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At the period with which we are now engaged, the vast majority of the people of Rome were giving their attention to one all-absorbing occupation--that of amusing themselves. The wealthy had little else to do; the chief industries of the poor contributed to this end. Never in the history of the world has a nation been so completely given over to pleasure. Production was almost entirely limited to such occupations as had for their object the extravagant supply of the luxuries of art and entertainment; common necessaries, such as wheat, were extorted from the provinces. Agriculture had become almost unknown in Italy. The rich men no longer, like the great republican patricians, prided themselves on their skill in tilling the soil; it better suited their tastes, and was more lucrative, to farm taxes. "We have abandoned the care of our ground to the lowest of our slaves," said Columelia, "and they treat it like barbarians. We have schools of rhetoricians, geometers, and musicians. I have even seen where they teach the lowest trades, such as the art of cooking, or of dressing the hair; but nowhere have I found for agriculture a teacher or a pupil.
_We have had the good queen, now we encounter the bad..... Tullia was of that type of which Shakespeare has given a picture in Lady Macbeth..... Lucius, her husband, with an armed band, repaired to the Senate and seated himself on the throne. King Servius appeared, but no one thought it worth while to hinder Lucius from throwing the aged ruler down the steps of the Senate house; which me manfully did.
Tullia was the instigator of this_ coup d'état; _and impatient to learn its success, drove to the Forum, and, calling her husband from the Senate chamber, was the first to hail him as king. But Lucius commanded her to return home; and the tradition runs that as she was going thither her chariot wheels passed over the dead body of her royal father._]
Of the domestic life of the common people of Rome we have only the most meagre information. We know that they inhabited huge tenements, in which small apartments were rented at excessive rates. Housekeeping in these tenements must have been conducted on a very simple scale, as one of the comic writers pictures a poor family moving to other quarters and carrying all their effects in their hands at one journey. Yet the men who issued thence wore the toga of the Roman citizen, tattered though it might be and having no other significance than the mere fact that its wearers were not slaves. For these men there was little occupation except wandering about the city in search of amusement and the opportunity to make a little gain by any means that came to hand. Of course, there were trades and commerce, the workshop and the store; but slavery made it impossible for a large proportion of the impecunious citizens of Rome to make an honorable living by means of their own labor. There was a larger army of the unemployed than our modern cities can show. Yet the Roman government, laying tribute as it did upon the whole civilized world, could keep the citizens of Rome from starving. For the women, beyond their simple domestic duties, the field of honest industry was yet more limited. They were employed as professional mourners to sing songs of lamentation at funerals; they could work at some few mechanical trades, such as cloth weaving; they could keep a shop. Occasionally, there was a woman of exceptional talent who made large profits by means of decorative art; among the wall pictures of Pompeii there is one which represents a female artist engaged in painting upon canvas a figure of Bacchus from a statue which serves her for a model. We read of Iaia, who, though a Greek, lived in Rome and of whom Pliny says that she was very successful in painting portraits, and especially in engraving female figures upon ivory. One matron found a unique occupation; she made large sums yearly by fattening and selling thrushes for the tables of epicures. But the majority of women who were able to make a living did so by virtue of their personal attractions and by ministering to the voluptuousness of the wealthy, as harp players, dancers, and in other avocations still more questionable.
During the reign of Nero, there were no wars of any great moment. The old Roman passion for territorial expansion was in abeyance. The government was concentrated in the person of a man whose ambitions were histrionic rather than military. Nero was part actor, part clown, wholly debased; what could be expected from the associates of such a man, or from the people who tolerated him? If it be true that every nation has the government of which it is deserving, then the officers and people of the Roman Empire in Nero's time must be accounted as subordinates and supernumeraries in a fatuous burlesque which frequently deepened into mad tragedy. The way to the emperor's favor was not through victorious conflicts with the enemies of the State, but by means of the lavishment of fulsome applause of his own imbecile performances in the theatre and the circus. Nero never entered Rome in military triumph, as had his predecessors, followed by wagons filled with plunder and a train of captives who had been formidable to the State; he was content to win crowns from a debased people who hypocritically admired his voice and his acting, and to triumphantly enter Rome as conqueror in the Grecian games. "He made his entry into the city riding in the same chariot in which Augustus had triumphed. For the occasion he wore a purple tunic and a cloak embroidered with golden stars, having on his head the crown won at Olympia, and in his right hand that which was given him at the Parthian games; the rest were carried in a procession before him, with inscriptions denoting the places where they had been won, from whom, and in what plays or performances. A train followed him with loud acclamations, crying out that they were the emperor's attendants, and the soldiers of his triumph. He suspended the sacred crowns in his chambers, about his beds, and caused statues of himself to be erected, in the attire of a harper, and had his likeness stamped upon coins, in the same dress. He offered his friendship or avowed open enmity to many, according as they were lavish or sparing in giving him their applause." Thus the Roman historian describes the order of that day, and from this we may judge of the environment of the principal women of Rome in those times.
