Acte – A Strong Woman in the Court of Nero

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I regret I won’t be alive to read the popular histories of our own day’s events seen through future eyes. I hasten to add, readable popular histories, not the turgid sophistry of Academia. Though it may well be Academia does not survive into future generations as the processes of evolution, red in tooth and claw, provide a brutal fate for the malaprop and inept. Higher education is clearly heading for a reckoning.

There is so much machination and intrigue, contrivance and deception, subterfuge and connivance among the cabals of the elite, the world of the glitterati and high ranking, or more familiarly, the Davos Crowd. Thinking about those in the news, I deliberately misuse the Apostle Paul’s well said phrase, “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” While the future will have its own ills and bias, it will see today’s players through a lens unavailable to us.

We are inundated with information but drown in depths roiled by unseen currents of special interest driven by those adept in the arts of legerdemain. Returning to Paul, “we see through a glass”, but the glass is indeed dark. We see through the smoked glass of a welder’s helmet. There is much hidden, there is much spun by clever people with axes to grind, interests to hide.

The stories around Jeffrey Epstein and Hunter Biden come to mind. Not that they are important people, simply repulsive offal bobbing on the surface hinting at toxic putrefaction in the dark depths. Donald Trump is a repulsive figure himself, but the sheer emotional fury expressed by the closed ranks of the privileged smart set, toadies and quacking ducks that were once his own friends and compatriots invites questions.

The Clintons and the extent of their ecosphere call our very assumptions about the reality of our government into question. And then there are the shadowy gazillionaires, Bill Gates, George Soros, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg etc., are they stalking horses, shadow players, puppet masters or simply the idle rich?

Those of us watching in the bleacher seats are like the crowd at the Kentucky Derby. Some of us have been reading the Daily Racing Form for a lifetime with the intensity of seminarians, others are simply groupies seduced by spectacle while the great majority are taken in by the mint juleps and cool hats.

But we, the great unwashed masses, no matter our reason for interest are spectators, looking through the lens of our political passions distilled by the wisdom of the sports bar or People magazine. But I wonder? A neutral observer with any insight into human behavior might suspect an entirely different agenda among the players themselves. Do they believe in what they say, do they even care or is it simply a charade, the means to satisfy their lusts?

Another generation down the road will see other parts of the picture hidden today. I will miss the opportunity to read a latter-day Robert Caro’s look at Bill Clinton. Perhaps there will be a future David McCullough writing the story of Anthony Fauci & the Great Covid Catastrophe. My wife jokes about a “video room” in heaven, speculating that we will be able to watch a “video replay” of life’s past events explaining all.

In today’s therapeutic culture, we ascribe the sordid deeds of criminals and neer-do-wells on the street to child abuse, to racism and whatever-ism while the rapscallions in public life are given no excuse or nuance, imagined to be cartoon characters, pure distillations of either virtue or vice. We imagine the figures of past times more righteous, more noble and altruistic as well. That, and its antithesis, is a foundational truth of both the “wokester” and the MAGA zealot.

Once more St. Paul has something to say, reminding us of the unpleasant truth about ourselves, “There is no one righteous, no, not one”. A close contemporary of the Apostle Paul asks a practical question, raised by the truth of Paul’s words. The Roman poet, Juvenal, left us with a timeless warning:

“Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchmen?)”

Who will watch the watchmen, indeed? Looking through that glass darkly, it is not just the faces of the mountebanks parading in public view. We see disturbing shapes moving in the shadows, the FBI, the CIA, the ATF, the Justice Dept. We want to believe in our military, the guarantor of our freedom. But the behavior of bemedaled timeservers with general’s stars leave us uneasy, watching them replace the stars and stripes with rainbows even as they retire into sinecures of privileged indulgence.

One must believe that future authors chronicling our times will remain beholden to the gods of commerce. Outside of the lonely world of the blog writer, people write to make money, to earn a living. Making money requires writing stories that sell, stories that people are interested in.

Stories people are interested in? Well, sex sells. Which makes me believe that Jeffrey Epstein will loom large in future popular histories. Connected to almost everyone of note, from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates to Donald Trump to Kenneth Starr to the Duke of York; cabinet secretaries, media moguls, corporate chieftains, British royalty – they all rubbed shoulders with the mysterious billionaire even as they spent time at his mansion or Isle of Mystery.

Sex sells, even Romans of the 1st Century knew that. Which brings us back to the Apostle Paul. Born Saul of Tarsus, self described as

“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, in regard to the law a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless”

But Saul of Tarsus met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Before then, Saul had believed himself a man for the ages, righteous and faultless. But his encounter with the Risen Lord caused him to count his prideful statement as “rubbish, suffering the loss of all things, that he might gain Christ”. Sloughing off the name of Saul, he became Paul the Apostle. As Paul, he traveled the Mediterranean world of the 1st Century spreading the gospel and writing a large part of the New Testament. It is primarily Paul who explains who and what Jesus of Nazareth was.

Despite his younger years in Tarsus, Jerusalem and environs, Paul was a citizen of Rome and it was arguably in Rome where he left his greatest mark. His Letter to the Romans, written to the church in Rome, is the clearest and most complete explanation of Christianity in the Bible. Many of his Epistles to the growing churches of Asia Minor were written while a prisoner in Rome.

Paul is a giant figure in the history of Christianity.  But the ancient writers, contemporary to Paul, were writing to make a living and well – sex sells. Three detailed near-contemporaneous histories survive of the Rome within which Paul moved. These three authors, Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio, describe a time and place we might recognize. Their Rome looks a lot like Washington DC, faceless bureaucrats bereft of spine moving the levers of power while dissolute leaders pursued their lusts; sex, power, fame and fortune.

These ancient wordsmiths probably knew of Paul but did not think him worth writing about. All three were much more interested in one of Paul’s followers, a certain young lady. After all, these men understood that sex sells, even without benefit of Amazon’s Guide for Authors.

We have no documentary evidence of a relationship between Paul and the young woman in his church, but her status and Paul’s presence provides strong circumstantial support for their knowing each other. Did Paul bring her into faith? We have no way of knowing, but it is a pleasant speculation.

This young lady’s name was Claudia Acte. All of the three mentioned major contemporary historical sources of the time place her at the center of events, as the catalyst for political pandemonium in the Rome of St. Paul’s time. Coincidentally, Acte, as she was called, was from the same region of the world as Paul.

Paul came to Rome in chains because of his preaching in Jerusalem, upsetting the peace of Judea in the same manner as Christ before him. Acte came7 to Rome as a young slave girl. Whether she wore chains or not, the life of an attractive young female slave had its own set of shackles. The human male in his natural state is a predatory animal.

