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In the course of this study there have come within our view some of the noblest women of whom the history of the world can boast. We have seen women of exalted purity in high positions, stately, dignified matrons, women renowned for intellect and noble spirit, women who have bravely endured unmerited suffering; we have also noted the women of the common people, and the gay ladies who ministered to love and laughter. But our account will be incomplete, the picture will not be a true one, unless it also represents the worst that human nature has produced, women stained with some of the basest crimes recorded in the annals of human depravity. It is a story in which the sober truth can only be told in superlative terms. What Scipio feared and Cato endeavored to prevent came to pass; and at the time when Rome centred in herself all the power and glory of the world, she also reached the climax of the vice and degradation of all ages.
The moral conditions which characterized the period between the reigns of Tiberius and Nero are, in these days, impossible of adequate comprehension. It was a continuous Saturnalia, a perpetual reign of terror, a paroxysm of indecency. What renders the situation so amazing and so difficult to describe is its strange mixture of civilization and savagery, of art and anarchy. The atrocious cruelties which render the history of that time so terrible and the lust which makes it so revolting are not attributed to half-clad barbarians or ignorant Asiatics; they were participated in by men and women whose outward life was marked and distinguished by all the signs and appointments of culture. The Julias and the Poppæas of the age were women who lived in beautiful houses; they were surrounded by a magnificence of art such as never since has been witnessed; they were the students of a literature which the world has never ceased to admire. Nor was the extravagant wickedness of the time a revolt against law; on the contrary, everything was done in accordance with legal forms. Vistilia, the wife of a Roman knight, in order that she might be unrestrained in her lasciviousness, went before the ædiles and proclaimed herself a prostitute, the law considering that prostitutes were sufficiently punished by merely thus avowing their shame. Even when the innocent children of Sejanus were put to death for the misdeeds of their father, the little girl--who asked what she had done that was wrong and if they were going to whip her--must be outraged by the executioner before he strangled her; for it was unlawful to inflict capital punishment upon virgins. While such things were being perpetrated, the ladies of Rome were studying the Greek philosophers, reading their own Virgil, and improving their diction by an acquaintance with the elegant periods of Cicero. It was an age in which the arts of civilization were entirely divorced from the best impulses of humanity, an age when the highest mental attainments were joined with the lowest moral conditions. The depraved Messalina was contemporary with the philosophic Seneca; the conscienceless Agrippina the Younger was a student of letters and an author.
It is easy to perceive that the cruelty and lust which render the history of the first two centuries of the Christian era so lurid are simply the natural developments from preceding conditions. The proscriptions and massacres of Sylla and the two triumvirates could but produce a society which would witness bloodshed with apathy, if not with delight. The total disregard of the sacredness of matrimonial vows, when political purposes were to be served, necessarily resulted in a generation of women among whom chastity was a matter of indifference and honor a thing unknown. Given a society thus, by heritage and training, predisposed to inhumanity and licentiousness, and it only needed the presence of favorable conditions for the introduction upon the imperial stage of a company of women upon whose actions the world has ever since gazed with profound amazement. Such conditions were then present in Rome in such a degree as they have never been at any other time or among any other people. The age was propitious and the circumstances were ripe for a climax in human depravity. The spoil of the conquered world provided Rome with incalculable riches; the Empire was the prize of him who could win and hold it, and of her who could maintain her position by the side of the ruler; power and the absence of restraint gave free rein to impulses which the existent conditions necessarily rendered evil. This was the entourage of the women of Rome under the first emperors. The ladies of the nobility were trained and urged to cruelty and prostitution by the exigencies of their position; the women of the common class, for whom tributary bread and sanguinary spectacles were freely provided, were impelled in the same direction by example and idleness.
The acme of female turpitude was attained by Messalina, whose name has ever since served as a byword for unparalleled incontinence. Valeria Messalina was the great-granddaughter of Octavia, the sister of Augustus, both on her father's and her mother's side; thus in her veins united a twofold stream of the sacred Julian blood, which fact she never allowed herself to forget while insisting upon her demands, though it had no restraining effect upon her conduct. When only sixteen years of age, she became the third wife of the feeble, half-imbecile Claudius; one of her predecessors was Plautia Urgulanilla, the daughter of that proud Urgulania whose debts Livia Augusta had been compelled to pay. Plautia was divorced for "scandalous lewdness" and on the suspicion of murder, after she had given birth to two children, the youngest of whom Claudius exposed, being convinced that it had no just claims upon his paternal authority. But his honor as a husband was far less safe with Messalina than it had been with Plautia. That she should have any affection for the doddering, gormandizing old man--he was nearly fifty--was hardly to be expected. During the first three years after the marriage, her position was comparatively private, her husband having no expectation of attaining to the imperial throne.
During the reign of the demented Caligula, the women of the court present no figure of political importance, and are not interesting except as they illustrate the depravity of the times. This emperor was possessed with an exaggerated idea of the divinity that was inherent in the Augustan race. Therefore he deemed that, like the kings of Egypt, he should conserve that dignity by marrying his own sister. Suetonius will have us believe that all three of the sisters of Caligula were dishonored by their brother; but Drusilla was his favorite. She had been given to Cassius Longinus, but Caligula took her from him and kept her as though she were his lawful wife. He made a will appointing her heiress of his private estates and also of the Empire; and at her death he ordered for her a public mourning, and threatened capital punishment against any person who should laugh or bathe or seek any amusement during the period. It was also declared that she had been received among the heavenly deities; and as Panthea, the universal goddess, her worship was enjoined upon all the cities of Italy and the provinces.
