Story type: Essay
If we wish to be just judges of all things, let us first persuade ourselves of this: that there is not one of us without fault; no man is found who can acquit himself; and he who calls himself innocent does so with reference to a witness, and not to his conscience.
—Letters of Seneca
True Americans and patriotic, who live in York State, often refer you to the life of Red Jacket as proof that “Seneca” is an Iroquois Indian word. The Indians, however, whom we call the Senecas never called themselves thus until they took to strong water and became civilized. Before that they were the Tsonnundawaonas. The Dutch traders, intent on pelts and pelf, called them the Sinnekaas, meaning the valiant or the beautiful. Then came that fateful day when the Reverend Peleg Spooner, the discoverer of the Erie Canal, journeyed to Niagara Falls, and having influence with the authorities at Washington, gave to towns along the way these names: Troy, Rome, Ithaca, Syracuse, Ilion, Manlius, Homer, Corfu, Palmyra, Utica, Delhi, Memphis and Marathon. He really exhausted Grote’s “History of Greece” and Gibbon’s “Rome,” revealing a most depressing lack of humor. This classic flavor of the map of New York is as surprising to English tourists as was the discovery to Hendrik Hudson when, on sailing up the North River, he found on nearing Albany that the river bore the same name as himself.
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In the eighteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read of Paul being brought before Gallio, Proconsul of Achaia. And the accusers, clutching the bald and bow-legged bachelor by the collar, bawl out to the Judge, “This fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to law!”
And the little man is about to make reply, when Gallio says, with a touch of impatience: “If indeed it were a matter of wrong or of wicked villainy, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: but if they are questions about words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves; I am not minded to be a judge of these matters!” And the account concludes, “And he drove them from the judgment-seat.”
That is to say, he gave Saint Paul a “nolle pros.” Had Gallio wished to be severe, he might have put the quietus on Christianity for all time, for Saint Paul had all there was of it stowed in his valiant head and heart.
Gallio was the elder brother of Seneca; his right name was Annaeus Seneca, but he changed it to Junius Gallio, in honor of a patron who had especially befriended him in youth.
Gallio seems to have been a man of good, sturdy commonsense–he could distinguish between right living and a mumble of words, man-made rules, laws such as heresy, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking and marrying one’s deceased wife’s sister. The Moqui Indians believe that if any one is allowed to have a photograph taken of himself he will dry up in a month and blow away. Moreover, lists of names are not wanting with memoranda of times and places. In America there are yet people who hotly argue as to what mode of baptism is correct; who talk earnestly about the “saved” and the “lost”; and who will tell you of the “heathen” and those who are “without the pale.” They seem to think that the promise, “Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you,” applies only to the Caucasian race.
In the earlier translations of Seneca there were printed various letters that were supposed to have passed between Saint Paul and Seneca. Later editors have dropped them out for lack of authenticity. But the fact that Saint Paul met Seneca’s brother face to face, as well as the fact that the brother was willing to discuss right living, but had no time to waste on the Gemara and theological quibbles, is undisputed.
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It was the proud boast of Augustus that he found Rome a place of brick and left it a city of marble. Commercial prosperity buys the leisure upon which letters flourish. We flout the businessman, but without him there would be no poets. Poets write for the people who have time to read. And out of the surplus that is left after securing food, we buy books. Augustus built his marble city, and he also made Vergil, Horace, Ovid and Livy possible.
Augustus reigned forty-four years, and it was in the twenty-seventh year of his reign that there was born in Bethlehem of Judaea a Babe who was to revolutionize the calendar. The Dean of Ely subtly puts forth the suggestive thought that if it had not been for Augustus we might never have heard of Jesus. It was Augustus who made Jerusalem a Roman Province; and it was the economic and political policy of Augustus that evolved the Scribes and Pharisees; and ill-gotten gains made the hypocrites and publicans possible; then comes Pontius Pilate with his receding chin.
Jesus was seventeen years old when Augustus died–Augustus never heard of him, and the Roman’s unprophetic mind sent no searchlight into the future, neither did his eyes behold the Star in the East.
We are all making and shaping history, and how much, none of us knows, any more than did Augustus.
Julius Caesar had no son to take his place, so he named his nephew, Augustus, his heir. Augustus was succeeded by Tiberius, his adopted child. Caligula, successor of Tiberius, was the son of the great Roman General, Germanicus. Caligula revealed his good sense by drinking life to its lees in a reign of four years, dying without heirs–Nature refusing to transmit either infamy or genius. Claudius, an uncle of Caligula, accepted the vacant place, as it seemed to him there was no one else could fill it so well. Claudius had the felicity to be married four times, and left several sons, but Fate had it that he should be followed by Nero, his stepson, who called himself “Caesar,” yet in whose veins there leaped not a single Caesarean corpuscle.
