FYS 251

Spectacles of Blood:

Roman Gladiators and Christian Martyrs

Readings on Roman Emperors

Suetonius on Nero

Tacitus on Nero

Suetonius on Vespasian

Suetonius on Domitian

Readings on Commodus

Edward Gibbon on Commodus


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Readings from Suetonius, Life of Nero

[trans. from J. C. Rolfe (Loeb 1914)  

[5] He [Domitian, Nero's father] was moreover so dishonest that he not only cheated some bankers of the prices of wares which he had bought, but in his praetorship he even defrauded the victors in the chariot races of the amount of the prizes. When for this reason he was held up to scorn by the jests of his own sister, and the managers of the troupes made complaint, he issued an edict that the prizes should thereafter be paid on the spot.

[7.1] While he [Nero] was still a young, half-grown boy he took part in the game of Troy at a performance in the Circus with great self-possession and success.

[7.2] At his formal introduction into public life he announced a largess to the people and a gift of money to the soldiers, ordered a drill of the praetorians and headed them shield in hand; and thereafter returned thanks to his father in the senate....Shortly afterwards he took Octavia to wife and gave games and a beast-baiting in the Circus, that health might be vouchsafed Claudius.

[11] He gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales, chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays, and a gladiatorial show. At the first mentioned he had even old men of consular rank and aged matrons take part. For the games in the Circus he assigned places to the knights apart from the rest, and even matched chariots drawn by four camels. At the plays which he gave for the "Eternity of the Empire," which by his order were called the Ludi Maximi, parts were taken by several men and women of both the orders; a well known Roman knight mounted an elephant and rode down a rope; a Roman play of Afrianus, too, was staged, entitled, "The Fire," and the actors were allowed to carry off the furniture of the burning house and keep it. Every day all kinds of presents were thrown to the people; these included a thousand birds of every kind each day, various kinds of food, tickets for grain, clothing, gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, paintings, slaves, beasts of burden, and even trained wild animals; finally, ships, blocks of houses, and farms.

[12] These plays he viewed from the top of the proscenium. At the gladiatorial show, which he gave in a wooden amphitheatre, erected in the district of the Campus Martius within the space of a single year, he had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Even those who fought with the wild beasts and performed the various services in the arena [e.g., machinists, musicians] were of the same orders. He also exhibited a naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it; besides pyrrhic dances by some Greek youths, handing each of them certificates of Roman citizenship at the close of his performance. The pyrrhic dancers represented various scenes. In one a bull mounted Pasiphae, who was concealed in a wooden image of a heifer; at least many of the spectators thought so. Icarus at his first attempt fell close by the imperial couch and bespattered the emperor with his blood; for Nero very seldom presided at the games, but used to view them while reclining on a couch, at first through small openings, and then with the entire balcony uncovered. He was likewise the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial contest in three parts, after the Greek fashion, that is in music, gymnastics and riding, which he called the Neronia; at the same time he dedicated his baths and gymnasium, supplying every member of the senatorial and equestrian orders with oil. To preside over the whole contest he appointed ex-consuls, chosen by lot, who occupied the seats of the praetors. Then he went down into the orchestra among the senators and accepted the prize for Latin oratory and verse, for which all the most eminent men had contended but which was given to him with their unanimous consent; but when that for lyre-playing was also offered him by the judges, he knelt before it and ordered that it be laid at the feet of Augustus' statue. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta, he shaved his first beard to the accompaniment of a splendid sacrifice of bullocks, put it in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it in the Capitol. He invited the Vestal virgins also to witness the contests of the athletes, because at the Olympia the priestesses of Ceres were also allowed the same privilege.

[20] Having gained some knowledge of music in addition to the rest of his early education, as soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest master of the lyre in those days, and after listening to him sing after dinner for many successive days until late at night, he little by little began to practice himself, neglecting none of the exercises which artists of that kind are in the habit of following, to preserve of strengthen their voices....Finally encouraged by his progress, although his voice was weak and husky, he began to long to appear on the stage, and every now and then in the presence of his intimate friends he would quote a Greek proverb meaning "Hidden music counts for nothing." And he made his debut at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock. In the same city he sang frequently and for several successive days......He was greatly taken too with the rhythmic applause of some Alexandrians, who had flocked to Naples from a fleet that had lately arrived, and summoned more men from Alexandria. Not content with that, he selected some young men of the order of knights and more than five thousand sturdy young commoners, to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian style of applause (the called them "the bees," "the roof-tiles," and "the bricks"), and to ply them vigorously whenever he sang. These men were noticeable for their thick hair and fine apparel; their left hands were bare and without rings, and the leaders were paid four hundred thousand sesterces each.

[22] From his earliest years he had a special passion for horses and talked constantly about the games in the Circus, though he was forbidden to do so. Once when he was lamenting with his fellow pupils the fate of a charioteer of the "Greens," who was dragged by his horses, and his preceptor scolded him, he told a lie and pretended that he was talking of Hector. At the beginning of his reign, he used to play every day with ivory chariots on a board, and he came from the country to all the games, even the most insignificant, at first secretly, and then so openly that no one doubted that he would be in Rome on that particular day. He made no secret of his wish to have the number of the prizes increased, and in consequence more races were added and the performance was continued to a late hour, while the managers of the troupes no longer thought it worth while to produce their drivers at all except for a full day's racing. He soon longed to drive a chariot himself and even to show himself frequently in public; so after a trial exhibition in his gardens before his slaves and the dregs of the populace, he gave all an opportunity of seeing him int he Circus Maximus, one of his freedmen dropping the napkin [the starting signal] from the place usually occupied by the magistrates.

