He cleared his throat and looked pitifully at the one with the vase, who nodded affirmingly and pointed to the door. “Remember — just like any other man,” he said.

At this, the servant in the chair wheezed. “Right!” he said, doubling over. “Cut his face, he’ll cut off your head!” He snorted in laughter as the nervous slave glared back at him. At last, he gripped the tray tightly, straightened his shoulders and walked through the door with the older slave behind him.

They stepped into a small chapel which was jammed to capacity with a hundred or so members of the nobility of Rome, and seated squarely at the center of the chancel was Emperor Nero. He was wrapped with white, clerical vestments which seemed to strap him to his chair, and his stocky face was hidden beneath a thick layer of foam. He stared straight ahead above the audience, looking proud — or at least as proud as a youthful adult with a lathered face could.

Since his ascension to Caesar’s throne five years earlier at the age of seventeen, Nero had hosted numerous coming-of-age celebrations, and this was his latest gift to his people. In commemoration of the shaving of his first full beard, he had declared the observance of the inaugural Neronia — a week-long festival of games and performances fashioned in the spirit of the Greek Olympics. There would be competitions in singing, gymnastics and chariot-racing. Nero’s baths would be thrown open to the public with complimentary body oil given to the bathers. And it all began now, with the offering of his facial hair to the Roman gods.

Seated along the walls behind Nero were his closest associates and family members. His mother Agrippina looked on, and if examined closely, it could be discerned in her face where Nero’s pride came from. Her eyes were like two suns, burning brightly with arrogance. This moment was as much hers as her son’s. He had risen to power on her wings. She had taken him from earliest infancy and raised him for this hour. Every act of discipline, every academic lesson, every companion of his childhood was chosen with delicate precision, as a sculptor measuring each stroke of the chisel. And now as she beheld her masterpiece, she could not suppress the smug vanity that showed on her face.

Seated beside her was Octavia, Nero’s wife. If light had once beamed from her young, restless eyes, it had long since been extinguished. She was not ten feet away from Nero, but ten miles away, and longed to be much further than that. She wanted to throw the tiara off of her head and vanish. And yet there was no person in that room more beautiful than she. Like a wilted rose, she exuded a grace and dignity that was obvious to everyone.

The two slaves approached Caesar, who extended his chin out further. The slave with the razors awkwardly set his tray down on a stand erected next to the emperor, nearly knocking over a gold box already resting on the stand. Inside the box were the dry, black hairs of Nero’s beard which had been clipped earlier. The slave selected a razor and leaned over the emperor.

He managed to suppress the quaking of his hand long enough to make a smooth swipe across his face, and was relieved to find only foam and stubble clinging to the blade. Heartened by his success, he scraped the razor clean on the edge of the box, then disposed of it by dropping it into the vase held by the older servant. He picked up a second blade and continued shaving. Pockets of conversation echoed throughout the room. Toward the back of the chapel, two elderly women leaned over to each other, each one mindlessly toying with her jewelry as they watched the ceremony.

“Octavia looks care-worn,” whispered one, sounding bored.

“Yes,” the other agreed. “They say the emperor has lost his affection for her and is dallying with another — the wife of his friend, of all things.”

“The poor child. She’s lost everything. Her father is dead. Her brother was murdered by you know who.” She cast a disdainful glance at Nero as she said this.

“Shhh!” the other reacted with alarm and looked around, picking nervously at her diamond necklace. “Britannicus died naturally.”

“Of course he did. How convenient for you know who that his chief rival dies of a fit of epilepsy at his own birthday party.”

“Keep your voice down!” The other was quite agitated by now, and quickly tried to change the subject. “Agrippina looks in her glory this afternoon.”

This brought a scowl from her friend, who whispered, “The emperor should never have let her back into the court. She’ll kill him before she gives up her power again.”

Her voice began to carry, and the diamond-lady was now fidgeting recklessly. “Unless he kills her first. Or maybe they’ll kill each other.” The diamond-lady was about to have her own seizure. “Why is the royal family so demented?” The diamond-lady coughed loudly and turned completely away.

Suddenly, there was a collective gasp from the audience. Nero had pulled back sharply from a nick of the slave’s razor. The slave froze in anguish for what seemed an eternal moment as he waited to see if the skin had been broken, and then to his utter horror, he saw a small red line appear on Nero’s face. It was scarcely visible, hardly more than a drop, but to the slave it was like a river of blood. He may as well have driven the blade into Nero’s chest. Nero’s hand slowly went to his face and touched the blood, and when he saw it smeared on his finger, his eyes became instantly livid.