The other sisters, Agrippina and Julia, became involved in a conspiracy with Marcus Æmillius Lepidus against the life of their brother; and when the plot was discovered, though the lives of these women were spared,--probably owing to Caligula's intense respect for the Julian blood,--their property was confiscated and they were both sent into exile. Agrippina, however, was first compelled to perform a most unpleasant office. The family of Lepidus begged that his ashes might rest in the family mausoleum at Rome, and the disordered mind of Caligula recalled a journey which his mother had made, bearing the ashes of Germanicus. So he forced Agrippina, who had schemed to marry Lepidus in the hope of gaining for him the succession, to carry the urn that contained his remains from Germany to Rome, and never once allowed her, night or day, to rest from bearing her burden.
Of the wives of Caligula, Suetonius says: "Whether in repudiating them or retaining them he acted with greater infamy, it is difficult to say." Being at the wedding of Caius Piso with Livia Orestilla, he ordered the bride to be carried to his own house; but within a few days divorced her, and two years after banished her, because, as was thought, upon her divorce she had returned to her former husband. Lollia Paulina, who was married to a man of consular rank in command of an army, having been mentioned to Caligula as much resembling her grandmother, who had been a famous beauty, the emperor suddenly called her from the province where she resided with her husband, and married her; but he soon repudiated her, interdicting her from ever afterward marrying another man. He loved with a most passionate and constant affection Cæsonia, who was neither handsome nor young, and who was the mother of three daughters by another man; but she was a woman of excessive wantonness. He would frequently exhibit her to the soldiers, riding by his side, dressed in a military cloak, with shield and helmet. To his friends he showed her in a guise far less elaborate and much more improper. After she had borne a child to him, she was honored with the title of wife. Caligula named the infant Julia Drusilla, and, carrying it around the temples of all the goddesses, he laid it on the lap of Minerva, from whom he begged the care of bringing up and instructing this daughter. He considered her as his own child, for no better reason than that her temper was so savage that even in infancy she would attack with her nails the faces and eyes of the children at play with her.
Cæsonia could hardly have enjoyed her position, especially on those occasions when her demoniacal husband would amuse himself with the idea of having it in his power to sever her neck at any time that it might please him so to do. She was killed at the time of his assassination; and, fortunately, her vicious offspring perished with her. The manner in which Cæsonia met her death seems to indicate that the woman not only possessed courage, but also that she cherished some sort of affection for her husband. The conspirators hesitated over the question as to whether she should share his fate; but it was only for a few minutes. It was believed by many that it was through her love philtres and licentious practices that his mind had become disordered and that therefore she was, in a sense, the author of his evil doings. It being determined that she should die, the men who went in search of her found Cæsonia embracing the body of Caligula as it lay upon the ground, and they heard her bewailing the fact that he had not been governed by her advice. Whether that advice had been to restrain himself in his madness, or to follow with vengeful measures a clue which she had given him in regard to the conspiracy, those who heard her could not decide. Their minds were predisposed to believe in the latter explanation. When she saw Lupus, the man who had her death in charge, approaching, she sat up, all besmeared as she was with her husband's blood, and, baring her throat, requested the assassin not to be awkward in finishing the tragedy. She received the death stroke cheerfully, and the little daughter, who was by her mother's side, perished by the same sword.
To his own intense astonishment, Claudius suddenly found himself proclaimed and accepted as Emperor of the Romans. There is no evidence to show that Messalina had anticipated this change of fortunes any more than had her husband. Finding herself, however, in the position of empress, she had no mind to do otherwise than maintain herself secure in its enjoyment. The times were such that this could be done only by means of merciless expedients. This fact should constantly be kept in mind as we study the women of imperial Rome. No individual can be governed by the ideas that are prevalent in the society in which he lives and, at the same time, dispense with the methods ordinarily employed by that society. The Romans of the period which we are now reviewing believed that the best, as well as the easiest, way in which to placate an enemy or to outwit a rival was to destroy him. Messalina had no desire to do better than her surroundings warranted; in fact, she represents the climax of immorality. There were two causes which led her freely to dispense destruction among her associates. First, there were plenty of women who would gladly have rivalled her in the affection of the amorous Claudius; and while she did not in the least reciprocate her husband's affection, its retention was necessary to the maintenance of her position. Again, her innumerable amours were constantly furnishing weapons against herself, and it was only by inspiring dread that she could restrain her enemies from making use of them to her own destruction.
In such a position as she found herself, and among such surroundings, it is not surprising that Messalina was bad. Raised, when only a mere girl, to a dizzy height; flattered and sought after by all the most dissolute of the imperial court; the wife of a doting husband who, as she quickly discovered, was absolutely under her influence; all this would have tested a woman in whose character good impulses were perceptibly present. So far as can be learned, Messalina possessed no such impulses; on the contrary, everything in her contributed to the strength of the evil influences of her environment. Her glaring immoralities, combined with the consummate art with which she contrived to befool her husband, have rendered this woman's history a monument of conjugal infidelity for all the ages.
