A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man: Nero, Pt. I (S2E3)
Updated: Jul 31
Nero became emperor of Rome in 54 A.D., largely thanks to the scheming of his mother, Agrippina. The teenaged ruler showed promise early on, yet major flaws swiftly revealed themselves, including an obsession with becoming a musician. As his enemies multiplied, Nero retained power by brutal means. In 59, he ordered one of the most notorious assassinations of the century, inspired by a special effect he saw at the theater.
Above: Late-medieval painting of Nero, holding the sceptre of State in one hand and a lyre (or cithara) in another, beneath an allegorical depiction of Music. From a manuscript of Suetonius’s The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (originally written in 121 A.D.). Princeton University: MS Kane 44 (Northern Italian), Manuscript Date: 1433 A.D.
Late-medieval painting of Claudius, depicted with his sceptre in one hand and--ridiculously--a giant mushroom in the other. Taken from the Princeton Suetonius (Catalogue information above). Mushrooms were a favored food of Claudius and were purportedly the means by which Agrippina brought about his death and the ascension of Nero to the throne.
Gold coin (aureus) showing Nero and Agrippina facing each other. Their postures suggest that they are equals, even ruling Rome together. Minted in Rome in 54 A.D. London: British Museum.Museum # R.6509. Creative Commons License. Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum.
Gold coin (aureus) representing Nero and Agrippina in "jugate" form, with the emperor superimposed over his mother. Minted in Rome in 55 A.D., the coin suggests a decline in the influence of Agrippina, who is no longer pictured face-to-face with Nero. London: British Museum. Museum # R.6511. Creative Commons License. Copyright: The Trustees of the British Museum.
A second-century marble colossal statue of the god Apollo with a cithara in hand, held by the Vatican Museums.
---Barrett, Anthony. Agrippina: Mother of Nero. London: B.T. Batsford, 1996.
---Bartsch, Shadi. Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
---Beard, Mary. “How Stoical Was Seneca?” New York Review of Books. October 9, 2014.
---Champlin, Edward. Nero. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003.
---Edwards, Catherine. “‘Beware of Imitations’: Theater and the Subversion of Imperial Identity.” In Reflections of Nero, edited by J. Elsner and J. Masters, 83-97. 1994.
---Edwards, Catherine. “Unspeakable Professions: Public Performance and Prostitution in Ancient Rome.” In Roman Sexualities, edited by J.Pl. Hallett and M.B. Skinner, 66-98.
---Griffin, Miriam. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
---Leigh, Matthew. “Nero the Performer.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, 21-33. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
--Malitz, Jürgen. Nero. Translated by Allison Brown. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
---Romm, James. Dying Every Day: Seneca and the Court of Nero. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Everybody saw them in the front row. It was 59 A.D., and a group of senators, among the most powerful men in Rome, had come to watch a play in the centuries-old tradition of Atellan farce. Originating in the Italian provinces sometime before 300 B.C., this art form treated spectators to short, clownish sketches, each performance improvised and based on a pre-planned yet bare-bones outline. Actors wore masks with exaggerated facial features and took the stage as stock characters such as Maccus the fool and Old Man Pappus. As they capered about, they served up slapstick and cracked crude jokes about human vice. From the dawn of their craft, Atellan farceurs had made a mockery of provincial life, especially when they performed in Rome, playing into city-dwellers’ preconceived notions about country bumpkins. More recently, however, the comedians ventured into sharp political satire, occasionally taking aim at prominent politicians and letting fly quips that cut to the quick. At one point, an impish actor named Datus sang a song for the crowd. When he came to the line, “Farewell father, farewell mother,” he mimed the actions first of drinking and then of swimming. No matter how light-hearted his delivery may have been, he must have sent a wave of uneasiness over the audience. Everybody knew whose mother and stepfather had recently bid an agonized farewell to the mortal realm and why those particular gestures had accompanied those lyrics. The buffoon grew bolder still. As Datus belted out another line, “Orchus guide your steps,” he lifted his finger and pointed directly at the senators sitting in the front row. The implication was clear: soon, these statesmen would come face to face with dreadful Orchus, god of the dead.
Datus was riffing on two assassinations that many lacked the courage to discuss in public. The first concerned a poisoned meal—hence, the drinking—and the second involved an attack at a lake—hence, the swimming. Both victims were bound by familial ties to the reigning emperor, Nero, one of history’s most hated heads of state. The ruler himself had ordered only one of these crimes, but both had helped him consolidate power. As Datus’s finger-pointing intimated, moreover, politicians had cause to fear for their own safety. If they weren’t vigilant, they could wind up like Nero’s murdered family members.
This is part one of a two-part episode on the rise and fall of Emperor Nero. As we’ll discover during this series, his career as an assassin is intimately entwined with his career as an artist. Today, we’ll hear about how Nero’s mother propelled him to the throne as well as how his passion for musical performance led him to take up the lyre himself. Finally, as Nero drank deeper of absolute power, he grew crueler and more ruthless. To defend his position in the imperial palace, he commissioned one of the most notorious assassinations of the century. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 3 of Assassins . . .