[23] While he was singing no one was allowed to leave the theatre even for the most urgent reasons. And so it is said that some women gave birth to their children there, while many who were worn out with listening and applauding, secretly leaped from the wall, since the gates at the entrance were closed, or feigned death and were carried out as if for burial.

[24] He also drove a chariot in many places, at Olympia even a ten-horse team, although in one of his own poems he had criticized Mithridates for just that thing. But after he had been thrown from the car and put back in it, he was unable to hold out and gave up before the end of the course; but he received the crown just the same.

[25] Returning from Greece, since it was at Naples that he had made his first appearance, he entered that city with white horses through a part of the wall which had been thrown down, as is customary with victors in the sacred games. In like manner he entered Antium, then Albanum, and finally Rome; but at Rome he rode in the chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs in days gone by, and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic crown and in his right hand the Pythian, while the rest were carried before him with inscriptions telling where he had won them and against what competitors, and giving the titles of the songs or the subject of the plays. his car was followed by his claque as by the escort of a triumphal procession, who shouted that they were the attendants of Augustus and the soldiers of his triumph.

[26] Even in the daytime, he would be carried privately to the theatre in a sedan, and from the upper part of the proscenium would watch the brawls of the pantomimic actors and egg them on; and when they came to blows and fought with stones and broken benches, he himself threw many missiles at the people and even broke a praetor's head.

[44] In preparing for his campaign [after Gaul revolted] his first care was to select wagons to carry his theatrical instruments, to have the hair of his concubines, whom he planned to take with him, trimmed man-fashion, and to equip them with Amazonian axes and shields. Next he summoned the city tribes to enlist, and when no eligible person responded, he levied on their masters a stated number of slaves, accepting only the choicest from each household and not even exempting paymasters and secretaries. He also required all classes to contribute a part of their incomes, and all tenants of private houses and apartments to pay a year's rent at once to the privy purse. With great fastidiousness and rigour he demanded newly minted coin, refined silver, and pure gold, so that many openly refused to make any contribution at all, unanimously demanding that he should rather compel the informers to give up whatever rewards had been paid them.

[45]The bitter feelings against him was increased because he also turned the high cost of grain to his profit; for indeed, it so fell out that while the people were suffering from hunger it was reported that a ship had arrived from Alexandria, bringing sand for the court wrestlers.

When he had thus aroused the hatred of all, there was no form of insult to which he was not subjected. A curl [of hair] was placed on the head of his statue with the inscription in Greek: "Now there is a real contest and you must at last surrender." To the neck of another statue was a sack tied and with it the words: "I have done what I could, but you have earned the sack." [parricides were executed by being bound in a sack with live, hungry animals]. People wrote on the columns that he had stirred up even the Gauls by his singing. When night came on, many men pretended to be wrangling with their slaves and kept calling for a defender. [the Latin word for defender sounded very similar to the leader of the Gaulish revolt, Vindex']


[53]But above all he was carried away by a craze for polarity and he was jealous of all who in any way stirred the feeling of the mob. It was the general belief that after his victories on the stage he would at the next lustrum [i.e., Olympic Games] have competed with the athletes at Olympia; for he practiced wrestling constantly, and all over Greece he had always viewed the gymnastic contests after the fashion of the judges, sitting on the ground in the stadium; and if any pair of contestants withdrew too far from their positions, he would force them forward with his own hand. since he was acclaimed the equal of Apollo in music and of the sun in riving a chariot, he had planned to emulate the exploits of Hercules as well; and they say that a lion had been specially trained for him to kill naked in the arena of the amphitheatre for all the people, with a club or by the clasp of his arms.


Towards the end of his life, in fact, he had publicly vowed that if he retained hs power, he would at the games in celebration of his victory give a performance on the water-organ, the flute, and the bagpipers, and that on the last day he would appear as an actor and dance "Vergil's Turnus." Some even assert that he put the actor Paris to death as a dangerous rival.


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Tactius on Nero

[From Chad Keiffer's Annales page (http://www.geocities.com/ckieffe/annalesmain.html)]

14.14-15 [14.14] He had long had a fancy for driving a four-horse chariot, and a no less degrading taste for singing to the harp, in a theatrical fashion, when he was at dinner. This he would remind people was a royal custom, and had been the practice of ancient chiefs; it was celebrated too in the praises of poets and was meant to show honour to the gods. Songs indeed, he said, were sacred to Apollo, and it was in the dress of a singer that that great and prophetic deity was seen in Roman temples as well as in Greek cities. He could no longer be restrained, when Seneca and Burrus thought it best to concede one point that he might not persist in both. A space was enclosed in the Vatican valley where he might manage his horses, without the spectacle being public. Soon he actually invited all the people of Rome, who extolled him in their praises, like a mob which craves for amusements and rejoices when a prince draws them the same way. However, the public exposure of his shame acted on him as an incentive instead of sickening him, as men expected. Imagining that he mitigated the scandal by disgracing many others, he brought on the stage descendants of noble families, who sold themselves because they were paupers. As they have ended their days, I think it due to their ancestors not to hand down their names. And indeed the infamy is his who gave them wealth to reward their degradation rather than to deter them from degrading themselves. He prevailed too on some well-known Roman knights, by immense presents, to offer their services in the amphitheatre; only pay from one who is able to command, carries with it the force of compulsion.

