Chapter 1 AD 56 - 60
Chapter 2 AD 61
Chapter 3 AD 62
Chapter 4 AD 63
Chapter 5 AD 64
Chapter 6 AD 65
Chapter 7 AD 66
Chapter 8 AD 67
Chapter 9 AD 68-91
Synopsis of the Period
Rome at the end of Nero’s reign was a period of relative peace and growing wealth in the empire but significant religious change was occurring across the northern Mediterranean. No longer satisfied with the public rituals of traditional Roman worship, Romans were increasingly interested in eastern religions that allowed worshipers to have a personal relationship with a god. Many eastern cults, such as those of Isis and Osiris, Attis and Cybele, and others, built significant followings, and even imposing temples, in Rome. The religion of the Jews, and particularly its Christian offshoot, was also found in the city, and the strife between Christians and Jews as the Christians separated themselves from the parent religion was partially played out in Rome. Nero, perhaps hearing the apocalyptic expectations of the Christians, blamed them for the fire of AD 64 and had at least some of the fledgling community in the city executed as incendiaries.
A gruesome event occurring in AD 61, which set in motion many of the plot strands of The Sailing, concerned the murder of Pedanius Secundus, prefect of Rome and one of its most powerful and wealthy citizens. The account in Tacitus of the murder and the subsequent imprisonment of the entire slave population of the household states that there was rioting after the decision of the Roman senate to impose capital punishment on the over 400 slaves owned by the prefect. This cruelty was justified under an old law which presumed that one slave would not act alone in murdering his master and must have expected cooperation, or at least silence, from many of his fellow slaves. Nero could have relaxed the law but responded to pressure from the upper classes to keep it in place. The anger of the slaves and lower classes of Rome over the incident undoubtedly burned for years and may have led other slaves to embrace a religion that was unfairly blamed for the great fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64.
Nero’s excesses, such as aspiring to be a charioteer and opera singer, increasingly angered many in Rome of all social classes. When he divorced Octavia, daughter of Claudius, to marry his consort, Poppaea Sabina, members of the senatorial class began to plot his assassination. A popular belief arose that he had performed part of his Trojan epic involving the burning of Troy in his palace using the great fire as a backdrop. Though several plots against the emperor were discovered and the ringleaders executed, Nero’s decision to take a large entourage on a grand tour of musical and sports competitions in Greece finally led several generals in the Roman army to revolt. Returning to Rome in haste after Galba revolted in Spain, the senate declared Nero an enemy of the people and he committed suicide by falling on his sword. A year of civil war followed before peace was restored.
Biographies of the Principal Characters in the Narratives of Isidora and Dakis*
Isidora (narrative from AD 56 to AD 91), daughter of Carpina. Born into the household of Larcius Licinius, a senator of Rome with substantial estates near the Bay of Naples, Isidora followed her mother as the make-up maid of Crispa, the wife of Larcius. Having painted Nero’s face to great effect for an informal performance at a party during festivities on the Bay, Isidora was sold by Larcius to Marcus Ollius, a wealthy Roman and relative of Poppaea Sabina, the emperor’s consort. While in the service of Poppaea it was discovered that Isidora was a medium who could change a person’s fates by momentarilyy realigning the stars during a trance controlled by a priest of Isis. She served Poppaea until her mistress's death in AD 65, when she was sold by Marcus Ollius to Nero. Isidora accompanied Nero on his tour of Greece, where she attempted to avenge the death of her fellow slave, Sara. She was married to Theophilus after the main events of her narrative but outlived him by many years. The date of her death remains uncertain, though some commentators argue that certain passages in her narrative suggest she was ill as she completed it sometime after AD 91.
Dakis (narrative from AD 61 to AD 68), by his own account properly named Zedekias, son of Shemuel. Dakis and his sister, Sara, also a principal character, were sold into slavery after their mother died and their father could no longer afford to have a family. Dakis was bought by an agent of Pedanius Secundus, prefect of Rome, and served in his household until the prefect was murdered. Although present at the time of the murder, Dakis did not know of the premeditated plan of Alopix, another slave, to kill Pedanius. The two fled together. When captured more than a year later, he survived a fight with beasts at funeral games and was sent to a gladiatorial school. He became one of the most successful net-men of the first century. Upon saving Petronius (author of The Satyricon) during a naval battle to celebrate the salvation of Rome from the great fire of AD 64, Dakis was given his freedom by Nero but required to become an assassin in the service of Tigellinus, the praetorian prefect. Renouncing the evils of his earlier years after Nero’s death, he became a Christian and, near the end of the first century, Bishop of Cyrene. A papyrus fragment carbon dated to the early third century refers to a gladiator and bishop (ΜΟΝΟΜΑΧΟΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΠΙΣΚΟΠ[ΟΣ]) living until the beginning of the 15th year of Hadrian's reign, i.e., AD 131. Jacob Watts believed this to be a reference to Dakis.
Other Principal Characters:
Alopix, murderer of Pedanius Secundus, a fellow slave of Dakis, who fled with him. Alopix was killed by guards in the town of Tibur two days after the murder, but Dakis escaped. The body of Alopix was carried among the crosses where the 400 slaves of the household of Pedanius were crucified so that the dying slaves could curse the man responsible for their deaths.
