(First Century A.D.)
The Scene is laid throughout in different apartments of the palace of Nero, and is concerned with the events of the year 62 a. D.
OCTAVIA Now doth flushing dawn drive the wandering stars from heaven; with radiant beams the sun arises and gives the world once more the light of day. On then, with all thy woes weighed down, resume thy now accustomed plaints and outwail the sea-bred Halcyons, out-wail the birds of old Pandion's house; for more grievous is thy lot than theirs. O mother, constant source of tears to me, first cause of my misfortunes, hearken to thy daughter's sad complaints, if any consciousness remains among the shades. Oh, that the ancient Clotho with her own hand had clipped my threads before sadly I saw thy wounds, thy face with foul gore besmeared! O light, ever calamitous to me, from that time, O light, thou art more hateful than the dark! We have endured a cruel step-dame's [Agrippina] orders, her hostile spirit and her aspect fierce. 'Twas she, 'twas she, the baleful fury, who bore the Stygian torches to my bridal chamber, and quenched thy light, O wretched father, whom but yesterday the whole world obeyed, even beyond Ocean's bounds, before whom the Britons [Claudius had made an expedition to Britain in 43 A.D.] fled, erstwhile to our leaders all unknown and unsubdued. Alas, my father, by thy wife's plots thou liest crushed, and thy house together with thy child bends to a tyrant's [Nero] will.
[Exit to her chamber. Enter nurse.]
NURSE Whoso, overpowered by the novel
splendor and the frail blessings of deceitful royalty, stands awestruck and amazed, lo,
beneath the sudden blow of lurking Fate, let
him behold, overthrown, the house and stock of Claudius, but now all
powerful, under whose rule the whole world was brought, whom the Ocean,
long to sway unknown, obeyed and, all unwillingly, received
his ships. Lo, he who first on the Britons set a yoke, who covered
unknown floods with his mighty fleets, who was safe midst tribes
barbaric, midst raging seas, by his wife's [Agrippina] crime is fallen; she soon
by her son's hand fell; and by his poison lies my brother
The unhappy sister [i.e.. step-sister, Octavia; she was
also Nero's sister hy
OCTAVIA [heard speaking from her chamber]
O fate of mine, to be matched by no misfortunes, though I recall thy woes, Electra. Thou couldst weep out thy grief for thy father's murder, couldst take vengeance on the crime with thy brother as avenger, whom thy love snatched from the foe and thy faithful care protected; but me fear forbids to mourn my parents reft from me by cruel fate, forbids to bewail my brother's taking off, in whom was my sole hope, the fleeting solace of my many woes. And now, saved but to my suffering, I remain, the shadow of a noble name.
NURSE Hark! the voice of my sad foster-child strikes on mine ears. Does thy slow age take thee to her chamber with lagging steps?
[She advances toward the chamber, but is met by OCTAVIA, coming forth.]
OCTAVIA Receive my tears, dear nurse, thou trusty witness of my suffering.
NURSE What day will free thee from thy mighty cares, poor child?
OCTAVIA The day that sends me to the Stygian shades.
NURSE Far from us be the omen of that word, I pray.
OCTAVIA No longer is it thy prayers that shape my life but the fates.
NURSE God in his mercy will bring to thine affliction better days. Do thou but be soothed, and win thy husband with gentle courtesy.
OCTAVIA Sooner shall I win savage lions and fierce tigers, than that savage tyrant's brutal heart. He hates all born of noble blood, scorns gods and men alike; nor can he of himself wield his high fortune which by a monstrous crime his impious mother bestowed on him. Yes! though the ungrateful wretch count it shame to take this empire as his cursed mother's gift, though he requite her mighty gift with death, still will the woman even after death win the fame thereof for ever through unending age.
NURSE Check thou the utterance of thy raging heart; repress the words thou hast poured forth too rashly.
OCTAVIA Though I should endure what must be borne, never could
my woes be ended, save by gloomy death. With my mother slain, my
father by crime snatched from me, robbed of my brother, by
wretchedness and grief overwhelmed, by sorrow crushed, by my husband hated,
and set beneath my slave [Nero, in divorcing Octavia,
alleged adultery as the cause], the sweet light brings no joy to me; for
my heart is ever trembling, not with the fear of death, but of crime
— be crime
NURSE In vain dost thou call upon thy father's ghost, poor girl, in vain, for no care for his child abides amidst the shades with him who to his own son could prefer one born of other blood, and, taking his brother's child to wife, wed her with couch incestuous and gloomy torch. Thence sprung a train of crimes — murders, deceits, the lust for empire, thirst for illustrious blood; as victim offered to the father's marriage bed the son-in-law was slain, lest, wedded to thee he might become too strong. Oh, monstrous crime! To a woman was Silanus given as a boon and with his blood defiled the ancestral gods, charged with a crime that was not his. Then entered the foe, ah me! into the conquered palace, by a step-mother's wiles made an emperor's son-in-law and son withal, a youth of bent unnatural, fertile in crime, whose passion thy cruel mother fanned, and forced thee by fear to wed him, against thy will. Triumphant and emboldened by such success, she dared aspire to the awful empire of the world. Who can rehearse the various forms of crime, the wicked hopes, the cozening wiles of her who by all crimes would mount to empire round by round? Then holy Piety with trembling step withdrew, and raging Fury with baleful feet entered the empty palace, defiled with Stygian torch the holy household-gods, and in mad rage rent nature's laws and all things sacred. The wife for her husband mingled deadly poison, and soon by her son's crime the same wife fell. Thou too dost lie dead, unhappy youth, ever to be mourned by us, but late the world's star, the prop of a noble house, Britannicus, and now, ah me! only light ashes and a mournful shade, over whom even thy step-mother wept, when on the pyre she gave thy body to be burned, and when thy limbs and features, that were like a winged god's, were by the mournful flame consumed.
