Ludi Megalenses MMDCCLXVII (2767) AUC (Nova Roma)/Roman Drama
On Roman Drama
Salvete omnibus in foro!
Today I present to you one of the plays by Seneca during the early years of the empire: Octavia.
This is a drama about the emperor Nero, and his wife Octavia. Things take a downturn when Nero divorces Octabia, and marries another, Poppaea Sabina. Also, Seneca himself is featured in the story as a counselor of sorts to the troubled emperor.
Ti. Cassius Atellus
LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA’S “OCTAVIA”
Translated, with notes, by Watson Bradshaw. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Paternoster Square (1902)
CHORUS OF ROMANS.
CLAUDIUS DRUSUS CAESAR (Messalina, because she had married Silius, being condemned to die—she had borne him (Caesar) Britannicus and Octavia) took to himself, for a fourth wife (he had divorced Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina before he married Messalina). Agrippina, the daughter of his brother Germanicus, and the widow of Cn. Domitius Aenobarbus Nero, to whose son, he gave his daughter Octavia in marriage. Claudius and Britannicus being poisoned, Nero, then Emperor, divorces Octavia, whom he had always hated, and marries Poppaea Sabina; in consequence of which divorce he had to put down the riots amongst the populace amidst great slaughter, and he orders Octavia to be transported to Pandataria, and there to be slain.
Octavia, weary of her existence, bewails her misery.
Aurora, that was shining brilliantly in the heavens, is now forsaking the wandering starry group, and Titan is rising from his Eastern couch, with his radiating flakes of fire, and is giving forth to the world another bright day. Let me pursue the recital of my woes burdened as I am with so many and such great misfortunes, and let me rehearse to thee my oft-repeated plaints, and let me surpass the Alcyons (Ceyx and Alcyon) which give out their dismal notes, as they hover over their aquatic abodes (during the nidifying season) and let me exceed too the Pandionian birds (Progne and Philomela) with my dolorous strains! for my troubles are greater, than ever theirs were—it is always a mother,1 a mother that is the prominent theme in my lamentations, the first cause of my misfortunes, hear then the sad plaints of a daughter—if any sense or feeling is to be looked for in those numbered with the shades; I wish that Clotho had broken the threads of my life, with her venerable fingers, before, ever plunged in the abyss of grief, I beheld the wounds on thy body (Messalina’s) and thy face besmeared with the unsightly blood! Oh! this access of the light of day, it is always distressing to my mind (from the repulsive reminiscences). Light is now more odious to me, than ever Stygian darkness could be, ever since that sorrowful time—I have had to submit to the imperious tyranny of a step-mother,2 her hostile spirit, and her savage glances! It is she, she that, like cruel Erinnys, has imported her Stygian torches and disturbed the harmony of the marriage homestead! And she has destroyed thee. oh! my father a thousand times to be pitied, whom till now, the whole world beyond the very ocean! owed subjection—at whose appearance on their shores, the affrighted Britons fled in dismay; having never before owed allegiance to any foreign conqueror! Ah me! oh! my father, thou art laid low, fallen by the wicked snares of a wife (destroyed by one of the fungi, Boletus, a poisonous mushroom) and thy palace and thy off-spring are under the cruel rule of a tyrant.
OCTAVIA’S NURSE. [35-57]
On account of the sad misfortunes befalling her nurse-child Octavia, the nurse execrates the drawbacks which beset the proud surroundings of life in a Palace.
Anyone that is captivated at first sight by the outside splendor and fleeting advantages of the treacherous palace, can now behold with his own eyes, wonderstruck, and realize what remains of a once most powerful dynasty overthrown on a sudden by the insiduous advantages of adverse fate, and see what has befallen the offspring of Claudius, to whose imperial sway the whole world was once subject, and by whom that Ocean hitherto free, and unnavigated over, was brought under control and was constrained to afford an unopposed passage for our Roman fleets! Think that it was he who first placed the Britons under any foreign yoke, and covered the very seas, before unknown to the Romans, with his fleets, and amongst even such barbarous nations, and such tempestuous seas, he was, at all events, in a state of personal safety! But alas! he fell at last by the wickedness of a wife—presently she will share the same lot at the hands of a son (Nero), and a brother of whom is now lying dead from the effects of poison. (Britannicus was not a brother, by the ties of blood, Nero became a brother by adoption only.) That miserable sister (by marriage only) and likewise wife, is in a deep grief, nor does her restrained anger suffice to conceal her terrible woe—she always avoids being alone with her cruel husband, eschewing privacy, and her angry sentiments are quite on a par with the aversion which the husband entertains towards her! They burn with mutual hatred! The confidence, which she reposes in me, is in some sort a consolation to her grieving heart, but devoted affection is quite useless, in as much as her uncontrollable grief thwarts all my well-intentioned advice, nor can her resolute strong-mindedness, be in any way brought under by my efforts, but she even seems to have acquired increased determination, arising out of the very misfortunes she has undergone! Alas! what wicked crime do my alarms lead me on to foreshadow, would that the kind intervention of the Gods may avert such a climax!
The Nurse consoles the grieving Octavia, and dissuades her from prosecuting any revenge, which she might be contemplating.
OCTAVIA. OH! my cruel destiny, to be equalled by none, in the severity of my misfortunes, it may be, Electra,3 that I shall rehearse thy griefs in my own personal sufferings—it was thy fate to have to bewail the loss of a murdered parent, but in thy case, there was a brother in view, to revenge, at some future time, by that terrible crime a brother, whom thy affection snatched away from the sword of the enemy and to whom thy fidelity gave its sheltering protection: but my fear for the consequences hinders me from even outwardly bewailing the loss of my parents, who were snatched away from me, by the cruel hand of fate; it forbids me, too, to bemoan the death of a brother, in whom my one, my only hope was centred! There was a brief interval of consolation afforded me amidst such great misfortunes (while the brother Britannicus lived), but now, forsooth, I am handed over alone, with no brother to look forward to, to my own bitter grief, and thus I remain only, now, as the shadow of a once great name!
NUR. Alas! a sorrowing voice has struck my ears! and why should I, although affected with the tardiness of old age, hesitate to hasten with quickened steps to the bedchamber of Octavia?
OCT. Trace these tears to their proper source, Nurse, thou art the one faithful witness of my grief.
NUR. What day will ever arrive, oh, thou one to be pitied, which will rid thee of thy troubles?
OCT. What day (dost thou mean) will arrive? (Is it) the day on which I shall be packed off to the Stygian Shades?
NUR. I beseech the Gods, may such an unpropitious day as that, then, be a long way off!
OCT. Unfortunately, thy wishes, Nurse, have no influence over such troubles as mine, but the Fates have!
NUR. Surely a merciful deity will vouchsafe better times for the one afflicted as thou art; but thou hast calmed thyself down somewhat, just try and prevail on thy husband’s susceptibilities, if he has any, and assume a bland, obsequious demeanour towards him.
OCT. I shall have to overcome, first the savage lion of the plains, and the fierce tiger of the jungle, before I can subjugate the adamant heart of the tyrant Nero.—The fact is, he has an instinctive hatred to start with, of any one descended from an illustrious race—he despises alike, the ignoble herd of mankind and the Gods above as well, nor has he received anything at the hands of fortune, but what a cruel parent has heaped upon him, as the proceeds of aggravated crime; although he is ungrateful enough to be ashamed of ever having received anything from that cruel mother, he has, nevertheless, taken upon himself, the dominion over this empire, and although, in return for such a great gift, he hands her over to be assassinated! But a woman will long hold the credit for her share in the transaction, even after her death, and it will continue to last for many a long year in the minds of the people.
NUR. Restrain the expressions of thy angered mind, weigh with care the words thou sufferest to escape thy lips.
