Cornelius Tacitus

The Annals

Book XVI: I-XXXV - The tale of blood

Roman Pontiff

‘Roman Pontiff’
History of Rome and the Roman people, from its origin to the establishment of the Christian empire - Victor Duruy (1811 - 1894) (p235, 1884)
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Book XVI:I Hidden treasure

Fate now mocked Nero, as a result of his own vain credulity and the promises of Caesellius Bassus, who, mentally disturbed, was Carthaginian by origin. Treating a vision he had seen, in a dream at night, as certain of expectation, he sailed to Rome and, bribing his way in to see the emperor, disclosed that he had found a cave, immensely deep, on his own land, which contained a vast weight of gold, not in the form of coinage, but in ancient, unworked bullion. Heavy ingots lay about, while in another section the metal was piled high; a treasure lying hidden throughout the centuries to bring wealth to present times.

Dido, the Phoenician, so his conjectures ran, having fled Tyre, and founded Carthage, had concealed the hoard, lest excess riches ruin her young nation, or the petty kings of Numidia, always hostile, might be roused to war by their greed for gold.

Book XVI:II Nero sends for the gold

Nero, giving insufficient consideration to the informant’s credibility, or that of the tale itself, and without seeking to know the truth of the matter, added further impetus to the report, and sent men to retrieve the treasure as if it were already to hand. Triremes were provided, with select oarsmen to increase their speed. At that time, nothing else was talked of with such certainty by the populace, or with so firmly contrasting an opinion by the wise. 

It so happened that the Quinquennial Games (the Neronia) were being celebrated for the second time, and the project provided the chief material for the orators’ praise of the emperor: not merely the usual crops were forthcoming, they said, nor simply gold alloyed with other metals, but the earth showed fresh fecundity and the gods sent gold unsought.

They invented other flatteries of lofty eloquence, with no less sycophancy, assured of being readily believed.

Book XVI:III The tale proves unfounded

Meanwhile, Nero’s extravagance increased, on the basis of this idle expectation, and his former riches were consumed, as if what had been revealed were to serve his prodigality for many years to come. Indeed, from that time on he spent freely, though he had done so even before, and his expectation of imminent wealth was one of the reasons the State became impoverished.

For Bassus, accompanied not only by the soldiers but a whole army of countrymen enlisted to carry out the project, having dug over his own land and a wide stretch of the surrounding fields, insisting the site of the promised cave was here or there, at last ended the madness, and amazed that, his visions never having previously proven false, this was now the first to deceive him, fled from shame and fear by committing suicide.

Some say he was merely imprisoned and soon released, his assets being confiscated to reimburse the palace.

Book XVI:IV Nero sings at the Games

Meanwhile, the Senate, with the Quinquennial competition already imminent and to avert scandal, offered the emperor the victory in the singing, adding a garland for eloquence to veil the stigma of theatrical performance. But Nero protested that he needed neither bribery nor the Senate’s indulgence, he would meet his rivals on equal terms, and the judges’ conscientiousness would guarantee him a worthy commendation.

He began by reciting a poem on the platform; then with the crowd clamouring for him to ‘display all his skills’ (those being the very words employed) he entered the theatre, observing all the rules of the lyre, not to sit when tired, not to wipe the sweat away except with the robe he was wearing, nor allow any discharge from nose or mouth to be seen. Then, on bended knee, kissing his hand to the crowd, he awaited the judges’ verdict, with a feigned look of trepidation.

And the urban masses, at least, used to delighting in the actors’ posturing, shouted their acclaim, in no uncertain manner, and with thunderous applause. You might have thought them joyful, and perhaps they were joyful, through blind indifference to the nation’s shame. 

Book XVI:V Attendance through fear

But those in the audience from far-off country towns, from an Italy still austere and holding fast to its ancient ways, those from the provinces unused to shamelessness, there on official missions or private business, were neither comfortable with the spectacle nor adequate to their inglorious task, their ineffectual applause soon fading, or disturbing the cognoscenti, and they were often struck at by the soldiers positioned among the blocks of seats, lest an instant was wasted in inappropriate noise or dull silence.