The guardian and tutor of Nero was Lucius Seneca, the greatest, best and wisest man of his time, a fact I here state in order to show the vanity of pedagogics. Harking back once more to Augustus, let it be known that but for him Seneca would probably have never left his mark upon this bank and shoal of time. Seneca was a Spaniard, born in Cordova, a Roman Province, that was made so by Augustus, under whose kindly and placating influence all citizens of Hispania became Roman citizens–just as, when California was admitted to the Union, every man in the State was declared a naturalized citizen of the United States, the act being performed for political purposes, based on the precedents of Augustus, and never done before nor since in America.
Seneca was four years old when his father’s family moved from Cordova to Rome; this was three years before the birth of Christ. Years pass, but the human heart is forever the same. The elder Seneca, Marcus Seneca, had ambitions–he was a great man in Cordova: he could memorize a list of two thousand words. These words had no relationship one to another, and Marcus Seneca could not put words together so as to make good sense, but his name was “Loisette”: he had a scheme of mnemonics that he imparted for a consideration. He was also a teacher of elocution, and had compiled a yearbook of the sayings of Horace, which secured him a knighthood. Augustus paid his colonists pretty compliments, very much as England gives out brevets to Strathcona and other worthy Canadians, who raise troops of horse to fight England’s battles in South Africa when duty calls.
Marcus Seneca made haste to move to Rome when Augustus let down the bars. Rome was the center of the art-world, the home of letters, and all that made for beauty and excellence. There were three boys and a girl in the Seneca family.
The elder boy, Annaeus, was to become Gallio, the Roman governor, and have his name mentioned in the most widely circulated book the world has ever known; the second boy was Lucius, the subject of this sketch; the younger boy, Mela, was to become the father of Lucan, the poet.
The sister of Seneca became the wife of the Roman Governor of Egypt. It was at a time when the scheming rapacity of women was so much in evidence that the Senate debated whether it should not forbid its representatives abroad to be accompanied by their wives. France has seen such times–England and America have glanced that way. Women, like men, often do not know that the big prizes gravitate where they belong; instead, they set traps for them, lie in wait and consider prevarication and duplicity better than truth. When women use their beauty, their wit and their pink persons in politics, trouble lies low around the corner. But this sister of Seneca was never seen in public unless it was at her husband’s side; she asked no favors, and presents sent to her personally by provincials were politely returned. The province praised her, and perhaps what was better, didn’t know her, and begged the Emperor to send them more of such excellent and virtuous women–from which we infer that virtue consists in minding one’s own business.
In making up a list of great mothers, do not leave out Helvia, mother of three sons and a daughter who made their mark upon the times. It is no small thing to be a great mother!
Women of intellect were not much appreciated then, but Seneca dedicated his “Consolations,” his best book, to his mother. The very mintage of his mind was for her, and again and again he tells of her insight, her gentle wit, and her appreciation of all that was beautiful and best in the world of thought. In a letter addressed to her when he was past forty, he says, “You never stained your face with walnut-juice nor rouge; you never wore gowns cut conspicuously low; your ornaments were a loveliness of mind and person that time could not tarnish.”
But the father had the knighthood, and he called his family to witness it at odd times and sundry.
In Rome, Marcus Seneca made head as he never did in Cordova. There he was only Marcus Micawber: but here his memory feats won him the distinction that genius deserves. There is a grave question whether a verbal memory does not go with a very mediocre intellect, but Marcus said this argument was put out by a man with no memory worth mentioning.
Rome was at her ripest flower–the petals were soon to loosen and flutter to the ground, but nobody thought so–they never do. Everywhere the Roman legions were victorious, and commerce sailed the seas in prosperous ships. Power manifests itself in conspicuous waste, and the habit grows until conspicuous waste imagines itself power. Conditions in Rome had evolved our old friend, the Sophist, the man who lived but to turn an epigram, to soulfully contemplate a lily, to sigh mysteriously, and cultivate the far-away look. These men were elocutionists who gesticulated in curves, and let the thought follow the attitude. They were not content to be themselves, but chased the airy, fairy fabric of a fancy and called it life.
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The pretense and folly of Roman society made the Sophists possible–like all sects they ministered to a certain cast of mind. Over against the Sophists there were the Stoics, the purest, noblest and sanest of all ancient cults, corresponding very closely to our Quakers, before Worth and Wanamaker threw them a hawse and took them in tow. It is a tide of feeling produces a sect, not a belief: primitive Christianity was a revulsion from Phariseeism, and a William Penn and a wan Ann Lee form the antithesis of an o’ervaulting, fantastic and soulless ritual.
The father of Seneca hung upon the favor of the Sophists: he taught them mnemonics, rhetoric and elocution, and the fact that he was a courtly Spaniard was in his favor–we dote on a foreign accent and relish the thing that comes from afar.
