The Annals by Tacitus - book XIIIThe Annals

By Tacitus

Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb


A.D. 54-58

The first death under the new emperor, that of Junius Silanus, proconsul
of Asia, was, without Nero’s knowledge, planned by the treachery of
Agrippina. Not that Silanus had provoked destruction by any violence
of temper, apathetic as he was, and so utterly despised under former
despotisms, that Caius Caesar used to call him the golden sheep. The
truth was that Agrippina, having contrived the murder of his brother
Lucius Silanus, dreaded his vengeance; for it was the incessant popular
talk that preference ought to be given over Nero, who was scarcely
out of his boyhood and had gained the empire by crime, to a man of
mature age, of blameless life, of noble birth, and, as a point then
much regarded, of the line of the Caesars. Silanus in fact was the
son of a great-grandson of Augustus. This was the cause of his destruction.
The agents of the deed were Publius Celer, a Roman knight, and Helius,
a freedman, men who had the charge of the emperor’s domains in Asia.
They gave the proconsul poison at a banquet, too openly to escape

With no less precipitation, Narcissus, Claudius’s freedman, whose
quarrels with Agrippina I have mentioned, was driven to suicide by
his cruel imprisonment and hopeless plight, even against the wishes
of Nero, with whose yet concealed vices he was wonderfully in sympathy
from his rapacity and extravagance.

And now they had proceeded to further murders but for the opposition
of Afranius Burrus and Annaeus Seneca. These two men guided the emperor’s
youth with an unity of purpose seldom found where authority is shared,
and though their accomplishments were wholly different, they had equal
influence. Burrus, with his soldier’s discipline and severe manners,
Seneca, with lessons of eloquence and a dignified courtesy, strove
alike to confine the frailty of the prince’s youth, should he loathe
virtue, within allowable indulgences. They had both alike to struggle
against the domineering spirit of Agrippina, who inflamed with all
the passions of an evil ascendency had Pallas on her side, at whose
suggestion Claudius had ruined himself by an incestuous marriage and
a fatal adoption of a son. Nero’s temper however was not one to submit
to slaves, and Pallas, by a surly arrogance quite beyond a freedman,
had provoked disgust. Still every honour was openly heaped on Agrippina,
and to a tribune who according to military custom asked the watchword,
Nero gave “the best of mothers.” The Senate also decreed her two lictors,
with the office of priestess to Claudius, and voted to the late emperor
a censor’s funeral, which was soon followed by deification.

On the day of the funeral the prince pronounced Claudius’s panegyric,
and while he dwelt on the antiquity of his family and on the consulships
and triumphs of his ancestors, there was enthusiasm both in himself
and his audience. The praise of his graceful accomplishments, and
the remark that during his reign no disaster had befallen Rome from
the foreigner, were heard with favour. When the speaker passed on
to his foresight and wisdom, no one could refrain from laughter, though
the speech, which was composed by Seneca, exhibited much elegance,
as indeed that famous man had an attractive genius which suited the
popular ear of the time. Elderly men who amuse their leisure with
comparing the past and the present, observed that Nero was the first
emperor who needed another man’s eloquence. The dictator Caesar rivalled
the greatest orators, and Augustus had an easy and fluent way of speaking,
such as became a sovereign. Tiberius too thoroughly understood the
art of balancing words, and was sometimes forcible in the expression
of his thoughts, or else intentionally obscure. Even Caius Caesar’s
disordered intellect did not wholly mar his faculty of speech. Nor
did Claudius, when he spoke with preparation, lack elegance. Nero
from early boyhood turned his lively genius in other directions; he
carved, painted, sang, or practised the management of horses, occasionally
composing verses which showed that he had the rudiments of learning.

When he had done with his mimicries of sorrow he entered the Senate,
and having first referred to the authority of the senators and the
concurrence of the soldiery, he then dwelt on the counsels and examples
which he had to guide him in the right administration of empire. “His
boyhood,” he said, “had not had the taint of civil wars or domestic
feuds, and he brought with him no hatreds, no sense of wrong, no desire
of vengeance.” He then sketched the plan of his future government,
carefully avoiding anything which had kindled recent odium. “He would
not,” he said, “be judge in all cases, or, by confining the accuser
and the accused within the same walls, let the power of a few favourites
grow dangerously formidable. In his house there should be nothing
venal, nothing open to intrigue; his private establishment and the
State should be kept entirely distinct. The Senate should retain its
ancient powers; Italy and the State-provinces should plead their causes
before the tribunals of the consuls, who would give them a hearing
from the senators. Of the armies he would himself take charge, as
specially entrusted to him.”

He was true to his word and several arrangements were made on the
Senate’s authority. No one was to receive a fee or a present for pleading
a cause; the quaestors-elect were not to be under the necessity of
exhibiting gladiatorial shows. This was opposed by Agrippina, as a
reversal of the legislation of Claudius, but it was carried by the
senators who used to be summoned to the palace, in order that she
might stand close to a hidden door behind them, screened by a curtain
which was enough to shut her out of sight, but not out of hearing.
When envoys from Armenia were pleading their nation’s cause before
Nero, she actually was on the point of mounting the emperor’s tribunal
and of presiding with him; but Seneca, when every one else was paralysed
with alarm, motioned to the prince to go and meet his mother. Thus,
by an apparently dutiful act, a scandalous scene was prevented.
The Annals by Tacitus