We may be fairly certain as to Messalina's personal appearance, for there are a number of cameos and busts of her in existence, though, of course, some of these are ideal and others are not well executed. Baring Gould, who has made a careful study of the sculptured portraits of the Cæsarian family, regards it as certain that in the onyx cameo which is in the Cabinet of Antiques at Vienna and in the bust now preserved in the Uffizi Palace we have what may be considered correct representations of Messalina. Of the former, he says: "The hair is arranged in small curls covered with a species of crown wreathed with corn. This is the usual mark of the deification of an empress as Ceres. The brow is low, the nose straight and a little retrousse at the end, the mouth remarkable for the thinness of the lips; the chin is not prominent, and a peculiar feature is the slope from the chin to the throat, forming a marked contrast in formation to that of Livia opposite. The mouth turns down, but there is a slight contraction in the corner." Of the bust, he tells us: "The profile there has a remarkable likeness to the type-giving face on the cameo. The hair is in curls, but hangs down in plaits behind, the brow is low, the eyes full, and the mouth with its thin lips and cruel expression seems thoroughly to express the character of the woman as known to us by history. The head is flat. There is insolence in the mouth, and a curl in the corner, noticeable also in the gem. One eye is larger than the other. They are not in line. The nose has been restored, so that we cannot compare it with that on the cameo. The rest agrees perfectly, though the slope from the chin is not so perceptible in the bust owing to the difference in position of the head. The brows are straight, not arched. Not only are the eyes of different shapes, but the chin is on one side. The end of the chin is square, the mouth is small, the lips fuller on the left side than on the right, and the right corner drawn up. The expression of the face is different when seen from each side, owing to the singular lack of uniformity in the sides of the face. In the same gallery is a so-called young Britannicus, and the resemblance of this child, as far as the formation of the lower part of the head goes, to the Messalina above described is remarkable. Still more remarkable is that of the beautiful statue in the Lateran, where the resemblance is very close. The boy's lips are fuller, but the whole structure of the jaws and chin, and the curl of the lower lip, are the same as in the Messalina of Florence. If this be Britannicus, then the bust at Florence is that of his mother; and it is hard to say who else can be intended by this charming statue in military costume.
"A medical man of large experience, who at my request studied the bust of Messalina in the Florence gallery, informs me that it is that of a woman physically unsound; the flattening of the top of the head indicates an imperfect mental development, and the general aspect of the face, evidently a close study from life without any attempt at hiding blemishes and idealizing, is that of a woman whose span of life would naturally be short. There would probably be malformation of the chest. The face is that of one with feverish blood, whose flame of life burnt too fast. The face is not in itself sensual, nor at all animal, but it is insolent and cruel. The low, flat brow as well as the low, flat head show that she was deficient in all the higher and nobler qualities. In this bust the formation of the throat is peculiar. M. Mayor remarks: 'Thin lips, evil smile, ears hardly visible, jaw advancing and remarkably massive, eyes close together, profoundly sunk under their arcade, nostrils fine and flexible, lips asymmetrical, the upper lip lifted on the right, as in a beast prepared to bite, the same characteristic feature observed in Caligula and commented on by Darwin. Facial asymmetry. The left eye highest and furthest from the nose (the same noticeable in Nero and Claudius, etc.). The look cruel rather than voluptuous. An ironical smile, the by no means uncommon mask worn by pathological corruption and nymphomania,'" M. Menière, in a book entitled Medical Studies from the Latin Poets, also gives it as his opinion that Messalina was a victim of nymphomania. He says: "At the Salpêtrière, there are Messalinas, cases which have absolutely nothing to do with morals." This probably may safely be accepted as the true explanation of the case, if one can rid one's mind of two suspicions. The first of these is that this much-talked-of asymmetry may be nothing other than inferior or careless artistic work. The sculptor may not have been able, or he may not have given himself the time, to carve both sides of the face so absolutely alike as to defy the criticism of sharp scientists, bent on discovering a cause for the poetical effect found in Juvenal and others. The mention of the satirist suggests our second suspicion, which is that in his astonishing account of the criminal appetites of Messalina he is straining after effect.
Now, in regard to the first of these suspicions, we have the assurance of eminent students of art that, in their sculpture, the Romans were exceedingly jealous of exact representation. Viktor Rydberg says: "It is impossible to reproach the Roman art of portraiture with flattery. It gave what the Romans insisted on--rigid fidelity to nature. It made no exception in favor of the Cæsars and their house, not even for the women. Proofs of this almost repulsive fidelity to nature are to be found. An empress, arrived at a more than mature age, is to be represented as Venus. It is possible that she would be glad to decline the honor. She belongs to that period in life when old ladies drape their withered beauties; but she has duties as Cæsar's spouse, and must resign herself to her fate. The goddess of love was the ancestress of the Julian race; and so her attributes, but not her beauty, descend to the empress. The artist has to immortalize her undraped charms, and he does it with almost brutal frankness, so that the little cupid, with finger to his mouth, at her feet, seems to sigh: 'Oh! for a curtain.'" All this may be very true of particular instances; but we know that there were cases when the artist did idealize, as would any sculptor who would place the head of a Cæsar on the trunk of a Greek god, if he were so required. Again, at no period of the world's history has the fraternity of artists been undiversified by members of varying ability, and the task of representing Messalina may have fallen into the hands of an inferior workman. Yet, after all, it is quite possible that the asymmetry in question may have characterized the face of the voluptuous empress; still, it should require something more than a little inequality of feature in a statue not absolutely identified to cause to accept, without a large grain of salt, Juvenal's statement in regard to the wife of Claudius. That Messalina was in the habit of stealing forth from the imperial palace at night to occupy a booth in a brothel as a common demirep under the name of Lycisca is almost too improbable for credence. It is possible that in this Juvenal enlarges on some allusion made by Agrippina the Younger, who wrote the empress's memoirs and who was never a friend to Messalina.