What an Artist Dies in Me: Nero, Pt. I
Born on December 15, 37 A.D., Nero would reign as Rome’s fifth emperor. At the time of his birth, however, his rise to power was far from guaranteed, and a good deal of treachery went into securing it. A glance at the seven or eight decades leading up to his accession will shed light on why Nero left a trail of blood in his wake as he strode toward the throne room.
The Roman Empire began in 27 B.C. That year, the charismatic leader, Caesar Augusts, ascended the throne as its first emperor, putting an end to the Roman Republic. He imposed a new political order that rested on an illusion of republican governance, known as the Principate, which lasted until 284 A.D. Within this system, Augustus bore the title of not just emperor but “princeps,” rendered in English as the “first citizen” or the “first among equals.” The title implied that Augustus was no different from the next Roman. In theory, power was vested not so much in him as in the Senate along with other governmental bodies. In practice, however, the Principate worked more like an absolute monarchy, in which the emperor wielded outsize power. Not long into Augustus’s reign, the Senate granted him a lifelong appointment as commander-in-chief, tribune, and censor, endowing him with autocratic authority. Nominally the first among equals, then, the princeps was in fact the mightiest man in Rome.
By the time of Nero’s ascension, the question of succession was neither straightforward nor reliably peaceful. Blades had settled the matter once already. Between Augustus’s death in 15 A.D. and Nero’s accession in 54, the transfer of power was in large part determined by hereditary ties to Augustus—Nero himself was a great-great-grandson. But who came next in the line of succession was open to debate, and not every ruler vacated the throne because he died of natural causes. Each treaded with caution, aware that a usurper who hungered for power could snuff him out and seize the throne. Yet princeps unpopular among the social, political, and military elite faced greater danger. If stirred to anger by incompetence and corruption, the Senate could revolt and declare the princeps an enemy of the state. Likewise vital was broad support among the Praetorian Guards, the corps of warriors tasked with safeguarding the emperor himself. Though charged with his protection, they could also turn on him if he stepped out of line. The four-year reign of Caligula, Rome’s third princeps and often held up as the most despised, depraved, and despotic of all, even more so than Nero, ended for this reason in 41 A.D. As Caligula’s mind melted away into madness, he gave into his most sadistic desires and delusions of omnipotence, declaring himself a god on earth, ordering the slaughter of slaves and criminals as public entertainment, and supposedly vowing to appoint his beloved horse as a consul, a high-ranking magistrate. Finally, a cabal of Praetorians stabbed him to death outside a theater and dumped his body in a shallow grave. Not only did the Praetorians push out Caligula, but they also ushered in his replacement, Claudius, the slain emperor’s uncle. Simply put, the Praetorians had decided the line of succession—and done so by means of assassination. Indeed, from this point forward, assassination became a dependable tool for cutting short the tenure of a troublesome princeps. As the death of Caligula illustrates, moreover, the assassins made use of this tactic precisely because the rules regarding succession were not written in stone, and they—the assassins—could potentially influence who stepped forward to replace their victim.
Making Nero Nero
In short, becoming emperor required both savvy politicking and the occasional stab in the back. Nero never would have presided over the imperial palace without the cunning of his mother, Julia Agrippina the Younger, the single most powerful woman of her time. At nineteen, she married Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Nero’s father, and three years later, she gave birth to the future princeps. She named him Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and called him Domitius after his father. A decade or so later, the emperor Claudius conferred the name of Nero on her son—a direct result of Agrippina’s scheming and a crucial step toward his supremacy. Thus, Agrippina played a pivotal role in making Nero Nero. To tell his story is to tell hers, too.
Beautiful, strong-willed, ambitious in the extreme, Agrippina hailed from a family of influential men. She longed to exercise such power as theirs, and she would come close to it by the time she reached her forties. Her father was Germanicus, a venerated war hero. From him she inherited a backbone of iron. Her brother was Caligula, the much-reviled emperor. From him she learned a lesson about her own precarity. In 39 A.D., he plunged her life into a state of uncertainty after accusing her, along with her sister, Livilla, and their cousin, Lepidus, of conspiring to kill and replace him with Lepidus. Lepidus’s neck went under the sword while the sisters were banished to the Pontine Islands, a cluster of godforsaken rocks in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s easy to imagine a royal in Agrippina’s position succumbing to despair, accustomed as most are to the luxury and pampering that come with their status. Far from lying down and sobbing into her pillow, Agrippina stood firm and supported herself by plying a trade that required true mettle. She sold sponges that she gathered herself—no mean feat in an age before snorkels and scuba equipment. You trained to hold your breath for as long as possible, dove underwater to the ocean floor, wrested them free with a blade or some other instrument, and swam to the surface as fast as you could. She persisted in this rustic, hand-to-mouth existence for two long years. With the fall of Caligula, she was permitted to return to Rome. The following eight years saw her widowed, remarried, and widowed once again.
The most decisive day in her life came in 49 A.D. That year, after winning favor both at court and among the public, Agrippina wed her aged uncle, the emperor, Claudius. Many looked askance at the incestuous union, but it’s difficult to conceive that it bothered her much. After all, as soon as the nuptials had been performed, Agrippina could call herself empress of Rome. She even assumed the honorific title of Augusta—a distinction without precedent for a woman in her position. Widows and mothers of emperors had received this honor before, to be sure, but never had the wife of a princeps risen to this rank. It implied that Agrippina would play a more active role in affairs of state than any previous empress.
