Quo Vadis A Narrative of the Time of Nero
Part 12 out of 12
an utterance of fate, had in her features a perfect calmness, and in her
eyes a kind of wonderful radiance, which might have been considered
delight. At the door of the triclinium, youths with hair in golden nets
put wreaths of roses on the heads of the guests, warning them, as the
custom was, to pass the threshold right foot foremost. In the hall
there was a slight odor of violets; the lamps burned in Alexandrian
glass of various colors. At the couches stood Grecian maidens, whose
office it was to moisten the feet of guests with perfumes. At the walls
cithara players and Athenian choristers were waiting for the signal of
The table service gleamed with splendor, but that splendor did not
offend or oppress; it seemed a natural development. Joyousness and
freedom spread through the hall with the odor of violets. The guests as
they entered felt that neither threat nor constraint was hanging over
them, as in Cęsar's house, where a man might forfeit his life for
praises not sufficiently great or sufficiently apposite. At sight of
the lamps, the goblets entwined with ivy, the wine cooling on banks of
snow, and the exquisite dishes, the hearts of the guests became joyous.
Conversation of various kinds began to buzz, as bees buzz on an apple-
tree in blossom. At moments it was interrupted by an outburst of glad
laughter, at moments by murmurs of applause, at moments by a kiss placed
too loudly on some white shoulder.
The guests, while drinking wine, spilled from their goblets a few drops
to the immortal gods, to gain their protection, and their favor for the
host. It mattered not that many of them had no belief in the gods.
Custom and superstition prescribed it. Petronius, inclining near
Eunice, talked of Rome, of the latest divorces, of love affairs, of the
races, of Spiculus, who had become famous recently in the arena, and of
the latest books in the shops of Atractus and the Sozii. When he
spilled wine, he said that he spilled it only in honor of the Lady of
Cyprus, the most ancient divinity and the greatest, the only immortal,
enduring, and ruling one.
His conversation was like sunlight which lights up some new object every
instant, or like the summer breeze which stirs flowers in a garden. At
last he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and at that signal the
citharę began to sound lightly, and youthful voices accompanied. Then
maidens from Kos, the birthplace of Eunice, danced, and showed their
rosy forms through robes of gauze. Finally, an Egyptian soothsayer told
the guests their future from the movement of rainbow colors in a vessel
When they had enough of these amusements, Petronius rose somewhat on his
Syrian cushion, and said with hesitation,--
"Pardon me, friends, for asking a favor at a feast. Will each man
accept as a gift that goblet from which he first shook wine in honor of
the gods and to my prosperity?"
The goblets of Petronius were gleaming in gold, precious stones, anti
the carving of artists; hence, though gift giving was common in Rome,
delight filled every heart. Some thanked him loudly: others said that
Jove had never honored gods with such gifts in Olympus; finally, there
were some who refused to accept, since the gifts surpassed common
But he raised aloft the Myrrhene vase, which resembled a rainbow in
brilliancy, and was simply beyond price.
"This," said he, "is the one out of which I poured in honor of the Lady
of Cyprus. The lips of no man may touch it henceforth, and no hand may
ever pour from it in honor of another divinity."
He cast the precious vessel to the pavement, which was covered with
lily-colored saffron flowers; and when it was broken into small pieces,
he said, seeing around him astonished faces,--
"My dear friends, be glad and not astonished. Old age and weakness are
sad attendants in the last years of life. But I will give you a good
example and good advice: Ye have the power, as ye see, not to wait for
old age; ye can depart before it comes, as I do."
"What dost thou wish?" asked a number of voices, with alarm.
"I wish to rejoice, to drink wine, to hear music, to look on those
divine forms which ye see around me, and fall asleep with a garlanded
head. I have taken farewell of Cęsar, and do ye wish to hear what I
wrote him at parting?"
He took from beneath the purple cushion a paper, and read as follows:--
"I know, O Cęsar, that thou art awaiting my arrival with impatience,
that thy true heart of a friend is yearning day and night for me. I
know that thou art ready to cover me with gifts, make me prefect of the
pretorian guards, and command Tigellinus to be that which the gods made
him, a mule-driver in those lands which thou didst inherit after
poisoning Domitius. Pardon me, however, for I swear to thee by Hades,
and by the shades of thy mother, thy wife, thy brother, and Seneca, that
I cannot go to thee. Life is a great treasure. I have taken the most
precious jewels from that treasure, but in life there are many things
which I cannot endure any longer. Do not suppose, I pray, that I am
offended because thou didst kill thy mother, thy wife, and thy brother;
that thou didst burn Rome and send to Erebus all the honest men in thy
dominions. No, grandson of Chronos. Death is the inheritance of man;
from thee other deeds could not have been expected. But to destroy
one's ear for whole years with thy poetry, to see thy belly of a
Domitius on slim legs whirled about in Pyrrhic dance; to hear thy music,
thy declamation, thy doggerel verses, wretched poet of the suburbs,--is
a thing surpassing my power, and it has roused in me the wish to die.
