NERO IN THE UNDERWORLD
Emperor Nero’s baths in Baiae on the Bay of Naples. It’s mid-morning on the first day of May, 59 AD. The main bath is a large circular pool surrounded by a terrace of golden, almost translucent marble. Beyond the terrace, a colonnade of the same marble supports a domed roof with a central oculus through which sunlight streams down, striking the water below and sending shimmering reflections skipping across the columns. At one end of the pool is a small raised platform on which Nero stands, dressed as a citharode with a long, flowing robe down to his ankles, below which he wears ornate leather boots. Nero is a young man of only 21 years, slight of build and almost feminine in his bearing. Locks of wavy blonde hair fall over his forehead and flow down the nape of his neck, and wisps of an adolescent beard still await his first shave. An aura of charmed eternal youth enfolds him, but its glow is tinged with dark strains of youth’s unbridled madness and terror. His figure is at once imposing, in a superhuman way, and furtively pathetic, like that of a caged animal. He holds a lyre, with which he accompanies his own singing.
NERO (singing in a rasping staccato cadence, punctuated by irregular bursts of angry chords on the lyre)
Darkness at the edge of noon
Shadows over the still lagoon,
Assassin’s blade, a mother’s womb,
Eclipses both the Sun and Moon,
You try to feel, but all too soon,
It’s too intense for crying.
Mortal threats I bluff with scorn,
Suicide remarks forlorn
From the fool’s-gold mouthpiece
Of a hollow horn, playing wasted words,
As if to warn that he not busy
Being born is busy dying.
Enter Nero’s childhood tutor, now advisor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the renowned philosopher and dramatist. A corpulent, balding man of 62 years, he wears a toga with purple trim, signifying a member of the Imperial household. Seneca has the air of a man who was once self-assured and confident in his ideas, but now, at the end of his life, encounters doubt and confusion.
SENECA (interrupting Nero’s song)
I haven’t heard that one. Is it new?
NERO (smirking at his own cleverness)
It’s new but old. I’m adapting it from a song that’s yet to be written.
I’m sorry I asked. Is this the beginning of another one of our philosophical debates?
I spent almost ten years learning from you, old man. Now it’s your turn to learn from me.
Oh, I’m learning all right. Believe me, I’m learning…
NERO (cutting him short)
Because I’m not what you expected me to be? I violate your Stoic principles of cause-and-effect, don’t I?
I’m not quite sure how that is, but I’m sure you’re about to explain it to me.
Well, if you insist … You see, it’s only the small, petty men who are bound to Fortune’s wheel. For them, the past does dictate the future, and for them your law of cause followed by effect holds true… but only for them.
And for you?
NERO (descending from the platform and laying down his lyre)
Yes, for me, altogether different. I am my own cause and the ultimate expression of everything the World has been or ever will be. The annals of the Past are written by the finger of the Future which I ordain, of the Being that I choose to be.
SENECA (only half-seriously)
So, reality doesn’t create you, but you create reality. Is that it? Just like a god?
NERO (contemptuously, turning his back to Seneca and speaking to the ceiling with evident impatience)
Please, old man, don’t try my good nature. A god? My uncle… Oh yes, I suppose he was also my father… Claudius, that ridiculous, blithering idiot. Isn’t he now one of the gods? And thanks to me, because I made him one. Only right for me to do that for the poor, slobbering, drunken glutton. He became a god by eating too much of the food of the gods. That fatal plate of mushrooms, carefully spiced with arsenic by the loving hands of his own true wife, Agrippina, my dear departed mother, may she rest… (He suddenly starts, as if hearing an invisible voice, toward which he walks, waving a hand in front of his face as if to ward it off.)
SENECA (puzzled and concerned)
Something wrong, my Lord? Your Grace seems frightened by something.
NERO (spinning around to confront him to his face, exploding in anger)
How dare you, slave! Fear has no place in Nero’s royal bosom! (more calmly, composing himself) I proved my indomitable courage but days after my birth. Messalina, fearing me to be a rival to her son Britannicus as successor to Claudius, sent two of her thugs to stab me as I slept in my crib. Before their eyes, I made myself into a viper and bared my fangs, driving them away in terror. Hearing the disturbance, my mother rushed to my bedside and found me sleeping peacefully, with the serpent skin which I’d sloughed off lying on my pillow. She had the slough bronzed for me to wear (displaying his right arm) for my protection. (He clutches his arm and grimaces, as if the bronzed serpent skin is burning his flesh. Desperately, he flings it off into the pool, where it makes a hissing sound as it enters the water. Then he turns and walks to the pool’s edge to watch it sink to the bottom.)
SENECA (after an awkward silence, tentatively)
Perhaps your Worship is still recovering from the shock of what happened to you yesterday in the Temple of Vesta. Just as you lit the sacrificial fire to placate your dead mother’s spirit, the face of the Sun turned black and the fire was extinguished.
NERO (now frenzied)
Because she will not be appeased! How could I know when I ordered her death that her infernal hatred would live on? Howling at me from that ditch along the road to Misenum where we threw her ashes! Coming at me in my dreams with the flaming Furies of Hell at her side! As I stood before Vesta’s altar yesterday, my eyes were blinded, as was the eye of the Sun, while paralysis gripped my limbs.
But when the Sun’s light returned, we found you on top of Rubria, the Vestal Virgin, violating her in her own sanctuary.
NERO (tearing at his hair in mad distraction)
When my vision returned, it was she I saw before me… My mother, naked as she was when she would crawl into my adolescent bed after plying me with wine… tricking me into having her, just as she did when I myself was still a virgin…
SENECA (to himself) The blinding of Oedipus! (to Nero) And when you came back to your senses, you found it was the Vestal Virgin you had raped, not your mother.
NERO (stripping off his clothes)
My only choice was to prove to her that I could always go her sexual abominations one better. The night she died, before the morticians arrived,… me alone with her body lying on the dining couch, exposed below the waist, where she had torn her robe aside to bare her womb to the assassin’s sword. I found myself becoming aroused and wanting to enter her one last time. I had never known a sensation as profoundly cold as I felt when I penetrated her corpse. That same unearthly cold, I felt it again inside the Vestal’s body before you pulled me off her.
SENECA (hushed in horror)
She had stabbed her own heart rather than let you enjoy her living flesh.
