While Romans in general swiftly overcame the death of Agrippina the Younger, Nero never did come to terms with what he had done. According to Suetonius, Nero often confessed that he was hounded by the ghost of his mother.¹ As he tried to find solace and escape his guilt, Nero increasingly took an interest in various Eastern religious cults based on a virgin goddess, a common theme in religions of the East. According to Christian tradition, encouraged by his mistress Acte and his cupbearer, who were both reputedly Christians, Nero even spoke to the apostle Paul about the tenets of the Christian faith. This was supposed to have taken place when Paul was brought to Rome in A.D. 60 to have his legal appeal against charges laid against him by Jewish leaders in Judea heard by the emperor, as was his right as a Roman citizen.
With Seneca and Burrus still exerting a powerful influence over Nero, the empire was seemingly still in good hands. They continued to keep firm hands on the wheel of the ship of state and to steer Nero away from dangerous courses. At one point, says Dio, Nero suddenly became particularly paranoid and decided that he must kill all potential rivals for his throne among Rome’s senators, but Seneca talked him out of it, saying, sagely, “No matter how many you kill, you cannot kill your successor.”²
While Seneca had prevented wholesale slaughter of senators and knights, he made no attempt to dissuade Nero from entertaining his passion for music. At least no one died when Nero appeared onstage dressed as a lyre player and sang in public contests. Seneca and Burrus actually stood onstage with Nero when he made an appearance at Rome in A.D. 59 and sang two pieces of his own composition called “Attis” and “The Bacchantes.” Meanwhile, says Dio, on Nero’s instructions Seneca’s brother Gallio introduced the emperor to the audience under his own original name, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, not the name he had taken as emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.³
At the same time, around the empire, the military commanders whose appointments had been made on the recommendation of Seneca and Burrus did Rome proud. In the East, the dour old general Corbulo drove the Parthians from Armenia and put a king who vowed allegiance to Nero and to Rome on the Armenian throne. In Britain, the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, staged a remarkable comeback after much of southern Britain had been overrun by British rebels led by the rebel queen Boudicca. With just the 5,000 legionaries of the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix Legion, 2,000 men of the Evocati militia who had recently retired from the 20th Valeria Victrix Legion, 2,000 Batavian auxiliaries, and 1,000 auxiliary cavalry—a total of 10,000 men—Paulinus defeated Boudicca’s 230,000 warriors in a bloody A.D. 60 battle northwest of London, then regained the province and hounded the Britons using harsh punitive measures over the next twelve months.
With his advisers, governors, and generals handling the various crises, Nero also began to spend time driving chariots, a passion of his since childhood. In the hope of keeping this hobby out of the public eye, Seneca and Burrus enclosed a large area in the Vatican Valley, leading up to the rise where St. Peter’s Cathedral stands today. There, Nero trained his teams of chariot horses. But in time, to the frustration of his advisers, he also competed in public at the Circus Maximus. Nero also increasingly appeared on the public stage at Rome and elsewhere, playing the lyre and singing.
By A.D. 62, Praetorian prefect Burrus was suffering from a fast-developing throat cancer that had advanced to the point where his neck bulged significantly. Before the year was out, his throat was almost entirely blocked and the insidious disease had him on his deathbed. Several classical writers were to suggest that Nero finished Burrus off with poison so the emperor would be free to do as he wished once the powerful Burrus-Seneca alliance was broken. Tacitus says that many people of the time asserted that Nero had indeed ordered Burrus’s attendants to smear his cancerous throat with poison on the pretext of providing a remedy, but Burrus saw through the scheme and refused to accept the ointment. When Nero visited him shortly after, Burrus recoiled from the emperor’s greeting kiss on the cheek. Then, when Nero asked if he was well, Burrus croaked in reply, “I am very well.” According to Tacitus, the tumor closed up Burrus’s throat shortly after, killing him.⁴
In replacing Burrus, Nero reverted to the practice instituted by Augustus, appointing two prefects of the Praetorian Guard at the same time. One of the new appointees was Faenius Rufus, the superintendent of the corn supply, who had received that appointment through the favor of Agrippina the Younger when she was at the height of her power. Rufus had shown himself to be an honest man, and was popular with the public and the Praetorian soldiery. But he was weak-kneed and had no military experience to speak of. His coprefect, Ofonius (also written Sofonius and Sophonius) Tigellinus had a very different persona and background. Hugely ambitious despite a lowly upbringing, he had proven to be a man without scruples as he built his career. Tigellinus had been banished by Caligula in A.D. 39 for having an affair with Agrippina the Younger. Allowed to return to Rome by Claudius, Tigellinus had become prefect of the Night Watch under Nero. Now he was joint Praetorian commander. His loyalty to Nero up to this point was “wellproven,”⁵ for, when Night Watch commander, he had been the emperor’s companion and colleague during Nero’s whoring in the streets of Rome at night.