[14.15] Still, not yet wishing to disgrace himself on a public stage, he instituted some games under the title of "juvenile sports," for which people of every class gave in their names. Neither rank nor age nor previous high promotion hindered any one from practising the art of a Greek or Latin actor and even stooping to gestures and songs unfit for a man. Noble ladies too actually played disgusting parts, and in the grove, with which Augustus had surrounded the lake for the naval fight, there were erected places for meeting and refreshment, and every incentive to excess was offered for sale. Money too was distributed, which the respectable had to spend under sheer compulsion and which the profligate gloried in squandering. Hence a rank growth of abominations and of all infamy. Never did a more filthy rabble add a worse licentiousness to our long corrupted morals. Even, with virtuous training, purity is not easily upheld; far less amid rivalries in vice could modesty or propriety or any trace of good manners be preserved. Last of all, the emperor himself came on the stage, tuning his lute with elaborate care and trying his voice with his attendants. There were also present, to complete the show, a guard of soldiers with centurions and tribunes, and Burrus, who grieved and yet applauded. Then it was that Roman knights were first enrolled under the title of Augustani, men in their prime and remarkable for their strength, some, from a natural frivolity, others from the hope of promotion. Day and night they kept up a thunder of applause, and applied to the emperor's person and voice the epithets of deities. Thus they lived in fame and honour, as if on the strength of their merits.


[14.20] In Nero's fourth consulship with Cornelius Cossus for his colleague, a theatrical entertainment to be repeated every five years was established at Rome in imitation of the Greek festival. Like all novelties, it was variously canvassed. There were some who declared that even Cnius Pompeius was censured by the older men of the day for having set up a fixed and permanent theatre. "Formerly," they said, "the games were usually exhibited with hastily erected tiers of benches and a temporary stage, and the people stood to witness them, that they might not, by having the chance of sitting down, spend a succession of entire days in idleness. Let the ancient character of these shows be retained, whenever the praetors exhibited them, and let no citizen be under the necessity of competing. As it was, the morality of their fathers, which had by degrees been forgotten, was utterly subverted by the introduction of a lax tone, so that all which could suffer or produce corruption was to be seen at Rome, and a degeneracy bred by foreign tastes was infecting the youth who devoted themselves to athletic sports, to idle loungings and low intrigues, with the encouragement of the emperor and Senate, who not only granted licence to vice, but even applied a compulsion to drive Roman nobles into disgracing themselves on the stage, under the pretence of being orators and poets. What remained for them but to strip themselves naked, put on the boxing-glove, and practise such battles instead of the arms of legitimate warfare? Would justice be promoted, or would they serve on the knights' commissions for the honourable office of a judge, because they had listened with critical sagacity to effeminate strains of music and sweet voices? Night too was given up to infamy, so that virtue had not a moment left to her, but all the vilest of that promiscuous throng dared to do in the darkness anything they had lusted for in the day."

[14.21] Many people liked this very licence, but they screened it under respectable names. "Our ancestors," they said, "were not averse to the attractions of shows on a scale suited to the wealth of their day, and so they introduced actors from the Etruscans and horse-races from Thurii. When we had possessed ourselves of Achaia and Asia, games were exhibited with greater elaboration, and yet no one at Rome of good family had stooped to the theatrical profession during the 200 years following the triumph of Lucius Mummius, who first displayed this kind of show in the capital. Besides, even economy had been consulted, when a permanent edifice was erected for a theatre, in preference to a structure raised and fitted up yearly at vast expense. Nor would the magistrates, as hitherto, exhaust their substance, or would the populace have the same motive for demanding of them the Greek contests, when once the State undertakes the expenditure. The victories won by orators and poets would furnish a stimulus to genius, and it could not be a burden for any judge to bestow his attention on graceful pursuits or on legitimate recreations. It was to mirth rather than to profligacy that a few nights every five years were devoted, and in these amid such a blaze of illumination no lawless conduct could be concealed." This entertainment, it is true, passed off without any notorious scandal. The enthusiasm too of the populace was not even slightly kindled, for the pantomimic actors, though permitted to return to the stage, were excluded from the sacred contests. No one gained the first prize for eloquence, but it was publicly announced that the emperor was victorious. Greek dresses, in which most people showed themselves during this festival, had then gone out of fashion.


[15.23] During the consulship of Memmius Regulus and Verginius Rufus, Nero welcomed with something more than mortal joy the birth of a daughter by Poppaea, whom he called Augusta, the same title having also been given to Poppaea. The place of her confinement was the colony of Antium, where the emperor himself was born. Already had the Senate commended Poppaea's safety to the gods, and had made vows in the State's name, which were repeated again and again and duly discharged. To these was added a public thanksgiving, and a temple was decreed to the goddess of fecundity, as well as games and contests after the type of the ceremonies commemorative of Actium, and golden images of the two Fortunes were to be set up on the throne of Jupiter of the Capitol. Shows too of the circus were to be exhibited in honour of the Claudian and Domitian families at Antium, like those at Bovillae in commemoration of the Julii. Transient distinctions all of them, as within four months the infant died. Again there was an outburst of flattery, men voting the honours of deification, of a shrine, a temple, and a priest. The emperor, too, was as excessive in his grief as he had been in his joy. It was observed that when all the Senate rushed out to Antium to honour the recent birth, Thrasea was forbidden to go, and received with fearless spirit an affront which foreboded his doom. Then followed, as rumour says, an expression from the emperor, in which he boasted to Seneca of his reconciliation with Thrasea, on which Seneca congratulated him. And now henceforth the glory and the peril of these illustrious men grew greater.


[15.32] That same year the emperor put into possession of the Latin franchise the tribes of the maritime Alps. To the Roman knights he assigned places in the circus in front of the seats of the people, for up to that time they used to enter in a promiscuous throng, as the Roscian law extended only to fourteen rows in the theatre. The same year witnessed shows of gladiators as magnificent as those of the past. Many ladies of distinction, however, and senators, disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheatre.

