Agrippina: Nero

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE

We do know, however, that after the death of Germanicus there was formed at Rome, in the imperial family and the senate, a party of Agrippina, which began an implacable war upon Tiberius, and that Tiberius, the so-called tyrant, was at the beginning very weak, undecided, and vacillating in his resistance to this new opposition.

His opponents did not spare his person; they did their best to spread the belief that the emperor was a poisoner, and persecuted him relentlessly with this calumny; they were already pushing forward Nero, the first-born son of Germanicus, though in 21 A.D. he was only fourteen years old, in order that he might in time be made the rival of Tiberius.  The latter, indeed, tried at first to moderate the charges of high treason, his supreme defense; he feigned that he did not know or did not see many things, and instead of resisting, he began to make long sojourns away from Rome, thus turning over the capital, in which the praetorian guard remained, to the calumnies of his enemies.  Of all these enemies the most terrible was Agrippina, who, passionate, vehement, without judgment, abused in good faith both the relationship which protected her and the pity which her misfortune had aroused.  She allowed no occasion for taunting Tiberius with his pretended crime to escape her, using to this end not only words, but scenes and actions, which impressed the public even more strongly than open accusations could have done.  A supper to which Tiberius had invited her became famous at Rome, for at it she refused obstinately and ostentatiously to touch any food or drink whatever, to the astonishment of the guests, who understood perfectly what her gestures meant.  And such calumnies and such affronts Tiberius answered only with a weary and disdainful inertia; at most, when his patience was exhausted, some bitter and concise reproof would escape him.

I have no doubt that Tiberius had resolved at the beginning to avoid all harsh measures as far as possible; for unpopular, misunderstood, and detested as he was, he did not dare to use violence against a large part of the aristocracy and against his own house.  Furthermore, Agrippina was the least intelligent of the women of the family, and her senseless opposition could be tolerated as long as Livia and Antonia, the two really serious ladies of the family, sided with Tiberius.  But it is easy to understand that this situation could not long endure.  A power which defends itself weakly against the attacks of its enemies is destined to sink rapidly into a decline, and the party of Agrippina would therefore quickly have gained favor and power had there not arisen, to sustain the vacillating strength of Tiberius, a man whose name was to become sadly famous-Sejanus-the commander of the praetorian guard.

Sejanus belonged to an obscure family of knights-to what we should now call the “bourgeoisie”.  He was not a senator, and he held no great political position; for his charge as commander of the guard was a purely military office.  In ordinary times he would have remained a secondary personage, exclusively concerned with the exacting duties of his command; but the party of Agrippina with its intrigues, and the weakness and uncertainty of Tiberius, made of him, however, for a certain time, a formidable power.  It is not difficult to see whence this power arose.  The loyalty of the Praetorian Guard, upon which depended the security and the safety of the imperial authority, was one of the things which must seriously have preoccupied Tiberius, particularly in the face of the persistent and insidious intrigues and accusations of the party of Agrippina.  The guard lived at Rome, in continual contact with the senate and the imperial house.

Everything which was said in the senatorial circles or in the palaces of the emperor or of his relatives was quickly repeated among the cohorts, and the memory of Drusus and Germanicus was deeply venerated by the praetorians.  If the guard could have been persuaded that the emperor was a poisoner of his kindred, their loyalty would have been exposed to numberless intrigues and attempts at seduction.  In such a condition of affairs, a commander of the guard who could inspire Tiberius with a complete and absolute trust might easily acquire a great influence over him.  Sejanus knew how to inspire this trust.  This was partly by reason of his origin, for the equestrian order, on account of its ancient rivalry with the senatorial nobility, was more favorably inclined than the latter toward the imperial authority; and partly also on account of certain reforms which he had succeeded in introducing into the praetorian guard.

