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Alone, with no sisters now to elevate to the divine honors of the Roman Olympus, Caligula was reduced to hunting for wives in the families of the aristocracy. But it seems that even there could be found no great abundance of women who had all the necessary qualities to make them the Olympian consorts of so capricious a god. In three years he married and repudiated three. Livia Orestilla was the first, Lollia Paulina was the second, and Milonia Casonia was the third-figures without relief, shades and ghosts of empresses, no one of whom had time enough even to occupy the highest post. In vain the people expected that there would appear in the imperial palace a worthy successor to Livia. Caligula, like all madmen, was by nature solitary, and could not live with other human beings: he was to remain alone, a prey to his ravings, which became ever stranger and more violent. He now wished to impose upon the empire the worship of his own person, without considering any opposition or local traditions and superstitions. In doing this he did violence not only to the civic and republican sentiment of Italy, which detested this worship of a living man as an ignoble Oriental adulation, but also to the religious feeling of the Hebrews, to whom this cult appeared most horrible and idolatrous.
In this way difficulties, dissatisfaction, and sedition arose in all parts of the empire. The extravagances, the wild expenditures, the riotous pleasures, and the cruelties of Caligula increased the discontent and disgust on every hand. We need not take literally all the accounts of his cruelty and violence which ancient writers have transmitted to us, -even Caligula has been blackened, but it is certain that his government in the last two years of his reign degenerated into a reckless, extravagant, violent, and cruel tyranny. One day the empire awoke in terror to the fact that the imperial familythat family in which the legions, the provinces, and the barbarians saw the keystone of the state-no longer existed; that in the vast imperial palace, empty of women, empty of children, empty of hope, there wandered a raging madman of thirty-one, who divorced a wife every six months, who foolishly wasted the treasure and the blood of his subjects, and who was concerned with no other thought than that of
having himself worshiped like a god in flesh and blood by all the empire. A conspiracy was formed in the palace itself, and Caligula was killed.
THE senate was much perplexed when it heard of the death of Caligula. What was to be done? The majority was inclined to restore the former republican government by abolishing the imperial authority and to give back to the senate the supreme direction of the state, which little by little had passed into the hands of the emperor. But many recognized that this return to the ancient form of government would be neither easy nor without danger. Could the senate, neglected, divided, and disregarded as it was, succeed in governing the immense empire? On the other hand, it was not much easier to find an emperor, granted that an emperor was henceforth necessary. In the family of Augustus there was only Claudius, too foolish and ridiculous for them to think of making him the head of the state. seems that some eminent senator offered his candidacy on the ground that if the authority of the members of the family of Augustus was already so uncertain, so debatable, and so darkly threatened, what would happen to a new emperor, unknown to the legions and the provinces, and unsupported by the glory of his ancestors? While the senate was debating in such uncertainty, the pretorians discovered Claudius in a corner of the imperial palace, where he had been cowering through fear lest he too be killed. Recognizing in him the brother of Germanicus, the pretorians proclaimed him emperor. An act of will is always more powerful than a thousand scruples or hesitations: the senate yielded to the legions, and recognized Claudius the imbecile as emperor.
But Claudius was not an imbecile, although he appeared such to many. Instead, he was, so to speak, a man halfgrown, in whom certain parts of the mind were highly developed, but whose character had remained that of a child, timid, capricious, impulsive, giddy, and incapable of self-mastery. In intellect he was learned, even cultivated; he was fond of studies, of history, literature, and archæology, and spoke and wrote well. But Augustus had been forced to give up the attempt to have him enter upon a political
career because he had been unable to make him acquire even that exterior bearing which confers the necessary dignity upon him who exercises great power, to say nothing of the firmness, precision, and force of will required in governing men. Credulous, timorous, impressionable, and at the same time obstinate, gluttonous, and sensual, this erudite, overgrown boy had become in the imperial palace a kind of plaything for everybody, especially for his slaves, who, knowing his defects and his weaknesses, did with him what they wished.