[15.33] In the year of the consulship of Caius Laecanius and Marcus Licinius a yet keener impulse urged Nero to show himself frequently on the public stage. Hitherto he had sung in private houses or gardens, during the juvenile games, but these he now despised, as being but little frequented, and on too small a scale for so fine a voice. As, however, he did not venture to make a beginning at Rome, he chose Neapolis, because it was a Greek city. From this as his starting-point he might cross into Achaia, and there, winning the well-known and sacred garlands of antiquity, evoke, with increased fame, the enthusiasm of the citizens. Accordingly, a rabble of the townsfolk was brought together, with those whom the excitement of such an event had attracted from the neighbouring towns and colonies, and such as followed in the emperor's train to pay him honour or for various objects. All these, with some companies of soldiers, filled the theatre at Neapolis.

[15.34] There an incident occurred, which many thought unlucky, though to the emperor it seemed due to the providence of auspicious deities. The people who had been present, had quitted the theatre, and the empty building then fell in without harm to anyone. Thereupon Nero in an elaborate ode thanked the gods, celebrating the good luck which attended the late downfall, and as he was on his way to cross the sea of Hadria, he rested awhile at Beneventum, where a crowded gladiatorial show was being exhibited by Vatinius. The man was one of the most conspicuously infamous sights in the imperial court, bred, as he had been, in a shoemaker's shop, of a deformed person and vulgar wit, originally introduced as a butt. After a time he grew so powerful by accusing all the best men, that in influence, wealth, and ability to injure, he was pre-eminent even in that bad company.

15.37 - 15.44

[15.37] Nero, to win credit for himself of enjoying nothing so much as the capital, prepared banquets in the public places, and used the whole city, so to say, as his private house. Of these entertainments the most famous for their notorious profligacy were those furnished by Tigellinus, which I will describe as an illustration, that I may not have again and again to narrate similar extravagance. He had a raft constructed on Agrippa's lake, put the guests on board and set it in motion by other vessels towing it. These vessels glittered with gold and ivory; the crews were arranged according to age and experience in vice. Birds and beasts had been procured from remote countries, and sea monsters from the ocean. On the margin of the lake were set up brothels crowded with noble ladies, and on the opposite bank were seen naked prostitutes with obscene gestures and movements. As darkness approached, all the adjacent grove and surrounding buildings resounded with song, and shone brilliantly with lights. Nero, who polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, had not omitted a single abomination which could heighten his depravity, till a few days afterwards he stooped to marry himself to one of that filthy herd, by name Pythagoras, with all the forms of regular wedlock. The bridal veil was put over the emperor; people saw the witnesses of the ceremony, the wedding dower, the couch and the nuptial torches; everything in a word was plainly visible, which, even when a woman weds darkness hides.

[15.38] A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. It had its beginning in that part of the circus which adjoins the Palatine and Caelian hills, where, amid the shops containing inflammable wares, the conflagration both broke out and instantly became so fierce and so rapid from the wind that it seized in its grasp the entire length of the circus. For here there were no houses fenced in by solid masonry, or temples surrounded by walls, or any other obstacle to interpose delay. The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them, it outstripped all preventive measures; so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets, which characterised old Rome. Added to this were the wailings of terror-stricken women, the feebleness of age, the helpless inexperience of childhood, the crowds who sought to save themselves or others, dragging out the infirm or waiting for them, and by their hurry in the one case, by their delay in the other, aggravating the confusion. Often, while they looked behind them, they were intercepted by flames on their side or in their face. Or if they reached a refuge close at hand, when this too was seized by the fire, they found that, even places, which they had imagined to be remote, were involved in the same calamity. At last, doubting what they should avoid or whither betake themselves, they crowded the streets or flung themselves down in the fields, while some who had lost their all, even their very daily bread, and others out of love for their kinsfolk, whom they had been unable to rescue, perished, though escape was open to them. And no one dared to stop the mischief, because of incessant menaces from a number of persons who forbade the extinguishing of the flames, because again others openly hurled brands, and kept shouting that there was one who gave them authority, either seeking to plunder more freely, or obeying orders.

[15.39] Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his house, which he had built to connect the palace with the gardens of Maecenas. It could not, however, be stopped from devouring the palace, the house, and everything around it. However, to relieve the people, driven out homeless as they were, he threw open to them the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude. Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighbouring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck. These acts, though popular, produced no effect, since a rumour had gone forth everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy, comparing present misfortunes with the calamities of antiquity.

[15.40] At last, after five days, an end was put to the conflagration at the foot of the Esquiline hill, by the destruction of all buildings on a vast space, so that the violence of the fire was met by clear ground and an open sky. But before people had laid aside their fears, the flames returned, with no less fury this second time, and especially in the spacious districts of the city. Consequently, though there was less loss of life, the temples of the gods, and the porticoes which were devoted to enjoyment, fell in a yet more widespread ruin. And to this conflagration there attached the greater infamy because it broke out on the Aemilian property of Tigellinus, and it seemed that Nero was aiming at the glory of founding a new city and calling it by his name. Rome, indeed, is divided into fourteen districts, four of which remained uninjured, three were levelled to the ground, while in the other seven were left only a few shattered, half-burnt relics of houses.