In any case, Sejanus was refused, and this refusal was a slight success for the party of Agrippina, which, a year later, in 26, attempted on its own account an analogous move.  Agrippina asked Tiberius for permission to remarry.  If we are to believe Tacitus, Agrippina made this request on her own initiative, impelled by one of those numerous and more or less reasonable caprices which were continually shooting through her head.  But are we to suppose that suddenly, after a long widowhood, Agrippina put forth so strange a proposal without any “arriere-pensee” whatever?  Furthermore, if this proposal had been merely the momentary caprice of a whimsical woman, would it have been so seriously debated in the imperial household, and would the daughter of Agrippina have recounted the episode in her memoirs?  It is more probable that this marriage, too, had a political aim.  By giving a husband to Agrippina, they were also seeking to give a leader to the anti-Tiberian party.  The sons of Germanicus were too young, and Agrippina was too violent and tactless, to be able alone to cope successfully with Sejanus, supported as he was by Tiberius, by Livia, and by Antonia.  We can thus explain why Tiberius opposed and prevented the marriage: Agrippina, unassisted, had caused him sufficient trouble; it would have been entirely superfluous for him to sanction her taking to herself an official counselor in the guise of a husband.

This time Sejanus triumphed over the ill success of his rivals, and the struggle continued in this manner between the two parties, but with an increasing advantage to Sejanus.  Beginning with the year 26, we see numerous indications that the party of Agrippina and Germanicus was no longer able to resist the blows and machinations of Sejanus, who detached from it, one after another, all the men of any importance.  He either won them over to himself through his favors and his promises, or he frightened them with his threats; and those who resisted most tenaciously, he destroyed with his suits.

Tiberius was the storm-center of these struggles, and contrary to what legend has reported, he attempted as far as he was able to prevent the two parties from going to extremes.  But what pain, repugnance, and fatigue it must have cost him to make the effort necessary for maintaining a last ray of reason and justice among so many evil passions, animosities, ambitions, and rivalries!  It must have cost him dearly, for he had grown up in the time when the dream of a great restoration of the aristocracy was luring the upper classes of Rome with its fairest and most luminous smile.  As a young man he had known and loved Vergil, Horace, and Livy, the two poets and the historian of this great dream; like all the elect spirits of those now distant years, he had seen behind this vision a great senate, a glorious and terrible army, an austere and revered republic like that which Livy had pictured with glowing colors in his immortal pages.

Instead of all this, he was now forced to take his place at the head of this decadent and wretched nobility, which seemed to be interested only in rending itself asunder with calumnies, denunciations, suits, and scandalous condemnations, and which repaid him for all that he had done and was still doing for its safety and the prosperity of the empire by directing against his name the most atrocious calumnies, the fiercest railleries, and every sort of ridiculous and infamous legend.  He had dreamed of victories over the enemies of Rome, and he had to resign himself to struggling day and night against the hysterical extravagance of Agrippina: he had to be content, even without the sure hope of success, if he could convince the majority that he was not a poisoner.

Authority without glory or respect, power divorced from the means sufficient for its exercise–such was the situation in which the successor of Augustus, the second emperor, after twelve years of a difficult and trying reign, found himself.  He no longer felt himself safe at Rome, where he feared rightly or wrongly that his life was being continually threatened, and it is not astonishing that, old, wearied, and disgusted, between the years 26 and 27 he should have retired definitely to Capri, seeking to hide his misanthropy, his weariness, and his disgust with men and things in the wonderful little isle which a delightful caprice of nature had set down in the lap of the divine Bay of Naples.

But instead of the peace he sought at Capri, Tiberius found the infamy of history.  How dark and terrible are the memories of him associated with the charming isle, which, violet-tinted, on beautiful sunny days emerges from an azure sea against an azure sky!  That fragment of paradise fallen upon the shore of one of the most beautiful seas in the world is said to have been for about ten years a hell of fierce cruelties and abominable vices.  Tiberius passed sentence upon himself, in the opinion of posterity, when he secluded himself in Capri.  Ought we, without a further word, to transcribe this sentence?  There are, to be sure, no decisive arguments to prove false the accounts about the horrors of Capri which the ancients, and especially Suetonius, have transmitted to us; there are some, however, which make us mistrust and withhold our judgment.  Above all, we have the right to ask ourselves how, from whom, and by access to what sources did Suetonius and the other ancients learn so many extraordinary details.  It must be remembered that all the great figures in the history of Rome who had many enemies, like Sylla, Caesar, Antony, and Augustus himself, were accused of having scandalous habits.  Precisely because the puritan tradition was strong at Rome, such an accusation did much harm, and for this reason, whether true or false, enemies were glad to repeat it whenever they wished to discredit a character.  Lastly, all the ancient writers, even the most hostile, tell us that up to a ripe age Tiberius preserved his exemplary habits.  Is it likely, then, that suddenly, when already old, he should have soiled himself with all the vices?  At all events, if there is any truth contained in these accounts, we can at most conclude that as an old man Tiberius became subject to some mental infirmity and that the man who took refuge at Capri was no longer entirely sane.

