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Jacob Abbott

Nero's End

The successor of Nero in the line of Roman emperors, was Galba. Galba, though a son of one of the most illustrious Roman families, was born in Spain, and he was about forty years older than Nero, being now over seventy, while Nero was yet but thirty years of age.

During the whole course of his life, Galba had been a very distinguished commander, and had risen from one post of influence and honor to another, until he became one of the most considerable personages in the state. Nero at length appointed him to the command of a very large and important province in Spain. At this station Galba remained some years, and he was here, attending regularly to the duties of his government, at the time when Nero returned from his expedition into Greece. Galba himself, and all the other governors around him, felt the same indignation at Nero's cruelties, and crimes, and the same contempt for his low and degrading vanity and folly, that prevailed so generally at Rome. In fact, feelings of exasperation and hatred against the tyrant, began to extend universally throughout the empire. The people in every quarter, in fact, seemed ripe for insurrection.

While things were in this state, a messenger arrived one day at Galba's court, from a certain chieftain of the Gauls, named Julius Vindex. This messenger came to announce to Galba that Vindex had revolted against the Roman government in Gaul. He declared, however, that it was only Nero's  power that Vindex intended to resist, and promised that if Galba would himself assume the supreme command, Vindex would acknowledge allegiance to him, and would do all in his power to promote his cause. He said, moreover that such was the detestation in which Nero was universally held, that there was no doubt that the whole empire would sustain Galba in effecting such a revolution, if he would once raise his standard. At the same time that this messenger came from Vindex, another came from the Roman governor of the province of Gaul, where Vindex resided, to inform Galba of the revolt, and asking for a detachment of troops to assist him in putting it down. Galba called a council, and laid the subject before them.

After some debate one of the councillors rose and said that there was no more danger in openly joining Vindex in his rebellion, than there was in debating, in such a council, what they should do. "It is just as treasonable," said he, "to doubt and hesitate whether to send troops to put down the revolt, as it would be openly to rebel; and Nero will so regard it. My counsel therefore is that, unless you choose to be considered as aiding the revolution, you should instantly send off troops to put it down."

Galba was much impressed with the wisdom of this advice. He felt strongly inclined to favor the cause of Vindex and the rebels, and on further reflection he secretly determined to join them, and to take measures for raising a general insurrection. He did not, however, make known his determination to any one, but dismissed the council without declaring what he had concluded to do. Soon afterward he sent out to all parts of the province, and ordered a general mustering of the forces under his command, and of all that could be raised throughout the province, requiring them to meet at a certain appointed rendezvous. The army, though not openly informed of it, suspected what the object of this movement was to be, and came forward to the work, with the utmost alacrity and joy.

In the mean time the tidings of Vindex's revolt traveled rapidly to Rome, and thence to Naples, where Nero was at this time performing on the public stage. Nero seemed to be very much delighted to hear the news. He supposed that the rebellion would of course be very easily suppressed, and that when it was suppressed he could make it an excuse for subjecting the province in which it had occurred to fines and confiscations that would greatly enrich his treasury. He was extremely pleased therefore at the tidings of the revolt, and abandoned himself to the theatrical pursuits and pleasures in which he was engaged, more absolutely and recklessly than ever.

In the mean time fresh messengers arrived at short intervals from Rome, to inform Nero of the progress of the rebellion. The news was that Vindex was gaining strength every day, and was issuing proclamations to the people calling upon them everywhere to rise and throw off the ignoble yoke of oppression which they were enduring. In these proclamations the emperor was called Brazenbeard, and designated as a "wretched fiddler." These taunts excited Nero's ire. He wrote to the Senate at Rome calling upon them to adopt some measures for putting down this insolent rebel, and having dispatched this letter, he seemed to dismiss the subject from his mind, and turned his attention anew to his dancing and acting.

His mind was, however, soon disturbed again, for fresh messengers continued to come, each bringing reports more alarming than those of his predecessor. The rebellion was evidently gaining ground. Nero was convinced that something must be done. He accordingly broke away, though with great reluctance, from his amusements at Naples, and proceeded to Rome. On his arrival at the capital he called a council of some of his principal ministers of state, and after a short consultation on the subject of the rebellion—in which, however, nothing was determined upon—he proceeded to produce some newly-invented invented musical instruments which he had brought with him from Naples, and in which he was greatly interested. After showing and explaining these instruments to the councilors, he promised them that he would give them the pleasure before long of hearing a performance upon them, on the stage,—"provided," he added jocosely, "that this Vindex will give me leave."

The councilors at length withdrew, and Nero remained in his apartment. On retiring to rest, however, he found that he could not sleep. His thoughts were running on the musical instruments which he had been showing, and on the pleasure which he anticipated in a public performance with them. At length, at a very late hour, he sent for his councilors to come again to his apartment. They came, full of excitement and wonder, supposing that they were thus suddenly summoned on account of some new and very momentous tidings which had been received from Gaul. They found, however, that Nero only wished to give some farther account of the instruments which he had shown them, and to ask their opinions of certain improvements which had occurred to him since they went away.