At some point Acte had been given her freedom, advancing the small step from slave girl to freewoman. One suspects she won promotion through “superior service”, as it was a common practice for owners to free their “special” slaves upon their death. As a freewoman, Acte was freed from slavery, but then on the other hand, her freedom meant she was left to earn a living which little changed her circumstances.

Powerful men and young girls, a situation giving license to indulge the lusts of the powerful. The more powerful the men, the fewer the constraints on their lusts. But illicit recreation requires a caterer, a Master of Ceremonies for life behind the scenes if you will. Public life even in the debauched cultures of Rome or Washington DC requires a certain decorum be maintained.

Every need creates a supplier, a facilitator if you will. Jeffrey Epstein filled the bill in our recent past. Another man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca remembered as Seneca the Younger, appears to have played that part for some of the power players in mid-first century Rome.

Jeffrey Epstein is an enigma to us, a phantom presence in the shadows, a billionaire without visible means of support. But Seneca was well known, an author of substance and erudition whose writing has survived into our own time. He was a philosopher of the Stoic school, writing with great intellectual power on living a noble and virtuous life. Reading his essays, one might almost regard him as a proto-Christian, virtually an echo of the Apostle Paul on moral issues.

But unlike Paul, Seneca also wrote popular plays for the theater. In fact, Shakespeare was deeply influenced by Seneca, both in themes and characters. Seneca’s plays were chiefly tragedies, passionate and emotional stories of ambition gone awry. Many of them revolved around powerful women who had been wronged and now sought revenge.

Reading Seneca’s works, it is almost as if there are two separate men. Considering his writing measured against his life choices, one can see a man torn apart. A man who clearly knew right from wrong, but consistently made the easy choice. Again and again, Seneca compromised allowing evasion of hard choices, regretting his lapses even as they occurred, knowing full well the evil consequences awaiting. I have sympathy for him, even finding resonance with myself in darker moments. When I think of Seneca, I remember other words in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

“For I delight in the law of God in my inmost being. But I see another law at work in my body, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my body. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Just as the tradition of the Church names Acte a believer, that same tradition holds that Seneca and Paul knew each other, that Seneca and Paul met with each other, talked with each other. In fact, Seneca’s older brother, Annaeus Lucius Novatus better known by his adopted name Gallio, saved Paul from the Jewish mob in the city of Corinth as related in Chapter 18 of The Acts of the Apostles. The early Church fathers regarded Seneca warmly, believing him sympathetic to Paul and his teachings.

One might think of Seneca as an Adorable. Born in Cordoba, Spain to an upwardly mobile family, he joined his father and brother, Gallio, in Rome at an early age. He was given an elite education and expected to follow them into responsible positions within the Empire’s bureaucracy. Seneca duly fulfilled his family’s expectations for his life, climbing the career ladder and moving in the highest ranks of the Empire’s bureaucracy.

But then he was “found” to have committed adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister, Lavilla. Adultery was one of those crimes that had a variable punishment in 1st Century Rome. Penalties for adultery depended on who was doing what to who, a bit like rioting in our own time. In any event, Seneca was banished to the island of Corsica where he languished in exile for nearly ten years.

But it happened that the sister of Livilla, his ex-lover, had need for a tutor, a fixer, a mentor. This woman, Agrippina, used her “influence” to pardon Seneca’s adultery with her sister and bring him back to Rome. Upon his return to the city, she installed him as companion and consigliere to her 12 year old son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus remembered today as the Emperor Nero.

Agrippina was one of the most interesting figures of the time. She was rich, she was famous and she was beautiful. Most importantly, she was connected, connected like no one else. One might think of her as some combination of Carolyn Kennedy, Chelsea Clinton and the Obama daughters.

Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus, nephew of Julius Caesar and founder of the Roman Empire. She was the beloved daughter of Germanicus, the deified Roman general whose memory was still revered, worshipped even, by the legions. She was the sister of the Emperor Caligula and wife to the current Emperor Claudius as well as stepmother for Claudius’ children, Britannicus, heir to the throne, and Octavia.

Agrippina was no shrinking violet or idle aristocrat. She was a serious player in the game of power politics. Her marriage to Claudius had been a political arrangement, an accommodation of two dynastic families in a continuing attempt to paper over their ambitions.

After five years, the relationship of Agrippina and Claudius was stormy at best. A failing Claudius was in his sixties while palace plots and cabals swirled around Agrippina. She was shamelessly promoting the interests of her son, Nero, against the presumed heir, Claudius’s son Britannicus. Frequently indulging in adulterous trysts, Agrippina reveled in a coy game of hide and seek, daring Claudius to react to her barely concealed infidelities.

One day an aging Claudius, contemplating the deteriorating situation in which he found himself, reopened his will and revised it. A few days later he was dead. It was agreed by all concerned that he had died from eating a meal of poisoned mushrooms, a deed carried out by “unknown” persons. Just as in the FBI’s treasonous actions of 2016, it was in no ones’ interest to seek justice.

Upon Claudius’s death, Agrippina and her son were to be found in Rome’s nearby army camp, the barracks of the Praetorian Guard. As she was the darling of the legions, the Guard swiftly acclaimed her son, Nero, the new Emperor. It was Agrippina, no doubt accompanied by a Praetorian honor guard, who supervised the reading of Claudius’s new will. Surprising no one, the revised will agreed with the Praetorian Guard’s choice, naming Nero as Emperor.

So now the Roman Empire was ruled by a teenage boy. One expects Agrippina quite pleased. Nero, as is typical of teenage boys, was little interested in the business of government which fell to Agrippina and Seneca by default. Agrippina indulged her passion for power while Seneca saw to the details. Just like in our own day, Seneca became fabulously wealthy in a career of “selfless” public service.

Nero held supreme power but was little interested in it. What Nero was interested in was the common interest of 17 year old boys, that subject which sells books – and much else. The year before he became Emperor, Nero had been married to his step-sister, Octavia – once more in the interests of dynastic harmony. But Octavia was an innocent virginal girl of thirteen, providing little interest for Nero who rapidly developed a taste for the outré and exotic. The ancient writers suspected that the marriage of Nero and Octavia was never consummated.

Nero soon developed disturbing tendencies that promised problems. At night, he and his friends would get drunk and roam the streets of Rome in orgies of destruction and rape. If Nero and his gang had confined their predations to the common folk, perhaps little would have come of it. But it seems they preferred to indulge their lusts in the more fashionable areas of the city. More than one of the wives of Rome’s nobility had run afoul of these wild episodes. It was reported by reliable sources that even one of the Vestal Virgins, Rubria, had been raped.