The storm that clouded Nero’s face seemed to darken the room. The Ahenobarbi family from which Nero came was notorious for the fury of its congenital temper. In the room at that moment were those who remembered Nero’s father running down an innocent boy on the Appian Way rather than swerve his chariot the width of a wheel. The same demon was in his son, but until this moment it had been well suppressed. Now a birthing of something wicked seemed right then to be taking place.

Nero turned his head and looked full into the eyes of two men sitting next to his wife — Annaeus Seneca and Afranius Burrus. Seneca was the soul of Rome — a famed philosopher, senator and writer. For the past twelve years he had served first as Nero’s tutor, and now as one of his most trusted advisers, along with Burrus, who as the prefect of Nero’s Praetorian Guard, was Italy’s highest ranking military officer. With a shielded, downward motion of his hand, Seneca urged Nero to control his rage, while Burrus remained somber and still. Nero swallowed, and then directed a punishing glare at the slave.

“If you intend to disfigure me, a smooth swipe behind either ear should be sufficient,” he said, and nervous laughter broke out from the audience.

The slave felt paralyzed, unable to decide what to do, like a deer caught in the path of the hunter, but in that moment of puzzled inactivity, Nero’s patience was exhausted and he snatched a towel from the slave’s arm.

“Imbecile, will you let me bleed?” he exploded. “What are you, a Carthaginian assassin? Dismiss yourself at once!”

The slave mumbled a cry and fled from the room, while a tense silence fell over the assembly. Nero wiped his face, and then looked up from the towel, scanning the room of observers. When his gaze met Octavia’s, he saw her look quickly down to the floor in a blushed mixture of embarrassment and fear.

Nero looked at the other slave who had remained firmly rooted in place as this unfolded. “Can I trust you to complete this messy business, or are you his accomplice?” he asked, attempting to gain some composure. The servant merely nodded, and immediately placed his vase on the table beside the box. Without delay, he took a fresh razor and continued the shave.

Nero tipped his face in the direction of his advisers, and cracked a weak smile. “Now I know why you never shave, Burrus,” he said, and the bearded prefect nodded in return, while the audience again fell into pathetic laughing.

In a few moments, the slave finished. He toweled the emperor’s face clean, snatched up his materials and left, while a priestly figure approached. The cleric placed a lid upon the gold box, then took the box and walked with it up a short set of stairs into a small foyer where a towering gold statue of an eagle stood. As he did this, everyone in the room stood reverently to his feet.

The priest bowed, lifted the box above his head, and in a deep, penetrating voice which rang out through the chapel, intoned, “To the glory of the gods of Rome, we offer the first-fruits of manhood of your divine son, Nero — emperor, lord and Caesar. May your blessing rest upon him as he leads our empire into further greatness.”

In unison, the voices of the assembly rang out, “Hail to our lord Caesar, rich in mercy! May his glory continue forever!”

Toward the back of the room, one elderly woman muttered under her breath, “May the gods save anyone who looks to you know who for mercy.”

*                   *                    *

Caesarea, Judea

The jailor shuffled down the corridor, barely disturbing the open flame of a lantern hanging from the wall. The steps of the two guards that walked behind him were tentative compared with his own comfortable gait. Clearly, the jailor felt at home here. Looking at his wrinkled, pale-white skin, the guards wondered if he ever left the dungeon at all.

They walked past a row of cells and through the barred doors, could see the prisoners. Most were sleeping, one was pacing and another was engaged in vigorous debate with himself. Eventually, the light was all but consumed by the shadows, and the guards instinctively drew together side by side, but then the glow of another lantern burning up ahead picked up their path and so they continued.

Finally, at the very end of the corridor, they came to a cell in which they could see a man kneeling down beside his cot with his head buried in his hands. The jailor reached into a pocket of his faded yellow tunic and withdrew a ring of iron keys. At this sound, the prisoner raised his head and looked over. A rich, gray beard hung from his face — a face not nearly as listless as the others had been. It was difficult to tell, but he even appeared to be smiling.

The jailor selected a key and inserted it into the door. “My friend,” he said with familiarity, “there’s no time for a visit today. You have an audience with King Agrippa this afternoon. Isn’t this your lucky day?”

