Posted on Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Written by Ralph J. Benko

Tacitus, in Book 16 of The Annals, describes an incident occurring in A.D. 65-66, of the Emperor Nero being “duped by the report of a vision of a cave of immense depth, which contained a vast quantity of gold, not in the form of coin, but in the shapeless and ponderous masses of ancient days….  Dido…after fleeing from Tyre and founding Carthage, had concealed these riches….”

[16.1] FORTUNE soon afterwards made a dupe of Nero through his own credulity and the promises of Caesellius Bassus, a Carthaginian by birth and a man of a crazed imagination, who wrested a vision seen in the slumber of night into a confident expectation. He sailed to Rome, and having purchased admission to the emperor, he explained how he had discovered on his land a cave of immense depth, which contained a vast quantity of gold, not in the form of coin, but in the shapeless and ponderous masses of ancient days. In fact, he said, ingots of great weight lay there, with bars standing near them in another part of the cave, a treasure hidden for so many ages to increase the wealth of the present. Phoenician Dido, as he sought to show by inference, after fleeing from Tyre and founding Carthage, had concealed these riches in the fear that a new people might be demoralised by a superabundance of money, or that the Numidian kings, already for other reasons hostile, might by lust of gold be provoked to war.

[16.2] Nero upon this, without sufficiently examining the credibility of the author of the story, or of the matter itself, or sending persons through whom he might ascertain whether the intelligence was true, himself actually encouraged the report and despatched men to bring the spoil, as if it were already acquired. They had triremes assigned them and crews specially selected to promote speed. Nothing else at the time was the subject of the credulous gossip of the people, and of the very different conversation of thinking persons. It happened, too, that the quinquennial games were being celebrated for the second time, and the orators took from this same incident their chief materials for eulogies on the emperor. “Not only,” they said, “were there the usual harvests, and the gold of the mine with its alloy, but the earth now teemed with a new abundance, and wealth was thrust on them by the bounty of the gods.” These and other servile flatteries they invented, with consummate eloquence and equal sycophancy, confidently counting on the facility of his belief.

[16.3] Extravagance meanwhile increased, on the strength of a chimerical hope, and ancient wealth was wasted, as apparently the emperor had lighted on treasures he might squander for many a year. He even gave away profusely from this source, and the expectation of riches was one of the causes of the poverty of the State. Bassus indeed dug up his land and extensive plains in the neighbourhood, while he persisted that this or that was the place of the promised cave, and was followed not only by our soldiers but by the rustic population who were engaged to execute the work, till at last he threw off his infatuation, and expressing wonder that his dreams had never before been false, and that now for the first time he had been deluded, he escaped disgrace and danger by a voluntary death. Some have said that he was imprisoned and soon released, his property having been taken from him as a substitute for the royal treasure.

Tacitus’s view that “Extravagance meanwhile increased, on the strength of a chimerical hope” is disputed by at least one sophisticated and scholarly reading of the evidence.  According to Ryan Sellars, publishing at

So why did Nero send out an expedition to recover the lost treasure of a mythological Phoenician queen, based on nothing more than the dream of a mentally disturbed stranger from Carthage? Suetonius and Tacitus, both of whom are heavily biased against Nero, offer similar interpretations: Suetonius attributes the episode to Nero’s insanity (furorem, 31.4), Tacitus to his foolish vanity (vanitatem, 16.1). Rather than reading the treasure hunt as a simple example of Neronian madness, however, several scholars interpret it as an illustration of a sophisticated political agenda. To begin with, the discovery of the treasure would have been viewed as a clear sign of fortuna delivered by supernatural powers, and like all emperors, Nero was always eager to establish a connection with the gods.[5] During the quinquennial festival, in fact, Nero’s orators deliberately linked the discovery of the treasure, a reflection of a renewed abundance of the earth, with divine intervention (Annales 16.2). In addition, attempting to recover Dido’s treasure was a means of legitimizing and reinforcing Nero’s family connections to Aeneas, Venus, and Jupiter, a legendary mythology so important to the Julio-Claudian tradition.[6] Furthermore, it is important to remember that gold was a quintessential symbol of Nero himself.[7] This was, after all, an emperor who worked tirelessly to associate himself with the golden sun god Apollo – the apotheosis scene in Lucan’s Pharsalia (1.48), for example, specifically describes Nero climbing aboard Apollo’s chariot – and who built himself an opulent palace called the Domus Aurea. In short, Nero was attempting to recreate an Augustan Golden Age during his reign, and so whether or not he actually believed that he was going to find buried treasure in Carthage, the quest for Dido’s gold was a symbolic celebration of his public persona, and he had every political incentive to pursue it.

The conduct of American federal authorities, both fiscal and monetary, in both spending and in inept monetary stewardship which helps to fosters such spending, however, gives a whole new level of poignancy to Tacitus’s indictment that “Extravagance meanwhile increased, on the strength of a chimerical hope….”  A gold standard is the very antithesis to “crazed imagination” of “a cave of immense depth, which contained a vast quantity of gold….”