OCT. Although I may patiently suffer these things, and appear to tolerate them, my misfortunes can never be brought to an end, but by the sad alternative means of Death! What with a murdered mother—a father snatched from me by a wicked crime—robbed of a brother—overwhelmed with all kinds of misery and grief—hateful in the eyes of a husband, and exposed to the insolent authority of a subject,4 it cannot be supposed that I can enjoy my life vastly! My heart is perpetually in a kind of tremble, not from the fear of death, but from the possibility of some crime being committed! May I, however, never be fated to perpetrate one! It would please me to die, and the punishment of death itself could not be more dreadful to bear, especially by me in my miserable state, than having to encounter the angry and murderous looks of that tyrant (Nero) and then to have to exchange kisses with a downright enemy, which I know him to be, so as to dread his very nod! Whose caresses my inward grief could not permit me to entertain, and after that fate of my brother’s, who fell a victim to his crimes, and whose very empire he has usurped, and who glories in having been the author of that impious slaughter! How often is the tristful ghost of my brother brought before my mental vision, when a state of bodily repose relaxes my tired frame, and sleep invades the lids so wearied with weeping—Sometimes the ghost arms its feeble hands with funeral torches, and aims its blows at the eyes and face of his brother, (Nero was a brother by adoption only) who, in a state of alarm takes refuge in my couch—the enemy still pursuing him, and making a rush at him, as he is clinging to me, passes his sword through my side! Then the tremors come over me, and an intense dread drives away further sleep and my grief is renewed, and the alarms, as to my own miserable fate, return to me in force.—Then add to this—that insolent concubine (Poppaea) shining forth bedecked in all the finery which our palatial home affords her; to gratify whose whims and caprices, that son has caused his own mother to be embarked on board an unseaworthy craft, veritably only one meant to reach the Stygian banks! (that is, one which meant destruction, that would easily fall to pieces through the action of the waves, and be wrecked) and that mother whom, after the craft had become a wreck, and the difficulty of the waves had even been surmounted, he slew with his sword, and which proved to her a more cruel enemy than the waves of the sea! What prospect of safety dost thou think there can be, and security for me, after such a crime as that? That hostile woman, that Nero-conqueress, Poppaea is like some tempestuous cloud, hovering over my matrimonial bondage, and is burning with her hatred towards me, and she is now requiring at the hands of a husband, the life of a legitimate wife, as the price of her infamy! Oh my father, be thou emerged from the Stygian streams, and grant aid to thy daughter, or the earth being opened up, bring to my view that Stygian gulf, into which I would, myself, fain be borne headlong!
NUR. In vain thou invokest the Manes of thy father Oh! thou art much to be pitied—in vain I repeat, as amongst the manes, there is no anxiety with them, as to the offspring they left behind them (allusion is here implied to the Oblivion induced by Lethe), and he could prefer one of an alien race, to his own son, his own flesh and blood, and who took to himself by an incestuous marriage, a wife who was the daughter of a brother, has intermingled the race, by a most deplorable and unpropitious nuptial knot! Hence it is, that a whole series of crimes has been the outcome—murders—wholesale treacheries, the terrible grasping for power and that thirst for the cruel shedding of blood! The same day that the son-in-law of Claudius, Silanus, fell a victim, thy father’s marriage with Agrippina took place, lest he should be found to gather greater influence in consequence of thy marriage! Oh! that intense piece of wickedness! Silanus5 was presented to that vile woman, Agrippina, as a sort of wedding present and that noble young Roman stained with his blood his own paternal household gods, having been falsely accused, by a trumped up charge of fictitious crime! Woe is me! The arch-enemy has now entered the palace to which access has been gained by the treachery and wiles of a woman, and he that has been made a son-in-law of the Emperor Claudius, in the same way that he has been constituted a son by adoption, a young man of a most cruel disposition and capable of any crime, for whom that mother of his ignited the nuptial torches and joined thee by the marriage knot, although thou fearedst, and wast averse to such a union, and that ferocious woman, who accomplished whatever she set about, with great success, has actually dared to shed her imperious will over the cherished destinies of the very world! Who can describe the many forms in which crime has been served up, and the diabolical ambition of that woman, and her smooth, unsuspected treachery, whilst she is seeking to gain imperial power through every gradation of crime. Thus it is, that Piety with all its sacred associations quits the scene, in trembling horror! and thus cruel Erinnys, with all her ill-boding, advances into the palace to take her vacant place! She has defiled the sanctity of our household gods with her Stygian torches, in her fury, she has broken down the institutions of Nature herself, and set every human law at defiance—a cruel wife has prepared the poisoned bowl for a husband, and she, herself, has perished afterwards by the hands of a son—and thou also, Britannicus, hast been deprived of thy life, to be bewailed by us for ever! Oh! unhappy boy, till lately the great star of the Universe, the prop and mainstay of the Imperial Augustan Dynasty (the Caesars). Oh! Britannicus! woe is me! thou art now only a collection of flimsy ashes, and a tristful shade! For whom, be it said, even thy cruel step-mother shed a few tears, when she gave up thy body to be consumed on the funeral pile, resembling as thou didst, the winged God himself, (Cupid) in thy shapely form and comely face—the greedy flames, however, took all that away! Octavia!
OCT. And let them extinguish me in like manner, lest the tyrant fall by my hand.
NUR. Nature has not endowed thee, with such strength, as to enable thee to carry out such a threat.
OCT. Long continued grief, anger, heaviness of heart, misery of soul, lamentations would supply me with the necessary strength I should think.
NUR. No! rather subdue that fierce man, by wheedlings and caresses.
OCT. That I may induce him to restore to me a brother of whom he has deprived me by a cruel crime! Dost thou mean that?
NUR. No, not that; but that thou, thyself, might be in a state of security, that thou some day might build up the shattered dynasty, of which thy father was the dignified head, with thy own off-spring.
OCT. The palace of the Emperor is expecting another arrival in the shape of offspring, the cruel fate of my miserable brother will soon drag me towards a similar end.
NUR. So favorable is the feeling of the citizens towards thee, that this fact goes far to conform my hopes.
OCT. Yes! it is a good thing, to have one’s misfortunes pitied, but that does not remove nor even lessen the incubus resulting, therefrom—(the weight of troubles).
NUR. The power of the populace is great.
OCT. That, however, of an Emperor is greater.
NUR. But he surely will have some regard for a wife.
OCT. No! a concubine will stand in the way of that.
NUR. But it is granted, that she is odious in the sight of all the people.
OCT. But she is held dear by Nero.
NUR. She is not a wife as yet, remember!
OCT. But she will soon become one, and a mother as well!
NUR. Juvenile ardour, thou must remember, burns only as long as the early impressions operate, which called it forth, nor does it last long, ever, with these unlawful amours, it passes off like some flickering flame—on the other hand, the love of a chaste wife is an enduring possession—she is, as thou art aware, only the first who has ventured to violate the sanctity of thy marriage-bed, but this rival of thine, although a subject, has possessed the affections of thy husband for a long time—it is an old love affair—but this same woman is now evidently, more submissive and more subdued in her manner, as if she feared that some one else might be preferred to herself (lest in like manner, another may be preferred to herself as she, herself, was to Octavia), and she shows this by various indications, by which, as if tacitly confessing it, she openly portrays her fears! And the winged God (Cupid) may leave her in the lurch, let her beauty be never so transcendent, or however proud she may be of her wealth of physical attractions—all this sort of thing amounts to a very limited lease of human enjoyment. The Queen of the Gods herself, has, aforetime, undergone grief similar to thy own, when Jupiter, the lord of the heavens, and father of the Gods, changed himself into all kinds of shapes, and when, at one time, he assumed the plumage of a swan (to gain the better of Leda), at another time, he donned the horns of the Sidonian bull, (when he carried off Europa) then again, the same Jupiter has fallen upon another, as a golden shower (when he introduced himself to Danaë). The constellations of Leda are now shining in the heavens, Bacchus is duly installed in his father’s Olympian kingdom and Alcides possesses Hebe as a wife, now that he has been made a god, nor does Alcides any longer fear the anger of Juno, whose acknowledged son-in-law he is now, having married Hebe, but who was formerly considered in the light of an enemy! However, the wise submissiveness of an exalted wife like Juno, with her dissembled grief, has completely overcome the temper of Jupiter, and the mighty Juno reigns supreme in the ethereal marriage couch of the Thundering Jove! Nor does Jupiter, now desert the palaces on high, captivated by mortal beauties; and thou, Octavia, art another Juno, although a terrestrial one, thou art the sister and wife of an Augustus. (The emperors at that time assumed the title of “Augustus.”) Conquer therefore thy troubles as Juno did.
OCT. Let the stormy seas seek cordial companionship with the stars and let fire mingle with water, let the very heavens descend and take the place of grim Tartarus, let balmy light amicably join hands with hideous darkness, and bright clear day ally itself with the dewy night, before my mental tenderness could harmonize with the impious disposition of that wicked husband of mine. I am ever mindful of my murdered brother, I wish that the ruler of the heavenly gods would make ready to cut short with his lightnings, the terrible life of that cruel emperor—that deity, who so often shakes the earth with his frightful thunderbolts and terrifies our very souls with his awful igneous displays and novel wonders (fresh prodigies). But I have witnessed of late a blazing phenomenal splendor in the heavens,6 a comet that has exposed to my view its ominous fiery torch, (tail) just where slow-moving Boötes, stiff as it were with the Arctic cold, drives his wagon at each turn of the night continually; behold, the very atmosphere seems polluted with the horrible breath of that cruel ruler. The angry stars actually seem to be threatening the people with some fresh disasters, whom that impious potentate holds in domination. Not so bad was it, even, when the indignant earth formerly became a parent, and brought forth a ferocious Typhoeus, when Jupiter was not so much looked up to, as he is now—this present monster is worse than any Typhoeus ever was, for he is in addition, the avowed enemy of the gods and of mankind alike, for he has expelled all the deities from their temples—he has driven away the citizens from their native land, and robbed my brother of his life—he has drawn the life-blood of his own mother—and is he not still allowed to behold the light of heaven? and, moreover, does he not seem to enjoy his vile existence and drag on his noxious life? Alas! Oh! thou supreme father of all, why dost thou, invincible as thou art, hurl thy lightnings, oftentimes, so harmlessly from thy regal hand? Why does thy hand hesitate, to hurl them with efficacy upon one so guilty as is Nero?—I wish that Nero could be made to pay the just penalty of his crimes—he (an adopted son of Dion Domitius, his adopting father) is the very tyrant of the universe, which he takes care to oppress with an ignominious yoke! he fairly contaminates and compromises the very name of Augustus, with his vicious tendencies and confirmed immoralities!