It is well known that many knights were trampled to death while clambering upwards along the narrow gangways, against the crowd’s flow. Others too, caught some incurable disease, from spending days and nights among the benches. For it was a graver threat still to be absent from that audience, where many openly and others in hiding were there to note the names and faces, the cheerfulness or gloom.

Hence the fate of the insignificant was punishment there and then, that of the illustrious the emperor’s hatred, concealed for the present but soon visited upon them. They say that Vespasian, briefly closing his eyes in sleep, and reprimanded by Phoebus the freedman, a fact barely concealed despite the entreaties of the superior party, was only saved later from imminent death by a higher destiny.

Book XVI:VI Nero’s manslaughter of Poppaea

After the Games had ended, Poppaea met her death, by accident, through the irascibility of her husband, who felled her with a blow from his foot, while she was pregnant. Though some writers relate, more out of hatred for Nero than conviction, that poison was involved in her death, I cannot believe it: since he wished for heirs and was obsessed by love for his wife.

The body was not cremated in the Roman manner, but embalmed, after the practice of foreign courts, being filled with spices, then laid to rest in the tomb of the Julians. Nevertheless a public funeral followed, and the emperor himself praised her beauty from the Rostra, and that she had been mother to a daughter now deified, and her other gifts of fortune that did duty for virtues.

Book XVI:VII Nero attacks Gaius Cassius and Lucius Silanus

Nero incited fresh odium, adding to that caused by Poppaea’s death, which was outwardly regretted but delighted those who recalled her shamelessness and savagery, by prohibiting Gaius Cassius the jurist from attending her funeral, which was a first hint of evil to come. Nor was that long delayed, Lucius Silanus the Younger being associated with him, their only crimes being that Cassius was notable for his inherited wealth and austere character, Silanus for his illustrious lineage and temperate youth.

Nero, therefore, sent a speech to the Senate, arguing that both should be excluded from public life, objecting to Gaius Cassius on the grounds that among his ancestral busts he had honoured that of Cassius the tyrannicide, with the inscription ‘To the leader of the cause’: and that indeed Gaius was sowing the seed of rebellion and civil war against the House of the Caesars, and not merely be employing the memory of a hated name to foster discord, but by adopting Lucius Silanus, a youth of noble family, but rash spirit, as the leader of his revolution.

Book XVI:VIII Cassius’ wife Lepida also indicted

Nero then attacked Lucius Silanus himself, in the same manner as he had his uncle Decimus before him (AD64), accusing him of allocating the offices of empire already, and appointing freedmen to the roles of his secretaries for accounts, records and correspondence, a claim that was idle and false, for fear had made Silanus more vigilant, and his uncle’s death had driven him to take further precautions. Next, informants, so-called, were led to invent charges against Junia Lepida, Cassius’ wife and aunt to Silanus, of incest with her nephew, and celebration of the dark rites.

The senators Vulcacius Tullinus and Cornelius Marcellus, and the Roman knight Calpurnius Fabatus, were dragged in as accomplices. They evaded imminent conviction by appealing to the emperor, and later escaped as being of minor importance, Nero being occupied with more serious crimes. 

Book XVI:IX Cassius and Silanus exiled

By decree of the Senate Cassius and Silanus were then sentenced to exile: Nero would announce Lepida’s fate. Cassius was deported to the island of Sardinia, there to await old age. Silanus left, as if for Naxos, but was taken to Ostia and later confined in an Apulian village, namely Barium (Bari).

There, while enduring philosophically the most undeserved of fates, he was seized by a centurion sent to slaughter him; urged to slash his veins, he replied that he had determined to die, but would not deny the assassin the glory of his office. The centurion, however, seeing that Silanus was, though unarmed, powerfully built and betrayed anger rather than fear, ordered his men to overpower him.

Silanus did not fail to put up a fight, and struck whatever blows bare fists allowed, until he fell to the centurion’s sword, his wounds in front, as in battle.

Book XVI:X Lucius Vetus accused

Lucius Antistius Vetus, his mother-in-law Sextia, and his daughter Antistia Pollitta, met death no less resolutely, being loathed by the emperor as a living reproach for his execution of Rubellius Plautus, Vetus’ son-in-law.

