I claudius c 1, p.31

I, Claudius c-1, page 31

 part  #1 of  Claudius Series

 

I, Claudius c-1
 



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  own house. Piso ridiculed this charge: how could he possibly have done such a thing without someone noticing it, when the whole table, not to mention the waiters, were watching every movement he made? By magic perhaps?

  He had a bundle of letters in his hand which everyone knew, by the size and colour and the way they were tied, were from Tiberius. Germanicus' friends moved that any instructions that Piso had been sent from Rome should be read.

  Piso refused to read the letters on the ground that they were sealed as with the Sphinx seal [originally Augustus'], which made them "secret and confidential": it would be treasonable to read them. Tiberius ruled against the motion, saying that it would be a waste of time to read the letters, which contained nothing of importance. The Senate could not press the point. Piso handed the letters to Tiberius as a sign that he trusted him to save his life.

  Angry noises were now heard from the crowd outside, which was being kept informed of the progress of the trial, and a man with a huge raucous voice shouted through a window: "He may escape you, my Lords, but he won't escape us!" A messenger came to tell Tiberius that some statues of Piso had been seized by the crowd and were being dragged to the Wailing Stairs to be broken up. The Wailing Stairs were a flight of steps at the foot of the Capitoline Hill where the corpses of criminals were customarily exposed before being dragged by a hook in the throat to the Tiber and thrown in. Tiberius ordered the statues to be rescued and replaced on their pedestals. But he complained that he could not continue to judge a case under such conditions and adjourned it until the evening. Piso was conveyed away under escort. Plancina, who had hitherto boasted that she would share her husband's fate whatever it might be, and if necessary die with him, now grew alarmed. She decided to make a separate defence and counted on Livia, with whom she had been on intimate terms, to get her off. Piso knew nothing of this treachery. When the trial was resumed Tiberius gave him no sign of sympathy, and though he told the accusers that they should have provided more conclusive evidence of poisoning, he warned Piso that his armed attempt to win back his province could never be forgiven. At home that evening Piso shut himself in his room and was found the next morning stabbed to death with his sword beside him.

  It was not, as a matter of fact, suicide.

  For Piso had retained the most incriminating letter of all, one written to him by Livia but in the names of Tiberius and herself, and not stamped with the Sphinx seal [which Tiberius reserved for his own use]. He told Plancina to bargain for their lives with it. Plancina went to Livia. Livia told her to wait while she consulted Tiberius.

  Livia and Tiberius then had their first quarrel. Tiberius was furious with Livia for having written the letter, and Livia said that it was his own fault for not allowing her to use the Sphinx seal and complained that he had been behaving very insolently to her lately. Tiberius asked, who was Emperor, he or she? Livia said that if he was, it was by her contrivance and that it was foolish of him to be rude to her, because as she had found means to make him, so she could find means to break him. She took a letter from her purse and began reading it: it was an old letter written to her by Augustus during Tiberius' absence in Rhodes, accusing him of treachery, cruelty and bestiality and saying that if he were not her son he would not live another day. "This is only a copy," she said. "But I have the original in safe keeping. It's only one of many letters in the same strain.

  You wouldn't like them handed about the Senate, would you?"

  Tiberius

  controlled

  himself and apologised for his bad temper: he said that it was clear that he and she were each able to ruin the other and that therefore it was absurd for them to quarrel. But how could he spare Piso's life, especially after having said that, if the charge of raising private forces and trying to win back Syria with them was proved, this would mean the death penalty, beyond hope of pardon?

  "Plancina didn't raise any forces, though, did she?"

  "I don't see what that has to do with it. I can't get the letter back from Piso merely by promising to spare PIancina."

  "If you promise to spare Plancina, I'll get the letter from Piso: leave that to me. If Piso's killed that will satisfy public opinion. And if you are afraid of sparing Plancina on your own responsibility you can say that it was I who pleaded for her.

  That's fair enough, because I admit that it is a letter I wrote that all the trouble is about."

  So Livia went to Plancina and told her that Tiberius refused to listen to reason, and that he would rather sacrifice his own mother to popular hatred than risk his own skin in standing by his friends. All that she had been able to get from him, she said, was a grudging promise of pardon for her if the letter were given up.