NUR. He is altogether unworthy, I am free to confess, of being married to a woman like thee, but is it not better, dost thou not think, to bow to the Fates (the inevitable) and to go on hoping for some favorable change on the part of fortune (chapter of events). My nurse-child, I beseech thee to ponder over all this and take it to heart and never excite the anger of thy violent husband—perhaps some avenging deity may crop up (exist) who will come to thy aid, and may that auspicious day arrive!
OCT. Already our dynasty is under the ban of oppression through the severe anger of the Gods—first, when cruel Venus stepped in and impregnated my wretched mother with those lustful desires, who, ignoring us, her children (in a state of sexual madness, nymphomania) and though, already married, contracted an illicit matrimonial union with Silius (a sham marriage), thinking nothing at all about the husband she had already, and not troubling her head in the slightest degree, as to the lawlessness of such a proceeding. With her hideous locks, hanging loosely, duly surrounded with their serpents, that avenging Erinnys was present at this veritably Stygian marriage ceremony, and only extinguished the nuptial torches, to be seized upon for the purpose of future blood-shedding! For it inflamed the outraged breast of the Emperor, with such murderous wrath, as to culminate in the cruel slaughter of my mother, and thus my unfortunate parent fell a victim to the sword, and her death has overwhelmed me with never-ending grief! As the consequence of all this, she has dragged in her train, her husband and her son, to the shades below! And has handed over our dynasty to its downfall!
NUR. Do refrain from a renewal of thy grief, and of those tears, which I know thou only sheddest out of affection for the Manes of thy parent, who has undergone a heavy punishment for her mad conduct!
The Chorus being in favor of Octavia, looks with detestation upon the marriage of Poppaea, and condemns the degenerate patience of the Romans, as being unworthy, too indifferent and servile, and inveighs against the crimes of Nero.
WHAT report is this, that has just reached our ears—we wish that if such a story be wrongfully believed, although it may have been so industriously, canvassed abroad, and in such a purposeless manner, that it may not meet with any future credence—let not a fresh wife, usurp the marriage-bed of our empress! let the wife sprung from the loins of Claudius still reign supreme, over her own household gods! And may she, by a happy child-birth, bring forth those guarantees of peace, which the tranquil universe will hail with joy, and let Rome preserve its everlasting glory (among nations). The mighty Juno has drawn a prize in the lottery, of fortune, and now shares the couch of her husband, and brother, in absolute security and why should not the sister of Augustus, (that now is) having reconciled her matrimonial feud, do the same thing! Why is she to be driven away from her paternal palace? If that is the case, what does her devoted piety (moral observances) profit her? What good has the having possessed Divus for a father done for her? What good has her virginity done her? And what earthly use has her chaste modesty been to her? But we are all forgetful of what we once were, since the death of our emperor, whose race we are inclined to ignore in a manner, owing to our fear of that Tyrant Nero! Once upon a time, there did exist the Roman type of bravery amongst our ancestors, and the genuine progeny of Mars, and the true racial blood flowed in the veins of the men of bye-gone days! They drove out, without the smallest hesitation, haughty, insufferable kings from their cities! And they nobly avenged thy manes, oh! Virgin thou! (Virginia) who wast slain by the hands of a parent, lest thou shouldst undergo an odious slavery, or that cruel lust should carry off victoriously its wicked prize! Sad war, too, followed on after thee, oh! thou daughter of Lucretius, so much, to be pitied, who was sacrificed by thine own hand, after having been ravished by a cruel tyrant (Sextus Tarquinius). At the hands of our outraged ancestors Tullia, the wife of Tarquinius, was punished for her cruel crimes—she who wickedly drove her cruel chariot over the body of her murdered father, and who, although a daughter, denied the accustomed funeral pile to the mutilated remains of the old man! Our own time, even, has witnessed an abominable crime, when the emperor, treacherously seizing upon the person of his parent, had her conveyed in a Stygian Craft (that is one meant for the purpose of destruction) across the Tyrrhenian Sea; the sailors receiving their orders, hastened to leave their tranquil harbours, and the waves soon resounded with the plash of their oars, and the craft shoving off, was quickly borne upon the sea, and which from the force of the waves soon springs a tremendous leak, letting in the sea, the hull giving way on account of the looseness of its timbers, and it ships a heavy sea! A great shout, thereupon is raised towards the sky, mixed with female cries, and cruel death, in various shapes, is now wandering before their eyes, each one seeks to escape from a watery grave—some in a state of nudity clung to the planks of the shattered craft, and with their aid, ply the waves successfully—others reach the shore by swimming—many are immerged, and hurry to their fate into a deep sea! Augusta (Agrippina) rends her garments, tears her hair, and deluges her face with her sad tears after a little. There is no prospect of safety, and burning with inward rage, and although fairly overpowered by the disaster, she exclaims: “Oh! my son, is this the reward, for the benefits I have lavished on thee? I am indeed worthy of having been caused to embark in such a craft, who have brought thee into the world and who have given thee thy very life, and in my motherly weakness have handed over to thee the proud name and empire of the Caesars! Oh! my husband, show thy face from out of the Acheron, and feast thy eyes on the punishment I am now undergoing—I, oh! thou to be pitied one, was the cause of thy death, and the instigatrix of the death of thy son (Britannicus) also! Behold! as I have richly deserved, let me, unburied, be borne off to join thy manes—let me be overwhelmed by the cruel waves of the sea” (at this moment the waves strike her in the face, as she is speaking) she plunges into the sea, sinks, but soon rises again to the surface, and impelled by her fear, she strikes out with her hands, but being soon tired out, gives up the struggle.—But a great deal of loyalty lurked in the silent hearts of the sturdy Roman sailors, this awful death being looked upon by them, at last, with excessive disgust! Many of the crew venture to render aid to their former empress, when they see that her strength is breaking down, and although they assist her with their hands, as she is feebly struggling with her own arms, and encourage her with kind words of sympathy, they remark: “What does it avail thee thus to have escaped the waves? thou art doomed to die by the sword of thy son, to which crime, distant posterity, although credulous as a rule, will scarcely lend their belief.”—He rages (Nero) and is angry that his mother has been rescued from the waves and is still alive; he then perpetrates a monstrous double crime! He madly rushes to effect the murder of his mother, and suffers no delay in the fulfilment of the crime: one of his followers is told off, and carries out his orders to the full! this fellow lays open with his sword the breast of Agrippina, and whilst she is dying, this unhappy mother, with her last breath, asks the perpetrator of her murder, to bury the cruel weapon into her very womb. “This is the place,” she says, “this is the spot that must be pierced with thy sword, the place which gave birth to that monster of a son!” After these words intermingled with much groaning, she surrendered her sad life, finally brought about by those cruel wounds!
THE philosopher despises the vices of his times, praises the simplicity of his former life, and gives it, as his opinion, that all things are tending in a direction for the worse.
