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THE DOOM OF NERO
 WE have perhaps paid too much attention to the
enormities of Caligula and Nero. Yet the mad
freakishness of the one and the cowardly dissimulation
of the other give to their stories a dramatic interest
which seems to render them worth repeating. Nero, one
of the basest and cruelest of the Roman emperors, is
one of the best known to readers, and the interest felt
in him is not alone due to the story of his life, but
as well to that of his death, which we therefore here
A conspiracy against him among some of the noblest
citizens of Rome was discovered and punished with
revengeful fury. It was followed, a few years
afterwards, by a revolt of the armies in Gaul and
Spain. This was in its turn quelled, and Nero triumphed
in imagination over all his enemies. But he had lost
favor alike with the army and the people, and an event
now happened that threw the whole city into a ferment
of anger against him.
Food was scarce, and the arrival of a ship from
Alexandria, supposed to be loaded with corn, filled the
people with joy. It proved instead to be loaded with
sand for the arena. In their disappointment the people
broke at first into scurrilous jests against
 Nero, and then into rage and fury. A wild clamor filled
the streets. On all aides rose the demand to be
delivered from a monster. Even the Prætorian guards,
who had hitherto supported the emperor, began to show
signs of disaffection, and were wrought to a spirit of
revolt by two of the choice companions of Nero's
iniquities, who now deserted him as rats desert a
sinking ship. The senate was approached and told that
Nero was no longer supported by his friends, and that
they might now regain the power of which they had been
Some whisper of what was afloat reached Nero's ears.
Filled with craven fury, he resolved to massacre the
senate, to set fire again to the city, and to let loose
his whole collection of wild beasts. He proposed to fly
to Egypt during the consternation that would prevail. A
trusted servant, to whom he told this design, revealed
it to the senate. It filled them with fear and rage.
Yet even in so dire a contingency they could not be
prevailed upon to act with vigor, and all might have
been lost by their procrastination and timidity but for
the two men who had organized the revolt.
These men, Nymphidius and Tigellinus by name, went to
the palace, and with a show of deep affliction informed
Nero of his danger. "All is lost," they said: "the
people call aloud for vengeance; the Prætorian guards
have abandoned your cause; the senate is ready to
pronounce a dreadful judgment. Only one hope remains to
you, to fly for your life, and seek a retreat in Egypt"
It was as they said; revolt was everywhere in the
 air, and affected the armies near and far. Nero sought
assistance, but sought it in vain. The palace, lately
swarming with life, was now deserted. Nero wandered
through its empty chambers, and found only solitude and
gloom. Conscience awoke in his seared heart, and he was
filled with horror and remorse. Of all his late crowd
of courtiers only three friends now remained with
him,—Sporus, a servant; Phaon, a freedman; and
Epaphroditus, his secretary.
" 'My wife, my father, and my mother doom me dead!' "
he bitterly cried, quoting a line from a Greek tragedy.
With a last hope be bade the soldiers on duty to hasten
to Ostia and prepare a ship, on which be might embark
for Egypt. The men refused.
" 'Is it, then, so wretched a thing to die?' " said one
of them, quoting from Virgil.
This refusal threw Nero into despair. He hurried to the
Servilian gardens, with a vial of deadly poison, which,
on getting there, he had not the courage to take. He
returned to the palace and threw himself on his bed.
Then, too agitated to lie, he sprang up and called for
some friendly hand to end his wretched life. No one
consented, and in his wild despair he called out, in
doleful accents, "My friends desert me, and I cannot
find an enemy"
The world had suddenly fallen away from the despicable
Nero. A week before he had ordered it at his will, now
"none so poor to do him reverence." His craven terror
would have been pitiable in any one to whom the word
pity could apply. In frantic dread he rushed from the
palace, as if with intent to fling
 himself into the Tiber. Then as hastily he returned,
saying that he would fly to Spain, and yield himself to
the mercy of Galba, who commanded the revolted army.