These episodes reminded the Imperial Court of Caligula, Nero’s uncle and Emperor before Claudius. Caligula would invite members of the Empire’s nobility to dinner, an invitation which could not be turned down. During the dinner, Caligula would invite one of the wives to a separate room where he would seduce/rape her.

This could not be allowed to continue. Powerful men were being humiliated by Nero and that was very dangerous. Even dogs accustomed to beatings will eventually bite. In Caligula’s case, it had led to his assassination.

That some of these humiliated men actually loved their wives greatly increased the chances for reprisals dangerous to the stability of a government growing increasingly fragile. A solution need be found. It appears that Seneca took on the role of procurer, seeking to turn Nero’s attentions in less inflammatory directions.

One wonders whether Paul might not have suggested the story of Esther to Seneca. In any case, whether she was the first or the latest in a procession, Acte found herself echoing the story of Esther, a guest in the Imperial bedroom. And as Esther, Acte did what no other woman had been able to do, or boy as Nero was LGBTQ+ before it became fashionable.  Nero fell in love with her. He became infatuated with Claudia Acte. Tacitus says “sensual meetings with Acte established her ascendency”.

Why Claudia Acte? We can only speculate. Some historians make the case that “acte” was a common term for actress. Perhaps Claudia Acte was not her proper name but rather a nickname or job description – Claudia the Actress. Perhaps Acte was the Grace Kelly or Meghan Markle of her place and time. We can only speculate.

The Nero/Acte affair was greeted with a sigh of relief by most. The infamous evening rampages stopped. And, an important “and”, if Nero was going to fall in love, falling in love with an ex-slave with no political ambitions or influential sponsors was the best possible outcome for nearly everyone. Existing power relationships would not be threatened.

But that was only a pleasant fantasy. There was a new player in the game and existing power relationships could not help but be changed. Nero was also growing into manhood. Perhaps Acte was an influence, or not, but along with his romance with Acte, Nero began to push back against his mother, asserting his independence.

At this point, Agrippina woke up to the danger Acte posed to her own position. She had been the unquestioned center of Nero’s life and with it the unquestioned holder of power. But now with Acte in the picture . . .

What does a mother do when her son is in thrall to an “unsuitable girl”? Agrippina used the time honored tactics of mothers. First she threatened, attempting to veto their liaison. When that failed, she attacked Acte’s character, her history, her unsuitability. When that failed, she tried bribes. But as mothers often find, the more she tried to break it up, the stronger the infatuation grew.

Agrippina was in a powerful position. If she and Nero engaged in a serious power struggle, the winner was no sure thing. She was a ruthless politician, well experienced in the cut and thrust of serious politics while Nero was a callow youth. And she had an ace in the hole. Agrippina controlled someone with a stronger hereditary claim to the throne than Nero – her stepson Brittanicus, the natural son of Claudius,

Another trump card was the legions. Agrippina had grown up in army camps, the adored young daughter of Germanicus – the great general still remembered with reverential awe by the common soldiers. Stories still circulated in the army camps of an adorable little girl playing house with the soldiers and being carried on their shoulders, a mascot of the legions. She had only to ask and they would come to her aid. And everyone was well aware the army was the trump card in Roman politics.

Tensions between mother and son rose as events played out placing Seneca, the third leg in Rome’s triumvirate of power, in an uncomfortable spot. Seneca owed everything to Agrippina. She brought him back from exile, giving him entre to the wealth, influence and power he now enjoyed. Given Agrippina’s reputation and Seneca’s adultery with Livilla, their rumored physical relationship was quite believable. But he had been Nero’s tutor, advisor, counselor and procurer for years now, very much enjoying the power he wielded as such.

Like many intellectuals now and then, it is clear Seneca imagined himself as the wise man providing enlightenment and wisdom at the ear of a powerful ruler, the eminence grise behind the throne. Seneca was living the dream of all academic thinkers – reprising Aristotle’s role with Alexander the Great some three centuries past.

When Nero made public speeches, they were the words and ideas of Seneca, per Tacitus:

“Seneca put them (Nero’s words) into his mouth, to display his (Seneca) own talent or demonstrate his high-minded guidance.”

Seneca had no power base of his own, a dependent on either Agrippina or Nero for his position. When mother and son became rivals, Seneca had to choose, something he was loathe to do. Forced to choose, he chose Nero. Nero, on his own, would stand no chance against his experienced mother in a game of high stakes power. But with Seneca providing counsel, moving the chess pieces, the odds moved into Nero’s favor. Over the rest of his life, Seneca would oversee, would participate in, much wickedness on behalf of and at the behest of Nero.

Nero, much like that other great ruler advised by an intellectual giant – Alexander the Great, would descend into bloody madness with Seneca an opaque figure in the shadows. Britannicus, Nero’s step-brother, would die in “questionable” circumstances, along with three others whose bloodlines made them possible rivals to Nero’s throne.

At this point it should be said that our knowledge of Nero’s reign is heavily informed by Tacitus. Little is known about the early life of Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus). He had a very successful career in the Imperial bureaucracy and was well placed to learn first hand the inside story of the times on which he wrote. Regarded as our most factual or perhaps our least obviously gossipy ancient source, Tacitus is a worthwhile study for modern political writers, as he provides a master class in truth-telling within a politically correct culture.

His book, The Annals of Imperial Rome, is a popular and readable history of Roman politics from the reign of Tiberius in 10 AD to Nero’s death in 66 AD. Since I am a big fan of Tacitus’ writing style, going forward I will quote from his book almost exclusively.

As the chess game between mother and son played out, Tacitus reports on a key incident, in retrospect the crisis upon which the power struggle turned. It seems that Agrippina was getting increasingly desperate to regain control over Nero, malleable in her presence but increasingly willful away from her influence. Tacitus, quoting Cluvius Rufus who was likely there, reports:

“Agrippina’s passion to retain power carried her so far that at midday, the time when food and drink were beginning to raise Nero’s temperature, she (Agrippina) several times appeared before her inebriated son all decked out and ready for incest. Their companions observed sensual kisses and evilly suggestive caresses.”

Like a bad movie, the scene continued to play out as blandishments and alcohol flowed. Seneca found out and rapidly summoned Acte to the scene. According to Tacitus, Acte was successful in defusing the incestuous encounter by telling Nero that his mother openly boasted of her ability to seduce him. The fact that Agrippina felt free to “boast” about incest speaks volumes of the world she, Seneca, Acte and Nero lived in.