[15.41] It would not be easy to enter into a computation of the private mansions, the blocks of tenements, and of the temples, which were lost. Those with the oldest ceremonial, as that dedicated by Servius Tullius to Luna, the great altar and shrine raised by the Arcadian Evander to the visibly appearing Hercules, the temple of Jupiter the Stayer, which was vowed by Romulus, Numa's royal palace, and the sanctuary of Vesta, with the tutelary deities of the Roman people, were burnt. So too were the riches acquired by our many victories, various beauties of Greek art, then again the ancient and genuine historical monuments of men of genius, and, notwithstanding the striking splendour of the restored city, old men will remember many things which could not be replaced. Some persons observed that the beginning of this conflagration was on the 19th of July, the day on which the Senones captured and fired Rome. Others have pushed a curious inquiry so far as to reduce the interval between these two conflagrations into equal numbers of years, months, and days.

[15.42] Nero meanwhile availed himself of his country's desolation, and erected a mansion in which the jewels and gold, long familiar objects, quite vulgarised by our extravagance, were not so marvellous as the fields and lakes, with woods on one side to resemble a wilderness, and, on the other, open spaces and extensive views. The directors and contrivers of the work were Severus and Celer, who had the genius and the audacity to attempt by art even what nature had refused, and to fool away an emperor's resources. They had actually undertaken to sink a navigable canal from the lake Avernus to the mouths of the Tiber along a barren shore or through the face of hills, where one meets with no moisture which could supply water, except the Pomptine marshes. The rest of the country is broken rock and perfectly dry. Even if it could be cut through, the labour would be intolerable, and there would be no adequate result. Nero, however, with his love of the impossible, endeavoured to dig through the nearest hills to Avernus, and there still remain the traces of his disappointed hope.

[15.43] Of Rome meanwhile, so much as was left unoccupied by his mansion, was not built up, as it had been after its burning by the Gauls, without any regularity or in any fashion, but with rows of streets according to measurement, with broad thoroughfares, with a restriction on the height of houses, with open spaces, and the further addition of colonnades, as a protection to the frontage of the blocks of tenements. These colonnades Nero promised to erect at his own expense, and to hand over the open spaces, when cleared of the debris, to the ground landlords. He also offered rewards proportioned to each person's position and property, and prescribed a period within which they were to obtain them on the completion of so many houses or blocks of building. He fixed on the marshes of Ostia for the reception of the rubbish, and arranged that the ships which had brought up corn by the Tiber, should sail down the river with cargoes of this rubbish. The buildings themselves, to a certain height, were to be solidly constructed, without wooden beams, of stone from Gabii or Alba, that material being impervious to fire. And to provide that the water which individual license had illegally appropriated, might flow in greater abundance in several places for the public use, officers were appointed, and everyone was to have in the open court the means of stopping a fire. Every building, too, was to be enclosed by its own proper wall, not by one common to others. These changes which were liked for their utility, also added beauty to the new city. Some, however, thought that its old arrangement had been more conducive to health, inasmuch as the narrow streets with the elevation of the roofs were not equally penetrated by the sun's heat, while now the open space, unsheltered by any shade, was scorched by a fiercer glow.

[15.44] Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.


[15.46] During the same time some gladiators in the town of Praeneste, who attempted to break loose, were put down by a military guard stationed on the spot to watch them, and the people, ever desirous and yet fearful of change, began at once to talk of Spartacus, and of bygone calamities. Soon afterwards, tidings of a naval disaster was received, but not from war, for never had there been so profound a peace. Nero, however, had ordered the fleet to return to Campania on a fixed day, without making any allowance for the dangers of the sea. Consequently the pilots, in spite of the fury of the waves, started from Formiae, and while they were struggling to double the promontory of Misenum, they were dashed by a violent south-west wind on the shores of Cumae, and lost, in all directions, a number of their triremes with some smaller vessels.

15.53 [details of the senatorial plot to assassinate Nero]

[15.53] At last they decided to carry out their design on that day of the circus games, which is celebrated in honour of Ceres, as the emperor, who seldom went out, and shut himself up in his house or gardens, used to go to the entertainments of the circus, and access to him was the easier from his keen enjoyment of the spectacle. They had so arranged the order of the plot, that Lateranus was to throw himself at the prince's knees in earnest entreaty, apparently craving relief for his private necessities, and, being a man of strong nerve and huge frame, hurl him to the ground and hold him down. When he was prostrate and powerless, the tribunes and centurions and all the others who had sufficient daring were to rush up and do the murder, the first blow being claimed by Scaevinus, who had taken a dagger from the Temple of Safety, or, according to another account, from that of Fortune, in the town of Ferentum, and used to wear the weapon as though dedicated to some noble deed. Piso, meanwhile, was wait in the sanctuary of Ceres, whence he was to be summoned by Faenius, the commander of the guard, and by the others, and then conveyed into the camp, accompanied by Antonia, the daughter of Claudius Caesar, with a view to evoke the people's enthusiasm. So it is related by Caius Pliny. Handed down from whatever source, I had no intention of suppressing it, however absurd it may seem, either that Antonia should have lent her name at her life's peril to a hopeless project, or that Piso, with his well-known affection for his wife, should have pledged himself to another marriage, but for the fact that the lust of dominion inflames the heart more than any other passion.