NERO (after a long silence, suddenly calm, picking up a towel, stepping into the pool)
Let’s wash away these terrible phantoms, shall we Seneca? (gesturing him toward the water) I have the waters from the hot springs of Bauli piped here. How delightfully they drive away the chill afflicting my body! In the same way, we will undertake to erase the events of which we have just spoken from Memory’s pages.
Seneca initially hesitates, obviously taken off guard by Nero’s abrupt mood change. Then he slowly disrobes and steps into the pool beside the Emperor. His flabby body makes a somewhat comical contrast with the buff, boyish fitness of his ward.
SENECA (struggling to assert his authority over the boy)
My Lord, more than a month has passed since Agrippina’s death, but you have lingered here in Baiae, where you mercilessly expose yourself to the setting of this terrible tragedy on a daily basis. It’s as if you have made yourself your own accuser, your own judge, your own jailor,… as if you’ve sentenced yourself to relive her murder, to reenact it in your mind over and over…
NERO (interrupting with malicious affirmation)
Exactly right, old man. That’s why I keep you around. Because you’re one of the very few Romans who aren’t totally clueless when it comes to my behavior… (with a wry smile) or at least one of the few I’ve suffered to remain alive.
SENECA (indulging the boy’s dark irony)
And I am in your Worship’s debt for that, I’m sure, as much as I may sometimes test your forbearance.
NERO (continuing with his monologue, as if Seneca had not interjected)
Since I stand above the judgment of any man – or god, for that matter – I must needs be my own judge and impose my own self-punishment. I stand convicted of incest and matricide, for which I will enact a public atonement. As you know, I have been in training as an actor, though practicing my art so far only on my private stage in the Palace. Now, I intend to perform before audiences, first here in Naples, but later also in Rome. And, perhaps still later, I am thinking, in Greece also.
With all due respect, your Grace, this is hardly the time for such whimsical amusements. The performances you propose would shock the Senate as beneath the dignity of a Prince. Your singing and lyre-playing have already raised eyebrows in Rome. The army will not tolerate a leader who they think is daft. Recall what happened to your uncle Caligula. In the wake of Agrippina’s demise, the Patricians – who are quite openly glad to be rid of her – are looking for you to show signs of maturity, stability, responsibility.
NERO (with evident contempt)
How you bore me sometimes! As I was saying, I have been studying the roles for my first public performances. (pausing and eyeing him mischievously) They are Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Euripides’ Orestes.
That’s perfect, isn’t it? Oedipus who plowed his own mother and Orestes who slew his. Why don’t you just come out and confess to incest and matricide and have done with it? And didn’t you start this conversation by saying that we need to cover this stuff up?
NERO (gathering his thoughts)
Cover it up? No, just the opposite, expose it so everyone knows. We do it so they know, but can’t believe. Can’t believe because of the sheer enormity of what I’ve done. The way they’ve been ingrained to see Rome and to see themselves as Romans won’t allow them to embrace the terrible truth that’s staring them in the face.
But why does it need to stare them in the face? Why do we have to rub their noses in your crimes? Remember, when I laid out the plan for Agrippina’s assassination, I was very careful to allow room for an alternate explanation – that it was suicide after her failed attempt to kill you. And as for the incest, our story is that she lied about that, used it as a way to blackmail you, to keep control over you, to make herself the real ruler of Rome. We can plausibly deny these things. Why not do it?
Well, of course we’ll deny everything. Officially, that is. And the arguments you’ve just so ably advanced will be put into a letter that your will write for me, explaining all of this to the Senate and the people of Rome. We’ll play upon their fears and hatreds just as I play upon my lyre. They’re actually longing for an excuse to celebrate my mother’s death. She was a monster in their eyes. Why? Because she used her sexual prowess – probably unexcelled at least since the days of Helen of Troy – to gain political advantage.
The Roman state rests on a foundation of violence. All of your predecessors, including the revered Augustus, had far more blood dripping from their hands than you do. But Eros threatens that foundation, because it’s actually more powerful than violence. In the end, the instinct for Life trumps the instinct for Death.
NERO (gaining confidence)
So we give them an official story that they want to believe, that confirms all their prejudices, validates their fears and hatreds, while at the same time letting them see, if they really want to, that it’s all actually a mountain of outrageous lies.
But why can’t we leave some room for doubt? Why go out of your way to dramatize your depravity on the stage? There will be those who, seeing through the façade of falsehood, will accuse you. It’s already starting in Rome, while you sit here and brood: graffiti calling you a matricide, leather bags over the heads of your statues.
Clever. The bag refers to Rome’s traditional punishment for parricide, which was to tie up the offender in a bag with a snake and drop them into the river. Supposedly the parent killer would then become a serpent in the next life.
SENECA (losing patience)
So do you plan to try to round up all these accusers?
Not at all. They’re doing my work for me. The more reason the people have to be certain of my guilt, the more I will have them in my power. My power is not complete until I have the absolute discretion to create whatever official narrative suits my purpose, regardless of what the real facts are. For that, I need to mold a people who identify totally with me, so that my power is their power. Then they will believe whatever it is they must believe to justify the legitimacy of that power, and willingly turn their faces away from the truth, if need be.
SENECA (becoming uneasy)
And once you’ve established that kind of power over your people, what do you intend to do with it? Would you make yourself a god then?
There you go with your gods again. You still don’t get it, do you, old man? I guess you never will. Until maybe the day comes when I send my physicians to your villa to assist you in your own suicide. You Stoics consider suicide to be such a noble end, but it’s so imperfect.
What do you mean, imperfect?
Imperfect because not suitable for a perfect being, such as myself.
SENECA (still confused)
NERO (disturbingly mesmerizing)
Men are transient, they pass away and the Earth remains. The gods are immortal, but even they can fall from power – as Saturn did and Uranus before him – and still the Earth remains. The Earth, our ultimate Mother, remains inviolate, for mortals and immortals alike. But I have violated my mother; I have destroyed my mother. The tragic masks of Oedipus and Orestes still fascinate us, like the eyes of a dragon, drawing the very core of our being to that final and complete annihilation, consuming everything that has been or ever will be – the perfect suicide.
SENECA (reciting as if entranced)
“After I am dead, let the Earth be consumed by fire.” (recovering awareness) So Phaeton, the son of Apollo, proclaims in Aeschylus’ play, The Heliades.
