Although the people of Rome were generally so overawed by the terror of Nero's power, that for a long period no one dared to make any open resistance to his will, still his excesses and cruelties excited in the minds of men a great many secret feelings of resentment and detestation. At one period in the course of his reign a very desperate conspiracy was formed by some of the leading men of the state, to dethrone and destroy the tyrant. This plot was a very extensive and a very formidable one. It was, however, accidentally discovered before it was fully mature, and thus was unsuccessful. It is known in history as Piso's Conspiracy—deriving its name from that of the principal leader of it, Caius Calpurnius Piso.
It is not supposed, however, that Piso was absolutely the originator of the conspiracy, nor is it known, in fact, who the originator of it was. A great number of prominent men were involved in the plot—men who, possessing very different characters, and occupying very different stations in life, were probably induced by various motives to take part in the conspiracy. A conspiracy, however, of this kind, against so merciless a tyrant as Nero, is an enterprise of such frightful danger, and is attended, if unsuccessful, with such awful consequences to all concerned in it, that men will seldom engage in such a scheme until goaded to desperation, and almost maddened, by the wrongs which they have endured.
And yet the exasperation which these conspirators felt against Nero, seems to have been produced, in some instances at least, by what we should now consider rather inadequate causes. For example, one of the men most active in this secret league, was the celebrated Latin poet Lucan. In the early part of his life, Lucan had been one of Nero's principal flatterers, having written hymns and sonnets in his praise. At length, as it was said, some public occasion occurred in which verses were to be recited in public, for a prize. Nero, who imagined himself to excel in every human art or attainment, offered some of his own verses in the competition. The prize, however, was adjudged to Lucan. Nero's mind was accordingly filled with envy and hate toward his rival, and he soon found some pretext for forbidding Lucan ever to recite any verses in public again. This of course exasperated Lucan in his turn, and was the cause of his joining in the conspiracy.
Another of the conspirators was a certain Roman nobleman, whose family name has since become very widely known in all parts of the civilized world, through an estate in the city with which it was associated,—which estate, and certain buildings erected upon it, became subsequently greatly celebrated in the ecclesiastical history of Rome. The name of this nobleman was Plautius Lateranus. When Lateranus was put to death at the detection of the conspiracy, in the manner to be presently described, his estate was confiscated. The palace and grounds thus became the property of the Roman emperors. In process of time, the emperor Constantine gave the place to the pope, and from that period it continued to be the residence of the successive pontiffs for a thousand years. A church was built upon the ground, called the Basilica of St. John of Lateran, where many ancient councils were held, known in ecclesiastical history as the councils of the Lateran. This church is still used for some of the ceremonies connected with the inauguration of the pope, but the palace is now uninhabited. It presents, however, in its ruins, a vast and imposing, though desolate aspect.
Lateranus was an unprincipled and dissolute man, and in consequence of certain crimes which he committed in connection with Messalina, during the reign of Claudius, he had been condemned to death. The sentence of death was not executed, though Lateranus was deprived of his rank, and doomed to live in retirement and disgrace. At the death of Claudius, and the accession of Nero, Lateranus was fully pardoned and restored to his former rank and position, through Nero's instrumentality. It might have been supposed that gratitude for these favors would have prevented Lateranus from joining such a conspiracy as this against his benefactor, but gratitude has very little place in the hearts of those who dwell in the courts and palaces of such tyrants as Nero.
The man on whom the conspirators relied most for efficient military aid, so far as such aid should be needed in their enterprise, was a certain Fenius Rufus, a captain of the imperial guards. He was a man of very resolute and decided character, and was very highly esteemed by the people of Rome. He was not one of the originators of the plot, but joined it at a later period; and when the news of his accession to it was communicated to the rest, it gave them great encouragement, as they attached great importance to the adhesion of such a man to their cause. They now immediately began to take measures for executing their plans.
There was a woman in the secret of this conspiracy, though how she obtained a knowledge of it no one seemed to know. Her name was Epicharis. While the execution of the plans of the confederates was delayed, Epicharis came to the principal conspirators privately, first to one and then to another, and urged them to action. None of the members of the plot would admit that they had given her any information on the subject, and how she obtained her information no one could tell. She was a woman of bad character, and as such women often are, she was violent and implacable in her hatred. She hated Nero, and was so impatient at the delay of the conspirators that she made repeated and earnest efforts to urge them on.