But no ship was to be had for either Spain or Egypt,
and this plan was abandoned as quickly as formed.
These and other projects passed in succession through
his distracted brain. One of the most absurd of them
was to go in a mourning garb to the Forum, and by his
powers of eloquence seek to win back the favor of the
people. If they would not have him as emperor, he might
by persuasive oratory obtain from them the government
Full of hope in this new project, he was about to put
it into effect, when a fresh reflection filled his soul
with horror. What if the populace should, without
waiting to hear his harmonious accents and unequalled
oratory, break out in sudden rage and rend him limb
from limb? Might they not assail him in the palace?
Might not a seditious mob be already on its way
thither, bent on bloody work? Whither should he fly?
Where find refuge?
Turning in despair to his companions, he asked them,
wildly, "is there no hiding place, no safe retreat,
where I may have leisure to consider what is to be
Phaon, his freedman, told him that he owned an obscure
villa, at a distance of about four miles from Rome,
where he might remain for a time in concealment.
This suggestion, in Nero's state of distraction, was
eagerly embraced,—in such haste, indeed, that he left
 the palace without an instant's preparation, his feet
destitute of shoes, and no garment but his close tunic,
his outer garments and imperial robe having been
discarded in his distraction. The utmost he did was to
snatch up an old rusty robe as a disguise, covering his
head with it, and holding a handkerchief before his
face. Thus attired, he mounted his horse and fled in
frantic fear, attended only by the three men we have
mentioned, and a fourth named Neophytus.
Meanwhile, the revolt in the city was growing more and
more decided. When the coming day showed its first
faint rays, the Prætorian guards, who had been on duty
in the palace, left their post and marched to the camp.
Here, under the influence of Nymphidius, Galba was
nominated emperor. This was an important innovation in
the government of Rome. Hitherto the imperial dignity
had remained in the family of Cæsar, descending by
hereditary transmission. Nero was the last of that
family to wear the crown. Henceforth the army and its
generals controlled the destinies of the empire. The
nomination of Galba by the Prætorian guard signalized
the new state of things, in which the emperors would
largely be chosen by that guard or by some army in the
The action of the Prætorian guard was supported by the
senate. That body, awaking from its late timidity,
determined to mark the day with a decree worthy of its
past history. With unanimous decision they pronounced
Nero a tyrant who had trampled on all laws, human and
con-  demned him to suffer death with all the rigor of the
While this revolution was taking place in the city the
terror-stricken Nero was still in frantic flight. He
passed the Prætorian camp near enough to hear loud
acclamations, among which the name of Galba reached his
ear. As the small cavalcade hastened by a man early at
work in the fields, he looked up and said, "These
people must be hot in pursuit of Nero." A short
distance farther another hailed them, asking, "What do
they say of Nero in the city?"
A more alarming event occurred soon. As they drew near
Phaon's house the horse of Nero started at a dead
carcass beside the road, shaking down the handkerchief
by which he had concealed his face. The movement
revealed him to a veteran soldier, then on his way to
Rome, and ignorant of what was taking place in the
city. He recognized and saluted the emperor by name.
This incident increased Nero's fear. His route of
flight would now be known. He pressed his horse to the
utmost speed until Phaon's house was close at hand.
They now halted and Nero dismounted, it being thought
unsafe for him to enter the house publicly. He crossed
a field overgrown with reeds, and, being tortured with
thirst, scooped up some water from a muddy ditch and
drank it, saying, dolefully, "Is this the beverage
which Nero has been used to drink?"
Phaon advised him to conceal himself in a neighboring
sandpit, from which could be opened for him
 a subterraneous passage to the house, but Nero refused,
saying that he did not care to be buried alive. His
companions then made an opening in the wall on one side
of the house, through which Nero crept on his hands and
knees. Entering a wretched chamber, he threw himself on
a mean bed, which was covered with a tattered coverlet,
and asked for some refreshment.