OCTAVIA Let him [Nero] destroy me also, lest by my hand he fall.
NURSE Nature has not bestowed on thee such strength.
OCTAVIA Anguish, anger, sorrow, wretchedness, grief will bestow it.
NURSE By compliance, rather, win thine unfeeling lord.
OCTAVIA That he may give back to me my brother, wickedly destroyed?
NURSE That thou mayst be thyself unharmed, that one day thou mayst restore thy father's tottering house with sons of thine.
OCTAVIA The royal house expects another son [i.e.Nero's by Poppaea]; me my poor brother's cruel fates drag down.
NURSE Let thy soul be strengthened by the citizens' great love.
OCTAVIA That comforts my woes but does not lighten them.
NURSE The people's power is mighty.
OCTAVIA But the emperor's mightier.
NURSE Of himself will he respect his wife.
OCTAVIA His concubine forbids.
NURSE Surely she is scorned by all.
OCTAVIA But to her husband, dear.
NURSE She is not yet a wife.
OCTAVIA But soon will be, and a mother, too.
NURSE Youthful passion burns fierce at the first rush but readily grows dull, nor long endures in foul adultery, like heat of flickering flame; but a chaste wife's love remains perpetual. She who first dared profane thy bed, and, though a slave, has long held in thrall her master's heart, already herself fears —
OCTAVIA Aye! a more favored mistress.
NURSE — subdued and humble, and gives signs by which she confesses her own great fear. Even her shall winged Cupid, false and fickle god, betray; though she be passing fair, boastful in power, hers shall be but a transitory joy.
The queen of the gods herself like sorrows suffered, when the lord of heaven and father of the gods into all forms changed, and now wings of a swan [to Leda] put on, now the horns of a bull [to Europa] of Sidon, and again in a golden shower [to Danae] poured down; the stars of Leda glitter in the sky, Bacchus on his father's Olympus dwells, Alcides as a god possesses Hebe and now no more fears Juno's wrath; he is her son-in-law who was her enemy. Yet wise compliance and controlled wrath won victory for the queenly wife; without rival, without care does Juno hold the Thunderer on her heavenly couch, and no more does Jupiter, by mortal beauty smitten, desert the court of heaven. Thou too, on earth a second Juno, Augustus' [a surname not only of the first, but of all the Roman emperors. Here, Nero] wife and sister, thy grievous woes overcome.
OCTAVIA Sooner shall savage seas unite with stars, water with fire, heaven with sad Tartarus, the kindly light with darkness, day with the dewy night, than with my accursed husband's impious soul this soul of mine, that ever broods upon my brother's death. And oh, that the lord of the heaven-dwellers, who often shakes the lands with deadly bolt and terrifies our souls with awful fires and portents strange, would make ready to whelm with flames this impious prince. We have seen a glowing radiance in the sky, a comet [a comet actually did appear at this time (Tacitus, Annales, xiv. 22)] spreading its baleful trail, where slow Bootes, numb with Arctic chill, with endless, nightlong wheeling, guides his wain. Lo, by the pestilential breath of this destructive leader the very air is tainted; the stars threaten unheard disasters for the nations which this godless leader rules. Not such a pest was Typhon, whom wrathful mother Earth produced in scorn of Jove; this scourge, worse than he, this enemy of gods and men, has driven the heavenly ones from their shrines, and citizens from their country, from his brother has he reft the breath of life, and drained his mother's blood — and he still sees the light of day, still lives and draws his baneful breath! O high exalted father, why vainly, why so oft at random dost thou hurl thy darts invincible with thine imperial hand? Against one so criminal why is thy right hand stayed? Would that he might pay penalty for his crimes, this spurious Nero, son of Domitius, tyrant of a world he burdens with his shameful yoke, and with foul ways pollutes the name Augustus!
NURSE Unworthy he, I do confess it, to mate with thee; but yield thee to the fates and to thy lot, my child, I beg, nor rouse thy violent husband's wrath. Perchance some god will arise as thine avenger, and a day of happiness will come again.
