National Geographic : 1946 Nov
In the Gardens of Lucullus TWO THOUSAND years ago Lucullus, fabulously wealthy conqueror of Asiatic kings, patron of arts and letters, and lover of luxury and gracious living, converted the strag gling slope of the Pincian Hill into a pleasure park with groves full of the Greek statuary he was one of the first Romans to appreciate. The Pincian Hill is still covered with terraced gardens overlooking the city. A generation after Lucullus, Sallust, an unscrupulous civil servant who had amassed a fortune in North Africa, retired to write history. He laid out for himself even more sumptuous gardens on the slopes of the Quirinal. Nearly a century passed. Then Messalina, predecessor of Agrippina in the series of wives of the dull-witted, schol arly Emperor Claudius, set covetous eyes on the Gardens of Lucullus. She schemed successfully to have Valerius Asiati cus, who had become the owner, charged with treason and condemned to death. Of course his property was confiscated to the imperial treasury, as were also eventually the estates of Sallust and others. Amid the lovely surroundings conceived by Lucullus Mes salina held her revels and debauched her lovers. It seems poetic justice that at the age of 26 she was secretly put to death here on advice of her husband's mentor, the freedman Narcissus. Social wars under Marius and Sulla had brought on a rule of strong, unscrupulous men which culminated in dic tatorship under Julius Caesar and monarchical control under dynasties beginning with Augustus. The Roman satirists of the first century after the birth of Christ strongly disapproved oftheemancipated women who now did so shockinglyasthey pleased. Of a beauty Juvenal wrote: "She flits boldly about town, turning up wherever the men aregathered, and talking tothe officers in their long military cloaks. She knows what is going on all over the world,what theChinese and theRus sians are up to, and all thedisreputable gossip ofthecity." Deploring overluxuriousliving, hewarned: "We aresuffer ing from the evils of protracted peace; more cruel than war, the hand of luxury has been laid upon us.Nodeed oflust or violence is lacking, now that poverty isdead inRome. Soft wealth has corrupted the agewith foul ease." Yet the spoiled and idlerich young men ofRome could join the army as officer cadets and gotothewars tothrow themselves wholeheartedlyinto alifeofhardship and hero ism. No modern critic ofthe open depravity oftheearly imperial court, headed and abused by such sinister figures as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero, should forget how soon these conditions were to befollowed bytheefficient, sober, and manly rule of the vast Empire under thebusinesslike Trajan, the cultured Hadrian, thehumane Antoninus, and the sage Marcus Aurelius. These were to make the Mediterranean and Europe so peaceful, prosperous, andpolitically stable that Gibbon wrote: "If a man were called tofixtheperiod inthehistory of the world during whichthe condition ofthehuman race was most happy and prosperous, hewould without hesitation name that which elapsedfrom thedeath ofDomitian [A. D. 96] to the accessionofCommodus" [A.D.180].