Nero: Dead at age30—9 June 68

Nero died on 9 June 68, 112 years after the murder of Julius Caesar. He was the last of the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first dynasty. The narrative of the emperor’s fall from power, his flight from bounty hunters and the account of the words and actions of his final moments, is the most detailed episode in Suetonius’ life of the doomed emperor.

Here’s a taste.

Then, as every one of this attendants urged him to place himself beyond the reach of the abuses which were imminent, he gave orders that a trench be made at once to the dimensions appropriate for his own body, and at the same time that fragments of marble be collected, if any could be found, and water and firewood be brought for the disposal of his corpse. He wept as his directions were carried, and repeated during the commotion, ‘What an artist dies with me,’. While these preparations were being made, a runner brought a message to Phaon, which Nero grabbed, learning from it that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate and the object of a search, so that he might be punished according to ancestral custom. He asked what this manner might be and when he discovered it meant that a man was stripped naked, his neck placed in a fork, then this body beaten until he died, he was overcome with terror and snatched up two daggers, which he ahd brought with him, but having tried the blade of each one, he put them away again, saying that the fatal hour had not yet come.

Tunc uno quoque hinc inde instante ut quam primum se impendentibus contumeliis eriperet, scrobem coram fieri imperavit dimensus ad corporis sui modulum, componique simul, si qua invenirentur, frustra marmoris et aquam simul ac ligna conferri curando mox cadaveri, flens ad singula atque identidem dictitans: ‘Qualis artifex pereo!’. Inter moras perlatos a cursore Phaonti codicillos praeripuit legitque se hostem a senatu iudicatum et quaeri, ut puniatur more maiorum, interrogavitque, quale id genus esset poenae; et cum comperisset nudi hominis cervicem inseri furcae, corpus virgis ad necem caedi, conterritus duos pugiones, quos secum extulerat, arripuit temptataque utriusque acie rursus condidit, causatus nondum adesse fatalem horam.

Svetonius Vita Neronis

The emperor Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on 15 December 37. Agrippina, his mother, was the great-grand-daughter of Augustus. Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was his father and great-grandson of Lucius Domitius Ahenobrabus, the committed, haughty and bumbling enemy of Julius Caesar who was killed after the decisive Battle of Pharsalus. Nero, then, was the descendant of one of the most stalwart defenders of the moribund Republic and the founder of principate.

Nero was born at Antium, nine months after Tiberius died, on the eighteenth day before the Kalends of January, just as the sun was rising, so that he was touched by its rays almost before he could be laid on the ground. Many people made numerous and sinister predictions about his birth signs. Among the warnings was even the pronouncement of his father, who responded to his friends’ congratulations, saying that nothing that could be born of himself and Agrippina that would not inspire loathing and bring disaster for the state.

Nero natus est Anti post VIIII. mensem quam Tiberius excessit, XVIII. Kal. Ian. tantum quod exoriente sole, paene ut radiis prius quam terra contingeretur. De genitura eius statim multa et formidulosa multis coniectantibus praesagio fuit etiam Domiti patris vox, inter gratulationes amicorum negantis quicquam ex se et Agrippina nisi detestabile et malo publico nasci potuisse.

Nero natus est Anti post VIIII. mensem quam Tiberius excessit, XVIII. Kal. Ian. tantum quod exoriente sole, paene ut radiis prius quam terra contingeretur. De genitura eius statim multa et formidulosa multis coniectantibus praesagio fuit etiam Domiti patris vox, inter gratulationes amicorum negantis quicquam ex se et Agrippina nisi detestabile et malo publico nasci potuisse.

Vita Neronis
Statue of Nero as a boy

The emperor Claudius, who married his niece Agrippina, adopted Nero on 25 February 50. After his adoption, the boy was known as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. Nero was made emperor after the murder of Claudius on 13 October 54.

When the death of Claudius was announced publicly, Nero, who was 17 years old, approached the guards between the sixth and seventh hour, for in consequence of the terrible omens that had occurred throughout the day, no earlier time had seemed suitable for embarking on his reign. In front of the steps on the Palatine, the guards saluted him as emperor and conveyed him by litter to the the Praetorian camp, where he addressed the soldiers, then went to Senate house, where he remained until evening. Of all the great honors that were heaped upon him, he refused just one, the title ‘Pater Patriae,’ which he deemed unsuitable because of his youth.

Septemdecim natus annos, ut de Claudio palam factum est, inter horam sextam septimamque processit ad excubitores, cum ob totius diei diritatem non aliud auspicandi tempus accommodatius videretur; proque Palati gradibus imperator consalutatus lectica in castra et inde raptim appellatis militibus in curiam delatus est discessitque iam vesperi, ex immensis, quibus cumulabatur, honoribus tantum patris patriae nomine recusato propter aetatem.

Vita Neronis
Nero and Agrippina

The fire that consumed much of Rome in July 64 is the most famous event of Nero’s reign. Tacitus tells the story best: its cause (‘Whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act of the emperor is uncertain—both versions have supporters.’); the significance of the date (‘It was noted that the fire started on July 19th, the day on which the Senonian Gauls had sacked and burnt the city’); the terror of the fire (‘As those in flight looked back, flames sprung up before them or outflanked them. When they escaped to a neighboring quarter, the fire followed …’); the scapegoating and persecution of Christians (‘Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited as torches to illumine the streets after nightfall’); and the confiscation of property for Nero’s own use (“But Nero profitted by his country’s ruin to build a new palace.’).

For Tacitus, the most serious effect was the erasure of Rome’s patrimony.

To count the mansions, blocks and temples destroyed would be difficult. They included shrines of remote antiquity, such as Servius Tullius’ temple of the Moon, the Great Altar and holy place dedicated by Evander to Hercules, the temple vowed by Romulus to Jupiter the Stayer, Numa’s sacred residence, and Vesta’s shrine containing the Rome’s household gods. Among the losses, too, were the precious spoils of countless victories, Greek artistic masterpieces, and authentic records of old Roman genius.

Domum et insularum et templorum, quae amissa sunt, numerum inire haud promptum fuerit; sed vetustissima religione, quod Servius Tullius Lunae, et magna ara fanumque, quae praesenti Herculi Arcas Evander sacraverat, aedesque Statoris Iovis vota Romulo Numaeque regia et delubrum Vestae cum penatibus populi Romani exusta; iam opes tot victoriis quaesitae et Graecarum artium decora, exim monumenta ingeniorum antiqua et incorrupta.