The prisoner rose to his feet. He was short, with thin arms and stout legs which were obviously accustomed to walking great distances. Across the lean of his bulging calf muscles were numerous scars showing the checkered pattern of the Roman whip. As he stepped toward the door into the light, the guards were surprised by his gentle dignity. They had expected defiance or despair — the fraternal twin emotions bred by incarceration. But not serenity. Not in this place. But there it was, written on his face. And then he laughed, saying to the jailor as he stepped out into the corridor, “Who knows, but perhaps it is the king’s lucky day.”

The jailor returned the smile, showing an uneven row of yellow teeth. He reached behind him and took a set of manacles from one of the guards. “You and I know how needless these are, but we must keep Governor Festus happy,” he said. The prisoner extended his wrists, as though familiar with the routine, and the jailor chained them together. A second set was then stretched around his ankles. “Well friend, you know the way,” the jailor said as he straightened up. “I’m going to stay and clean up your room, though I hope the king will not send you back.”

“So you wish for the king to cut off my head?” the prisoner asked.

“Don’t jest about such things!” gasped the jailor. “Dear God, no. May he see what I see — an innocent man. And I should say after seeing thousands pass through these walls, that I know the difference.”

“If Agrippa calls for a witness, I shall summon you, good Cornelius,” said the prisoner, and he laughed as the jailor’s eyes opened wide with fright. “But fear not, I have a strong defender.” He looked at the guards, and then began walking as they nudged him forward.

The journey out of the dungeon was not quick enough for the guards, but they had seen enough to know that they ought not rush this man in chains. A nobility shined through his smelly prison rags, and dimmed the glory of their own regalia. They trudged up a winding stone staircase, and once at the top, sunlight began to flood the corridors. Noises also filtered in — the clanging of iron, then someone belching. They passed through the intersection of hallways and chambers that signaled the end of the prison and the beginning of the palace. The prisoner seemed more and more out of place as they walked past clusters of people in formal dress, who stopped their conversations to look at him and dropped their voices in whispers after he walked by.

Finally they came to a large marble doorway where the bottleneck of traffic was most obvious. The guards drew the attention of one of the posted soldiers standing there, who disappeared, then returned and signaled for them to enter. They passed through the doorway into the main hall of the palace.

Herod the Great had spared no expense when he constructed the palace in Caesarea 75 years earlier, and its magnificence still was evident. In the center of the room was a parade of marble statues, each honoring one of Rome’s historic figures. The more spectacular sculptures were of Rome’s Caesars: Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and finally Nero, whose was the most ostentatious of all. The image carved in stone gave him the appearance of seasoned manhood, and some would argue even divinity. Its eyes seemed to follow them as they walked past, but the prisoner appeared not to notice.

Beyond the gallery, the hall opened up into a spacious rotunda crowded with more people who moved quickly aside to avoid any contact with the prisoner, as though he were an animal carcass the guards were dragging into the room. A wide path was cleared which allowed them to march to the front of the room, where across the width of the floor was a raised platform, divided by marble colonnades and heavy, velvet curtains.

In the center section of the platform, all eyes were drawn to two men and a woman who sat upon thrones. They were draped in robes which spread around them like tents and appeared far more unwieldy to wear than the curtains themselves would have been. The woman and her apparent partner had small crowns on their heads and fully looked the part of royalty. He was robust with a thick beard and a calm, confident gaze, but all eyes were drawn to the woman who was younger by perhaps ten years, and strikingly beautiful, with long hair and a soft face.

By contrast, the second man was pathetic. He was short and stumpy, and sat in his seat with a crooked posture, and crooked eyes, and looked quite out of place sharing the stage with the other two. Nevertheless, when the prisoner and his escorts emerged out of the crowd and came forward, this man spoke first.

“King Agrippa, this is the man I was telling you about.” He pointed a crooked finger at the prisoner. “This is the one whom the Jewish leaders want dead. The Jews have certain points of dispute with him about their own superstition and about some Nazarene who was dead. But he asserts that the Nazarene has come back from the dead. I care nothing for their troublesome religious convictions, but he shows his face in Jerusalem, and the place explodes in rioting. They want him executed, and now he has appealed to Caesar. But I don’t know what to write Lord Nero about him. Perhaps after you, King Agrippa, and your sister have examined him, I will have something to write.”

