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Seekers after God

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Nor was it unnatural that it should be. Moral precepts, philosophic guidance were no longer possible to one whose compliances or whose timidity had led him so far as first to sanction matricide, and then to defend it. He might indeed be still powerful to recommend principles of common sense and political expediency, but the loftier lessons of Stoicism, nay, even the better utterances of a mere ordinary Pagan morality, could henceforth only fall from his lips with something of a hollow ring. He might interfere, as we know he did, to render as innocuous as possible the pernicious vanity which made Nero so ready to degrade his imperial rank by public appearances on the orchestra or in the race-course, but he could hardly address again such noble teachings as that of the treatise on Clemency to one whom, on grounds of political expediency, he had not dissuaded from the treacherous murder of a mother, who, whatever her enormities, yet for his sake had sold her very soul.

Although there may have been a strong suspicion that foul play had been committed, the actual facts and details of the death of Agrippina would rest between Nero and Seneca as a guilty secret, in the guilt of which Seneca himself must have his share. Such a position of things was the inevitable death-blow, not only to all friendship, but to all confidence, and ultimately to all intercourse. We see in sacred history that Joab's participation in David's guilty secret gave him the absolute mastery over his own sovereign; we see repeatedly in profane history that the mutual knowledge of some crime is the invariable cause of deadly hatred between a subject and a king. Such feelings as King John may be supposed to have had to Hubert de Burgh, or King Richard III. to Sir James Tyrrel, or King James I. to the Earl of Somerset, such probably, in still more virulent intensity, were the feelings of Nero towards his whilome "guide, philosopher, and friend."

For Nero very soon learnt that Seneca was no longer necessary to him. For a time he lingered in Campania, guiltily dubious as to the kind of reception that awaited him in the capital. The assurances of the vile crew which surrounded him soon made that fear wear off, and when he plucked up the courage to return to his palace, he might himself have been amazed at the effusion of infamous loyalty and venal acclamation with which he was received. All Rome poured itself forth to meet him; the Senate appeared in festal robes with their wives and girls and boys in long array; seats and scaffoldings were built up along the road by which he had to pass, as though the populace had gone forth to see a triumph. With haughty mein, the victor of a nation of slaves, he ascended the Capitol, gave thanks to the gods, and went home to betray henceforth the full perversity of a nature which the reverence for his mother, such as it was, had hitherto in part restrained. But the instincts of the populace were suppressed rather than eradicated. They hung a sack from his statue by night in allusion to the old punishment of parricides, who were sentenced to be flung into the sea, tied up in a sack with a serpent, a monkey, and a cock. They exposed an infant in the Forum with a tablet on which was written, "I refuse to rear thee, lest thou shouldst slay thy mother." They scrawled upon the blank walls of Rome an iambic line which reminded all who read it that Nero, Orestes, and Alcmaeon were murderers of their mothers. Even Nero must have been well aware that he presented a hideous spectacle in the eyes of all who had the faintest shade of righteousness among the people whom he ruled.

All this took place in A.D. 59, and we hear no more of Seneca till the year 62, a year memorable for the death of Burrus, who had long been his honest, friendly, and faithful colleague. In these dark times, when all men seemed to be speaking in a whisper, almost every death of a conspicuous and high-minded man, if not caused by open violence, falls under the suspicion of secret poison. The death of Burrus may have been due (from the description) to diphtheria, but the popular voice charged Nero with having hastened his death by a pretended remedy, and declared that, when the Emperor visited his sick bed, the dying man turned away from his inquiries with the laconic answer, "I am well."

His death was regretted, not only from the memory of his virtues, but also from the fact that Nero appointed two men as his successors, of whom the one, Fenius Rufus, was honorable but indolent; the other and more powerful, Sofonius Tigellinus had won for himself among cruel and shameful associates a pre-eminence of hatred and of shame.

However faulty and inconsistent Seneca may have been, there was at any rate no possibility that he should divide with a Tigellinus the direction of his still youthful master. He was by no means deceived as to the position in which he stood, and the few among Nero's followers in whom any spark of honour was left informed him of the incessant calumnies which were used to undermine his influence. Tigellinus and his friends dwelt on his enormous wealth and his magnificent villas and gardens, which could only have been acquired with ulterior objects, and which threw into the shade the splendour of the Emperor himself. They tried to kindle the inflammable jealousies of Nero's feeble mind by representing Seneca as attempting to rival him in poetry, and as claiming the entire credit of his eloquence, while he mocked his divine singing, and disparaged his accomplishments as a harper and charioteer because he himself was unable to acquire them. Nero, they urged was a boy no longer; let him get rid of his schoolmaster, and find sufficient instruction in the example of his ancestors.