Nero did not, however, remain very long in this state of insane and stupid unconcern; for on the evening of the following day a courier arrived from the north with the appalling intelligence that Vindex had made himself master of Gaul, and that Galba, the most powerful general in the Roman army, had joined the insurrection with all the legions under his command, and that he was now advancing toward Rome at the head of his armies with the avowed purpose of deposing Nero, and making himself emperor in his stead.

Nero was at first absolutely stupefied at hearing these tidings. He remained for some time silent and motionless, as if made completely senseless with consternation. When at length he came to himself again, he fell into a perfect frenzy of rage and terror. He overturned the supper table, tore his garments, threw down two valuable cups to the floor and broke them to pieces, and then began to dash his head against the wall, as if he were perfectly insane. He said he was undone. No man had ever been so wretched. His dominions were to be seized from him while he yet lived, and held by an usurper; he was utterly ruined and undone.

After a little time had elapsed the agitation and excitement of his mind took another direction, that of furious anger against the generals and officers of his army,—not only those who had actually rebelled, but all others, for he was jealous and suspicious of all, and said that he believed that the whole army was engaged in the conspiracy. He was going to send out orders to the various provinces and encampments, for the assassination of great numbers of the officers,—such as he imagined might be inclined to turn against him,—and he would probably have done so if he had not been restrained by the influence of his ministers of state. He also proposed to seize and kill all the Gauls then in Rome, as a mode of taking vengeance on their countrymen for joining Vindex in his rebellion, and could scarcely be prevented from doing this by the urgent remonstrances of all his friends.

After a time Nero so far recovered his self possession that he began to make preparations for organizing an army, with the design of marching against the rebels. He accordingly ordered troops to be enlisted and arms and ammunition to be provided,—assessing at the same time heavy taxes upon the people of Rome to defray the expense. All these arrangements, however, only increased the general discontent. The people saw that the preparations which the emperor was making were wholly inadequate to the crisis, and that no efficient military operations could ever come from them. In the first place, he could obtain no troops, for no men fit for soldiers were willing to enlist,—and so he undertook to supply the deficiency by requiring every master of slaves to send him a certain number of his bondmen, and these bondmen he freed and then enrolled them in his army, in lieu of soldiers. Moreover, in making provision for the wants of his army, instead of devoting his chief attention to securing a sufficiency of arms, ammunition, military stores, and other such supplies as were required in preparing for an efficient campaign, he seemed only interested in getting together actors, dancers, musical instruments, and dresses for performers on the public stage. In excuse for this course of procedure, Nero said frankly that he did not expect that his expedition would lead to any important military operations. As soon as he reached the rebel armies his intention was, he said, to throw himself upon their sense of justice and their loyalty. He would acknowledge whatever had been wrong in his past government, and promise solemnly that his sway in future should be more mild and beneficent; and he had no doubt that thus the whole disturbance would be quelled. The revolted troops would at once return to their duty, and the musical and theatrical preparations which he was making were intended for a series of grand festivities to celebrate the reconciliation.

Of course such insane and hopeless folly as this awakened a sentiment of universal contempt and indignation among the people of Rome. The greatest excitement and confusion prevailed throughout the city; and, as is usual in times of public panic, money and provisions were hid away by those who possessed them, in secret hoards; and this soon occasioned a great scarcity of food. The city, in fact, was threatened with famine. In the midst of the alarm and anxiety which this state of things occasioned, two ships arrived from Egypt, at Ostia, and the news produced a general rejoicing,—it being supposed, of course, that the ships were laden with corn. It proved, however, that there was no corn on board. Instead of food for the metropolis, the cargo consisted of sand, intended to form the arena  of some of the emperor's amphitheaters, for the gladiators and wrestlers to stand upon, in contending. This incident seemed to fill the cup of public indignation to the brim; and, as news arrived just at this time that the rebellion had extended into Germany, and that all the legions in the German provinces had gone over to Galba, Nero's power began to be considered at an end. Tumults prevailed everywhere throughout the city, and assemblies were held, threatening open defiance to the authority of the emperor, and declaring the readiness of the people to acknowledge Galba so soon as he should arrive.

Nero was now more terrified than ever. He knew not what to do. He fled from his palace, and sought a retreat in certain gardens near—acting in this, however, under the influence of a blind and instinctive fear, rather than from any rational hope of securing his safety by seeking such a place of refuge. In fact, he was now perfectly distracted with terror. He procured some poison before he left his palace, and carried it in a small golden box with him to the gardens; but he had not strength or resolution to take it. He then conceived of the plan, of flying from Rome altogether. He would go at once to Ostia, he said, and there embark on board a ship and sail for Egypt, where, it might be supposed, he would be out of the reach of his enemies. He asked his officers and attendants if they would accompany him in this flight. But they refused to go.