  So Plancina went to Piso with a letter in Tiberius' name, forged by Livia, and said that she had arranged everything beautifully and here was the promise of acquittal.

  As Piso handed her the letter in exchange she suddenly stabbed him in the throat with a dagger. As he lay dying she dipped the point of his sword in blood, clasped his sword-hand around the pommel and left him. She took the letter and the forged promise back to Livia as arranged.

  In the Senate next day Tiberius read a statement which he said that Piso had made before his suicide, pleading complete innocence of the crime charged against him, protesting his loyalty to Livia and himself, and imploring their protection for his sons as having taken no part in the events which had been made the subject of his impeachment. Plancina's trial then began. She was proved to have been seen in the society of Martina, and Martina's reputation as a poisoner was sworn to, and it came out that when Martina's corpse was prepared for burial a phial of poison was found knotted in her hair. Old Pomponius, Germanicus’ orderly, testified to the horrible putrid relics planted in the house and to Plancina's visit there with Martina in Germanicus' absence; and when questioned by Tiberius he gave detailed evidence of the hauntings. Nobody came forward to defend Plancina. She protested her innocence with tears and oaths and said that she knew nothing of Martina’s reputation as a poisoner and that her only business with her had been to buy perfumes. She said that the woman who had come with her to the house was not Martina but the wife of one of the colonels. And that surely it was an innocent thing to go calling and find nobody at home but a little boy. As for her insults to Agrippina, she was heartily sorry for them and begged Agrippina's pardon most humbly; but she had been obeying her husband's orders, as a wife was bound to do, and moreover her husband had told her that Agrippina was plotting with Germanicus against the State, so she had the more willingly done what was expected of her.

  Tiberius summed up. He said that there seemed to be a certain doubt as to Plancina's guilt. Her connexion with Martina seemed proved, and so did Martina's reputation as a poisoner. But that it was a guilty connexion remained open to question. The prosecution had not even produced in court the phial found in Martina's hair nor any evidence that the contents were poisonous: it might well have been a sleeping draught or aphrodisiac. His mother Livia had a high opinion of Plancina's character and wished the Senate to give her the benefit of the doubt if the evidence of guilt was not conclusive; for the ghost of her beloved grandson had appeared to her in a dream and begged her not to allow the innocent to suffer for the crimes of a husband or father.

  So Plancina was acquitted, and of Piso's two sons, one was allowed to inherit his father's estate and the other, who had taken part in the fighting in Cilicia, was merely banished for a few years. A senator proposed that public thanks be paid to the dead hero's family--to Tiberius, Livia, my mother Antonia, Agrippina and Castor--for having avenged his death. This motion was just about to be voted upon when a friend of mine, an ex-Consul who had been Governor of Africa before Furius, rose to make an amendment. The motion was, he objected, not in order: one important name had been omitted, that of the dead hero's brother'

  Claudius, who had done more than anyone to prepare the case for the prosecution and to protect the witnesses from molestation. Tiberius shrugge
d his shoulders and said that he was surprised to hear that I had been called upon for any assistance and that perhaps if I had not been, the charges against Piso would have been more clearly presented. [It was quite true that I had presided at the meeting of my brother's friends and decided what evidence each witness was to bring; and I had, as a matter of fact, advised them against accusing Piso of administering poison at the banquet with his own hands, but they had overruled me. And I had kept Pomponius and his grandsons and three of my brother's freedmen safely hidden in a farmhouse near my villa at Capua until the day of the trial. I had also tried to hide Martina away at the house of a merchant I knew at Brindisi, but Sejanus traced her.]

  Well, Tiberius let my name be included in the vote of thanks; but that meant little to me compared with the thanks that Agrippina gave me: she said that she understood now what Germanicus had meant when he told her, just before his death, that the truest friend he had ever had was his poor brother Claudius.

  Feeling against Livia was so strong that Tiberius made it an excuse to her for again not asking the Senate to vote her the title that he had so often promised.