Acte pleaded with Nero to stop, because the soldiers in the army, Deplorables of the time – conservative and traditional, would never tolerate such open sacrilege. One suspects Acte also used other methods, methods well known to the fair sex. Tacitus, who probably knew Acte and talked to her, notes “She feared for Nero’s reputation and for her own safety”.

Shortly after this incident, things would escalate, spiraling out of control. “Questionable” potentially fatal accidents continued to happen, now around Agrippina, but she led a charmed life. Finally, the services of one Anicetus, an officer in Rome’s Coast Guard, were suborned. Anicetus regularly captained a boat used by Agrippina to visit her villa in Baia (near Naples), a resort island just offshore that was the Las Vegas of its day.

Anicetus rigged the boat’s passenger compartment to collapse upon pulling a lever, which falling roof would then sink the boat. Agrippina duly requested transport one night and put out into the bay. Anicetus pulled the lever but his engineering was suspect. The boat’s roof did collapse but only partially. Only Agrippina’s maid was killed as the high sides on the boat’s seating protected the others. The boat did begin to sink, but Agrippina swam to shore, where she made her way to her villa.

After this fiasco, the pretending was over. Anicetus was ordered to collect some marines and execute Nero’s mother. Agrippina, perhaps the most celebrated woman of her age, faced down Anicetus and his men whom her son (and Seneca?) had sent to kill her. The ancient sources all agree she met her end with grace and courage. John Neihardt in “The Death of Agrippina” makes dramatic poetry out of Tacitus’s prose:

“Dying and wretched, she makes one last request of her assassin:

To sink his sword in her womb.

“Here’s where to bury your sword, right here –

The place from which such a monster came . . .””

With Agrippina gone, Nero and Seneca were left to pursue their respective interests. From this distance, it appears the accumulation of wealth to be Seneca’s main interest. Perhaps he created a 1st Century version of The Clinton Foundation.

In any event, Seneca, having prefigured Jeffrey Epstein now acted as godfather to future Hunter Bidens. Wealthy and politically connected Romans were lending large sums of money to influential men in the newly created province of Britannica, modern day Britain. The island was a new addition to the Empire and like any new development needed money, needed capital investment. Almost like Silicon Valley startups, investing in newly conquered areas of the Empire promised very high rates of return to those well connected back in Rome.

One Prasutagus, king of the Iceni tribe (modern day Norfolk area), was one of these “entrepreneurs” attracting angel investors. But Prasutagus died and the angel investment group, most likely headed by Seneca, sent men, hard men, to see about their investment.

These hard men wound up accosting the heirs of Prasutagus, his wife Boudicca and daughters, as well as his leading men.

“Tacitus — His wife, Boudicca, was disgraced with cruel stripes; her daughters ravished, and the most illustrious of the Icenians were, by force, deprived of the positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors.”

But Boudicca was a hard woman herself, from the same mold as Agrippina, and she fought back. After this outrage to their Queen and ruling families, the Iceni and their cousins the Trinovantes met to consider a course of action. Boudicca stood before them and gave a powerful speech that both inflamed and shamed:

“Tacitus — It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. . . .

This is a woman’s resolve; as for men they may live and be slaves.”

Her words and example, her public shaming of the men who should have protected her, ignited a widespread revolt that put the Roman province of Britannica in flames. One of the three legions on garrison duty in Britannica, the IXth Hispana, marched to quell the revolt, was ambushed and slaughtered. The provincial governor, Catus Decianus, ran for cover, finding escape across the English Channel in Gaul.

Under Titus Vespasianus, the IInd Augusta Legion had won great honors only fifteen years before in the initial conquest of Brittania, perhaps akin to Patton’s 3rd Army in WWII. But now the IInd was only a shell of its former self, sheltered in its fortress, hunkered down and refusing to come out.

With the Roman army out of action, Boudicca’s warriors, now numbering over a hundred thousand, ran over Roman Britain in an orgy of destruction. Tacitus says that between seventy and eighty thousand Romans and collaborating natives died. London was burnt to the ground with modern archeological excavation finding a thick red layer of burnt debris testifying to its flaming destruction. Cassius Dio provides lurid detail of the fate dealt those noble Roman women captured in the rebellion.

Two of the three legions garrisoned in Britannia were out of action. One massacred on the battlefield, the other huddled in its fortress. But the third legion, XIVth Gemina, remained. Removed from the revolt in the far north, the XIVth had invaded the stronghold of the Druids on the island of Mons (Anglesey) in Northern Wales. The Druids were the shaman/priests of the Celtic tribes and the center of resistance to the Roman occupation.

When the chips are down, one hopes and prays for a leader like the general of the XIVth Gemina, Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus disengaged from his warring against the Druids and brought the XIVth south. Marching through a burning and ravaged land, he made the hard triage decisions necessary to save a very bad situation. In fact, he arrived in London just ahead of Boudicca’s warriors. Even though besieged by the town’s citizens tearfully begging him to remain, he determined the city was indefensible and left it to its fate, offering its people the choice of remaining or following him in retreat.

Somewhere outside of London, on the road still known by its Roman name of Watling Street, Suetonius Paulinus deployed the XIVth against Boudicca’s hordes at a carefully chosen defensive position in the Battle of Watling Street. Outnumbered at least ten to one, they won a historic victory, ensuring Britannia remaining in the Roman Empire for the next 350 years. Seneca, himself, is silent on the matter of Boudicca’s Rebellion as it came to be known.

While Seneca dealt with matters of State as well as the baleful results of building his estate, Nero began a dalliance (was seduced by (?)) Poppaea Sabina soon after Agrippina’s murder. Poppaea was some eight years older than Nero, the wife of a close friend – Marcus Salvius Otho. It was said that Poppaea married Otho, widely believed to be gay, only as the means to an end, that end being Nero.

Per Tacitus, Poppaea “possessed every (feminine) asset except goodness. Advantage dictated the bestowal of her favors.” At some point in the next year or two after the arrival of Poppaea, Acte retired from Rome, leaving in much better circumstances than she had arrived. Like Seneca, she had prospered mightily during her years at Nero’s side. Acte, the former slave girl, retired to extensive estates in the Italian countryside and on the island of Sardinia.

Did Nero and Acte still have affection for each other? Again, we can only speculate. The evidence supports their love for each other, but Nero was a teen age boy. Lou Christie ‘s chauvinistic hit from the 1960’s, “Lightning Strikes”, speaks to the teenage male’s mind:

“Listen to me, baby, you gotta understand

You’re old enough to know the makings of a man

Nature’s takin’ over my one-track mind

Believe it or not, you’re in my heart all the time

If she’s put together fine

And she’s readin’ my mind

I can’t stop

I can’t stop myself

Lightning’s striking again”

Nero’s marriage to a freedwoman, a former slave, was never going to happen. Acte certainly knew that. Given her life as a slave and courtesan, she was no dewy eyed ingenue. One suspects they both understood that life for Acte was fragile, with or without the arrival of Poppaea. There was a long history of fatal accidents in “questionable” circumstances for those around Nero.