Then he began to talk of another plan. He would go and meet Galba as a suppliant, and, falling upon his knees before the conqueror, would implore him to spare his life. Or he would go into the Roman Forum, and make a humble and supplicatory address to the people there, imploring their forgiveness for his cruelties and crimes, and solemnly promising never to be guilty of such excesses again, if they would pardon and protect him. The by-standers told him that such a proceeding was wholly out of the question; for if he were to go forth for such a purpose from his retreat, the people were in such a frenzy of excitement against him, that they would tear him to pieces before he could reach the Rostra. In a word, the distracted thoughts of the wretched criminal turned this way and that, in the wild agitation with which remorse and terror filled his mind, vainly seeking some way of escape from the awful dangers which were circling and narrowing so rapidly around him. There was, in fact, no hope now left for him—no refuge, no protection, no possibility of escape; and so, after suddenly seizing, and as suddenly abandoning, one impracticable scheme after another, his mind became wholly bewildered, and he sank down, at length, into a condition of blank and hopeless despair.

Although the insurrection had become very general in the provinces, the troops in the city, consisting chiefly of the emperor's guards, yet remained faithful; and now as the night was coming on, they were stationed as usual at their respective posts in various parts of the city and at the palace gates. Nero retired to rest. He found, however, that he could not sleep. At midnight he rose, and came forth from his apartment. He was surprised to find that there was no sentinel at the door. On farther examination he found to his amazement that the palace guards had been wholly withdrawn. He was thunderstruck at making this discovery. He returned into the palace and aroused some of the domestics, and then went forth with them to the residences of some of his chief ministers, who resided near, to ask for help. He could, however, nowhere gain admission. He found the houses all closely shut up, and by all his knocking at the doors he could get no answer from any persons within. He then came back in great distress and alarm to his own apartment. He found that it had been broken into during the short time that he had been gone, and rifled of every thing valuable that it contained. Even his golden box of poison had been carried away. In a word the great sovereign of half the world found that he had been abandoned by all his adherents, and left in a condition of utter and absolute exposure. The guards had concluded to declare for Galba, and had accordingly gone away, leaving the fallen tyrant to his fate.

Nero called desperately to his servants to send for a gladiator to thrust him through with a sword, but no one would go. "Alas!" he exclaimed, "has it come to this? Am I so utterly abandoned that I have not even enemies left who are willing to kill me?"

After a little time he began to be a little more composed, and expressed a wish that he knew of some place in the environs of the city where he could go and conceal himself for a little time until he could determine what to do. One of the servants of his household named Phaon, told him that he had a country-house near the city, where, perhaps, Nero might hide. Nero immediately resolved to go there. The better to conceal his flight he disguised himself in mean apparel, and tied a handkerchief about his face; and then mounting on horseback in company with two or three attendants, he proceeded out of the city. As he went, it thundered and lightened from time to time, and Nero was greatly terrified. He supposed that the commotion of the elements was occasioned by the spirits of those whom he had murdered coming now to persecute and torment him in the hour of his extremity.

He passed, during his ride, a station of the guard which happened to be on his way, and heard the soldiers cursing him as he went by, and expressing joy at his downfall. Soon after this he overheard a passenger whom his party met on the road, say to his companion, when he saw Nero and his attendants riding by, "These men no doubt are going in pursuit of the emperor." Another man whom they met on the way stopped them to ask what news there was in town about the emperor. In these occurrences, though they of course tended to increase the agitation and excitement of Nero's mind, there was nothing particularly alarming; but at length an incident happened which frightened the fugitive extremely. He was passing a place where a carcass lay by the side of the road. Some soldiers of the guard were standing near. The horse that Nero rode was startled at the sight of the carcass, and springing suddenly shook down the handkerchief from Nero's face. One of the soldiers by this means obtained a view of his countenance, and exclaimed that that was the emperor. Nero was so much alarmed at this that he hastened on, and as soon as he was out of the view of the men who had seen him, he leaped from his horse, and calling upon his attendants to dismount too and follow him, he ran into an adjoining thicket, among bushes and briers, and thence the whole party made their way circuitously round to the rear of Phaon's grounds. Here they stopped and hid themselves till they could contrive some way to get through or over the wall.

There was a pit near by, which had been made by digging for sand. Phaon proposed that Nero should hide in this pit until an opening could be made in the wall. But Nero refused to do this, saying that he would not be buried before he was dead. So he remained hid in the thickets while Phaon went to work to make an opening in the wall.

The wall was not of a very substantial character; if it had been, it would not have been possible for Phaon, with the means at his command, to have effected a passage. As it was, he succeeded, though with difficulty, in loosening some of the stones, so as gradually to make an opening.