Virtue and womanly dignity were inconsiderable qualities in the days of Nero. The ladies of the court could only attain and hold their positions by means of their personal attractions and by taking part in excesses from which every vestige of virtue was eradicated. Prostitution had now become fashionable. It is possible to give Messalina the benefit of a doubt as to whether or not she were a mere freak of nature. Agrippina was monstrously ambitious and as merciless as a tigress whose young are threatened; but she adopted the only means which her times afforded. In Poppæa, however, we see the typical woman of decadent Rome--of ordinary intellect, intensely voluptuous, and devoid of natural affection.
Poppæa was the daughter of that beautiful but wanton lady of the same name whom Messalina had forced to seek death by her own hand. In this instance, heredity claimed its vindication; to the daughter descended the loveliness of person and also the lax principles which characterized the mother. "This woman," says Tacitus, "possessed everything but an honest mind. Her wealth was equal to the dignity of her birth; she had a fascinating conversation, and was not deficient in wit. She observed an outward decorum, but in her heart was wanton; she rarely appeared in public, and when she did she wore a veil, either because she did not want to glut people's eyes with her beauty, or because she thought a veil became her." It is said of her that she employed all the recipes at that time known--and they were very numerous--to prevent the inroads which age will make. She covered her face with a mask when out of doors, in order to shield it from the sun; and when at last her mirror informed her that the charms of that face were beginning to wane, she cried: "Let me die rather than lose my beauty!"--a wish by no means unnatural, for in the game which she so desperately played her beauty was her only stake. Nero married her solely for her loveliness of person. The conjugal fidelity which stands the test of changing years was not then common; and the law did not enforce it upon the unwilling. Juvenal doubtless truly pictures the contretemps which women like Poppsea had to fear:
"Sertorius what I say disproves,
For though his Bibula is poor, he loves. True! but examine him; and on my life, You'll find he loves the beauty, not the wife. Let but a wrinkle on her forehead rise, And time obscure the lustre of her eyes; Let but the moisture leave her flaccid skin, And her teeth blacken, and her cheeks grow thin; And you shall hear the insulting freedman say: 'Pack up your trumpery, madam, and away! Nay, bustle, bustle; here you give offence, With snivelling night and day;--take your nose hence!'"
We have no very trustworthy representation of Poppæa's appearance. There are in existence medals showing her reputed portrait, especially a Greek coin with the head of Nero on one side and that of his wife on the other; but as the former is certainly not a good likeness, it is Reasonable to suppose that the other is no better. Her face, as it is here portrayed, is of the ideal Greek type--straight brows, and nose almost in a line with the forehead. There is also a bust in existence, which, according to archaeological students, may be held to represent either the mythical Clytie or the famous wife of Nero. Her hair is said to have been remarkably beautiful. It was very abundant and of a golden amber color. Nero composed verses upon it.
There were serious obstacles between Poppæa and the imperial throne which she speedily manifested an ambition to share--obstacles which, in more virtuous days, or among women possessing the slightest degree of modesty, would have been absolutely insurmountable; but with the rulers of Rome in those times nothing was impossible except self-control for the sake of honor. Nero was married to Octavia, the daughter of Messalina and Claudius. Poppæa was also married. She had been divorced from Rufus Crispinus, a Roman knight, to whom she had borne a son, and was now joined in matrimony to Otho, the profligate confidant of the young emperor. There are indications that Otho was fond of his unprincipled wife. She was the choicest treasure in his magnificently furnished house. He boasted of her beauty to Nero, and excited the young ruler's pride as well as his passion by telling him that though he were the emperor he could not vie with his subject in the possession of such an example of female loveliness. He even permitted Nero to visit his wife, but, in his self-esteem, did not count upon the result. Otho maintained Poppæa in inordinate splendor; but he was not the emperor. He could give her incalculable riches; but he could not make her the mistress of the world. Poppæa saw her opportunity. She lavished upon Nero all the powers of her coquetry; she intimated that she was smitten with regard for him; she allowed him to flatter himself that he had won her. But she would hear of nothing but marriage. Nero was at her feet; but, having so far attained her end, she would listen to no protestations until he removed all hindrances to their union. She would be empress or nothing. With her beauty for a bait, she led Nero on to the committal of the most heinous crimes. Agrippina was murdered because Poppæa taunted Nero with being under the care of a governess. "Why did he delay to marry her?" Tacitus represents her as asking. "Had he objections to her person or her ancestry? Or was he dissatisfied because she had given proof of her fertility? Did he doubt the sincerity of her affection? No; the truth must be that he was afraid that if she were his wife she would expose the insolence and the rapaciousness of his mother. But if Agrippina would bear no daughter-in-law who was not virulently opposed to her son, she desired to be sent to Otho. She was ready to withdraw to any quarter of the earth, rather than behold the emperor's degradation." Otho, in order that he might be out of the way, had been appointed Governor of Lusitania.
