The immoralities which characterized the reigns of some of the first emperors must be considered as abnormal outbreaks rather than as permanent conditions. The element of corruption is always present in the social body. As a rule, it reveals itself only to those who look for it in the slums and prisons and criminal haunts, but at times and under certain conditions it breaks out with excessive virulence, and, to adopt a Biblical figure, there seems to be no soundness in the whole body. Such conditions were present during the period we have been studying. Many circumstances combined to bring all the corruption and immorality which are usually veiled or disguised into prominent view and to make them fashionable. The accidents of birth placed upon the imperial throne men who were morally insane; consequently, the evil-disposed found themselves in a paradise of crime, while the ambitious, the covetous, and the cowardly were enabled to gain their ends and preserve their safety only by becoming caterers to and companions in their masters' lusts.
It is very easy, however, for a student of history to encourage an exaggerated idea of Roman depravity, even as it was in the days of Messalina and Poppsea. Whence do we obtain our picture of the Rome of those times? Partly from historians; but very largely from such writers as Juvenal, Petronius, and Apuleius. The historians confined their accounts to the prominent people of their times, and it not unfrequently happened that the most prominent and successful were the least commendable from the moral standpoint. The moralists necessarily placed the worst in the boldest relief, in order to ensure a more telling effect. Seneca held such writers up to ridicule, when he said: "Morals are gone; evil triumphs; all virtue, all justice, is disappearing; the world is degenerating. This is what was said in our fathers' days, it is what men say to-day, and it will be the cry of our children." And yet, the world does not grow worse. As for the society portrayed by Petronius and Apuleius, these men sought their characters among the low pothouses and the brothels of Rome. The morals of the ordinary Roman home must not be judged by a scene either in a house of ill fame or in the palace of a crazy and dissolute tyrant, any more than the common life of Herculaneum or Pompeii is to be conjectured solely from the obscene pictures found on the walls of their ruined dwellings.
In this present chapter, the women we shall cite are chiefly those who were ennobled in their deaths rather than in their lives. That is to say, though they lived well, had it not been for their brave manner of dying their names would not have been preserved in history.
As has been said, Roman society was not wholly corrupt, even though an adulterous Messalina, an unprincipled Poppæa, or a cruel and ambitious Agrippina, shared the throne. Contemporary with these were women who still with pure hands and sincere hearts invoked the ancient goddess of chastity. There were those who had mother love for their children, but were free from deadly ambition. Among the more ordinary homes were many that were graced with the same family loyalty and tender affection as beautify our homes to-day.
The young women of the days of Claudius were not obliged to search in the musty annals of past times for examples of feminine honor and virtue. They had all known Antonia, the virtuous daughter of Octavia and Antony, who, like Agrippina, had honored her widowhood by a long and irreproachable chastity. Yet the maidens of Messalina's age may have been the less attracted by the example of Antonia because, while she retained the old Roman purity of morals, she also exemplified the old Roman severity of manners. Claudius, her son, never ceased to stand in awe of her, and during his childhood her severity to him was such that it is supposed that it helped to induce his imbecility. When her daughter Livilla had been betrayed into crime by means of the arts of Sejanus, Antonia was even more inexorable than Tiberius, against whom the plot had been laid, and she caused the young woman to be starved to death. It was not an instance of cruelty, it was simply the old Roman justice, in which personal or even maternal feeling was allowed no place. Antonia's goodness was not of the attractive kind. We must imagine her as a proud, puritanical old matron, who made herself a terror to wrong doers. She courageously rebuked her grandson Caligula for his enormities; but the young ruffian, who possessed neither the mind nor the conscience to respect age or kinship, in return caused Antonia to be put to death--though it is possible that the actual deed may have been her own.
It was asked of old: "Can a clean thing come out of an unclean?" The affirmative answer to this question is found in the person and character of Octavia, the daughter of Messalina the infamous. Indeed, the axiom that "like produces like" cannot be applied to moral character; so many instances are met with of bad offspring from noble parentage and virtuous children from immoral antecedents that they cannot be regarded as exceptions to the rule.
Octavia was fortunate in nothing but her character. She was the plaything of a relentlessly adverse fate. The whole of her short life is an illustration of the fact that goodness of disposition does not protect its possessor from the worst evils of existence. That this young girl remained virtuous amid the whirl of immorality in which she was reared, with no lovable example and no motherly advice, is a proof of the invincibility of a good disposition if nature has woven it into a human character.
As a little child, Octavia had been petted and fondled by her father, the poor old Emperor Claudius, who, dull and phlegmatic as he was, would have been a good-hearted man if he had not been thrust into a position for which he was totally unfitted. He loved to take Octavia and her little brother Britannicus to the theatre and hold them with a father's pride before the admiring eyes of the people. This was all the love that Octavia ever knew. One of her earliest and saddest experiences was to be sent by Messalina out upon the road to Ostia, to meet Claudius and plead vainly for that unworthy mother's life. Then Agrippina came to the palace; and with her in the double capacity of empress and stepmother, Octavia found no cause of thankfulness for the change. Hitherto she at least had not been used as a mere tool to effect some other's political ambitions. Her father Claudius had betrothed her to Lucius Silanus, a celebrated and favorite Senator. Had this match been allowed to remain undisturbed, it is possible that Octavia's lot might have been peaceful and happy; but a false charge against Silanus was trumped up by the perfidious Vitellius, so that the former was degraded from the Senate, and immediately afterward he committed suicide, Octavia lived on and encountered the terrible misfortune of being betrothed to Nero, whom Seneca was advising to "compensate himself with the pleasures of youth without compunction." Agrippina threw Octavia to her son, just as a rope might be tossed to a mountain climber to enable him to ascend a difficult pass; when its use has been served, it is looked upon as a piece of mere cumbersome baggage. So Nero considered his wife, after he had obtained the Empire. When he expressed his dislike for her, the plain-spoken Burrhus said: "Very well, send her away; but of course you will give up her dower with her;" which was nothing less than the throne of Claudius.
Had Octavia been supported by some all-powerful and sympathetic relative like Augustus, she might have survived and have shown as great patience with the vices of Nero as her ancestral namesake showed with those of Antony; but she was left unprotected amidst numerous opposing forces which, when not aimed with deadly hatred against her, were indifferent to her welfare, with the consequence that she was speedily and mercilessly crushed.
The first woman who took the place which Octavia never held in Nero's affections was the Greek freedwoman Acte. The wild young emperor would have divorced his wife and married the Greek forthwith, but he was still under the domination of the powerful Agrippina. This first thwarting of the imperial will was the beginning of Agrippina's downfall. It was not long before she and the young wife saw a fearful presage of their own fate when the young Britannicus fell dead upon the banquet floor, poisoned by the diabolical art of Nero's instrument, Locusta. Octavia, though so young, was not entirely ignorant as to what the perils of her situation demanded. She had received early lessons in a terrible school. Consequently, when Nero declared to the alarmed guests that her brother was habitually afflicted with the falling sickness, she disguised her sisterly grief and composedly retained her place at the banquet.
But the time came when Agrippina had also fallen a victim to her son's inhumanity, and Nero, responsible to no human being, had become enamored by the more attractive fascinations of a more unprincipled woman than Acte. "Why does not Nero," the tyrant asks of himself, "banishing all fear, set about expediting his marriage with Poppæa? Why not put away his wife Octavia, although her conduct is that of a modest woman, since the name of her father and the affection of the people have made her an eyesore to him?" With Poppæa urging him on and the villainous Tigellinus exercising his diabolical ingenuity to find a plausible excuse, it was not long before the courage of Nero was equal to the audacious act of driving from the imperial palace the woman through connection with whom he had his right of tenure there. Octavia was divorced by process of law, under the allegation that she was barren. At first she was awarded the house of Burrhus and the estate of Plautus, whom Nero had recently put to death. The divorce being sought by her husband for no fault of hers, he was obliged, if the strict letter of the law had been observed, to give up with her the whole of her dowry; but for men like Nero, who execute the laws, a mere pretence of legality suffices. Poppæa had brazenly endeavored to trump up a far more serious charge against the woman she injured; but it could not be made to hold. She bribed one of Octavia's domestics to assert that her mistress had participated in an amour with Eucerus, an Alexandrian flute player; but this accusation was so preposterously inconsistent with Octavia's well-known character that, even though they tortured her servants, they could gain no evidence which they dared to set before the people in substantiation of the charge. There could be no stronger testimony to the amiability and lovableness of Octavia, as well as to the purity of her character, than the fidelity with which her servants defended her reputation from all aspersions, even while they were undergoing the most intense torture. One brave maid, while being examined upon the rack, spat in the face of Tigellinus, who was urging a confession, and declared aloud that "the womb of Octavia was purer than his mouth." It was among slaves like these that the first Christian martyrs were found; women who gave their bodies to the most excruciating torture, but could not be induced to deny their faith.