OCTAVIA Long since has the heavy wrath of the gods pursued our house, which harsh Venus first overwhelmed in my poor mother's madness; for she, already wed, in mad folly wed another [C. Silius] with unholy torch, of me, of her husband forgetful, and regardless of the laws. Against her to that hellish couch, with streaming hair and girt about with snakes, came the avenging Fury and quenched those stolen wedding fires in blood; with rage she inflamed the cruel emperor's heart to impious murder; my ill-starred mother fell, alas, and, by the sword destroyed, overwhelmed me in endless suffering; her husband and her son did she drag down to death [because, after Messalina's death, Claudius married Agrippina who was responsible for the death of Claudius and Britannicus] and shamefully betrayed our fallen house.
NURSE Forbear with weeping to renew thy filial griefs, and vex not thy mother's spirit, who for her madness has grievously atoned. [Exeunt.]
CHORUS What rumor has but now come to our ears? May it
prove false and gain no credence though vainly told over and over;
and may no new wife the emperor's
chamber enter, and may his bride, the child of Claudius, keep her
rightful home, and bring forth sons, pledges of peace, wherein the
untroubled world may rejoice and Rome preserve her everlasting
glory. Her brother's bridal chamber mightiest Juno won and holds; why
is Augustus's sister, made partner of his couch, driven from her
father's house? Of what avail to her is pure devotion, a father
deified, virginity, unblemished chastity? We too, after his death
have quite forgot our leader, and betray his child at the bidding of
sick fear. Right Roman virtue of old our fathers had; in such men was
the true race and blood of Mars. They from this city arrogant
kings expelled, and well did they avenge thy ghost, O virgin
by thy father's hand lest thou shouldst suffer slavery's heavy load,
and lest cruel lust, victorious, should gain its shameless prize. Thee
[Lucretia] also a sad war followed, daughter of Lucretius, slain, poor
girl, by thine own hand, by a brutal tyrant outraged. With Tarquin
Tullia, his wife, paid penalty for crime unspeakable, who, over the
body of her murdered father heartlessly drove her cruel car, and,
mad daughter, refused the mangled old man a funeral-pyre.
This age as well has seen a son's dire crime, when in a deadly bark the prince [Nero] sent his mother out on the Tyrrhene sea, by a trick ensnared. At his bidding the sailors make haste to leave the peaceful port and, smit by the oars, the sea resounds. The vessel is borne far out upon the deep; and there, with loosened timbers, sinking, overwhelmed, it yawns wide and drinks in the sea. A mighty outcry rises to the stars, mingled with shrieks of women. Death stalks dire before the eyes of all; each for himself seeks refuge from destruction; some cling naked to planks of the broken ship and face the floods, while others, swimming, seek to gain the shore; fate plunges many into the depths below. Augusta [i.e. Agrippina] rends her garments and tears her hair and waters her cheeks with grieving tears.
At last, with hope of safety gone, blazing with anger and now overcome with woe, she cries; "Such reward as this for my great boon, O son, dost thou return me? Worthy am I of this ship, I do confess, who brought thee forth, who gave thee light and empire and the name of Caesar, fool that I was. Thrust forth thy face from Acheron, and glut thee with my punishment, O husband; I caused thy death, poor soul, was the author of thy son's destruction, and lo, as I have merited, to thy ghost am I now borne unburied, whelmed in the cruel waters of the sea."
Even while she speaks the waves wash over her lips, and down into the deep she plunges; anon she rises from the briny weight and with her hands, fear driving her, lashes the sea; but soon, outwearied, gives over the struggle. There still lived in secret hearts fidelity which scorned the grim fear of death. Many to their mistress dare bring aid, when her strength is exhausted by the sea, and, as she drags her arms, though sluggishly, along, with their voices cheer her and lift her with their hands. But what availed it to have escaped the waters of the cruel sea? By the sword of thine own son thou art to die, to whose crime scarce will posterity, slowly will all future ages, give belief. He rages and grieves that his mother, snatched from the sea, still lives, the impious monster, and heaps huge guilt on guilt; bent on his wretched mother's death, he brooks no stay of crime. Sent to the task, his creature works his will, and with the sword lays open his mistress' breast. The unhappy woman, dying, begs her murderer to sheathe his fell sword within her womb: "'Tis this, 'tis this that must with the sword be pierced, which gave such monster birth!" After such utterance, with a dying groan commingled, at length through the cruel wound she yielded her sad ghost.
