XIV

THE MURDER OF BRITANNICUS

Agrippina the Younger quickly took charge at the Palatium now that her son was emperor, and formed a cabinet of her own choosing. At her instigation, her lover Pallas was retained as secretary of finances by Nero. Uniquely, Pallas was now serving in his third imperial administration, having previously held his post under both Caligula and Claudius. Nero also confirmed Burrus as his prefect of the Praetorian Guard. And, at Agrippina’s bidding, Nero’s tutor Seneca was appointed to potentially the most powerful post of all at the Palatium, that of chief secretary to the emperor. The man who had occupied that post under Claudius, the able but ailing freedman Narcissus, now slipped away into what he hoped would be a quiet but comfortable retirement.

Seneca, who had known Nero’s grandparents Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, and who for years had been close to Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, and the emperor’s aunt Julia Livilla, was now fifty-seven, and happily married to his second wife, the considerably younger Pompeia Paulina. Physically, Seneca was no longer dashing or handsome. Middle age had seen him lose hair and gain weight. Bald and fat he may now be, but Seneca was a recognized authority on subjects ranging from geology to meteorology, and he was still a skillful author and a sparkling public speaker. He had transferred much of his learning and some of his oratorical skills to Nero, training him well and writing speeches for him that would swiftly bring Nero acclaim as a young emperor of exceptional learning and sensibility, and win him a reputation as a youth possessed of mature wisdom.

Seneca had probably formed a working relationship with the new Praetorian prefect Burrus long before Claudius’s death. Burrus was a man Seneca would have known for a number of years, and it is likely that Burrus’s initial appointment some time back had come through Seneca’s influence with Agrippina the Younger. With Seneca taking charge of the civil government, and with the able but austere Burrus serving as, in effect, Nero’s military chief of staff and defense secretary, the new emperor was served by a formidable duo, a management team unequaled in Roman history.

Agrippina, with her son, Nero, on the throne and her men Seneca, Burrus, and Pallas in control at the Palatium, was riding on such a wave of confidence that she even attended sessions of the Senate, a previously unheard-of thing for a woman to do. Almost immediately, too, on her own authority and without Nero’s knowledge, she had men arrested and executed. Junius Silanus, governor of Asia, was killed by a Praetorian death squad on her command simply because Agrippina had previously engineered the death of his brother and she now feared his retribution.

Then there was the freedman Narcissus, Claudius’s recently retired chief secretary. He had increasingly opposed Agrippina while Claudius was alive, and now Agrippina wanted Narcissus dead. Not only had she never forgiven him for standing up to her, she also wanted to get her hands on his immense fortune, which reputedly ran to 400 million sesterces. Nero had not long been on the throne before his mother forced Narcissus to commit suicide rather than face arrest and execution on invented corruption charges. Friends of Narcissus such as the famous general Titus Vespasian quickly retired to country estates and maintained a low profile, hoping not to attract Agrippina’s attention. Tacitus was to say that Agrippina would have committed further murders had not Seneca and Burrus combined to thwart her “domineering attitude.”¹

Soundly advised by Seneca and Burrus, Nero appointed the tough old warhorse Domitius Corbulo to head a task force in the East designed to recover Armenia from the resurgent Parthians, who had taken over the country that Germanicus had so deftly brought into the Roman sphere so many years before. Taking his time to build up and train an invasion force in the East, General Corbulo would eventually throw the Parthians out of Armenia. At the same time, Seneca’s trusted friend Ummidius Quadratus was appointed to the important post of governor of Syria, replacing Claudius’s appointee Marsus in what was one of the top-paying and most powerful of all the provincial governorships.

At home, under the influence of Seneca and Burrus, Nero introduced a wave of new measures and reforms covering taxation and the law, and showed such restraint and clemency against wrongdoers that Romans would declare the first five years of Nero’s reign a new golden age. At the same time, the young emperor fell in love with a freedwoman at the Palatium, a beautiful former slave from the province of Asia. Her name was Acte, and, according to Christian tradition, she was a follower of Christ. She bore a striking resemblance to Agrippina the Younger, and, Dio was to say, Nero would joke to his closest friends that in bedding her he was having intercourse with his mother.²

Seneca humored Nero, and for a long time helped hide the romance with Acte from his mother by having a good-natured relative of his, Annaeus Serenus, pretend to be in love with the girl, and to likewise pretend that Serenus was the giver of the lavish gifts sent to Acte by Nero. Agrippina was livid when she eventually did find out about Nero’s freedwoman mistress, and “raved” that she would not have a slave girl for a daughter-in-law.³ Her opposition did not subside even when Nero had Acte adopted into a leading Roman family—the family of Attalus—in an attempt to give her respectability.