Certain it is, in any case, that after his retirement to Capri, Tiberius seriously neglected public affairs, and that Sejanus was finally looked upon at Rome as the “de facto” emperor.  The bulletins and reports which were sent from the empire and from Rome to the emperor passed through his hands, as well as the decisions which Tiberius sent back to the state.  At Rome, in all affairs of serious or slight importance, the senators turned to Sejanus, and about him, whom all fell into the habit of considering as the true emperor, a court and party were formed.  In fear of his great power, the senators and the old aristocracy suppressed the envy which the dizzy rise of this obscure knight had aroused.  Rome suffered without protest that a man of obscure birth should rule the empire in the place of a descendant of the great Claudian family, and the senators of the most illustrious houses grew accustomed to paying him court.  Worse still, virtually all of them aided him, either by openly favoring him or by allowing him a free hand, to complete the decisive destruction of the party and the family of Germanicus,-of that same Germanicus of whom all had been fond and whose memory the people still venerated.

After the retirement of Tiberius to Capri, all felt that Agrippina and her sons were inevitably doomed sooner or later to succumb in the duel with the powerful, ambitious, and implacable prefect of the praetorians who represented Tiberius at Rome.  Only a few generous idealists remained faithful to the conquered, who were now near their destruction; such supporters as might possibly ease the misery of ruin, but not ward it off or avoid it.  Among these last faithful and heroic friends was a certain Titius Sabinus, and the implacable Sejanus destroyed him with a suit of which Tacitus has given us an account, a horrible story of one of the most abominable judicial machinations which human perfidy can imagine.  Dissensions arose to aggravate the already serious danger in which Agrippina and her friends had been placed.  Nero, the first-born son, and Drusus, the second, became hostile at the very moment when they should have united against the ruthless adversary who wished to exterminate them all.  A last rock of refuge remained to protect the family of Germanicus.  It was Livia, the revered old lady who had been present at the birth of the fortunes of Augustus and the new imperial authority, and who had held in her arms that infant world which had been born in the midst of the convulsions of the civil wars, and a little later had watched it try its first steps on the pathway of history.  Livia did not much love Agrippina, whose hatred and intrigues against Tiberius she had always blamed; but she was too wise and too solicitous of the prestige of the family to allow Sejanus entirely to destroy the house of Germanicus.  As long as she lived, Agrippina and Nero could dwell safely in Rome.  But Livia was feeble, and in the beginning of 29, at the age of eighty-six, she died.

The catastrophe which had been carefully prepared by Sejanus was now consummated; a few months after the death of Livia, Agrippina and Nero were subjected to a suit, and, under an accusation of having conspired against Tiberius, were condemned to exile by the senate.

Shortly after his condemnation, Nero committed suicide. The account which Tacitus gives us of this trial is obscure, involved, and fragmentary, for the story is broken off at its most important point by an unfortunate lacuna in the manuscript.  The other historians add but little light with their brief phrases and passing allusions.

