The Annals by Tacitus - book XVIThe Annals

By Tacitus

Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

BOOK XVI

A.D. 65, 66

Fortune soon afterwards made a dupe of Nero through his own credulity
and the promises of Caesellius Bassus, a Carthaginian by birth and
a man of a crazed imagination, who wrested a vision seen in the slumber
of night into a confident expectation. He sailed to Rome, and having
purchased admission to the emperor, he explained how he had discovered
on his land a cave of immense depth, which contained a vast quantity
of gold, not in the form of coin, but in the shapeless and ponderous
masses of ancient days. In fact, he said, ingots of great weight lay
there, with bars standing near them in another part of the cave, a
treasure hidden for so many ages to increase the wealth of the present.
Phoenician Dido, as he sought to show by inference, after fleeing
from Tyre and founding Carthage, had concealed these riches in the
fear that a new people might be demoralised by a superabundance of
money, or that the Numidian kings, already for other reasons hostile,
might by lust of gold be provoked to war.

Nero upon this, without sufficiently examining the credibility of
the author of the story, or of the matter itself, or sending persons
through whom he might ascertain whether the intelligence was true,
himself actually encouraged the report and despatched men to bring
the spoil, as if it were already acquired. They had triremes assigned
them and crews specially selected to promote speed. Nothing else at
the time was the subject of the credulous gossip of the people, and
of the very different conversation of thinking persons. It happened,
too, that the quinquennial games were being celebrated for the second
time, and the orators took from this same incident their chief materials
for eulogies on the emperor. “Not only,” they said, “were there the
usual harvests, and the gold of the mine with its alloy, but the earth
now teemed with a new abundance, and wealth was thrust on them by
the bounty of the gods.” These and other servile flatteries they invented,
with consummate eloquence and equal sycophancy, confidently counting
on the facility of his belief.

Extravagance meanwhile increased, on the strength of a chimerical
hope, and ancient wealth was wasted, as apparently the emperor had
lighted on treasures he might squander for many a year. He even gave
away profusely from this source, and the expectation of riches was
one of the causes of the poverty of the State. Bassus indeed dug up
his land and extensive plains in the neighbourhood, while he persisted
that this or that was the place of the promised cave, and was followed
not only by our soldiers but by the rustic population who were engaged
to execute the work, till at last he threw off his infatuation, and
expressing wonder that his dreams had never before been false, and
that now for the first time he had been deluded, he escaped disgrace
and danger by a voluntary death. Some have said that he was imprisoned
and soon released, his property having been taken from him as a substitute
for the royal treasure.

Meanwhile the Senate, as they were now on the eve of the quinquennial
contest, wishing to avert scandal, offered the emperor the “victory
in song,” and added the “crown of eloquence,” that thus a veil might
be thrown over a shameful exposure on the stage. Nero, however, repeatedly
declared that he wanted neither favour nor the Senate’s influence,
as he was a match for his rivals, and was certain, in the conscientious
opinion of the judges, to win the honour by merit. First, he recited
a poem on the stage; then, at the importunate request of the rabble
that he would make public property of all his accomplishments (these
were their words), he entered the theatre, and conformed to all the
laws of harp-playing, not sitting down when tired, nor wiping off
the perspiration with anything but the garment he wore, or letting
himself be seen to spit or clear his nostrils. Last of all, on bended
knee he saluted the assembly with a motion of the hand, and awaited
the verdict of the judges with pretended anxiety. And then the city-populace,
who were wont to encourage every gesture even of actors, made the
place ring with measured strains of elaborate applause. One would
have thought they were rejoicing, and perhaps they did rejoice, in
their indifference to the public disgrace.

All, however, who were present from remote towns, and still retained
the Italy of strict morals and primitive ways; all too who had come
on embassies or on private business from distant provinces, where
they had been unused to such wantonness, were unable to endure the
spectacle or sustain the degrading fatigue, which wearied their unpractised
hands, while they disturbed those who knew their part, and were often
struck by soldiers, stationed in the seats, to see that not a moment
of time passed with less vigorous applause or in the silence of indifference.
It was a known fact that several knights, in struggling through the
narrow approaches and the pressure of the crowd, were trampled to
death, and that others while keeping their seats day and night were
seized with some fatal malady. For it was a still worse danger to
be absent from the show, as many openly and many more secretly made
it their business to scrutinize names and faces, and to note the delight
or the disgust of the company. Hence came cruel severities, immediately
exercised on the humble, and resentments, concealed for the moment,
but subsequently paid off, towards men of distinction. There was a
story that Vespasian was insulted by Phoebus, a freedman, for closing
his eyes in a doze, and that having with difficulty been screened
by the intercessions of the well disposed, he escaped imminent destruction
through his grander destiny.

After the conclusion of the games Poppaea died from a casual outburst
of rage in her husband, who felled her with a kick when she was pregnant.
That there was poison I cannot believe, though some writers so relate,
from hatred rather than from belief, for the emperor was desirous
of children, and wholly swayed by love of his wife. Her body was not
consumed by fire according to Roman usage, but after the custom of
foreign princes was filled with fragrant spices and embalmed, and
then consigned to the sepulchre of the Julii. She had, however, a
public funeral, and Nero himself from the rostra eulogized her beauty,
her lot in having been the mother of a deified child, and fortune’s
other gifts, as though they were virtues.
The Annals by Tacitus