The opening for exhibiting his savagery, however, was provided by Fortunatus, his freedman, who after embezzling his patron’s property, turned accuser, in association with Claudius Demianus, imprisoned by Vetus for various offences when Vetus was proconsul of Asia Minor, but freed by Nero as his reward for informing.

Aware of this, and knowing he and his freedmen were to meet as equals, Vetus left for his estate at Formiae (Formia). There he was surrounded by a concealed military guard. His daughter, Pollitta, was present, who above and beyond the imminent danger was embittered by the grief she had endured from the day she saw her husband Plautus assassinated; having embraced his neck as he lay bleeding, she still treasured his blood-stained robe, a widow, unkempt and endlessly grieving, taking no more than a little sustenance to keep death at bay.

Now, at her father’s request she went to Naples and, denied access to Nero, besieged his door, clamouring, now in female lament, now in threatening accents belying her gender, for him to hear the innocent, and not sacrifice his one-time colleague in the consulate (AD55) to a mere freedman, until the emperor showed himself unmoved alike by prayer or reproach.

Book XVI:XI The deaths of Lucius Vetus, Sextia and Pollitta

nged aimed at a harsh verdict. There was no lack of those advising him to name Nero as his principal heir, thus saving the residue for his grandchildren.

Rejecting this, lest a life lived in virtual freedom be marred by a final act that proved servile, he distributed what money he had among his servants, and ordered them to take whatever they could carry away for their own use, leaving three couches at the last. Then, all three of them severed their veins, in the same room, with the same blade, and hurriedly, wrapped in the single robe decency required, they were carried to the baths, the father gazing with admiration on his daughter, the grandmother on her grandchild, and she on both, all praying in fond rivalry for a swift end to failing breath, and to leave the others behind though dying themselves.

Fate obeyed the natural order, the two eldest passing first, then Pollitta still in her early youth. They were indicted after burial, it being decreed that they should be punished in the ancient fashion, Nero, however, interceding, and permitting death without a conviction: such was the farce enacted when the deed was already done.

Book XVI:XII Renaming of months

Publius Gallus, a Roman knight was banished, forbidden fire and water, as an intimate friend of Faenius Rufus and no stranger to Vetus. His accuser, a freedman, was given a seat in the theatre among the tribunician summoners as his reward.

Also the months following April or Neroneus, were renamed: May becoming Claudius, June taking the title of Germanicus; the alteration to June, according to the testimony of Cornelius Orfitus who proposed it, being due to the fact that the death of two Torquati (Decimus Junius and Lucius Junius) for their crimes had already rendered the name Junius unpropitious.

Book XVI:XIII Storm, disease, disaster

Even the heavens set their mark, with storm and disease, on this year (AD65) of foul deeds. Campania was devastated by a whirlwind, which wrecked farms, orchards and crops at random, and brought its violence close to Rome, where every class of humanity was being scythed down by pestilence, though that celestial storm was not visible to the eye.

Nevertheless, the houses were filled with corpses, the streets with funerals; neither age nor gender gave immunity from danger; slaves and free-born alike were swiftly extinguished, amidst the lamentations of their wives and children who, by tending them or weeping beside them, were often destined to burn on the same pyre. Knights and senators, though meeting death indiscriminately, were less mourned, as if they were eluding the emperor’s ferocity by so commonplace a death.

That same year, levies were raised in Narbonese Gaul, North Africa and Asia Minor, to reinforce the legions in Illyricum, from which all men incapacitated by age or sickness were being discharged the service. Also the emperor relieved the city of Lyon (Lugdunum) after a fire, with a grant of forty thousand gold pieces to repair the losses; which amount Lyon had previously offered in the like case of the capital.

Book XVI:XIV Publius Anteius commits suicide

In the consulate of Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and Luccius Telesinus (AD66), that Antistius Sosianus who had been exiled, as I have said, for composing scurrilous verses concerning Nero, hearing of the honour shown informants and the emperor’s readiness for bloodshed, and being restless and quick to see an opportunity, ingratiated himself with Pammenes, exiled to the same location, who as a noted astrologer had a wide network of friends.