Antonia, daughter of Claudius, half-sister to Octavia, sister to Nero not by blood but as a result of his adoption by Claudius. Antonia was close to Octavia and began to hate Nero after her half-sister’s murder, which Nero arranged to prevent Octavia becoming a focus of revolutionary sentiment after he divorced her. One of Antonia’s servants rescued Isidora during the great fire and Isidora recovered in Antonia’s house. Suspected of being part of the Pisonian conspiracy, Nero nevertheless asked Antonia to join his entourage before going to Greece. An attempt on Nero’s life on the road to Beneventum was blamed on her and she was beheaded.
Dynamis, a priest of Isis and client of Poppaea Sabina. Dynamis was an astrologer who believed that a fate dictated by the stars could be averted if a medium temporarily changed the astral configuration of the potential victim at the moment of crisis. His first medium was Woman, an Egyptian who died in AD 62. His second was Isidora. Dynamis claimed to have saved Poppaea by moving the stars with Woman after Poppaea attempted to revive her prior marriage to Nero.
Glautias, a slave and gladiator who blamed Dakis for the death of his beloved, Golgia, who had been a slave of Pedanius Secundus. Golgia was one of the 400 slaves of the household of Pedanius who were executed after his murder under an old law requiring that all slaves had to die for the act of just one. Glautias tried to kill Dakis several times, once in the grove of the golden bough at Lake Nemi.
Melissa, a slave who served Poppaea along with Isidora and Sara. According to the narrative of Dakis, her real name was German and pronounced Myl Ganat. She was given her freedom but banished to Greece by Nero for her association with members of the Pisonian conspiracy. She helped hide Isidora after Isidora fled Nero’s entourage in Corinth during the Greek tour in AD 67.
Nero Claudius Caesar, fifth and last emperor of the Julio-Claudian line. Nero was proclaimed emperor on the death of Claudius in AD 54. Nero’s love of Poppaea began while his mother was still alive, and her objections to the mistress likely contributed to his arranging his mother’s murder. Nero remained married to Octavia, a daughter of Claudius, for several years, but had her murdered so that he could marry Poppaea. Both of these murders made him unpopular with the patricians, and the belief that he may have started the fire of Rome in AD 64, or that he performed part of his Trojan epic with the fire as a backdrop, contributed to his unpopularity with the plebians. When he left for a grand tour of Greece in AD 66, opponents remaining in Rome were able to gather strength and condemn him. Upon his hasty return in early AD 68 he fled Rome and died by falling on his own sword.
Paris, the greatest actor in Rome during the age of Nero. Initially favoring the actor, Nero became jealous as his own acting aspirations grew, and Paris had to flee Rome several times. Dakis saved him on one of those occasions. Paris attempted to assassinate Nero in Greece but survived because Nero wanted to make Paris’s death public in Rome and confined him to a prison ship until they could return. Nero died before the death of Paris could be arranged. Paris returned to the stage and was briefly popular under the emperor Otho, but acting styles had changed and he soon retired.
Paul, Christian apostle born in Tarsus, holding Roman citizenship for hereditary reasons, whose letters, along with the sayings sources of the synoptic gospels, are the earliest records of Christianity. Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea and then Rome to answer for charges brought by the Jerusalem priests. Isidora watched the argument of his case before Nero, and Dakis briefly shared a prison cell with him. Paul, according to both Isidora and Dakis, was executed during a naval gladiatorial combat celebrating the deliverance of Rome from the great fire of AD 64.
Pellaon, a Judaean gladiator who befriended Dakis and helped him learn the skills to survive as a retiarius, a net-man. Pellaon had met the apostle Peter in Galilee but ignored the apostle’s advice to leave aside his anger at the Romans. Pellaon and Dakis saw Peter during the fire of AD 64 but were in chains and could not speak to him.
Poppaea Sabina, consort of the emperor Nero who became his wife in AD 62. Aware of her unpopularity with the senatorial class, she had initially tried to dissuade Nero from divorcing Octavia. She was killed by Nero in a fit of rage in AD 65.
Quintus Haterius, an owner of a theater who was distantly related to Nero by marriage, his father having once been married to a sister of Nero’s natural father. Quintus kept a troupe of actors who performed obscene variations of plays and stories in the garden theater behind the house he had inherited. Nero seldom acknowledged the connection. Both Dakis and Sporus were members of his troupe, as Paris had been at one time.
Sara, sister of Dakis. Sara was enslaved with Dakis and given by the agent of Pedanius Secundus to Marcus Ollius as a gift. She served Poppaea Sabina, consort and later wife of Nero. She became a Christian at the time of the embassy of the high priests of Jerusalem to Nero in AD 62, when the priests obtained an audience with Nero and asked his help in the prosecution of the apostle Paul, who they claimed had brought uncircumcised converts into the Jerusalem temple. Sara was captured with other Christians when Nero sought to blame the fire on them in AD 64.
Sporus, slave of Quintus Haterius and friend of Dakis. Because of a resemblance to Poppeae, he was forced to undergo a castration so that Nero could love him as a woman after the death of Poppaea. He survived Nero but became an object of derision in Rome because of his presumed love of Nero.
Woman, medium who worked with Dynamis, the astrologer and priest of Isis. She was Egyptian and considerably older than Dynamis. According to Isidora’s narrative, her real name was also Isidora. She told Isidora that a medium could only change the fates twice with safety. The third time the medium would die, as happened with Woman in AD 62.
* John Ensminger, December 11, 2009