Nero was engaged, while this work was going on, in pulling the briers out of his clothes and flesh, and being thirsty, he went down to a ditch that was near, and drank, taking up the water in his hands. As he drank, he groaned out, "Oh, can it be that I have come to this!"


Phaon at the Wall

In the mean time, Phaon went on with his work, and soon succeeded in making a hole in the wall sufficient for his purpose, and then the men dragged Nero through. They brought him into the house, and shut him up in a small and secret apartment there.

Nero now felt relieved from the extreme terror which he had suffered during his flight but the feelings of terror subsided in his mind, only to give place to the still more dreadful pangs of remorse and horror. He moaned continually in his anguish, and incessantly repeated the words, "My father, my mother, and my wife doom me to destruction." These were indeed the words of one of the tragedies which he had been accustomed to act upon the stage, but they expressed the remorse and anguish of his mind so truly, that they recurred continually to his lips. Phaon and the men who had brought him to the house, finding it impossible to calm him, and seeing no hope of his final escape from death, and perhaps, moreover, wishing to relieve themselves of what was now fast becoming a serious burden to them, recommended to him to kill himself,—and thus, as they said, since he must die, die like a man. Finally, Nero seemed to yield to their urgings. He said that he would kill himself as they desired. They might go out and dig a grave for him and prepare wood and water for washing the body. While giving these orders he moaned and groaned continually, as if in a state of delirium.

In the mean time the morning had come, and at Rome all was excitement and commotion. The Senate came together and proclaimed Galba emperor. They also passed a decree pronouncing Nero an enemy to the state, and sentencing him to be punished as such in the ancient manner. When this news transpired, a friend of Phaon wrote a letter to him, giving an account of what the Senate had done, and sent it off with the utmost haste by a trusty messenger. The messenger arrived at Phaon's house, and brought the letter in. Nero seized it from Phaon's hands, and read it. "What is the ancient manner?" he asked, in a tone of great anxiety and terror. They told him that it was to be stripped naked, and then to be secured by having his head fastened in a pillory, and in that position to be whipped to death. At hearing this, Nero broke forth in fresh groans and lamentations. He could not endure such a death as that, he said, and he would kill himself, therefore, at once, if they would give him a dagger.

There were daggers at hand. Nero took them, examined the points of them with a trembling touch, seemed undecided, and finally put them away again, saying that his hour was not yet quite come. Presently he took one of the daggers again, and made a new attempt to awaken in himself sufficient resolution to strike the blow, but his courage failed him. He moaned and raved all this time in the most incoherent and distracted manner. He even begged that one of the attendants who were with him would take the dagger and kill himself first, in order to encourage Nero by letting him see that it was not after all so dreadful a thing to die. But no one of the attendants seemed sufficiently devoted to his master to be willing to render him such a service as this.

In the midst of this perplexity and delay a noise was heard as of horsemen riding up to the door. Nero was terrified anew at the sound. They were coming, he said, to seize him. He immediately drew one of the daggers, and putting it to his throat, attempted desperately to nerve himself to the work of driving it home. But he could not do it. The noise at the door in the mean time increased. Nero then gave the dagger to one of the men standing by, and begged that he would kill him. The man took the dagger with great reluctance, but presently gave the fatal stab, and Nero sank down upon the ground mortally wounded.

At this moment the door was suddenly opened, and the soldiers that had just arrived came in. They had been sent by the Senate to search for the fugitive and bring him back to Rome. The centurion who commanded these men, advanced into the room, and looked at the fallen emperor, as he lay upon the floor, weltering in his blood. He had been commanded to bring the prisoner to the city, if possible, alive; and he accordingly ordered the soldiers to come to the dying man and endeavor to stanch his wounds and save him. But it was too late. Nero stared at them as they advanced to take hold of him, with a wild and frightful expression of countenance, which shocked all who saw him, and in the midst of this agony of terror, he sank down and died.

The news of the tyrant's death spread with the utmost rapidity in all directions. A courier immediately set off for the north to carry tidings of the event to Galba. People flocked from all quarters to the house of Phaon to gaze on the lifeless body, and to exult in the monster's death. The people of the city gave themselves up to the wildest and most extravagant joy. They put on caps such as were worn by manumitted slaves when first obtaining their freedom, and roamed about the city expressing in every possible way the exultation they felt at their deliverance, and breaking down and destroying the statues of Nero wherever they could find them.

In the mean time Galba was steadily advancing on the way to Rome. In due time he made his entry into the city, and embassadors came to him there from all parts of the Roman world to acknowledge him as the reigning emperor. At this time he was seventy-three years old. So that the number seventy-three of which the oracle had warned Nero to beware, denoted the age of his rival and enemy,—not his own.