It was some time after the death of Agrippina before Octavia was removed, first by repudiation and then by death. We shall have occasion to notice the character of this estimable woman in a later chapter. In the meantime, the emperor did not have to wait wholly unrewarded by the favors of Poppæa. He was entirely under her influence; but the memory of the remorse which had seized him after the murder of his mother restrained him, for a while, from adding to that crime another of equal atrocity. Again, however, Poppæa cunningly worked upon his fears, insinuating that unless he reinstated Octavia, whom he hated, as empress, the people would give her another husband, whom they would make emperor. This sealed Octavia's doom; shortly afterward, her head was brought to Rome and laid at the feet of her infamous successor, Poppaea was at last the empress in name as well as in fact; and when she presented Nero with a daughter, he made a mockery of the title by naming ner, as well as the child, Augusta. But the little one soon died, and the Senate was obliged to console the father by decreeing that his infant daughter had become a goddess.
All the historians agree that subsequent to his connection with Poppæa, Nero deteriorated in his character, or at least in his conduct. The influence of the woman seemed to bring out and encourage the worst that was in him. For Poppæa, however, there was compensation; her principal gain, in her own estimation, may perhaps be best typified by the palace which Nero built. She cared little for political power; imperial magnificence was the attraction that enticed her. Surely never did woman have her wish in this respect so completely gratified as did the wife of Nero! He built himself a house, having first destroyed many another in order to furnish a site. The author of Rome of To-day and Yesterday says: "It was upon the palace for the emperor that Severus and Celer, the first architects ever mentioned by name in Roman history, lavished all the resources of his boundless wealth and their skill. It seems so extravagant to say that the Golden House extended over an area of nearly a square mile in the very midst of the city, that if there had not been left, from point to point, remains of it over a considerable part of this area, the statement of the old writers to that effect would not have seemed worthy of belief." By the Golden House is, of course, not meant one continuous building; but there was an enclosure by means of three colonnades, each a mile in length, and an entrance portico somewhat narrower on the side opposite the Forum. Within this enclosure were great courts resembling parks, fountains, and fishponds, besides the residence buildings and baths. "In parts," says Suetonius, "this house was entirely overlaid with gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl. The supper rooms were vaulted, and compartments of the ceilings, inlaid with ivory, were made to revolve and scatter flowers; moreover, they were provided with pipes which shed essences on the guests. The chief banqueting room was circular, and revolved perpetually, night and day, in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies. The baths were supplied from the sea and from Albula. Upon the dedication of this magnificent house, when finished, all Nero said in approval of it was: 'Well, now at last I am housed as a man should be!'"
Amidst this magnificent splendor, Poppæa lived. We will endeavor to recount her manner of living as closely as we may, in order that we may know what was the ideal existence in the estimation of the majority of the women of her time.
The chief concern of Poppæa, as of all the women of that period whom age or nature had not unkindly relieved of this responsibility, was the preservation of her beauty. The Roman authors have mercilessly laid bare the methods and mysteries to which their ladies resorted for this purpose. No pains or discomforts were avoided in order to retain the freshness of complexion which was apt, in the dissipated life of the palace, quickly to disappear. Poppæa is reputed to have invented many cosmetics and face washes, and especially a mask which was worn at night, which was composed of dough mixed with ass's milk; while for the purpose of removing wrinkles another mask, composed of rice, was worn, Juvenal mocks at the appearance of the ladies with their faces thus encased, "ridiculous and swollen with the great poultice." He suggests that what is fomented so often, anointed with so many ointments, and receives so many poultices, ought to be considered a sore rather than a face. It was held to be of great importance that these applications should be washed off with ass's milk, and the old writers assert that Poppæa kept large herds of these animals in order that she might bathe in their warm milk every day. The Roman ladies were by no means averse to assisting nature in augmenting their charms; they used white and red paints with artistic effect. These were ordinarily moistened with saliva, possibly on account of the Roman superstition in regard to the efficacy of lustration. The brows and eyelashes were frequently dyed; and so careful were the women to render nature all the assistance possible, that even the delicate veins of the temples were heightened in their effect by a faint touch of blue. The teeth had always received most careful attention. There were many pastes and powders known to the Roman beauty. Artificial teeth made of ivory had been in use from very ancient times, for in the laws of the Twelve Tables there was one which prohibited the deposition of gold in the graves of the dead, excepting the material used for the fastening of false teeth. "You have your hair curled, Galla," says Juvenal, "at a hair dresser's in Suburra Street, and your eyebrows are brought to you every morning. At night, you remove your teeth as you do your dress. Your charms are enclosed in a hundred different pots, and your face does not go to bed with you." Many instances are recorded of the costliness of the attire of these Roman ladies. They wore silk which was sold at its weight in gold. There was a kind of muslin so transparent that it was known as "woven air." Tunics were ornamented with figures embroidered in gold thread, and encrusted with pearls and precious stones. Pliny relates that he saw Lollia Paulina wearing a dress which was covered with emeralds and pearls from her head to her feet. She carried with her the receipts to show that upon her person she wore a value of forty million sesterces; and this was not her best dress, for the occasion was only a second-class betrothal feast. At an entertainment given by Claudius on Lake Fucinus, Agrippina wore a garment which was woven entirely of gold thread.