Rome stuffs its ears when it hears thee; the world reviles thee. I can
blush for thee no longer, and I have no wish to do so. The howls of
Cerberus, though resembling thy music, will be less offensive to me, for
I have never been the friend of Cerberus, and I need not be ashamed of
his howling. Farewell, but make no music; commit murder, but write no
verses; poison people, but dance not; be an incendiary, but play not on
a cithara. This is the wish and the last friendly counsel sent thee by
The guests were terrified, for they knew that the loss of dominion would
have been less cruel to Nero than this blow. They understood, too, that
the man who had written that paper must die; and at the same time pale
fear flew over them because they had heard such a paper.
But Petronius laughed with sincere and gladsome joy, as if it were a
question of the most innocent joke; then he cast his eyes on all
present, and said,--
"Be joyous, and drive away fear. No one need boast that he heard this
letter. I will boast of it only to Charon when I am crossing in the
boat with him."
He beckoned then to the Greek physician, and stretched out his arm. The
skilled Greek in the twinkle of an eye opened the vein at the bend of
the arm. Blood spurted on the cushion, and covered Eunice, who,
supporting the head of Petronius, bent over him and said,--
"Didst thou think that I would leave thee? If the gods gave me
immortality, and Cęsar gave me power over the earth, I would follow thee
Petronius smiled, raised himself a little, touched her lips with his,
"Come with me."
She stretched her rosy arm to the physician, and after a while her blood
began to mingle and be lost in his blood.
Then he gave a signal to the leader of the music, and again the voices
and citharię were heard. They sang "Harmodius"; next the song of
Anacreon resounded,--that song in which he complained that on a time he
had found Aphrodite's boy chilled and weeping under trees; that he
brought him in, warmed him, dried his wings, and the ungrateful child
pierced his heart with an arrow,--from that moment peace had deserted
Petronius and Eunice, resting against each other, beautiful as two
divinities, listened, smiling and growing pale. At the end of the song
Petronius gave directions to serve more wine and food; then he conversed
with the guests sitting near him of trifling but pleasant things, such
as are mentioned usually at feasts. Finally, he called to the Greek to
bind his arm for a moment; for he said that sleep was tormenting him,
and he wanted to yield himself to Hypnos before Thanatos put him to
In fact, he fell asleep. When he woke, the head of Eunice was lying on
his breast like a white flower. He placed it on the pillow to look at
it once more. After that his veins were opened again.
At his signal the singers raised the song of Anacreon anew, and the
citharę accompanied them so softly as not to drown a word. Petronius
grew paler and paler; but when the last sound had ceased, he turned to
his guests again and said,-
"Friends, confess that with us perishes--"
But he had not power to finish; his arm with its last movement embraced
Eunice, his head fell on the pillow, and he died.
The guests looking at those two white forms, which resembled two
wonderful statues, understood well that with them perished all that was
left to their world at that time,--poetry and beauty.
AT first the revolt of the Gallic legions under Vindex did not seem very
serious. Cęsar was only in his thirty-first year, and no one was bold
enough to hope that the world could be freed so soon from the nightmare
which was stifling it. Men remembered that revolts had occurred more
than once among the legions,--they had occurred in previous reigns,--
revolts, however, which passed without involving a change of government;
as during the reign of Tiberius, Drusus put down the revolt of the
Pannonian legions. "Who," said the people, "can take the government
after Nero, since all the descendants of the divine Augustus have
perished?" Others, looking at the Colossus, imagined him a Hercules,
and thought that no force could break such power. There were those even
who since he went to Achęa were sorry for him, because Helius and
Polythetes, to whom he left the government of Rome and Italy, governed
more murderously than he had.
No one was sure of life or property. Law ceased to protect. Human
dignity and virtue had perished, family bonds existed no longer, and
degraded hearts did not even dare to admit hope. From Greece came
accounts of the incomparable triumphs of Cęsar, of the thousands of
crowns which he had won, the thousands of competitors whom he had
vanquished. The world seemed to be one orgy of buffoonery and blood;
but at the same time the opinion was fixed that virtue and deeds of
dignity had ceased, that the time of dancing and music, of profligacy,
of blood, had come, and that life must flow on for the future in that
way. Cęsar himself, to whom rebellion opened the road to new robberies,
was not concerned much about the revolt of the legions and Vindex; he
even expressed his delight on that subject frequently. He did not wish
to leave Achęa even; and only when Helius informed him that further
delay might cause the loss of dominion did he move to Naples.