All they could offer him was a little coarse bread, so
black that the sight of it sickened his dainty taste,
and some warm and foul water, which thirst forced him
to drink. His friends meanwhile were in little less
desperation than himself. They saw that no hope was
left and that his place of concealment would soon be
known, and entreated him to avoid a disgraceful death
by taking his own life.
Nero promised to do so, but still sought reasons for
delay. His funeral must be prepared for, he said, and
bade them to dig a grave, to prepare wood for a funeral
pile, and bring marble to cover his remains. Meanwhile
he piteously bewailed his unhappy lot; sighed and shed
tears copiously; and said, with a last impulse of
vanity, "What a musician the world will lose!"
While he thus in cowardly procrastination delayed the
inevitable end, a messenger, whom Phaon had ordered to
bring news from Rome, arrived with papers. These Nero
eagerly seized and read. He found himself dethroned,
declared a public enemy, and condemned to suffer death
with the rigor of ancient usage. Such was the decree of
the senate, which hitherto had been his subservient
 "Ancient usage?" he asked. "What do they mean? What
kind of death is that?"
"It is this," they told him. "Every traitor, by the law
of the old republic, with his head fastened between two
stakes, and his body stripped naked, was slowly flogged
to death by the lictors' rods."
Dread of this terrible and ignominious punishment
roused the trembling wretch to some semblance of
courage. He produced two daggers, which he had brought
with him, and tried their points. Then he replaced them
in their scabbards, saying, "The fatal moment is not
Turning to Sporus, he said, "Sing the melancholy dirge,
and offer the last obsequies to your friend." Then,
rolling his eyes wildly around, he exclaimed, "Why will
not some one of you kill himself, and teach me how to
He paused a moment. No one seemed inclined adopt his
suggestion. A flood of tears burst from his eyes.
Starting up, he cried, in a tone of wild despair,
"Nero, this is infamy; you linger in disgrace; this is
no time for dejected passions; this moment calls for
These words were hardly spoken when the sound of horses
was heard advancing rapidly towards the house.
Theatrical to the end, he repeated a line from Homer
which the noise of hoofs recalled to his mind. At
length, driven to desperation, he seized his dagger and
stabbed himself in the throat,—but cowardice made the
stroke too feeble. Epaphroditus now lent his aid, and
the next thrust was a mortal one.
 It was time. The horses were those of pursuers. The
senate, informed of his probable place of refuge, had
sent soldiers in haste to bring him back to Rome, there
to suffer the punishment decreed. In a minute
afterwards a centurion entered the room, and, seeing
Nero prostrate and bleeding, ran to his aid, saying
that he would bind the wound and save his life.
Nero looked up languidly, and said, in faint tones,
"You come too late. Is this your fidelity?" In a moment
more he expired.
In the words of Tacitus, "The ferocity of his nature
was still visible in his countenance. His eyes fixed
and glaring, and every feature swelled with warring
passions, he looked more stern, more grim, more
terrible than ever."
Nero was in his thirty-second year. He had reigned
nearly fourteen years. Tacitus says of him, "The race
of Cæsars ended with Nero; he was the last, and perhaps
the worst, of that illustrious house."
The tidings of his death filled Rome with joy. Men ran
wildly about the streets, their heads covered with
liberty caps. Acclamations of gladness resounded in the
Forum. Icelus, Galba's freedman and agent in Rome, whom
Nero had thrown into prison, was released and took
control of affairs. He ordered that Nero's body should
be burned where he had died, and this was done so
quickly and secretly that many would not believe that
he was dead. The report got abroad that he had escaped
to Asia or Egypt, and from time to time impostors
appeared claiming to be Nero. The Parthians were
 by one of these impostors and offered to defend his
cause. Another made trouble in the Greek islands.
Nero's profligate companions in Rome, who alone mourned
his death, while affecting to believe him still alive
raised a tomb to his memory, which for several years
they annually dressed with the flowers of spring and
summer. But the world at large rejoiced in its delivery
from the rule of a monster of iniquity.