The women of Poppæa's day seem to have been fully acquainted with the benefits to be derived from physical exercise. Agrippina, as we have seen, could swim with no less expertness than Cloelia of ancient renown. Indeed, Juvenal pictures the women breaking the ice and plunging into the river in the depth of winter, and diving beneath the eddies of the Tiber at early dawn. This, however, was for religious and propitiatory reasons. The same satirist refers with evident disapproval to women exercising with heavy dumb-bells in the same fashion as did the men when preparing for the bath. It is apparent that in this age women deemed it to be in keeping with their rights to share, as closely as nature would permit, in the pursuits and the privileges of the men; just as there were men who, beyond the boundary set by nature, usurped the position which belonged to women.
We have spoken of the bath; and it being so large a feature in Roman city life and so good an illustration--though the most innocent--of the luxury of the times, it will not be amiss to afford a little space to its description.
The Golden House and many of the palaces of the wealthy contained baths which, while not on so large a plan as the public thermæ, were doubtless even more luxuriously appointed. We will take, however, the public baths for our example. In the period of the early Republic, the Romans, though scrupulously cleanly as the warmth of their country required, contented themselves with washing in the Tiber. Every ninth day was deemed sufficient for a complete immersion. As the arts of civilization advanced, tubs were placed in the houses, and a daily bath before the evening meal became customary. The first aqueduct for the conveyance of water into the city was built by Appius Claudius about B.C. 310. Seven or eight others were afterward constructed, notably that of Agrippa; so that no city was ever better supplied with water than was ancient Rome. This made possible the public baths, which early made their appearance and which must have been such a boon to the people. At first these baths were solely for lavatory purposes, and were neither so magnificent nor so much a social feature as they afterward became. Seneca relates that at first the ædiles superintended not only the decorum of the bathers, but also the temperature of the baths. Under Augustus, these public conveniences began to be characterized with that magnificence of structure in which all the emperors delighted. A great many of these buildings were erected in various parts of the city; as many as eight hundred have been enumerated. Some of these were marvellous, not only for their dimensions, but also for the costliness of the material and the artistic decorations. The baths of Caracalla were adorned with two hundred columns of the finest marble and furnished with sixteen hundred seats of marble, and it is said that eighteen thousand persons might conveniently bathe there at one time. Yet these were excelled both in size and magnificence by the Thermæ Dioclesianæ. The gift of these establishments was one of the means by which the emperors kept themselves in favor with the people. For a trifling sum, a citizen of any degree could repair to this scene of magnificence and luxury, where there were crowds of slaves to minister to his comfort in a style which might arouse the envy of the proudest Oriental monarch. Besides the various kinds of hot and cold baths, swimming tanks, etc., there were stately porticoes for games and exercise, there were gymnasiums, magnificent galleries for the exhibition of specimens of painting and sculpture, and frequently there were libraries where the studious might rest and read after the refreshing luxury of the baths. The bathrooms proper were duplicated in each establishment, one part being open for the use of the men, the other set apart for the women. There is a hint, however, that, during the reign of some of the worst of the emperors, this propriety was not always strictly adhered to. Unless the Latin writers wilfully calumniate their own times, it was not a thing unknown for both men and women, in the private baths of palatial residences, to be waited on by slaves of the opposite sex.
Whether or not Poppæa condescended to make use of the public baths, it is impossible to ascertain. It is certain, however, that the emperors frequently joined the multitude in their sports and lavations. At two o'clock each day, the opening of the baths was announced by the ringing of a bell. Everybody repaired thither; it was the common rendezvous for gossip, recreation, and amusement. Authors frequently read at the baths their new productions to those of the crowds who cared to listen. Much of the afternoon was spent in this manner. Before taking the bath, exercise was indulged in, a favorite form of which was ball playing. Then one entered the caldarium, in which hot air was diffused by means of pipes leading from a furnace in the basement; then came the tepidarium, always followed by a plunge in cold water. While bathing, the skin was rubbed or scraped with a silver instrument called a strigula. The Romans concluded the toilet by rubbing the body with odoriferous ointments, and, thus refreshed and anointed, proceeded to the banquet.
In the early days of the Republic, meals were prepared with care, but there was no sumptuousness, no art. The first signs of Asiatic luxury made themselves noted on the table; delicacy and profusion were carried to excess, resulting in extravagance and gluttony. The cook, who had anciently been the lowest of the slaves, came to be the most important officer in the establishments of the rich; that which at first was only a low and necessary employment came to be a difficult and a highly esteemed art. The price of a cook, says Pliny, was rated at as much as would have formerly sufficed for the expense of a triumph, and a fish was bought at the price anciently paid for a cook.
To make provision for banquets seems to have been more the province of the master of a Roman house than it was that of the mistress. There is a great contrast between the position of a Roman matron and that of a modern lady in this respect; the responsibility for the entertainment of guests did not so peculiarly rest upon the former as it does upon the latter. We frequently read of banquets given by men in the account of which no mention whatever is made of the wife, and these were ordinary occasions when there can be no doubt as to her presence. The guests were usually invited solely in the master's name. In Petronius's account of Trimalchio's Feast, he represents one guest asking another who is the woman that so often scuttles up and down the room. He is told that she is Fortunata, Trimalchio's wife, that she counts her money by the bushel, but that she has an eye everywhere, and when you least think to meet her she is at your elbow. Her propensity for petty management seems to have been stronger than her love for the entertainment; for another visitor coming in later asks "why Fortunata sits not among us?" The host replies: "Till she has gotten her plate together and has distributed what we leave among the servants, not a sup of anything goes down her throat." But that this was unusual is shown by the inquirer threatening to leave unless the mistress sat down with them.