Tacitvs Annales
Coin minted c. 64-66 depicting distribution of charitible reflief by Nero

The emperor appreciated the finer things in life. His approprition of land in the devestated center of the city and the construction of the enormous palace called the Domus Aurea revealed his megalomania.

There was, however, nothing in which he was more prodigal than in construction, extending from the Palatine as far as the Esquiline the palace which he called first the House of Passage, then, after it had destoryed by fire and rebuilt, the Golden House. It should suffice to relate its extent and splendor. There was a vestibule area in which stood a colossal statue, 120 feet tall, in the image of the emperor himself. So great was its extent that its triple colonnade was a mile in length. There was also a lake, which resembled the sea, surrounded by buildings made to look like cities. Besides this, there were grounds of all kinds, with fields and vineyards, pasture and woodland, and a multitude of wild and domestic animals. Other areas were covered with gold and embellished with jewels and mother-0f-pearl. The banquet halls had coffered ceilings fixed with panels of ivory that would revolve, scattering flowers, and pipes that would spray perfume on those beneath. The principal banquet room had a dome that revolved, like the world itself. There were baths running with both sea and fresh water. When the house was completed, he said nothing more to note his approval than that at last he had begun to live like a human being.

Non in alia re tamen damnosior quam in aedificando domum a Palatio Esquilias usque fecit, quam primo transitoriam, mox incendio absumptam restitutamque auream nominavit. De cuius spatio atque cultu suffecerit haec rettulisse. Vestibulum eius fuit, in quo colossus CXX pedum staret ipsius effigie; tanta laxitas, ut porticus triplices miliarias haberet; item stagnum maris instar, circumsaeptum aedificiis ad urbium speciem; rura insuper arvis atque vinetis et pascuis silvisque varia, cum multitudine omnis generis pecudum ac ferarum. 2 In ceteris partibus cuncta auro lita, distincta gemmis unionumque conchis erant; cenationes laqueatae tabulis eburneis versatilibus, ut flores, fistulatis, ut unguenta desuper spargerentur; praecipua cenationum rotunda, quae perpetuo diebus ac noctibus vice mundi circumageretur; balineae marinis et albulis fluentes aquis. Eius modi domum cum absolutam dedicaret, hactenus comprobavit, ut se diceret quasi hominem tandem habitare coepisse.

Vita Neronis

Frescoes in the Domus Aurea. Chance discovery of the Golden House in the fifteenth century influenced the artistic production of Renaissance artists, most especially Raphael and his work in the Franesina.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and “… all who breathe Roman air, find free admission, and come hither to taste the languid enjoyment of the day-dream that they call life …”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be in Rome, in a house near the now-invisible Porta Capena and the road there that takes you outside the walls along the Via Latina? Today reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Roman notebook, I noticed something important. Did you know the calendar for 1858 is the same as 2021? Interesting but not important. The important thing is what NH wrote one afternoon having gone in giro fuori le mura Saturday May 8th when he and his pals saw the fresh excavations in the Campagna Romana. I decided to join him there.

A short time ago, the ground in the vicinity was a green surface, level except here and there a little hillock, or scarcely perceptible swell; the tomb of Cecilia Metella showing itself a mile or two distant, and other rugged ruins of great tombs, rising here and there on the plain.

Campagna Romana

We drove through the city, and out of the Lateran gate; first however waiting a long while at Monaldi’s bookstore in the Piazza di Espagna, for Mr. Story, whom we finally took up in the street, after losing nearly an hour. Just two miles beyond the gate, is a space on the green Campagna where, for some time past, excavations have been in progress, which, thus far, have resulted in the discovery of several tombs, and the old buried, and almost forgotten church, or basilica, of (I believe) San Stefano.

San Stefano in Via Latina

The church of San Stefano was the star of the excavations of Via Latina. Papa Pio Nono had commissioned the work there as the Papal States where threatened with extinction by the spirit of revolution that was transforming Europe. Like other popes in times of crisis, Pio Nono used the authenticity of the early church of martyrs to assert his own legitimacy. EH mentions the church once, and his descriptions of tombs and site blur The excavations were so fresh that the parts hadn’t yet been individuated.

San Stefano in Via Latina was the first church dedicated to the protomartyr, whose story is told in Acts of the Apostles (Stephanus autem plenus gratia et fortitudine faciebat prodigia et signa magna in populo).The near-contemporary biography of Pope Leo Magnus (440–461) tells us that the church was built during his pontificate: “In this time, God’s handmaiden Demetrias built a basilica to St. Stephen on her estate at the third mile of Via Latina” (Huius temporibus fecit Demetria ancilla dei basilicam sancto Stephano uia Latina, miliario III, in praedio suo). The tombs and country estates of the Roman ruling class lined the roads that radiated from the city. Excavations have shown that the church was built upon a tomb that was included on this estate. That suggests that the Demetrias adapted the building to include the relics of this saint within the mausoleum of her family. Thirty years after this another church, the church of San Stefano Rotondo was built on Caelian, not far from the urban course of the Via Latina.

It is a beautiful spot, that of the excavations, with the Alban Hills in the distance, and some heavy and sun-lighted clouds hanging above, or recumbent at length upon them; and behind, the city, and its mighty dome.

Tomba Barberini

Now the whole site of the basilica is uncovered and made apparent, and they have dug into the depths of several tombs, bring to light precious marbles, pillars, a statue, and elaborately wrought sarcophagi; and if they were to dig into almost any other inequality that frets the surface of the Campagna, I suppose the result might be the same.

Detail Tomba Barberini

The inner tomb was found without any earth in it, just as it had been left when the last old Roman was buried there; and it being only a week or two since it was opened, there was very little intervention of persons—though much of time—between the departure of the friends of the dead and our own visit.

Detail Tomba Barberini

The excavations are an object of great interest both to the Romans and to strangers, and there were many carriages, and a great many visitors viewing the progress of the works, which appear to be carried forward with greater energy than anything else I have seen attempted in Rome.

Reconstruction of the Tomba Barberini

It is a square room, with a mosaic pavement, and is six or seven paces in length and breadth, and as much in height to the vaulted roof. The roof and upper walls are beautifully ornamented with frescoes, which were very bright when first discovered, but have rapidly faced since the admission of air; though the graceful and joyous designs, flowers, and fruits, and figures, are still perfectly discernible.

Tomba dei Pancrazi

The tombs were accessible by long flights of steps, going steeply downward …

Pancrazi stucco and freschi

… and they were thronged with so many visitors that we had to wait some little time for our own turn to descend.