15.74 [Nero defeats the conspirators]

[15.74] Then offerings and thanksgivings to the gods were decreed, with special honours to the Sun, who has an ancient temple in the circus where the crime was planned, as having revealed by his power the secrets of the conspiracy. The games too of Ceres in the circus were to be celebrated with more horse-races, and the month of April was to be called after the name of Nero. A temple also was to be erected to Safety, on the spot whence Scaevinus had taken his dagger. The emperor himself dedicated the weapon in the temple of the capital, and inscribed on it, "To Jupiter the Avenger." This passed without notice at the moment, but after the war of Julius Vindex it was construed as an omen and presage of impending vengeance. I find in the registers of the Senate that Cerialis Anicius, consul-elect, proposed a motion that a temple should as soon as possible be built at the public expense to the Divine Nero. He implied indeed by this proposal that the prince had transcended all mortal grandeur and deserved the adoration of mankind. Some however interpreted it as an omen of his death, seeing that divine honours are not paid to an emperor till he has ceased to live among men.


[16.4] 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.

[16.5] 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.

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The Deified Vespasian



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[from Walt Stevens History 331 page (http://www.richmond.edu/~wstevens/history331texts/dom.html)]


[4] Domitian presented many extravagant entertainments in the Colosseum and
the Circus. Besides the usual two-horse chariot races : he staged a couple
of battles, one for infantry, the other for cavalry; a sea-fight in the
amphitheatre;(l) wild-beast hunts; gladiatorial shows by torchlight in which
women as well as men took part. Nor did he ever forget the Games given by
the quaestors, which he had revived; and allowed the people to demand a
combat between two pairs of gladiators from his own troop, whom he would
bring on last in their gorgeous Court livery. Throughout every gladiatorial
show Domitian would chat, sometimes in very serious tones, with a little boy
who had a grotesquely small head and always stood at his feet dressed in
red. Once he was heard to ask the child: 'Can you guess why, on the last
appointment day, I made Mettius Rufus Prefect of Egypt?' A lake was dug at
his orders close to the Tiber, surrounded with seats, and used for almost
full-scale naval battles, which he watched even in heavy rain.

7. Domitian made a number of social innovations: cancelled the public grain
issue, restored the custom of holding formal dinnlers, added two new teams
of chariot drivers, the Golds and the Purples, to the existing four in the
Circus and forbade actors to appear on the public stage, though still
allowing them to perform in private. Castration was now stricdy prohibited,
and the price of eunuchs remaining in slave-dealers' hands officially
controlled. One year, when a bumper vintage followed a poor grain harvest,
Domitian concluded that the cornlands were being neglected in favour of the
vineyards. He dherefore issued an edict chat forbade dhe further planting of
vines in Italy, and ordered the acreage in the provinces to be reduced by at
least half, if it could not be got rid of altogether; yet took no steps to
implement this edict. He divided some of dhe more important Court
appointments between freedmen and knights. Another of his edicts forbade any
two legions to share a camp, or any individual soldier to deposit at
headquarters a sum in excess of ten gold pieces; because the large amount of
soldiers' savings laid up in the joint winter headquarters of the two
legions on the Rhine had provided Lucius Antonius with the necessary funds
for launching his rebellion. Domitian also raised the legionaries' pay by
one quarter, from nine to twelve gold pieces a year.



As part of his campaign for improving public morals, Domitian made sure that
the appropriation by the general public of seats reserved for knights was no
longer condoned; and came down heavily on authors who published lampoons on
distinguished men and women. He expelled one ex-quaestor from the Senate for
being over-fond of acting and dancing; forbade women of notoriously bad
character the right to use litters or to benefit from inheritances and
legacies; struck a knight from the jury-roll because he had divorced his
wife on a charge of adultery and then taken her back again; and sentenced
many members of both Orders under the Scantinian Law. 

I7. Virtually all that has come to light about either the plot or the
assassination is that his niece Domitilla's steward, Stephanus, had been
accused of embezzlement, and that while the conspirators were debating when
and how it would be better to murder Domitian, in his bath or at dinner,
Stephanus offered them his advice and his services. Then, to divert
suspicion, he feigned an arm injury and went around for several days with
his arm wrapped in woollen bandages - in which a dagger was concealed.
Finally he pretended that he had discovered a plot, and was for that reason
granted an audience: whereupon as the amazed Domitian perused a document he
had handed him, Stephanus stabbed him in the groin. The wounded Domitian put
up a fight but succumbed to seven further stabs, his assailants being a
subaltern named Clodianus, Parthenius' freedman Maximus, Satur a
head-chamberlain, and one of the imperial gladiators. The boy who was, as
usual, attending to the Household-gods in the bedroom, witnessed the murder
and later provided these additional details. On receiving the first blow,
Domitian bade the boy hand him the dagger which was kept under his pillow
and then call the servants; the dagger, however, proved to have no blade,
and all the doors were locked. Meanwhile Domitian grappled with Stephanus
and bore him to the groumd, where they struggled for a long time, while
Domitian attempted to seize the dagger and to claw out his assailant's eyes
with his lacerated fingers.

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Encylopaedia Britannica on Commodus 
a bust of Commodus] 
an essay on Commodus from de  Imperatoribus Romanis
Chris Mackay's essay on Commodus

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Edward Gibbon on Commodus, v.1, c.4 (selections)

[from HelioGabby's Home Page (http://members.aol.com/heliogabby/private/commogib.htm)]