Soon after Octavia's divorce, she was banished into Campania, where she was kept in close confinement, and a guard of soldiers was placed over her. But though the Senate and the nobility had become absolutely enslaved to the imperial tyrant's will, there was always the people to reckon with. The common women talked loudly but sympathetically of Octavia's persecuted innocence. The men took up the cry; they made it heard in the theatre and they scribbled it upon the walls. The people could not be individualized. They had not but one neck, as Caligula had so maliciously wished. Their number and individual insignificance rendered it possible for them to express their mind with impunity. Nero hastened to recall Octavia to the city.
That was a day of proud but dangerous joy for the unfortunate young empress. At least she had the satisfaction of knowing that all the world believed in her innocence. In their happiness, the multitude went to the Capitol and thanked all the gods for her return. They threw down the statues of Poppæa, and wherever they could find one of Octavia they wreathed It with flowers and removed it to the Forum or to some temple. They even went to the palace to applaud Nero for bringing back his banished wife, but were driven thence by the soldiery.
AH this served only to incite Poppæa to take the most desperate measures. She approached Nero with such artful insinuations in regard to the possibility of the people's revolting in favor of Octavia, and at the same time with a pretence of such meek submissiveness in regard to her own personal fortunes, that the emperor was induced both by fear and passion to take the course which she desired.
A method of getting rid of Octavia without incurring danger was not easy to devise; but Nero had at his court a man who was a genius in the art of removing formidable impediments. Anicetus had proved his ability upon Agrippina. He was not only resourceful, but absolutely without either honor or conscience. It was not alone necessary that Octavia should be destroyed, but her death must take on the semblance of a justified punishment. There was none who could or would testify aught against her. Nero summoned Anicetus and told him "that he alone had saved the life of his prince from the dark devices of his mother; now an opportunity for a service of no less magnitude presented itself, by relieving him from a wife who was his mortal enemy. There was no need of force or arms; he had only to admit of adultery with Octavia!" The dastardly freedman forthwith began to boast among his friends of the favors he received from the young empress. On being summoned to a council of the friends of Nero, he made a pretended confession. He was condemned to banishment to Sardinia, where he lived in great luxury until he died a natural death.
Nero published an edict in which he stated that Octavia had been discovered seeking, through the corruption of Anicetus, the admiral, to engage the fleet in a conspiracy, and that her infidelity was clearly proved. Octavia was sent to the island of Pandataria. Tacitus says: "Never was there any exile who touched the hearts of the beholders with deeper compassion. Some there were who still remembered to have seen Agrippina the Elder banished by Tiberius; the more recent sufferings of Julia were likewise recalled to mind--that Julia who had been confined there by Claudius. But they had experienced some happiness, and the recollection of their former splendor proved some alleviation of their present horrors." Everything in Octavia's life that promised pleasure had been turned to gall. Her home recalled the scenes of her father's poisoning and her brother's murder; her marriage rights had been first usurped by a handmaid and then by a woman known to be of infamous character; and now even her memory was to be stained with the imputation of a crime which was more intolerable to her than death itself. There is no sadder picture in all history than that of this girl,--she was only twenty,--after her short life of uninterrupted sorrow and unstained innocence, thrown among centurions and common soldiers, who dared not help her even if a feeling of pity entered their hearts. They commanded her to die; but she had not the strength or the courage of Antonia. She pleaded that she was now a widow, and that the emperor's object having been gained he had no cause to fear anything from her. She invoked the name of Agrippina, and said "that had she lived, her marriage would have been made no less wretched, but she would not have been doomed to destruction." When those in charge saw that it was hopeless to expect that she would take the unpleasant task off their hands, they bound her and opened her veins; but, the blood flowing too slowly, her death was accelerated by the vapor of a bath heated to the highest point. After life was extinct, they severed her head from her body and carried it to Poppaea, in order that she might see that the deed by which she was made Empress of Rome was surely accomplished.
The abject Senate, when they learned that the whole matter was thus concluded, decreed that offerings should be made at the temples, as a thanksgiving for the deliverance of the emperor from the dangers which had threatened him through the conspiracy of his wife. Tacitus declares that he records this circumstance "in order that all those who shall read the calamities of those times, as they are delivered by me or any other authors, may conclude, by anticipation, that as often as a banishment or a murder was perpetrated by the prince's orders, so often thanks were offered to the gods; and those acts which in former times were resorted to in order that prosperous occurrences might be distinguished, were now made the tokens of public disasters."
These were the days of the martyrs. During this reign, the burning bodies of Christians lighted the gardens of the malevolent tyrant, innocent women and tender girls were exposed to fierce beasts in the arena, and by their sufferings were made to contribute interest to a Roman holiday. These died for their faith. They died gladly, in the belief that their pains and faithfulness were to be rewarded with an unfading crown in a land beyond the skies. They cheered each other in the face of death, and they were comforted by those friends who were still at liberty with the promise of a meeting where no tyrant's hand could harm them. Octavia was not of this faith. It is probable that she knew nothing of the strange doctrines which were making converts among the Roman slaves. Yet there was no martyr more innocent than herself, none more worthy of canonization. There was none whose purity and whose fidelity to the principles which were cherished by high souls could present a better claim for the victor's palm and the martyr's crown than her own. Octavia knew nothing of the Christian hope of immortality; her religious faith at the best could teach her no more than the vague surmise that possibly in some dreary under world the shades of mortals retained a melancholy consciousness. Yet a consistent justice at the present day cannot do other than place side by side the persecuted girl from the imperial palace and the Christian slave maiden whose blood dripped from the jaws of the beasts of the arena, and believe that whatever consolation eternal fate provided for the one was equally shared in by the other.
As we have said, the first woman to attract the affections of Nero, which were never turned toward Octavia, was Acte. She had probably been brought as a slave from Asia. How old she was when Nero first knew her it is impossible for us to conjecture, but it is likely that she was somewhat older than the youthful emperor; it frequently happens that a boy's first love is aroused by a woman his superior in age. Then, too, Acte was at this time a freedwoman. Liberty was often gained by female slaves by means of the charms of their persons; but this result was not likely to be secured before those charms were fully matured. So profound was Nero's passion for Acte that, had he not been with difficulty restrained, he would have divorced Octavia forthwith and married the Greek. He is said to have induced men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. It is by no means impossible that such an assertion should be true; for the slave markets which supplied Rome were to a large extent recruited by kidnapped children, picked up wherever they might be found. It is remarkable that not a word that is detrimental to the character of Acte is recorded in history. Indeed, we know but very little about her, though she has always been regarded with a sort of poetical approbation. There is no evidence of her having used her power with the emperor for the injury of an enemy. She seems to have been modest and unassuming, and it is certain that her love for Nero was sincere; for it not only outlasted his, but remained true to the latest hour of his life. When all others had forsaken the fallen prince whom they had fawned upon, it was Acte who tenderly cared for his remains.
Tacitus represents her as warning Nero from his early evil extravagances. She remained queen of his affections for four years,--the best four years of his reign,--and it is said that when he turned from her to Poppaea she sank into a profound melancholy. Upon all this has been founded the surmise that Acte was a Christian; but it is nothing more than conjecture. Whatever may have been the facts in regard to this, in the little glimpses we obtain of her presence in the awful tragedies of her age we catch the outline of one whom we are assured must have been a good woman--a woman innately pure, but forced into contact with vice by circumstances over which she had no control.
There are numerous examples from history to prove that in the dissolute reign of Nero feminine goodness was not a rarity; but there are no pictures of pure light-heartedness and gladsome simplicity such as were known in the older days. Everything was sombre; death was in the air; the only gayety was that found in the scenes of reckless profligacy. It was an age of extremes; on the one side, unrestrained profligacy; on the other, fear and sorrow occasioned by a tyrant's cruel caprice. It was an age in which all the experiences of life were intensified. Human life of the period can only be pictured in high lights and deep shadows; everything must be shown in strong relief. The fortune of nearly all the good women of this time whose names we know was to suffer patiently and die heroically.
Like Acte, the noble matron Pomponia Græcina has been credited by tradition with having found consolation for the sorrows of the times in that new faith which was undermining old Rome, both literally in the catacombs and figuratively in the rapidity with which it was making converts; but we know not with certainty. It would be unjust to paganism and untrue to history to claim every instance of moral superiority for the modern faith. Still, Græcina was accused of yielding to foreign superstitions. This may have been owing to the peculiarities of her manner. She had been the close friend of that Julia, daughter of Drusus, whom Messalina had forced to kill herself. From this time on, for the space of forty years, Græcina wore nothing but mourning, and was never seen to smile. Sienkiewicz founds the plot of his Neronian novel on the idea that Græcina was a Christian; but there are no facts by which this supposition can be verified. When the charge of entertaining foreign superstitions was laid against her, she was, in accordance with the ancient law, consigned to the adjudication of her husband. Plautius assembled her kindred, and, in compliance with the institutions of early times, having in their presence made solemn inquisition into the character and conduct of his wife, adjudged her innocent. She survived to a great age and was always held in high estimation by the people, but she never recovered from her melancholy.