The palace of Claudius was full of freedmen--men who had been emancipated from slavery and had found the means to amass wealth and attain influence--and of Greek adventurers. These men performed services for the emperor and his wife which as yet were not submitted to by the aristocratic or even the equestrian families. Such men as these had been the only associates of Claudius before his advancement, and they retained great influence with him during his reign. Messalina also was obliged to consider them. Their silence, in regard to her intrigues, had to be purchased; she was obliged to ally herself with them, in order that she might retain her influence over her husband; their selling of appointments and taking of bribes she had to countenance; and at last she fell into their toils and was brought to ruin by their machinations.
At the commencement of the reign of Claudius, the two sisters of Caligula, Julia and Agrippina, were recalled from exile and their property restored to them. They were the daughters of Germanicus, descendants of the great Augustus; therefore, it was not long before they were the centre of a clique of dissatisfied nobles. Julia, who was as unprincipled as she was beautiful, seemed to attract the attention of Claudius. This was an offence which Messalina could not brook. Whatever might be the extent of her own failings, she could not afford to run the slightest risk of encountering a rival in the affections of the emperor. It is remarkable, in an age of unparalleled laxity of morals, that when means were sought by which to bring about the destruction of an enemy, an accusation of adultery was usually successful. Those Romans were human enough to condemn in others what they condoned in themselves. Think of Messalina preaching of morals! She preferred charges of incontinence against Julia, and induced the easily influenced emperor to send the unfortunate woman back to exile, where she was quickly followed by an assassin under the orders of the empress. This incident is all the more memorable on account of the fact that Seneca, whose conduct never very closely conformed to his teaching, was accused of being the accomplice of Julia and was banished at the same time. The fate of her sister was a warning to Agrippina. She saw how necessary it was to use wariness in order that she might not offend, or at least that she might not fall under the power of the empress; and Messalina, though she far outdid her in vice, was no match for the clever politician, Agrippina.
It would prove as tiresome as it would be unprofitable to recount all the instances with which history illustrates Messalina's cruelty and licentiousness; and even though our object be to show to what depths of iniquity woman may descend under certain conditions, we will only refer to a few incidents in the empress's profligate career. The first victim of her power and criminality was her own stepfather, Silanus; Suetonius conjectures that the reason for her resentment against her relative was that he disdained her improper advances. The manner of his taking-off was unique and indicates a genius for the invention of plots which may well be envied by the modern romancist. One morning, Narcissus, a favorite freedman, rushed into the presence of Claudius, showing signs of the intensest alarm. He had dreamed that the emperor had been killed by the hand of Silanus. Soon afterward, Messalina appeared and inquired with much perturbation of manner as to the safety of her husband. Her rest had been broken and her mind alarmed by a dream similar to that of Narcissus. Other things were insinuated which seemed to warrant this great and concurrent alarm on the part of the emperor's friends, so that, his fears being thus cunningly worked upon, he at once gave orders for the execution of Silanus.
Messalina was bent on acquiring for herself two desirable pieces of property. One was the beautiful gardens which had been commenced by Lucullus, and completed on a most magnificent scale by Valerius Asiaticus; the other was Mnester, a famous actor of that time. The gardens were owned by Asiaticus; and Poppæa, who was one of the most beautiful women of her day, seemed to interest the actor more than did the empress. The latter determined to remove both these hindrances to her desires at one stroke. She bribed Suillus, a man in high position and notoriously venal, to accuse Asiaticus and Poppæa of being engaged in an improper intrigue. Against the former, charges of a baser nature were included and acts prejudicial to the safety of the emperor were insinuated. Tacitus informs us that the unfortunate man was not allowed a hearing before the Senate, but was tried privately in a chamber of the palace and in the presence of Messalina. When speaking in his own defence, he wrought so powerfully upon the feelings of Claudius that he would certainly have been acquitted; but Messalina, who could not restrain her own tears, as she left the room, whispered to Vitellius: "Let not the accused escape." Then followed an exhibition of perfidy in which it is doubtful if a mere Judas would have been unprincipled enough to take the leading part. Vitellius began in the most sympathetic manner to plead with the emperor--who was already meditating the acquittal of Asiaticus--to remember the great services which had been rendered by the accused to the State, and to exercise clemency by allowing Asiaticus to choose his own mode of death; a sort of clemency to which Claudius readily consented. Thus Messalina's purpose was so far attained. "She hastened herself to accomplish the doom of Poppæa, by suborning persons to drive her to a voluntary end by the terrors of imprisonment; a catastrophe of which the emperor was so utterly unapprised, that a few days after, as her husband Scipio was at table with him, he asked why he had not brought his wife. Scipio answered that she was no more."