The conspirators in the mean time held various secret meetings to mature their plans, and to complete the preparation for the execution of them. They designed to destroy Nero by some violent means, and then to cause Piso to be proclaimed emperor in his place. Piso was a man well suited for their purpose in this respect. He was tall and graceful in form, and his personal appearance was in every respect prepossessing. His rank was very high, and he was held in great estimation by all the people of the city for the many generous and noble qualities that he possessed. He was allied, too, to the most illustrious families of Rome, and he occupied in all respects so conspicuous a position, and was so much an object of popular favor, that the conspirators believed that his elevation to the empire could easily be effected, if Nero himself could once be put out of the way. To effect the assassination of Nero, therefore, was the first step.
After much debate, and many consultations in respect to the best course to be pursued, it was decided to accept the offer of a certain Subrius Flavius, who undertook to kill the emperor in the streets, at night, at some time when he was roaming about in his carousals. Flavius, in fact, was very daring and resolute in his proposals, though wanting, as it proved in the end, in the fulfillment of them. He offered to stab Nero in the theater, when he was singing on the stage, in the midst of all the thousands of spectators convened there. This the conspirators thought, it seems, an unnecessarily bold and desperate mode of accomplishing the end in view, and the plan was accordingly overruled. Flavius then proposed to set the palace on fire some night when Nero was out in the city, and then, in the confusion that would ensue, and while the attention of the guards who had accompanied Nero should be drawn toward the fire, to assassinate the emperor in the streets. This plan was acceded to by the conspirators, and it was left to Flavius to select a favorable time for the execution of it.
Time passed on, however, and nothing was done. The favorable time which Flavius looked for did not appear. In the meanwhile Epicharis became more and more impatient of the delay. She urged the conspirators to do their work, and chided in the strongest terms their irresolution and pusillanimity. At length finding that her invectives and reproaches were of no avail, she determined to leave them, and to see what she could do herself toward the attainment of the end.
She accordingly left Rome and proceeded southwardly along the coast till she came to Misenum, which, as has already been said, was the great naval station of the empire at this time. Epicharis went to some of the officers of the fleet, many of whom she knew,—and in a very secret and cautious manner made known to them the nature of the plot which had been formed at Rome for the destruction of Nero and the elevation of Piso to the empire in his stead. Before, however, communicating intelligence of the conspiracy to any persons whatever, Epicharis would converse with them secretly and confidentially to learn how they were affected toward Nero and his government. If she found them well disposed she said nothing. If on the other hand any one appeared discontented with the government, or hostile to it in any way, she would cautiously make known to him the plans which were concocting at Rome for the overthrow of it. She took care, however, in these conversations to have never more than one person present with her at a time, and she revealed none of the names of the conspirators.
Among the other officers of the fleet was a certain Proculus, who was one of the first with whom Epicharis communicated. Proculus was one of the men who had been employed by Nero in his attempts to assassinate Agrippina his mother, and for his services on that occasion had been promoted to the command of a certain number of ships, a number containing in all one thousand men. This promotion, however, as Epicharis found when she came to converse with him, Proculus did not consider as great a reward as his services had deserved. The perpetration of so horrible a crime as the murder of the emperor's mother, merited, in his opinion, as he said to Epicharis, a much higher recompense than the command of a thousand men. Epicharis thought so too. She talked with Proculus about his wrongs, and the injuries which he suffered from Nero's ingratitude and neglect, until she fancied that he was in a state of mind which would prepare him to join in the plans of the conspirators, and then she cautiously unfolded them to him.
Proculus listened with great apparent interest to Epicharis's communication, and pretended to enter very cordially into the plan of the conspiracy; but as soon as the interview was ended he immediately left Misenum, and proceeded immediately to Rome, where he divulged the whole design to Nero.
Nero was exceedingly alarmed, and sent officers off at once to seize Epicharis and bring her before him. Epicharis, when questioned and confronted with Proculus, resolutely denied that she had ever held any such conversation with Proculus as he alledged, and feigned the utmost astonishment at what she termed the impudence of his accusation. She called for witnesses and proofs. Proculus of course could produce none, for Epicharis had taken care that there should be no third person present at their interviews. Proculus could not even give the names of any of the conspirators at Rome. He could only persist in his declaration that Epicharis had really disclosed to him the existence of the conspiracy, and had proposed to him to join in it; while she on the contrary as strenuously and positively denied it. Nero was perplexed. He found it impossible to determine what to believe. He finally dismissed Proculus, and sent Epicharis to prison, intending that she should remain there until he could make a more full examination into the case, and determine what to do.
In the mean time the conspirators became considerably alarmed when they heard of the arrest of Epicharis, and though they knew that thus far she had revealed nothing, they could not tell how soon her fidelity and firmness might yield under the tortures to which she was every day liable to be subjected; and, as there appeared to be now no prospect that Flavius would ever undertake to execute his plan, they began to devise some other means of attaining the end.