Agrippa leaned forward and looked at the prisoner with a penetrating stare. Their eyes met and it was as though for a few seconds the two of them were wrestling together in invisible space. Not a wrinkle blemished the prisoner’s serenity. He seemed unimpressed to be standing before one of the most powerful men in the Judean province. If the men were engaged in an unseen contest, it was the king who backed down first. He tipped his head to the side, scratched his beard and with a touch of condescension said, “So, you are Paul, prophet of the Galilean messiah, thorn of the Jews, and troubler of my kingdom?”

The prisoner nodded his head. “It is an honor to speak with you, your majesty.”

“No, the honor is mine!” the king bellowed. “Yours is a household name. You are famous!”

“Infamous, you mean,” the woman said, her beautiful face contorting into a sneer. “As though our nation, already troubled with rebels and thieves, could easily afford the distemper of a heretic.” This brought murmurs of agreement from among the crowd which had now pressed in around them to hear the proceedings.

The king laughed. “Peace dear Bernice! Already you condemn the man. Let us be fair and not judge so swiftly. Let us hear the testimony of this great man.” He again leaned toward Paul. “As I understand it, you once persecuted the faith that you now adopt.”

For the first time, Paul looked down, then winced. “With unbridled zeal, so great was my ignorance.”

The crooked man pounced at this. “And so it is guilt that propels you all over the empire, spreading the seeds of your so-called gospel.”

Paul immediately regained his poise. “On the contrary, Governor Festus. It is the grace of the God of my fathers which compels me to this work. King Agrippa, you yourself have heard my story — how I was journeying to Damascus with authority to imprison every Christian I could find. And at midday, I saw on the road a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me.”

Paul’s hands went up and his eyes blinked rapidly as he told the story, as though he were seeing the vision all over again.

“And when I had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Paul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked in amazement. And the voice answered, ‘It is I, Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”

Paul looked at Agrippa. “And do you know what Jesus said to me?” Agrippa shook his head, unable to hide the fact that he was eagerly waiting to find out. “He said, ‘Now rise and stand on your feet, for I am sending you to bear witness to me, and you will turn many from darkness to light, that they may receive forgiveness of their sins, and a place among those who are redeemed.’ And so, King Agrippa, I have not been disobedient to this heavenly vision, but wherever I go, I declare that men should repent and turn to God.”

The crowd could scarcely restrain itself at this, nor Governor Festus who shouted, projecting a mixture of words and spit, “Absurd! Paul, you are insane. Your great learning has turned you mad!”

“I am not mad, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth.”  Paul’s voice was deep, steady, and obviously well trained. “The king knows about these things, I am certain. I cannot believe these events have escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. And besides, our scriptures have foretold these events for centuries. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets?  I know that you believe!”

The rhetorical mastery Paul had used in switching the light of judgment onto the king caught Agrippa off his guard. The king took a nervous sip from a cup on a nearby table. He laughed, but unconvincingly. “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!”

Paul pressed his case further. “Whether short or long, I would hope that not only you but everyone who hears me this day might become such as I am — except for these chains.”

Agrippa sat back now in his chair and pondered this exchange. He was a deeply religious man, and indeed was well versed in the Jewish scriptures. He had seen the length and breadth of religious practices throughout the empire and was disgusted with most of what he saw. The gods of the Greeks and Romans were susceptible to all the lusts and scandals of human nature. The philosophers had long observed that a worshipper becomes like the object of his worship, and so it was not surprising to Agrippa that Roman culture — for all its splendor — was largely debased. Above this dark and confusing spiritual landscape, the star of Jewish monotheism shined brightly, and Agrippa was drawn to it, but only from a distance.

What Herod Agrippa knew in his head could not win over his heart, which was at that time inflamed with incestuous passion for his sister. He was a pagan in practice, yet he despised the pagan gods which presumably approved of his behavior. And so as he looked at Paul, he felt a certain admiration, and even envy.

“Except for these chains.” Paul wore chains of forged iron, and yet was otherwise free. Agrippa’s wrists were unbound, but his life was shackled. Who was the real prisoner? The king broke from his reverie. He now regretted the burden of Roman law which had to be respected.

“This man has done nothing to deserve death or imprisonment,” he said with such force that no one in the hall dared to disagree. He looked at Paul. “You could be set free if you had not appealed to Caesar. But we are a lawful people bound by law. Because you have appealed to Nero, to Nero you shall go. Yet Paul, because of my grace, I will grant you assistance along the way. A legal advocate shall be provided for you to accompany you and defend you on your journey.”