The Vitellius who accomplished the above described piece of finesse with such diplomacy was the father of the future emperor of the same name. His chief characteristic was his extraordinary facility and lack of conscience in the use of flattery. When asked by Caligula if Vitellius had not seen the emperor in conversation with Diana, Vitellius answered that it was not permitted to mere mortals like himself to witness the intercourse of deities. On one occasion, in the presence of Claudius, he begged the gift of one of Messalina's slippers. His request being granted by the empress, he placed his acquisition in his bosom, and ever afterward, at opportune moments, would draw it forth and kiss it in most devoted fashion. Thus he strongly entrenched himself in the favor of Messalina, and the modesty of his request did not lower him in the estimation of her husband.
In April of A.D. 47 occurred the centenary festival of the founding of Rome. Vitellius saluted the emperor with: "May you often repeat these celebrations." During the games, there took place an incident which was of special interest to Agrippina, the rival of Messalina, and which might easily have ended disastrously for her. The respective sons of these two women appeared in one of the games. Britannicus was then six years of age and Nero was nine; it was the first appearance of the latter upon that stage which it was afterward his unworthy ambition to hold. On this occasion, the populace were so inconsiderate as to place Agrippina and her son in a position of great jeopardy by showing for them the most enthusiastic partiality, while Britannicus was received in that silence which denoted ill will to his mother.
Messalina was at this time meditating an enterprise which eclipsed all her former exploits and which she probably thought would conclusively determine her own future and that of her son. Thus Tacitus recounts the story: "She was so vehemently enamored of Caius Silius, the handsomest of the Roman youth, that she obliged him to divorce his wife, Julia Silana, a lady of high quality, and had him to herself. Nor was Silius blind to the danger and the malignity of his crime; but, as it was certain destruction to decline her suit, and there were some hopes of beguiling Claudius, and great rewards being held out to him, he was content to enjoy the present advantages and take the chance of what might happen thereafter. The empress proceeded not stealthily, but went to his house frequently, with a numerous train, accompanied him incessantly abroad, loaded him with presents and honors; and at last, as if the fortune of the Empire had been transferred with the emperor's wife, at the house of Silius were now seen the slaves, freedmen, and equipage of the prince."
All this time, Claudius, ignorant of the conduct of his wife,--a fact which must be attributed to the complete subjection under which he was held by Messalina and the freedmen,--was exercising the functions of moral censor and rebuking the people for the immorality of their conduct. What a spectacle to men, not to speak of the ancient deities, must have been the Roman government of those days! It is easy to see the connection between the licentiousness of the times and the decline of the State.
Messalina, a course of the most promiscuous and unrestrained licentiousness having produced satiety, now proceeded to an act of which the emperors had many times set the example: she repudiated Claudius, and united herself with matrimonial solemnities to Silius. Caius Caligula had dismissed one wife to make room for another with scant if any ceremony; but for a woman to do the same thing was another matter. Tacitus says: "I am aware that it will appear fabulous that any human beings should have exhibited such recklessness of consequences; and that, in a city where everything was known and talked of, anyone, much more a consul-elect, should have met the emperor's wife, on a stated day, in the presence of persons called in to seal the deeds, and that she should have heard the words of the augurs, entered the house of the husband, sacrificed to the gods, sat down with the guests at the nuptial banquet, and in every way comported herself as though she had been given away in a marriage entirely lawful. But I would not dress up my narrative with fictions to give it an air of marvel, rather than relate what has been stated to me or written by my seniors."
There are indications which seem to warrant the belief that if this affair had succeeded in its object it would not have appeared so thoroughly atrocious in the eyes of those who recorded it. The whole matter is shrouded in that mystery which often characterizes the transactions of rulers. Suetonius declares that it is beyond all belief that Claudius himself, at the marriage of Messalina with Silius, should have actually signed the writings relative to her dowry, induced thereto by the design of diverting from himself and transferring to another the effect of certain bad omens relative to the husband of Messalina. But, considering the superstition of the time, of which Claudius had an abundant share, and the cunning with which Messalina appears to have been endowed, it seems entirely probable that here we have the key of the whole situation. As is suggested by Victor Duruy, Claudius, timid and credulous as he was, doubtless assured himself in accordance with the formalistic notions of those times, or was persuaded by others, that destiny would be satisfied with a marriage accomplished in conformity with legal formulas, but a union only in name. He expected that thereby he would save himself, and at the same time his honor might be avenged by the death of Silius, thus fulfilling the oracle.
But Messalina and her lover had other plans. By working on the old emperor's fears, she had induced him to sign the writing, so that afterward it might appear as though he had given his consent to his own repudiation. Presuming on her Julian descent, she may have persuaded herself that, once wedded to the young patrician and consul-elect, together they might wrest the government from the feeble hand of Claudius and share the imperial dignity.
While the emperor was away at Ostia, the nuptials were consummated. The marriage was solemnized in due and ample form, including all the ancient rites. Silius may have pretended to drag the seemingly unwilling bride from the embraces of her friends; but the yellow wedding veil was not necessary to hide any blushes that were likely to flush the cheek of Messalina. That the ceremonies were executed in due form may be concluded from the fact that Mnester, the popular actor, took part in them, probably as director.