NERO (cruelly appreciative)
Phaeton, who drove the chariot of the Sun out of control, combusting vast swaths of the Heavens and Earth. Your nephew, Lucan, in the invocation of his epic poem Pharsalia, calls upon me as the new Phaeton, destined to succeed where the other had failed. But I do not say, “After I am dead, let the Earth be consumed by fire.” But rather I say, “While I am still alive,…”
SENECA (becoming angry)
My nephew wrote of his hope – quite foolish as it now appears – that your reign would inaugurate a new Golden Age, with yourself as Phaeton skillfully maneuvering the Sun’s chariot on a path of consummate harmony between Heaven and Earth.
The Golden Age must have its Golden Rule. As I will multiply the flames to engulf men’s bodies, so I will multiply the lucre to defile their souls. Let the tokens of our wealth breed and multiply without end, until all that is left of the Earth and the human spirit it once nourished are dry husks to feed my fire.
So I take it that your “perfect suicide” involves taking all of Rome down with you? Once you have the Romans in your power, believing whatever you want them to believe, you can walk them over a cliff, and they’ll think they’re stepping along the street. But what good does that do you or anybody else?
NERO (becoming aroused)
Since I am the World’s crowning achievement, any continuation of existence beyond my demise could only be a decline. You write dramas, Seneca, and you know that there’s the proper time to draw the curtain down, lest it all become tiresome and pointless. I was born to be the artist who writes the script for humanity and designs the set for the last scene to be played.
But Rome is not the World. Destroy Rome and another empire will rise to take its place.
NERO (more aroused)
When I was born, it was just before dawn. The Sun had not yet risen, yet when I was taken from my mother’s womb, my body was suffused with sunlight. The priests who witnessed this said it was the light of a future Sun, the Sun of my next and last birth. They declared me destined to rule Rome in this life, and the entire World in the next. My suicide this time will be that of myself and my royal lineage. It’s a step toward the perfect suicide of my final life – the suicide of my species and my planet.
SENECA (face contorted with revulsion, stepping back from Nero and pointing at him)
I can’t believe that my teachings, my philosophy, embracing benevolence and clemency, could have produced this!
Nero stares menacingly at him for a moment, then steps out of the pool, drys and dresses himself again in his citharode costume. He picks up his lyre and begins to strum a tune.
I’ll answer you, old man, with another yet-to-be-written song that I’m adapting. It’s about the results of your tutelage.
Sung with a steady, plaintive rhythm -
A man thinks,
‘cause he rules the Earth, he can do with it as he please,
And if things don’t change soon, he will;
Oh, this man has invented his doom,
First step was touching the Womb;
Now, there’s a
woman in that cave,
She just sits there as the night grows still,
Asking: Who’s gonna take away his license to kill?
Now, they take him,
and they teach him, and they groom him for strife,
And they set him on a path where each crime is a thrill;
Then they bury him with stars,
Burn his body on the Field of Mars;
Yet, there’s a
woman, known to rave,
She just sits there facin’ the hill,
Asking: Who’s gonna take away his license to kill?
Now, he’s hell-bent
for destruction, he’s beset and bemused,
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill;
All he believes are his spies,
And his spies, they just tell him lies;
But there’s a
woman, old and brave,
Sitting there in a cold chill,
Asking: Who’s gonna take away his license to kill?
May be a
Leave no home unburned;
May be an actor in a plot,
That might be all that he’s got,
’Til his terrors have all returned.
Now, he worships at
an altar of a stagnant pool,
And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled;
With his eyes looking over his prey,
He wants it all and he wants it his way;
But there’s a woman
in that cave,
She just sits there as the night grows still
Asking: Who’s gonna take away his license to kill?
While Nero is singing, Seneca steps out of the pool, drys himself, and puts on his toga. As Nero finishes his song, Seneca eyes him curiously for a minute, then speaks.
Let me guess. The old woman in the cave – that must be the Sibyl, right?
NERO (somewhat pleased with himself)
Right you are. I plan to visit her tonight, by the way. I’ve decided to ask her to take me down to Lake Avernus, into the entrance of the Underworld, as she did for my ancestor Aeneas.
You’re not afraid you’ll encounter the ghost of Agrippina down there?
NERO (with a front of bravado)
That’s exactly what I’m hoping for, old man. She thinks she can just continue to torment me from a distance. Now, at last, we’ll have it out, face-to-face.
But the Sibyl, she’s not been seen or heard from in years.
True. Her last known audience was with my uncle Claudius. She told him that, if his son succeeded him as Emperor, he would burn down Rome and wipe out both the Julian and the Claudian family lines entirely.
Yes, that was what motivated Claudius to marry your mother. He thought that the Sibyl’s prophecy referred to Britannicus, his son by Messalina. So he reasoned, if he disinherited Britannicus and invested you as his successor, he could avoid the hand of Fate.
NERO (laughing ironically)
Instead, he played right into it, the old fool! Of course, my mother took full advantage of the situation to take control of everything, especially the purse-strings. You and she made yourselves very rich in the money-lending game, didn’t you, mister noble philosopher?
SENECA (visibly embarrassed and defensive)
Yes, well, no harm was done to anyone…
Nobody except the thousands of small farmers and craftsmen who had to sell themselves and their children into slavery to pay their debts. Nobody except the 8000 Roman soldiers massacred in the British uprising provoked by your crushing interest demands.
Satisfied in making Seneca squirm, Nero relents.
But I hadn’t finished my story of Claudius and the Sibyl. As time went on, and he saw how my mother operated, forcing him to adopt me as his son and heir apparent, he began to think about the wording of the Sibyl’s prediction… How she spoke of his successor as “your son, no son”. And then, too late, he realized his mistake. So he planned to name Britannicus as his successor on the boy’s 14th birthday, when he assumed the toga of manhood.
SENECA (still abashed)
But Agrippina poisoned Claudius before he could do it, didn’t she? And you helped out, I presume.
Not really. My mother didn’t need any help in that department. But later on, after I became Emperor, I arranged to have Britannicus poisoned, just so Mother wouldn’t get any ideas about using him against me. What a shame! Such a pure, innocent boy. I just couldn’t let him die that way. So I debauched him the night before I did him in.