We do not therefore entirely understand either the contents of the charges, the reason for the condemnation, the stand taken by the accused, or the conduct of Tiberius with regard to the accusation.  It seems hardly probable that Agrippina and Nero could have been truly guilty of a real conspiracy against Tiberius.  Isolated as they had been by Sejanus after the retirement of Tiberius to Capri, they would scarcely have been able to set a conspiracy on foot, even if they had so desired.  They were paying the penalty for the long war of calumnies and slanders which they had waged upon Tiberius, for the aversion and the scorn which they had always shown for him.  In this course of conduct many senators had encouraged them as long as Tiberius alone had not dared to have recourse to violent and cruel measures in order to make himself respected by his family.  But such acts of disrespect became serious crimes for the unfortunate woman and her hapless son, even in the eyes of the senators who had encouraged them to commit them, now that Sejanus had reinvigorated the imperial authority with his energy, and now that all felt that behind Tiberius and in his name and place there was acting a man of decision who knew how to punish his enemies and to reward his friends.

The trial and condemnation of Agrippina and Nero were certainly the machinations of Sejanus, who carried along with him not only the senate and the friends of the imperial family, but perhaps even Tiberius himself.  They prove how much Sejanus had been able to strengthen imperial authority, which had been hesitating and feeble in the last decade.  Sejanus had dared to do what Tiberius had never succeeded in doing; he had destroyed that center of opposition which gathered about Agrippina in the house of Germanicus.  It is therefore scarcely necessary to say that the ruin of Agrippina still further increased the power of Sejanus.  All bowed trembling before the man who had dared humiliate the very family of the Julio-Claudii.  Honors were showered upon his head; he was made senator and pontifex; he received the proconsular power; there was talk of a marriage between him and the widow of Nero; and it was finally proposed that he be named consul for five years.

Indeed, in 31, through the will of Tiberius, he actually became the colleague of the emperor himself in the consulate.  He needed only the tribunician power to make him the official collaborator of the emperor and his designated successor.  Everyone at Rome, furthermore, considered him the future prince. But having arrived at this height, Sejanus’s head was turned, and he asked himself why he should exercise the rule and have all its burdens and dangers while he left to others the pomp, the honors, and the advantages.  Although Tiberius allowed the senate to heap honors upon his faithful prefect of the praetorians, and though he himself showed his gratitude to him in many ways, even going to the point of being willing to give him the widow of Nero in marriage, he never really expected to take him as his colleague or to designate him as his successor.  Tiberius was a Claudian, and that a knight without ancestry should be placed at the head of the Roman aristocracy was to him unthinkable; after the exile of Nero he had cast his eyes upon Caius, another son of Germanicus, as his possible successor.  Nor had he hidden his intention: he had even clearly expressed it in different speeches to the senate.

Therefore Sejanus must finally have come to the conclusion that if he continued to defend Tiberius and his interests, he could no longer hope for anything from him, and might even compromise the influence and the popularity which he had already acquired.  Tiberius was hated and detested, there was a numerous party opposed to him in the senate, and he was extremely unpopular among the masses.  Many admired Sejanus through spiteful hatred of Tiberius, for it amounted to saying that they preferred to be governed by an obscure knight rather than by an old and detested Claudian who had shut himself up in Capri.

And thus Sejanus seems to have deluded himself into believing that if he succeeded in doing away with the emperor, he could easily take his position by setting aside the young son of Germanicus and profiting by the popularity which the fall of Tiberius would bring him.  Little by little he came to an understanding with the enemies of Tiberius and prepared a conspiracy for the final overthrow of the odious government of the son of Livia.  Many senators had agreed to this, and certainly few conspiracies were ever organized under more favorable auspices.

Tiberius was old, disgusted with everything and everybody, and alone in Capri; he had virtually not a single friend in Rome; what happened in the world he knew only through what Sejanus told him.  He was therefore entirely in the hands of the man who was preparing to sacrifice him to the tenacious hatred of the people and the senatorial aristocracy.

Young, energetic, and the favorite of fortune, Sejanus had with him a formidable party in the senate, he was the commander of the praetorian guard,-that is, of the only military force stationed in Italy,-and he had terrified with his implacable persecutions all those whom he had failed to win over through his promises or his favors.  Could the duel between this misanthropic old man and this vigorous, energetic, ruthless climber end in any other way than with the defeat of the former?

REFERENCE:

TITLE: THE WOMEN OF THE CAESARS

BY: GUGLIELMO FERRERO

CONTRIBUTOR: Staff

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