If Messalina counted on the fidelity of the freedmen, to whose friendship she had many times confided her safety, she erred: for on this occasion they fatally betrayed her. When Claudius was not being guided by his wife for her own purposes, he was under the control of the freedmen; what their position under Silius might be was problematical. Narcissus, the most active of these courtiers, hurried at once to Ostia, taking with him Calpurnia and Cleopatra, two women who had witnessed the marriage. It was necessary that he should thoroughly arouse the phlegmatic emperor and bring upon Messalina speedy destruction, or his own doom would be accomplished. "The marriage has been made public," he said. "Unless you act promptly, Silius will be master of Rome." He induced Claudius to transfer the command of the prætorians to himself for a day. He hurried the emperor back to the city, taking every precaution that the latter should not be left alone with Messalina's friends and that she herself should not be afforded the opportunity of a personal interview.
This unwonted suddenness of action on the part of the emperor was precisely what Messalina and Silius did not anticipate. Instead of intrenching themselves by energetic preparations, they wasted the time in voluptuous revelry. It was the season of the grape harvest, and all Rome was engaged in the customary celebration of the vintage. Messalina, in the gardens of the palace, was enacting a Bacchanalian scene. Men were treading the grapes and wine was flowing into casks; women in the scant attire of Bacchantes were dancing around them; and Messalina, with the symbolic thyrsus in her hand, joined in the revelry, accompanied by Silius, who was crowned with ivy. The utmost licentiousness of speech and action was the order of the day. At last, Vettius Valens, who himself had been a lover of the empress, climbed to the top of a high tree. "What can you see from up there?" someone shouted. "I see," he replied, "a storm coming from Ostia." It was prophetic of what was soon to fall upon the chief participators in the scene. Rumors, quickly followed by the couriers of the emperor, announced that the latter was approaching in great indignation. Messalina was immediately deserted by all. The revellers went their own ways, and Silius repaired to the Forum as though with no thought but to attend to his official duties. The empress, thoroughly awakened at last to the gravity of her situation, began to make preparations for her defence. She saw that her only hope was in the easy, vacillating disposition of Claudius; she had never yet failed to manage him, and her assurance was great. Sending forth her two children, Octavia and Britannicus, to meet their father, she next induced Vibidia, the chief of the Vestals, to obtain audience with the emperor and implore his pardon for his guilty wife.
Deserted by all the court with the exception of three persons, Messalina traversed the city on foot; and finding on the outskirts one of the carts used to convey the rubbish of the streets and gardens, she got into it and started forth to meet her outraged husband. Coming within hearing of the emperor, she began to call upon him to listen to the mother of his children; but Narcissus drowned her voice with the story of her crime and placed in the hands of Claudius a paper reciting all Messalina's adulteries, so that, reading it, his eyes might not be turned upon his wife. Vibidia pleaded with the emperor that he should not allow the empress to be destroyed without a hearing; but she was sent away by the freedman, who advised her to attend to the proper duties of her vocation.
Had it not been for the hasty manner in which this affair was brought to a fatal termination by Narcissus, Messalina would probably have won a pardon from her doting husband. It is true that when the emperor was taken to the house of Silius and there shown valuable furniture, heirlooms from his own palace, his indignation was great; he allowed himself to be conducted to the camp, where he made a short speech to the soldiers and constituted them judges of the criminals; but after having partaken of a sumptuous repast, his good nature, or rather his indifference, returned, and he ordered his servants to go and "acquaint the miserable woman that to-morrow she may plead her cause." The freedman knew that if Messalina obtained the opportunity to talk with the emperor, her alluring methods would save her life, and Claudius would turn to make common cause with her against her accusers. Narcissus therefore hurried forth and commanded the tribune on duty to "despatch the execution," for such, he said, was the emperor's command.
The soldiers found Messalina in the gardens of Lucullus, lying upon the ground, and by her side her mother, Lepida, who was seeking to persuade her wretched daughter not to wait for the executioner, but to die becomingly by her own hand. This, however, the woman had not the courage to do. At times, she would recite to her mother the speeches with which she hoped to justify herself to her husband, and then she would give way to imprecations and vain lamentations. Thus she was employed when the door was burst open and the soldiers and Narcissus appeared before her. The freedman indulged his spite and taunted her with insolent reproaches. Then the unhappy woman, accepting the dagger from her mother's hand, held it to her breast, but dared not strike; so the tribune, in mercy as well as in justice, despatched her with his sword. The news was carried to Claudius that "Messalina was no more"; and without asking how she died or by whose hand, he called for a cup of wine and continued the feast.
Silius made no attempt to exonerate or defend himself, but simply asked for a speedy death. With him died a number of other illustrious knights, their offence being like his, though not so public or so heinous. Mnester the actor thought to save his life by reminding the emperor that it was by the latter's own command that he had been obliged to submit to the orders of Messalina; but though this plea caused some hesitation in the mind of Claudius, it was overruled by the merciless freedmen. It was thus also with Traulus Montanus, a young man of remarkable beauty; he could urge that only on one occasion had he been summoned to the apartments of the empress, and then immediately cast off; this plea, however, did not avail to save him.
It has been our purpose in this chapter to show how, in the midst of artistic surroundings, in a polished society, at a time when poetical and philosophical literature was universally cultivated, women, by the enormity of their excesses, touched the lowest depth of moral depravity. All that appeared necessary was to piece together the fragmentary information provided by the ancient historians and so present a picture of this single astounding character, Messalina. She was the ultimity of feminine vice. She did not stand alone; but in her there was a unique combination of extraordinary political power, unbounded opportunity for lawlessness, and inordinate concupiscence.
