AT first the revolt of the Gallic legions under Vindex did not seem very serious. Caesar was only in his thirty-first year, and no one was bold enough to hope that the world could be freed so soon from the nightmare which was stifling it. Men remembered that revolts had occurred more than once among the legions, — they had occurred in previous reigns, — revolts, however, which passed without involving a change of government; as during the reign of Tiberius, Drusus put down the revolt of the Pannonian legions. "Who," said the people, "can take the government after Nero, since all the descendants of the divine Augustus have perished?" Others, looking at the Colossus, imagined him a Hercules, and thought that no force could break such power. There were those even who since he went to Acima were sorry for him, because Helius and Polythetes, to whom he left the government of Rome and Italy, governed more murderously than he had.
No one was sure of life or property. Law ceased to protect. Human dignity and virtue had perished, family bonds existed no longer, and degraded hearts did not even dare to admit hope. From Greece came accounts of the incomparable triumphs of Caesar, of the thousands of crowns which he had won, the thousands of competitors whom he had vanquished. The world seemed to be one orgy of buffoonery and blood; but at the same time the opinion was fixed that virtue and deeds of dignity had ceased, that the time of dancing and music, of profligacy, of blood, had come, and that life must flow on for the future in that way. Caesar himself, to whom rebellion opened the road to new robberies, was not concerned much about the revolt of the legions and Vindex; he even expressed his delight on that subject frequently. He did not wish to leave Achaea even; and only when Helius informed him that further delay might cause the loss of dominion did he move to Naples.
There he played and sang, neglecting news of events of growing danger. In vain did Tigellinus explain to him that former rebellions of legions had no leaders, while at the head of affairs this time was a man descended from the ancient kings of Gaul and Aquitania, a famous and tried soldier. "Here," answered Nero, "the Greeks listen to me, — the Greeks, who alone know how to listen, and who alone are worthy of my song." He said that his first duty was art and glory. But when at last the news came that Vindex had proclaimed him a wretched artist, he sprang up and moved toward Rome. The wounds inflicted by Petronius, and healed by his stay in Greece, opened in his heart anew, and he wished to seek retribution from the Senate for such unheard-of injustice.
On the road he saw a group cast in bronze, representing a Gallic warrior as overcome by a Roman knight; he considered that a good omen, and thenceforward, if he mentioned the rebellious legions and Vindex, it was only to ridicule them. His entrance to the city surpassed all that had been witnessed earlier. He entered in the chariot used by Augustus in his triumph. One arch of the Circus was destroyed to give a road to the procession. The Senate, knights, and innumerable throngs of people went forth to meet him. The walls trembled from shouts of "Hail, Augustus! Hail, Hercules! Hail, divinity, the incomparable, the Olympian, the Pythian, the immortal!" Behind him were borne the crowns, the names of cities in which he had triumphed; and on tablets were inscribed the names of the masters whom he had vanquished. Nero himself was intoxicated with delight, and with emotion he asked the Augustians who stood around him, "What was the triumph of Julius compared with this?" The idea that any mortal should dare to raise a hand on such a demigod did not enter his head. He felt himself really Olympian, and therefore safe. The excitement and the madness of the crowd roused his own madness. In fact, it might seem in the day of that triumph that not merely Caesar and the city, but the world, had lost its senses.
Through the flowers and the piles of wreaths no one could see the precipice. Still that same evening columns and walls of temples were covered with inscriprions, describing Nero's crimes, threatening him with coming vengeance, and ridiculing him as an artist. From mouth to mouth went the phrase, "He sang till he roused the Gauls." Alarming news made the rounds of the city, and reached enormoua measures. Alarm seized the Augustians. People, uncertain of the future, dazed not express hopes or wishes; they hardly dared to feel or think.
But he went on living only in the theatre and music. Instruments newly invented occupied him, and a new water-organ, of which trials were made on the Palatine. With childish mind, incapable of plan or action, he imagined that he could ward off danger by promises of spectacles and theatrical exhibitions reaching far into the future, Persons nearest him, seeing that instead of providing means and an army, he was merely searching for expressions to depict the danger graphically, began to lose their heads. Others thought that he was simply deafening himself and others with quotations, while in his soul he was alarmed and terrified. In fact, his acts became feverish. Every day a thousand new plans flew through his head. At times he sprang up to rush out against danger; gave command to pack up his lutes and citharae, to arm the young slave women as Amazons, and lead the legions to the East. Again he thought to finish the rebellion of the Gallic legions, not with war, but with song; and his soul laughed at the spectacle which was to follow his conquest of the soldiers by song. The legionaries would surround him with tears m their eyes; he would sing to them an epinicium, after which the golden epoch would begin for him and for Rome. At one time he called for blood; at another he declared that he would be satisfied with governing in Egypt. He recalled the prediction which promised him lordship in Jerusalem, and he was moved by the thought that as a wandering minstrel he would earn his daily bread, — that cities and countries would honor in him, not Caesar, the lord of the earth, but a poet whose like the world had not produced before. And so he struggled, raged, played, sang, changed his plan, changed his quotations, changed his life and the world into a dream absurd, fantastic, dreadful, into an uproarious hunt composed of unnatural expressions, bad verses, groans, tears, and blood; but meanwhile the cloud in the west was increasing and thickening every day. The measure was exceeded; the insane comedy was nearing its end.