We have elsewhere described the Roman dining hall, or triclinium. Doubtless the Golden House had many of these splendid salons. Lucullus, who was famous for the enormous expense at which he lived, called each of his numerous dining halls by the name of some divinity, and every hall had a set rate of expense at which an entertainment in it was given; so that when he ordered his household steward to prepare a banquet in a certain salon, the servant knew exactly what to provide and at how great a cost his master wished to entertain. It is told that Cicero and Pompey once met Lucullus in the Forum and invited themselves to supper with him. They declared that they wished to share the meal of which he himself would partake if he were without company, and they would not allow him to give any directions to the servants, only permitting him to order his steward to prepare the table in the Triclinium Apollo. The man knew exactly what to do, and the supper was a great surprise to the guests, for a banquet in that hall was never served at an expense of less than fifty thousand drachmas [nearly nine thousand dollars].
In order that we may obtain as complete a picture as possible of the Roman woman's life, we must attend in imagination one of those banquets which she attended in reality.
On entering the dining hall, we notice that around the table,--or tables, for there will be many if the company is a large one,--in place of chairs, are couches with an abundance of soft pillows. These couches are placed on three sides of the table; for it was the custom of the Romans to recline at their meals. When this custom was first introduced from Asia, the women did not think that it comported with their modesty to adopt this new style, and until the end of the Republic they retained the old habit of sitting at table, while the men lay on the couches; but at the time of Poppæa women had entirely relinquished this relic of their former scrupulousness of demeanor and were accustomed to follow the habit for which the lassitude resulting from the bath prepared them and which these prolonged feasts made necessary for comfort.
Having taken our places at the table, our attention is first drawn to the fact that all the slaves, as they move about the room on their various errands, are singing in a low voice. This is the custom of the house; at the banquet everything must be done to the sound of music. All the guests receive a crown or a wreath of flowers, which is worn upon the head during the feast. Roses are to be seen everywhere in great profusion. We are first served with some dishes which are designed to excite rather than appease the appetite; these consist of dormice covered with honey and pepper, hot sausages, and a large pannier filled with both white and black olives. On the dishes in which these viands are served we notice not only the host's name, but also the number of ounces of silver of which the utensils are composed. An ostentatious display of excellence was always sought after by the Romans.
A banquet must always begin with eggs; so, having picked a little of the afore-mentioned dainties to sharpen our hunger, the repast really commences. A table is brought in, on which we see a large hen, carved in wood, sitting as on a nest. The slaves search in the straw and bring forth the eggs, which are handed around. The host, after examining these simple articles of diet, says that he commanded to have them placed under a hen for a short time, but he is afraid that they are half hatched. Just as we are inclined to put ours aside, we discover that what appears to be the shell is nothing but paste, and, breaking it open, find inside a delicately cooked little bird of the wheatear species. We must be prepared for such culinary surprises. Then the music strikes up, and the slaves clear the table, dancing instead of walking. If a slave drops a valuable dish, she will not be scolded so much for the loss as she will be if she stops to pick up the fragments, as though the loss were of consequence. Wine is now brought in. It is contained in sealed glass vessels, each with a label setting forth the age of the vintage. Wine is plentiful; it is even passed to us in place of water in which to wash our hands.
Now the viands are brought on in bewildering variety; and the marvellous conceits of the cook baffle description. Here is an immense silver charger, around which are carved the signs of the zodiac; and upon each sign there is something suited to it, either in reality or its image in pastry: a lobster, a goose, two pilchards, etc. There is a splendid fish, and upon the sides of the dish are four little images which spout a delicious sauce.
There must also be somewhat to amuse us; for this banquet is to be of long continuance, and there is a limit to one's eating. A lengthy interval occurs, during which a company of actors, women as well as men, take their places in the lower part of the hall, which is left clear for the purpose, and there enact a farce which ridicules the follies of the times and causes us much laughter. Other women perform upon the harp; some exhibit their marvellous acrobatic skill; and one girl, clothed only in a diaphanous, silky robe which reveals more of her person than it hides, performs a dance which is as remarkable for its grace as for its immodesty. We may be glad that we are not treated to a gladiatorial combat, as has sometimes been the case in this same house.
After these entertainments have been concluded, an enormous dish is set before us, and in it a great boar. On his tusks hang two baskets, one filled with dates, the other with almonds. About him are little pigs made of sweetmeats. They are presents which we are to carry away with us; for it is always the custom for the men at a banquet to carry some part of it home to those women of their families who have not been present. To our great astonishment, when the servant makes a hole in the side of this boar, as though to carve it, there fly out a number of blackbirds, which continue to flutter about the room until they are again captured.