He did not lack the intellectual qualities necessary for governing well, but of the moral qualities he had only one: he was intelligent, and he looked stupid. He was able to consider the great questions of politics, war, and finance with breadth of view, with original and acute intelligence, but he never succeeded in having himself taken seriously by the persons who surrounded him. He dared undertake great projects, like the conquest of Britain, and he lost his head at the wildest fable about conspiracy which one of his intimates told him; he had mind sufficient to govern the empire as well as Augustus and Tiberius. had done, but he could not succeed in getting obedience from four or five slaves or from his own wife.
Such a man was destined to turn out a rather odd emperor, at once great and ridiculous. He made important laws, undertook gigantic public works and conquests of great moment; but in his own house he was a weak husband, incapable of exercising any sort of authority over his wife. With these conjugal weaknesses he seriously compromised the imperial authority, while at the same time he was consolidating it and rendering it illustrious with beautiful and wise achievements, especially in the first seven years of his rule, while he lived with Valeria Messalina.
We must admit in his justification that in this matter he had not been particularly fortunate; for fate had given him to wife a lady who, notwithstanding her illustrious ancestors,-she belonged to one of the greatest families of Rome, related to the family of Augustus,-was not exactly suited to be his companion in the imperial dignity. Every one knows that the name of Valeria Messalina has become in history
synonymous with all the faults and all the vices of which a woman can be guilty. This, as usual, is the result of the envy and malevolence which never offered truce to the family of Augustus as long as any of its members lived. But many of the infamies which are attributed to her are evidently fables, complacently repeated by Tacitus and Suetonius, and easily believed by posterity. But it is certain that if Messalina was not a monster, she was a beautiful woman, capricious, gay, powerful, reckless, avid of luxury and of money, who had never scrupled to abuse the weakness of her husband in any way either by deceiving him or by obliging him to follow her will and her caprice in everything. She was a woman, in short, neither very virtuous nor serious. There are such women at all times and in all social classes, and they are generally considered by the majority not as monsters, but as a pleasing, though dangerous, variety of the feminine sex. Under normal conditions, nevertheless, when the husband exercises a certain energy and sagacity, even the danger which may result from them is relatively slight.
But chance had made of Messalina an empress, and Messalina was not a sufficiently intelligent or serious woman to understand that if she had been able to abuse the weakness of Claudius with impunity while he had been the most obscure member of the imperial family, it was a much more difficult matter to continue to abuse it after he had become the head of the state. It was from this error that all their difficulties arose. Elated by her new position, Messalina more than ever took advantage of her husband's infirmity. She began by starting new dissensions in the imperial family. Claudius had recalled to Rome the two victims of Caligula's Egyptian caprices, Agrippina and Julia Livilla; but if the latter no longer found a brother in Rome to persecute them, they did find their aunt, and they had gained but little by the exchange. Messalina soon took umbrage at the influence which the two sisters acquired over the mind of their weak-willed uncle, and it was not long before Julia Livilia was accused under the lex de adulteriis, and exiled with Seneca, the famous philosopher, whom they wished rightly or wrongly to pass off as her lover. Agrippina, like her mother, was a virtu
ous woman, as is proved by the fact that she could not be attacked with such weapons and was enabled to remain in Rome, though she had to live prudently and beware of her enemy, and much the more as she had only recently become a widow and could therefore not even count upon the protection of a husband. Though Agrippina remained at Rome, she was isolated and reduced to a position of helplessness.
Messalina alone, together with four or five intelligent and unscrupulous freedmen, hedged Claudius about, and there began the period of their common government-a government of incredible waste and extortion. Among these freedmen there were, to be sure, men like Narcissus and Pallas, intelligent and sagacious, who did not aim merely at putting money into their purses, but who helped Claudius to govern the empire properly. Messalina, on the other hand, thought only of acquiring wealth, that she might dissipate it in luxury and pleasures. The wife of the emperor had been seen selling her influence to the sovereign allies and vassals, to all the rich personages of the empire who desired to obtain any sort of favor from the imperial authority; she had been seen bartering with the contractors for public works, mingling in the financial affairs of the state every time that there was any occasion to make money. And with the money
thus amassed she was seen to make ostentatious displays which violated all the prohibitions of the lex sumptuaria, leading a life of unseemly pleasures, in which it is easy to imagine what sort of example of all the finer feminine virtues she set. Claudius either knew nothing of all this or else submitted without protest.