It is a very wonderful arrangement of Providence that these things should have been preserved for a long series of coming generations by that accumulation of dust, and soil, and grass, and trees, and houses, over them, which will keep them safe, and cause their re-appearance above ground to be gradual; so that the rest of the world’s lifetime may have for one of its enjoyments the uncovering of old Rome.

NH can be a real Donnie Downer in the notebooks, though his Rome experience made The Marble Faun, which is not my cup of tea but there are a few nice things he did there. Here’s part of the opening scene as a group of friends tour the Capitoline Museum.

The party strayed onward from hall to hall of that rich gallery, pausing here and there, to look at the multitude of noble and lovely shapes, which have been dug up out of the deep grave in which old Rome lies buried. And, still, the realization of the antique faun, in the person of Donatello, gave a more vivid character to all these marble ghosts. Why should each statue not grow warm with life! Antinous might lift his brow, and tell us why he is forever sad. The Lycian Apollo might strike his lyre; and, at the first vibration, that other faun in red marble, who keeps up a motionless dance, should frisk gaily forth, leading yonder satyrs, with shaggy goat shanks, to clatter their hoofs upon the floor, and all join hands with Donatello! Bacchus, too, a rosy flush diffusing itself over his time-stained surface, would come down from his pedestal, and offer a cluster of purple grapes to Donatello’s lips; because the god recognizes him as the woodland elf who so often shared his revels!  And here, on this sarcophagus, the exquisitely carved figures might assume life, and chase one another round its verge with that wild merriment which is so strangely represented on those old burial coffers; though still with some subtle allusion to Death, carefully veiled, but forever peeping forth amid emblems of mirth and riot.

The Marble Faun

The party moved on, but deviated a little from the straight way, in order to glance at the ponderous remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor, within which a convent of nuns is now established; a dovecote, in the war-god’s mansion. At only a little distance, they passed the portico of the Temple of Minerva, most rich and beautiful in architecture, but woefully gnawed by time and shattered by violence, besides being buried midway in the accumulation of soil, that rises over dead Rome like a flood-tide. Within this edifice of antique sanctity, a baker’s shop was now established, with an entrance on one side; for everywhere, the remnants of old grandeur and divinity have been made available for the meanest necessities of to-day. The baker is just drawing his loaves out of the oven,” remarked Kenyon. “Do you smell how they are? I should fancy that Minerva (in revenge for the desecration of her temple) had slily poured vinegar into the batch, if I did not know that the modern Romans prefer their bread in the acetous fermentation. They turned into the Via Alessandria, and thus gained the rear of the Temple of Peace, and passing beneath its great arches, pursued their way along a hedge-bordered lane. In all probability, a stately Roman street lay buried beneath that rustic-looking pathway; for they had now emerged from the close and narrow avenues of the modern city, and were treading on a soil where the seeds of antique grandeur had not yet produced the squalid crop, that elsewhere sprouts from them. Grassy as the lane was, it skirted along heaps of shapeless ruin, and the bare site of the vast temple that Hadrian planned and built. It terminated on the edge of a somewhat abrupt descent, at the foot of which, with a muddy ditch between, rose, in the bright moonlight, the great curving wall and multitudinous arches of the Coliseum.

The Marble Faun

Later, Hawthorne and his characters went on a midnight through the now-vanished neighborhood of via Alessandria that had been built upon field of Roman monuments, passed the bakery among the ruins and sauntered on to the Coliseum.

In the novel, Miriam is the dark romantic artist and protagonist created the master of dark Romantic literature.

The courtyard and the staircase of a palace, built three hundred years ago, are a peculiar feature of modern Rome, and interest the stranger more than many things of which he has heard loftier descriptions. You pass through the grand height breadth and height of a squalid entrance-way, and perhaps see a range of dusky pillars, forming a sort of cloister round the court; and in the intervals, from pillar to pillar, are strewn fragments of antique statues, headless and legless torsos, and busts that have invariably lost—what it might be well that living could lay aside, in that unfragrant atmosphere—the nose. Bas-reliefs, the spoil of some far elder palace, are set in the surrounding walls, every stone of which has been ravished from the Coliseum, or any other imperial ruin which earlier barbarians had not already levelled with the earth. Between two of the pillars, moreover, stands an sarcophagus without its lid, and with all is more prominently projecting sculptures broken off; perhaps it one held famous dust, and the bony frame-work of some historic man, although now only a receptacle for the rubbish of the courtyard and a half-worn broom. In the center of the court, under the blue Italian sky, and with the hundred windows of the vast palace gazing down upon it, from four appears a fountain. It brims over from stone basin to another, or gushes from a Naiad’s urn, or spirits its many little jets from the mouths of nameless monsters, which were grotesque and artificial, when Bernini, or whoever was their unnatural father, first produced them; but now the patches of moss, the tufts of grass, the trailing maiden-hair, and all sorts of verdant weed that thrive in the cracks and crevices of moist marble, tells that Nature takes the fountain back into her great heart, and cherishes it as kindly as if it were a woodland spring. And, hark, the pleasant murmur, the gurgle, the splash!  You might hear just those tinkling sounds from any tiny waterfall in the forest, though here they gain a delicious pathos from the stately echoes that reverberate their natural language. So the fountain in not altogether glad, after all its three centuries of play. In one of the angles of the courtyard, a pillared door-way gives access to the staircase, with its spacious breadth of low, marble steps up which, in former times, have gone the princes and cardinals of the great Roman family who built this palace. Or they have come down with still grander and loftier mien, on their way to the Vatican or the Quirinal, there to put on their scarlet hats in exchange for the triple crown. But, in fine, all these illustrious personages have down their hereditary staircase for the last time, leaving it to the thoroughfare of ambassadors, English noblemen, American millionaires, artists, tradesmen, washerwomen, and people of every degree; all of whom find such gilded and marble-panelled saloons as their pomp and luxury demand, or such homely garrets as their necessity can pay for, within this one multifarious abode. Only, in not a single nook of the palace (built for splendour, and the accomodation of a vast retinue, but with no vision of a happy fireside or any mode of domestic enjoyment) does the humblest or the haughtiest occupant find comfort.

The Marble Faun

And, there is a mysterious stroll through the Villa Borghese.

Passing beneath that not very impressive specimen of Michel Angelo’s architecture, a minute’s walk will transport the visitor from the small, uneasy lava-stones of the Roman pavement into broad, gravelled carriage-drives; whence a little farther stroll brings him to the soft turf of a beautiful seclusion. A seclusion, but seldom a solitude; for priest , noble and populace, stranger and native, all who breathe Roman air, find free admission, and come hither to taste the languid enjoyment of the day-dream that they call life.