When the noble Thrasea had been condemned to death by Nero, the officer who brought the tidings found him walking in the portico of his house. He had already opened his veins, and as he stretched out his arms the blood began to flow. Calling the quæstor to him, and sprinkling the blood upon the floor, he said: "Let us make a libation to Jove the Deliverer. Behold, young man, and may the gods avert the omen, but you are fallen upon such times that it may be useful to fortify your mind by examples of unflinching firmness." Arria, his wife, wished to share her husband's fate, but he bade her live for their daughter's sake.
There were many women who presented examples of the same unflinching firmness for the encouragement of their own sex. The mother of Thrasea's wife, whose name was also Arria, exhibited a strength of mind and a magnanimity of spirit equal to that of the noblest Romans in the best days of the Republic. Duruy recounts two episodes in the career of this noble woman which illustrate all we have claimed for her as one of the best of her sex.
"Arria's husband, Cæcina Pætus, and his son were affected with a serious malady; the son died. His mother took such measures respecting the funeral that the father knew nothing of it. Every time she entered his room she gave him news of the sufferer,--he had not slept badly, or perhaps he was recovering his appetite; and when she could no longer restrain her tears she went out for a moment, and then returned with dry eyes and a calm face, having left her grief behind her. At a later period, her husband, being concerned in the conspiracy of Scribonianus, was captured and taken to Rome. He was put on board a ship, and Arria begged the soldiers to allow her to go with him, 'You cannot refuse,' she said to them, 'to a man of consular rank a few slaves to wait on him and dress him; I alone will do him these services.' As they continued inexorable, she hired a fishing boat and followed across the Adriatic the vessel in which her husband was conveyed. At Rome, she met the wife of Scribonianus, who attempted to speak to her. 'How can I listen to you,' she said to her, 'who have seen your husband killed in your arms, and who are still alive?' Foreseeing the condemnation of Pætus, she determined not to survive him. Thrasea, her son-in-law, begged her to give up this determination. 'Is it your wish, then,' he said to her, 'if I should be compelled to die, that your daughter should die with me?' 'If she shall have lived as long and as united a life with you as I with Pætus, it is my wish,' was the reply. Her family watched her carefully, to prevent her fatal design. 'You are wasting your time,' she said; 'you will make me die a more painful death, but it is not in your power to prevent me from dying.' Thereupon she dashed her head against the wall with such violence that she fell down as if dead. When she recovered her senses, she said to them: 'I have already warned you that I should find some means of death, however hard, if you denied me an easy one.' We cannot wonder that, to decide her hesitating husband, she struck herself a fatal blow with a poniard; then handed him the weapon, saying: 'Pætus, it gives no pain.'"
Pliny gives an account of an incident showing similar conjugal devotion and self-sacrificing courage. "I was sailing lately," says he, "on our Lake Larius, when an elderly friend pointed out to me a house, one of whose rooms projected above the waves. 'From that spot,' he said, 'a townswoman of ours threw herself out with her husband. The latter had long been ill, suffering from an incurable ulcer. When she was convinced that he could not recover from his disease, she exhorted him to kill himself, and became his companion in death--nay, rather his example and leader, for she tied her husband to her and jumped into the lake.'" This was a woman of the common citizens; we do not even know her name. Modern times have no examples to show of a closer marital sympathy than this. Our ideas compel us to deprecate the act of self-destruction; but we cannot question, or more than rival, such devotion. The like degree of faithfulness between married couples was common among the Romans; and this was their manner of showing it.
We have, more than once, seen the statement advanced in all seriousness by well-informed writers and public speakers that marital affection, in the modern understanding of the expression, was almost unknown among the ancients. The object of the contention is to enhance the appreciation of the effects of Christianity; but the argument is as absurdly inconsistent with history as it is with common sense. True, Christianity discourages conjugal unions in which that affection does not exist, but it does not create it; nor was there anything whatever in pagan customs or institutions to prevent the existence of the warmest and purest affection between husband and wife. The sole conditions in the ancient world that militated against pure and constant married love were the customary unions of expediency and the inferior position of the wife. As to the first of these customs, it is by no means unknown in the modern world and to Christian times; in regard to the second, the Roman wife in the period with which we are now engaged was almost equally as well off as her modern descendant.
Principles of virtue, honor, and duty of a high order had been inculcated through many generations of ancient Romans; and it could not be otherwise than that these would reappear and manifest themselves with invincible insistence, even in the most corrupt days of the Empire. What higher or more dignified sense of duty could there be than that exhibited by the lady who had determined to send substantial relief to a friend of hers, banished by Domitian? It was represented to her that this money would be certain to fall into the tyrant's hands, and that hence she would be only wasting her means and gratifying the unworthy. "It is of little consequence to me," she said, "if Domitian steal it; but it is of great moment for me to send it." She possessed the sublime conviction that she was responsible to her consciousness of what friendship demanded, even though she might be certain of the miscarriage of her efforts.
There were also women whose spirits were stirred by the love of freedom, and who were willing to do and dare and suffer in the attempt to wrest the nation from a tyrant's grasp. Among those who have sacrificed their own lives at the altar of Liberty, the Roman woman can claim representatives.
We are told that into the conspiracy against Nero which was headed by Caius Piso, "senators, knights, soldiers, and even women entered with the ardor of competition." The plot was to attack Nero while he was singing upon the stage, though it was considered by some that it would be a better plan to set his house on fire and then despatch him while he was excitedly hurrying about unattended by his guards. "While the conspirators were hesitating, and protracting the issue of their hopes and fears, a woman named Epicharis--and how she became acquainted with the affair is involved in mystery, nor had she ever manifested a concern for worthy objects before--began to animate the conspirators, and goad them on by reproaches; but at length, disgusted by their dilatoriness, while sojourning in Campania, she tried every effort to shake the allegiance of the officers of the fleet at Misenum, and engage them in the plot."
But, though an enthusiastic conspirator, Epicharis proved herself an unwary recruiting agent. She especially applied herself to an old acquaintance named Proculus, who confided to her the fact that he had been one of the party concerned in the assassination of the emperor's mother, and that he was dissatisfied with the reward he had received for such eminent service, he being only a minor officer in the fleet. He added that it was his settled purpose to be revenged, should a fitting opportunity present itself. Epicharis did not wait to consider the unwisdom of incontinently intrusting the knowledge of the whole plot to a man of insufficient principle to prevent him from looking upon the murder of a defenceless woman as an exploit to be liberally rewarded. Moreover, it is likely that she inadvertently had dropped some hint of what was in her mind, and Proculus lured her on by suggesting the possibility of himself as a convert. Epicharis first gave him the whole plot, and then set about persuading him to join it. She recounted all the atrocities of the emperor; and concluded with the remark "that Nero had stripped the Senate of all its powers; but," she added, "measures had been taken to punish him for overturning the constitution; and Proculus had only to address himself manfully to the work and bring over to their side the most energetic of the troops, and he might depend upon receiving suitable rewards."
One indiscretion she did not commit: she did not divulge the names of the conspirators. So, when Proculus laid information before the emperor--thinking doubtless that this was a readier path to reward than any plot of assassination of which a woman would be cognizant--his evidence was of little avail; but Nero considered it best to detain Epicharis in prison, in anticipation of anything that might occur.
The conspirators at last concluded to perpetrate their design at the Cirensian games. Lateranus, a man of determined spirit and gigantic strength, was to approach the emperor as a suppliant and, apparently by accident, throw him down. Scævinus was to perform the principal part with a dagger he had procured from the temple of Fortune for the purpose. Piso was to wait at the temple of Ceres until he was summoned to the camp, which he was to enter attended by Antonia, the daughter of Claudius Cæsar,--a woman of an entirely opposite character to that of her grandmother, after whom she was named,--and who, it was hoped, would conciliate the favor of the people. How deeply Antonia was involved in this plot it is impossible to say. It appears improbable, as Tacitus remarks, that she should have lent her name and hazarded her life in a project from which she had nothing to hope.
It was through the dagger mentioned above, and also the cupidity of a woman, that the whole conspiracy came to light. Scævinus impatiently ordered his freedman Milichus to put the weapon to the grindstone and bring it to a sharp point. Milichus, putting together this and other preparations he witnessed, guessed the project that was on foot. He told his suspicions to the emperor. Scævinus was arrested; but his bearing was so confident that the accuser would have broken down had not the wife of Milichus reminded him that "Natalis had taken part in many secret conversations with Scævinus, and that both were confidants of Piso." Then followed numerous arrests, confessions, and accusations, each conspirator endeavoring to lighten the burden of his own guilt by revealing how many there were who shared it. Lucan the poet even informed against his own mother, Atilla.