Marcus Seneca was getting rich. He never perceived the absurdity of a life of make-believe; but his son, Lucius Seneca, heir to his mother’s discerning mind, when nineteen years old forswore the Sophists, and sided with the unpopular Stoics, much to the chagrin of the father.
Seneca–let us call him so after this–wore the simple white robe of the Stoics, without ornament or jewelry. He drank no wine, and ate no meat. Vegetarianism comes in waves, and it is interesting to see that in an essay on the subject, Seneca plagiarizes every argument put forth by Colonel Ernest Crosby, even to mentioning a butcher as an “executioner,” his goods as “dead corpses,” and the customers as “cannibals.”
This kind of talk did not help the family peace, and the father spoke of disowning the son, if he did not cease affronting the Best Society.
Soon after, the Emperor Tiberius issued an edict banishing all “strange sects who fasted on feast-days, and otherwise displeased the gods.” This was a suggestion for the benefit of the Crosbyites. It is with a feeling of downright disappointment that we find Seneca shortly appearing in an embroidered robe, and making a speech wherein the moderate use of wine is recommended, also the flesh of animals for those who think they need it.
This, doubtless, is the same speech we, too, would have made had we been there; but we want our hero to be strong, and defy even an Emperor, if he comes between the man and his right to eat what he wishes and wear what he listeth, and we blame him for not doing the things we never do. But Seneca was getting on in the world–he had become a lawyer, and his Sophist training was proving its worth. Henry Ward Beecher, in reply to a young man who asked him if he advised the study of elocution, said, “Elocution is all right, but you will have to forget it all before you become an orator.” Seneca was shedding his elocution, and losing himself in his work. A successful lawsuit had brought him before the public as a strong advocate. He was able to think on his feet. His voice was low, musical and effective, and the word, “dulcis,” was applied to him as it was to his brother, Gallio. Possibly there was something in ol’ Marcus Micawber’s pedagogic schemes, after all!
In moderating his Stoic philosophy, Seneca gives us the key to his character: the man wanted to be gentle and kind; he wished to affront neither his father nor society; so he compromised–he would please and placate. Ease and luxury appealed to him, and yet his cool intellect stood off, and reviewing the proceeding pronounced it base. He succumbed to the strongest attraction, and attempted the feat of riding two horses at once.
From his twentieth year, Seneca dallied with the epigram, found solace in a sentence, and got a sweet, subtle joy by taking a thought captive. Lucullus tells us of the fine intoxication of oratory, but neither opium nor oratory imparts a finer thrill than successfully to drive a flock of clauses, and round up an idea, roping it in careless grace, with what my lord Hamlet calls words, words, words.
The early Christian Fathers spoke of him as “our Seneca.” His writings abound in the purest philosophy–often seemingly paraphrasing Saint Paul–and every argument for directness of speech, simplicity, manliness and moderation is put forth. His writings became the rage in Rome: at feasts he read his essays on the Ideal Life, just as the disciples of Tolstoy often travel by the gorge road, and give banquets in honor of the man who no longer attends one; or princely paid preachers glorify the Man who said to His apostles, “Take neither scrip nor purse.”
Seneca was a combination of Delsarte and Emerson. He was as popular as Henry Irving, and as wise as Thomas Brackett Reed. His writings were in demand; when he spoke in public, crowds hung upon his words, and the families of the great and powerful sent him their sons, hoping he would impart the secret of success. The world takes a man at the estimate he puts upon himself. Seneca knew enough to hold himself high. Honors came his way, and the wealth he acquired is tokened in those five hundred tables, inlaid with ivory, to which at times he invited his friends to feast. As a lawyer, he took his pick of cases, and rarely appeared, except on appeal, before the Emperor. The poise of his manner, the surety of his argument, the gentle grace of his diction, caused him to be likened to Julius Caesar.
And this led straight to exile, and finally–death. To mediocrity, genius is unforgivable.
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There are various statements to the effect that Claudius was a mental defective, a sort of town fool, patronized by the nobles for their sport and jest. We are also told that he was made Emperor by the Pretorian Guards, in a spirit of rollicking bravado. Men too much abused must have some merit, or why should the pack bay so loudly? Possibly it is true that, in the youth of Claudius, his mother used to declare, when she wanted a strong comparison, “He is as big a fool as my son, Claudius.” But then the mother of Wellington used exactly the same expression; and Byron’s mother had a way of referring to the son who was to rescue her from oblivion, and send her name down the corridors of time, as “that lame brat.”
Claudius was a brother of the great Germanicus, and was therefore an uncle of Caligula. Caligula was the worst ruler that Rome ever had; and he was a brother of Agrippina, mother of Nero. This precious pair had a most noble and generous father, and their gentle mother was a fit mate for the great Germanicus–these things are here inserted for the edification of folks who take stock in that pleasant fallacy, the Law of Heredity, and who gleefully chase the genealogical anise-seed trail.