Then there were the coins. Contemporary Roman currency might sound like a topic that could stimulate only the tweediest archaeology professor, but they’re of interest to us for two big reasons. First, as Miriam Griffin highlights in her biography of Nero, the striking of coins required immense artistry in ancient Rome. (As an aside, the same held true in Renaissance Italy. A goldsmith profiled later this season distinguished himself in this very trade.) Griffin cites another historian, Edward A. Sydenham, who undertook the first systematic study of Neronian coinage. He argues, “It is during the Nero period that the coins of the Roman Empire unquestionably reach their highest point of artistic excellence.” Their aesthetic appeal partly derived from the material they were made of. Under Nero, coiners began working with beautifully radiant, golden-yellow brass, even for smaller denominations previously crafted with the less pleasant metal of copper. Another facet of Neronian coins’ artistry was their well-observed realism. In ancient Rome, the reigning princeps often appeared in profile on the “head’s” side of the coin. New issues of currency came out on a regular basis, and their creators tracked the emperor’s changing appearance by fashioning portraits that altered over time to reflect real life. When, in his twenties, Nero put on weight, his neck and jowls grew flabbier on coins. Roman money even depicted his various coiffures, whether he was wearing a stiff row of curls flattened against his forehead, or had his hair waved up in the back.
Coins lay further claim to our attention, however, because the images adorning them reveal much about the state of affairs in contemporary politics. By way of example, Claudius’s reign saw a striking new development—a man and a woman pictured together on a single coin. The emperor appeared along with Agrippina in what was known as jugate form, whereby his face was overlaid on hers. The image furnishes further evidence of Agrippina’s clout and almost even casts her as a co-ruler with Claudius. There’s a picture of one such coin on the Art of Crime website if you want to see what it looks like.
Despite her unheard-of prominence in government, Agrippina knew that in patriarchal Rome there were limits to her power. Much as she may have desired it, she would never rule as sole supreme leader. However, as Claudius grew older and increasingly infirm, she prepared to do the next best thing: rule through her son. With this aim in mind, she went about grooming young Domitius to fill the throne that Calduius would vacate. First, she persuaded her manipulable husband to adopt Domitius as his son—a move that contravened Roman law and required the Senate to pass a special act of adoption. With a new father came a new name: Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. From that point forward, the boy went by Nero.
Enter the Tragedian
Yet it wouldn’t suffice simply to have Nero taken in by the current princeps. Rome needed to see that he was up to the job. It wasn’t an easy one. If Nero became princeps, he would preside over an empire that stretched from southern Britain to the banks of the Euphrates. As Claudius’s health failed, moreover, it seemed probable that Nero could assume this awesome responsibility before he had celebrated his twentieth birthday. He required a top-dog rector, or steersman, a tutor and adviser who could prepare him for the challenge. Agrippina discerned a promising candidate in Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, known to us as Seneca. Today, Seneca is perhaps most famous as a moral philosopher in the Stoic tradition. Like others in this school, he espoused virtue, reason, and ascetic living. He slept on hard pillows and denied himself oysters as well as mushrooms—Roman delicacies that others wolfed down whenever they had the chance. Seneca also called for the moderation of emotions that all too easily became excessive—anger and grief, to give two examples. Yet unlike other philosophers who stayed away from politics, he had served in the halls of state, emerging as an orator of uncommon talent. Studded with diamond-sharp epigrams and scintillating metaphors, his prose style was dazzling, though some critics complained—and continue to complain—that it lacked real substance once you looked past the ornamentation. (As an aside, Seneca himself was an artist, authoring a half dozen or so mercilessly gut-punching tragedies. There’s no evidence he saw any of them performed in his lifetime or even allowed others an opportunity to read them. All the same, they would exert tremendous influence on Shakespeare and his contemporaries.)
There was just one problem with Agrippina’s plan to hire Seneca: Claudius had banished him to the island of Corsica for the crime of adultery. On the craggy isle, Seneca spent his nights watching comets blaze across the sky and contemplating the cosmos. Fortunately, the offense of adultery was pardonable, and Agrippina worked on Claudius until he agreed to forgive the infraction and recall Seneca to Rome. Soon, the sage was back in town and tutoring Nero. Agrippina saw little use for cloud-gazing philosophy in her son’s education. Instead, she pushed for a more down-to-earth curriculum heavy on rhetoric and declamation, skills she reasoned that any effective leader should possess. Seneca obliged. In addition to strengthening his student’s command of the written word, pre-practiced oration, and impromptu speaking, Seneca became his chief adviser, offering guidance whenever necessary. According to the ancient historian, Tacitus, Seneca’s pupil later expressed gratitude for his mentor’s labors: “You nursed my boyhood, then my youth, with your wisdom, advice, and teachings. As long as my life lasts, the gifts you have given me will be eternal.”