SENECA [alone] Why, potent Fortune, with false, flattering looks, hast high exalted me when contented with my lot, that, raised to a lofty pinnacle, in heavier ruin I might fall, and might look out upon so many fears? Better was I hid, far out of the reach of envy's sting, midst the crags of Corsica, facing on the sea, where my spirit, free and its own lord, had ever time to contemplate my favorite themes. Oh, 'twas joy — a joy surpassing anything to which mother Nature, contriver of this fabric infinite, hath given birth, to gaze upon the heavens, the sun's sacred chariot, the motions of the universe and the sun's recurring rounds, and the orb of Phoebe, which the wandering stars encircle, and the far effulgent glory of the mighty sky. If this sky is growing old, doomed wholly once more to fall into blind nothingness, then for the universe is that last day at hand which shall crush sinful man beneath heaven's ruin, that so once more a reborn and better world may bring forth a new race such as she bore in youth, when Saturn [in the Golden Age] held the kingdoms of the sky. Then did that virgin, Justice [i.e. Astraea], goddess of mighty sway, from heaven sent down with holy Faith to earth, rule with mild sway the race of men. No wars the nations knew, no trumpet's threatening blasts, no arms, nor were they used to surround their cities with a wall: open to all was the way, in common was the use of every thing; and the glad Earth herself willingly laid bare her fruitful breast, a mother happy and safe amid such duteous nurslings.
But another race arose which proved less gentle; another yet, cunning in unknown arts, but holy still; then came a restless race, which dared pursue the wild beasts in the chase, draw fish from their coverts beneath the sea with weighted net or slender rod, catch birds, on a strong leash hold unruly dogs, force headstrong bullocks to endure the yoke, furrow the earth which had never felt the plow, and which, now thus outraged, had hidden her fruits deeper in her sacred bosom. But into its mother's bowels did that degenerate age intrude; it dug out heavy iron and gold, and soon did it arm savage hands for war. Marking out boundaries, it established kingdoms, built cities, hitherto unknown, guarded its own dwellings or, bent on booty, with weapons attacked another's. Away from earth that scorned her, from the wild ways of men and hands defiled with bloody slaughter, fled the maid, Astraea, chief glory of the firmament. Lust for war increased and hunger for gold throughout the world; luxury arose, deadliest of ills, a luring pest, which acquired strength and force by long use and grievous error. These sins, through many ages gathering, are overflowing upon us; a heavy age weighs us down, wherein crime is regnant, impiety runs mad, all-potent lust lords it with shameless love, and triumphant luxury has long with greedy hands been clutching the world's unbounded stores — that she may squander them.
[NERO is seen approaching.]
But see, with startled step and savage mien Nero approaches. At thought of what he brings I tremble.
[Enfer NERO, followed by a Prefect.]
NERO [to Prefect] Go do my bidding; send one to slay me Plautus and Sulla and bring back their severed heads.
PREFECT Thy bidding will I do: to the camp forthwith I'll take me. [Exit.]
SENECA 'Tis not becoming to proceed rashly against one's friends.
NERO 'Tis easy to be just when the heart is free from fear.
SENECA A sovereign cure for fear is clemency.
NERO To destroy foes is a leader's greatest virtue.
SENECA For the father of his country to save citizens, is greater still.
NERO A mild old man should give schooling to boys.
SENECA More needful 'tis that fiery youth be ruled.
NERO I deem that at this age we are wise enough.
SENECA May thy deeds be ever pleasing to the gods.
NERO Foolish I'd be to fear the gods, when I myself make them. [Referring to his own act in deifying the late Claudius.]
SENECA Fear thou the more, that so great power is thine.
NERO My fortune doth allow all things to me.
SENECA Indulgent fortune trust more cautiously; she is a fickle goddess.
NERO 'Tis a dullard's part not to know what he may do.
SENECA 'Tis praiseworthy to do, not what one may, but what one ought.
NERO Him who lies down the crowd trample on.
SENECA Him whom they hate, they crush.
NERO The sword protects the prince.
SENECA Still better, loyalty.
NERO A Caesar should be feared.
SENECA But more be loved.
NERO But men must fear —
SENECA What is compelled is burdensome.
NERO Let them obey our orders.
SENECA Give righteous orders —
NERO I shall myself decide.
SENECA which the general thought may ratify.
NERO Reverence for the sword will ratify them.
SENECA May heaven forbid!
NERO Shall I then go on suffering them to seek my blood, that, unavenged and scorned, I may suddenly be crushed? Exile has not broken Plautus and Sulla, though far removed, whose persistent rage arms the agents of their guilt to work my death, since still, though absent, great is the favor they enjoy in this our city, which nurtures the exiles' hopes. Let the sword remove foemen whom I suspect; let my hateful wife perish and follow the brother whom she loves. Whatever is high exalted, let it fall.
SENECA 'Tis glorious to tower aloft amongst great men, to have care for father-land, to spare the downtrodden, to abstain from cruel bloodshed, to be slow to wrath, give quiet to the world, peace to one's time. This is virtue's crown, by this way is heaven sought. So did that first Augustus, his country's father, gain the stars, and is worshipped in the temples as a god. Yet him did Fortune toss for long on land and sea in battle's deadly chances, until his father's foes he overwhelmed. But to thee hath she yielded her divinity, unstained of blood; hath with easy hand given thee the reins of government, and to thy nod subjected lands and seas. Sour hate, overcome, hath yielded in loyal harmony; the senate's favor and the knights' is warm toward thee; and by the people's prayers and the judgment of the Fathers, thou art the source of peace, the arbiter of human destinies, chosen to rule the world with godlike mien, the country's father. This name Rome prays thee to preserve, and to thy care commends her citizens.
the gift of heaven that Rome herself and the senate are subject unto
me, and that from unwilling lips prayers and servile words are
extorted by fear of me. To preserve citizens, to ruler and fatherland alike oppressive, puffed up with pride of race — what folly
is it, when with a word one may give to death those he suspects?
