CHAPTER V. NERO THE EMPEROR

Roughly then this is the situation at the centre of government. Sumptuously housed on the Palatine Hill - the origin of our word "palace" - is His Highness Claudius Nero, Head of the State, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, Empowered to act as Tribune of the People, and Head of the State Religion: in modern times commonly called "the Emperor." Every day and night his palace is surrounded by a regiment of the Imperial Guards, and attached to his person is a special corps for bodyguard, and orderlies. In practice, whatever be the theory, he possesses the control of legislation and appointments; upon him practically depends all recognised distinction of social rank. Down below, to the side of the Forum, is the Senate-House, in which there gathers, twice each month, and oftener if summoned, the great deliberative body which, in spite of all disturbances, civil wars, and limitations or broadenings of its power, is the continuation of the assembly of grave Roman fathers who first met some eight hundred years before. These men, who are of birth and wealth and commonly of sound public training, are the nominal upholders and directors of the commonwealth, still left to perform many functions and to administer the more peaceful provinces in their own way - especially if they relieve the emperor of trouble - but in practice controlled by His Highness whenever and however it suits his purpose. They and the emperor form a partnership in authority, but the Senate is very distinctly the junior partner. They lend him advice or sanction when he seeks it, and they sometimes act as a break on his impetuosity. It is not well to alienate them, for they are proud; they are jointly, sometimes individually, powerful; and their moral weight with army and public is not to be despised.

Thus stands the central government, while socially there follows the order of the Knights, depending for their rank upon the emperor, and in many cases serving in his employ. Below these the populace, of whose rights and liberties the emperor is an official champion to whom theoretically any Roman citizen can appeal against a sentence of death or against cruel wrong. It is hard to conceive of a stronger position for one man to hold.

When we survey this vast aggregation of various provinces, with their differences of race, language, religion, and habits; when we remember that it was on the whole strictly, energetically, and legally administered; it is hard - even allowing for a wise Senate and capable ministers - to realise a man competent for the position.

Yet Augustus had been conspicuously successful, and Tiberius not less so; Claudius, despite a certain weakness, cannot by any means be called a failure; after Nero, Vespasian and Titus were capable enough; while Trajan deserves nothing but admiration. On the other hand Caligula, it is true, had had more than a touch of the madman in his composition, and had believed himself to be omnipotent and on a level with Jupiter. Nero had begun well, but had been led by vanity, vice, and extravagance to an astounding pitch of folly and oppression. Nevertheless it must be remarked, and it should be firmly emphasised, that what is called the tyranny of Caligula and Nero is mainly - and in Caligula's case almost solely - a tyranny affecting the Romans themselves, affecting the lives and property of the Roman senators and other prominent persons, and affecting the lives and honour of their wives and daughters. The outcry against these two emperors comes from the Romans, not from the subject peoples. At least in Caligula's case the provinces were as peaceful and prosperous as at other times. It is true that the madman once meant to insist on the Jews putting up his own statue in the temple at Jerusalem, but this was because his vanity was aggrieved by their unwillingness. Under Nero the case is much the same. His tyranny for the most part took the shape of cruelty, insult, and plunder in Rome itself. It was only when he was becoming hopelessly in debt that he began to plunder the provinces as well as Italy by demanding contributions of money, and in particular to seize upon Greek works of art without paying for them. It is a mistake to think of Nero as habitually and without scruple trampling under his blood-stained foot the rights and privileges of the provinces, or grinding from them the last penny, or harrying, slaying, and violating throughout the empire.

There is nothing to show that, during the greater part of his reign, the provinces at large felt any material difference between the rule of Nero and the rule of Claudius, or that they rejoiced particularly in his fall. In many quarters he was a favourite. In the latter half of his reign he made himself a brute beast, and often a fool, in the eyes of respectable Romans. But it was, as still more with Caligula, rather in his immediate environment that his tyranny was felt to be intolerable; that is to say, among the men and women who had the misfortune to come in his way with sufficient attraction of purse or beauty to awaken his cupidity. And these were the Romans themselves, senators and knights, not the populace, and in but a small degree, if at all, the provincials in Spain or Greece or Palestine.