SENECA (taking the opportunity to turn the tables and embarrass Nero)
As I recall it, being as it was your first attempt at poisoning someone, you overdid it a bit, didn’t you? The dosage, I mean. The boy was dead before he even hit the floor. And then the body turned almost black. To cover it up, you had the corpse painted white with gypsum, but it started to rain during the cremation, and the gypsum washed off. I never thought that you were capable of blushing, but you did that day.
Yes, but I’ve learned a lot since then, haven’t I? I no longer fear the exposure of the darkest corners of my soul – I want them to be seen by everyone, so that they can know and accept that the darkness is part of them, as well.
My Lord, I must now beg your leave for my departure. I will compose the letter of which we spoke and deliver it to the Senate in Rome. Your Grace will not require me to attend him on his visit to the Cave of the Sibyl tonight?
NERO (becoming amiable)
No, old friend, I must do that alone. You have served me well. I’m sorry if I’ve been hard on you lately. It’s still the trauma of my mother’s death, you know.
Nero approaches Seneca and embraces him. As he loosens his embrace, he brings his face close to Seneca’s and looks into his eyes. Seneca’s Stoic composure weakens, and he fights back tears.
SENECA (with maudlin sentiment)
You’re still my little warrior, my pride and joy! This dark cloud will pass over you, and you will again be the Light and Hope of our Empire.
After kneeling and kissing Nero’s ring, Seneca departs.
NERO (extemporizing in verse)
Await I now the witching time of Night,
To hide my dark designs from eye and ear,
Drawing into blackness beams of Light,
So Vision fails, and all that’s left is fear.
My Spectral Self must now approach the shades,
Of things that were and things that are to come,
That All on my Unbeing be unmade,
The final counting of the Zero sum.
At my command are such as come from Naught,
The weeds of Eden’s Garden now unkept,
The voids between the stars, bereft of Thought,
Where Adam saw his nakedness and wept.
For he who seeks Oblivion is my friend,
Perception’s cancellation is my goal,
A pile of ashes makes a happy End –
The grand Annihilation of the Soul.
And so now to the Sibyl I must go,
With me, the Age of Prophecy expires,
What is Above is like what is Below,
United in one vast Infernal Fire.
Picking up his lyre, he exits.
Nero stands at the entrance to the cave of the Sibyl in Cumae, peering into the darkness of the long, trapezoidal tunnel which leads to the audience chamber within. He is dressed in Imperial grandeur, wearing a gold-embroidered scarlet cloak and a jeweled coronet and holding a gem-encrusted scepter. His bearing is impressive, almost intimidating, as if he were about to receive a foreign dignitary. The Moon has not yet risen; the night sky is perfectly clear, and a myriad of stars blaze against its pitch black curtain. Overhead, the constellations Boötes, the Serpent and Coma Berenices form a stellar tableau, with the faint wisp of a comet’s tail just visible beyond the jaws of the Serpent, as if it were about to be swallowed. Beside the entrance to the cave looms a much larger man-made tunnel, known as the Crypta Romana, that cuts through the hill of the Acropolis and leads to Lake Avernus. Nero turns to inspect this structure as he begins to speak.
NERO (regarding the scene curiously)
So this is where General Agrippa, my great-grandfather, made his base during Augustus’ naval war with Sextus Pompey. Through this large grotto, supplies were taken down to the Lake on the other side of this hill and from there to Agrippa’s fleet sheltered in the Bay. And through this Crypta Romana tonight I will follow in the path of my ancestor Aeneas to the entrance of the Underworld on the shores of Lake Avernus. (Turning now to the entrance of the Sibyl’s cave) But the location of that bleak portal to the Land of the Dead is known only to the ancient prophetess I hope to find within this cave.
(Pausing before the cave entrance and gazing upward at the stars) There’s Boötes with his ox cart overhead. The Egyptians say his 26 stars are the pieces of the dismembered body of their god Osiris, now stitched together again in this constellation. On his left is a stellar rendering of a ringlet of the amber hair of Berenice, so like that of my love, Poppaea. And on his right is the head of the Serpent borne by Ophiuchus, reaching with its jaws for the tail of a comet, as if to represent the Ouroborus. The appearance of this comet, so say my mother’s astrologers, augurs the fall of a great ruler, like the bloody red comet that crossed the sky in the months before Claudius met his end. Others claim this comet is the torch of vengeance carried by my mother’s unquiet spirit. If this cosmic prodigy demands the blood of great ones, I am ready to satiate its hunger and rid myself of enemies at the same time. But if it comes to scourge me for my mother’s death, then I must implore the aid of this Sibyl to turn aside the Furies’ wrath.
A cacophony of echoing voices issues from the cave.
Enter Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus! Enter Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus Caesar! Enter Nero! Enter Nero! Enter Nero!
NERO (amazed and confused)
Strange! These voices now beckoning are the very same as those I heard in my tormented dreams the night of Agrippina’s death, after the news had come that she had somehow swum to safety after we had rigged her ship to sink in the Bay. I dreamed that I was steering her sinking ship when the tiller slipped from my hands. With the dead body of Octavia, my wife, hanging from my around my neck, I was dragged down into a bottomless pit where winged scorpions with human faces swarmed all over me. At last a blast of smoke lifted me up from the pit, and I found myself astride my favorite Asturian stallion, pursued by the statues of the Nations from Pompey’s Theater. Then I saw the Mausoleum of Augustus before me; the doors opened by themselves, and voices from within called to me, just as these do now: “Enter, Nero!” Suddenly, my horse turned into an ape, all except his head, which whinnied this tune:
The Julian Clan all dead now perforce,
Rome’s Senators have voted to endorse
The reincarnation of Caligula’s horse,
So Incitatus can be pressed into service.
Voices from the cave gradually fading:
Nero… Nero… Nero…
Well, at least I’m not dropping in unexpected. If this is but the prelude, the rest is bound to be a real horror show.
Nero lights a torch and enters the cave. As he walks down the passageway to the audience chamber, on the walls he casts a shadow that appears to be accompanied by other shadowy figures, resembling sometimes an old man, at times a middle-aged woman, and at other times a teen-aged boy – as if the shades of Claudius, Agrippina and Britannicus were following in his footsteps.
Just before he reaches the chamber, a gust of wind blows out his torch, and he stands in near total darkness for several moments. As his eyes adjust, he notices that the cave is dimly lit by stars aligned with countless holes in the ceiling. After a while, he recognizes the principal stars of the three constellations – Boötes, Serpens and Coma Berenices – as well as the comet which he’d seen outside the cave.