Caligula happily passed out without an heir, and Claudius, next of kin, put himself in the way of the Pretorian Guard, and was declared Emperor.
He was then fifty years old, a grass-widower–twice over–and on the lookout for a wife. He was neither wise nor great, nor was he very bad; he was kind–after dinner–and generous when rightly approached. Canon Farrar likened Claudius to King James the First, who gave us our English Bible. His comparison is worth quoting, not alone for the truth it contains, but because it is an involuntary paraphrase of the faultless literary style of the Roman rhetors. Says Canon Farrar: “Both were learned, and both were eminently unwise. Both were authors, and both were pedants. Both delegated their highest powers to worthless favorites, and both enriched these favorites with such foolish liberality that they remained poor themselves. Both of them, though of naturally good dispositions, were misled by selfishness into acts of cruelty; and both of them, though laborious in the discharge of duty, succeeded only in rendering royalty ridiculous. King James kept Sir Walter Raleigh, the brightest intellect of his time, in prison; and Claudius sent Seneca, the greatest man in his kingdom, into exile.”
New-made kings sweep clean. The impulses of Claudius were right and just, a truthful statement I here make in pleasant compliment to a brother author. The man was absent-minded, had much faith in others, and moved in the line of least resistance. Like most students and authors, he was decidedly littery. He secured a divorce from one wife because she cleaned up his room in his absence so that he could never find anything; and the other wife got a divorce from him because he refused to go out evenings and scintillate in society–but this was before he was made Emperor.
God knows, people had their troubles then as now. To take this man who loved his slippers and easy-chair, and who was happy with a roll of papyrus, and plunge him into a seething pot of politics, not to mention matrimony, was refined cruelty.
The matchmakers were busy, and soon Claudius was married to Messalina, the handsomest summer-girl in Rome.
For a short time he bore up bravely, and was filled with the wish to benefit and bless. One of his first acts was to recall Julia and Agrippina from exile, they having been sent away in a fit of jealous anger by their brother, the infamous Caligula.
Julia was beautiful and intellectual, and she had a high regard for Seneca.
Agrippina was beautiful and infamous, and pretended that she loved Claudius.
Both men were undone. Seneca’s friendship for Julia, as far as we know, was of a kind that did honor to both, but they made a too conspicuous pair of intellects. The fear and jealousy of Claudius was aroused by his young and beautiful wife, who showed him that Seneca, the courtly, was plotting for the throne, and in this ambition Julia was a party. A charge of undue intimacy with Julia, the beloved niece and ward of the Emperor, was brought against Seneca, and he was exiled to Corsica. Imagine Edmund Burke sent to Saint Helena, or John Hay to the Dry Tortugas, and you get the idea.
The sensitive nature of Seneca did not bear up under exile as we would have wished. Unlike Victor Hugo at Guernsey, he was alone, and surrounded by savages. Yet even Victor Hugo lifted up his voice in bitter complaint. Seneca failed to anticipate that, in spite of the barrenness of Corsica, it would some day produce a man who would jostle his Roman Caesar for first place on history’s page.
At Corsica, Seneca produced some of his loftiest and best literature. Exile and imprisonment are such favorable conditions for letters, having done so much for authorship, that the wonder is the expedient has fallen into practical disuse. Banishment gave Seneca an opportunity to put into execution some of the ideas he had so long expressed concerning the simple life, and certain it is that the experience was not without its benefits, and at times the grim humor of it all came to him.
Read the history of Greek ostracism, and one can almost imagine that it was devised by the man’s friends–a sort of heroic treatment prescribed by a great spiritual physician. Personality repels as well as attracts: the people grow tired of hearing Aristides called the Just–he is exiled. For a few days there is a glad relief; then his friends begin to chant his praises–he is missed. People tell of all the noble, generous things he would do if he were only here.
If he were only here!
Petitions are circulated for his return.
The law’s delay ensues, and this but increases desire. Hate for the man has turned to pity, and pity turns to love, as starch turns to gluten.
The man comes back, and is greeted with boughs and bays, with love and laurel. His homecoming is that of a conquering hero. If the Supreme Court were to issue an injunction requiring all husbands to separate themselves by at least a hundred miles from their wives, for several months in every year, it would cut down divorces ninety-five per cent, add greatly to domestic peace, render race-suicide impossible, and generally liberate millions of love vibrations that would otherwise lie dormant.
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As an example of female depravity, Valeria Messalina was sister in crime to Jezebel, Bernice, Drusilla, Salome and Herodias.