Such an empress, however, could hardly please the public. If those who profited by her dissipations greatly admired Messalina, a lively movement of protest was soon started among the people. Faithful to the great Latin traditions, Rome and Italy wished to see at their emperor's side a lady adorned with all the fairer virtues of the ancient matron-with those virtues, in short, which Livia had personified with such dignity. How could they tolerate this sort of dissipated Bacchante, who should have been condemned to infamy and exile with the many other Roman women who had been faithless to their husbands; who with the effrontery of her unpunished crimes dishonored and rendered ridiculous the imperial authority? To the middle classes the emperor was a semisacred magistrate, charged with maintaining by law and example the purity of the family, fidelity in marital relations, and simplicity of customs.
Now, to their amazement, they saw in the person of the empress all the dissipations, corruptions, and perversions of the
woman who wished to live only for her pleasure, to enjoy her beauty, and to have others enjoy it, enthroned, to the scandal of all honest minds, in the palace of the emperor. Furthermore, it seemed to every one a scandal that one who was an emperor should at the same time be a weak husband; for the simple good sense of the Latins would not admit that a man who could govern an empire should not be able to command a woman. It soon became the general opinion of all reasonable people that Messalina, in the position of Livia upon the Palatine, and with so weak a husband, was not only a scandal, but also a continual menace to the public.
Nevertheless, it would now have been no easy matter, even if the emperor had wished it, to convict an empress of infidelity and disobedience to one of the great laws of Augustus. Caligula was a madman and had been able to secure three divorces, but a wiser emperor would have to think for a long time before rendering public the shame and scandals of his family, especially when confronted with an aristocracy which was as eager to suspect and calumniate as was the aristocracy of Rome. But the problem became hopeless as soon as the emperor did not see or did not wish to see the faults of his wife. Would any one dare to step forward and accuse the empress?
The situation gradually became grave and dangerous. The state, governed with intelligence, but without energy, with vast contradictions and hesitations, was being strengthened along certain lines and was going to pieces along others. The power and extortions of the freedmen were breeding discontent on every hand. Both through what she really did, and what the populace said she had done, Messalina was being transformed by the people into a legendary personage whose infamous deeds aroused general indignation; but all in vain. It now became evident that an empress was virtually invulnerable, and that, once enthroned upon the Palatine, there was no effective means of protesting against the various ways in which she could abuse her lofty position unless the emperor wished to interfere. In its exasperation, the public finally vented upon Claudius the anger which the violence and misconduct of Messalina had aroused. They declared that it was his weakness
which was responsible for her conduct; and intrigues, deeds of violence, conspiracies, and attempts at civil war became, as Suetonius says, every-day occurrences at Rome.
A sense of insecurity and doubt was spreading throughout the state as a result of the indecision of the emperor, and all began to ask themselves how long a government could last which was at the mercy of a wanton. They felt that a small conspiracy or a revolt of the legions could overthrow it from night to morning, as it had overthrown the government of Caligula. All hearts were filled with suspicion, distrust, and fear, and many concluded that since Claudius had not succeeded in relieving the empire of Messalina, it would be well to rid the empire of Claudius.
So for seven years Messalina remained the great weakness of a government which possessed signal merits and accomplished great things. Of all the emperors in the family of Augustus, Claudius was certainly the one whose life was most seriously threatened, for he lived in continual peril, especially because of his wife. Such a situation could not endure.
It finally resolved itself into a tragic scandal, which, if we could believe Suetonius and Tacitus, would certainly have been the most monstrous extravagance to which an imagination depraved by power could have abandoned itself. According to these writers, Messalina, at a loss for some new form of dissipation, one fine day took it into her head to marry Silius, a young man with whom she was very much in love, who belonged to a distinguished family, and who was the consul-designate. According to them, for the pleasure of shocking the imperial city with the sacrilege of a bigamous union, she actually did marry him in Rome, with the most solemn religious rites, while Claudius was at Ostia! But is this credible, at least without admitting that Messalina had suddenly gone insane? To what end and for what reason would she have committed such a sacrilege, which struck at the very heart of popular sentiment? Dissolute, cruel, and avaricious Messalina certainly was, but mad she was not. And even if we are willing to admit that she had gone mad, is it conceivable that all those who would have had to lend her their services