Now back to the notebooks, where NH tells us something about his companions from that day, 8 may 1858.

This morning my wife and I went to breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Story, at the Barberini Palace, expecting to meet Mrs. Jameson, who has been in Rome for a month or two past …

This morning my wife and I went to breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Story, at the Barberini Palace, expecting to meet Mrs. Jameson, who has been in Rome for a month or two past …

This morning my wife and I went to breakfast with Mr. and Mrs. Story, at the BarberiniPalace, expecting to meet Mrs. Jameson, who has been in Rome for a month or two past …

William Wetmore Story, a member of a prominent American family (his father was a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court), was one of NH’s companions on this adventure. Resident in Rome for 50 years, he devoted himself to sculpture but was perceived as more of a dilettante than a serious artist. He created Angel of Grief as the memorial for his wife, located in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. For fun, read his memoir Roba di Roma or Henry James’ biography of Story and his Roman circle, William Wetmore Story and His Friends.

Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome

Mrs. Jameson lives on the first piano of an old palazzo on the Via di Ripetta nearly opposite the ferry way across the Tiber, and affording a pleasant view of the yellow river and the green bank and fields on the other side. …

Ripetta 1846

…She had on the shabbiest old dressing gown that ever a decent woman wore, girded round her waist with a cord. When we were coming away, she clasped my hand in both of hers, and again gave vent to her pleasure at having seen me, and her gratitude to me for coming to call on her, nor did I refrain from responding anew to these effusions. Were we to meet often, I should be a little afraid of her embracing me outright—a thing to be grateful for, but by no means to be glad of.

Benvenuto Cellini—Master Artist, Master Memorist and the Sack of Rome 6 May 1527

So there I was in Castel Sant’Angelo. I went up to some guns that were in the charge of a bombardier called Giuliano the Florentine. He was staring out over the battlements to where his poor house was being sacked and his wife and children outraged. He dared not fire in case he harmed his own family, and flinging his fuse on the ground he started tearing at his face and sobbing bitterly. Other bombardiers were doing the same.

Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini

Night came on and the enemy were in Rome. Those of us in the castle, especially myself with my constant delight in seeing unfamiliar things, stayed where we were, contemplating the conflagration and the unbelievable spectacle before our eyes. It was such that it could only be seen or imagined by those in the castle. But I shall not begin describing it; I shall just carry on with the story of my own life and the events that really belong to it …

Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Raphael—Rome 6 April 1520—Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.

Giorgio Vasari and the death of Raphael

The painter meanwhile did not abandon the light attachment by which he was enchained, and one day, on returning to his house from one of these secret visits, he was seized by a violent fever, which being mistaken for a cold, the physicians inconsiderably caused him to be bled, whereby he found himself exhausted, when he had rather required to be strengthened.


Thereupon he made his will, and, as a good Christian, he sent the object of his attachment from the house, but left her a sufficient provision wherewith she might live in decency. Having done so much, he divided his property among his disciples: Giulio Romano, that is to say, whom he always loved greatly, and Giovanni Francesco, with whom was joined by a certain priest of Urbino, who was his kinsman, but whose name I do not know. He furthermore commanded that a certain portion of his property should be employed in the restoration of one of the ancient tabernacles in Santa Maria Rotonda, which he had selected as his burial place, and for which he had ordered that an altar with the figure of Our Lady in marble should be prepared.

His tomb in the Pantheon

All that he possessed besides he bequeathed to Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco, naming Messer Baldassare da Pescia, who was then Datary to the Pope, as his executor. He then confessed, and in much contrition completed the course of his life on the day whereon it had commenced, which was Good Friday.The master was then in the thirty-seventh year of his age; and he embellished the world by his talents while on earth, so is to be believed that his soul is now adorning heaven.

Study for The Transfiguration

After his death, the body of Raphael was placed at the upper end of the hall wherein he had last worked, with the picture of the Transfiguration, which he had executed for Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, at the end of the corpse. He who, regarding that living picture, afterwards turned to consider that body felt his heart bursting with grief as he beheld them. The death of Raphael caused the cardinal to command that his work should be place on the high altar of San Pietro in Montorio, where it has ever since been held in the utmost veneration for its own great value, as well as for the excellence of its author. The remains of this divine artist did not receive the honorable sepulture which the noble spirit they had been informed has so well deserved, nor was there any artist in Rome who did not deeply bewail the loss sustained by the departure of the master, or who failed to accompany his remains to their repose.

Study for The Transfiguration

The death of Raphael was in like manner bitterly deplored by all the papal court, not only because he had held the office of chamberlain to the pope but also because Leo X had esteemed him so highly that his loss occasioned that sovereign the bitterest grief. Oh most happy and thrice-blessed spirit, of whom all are proud to speak, whose actions are celebrated with praise by all men, and the least of whose works left behind thee is admired and prized!

Study for The Transfiguration

When this noble artist died, well might Painting have departed also, for when he closed his eyes, she too was left, as it were, blind. But now to us, whose lot is to come after him, there remains to imitate the good, or rather the excellent, of which he has left us the example, and, as our obligations to him and his great merits well deserve, to retain the most grateful remembrance of him in our hearts, while we ever maintain his memory in the highest honor with our lips. To him we owe the possession of invention, coloring, and execution, brought alike and altogether to the point of perfection for which few could have dared to hope; nor has any man ever aspired to pass before him.

Raphael’s The Transfiguration was first kept in San Pietro in Montorio and now is in the Vatican Museum.

To Ovid on his birthday and in his own words “… from the Danube to a place in the midst of Helicon …”

Sulmona, in the mountains about 90 miles east of Rome, is one of my favorite little cities in Italy. Ovid was born there during the five-day festival of Quinquartus, which opened the military campaigning season, (“the first day stained with the blood of combat in armed Minerva’s festival”) in the year “when both consuls died at Mutina.” For us, that’s 20 March 43 BC[E]. Tristia (Sorrows), his first poems from exile, includes a sketch autobiography. In it, Ovid calls out to the reader, “Listen posterity, and find out who this “I” was, this playful poet of tender passions you read.”

Ovid’s life began and ended outside of Rome. He declares Sulmo mihi patria est, (“Sulmona is my fatherland”) The initials of his phrase—SMPE—were made the emblem of the city and it appears around town, in sites refined and commonplace, like Rome’s SPQR. That line was written in Tomis, modern Constanta in Romania located on the Black sea at the margin of Roman civilization, where he died c. 17 AD.

The poet was the son of an established equestrian family and not one whose status was created in the recent civil war (“I was heir to an ancient line, not a knight new-made by fortune’s gift”).