The chief secretary, Seneca, now found himself exposed, for the first time in the fourteen years that he had been associated with Nero; the death of Burrus had robbed him of his partner in power. Seneca was not on good terms with either of the new Praetorian prefects, Rufus or Tigellinus, and soon found his influence with Nero waning now that he could not rely on a Praetorian commander to back him up. Seneca’s enemies in the Senate also realized that his position had been weakened and began to level various charges at him in the House. Most of those charges did not amount to grounds for a criminal trial, but they chipped away at his credibility. He was accused of courting celebrity with the public. He had, it also was claimed, grown too rich in the emperor’s service, to the point that his gardens and country estates exceeded those of the emperor in their size and grandeur. His detractors said that he thought himself the most eloquent of all Romans, implying that this should be considered a crime. More worrying for him, there was a whispered accusation that Seneca had criticized the emperor behind his back for his chariot-racing and had ridiculed Nero’s singing voice.
The young senator Fabius Romanus went further. He charged Seneca in the Senate with covertly plotting against the emperor. Romanus had apparently forgotten what a formidable debater Seneca was. To mount his defense, Seneca took his seat in the House. Employing his customary oratorical brilliance, Seneca was able to skillfully turn the charges around so that Romanus was the one who stood accused, of fabricating his accusations, and the charges against Seneca fell in ruins. Still, this was a warning to Seneca that he must now be constantly on his guard.
Burrus had been firmly against Nero marrying his mistress Poppaea Sabina. But now that Burrus was dead, and with Sabina announcing that she was pregnant with Nero’s child, she was able to convince the emperor to divorce his blameless but barren twenty-year-old wife, Claudia Octavia, daughter of his late uncle and stepfather Claudius. To facilitate the divorce, Octavia was charged with adultery with a flute-playing Egyptian slave named Eucaerus. And to obtain evidence of this adultery, Octavia’s female slaves were tortured by Praetorian prefect Tigellinus. Some of the slaves bravely refused to implicate Octavia. One, a woman named Pythias, even spat in Tigellinus’s face as she lay stretched naked on the rack. When he suggested the sort of sexual activities that Pythias should confess to having witnessed between Octavia and Eucaerus, Pythias had reputedly declared, “My mistress’s privy parts are cleaner than your mouth, Tigellinus!”⁶
Despite the lack of cooperation from Pythias and others, under torture several servants told Tigellinus what he wanted to hear, and the grounds for divorce were established. The formalities were rushed through, and as soon as the divorce was finalized, Nero had Octavia moved out of the Palatium. With obvious irony, and as if thumbing his nose at the late prefect Burrus, who had been against Nero divorcing Octavia, the emperor sent Octavia to live in Burrus’s former city house. But Octavia was very popular, and the people of Rome loudly objected to the divorce, protesting in the streets. This appeared to unnerve Nero, who, eleven days after divorcing Octavia, brought her back to the palace, seemingly restoring her as his wife. But, as it turned out, he planned to secretly marry Sabina the very next day.
In response to Octavia’s apparent restoration, the joyful public, who had never believed the story of Octavia’s infidelity with a slave, flocked to the Capitol in their thousands to give thanks to the gods. They then pulled down the statues of Sabina, and set up statues and busts of Octavia in the Forum and the temples. Surging around the Palatium, the mob even cheered Nero for restoring Octavia. But this unruly crowd was a threatening sight to the occupants of the Palatium, and it brought the soldiers of the German Guard out to defend the palace colonnades. The duty cohort of the Praetorian Guard then suddenly appeared. Acting the role of riot police, the Praetorian troops drove into the crowd with wooden batons waving, to disperse them, killing a handful of protesters in the process.