Though perhaps apocryphal, Nero’s kind words suggest something of a father-son relationship between the two men. Old enough to have sired Nero, Seneca had lost a son who, had he lived, would have been about the same age as his student. Meanwhile, Nero’s biological father had died when he was a toddler. In some respects, each became a surrogate for the other’s missing family member. As indulgent fathers will from time to time, moreover, Seneca satisfied the boy’s whims, even when they went against his mother’s wishes. Further down the line, this permissiveness would give rise to friction.
Apart from securing a dependable educator for Nero, Agrippina took steps to bring the Praetorian Guards under her influence. After slashing Caligula, remember, they had effectively proclaimed Claudius emperor. She hoped they would likewise acclaim her son as princeps when the time came. She turned to Burrus, a serviceman of little distinction yet unshakable loyalty, and named him prefect, or commanding officer, of the Praetorians. Together with Seneca, Burrus would become one of Nero’s most trusted aides.
Nero vs. Britannicus
All these machinations did little to clear a massive obstacle from Agrippina—and Nero’s—path to the throne room. Claudius had a son from an earlier marriage. His name was Britannicus, and he could plausibly succeed the current princeps so long as the right power brokers supported his ascension.
Nero had one major advantage over his stepbrother. He was older than Britannicus by about three years. Several milestones stood along the road to political maturity, and Nero would reach all of them before Britannicus. At fourteen, he would don the toga virilis, a woolen tunic emblematic of manhood and its attendant responsibilities. Six years later, he would reach the minimum age for taking office. Five after that, he would become eligible to sit in the Senate. As he passed each of these landmarks, Nero would garner greater influence and power as well as opportunities to prove himself a competent statesman. With Claudius ailing, moreover, it was probable that Nero would cross more of them in the current emperor’s lifetime than Britannicus would, giving him an edge as a potential successor, provided he performed his duties to satisfaction.
As became evident, Nero’s partisans were more than willing to tip the scales in his favor. When he turned thirteen, his supporters bestowed his adult’s toga on him a year ahead of schedule. His friends in the Senate also reserved a high-powered consulship for when he turned twenty, the age at which he could legally serve in that capacity. With this position lined up for him, Nero was entitled to wear garments and insignia indicative of high office. When the city held games in celebration of his advancement, Nero proudly sported these accoutrements before the public. Meanwhile, Britannicus stood beside him in the cloak of a boy, insignificant by comparison.
Despite Nero’s preferment, Britannicus had a leg up on him in one respect. He was Claudius’s biological son and thus had a closer blood tie to the emperor. On one occasion, he reminded his stepbrother of this distinction to disastrous effect. In the early months of 53 A.D., Britannicus passed him in the palace halls one day. Instead of greeting him as “Nero,” he addressed him as “Domitius,” the name he had borne prior to his adoption by Claudius. In doing so, Britannicus suggested that Nero was not a bona fide member of the royal family and even that he was something of an interloper. To a hypersensitive set of ears, Briannicus’s casual greeting amounted to an argument that Nero lacked any claim to the throne. Agrippina flipped when she heard about what happened. She saw Britannicus’s words as a display of ill will, maybe even a sign that her nine-year-old stepson was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government. She voiced her suspicions to Claudius, and he took them seriously. Assuming they had filled his son’s mind with seditious fantasies, the princeps had Britannicus’s tutors dismissed, even ordering one of them put to death.
These measures were extreme, but Agrippina perceived a real threat in Britannicus. As she would have known, Romans disagreed on whether her son was the more likely heir. Currency minted around this period offers a window into the debate and helps to elucidate Agrippina’s anxieties. Coins had long served as a vehicle for glorifying the reigning princeps. Now, however, those who minted them were effectively weighing in on who would reign next. More and more coins struck at the capital featured Nero in profile, declaring him the more probable successor. By contrast, provincial mints put their money on Britannicus. Taken together, the coins tell a tale of political uncertainty.
Three or four years after Britannicus’s incendiary greeting, the question of succession remained unresolved for Agrippina. He was nearing his thirteenth birthday, the age at which Nero had received his adult’s toga ahead of schedule, and she worried that Britannicus’s partisans would fast-track him, too, increasing his chances at succeeding his father. A further worry took root that Claudius could name his natural son as his successor in his will. According to ancient sources, the empress of Rome saw a failsafe means of forestalling this outcome: Claudius had to go.
According to Tacitus, Agripina enlisted the aid of a Gallic woman by the name of Locusta—“Locusta” means “Crayfish”—to concoct a poison. Once prepared, this made-to-order elixir of death was passed to a eunuch called Halonus. He acted as Claudius’s server and taster. Poisoning food was a tried-and-true method of putting enemies in the ground. For this reason, powerful men such as the princeps employed a taster who sampled their masters’ meals to make sure they could safely eat them. Unnoticed by Claudius, Halonus added the drug to a dish of mushrooms—one of the emperor’s favorite foods. Agrippina shared the repast with him, knowing that one of the fungi on the platter was tainted—the biggest, most succulent one of them all. Playing the loving wife, Agrippina invited him to help himself to it. Almost as soon as he had sunk his teeth into it, Claudius fell ill. To Agrippina’s horror, however, he showed signs of recovery. Dead-set on finishing him, she made recourse to another of her minions, the physician, Xenophon, the very official charged with nursing the princeps back to health. Xenophon snaked a feather down Claudius’s throat, ostensibly to induce vomiting and purge his system of any harmful toxins. However, the treacherous doctor had laced the plume with a fast-acting poison. Claudius was dead within minutes of the procedure.
