The Plot Thickens
The arrest and detention of Epicharis was soon known to the conspirators at Rome. At the result of the examination, they could only guess. However, as she was being kept in honourable custody, without having to suffer any indignity or hardship, it was safe to conjecture that nothing compromising had been discovered.
Still the incident was alarming, and made the necessity of immediate action more pressing than ever. A meeting of the conspirators, who now numbered more than fifty in all, itself a most dangerous circumstance, was held without delay. At this it was unanimously resolved, almost without discussion, that the attempt must be made at the very first convenient opportunity. The Tribune Subrius, who was generally recognized as one of the most daring of the associates, and who, if it had only been permitted, would have struck the blow long before, was invited to give his opinion as to the time, the place, and the manner of the deed, which, it must be understood, was nothing else than the assassination of Nero.
Subrius had thought out his plan, and had the details ready. "In my judgment," he said, "we have already waited too long; but of that it is now useless to speak, except so far as to prove that we should wait no longer. We are in imminent danger. A woman, who knows at least the names of two of us, is in prison on this very charge; and though I know her to be brave and steadfast beyond the habit of her sex, the peril that lies in her knowledge is great. Let us anticipate it. To-night Nero goes to Baiæ, and takes up his abode in the villa of Caius Piso. There is no place where he lives in so little state; and state, with the multitudes of guards and attendants that it implies, is the same thing as safety. I propose that the deed be done to-morrow, and I offer myself as the doer of it. Suffer me to choose the hour, and also my companion, for more than one I shall not need."
A murmur of applause followed the speech. When it had subsided, all eyes were turned to Piso. His approval was necessary, not only as being the owner of the villa, but as being, so to speak, the heir presumptive to the throne. Piso rose immediately.
"It vexes me," he said, "to differ, as my conscience compels me, from the counsel of a most gallant and energetic gentleman. You have thought me worthy of succeeding to the dignity about to be left vacant by the most merited punishment of him who now unworthily occupies it. But I cannot consent to polluting the first auspices of my rule by an atrocious crime. It is not that I think the slaughter of an impious and bloodstained wretch to be anything but a worthy deed; it is that the vilest of mankind may gain pity, and even pardon, by the manner of his death. Nero, indeed, deserves to die; but that he should perish, a guest at the table of his host, while he is enjoying in security the entertainment which I offer to him, would be a thing equally odious to both gods and men. Power acquired by such a crime could not be exercised with benefit either to the Roman people or myself. Both as a private man, to whom the sanctity of his house is as precious as it is to all good citizens, or as the man about to be called by your suffrage to the Imperial power, I refuse my consent to the execution of this plan."
There was a general feeling of disappointment, and even dismay, when Piso sat down. It was generally felt that the reason which he had given for his dissent was both true and false: so far true that no one could dispute its validity; so far false that it did not express his whole mind. It was founded, not on a scruple, but a fear. Assure him of the succession, and he would have struck Nero as he sat at his table, with his own hand, all laws of hospitality notwithstanding. It was the obstacle that such a deed might be to this succession that he feared. He was not indispensable; to many he would not be the most eligible candidate for power. The scale might be thus finally turned against him. There might be a general agreement on some rival who would begin the new reign unstained by crime. Such a rival he had in his mind, a man of blameless morals and of race as noble as his own, with the added distinction of being a descendant of Augustus. Still, whatever his motives, his decision was final.
The next speaker was a Senator, Scævinus by name.
"Three days hence," he said, "the Feast of Ceres begins. The Emperor will certainly attend on the last day. Then will be our chance. When he comes down from his box, as he always does, will be the time."
"That," said Subrius, "puts it off for eleven days more, and no one knows what may happen in that time. Still, I shall be ready."
Scævinus stood up again. "The help of our friend Subrius will be welcome then as always; but I claim the chief part in the deed for myself; it is my hand that must strike the first blow."