He had a brother, a sort of twin, who had been born on the same day a year before him. Both boys were educated in Rome. The brother embraced oratory and the prospect of a public life (“My brother tended towards oratory from his early years; he was born to the harsh weapons of the noisy forum.”). The young man died just after his twentieth birthday, leaving Ovid bereft, “My brother had just doubled the first ten years of life, when he died, I went on, part of myself lost.”

Sulmona and mountains

Ovid was born to be a poet (“even as a boy the Muse was drawing me secretly to her work”). The father discouraged this propensity, admonishing him, “Why pursue useless studies? Maeonian Homer himself left no wealth behind.” He tried to give up poetry and actually started on a public career by holding minor judicial posts, but young Ovid couldn’t help himself, “I tried to write words that were free of meter. / But verse came, of itself, in the right measures, / and whatever I tried to write was poetry.”

Late in life Ovid expressed relief that his parents had died before the disgrace of his exile occurred. His piety evoked in him fear that this guilt might be known on the other side of the tomb:

I’m fortunate my trouble wasn’t while they lived / and that they never had to grieve for me / Yet if the dead are left something more than a name / if a slender ghost escapes the high pyre / if news of me has reached you, spirits of my parents / and my guilt is proclaimed in the courts of Styx / know, I beg of you, it would be a sin to deceive you / the cause of my exile was an error not a crime.

trans. A.S. Kline
Mount Helicon in Greece, the home of the Muses.

Ovid was the last superstar of the golden age of Latin literature. He is usually as the youngest of the trio of great Roman poets. The other two giants were a generation older. Horace was the role model of poetic versatility, “many-metered Horace captivated us when he sang his polished songs to the Italian lyre.” The master of Roman epic was more remote, having died when Ovid was in his early 20s, “Vergil I only saw.”

His immediate circle of poet peers came of age in the early years of Augustus’ rule, “Often Propertius would tell about his passions, by right of that friendship we were united / Ponticus too famous for epic; Bassus for iambics / were members of that mutual circle dear to me / [ … ]and greedy fate granted / Tibullus no time for my friendship / He came after you, Gallus; Propertius after him / I was the fourth after them in order of time.”

Auditorium of Maecenas in Rome, where the works of Augustan Ages poets were recited

Youthful Ovid expressed what his readers experienced themselves. Thalia, “the joyous one,” was Ovid’s muse. Corinna was his flesh-and-blood inspiration and the star of Amores, his early poems about a young poet pursuing love. Ovid says this woman, the pseudonym was taken from the name of a Greek poetess, “stirred my wit, she who was sung through the City.” He had a habit of falling in love, but maintained this affairs were untainted by lechery.

Soft, and never safe from Cupid’s arrows, / was my heart, that the slightest thing could move. / But though I was such, fired by the smallest spark, / no scandal was associated with my name.

Scandal came later. Augustus sent Ovid away from Rome as an exile in 8 AD, by which time Ovid was known as Rome’s greatest living poet. Ovid is coy about the details, acknowledging a carmen, a poem, and an error, an indiscretion. Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a dissection of the methods of seduction, was the poem. Poems about sexual adventurism didn’t jibe with Augustus’ program of family values. The indiscretion was the more immediate cause; it seems to have involved Ovid’s friendship with members of the imperial family who were attempting to position themselves as successor to Augustus. Here Ovid got off easier than some others who were executed or whose conditions of exile were harsher.

The cause, too well known to all, of my ruin, / is not to be revealed by any testimony of mine. / Why tell of friends’ wickedness and servants’ harm? / I suffered things no less evil than exile itself. / Yet my mind refused to succumbed to misfortune / and proved invincible, relying on its own powers.

Roman ruins in Tomis, Ovid’s place of exile (foto Roxana Postoiu)

Ovid outlived his contemporaries and surpassed them. In exile on the Black Sea, poetry remained a natural consolation.

Here, though the noise of weapons surrounds me / I ease my sad fate with such song as I can / Though there’s no one to listen to me, / still this is the way I pass, and deceive, the days

And, he claims, condemnation didn’t inhibit his readership back home.

My Muse, you grant me solace, you come as a rest from, and a cure for, care / You are both guide and friend, who spirit me / from the Danube to a place in the midst of Helicon / you’ve given me something rare while still alive / the honored name fame only grants us when we’re dead / Nor has envy, that belittles present things, attacked any work of mine with malignant teeth/ Though this age of ours has produced great poets / has not been unkind to my gifts / and though I set many above myself, people say / I’m not inferior, and I’m the most widely read of all.

How far into the future did he assume his readership would persist? He couldn’t have known he’d be almost as famous today as he was on the day he departed from his home, which was close to the Capitoline hill, for the last time, “I went like one carried off before his funeral.” Or could he?

So if there’s truth in the poet’s prophecies / I’ll not be yours, earth, though I die today / Whether I’ve won fame through fashion or through poetry itself / It’s right that I thank you, honest reader.

Statue of Ovid in Constanta, Romania, the current version of Tomis

Charles Dickens—an eyewitness in Rome, 8 March 1845

Who reads the travel writing of Charles Dickens?

On his travels, beyond being feted by local dignitaries, Dickens examined the penal system in the places he visited. In Rome, he witnessed and wrote a vivid account of the execution by beheading of Giovanni Vagnarelli, who had been convicted of the robbery and murder of a pilgrim on her way to Rome.

He preserved us a moment of Rome that no longer can be experienced. The scene is just outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the beautiful church featured in the film Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visit the Bocca della Veritá.

Dickens’ account was published in the collection Pictures from Italy. Read the entire essay below. It’s really good.

The abolition of capital punishment by civil authorities had its origins in Italy. Tuscany, in the eighteenth century, was the first state to do away with it. The government of the Papal States was the last to impose it. The last execution in Rome took place just a few years before the Eternal City became the capital of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1871.

Preparing for an execution in Rome

Charles Dickens: “When Mastro Titta Crossed the Bridge”

On one Saturday morning (the eighth of March), a man was beheaded here. Nine or ten months before, he had waylaid a Bavarian countess, travelling as a pilgrim to Rome – alone and on foot, of course – and performing, it is said, that act of piety for the fourth time. He saw her change a piece of gold at Viterbo, where he lived; followed her; bore her company on her journey for some forty miles or more, on the treacherous pretext of protecting her; attacked her, in the fulfilment of his unrelenting purpose, on the Campagna, within a very short distance of Rome, near to what is called (but what is not) the Tomb of Nero; robbed her; and beat her to death with her own pilgrim’s staff.