There is an inscription in the city of Pisa in a public building donated by Acte. She prays that Nero’s love for her not be lost and that his marriage to Poppaea be prevented. In another incident, Poppaea herself had cast aspersions on Acte, with report of it made to Nero. Evidently both enraged and beguiled by Poppaea, Nero expressed his conflicted emotions by promptly banishing Poppaea’s husband, Otho.

It is likely that Seneca, the voice of political calculation in Nero’s ear, weighed in with unassailable logic on Nero’s affairs of the heart. Just as Henry VIII fifteen centuries later, Nero needed a legitimate son of noble birth, an heir, or he would be forever shaky on the throne. Having a son from her first marriage, Poppaea, for all her faults, met the bill. She was a noble woman, proven to be fertile, and unlike his present wife, she excited Nero’s libido. For 2 years after Acte’s departure, Poppaea was Nero’s mistress, but eventually Nero divorced his wife, Octavia, for her “barrenness”. Within a few days, Nero was married to Poppaea, a woman of noble birth.

But loose ends are always a problem. They unravel at the worst possible moment and Octavia was a loose end. Octavia seems to have been a meek and gentle soul, at least by the standards of her family and as such, she was popular with the people. There is a bit of the Princess Diana/Prince Charles vibe to Octavia/Nero.

In addition, there were powerful people in the Court at risk of losing influence with Octavia’s divorce and they would not go down without a fight. They were bitter enemies of Poppaea. Poppaea was no fool and she wanted, she needed, a more permanent solution to the loose end of Octavia:

“Tacitus — Dominating Nero as his wife, as she had dominated him as his mistress, Poppaea incited one of Octavia’s household to accuse Octavia of adultery with a slave”

Adultery by the wife of the Emperor was treason, punishable by death, unless of course you were Agrippina cuckolding Claudius. Accusations flew, but Octavia was such a virtuous young girl that the charges simply weren’t credible, even by the lax standards of the Imperial Court. No doubt advised by Seneca, Nero dithered at passing judgment. Pressure mounted but Octavia was probably being measured for an eventual coffin.

But there was a fly in the soup. Just as in the present day, the urban masses are prone to riot when provoked. Upon the slave’s spurious charge of adultery, Octavia’s supporters proceeded to provoke a mob looking for an excuse. Recent experience has proven once again to modern America that rioting can be a pleasurable experience for the self-righteous, the idle and the larcenous. Our “George Floyd experience” gives evidence of just how easily it can happen.

America’s CEO’s taking a knee before the righteous warriors of BLM gave us a glimpse into how easily moved the great and powerful can be. Large scale rioting in Rome over the divorce caused Nero to recant, pledging to divorce Poppaea and remarry Octavia. But Poppaea was not without courage or bravado. Tacitus’s description of her dominating power over Nero was no hyperbole. She put steel in Nero’s backbone, the army was called in and the streets flowed with blood. The rioters were dispersed and Nero recanted his recantation.

Poppaea was secure again but:

“Tacitus — Always a savage hater, she was now mad with fear of mass violence and Nero’s capitulation to it.”

Poppaea needed a permanent solution. Not just Poppaea, but everyone, everyone who mattered.  As things now stood, the stability of Nero’s reign rested upon a resolution to the “Octavia problem”. The capitol offense of adultery was a promising solution, but a “credible” accuser must be found. Easily promoted accusations of adultery with a household slave just weren’t going to work. From this distance, one can see the hand of Seneca spinning his web, solving another problem for Nero.

The admiral commanding the nearby Coast Guard base was summoned. This was the ever faithful servant, Anicetus, he of the booby trapped boat and Agrippina’s executioner. He had been promoted for his work, but had since been shunned by Nero and the good people of the Imperial Court. Tacitus provides the reason, “for the sight of a former accomplice in terrible crimes is a reproach.”

Anicetus is summoned to a meet with Nero and his advisors, no doubt Seneca and Poppaea chief among them. They promised him great rewards by confessing adultery with Octavia, and a subsequent luxurious retirement. On the other hand, “refusal would mean death”. One wonders, did Hillary ever summon James Comey or Bob Mueller to a similar meeting, or perhaps were they the ones calling a meeting with the New York Times editors?

Given his two options, Anicetus made the logical choice. Summoned before a “council of state . . . . Anicetus even exceeding his instructions”. He retired to Sardinia in comfortable exile and “died a natural death”. While one can cast aspersions at the character of Anicetus, he is one of the very very few in this place and time of which it can be said “died a natural death”.

As a result of Anicetus’ accusation “exceeding his instructions”, Octavia was promptly exiled to Corsica where she would meet her fate. No accidental death under “questionable” circumstances, out of the Roman mob’s sight she would be executed for “treasonous adultery”.

“Tacitus — No exiled woman ever earned greater sympathy from those who saw her. . . Octavia had virtually died on her wedding day. . . . But Octavia was bound, and all her veins were opened. However, her terror retarded the flow of blood. So she was put into an exceedingly hot vapor bath and suffocated . . . . Her head was cut off and taken to Rome for Poppaea to see.”

Nero and Poppaea were now together, married in a replay of Agrippina and Claudius’s marriage, a weak Emperor married to a powerful ambitious woman for political reasons. For Seneca, real life was mirroring his tragic plays, or was it the other way around? Agrippina died at the hands of assassins sent by her son. Poppaea would suffer a similar fate, though Seneca would not live to see it.

Nero continued his descent into madness. Increasingly out of control, resentful of those seeking to control or influence, now most especially Seneca. Rome a snake pit, ruled by a megalomaniac advised by quarreling jackals, a volatile and angry urban mass, an army holding ultimate power but led by generals jockeying for advantage.

And then on the 19th of July 64 AD, the great fire happened.

“Tacitus —  Of Rome’s fourteen districts only four remained intact. Three were leveled to the ground. The other seven were reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins. . . . But Nero profited by his country’s ruin to build a new palace.”

Needless to say, Nero building a new grandiose palace over vast areas of burnt homes did not go over well with a lot of people. There was widespread unrest. Attempting to placate the mob, Nero (Seneca?) enacted the 1st Century version of President Biden’s Build Back Better Act. The treasury poured out its accumulated wealth in a flood of largesse.