Wow, that’s quite a trick! (pointing upward and tracing with his finger) The Ox Cart, the Serpent and the Amber Hair, just as though this cave were transparent. And there’s the comet, too, fleeing from the Serpent’s fangs. (moving his finger in a different direction) But what’s that other light I see, moving across the ceiling, as if it were a falling star?
VOICE OF THE SIBYL (coming from the light)
I believe I’m the one you’re looking for, young man.
I’m looking for a very old woman, a prophetess, the Sibyl of Cumae, who lives – or did live – in this cave.
SIBYL (her light glowing brighter and hovering over Nero)
I was an old woman. Very old, as a matter of fact. Nearly 2000 years old when I had to leave my body. Not much left of it by then, all shriveled and dry like an insect. Now there’s only my voice and the Light of my Spirit.
But no one has seen you for years. Since Claudius at least. And he was such a liar, who knows if that story is even true.
SIBYL (light stops moving and rests beside Nero’s head)
Oh yes, I did speak to him, but not in the form you see me as now. He was so easily frightened, I had to project an image of my former self, a sort of optical illusion, you know, or he’d have died of shock, poor man!
NERO (beginning to believe her)
And you spoke to him the words of the god Apollo, from a trance, as Virgil writes you did for Aeneas?
Oh no, young man. The gods are silent now – have been for many years. Once upon a time, they spoke to almost everyone. Then it dwindled down to just a few of us. But after a time, people lost interest in what we Sibyls had to say. Too enigmatic for them, maybe, or too changeable, or just not what they wanted to hear. The truth is not a formula, but people like formulas. So scrolls and books replaced our living visions. Write something down in a book, and by the time your write it, it’s not true anymore. It’s like trying to paint a picture of a flowing river. So all that’s left of the voices of the gods are in those books that Augustus laid up in Apollo’s Temple on Palatine Hill. But, along the way, he burned 2000 scrolls of oracles he considered dangerous, and he and his wife Livia edited the rest to fit their wishes. Although the gods live on to some degree through the few surviving scraps of their words, the time will come when even those so-called sacred scriptures will lose their authority, and the gods will then be truly dead.
But you yourself had your prophecies transcribed, didn’t you? If you’re so opposed to written scriptures, what possessed you to do that?
“Possessed” is the right word, Boyo, and your ancestor Prince Aeneas can claim the credit for that. Before he came long, the only transcriptions were on oak leaves that scattered soon after my words were spoken. True Vision is of the Moment, it has no fixed sequence: every image, every phrase is like a single thread of a vast, fluid tapestry, capable of forming infinite combinations. A poet of the future will say it quite nicely:
… and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them,…
But those are the same gods who, as you just said, will be dead in the future – if they’re not dead already.
SIBYL (continuing, dreamily, to recite poetry)
… and to think that what has been shall be,
flowing, ever unstill…
The hells move in cycles,
No man can see his own end.
The Gods have not returned. “They have never left us.”
They have not returned.
Clouds processional and the air moves with their living.
I agree. The gods have not deserted us; it is we who have deserted them. The gods were the parents of mankind’s childhood, and now we must cast them aside, as we do our childish toys.
The gods are not toys. They cannot be tossed aside like your playthings, young Prince. No more than you could toss aside your mother when she had served your purposes. You had to kill her to be rid of her, didn’t you? Or, so you thought. Because she’s dead now, and you’re still not rid of her, are you? And that’s why you’re here tonight, Master Lucius Domitius.
Hold your vile tongue, you wicked old hag! Or I can just as easily do the same for you!
SIBYL (defiantly, fluttering around the cave)
How silly you can be, young man! There’s nothing left of me now to murder but my Light, and that you cannot kill. Even your absolute power has its limits. You must find that very frustrating.
NERO (sputtering with wrath)
Limits? You think my power has limits? I can have every living soul in Cumae butchered before dawn and use their corpses to seal up the entrance to your wretched cave so tight that not even the light will get through!
SIBYL (her light dancing merrily)
When you were 16 years old, your mother made you Emperor, and you dreamed you were omnipotent. And one day, in another life, you will induce men to indulge your dream, induce them to murder their gods as you have murdered your parents. And when they awake in their godless World and listen for a voice to inform their will, the utter Silence will drive them mad.
NERO (taking a moment to regain his composure)
Exactly. And in that madness they will desperately seek a voice to break the silence, seek an omnipotence to replace that of the fallen gods. My will shall become their will. All of humanity directed by the will of one all-powerful King.
SIBYL (resolute, hovering over his head)
The hierarchal integration of mankind has been attempted a number of times in the past, always without success. A reminder of those attempts is in the sky above us tonight, the constellation that the Greeks call Boötes. But to the Assyrians it was Nimrod of Babel, whose mighty Tower ascended toward the stars themselves. And to the Egyptian it was Osiris, pieced together from a dismembered corpse, still missing the member that spawns Life. His great Pyramid looms over the plateau of Giza, still awaiting its golden Capstone bearing the number 777 of the Flaming Sword.
NERO (gazing upward)
And beneath Boötes I see the amber hair of Berenice, a token of my boundless love for the sublime beauty of Poppaea Sabina.
Your hunger to possess what other men lust after is not Love, young Prince. To have her you’ve already killed Agrippina, your mother, and to have her you will murder your wife Octavia. Nine years to the day from Octavia’s death, this life of yours shall also end.
NERO (angry again)
Nonsense, you loathsome old crone! I will live to see the Earth itself engulfed in flames! Like a Phoenix, I alone will emerge from the ashes of the World to begin a new Golden race of men.
Not this time around, dearie. The fire you set in this life will never reach beyond the hills of Rome. But in the next life, … (holding back) Well, let me say this much: Seven years to the day from the eclipse that followed Agrippina’s murder, a revolt will break out in a small eastern province of your Empire. It will be foreshadowed by the appearance of a brilliant comet in the Pond of Aquarius. As a result of that rebellion, a great Temple will be destroyed and an ancient people scattered from their ancestral homeland. In your next life, you will see that Temple rebuilt, and you will choose its City as the seat of your new Empire.
NERO (with contempt)
You’re just repeating something my mother’s astrologers predicted at my birth. That I would lose my throne here but gain another in the East. And if it’s the Temple in Jerusalem you’re referring to, my love Poppaea cherishes the Jews and will exercise her influence to protect them.
