agrippina determined, should be Nero's wife. Presently Caligula's widow, an old rival of her own, a lady who had thought she would like to be empress twice, and whom Claud had eyed grotesquely, was disencumbered of three million worth of emeralds, with which she heightened her beauty, and told very civilly that it was time to die. So, too, disappeared a Calpurina, a Lepida; women young, rich, handsome, impure, and as such dangerous to Agrippina's peace of mind. The legality of her crimes was so absolute that the mere ownership of an enviable object was a cause for death. A senator had a villa which pleased her; he was invited to die. Another had a pair of those odorous murrhine vases, which Pompey had found in Armenia, and which on their first appearance set Rome wild; he, too, was invited to die.
But, though Agrippina dealt in death, she dealt in seductions too. Rome, that had adored Caligula, promptly fell under his sister's sway. There was a splendor in her eyes, which so many crimes had lit; in her carriage there was such majesty, the pomp with which she surrounded herself was so magnificent, that Rome, enthralled, applauded. Beyond, on the Rhine, a city which is today Cologne, rose in honor of her sovereignty. To her wishes the senate was subservient, to her indiscretions blind. Claud, who meanwhile had been wholly sightless, suddenly showed signs of discernment. A woman, charged with illicit commerce, was brought to his tribunal. He condemned her, of course. "In my case," he explained, "matrimony has not been successful, but the fate that destined me to marry impure women destined me also to punish them." It was then that Agrippina ordered of Locusta that famous stew of poison and mushrooms, which Nero, in allusion to Claud's apotheosis, called the food of the gods. The fate that destined Claud to marry Agrippina destined her to kill him.
It was under her care, between a barber and a ballerine, amid the shamelessness of his stepfather's palace, where any day he could have seen his mother beckon indolently to a centurion and pointing to some lover who had ceased to please, make the gesture which signified Death, that the young Enobarbus--Nero, as he subsequently called himself--was trained for the throne.
He had entered the world like a tiger cub, feet first; a circumstance which is said to have disturbed his mother, and well it might. During his adolescence that lady made herself feared. He was but seventeen when the pretorians called upon him to rule the world; and at the time an ingenuous lad, one who blushed like Lalage, very readily, particularly at the title of Father of the Country, which the senate was anxious to give him; endowed with excellent instincts, which he had got no one knew whence; a trifle petit maitre, perhaps, perfuming the soles of his feet, and careful about the arrangement of his yellow curls, but withal generous, modest, sympathetic--in short, a flower in a cesspool, a youth not over well-fitted to reign. But his mother was there; as he developed so did his fear of her, to such proportions even that he gave certain orders, and his mother was killed. That duel between mother and son, terrible in its intensity and unnameable horror, even the Borgias could not surpass. Tacitus has told it, dramatically, as was his wont, but he told it in Latin, in which tongue it had best remain.
At that time the ingenuous lad had disappeared. The cub was full- grown. Besides, he had tasted blood. Octavia, who with her brother, Britannicus, and her sister, Antonia, had been his playmates; who was almost his own sister; whose earliest memories interlinked with his, and who had become his wife, had been put to death; not that she had failed to please, but because a lady, Sabina Poppoea, who, Tacitus says, lacked nothing except virtue, had declined to be his mistress. At the time Sabina was married. But divorce was easy. Sabina got one at the bar; Nero with the axe. The twain were then united. Nero seems to have loved her greatly, a fact, as Suetonius puts it, which did not prevent him from kicking her to death. Already he had poisoned Britannicus, and with Octavia decapitated and Agrippina gone, of the imperial house there remained but Antonia and himself. The latter he invited to marry him; she declined. He invited her to die. He was then alone, the last of his race. Monsters never engender. A thinker who passed that way thought him right to have killed his mother; her crime was in giving him birth.
Therewith he was popular; more so even than Caligula, who was a poet, and as such apart from the crowd, while Nero was frankly canaille--well-meaning at that--which Caligula never was. During the early years of his reign he could not do good enough. The gladiators were not permitted to die; he would have no shedding of blood; the smell of it was distasteful. He would listen to no denunciations; when a decree of death was brought to him to sign, he regretted that he knew how to write. Rome had never seen a gentler prince, nor yet one more splendidly lavish. The people had not only the necessities of life, but the luxuries, the superfluities, too. For days and days in the Forum there was an incessant shower of tickets that were exchangeable, not for bread or trivial sums, but for gems, pictures, slaves, fortunes, ships, villas and estates. The creator of that shower was bound to be adored.
It was that, no doubt, which awoke him. A city like Rome, one that had over a million inhabitants, could make a terrific noise, and when that noise was applause, the recipient found it heady. Nero got drunk on popularity, and heredity aiding where the prince had been emerged the cad, a poseur that bored, a beast that disgusted, a caricature of the impossible in a crimson frame.
"What an artist the world is to lose!" he exclaimed as he died; and artist he was, but in the Roman sense; one that enveloped in the same contempt the musician, acrobat and actor. It was the artist that played the flute while gladiators died and lovers embraced; it was the artist that entertained the vulgar.
As an artist Nero might have been a card. Fancy the attraction--an emperor before the footlights; but fancy the boredom also. The joy at the announcement of his first appearance was so great that thanks were offered to the gods; and the verses he was to sing, graven in gold, were dedicated to the Capitoline Jove. The joy was brief. The exits of the theatre were closed. It was treason to attempt to leave. People pretended to be dead in order to be carried out, and well they might. The star was a fat man with a husky tenorino voice, who sang drunk and half-naked to a protecting claque of ten thousand hands.
But it was in the circus that Nero was at his best; there, no
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