It seems that Piso possessed at this time a villa and country-seat at Baiæ, on the coast south of Rome, and near to Misenum, and that Nero was accustomed sometimes to visit Piso here. It was now proposed by some of the conspirators that Piso should invite Nero to visit him at this villa, as if to witness some spectacles or shows which should be arranged for his entertainment there, and that then persons employed for the purpose should suddenly assassinate him, when off his guard, in the midst of some scene of convivial pleasure. Piso, however, objected to this plan. He conceived, he said, that it would be dishonorable in him to commit an act of violence upon a guest whom he had invited under his roof, as his friend. He was willing to take his full share of the responsibility of destroying the tyrant in any fair and manly way, but he would not violate the sacred rites of hospitality to accomplish the end.
So this plan was abandoned. It was supposed, however, that Piso had another and a deeper reason for his unwillingness that Nero should be assassinated at Baiæ than his regard for his honor as a host. He thought, it was said, that it would not be safe for him to be away from Rome when the death of Nero should be proclaimed in the capitol, lest some other Roman nobleman or great officer of state should suddenly arise in the emergency and assume the empire. There were, in fact, one or two men in Rome of great power and influence, of whom Piso was specially jealous and he was naturally very much disposed to be on his guard against opening any door of opportunity for them to rise to power. To commit a great crime in order to secure his own aggrandizement, and yet to manage the commission of it in such a way as not only to shut himself off from the expected benefit, but to secure that benefit to a hated rival, would have been a very fatal misstep. So the plan of destroying Nero at Baiæ was overruled.
At length one more, and as it proved a final scheme, was formed for accomplishing the purpose of the conspiracy. It was determined to execute Nero in Rome, at a great public celebration which was then about to take place. It seems that it was sometimes customary in ancient times for persons who had any request or petition to make to an emperor or king, to avail themselves of the occasion of such celebrations to present them. Accordingly it was determined that Lateranus should approach Nero at a certain time during the celebration of the games, as if to offer a petition,—the other conspirators being close at hand, and ready to act at a moment's warning. Lateranus, as soon as he was near enough, was to kneel down and suddenly draw the emperor's robes about his feet, and then clasp the feet thus enveloped, in his arms, so as to render Nero helpless. The other conspirators were then to rush forward and kill their victim with their daggers. In the mean time while Lateranus and his associates were perpetrating this deed in the circus where the games were to be exhibited, Piso was to station himself in a certain temple not far distant, to await the result; while Fenius, the officer of the guard, who has already been mentioned as the chief military reliance of the conspirators, was to be posted in another part of the city, with a military cavalcade in array, ready to proceed through the streets and bring Piso forth to be proclaimed emperor as soon as he should receive the tidings that Nero had been slain. It is said that in order to give additional éclat and popularity to the proceeding, it was arranged that Octavia, a daughter of Claudius, the former emperor, was to be brought forward with Piso in the cavalcade, as if to combine the influence of her hereditary claims, whatever they might be, with the personal popularity of Piso in favor of the new government about to be established.
Thus everything was arranged. To each conspirator, his own particular duty was assigned, and, as the day approached for the execution of the scheme, everything seemed to promise success. It is obvious, however, that, as the affair had been arranged, all would depend upon the resolution and fidelity of those who had been designated to stab the emperor with their daggers, when Lateranus should have grasped his feet. The slightest faltering or fear at this point, would be fatal to the whole scheme. The man on whom the conspirators chiefly relied for this part of their work, was a certain desperate profligate, named Scevinus, who had been one of the earliest originators of the conspiracy, and one of the most dauntless and determined of the promoters of it, so far as words and professions could go. He particularly desired that the privilege of plunging the first dagger into Nero's heart should be granted to him. He had a knife, he said, which he had found in a certain temple a long time before, and which he had preserved and carried about his person constantly ever since, for some such deed. So it was arranged that Scevinus should strike the fatal blow.
As the time drew nigh, Scevinus seemed to grow more and more excited with the thoughts of what was before him. He attracted the attention of the domestics at his house, by his strange and mysterious demeanor. He held a long and secret consultation with Natalis, another conspirator, on the day before the one appointed for the execution of the plot, under such circumstances as to increase still more the wonder and curiosity of his servants. He formally executed his will, as if he were approaching some dangerous crisis. He made presents to his servants, and actually emancipated one or two of his favorite slaves. He talked with all he met, in a rapid and incoherent manner, on various subjects, and with an air of gayety and cheerfulness which it was obvious to those who observed him was all assumed; for, in the intervals of these conversations, and at every pause, he relapsed into a thoughtful and absent mood, as if he were meditating some deep and dangerous design.