Amid all this disaster, there was one spirit that remained undaunted, one tongue that could not be persuaded by promises or compelled by torment to confess and thus implicate others. Epicharis had been held in custody from the time of her unguarded enthusiasm in Campania. Nero recollected her, and commanded that she should be put to the torture. "But," says the historian, "neither stripes, nor fire, nor the rage of the tormentors, who tore her with the more vehemence, lest they should be scorned by a woman, could vanquish her." Thus the first day of torture was passed without producing any effect upon her. "The day following, as she was being brought back to suffer the same torments, riding in a chair, for all her members being disjointed, she could not support herself, taking off the girdle that bound her breast, she tied it in a noose to the canopy of the chair, and, placing her neck in it, hung upon it with the weight of her whole body, and thus forced out the slender remains of life. A freedwoman, by thus screening strangers and persons almost unknown to her, though pressed to divulge their names by the most extreme torture, exhibited an example which derived augmented lustre from the fact that freeborn persons, men, Roman knights, and Senators, untouched by the instruments of inquisition, all betrayed their dearest pledges of affection."
Among the many who suffered from the discovery of this conspiracy was Seneca, the aged philosopher and the former tutor of Nero. It is probable that he was innocent; but he had incurred Nero's displeasure, and the tyrant was glad of the opportunity to destroy him with seeming justice. The parting of Seneca with his wife and her conduct at the time well merit the pains which the historian has taken with the recital. Embracing his wife, he implored her to "refrain from surrendering herself to endless grief; but to endeavor to mitigate her regret for her husband by means of those honorable consolations which she would experience in the contemplation of his virtuous life." Paullina, however, expressed her determination to die with her husband, and called for the assistance of the executioner to open her veins. Seneca, proud of her devotion and as willing to see her acquire the glory of such an act as he was to be assured that she was safe from the hard usages of the world, replied: "I had pointed out to you how to soften the ills of life; but you prefer the renown of dying. I will not envy you the honor of the example. Though both display the same unflinching fortitude in encountering death, still the glory of your exit will be superior to mine." Then they had the veins of their arms opened at the same moment; but being unable to bear up under the excessive torture, and afraid lest the sight of his sufferings should overpower her, Seneca persuaded his wife to retire into another room.
When Nero heard what was being done, having no dislike to Paullina, and not willing to incur the odium of a double death and one so affecting, he ordered her wounds to be dressed and the flow of blood stanched. She survived but a few years, and these were devoted to the memory of her husband. It is also said that an excessive paleness was the continuous witness to the sacrifice to conjugal devotion which she had done her best to make.
Not so fortunate was Servilia, a young woman of twenty who, at this time, was arraigned before the Senate, charged with having distributed sums of money among the magi. Servilia was the daughter of Soranus, who had been Proconsul of Asia. There was no accusation against Servilia's father more severe than that he was a friend of Plautus, whom Nero, for reasons utterly unjust, but entirely satisfactory to himself, had caused to be executed. Tacitus suggests the picture of her trial: the consuls on the judgment seat in the presence of the assembled Senate; on one side of that tribunal, an old, gray-haired man who for many years has served his country with honor and integrity; on the other side, the daughter, so young and yet widowed, for her husband has been sent into banishment, and hence is as dead to her. The thought that she, who had endeavored to aid and comfort her father, had only added to his dangers is so oppressive that she has not the heart to look at him. The accuser questions her: "Did you not sell your bridal ornaments, and even the chain off your neck, to raise money for the performance of magic rites?" Instead of answering, the unfortunate girl falls to the floor, embracing the altar, as though hoping that divine aid would be given, where human mercy was not to be expected. At last she gathers voice, and is able to falter: "I have used no spells; nor did I seek aught by my unhappy prayers than that you, Cæsar, and you, fathers, would preserve this best of fathers unharmed. It was with this object alone I gave up my jewels, my raiment, and the ornaments belonging to my station; as I would have given up my blood and life, had the magi required them. To those men, till then unknown to me, it belongs to declare whose ministers they are, and what mysteries they use; the prince's name was never uttered by me, save as one speaks of the gods. Yet to all this proceeding of mine, if guilty it be, my most unhappy father is a stranger; and if it is a crime, I alone am the criminal." Then Soranus pleads for his daughter. Her age is so tender that she could not have known Plautus, whose friend they accuse himself of being. Do they impeach him for mismanagement of his province? Let it be so; yet his daughter had not accompanied him to Asia. Her only crime was too much filial piety, too great solicitude for her father. He would gladly submit to whatever fate awaited him, if only they would separate her case from his. Overcome with emotion, the old man totters forward with outstretched hands to embrace his daughter, who springs to meet him; but the stern lictors interpose the fasces and deny them this sad comfort.
The Senate exercises a heartless clemency; Servilia and Soranus are allowed to choose their own deaths. This faithful daughter, for seeking by means of her religion to aid her father, is privileged to die with him. With them also perished Thrasea, who had added to his crime of disbelieving in the deification of Poppæa that of neglecting to sacrifice for the preservation of Nero's beautiful voice!
A strikingly magnificent feature of the old Roman character is the manner in which these people met death. This was the one virtue which the Romans, down to the latest period of the decadence, did not cease to retain. In the most dissolute times, the Roman might live badly, but at least he could die bravely. This was the one opportunity always left when atonement might be made for the errors of life. In this ability to meet death with calm fortitude the women shared no less than the men. The maids and matrons of Rome were habituated by training and by their best traditional examples to look upon the possibility of exit from the world as an ever ready refuge from unendurable ills. Lucretia was for Roman matrons an ideal in her death as well as in her life; and they seem to have found it less irksome to follow her in the former respect than in the latter.
In the endeavor to show how, even in the days of Nero, when wickedness reached its climax, virtue and honor and devotion were not utterly gone out of the world, it has been necessary to adopt as illustrations some of the saddest of the many tragedies of human history. Neither side of any true picture of this period can be a pleasing one. Human life in the city of Rome during the middle of the first century of our era was for the most part either insane or sad. To exult in unrighteousness or mourn in bereavement was the lot of every prominent personage; for there were few quiet, honorable folk whom the hand of tyranny did not touch through their friends. Therefore, in the endeavor to show the better side of the life of this time, the necessity has been forced upon us to illustrate how the prevailing remnant of the ancient virtue was manifested in the devotion of women to their stricken husbands and friends, and in the firm manner in which they met their own death.
That which belongs to the ordinary routine of woman's life did not undergo any change during this period. The status of woman remained unaltered; her manners, customs, and occupations were the same. There was no progress. It was like the conditions existing in a home during a terrific electrical storm; all other interests are in abeyance until it is over.
This statement, however, applies more particularly to the city of Rome and to Italy. In the outlying parts of that country and in the provinces, the storm was hardly felt. Women who lived out of the sight of Nero and whose male friends did not hold office were secure from imperial cruelty and caprice. Their lives ran on in the ordinary manner of civilization. They were betrothed and married according to the ancient ceremonies; for customs changed slowly away from the metropolis. They worshipped the old gods, though they heard now and again of a certain sect of fanatical people who courted their own destruction from the officials, if not from Olympus, by denouncing the ancient worship. They managed their homes and their slaves, read their books, as we have seen in the case of Calpurnia, the wife of Pliny, and visited the amphitheatre. The only anxieties of the women who belonged to the unofficial class were those incidental to the rule of the proconsuls who were sent to govern them in the name of the emperor. Sometimes these men were lustful; frequently they were tyrannical; they were always rapacious. The people were oppressed to meet the demands of the tax collectors; but these were ills that were always with them and represented a condition of affairs that was normal.
In his biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, who was himself a provincial, Tacitus says: "He married Domitia Decidiana, a lady of illustrious descent, from which connection he derived credit and support in his pursuit of greater things. They lived together in admirable harmony and mutual affection, each giving the preference to the other; a conduct equally laudable in both, except that a greater degree of praise is due to a good wife, in proportion as a bad one deserves the greater censure." What more touching expression of family affection can there be found than the words Tacitus wrote in respect to Agricola's death? Apostrophizing him, he says: "But to myself and your daughter, besides the affliction of losing a parent, the aggravating affliction remains that it was not our lot to watch over your sickbed. With what attention should we have received your last instructions, and graven them on our hearts! This is our sorrow. Everything, doubtless, O best of parents, was administered for your comfort and honor, while a most affectionate wife sat beside you; yet fewer tears were shed upon your bier, and in the last light which your eyes beheld, something was wanting." There is nothing in modern times superior to this in chaste and cultivated sympathy.