But one human life is not sufficient in which to display all the possible varieties of moral unrestraint. Messalina died, and Agrippina reigned in her stead. In the daughter of Germanicus was exemplified a character very different from that of the woman we have just dismissed. Agrippina was less wanton, but she was not more womanly. Messalina sacrificed human life in caprice, Agrippina assigned men to death in cold calculation. The aim of the one was pleasure, the object of the other was power. Messalina was a most unworthy mother; Agrippina contravened every other womanly instinct in order that her son might reign.
After Messalina's death, Claudius declared before the praetorians: "As I have been unhappy in my marriages, I am resolved henceforth to remain single; and if I should not, I give you leave to stab me." But he was not able to persist in this resolution; there were many women who, for the sake of bearing the name of empress, sought matrimonial union with him. Agrippina, however, had marked that position for her own, and she was intellectually the strongest, as well as one of the most beautiful women in Rome. She was now thirty-four years of age. It was no new undertaking for her to bestir herself in the search for a husband. At the age of thirteen she had been married to Cnæus Domitius Ahenobarbus; but he had died in A.D. 40, leaving her with Nero, their only child. On her retum from exile at the beginning of Claudius's reign, she had endeavored to form a union with a powerful patrician named Galba, who had a wife then living; but for her pains she got her face slapped by Galba's mother-in-law. She was soon married, however, to an orator called Passienus, who was a man remarkable for his wit, wealth, and good nature. He died before Agrippina had set her hopes upon a marriage with Claudius.
It was Agrippina's determination to be empress, in order that her son might be emperor. Some years previous, an astrologer had said of the boy that he would reign, but that he would be the death of his mother. "Let me die, then," said she, "so he but reign."
Her marriage with Claudius would be illegal and incestuous, he being her uncle. But Agrippina aroused the emperor's desire for the match by the endearments for which her relationship provided the opportunity, and the complacent Senate passed an enactment that henceforth such marriages should be lawful. Before the nuptials were celebrated, Agrippina obtained the promise of the hand of Octavia, the daughter of Claudius by Messalina, for her son, thus doubly securing her position; this was done despite the fact that Octavia had already been betrothed to another man. Being thus able to have her way before marriage, it is not wonderful that after that event Claudius should be wholly under his wife's rule. Tacitus says: "From this moment the city assumed a different character, and a woman had the control of everything. She, however, did not, like Messalina, mock and trample upon the interests of the State in the extravagance of her lewdness. The despotism exercised was as thorough as though it were under the direction of a man. In her public conduct she was grave and rigid, frequently haughty and overbearing. No departure was observable in her domestic deportment, unless it were necessary to support her power; but an insatiable thirst for money was veiled under the pretext of its being used to maintain the imperial authority."
As an instance of Agrippina's cruelty, it may be mentioned that she brought about the condemnation of Lollia, who had been her rival for the hand of Claudius, and compelled the unfortunate woman to destroy herself. Calpurnia, another illustrious lady, she also doomed to ruin, for no other reason than that the emperor once made a casual remark upon her beauty.
The advancement of her son was the object ever before the eyes of Agrippina; for this she lived and for the attainment of this consummation she spared no promising effort, whether lawful or otherwise. Through the influence of Pallas, one of the favorite freedmen, she brought it to pass that her son was adopted by the emperor as his own, and the historians aver that as a reward for this service Pallas received favors which belonged solely to Claudius. Step by step, Nero was preferred, and at the same time the son of Messalina and the emperor was depreciated. Britannicus seems to have been a boy of spirit. Because he persisted in addressing her son by the name Ahenobarbus [Brazenbeard], Agrippina placed over him tutors whose duty it was to teach him to respect the decree of the Senate, by which the more honorable name of Nero had been conferred on her offspring. Still, everything did not go forward quite to Agrippina's satisfaction. She found in Narcissus almost as great an enemy as had Messalina, and even the emperor was somewhat uncertain in his favor; on one occasion, he was heard to mutter something to the effect that he seemed fated to suffer the iniquities of his wives, and then to punish them. Nero was now seventeen years of age, and through the shrewd policy of his mother had not only been named by the emperor as his successor, but had been generally recognized as the heir-apparent by the people; it needed only the death of Claudius to raise him to the imperial throne.
New wants create new professions. In despotic governments, the lives of certain persons are often too prolonged in the opinion of others who have their own purposes to pursue, and there never have been lacking those who in such a juncture could make themselves extremely useful. In the time of Agrippina there lived a woman named Locusta, who, as Tacitus informs us, was a famous artist in the mixing of drugs. Her skill seems always to have had for its object, not the cure of patients who were confided to her care, but their judicious taking-off. The above-mentioned historian informs us that Agrippina allowed this woman to employ her art upon Claudius; and as no other writer approximate to that age seeks to purge the empress of this accusation, it must be reckoned to her account. "In fact," says Tacitus, "all the particulars of this transaction were soon afterward so thoroughly known, that the writers of those times are able to recount how the poison was poured into a dish of mushrooms, of which he was particularly fond; but whether it was that his senses were stupefied, or from the wine he had drunk, the effect of the poison was not immediately perceived." Agrippina therefore became dismayed; but as her life was at stake, she thought little of the odium of her present proceedings, and called in the aid of Xenophon the physician, whom she had already implicated in her guilty project. It is believed that he, as if he purposed to assist Claudius in his efforts to vomit, put down his throat a feather besmeared with deadly poison.