One evening, as the emperor was returning to the palace, through a dark and narrow portico in the amphitheatre,[2] an
assassin, who waited his passage, rushed upon him with a drawn sword, loudly exclaiming, "The senate sends you
this." The menace prevented the deed; the assassin was seized by the guards, and immediately revealed the authors of
the conspiracy. It had been formed, not in the state, but within the walls of the palace. Lucilla, the emperor's sister, and
widow of Lucius Verus, impatient of the second rank, and jealous of the reigning empress, had armed the murderer
against her brother's life. She had not ventured to communicate the black design to her second husband, Claudius
Pompeiarus, a senator of distinguished merit and unshaken loyalty; but among the crowd of her lovers (for she imitated
the manners of Faustina) she found men of desperate fortunes and wild ambition, who were prepared to serve her
more violent, as well as her tender passions. The conspirators experienced the rigor of justice, and the abandoned
princess was punished, first with exile, and afterwards with death.[3] 
2. See Maffei degli Amphitheatri, p. 126. 
3. Dion, I. lxxii. p. 1205. Herodian, I. i. p. 16. Hist. August. p. 46. 
But every sentiment of virtue and humanity was extinct in the mind of Commodus. Whilst he thus abandoned the reins of
empire to these unworthy favorites, he valued nothing in sovereign power, except the unbounded license of indulging
his sensual appetites. His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred beautiful women, and as many boys, of
every rank, and of every province; and, wherever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to
violence. The ancient historians[1] have expatiated on these abandoned scenes of prostitution, which scorned every
restraint of nature or modesty; but it would not be easy to translate their too faithful descriptions into the decency of
modern language. The intervals of lust were filled up with the basest amusements. The influence of a polite age, and
the labor of an attentive education, had never been able to infuse into his rude and brutish mind the least tincture of
learning; and he was the first of the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the understanding.
Nero himself excelled, or affected to excel, in the elegant arts of music and poetry: nor should we despise his pursuits,
had he not converted the pleasing relaxation of a leisure hour into the serious business and ambition of his life. But
Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal, and a fond attachment
to the amusements of the populace; the sports of the circus and amphitheatre, the combats of gladiators, and the
hunting of wild beasts. The masters in every branch of learning, whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with
inattention and disgust; whilst the Moors and Parthians, who taught him to dart the javelin and to shoot with the bow,
found a disciple who delighted in his application, and soon equalled the most skilful of his instructors in the steadiness
of the eye and the dexterity of the hand. 

The servile crowd, whose fortune depended on their master's vices, applauded these ignoble pursuits. The perfidious
voice of flattery reminded him, that by exploits of the same nature, by the defeat of the Nemæan lion, and the slaughter of
the wild boar of Erymanthus, the Grecian Hercules had acquired a place among the gods, and an immortal memory
among men. They only forgot to observe, that, in the first ages of society, when the fiercer animals often dispute with
man the possession of an unsettled country, a successful war against those savages is one of the most innocent and
beneficial labors of heroism. In the civilized state of the Roman empire, the wild beasts had long since retired from the
face of man, and the neighborhood of populous cities. To surprise them in their solitary haunts, and to transport them to
Rome, that they might be slain in pomp by the hand of an emperor, was an enterprise equally ridiculous for the prince
and oppressive for the people.[2] Ignorant of these distinctions, Commodus eagerly embraced the glorious
resemblance, and styled himself (as we still read on his medals[3] ) the Roman Hercules. The club and the lion's hide
were placed by the side of the throne, amongst the ensigns of sovereignty; and statues were erected, in which
Commodus was represented in the character, and with the attributes, of the god, whose valor and dexterity he
endeavored to emulate in the daily course of his ferocious amusements.[4] 

Elated with these praises, which gradually extinguished the innate sense of shame, Commodus resolved to exhibit
before the eyes of the Roman people those exercises, which till then he had decently confined within the walls of his
palace, and to the presence of a few favorites. On the appointed day, the various motives of flattery, fear, and curiosity,
attracted to the amphitheatre an innumerable multitude of spectators; and some degree of applause was deservedly
bestowed on the uncommon skill of the Imperial performer. Whether he aimed at the head or heart of the animal, the
wound was alike certain and mortal. With arrows whose point was shaped into the form of crescent, Commodus often
intercepted the rapid career, and cut asunder the long, bony neck of the ostrich.[5] A panther was let loose; and the
archer waited till he had leaped upon a trembling malefactor. In the same instant the shaft flew, the beast dropped
dead, and the man remained unhurt. The dens of the amphitheatre disgorged at once a hundred lions: a hundred darts
from the unerring hand of Commodus laid them dead as they run raging round the Arena. Neither the huge bulk of the
elephant, nor the scaly hide of the rhinoceros, could defend them from his stroke. Æthiopia and India yielded their most
extraordinary productions; and several animals were slain in the amphitheatre, which had been seen only in the
representations of art, or perhaps of fancy.[6] In all these exhibitions, the securest precautions were used to protect the
person of the Roman Hercules from the desperate spring of any savage, who might possibly disregard the dignity of the
emperor and the sanctity of the god.[7] 

But the meanest of the populace were affected with shame and indignation when they beheld their sovereign enter the
lists as a gladiator, and glory in a profession which the laws and manners of the Romans had branded with the justest
note of infamy.[8] He chose the habit and arms of the Secutor, whose combat with the Retiarius formed one of the most
lively scenes in the bloody sports of the amphitheatre. The Secutor was armed with a helmet, sword, and buckler; his
naked antagonist had only a large net and a trident; with the one he endeavored to entangle, with the other to despatch
his enemy. If he missed the first throw, he was obliged to fly from the pursuit of the Secutor, till he had prepared his net
for a second cast.[9] The emperor fought in this character seven hundred and thirty-five several times. These glorious
achievements were carefully recorded in the public acts of the empire; and that he might omit no circumstance of
infamy, he received from the common fund of gladiators a stipend so exorbitant that it became a new and most
ignominious tax upon the Roman people.[10] It may be easily supposed, that in these engagements the master of the
world was always successful; in the amphitheatre, his victories were not often sanguinary; but when he exercised his
skill in the school of gladiators, or his own palace, his wretched antagonists were frequently honored with a mortal
wound from the hand of Commodus, and obliged to seal their flattery with their blood.[11] He now disdained the
appellation of Hercules. The name of Paulus, a celebrated Secutor, was the only one which delighted his ear. It was
inscribed on his colossal statues, and repeated in the redoubled acclamations[12] of the mournful and applauding
senate.[13] Claudius Pompeianus, the virtuous husband of Lucilla, was the only senator who asserted the honor of his
rank. As a father, he permitted his sons to consult their safety by attending the amphitheatre. As a Roman, he declared,
that his own life was in the emperor's hands, but that he would never behold the son of Marcus prostituting his person
and dignity. Notwithstanding his manly resolution Pompeianus escaped the resentment of the tyrant, and, with his
honor, had the good fortune to preserve his life.[14] 