Antistius considered that it was not for nothing that messengers seeking consultations were arriving endlessly, discovering that at the same time Pammenes received an annual pension from Publius Anteius. He was not unaware also that Anteius was hated by Nero due to the former’s affection for Agrippina, and that his riches were especially likely to arouse the latter’s greed, a circumstance fatal to many.

Antistius, therefore, intercepted a letter from Anteius, and even stole the documents hidden in Pammenes’ archives containing Anteius’ birth-chart and career, and discovering at the same time what he had calculated regarding the birth and life of Ostorius Scapula, he then wrote to Nero that he could bring grave news conducive to the emperor’s safety, if he might be granted a brief respite from exile: for Anteius and Ostorius, he claimed, threatened the State, and were consulting the astrologer regarding Caesar’s fate and their own.

Frigates were sent at once, and Antistius soon arrived. As soon as his evidence was divulged, Anteius and Ostorius took their places among those condemned rather than those accused, to the point where no one would sign Anteius’ last will and testament, until Tigellinus emerged as its sponsor, first warning Anteius not to delay making his final provisions. Anteius swallowed poison, but dismayed by its slowness in acting, hastened death by opening his veins.

Book XVI:XV Ostorius follows his example

At that moment, Ostorius was at a remote estate on the Ligurian frontier. A centurion was sent to execute him immediately. The reason for speed arose from the fact that Ostorius, famous for his many military campaigns, including the civic crown earned in Britain, both physically powerful and skilled in arms, had inspired Nero with fear lest he attack him, Nero being forever a coward and further terrified by this newly discovered plot.

The centurion, after securing the exits from the villa, showed Ostorius the imperial order. The latter turned the same courage he had often shown against his enemies against himself: and finding that although he had opened his veins the blood ran slowly, he made use of his slave’s arm only so far as to hold the blade steady, then pulling the man’s hand closer cut his own throat.

Book XVI:XVI Tacitus apologises for his tale of blood

Even were I recalling foreign wars and lives sacrificed there for the State, I might find myself sated with so constant a repetition of events, and anticipate the tedium of others repelled by an endless tale of woe, however honourable the deaths of those citizens might be. As it is, this patient servility and wealth of blood lost at home weary the mind and drown it in melancholy.

The only concession I demand from those who study these records is not to revile those who perished so tamely. It was the anger of heaven against the Roman State, which cannot, as with military defeat or captured towns, be simply mentioned once and then passed over. Let us grant this to the memory of famous men, that as in their funeral exequies they avoid the common grave, so in the history of their death they shall receive and retain their own remembrance.

Book XVI:XVII The ranks are thinned further

For in the course of a few days, in a single sweep, fell Marcus Annaeus Mela, Anicius Cerealis, Rufrius Crispinus and Titus Petronius.

Mela and Crispinus were Roman knights of senatorial rank. Crispinus, once a praetorian prefect, and granted consular insignia, but recently banished to Sardinia on a charge of conspiracy, hearing his death had been ordered, committed suicide.

Mela, brother to both Gallio Annaeanus and Seneca the Younger, had refrained from seeking office due to the perverted notion that a Roman knight could wield a consul’s power; at the same time thinking the swifter path to acquiring wealth lay with the procurators handling the emperor’s private affairs. He was Lucan’s father also, which greatly added to his reputation.

After his son’s death, by calling in the debts owed to the estate with vigour, he gave birth to an accuser in Fabius Romanus, one of Lucan’s close friends. Concocting the charge that knowledge of the conspiracy had been shared between father and son, Romanus also forged a letter from Lucan, having inspected which Nero ordered it to be carried to Mela.

Mela, however, took what was then the most favoured path to death, opening a vein, having written a will leaving a large amount to Tigellinus and the latter’s son-in-law Cossutianus Capito, hoping the rest might be retained. A codicil was added, so written as to form a protest against the iniquity of fate, saying that while he was sentenced to execution for no reason, Rufrius Crispinus and Anicius Cerealis though hostile to the emperor remained to enjoy the fruits of life.

The item was believed to be a forgery (on behalf of Nero) to justify Crispinus’ prior death and that of Cerialis still to come. For not long afterwards, Cerialis took his own life, accruing less sympathy than the rest since memories remained of his betraying a conspiracy to Caligula.