After the death of Claudius, Agrippina discovered that the day was ill-omened, so that she hesitated to have her son proclaimed. The fact of the emperor's death was therefore kept a secret for some hours. The people were so far imposed upon that they believed that Claudius was approving and desired to be entertained. Buffoons were Produced, who played their antics and cracked their jokes in the presence of the corpse; the empress, in the meantime, feigning to be overcome with grief, was clasping the young Britannicus in her arms and declaring that he was the very image of his father.
At noon, it being the thirteenth of October in the year 4, the death of Claudius was announced, and Nero was received by the soldiers with shouts of joy. The Senate confirmed his accession, and that night, when the tribune asked the new emperor for the watchword, he gave "the best of mothers."
Claudius, unless the Roman historians are to be considered entirely unworthy of credence, had been murdered by his wife; but, notwithstanding this fact and also that she had despised him while he lived, she hastened to propose his apotheosis as soon as he was dead. How much those divine honors which were decreed to deceased members of the imperial family meant to the Romans may be gathered from the fragments which have been preserved of a satire written by Seneca at this time; the satire also indicates the contempt into which the ancient religion had fallen. Seneca claims that from him who saw Drusilla, the sister of Caligula, ascend into heaven, he derived his information as to what happened in Olympus when "a respectable-looking old man, with shaking head, lame foot, and some kind of threat upon his lips" [Claudius] arrived thither. The Olympian Senate, notwithstanding the labors of Hercules on his behalf, voted that Claudius was not to be admitted.
After the inauguration of Nero's reign, there followed for the Empire five years of what seemed to the people, so accustomed were they to the worst horrors in the name of government, a wise and upright administration. Nero was to a certain extent under the influence of Seneca and Burrhus, men who perhaps were as good as any of their time. Credit must be given Agrippina for having at least selected the best men she could find to take charge of the education of her son. Nevertheless, during those five years occurred her own murder and that of Britannicus. After the death of the latter, Locusta--for whom Nero had found ample employment--was permitted to retire to the enjoyment of the immense wealth with which she had been rewarded for her services to those in power; it was stipulated, however, that she should train other women in the practice of her art.
Agrippina had done and suffered much to secure the Empire for her son; but she never contemplated that he would reign alone while she lived. She expected to occupy a throne by his side. Her officious dominance soon became intolerable to the young emperor. He also fell under the fascination of the beautiful but unprincipled Poppæa, who refused to share his palace with so jealous and imperious a mother-in-law. Bitter must have been the reflections of Agrippina when she found herself not only disappointed of this part of her ambition, but also saw that her son was impatiently awaiting her death. Indeed, he was devising means to bring it to pass; but she who was herself so well practised in the methods of assassination was not an easy victim. The sword was too open a method, and she was believed to have prepared herself, by taking antidotes, against all kinds of poisons. But there was a genius at the court. Anicetus, an enfranchised slave, now commander of the fleet, could construct a vessel that would fall to pieces at sea at any given moment. Agrippina was invited to join her son at Baise. He was all affection and again seemed willing to commit himself to her influence. A magnificent vessel was provided to convey her to and from the villa where he had provided an entertainment. As she was returning over the smooth waters, lighted by the brilliant stars, the roof of the cabin, which had been weighted with lead, suddenly fell in, killing a man who belonged to her train. Agrippina and Aceronia, her woman attendant, escaped from this part of the prearranged accident; but the boat then upsetting, they were thrown into the sea. Aceronia, in order that she might be rescued, cried out that she was the emperor's mother, and she was immediately killed by oars and boathooks in the hands of the crew. Her mistress, however, suspecting at once the real nature of what had taken place, remained quiet, and swam until she was picked up by passing boats and conveyed to her own villa.
At the prospect of his mother's death, Nero exclaimed: "At last I shall reign"; but when the news reached him that the cunningly contrived shipwreck had proved a failure, his fury knew no bounds. At that juncture, a messenger arrived from Agrippina to say that his mistress had been preserved--she deemed it prudent to appear to take it for granted that her son was not implicated in the attempt upon her life. While the messenger was speaking, Anicetus picked up a dagger from the floor and pretended that the man had dropped it; it was then declared that Agrippina must have sent him to assassinate her son. A party of men were at once sent to her villa. They broke into her bedchamber. "If you are come for murderous purposes," she cried, "I will not believe that it is by the order of my son." She was quickly despatched with many wounds.
In the busts and medal portraits of Agrippina that have been preserved we see a face remarkably suggestive of refinement of character. Looking at that face and remembering the accusations which have been laid against her, one is naturally inclined to take up a brief in her defence. It does not seem possible that she could have been guilty of these crimes; nor, indeed, in other times and circumstances would it have been possible. It was not a depraved will like that of Messalina that led Agrippina to the adoption of evil courses. The causes were several. She was proud; she had an insatiate craving for power; above all, her unyielding will was wholly bent on the project of placing her son upon the imperial throne. Had she lived at a time when violent measures were not permissible, her methods would probably have been more humane; but her ambition would doubtless have been as great and her determination as tenacious. In her age, murder was a common expedient for clearing the way to a prize. In her time, female modesty was a quality almost impossible to be retained, and but little valued in those few by whom it was preserved. To acquit Agrippina of murder and unchastity would be not only to fault history but to impute to the empress an innocence which in the nature of the case it was impossible she should possess.
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