That night, too, he took out his knife from its sheath, and gave it to one of his servants, named Milichus, to be ground. He directed Milichus to be particularly attentive to the sharpening of the point. Before Milichus brought back the knife, Scevinus directed him to prepare bandages such as would be suitable for binding up wounds to stop the effusion of blood. Milichus observed all these directions, and, having made all the preparations required, according to the orders which Scevinus had given him—keeping the knife, however, still in his possession—he went to report the whole case to his wife, in order to consult with her in respect to the meaning of all these mysterious indications.
The wife of Milichus soon came to the conclusion, that these strange proceedings could denote nothing less than a plot against the life of the emperor; and she urged her husband to go early the next morning, and make known his discovery. She told him that it was impossible that such a conspiracy should succeed, for it must be known to a great many persons, some one of whom would be sure to divulge it in hope of a reward. "If you divulge it," she added, "you will secure the reward for yourself; and if you do not, you will be supposed to be privy to it, when it is made known by others, and so will be sacrificed with the rest to Nero's anger."
Milichus was convinced by his wife's reasonings, and on the following morning, as soon as the day dawned, he rose and repaired to the palace. At first he was refused admittance, but on sending word to the officer of the household, that he had intelligence of the most urgent importance to communicate to Nero, they allowed him to come in. When brought into Nero's presence, he told his story, describing particularly all the circumstances that he had observed, which had led him to suppose that a conspiracy was formed. He spoke of the long and mysterious consultation which Scevinus and Natalis had held together on the preceding day; he described the singular conduct and demeanor which Scevinus had subsequently manifested, the execution of his will, his wild and incoherent conversation, his directions in respect to the sharpening of the knife and the preparation of the bandages; and, to crown his proofs, he produced the knife itself, which he had kept for this purpose, and which thus furnished, in some sense, an ocular demonstration of the truth of what he had declared.
Officers were immediately sent to seize Scevinus, and to bring him into the presence of the emperor. Scevinus knew, of course, that the only possible hope for him was in a bold and resolute denial of the charge made against him. He accordingly denied, in the most solemn manner, that there was any plot or conspiracy whatever, and he attempted to explain all the circumstances which had awakened his servant's suspicions. The knife or dagger which Milichus had produced, was an ancient family relic, he said,—one which he had kept for a long time in his chamber, and which his servant had obtained surreptitiously, for the purpose of sustaining his false and malicious charge against his master. As to his will, he often made and signed a will anew, he said, as many other persons were accustomed to do, and no just inference against him could be drawn from the circumstance that he had done this on the preceding day; and in respect to the bandages and other preparation for the dressing of wounds which Milichus alledged that he had ordered, he denied the statement altogether. He had not given any such orders. The whole story was the fabrication of a vile slave, attempting, by these infamous means, to compass his master's destruction. Scevinus said all this with so bold and intrepid a tone of voice, and with such an air of injured innocence, that Nero and his friends were half disposed to believe that he was unjustly accused, and to dismiss him from custody. This might very probably have been the result, and Milichus himself might have been punished for making a false and malicious accusation, had not the sagacity of his wife, who was all the time watching these proceedings with the most anxious interest, furnished a clue which, in the end, brought the whole truth to light.
She called attention to the long conference which Scevinus had held with Natalis on the preceding day. Scevinus was accordingly questioned concerning it. He declared that his interview was nothing but an innocent consultation about his own private affairs. He was questioned then about the particulars of the conversation. Of course he was compelled to fabricate a statement in reply. Natalis himself was then sent for, and examined, apart from Scevinus, in regard to the conversation they had held together. Natalis, of course, fabricated a story too,—but, as usual with such fabrications, the two accounts having been invented independently, were inconsistent with each other. Nero was immediately convinced that the men were guilty, and that some sort of plot or conspiracy had been formed. He ordered that they should both be put to the torture in order to compel them to confess their crime, and disclose the names of their accomplices. In the mean time they were sent to prison, and loaded with irons, to be kept in that condition until the instruments of torture could be prepared.
When at length they were brought to the rack, the sight of the horrid machinery unmanned them. They begged to be spared, and promised to reveal the whole. They acknowledged that a conspiracy had been formed, and gave the names of all who had participated in it. They explained fully, too, the plans which had been devised, and as in this case, though they were examined separately, their statements agreed, Nero and his friends were convinced of the truth of their declarations, and thus at last the plot was fully brought to light. Nero himself was struck with consternation and terror at discovering the formidable danger to which he had been exposed.