Brutus for the murder of his chief, to whom he owed his safety, armed
his hands; and Caesar, invincible in battle shock, tamer of
nations, walking, a very Jove, along the upward path of honors, died
by the unspeakable crime of citizens. What streams of her own blood
did Rome then behold, so often rent with strife! He who earned
heaven by piety, the deified Augustus, how many nobles did he put to death, young men and old, scattered throughout ihe
world, when they fled their own homes
through fear of death and the sword of
SENECA With stock celestial will she [Octavia] fill thy halls, she, the daughter of a god [Claudius, by courtesy and custom called divus after death], the Claudian race's glory, who has, like Juno, gained her brother's bed.
NERO A harlot
mother [Messalina] brings her birth in doubt; — and the soul of my wife was
never linked with mine.
SENECA In tender years rarely is love revealed, when, by modesty overcome, it hides its fires.
NERO This truly I, too, myself have vainly trusted long, although clear signs from her unloving heart and face betrayed her hate of me; which to avenge at last my hot grief has resolved. And now I have found a wife worthy of my bed in birth and beauty, to whom Venus, outshone, would yield, and the wife of Jove and the goddess [Minerva] bold in battle.
SENECA But honor, wifely faith, virtue and modesty, should please a husband; for 'tis these only, the treasures of mind and heart, that, subject to none, abide perpetual; but beauty's flower each passing day despoils.
NERO All charms upon one woman has God bestowed,
and such was she born, — so have the fates decreed, — for me.
SENECA Love will depart from thee, be not too credulous.
NERO What? He whom the lightning's lord cannot put off? Heaven's tyrant, who enters the savage seas and the realm of Dis, and draws gods from the sky?
SENECA 'Tis our human ignorance fashions Love a winged god, implacable, and arms with shafts and bow his sacred hands, equips him with blazing torch, and counts him the son of Venus, Vulcan's seed. This "Love" is a mighty force of mind, a fond heat of the soul; 'tis born of youth, 'tis nursed by luxury and ease midst the glad gifts of Fortune; and if thou cease to feed and foster it, it falls away and quickly is its power dead and lost.
NERO This do I deem the chiefest source of life, whence pleasure hath its birth; 'tis a deathless thing, since the human race is evermore renewed by pleasing Love, who softens even savage beasts. May this god bear before me the wedding torch, and with his fire join Poppaea to my bed.
SENECA The people's grief could scarce endure to see such marriage, nor would holy reverence allow it.
NERO Shall I alone be forbidden what all may do?
SENECA Greatest from highest ever the state exacts.
NERO Fain would I make trial whether, broken by my might, this rashly cherished regard would not vanish from their hearts.
SENECA Bend, rather, peacefully to thy people's will.
NERO Ill fares the state when commons govern kings.
SENECA He justly chafes who naught avails by prayer
NERO Is it right to extort what prayer cannot obtain
SENECA To refuse is harsh.
NERO To force a prince is outrage.
SENECA He should himself give way.
NERO But rumor will report him conquered.
SENECA A trivial and empty thing is rumor.
NERO Even so, it disgraces many.
SENECA It fears the high exalted.
NERO But none the less maligns.
SENECA 'Twill easily be crushed. Let the merits of thy sainted father [i.e. his adoptive father, Claudius] break thy will, and thy wife's youth, her faith, her chastity.
NERO Have done at last; already too wearisome has thy insistence grown; permit me to do what Seneca disapproves. Long since am I myself Poppaea's prayers delaying, since in her womb she bears a pledge and part of me. Why not appoint to-morrow for the wedding day? [Exeunt.]
[Enter Ghost of AGRIPPINA bearing a flaming
[She seems to see her husband's ghost.]
Wrathfully doth my dead husband harass my ghost, and with torches attacks my guilty face; pursues me, threatens, charges to me his death and his son's [Britannicus] burial mound, demands the author [Nero] of the murderous deed. Have done; he shall be given; 'tis no long time I seek. The avenging Fury plans for the impious tyrant a worthy doom; blows and base flight and sufferings whereby he may surpass even Tantalus' thirst, the dread toil of Sisyphus, the bird of Tityus and the wheel which whirls Ixion's limbs around. Though in his pride he build him marble palaces and roof them in with gold, though armed guards stand at their chieftain's door, though the beggared world send him its boundless riches, though Parthians in suppliance seek his bloody hand, though kingdoms bring wealth to him; the day and the hour will come when for his crimes he shall pay his guilty soul, shall give his throat to his enemies, abandoned and undone and stripped of all.