WHY, oh powerful fortune, who hast been so alluring to me with deceptious outside show, hast thou summoned me from my former position, with which I was supremely contented? Is it, that from my being raised so high, I should fall all the more heavily, or that I might have a fuller prospect, from my elevated post, of the many dangers I might see around me? I was much better off, when I was hidden away at a distance, remote7 from the perils of envy, amongst the rocky coasts of the Corsican sea, where my inclinations were unfettered and where I felt that I was my own master, and where an ample margin was afforded me for the following up of my favorite pursuits. Oh! how it used to delight me, to look at the glorious sun, than which, our first parent, nature, the artificer of that immense work, has produced nothing grander, and the awe-inspiring courses traced out by that solar luminary, to contemplate the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, and the alternate tracks of the sun (indicating day and night) and the planet Phoebe, that orb which the wandering stars surround, and far and wide, the resplendent ornament of the firmament. Now, verily the world has arrived at its last day, which, if not so, and it lives to be older, so much so as again to lapse into the condition of indescribable chaos, when the crash of the fallen heavens will overwhelm impious mankind, so that it may for the second time, create a new race, and the one, that is to be born again, to be an improvement upon the present one—as it was, indeed, at its earlier periods, when Saturn held the dominion of the skies (the golden age). Then it was the Virgin Justitia (Astraea) that goddess of such distinguished reputation amongst the deities commissioned from Heaven, with that sacred trust, ruled the earth with mildness—The human race had never known what wars were, nor had they ever heard the battle-inspiring blasts of the shrill war-trumpet! and the people of those days were unacquainted with the weapons used in battle—they did not surround their cities with walls—the land was one grand highway, open to all; and the enjoyment of all things was within the reach of and common to everyone—and the smiling earth freely disclosed its fruitful bosom, and this Parent was happy in having the protection of such contented children.—Another age (the silver age) supervened, but the race of mankind was considered inoffensive, and the third (the brazen age) produced a skilled progeny—one that applied itself to new inventions, but yet was quite observant of the sacredness of the laws! by and bye, men became restless (the fourth race) and ventured to hunt the savage wild beasts, to draw out from the sea, in a net, the large fishes, which had hitherto been unmolested and protected by the waves, or to take the birds of the air aback, with their swift arrows, to bring into subjection the fierce bulls, and submit their necks to the yoke—to plough the earth, before free from the wounds of the ploughshare, which, however, when thus torn up, was found to hide away its productiveness, much deeper down in the bosom of its sacred interior (sacred because it had never been intruded upon). But this discontented age penetrated into the very bowels of its parent, and out of it, soon showing themselves, came the dreadful sword (iron) and gold (that incentive to crime), and very soon, mankind carried weapons of destruction, in their cruel hands! They parcelled out kingdoms, and defined the limits of territorial holdings, and built new cities—sometimes they defended the homesteads of others, used those weapons, threateningly, with plunder, only, for their object! Astraea, the bright ornament of the starry firmament, finding herself no longer held in respect or veneration, fled the earth, and avoided their savage ways, and looked with abhorrence at the hands of mankind stained with the blood, which flowed from their savage slaughters—and the thirst for gold likewise—and then came into view, the greatest evil of all, and spread throughout the world.—Luxury, that insidious curse of mankind, the long-continued indulgence in which involving such a pernicious departure from the lines of moderation, acquired additional power over mankind, as it became more confirmed, and the aggregate vices accumulating throughout so many ages, have been very abundantly shown amongst us for a long time now—we are oppressed by very distressing times an age, in which crime seems to rule paramount, and rampant wickedness seems to take cruelty as its guide, whilst irrepressible debauchery is presided over by that salacious Goddess, Venus! Luxury, that successful conqueror, some while since, has grasped, with its greedy hands, the immense resources of the world (riches) so that they may be only squanderingly got rid of! But, behold, Nero is approaching with a step suggestive of something out of the usual way, by his truculent look—I quite shudder in my very soul, as to what is uppermost in his mind!
The philosopher warns his patron Nero to no purpose, who pertinaciously insists on carrying out his tyrannical plans, and appoints the next day for his marriage with Poppaea.
NERO. CARRY my orders out exactly, despatch some one, who will bring me, as soon as they have been cut off, the heads of Plautus and Sulla.8
PREF. I will not delay the execution of thy commands, I will forthwith repair to the camp.
SEN. It is wiser for thee to determine nothing rashly, especially towards friends, and those, allied to thy cause.
NERO. It is easy to preach that doctrine to a man who himself is credited with justice, and does not suspect others, about whom, in short, his mind is free from apprehension.
SEN. Clemency is the most powerful remedy, in counteracting any danger arising from others.
NERO. To stamp out an enemy, is the highest triumph an Emperor could wish for.
SEN. To look to the welfare of the citizens, constitutes the greatest virtue, in the father of a country.
NERO. It is quite in keeping, that an old man should be mild, when he is laying down precepts for youngsters.
SEN. The ardor of the adult youth, on the other hand, requires more governing than that of mere boyhood.
NERO. I think, that at my age, my own will is all that is necessary.
SEN. So long as the Gods above, may always approve of thy acts.
NERO. It would be in a very silly superstitious way, that I should fear the Gods, when I am about to do anything!
SEN. Fear all the more, as to what would be considered right for thee to do.
NERO. My good fortune (position) permits all things I may wish to do.
SEN. Be careful, as to the confidence, thou reposest in that fickle deity, Fortune, she is a very frivolous Goddess!
NERO. He must be a dullard indeed, who does not know, what to permit himself to do.
SEN. It is a praiseworthy thing to do what is right, but the reverse, when it is not so.
NERO. The common herd of mankind are inclined to spurn a man who is kind, gentle, and of whom they can take advantage.
SEN. They will seek to punish, though, one that is an object of hatred to them.
NERO. The sword is the protection of an Emperor.
SEN. But it is a safer kind of protection that he should be beloved.
NERO. It is proper that they should fear a Cesar.
SEN. But it is better that a Caesar should be loved.
NERO. But it is also indispensable that they should fear.
SEN. Whatever is extorted from a man is sometimes an irksome gain to him, who obtains a thing by such means.
NERO. But they must obey my commands.
SEN. That is all the greater reason that thy commands should be tempered with justice.
NERO. I shall myself always determine, (what is, and what is not to be done).
SEN. But which, it is to be presumed, will obtain a favorable reception from thy subjects.
NERO. The drawn sword, the employment of which some affect to despise, will do all that.
SEN. I pray thee, may such wickedness be absent from everything, thou mayest ever do.
NERO. Shall I suffer anything more than that, as an unrevenged emperor? that my very blood should be regarded with contempt, and that I should be fallen upon unawares. Simple exile, I perceive, has not subdued the turbulent natures of Plautus and Sulla, though they have been removed to a long distance off—they, whose persistent madness is now arming the willing instruments of crime (assassins) with the view to my destruction! Considering also, that a large amount of sympathy towards the conspirators, whom I have exiled, still prevails amongst the people in this city, and who, no doubt, would further the aspirations of those exiles by every means in their power—my enemies, therefore, and those, I suspect to be such, must be removed by the sword—that odious wife of mine must perish,—she must follow that darling brother of hers; in short, whatever else is of lofty rank (and derives prestige from it) must fall!
SEN. Oh! it is an admirable thing to shine conspicuously amongst the illustrious men of the land, to consult the welfare of one’s country, to spare those that are afflicted, to abstain from cruel slaughter, to control one’s anger (to give time for it to cool down), to secure tranquillity for the world, peace to the age in which we live—this is the highest form of virtue, and by such a road is heaven only to be arrived at. It was in such a way, that the first Augustus (Octavius), the great parent of his country, was enabled to reach the stars, and he is worshipped now as a very god in the temples. Fortune, however, tossed him about both by sea and land, through many trying vicissitudes of war, as long as ever he contended against the enemies of his father, (Julius Caesar, who adopted Octavius). But the goddess, Fortune, without any shedding of blood, has showered her favors upon thee, has given thee government of a mighty empire, that thou mightst rule it without any difficulty, and has subjected the Earth and the Sea to thy very nod! Contemptible envy has stepped aside, abased and overpowered by the devoted acclamations, which have been poured forth—the enthusiastic support of the Senate, and the equestrian order has been accorded thee, and it is by the unanimous vote of the people, ratified by the decrees of the senators, that thou hast been chosen as the fountain-head of peace, and the chief ruler of the human race; thou as a parent to thy country, governest the world in thy quasi-divine person Rome expects thee to cherish this honoured reputation, and thus freely hands over her citizens to thy safe keeping.
NERO. It is a gift of the Gods, no doubt, that Rome and the Senate should be subservient to my authority, forasmuch as it is only the fear they entertain of me, which draws from their reluctant lips, those cringing supplications, and the low-toned fawning voices which mask all this affected humility. But that the factious citizens, conspirators against their country, and my person as Emperor, puffed up with pride, about their illustrious descent, should pretend to serve me willingly! What downright madness it would be, to entertain such a wild notion! But at the same time, it is competent for me, an Emperor, with one word to consign anyone, that I might suspect of criminal designs, to immediate death! Brutus armed his hands for the slaughter of his generalissimo (Julius Caesar) from whom he had received every marked friendship, and support. And that great Caesar, who had never been vanquished in battle, the conqueror of so many nations, oftentimes was regarded, as the equal of Jupiter himself, judging from the elevated pinnacle, to which his honors had raised him, in the eyes of the people, (Jupiter ruled all things in heaven, Caesar, all things on earth) fell by the crimes of the citizens! How much blood did Rome, torn by the intestine factions of its citizens, see shed by such internecine slaughter! Divus Augustus, who won his way to Heaven, by those praiseworthy deeds of valor of his: how many nobles, young men, and old men, had he slain, scattered as they were, over the world, when they deserted their very homesteads, with the fear of death staring them in the face, and fled from the swords of the triumvirs, shuddering as they cast their eyes at the proscription tables, which registered the names of those that were doomed to death! and the grieving senators saw the heads of the slain, exposed for inspection in their very Rostra, (a place in the Senate, Rostrum) nor was it allowable for anyone to weep for the loss of those who had belonged to them, nor to sigh even, when the forum became positively infectious, through that dreadful slaughter, the sanious filthy discharges still dripping from their decomposing faces; nor did this blood-and-slaughter business stop here, by any means—the cruel birds of prey, and wild animals feasted for many a day on the mortal remains which lay exposed9 (unburied) on the plains of Philippi, and the Sicilian sea drew their ships into its watery gulf, and the crews, which had been worsted in this fratricidal fray, by men of their own blood, and the bulk of the people, were fairly shattered by the warlike persistency of the combatants! But Antony, being worsted in a battle, was obliged to make for the Nile, in the ships already prepared for flight,—he himself being doomed to perish, shortly after—and thus, incestuous Egypt, (on account of the marriage of Cleopatra with her brother Ptolemy) again imbibed the blood of a Roman general, and now it covers up his insignificant remains! Then, indeed, was the civil war, which lasted so long, brought to an end, and then at last, the tired conqueror sheathed his truculent sword, absolutely rendered blunt by the many terrible blows it had inflicted, and he continued to rule, but it was through the fear he had inspired! He was safe then, with his armaments, and the fidelity of his soldiery.—Here, then, was that Deity, who was made great by the devoted services of a son (Tiberius), canonized after death and handed down for adoration in the temples. And in a similar manner, the stars will hold good for my reception, if I am prompt with the stern sword, and employ it against everything that is hostile to my interests! and I myself shall have laid the foundation-stone of a future dynasty, for some offspring equally worthy!