Foreseeing how such arguments must end; Seneca requested an interview with Nero; begged to be suffered to retire altogether from public life; pleaded age and increasing infirmities as an excuse for desiring a calm retreat; and offered unconditionally to resign the wealth and honours which had excited the cupidity of his enemies, but which were simply due to Nero's unexampled liberality during the eight years of his government, towards one whom he had regarded as a benefactor and a friend. But Nero did not choose to let Seneca escape so lightly. He argued that, being still young, he could not spare him, and that to accept his offers would not be at all in accordance with his fame for generosity. A proficient in the imperial art of hiding detestation under deceitful blandishments, Nero ended the interview with embraces and assurances of friendship. Seneca thanked him--the usual termination, as Tacitus bitterly adds, of interviews with a ruler--but nevertheless altered his entire manner of life, forbade his friends to throng to his levees, avoided all companions, and rarely appeared in public--wishing it to be believed that he was suffering from weak health, or was wholly occupied in the pursuit of philosophy. He well knew the arts of courts, for in his book on Anger he has told an anecdote of one who, being asked how he had managed to attain so rare a gift as old age in a palace, replied, "By submitting to injuries, and returning thanks for them." But he must have known that his life hung upon a thread, for in the very same year an attempt was made to involve him in a charge of treason as one of the friends of C. Calpurnius Piso, an illustrious nobleman whose wealth and ability made him an object of jealousy and suspicion, though he was naturally unambitious and devoid of energy. The attempt failed at the time, and Seneca was able triumphantly to refute the charge of any treasonable design. But the fact of such a charge being made showed how insecure was the position of any man of eminence under the deepening tyranny of Nero, and it precipitated the conspiracy which two years afterwards was actually formed.

Not long after the death of Burrus, when Nero began to add sacrilege to his other crimes, Seneca made one more attempt to retire from Rome; and, when permission was a second time refused, he feigned a severe illness, and confined himself to his chamber. It was asserted, and believed, that about this time Nero made an attempt to poison him by the instrumentality of his freedman Cleonicus, which was only defeated by the confession of an accomplice or by the abstemious habits of the philosopher who now took nothing but bread and fruit, and never quenched his thirst except out of the running stream.

It was during those two years of Seneca's seclusion and disgrace that an event happened of imperishable interest. On the orgies of a shameful court, on the supineness of a degenerate people, there burst--as upon the court of Charles II.--a sudden lightning-flash of retribution. In its character, in its extent, in the devastation and anguish of which it was the cause, in the improvements by which it was followed, in the lying origin to which it was attributed, even in the general circumstances of the period and character of the reign in which it happened, there is a close and singular analogy between the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Great Fire of Rome in 64. Beginning in the crowded part of the city, under the Palatine and Caelian Hills, it raged, first for six, and then again for three days, among the inflammable material of booths and shops, and driven along by a furious wind, amid feeble and ill-directed efforts to check its course, it burst irresistibly over palaces, temples, and porticoes, and amid the narrow tortuous streets of old Rome, involving in a common destruction the most magnificent works of ancient art, the choicest manuscripts of ancient literature, and the most venerable monuments of ancient superstition. In a few touches of inimitable compression, such as the stern genius of the Latin language permits, but which are too condensed for direct translation, Tacitus has depicted the horror of the scene,--wailing of panic-stricken women, the helplessness of the very aged and the very young, the passionate eagerness for themselves and for others, the dragging along of the feeble or the waiting for them, the lingering and the hurry, the common and inextricable confusion. Many, while they looked backward, were cut off by the flames in front or at the sides; if they sought some neighboring refuge, they found it in the grasp of the conflagration; if they hurried to some more distant spot, that too was found to be involved in the same calamity. At last, uncertain what to seek or what to avoid, they crowded the streets, they lay huddled together in the fields. Some, having lost all their possessions, died from the want of daily food; and others, who might have escaped died of a broken heart from the anguish of being bereaved of those whom they had been unable to rescue; while, to add to the universal horror, it was believed that all attempts to repress the flames were checked by authoritive prohibition; nay more, that hired incendiaries were seen flinging firebrands in new directions, either because they had been bidden to do so, or that they might exercise their rapine undisturbed.

The historians and anecdotists of the time, whose accounts must be taken for what they are worth, attribute to Nero the origin of the conflagration; and it is certain that he did not return to Rome until the fire had caught the galleries of his palace. In vain did he use every exertion to assist the homeless and ruined population; in vain did he order food to be sold to them at a price unprecedentedly low, and throw open to them the monuments of Agrippa, his own gardens, and a multitude of temporary sheds. A rumour had been spread that, during the terrible unfolding of that great "flower of flame," he had mounted to the roof of his distant villa, and delighted with the beauty of the spectacle, exulting in the safe sensation of a new excitement, had dressed himself in theatrical attire, and sung to his harp a poem on the burning of Troy. Such a heartless mixture of buffoonery and affectation had exasperated the people too deeply for forgiveness, and Nero thought it necessary to draw off the general odium into a new channel, since neither his largesses nor any other popular measures succeeded in removing from himself the ignominy of this terrible suspicion. What follows is so remarkable, and, to a Christian reader, so deeply interesting, that I will give it in the very words of that great historian whom I have been so closely following.