Seneca also, who was born at Cordova, describes his mother as having been "brought up in a strict home"; and he assures us that his aunt, during the sixteen years that her husband governed Egypt, was "unknown in the province," so devoted was she to her family and home duties. There was also Polla, the wife of Lucan, whose inconsolable grief at her husband's death was so beautifully described by Statius. We read also of Minicius Macrinus, who lived thirty-nine years with his consort without a single cloud ever rising between them; while Martial tells us of Spurinna, a man of consular family loaded with years and honors, who lived in the country with his aged wife, each resting in the other's affection, and finishing together "the evening of a fair life."
UNDER THE FLAVIANS
Such sober-minded people as had survived the reign of Nero hailed the tyrant's death as a deliverance, though they had no guaranty of the inauguration of a better state of things. No conceivable change could be otherwise than for the better. At first sight, it seems marvellous that the better class of Romans endured so long and with such supineness a shameful monstrosity like the government of Nero; but it must be remembered that no government is other than the majority of the people desire, or better than they deserve. The mass of the people in the capital were satisfied to have an imperial mountebank ruling over them. Politics had ceased to interest them, they having wholly forfeited their liberties. They cared naught for the fortunes of the Empire, so long as the wheat ships came regularly from Alexandria. The only vestige of independence they retained was the privilege of shouting with impatience when the games were delayed; there were no further rights they cared to demand when Nero, dining in his box at the amphitheatre, threw his napkin from behind the curtains as a signal that he had finished and that the sport might commence. With such a populace as this, the nobler spirits in the city could hope to accomplish nothing. Their only recourse was to glorify their passive sufferings and their death with stoical calmness and undismayed pride. How hopeless it was to expect the inauguration of a revolt among the common people of Rome is shown by the attitude of these people toward Nero's memory after his death. For a long time, his tomb was continually decked with flowers. Sometimes, his admirers placed his image upon the rostra, dressed in robes of state; again, they would publish proclamations in his name, as though he were yet alive and would shortly return and avenge himself upon his enemies. Occasionally, there were rumors of his reappearance, for the reality of his death was doubted in many quarters, and the undisguised satisfaction with which these reports were received is evidence that the Roman people generally were not yearning for reform.
But those who were absent in the provinces, being neither under the immediate power of Nero nor partners in his excesses, did not endure with such complacence the shame he put upon the Roman name. Men like Galba and Vespasian heard with great indignation from scoffing foreigners how, at Rome, they had seen the emperor acting Orestes or even Canace on the stage. These men could not endure the thought of serving under a ruler who competed with a slaveborn pantomimist. Revolt flamed up among the legions in various parts of the Empire; the guards at Rome joined in it; and when Galba came, who had been proclaimed emperor, they gladly welcomed him.
Rome was shaken in the very foundations of her constitutional ideals. The discovery of the possibility that an emperor could be created away from the city marked the entering of the wedge which was eventually to bring about the disintegration of the Empire. The legions had come clearly to realize that the gift of the Empire was in their hands. The Senate was henceforth supernumerary. The city was no longer to be viewed with that superstitious reverence which had made men deem nothing sacred or authoritative that had not issued therefrom; it was the centre, but no longer the source of Empire. It soon came to pass that "Roman" signified wide-spreading national inclusion rather than, as heretofore, racial exclusion; even a Jew might now claim to be a freeborn Roman citizen, though he had never seen the Capitol.
In consequence of opposing claims to the succession, Italy was once more torn with civil strife, an experience from which she had been free ever since the days of the last Triumvirate. Within eighteen months three emperors were created and destroyed.
Our story, however, does not deal with emperors or with the political history of Rome, except as it is necessary to refer to it as a background for, or an explanation of, the conduct of the women who are herein introduced. Women played no important part in the disturbances which shook the Empire after the death of Nero, and which thus differed from many of the previous revolutions in the State; yet it is entirely consistent with the plan of this work to mention the women who were connected with the principal actors.
Galba, who was an old man when he came to the throne, had been in his youth a great favorite of the Empress Livia. By her he had been advanced in fortune and position. His mother's name was Mummia Achaica, the daughter of Catulus; but she probably died when he was very young, and he owed the benefits of his training to Ocellina, his stepmother, who was a very remarkable woman in more than one respect. Beautiful and very wealthy, she herself made the advances in courtship to Galba's father. The elder Galba became consul and was of considerable importance in the State; but he was a very short man and deformed. There is an interesting story to the effect that once, when Ocellina was pressing her suit, Galba, in order that if there were to be any disillusionment on her part in regard to himself it might take place before he gave her his hand, took off in her presence the toga which hid the deformity of his back. The incident shows a praiseworthy ingenuousness of disposition on the part of Galba; it also indicates, what is of more interest to us, the fact that Roman ladies were not unaccustomed to making matrimonial advances in person and with unmistakable directness of purpose. Galba, the future emperor, was adopted by Ocellina as her own son; and it is safe to assume that the honesty of his character was in a large degree the result of her training as well as an inheritance from his father.
Galba was married to Æmilia Lepida, a descendant of the triumvir; but she died during the reign of Claudius, and he never afterward married, even though he was ardently sought by Agrippina the Younger, who had been cuffed by his mother-in-law for seeking to usurp the place of Lepida while the latter still lived.
During the short eight months of his reign, Galba was almost entirely ruled by the influence of Titus Vinius and Piso Licinianus, both of whom perished with him, the latter having been designated by him as his successor. Vinius met a fate which he richly deserved, and which, unfortunately for many Romans, he escaped, though barely, in the days of Caligula. At that time, he disgraced himself as the accomplice and paramour of Cornelia, the wife of his commander, Sabinus, she who paraded the camp at night in the dress of a common soldier. Cornelia, however, expiated her crime by her devotion to her husband in his misfortune at a later day. Vinius attained to fortune by means of methods which are well illustrated by the indignity to which he submitted his daughter Crispina at the hands of the depraved Tigellinus. During Galba's reign, the people, believing Nero to have been incited to his worst acts by Tigellinus, demanded the latter's execution, Vinius preserved him from their rage, and thereupon Tigellinus gave a splendid banquet as a thanksgiving for his deliverance. This entertainment Crispina attended, accompanied by her father, who allowed her to receive from their host an immense sum of money. Tigellinus on the same occasion commanded his chief concubine to take from her own neck an extremely valuable necklace and place it upon that of Crispina. But she was soon compelled to expend her ill-gotten gains in a most pitiable manner. After the death of Galba, Piso, and Vinius, the soldiers amused themselves by carrying their heads about the city on the points of spears. When Crispina and Verania, the wife of Piso, visited the camp for the purpose of imploring the heads of their relatives, in order that they might be disposed of with funereal honor, Crispina was not allowed to take that of her father until she had purchased it at a cost of twenty-five thousand drachmas.
Otho, who had been the husband of Poppæa Sabina, was the next emperor; but his reign lasted less than four months, and his only praiseworthy act is the noble manner in which he died. Then came the brief and shameful reign of Vitellius. Rome needed only to come under the rule of a glutton to have exhibited by turn upon her throne a monstrous example of every form of vice to which human nature can become addicted.
This man was the son of that Vitellius who had so shamelessly flattered Messalina and so basely deserted her in her extremity of need. His mother's name was Sextilia, and she is reported to have been a most excellent and respectable woman, whose character was formed on the model of the ancient morals. Her death is said to have been brought about by her son, in order that the prediction of a German prophetess might be certain of fulfilment, she having told him that, he would reign in security, if he survived his mother. He is accused of having denied her proper nourishment during her illness. Suetonius, however, adds, "that being quite weary of the woeful state of affairs, and apprehensive of the future, she obtained without difficulty a dose of poison from her son."
Petronia was the first wife of Vitellius. A separation took place which was probably mutually agreed upon, for Petronia bequeathed her property to their son; first requiring, however, that he be released from his father's authority, Vitellius agreed to this; but shortly after, the son died by poison believed to have been administered by his father. A woman named Galeria Fundano became the second wife of Vitellius; but of her nothing more is known than that Tacitus speaks of her gentle disposition.
With Vitellius, to reign meant merely to feast royally. In this, however, he was only the leading and most noteworthy exponent of a vice characteristic of his time. Gluttony, among the Romans, had come to be exalted to an art; and, in proof that the women of those days were not exempt from it, historians inform us that it was common for individuals of the female sex to be afflicted with the gout. Suetonius thus describes the kind of feasting to which Vitellius accustomed the nobility of Rome: "At a supper given him by his brother, on the day of his arrival in Rome, there were served two thousand rare fishes and seven thousand birds. But Vitellius threw into the shade all this profusion by using on his own table a huge dish, which he named the Shield of Minerva. In it were livers of plaice, brains of pheasants and peacocks, flamingoes' tongues, roe of lamprey, and a thousand other things which the ships of war had sought from the remotest border of the Euxine to the Pillars of Hercules."
This dish of Vitellius was made of silver. What its exact weight was we do not know; but inasmuch as a freedman of Claudius had constructed one of five hundred pounds weight, which was evidently inferior, we can well believe the ancient writer when he tells us that the Shield of Minerva was of such prodigious size that a special furnace had to be constructed for its manufacture. It was kept as a monument of extravagance until the time of Hadrian, who caused it to be melted.