SEN. That glorious ornament of the race of Claudius, will yet live to fill the palace with the celestial stock, descended from a Divus, (by Octavia is here meant) after the example set by Juno, sharing the nuptial-bed of her brother (having buried past differences).
NERO. An incestuous mother-in-law (Messalina) is rather apt to shake confidence out of a son-in-law, and what is more, the disposition of this wife of mine, has never harmonized with my own.
SEN. During the tender years of a young woman’s life, her confiding love is not sufficiently shown, she is then so much under the dominion of bashfulness, that she conceals from observation, the amorous fires which lurk beneath that shyness.
NERO. Indeed! I have clung to that notion in vain, for a long time too! and altogether it is self-evident to me, from her unsociable tone, and manner, the symptoms of absolute hatred towards me, are obvious enough in her very look—so much so, that my burning indignation has determined me to take my revenge, and with that end, I have found a wife worthy of my marriage-bed, both as regards her birth and her unequalled beauty, a woman to whom Venus herself would yield the palm, or even the wife of Jupiter, or that other goddess, so fierce in battle (Minerva).
SEN. Probity, faithfulness in a wife, strict morality, and modest reserve should be, what ought to please a husband—those lasting advantages of mind, and heart, second to none in importance, are those and those only which continue permanent, and as long as life lasts; but thou oughtest to know that each day steals away a portion of the beauty of every flower.
NERO. A kind deity has moulded all these gifts in one individual, Poppaea; thou perceivest that the kind Fates have actually willed that such a one (impersonating all these qualifications) should have been born expressly for me.
SEN. Let all thoughts of love be banished from the mind at once, lest in some rash foolish moment, thou mightest believe all this sort of thing to be a downright reality!
NERO. Dost thou mean that little deity, whom the God of Lightning, and the grand ruler of the heavens, is unable to drive away from himself, who penetrates the recesses of the angry sea, the kingdom of Pluto, and draws down from their celestial abodes, the very Gods above?
SEN. It is a mistake, we mortals commit, when we picture the winged god Cupid as a cruel deity; we arm his hands with arrows, and add to them the fatal bow and the cruel torch, and delude ourselves that he was born from Venus and sprung from the loins of Vulcan—the fact is, Love is a potent force springing from the imagination, and an insinuating passion, which rises up in the human breast; it begins to show itself in youth, and is kept alive by luxurious surroundings, want of occupation amid the alluring advantages held out by fortune, the which, if thou failest to cherish, and pamper, soon languishes, and being thus deprived of what preserves its existence, loses its influence in a short time!
NERO. I am of opinion that this passion is the principal object in life, by whose influence, pleasure accrues to its votaries, for as much, too, as the human race will always continue to be reproduced by this agreeable means, (Love) it is that likewise, which has the power of mollifying the fierceness of the wild beasts. At all events, this little deity shall lead the way, with his marriage torches, and shall yoke Poppaea to my nuptial couch with his seductive fires!
SEN. The indignation of the populace will scarcely tolerate being the witnesses of this marriage, nor will the solemn ordinances of piety sanction it.
NERO. Shall I be the only one to be prevented from divorcing a wife, a privilege which is allowed to every one.
SEN. The people exact higher and nobler observances from him who is the acknowledged head over all men.
NERO. It will please me to try, and, moreover, whether that foolish partiality for Octavia, which has crept into the noddles of the Romans, shall not give way, when it is beaten out of them, by my weight and authority.
SEN. Rather comply placidly with the wishes of the citizens.
NERO. It must be, indeed, a sorry departure from the methods of governing, when the vulgar herd dictate terms to an emperor.
SEN. That man only has a right to complain, who can obtain nothing whatever, that he seeks, to be granted him.
NERO. It is quite right then, to enforce a thing to be granted, which solicitations fail to obtain?
SEN. It is hard to have to deny anything to a suppliant.
NERO. But it is a crime, I should think, to attempt, even to coerce an emperor.
SEN. But that emperor should relax his desires sometimes.
NERO. But then the report would get about,—Oh! we have brought the emperor to his senses, thou seest! (that the emperor was beaten).
SEN. Such a report as that, would be silly, and exercise no effect on anyone.
NERO. But it might be that such a notion would strike the minds of many.
SEN. As a rule, the public approach matters, above their own level, with some degree of diffidence.
NERO. They might not censure the less, however.
SEN. But that could easily be put down. Will not the tender age of thy wife, her probity, her modesty have any effect in breaking through thy objections, to say nothing of the great benefits which thou hast received at the hands of her father Divus?
NERO. Do cease, for the last time, urging thy objections—it is really too much for me to listen to; it is in my power to do what Seneca condemns, and I myself am only biding my time for the acquiescence of the people, when Poppaea shall carry in her uterus some pledge of my affection, and a representative part of my ownself! Therefore I fix the earliest day for my marriage, namely to-morrow!
AGRIPPINA appears from the infernal regions, a cruel soothsayer carrying before her the fatal torches, at the nuptials of Poppaea, and Nero whose death she predicts.—(Shade of Agrippina speaks.)
THE Earth being opened, I have found my way out of Tartarus, bringing in my unrelenting hand, the Stygian torches to grace this wicked marriage. It is with these torches, Poppaea shall be joined in marriage to my son, which the avenging hand, and indignation of an outraged mother, would rather employ for a graver occasion, his funeral pile (Nero’s). May the memory of my impious slaughter cling to me, as long as I am numbered with the shades, oppressed with the thought, as I am, that these hands of mine have gone unavenged, and the fatal craft intended for my destruction, given to me, as the reward for my services, and that dreadful night, which he has given me as the price of the Empire I gave up to him, on which I had to bewail my shipwreck—it had not been an object of my desire on my part, to have duly bewailed the deaths of my companions in misery (Creperius, Gallus and Aceronia), the results of the cruel crime of a son, but no time was afforded me, even for shedding tears—for Nero coupled his previous wickedness with another crime, and being slain by the sword, I yielded up my burdened existence, within the proximity of my venerated household gods, nor I, even then, stifled the persecuting hatred of that son of mine, with my last drops of blood—the cruel tyrant began to grow wrathful against the very name and memory of his mother, his desire was, that any claim to merit on my part should be completely effaced—he caused to be destroyed all pictured likenesses or sculptured models, and all inscriptions which represented me, on pain of death, throughout the whole world, the Empire of which I, in my foolish love, gave to him, and all this, too, that as a requital, he should eventually take away my life! But my husband Claudius, who was cruelly deprived of life, disturbs my very manes; he rushes with his torch at my face, which is hateful to him to behold, he is ubiquitous in his presence, he menaces, and imputes to me his own fate and the death of his son Britannicus, and demands to know who was the actual murderer (Nero). Spare me, Claudius, thy reproaches; he shall be given up, and I ask no long time either for it to be brought. The avenging Erinnys is preparing a condign death for such a cruel tyrant—she is making ready to inflict the stripes and pave the way for the ignominious flight, and the punishment with which a Tantalus is to quench his thirst, and for the cruel task of a Sisyphus, and the rapacious vulture of a Tityus, as well as the wheel, which whirls round rapidly the body of an Ixion! He may, indeed, erect his marble monuments, and in his pride, gild the very roofs of his palace, and the armed trained bands (cohort) may vigilantly guard the portals of their emperor and the thresholds of his palace, the very world may, through his exactions, be drained of its riches to answer to his beck and call! The Parthians in suppliant humility, may seek to salute with the kiss of submission, that sanguinary right hand of his, and Tiridates may throw his kingdom, and all the riches he possesses at the feet of Nero! But the day and hour will arrive soon on which he shall give up that criminal life of his; for the wickedness of which he has been the author, his throat shall be a very target for the javelin of the enemy, he shall be universally shunned, ruined, and reduced to absolute want! Alas! how all my labor—how my fondest wishes have turned out! Oh! thou son of mine, whither has thy madness drifted thee, and to what a fatal destination! The just anger of thy mother, who fell by thy crime, is a paltry consideration, compared with the many punishments thou wilt have to undergo! I wish, though, before I had ever brought thee into the world, as a little baby boy, and suckled thee at my breasts, that some ferocious wild beast had torn the very womb out of my body, or that thou hast died as my innocent suckling, without any knowledge of what existence was and without any crime to answer for! joined to, and still leaning on me, thou mightst always have before thy eyes a quiet resting-place in the regions below, where thou mightst see around thee, thy father, thy great grandfather and men of our lineage of glorious reputation! Before whom, alas! there remain instead only disgrace and perpetual sorrow! and all this arising out of thy crimes, and myself, who have brought such a monster into the world. But why do I stay longer, why do I cease from hiding my face in Tartarus, the cruel step-mother of a Britannicus, the wife of a murdered Claudius, and the unfortunate mother of a Nero!