Book XVI:XVIII The indictment of Petronius (author of the Satyricon)

There is a little more to say regarding Petronius. For he passed his days sleeping, his nights in the offices and amusements of life; effort may have promoted others, he idled himself to fame. Nor was he held to be a scoundrel and spendthrift, like the majority of his companions, but rather a connoisseur of excess. His words and actions displayed an air of freedom and self-abandonment which rendered them so much the more acceptable by their apparent innocence. Yet as proconsul of Bithynia and later as consul, he showed himself energetic and equal to his role.

Then lapsing into vice, or a semblance of vice, he was absorbed into Nero’s narrow circle, as his arbiter of elegance, the emperor finding sweetness and charm only in that which Petronius approved. As a result Tigellinus was jealous of this seeming rival, one more expert in the knowledge of sensuous pleasure. Therefore, he invoked the emperor’s savage instincts, before which his other passions yielded, attacking Petronius for his friendship with Scaevinus, bribing one of Petronius’ slaves to turn informer, thwarting any appeal, and clapping the majority of the household in irons.

Book XVI:XIX The death of Petronius

As it happened, Nero was at that time travelling to Campania, and Petronius having reached Cumae was detained there. No longer wishing to endure the vagaries of fear or hope, neither did he rush to his life’s end, but having severed his veins had them bound up and re-opened at whim, to converse with his friends, not in any serious manner or with a view to the glories of stoicism. Instead, he listened as they recalled neither discourses on the immortality of the soul, nor the principles of philosophy, but light airs and trivial verses.

Of his slaves, some experienced his generosity, others the lash. He took his place at the table, and dozed a little, so that death, though enforced, might at least seem natural. Nor like the majority of the doomed did he flatter Nero, or Tigellinus, or any others of the powerful in his will but, against the names of various catamites and loose women, he listed the emperor’s acts of debauchery and the novel features of each of these, sending it under seal to Nero. His signet-ring he shattered, lest it rendered dangerous service later. 

Interior of Roman Building with Figures

‘Interior of Roman Building with Figures’
Ettore Forti (Italian, active late 19th century - early 20th century)
The Getty | Open Content Program

Book XVI:XX Silia exiled, Thermus executed

While Nero remained in doubt as to whether, and how, the nature of his nights might reach the public, he was reminded of Silia, a senator’s wife and therefore of some note, who had been appropriated by himself for every kind of sexual indulgence, and was one of Petronius’ closest intimates. She was now driven into exile, on the pretext of failing to keep silent about what she had seen and experienced, though in truth to settle a score of his own.

Minucius Thermus the ex-praetor, however, he sacrificed to Tigellinus’ animosity, for one of Thermus’ freedmen had made certain claims about Tigellinus, which the freedman expiated by the agonies of torture, his patron by an unmerited death.

Book XVI:XXI Thrasea Paetus under threat

Having slaughtered so many outstanding men, Nero finally conceived the idea of rooting out virtue itself, by killing Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus. Hating both of old, he felt additional animosity towards Thrasea, who had walked out of the Senate, as I have said, during discussion of Agrippina, and who had made barely an appearance at the Games of Youth, an offence all the graver in that Thrasea had sung in tragic dress, in Padua (Patavium) his native town, at the games instituted by Antenor of Troy.

Also on the day when Antistius was all but sentenced to death for his scandalous verses regarding Nero, Thrasea had proposed a milder punishment and seen his proposal passed. Moreover, after deliberately absenting himself when Poppaea was decreed divine honours, he had not been present at her funeral.

Cossutianus Capito prevented these sins being forgotten, who over and above a predilection for crime, hated Thrasea intensely, whose influence had led to his defeat and delighted the Cilician envoys who had prosecuted him for extortion. 

Book XVI:XXII Cossutianus Capito speaks against Thrasea

Indeed Capito raised other charges also: that Thrasea had evaded taking the solemn oath at the start of the year; that he had taken no part in the national vows though he was on the Council of Fifteen; and that he had never offered a sacrifice for the emperor’s well-being or his celestial voice.

Also, he claimed, Thrasea had not set foot in the Senate House for three years, though having once been an assiduous and tireless attendee, who had shown himself advocate or adversary of the most commonplace Senate resolutions; and only recently, when his colleagues were rivalling each other in their haste to crush Silanus and Vetus, he had found the leisure to pursue his clients’ private cases. 