Alas! to what end my labor and my prayers? Hath thy frenzy carried thee so far in madness and thy destiny, my son, that the wrath of a mother murdered by thy hand gives way before such woes? Would that, ere I brought thee, a tiny babe, to light, and suckled thee, savage beasts of prey had rent my vitals; then without crime, without sense and innocent, thou wouldst have died — my own; close clinging to my side, thou wouldst forever see the quiet seats of the underworld, thy grandsires and thy sire, heroes of glorious name, whom now shame and grief perpetual await because of thee, thou monster, and of me who bore such son. But why delay to hide my face in Tartarus, as step-dame, mother, wife, a curse unto my own?
[The Ghost vanishes. Enter OCTAVIA.]
OCTAVIA [to the Chorus] Restrain your tears on this glad, festal day of Rome, lest your great love and care for me arouse the emperor's sharp wrath, and I be cause of suffering to you. This wound [i.e. her divorce and disgrace] is not the first my heart has felt; far heavier have I borne; but this day shall end my cares even by my death. No more shall I be forced to look on my brutal husband's face, nor to enter a slave's chamber which I hate; Augustus' sister shall I be, not wife. Only may I be spared dire punishments and fearful death. — And canst thou, poor, foolish girl, remembering thy cruel husband's crimes, yet hope for this? Long kept back for this marriage-festival, thou shalt fall at last, an ill-starred victim. But why so often to thy father's house dost look back with streaming eyes? Haste thee to leave this roof; abandon the blood-stained palace of the emperor. [Exit.]
CHORUS Lo, now has dawned the day long dim foreseen, so oft by rumor bruited. Departed is Claudia [i.e. Octavia] from cruel Nero's chamber, which even now Poppaea holds in triumph, while lags our love by grievous fear repressed, and grief is numb. Where is the Roman people's manhood now, which oft in olden times hath crushed illustrious chiefs, given laws to an unconquered land, the fasces to worthy citizens, made war and peace at will, conquered wild races and imprisoned captive kings? Lo, grievous to our sight, on every hand now gleams Poppaea's image, with Nero's joined! Let violent hands throw them to the ground, too like their mistress' features; let them drag her down from her lofty couch, and then with devouring flames and savage spears attack the palace of the emperor. [Exit CHORUS.]
[Enter POPPAEA'S NURSE and POPPAEA herself, who appears, distraught, coming out of her chamber.]
NURSE Whither, dear child, dost pass all trembling from the chamber of thy lord, or what hidden place seekst thou with troubled face? Why are thy checks wet with weeping? Surely the day sought by our prayers and vows has dawned; to thy Caesar art thou joined by the marriage torch, him whom thy beauty snared, whom Venus hath delivered in bonds to thee, Venus, of Seneca flouted, mother of Love, most mighty deity. Oh, how beautiful and stately wast thou on the high couch reclining in the hall! The senate looked on thy beauty in amaze, when incense to the gods thou offeredst and with pleasing wine didst sprinkle the sacred shrines, thy head covered with filmy marriage-veil, flame-colored. And close beside thee, majestic midst the favoring plaudits of the citizens, walked the prince himself, showing, in look and bearing, his joy and pride. So did Peleus take Thetis for his bride, risen up from Ocean's foam, to whose marriage, they say, the heaven-dwellers thronged, and with equal joy each sea divinity. What cause so suddenly has changed thy face? Tell me what mean thy pallor and thy tears.
POPPAEA My sad heart, dear nurse, is
confused and troubled by a fearful vision of yester-night, and my
senses reel. For, after joyful day had to the dark stars yielded,
and the sky to night, held close in my Nero's arms I lay relaxed in
slumber. But not long was it granted to enjoy sweet rest; for my
marriage chamber seemed thronged with many mourners; with streaming hair did Roman matrons come, making tearful lamentations; midst
oft repeated and fearful trumpet blasts, my husband's mother
threatening mien and savage, brandished a blood-spattered torch.
While I was following her, driven by urgent
fear, suddenly the earth yawned beneath me in a mighty chasm.
Downward through this I plunged and there, as on earth, beheld my
wedding-couch, wondering to behold it, whereon I sank in utter
weariness, I saw approaching, with a throng around him, my
former husband [Crispinus] and my son
[Rufrius Crispinus]. Crispinus hastened to take me in his
arms, to kiss me as long ago; when hurriedly into my chamber Nero
burst and buried his savage sword in the other's throat. At length a
mighty fear roused me from slumber; my bones and limbs shook with
a violent trembling; my heart beat wildly; fear checked my
utterance, which now thy love and loyalty have restored to me. Alas! What
NURSE Whatever the mind's waking vigor eagerly pursues, a mysterious, secret sense, swift working, brings back in sleep. Dost marvel that thou didst behold husband and marriage-bed, held fast in thy new lord's arms? But do hands beating breasts and streaming hair on a day of joy trouble thee? 'Twas Octavia's divorce they mourned midst her brother's sacred gods and her father's house. That torch which thou didst follow, borne in Augusta's [i.e. Agrippina's] hand, foretells the name that thou shall gain illumed by envy. Thy abode in the lower world promises the stablished marriage-bed of a home unending. Whereas thine emperor buried his sword in that other's throat, wars shall he not wage, but in peace shall sheathe his sword. Take heart again, recall thy joy, I pray; banish thy fear and return thee to thy chamber.