Octavia, feigning sadness, prays the populace, who are espousing her cause, not to grieve about her divorce. The chorus, however, does grieve for her sad lot.
OCTAVIA. SPARE these tears, on a day of such rejoicing and gladness to the city—let not the great affection thou hast for me, and the interest shown in my cause, rouse any feelings of bitter resentment in the heart of the Emperor, I may yet be the means of bringing great misfortunes upon thee—it is not the first time my breast has felt wounds like this—I have already put up with more grievous ones! May this day procure for me an end to my troubles, even if it be by death! There is one thing, I shall no longer be called upon to rest my eyes on the visage of my cruel husband, I shall henceforth be the sister and not the wife of an Augustus, and thus not be compelled to share the odious nuptial couch, with a rival! But I do pray, that sad mental tortures may be spared me—the apprehensions of crime and the fear of some cruel death! But! oh! miserable! oh! demented Octavia, canst thou reasonably hope for such things, mindful as thou must be of the former crimes of this detestable man, or that he, who is accustomed to spare nobody, would deal gently and mercifully with thee? For a long time hast thou been reserved for such a marriage as this (to occur before thy eyes), and at last, as a sorrowful victim thou wilt fall; but why in that confused kind of way dost thou glance back upon thy paternal household gods, with such tearful eyes? hasten away rather from under such a roof, and quit for ever the palace of the blood-thirsty Emperor.
CHOR. Behold! the day shines forth at last, so long, and so much mingled with certain misgivings, yet so often canvassed abroad as mere hearsay. Claudia has been banished from the nuptial bed of cruel Nero, and has surrendered the couch, of which the triumphant Poppaea, by this time, is the tenant in possession, whilst the affections we all felt for her, must now be put a stop to. Kept down by the terrible fear of consequences, and our indignation must be outwardly suppressed. But where is the ancient courage of the Roman populace, which often caused the most illustrious of men to fly for their lives? (Syphax, Perses, Jugurtha, Herodes) that populace which gave law and institutes to a country, which has never been conquered, and which, in ancient days, bestowed the magisterial dignities only on those who were worthy recipients—that populace decided, when there was to be war—and decided likewise when there was to be peace—they brought the turbulent nations into subjection, they confined conspiring captive kings in the prison dungeons! Behold, grievous as is the sight, on all sides, model images of Poppaea, dazzling our vision side by side with those of Nero! Let us dash to the earth with our violent hands those images which are only too like, the face of this newly created Empress! And let us drag her from her exalted couch, without delay let us, in our disgust, make for the palace of the cruel Emperor, with the fiery torch, and the sword of vengeance!
Poppaea, being frightened, in her sleep, narrates her dream to the Nurse; the Nurse treating the dream as nonsense, consoles Poppaea, with some silly interpretation.
NURSE. HOW is it, my nursling, that thou art quitting the marriage couch of thy husband in such a state of terror, and of what hiding-place art thou in quest, with so troubled a countenance, and why are thy cheeks so wet with weeping? Surely, this day, which has been so long, and so anxiously looked forward to, has shone brightly in response to thy prayers and desires! Thou art matrimonially linked with a Caesar! The chief of the deities, Venus, and the Mother of Love, has given Nero to thee, bound by the sacred nuptial chains, and to one whom thy beauty has captivated, in spite of Seneca’s objections,10 too, to such a marriage union! Oh! what an important personage thou hast become, and in what a magnificent palace thou hast settled down, and upon what an exalted couch wilt thou now recline! The senate were fairly astounded when they beheld thy transcendent beauty, admired thee when thou offeredst up (with such reverence) the frankincense to the Gods, and when thou sprinkledst the sacred altars with the gladsome wine! the upper part of thy head, so gracefully shaded by the red veil (worn by recent brides, as tokens of modesty, and wifely subjection), and Nero, walking forth, amidst the enthusiastic acclamations of the citizens, holding himself up so loftily, and hanging on so closely to thy side! An Emperor all over, testifying with joy in his very carriage and countenance! Such, indeed, as Peleus manifested, when he took Thetis to wife, as she emerged from the foaming waves, whose marriage the Gods are said to have celebrated with great pomp and with the universal acquiescence of every deity of the sea likewise. But what hidden event has thus changed thy wonted expression of countenance? tell me why this paleness? What trouble do those tears indicate?
POP. Oh! Nurse, suffering sadly from my harrowing thoughts, I seem to have utterly lost my senses: the fact is, I was perplexed and terrified by the doleful visions of last night, for when the expiring brightness of glorious day had given place to those gloomy stars, and the sky was handed over to the dark realms of night, I went off to sleep, hugged by the embracing arms of my Nero, but I was not permitted to enjoy my placid repose long—a lugubrious multitude appeared before me, as if to celebrate my marriage, and the Roman Matrons, with their locks loose and hanging down, gave forth the most distressing wailings, and amidst, every now and then, a terrific blowing of trumpets, and the mother of my husband (Agrippina) with a savage threatening look, flourished her torch at me, all covered with blood, whom, whilst I was following,—which I felt forced to do, so inspired was I with the fear which had taken possession of me—the earth seemed to be suddenly divided, and an immense yawning gulf lay open before me, into which opening I seemed to have been borne away headlong. I could perceive, at the same moment, and I wondered equally at this, my own marriage couch, the couch on which, I have before lain down, thoroughly fagged out—I then beheld him who was my former husband, Crispinus, advancing towards me, with a crowd following him, and then amongst them, my son (Rufus who was ordered, to be drowned by Nero). Crispinus rushes forward to seek my embrace and showered my face with those kisses which have been now so long in abeyance! when, all on a sudden, Nero breaks into my chamber, and buries his cruel sword deep down in his throat! (that of Crispinus.) At length, this excessive alarm, effectually chased away all further disposition for sleep! The horrible tremor into which I was thrown, has made my limbs tremble all over, and has impeded my very powers of utterance—and my heart palpitates to that degree, that it beats forcibly against the walls of my chest. My fear prevents me from expressing in words, what I feel, but thy fidelity and affection, Nurse, reassures me, and has given me back my powers of speech—Alas! Why do the Ghosts, from those infernal regions, think proper to molest me, and at the same time, might I ask what it was, when I distinctly perceived the blood of my husband?
NUR. Whatever subjects the mind is intent upon, or troubled about during our waking moments, such is the rapidity, and wonderfulness of human thought, altogether as it is a divine and mysterious property of the mind, that it reproduces, during sleep, those very things impressed on us during the day, under a variety of visions, and fantastic appearances. Thou wonderest, no doubt, that thou sawest a husband, a marriage couch, and what thou tookest for a funeral pile, whilst thou wert being embraced and hugged, by the new husband, but the breasts thou sawest being beaten in the dream, and the shattered locks, arose out of the excitement created by the auspicious event (the marriage day). The partisans of Octavia, were bewailing her divorce before the cherished household gods of thy brothers and thy paternal lares—that torch, which thou followedst, was carried in front of thee, by the hands of Augusta (Agrippina) and the envy aroused, by the marriage, foreshadow thy name as rendered still more illustrious thereby—the position in which thou wast placed in the Infernal Regions during thy dream, clearly indicates that the future marriages, in the durable dynasty, will henceforward be permanent in their tenure—then, as regards why thy Emperor husband thrust his sword into the throat of the spectre shows that he will never more excite wars, but that he means to hide it, henceforth in the sheath (the throat of the spectre only) as a guarantee of peace! Now collect thy scattered faculties, take on a cheerful look, I beseech thee, and shaking off all these fabrics of thy vision (fears having no foundation) betake thyself to thy bed chamber.