But still in spite of unprecedented spending (Covid stimulus checks?), there was great anger:

“Tacitus — neither human resources, nor imperial spending, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated (by Nero to build his new palace). To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called).”

This is the time of the Apostles Paul and Peter’s death, martyrs to the faith. Church tradition is that Paul was beheaded, while Peter was crucified – upside down. In their horrible deaths they were not alone. Many other Christians died in equally grotesque fashion:

“Tacitus — Their (Christians) 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 after death as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer.”

But scapegoating is a dangerous ploy. It works until it doesn’t and then it can backfire. With Nero, it backfired. “Tacitus — The victims were pitied for it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality.”

Rome’s Imperial Court spiraled even further into lunacy as the city grew increasingly violent. The vast sums of money being spent were as carrion to the vultures of Nero’s court.  As Rome had no police force (or fire department), unlike in our own time there was no widespread call to “Defund the Police”. Instead, the army was increasingly used to maintain order fatally infecting it with the virulent virus of the city’s madness. The army’s politicization would rebound to immense harm — for everyone.

Rome was on a gold standard and while the bureaucracy was awash in compliant Janet Yellen’s, Rome had no Federal Reserve. Rome couldn’t print money for the Build Back Better Act. The wild spending in Rome needed to placate the urban mob and satisfy the vultures had to be found somewhere.  In a curious parallel to today’s political divides between urban Adorables and rural Deplorables, Tacitus writes  – “Meanwhile Italy (flyover country) was ransacked for funds, and the provinces were ruined”.

Seneca, no doubt saw the need for and was a prime mover in “raising taxes” as it were. In the absence of a compliant Federal Reserve, somebody had to pay for this spending. But he also saw its incendiary nature. Perhaps he took a page from Joe Manchin’s playbook:

“Tacitus — Seneca, rumor went, sought to avoid the odium of this outrage by asking leave to retire to a distant country retreat, and then – permission being refused – feigning a muscular complaint and keeping to his bedroom.”

Rumors, plots and cabals linking various combinations of scoundrels, miscreants, rascals and the occasional patriot swirled. Practitioners in the art of poisons were much sought after as the incidence of suspicious deaths reached crisis levels. Seneca found himself at the top of a very unstable pyramid, now forced to make his play in the final moves of a high stakes Jenga game.

Seneca was then approached by a well known lawyer; Gaius Calpurnius Piso, a very high ranking noble of illustrious family, well liked and of great reputation. Piso asked Seneca to join a cabal of plotters, pledged to remove Nero. The plotters were a distinguished and competent group of army officers, Imperial senators and respected citizens. Upon Nero’s death, Piso would become Emperor, with Seneca as a senior advisor.

Seneca, as was his habit, declined to make a choice. He told Piso that he would not join the plot, but had no objection to it and would remain silent. Undeterred, Piso’s plot moved forward with plans to assassinate Nero at the public games.

But the day before the games, one of the plotters, Flavius Scaevinus, directed one of his slaves to sharpen his dagger as well as prepare bandages and styptics for wounds. Scaevinus had requested the honor of being the first to strike a blow and wanted his blade to be razor sharp.

That same night Scaevinus hosted an elaborate dinner, revising his will, giving his favorite slaves money and in some cases, their freedom. The knife sharpening slave, pushed by his wife to do so, took the knife and went to the palace. The bureaucracy hampered his efforts, but he eventually got in front of Nero and told him all he knew.

Through the years of chaos and intrigue, the Praetorian Guard had remained loyal to Nero, perhaps out of loyalty to the memory of Germanicus, perhaps simply the conservatism of common soldiers. I suspect they were hesitant to upset the system providing so many pecuniary rewards for those with swords in a city endemic with pervasive graft. Hearing the accusations of the slave, Nero called out his loyal soldiers, the Guard, to investigate at the house of Scaevinus.

Scaevinus was calm in the face of the soldiers and the accusations, batting away the allegations with a suave aplomb. The accusing slave, one Milichus, unable to refute his master now faced reprisal. But Milichus’ wife, speaking up, remembered that Scaevinus had met with another noble, Antonius Natalis, the day before. Upon questioning, Antonius Natalis was not so brave or adroit as Scaevinus. Antonis broke down and confessed, naming names and much else.

In a short time, the executioners came for Seneca. Seneca’s name was not on the list of named conspirators, but even so, Nero was suspicious. Natalis simply mentioned a visit, but Nero (Poppaea) saw an opportunity to rid their councils of Seneca’s sanctimony. The Obama Administration did not invent the phrase “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.

Guilty or not, what goes around comes around and it was time for Seneca to exit the stage. Even as he had repeatedly acquiesced, descending on a slippery slope to the ever more debauched needs of Nero, Seneca’s voice of “high-minded guidance” grated on the out of control psychopathic Nero and his ambitious wife, ever more drunk on power.

An officer, Gavius Silvanus, and a squad of the Praetorian Guard were sent to Seneca’s villa just outside Rome to demand an answer from Seneca as to the accusation of treason. With soldiers surrounding the villa, the tribune went in, accosting Seneca dining with his wife and two friends.

Seneca denied any part in the conspiracy, going so far as to say that he had denied the conspirators’ petition to visit with him. He further indignantly invoked his reputation for honesty and blunt speech, even to Nero himself. He sent Silvanus away saying, “Tacitus – He (Nero) has had more frankness than servility from Seneca”.

Silvanus returned to Nero, as well as Poppaea, and reported the conversation. Nero asked if Seneca had appeared to be nervous or afraid – Might he commit suicide? Silvanus replied that Seneca had been calm and collected, the bearing of an innocent man seeing no need to end his own life.  Upon hearing this, Silvanus was ordered to go back and execute Seneca.

Silvanus was greatly disturbed at this assignment. Instead of returning to Seneca’s villa, he detoured to the headquarters of the Praetorian Guard and spoke to its general and his commanding officer, Faenius Rufus. Silvanus asked if he should obey this order and the general (a so far undiscovered co-conspirator) replied:

“Tacitus – with that ineluctable weakness which they all (the plotters) revealed, told him to obey. For Silvanus was himself one of the conspirators – and now he was adding to the crimes which he had conspired to avenge.”

So one of the conspirators, Gavius Silvanus, was ordered by another conspirator Faenius Rufus, to tell an innocent man, Seneca, he had been given a death sentence. Both Silvanus and Rufus joined the conspiracy to avenge the deaths of Nero’s many innocent victims. And now returning, Silvanus carried out his orders to kill an innocent man.