POPPAEA Rather am I resolved to seek the shrines and sacred altars, and with slain victims sacrifice to the holy gods, that the threats of night and sleep may be averted, and that my crazed terror may turn against my foes. Do thou make vows for me and with pious prayers implore the gods of heaven that my present lot may be abiding. [Exeunt.]
CHORUS [of Roman women in sympathy with POPPAEA.] If truly speaks babbling rumor of the Thunderer's sweet stolen loves, (who now, they say, in feathery plumage hid, held Leda in his embrace, now over the waves, in fierce bull-form, the stolen Europa bore,) even now will he desert the stars over which he rules and seek thy arms, Poppaea, which even to Leda's he might prefer, and to thine, O Danae, before whose wondering eyes in olden time he poured down in yellow gold. Let Sparta vaunt the beauty of her daughter [Helen], and let the Phrygian shepherd [Paris] vaunt his prize; she [Poppaea] will outshine the face of Tyndaris [Helen], which set dread war on foot and levelled Phrygia's kingdom with the ground.
But who comes running with excited steps? What tidings bears he in his heaving breast?
MESSENGER Whatever guard holds watch over our leader's house, let it defend the palace which the people's fury threatens. See, in trembling haste the captains are bringing cohorts to defend the town; nor does the mob's madness, rashly roused, give place, overcome with fear, but gathers strength.
CHORUS What is that wild frenzy which stirs their
MESSENGER Smitten with love for Octavia and beside themselves with rage, the throngs rush on, in mood for any crime.
CHORUS What do they dare to do, or what is their plan, tell thou.
MESSENGER They plan to give back to Claudia [Octavia] her dead father's house, her brother's bed and her due share of empire.
CHORUS Which even now Poppaea shares with her lord in mutual loyalty?
MESSENGER 'Tis this too stubborn love [i.e. for Octavia] that inflames their minds and into rash madness drives them headlong. Whatever statue was set up of noble marble or of gleaming bronze, which bore the features of Poppaea, lies low, cast down by base-born hands and by relentless bars overturned; the limbs, pulled down by ropes, they drag piecemeal, trample them over and over and cover them with foul mud. Commingled curses match their savage acts, which I am afraid to tell of. They make ready to hem the emperor's house with flames should he not yield to the people's wrath his new-made bride, not yield to Claudia the home that is her own. That he himself may know of the citizens' uprising, with my own lips will I hasten to perform the prefect's bidding. [Exit.]
CHORUS Why do you stir up dire strife in vain? Invincible the shafts that Cupid bears; with his own flames will he overwhelm your fires, with which he oft has quenched thunderbolts and dragged Jove as his captive from the sky. To the offended god [Cupid] dire penalties shall you pay even with your blood. Not slow to wrath is the glowing boy, nor easy to be ruled; 'twas he who bade the fierce Achilles smite the lyre, broke down the Greeks, broke down Atrides, the kingdoms of Priam overthrew, and famed cities utterly destroyed; and now my mind shudders at the thought of what the unchecked power of the relentless god will do.
NERO Oh, too slow are my soldiers' hands, and too patient my wrath after such sacrilege as this, seeing that the blood of citizens has not quenched the fires they kindled against me, and that with the slaughter of her people mourning Rome reeks not, who bore such men as these. But she for whose sake the citizens rage at me, my sister-wife whom with distrust I ever look upon, shall give her life at last to sate my grief, and quench my anger with her blood. But now death is too light a punishment for her deeds. Heavier doom has the people's unhallowed guilt deserved. Quickly let Rome's roofs fall beneath my flames; let fires, let ruins crush the guilty populace, and wretched want, and grief and hunger dire. The huge mob grows riotous, distempered by the blessings of my age, nor hath it understanding of my mercy in its thanklessness nor can it suffer peace; but here 'tis swept along by restless insolence and there by its own recklessness is headlong borne. By suffering must it be held in check, be ever pressed beneath the heavy yoke, that it may never dare the like again, and against my wife's sacred countenance lift its eyes; crushed by the fear of punishment, it shall be taught to obey its emperor's nod.
But here I see the man whose rare loyalty and proven faith have made him captain of my royal guards.
PREFECT The people's rage by slaughter of some few, who recklessly long resisted, is put down: such is my report.
NERO And is this enough ? Is it thus a soldier has obeyed his chief? "Put down," sayst thou? Is this the vengeance due to me?
The guilty ring-leaders of the mob have fallen by the sword.
NERO But the mob itself, that dared to attack my household with their torches, dictate to the emperor, from my very bed to drag my noble wife, to offer her violence, so far as lay in their power, with hands unclean and voices insolent? Are they still without due punishment?
PREFECT Shall angry grief determine penalty against thy citizens?