POP. I had made up my mind to seek the temples and the sacred altars, and to sacrifice to the worship of the Deities with slaughtered victims, that such threatening visitations of the night, and the period allotted to sleep might be expiated, and that the terror inspired thereby, might recoil upon my enemies; and, Nurse, offer up thy prayers for me, and worship the gods above, with thy pious supplications, that the apprehensions which still hang about my mind, may pass away from me!
The Chorus praises the beauty of Poppaea.
IF garrulous report tells the truth when it talks of the furtive amours of the Thunderer, and the love affairs in which he so much delighted; once, whom they report as having coaxingly embraced the bosom of Leda, whilst disguising himself with the wings, and feathers of a swan—at another time, transforming himself into a fierce bull, carrying off Europa, as a captive across the sea—even, now, Poppaea, Jupiter would quit the heavens above, and the starry firmament, which he is ruling, and seek the pleasure of thy embraces, and which he could, with reason prefer to Leda’s and even thine, Danaë, whom he admired so much and descended with amorous intent, in that yellow golden shower.—Sparta may brag of the beauty of that famous offspring of hers, Helen, and it is permissible enough that the Phrygian shepherd (Paris) should have been proud of his conquest! She, Poppaea will outstrip in beauty this daughter of Tyndarus, and who brought about dreadful war, and levelled the Phrygian Kingdom to the very ground. But who is this rushing on at a pace accelerated by some fright, or what news is he bringing, with his breath panting like that?—(out of breath).
The Messenger describes the excitement of the populace, on account of the divorce of Octavia, and this marriage with Poppaea.
MESSENGER. WHOEVER that soldier may be, who entertains a boastful pride in being a chosen guardian of the emperor’s portals, let him rouse himself, for the defence of the palace, which the fury of the populace is now menacing.—Behold, the Prefects, in a state of trepidation, are calling together (mustering) the armed bands, to garrison the city with extra protection,—nor does this insane feeling, which has so rashly sprung up, appear amenable to any kind of fear, but is acquiring greater and greater intensity.
CHOR. What mad fury is it, that is now agitating the minds of the populace?
MES. This multitude of people are seized with rage about this treatment of Octavia, and being wild with anger, they are rushing on into every kind of crime.
CHOR. Tell us what they have had the audacity to do, and at whose instigation all this has originated.
MES. They are making preparations to restore Claudia (Octavia) to the household of the Divus, the restitution of conjugal rights by her husband and brother, and her legitimate share of the imperial dignity.
CHOR. Of which, already, Poppaea is in full possession, through the legal marriage contracted by unanimous authority in good faith, and upheld by one-minded approval.
MES. This excessive uncontrollable fury springs out of the indignation, to which these nuptials have given rise, and it is that, which is urging them on with headlong rashness, into this display of madness. Whatever statue of Poppaea, sculptured out of the purest marble stood in their way, or whatever brazen monument was shining forth and revealed the likeness of Poppaea, was ruthlessly dashed to the ground by the infuriated hands of the populace, and lies there broken up, by means of hammers wielded by savage arms; they then dragged the pieces of the statues, which had been pulled down from their standing place, trailed them along the streets, with cords, and after kicking them about for some time in an angry fashion, they would plaster them all over with fillthy mud! And the swearing, and cursing, that went on, and their obscene language was quite in keeping with their acts, and which was so bad that I should be afraid to repeat it; they are, now preparing to surround, the Palace with flames, unless Nero surrenders this new wife of his, to appease their indignation, and becomes prevailed upon to restore Claudia to her household Gods (her home), and that the Emperor may know of this insurrection, from my own lips, I will make no further delay in carrying out the instructions I have received from the Prefect.
CHOR. Why dost thou bring about all this cruel strife? it is of no good! Cupid is invincible, and has used those arrows of his, which will obscure all thy fires (throw them into the shade). Will the flames which he has set up in the heart of Nero ever be cooled down? That little Deity has drawn down even Jupiter himself from lofty Olympus, and has extinguished his very lightning. Thou wilt pay with thy life any obstacle thou mayst throw in his way; he is hot in his rage and not very patient, in his transports of anger, or easy to be brought under control.—He, it was, who commanded that ferocious Achilles, to strike his lyre, and produce his amorous melodies, he it was who was the means of nearly ruining the Greeks with their ten years’ war—he it was who paved the way for the downfall of Agamemnon—he it was who destroyed the kingdom of poor old Priam, and has been the means of ruining the beautiful cities of the world; and now our minds are simply horrified at what he can really do, and at the unrelenting energy now being displayed by that merciless little God!
Nero, boiling over with rage, on account of the tumultuous rising of the populace, orders the most severe measures to be taken against them, and that Octavia, as the cause of such a rising, shall be transported to Pandataria and there slain.
NERO. OH! the excessive laggardliness in the spirit of my soldiery, and oh! what anger rages within me, suffering as I have done from the commission of such dreadful crimes! Why has not the very life-blood of the citizens been made to extinguish the torches which have been kindled against me for my destruction? Why does Rome, assuming such a funeral aspect, not wade in the blood arising from the slaughter of such a populace? Oh thou Rome! that has ever produced men like them! but it would be a trifling thing for them to be punished only with that death that is the admitted retribution ordained for such deeds. No! this impious crime of the populace deserves more than that! But she, Octavia, for whom the fury of the citizens has subjected me to all this, and who has always been as a sister and wife to me, but whom I have had every reason to suspect, she shall at last be made to give up her life to me as the cost of that just anger, which she has always excited in my bosom, and she shall extinguish that anger with her blood! Very soon, the homesteads of the citizens shall fall a prey to the conflagrations which I will set going! Fire, utter ruin, shall weigh down this hateful rabble, extremest privations, bitter starvation with weeping and sorrow! The fact is a large proportion of the citizens have been eaten up with corruption and idleness and have grown exultant and surfeited with all the benefits that have accrued to them during my reign, nor does the ungrateful rabble appreciate the clemency they have received during my beneficent rule, nor, further, can they bear the idea of things going on peaceably, but the restless rascals must be seized with some mania or another, and in one direction they are carried away by sheer audacity, and in another they drift headlong with their rashness! These men must be kept under by terrible punishments, and perpetually weighed down by some oppressive yoke, lest they may have the audacity to venture upon a repetition of those outrages at some future time! No! they shall be made to raise their eyes with reverential respect at the divine face of my wife, and being crushed by the fear of my punishments, to obey the very nod of their emperor! But I now see coming towards me, a man, whose strict habits of discipline and acknowledged fidelity to my sceptre, have installed him in his present high position in my camp.
PREF. I have to report that the fury of the populace has at last been brought under, with the slaughter, too, of only some few, who, for a time, resisted to the last, urged on by their foolish obstinacy.
NERO. And is this, dost thou suppose, enough? Is this, too, the mode in which thou, as a soldier, hast dared to address thy Emperor? Thou appeasedst them indeed! No! No! let this hostile little modicum of punishment business fall to my lot!
PREF. The wicked leaders of the insurrection have already fallen by the sword.
NERO. What! that rascally rabble that dared to seek out my very Palace, and consign it to the flames; in other words, to lay down the law to their very Emperor, and to drag away my darling wife from my lawfully instituted marriage couch, to violate her liberty in short, as far as was in their power, by their incestuous hands and terrifying language! No! the punishment which they deserve must be left for me to carry out.
PREF. Will thy anger determine thee to inflict still further punishment upon thy citizens?
NERO. My anger will determine me to inflict that punishment which no length of time will ever serve to efface from the memory of man.
PREF. But canst thou not determine some punishment which will impose some sort of limit to thy anger, and which, at the same time, would diminish our fears.
NERO. The first object that shall expiate my anger, will be that one who deserves it the most.
PREF. Tell me whom thou wilt require for that purpose, and do not let our hands spare them.
NERO. My anger demands the execution of my sister, I require her odious life to be taken away.
PREF. I am trembling with horror at thy words—a sudden rigor has frozen up my veins! I am spell-bound!
NERO. Dost thou hesitate, then, to obey?
PREF. Why shouldst thou call my fidelity into question?
NERO. Why wouldst thou appear inclined to spare an enemy?
PREF. Dost thou mean to say, that any woman, as far as thou art concerned, deserves such a name as enemy?
NERO. Not if she has lent herself to acts of crime?
PREF. Is there anyone who can prove Octavia to be guilty of that?
NERO. This fury of the populace amply proves it to me.
PREF. Who is able, to exercise any influence over a lot of madmen?
NERO. Octavia, who was the means of exciting them on to those crimes.
PREF. I cannot suppose any woman to be capable of such a thing!