Damned by a dower of beauty, with men at her feet whenever she so ordered, her ambition knew no limit. This type of dictatorial womanhood starts out by making conquests of individual men, but the conquests of pretty women are rarely genuine. Women hold no monopoly on duplicity, and there is a deep vein of hypocrisy in men that prompts their playing a part, and letting the woman use them. When the time is ripe, they toss her away as they do any other plaything, as Omar suggests the potter tosses the luckless pots to hell.
When Julia and Agrippina were recalled, the act was done without consulting Messalina; and we can imagine her rage when these two women, as beautiful as herself, came back without her permission. Messalina had never found favor in the eyes of Seneca–he treated her with patronizing patience, as though she were a spoilt child.
Now that Julia was back, Messalina hatched the plot that struck them both. Messalina insisted that the wealth of Seneca should be confiscated. Claudius at this rebelled.
History is replete with instances of great men ruled by their barbers and coachmen. Claudius left the affairs of state to Narcissus, his private secretary; Polybius, his literary helper; and Pallas, his accountant. These men were all of lowly birth, and had all risen in the ranks from menial positions, and one of them at least had been sold as a slave, and afterward purchased his freedom. Then there was Felix, the ex-slave, another protege of Claudius, who trembled when Paul of Tarsus told him a little wholesome truth. These men were all immensely rich, and once, when Claudius complained of poverty, a bystander said, “You should go into partnership with a couple of your freedmen, and then your finances would be all right.” The fact that Narcissus, Pallas and Polybius constituted the real government is nothing against them, any more than it is to the discredit of certain Irish refugees that they manage the municipal machinery of New York City–it merely proves the impotence of the men who have allowed the power to slip from their grasp, and ride as passengers when they should be at the throttle.
Messalina managed her husband by alternate cajolings and threats. He was proud of her saucy beauty, and it was pleasing to an old man’s vanity to think that other people thought she loved him. She bore him two sons–by name, Brittanicus and Germanicus. A local wit of the day said, “It was kind of Messalina to present her husband with these boys, otherwise he would never have had any claim on them.”
But the lines were tightening around Messalina, and she herself was drawing the cords. She had put favorites in high places, banished enemies, and ordered the execution of certain people she did not like. Narcissus and Pallas gave her her own way, because they knew Claudius must find her out for himself. They let her believe that she was the real power behind the throne. Her ambitions grew–she herself would be ruler–she gave it out that Claudius was insane. Finally she decided that the time was right for a “coup de grace.” Claudius was absent from Rome, and Messalina wedded at high noon with young Silius, her lover. She was led to believe that the army would back her up, and proclaim her son, Brittanicus, Emperor, in which case, she herself and Silius would be the actual rulers. The wedding festivities were at their height, when the cry went up that Claudius had returned, and was approaching to demand vengeance. Narcissus, the wily, took up the shout, and panic-stricken, Messalina fled for safety in one way and Silius in another.
Narcissus followed the woman, adding to her drunken fright by telling her that Claudius was close behind, and suggested that she kill herself before the wronged man should appear. A dagger was handed her, and she stabbed herself ineffectually in hysteric haste. The kind secretary then, with one plunge of his sword, completed the work so well begun.
A truthful account of Messalina’s death was told to Claudius while he was at dinner. He finished the meal without saying a word, gave a present to the messenger, and went about his business, asking no questions, and never again mentioned the matter.
The fact is worthy of note that the name of Messalina is never once mentioned by Seneca. He pitied her vileness and villainy so much he could not hate her. He saw, with prophetic vision, what her end would be; and when her passing occurred, he was too great and lofty in spirit to manifest satisfaction.
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Scarcely had the funeral of Messalina occurred, when there was a pretty scramble among the eligible to see who should solace the stricken widower. Among other matrimonial candidates was Agrippina, a beautiful widow, twenty-nine in June, rich in her own right, and with only a small encumbrance in the way of a ten-year-old boy, Nero by name.
Agrippina was a niece of Claudius, and such marriages were considered unnatural; but Agrippina had subtly shown that, the deceased Emperor being her brother, she already had a sort of claim on the throne, and her marriage with Claudius would strengthen the State. Then she marshaled her charms past Claudius, in a phalanx and back, and so they were married. There was much pomp and ceremony at the wedding, and the high priest pronounced the magic words–I trust I use the right expression.
Very soon after her marriage, Agrippina recalled Seneca from exile. It was the infamous Messalina who had disgraced him and sent him away, and for Agrippina, the sister of Julia, to bring him back, was regarded as a certificate of innocence, and a great diplomatic move for Agrippina.
When Seneca returned, the whole city went out to meet him. It is not at all likely that Seneca had a suspicion of the true character of Agrippina, any more than Claudius–which sort of tends to show the futility of philosophy.
How could Seneca read her true character when it had not really been formed? No one knows what he will do until he gets a good chance. It is unkind condition that keeps most of us where we belong.