NERO It shall determine, the tale of which no age shall banish from men's lips.
PREFECT Which neither wrath nor fear of us can hold in check?
NERO She first shall appease who has first deserved my wrath.
PREFECT Whom it demands tell thou, that my hand may spare not.
NERO The slaughter of my sister it demands, and her hateful head.
PREFECT Fearful, benumbing horror holds me fast.
NERO Does thy obedience falter?
PREFECT Why dost condemn my faith?
NERO Because thou sparest my foe.
PREFECT Callest thou a woman foe?
NERO If crime she has committed.
PREFECT Who charges her with guilt?
NERO The people's rage.
PREFECT But who can check their madness?
NERO She who could rouse it.
PREFECT Not any one, I think.
NERO Woman, to whom nature has given a mind to mischief prone, and equipped her heart with wiles to work us ill.
PREFECT But strength it has denied her.
NERO That so she might not be impregnable, but that fear or punishment might break her feeble strength, a punishment which now, though late, shall crush the criminal, who has too long been guilty.
But have done with advice and prayers, and do my bidding: let her be borne by ship to some far distant shore and there be slain, that at last the terror at my heart may be at rest. [Exeunt.]
CHORUS Oh, dire and deadly to many has the people's favor proved, that has filled their vessels' sails with prosperous breeze and borne them out afar, then, languishing, has failed them on the deep and dangerous sea. The wretched mother [Cornelia] of the Gracchi wept her sons, whom, though nobly born, for loyal faith and eloquence renowned, though brave in heart, keen in defense of law, the great love and excessive favor of the citizens destroyed. Thee also, Livius [Livius Drusus], to fate like theirs did fortune give, whom neither his lictors' rods nor his own house protected. But present grief forbids us to rehearse more instances. Her, to whom but now the citizens decreed the restoration of her father's house, her brother's bed, now may they see dragged out in tears and misery to punishment and death. Oh, blessed poverty, content to hide beneath a lowly roof, while lofty homes the storm-blasts oft-times shatter, or fortune overthrows.
[Enter OCTAVIA in the custody of the palace guards, who are dragging her roughly away.]
OCTAVIA Oh, whither do ye
drag me? What exile does the tyrant or his queen ordain, if, softened
and overcome by all my miseries, she grants me life? But if by death
she is ready to crown my sufferings, why, cruel, does she even grudge me death at home? But now is no hope of safety — ah, woe is me, I see my brother's ship. And lo,
on that vessel on which his mother once was borne, now, driven from
his chamber, his wretched sister, too, shall sail away. Now Piety no
longer has divinity, nor are there any gods; grim Fury reigns
throughout the universe. Who worthily can lament my evil plight? What nightingale can
CHORUS Our mortal race is ruled by fate, nor may any promise to himself that the path of life will be sure and steadfast, along which each coming day with its continual fears brings ever-shifting chances. Comfort now thy heart with the many sufferings which thine own house has borne. In what has fortune been more harsh to thee?
And thee first must I name, the mother of so many sons, Agrippa's child, Augustus' [i.e. Tiberius] daughter-in-law, a Caesar's [i.e. Germanicus] wife, whose name shone bright throughout the world, whose teeming womb brought forth so many hostages of peace; yet thou wast doomed to suffer exile, blows and galling chains, loss of thy friends, and bitter grief, and at last a death of lingering agony [she was banished by Tiberius]. And Livia, blest in her Drusus' chamber, in her sons, fell into brutal crime — and punishment. Julia met her mother's fate; though after long delay, yet she was slain by the sword, though no man called her guilty. What power once was thy mother's [Messalina], who ruled the palace of the emperor [Claudius], dear to her husband, and in her son [Britannicus] secure? Yet she was made subject to her slave [the freedman, Narcissus], and fell beneath a brutal soldier's sword. And what of her who might have hoped for the very throne of heaven, the emperor's great mother? Was she not first by a murderous boatman's hand abused, then, mangled by the sword, lay she not long the victim of her cruel son?
OCTAVIA Me also to the gloomy shades and ghosts, the cruel tyrant, see, is sending. Why do I now make vain and pitiable delay? Hurry me on to death, ye to whose power fortune hath given me. Witness, ye heavenly gods — what wouldst thou, fool? Pray not to deities who scorn thee. Witness, O Tartarus, ye goddesses of Erebus who punish crime, and thou, O father: destroy the tyrant, worthy such death and punishment. [To her guards.] I dread not the death you threaten. Put your ship in readiness, set sail upon the deep, and let your pilot speed before the winds to Pandataria's shore.
[Exit OCTAVIA with her guards.]
CHORUS Ye gentle breezes and ye zephyrs mild, that once caught Iphigenia wrapped in an airy cloud, and bore her from the altar of the cruel maid [Diana], this maiden, too, far from her dire punishment bear ye, I pray, to the shrine of Trivia. More merciful than Rome is Aulis and the Taurians' barbarous land: there by the blood of strangers are the gods appeased; but Rome's delight is in her children's blood.