The brief reign of Vitellius was closed in a paroxysm of civil strife, which ended within the walls of the city itself. For more than a hundred years,--ever since the sack of Perusia, in which Fulvia played so prominent a part,--the women of Italy had been free from the bitter experiences of war. They knew nothing of the cruelties and atrocities which followed in the wake of ancient battle, except from stories told by grandmothers at nightfall. Now they were to suffer those evils themselves.
In warfare, more than in any other experience, man reverts to his original barbarous, or rather purely animal, type. It is noticeable also that in war, and especially in civil war, women regain some of that ferocity which characterizes the female of the lower types of animals. In the reign of terror during the French Revolution, there were many women who showed themselves as bloodthirsty as any of the men who composed the Committee of Public Safety. So, in the struggles which accompanied the short-lived reigns of these three Roman emperors there were many women who engaged in the battles; and there were some who distinguished themselves by conduct not often exhibited to the discredit of the female sex. Triaria, for example, who was the wife of Lucius Vitellius, the brother of the emperor, is described as having been a woman of the most furious spirit. When Dolabella, who had married Petronia, was in danger of his life, Triaria warned a friend who sought to save him that it would not be good for that friend to seek the exercise of clemency; and when Tarracina was sacked by the Vitellian soldiers, this same Triaria, armed with the sword of a soldier, urged on the men to murder and rapine.
In the final strife between the forces of Vitellius and Vespasian, the city of Cremona, which was held by the former, was besieged. Tacitus informs us that, in their zeal for the cause which their city had adopted, some of the women of Cremona took part on the field of battle and were slain. In view of what followed at the taking of their city, they were fortunate in their lot. "Forty thousand men," says the historian, "poured into it. The number of drudges and camp followers was still larger, and more addicted to lust and cruelty. Neither age nor dignity served as a protection; deeds of lust were perpetrated amidst scenes of carnage, and murder was added to rape. Aged women who had passed their prime, and who were useless as booty, were made the objects of brutal sport. Maidens were contended for by ruffians who ended by turning their swords against each other."
The bloodshed and rapine were carried into the city of Rome itself. When he saw that his case was hopeless, the ignoble, indolent Vitellius wished to abdicate; but this neither his soldiers nor the people would allow him to do. Flavius Sabinus was prefect of the city, and he, with the soldiers of the Vespasian party, took refuge in the Capitol. There were women who voluntarily took their places with these besieged men. Among them was Verulana Gratilla, who, having neither children nor relatives, followed the fortunes of the war for no other apparent reason than the pleasure she derived from scenes of carnage. In this conflict the Capitol was fired and the temple of the Empire reduced to ashes. Yet, while all these things were occurring, the common people of Rome, indifferent as to whether they were ruled by Vitellius or Vespasian, looked on as if they were at a gladiatorial show. It was to them nothing more than a spectacle, except that it was also an occasion for absolute lawlessness and an incitement to frenzied indulgence in everything vicious. So brutalized were the people that, while in some parts of the great city the streets were filled with heaps of slain, in other parts, to which the conflict did not extend, there prevailed revelry of the most frantic kind, in which shameless women took a leading part.
The legions of Vespasian conquered; and with his enthronement Rome returned to peace and sanity. The enormities in which she had indulged since the reign of Augustus were for the time expiated.
In the Flavians, a new and healthy dynasty came to the throne of the Cæsars, though not later than the third reign, that of Domitian, it also was to succumb to the effects of the possession of unbounded power. Vespasian had come from an obscure family living at Reate in the Sabine country. His father had collected the revenue in the province of Asia, where his statue had been erected with the inscription: The Honest Tax Collector. His mother, whose name was Vespasia Polla, was descended from a good Umbrian family. Tertulla, his grandmother by his father's side, had charge of his education, and her memory was always held by him in the highest regard; much more than appears is suggested in the remark of Suetonius that, after his advancement to the Empire, Vespasian loved to visit the place where he spent his childhood. The house and all the surroundings were kept exactly in the same condition, so that amid unchanged scenes he might live over again his boyhood days. It was a simple country house, with no pretension to the splendor in which the great mansions of the city vied with each other; yet it was artistic.
In those times, not even the simplest farmstead was without its statuary; and we may well believe that, as Tertulla, in the courts of Phalacrine, superintended the education of the future builder of the Colosseum, she could point to examples of sculptured beauty to illustrate those ideas of art which were included in every Roman's training. In the great common room, where the work of the house was done, and where, on winter evenings, the slaves were kept busy with useful occupations, Polla presided, as had the matrons of the old days. In the atrium she entertained her rural neighbors in simple style; and there also she sometimes lectured her son, who greatly displeased her by his tardiness in putting off his boyish ways. She was ambitious for him, and longed to hurry him away to Rome, that in the stir of the city or the camp he might win renown for the Vespasian name. Polla little understood that the time her son spent, idly, as she supposed, watching the teams and cattle about the drinking troughs of the inner court, was fortifying him to withstand the moral dangers of a court of another sort. The rugged, straightforward, simple-mannered soldier, who honored festival occasions by drinking from a silver cup which he treasured as a keepsake from his grandmother, was such an emperor as the Romans had not before seen the like of.
Flavia Domitilla was the wife of Vespasian; but she did not survive to participate with him in the imperial dignity. Of her life and character we know little. There is in existence but one likeness of her--a colossal head found near Puteoli and now preserved in the Campana Museum. This gives her the appearance of a strikingly handsome woman, with a suggestion of pride, but not too powerful to overcome the aspect of good nature. Suetonius says that she was at first the mistress of Statilius Capella, a Roman knight. It may seem strange that a man of Vespasian's character should marry a woman who had sustained such a former relation; but in those times, wives with a past history in which their present husbands had played no part were not so rare that they were even remarkable. Domitilla enjoyed by birth all the legal privileges of a Latin woman, but she was not a citizen of Rome until a suit had been brought by her father for her in the courts. Possibly this suit was instituted in regard to her inheritance of property; for the privileges of citizenship, as they related to women, consisted of the ability to receive legacies and bequeath property, and to form such matrimonial unions as would be held valid when brought into question in matters concerning property. It is very likely that the explanation of the fact that Domitilla is spoken of as the mistress rather than the wife of Statilius is to be found in the further fact that, he being a Roman knight and she not yet a citizen of Rome, legal marriage could not take place between the two. Suetonius tells us that after the death of Domitilla, Vespasian renewed his union with his former concubine Cænis, the freedwoman and former amanuensis of Antonia, whom he treated, even after he became emperor, almost as if she had been his legal wife; and it is safe for us to suppose that, had he been legally able to do so, Vespasian would have made Cænis Empress of Rome.
Domitilla bore her husband three children: Titus and Doraitian, who became emperors in succession, and Domitilla, who died before her father attained to the purple.
The salutary influence of Vespasian's character was soon made apparent in the improvement of Roman morals. He was not an energetic reformer; but he curtailed those abuses which were most flagrant, and himself set an example which those who desired his favor found it to their advantage to follow. He expelled from the Senate those who were extraordinarily vicious in their lives, and among them one who had, by request of Nero, contended with a Greek girl in the arena. He required the Senate to pass a decree that any woman who entered into a liaison with the slave of another person should be herself considered a slave--a law which indicates to what lengths the license of women had carried them during the preceding reigns.
One act of cruelty to a woman stains the records of this reign. An insurrection had been stamped out in Belgium; but Sabinus, the leader, had made his escape. His house was burned; still he could easily have escaped into Germany, but that he was unwilling to leave his young wife, Eponia, unprotected as well as homeless. "He concealed himself in an underground hiding place, whose entrance was known only to two faithful freedmen. He was believed to be dead; and his wife, sharing the opinion of those around her, had been for three days plunged in inconsolable affliction. Being secretly informed, however, that Sabinus was alive, she concealed her delight, and was conducted to his place of refuge, where in the end she determined also to remain. After seven months, the husband and wife ventured to emerge, and made a journey to Rome for the purpose of soliciting pardon. But being warned in season that the petition would be in vain, they left Rome without seeing the emperor, and again sheltered themselves in their subterranean refuge. Here they lived together during nine years. Being at last discovered, Sabinus was taken to Rome, where Vespasian ordered his execution. Eponia had followed her husband, and she threw herself at the emperor's feet. 'Cæsar,' she cried, showing her two sons, who were with her, 'these have I brought forth and nourished in the tombs, that two more suppliants might implore thy clemency.' Those present were moved to tears, and even Vespasian himself was affected; but he remained inflexible. Eponia then asked to die with him whom she had been unable to save. 'I have been more happy with him,' she said, 'in darkness and under ground, than thou in supreme power,' Her second request was granted her. Plutarch met at Delphi one of their children, who related to him this sad and touching story." Why this usually tolerant and always sensible emperor should have been so inexorable on this occasion is a mystery.
