The absolute silence of Seneca respecting the woman who had caused him the bitterest anguish and humiliation of his life is, as we have remarked already, a strange and significant phenomenon. It is clearly not due to accident, for the vices which he is incessantly describing and denouncing would have found in this miserable woman their most flagrant illustration, nor could contemporary history have furnished a more apposite example of the vindication by her fate of the stern majesty of the moral law. But yet, though Seneca had every reason to loathe her character and to detest her memory, though he could not have rendered to his patrons a more welcome service than by blackening her reputation, he never so much as mentions her name. And this honourable silence gives us a favourable insight into his character. For it can only be due to his pitying sense of the fact that even Messalina, bad as she undoubtedly was, had been judged already by a higher Power, and had met her dread punishment at the hand of God. It has been conjectured, with every appearance of probability, that the blackest of the scandals which were believed and circulated respecting her had their origin in the published autobiography of her deadly enemy and victorious successor. The many who had had a share in Messalina’s fall would be only too glad to poison every reminiscence of her life; and the deadly implacable hatred of the worst woman who ever lived would find peculiar gratification in scattering every conceivable hue of disgrace over the acts of a rival whose young children it was her dearest object to supplant. That Seneca did not deign to chronicle even of an enemy what Agrippina was not ashamed to write,—that he spared one whom it was every one’s interest and pleasure to malign,—that he regarded her terrible fall as a sufficient claim to pity, as it was a sufficient Nemesis upon her crimes,—is a trait in the character of the philosopher which has hardly yet received the credit which it deserves.
AGRIPPINA, THE MOTHER OF NERO.
Scarcely had the grave closed over Messalina when the court was plunged into the most violent factions about the appointment of her successor. There were three principal candidates for the honour of the aged Emperor’s hand. They were his former wife, Aelia Petina, who had only been divorced in consequence of trivial disagreements, and who was supported by Narcissus; Lollia Paulina, so celebrated in antiquity for her beauty and splendour, and who for a short time had been the wife of Caius; and Agrippina the younger, the daughter of the great Germanicus, and the niece of Claudius himself. Claudius, indeed, who had been as unlucky as Henry VIII. himself in the unhappiness which had attended his five experiments of matrimony, had made the strongest possible asseverations that he would never again submit himself to such a yoke. But he was so completely a tool in the hands of his own courtiers that no one attached the slightest importance to anything which he had said.