              1. Sororibus suis constupratis. Ipsas concubinas suas sub oculis suis stuprari jubebat. Nec irruentium in se juvenum carebat
              infamia, omni parte corporis atque ore in sexum utrumque pollutus. Hist. August. p. 47. 

              2. The African lions, when pressed by hunger, infested the open villages and cultivated country; and they infested them
              with impunity. The royal beast was reserved for the pleasures of the emperor and the capital; and the unfortunate peasant,
              who killed one of them, though in his own defence, incurred a very heavy penalty. This extraordinary game-law was
              mitigated by Honorius, and finally repealed by Justinian. Codex Theodos. tom. v. p. 92, et Comment. Gothofred. 

              3. Spanheim de Numismat. Dissert. xii. tom. ii. p. 493. 

              4. Dion, I. lxxii. p. 1216. Hist. August. p. 49. 

              5. The ostrich's neck is three feet long, and composed of seventeen vertebræ. See Buffon, Hist. Naturelle. 

              6. Commodus killed a camelopardalis or Giraffe (Dion, I. lxxii. p. 1211), the tallest, the most gentle, and the most useless of
              the large quadrupeds. This singular animal, a native only of the interior parts of Africa, has not been seen in Europe since
              the revival of letters; and though M. de Buffon (Hist. Naturelle, tom. xiii.) has endeavoured to describe, he has not ventured
              to delineate, the Giraffe. 

              7. Herodian, I. i. p. 37. Hist. August. p. 50. 

              8. The virtuous and even the wise princes forbade the senators and knights to embrace this scandalous profession, under
              pain of infamy, or, what was more dreaded by those profligate wretches, of exile. The tyrants allured them to dishonour by
              threats and rewards. Nero once produced, in the Arena, forty senators and sixty knights. See Lipsius, Saturnalia, I. ii. c. 2.
              He has happily corrected a passage of Suetonius, in Nerone, c. 12. 

              9. Lipsius, I. ii. c. 7, 8. Juvenal, in the eighth satire, gives a picturesque description of this combat. 

              10. Hist. August. p. 50. Dion, I. lxxii. p. 1220. He received, for each time, decies, about 8000 l. sterling. 

              11. Victor tells us, that Commodus only allowed his antagonists a leaden weapon, dreading most probably the
              consequences of their despair. 

              12. They were obliged to repeat six hundred and twenty-six times, Paulus first of the Secutors, &c. 

              13. Dion, I. lxxii. p. 1221. He speaks of his own baseness and danger. 

              14. He mixed however some prudence with his courage, and passed the greatest part of his time in a country retirement;
              alleging his advanced age, and the weakness of his eyes. "I never saw him in the Senate," says Dion, "except during the
              short reign of Pertinax." All his infirmities had suddenly left him, and they returned as suddenly upon the murder of that
              excellent prince. Dion, I. lxxiii. p. 1227. 

Commodus had now attained the summit of vice and infamy. Amidst the acclamations of a flattering court, he was
unable to disguise from himself, that he had deserved the contempt and hatred of every man of sense and virtue in his
empire. His ferocious spirit was irritated by the consciousness of that hatred, by the envy of every kind of merit, by the
just apprehension of danger, and by the habit of slaughter, which he contracted in his daily amusements. History has
preserved a long list of consular senators sacrificed to his wanton suspicion, which sought out, with peculiar anxiety,
those unfortunate persons connected, however remotely, with the family of the Antonines, without sparing even the
ministers of his crimes or pleasures.[1] His cruelty proved at last fatal to himself. He had shed with impunity the noblest
blood of Rome: he perished as soon as he was dreaded by his own domestics. Marcia, his favorite concubine,
Eclectus, his chamberlain, and Lætus, his Prætorian præfect, alarmed by the fate of their companions and
predecessors, resolved to prevent the destruction which every hour hung over their heads, either from the mad caprice
of the tyrant, or the sudden indignation of the people. Marcia seized the occasion of presenting a draught of wine to her
lover, after he had fatigued himself with hunting some wild beasts. Commodus retired to sleep; but whilst he was
laboring with the effects of poison and drunkenness, a robust youth, by profession a wrestler, entered his chamber, and
strangled him without resistance. The body was secretly conveyed out of the palace, before the least suspicion was
entertained in the city, or even in the court, of the emperor's death. 

Such was the fate of the son of Marcus, and so easy was it to destroy a hated tyrant, who, by the artificial powers of
government, had oppressed, during thirteen years, so many millions of subjects, each of whom was equal to their
master in personal strength and personal abilities.[2] 

              1. The præfects were changed almost hourly or daily; and the caprice of Commodus was often fatal to his most favoured
              chamberlains. Hist. August. p. 46, 51. 

              2. Dion, I. lxxii. p. 1222. Herodian, I. i. p. 43. Hist. August. p. 52. 

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