There he played and sang, neglecting news of events of growing danger.
In vain did Tigellinus explain to him that former rebellions of legions
had no leaders, while at the head of affairs this time was a man
descended from the ancient kings of Gaul and Aquitania, a famous and
tried soldier. "Here," answered Nero, "the Greeks listen to me,--the
Greeks, who alone know how to listen, and who alone are worthy of my
song." He said that his first duty was art and glory. But when at last
the news came that Vindex had proclaimed him a wretched artist, he
sprang up and moved toward Rome. The wounds inflicted by Petronius, and
healed by his stay in Greece, opened in his heart anew, and he wished to
seek retribution from the Senate for such unheard-of injustice.
On the road he saw a group cast in bronze, representing a Gallic warrior
as overcome by a Roman knight; he considered that a good omen, and
thenceforward, if he mentioned the rebellious legions and Vindex, it was
only to ridicule them. His entrance to the city surpassed all that had
been witnessed earlier. He entered in the chariot used by Augustus in
his triumph. One arch of the Circus was destroyed to give a road to the
procession. The Senate, knights, and innumerable throngs of people went
forth to meet him. The walls trembled from shouts of "Hail, Augustus!
Hail, Hercules! Hail, divinity, the incomparable, the Olympian, the
Pythian, the immortal!" Behind him were borne the crowns, the names of
cities in which he had triumphed; and on tablets were inscribed the
names of the masters whom he had vanquished. Nero himself was
intoxicated with delight, and with emotion he asked the Augustians who
stood around him, "What was the triumph of Julius compared with this?"
The idea that any mortal should dare to raise a hand on such a demigod
did not enter his head. He felt himself really Olympian, and therefore
safe. The excitement and the madness of the crowd roused his own
madness. In fact, it might seem in the day of that triumph that not
merely Cęsar and the city, but the world, had lost its senses.
Through the flowers and the piles of wreaths no one could see the
precipice. Still that same evening columns and walls of temples were
covered with inscriptions, describing Nero's crimes, threatening him
with coming vengeance, and ridiculing him as an artist. From mouth to
mouth went the phrase, "He sang till he roused the Gauls." Alarming
news made the rounds of the city, and reached enormous measures. Alarm
seized the Augustians. People, uncertain of the future, dazed not
express hopes or wishes; they hardly dared to feel or think.
But he went on living only in the theatre and music. Instruments newly
invented occupied him, and a new water-organ, of which trials were made
on the Palatine. With childish mind, incapable of plan or action, he
imagined that he could ward off danger by promises of spectacles and
theatrical exhibitions reaching far into the future, Persons nearest
him, seeing that instead of providing means and an army, he was merely
searching for expressions to depict the danger graphically, began to
lose their heads. Others thought that he was simply deafening himself
and others with quotations, while in his soul he was alarmed and
terrified. In fact, his acts became feverish. Every day a thousand new
plans flew through his head. At times he sprang up to rush out against
danger; gave command to pack up his lutes and citharę, to arm the young
slave women as Amazons, and lead the legions to the East. Again he
thought to finish the rebellion of the Gallic legions, not with war, but
with song; and his soul laughed at the spectacle which was to follow his
conquest of the soldiers by song. The legionaries would surround him
with tears in their eyes; he would sing to them an epinicium, after
which the golden epoch would begin for him and for Rome. At one time he
called for blood; at another he declared that he would be satisfied with
governing in Egypt. He recalled the prediction which promised him
lordship in Jerusalem, and he was moved by the thought that as a
wandering minstrel he would earn his daily bread,--that cities and
countries would honor in him, not Cęsar, the lord of the earth, but a
poet whose like the world had not produced before. And so he struggled,
raged, played, sang, changed his plan, changed his quotations, changed
his life and the world into a dream absurd, fantastic, dreadful, into an
uproarious hunt composed of unnatural expressions, bad verses, groans,
tears, and blood; but meanwhile the cloud in the west was increasing and
thickening every day. The measure was exceeded; the insane comedy was
nearing its end.
When news that Galba and Spain had joined the uprising came to his ears,
he fell into rage and madness. He broke goblets, overturned the table
at a feast, and issued orders which neither Helius nor Tigeliinus
himself dared to execute. To kill Gauls resident in Rome, fire the city
a second time, let out the wild beasts, and transfer the capital to
Alexandria seemed to him great, astonishing, and easy. But the days of
his dominion had passed, and even those who shared in his former crimes
began to look on him as a madman.