When news that Galba and Spain had joined the uprising came to his ears, he fell into rage and madness. He broke goblets, overturned the table at a feast, and issued orders which neither Helius nor Tigeliinus himself dared to execute. To kill Gauls resident in Rome, fire the city a second time, let out the wild beasts, and transfer the capital to Alexandria seemed to him great, astonishing, and easy. But the days of his dominion had passed, and even those who shared in his former crimes began to look on him as a madman.
The death of Vindex, and disagreement in the revolting legions seemed, however, to turn the scale to his side. Again new feasts, new triumphs, and new sentences were issued in Rome, till a certain night when a messenger rushed up on a foaming horse, with the news that in the city itself the soldiers had raised the standard of revolt, and proclaimed Galba Caesar.
Nero was asleep when the messenger came; but when he woke he called in vain for the night-guard, which watched at the entrance to his chambers. The palace was empty. Slaves were plundering in the most distant corners that which could be taken most quickly. But the sight of Nero frightened them; he wandered alone through the palace, filling it with cries of despair and fear.
At last his freedmen, Phaon, Sporus, and Epaphroditus, came to his rescue. They wished him to flee, and said that there was no time to be lost; but he deceived himself still. If he should dress in mourning and speak to the Senate, would it resist his prayers and eloquence? If he should use all his eloquence, his rhetoric and skill of an actor, would any one on earth have power to resist him? Would they not give him even the prefecture of Egypt?
The freedmen, accustomed to flatter, had not the boldness yet to refuse him directly; they only warned him that before he could reach the Forum the people would tear him to pieces, and declared that if he did not mount his horse immediately, they too would desert him.
Phaon offered refuge in his villa outside the Nomentan Gate. After a while they mounted horses, and, covering Nero's head with a mantle, they galloped off toward the edge of the city. The night was growing pale. But on the streets there was a movement which showed the exceptional nature of the time. Soldiers, now singly and now in small groups, were scattered through the city. Not far from the camp Caesar's horse sprang aside suddenly at sight of a corpse. The mantle slipped from his head; a soldier recognized Nero, and, confused by the unexpected meeting, gave the military salute. While passing the pretorian camp, they heard thundering shouts in honor of Galba. Nero understood at last that the hour of death was near. Terror and reproaches of conscience seized him. He declared that he saw darkness in front of him in the form of a black cloud. From that cloud came forth faces in which he saw his mother, his wife, and his brother. His teeth were chattering from fright; still his soul of a comedian found a kind of charm in thc horror of thc moment. To be absolute lord of the earth and lose all things, seemed to him the height of tragedy; and faithful to himself, he played the first role to the end. A fever for quotations took possession of him, and a passionate wish that those present should preserve them for posterity. At moments he said that he wished to die, and called for Spiculus, the most skilled of all gladiators in killing. At moments he declaimed, "Mother, wife, father, call me to death!" Flashes of hope rose in him, however, from time to time, — hope vain and childish. He knew that he was going to death, and still he did not believe it.
They found the Nomentan Gate open. Going farther, they passed near Ostrianum, where Peter had taught and baptized. At daybreak they reached Phaon's villa.
There the freedmen hid from him no longer the fact that it was, time to die. He gave command then to dig a grave, and lay on the ground so that they might take accurate measurement. At sight of the earth thrown up, however, terror seized him. His fat face became pale, and on his forehead sweat stood like drops of dew in the morning. He delayed. In a voice at once abject and theatrical, he declared that the hour had not come yet; then he began again to quote. At last he begged them to burn his body. "What an artist is perishing!" repeated he, as if in amazement.
Meanwhile Phaon's messenger arrived with the announcement that the Senate had issued the sentence that the "parricide" was to be punished according to ancient custom.
"What is the ancient custom?" asked Nero, with whitened lips.
"They will fix thy neck in a fork, flog thee to death, and hurl thy body into the Tiber," answered Epaphroditus, abruptly.
Nero drew aside the robe from his breast.
"It is time, then!" said he, looking into the sky. And he repeated once more, "What an artist is perishing!"
At that moment the tramp of a horse was heard. That was the centurion coming with soldiers for the head of Ahenobarbus.
"Hurry!" cried the freedmen.
Nero placed the knife to his neck, but pushed it only timidly. It was clear that he would never have courage to thrust it in. Epaphroditus pushed his hand suddenly, — the knife sank to the handle. Nero's eyes turned in his head, terrible, immense, frightened.
"I bring thee life!" cried the centurion, entering.
"Too late!" said Nero, with a hoarse voice; then he added, —
"Here is faithfulness!"
In a twinkle death seized his head. Blood from his heavy neck gushed in a dark stream on the flowers of the garden. His legs kicked the ground, and he died.
On the morrow the faithful Acte wrapped his body in costly stuffs, and burned him on a pile filled with perfumes.
And so Nero passed, as a whirlwind, as a storm, as a fire, as war or death passes; but the basilica of Peter rules till now, from the Vatican heights, the city, and the world.
Near the ancient Ports Capens stands to this day a little chapel with the inscription, somewhat worn: Quo Vadis, Domine?