This news was unexpected. “An advocate?” Paul said, and then he swept his hand through the air as though to reject the offer. “I have requested no advocate, nor do I —”

The king waved him quiet. “The mercy of Rome is great. Before the request is even on your lips, she has acted on your behalf, and why shouldn’t she? You are one of her own citizens, whether my sister likes it or not.” He cast a glance at Bernice who scowled afresh. “Rome is an intimidating city to the newcomer. And so we offer you the companionship and counsel of one of her finest representatives, to help make your reception there a bit more pleasant.”

At this, the king looked to the back of the hall and gestured to the soldiers stationed there. Paul looked back as well, and through the crowd, could see the soldiers coming forward, creating a wedge of space for an obvious dignitary. The man was dressed in a dazzling purple and yellow vest. And he was older too. He wore no hat, and Paul could just make out the top of his resplendent silver head. As the soldiers squeezed through the wall of people, the man stepped forward into the open and Paul immediately gasped. His expression melted into one of stunned astonishment, and tears began to glitter in his eyes. He walked over and caught the arms of his advocate.


The older man returned the smile. “My friend and brother,” he said.

They paused for a moment, frozen in place, both pleasantly numbed by the rekindling of an apparently old and meaningful friendship. Slowly, Paul’s friend turned to face the king and his companions.

“King Agrippa, Governor Festus, Lady Bernice — I am Quintus Arrius the Younger, known in Judea as Judah Ben-Hur. In accordance with the correspondence which you have already received, and the arrangements which have been made, the people of Rome and her Senate request the transference of your prisoner into our safe-keeping, for presentation before Caesar’s tribunal.”

The king nodded, then looked to Governor Festus. Festus smiled, crookedly, and said, “With pleasure…and relief.”

The king was fascinated by the apparent familiarity the two men shared with each other. “So you two have met before? How is that possible?”

Judah and Paul looked at each other and a grin simultaneously appeared on their faces. Finally, Judah turned to Agrippa. “When Paul was going to Damascus to imprison Christians, my name was at the top of his list of those to arrest.”

The king’s eyes widened. “Now this is utterly intriguing,” he said, refreshing himself with another drink. “You must tell me how this strange thing came to be. I know your story somewhat, Arrius. You were a Jew by birth and through some peculiar circumstances became a Roman by adoption.”

“And then through even stranger circumstances, became a Christian — by choice,” Judah added, causing Bernice to blanch. “In time, I became a leader among the early followers of Jesus. When Paul began his rampage, I fled with my family to Antioch, but he tried to cut off our escape to the north. He got as far as Damascus.”

“So his story is true?” the king asked.

“What else could explain what happened?” Judah replied, and Paul nodded his head in silent affirmation. “Several nights after Paul had his vision, the Lord directed me and another man to seek out the one known as Paul the Persecutor. When we found him he was alone in a room. His eyes were seared shut as if they had been burned. He hadn’t eaten or slept for three days. He looked more dead than alive.”

“I haven’t improved much since then,” muttered Paul as he looked down at his filthy hands and soiled rags, and not a few members of the audience snickered as he said this.

“From that moment on, Paul and I worked together,” Judah continued, “helping small congregations of Christians in Damascus and Antioch, until the time when I returned to Rome to inherit my father’s estate. So yes, King Agrippa, we know each other well. We have a rare friendship built on twenty–five years of shared history.”

The king shook his head in disbelief. “And I suppose you also would like to turn me into one of these Christians?”

Judah’s eyes beamed. “For what it’s worth, your majesty, I too have seen the Jesus Paul preaches.”

“Before or after this purported resurrection?” asked the king.

“Both,” was Judah’s simple answer, and a chill swept down Agrippa’s spine.

He washed down one final drink to ease the drying of his throat, then said, “These are most curious tales you both are spinning, but as much as I would care to hear more, you have a ship to catch which sets sail shortly. We have assigned you an armed guard. You may go.” The soldiers began to clear a path for them to leave, and as Judah and Paul followed, King Agrippa called out, “By the way, Arrius! How is our young emperor?”

Judah turned and said, “It has been years since I have walked in the Senate chambers, your majesty. To be truthful, I have not met the Emperor yet.”

“When you do, will you greet the illustrious Nero for me?” the king asked. Judah nodded with an agreeable smile, and they then paraded from the hall.

*                        *                         *


Several hours after his beard had been shaved, Nero called together Seneca and Burrus to a private consulting chamber in his palace — the Domus Transitoria. With them, was Ofonius Tigellinus, a boyhood friend of the emperor’s who was usually found somewhere within his shadow.