The situation, he argued, had come to dissension and faction already, and if enough dared the same, it would be open warfare: ‘As this quarrelsome State once talked of Caesar and Cato, so now of you, Nero, and Thrasea. And he has his followers, accomplices rather, who as yet do not adopt his defiant opinions only his dress and looks, whose severity and austerity are a reproach to your laxity.

To him alone your safety is a matter of indifference, your talents dishonourable. He scorns his emperor’s happiness, dissatisfied even with your bereavements and sorrows. The same mind is at work in refusing to accept Poppaea’s divinity as in failing to endorse the acts of the deified Augustus, the deified Julius.

He scorns religion, he nullifies the law. The Roman daily gazette is scanned with special care throughout the provinces for news of what Thrasea might not have done. Let us either adopt his creed, if it is the better, or let those who seek a revolution lose their leader and their champion. His is the sect that gave birth to the Tuberones and Favonii, names unwelcome even to the old Republic.

To undermine the empire, they make a show of freedom: if they should overthrow it, they will launch an attack on freedom itself. You remove Cassius in vain, if you allow these rivals of the Bruti to increase and flourish. In conclusion, write nothing yourself concerning Thrasea: leave the Senate to judge between us.’

Nero fanned the flames of Cossutianus’ eager fury even higher, by adding the support of Eprius Marcellus’ fierce eloquence.

Book XVI:XXIII The indictment of Soranus and Thrasea

As for Barea Soranus, the Roman knight Ostorius Sabinus had already claimed him for himself, on a charge arising from Soranus’ governorship of Asia Minor, during which he added to the emperor’s displeasure by his equity and industry, by the care he had taken to open up the port of Ephesus, and his failure to punish the city of Pergamum for using force to prevent the looting, by the emperor’s freedman Acratus, of its statues and pictures.

But the charges preferred were of friendship with Plautus, and bribery in order to win the province to the revolutionary cause. The moment chosen for indictment was immediately prior to Tiridates’ arrival to accept the Armenian crown, so that public gossip regarding foreign affairs might cast a veil over crime at home, or so that the empire’s greatness might be on display, through the ‘regal’ act of executing famous men.

Book XVI:XXIV Nero convenes the Senate

Thus while the whole populace poured out to welcome the emperor back from Campania, and gaze at the king, Thrasea was prohibited from attending, but showed no dejection, composing a message to Nero asking to know the charges against him, stating that he would rebut them, if he might be acquainted with his crime and given the opportunity to defend himself. Nero received the message gladly, hoping that Thrasea had written, under threat, something which might enhance the emperor’s reputation while marring his own fame.

As this proved not to be the case, and Nero himself was alarmed at the manner, spirit and frankness exhibited by an innocent man, he ordered the Senate to be convened.

Book XVI:XXV Thrasea consults his friends

Thrasea now consulted his closest friends as to whether to attempt a defence or scorn to do so. Various opinions were offered him. Those who favoured him entering the Senate House argued that they were confident of his self-control; he would say nothing which would fail to add to his reputation. Only the timid and those lacking in spirit veil death in obscurity: let the people see a man who could face it squarely, let the Senate hear words inspired as if by some superhuman deity: even Nero might be moved by the wonder of it.

If Nero insisted on his savagery, the record of posterity at least would distinguish between Thrasea’s honourable fate, and the cowardice of those who perished in silence.

Book XVI:XXVI Thrasea considers whether to attend the Senate

Those on the other hand who advised his awaiting his fate at home, expressed the same confidence in Thrasea himself, but advised that he would be threatened with mockery and humiliation: it would be better not to lend an ear to insults and invective.

Cossutianus and Eprius were not alone in their readiness for evil: there were others who in their savagery might resort to physical violence; and even decent men might follow them through fear. Let him rather spare the Senate, of which he had been so outstanding an ornament, the disgrace of such a scandal, and leave as uncertain whatever the senators might have decreed with Thrasea a defendant before them.