Our Lady of the Amber Hair? Her efforts will produce the opposite of her intentions, just as yours will, my young Prince. You and she have elected to act through the networks of power and greed, networks which arise from vanity and must result in vanity. But in the starry Coma Berenices above us are the amber strands that connect the nodes of the Eternally Real, the points of Light in our Universe. I’m hearing again some verses of future poetry:
Tell her that sheds/ Such treasures in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,/ I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour/ Braving time.
NERO (impatiently, trying to interrupt)
This does not compare with the poetry I myself have written extolling Poppaea’s amber hair…
SIBYL (ignoring him and continuing to recite)
The Heavenly Circuit; Berenice’s Hair;
Tent-pole of Eden; the tent’s drapery;
Symbolical glory of earth and air!
The Father and His angelic hierarchy
That made the magnitude and glory there
Stood in the circuit of a needle’s eye.
NERO (self-satisfied, completing the poem)
Some found a different pole, and where it stood
A pattern on a napkin dipped in blood.
SIBYL (impressed, her light flickering about the comet above)
So,… I see your Majesty can also read the poetry of the future. The bloody napkin to which Mr. Yeats will refer is Veronica’s Veil – Veronica being the Latin equivalent of the Greek name Berenice. The points of Light that are connected by Berenice’s Burning Hair depict the Face of an Eternal Man, the Man who was crucified during the reign of Tiberius.
A wretched beggar who made himself out to be the King of the Jews and paid for his presumption with his life.
SIBYL (defiantly, her light whirling around Nero’s head)
The first Man to awaken from the sleep of Death, to throw off the Specter of Death and to open the way to Eternal Life for all mankind. The mundane fire that you will unleash on the World will pale beside his Fire, the Fire of Divine Love, which will consume all that is not Eternity, all that is not God.
I alone am eternal. I alone will emerge from the final conflagration to create the next race of men – all of them perfect, all identical to me.
SIBYL (inspired, her light throbbing like a heart)
Within each man is the door to Eternity, the portal that connects him to the Eternal Man and makes him part of one Divine Body. But the hierarchy of wealth and power imposed by the abominable breeding of sterile metal in usury has vastly inflated the dross of this World, and made it appear more real, more substantial than the human Soul itself. Man has become very small and insignificant in his own diminished eyes, seeing himself dwarfed by the Colossus of domination set over him by ogres like yourself. The gate into his true, supernal Self shrinks to an invisible point, a path no wider than a hair – Berenice’s amber hair.
NERO (losing patience)
How you go on with your ridiculous gibberish, you old crow! It’s no wonder people lost interest in your so-called oracles. What a waste of time! I don’t need you to look into the future for me. Within my mind, I have my own private theater, in which I can reenact the past and rehearse the future. I have no need of gods to guide my will.
But the phantoms of yourself who perform in the private theater of your ego are gods, and false gods at that! You delude yourself by believing them to be extensions of yourself, agents of yourself, but they are actually Specters, demons who control you and rob you of genuine Life, of real Experience. Because all of what’s Real is in the Moment, this Moment, unshackled from the ticking clock, unobserved in time’s contrived span of Past, Present and Future. While your Specter is in the specious Past, rearranging events like the furniture in an abandoned house, you are asleep, you are not Here. While your Specter is in its fantasized Future, performing its role and reciting its lines in envisioned scenarios, you are asleep, you are not Here.
NERO (arrogantly, but somewhat defensive)
Of course I rehearse my future actions, as does any competent ruler. What would you have me do, role dice to make up my mind, like my idiot Uncle Claudius did?
The dross, the static, the meaningless noise that fills this World and proliferates under usury’s Reign of Iniquity – it operates under one law and one law only: the Law of Random Chance. This is the only law to which your Specter is subject, the only one it observes. It makes no difference if you roll the dice, or consult an astrologer, or examine the entrails of a sacrificed animal, you have forfeited your actual Will, which you can only exercise if you are Here, fully aware in this precise Moment.
NERO (becoming more uncertain)
But I will abolish the perception of which you speak in favor of a reality shaped by my desires.
SIBYL (triumphantly, her light now flashing before Nero’s eyes)
Your desires, or those of your Phantom Self? Without your Specter, you are incapable of genuine Desire, aren’t you? That’s why you spend so much time performing on your private stage in the Palace, because that’s the only semblance of Life left to you, isn’t it?
NERO (unnerved, stepping back from the flashing light)
But I need to rehearse, because soon, very soon, I will perform publicly, before the people of Naples, before the people of Rome. And in my life to come, my stage will be the entire World.
SIBYL (aggressively, her light following Nero and backing him into a corner)
Yes, and that’s your destiny, my boy: to rend the Veil, to pull aside the curtain behind which the false Spectral selfhood has hitherto concealed itself. Because the Specter is a shade, a Shadow dispelled when exposed to the Light. And you, poor dear, as the ultimate avatar of that Shadow, have been chosen to stand in the spotlight and dissolve.
NERO (becoming desperate)
The entire Universe will dissolve before I do. I will rise as the Phoenix from the flames.
SIBYL (firmly, her light reflecting from Nero’s eyes in the darkness)
Your vision of universal annihilation will only be partly realized, my Prince. You will succeed only in annihilating the superfluous, temporal chaff which obscures Reality. You will perform God’s Will, in spite of yourself. My Sister, the Sibyl of Erythrae, put it quite nicely:
Obscurest acts shall be revealed, his secrets each impart,
So shall God bring all thought to Light, unlocking every heart.
NERO (wildly, pulling a small, female figurine out of his cloak and holding it up between the Sibyl’s light and his eyes)
I’ve had my fill of your sinister witchcraft! Though I am young and as yet lack your skill in the magical arts, I hold in my hand the talisman of the great conqueror Alexander, by which he brought the Powers of Darkness under his control. With this I can command you to do my bidding.
SIBYL (amused, her light entering the figurine and glowing from within it)
The “Powers” of which you speak are pitiful, empty creatures of the Void. They achieve a semblance of substance only when fed by Fear. And even then, the purview of their malice is constrained to the delusive time-scape of Past and Future. As for me, I’m not There, I’m Here, beyond their reach.
NERO (near hysteria, still holding up the figurine)
I command you, in the name of all the rulers of the Abyss, to bring me this night to the entrance of the Underworld!