The death of Vindex, and disagreement in the revolting legions seemed,
however, to turn the scale to his side. Again new feasts, new triumphs,
and new sentences were issued in Rome, till a certain night when a
messenger rushed up on a foaming horse, with the news that in the city
itself the soldiers had raised the standard of revolt, and proclaimed
Nero was asleep when the messenger came; but when he woke he called in
vain for the night-guard, which watched at the entrance to his chambers.
The palace was empty. Slaves were plundering in the most distant
corners that which could be taken most quickly. But the sight of Nero
frightened them; he wandered alone through the palace, filling it with
cries of despair and fear.
At last his freedmen, Phaon, Sporus, and Epaphroditus, came to his
rescue. They wished him to flee, and said that there was no time to be
lost; but he deceived himself still. If he should dress in mourning and
speak to the Senate, would it resist his prayers and eloquence? If he
should use all his eloquence, his rhetoric and skill of an actor, would
any one on earth have power to resist him? Would they not give him even
the prefecture of Egypt?
The freedmen, accustomed to flatter, had not the boldness yet to refuse
him directly; they only warned him that before he could reach the Forum
the people would tear him to pieces, and declared that if he did not
mount his horse immediately, they too would desert him.
Phaon offered refuge in his villa outside the Nomentan Gate. After a
while they mounted horses, and, covering Nero's head with a mantle, they
galloped off toward the edge of the city. The night was growing pale.
But on the streets there was a movement which showed the exceptional
nature of the time. Soldiers, now singly and now in small groups, were
scattered through the city. Not far from the camp Cęsar's horse sprang
aside suddenly at sight of a corpse. The mantle slipped from his head;
a soldier recognized Nero, and, confused by the unexpected meeting, gave
the military salute. While passing the pretorian camp, they heard
thundering shouts in honor of Galba. Nero understood at last that the
hour of death was near. Terror and reproaches of conscience seized him.
He declared that he saw darkness in front of him in the form of a black
cloud. From that cloud came forth faces in which he saw his mother, his
wife, and his brother. His teeth were chattering from fright; still his
soul of a comedian found a kind of charm in the horror of the moment.
To be absolute lord of the earth and lose all things, seemed to him the
height of tragedy; and faithful to himself, he played the first role to
the end. A fever for quotations took possession of him, and a
passionate wish that those present should preserve them for posterity.
At moments he said that he wished to die, and called for Spiculus, the
most skilled of all gladiators in killing. At moments he declaimed,
"Mother, wife, father, call me to death!" Flashes of hope rose in him,
however, from time to time,--hope vain and childish. He knew that he
was going to death, and still he did not believe it.
They found the Nomentan Gate open. Going farther, they passed near
Ostrianum, where Peter had taught and baptized. At daybreak they
reached Phaon's villa.
There the freedmen hid from him no longer the fact that it was time to
die. He gave command then to dig a grave, and lay on the ground so that
they might take accurate measurement. At sight of the earth thrown up,
however, terror seized him. His fat face became pale, and on his
forehead sweat stood like drops of dew in the morning. He delayed. In
a voice at once abject and theatrical, he declared that the hour had not
come yet; then he began again to quote. At last he begged them to burn
his body. "What an artist is perishing!" repeated he, as if in
Meanwhile Phaon's messenger arrived with the announcement that the
Senate had issued the sentence that the "parricide" was to be punished
according to ancient custom.
"What is the ancient custom?" asked Nero, with whitened lips.
"They will fix thy neck in a fork, flog thee to death, and hurl thy body
into the Tiber," answered Epaphroditus, abruptly.
Nero drew aside the robe from his breast.
"It is time, then!" said he, looking into the sky. And he repeated once
more, "What an artist is perishing!"
At that moment the tramp of a horse was heard. That was the centurion
coming with soldiers for the head of Ahenobarbus.
"Hurry!" cried the freedmen.
Nero placed the knife to his neck, but pushed it only timidly. It was
clear that he would never have courage to thrust it in. Epaphroditus
pushed his hand suddenly,--the knife sank to the handle. Nero's eyes
turned in his head, terrible, immense, frightened.
"I bring thee life!" cried the centurion, entering.
"Too late!" said Nero, with a hoarse voice; then he added,--
"Here is faithfulness!"
In a twinkle death seized his head. Blood from his heavy neck gushed in
a dark stream on the flowers of the garden. His legs kicked the ground,
and he died.
On the morrow the faithful Acte wrapped his body in costly stuffs, and
burned him on a pile filled with perfumes.
And so Nero passed, as a whirlwind, as a storm, as a fire, as war or
death passes; but the basilica of Peter rules till now, from the Vatican
heights, the city, and the world.
Near the ancient Porta Capena stands to this day a little chapel with
the inscription, somewhat worn: Quo Vadis, Domine?
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