There is another instance recorded, in which a woman of different character, presenting a petition of another kind, received an acquiescent response. A lady of rank pretending, as Suetonius puts it, to be desperately enamored of Vespasian,--it must have been that she hoped to achieve a permanent relationship with the widowed emperor,--requested that which it would have been more consistent with her modesty to have avoided. In addition to granting her petition, Vespasian made her a present of four hundred thousand sesterces. When his steward asked how he would have the sum entered in his accounts, he replied: "For Vespasian's being seduced." Considering, however, the parsimonious character which the historian attributes to this emperor, we are more inclined to think that the sum must have been entered on the credit side of the ledger.
Vespasian died in A.D. 79. The humor--which is the same thing as saying the sanity--of the man is manifested in his remark, as he felt his life ebbing away: "Well, I suppose I shall soon be a god." Pliny says of him, "Greatness and majesty produced in him no other effect than to render his power of doing good equal to his desire." Suetonius declares: "By him the State was strengthened and adorned."
In this same year occurred the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These two cities, by the manner in which they were by one event both destroyed and preserved, have afforded us so much material for the study of Roman home life that a reference to them is entirely in accord with the plan of this book. Among the Romans, even more so than among ourselves, woman's life was home life. As we look into those Pompeian houses, which the catastrophe of a day rendered impregnable to the siege of centuries, we see in reality before us much which the scraps of information afforded by the ancient writers fail to make intelligible. By a singular good fortune, we are in possession of the narrative furnished by a trustworthy eyewitness of the disaster which overwhelmed Pompeii; it is contained in the two letters which Pliny the Younger wrote to Tacitus, informing him how Pliny and his mother watched the eruption of Vesuvius while his uncle was perishing in the attempt to rescue the wife of a friend and at the same time to satisfy his spirit of inquiry. We will not recite the well-known account, except as it refers to the women who, if for no other reason than that it was their fate or fortune to be present on this memorable occasion, deserve a mention in the history of Roman women. Pliny says: "On the twenty-fourth of August, about one in the afternoon, my uncle was desired by my mother to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape.... This extraordinary phenomenon excited his philosophical curiosity to take a nearer view of it. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me the liberty, if I thought proper, to attend him. I preferred to continue my studies.... As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa being situated at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way to escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him, therefore, to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first design, and what he began with a philosophical turn of mind he pursued with heroic purpose. He ordered the galleys to put to sea and himself went on board, with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but several others, for villas stand extremely thick upon that beautiful coast." In this design he was unsuccessful; so he went to what is now called Castellamare, in the Gulf of Naples. While there he was suffocated by the poisonous gases which accompanied the eruption. In a second letter, Pliny describes his mother and himself seeking to escape from the effects of a "black and dreadful cloud, bursting with an igneous, serpentine vapor, darting out a long train of fire, resembling flashes of lightning, but much larger.... Soon the cloud seemed to descend, and cover the whole ocean, as indeed it entirely hid the island of Caprese and the promontory of Misenum. My mother strongly conjured me to make my escape, at any rate, which, as I was young, I might easily do; as for herself, she said, her age and corpulency rendered all attempts of that sort impossible. However, she would willingly meet death, if she could have the satisfaction of seeing that she was not the occasion of mine. But I absolutely refused to leave her, and taking her by the hand I led her on, she complying with great reluctance, and with many reproaches to herself for retarding my flight.... Darkness overspread us, not like that of a cloudy night, or when there is no moon, but of a room when it is shut up and all the lights are extinct. Nothing was then to be heard but the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the cries of men. Some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and only distinguishing each other by their voices; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part imagining that the last and eternal night was come, which was to destroy the gods and the world together.... Heavy showers of ashes rained upon us, which we were obliged every now and then to shake off, otherwise we should have been crushed and buried in the heap." The mother and the son escaped, however, and returned to Misenum, where in the midst of still threatening danger they awaited news of the intrepid and fated naturalist.
This interior, called the house of Pansa, is surrounded by three streets and an alley. The view is from the vestibule. In the centre is a basin, formed to receive water which fell from the roof through an opening which also gave light to the rooms, the doors and portières of which are seen on each side. Near to the basin was the altar for the household god; the space beyond this was the dining room, which led to the peristyle, reception room, and garden. As in the atrium, rooms opened into the peristyle and other parts.
The ground-floor exteriors were usually rented for shops. Trade by the Roman nobility was always considered degrading, especially if not extensive, says Cicero; they therefore traded by making their slaves or freedmen the ostensible merchants._]
Two-fifths of the city of Pompeii have now been cleared, and we can see the external conditions of the Roman woman's life as it would have been impossible for modern times to conceive them had it not been for that ancient catastrophe. We can see the streets as they were in the days of Agrippina; we can look into the shops where the women of ancient Italy sought bargains across the marble counters; we can go to the temples where they worshipped, to the theatre where they were thrilled and amused; indeed, we have a theatre ticket, with the number of the seat and the name of the play. Best of all, we can enter houses almost intact, and examine the environments of that home life which in all ages is the special domain of woman. No account of woman can be made complete without a study of her home, and for this reason we quote freely from M. Boissier's fine description of the Pompeian residence. "The principal rooms are all on the ground floor. The richest inhabitants build themselves houses situated on four streets, thus occupying the whole block. If they were economical, they cut off from this large plot of ground some strips, which they let for a good sum; and we sometimes find shops occupying the whole exterior of the house. While with us the front is reserved for the best rooms, in Pompeii it was given up to business purposes, or else closed with thick walls, in which there were no openings. The whole house, instead of looking toward the street, faces the interior. It communicates with the outer world only by the entrance door, kept strictly closed and guarded; there are few windows, and these only in the upper stories. Families wished to live in private, far from the indifferent and from strangers.... The head of the house did not desire to look into the street, and he was specially averse to having persons in the street look into his house. Even within the mansion he had divisions and distinctions. The part into which he welcomed his visitors was not that to which he retired with his family; and it was not easy to penetrate into this sanctuary, separated from every other part by corridors, closed by doors or hangings, and guarded by porters. The owner received when he wished, he remained in seclusion when so inclined; and in case any client, more troublesome and obstinate than usual, lingered in the vestibule to meet him on his way out, he had a back door on a narrow street, which permitted him to escape....
"If the rooms are not large, they are numerous. The Roman used his residence as he did his slaves; he had different rooms for each event of the day, as he had servants for every necessity of life. Each room in his house is made precisely for the use to which it is destined. He is not satisfied, as we are, with a single dining room; he has them of various sizes, and he uses one or another at different seasons of the year, or according to the number of friends whom he wishes to entertain. The chamber where he takes his siesta during the day and that to which he retires to sleep at night are very small, admitting light and air only through the door, which is not a disadvantage in the South, where coolness is promoted by darkness. Besides, he is there only while he is asleep; for the rest he has his atrium and his peristylium.
"Here he prefers to stay when he is at home. He is here not only with his wife and children, but under the eyes of his servants, and sometimes in their society. In spite of his fancy for seclusion and isolation, of which I have spoken, he does not shun their company; for the family of antiquity is more extensive than ours. It embraces, while recognizing their inferiority, the slave and the freedman; so that the master, in living with them, feels himself among his own people. These open and closed atria, where the family spends its time, are found in all Pompeian houses without exception; they are indispensable to furnish light for the rest of the dwelling. Consequently, all persons, even the poorer classes, took pleasure in ornamenting them tastefully, and sometimes with profusion. If the extent of ground permitted it, various shrubs were planted, and a few flowers were made to grow."
Rome had for its next emperor Titus, who, in the two years of his reign, showed himself the best and wisest ruler Rome had ever known. "I have lost a day," he said, when at evening he could not remember having afforded anyone assistance. He inherited his father's good sense, he had profited by the elder's experience, and he came to the throne after having tasted and become satiated with the vices common to his age. He first married Arrisidia, the daughter of a knight. Of her we know nothing further. After her death, he took to wife Marcia Furnilla, a woman of very noble family, but probably of ignoble mind, for he divorced her, and retained the custody of their daughter. This was a Julia, who was true to the character common to the imperial women of that name. We shall have occasion to discuss her a little later.