He was newly married, and gave some of her apparel to his wife: saying that he had bought it at a fair. She, however, who had seen the pilgrim-countess passing through their town, recognised some trifle as having belonged to her. Her husband then told her what he had done. She, in confession, told a priest; and the man was taken, within four days after the commission of the murder.

There are no fixed times for the administration of justice, or its execution, in this unaccountable country; and he had been in prison ever since. On the Friday, as he was dining with the other prisoners, they came and told him he was to be beheaded next morning, and took him away. It is very unusual to execute in Lent; but his crime being a very bad one, it was deemed advisable to make an example of him at that time, when great numbers of pilgrims were coming towards Rome, from all parts, for the Holy Week. I heard of this on the Friday evening, and saw the bills up at the churches, calling on the people to pray for the criminal’s soul. So, I determined to go, and see him executed.

Mastro Titta’s memoir, Mastro Titta: the executioner of Rome: Memoirs of a corpse-maker written by himself, aims for a more bouncy account of his work than the tone found in Dickens. The book is hard to find; anyone else have a copy?

The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni Decollato (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed – a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them.

Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.
At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Mastro Titta killed over 500 people by various gruesome means. It was a part-time occupation. He was a souvenir manufactuer and salesman St. Peter’s basilica in the other part of his life. His bloodstained clothes and the tools of the executioner’s trade are on display at the Museum of Criminology in Rome.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers.

Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney- coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Mastro Titta exhibiting the remains of the departed.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. “Attention!” was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last.

It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man – six-and-twenty – vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

Current image of the site of the execution on 8 March 1845. The church of S. Maria in Cosemedin is just out of the frame to the right; S. Giovanni Decollato is out of frame to the left.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front – a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw EX OFFICIO (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Exterior of the church of S Giovanni Decollato, the church that housed the confraternity that served spiritual needs of the condemned. Michelangelo, who lived in the area, was a member.

Augustus, Ovid and the Ara Pacis—consecrated 30 January 9 BC

The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar dedicated to the goddess Peace located in Rome. The role of Augustus in initiating a period of peace and prosperity was a key component of Augustan ideology. The altar was consecrated on 30 January 9 BC. The Roman Senate had commissioned the monument on 4 July 13 BC to honor the return of Augustus to Rome after he had spent three years in Hispania and Gaul.

Here is what Augustus says about the Ara Pacis in the “Res Gestae,” an account of his career that was inscribed on bronze tablets placed outside of his mausoleum, which will be open to visitors again this April.

On my return from Spain and Gaul, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilius, after successfully arranging affairs in those provinces, the senate resolved that an altar of the Augustan Peace should be consecrated in the Campus Martius in honor of my return, and ordered that the magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins should perform an annual sacrifice there.

Cum ex Hispania Galliaque rebus in iis provincis prospere gestis, Roman redi, Ti. Nerone P. Quintilio consulibus aram Pacis Augustae senatus pro reditu meo consacrandam censuit ad campus Martium in qua magistratus et sacerdotes virginesque Vestales anniversarium sacrificium facere iussit.

Originally the Ara Pacis stood in the Campus Martius along the urban segment of the Via Flaminia (the modern Corso), though outside of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome.

Lanciani FuR plate 8 showing the site of the Ara Pacis and the mausoleum of Augustus

The Campus Martius was a flood plain. Over time silt deposits from flooding covered the monument. Fragments of the monument were uncovered over time, and a dedicated effort of recovery was performed during the Fascist regime.

Mjussolini and Hitler examining part of the Ara Pacis

The museum that housed the Ara Pacis was inaugurated in 1938. Like other artifacts from Roman antiquity, the Ara Pacis was employed as an adornment of Fascist ideology.

Fascists officials at the inauguration of the original museum that housed the Ara Pacis

The Fascist-era building was replaced by one designed the Richard Meir in 2006. Like the building it replaced, this museum is located adjacent to the mausoleum of Augustus, between the tomb and the Tiber.

Res Gestae inscribed on the exterior wall of the current Ara Pacis museum

The Fasti of Ovid, a group of poems that describe the religious festivals of the Roman year, is the only extant literary reference to the Ara Pacis.

In 8 AD, Augustus sent Ovid to exile due to “a poem and a mistake,” according to another of the poet’s works in exile, Ex Ponto. The Fasti were composed as part of his petition for permission to return to Rome. The quality of his writing remained high, but no poem or friend could bring him home; he died in Black Sea relegatio in 18 AD after ten years away from Rome.

My song has led to the altar of Peace itself.
This day is the second from the month’s end.
Come, Peace, your graceful tresses wreathed
With laurel of Actium: stay gently in this world.
While we lack enemies, or cause for triumphs:
You’ll be a greater glory to our leaders than war.
May the soldier be armed to defend against arms,
And the trumpet blare only for processions.
May the world far and near fear the sons of Aeneas,
And let any land that feared Rome too little, love her.
Priests, add incense to the peaceful flames,
Let a shining sacrifice fall, brow wet with wine,
And ask the gods who favor pious prayer
That the house that brings peace, may so endure.
Now the first part of my labor is complete,
And as its month ends, so does this book.

Ipsum nos carmen deduxit Pacis ad aram:
haec erit a mensis fine secunda dies.
frondibus Actiacis comptos redimita capillos,
Pax, ades et toto mitis in orbe mane.
dum desint hostes, desit quoque causa triumphi:
tu ducibus bello gloria maior eris.
sola gerat miles, quibus arma coerceat, arma,
canteturque fera nil nisi pompa tuba.
horreat Aeneadas et primus et ultimus orbis:
siqua parum Romam terra timebat, amet.
tura, sacerdotes, Pacalibus addite flammis,
albaque perfusa victima fronte cadat;
utque domus, quae praestat eam, cum pace perennet
ad pia propensos vota rogate deos.
Sed iam prima mei pars est exacta laboris,
cumque suo finem mense libellus habet.

Caligula—Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus— gets stabbed in the obscaena and dies 24 January 41

I love how Suetonius pushes all the right buttons to make the reader love and despise the Caesars. Caligula was his most sustained hatchet job. This grim and menacing figure, even when played with the charm of John Hurt in I, Claudius, makes Nero seem merely to have been a petulant boy operating under the influence of affluenza.

The ruins of the palace on the Palatine looking toward the Circus Maximus with a United Nations office building in the distance

After reading 57 chapters of Rome gone bonkers in Seutonius’ life of Gaius, we all know that Caligula has it coming. Our narrator tells us, “While he was running riot and laying waste in this way, a number of people had the idea of making an attempt on his life … Many prodigies foretold his violent end.”