NERO. A woman, in whom nature has implanted the disposition, prone to do evil, and which has endowed her mind with all the instincts of crime and treachery, but yet that nature has withheld from her the requisite power, so that she should not in short be so impregnable, but that fear might have some chance of breaking down her feeble powers for mischief, or the punishment itself, which, although late in the day, threatens to be visited upon her, now that she is finally condemned, but this only, after having been an offender for so long! Therefore, abstain from offering me any more suggestions, or advancing any more intercessions, and see and carry out my orders to the very letter; give orders that Octavia be carried away, in some craft or other, to a remote spot, to some far-off shore, that, at last, the surging wrath in my breast may be allowed to cool down!
The Chorus sings regarding popular favor, which has been destructive to so many, and after that, brings into notice, the hard fates which have befallen the Caesarean Dynasty.
CHORUS. OH! that favor and enthusiastic preference emanating, from the people! What a source of trouble, and misery it has proved to so many! It is like the craft, which has filled its sails under a favorable wind, and has carried thee far away from the shore, but which same wind, when a dead calm presents itself, leaves thee helpless in the cruel ocean depths! A miserable parent,11 aforetime bewailed the loss of the Gracchi (Cornelia) whom intense popular regard, and excessive appreciation by the public, were the means of leading to their ultimate ruin,—men, too, of such illustrious descent, and acknowledged piety, fidelity, distinguished eloquence, moral courage, and of unflinching severity, in their administration of just laws; and thee also Livius,12 fortune gave up to a similar end, whom neither thy magisterial dignity, nor the roof of thy very homestead, served as a protection against death! We could adduce many more striking examples, if our griefs did not prevent us—it was only quite lately, Octavia, that citizens were up in arms, and were most desirous of restoring to thee thy country—thy palace, and to exact from thy brother thy conjugal rights, but now, forsooth, they can calmly look on and see thee weeping and in misery—dragged away to meet thy doom! Poverty, in a state of happy contentment, lies hidden under the humble roof, but the storms of fate shake the lofty palaces, or capricious fortune overthrows them altogether!
OCT. Where art thou conducting me? What has that tyrant Nero ordered now? or what exile has his Queen Poppaeea appointed for me? or is it that she is melted by compassion at the troubles I have suffered, and my being so utterly cast down by such an array of misfortunes? If Nero is preparing to accumulate my sorrows, by my slaughter, as a climax to my sufferings, why does he even grudge me the privilege of dying in my own paternal soil, although my country has been the arena of so much cruelty towards me? But now there is no apparent hope of my ultimate safety—I perceive already in my misery the craft which bore away my brother! Ah! that is the craft, too, in which his mother was once carried off, and now, as an unfortunate wretch, banished from the marriage bed, I shall be carried away by the same conveyance. Piety has no tutelar deity now, and the Gods above, alas! are nowhere to be found! It is that cruel Erinnys, who can now cause me to weep adequately for the evils I have gone through! What Thracian nightingale will ever send forth its plaintive notes equal to mine? I only wish the Fates would give to me, in misery, a pair of wings! would I not cleave the air with my rapid wings spread out, and fly far, far away from all my present troubles, and remote from the busy haunts of man, and the hotbed of cruel slaughter, and alone in the desert grove, perched on some delicate twig, should I then be able to warble my tristful strains from my sorrowing throat!
CHO. The race of mortals is governed by the inexorable Fates! Nor does any thing sublunary answer the expectations of anyone as regards stableness or durability! and the coming day is always to be dreaded; whilst it invariably brings round in its train, such a variety of events! Surely thy Caesarean dynasty has undergone many troubles! What! Is fortune more cruel to thee, than it has been to many others before thee? We will mention thee, first of all, oh! thou the daughter of Agrippa, the unhappy parent of so many sons, the daughter-in-law of an Augustus, the wife of a Caesar, whose name shone so gloriously over the whole world, thou, that broughtest forth, from thy gravid uterus, so many pledges of peace to the universe! a double pledge, first, of love to a husband, secondly, a guarantee of unbroken succession to the imperial throne; by and bye, exile, stripes, undergoing the indignity of being fettered by chains, and being thus tormented for a long time, the once felicitously married Livia,13 the wife of Drusus, happy too, with the possession of her sons, rushed on to the commission of a terrible crime, and its subsequent punishment! Julia,14 her daughter, followed the fate of her mother; after a long time, however, she met her death by the sword, although for no crime, of her own! What could not thy own mother, Messalina, do who filled the palace of the Emperor, so dear to that husband too, and so proud and elated with her progeny; yet this same woman, having submitted to the unlawful advances of an underling (the marriage with Silius), fell by the sword of a savage soldier! What about Agrippina, too, such an illustrious parent of thy own Nero, who, with justice, and every show of reason, could have aspired to a place in the heavens, to absolute Apotheosis, as Divus did! was she not, however, outraged by the terrible hands of the Tyrrhenian boatmen, before she was seen to be hacked about by the sword, for a considerable time, and eventually succumbed, as the victim of a cruel son!
OCT. Behold that cruel tyrant will send me likewise to the tristful shades, and the manes! Why in my misery am I detained on earth to no purpose? Let me be seized upon for one of death’s victims, by those to whose power my bitter lot has surrendered me! I call the gods above to witness! But what am I now talking about in my madness? Let me spare myself the mockery of invoking the good will of the deities to whom, for some cause or other, I have evidently been an object of hatred! I therefore call the deities of Hell to witness, and the goddesses of Erebus, who are the avengers of crime, and thee, even, oh! my father, who really wert worthy of such a death, and punishment, as I am now about to suffer from—that death, however, is by no means unacceptable or hateful to me—Get the craft in readiness, unfurl the sails, and commit her to the waves and let the commander of that craft steer for the coast of Pandataria with a flowing breeze!
CHO. Oh! for the gentle breezes. Oh! for the light and balmy Zephyrs, which caught thee up, and wafted thee away, Iphigenia, surrounded, by an ethereal cloud, far from the altars of the cruel goddess (Diana), Oh! ye kind breezes, convey away this victim, Octavia, far away, from any cruel punishment, I pray, to the temples of Trivia, even (Diana) Aulis itself, is a less cruel place than thy city of Rome, and so is the land of the Tauri,15 for there it is they sacrifice the blood of any strangers who approach their shores, to appease the anger of the goddess whom they worship! But Rome is very different, she rejoices only in the slaughter of her own citizens!
1 GENITRIX.—Urgulanilla and Aelia Paetina were divorced by Claudius before he married Messalina. Messalina the mother of Octavia, was noted for her lustful propensities, supposedly, I should think, suffering from the “furor uterinus”, which was not very mercifully regarded in those days. At all events, consistent with this notion of nymphomania, which led to such doings, so derogatory to her dignity as a Queen Consort, she had been guilty of a series of immoralities, before the disgraceful mockery of marriage with Silius, which, this time, however, cost her her life.
2 NOVERCA.—The marriage of Claudius with Agrippina was regarded in Rome, as an incestuous marriage, although according to Juvenal, sexual morality was not a canon held in the strictest observance in those days of Patrician licentiousness.
3 ELECTRA.—Sophocles has alluded copiously to the weeping of Electra, and her strong desire for the return of Orestes, to revenge the death of their father, Agamemnon.
4 SUBJECTA FAMULAE.—Seneca constantly uses this word and in very different senses. Poppaea was not a slave, but a woman of good descent. Her father had filled the office of Quaestor.
5 SILANUS.—Silanus was not killed, but committed suicide, the same day that Claudius married Agrippina, and Tacitus says this added to the public indignation.
6 VIDIMUS COELO JUBAR.—Tacitus alludes to this comet, and Seneca in the Quaest: Natur.
7 REMOTUS.—Seneca had been accused of adultery with Julia, the daughter of Germanicus, and was expatriated by Claudius to the island of Corsica. Agrippina obtained his return and made him the tutor of Nero.
8 PLAUTI SULLAEQUE.—Plautus Rabellius had been exiled into Asia, and Sulla into Narbonensian Gaul: but they were both executed by Nero’s orders—Tacitus, Lib. 12. Annal., and Suetonius apud Neronem, Cap. 15.
9 PAVERE.—It was at Philippi, where a great battle was fought by Octavius and Antony, against Brutus and Cassius, and allusion is here made to the immense number of the slain, which were left exposed, unburied, on the plains for the birds of prey to feast upon.
10 CULPA SENECAE.—I think that the rendering I have given of the word “Culpa”, represents the poet’s meaning.
11 MISERANDA PARENS.—This unfortunate woman was Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, and being sprung from him, was consequently a scion of one of the principal families in Rome.
12 TE QUOQUE LIVI.—The tribune Livius Drusus, established great reforms in the laws. He was assassinated just as he was leaving his own house.
13 LIVIA.—Livia poisoned her husband, Drusus.
14 JULIA.—Julia, the daughter of Livia, was accused of complicity in the poisoning of Drusus, but it was not proved; she was, nevertheless, exiled and ultimately suffered death.
15 TAURORUM.—The Tauri were a people of Scythia, and they sacrificed strangers on the altars of Diana.