To make Nero feel shame for his crimes was an idle hope: it was more to be feared that he would display cruelty where Thrasea’s wife, daughter, and other dear ones were concerned. So let him, his reputation untarnished, unpolluted, seek as glorious an end as those whose footsteps and studies had guided his life.

Arulenus Rusticus, young and ardent, was present at the time, and seeking fame offered, as a plebeian tribune, to veto the senate resolution. Thrasea checked his enthusiasm, lest Rusticus pursue a course idle and unprofitable for the accused, but fatal to himself. His own time was done, and he must not desert a mode of life pursued for so many years: Rusticus however now held his first official post, and his prospects were intact. He must weigh well for himself beforehand, what course of public life to engage in, given such an age as this. Meanwhile he himself reserved for his own consideration whether he should address the Senate or not.

Book XVI:XXVII Nero reproaches the senators

But the next morning, two armed praetorian cohorts occupied the temple of Venus Genetrix. The approach to the Senate House was guarded by a gang of men wearing the toga but with drawn swords, and squads of soldiers were scattered around the forums and basilicas. The senators entered the House under their menacing gaze, and heard the emperor’s quaestor read Nero’s speech.

Without naming any specific senator, he reproached them for abandoning public office and by their example leading Roman knights into a life of idleness. What wonder indeed, he continued, that senators from distant provinces barely attended, when many who attained the consulate or priesthood would rather devote themselves to their pleasure-grounds?

The accusers seized on this speech of his as a weapon.

Book XVI:XXVIII Marcellus speaks against Thrasea

Cossutianus having opened the attack, Marcellus, with greater force, proclaimed that public affairs of the highest order were at stake; the defiance of inferiors was trying the imperial patience. Previously the senators had proved too lenient, he said, allowing themselves to be mocked with impunity by Thrasea, who had parted company with them; by Helvidius Priscus his son-in-law who shared his wild ideas; by Paconius Agrippinus too, heir to his father’s hatred of emperors; and by that scribbler of detestable verses Curtius Montanus.

He found them missing an ex-consul from the Senate, a priest from the vows, a citizen from the oath of allegiance, unless it was that Thrasea had openly assumed the role of traitor and public enemy, counter to the institutions and ceremonies of their ancestors.

In brief, let him appear, this man who played at being a senator and defended the emperor’s detractors. Let him propose what he wished to correct and alter: they might more readily tolerate his individual censure than, as now, a silence condemning all. Was it the world-wide peace, or the victories gained without loss to the army, that displeased him? Let not his perverse ambition be gratified, this man who grieved at national success, who treated the forums, theatres and temples as a wilderness, who held out his own exile as a threat.

To him, it seemed, there were no decrees, no magistrates, no city of Rome. Let him part company with a country which he had long ceased to love and now to regard.

Book XVI:XXIX The senators are fearful

As Marcellus, grim and threatening as ever, fire in his voice, eyes and expression, uttered these words and the like, there was not the customary gloom in the Senate driven by the familiar sense of frequent danger, but a new and more intense terror as they saw the soldiers’ hands on their sword-hilts.

At the same time there rose to mind the revered form of Thrasea himself; while there were those too who felt compassion for Helvidius, soon to pay the penalty for an innocent relationship. And what was Agrippinus charged with but his father’s sad fate, the latter being equally guiltless, having fallen to the savagery of Tiberius?

As for Montanus, an excellent youth, his verse without spite, he would be driven from his country simply for showing talent!

Book XVI:XXX Sabinus speaks against Soranus

Meanwhile, Ostorius Sabinus, the accuser of Soranus, had entered and began to speak of the defendant’s friendship with Rubellius Plautus, and of his governorship of Asia Minor which, he said, Soranus had treated rather as adapted to serve his own glory than to benefit the community, by fostering sedition in the cities.

This was an old tale: but Soranus’ daughter was newly implicated in her father’s peril, by the claim that she had given money to astrologers. It was in fact a result of her filial piety that Servilia (so the girl was named) influenced by love for her father, and with the rashness of her years, had consulted them, though only regarding the safety of her family and whether Nero would prove forgiving and the Senate trial deliver no tragic outcome.

She was therefore summoned before the Senate, such that both stood before either end of the consular tribunal, an aged parent and opposite him his daughter, who was not yet twenty but already condemned to a desolate widowhood by the recent exile of her husband, Annius Pollio, she not even daring to look at her father, whose danger she appeared to have aggravated.