While we are beguiling our time with wine and conversing with the ladies present, a large and entire hog is brought upon the table. Whereupon our host, having examined the animal closely, expresses it as his belief that it has not been disembowelled by the cook. That officer being sent for, he confesses that in his haste that part of the preparation had truly been forgotten. He is ordered to be flogged, and the executioners prepare to carry out the command upon the spot in the presence of us all; but mercy is implored for him by the women, and his master contents himself by ordering him to finish his work there upon the table. At this, the cook takes a knife and cuts open the hog's belly, and there immediately tumble out a heap of delicious sausages of various kinds and sizes. This done, all the slaves cheer their master, and a present of silver is made to the cook.
While we are discussing this and the various other interesting episodes of the feast, we are startled by the ceiling giving a great crack, and, as we gaze up in considerable alarm, the main beam opens in the middle. A large aperture appears, from which descends a great disk and upon it are hung many beautiful presents for the guests, also fruits of various kinds which when touched throw out a delicious liquid perfume.
Thus, eating and conversing and viewing these wonders and the various performances of the entertainers, the feast begun in the early evening has endured until the night has grown late. Wine has been flowing without stint, and its effect is to be seen among the company. The ladies present have indulged with almost as great freedom as the men. Tongues have become loosened and stories are told and allusions made which might bring the blush to some cheeks, were they not already flushed with wine. The feast is likely to end in a revel. Men take the wreaths of flowers from the heads of the women and dip them in the wine, which they then drink as a mark of gallantry. There is no longer need for the actors and female entertainers; the male guests play the buffoon, and matrons, throwing aside their robes, dance, though possibly with less grace, certainly with no more modesty than did the professional women who had been hired for that purpose. Pranks are played upon those who have fallen into an intoxicated stupor. Some are roaring bacchic songs, some are loudly arguing concerning politics, giving vent to opinions for which they may have to give an account to the emperor on another day; some are brawling, while others are conversing with the women in such unrestrained fashion as leaves no room for wonder at the numerous matrimonial readjustments which are characteristic of these times.
These are some of the features of such banquets as those to which the women of Poppæa's time were accustomed. We have drawn our description principally from Petronius's inimitable account. Though in Trimalchio's Feast there was, so far as it appears, no other woman besides his wife, yet we know from other sources that the presence of women at such entertainments was common. There is no evidence to the effect that they were in the habit of leaving the triclinium before the unrestrained indulgence in wine had made their presence there entirely inconsistent with any ideas of strict propriety; indeed, if the poets are to be credited, it often happened that love making of an ardent nature was carried on in the confusion which marked the termination of these feasts.
Poppæa had married an imperial actor. Even at so late a period as the days of Julius Cæsar, a citizen lost his civic rights by appearing on the stage; but now the whole Roman Empire bent in fulsome adulation before a crazy ruler who strained a wretched voice to sing Canace in Labor. The Forum had become silent; the temples were frequented, but with little faith or sincerity on the part of the worshippers. The public life of Rome centred in the theatre and the circus. "After the market place has been designed," says Vitruvius, "a very healthy spot must be chosen for the theatre, where the people can witness the dramas on the feast days of the immortal gods." In the days of Nero, the Roman people did not wait for a religious motive in order that they might indulge in shows which were certainly morally unhealthy, however salubrious may have been the site of the theatre. The most popular and best remunerated public servants were actors and actresses, dancing women and female musicians. Mommsen, commenting on the condition of theatrical art at an earlier time than that of Nero, says: "There was hardly any more lucrative trade in Rome than that of the actor and the dancing girl of the first rank. The princely estate of the tragic actor Æsopus amounted to two hundred thousand pounds sterling; his still more celebrated contemporary Roscius estimated his annual income at six thousand pounds, and Dionysia the dancer estimated hers at two thousand pounds." Later he adds, as indicating what was popular at the time: "It was nothing unusual for the Roman dancing girls to throw off at the finale the upper robe and to give a dance in undress for the benefit of the public."
There is in existence an epitaph of a girl named Licinia Eucharis, who is reputed to have been the first female to appear on the public Greek stage in Rome. She died at the age of fourteen; but, notwithstanding her tender years, she was "well instructed and taught in all arts by the Muses themselves."
The theatrical displays of the Romans had always been characterized by vulgarity and coarseness. The ancient Atellan farces were as full of obscenity as were the fescennine songs of broad allusions. This being so, even in the days when the Roman people deified chastity, it naturally follows that unbounded license must have prevailed in the degenerate days of the Empire. The surfeited taste of the licentious populace was gratified by hordes of women as well as men, who strove to give new piquancy to their exhibitions by the shamelessness of their performances.
There is some evidence, however, to show that now and again there was an actress who endeavored to "elevate the stage." Horace reports that when Arbuscula was hissed by the people, though doubtless she was giving a good performance, she had the courage to retort: "It is enough for me that the knight Mæcenas applauds"; but such a spirit was unusual, and the Roman theatre continued to deteriorate. As is always the case in such matters, the demand created the supply; but the supply also renewed and strengthened the taste from which sprung the demand. Watching some gladiators who had been condemned to mortal combat, a Roman argued with Seneca that they were criminals and deserved their fate. "Yes," answered the philosopher; "but what have you done that you should be condemned to witness such an exhibition?"