Some modern historians have questioned if Claudius met his end through foul play, whether by Agrippina’s design or anybody else’s. He was elderly and could have died of natural causes, even a bad mushroom. However, the timing of his demise, so near Britannicus’s thirteenth birthday, has raised suspicions and lent credibility to the idea of an assassination.
Whatever killed Claudius, news of his death was duly announced and preparations for his funeral rites made. In keeping with Agrippina’s well-laid plans, the Praetorian Guardsmen hailed Nero as Rome’s new leader. The empire was his—and his mother’s. We’ll hear what they did with their hard-won power after a quick break.
Despite his youth and inexperience (Nero was sixteen when he ascended the throne), the newly anointed princeps inspired confidence. He spoke eloquently in his inaugural address to the Senate—little wonder at that, since Seneca had written it—and the fresh-faced emperor made all the promises the political elite wanted to hear. His regime would eschew the excesses, abuses, and in-fighting of previous governments, especially Caligula’s—no more secret trials, banishments, and executed loved ones. There wasn’t a drop of bad blood in his body: “My youth was not troubled by civil wars and family feuds. I bring with me no hatreds, no scars, no lust for vengeance.” Stirred by Nero’s oration, the Senate voted to have the speech inscribed in a column covered with silver tablets and read aloud each year at the induction ceremony for new consuls.
To a certain extent, this honor equated to an endorsement of Agrippina. As the first coin issues under Nero’s reign indicate, she enjoyed an even greater share of power with Nero than she had with Claudius. In a format never before seen in Rome, Nero and Agrippina were depicted in symmetrical profile on the “heads” side of the coin, gazing into each other’s eyes. This configuration is evocative of a dialogue between equals, as if mother and son were together deliberating how best to run the empire.
Soon, however, Agrippina involved herself in political affairs in ways that unsettled the men in the room. For instance, knowing that outsiders were not allowed to set foot in the Senate house, also known as the Curia, Agrippina had important proceedings transferred to a room in the palace so that she could listen in from behind a curtain. Everybody knew that a woman was present, privy to exclusive, decidedly male political discussions. Her self-assertiveness nearly ended in a diplomatic meltdown in 55 A.D., a few months into Nero’s reign. A recent uprising in the Roman territory of Armenia successfully dethroned a king. It was incumbent on Nero to take a stand and rebuke the upstarts, and he was expected to do so before a delegation of Armenian ambassadors at court. On the occasion, Nero sat atop a raised platform indicative of imperial authority, accompanied by his two most trusted advisers, Seneca and Burrus. To the alarm of all three, Agrippina arrived and attempted to join them up on the dais. Her feminine presence would have undermined Nero’s credibility as a ruler and would have reflected poorly on the entire empire in the eyes of the ambassadors. Thinking quickly, Seneca counseled Nero to step down to Agrippina’s level and greet her, thereby blocking her path to the dais. The emperor took the cue, meeting her before she could mount the platform and playing the scene off as a tender display of filial affection. Seneca may have avoided disastrous optics, but he had also slighted a benefactor. After all, he owed his position at court to Agrippina. This maneuver opened a chasm between him and her that would only widen as time progressed.
A rift was also growing between mother and son. It all started with a love affair. Per Agrippina and Claudius’s wishes, Nero had taken the hand of his stepsister, Octavia, daughter of Claudius. It was a loveless marriage. Nero chafed at his wife’s high-mindedness and furthermore found her sexually unappealing. His erotic interests tended more toward the exotic and unconventional. His eye fell on a gorgeous Asian freedwoman named Acte, a member of the place staff, and she became a frequent visitor to his bedchamber. Agrippina blew a gasket when she found out about the dalliance. To her mind, the unapproved liaison represented a challenge to her authority and thus a dire threat to her standing at court. Aggressive as ever, she tried to bully Nero out of the relationship. “I made you emperor!” Agrippina reminded him, implying that she could unmake him if she so chose. Yet the teenaged princeps was equal parts headstrong and hopped-up on hormones. He wasn’t about to bend to his mother’s will. To make matters worse, Nero’s father figure, Seneca, facilitated trysts between the boy and his amour, scouting out love nests where they could meet up in secret.
Enraged by the Acte debacle, Agrippina sought a new ally, one who posed a legitimate danger to her son’s ascendancy and one he would never expect to join her because she had previously undermined him: Britannicus. Now thirteen, he would soon reach legal manhood, and if the right men of influence took up his cause, he could potentially seize the throne.
Tensions between Nero and Britannicus hadn’t thawed. During festivities at the palace in December of 54, Nero commanded his stepbrother to sing a song, treating him more like a court jester than a member of the imperial family. Audacious as ever, Britannicus brought forth a tragic lament about the loss of patrimony and the right to rule. He was clearly drawing parallels between the lyrics and his own life: Nero had stolen the throne from him, its rightful owner. The boldness of the gesture harkened back to the day that Britannicus had greeted him with his given name, Domitius.