And even while the honeymoon–or should we say the harvest-moon?–was at full, Seneca was made the legal guardian and tutor of Nero, the son of the Empress, and became a member of the royal household. This was done in gratitude, and to make amends, if possible, for the wrong of banishment inflicted upon the man by scandalously linking his name with that of the sister of the woman who was now First Lady of the Land.
Seneca was then forty-nine years of age. He had fifteen years of life yet before him, and was to gain much valuable experience, and get an insight into a side of existence he had not yet known.
Agrippina was born in Cologne, which was called, in her honor, Colonia Agrippina, and now has been shortened to its present form. Whenever you buy cologne, remember where the word came from.
Agrippina, from her very girlhood, had a thirst for adventure, and her aim was high. When fourteen, she married Domitius, a Roman noble, thirty years her senior. He was as worthless a rogue as ever wore out his physical capacity for sin in middle life, and filled his dying days with crimes that were only mental. He knew himself so well that when Nero was born he declared that the issue of such a marriage could only breed a being who would ruin the State–a monster with his father’s vices and his mother’s insatiable ambition.
Agrippina was woman enough to hate this man with an utter detestation; but he was rich, and so she endured him for ten years, and then assisted Nature in making him food for worms.
The intensity of Agrippina’s nature might have been used for happy ends if the stream of her life had not been so early dammed and polluted. She loved her child with a clutching, feverish affection, and declared that he would some day rule Rome. This was not really such a far-away dream, when we remember that her brother was then Emperor and childless. Her thought was more for her child than for herself, and her expectation was that he would succeed Caligula. The persistency with which she told this ambition for her boy is both beautiful and pathetic. Every mother sees her own life projected in her child, and within certain bounds this is right and well.
Glimpses of kindness and right intent are shown when Agrippina recalled Seneca, and when she became the mother of the motherless children of Claudius. She publicly adopted these children, and for a time gave them every attention and advantage that was bestowed upon her own son. Gibbon says for one woman to mother another woman’s children is a diplomatic card often played, but Gibbon sometimes quibbles.
Gradually the fierce desire of Agrippina’s heart began to manifest itself. She plotted and arranged that Nero should marry Octavia, the daughter of Claudius. Octavia was seven years older than Nero, but the sooner the marriage could be brought about, the better–it would give her a double hold on the throne. To this end suitors for the hand of Octavia were disgraced by false charges, and sent off into exile, and the same fate came to at least three young women who stood in the way.
But the one real obstacle was Claudius himself–he was sixty, and might be so absurd as to live to be eighty. Locusta, a famous professional chemist, was employed, and the deed was done by Agrippina serving the deadly dish herself. The servants carried Claudius off to bed, thinking he was merely drunk, but he was to wake no more.
Burrus, the blunt and honest old soldier, Captain of the Pretorian Guard, sided with Agrippina; Brittanicus, the son of Claudius, was kept out of the way, and Nero was proclaimed Emperor.
Here Seneca seems to have shown his good influence, and sent home a desire in the heart of Agrippina to serve her people with moderation and justice. She had attained her ends: her son, a youth of fifteen, was Emperor, and his guardian, the great and gentle Seneca, the man of her own choosing, was the actual ruler. She was the sister of one Emperor, wife of another, and now mother of a third–surely this was glory enough to satisfy one woman’s ambition!
Then there came to Rome the famed Quinquennium Neronis, when, for five years, peace and plenty smiled. It is a trite saying that men who can not manage their own finances can look after those of a nation, but Seneca was a businessman who proved his ability to manage his own private affairs and also succeeded in managing the exchequer of a kingdom. During his reign, gladiatorial contests were relieved of their savage brutality, work was given to many, education became popular, and people said, “The Age of Augustus has returned.”
But the greatest men are not the greatest teachers. Seneca’s policy with his pupil, Nero, was one of concession.
A close study of the youth of Nero reveals the same traits that outcrop in one-half the students at Harvard–traits ill-becoming to grown-up men, but not at all alarming in youth. Nero was self-willed and occasionally had tantrums–but a tantrum is only a little whirl-wind of misdirected energy. A tantrum is life plus–it is better far than stagnation, and usually works up into useful life, and sometimes into great art. We have some verses written by Nero in his seventeenth year that show a good Class B sophomoric touch. He danced, played in the theatricals, raced horses, fought dogs, twanged the harp, and exploited various other musical instruments. He wasn’t nearly so bad as Alcibiades, but his mother lavished on him her maudlin love, and allowed the fallacy to grow in his mind concerning the divinity that doth hedge a king. In fact, when he asked his mother about his real father, she hid the truth that his father was a rogue–perhaps to shield herself, for it is only a very great person who can tell the truth–and led him to believe his paternal parent was a god, and his birth miraculous. Now, let such an idea get into the head of the average freshman and what will be the result? A woman can tell a full-grown man that he is the greatest thing that ever happened, and it does no special harm, for the man knows better than to go out on the street and proclaim it; but you tell a boy of eighteen such pleasing fallacies, and then have fawning courtiers back them up, and at the same time give the youth free access to the strong box, and it surely would be a miracle if he is not doubly damned, and quickly, too. Agrippina would not allow the blunt old Burrus to discipline her boy, and Seneca’s plan was one of concession–he loved peace. He hated to thwart the boy, because he knew that it would arouse the ire of the mother, whose love had run away with her commonsense. Love is beautiful–soft, yielding, gentle love–but the common law of England upholds wife-beating as being justifiable and desirable on certain occasions.