Book XVI:XXXI Servilia defends herself

When her accuser then asked whether it was her bridal dress she had sold, or the necklace from around her neck, in order to find the money for performing magic rites, she first threw herself to the ground in a prolonged fit of silent weeping, then clasping the altar as her refuge, replied: ‘I have invoked no false gods, cast no spells, nor in my unhappy prayers asked anything but that you, Caesar, and you, the Senate, should preserve this best of fathers, unharmed.

Thus I gave my jewels, robes, and emblems of my rank, as I would my life’s blood were it demanded. Let it be for those men, previously unknown to me, to look to what reputation they bear, what arts they practise: I never spoke of the emperor as other than a deity. Yet my unfortunate father knew nothing of this, and if it was a crime, I alone have sinned.’

Book XVI:XXXII Publius Egnatius inspires hatred

She was still speaking, when Soranus intervened, proclaiming that Servilia had not accompanied her father to his province and, given her age, could not have been known to Plautus, nor was she implicated in her husband’s crimes: they should therefore treat her case separately as one of filial piety taken to excess, as for her father let him submit to whatever might prove his fate. At that moment, the father would have rushed to meet his daughter’s embrace, had not the lictors intervened and stopped them both.

The evidence was heard next; and whatever sympathy had been awakened by the savagery of the prosecution was matched by the anger roused against Publius Egnatius in his role of witness. A client of Soranus, bribed to bring about his friend’s destruction, he affected the gravity of the Stoic sect, being practised in displaying the look and manner of an honest man, while treacherous at heart and cunning, in order to conceal his avarice and lust. Bribery exposed those traits, and later he provided a cautionary example, not only against those veiled in deceit and stained with guilt, but those who fraudulently pretend to the arts of virtue, and prove false friends.

Book XVI:XXXIII The verdicts given

That same day, however, Cassius Asclepiodotus provided a fine example of honesty, he being, due to his vast wealth, the first citizen of Bithynia. With the same devotion he had shown to Soranus in his heyday, he refused to desert him in his fall and, stripped of his whole fortune, was driven into exile, as evidence that the heavens are impartial towards the good and evil alike.

Thrasea Paetus, Barea Soranus, and Servilia Sorana, the daughter, were given the right to choose the manner of their death. Helvidius and Paconius were banished from Italy. Montanus was spared because of his father, providing that he avoided public office in future. Of their accusers, Eprius and Cossutianus were each granted fifty thousand gold pieces, Ostorius twelve thousand and a quaestor’s insignia.

Book XVI:XXXIV Thrasea receives the news

As evening was drawing in, the consul’s quaestor was then sent to Thrasea, who was passing the time in his gardens. He had gathered a large party of illustrious men and women, his attention mainly being directed towards Demetrius, a master of the Cynic philosophy, with whom, to judge from his intense gaze and what might be heard when they raised their voices, he was debating the nature of the soul, and the dissociation of body from spirit, when Domitius Caecilianus, one of his close friends, arrived and informed him of the Senate’s decision. So, amidst the tears and laments of those present, Thrasea exhorted them to leave quickly, lest they risk their own fate being linked to that of the condemned.

He advised his wife, Arria the Younger, who aspired to share her husband’s destiny, following the example set by her mother, Arria the Elder, to stay alive and not deprive the daughter, Fannia, they shared, of her only support.

Book XVI:XXXV The death of Thrasea

Thrasea then walked to the portico where the quaestor found him, closer to delight than sorrow having discovered that his son-in-law Helvidius was only banished from Italy. Then accepting the Senate decree he led Helvidius and Demetrius to his room, presented the veins of both arms to the knife and, once the blood began to flow, sprinkled some on the ground, and called the quaestor near, saying: ‘We are offering a libation to Jove the Liberator. Observe, young man; may the gods deny the omen, yet you have been born in a time when it is good to strengthen the mind with examples of self-possession.’

Then, as the prolonged nature of his death brought severe pain, he again directed his attention towards Demetrius…

End of the Annals Book XVI: I-XXXV, and of the extant manuscript