Seeing that her criticism frequently only hardened Nero’s determination to have his own way, in the autumn of A.D. 55 Agrippina changed her tactics, inviting Nero to use her Palatium bedchamber for his affairs. At the same time she gave him a large part of her wealth and ceased attempting to put restrictions on him. Nero’s friends immediately suspected that Agrippina was up to something and warned him to be on his guard. In December, when Agrippina was heard to make disparaging remarks to Pallas about her son’s lack of generosity toward her, Nero was furious, and dismissed Pallas from the Palatium staff—to punish his mother. Agrippina reacted petulantly, declaring to Nero that Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus, had a stronger claim to the throne than did Nero. She added that if Nero did not watch out she would take Britannicus to the Praetorian Barracks once he came of age. There, she said, the soldiers of the Guard would see “the daughter of Germanicus” on one side, supporting Britannicus, and the “cripple Burrus and the [former] exile Seneca on the other,” supporting Nero.

Nero was dumbfounded by this outburst. Suddenly terrified that his mother would go through with her threat, especially as Britannicus would come of age in February, barely eight weeks away, Nero secretly consulted the Praetorian tribune Julius Pollio, who had custody at the City Prison of the infamous poisoner Locusta. Nero instructed Pollio to have Locusta prepare a fast-acting poison in return for her freedom, apparently unaware that his mother had previously used the same woman to poison Claudius and clear the way for him to become emperor.

A first attempt by Britannicus’s tutors to poison him as part of this murder plot of Nero’s failed because the dose was not strong enough. Britannicus recovered, so Nero tried a second time. This time it was to be at a family dinner at the Palatium, one winter’s night in the last days of December. Because Britannicus used a food taster, an ingenious scheme was conceived—by Nero himself, it would seem. Britannicus was reclining with the younger diners at separate sets of tables from that occupied by Nero, his mother, and other older guests. Hot wine was typically served in winter by the Romans, and a cup of heated wine was passed to Britannicus’s taster by a servant who was part of the murder plot. The taster drank a little, then passed the wine to Britannicus. But finding it too hot, Britannicus asked for it to be cooled. The Romans habitually drank their wine diluted with water, and now a little cold water was added to the cup, and the cup returned directly to Britannicus. The cold water contained the poison, possibly poison hemlock. Britannicus drank, and within moments was paralyzed, losing his voice. Then he was gasping for breath. Finally, he went into convulsions.

As those dining with Britannicus scattered and servants rushed to his aid, Nero, at the head table, nonchalantly remarked that this was likely to be a return of the epilepsy from which Britannicus had suffered when he was younger. Britannicus was carried from the dining room on a stretcher while the others continued to dine. He died within hours. His body was cremated that same night. Possessed of a strange sense of honor, Nero duly gave Locusta, the provider of the poison that had killed Britannicus, her freedom, and she walked out of the City Prison a free woman.

Now that Nero had committed his first murder, a second, more horrendous murder would be less difficult to commit, as his mother realized. Agrippina was gripped with terror and confusion at Britannicus’s death, says Tacitus. That terror was compounded when Nero shortly after removed the bodyguards assigned to his mother. Those bodyguards had comprised a squad of Praetorian Guards, and, as a special honor to Agrippina, a squad of German Guards. Nero, in his paranoid dread of what his mother might do in reply to his murder of Britannicus, even considered removing Burrus from command of the Praetorian Guard because he worried that he was too close to Agrippina. But Seneca talked him out of it, assuring him that Burrus’s only loyalty was to the young emperor.

Meanwhile, Nero’s mother, feeling totally insecure now, and fearing that she would be her son’s next murder victim, slipped out of the city and shuttled between her country estates. She owned one estate inland at Tusculum, today’s Frascati, in the hills fifteen miles southeast of Rome, and also used an imperial villa at the seaside, at Antium, today’s Anzio, a port city on the western coast of Italy. Only occasionally returning to Rome, Agrippina maintained a low profile, and while she continued to employ spies to keep her up to date with what was going on at the Palatium, she refrained from meddling in her son’s affairs through fear of reprisal. With mother and son now in terror of each other, it was inevitable that one or the other of them must go.

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