Clearly daunted by his mother and stepbrother, Nero resolved to neutralize the threat. Taking a page from Agrippina’s playbook, he commissioned Locusta, the Crayfish, to mix a poison and planned to assassinate Britannicus at mealtime. As was customary, the imperial family dined together in the same room but divided into groups according to age. Children sat upright at a table of their own whereas adults reclined on couches at a remove from the youngsters. Britannicus would have taken his dinner with the former group while Nero and Agrippina would have supped with the latter. Winter had come, and at this time of year, Romans partook of heated wine. As per usual, a taster took a sip from Britannicus’s cup, and finding it safe, he passed it along. However, Nero and his accomplices had taken care to have the boy’s beverage served too hot for his liking. Displeased, Britannicus pushed the cup aside. Then a servant added melted snow to the wine to lower the temperature—along with Locustra’s fatal concoction. Having made it past the taster already, the cup went back to Britannicus. He raised it to his lips, and then within moments, he fell over, dying, right at the table. A tomblike silence descended on the chamber. Taken unawares, Agrippina watched without a word as life drained from the boy, her face expressionless. Speaking up at last, Nero reminded the room that Britannicus had suffered from epilepsy in childhood. He must have had a seizure and would soon recover. Nobody was going to gainsay the emperor, even though he obviously knew more than he was letting on. The meal resumed, the corpse unattended.
In the wake of Britannicus’s funeral, Agrippina went into mourning, shattered by the loss of her newfound ally. She grew distant from Nero, and her influence waned. Indeed, Romans far and wide saw her shrinking status reflected on their money. She no longer appeared in symmetrical profile with her son, locking eyes with him. At first, coins showed the pair in jugate form, with Nero’s face overlaying hers. Then she disappeared from the coinage entirely.
As Agrippina faded from the public eye, a clearer picture of Nero’s moral character came into focus. It didn’t look good. He sallied out of the palace in disguise after nightfall and engaged in all manner of criminal misconduct. He stole from street vendors and assaulted pedestrians at random. He guzzled wine, caroused with friends, and forced himself on women and boys for sex as he pleased. This was only a preview of coming atrocities.
Apart from his delinquency, Nero pursued a pastime that may seem benign to modern observers even as it horrified his contemporaries: he started playing music.
His first love was citharody. This art form centered on a stringed instrument called the cithara, or lyre, in use as early as 1700 B.C. Interesting fact: the word “cithara” is the ancestor of the modern term, “guitar.” The cithara resembles a hand-held harp. Each of its seven strings were knotted around a crossbar on top of the instrument and likewise attached to a tailpiece at the bottom. Then there were two arms, one on either side of the strings and both of equal size, which connected the upper and lower segments. The player, known as a citharode, strummed and plucked with a dried leather plectrum in his right hand—a plectrum, by the way, is any tool used to coax melodies out of stringed instruments, such as a guitar pick. Meanwhile, the citharode muted and unmuted strings by pressing or releasing them with the fingers on his left hand, allowing him to produce a variety of chords. This was only half the challenge. In addition to making the cithara sing, the citharode sang, too, usually of mythical wars and warriors, of Hectors, Achilles, and Trojan horses. These artists performed solo, the better to showcase their virtuosity. In performance, citharodes wore platform boots and long, flowing robes associated with Apollo, the patron god of music and a veritable Van Halen on a cithara himself. Indeed, a number of statues depict the divinity with cithara in hand—the most famous of which was wrought from marble in the second century AD and is currently held by the Vatican Museums. There’s a picture in the show notes.
Nero had a special fondness for one particular citharode, Terpnus. His name means “Delight.” Not long after taking the reins as ruler, Nero invited Terpnus to grace the palace with his arias at dinnertime and after. He listened to the maestro deep into the night, and before long Nero had taken up citharody himself. He showed the utmost dedication from the beginning, adopting the standard methods for strengthening his voice. He lay flat on his back with a plate of lead on top of him to build up his diaphragm, nourished himself with a leek-heavy diet, and swallowed down purgatives. Nero was committed, that much is certain. Whether he was talented remains unclear. One the one hand, one account criticized his voice as thin and husky. On the other hand, however, some historians have speculated that he may have had chaps based on the advent of a curious diversion—Nero impersonators, the Elvis lookalikes of the Roman Empire. These cropped up after the emperor’s death and appear to have lampooned him. Crucially, however, a fine singing voice was de rigeur for these entertainers, suggesting to some commentators that Nero himself excelled as a vocalist.
The seriousness with which Nero undertook his training outraged members of the political elite. In the twenty-first century, our most famous musicians occupy a relatively high social standing, wealthy beyond belief and beloved by millions. Not so in Rome, not by a long shot. In fact, musicians, actors, circus performers, and other entertainers belonged to the lower strata of society, many of them slaves or convicted criminals who lived in slums instead of mansions. No matter how mellifluous the citarode’s song, senators and other statesmen saw performing in general as wildly inappropriate for a princeps, the empire’s most illustrious government official.