  Everyone was wanting to know what it meant when a grandmother gave gracious interviews to the murderess of her grandson and rescued her from the vengeance of the Senate. The answer could only be that the grandmother had instigated the murder herself and was so utterly unashamed of herself that the wife and children of the victim would not survive him long.

  XXII

  GERMANICUS WAS DEAD, BUT TIBERIUS DID NOT FEEL MUCH more secure than before. Sejanus came to him with stories of what this or that prominent man had whispered against him during Piso's trial. Instead of saying, as he had once said of his soldiers, "Let them fear me, so long as they [269] obey me," he now told Sejanus, "Let them hate me, so long as they fear me." Three knights and two senators who had been most outspoken in their recent criticism of him he put to death on the absurd charge of having expressed pleasure on hearing of the death of Germanicus. The informers divided up their estates between them.

  About this time Germanicus' eldest boy Nero* came of age and though he showed little promise of being as capable a soldier or as talented an administrator as his father, he had much of his father's good looks and sweetness of character and the City hoped much from him. There was great popular rejoicing when he married the daughter of Castor and Livilla, whom at first we called Helen because of her surprising beauty [her real name was Julia] but afterwards Helus, which means Glutton, because she spoilt her beauty by over-eating. Nero was Agrippina's favourite.

  The family was divided, being of Claudian stock, into good and bad; or, in the words of the ballad, "crabs and apples".

  The crabs outnumbered the apples. Of the nine children whom Agrippina bore Germanicus three died young--two girls and a boy--and from what I saw of them this boy and the elder girl were the best of the nine. The boy, who died on his eighth birthday, had been such a favourite with Augustus that the old man kept a picture of him, dressed in Cupid's costume, in his bedroom and used to kiss it every morning as soon as he got out of bed. But of the surviving children only Nero had a wholly good character. Drusus was morose and nervous and easily inclined to evil. Drusilla was like him. Caligula, Agrippinilla, and the youngest, whom we called Lesbia, were wholly bad, as the younger of the girls who died seemed also to be. But the City judged the whole family by Nero because, so far, he was the only one old enough to make a strong public impression.

  Caligula was still only nine years old.

  Agrippina visited me in great distress one day when I was in Rome and asked my advice. She said that wherever she went she felt that she was being followed and spied on, and it was making her ill. Did I know anyone besides *This Nero is not to be confused with the Nero who became Emperor.--R. G. Sejanus who had any influence over Tiberius? She was sure that he had decided to kill or banish her if he could get the slightest handle against her. I said that I only knew two people who had any influence for the good over Tiberius. One was Cocceius Nerva, and the other was Vipsania. Tiberius had never been able to root his love for Vipsania out of his heart. When a granddaughter was born to her and Gallus, who at the age of fifteen exactly resembled Vipsania as she had been when Tiberius' wife, Tiberius could not bear the thought of anyone marrying her but himself; and was only prevented from doing so by her being Castor's niece, which would have made the marriage technically incestuous. So he appointed her the Chief Vestal in succession to old Occia who had just died. I told Agrippina that if she made friends with Cocceius and Vipsania [who as Castor's mother would do all in her power to help her] she was safe, and so were her children. She took my advice. Vipsania and Gallus, who were very sorry for her, made her free of their house and their three country villas and took a great deal of trouble with the children.

  Gallus, for instance, chose new tutors for the boys because Agrippina suspected the old ones of being agents of Sejanus. Nerva was not so much help.

  He was a jurist and the greatest living authority on the laws of contracts, about which he had written several books: but in all other respects he was so absent-minded and unobservant as to be almost a simpleton. He was kind to her, as he was to everyone, but did not realise what she expected from him.

  Unfortunately Vipsania died soon afterwards and the effect on Tiberius was apparent at once. He no longer made any serious attempt to conceal his sexual depravity, the rumours of which everyone had shrunk from taking literally. For some of his perversities were so preposterous and horrible that nobody could seriously reconcile them wifh the dignity of an Emperor of Rome, Augustus'

  chosen successor. No women or boys were safe in his presence now, even the wives and children of senators; and if they valued their own lives or those of their husbands and fathers they willingly did what he expected of them. But one woman, a Consul's wife, committed suicide afterwards in the presence of her friends, telling them that she had been forced [271] to save her young daughter from Tiberius' lust by consenting to prostitute herself to him, which was shameful enough; but then the Old He-Goat had taken advantage of her complaisance by forcing her to such abominable acts of filthiness with him that she preferred to die rather than to live on with the memory of them.