The real trouble was, the dam was out for Agrippina and Nero–there was no restraint for either. There was no one to teach them that the liberty of one man ends where the right of another begins. No more frightful condition for any man or woman can ever occur than this: to take away all responsibility.
When Socrates put the chesty Alcibiades three points down, and jumped on his stomach with his knees, the youth had a month in bed, and after he got around again he possessed a most wholesome regard for his teacher. If Burrus and Seneca had applied Brockway methods to Agrippina and her saucy son, as they easily might, it would have made Rome howl with delight, and saved the State as well as the individuals.
Julius Caesar, like Lincoln, let everybody do as they wished, up to a certain point. But all realized that somewhere behind that dulcet voice and the gentle manner was a heart of flint and nerves of steel. No woman ever made Julius Caesar dance to syncopated time, nor did a youth of eighteen ever successfully order him to take part in amateur theatricals on penalty. Julius Caesar and Seneca were both scholars, both were gentlemen and gentle men: their mental attitude was much the same, but one had a will of adamant, and the other moved in the line of least resistance.
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Gradually, Nero evolved a petulance and impatience toward his mother and his tutor, all of which was quite a natural consequence of his education. Every endeavor to restrain him was met with imprecations and curses. About then would have been a good time to apply heroic treatment, instead of halting fear and worshipful acquiescence.
The raw stock for making a Nero is in every school, and given the conditions, a tyrant-culture would be easy to evolve. The endeavor to make Nero wed Octavia caused a revulsion to occur in his heart toward her and her brother Brittanicus. He feared that these two might combine and wrest from him the throne.
Locusta, the specialist, was again sent for and Brittanicus was gathered to his fathers.
Soon after, Nero fell into a deep infatuation for Poppae Sabina, wife of Otho, the most beautiful woman in Rome. Sabina refused to accept his advances so long as he was tied to his mother’s apron-strings–I use the exact phrase of Tacitus, so I trust no exceptions will be taken to the expression. Nero came to believe that the tagging, nagging, mushy love of his mother was standing in the way of his advancement. He had come to know that Agrippina had caused the death of Claudius, and when she accused him of poisoning Brittanicus, he said, “I learned the trick from my dear mother!” and honors were even.
He knew the crafty quality of his mother’s mind and grew to fear her. And fear and hate are one. To secure Sabina he must sacrifice Agrippina.
He would be free.
To poison her would not do–she was an expert in preventives.
So Nero, regardless of expense, bargained with Anicetus, admiral of the fleet, to construct a ship so that, when certain bolts were withdrawn, the craft would sink and tell no tale. This was a bit of daring deviltry never before devised, and by turn, Nero chuckled in glee and had cold sweats of fear as he congratulated himself on his astuteness.
The boat was built and Agrippina was enticed on board. The night of the excursion was calm, but the conspirators, fearing the chance might never come again, let go the canopy, loaded with lead, which was over the queen. It fell with a crash; and at the same time the bolts were withdrawn and the waters rushed in. Several of the servants in attendance were killed by the fall of the awning, but Agrippina and Aceronia, a lady of quality, escaped from the debris only slightly hurt. Aceronia, believing the ship was about to sink, called for help, saying, “I am Agrippina.” She erred slightly in her diplomacy, for she was at once struck on the head with an oar and killed. This gave Agrippina a clew to the situation and she was silent. By a strange perversity, the royal scuttling patent would not work and the boat stubbornly refused to sink.
Agrippina got safely ashore and sent word to her son that there had been a terrible accident, but she was safe–the intent of her letter being to let him know that she understood the matter perfectly, and while she could not admire the job, it was so bungling, yet she would forgive him if he would not try it again.
In wild consternation, Nero sent for Burrus and Seneca. This was their first knowledge of the affair. They refused to act in either way, but Burrus intimated that Anicetus was the guilty party and should be held responsible.
“For not completing the task?” said Nero.
“Yes,” said the blunt old soldier, and retired.
Anicetus was notified that the blame of the whole conspiracy was on him. A big crime, well carried out, is its own excuse for being; but failure, like unto genius, is unforgivable.