Ita bacchantem atque grassantem non defuit plerisque animus adoriri … Futurae caedis multa prodigia exstiterunt.

The cryptoporticus on the Palatine believed to be site of the murder

His murder—undertaken during public games and performed in a passageway beneath the palace—was dramatic and messy.

“On the ninth day before the Kalends of February … There are two versions of the rest of the story. Some say that while he was speaking to the boys Chaerea, approaching from behind, gave the emperor’s neck a deep cut with his sword, shouting, “Take this!;’ then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, the other conspirator, ran his chest through from the front. Others report that Sabinus, who had arranged for soldiers who were in on the plot to get rid of the crowd, asked Caligula for the password following usual military practice. When Caligula replied ‘Jupiter,’ Chaerea shouted ‘Let it be so!’ As Caligula looked behind him, Chaerea split his jaw with a blow. As he lay with his limbs twisted up, repeatedly calling out that he was alive, others finished him off with 30 blows. All acted on the signal, ‘Again,’ Some even stabbed him in the nuts.”

VIIII. Kal. Febr. hora fere septima … Duplex dehinc fama est: alii tradunt adloquenti pueros a tergo Chaeream cervicem gladio caesim graviter percussisse praemissa voce: ‘hoc age!’ Dehinc Cornelium Sabinum, alterum e coniuratis, tribunum ex adverso traiecisse pectus; alii Sabinum summota per conscios centuriones turba signum more militiae petisse et Gaio ‘Iovem dante Chaeream exclamasse: ‘accipe ratum!’ Respicientique maxillam ictu discidisse. Iacentem contractisque membris clamitantem se vivere ceteri vulneribus triginta confecerunt; nam signum erat omnium: ‘repete!’ Quidam etiam per obscaena ferrum adegerunt.

View across the Circus Maximus toward the ruins of the Palatine

Keats fading in Rome “…the voice I hear this passing night…”

My first apartment in Rome was just down the street from the grave of John Keats. The non-Catholic cemetery is a beautiful place. In those early days I would visit often, or at least look through the grated aperture in the wall close to his tombstone.

Here lies One Whose name was writ in Water

At that time you would ring the bell and the caretaker or the old woman who looked after the cats would unlock the gate. Now the place has been made an institution and they sell post cards, discourage the presence of “too many cats” and have spiffed up the place in way that makes you wish they’d left it the way it was.

Twenty years passed before I visited the Keats-Shelley House by the Spanish Steps. It was a Saturday in the summer and even in that season if you’re out early the weather is fine and the streets mostly empty. I was alone in the museum. The room where he died is the part that interested me. The artifacts are not authentic but merely an approximation. Roman law required all the objects that were in the presence of a person with tuberculosis be destroyed after death. That occurred in this case.

Death room of John Keats

Keats’ friend the painter Joseph Severn (obit 1879) looked after the poet during this final illness. They were strangers in town and had little money. Fear of Keats’ illness made them unwelcome guests. Severn wrote a series of letters informing others of their circumstances. Here is part of a letter dated 15 January 1821, five weeks before the poet’s death.

Poor Keats has just fallen asleep. I have watched him and read to him to his very last wink. He has been saying to me, “Severn, I can see under your quiet look immense twisting and contending. You don’t know what you are reading. You are enduring for me more than I’d have you. O! that my last hour has come. What is it puzzles you now? What is it happens?” I tell him that “nothing happens, nothing worries me beyond his seeing, that it has been the dull day.” Getting from myself to his recovery, and then my painting, and then England, and then – but they are all lies; my heart almost leaps to deny them, for I have the veriest load of care that ever came upon these shoulders of mine. Keats is sinking daily. He is dying of a consumption, of a confirmed consumption. Perhaps another three weeks may lose him forever. But I pray that some kind of comfort may come to his lot, that some angel of goodness will lead him through this dark wilderness.

letter of severn
Sketch of Keats by Severn

It so happened I was due in London a day or two after that visit to the Keats-Shelley House. I stayed with a friend in Hampstead, just down the street from Keats House there. In Keats’ time it was almost country, now it’s a green and posh place in the city. Here he wrote a number of poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Hampstead home where Keats was a guest prior to leaving for Rome

Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget / What thou amongst the leaves hast never known, / The weariness, the fever and the fret / Here where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs, / Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, / Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

ode to a nightingale

The end of Galba 15 January 69 “…he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled”

Servius Sulpicius Galba was the first man to fall in the year of the four emperors. It seems his old-fashioned ways and his lack of finesse in the political realities of the principate led to his failure as emperor and his murder in the Forum 15 January 69.

Here’s some of what Tacitus and Suetonius tell us about the man and his times.

Bust of Galba in the Capitoline Museum

Tacitus on the death and character of Galba

Galba’s body lay abandoned for many hours. Later under cover of darkness it was abused by soldiers and other men. Finally, Argius, his confidant and one of his former slaves, buried it in a humble grave at his old master’s villa. Galba’s head, which had been mutilated then impaled on a pole, was found the next day at the tomb of Petrobius—a freedman of Nero whom Galba had executed—and was placed with the body, which had already been cremated. This was the end of Servius Galba. He lived with good fortune for 73 years through the reigns of five emperors. He was happier under the rule of others than in his own. His family was of ancient nobility and possessed great wealth. Galba himself was of middling genius, being rather free from faults than possessing virtues. He was neither careless of reputation nor one to boast of it. He was not covetous of the property of others; he was frugal with his own, and greedy with the state’s. Kindly and complacent toward friends and freedmen, if he found them honest; if they were dishonest, he was blind even to a fault. But his high birth and the terror which the times inspired masked the truth, so that men called wisdom what was really indolence. While he was a younger commander, he enjoyed a reputation for his military service in the German provinces. As proconsul he governed Africa with moderation and, when he was already an old man, ruled Hither Spain with the same uprightness. He seemed a man of renown in private life, and in everyone’s opinion he was capable of being emperor had he never ruled.