“Smite My Womb”
The promising sheen that Nero possessed at the start of his rule had dimmed within a year or two. His moral compass had gone haywire, and to the horror of many, he also harbored dreams of becoming a cithara hero. In 59, however, he revealed the true depths of his turpitude, orchestrating a murder that would tarnish his name forever.
The mounting animosity between him and his mother was reaching a fever pitch. After Agrippina’s alliance with Britannicus imploded, Nero stripped her of her personal bodyguards and cast her out of the palace. While still married to his stepsister, Octavia, moreover, Nero started sleeping with the beautiful and ambitious Poppaea, later to become his second wife. This new coupling incensed Agrippina much as Nero’s fling with Acte had. A rumor circulated that Agrippina was engineering a coup with Rubellius Plautus, a rival of Nero’s. It’s uncertain when and precisely why it happened—whether it was a dispute over the emperor’s latest extramarital affair, the rumored revolt, or some other issue. Whatever the motivation, Nero decided that his mother would die.
He mulled over how to have her killed. Locusta had served him well when he felled Britannicus, but this method was inviable for more than one reason. For starters, ever since the fratricide, Agrippina had taken measures to guard against poisoning. Moreover, Nero was seeking the life of his own mother, daughter of Germanicus, wife of Claudius, and until recently a power player at court. If the public suspected that he had ordered her undoing, Rome could turn against him, so it was imperative to conceal his involvement. A sudden illness ending in death would look fishy, not least because Britannicus and perhaps even Claudius had fallen victim to poisoning. Fatal food stuffs were out of the question, and Nero’s ideal gambit would bring about a death that looked entirely accidental.
After much consideration, Nero hit upon a solution at an unexpected moment—right in the middle of a trip to the theater. According to ancient chronicler Cassius Dio, “One day [Nero and his accomplices] saw in the theatre a ship that automatically parted asunder, let out some beasts, and then came together again so as to be once more seaworthy; and they at once caused another to be built like it.” The special effect united at least three passions of Roman theatergoers—first, intricate structures that could collapse on cue; second, wild animals—especially lions—which sometimes fed on human flesh; third, nautical entertainments featuring actual ships. In The Roman Theatre and Its Audience, Michael Beacham describes a macabre spectacle mixing the first two of these ingredients. One day, a crowd assembled to watch the execution of a notorious brigand. He stood atop a towering scaffold—this type of theatrical property was called a pegma in Latin—representing Mount Etna, the area where the robber had committed his crimes. At the throw of a switch, the collapsible platform on which he was standing gave way underneath him. The miscreant fell down into a cage full of beasts and was promptly torn apart. As for the theater’s maritime diversions, staged naval battles known as maumachiae rank as most famous. Not unlike gladiators, prisoners of war or perhaps condemned criminals fought to the death aboard real-life ships in these bloody amusements. In fact, the reign of Nero saw the first maumachia unfold in an amphitheater specially flooded for the occasion. Previous maumachiae had taken place elsewhere—in a manmade basin straddling the Tiber, to give an example.
Inspired by what he saw at the theater, Nero arranged for the construction of a trick ship that could collapse in on itself when needed. After getting his mother onboard, the vessel would break apart, crushing her in the process and pitching her into the deep. It would look like a shipwreck, a tragic accident.
After the shipwrights completed Nero’s death trap, he invited his mother to her own assassination. In a letter to Agrippina, he admitted to having mistreated her of late and asked if she would join him in celebrating Quinquatria, a springtime festival sacred to Minerva, goddess of wisdom, justice, and victory. Likely questioning her son’s intentions, she nevertheless accepted the invitation. The revels would take place at Baiae, a sumptuous pleasure resort home to several lakes, a placid bay, and a thriving sex trade. Nero and his mother both had villas there. At his lakeside estate, the emperor hosted a dinner party in honor of Agrippina. After the banquet, in one of numerous loving gestures, he presented her with a superyacht fit for a modern oligarch, tricked out with regal decorations and operated by a special crew. As Nero well knew, however, trained assassins were running the ship. The lavish gift appealed to Agrippina’s vanity, and she climbed aboard with a sense of excitement, receiving what seemed like affectionate kisses from her son.
Once the boat had put out, she repaired to the rear deck, where she and a friend named Aceronia reclined on a couch. Agrippina’s procurator—the official tasked with managing her estate—stood nearby. The lake was still, the night sky cloudless, as the marvelous vessel cut across the water. Then, without warning, part of its roofing crashed down on the back deck, right where Agrippina and Aceronia were relaxing.
The trap was sprung. Unfortunately for Nero, it didn’t work.