A murmur of surprise ran through the meeting. No one had ever been able to guess why Scævinus had associated himself with the enterprise. He was a man of dissolute life, who had never shown any kind of energy except in the pursuit of pleasure. As for his present demand, it was nothing less than astonishing. However, it could not well be refused; the meeting had accepted the scheme, and its proposer must be allowed to take the chief share in it.
Subrius shrugged his shoulders. "What does the man mean?" he whispered to his next neighbour. "No one more unfit could have been found if we had searched Rome through from one end to the other. The man has neither strength nor nerve. If he ever had them, which I much doubt, for he comes of a bad stock, he has wasted them long ago."
The Tribune's feelings were shared by others, especially the soldiers; and there were manifest signs of dissent.
At this point Lateranus rose. "Suffer me to explain what we propose. I have a private request to make of the Emperor; as we are all friends here, I don't mind saying that it is a petition for a grant out of the privy purse in aid of the expenses of my Consulship. He has had notice that I am going to prefer it; he likes to make a parade of his liberality, and so he will not be surprised when I ask him this favour in public. I shall throw myself down on my knees before him, when he comes down from his box, and take care to do it in such a way as to upset him. When he is once down I shall not let him get up again. Then will be the time for all my friends who desire to have a hand in the affair to run up and do their best to rid the world of this monster. All that Scævinus demands is the glory of being allowed to strike the first blow!"
This explanation put a new and more satisfactory face on the matter. Lateranus was a man of huge stature and of great personal strength; of his courage and resolution there was no question.
"That sounds better," said the Prætorian to his friend. "Practically, Lateranus takes the first part; he is in every way fit for it, and besides, he has an unimpeachable reason for approaching the Emperor. Scævinus' privilege of striking the blow is only a concession to his trumpery vanity, which, I suppose, we need not grudge him. If he does not make haste about it, when his turn comes, I know that I for one shall not wait for him. And yet I can't help wishing that the silly fool had nothing to do with it. He may make a failure of it all yet."
A few more details remained to be arranged. It was obviously inexpedient that all the conspirators should take part in the assassination. Some would have to manage the not less important business of suggesting a successor. Accordingly a division of forces was made. Fifteen would be quite as many as were wanted to make sure of the Emperor's death. These were to find places as near as possible to the steps which led down from the Emperor's box into the arena. Others were to be scattered in prominent places about the building, and were to shout, as soon as the deed was done, "Hail, Caius Piso, Cæsar Augustus Imperator!"
For the rest of the conspirators a still more important function was reserved. The voices of the people were of little account without the consent and approval of the soldiers. Piso, it was arranged, was to be in waiting in the temple of Ceres. As soon as the deed was done, the remainder of the associates, including the most popular of the officers engaged in the conspiracy, and one or two Senators who had served in former years with distinction, and so were known to the soldiers, were to hurry the candidate for the Empire to the camp of the Prætorians. When the soldiers' voices were won by flatteries, promises, and bribes, all would be well. The Senate might be relied upon to register the decision of the men of war. Before night-fall, on the nineteenth of April, it was hoped that messengers would be on their way to the great camps on the frontiers, carrying the announcement that Caius Piso was now, by choice of the Senate and people of Rome, Cæsar Augustus, Imperator, Dictator, Tribune of the People, with perpetual authority.
During the intervening days nothing of importance occurred. Nero paid his proposed visit to Piso's villa at Baiæ. From thence he came to Rome, arriving in the city on the third day of the festival. He did not show himself at this or any of the five following days. But this excited no apprehension. It was not his custom to attend except on the last day. That he would be present then was practically certain, for it was advertised that the Emperor would contend with certain named competitors in a chariot-race.
Meanwhile the secret of the conspiracy was kept with a fidelity that, considering the number of the persons engaged, was in the last degree astonishing. On the eve of the appointed day everything was hope and confidence. Unfortunately there was one element of weakness, and that one was to have disastrous consequences.