The moralist's stricture on their amusements was not concurred in by the great mass of his female compatriots. Patrician and plebeian, rich and poor, the women of Rome craved the realistic scenes of the theatre and the terrible excitements of the circus with as much avidity as did the men. Augustus had ordered that women should not be present at the exhibitions of wrestlers, and that they should only be allowed to witness gladiatorial combats from the upper and remote part of the theatre; but in the days of Nero, the sex was placed under no such restrictions. Augustus also severely punished an actor who allowed a married woman, dressed as a boy, to wait upon him at table; but afterward it became common for patrician ladies to be the paramours of gladiators and pantomimists, with no fear of punishment save the immortal lashings of the poetic satirists. These lashings, it is evident, had no deterrent effect; despite the sarcasms of Juvenal, the Ælias and Hispullas continued to be enamored of tragic actors. Hippia, though the wife of a Senator, accompanies a gladiator to Alexandria. She dines among the seamen, walks the deck in a rolling sea, and delights to take a hand at the ropes. What was the attribute that captivated her? Sergius was not handsome; "but then, he was a swordsman. The sword made its wielder as beautiful as Hyacinthus. It was this she preferred to her children, her native land, and her husband. It is the steel of which women are enamored. This same Sergius, if he were discharged from the arena, would be no better than her husband in her eyes."
In the times of the most dissolute emperors, the people of Rome lived chiefly to attend the theatre and the circus; after bread, all they asked for was shows. There were theatres in Rome capable of seating eighty thousand persons. We may imagine such a concourse waiting while Nero dines in their presence in the imperial box, and allays their impatience by shouting: "One more sup, and then I will present you with something that will make your ears tingle." But it is likely that the Roman ladies of noble birth were wont to hear the announcement of Nero's performances with little anticipatory pleasure. They dared not absent themselves, for there were spies who would report to the emperor their failure to attend; and, being present, they were compelled to submit to the infliction of the whole of the wretched exhibition; for on such occasions the doors were absolutely closed against all egress. So thoroughly was this rule carried out that there are reports of infants having been born in the theatre while Nero was displaying his skill as an actor. More than that, it was never known when or under what circumstances the lightning of his malicious displeasure would fall upon some unlucky head. Once, when he was playing and singing in the theatre, he observed a married lady dressed in the shade of purple which he had prohibited. He pointed her out to his officers, and she was not only stripped of her raiment, but her property was also practically confiscated by means of fines.
Yet doubtless the fact that they were afforded the strange privilege of witnessing the acting of an emperor did serve to arouse the interest of the blasé Roman populace. Legitimate histrionic art had become for them tiresome, as it always does where luxury and pampered idleness tend to blunt the artistic conscience. Nothing less than libidinous vaudeville, in which matrons of noble birth were by bribes or threats induced to take part, could create the least sensation. Realistic performances were more popular still. The actors in these were found in the dungeons, therefore they were not costly and required little training. A much truer idea of agony is obtained by watching a man really suffer than by seeing it mimicked by an actor; and if the piece to be staged includes a death, why not provide the audience with the opportunity of seeing a criminal die in the manner designated? These were the scenes to which the women of Rome grew accustomed, with the result that, for the evil-disposed, bloodshed was no more than a pastime, while for the better-natured it at least enabled them to look upon their own death with diminished terror. But the favorite exhibition with the Roman populace was the sanguinary gladiatorial encounter. Ten thousand men were constantly kept and trained, that the people might witness their combats to the death with each other or with ferocious animals. These combats were to be seen in greater perfection at a later day than that of Poppæa, in the Colosseum--the most stupendous show place ever erected by man, and in which was exemplified the most enormous wickedness that has disgraced the name of humanity. In the central space was "the sand," the arena, often red and soaked like a battlefield with human blood. Around this was a gilded fence to prevent the animals or the more desperate men from rushing with deadly hate upon the unfeeling audience. Behind that stood the marble podium, on which were placed the imperial seats and those of the nobility. Then came, tier above tier, the seats of the commoner people, who ofttimes made the vast edifice resound with their roar--more dreadful than that of the forest king: "To the lions!" In the front seats and behind them sat women, beautiful of face but hardened in disposition, who, when a man was mortally wounded, cried: "hoc habet [he has it!]" with an excitement as unsympathetic as that which delighted their male companions; and who, when an unfortunate combatant lowered his arms in token of defeat, were as likely to point their thumbs downward, in sign that the unfortunate man was forthwith to be despatched, as to raise them in token of mercy.