The chamber was designed like a scene from any hunter’s favorite dream. It was filled with statues and carvings of a myriad animals and birds. Wild game trophies hung from the plastered walls — the head of a bear, a lion, a ram, and an eagle with its magnificent wings fully extended. The three advisers were seated around an oval oak table which was itself a work of art. A woodland scene of a herd of elk was delicately chiseled into the tabletop, and was supported by four wooden deer legs. Two doors, as elaborately carved as the table, led out of the room from opposite sides. One led to the interior of the palace and the other to a courtyard which could be viewed from a small circular window cut into the door. Nero stood before the window, gazing reflectively into the courtyard.

Seneca was the first to speak. He was thin, due in part to a lifetime of asceticism. Though he was sixty, his smooth, bald head helped to conceal his years. All of his wrinkles seemed to cluster around his eyes, leaving the rest of him looking remarkably ageless. “Congratulations, Emperor. You look…” and here he paused to consider his choice of words.

“Careful, Seneca,” warned Nero, turning to him with a playful frown.

“Shall we say,” Seneca continued, “that Rome has again entered a glorious age of youthful vigor?”

Burrus laughed, which was unusual for so stoic a soldier as he. “Delicately spoken, my philosopher friend.”

Valor and dedication on the field of battle had crippled one of his hands and wore out his body, but his spirit was as valiant as the day he first drew his sword. He was dressed in full uniform, and he reached beneath his bronzed breastplate with his good hand and withdrew a coin from a pocket in his vest. He tossed the coin, on which was molded an image of Caesar with his beard, onto the table.

“We’ll certainly need to mint some fresh currency.”

Nero picked up the coin and studied it for a moment. There were times when the thought of the power he possessed swept over him like a wave, and he could scarcely stand beneath the wonder of it. But as he stood admiring his silhouette on the coin, another image intruded into his thoughts. He grimaced slightly, handing the coin back to Burrus.

“I suppose you two wish to tell me that I was — how to put it? — barbaric with the barber?”

“Poetry drips from your lips, Lord Caesar,” Seneca said. “Your response was measured and restrained. I think at an earlier time you would have had him beheaded on the spot.” The others smiled in agreement. “But I think it is worth repeating, if I may be so bold, that when the strong rule with gentleness, the people will follow with eagerness.”

Nero stood behind Tigellinus and placed his hands cordially on his muscular shoulders. By appearance alone, Tigellinus looked more like a ruler. Nero was of average height, with a stocky build and plain face. Tigellinus was handsome, dark and Roman.

“Seneca and Burrus, without your instruction I would be as hopeless a case as Tigellinus here,” he said, slapping his friend on the back.

Tigellinus remained unaffected by this friendly jab. He was not given to emotional swings of any degree but was steadily somber, and his leaden countenance continually made those near him wonder if he enjoyed their company or perhaps was plotting their deaths. But Nero knew him well and did not expect a reaction. He eyed his counselors once again.

“Do you have more you wish to discuss gentlemen? I find myself in need of some rest.”

Seneca looked at Burrus and then spoke. “Lord Nero, it’s Agrippina.”

Nero grimaced. “What has my mother done now? I have restored her to the court in compliance with your suggestion.”

“Yes, but it appears that she has not quite learned her lesson,” Seneca continued. “And I’m afraid some remedial refining ought to take place.”

Nero frowned in exasperation. “By the gods, Seneca, would you speak to me plainly.”

Burrus intervened. “What he means is that she continues overstepping her bounds. It’s plain that she is still thirsty for power. She orders my guards around as though they were little children.”

“She mingles with the Senate,” added Seneca. “She conducts diplomatic business with no authorization. Fraternizes with every tribune in sight.”

“This is your doing!” Nero chastised with a short, stubby finger extended at the philosopher. “You suggested that —”

“But it will be your undoing,” said Seneca with firmness. “She’s far more ambitious than anyone realized.”

“Oh please Seneca,” Nero fumed. “I’ve known it since I was a boy. So what would you have me to do?”

“Temper her enthusiasm. Several public rebukes ought to work nicely,” said Seneca without hesitation.

He looked over to Burrus for reinforcement and the prefect continued. “Tomorrow you receive the Armenian ambassador. The health of the East depends largely on his reception, and the negotiations which follow. Agrippina has established a certain intimacy with the ambassador.”