Anicetus was in disgrace, but only temporarily, for he towed the obstinate, telltale galley into deep water and sank her at dead of night. Then with a few faithful followers he surrounded the villa where Agrippina was resting, scattered her guard and confronted her with drawn sword.
Years before, a soothsayer had told her that her son would be Emperor and that he would kill her. Her answer was, “Let them slay me, if he but reign.”
Now she saw that death was nigh. She did not try to escape, nor did she plead for mercy, but cried, “Plunge your sword through my womb, for it bore Nero.”
And Anicetus, with one blow, struck her dead.
Nero returned to Naples to mourn his loss. From there he sent forth a lengthy message to the Senate, recounting the accidental shipwreck, and telling how Agrippina had plotted against his life, recounting her crimes in deprecatory, sophistical phrase. The document wound up by telling how she had tried to secure the throne for a paramour, and the truth coming to some o’erzealous friends of the State, they had arisen and taken her life. In Rome there was a strong feeling that Nero should not be allowed to return, but this message of explanation and promise, written by Seneca, downed the opposition.
The Senate accepted the report, and Nero, at twenty-two, found himself master of the world.
Yet what booted it when he was not master of himself!
From this time on, the career of Seneca was one of contumely, suffering and disgrace. This was to endure for six years, when kindly death was then to set him free.
The mutual, guilty knowledge of a great crime breeds loathing and contempt. History contains many such instances where the subject had knowledge of the sovereign’s sins, and the sovereign found no rest until the man who knew was beneath the sod.
Seneca knew Nero as only his Maker knew him.
After the first spasm of exultation in being allowed to return to Rome, a jealous dread of Seneca came over the guilty monarch.
Seneca hoped against hope that, now that Nero’s wild oats were sown and the crop destroyed, all would be well. The past should be buried and remembrance of it sunk deep in oblivion.
But Nero feared Seneca might expose his worthlessness and the philosopher himself take the reins. In this Nero did not know his man: Seneca’s love was literary–political power to him was transient and not worth while.
It became known that the apology to the Senate was the work of Seneca, and Nero, who wanted the world to think that all his speeches and addresses were his own, got it firmly fixed in his head he would not be happy until Seneca was out of the way. Sabina said he was no longer a boy, and should not be tagged and dictated to by his old teacher.
Seneca, seeing what was coming, offered to give his entire property to the State and retire. Nero would not have it so–he feared Seneca would retire only to come back with an army. A cordon of spies was put around Seneca’s house–he was practically a prisoner. Attempts were made to poison him, but he ate only fruit, and bread made by his wife, Paulina, and drank no water except from running streams.
Finally a charge of conspiracy was fastened upon him, and Nero ordered him to die by his own hand. His wife was determined to go with him, and one stroke severed the veins of both.
The beautiful Sabina realized her hopes–she divorced her husband, and married the Emperor of Rome. She died from a sudden kick given her by the booted foot of her liege.
Three years after the death of Seneca, Nero passed hence by the same route, killing himself to escape the fury of the Pretorian Guard. And so ended the Julian line, none of whom, except the first, was a Julian.
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From the death of Augustus on to the time of Nero there was for Rome a steady tide of disintegration. The Emperor was the head of the Church, and he usually encouraged the idea that he was something different from common men–that his mission was from On High and that he should be worshiped. Gibbon, making a free translation from Seneca, says, “Religion was regarded by the common people as true, by the philosophers as false, and by the rulers as useful.” And Saint Augustine, using the same smoothly polished style, says, in reference to a Roman Senator, “He worshiped what he blamed, he did what he refuted, he adored that with which he found fault.” The sentence is Seneca’s, and when he wrote it he doubtless had himself in mind, for in spite of his Stoic philosophy the life of luxury lured him, and although he sang the praises of poverty he charged a goodly sum for so doing, and the nobles who listened to him doubtless found a vicarious atonement by applauding him as he played to the gallery gods of their self-esteem, like rich ladies who go a-slumming mix in with the poor on an equality, and then hasten home to dress for dinner.
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Seneca was one of the purest and loftiest intellects the world has ever known. Canon Farrar calls him “A Seeker after God,” and has printed parallel passages from Saint Paul and Seneca which, for many, seem to show that the men were in communication with each other. Every ethical maxim of Christianity was expressed by this “noble pagan,” and his influence was always directed toward that which he thought was right. His mistakes were all in the line of infirmities of the will. Voltaire calls him, “The father of all those who wear shovel hats,” and in another place refers to him as an “amateur ascetic,” but in this the author of the Philosophical Dictionary pays Seneca the indirect compliment of regarding him as a Christian. Renan says, “Seneca shines out like a great white star through a rift of clouds on a night of darkness.” The wonder is not that Seneca at times lapsed from his high estate and manifested his Sophist training, but that to the day of his death he saw the truth with unblinking eyes and held the Ideal firmly in his heart.