SIBYL (brightly, her light leaving the figurine and descending to the floor of the cave)
Yes, I know the reason for your visit. I was quite willing to take you there, my Frog Prince, without the need for these ridiculous antics.
NERO (softening, putting the figurine away in his cloak)
That’s better. But what’s this “Frog Prince” about?
When we get down to Lake Avernus, you’ll hear lots of frogs croaking in the marsh weeds. Before your rebirth as a human, you’ll be one of them. You should enjoy it. You’ll get to sing all night long in almost the same way you do now.
So that’s your idea of humor?
Not at all. Though it does have a sort of amusing ironic twist to it. Originally, you were earmarked to be reborn as a viper, which as you know, chews its way out of its mother’s womb. But then your “pregnancy” just makes the frog incarnation so much more appropriate, don’t you think?
NERO (hesitant, embarrassed)
You, er, heard about that? I mean, it was just a boyish prank when I was ten years old. I admired my mother so much at the time that I wanted to imitate everything she did. So I swallowed a few tadpoles, thinking they’d grow into frogs inside me, so I could give birth to them and become a mother myself. I’m surprised you know about that.
Oh, sure, doesn’t everyone? Or, if they don’t, I should think you’d want to flaunt it the way you’re planning to flaunt your matricide and incest. Perhaps you can add to your repertoire as Orestes and Oedipus the role of Canace giving birth to her doomed, incestuous child in Euripides’ tragedy Aiolos?
NERO (playing along)
Not a bad idea. I’ll give it some thought.
SIBYL (more seriously)
You might be interested to learn that there’s a holy man on the island of Patmos who has had a vision of you spitting three frogs out of your mouth. Those three frogs will actually appear in your family crest in your next life.
NERO (more relaxed)
Ok, I’ve taken enough kidding about the frogs and my singing and all that. When do we start our walk down to the Lake?
SIBYL (offhandedly, her light steady against the far wall of the cave)
First we need to visit Diana’s oak grove and find a forked bough for you to carry. You won’t get past the two-headed Hound of Hell without that to shove in his jaws.
That’s like the Golden Bough that got Aeneas into Hades? Virgil wrote about that, didn’t he?
When the unitary Pure State Unus Mundus began to decohere, the very first division that arose was between the Living and the Dead. The forked oak bough represents that primordial split. Death is a kind of filter. The Eternal part of us, of course, never dies. But the shades of our Spectral personas, these pass into the Underworld when they reach the end of their timeline, basically for want of any other place for them to go.
And once we gain entry into the Underworld, you can lead me to the Shade of Agrippina?
SIBYL (serenely, her light dimming)
All that remains of me now is Light, and Light cannot penetrate the Realm of Shadows. Beyond the dismal gate, you must proceed alone. But don’t be too concerned about searching for her. She will find you… Are you ready to depart?
Lead on, Sibyl. The descent into Hell is easy. The return,… maybe not so much.
They exit the Cave together, with the Sibyl’s light guiding Nero.
A moonless, starless night on the shore of a vast Bay. A woman’s body, dressed in an elegant but somewhat tattered gown, appears washed up on the beach, a mop of wet, entangled hair covering her face. Walking along the beach, dressed as he was in the previous scene, Nero approaches the body and kneels beside it. As he rolls the woman’s body over and pulls the hair aside to see her face, she suddenly revives and stands up, so that he is kneeling at her feet. In the instant Nero recognizes her as Agrippina, he finds himself speaking out of her body, and she out of his.
NERO (in Agrippina’s body, totally disoriented, examining her gown and jewelry and feeling her hair and facial features)
From the time I entered the Underworld, this has been like a bizarre dream, with everything out of joint, backwards, inverted. Now, I am no longer even myself, but I have somehow been transformed into my mother. And before me I see my own visage, my own form, from the outside, as if I were seeing another person entirely.
AGRIP. (rising in Nero’s body, serene and self-assured)
Welcome to Hell, my Son! It’s the Mind’s own prison, cut off from the guiding Light of Intellect. We change forms with the moods that sweep across our souls, like winds over which we have no control. And so you have come to this dark shore, not seeking it, but it seeking you.
NERO (struggling to orient him/herself)
I came to find you… (first pointing at Nero’s body, then back at Agrippina’s)
AGRIP. (enjoying Nero’s consternation)
But instead you found yourself, only yourself, my dear boy. The Underworld is inhabited only by the creatures of your own Mind. In that sense, it’s like a dream, just as you said. But, in your special case, the World of Nero’s Mind is occupied by just one denizen – Nero himself. You inhabit a mental Universe populated only by yourself and your Phantoms, although you seem to have lost all sense of which is which. All you will find here are Nero and analog Neros: reflections and reflections of reflections, shades and shades of shades.
But this is the voice of Agrippina, my Mother, that I hear, though coming out Nero’s mouth.
Wrong. You murdered your mother. I am not she. I am you imagining yourself to be her. We are in the theater which you have so carefully constructed to house your tortured psyche, a theater in which you play all the roles yourself, where all the tragic masks resemble your face. And the soul of Agrippina is in her own solitary prison, also inhabited only by her and the Specters of herself. She was once part of you, as were so many others in your life, but she, like you, chose separation, and now the pain of that separation is all that remains for either of you, for the rest of Eternity.
NERO (incredulous, becoming excited)
But this cannot be! I’ve seen her, in my dreams and even waking visions. She scourges me with her whip and cries out for my blood! Surely, I can encounter her restless spirit in this dark place and ask her forgiveness.
Oh, piffle! The almighty Princeps of Rome needs to beg the pardon of no man! The rest of humanity are as insects crawling beneath his feet. He requires no thoughts but his own, for the World he inhabits was created for him and him alone.
NERO (becoming more assertive)
Who are you to judge me? You’re not my mother, you admit as much. So you must be one of the demons of this damned place, capable only of inflicting torment, speaking only fiendish lies.
A demon, you say? A demon of this place? That’s for sure, because “this place” is your own Mind, Nero. You’ve eliminated all the real Beings in your World, so all that’s left is the dust of Nothingness inflated into quasi-existence by your ego. You can call us demons, if you like, but we’re demons of your own creation. In fact, we’re the only offspring you’ll ever have, because we breed by scission, without the mediation of Love, without the bother of letting another actual persona enter your mindspace.
