Introduction: The character of this absurd tyrant was too fair an object of ridicule, to escape the Notice of Lucian, who has given us two or three traits of him, not marked, I believe, by any other Author. The satire, though short, is pointed and severe; it was rather a lucky circumstance, therefore, for our author that Nero died before it was published. Most of the commentators assert that this piece was not written by Lucian.
MENECRATES And MUSONIUS.
MENECRATES. Was not that cutting away of the Isthmus, which Nero, they say, certainly intended, a design truly Grecian?
MUSONIUS. He had still greater things in agitation, Menecrates, I assure you; he was for shortening the sailors voyage, by cutting through about twenty stadia.
MENECRATES. This would have been very advantageous to the commerce both of the maritime and inland cities: the latter, you know, have always plenty, when the former are taken care of. Pray, Musonius, if you have no particular business, give us an account of this expedition, which we all wish to hear,
MUSONIUS. That I will with all my heart; nor know I how I can better make you amends, for coming to a school so disagreeable as this.
Know then, that the love of poetry carried Nero into Greece, who was already firmly persuaded that the Muses could not sing sweeter than himself; his ambition was to be crowned for his verses at the Olympic games, the greatest and most honourable feat of renown; as to the Pythian, he thought they more properly belonged to himself than to Apollo, who, in singing and playing on the harp, was by no means able to contend with him. The Isthmus was not amongst those schemes which he had premeditated, but happening to see the place, he was struck with the magnificence of it, and calling to mind the Grecian king at the siege of Troy, who divided Euboea from Boeotia by the Euripus; and that Darius, when he went against the Scythians, made a bridge over the Bosphorus, not forgetting the noble exploit of Xerxes: add to this, that he thought the making such a communication would be a high treat to the Grecians. It is the nature of tyrants, however intoxicated with power, to be fond of public applause. Coming out of his tent, therefore, he sung a hymn to Neptune and Amphitrite, with a small ode in praise of Melicerta and Leucothoe: then receiving a golden spade from the Grecian president, he approached towards the Isthmus, amongst the shouts and applauses of the multitude, and striking the earth three times, he exhorted those to whom the care of the work was committed to goon with it as fast as possible; and then returned to Corinth, thoroughly satisfied, no doubt, that he had exceeded all the labours of Hercules: the stony and more laborious parts were done by the slaves, the level and easy fell to the lot of his soldiers: about the twelfth day, as we were in the midst of our work, a rumour was spread that the emperor had changed his mind, and would not have it done; the Egyptians, it was said, had measured the height of the two seas, and discovered that one was lower than the other; they were afraid, therefore, that the island of Aegina would be overflowed: but the wife Thales himself, who had the deepest knowledge of nature, would never have dissuaded Nero from cutting away the Isthmus, which he had set his heart upon, even more than on singing in public; it was an insurrection of the East, and the attempt of «f Vindex, to establish a commonwealth, which drove him out of Greece, and put an end to his cutting the Isthmus, though he talked ridiculously about measuring the two seas, which, to my knowledge were both of an equal height; but his power and that of Rome they say is falling off, as you heard yesterday from the tribune.
MENECRATES. But pray, Musonius, so furiously fond as he is of music, and of appearing at the Pythian and Olympian games, what sort of a voice has he? For of those who heard him at Lemnos, some admired, and some laughed at him.
MUSONIUS. His voice, to say the truth, is neither admirable, nor contemptible, nature has endowed him with a very tolerable one; by the pressure of his throat it gives a deep and hollow sound, so that he does not sing but roar out his songs; when he does not trust too much to himself, the accompaniments support him; and with regard to melody, setting his songs well to the lyre, and keeping time, it was only a shame that an emperor should acquit himself so well in them; but when he pretended to imitate the great masters what laughter did it excite amongst the spectators! though woe be to them that smiled on the occasion: he would frequently draw in his breath, stand upon his tip.toes, and turn backwards and forwards, like a man upon the rack; then would his face, which is naturally rosy, become quite red and fiery; his breath is short and never holds out.
MENECRATES. But how do those behave who contend with him, do they always acknowledge his superiority in the art, and yield to him?
MUSONIUS. Just as they do in wrestling; you remember the tragedian that periled at the Isthmian games; a musician who opposed him would be in equal danger.
MENECRATES. How was that? for I never heard the story.
MUSONIUS. It is almost incredible: but all Greece was witness to it.
There is a law forbidding tragedy or comedy to be exhibited at the Isthmian games; Nero, notwithstanding, resolved to have a contest with the tragedians; amongst those who disputed the prize with him was a man of Epirus, who had an excellent voice, and was universally admired for his acting, so ambitious was he of gaining the crown, that he would not give it up to Nero for less than ten talents; this exasperated the tyrant, the Epirot was was heard making his demand behind the scenes, and the Grecians highly applauding him, when Nero sent one of his actors and commanded him to yield; which he refused, and made a noise amongst the people, where upon Nero ordered his own actors to take possession of the stage, as more fit for it; these men had ivory tablets in their hands, open at both ends, and pointed like daggers, with which fastening the Epirot to the next pillar, they cut his throat.
MENECRATES. By such a horrid act, committed in the eyes of all Greece, did he then gain the prize?
MUSONIUS. This was a mere trifle, for a young man who slew his own mother: what wonder was it that he should take away the life of a tragic player, who attempted to silence the Pythian oracle, and stop the mouth of Apollo himself! though the Pythian placed him amongst the Orestes's, and Alcmæon's who, by the murder of their mothers gained a kind of glory, as it was done to revenge their fathers; but this tyrant had no such excuse to plead, though he thought himself so much injured by the oracle, which did not say half so much of him as he deserved.
But what ship is this coming in? It seems to bring some good news; the men have garlands on their heads, which is a happy omen. Somebody stretches out his hands from the deck, bids us be of good cheer, and if I am not mistaken, says, Nero is dead.
MENECRATES. It is so; I hear him plainer as he comes towards the shore.
MUSONIUS. Thanks to the gods! a happy event.
MENECRATES. No more of that: speak not evil, as the proverb says, of the dead.