Seneca would be allowed to commit suicide as it would make everyone’s life easier. If he chose suicide, Seneca would be allowed to finish his dinner, saying goodbye to wife and friends in a way of his own choosing. Choosing suicide, Seneca engaged in a soliloquy, reminding his dinner companions of his life’s moral worth, exhorting them to remain true to the philosophy of his life. One wonders if Seneca saw the irony in his final words and his life as he had actually lived. He ended the evening with these words:

“Tacitus — Who knew not Nero’s cruelty? After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor.”

Seneca had no doubt expected this outcome and planned for it. He would drink an already prepared glass of hemlock, determined to copy the suicide of the great philosopher Socrates. Again, one wonders if Seneca saw any irony between his own life choices and Socrates’ exemplary life devoted to truth, a life he had consciously sought to model. Seneca drank the glass of hemlock, but evidently a man believing in both belt and suspenders, decided to cut his veins with a knife as well.

Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, asked to join him in death and they cut the veins on their arms together. Watching his wife’s pain, Seneca directed they be taken to different rooms that they need not see each other suffer. Once apart, his wife would be bandaged and saved, perhaps an act of atonement for his “ineluctable weakness” by Silvanus.

And so ended the life of a tortured individual, a man who aspired to live a worthy and noble life, but one who chose to wallow in the sordid filth of corruption and squalor in the service of ambition. The title of James Romm’s recent biography of Seneca is an apt epitaph, “Dying Every Day; Seneca at the Court of Nero”.

A contemporary of Tacitus was Marcus Fabius Quintillianus, known to us Quintilian. He lived in Northern Spain, coming to Rome and serving in the Imperial bureaucracy of the Emperor Vespasian a year after the death of Nero. A perceptive man, he used Seneca as an example to those he advised:

“There is much we should approve in him (Seneca), much that we should even admire . . . but his style (actions) is for the most part corrupt and extremely dangerous because it abounds in attractive faults. Take care in making a choice. If only he (Seneca) had taken care.”

Seneca’s death marked the beginning of a reign of terror in the City of Rome. Like Paris during the Terror of the French Revolution, The Cultural Revolution of Mao’s China or the Soviet Union’s Show Trials during the time of Lenin and Stalin, people informed on each other in a spirit of fear or greed or simply spite. Even as they were dragged away to be executed or tortured, the doomed souls heaped praise on their killers, seeking to protect their loved ones from a similar fate.

Seneca had a younger brother Mela, one who came to Rome but chose not to follow Seneca and Gallio into “public service”. But he did not escape either, falsely accused by a debtor seeking to escape his obligation, “Tacitus — Mela died in the fashionable way, opening his veins”. Seneca’s other brother, Gallio, died in similar fashion. Seneca earlier described his brother Gallio as “uncommonly amiable and upright”, a man who had saved the life of the Apostle Paul by simply being an honest administrator back in Corinth.

“Tacitus — Line after line of chained men were dragged to their destination at the gates to Nero’s Gardens. When they were brought in to be interrogated, guilt was deduced from affability to a conspirator, or a chance conversation or meeting . . .

Executions now abounded in the city. . . Men who had lost their sons, or brothers, or other kinsmen or friends, thanked the gods and decorated their houses with laurel, and fell before Nero, kissing his hand incessantly.”

Poppaea did not light the fire of violent insanity in Nero now engulfing the city. She was rather a can of gasoline poured onto that flame. But one must be very careful, fire often burns the fingers of those who feed it. Poppaea was soon caught up in the flames herself. Pregnant with Nero’s long awaited heir, he kicked her in her belly causing her to hemorrhage, bleeding to death. Nero had grown tired of her constant nagging.

Seneca had once told Nero “No matter how many you kill, you can’t kill your successor”. During his reign Nero had done his best to prove his old tutor, advisor and procurer wrong. The line of the Julio-Claudian Emperors that began with Julius Caesar, Nero’s family both near and extended, was officially extinct. Any shirt tail relative, no matter how distant or incidental, had been sought out and killed.

With no one alive having any possible hereditary claim to the throne, Nero remained as Emperor for three years after the death of Seneca. They were years of violence, of intrigue, of moral debasement, occasionally lit by scenes of dark comedy. Nero toured the Empire playing the harp, entering musical contests – winning them all. Déjà vu – Bill Clinton playing saxophone on Arsenio Hall.

But it had to end. The men of the army of the frontier legions finally had enough and rebellion came. The Praetorian Guard had been competent enough keeping the city of Rome in line, subdued and acquiescent to the insanity of Nero. But the actual fighting legions, the legions on the frontier, were something else. The Praetorians had been secure, strutting around the city, exercising the power of their sword, but with the approach of legionary combat troops – “well let’s not be fools”.

With the rebellion of the frontier legions, the toothless Roman Senate saw the writing on the wall and declared Nero a public enemy. A sleepless Nero walking the palace one night found the guards gone. A delegation of officers from the Praetorian Guard came next morning, inviting him to commit suicide. Running for his life he came to a villa outside Rome where he holed up in unintentional parody of Seneca’s demise.

Eventually Nero was betrayed. As a cavalry column approached, he summoned his courage and in panic, stuck a knife in his throat. It was a painful and bloody wound, but not fatal. It was left to one of his servants, hearing his piteous pleas, to take the knife still jutting into his throat and saw open the wound into a larger and fatal cut.

“Suetonius – He died, with eyes glazed and bulging from their sockets, a sight which horrified everybody present.”

The Imperial family founded by Julius Caesar was gone. Julius Caesar had been assassinated on the Ides of March 113 years before. His nephew, Octavian, had founded the Empire in the bloody waters of Actium 13 years later.  The Roman Empire had been ruled for a century by their descendants. With the exception of Augustus and Tiberius, each and every one had died violent deaths. Now they were all gone.

What is known to history as The Year of the Four Emperors followed. The muscle of Rome’s armies, the frontier legions, each acclaimed their generals as Emperor and marched on Rome.

Remember Otho, Poppaea’s former husband previously exiled to Spain? He traveled back to Rome in company with Livius Galba who commanded the legions stationed in Spain. Galba, first to Rome, was declared Emperor upon his arrival. But Otho had learned a trick or two at the feet of Nero, Seneca, Agrippina and Poppaea. Meeting secretly with various conspirators, Galba’s head was soon to be found on a stake in the Roman Forum.

Otho was proclaimed Emperor in his place by Galba’s legions. But Aulus Vitellius, general of the legions along the Rhine, was on his way south to Rome as well. The Rhine legions were greatly feared boogeymen as they faced off against the Germans along the Rhine. Otho met Vitellius’s legions at the Battle of Bedriacum near the city of Cremona in Northern Italy and was defeated. The Rhine legions were indeed worthy of their fearsome reputation. Otho committed suicide shortly thereafter with Vitellius becoming the year’s third Emperor.

Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of the Empire in the Province of Judea, events proceeded as well. Titus Flavius Vespasian had been engaged in the siege of Jerusalem. You might remember earlier mention of Vespasian as the IIst Legion’s general, spearheading the invasion of Britannia in 43 AD.

On July 3 of 69 AD, Vespasian is proclaimed Imperator by his troops in Judea, shortly thereafter joined by the legions of the entire eastern Empire. Leaving his son Titus to continue the siege of Jerusalem, Vespasian moves north. In a series of engagements, Vitellius is pushed back to Rome and Vespasian’s troops enter the city. A brutal street battle between two Roman armies and their partisans ensues with tens of thousands civilians killed in the city.

The fighting is ended when Vitellius is assassinated with Vespasian becoming the year’s fourth, and final, Emperor. The son of a tax collector in Northern Italy, Vespasian had a blue-chip military career but had run afoul of the Emperor Claudius’s wife, Agrippina. You might remember her as Nero’s mother. As a result of her enmity, he had retired to private life. Upon her murder, he had been recalled and made governor of North Africa.

In North Africa, he confounded normal practice by making friends instead of money, even though he was somewhat “money short” at the time. But those friends would be infinitely more valuable to him in the future as we remember how all the legions of the Eastern Empire declared for him rather than another. Recalled from a successful governorship in Africa, Vespasian joined Nero’s court but soon fell once more into disfavor. It is reported that he would fall asleep during Nero’s musical performances.

In 66 AD, the Great Jewish Revolt erupted in the province of Judea. The annihilation of a legion, the XIIth Fulminata, at the Battle of Beth Horon convinced the Imperial Court that a talented and experienced general was needed to stave off disaster. Once more Vespasian was pressed into service despite, or perhaps because of, his tendency to nod off during Nero’s recitals.

In May of 67 AD, Vespasian landed in the port of Acre with some 20,000 men. He brought three combat tested legions, Vth Macedonia, XVth Apollinaris and the most celebrated of them all, Xth Fretensis. The Xth enjoying a reputation much like our own 101st Airborne or the UK’s Black Watch, having begun service as Julius Caesar’s own legion.

Vespasian, joining with another 40,00 auxiliary troops gathered from nearby Roman provinces by his son Titus, proceeded to fight a bitter and dirty war in Judea. He gradually rolled up the Jewish resistance ending in a siege of their sacred city, Jerusalem. It was in this time that Vespasian took one Joseph Ben Mathias, a captured Jewish resistance leader, under his wing. Taking the name of his patron, Flavius Josephus, or simply Josephus, wrote a detailed history of his times and the history of the Jews, an invaluable historical reference much relied upon up to the present day.

Upon becoming Emperor, Vespasian restored sanity to the Imperial Court, restructured the finances of the Empire and drained drama from the political scene. In contrast to the extravagances of Nero, Vespasian was a sensible down to earth man. In fact during his period in exile, he had acquired the nickname “the muleteer” for his ability to breed and trade mules.

Vespasian was known for his wit and becoming ways. He was parsimonious, many said a cheapskate even. But he was also a generous man to those he felt deserving, particularly to those suffering from misfortune. He had a sense of humor, a rare trait in Roman Emperors. Previous Emperors had been declared gods upon their death. Joking about this practice, it is reported that Vespasian’s last words on his death bed were “Dear me, I think I am becoming a god”.

His son Titus finished the siege of Jerusalem, leveling Herod’s Second Temple – a national disaster mourned by Jews ever since. On my first trip to the City of Rome, I remember walking to the ruins of the Roman Forum along the Via Sacra. Passing beside the Arch of Titus, erected by Titus to commemorate the fall of Jerusalem, a special memory is catching sight of the prominently displayed menorah on that Arch. A reverberation across twenty centuries between Rome of the Caesars and our Christian heritage.

Upon Vespasian’s death – from natural causes – Titus became Emperor. In his few years as Emperor, he gave great promise of becoming one of Rome’s truly great Emperors. But Titus died an untimely and much lamented death. He was succeeded by Vespasian’s other son, Domitian. Sadly for Rome and everyone else alive at the time, Domitian was no Titus.

Whatever became of Acte, a now wealthy gentlewoman retired to her estates in the provinces? The ancient sources do not speak of her once she left the court of Nero except for one final appearance in Suetonius.

Upon Nero’s death, his body was unclaimed, abandoned in neglect and left to rot. Until Acte once more appears. Tacitus’s account of Nero’s death has been lost, but Suetonius provides detail.

“They laid Nero on his pyre; dressed in the gold-embroidered white robes which he had worn on January 1. The funeral cost 2,000 gold pieces. Ecloge and Alexandria, his old nurses, helped Acte, his mistress, to carry the remains to the Pincian Hill . . . .”

Acte, who came to Rome a slave, was the only person showing kindness to the memory of Nero upon his death, giving him a “proper burial” and paying the bills for the funeral. The “2,000 gold pieces” mentioned were worth 200,000 sesterces, a sesterce being the typical day wage for a laborer.

Given her rise in the world, perhaps 2,000 gold pieces were a small price to pay. But she did more than pay the bill. She, along with two nurses were the pall bearers at his funeral. I hope that the traditions of the Church are true, as I would very much like to listen to her story someday. Perhaps she might go along with me to the “video room” and narrate. Of course, I would only go if my wife approves.

Acte is a woman who endured much, riding a roller coaster from slavery to wealth, facing gut wrenching dangers in the sordid and soul crushing life forced upon her. But this incident whispers that through it all she kept her soul intact. Perhaps she, and those like her in the early Church, are the reason Christianity endured through vicious persecution, but its winsome life affirming example changed the world. Perhaps Tacitus got it wrong, maybe the “sweetness of Acte’s soul established her ascendency”.

One cannot read through Tacitus, through Suetonius, through Cassius Dio without seeing the parallels with our own time, our own Imperial Court in Washington DC, in London, in Toronto and Sydney. The names are different, but floating offal like Jeffrey Epstein, Hunter Biden, Ghislaine Maxwell, Monica Lewinsky assure us that the sinful passions detailed by Tacitus et.alia are no different.

As the Prophet Jeremiah put it:

“The heart is deceitful above all things,

And desperately wicked,

Who can know it?”



2 Responses to “Acte – A Strong Woman in the Court of Nero”

  1. Jeffrey N Esbenshade says:




  2. Dave W says:

    That was quite an account of the early Roman Empire. Thanks for your historical work. The political intrigue was interesting and saddening.

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