Galbae corpus diu neglectum et licentia tenebrarum plurimis ludibriis vexatum dispensator Argius e prioribus servis humili sepultura in privatis eius hortis contexit. caput per lixas calonesque suffixum laceratumque ante Patrobii tumulum (libertus in Neronis punitus a Galba fuerat) postera demum die repertum et cremato iam corpori admixtum est. hunc exitum habuit Servius Galba, tribus et septuaginta annis quinque principes prospera fortuna emensus et alieno imperio felicior quam suo. vetus in familia nobilitas, magnae opes: ipsi medium ingenium, magis extra vitia quam cum virtutibus. famae nec incuriosus nec venditator; pecuniae alienae non adpetens, suae parcus, publicae avarus; amicorum libertorumque, ubi in bonos incidisset, sine reprehensione patiens, si mali forent, usque ad culpam ignarus. sed claritas natalium et metus temporum obtentui, ut, quod segnitia erat, sapientia vocaretur. dum vigebat aetas militari laude apud Germanas floruit. pro consule Africam moderate, iam senior citeriorem Hispaniam pari iustitia continuit, maior privato visus dum privatus fuit, et omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset.

Tacitus historiae
Manuscript of Tacitus – Codex Mediceus

Galba in the Forum and on the Via Aurelia

Galba was stuck down beside the Lacus Curtius and was left lying just as he was until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Then, since there was no hair by which to grasp it, he hid in within his clothing, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho, who then, handed it over to his followers, who set it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time, ‘Pretty boy Galba, exult in your vigor!’ The special reason for this insolent joke was, that the report had gotten around a few days before, that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, he quoted Homer: ‘As yet my strength is unimpaired’. Then the abused head of the former emperor was bought by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for a hundred pieces of gold; he had it thrown aside in the place where his patron had been executed by Galba’s order. At last, however, his freedman Argivus deposited the head with the rest of Galba’s body in the emperor’s family tomb in his gardens on the Via Aurelia.

Iugulatus est ad lacum Curti ac relictus ita uti erat, donec gregarius miles a frumentatione rediens abiecto onere caput ei amputavit; et quoniam capillo arripere non poterat, in gremium abdidit, mox inserto per os pollice ad Othonem detulit. Ille lixis calonibusque donavit, qui hasta suffixum non sine ludibrio circum castra portarunt adclamantes identidem: “Galba Cupido, fruaris aetate tua,” maxime irritati ad talem iocorum petulantiam, quod ante paucos dies exierat in vulgus, laudanti cuidam formam suam ut adhuc floridam et vegetam respondisse eum Ἔτι μοι μένος ἔμπεδόν ἐστιν. Ab is Patrobii Neroniani libertus centum aureis redemptum eo loco, ubi iussu Galbae animadversum in patronum suum fuerat, abiecit. Sero tandem dispensator Argivus et hoc et ceterum truncum in privatis eius hortis Aurelia via sepulturae dedit.

Suetonius VIta Galbae
Ruins of the Lacus Curtius and the site of the murder of Galba

Galba was a blueblood

Galba, who succeded Nero, was in no way related to the house of the Caesars, though he was, without doubt, of very eminent birth. His own line was a great and ancient one, for he would always have it included in the inscriptions on his statues that he was the great-grandson of Quintus Catulus Capitolinus. When was emperor he even had in his entrance hall his family tree put on display, in which he traced back his father’s origins to Jupiter and those of his mother to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

Neroni Galba successit nullo gradu contingens Caesarum domum, sed haud dubie nobilissimus magnaque et vetere prosapia, ut qui statuarum titulis pronepotem se Quinti Catuli Capitolini semper ascripserit, imperator vero etiam stemma in atrio proposuerit, quo paternam originem ad Iovem, maternam ad Pasiphaen Minois uxorem referret.

Vita Galbae

Galba’s mysterious cognomen

It is not clear why the first of the Sulpicii to have the name Galba acquired it, nor by what means. Some people think that, having besieged a town in Spain without success, he eventually set fire to it with torches smeared with galbanum. Others think it was because during a lengthy illness he made repeated us of galbeum, that is, remedies wrapped in wool. There are some who believe that it was because he looked very fat, which the Gauls term galba, while other take the opposite view that it was because he was very thin, so that he resembled the insect which lives in oak trees and is called the galba.

Qui prius Sulpiciorum cognomen Galbae tulit, cur aut unde traxerit, ambigitur. Quidam putant, quod oppidum Hispaniae frustra diu oppugnatum inlitis demum galbano facibus succenderit; alii, quod in diuturna valitudine galbeo, id est remediis lana involutis, assidue uteretur: nonnulli, quod praepinguis fuerit visus, quem galbam Galli vocent; vel contra, quod tam exilis, quam sunt animalia quae in aesculis nascuntur appellanturque galbae. 

Vita Galbae
Imperial intaglio of the Julio-Claudian period

Galba as a youngster

Servius Galba, who became emperor, was born on the ninth day before the Kalends of January in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus, in a villa on the hill near Terracina, on the left as you travel toward Fundi … It is common knowledge that, when he was still a boy and, along with his contemporaries, was paying his respects to Augustus, the emperor pinched his cheek and said, “You, too, child, will have a taste of our imperial power.”

Ser. Galba imperator M. Valerio Messala Cn. Lentulo cons. natus est VIIII. Kal. Ian. in villa colli superposita prope Tarracinam, sinistrorsus Fundos petentibus, adoptatusque a noverca sua Livia nomen et Ocellae cognomen assumptis, mutato praenomine; nam Lucium mox pro Servio usque ad tempus imperii usurpavit. Constat Augustum puero adhuc, salutanti se inter aequales, apprehensa buccula dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον τῆς ἀρχῆς ἡμῶν παρατρώξῃ.

Vita Galbae
Fresco from the imperial villa at Prima Porta

Galba the physical man

He was of medium height, completely bald, with blue eyes, a hooked nose, and hands and feet so crippled by arthritis that he could not endure wearing shoes for long, nor could be unroll books for even hold them. On his right side, his flesh extended and hung down so far that it could hardly be kept in place by a bandage.

Statura fuit iusta, capite praecalvo, oculis caeruleis, adunco naso, manibus pedibusque articulari morbo distortissimis, ut neque calceum perpeti nec libellos evolvere aut tenere omnino valeret. Excreverat etiam in dexteriore latere eius caro praependebatque adeo ut aegre fascia substringeretur.

Vita Galbae
Imperial ruins on the Palatine

Galba in love

His sexual preference inclined toward males, but only those who were especially tough and in full manhood. They say that when Icelus, one of his long-standing favorites, came to him in Spain bringing news of the death of Nero, Galba not only welcomed him publicly with the most ardent kisses but begged him to have his body hair plucked at once, then took him aside.

Libidinis in mares pronior et eos non nisi praeduros exoletosque: ferebant in Hispania Icelum e veteribus concubinis de Neronis exitu nuntiantem non modo artissimis osculis palam exceptum ab eo, sed ut sine mora velleretur oratum atque seductum.

Vita Galbae