  There was a popular song circulated about this time which began with the words: "Why, o why did the Old He-Goat...?" I would be ashamed to quote more of it, but it was as witty as it was obscene and was supposed to have been written by Livia herself. Livia was the author of a number of similar satires against Tiberius which she circulated anonymously through Urgulania. She knew that they would reach him sooner or later and that he was extremely sensitive to satires, and thought that while he felt his position insecure because of them, he would not dare to break with her. She also now went out of her way to be pleasant to Agrippina, and even told her in confidence that Tiberius alone had given Piso the instructions about baiting Germanicus. Agrippina did not trust her, but it was clear that Livia and Tiberius were at enmity, and she felt, she told me, that if she had to choose between the protection of one or the other she would prefer to be under Livia's. I was inclined to agree with Agrippina. I had observed that no favourite of Livia had yet been made the victim of Tiberius' informers. But I had forebodings of what might happen if Livia died.

  What had begun to impress me as particularly ominous, though I could not altogether account for my feelings, was the strong bond between Livia and Caligula. Caligula had in general only two ways of behaving: he was either insolent or servile. To Agrippina and my mother and myself and his brothers and Castor, for instance, he was insolent.

  To Sejanus and Tiberius and Livilla he was servile. But to Livia he was something else, difficult to express. He was almost like her lover. It was not the usual tender tie that binds little boys to indulgent grandmothers or great-

  grandmothers, though it is true that he once took great pains over a copy of affectionate verses for her seventy-fifth birthday and that she was always giving him presents. I mean that t
here was a strong impression of some unpleasant secret between them--but I don't mean to suggest that there was any indecent relationship between them.

  Agrippina felt this too, she told me, but could find out nothing definite about it.

  One day I began to understand why Sejanus had been so polite to me. He suggested the betrothal of his daughter to my son Drusillus. My personal feelings against the marriage were that the girl, who seemed a nice little thing, was unlucky to be matched to Drusillus, who seemed more of a lubber every time I saw him.

  But I could not say so. Still less could I say that I loathed the thought of being even remotely related in marriage with a scoundrel like Sejanus.

  He noticed my hesitation in answering and wanted to know whether I considered the match beneath the dignity of my family. I stammered and said no, certainly I did not: his branch of the ^Elian family was a very honourable one.

  For Sejanus, though the son of a mere country knight, had been adopted in early manhood by a rich senator of the ^Elian family, a Consul, who had left him all his money; there was a scandal connected with this adoption, but the fact remained that Sejanus was an ^Elian. He anxiously pressed me to explain my hesitation and said that if I had any feeling against the marriage, he was sorry he had mentioned it, but of course he had only done so on Tiberius' suggestion. So I told him that if Tiberius proposed the match I would be glad to give my consent: that my chief feeling had been that four years old was rather young for a girl to be betrothed to a boy of thirteen, who would be twenty-one before he could legally consummate the marriage and by that time might have formed other entanglements, Sejanus smiled and said that he trusted me to keep the lad out of serious mischief.

  There was great alarm in the City when it was known that Sejanus was to become related with the Imperial family, but everyone hastened to congratulate him, and me too. A few days later Drusillus was dead. He was found lying behind a bush in the garden of a house at [A.D. 23] Pompeii where he had been invited, from Herculaneum, by some friends of Urgulanilla's. A small pear was found stuck in his throat. It was said at the inquest that he had been seen throwing fruit up in the air [273] and trying to catch it in his mouth: his death was unquestionably due to an accident. But nobody believed this. It was clear that Livia, not having been consulted about the marriage of one of her own great-grandchildren, had arranged for the child to be strangled and the pear crammed down his throat afterwards. As was the custom in such cases, the pear tree was charged with murder and sentenced to be uprooted and burned.

 

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