So long as Petronius, the man of taste, was the "arbiter" of Nero's amusements, the people of Rome were not called upon to witness the most outrageous examples of imperial depravity. Yet it must be confessed that, if the women described in the Satyrikon are to be accepted as being typical of the majority of the Roman ladies, their morals could not suffer much by the influence even of a Nero. Tigellinus incited the emperor to greater lengths of profligacy than he otherwise would have reached. Tacitus describes the feast given by Tigellinus, for which "he built, in the lake of Agrippa, a raft which supported the banquet, which was moved to and fro by other vessels drawing it after them. He had procured fowl and venison from remote regions, and fish from far-off seas. Upon the margin of the lake were erected brothels, filled with ladies of distinction, and over against them other women whose profession was apparent by the scantiness of their attire. As soon as darkness came on, the surrounding dwellings echoed with the music, and in the groves brilliant lights revealed everything that was obscene and improper."
During the reign of the dissolute emperors, the virtue of women was but little respected. Nero denied that any person was sincerely chaste. If a woman of any social prominence in those days desired to retain her honor, her beauty was her greatest misfortune. No ties or obligations, not even the sanctity of the Vestals, were respected by the lustful tyrants. If a man rejoiced in a beautiful and modest wife, she might any day be requested to appear at the palace; and the husband, if he would preserve his life, was compelled to bear the dishonor in silence. Occasionally, however, there was a woman who showed more spirit; Mallonia publicly upbraided Tiberius for his wickedness, and then went home and killed herself. But the condition of morals was such that there were a great many wives and husbands who did not regard such tyranny with any special degree of horror. Piso, who was put to death for his conspiracy against Nero, had robbed his friend Domitius Silius of his wife, who was, the historian informs us, a depraved woman and void of every recommendation but personal beauty; but "both concurred, her husband by his passiveness, she by her wantonness, to blazon the infamy of Piso."
Among these characters there was but little of that chaste love which glorifies the marriage bond. Poppæa could have had no regard for the despicable Nero; her sole concern was that she might be empress, and maintain herself in that exalted position. The emperor prized nothing in his wife except her incomparable beauty; and he placed her beside himself on the throne only because it was necessary that Cæsar should have legitimate heirs.
As to the character of Poppæa, Josephus credits her with being very religious, and Tacitus says that she was much given to consulting with soothsayers and eastern charlatans. Yet it may have been that, notwithstanding her wild profligacy and shameless ambition, Poppæa felt the vacuity of the glittering show by which she was surrounded, and that at times a restless conscience compelled her to grope among the tangled mysteries of the spiritual life. At the same time, it has been suspected--and the suspicion is not totally without warrant--that the Roman Jews, in their bitter animosity against the Christians, were aided by the empress in instigating that persecution which rendered the reign of Nero so superlatively infamous.
It was rare for an imperial consort to come to other than a violent end; and Poppæa was no exception to the rule. Her death was the act, though unpremeditated, of her husband. One day, she found fault with him for returning later than she desired from a chariot drive. Angered by her upbraidings and brutal by nature, he kicked her, and, being in a condition of pregnancy at the time, she shortly afterward died of the blow. It is said that her body was not consumed by fire, as was the custom of the Romans, but embalmed in Jewish fashion and placed in the tomb of the Julian family. She was, however, given a splendid funeral; and there is no stronger witness to the terrible moral apathy which characterized the times than the fact that her murderous husband delivered on the occasion a laudatory oration. From the rostrum, he magnified "her beauty and her lot, in having been the mother of an infant enrolled among the gods." There being nothing else in her character to extol, he treated her gifts of fortune as having been so many virtues. It is impossible to doubt that the ancient historian is correct when he asserts that though the people were obliged to put on an appearance of mourning, they could but rejoice at the death of this woman, when they remembered her lewdness and her cruelty; and although, as Pliny tells us, all Arabia did not produce in a whole year as many spices as were consumed at the funeral of Poppæa, there was no incense, material or eulogistic, by which it was possible to overcome the evil odor of her life.
The reign of Nero was typical of other ages that were to follow. The Roman people were to drink still deeper of the dregs of servility, and they were to become yet more morally apathetic, before they would awaken to better things. Poppæa was simply a woman of her time, and she was followed by generations of women, both of high and low degree, who were like-minded with herself. Imperial prostitutes and plebeian courtesans run riot through all the long drawn out decadence of the Roman Empire; but, although a veritable picture of the Roman woman could not be given without the inclusion of such types as those delineated in this and the preceding chapter, we will at least spare ourselves and the reader further recital of vice and crime by confining the exemplification to this one period. We have not refrained from including the worst features and employing the darkest colors that history warrants, in order that, to use the expression of Tacitus, we may not have to repeat instances of similar extravagance.
Although Nero was a monster of iniquity, he was not denied the disinterested love of women. That strange, strong passion which holds woman's heart to the most unworthy objects and feeds itself with idealizations made the name of Nero dear to some when it was execrated by all the world besides. And when at last he was driven from the throne, and, uttering the words: "I yet live, to my shame and disgrace," drove the suicidal dagger through his throat, there were women who tenderly cared for that body which sycophantic courtiers extolled while it lived and neglected when it was dead and powerless. His nurses Ecloge and Alexandra, who had cared for him when he was an innocent boy, and that Acte who had been his first love and who had never entirely lost her influence over him, laid his ashes in the tomb of his fathers, and grieved over a death which gave to the world at large great cause for rejoicing.
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