Nero laughed. “What? She’s slept with him already? They’ve just reached Rome.”

Burrus shook his head. “No they’ve never met. But in her curiosity for the affairs of government, she has written numerous letters to him, and we suspect that she will attempt some sort of demonstration of her influence tomorrow.”

“What type of demonstration?” asked the emperor.

Burrus now looked to Seneca. It was clear that the two advisers had developed a comfortable rhythm with each other over the years. When one faltered, the other was there to offer support. “With her imagination, it could be anything,” said Seneca. “But it will surely stand out, and when she displays her feathers, you must decisively ruffle them.”

Nero scowled. “I will watch her more carefully.”

Seneca proceeded with caution now. “There is another matter, Lord Nero.”            Besides Agrippina, only Seneca could push Nero beyond his normal limits of toleration. With every one else, Nero had learned to use his power to squelch criticism. Even so, Seneca was sensing that Nero had begun to develop an immunity to his counsel. At the emperor’s insistence, Tigellinus was now included in all official consultations. He represented a group of companions who had an increasing influence on Nero. Never in the history of Rome had the transition between generations been as abrupt, or — in Seneca’s eyes — as ominous. Nonetheless, he spoke the truth as he saw it, hoping for the emergence of some yet unseen streak of statesmanship in his emperor. Nero gestured impatiently for Seneca to continue.

“Your affair with Poppaea Sabina is stirring up the people.”

Nero exploded. “Seneca!” he yelled, slapping the palm of his hand against the wall. “The city of Rome does not belong in my bedroom. Stop meddling in my private life!”

Seneca had braced himself for the storm and chose to confront it directly. “You must listen to me, Emperor!” Nero leaned over the table shaking. “First of all, she is the wife of one of your…friends, Salvius Otho.”

He paused, hoping something would slip past the armed guard of Nero’s anger. “But secondly, and more importantly, Octavia is the daughter of your predecessor Claudius. You are his adopted son. To tamper with the cords that tie you to Octavia is to tamper with the cords that tie you to the throne.”

“I am Caesar!” Nero roared, now slamming a fist onto the table. “And have been for five years. Britannicus is dead. And still you dare to insinuate that my claim to the throne is illegitimate!”

“What I think is irrelevant, my lord,” said Seneca. “What the people think is everything.” Nero walked over to the window, and sullenly looked out with his hands clasped behind his back. “The only security for a ruler lies in the love of his subjects. Your subjects are emotionally attached to Octavia. I would not yet toy with those affections.”  Seneca wished for Burrus to step in, but the prefect had leaned away and clearly wanted nothing to do with this exchange. Nonetheless, Seneca pulled him in. “I believe the prefect shares my convictions.”

Burrus shot an icy stare at his friend, and then after a brief silence, spoke. “We would just remind Caesar to exercise caution.”

Nero leaned closer to the window and his breath caused an island of mist to appear on the glass. Without turning to them, he said, “I think our lessons are through for the day. We will meet again tomorrow in preparation for the ambassador’s visit. That is all.”

Seneca and Burrus exchanged a look of disappointment, then stood and slowly left the room, while Tigellinus remained frozen in his chair. Once they were gone, Nero turned to him and sternly asked, “And where are your affections?”

Like a statue coming to life, Tigellinus spoke at last with a deep voice to match his dark and sinister disposition. “Never question my devotion to Caesar.”

Nero smiled. “No, Tigellinus, I don’t. From childhood, you have been by my side. Seneca, Burrus, they are not of us. The values and ideas of their generation are growing increasingly musty. Seneca disapproves of my love of music. Burrus frowns upon my athletic ambitions. Agrippina hovers around me like a vulture. One day we shall sever our connections to their world, and reshape Rome into our own image.”

He paused to let his anger die down, but then his eyes lit up with a spark. Snapping his fingers, he said, “And let it begin now. Tigellinus, you are to prepare and deliver a note to my good friend, Otho. The distant and dangerous province of Lusitania is in need of a governor. Of course, the man I appoint will have to go alone. Lusitania is not a place for a family. Or a woman. My mind draws a blank. Perhaps you can help me draw up a name. When you do, see that Otho is told. Even tonight.”

Tigellinus bowed his head and left the room. Nero returned to the window, and in its glass he could see his reflection, and the small cut on his face. At once, a scowl returned to his face and it widened as he touched the scab.


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Ben-Hur: The Odyssey