The falling debris struck Agrippina’s procurator, killing him instantly. However, Agrippina and her companion survived. The sofa they were lying on saved their lives, its high back and extended arms shielding them from the roofing. At this point, the hit squad onboard expected the ship to continue caving in, eventually sinking to the bottom of the lake and taking Agrippina with it. For whatever reason, that never happened, unleashing panic among the assassins. The ship began to sway, and trying to force it to capsize, all of them rushed to the same side of the deck—another misfire. The tipping vessel dipped toward the water slowly enough that Agrippina and her friend could dive in without harm. In hope of facilitating her own rescue, Aceronia called out to crewmen nearby, apparently in a lifeboat, claiming that she was Agrippina. She had just made a grave miscalculation. In reality, these seamen were killers in service to Nero. When they heard her cries, they seized the opportunity to complete their mission. They rowed over to Aceronia, but instead of hoisting her out of the water, they clubbed her with oars and nautical gear. Agrippina was in the immediate vicinity and took one of these blows. Keeping silent, however, she evaded attention and thus further injury. As Aceronia’s body sank beneath the surface, Agrippina swam to shoreline, guided by the light of fishermen’s lanterns, wounded but alive.
When news of the bungled assassination reached Nero, panic and despair overtook him. The daughter of Germanicus would not take this attempt on her life lying down. For all Nero knew, she was rallying allies at this very moment to storm his villa. Or maybe she was hightailing it back to Rome to condemn him before the Senate. Woefully at a loss for how to move forward, Nero summoned his two most senior advisers, the Praetorian prefect, Burrus, and his rector, Seneca. If he hadn’t already, he let the pair in on his matricidal plot and explained how it all had come to grief. He also made plain that he wanted his mother dead before the sun came up and asked their advice on how to achieve that. In his highly informative and bracing biography of the Stoic philosopher, Dying Every Day, James Romm captures the gravity of this juncture, which posed a serious challenge to Seneca’s avowed Stoic principles. As Romm would have it, “Every word Seneca wrote, every treatise he published, must be read against his presence in this room at this moment.” How would he react? Seneca had sided with Nero—and against Agrippina—in the Acte affair, so maybe he would again. Yet matricide is a far more severe transgression than rebellious sex romps. Had the emperor gone too far this time? Seneca stood silent, weighing his options, and when at last he opened his mouth, he hardly made a case for reason, virtue, or moderation. Instead, he turned to Burrus, inquiring if he could order the Praetorian Guards to attack Agrippina that very night. Many of them remained loyal to her, Burrus pointed out, as well as the memory of her father, Germanicus. He doubted they would take up arms against her. More likely to succeed, Burrus advised, was if Nero deployed a band of assassins to carry out the killing. Nero heeded his words and dispatched three henchmen to Agrippina’s residence. “Only today did I get control of the empire,” he declared to his advisers.
It was past midnight when Nero’s hit men kicked down her door. They found Agrippina alone in her bedroom, unarmed, exhausted, and reeling from her earlier brush with death that night. All she could do was try to talk them out of it. Fumbling for words, Agrippina protested that surely Nero, her own flesh and blood, would never order her execution. By way of response, one of the ruffians cracked her over the head with a club while another drew a sword and closed in for the kill. Agrippina had gone from exile to empress, wheeling and dealing her way to the highest echelons of Roman politics. And this was how it ended. This was how Agrippina, the Augusta, made her exit—diminished and defenseless. With her last words, at least as recorded by ancient historians, Agrippina welcomed the killing blow, commanding the swordmen to deal it straight to the source of her misfortune: “Smite my womb.”
Defending the Indefensible
Nero had a vacant look in his eyes when he heard it was over. With his mother’s murder, he had opened up a gaping hole in his existence, one with which he would struggle to cope for years. For the moment, however, pressing matters required his immediate and undivided action. Forget about coming to grips with his guilt—he needed to save face with the Senate.
To that end, he prepared a speech to be delivered at the Curia justifying the murder of Agrippina—or rather Seneca did. James Romm calls the composition of this address “the most difficult writing assignment in [Seneca’s] life.” Reading from the letter, Nero claimed that Agrippina was planning a coup. After her plot had been uncovered, however, she took her own life. “I neither believe nor rejoice that I am still alive,” Nero declared. The emperor went on to remind his auditors of Agrippina’s overweening ambition as well as the danger she had posed to Rome. Romm summarizes his arguments as follows: “a usurper, and worse, a woman had sought supreme power.”
Seneca the spin doctor had done his office. Whatever misgivings its members may have had, the Senate overwhelmingly embraced Nero’s explanation. They even voted to institute an annual celebration of the emperor’s triumph over his mother’s treachery during the Quinquatria. A golden statue of Minerva would be erected next to one of the princeps in the Forum as a reminder of his salvation.
The Senate may have accepted Nero’s lies, but others rejected them. Indeed, another statue told a much different story about the matricide. This one depicted Agrippina. After her murder and defamation, state officials prepared to pull it down—it was inappropriate to celebrate the memory of an alleged colluder in a coup. For whatever reason, however, the authorities weren’t ready to remove this statue from public just yet. In the meantime, they wrapped it in cloth to conceal it from view. Some wag thought up a prank, founded on the premise that Agrippina’s statue had covered itself up for the sake of modesty. Then, a sign was attached to it, representing speech that was spoken by Agrippina to Nero: “I have some shame; you haven’t.”
As multiple historians have noted, Nero came into his prime as an artist only after his matricide. Next episode, we’ll hear about how he threw himself into both citharody as well as tragic acting, besmirching his reputation for centuries to come, and how his feverish artistic preoccupations contributed to an attempted assassination of him.