My love, Poppaea Sabina will bear me children, once I am rid of the baggage of Claudius’ daughter Octavia, to whom I was betrothed before reaching manhood.
Always ridding yourself of someone, aren’t you? You will indeed rid yourself of Octavia, as well as her sister Antonia, thus bringing the Claudian lineage to extinction. Then you will rid yourself of Poppaea and her unborn child, making youreself the last of the Julians, the last of the progeny of Aeneas. You will even be so bold as to popularize your crime by publicly performing the part of mad Hercules slaughtering his wife and children.
NERO (exploding in anger)
Lies! I command your silence at once! How dare your curse your Emperor!
AGRIP. (laughing him to scorn)
Are you blind, like your other role-model Oedipus? Can’t you see that this is you cursing yourself? You’re performing now in the theater of your own Mind, and you will continue to perform here forever, from the same scripts, over and over again. That’s why you’ve turned into the image of Agrippina, because tonight we will reenact her murder, but this time with Nero cast as his mother, experiencing her death firsthand.
You’ve got it all wrong, lady. If this is my theater, as you say it is, then I write the script, and I’m about to write your part out of this play.
Look at me. I’m you: Nero playing the role of Nero, wearing his own face as his mask. You can write my part out of the play if you like, but that will be your suicide scene. We haven’t gotten to that yet.
If you think the prospect of my death frightens me, you’re way off. When the time comes, I’ll face my end calmly, because I’ve seen my life to come, visited the scenes of my future glory.
You – your proper Self, that is – have seen nothing, visited nothing. You have dispatched the Specter of yourself to play among the chimeras of a sham Future that does not exist and will never exist. It’s a realm that belongs to the vain things that never attain Reality, and whose pathetic parody of existence is spent striving to block others from emerging into true Being.
In my life to come, all men will be players in my drama, all actors on my stage, under my direction.
In that you are partly right, sad to say. When the toxins of usury have thoroughly poisoned the streams of human commerce and sundered all ties of community, so that the delusion of separateness spreads like a blanket of fog over consciousness, then the desolate day of the Hollow Man will dawn. Here at last is the man who will stare vacuously at the glittering idols of Falsehood and blink, accepting as valid and valuable only the static surfaces of things, hearing only the churning of money replicating itself, virus-like. Here at last is the vortex sucking in the draft of Voidness that disperses the collective Soul and severs every cord of empathy that connects man to his brother. Then at last the vacuity of your inner World, Nero, will expand to take in the entire planet – a World of empty shells, never touching anything Real, only the tokens of illusory wealth, created out of Nothing and bound to return to Nothing. Then, indeed, they will dance like straw-men to your tune.
Now you’re finally starting to get things straight, my mirror-image mistress. That is my destiny, and tonight I begin my ascent to immortality.
Tonight you begin your voyage back to the Void that spawned you, back to your mother’s bedchamber …
The scene shifts to the bedroom of Agrippina’s villa in the predawn hours. Nero is still in his mother’s body, but now she is wearing a nightgown. Her hair, still wet from her near-drowning, in pulled back from her face and knotted behind her head. Nero-as-Agrippina is seated at a small bedside table, lighted by a single candle, while a slave girl stands near the entrance to the room. The silence is broken by a tumult outside the villa, with the voices of servants heard screaming and wailing. Terrified, the slave girl flees the room, leaving Nero-as-Agrippina alone.
NERO (standing in Agrippina’s body, alone in the middle of the room, gazing into a mirror)
Is this the voice of Agerinus below?
My freedman and commander of my fleet?
Who I dispatched this night to strike the blow
To lay my Mother’s body at his feet.
And with that sword will he now slay his Prince?
Who stands transformed, his Mother’s counterfeit?
And will I feel the sword’s thrust, will I wince?
Though this be not my flesh, will I yet split
My spirit from the substance of this den
And see this night what lies beyond the grave?
Will I still know myself as Nero then
Or then assume the countenance of a slave?
It seems that all my power was in my face
Which now removed makes mockery of my pride.
I hear the steps of Death approach this place,
And, faceless, I would find somewhere to hide.
Agerinus, sword in hand, bursts into the room, with two club-wielding sailors on either side of him. One of the sailors blocks the exit, while the other approaches Nero-as-Agrippina, raising his club over her head.
You… you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re making a terrible mistake. Nero does not condone this crime.
AGER. (to the club-wielding sailor, cynically mocking)
My, doesn’t she sound like her son tonight? Must be all the salt water she swallowed during her little swim out in the Bay. Nero warned us not to give her a chance to plead her case. Go ahead, Herculeius, let her have it!
Herculeius brings his club down on the head of Nero-as-Agrippina. She staggers back a few steps, but stays on her feet as Agerinus advances toward her, pointing his sword at her bosom.
AGER. (addressing Nero-as-Agrippina, cruelly)
In deference to your royal person, I’ll give you the choice of where you want to take this.
Nero-as-Agrippina turns her back to Agerinus and speaks to her reflection in the mirror.
NERO (to her reflection, weeping)
What is this awful precipice I see?
Before me nothing, after nothing still.
Where next I step is where I cease to be,
Resolved to naught, a shape without a will.
Nero-as-Agrippina suddenly turns back around to face Agerinus. She pulls her nightgown aside, grabs the end of his sword, and draws its point against her womb.
NERO (now speaking with Agrippina’s voice, triumphantly)
Stike here, Agerinus! This bore Nero!
The scene dissolves into total darkness. Then, in the midst of the darkness, a lighted area appears. As it grows larger, it forms the image of a vast bowl-shaped arena surrounding a central stage. Seated in the arena are billions of people comprising all of mankind – the living, the dead and the yet-to-be-born. Alone on the stage stands Nero, dressed for the role of Oedipus, wearing a tragic mask bearing his own facial features.
NERO (crying out as he removes his mask)
Father, brother, mother, sister, wife my death command!
The audience bursts into thunderous applause, which shakes the arena to its foundations. As the applause fades out, the trembling of the earth beneath the stadium continues and intensifies.
NERO (to the crowd, calmly)
No need for alarm, folks. Don’t panic. It’s just the gods themselves applauding. As a reassurance of your safety, you can all exit ahead of me, and I’ll be the last to go. The gods won’t let their favorite artist be harmed, you know.
As the enormous crowd files out of the stadium, the voice of Nero is heard singing.
Finally, as Nero himself exits, the arena collapses, ending the scene.