The woman with whose history the name of Titus was chiefly connected and who exerted more influence upon his life than any other was Berenice, the daughter of Agrippa the Great. She was a Jewess by race, but Roman in sympathy as well as by allegiance; and for character she may well be classed with such Roman ladies as Poppaea or Julia the daughter of Augustus. She was first married to Herod of Chalcis; but he died, and for a long while she remained a widow in the company and under the protection of her brother Agrippa. During this time, the pair paid a visit to Rome, and while on the way stopped at Cæsarea, where Festus was governor. Here Berenice listened to the Apostle Paul, as he made his eloquent plea in answer to his accusers and appealed to the tribunal of Caesar. Berenice's continued widowhood, joined with the known laxity of her morals, caused ugly stories to be set afloat regarding her relations with her brother; whereupon she induced Polemon, King of Cilicia, to become a proselyte to Judaism and marry her. This marriage seems to have been unsatisfactory to both parties, for Berenice soon returned to Jerusalem, and Polemon recanted from his Jewish faith. At this time, Titus was with his father in Judea, and, though Berenice was much older than he, the young Roman was fascinated by her extraordinary beauty, so much so that he took her with him on his return to Rome. She was given apartments in the palace, and there, to all appearance, she lived with Titus as his wife. In fact, he would have made her his wife indeed, had it not been for the strong prejudices of the Romans against foreign alliances; but when he succeeded to the throne, rather than that his rule should be impaired by any scandal, he sent Berenice away, though the separation was the source of poignant grief to them both.
Titus died twenty-six months after he came to the throne, and his brother Domitian--who, unfortunately for the history of Rome, possessed a healthier constitution as well as an inferior disposition--reigned in his stead. Domitian has been called the second Nero, the character of his reign being very similar to that of Nero's rule. This unworthy son of Vespasian had disgraced his youth by vicious extravagances of all kinds; but, on coming to the throne, he seemed to have reformed. This, however, was only temporary. As has been remarked, on the day of coronation there are few bad monarchs. All begin well; but the majority of despots end badly.
Domitian even began his reign as a reformer. He constituted himself censor. In this capacity his attention was turned first to the college of Vestal Virgins, who had so far forgotten the character which was the prime essential to their office that they had become notorious for the licentiousness of their conduct. Three of these priestesses received an order to make away with themselves. Cornelia, the chief Vestal and the worst offender, was condemned to suffer the prescribed punishment of entombment. In the story of her death there is an incident worthy of note as illustrating the effrontery which may be developed in a woman by a habitual though unwarranted assumption of superior holiness. As she was descending to the tomb, Cornelia's veil caught on the steps; when an official offered to disentangle it, the Vestal in a horrified manner bade him desist, as her consecrated character could not endure the profane touch of a man.
Domitian, moreover, passed an edict prohibiting to prostitutes the use of the lectica, or travelling chair; they also lost the right of receiving legacies or inheriting estates. But this enthusiasm for morality was short-lived, and his censorship never interfered with his own indulgences or extended to his own family. The empress of that day was Domitia Longina, who seems to have been a woman who would find the extravagances of Nero's libidinous entertainments entirely consistent with her character and tastes. She fell desperately in love with Paris, the famous actor of the time. In consequence she was divorced; but her husband, unable to endure the separation, recalled her on the pretence that it was demanded by the people. Her influence over the emperor is perhaps further indicated by the fact that we hear of nothing sinister having happened to Paris; but the Senator Helvidius, who, under the character of OEnone, held Domitia up to scorn in a farce which he wrote, was put to death. There is in existence a bust of Domitia Longina, but the sole reflection which her appearance suggests is the amount of labor and care which must have been demanded of her slaves in the production of the innumerable tiny curls in which her hair is arranged. During the lifetime of Titus, his daughter Julia was offered to Domitian in marriage, the example of Agrippina and Claudius having established the legality of a union between an uncle and a niece. But at this time Domitia ruled the heart of the future emperor. Afterward, the unhappy Julia was induced to enter into a criminal intercourse with Domitian, and lost her life in an attempt to destroy its proof. This was a danger which was frequently incurred by married women, in order to prevent the birth of legitimate offspring. Large families in wealthy houses were exceedingly rare. In the Museum of the Vatican there is a statue of Julia, represented as the goddess Clemency. There is also in existence a profile engraved upon stone, as well as a bust which is preserved in the Uffizi Gallery. It requires but a glance at these likenesses to enable one to understand why the Greeks called Julia "The New Juno."
During the reign of Domitian, the Colosseum, the building of which had been commenced by Vespasian, was completed and opened. In this immense amphitheatre there were seats for eighty-seven thousand spectators, and fifteen thousand more were able to find standing room. In its arena, during each year, hundreds of men--gladiators, criminals, and Christians--fought and fell in mortal agony for the amusement of those great audiences, of which women formed a goodly proportion. There sat the empress in a front box which was especially designed for the Vestals; and it frequently happened that the scene upon which the eyes of those ladies rested was the mangling of the bodies of Christian women by the claws and teeth of ferocious beasts.
Women also voluntarily took their places in the arena. Races in the stadium between young girls were frequent, nor was it a thing entirely unknown for women to engage in the deadly sport of the gladiators. Sometimes they faced the wild animals; and at times they even took the trident and the net of the retiarii and tried their skill against the swordsmen. Juvenal has his fling at Mævia, who, "with breast exposed, grasps the hunting spear and transfixes the Tuscan boar." The satirist also exercises his grim humor on the picture of a woman practising the art of fencing. "Who has not beheld the wounds of the wooden post, which she dints with courageous foil, and attacks with her shield, and goes against with skilful precision? A matron most preeminently worthy to dance to the trumpet at the indecent Floral games. Perhaps, however, she is meditating a more serious purpose, and intends to engage in real earnest at the amphitheatre, for hire. What modesty can a woman show that wears a helmet, eschews her sex, and delights in feats of strength?"
It would have been a marvel if Domitian had been allowed to end his life otherwise than by violent means. Suetonius accuses Domitia of being privy to her husband's assassination, but does not explain in what way she took part in it. Suetonius had a rare nose for scandal, and always believed the worst. The emperor was killed by a freedman, a steward of Domitilla.
"When he dreadful to the rabble grew, Him, who so many lords had slain, they slew."
Again in the death of this tyrant we see how the woman love for an innocent babe will survive every vice of the grown man. There was in the palace a woman named Phyllis, who had been Domitian's nurse. She was the only one who showed any respect for the dead emperor. First, she had his body interred at his villa in the Latin Way; then, when she found a safe opportunity, she burned the remains and, carrying the ashes to the mausoleum of the Flavian family, mingled them with those of Julia, whose nurse she had also been.
The Empress Domitia seems to have survived her husband many years; for an inscription, the date of which corresponds with the year 140, mentions that one of her freedmen, after building a temple to her, offers the decuriones of Gabii fifteen thousand sesterces, the income of which was to be spent in keeping the building in repair and in celebrating the birthday of his mistress.
The period of Roman history which we have traversed in our study of woman shows the ancient pagan Empire at its best materially and at its worst morally. We are about to enter upon a new epoch. We shall speedily begin to notice premonitions of decline, but we shall not again witness such an absolute and all-prevalent abandonment of the requirements of morality. From the days of Cæsar Augustus down to the end of the reign of Domitian, all that is recorded of Roman women, with a few noble exceptions, is little more than a wearisome repetition of instances of astonishing sensuality. Why was it that the women of this period indulged to such an unnatural and unrestrained degree the grosser appetites? It was not because they were unacquainted with the most emphatic precepts of morality. Their ancestors had idealized feminine chastity as it has been exalted among no other people in the history of the world. The virtue of temperance was taught by their philosophers in the most eloquent language; and the diatribes of their satirists are evidence that the Roman conscience was not wholly at rest in regard to the excesses which were prevalent. How then are we to account for this monotonous orgy of libidinosity?
So far as the question concerns the emperors, there is but one answer: it is found in their unbounded power, in which, their will being responsible to no one, they were absolutely at liberty to indulge caprice or lustful impulse to the extent of their personal capabilities. When, as was natural in the circumstances, the characters of these potentates were warped in the wrong direction, their influence, not to speak of their tyrannical power, was incalculably detrimental to female virtue. But the real underlying cause for the sensuality of the women whom we have brought into review was the utter purposelessness of their lives, joined to an entire lack of all spiritual impulses in the direction of self-respect. The Roman woman's life during the period under discussion was one of absolute ease and unbounded luxury, although the possibility of abject physical misery, in the form of banishment or a violent death, always hovered near. Luxury is always conducive to sexual incontinence; and, as is well known, customary peril engenders recklessness. The minds of the Roman women were not fortified by adequate spiritual impressions to offset these impulses. Such ideas of chastity as were inherited from the ancient customs were not founded on a belief in the dignity of womanhood, but rather on the conception of marriage as a property right held by the husband in the person of the wife. Adultery was the infringement of the husband's property rights, rather than an injury to a woman's personal worth to herself. When divorce for political reasons became common, the sense of the validity of those rights grew correspondingly dim. A woman, seeing that she was married not for her person, but for the sake of her friends, came herself to set little store by that which to her husband was not the chief item in the contract. The arid formalism of her religion also gave but little support to any restraining instincts of self-respect. It needed a new religion to enable woman to rediscover in herself a spiritual nature, which could be tainted and injured by the abuse of the body.