"Therefore, to get rid of this report, Nero trumped up an accusation against a sect, detested for their atrocities, whom the common people called Christians, and inflicted on them the most recondite punishments. Christ, the founder of this sect, had been capitally punished by the Procurator Pontius Pilate, in the reign of Tiberius; and this damnable superstition, repressed for the present, was again breaking out, not only through Judaea, where the evil originated, but even through the City, whither from all regions all things that are atrocious or shameful flow together and gain a following. Those, therefore, were first arrested who confessed their religion, and then on their evidence a vast multitude were condemned, not so much on the charge of incendiarism, as for their hatred towards the human race. And mockery was added to their death; for they were covered in the skins of wild beasts and were torn to death by dogs, or crucified, or set apart for burning, and after the close of the day were reserved for the purpose of nocturnal illumination. Nero lent his own gardens for the spectacle, and gave a chariot-race, mingling with the people in the costume of a charioteer, or driving among them in his chariot; by which conduct he raised a feeling of commiseration towards the sufferers, guilty though they were, and deserving of the extremest penalties, as though they were being exterminated, not for the public interests, but to gratify the savage cruelty of one man."

Such are the brief but deeply pathetic particulars which have come down to us respecting the first great persecution of the Christians, and such must have been the horrid events of which Seneca was a contemporary, and probably an actual eye-witness, in the very last year of his life. Profoundly as in all likelihood he must have despised the very name of Christian, a heart so naturally mild and humane as his must have shuddered at the monstrous cruelties devised against the unhappy votaries of this new religion. But to the relations of Christianity with the Pagan world we shall return in a subsequent chapter and we must now hasten to the end of our biography.


The false charge which had been brought against Seneca, and in which the name of Piso had been involved, tended to urge that nobleman and his friends into a real and formidable conspiracy. Many men of influence and distinction joined in it, and among others Annaeus Lucanus, the celebrated poet-nephew of Seneca, and Fenius Rufus the colleague of Tigellinus in the command of the imperial guards. The plot was long discussed, and many were admitted into the secret, which was nevertheless marvellously well kept. One of the most eager conspirators was Subrius Flavus, an officer of the guards, who suggested the plan of stabbing Nero as he sang upon the stage, or of attacking him as he went about without guards at night in the galleries of his burning palace. Flavus is even said to have cherished the design of subsequently murdering Piso likewise, and of offering the imperial power to Seneca, with the full cognisance of the philosopher himself. However this may have been--and the story has no probability--many schemes were discussed and rejected, from the difficulty of finding a man sufficiently bold and sufficiently in earnest to put his own life to such imminent risk. While things were still under discussion, the plot was nearly ruined by the information of Volusius Proculus, an admiral of the fleet, to whom it had been mentioned by a freedwoman of the name of Ephicharis. Although no sufficient evidence could be adduced against her, the conspirators thought it advisable to hasten matters, and one of them, a senator named Scaevinus, undertook the dangerous task of assassination. Plautius Lateranus, the cousul-elect, was to pretend to offer a petition, in which he was to embrace the Emperor's knees and throw him to the ground, and then Scaevinus was to deal the fatal blow. The theatrical conduct of Scaevinus--who took an antique dagger from the Temple of Safety, made his will, ordered the dagger to be sharpened, sat down to an unusually luxurious banquet, manumitted or made presents to his slaves, showed great agitation, and finally ordered ligaments for wounds to be prepared,--awoke the suspicions of one of his freedmen named Milichus, who hastened to claim a reward for revealing his suspicions. Confronted with Milichus, Scaevinus met and refuted his accusations with the greatest firmness; but when Milichus mentioned among other things that, the day before, Scaevinus had held a long and secret conversation with another friend of Piso named Natalis, and when Natalis, on being summoned, gave a very different account of the subject of this conversation from that which Scaevinus had given, they were both put in chains; and, unable to endure the threats and the sight of tortures, revealed the entire conspiracy. Natalis was the first to mentioned the name of Piso, and he added the hated name of Seneca, either because he had been the confidential messenger between the two, or because he knew that he could not do a greater favour to Nero than by giving him the opportunity of injuring a man whom he had long sought every possible opportunity to crush....