According to the Senecan play Octavia, Seneca now attempted to talk Nero out of marrying Sabina the next day. Tacitus, in his Annals chronology, has Seneca retiring just before this event. Even if that chronology is correct—and Tacitus sometimes moved events around within the annual time frame he used in the Annals—it is not impossible that Seneca, as Nero was to urge him to do, came in from retirement to speak to the emperor on this matter. Dio says that it was Burrus who spoke against the marriage to Sabina at this time, but Burrus was dead by then. In Octavia, Seneca told Nero that the public would not accept the marriage to Sabina. He said that Octavia was young, innocent, and a well-liked member of the Claudian family, an imperial lady by birth. Meanwhile, he said, Sabina was the ambitious daughter of a noble adulteress, with only her good looks and her pregnancy to recommend her.⁷
“Let me do, just for once,” Nero said to Seneca in response, “one thing that is condemned by Seneca.”⁸
Not only did Sabina want to make Nero her husband, she also wanted Octavia out of the way. The mobs in the street calling Octavia’s name showed how popular she and her bloodline were, and while she lived, Sabina would always feel insecure. Sabina transmitted that insecurity to Nero. Tacitus says that, pleading with him to deal with Octavia, Sabina warned, “If the people give up on the idea of Octavia being your wife, they will quickly find her another husband.”⁹ This suggestion, that Octavia might marry another man who would then have the credentials to win popular support for the taking of Nero’s throne, terrified Nero, in the same way that his mother’s threat to replace him with Britannicus had terrified him.¹⁰ In Octavia, Praetorian prefect Tigellinus now arrived to report to Nero. The prefect advised that the pro-Octavia riots had been put down, with several ringleaders killed.
“Put down?” Nero retorted. “Is that to be my only satisfaction?” He called for much more severe punishment.¹¹
“Who do you wish to punish?” said Tigellinus. He rested his right hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. “My hand is ready.”
“Take her [Octavia’s] life, and give me her detestable head.”
A horrified look came over the prefect’s face. “I’m stunned. Struck dumb with horror, and fear.”
“You doubt my loyalty?”
“Yes, if you spare my enemy.”
“A woman is your enemy?”
“If she is charged with a crime.”
“On what evidence has she been convicted?”
“By the revolt of the mob.”¹²
Yet Tigellinus neither arrested nor executed Octavia. Nero and Poppaea Sabina were married the next day.
Both Tigellinus and Seneca would have pointed out that a substantial charge would be necessary if Octavia were to be convicted of a major crime. Urged on by Sabina now that she was Nero’s empress, Nero racked his mind for an appropriate charge, one that could not be challenged. Then he had an idea. Nero sent for Anicetus, admiral of the Tyrrhenian Fleet at Misenum, the man who had engineered the death of his mother. Nero informed Anicetus that he expected him to now confess to having had an affair with Octavia. If he agreed, Nero promised him a large, though secret, financial reward, and a magnificent estate where he could retreat and spend the rest of his days. If Anicetus refused, his reward would be execution.
Nero’s former tutor not only agreed, he also proved particularly creative with the confession of adultery with Octavia that he made before friends of the emperor. Nero kept his part of the bargain: Anicetus was exiled to the pleasant island of Sardinia, where he would live out the rest of his days in comfort on a palatial estate, to die a natural death. To add a little more spice to the equation, Nero also accused Octavia of having fallen pregnant to one of her lovers and of then having an abortion. He had forgotten that one of the reasons he’d originally given for divorcing Octavia was that she had been barren and so unable to become pregnant and give him an heir.
On the strength of Anicetus’s invented claims, young Octavia was now arrested at the Palatium. Praetorian centurions and soldiers flooded around her, her wrists were secured with chains, and she was placed in a closed litter and hustled away to a waiting ship. According to the play Octavia, she was taken from the Italian mainland to the prison island of Pandataria in the very same trireme that had previously brought Nero’s mother to Baiae.¹³ This accords with Nero’s previous actions. He’d sent Octavia to live at Burrus’s house; now she was sent to the same prison island where his adulteress mother, Agrippina the Younger, grandmother Agrippina the Elder, and great-grandmother Julia had been incarcerated, aboard the same ship that had brought his mother to her death.
Within days of the former empress landing on Pandataria, an order arrived from Rome for Octavia to be put to death. Her guards acted at once. As she was tightly bound by the centurions and soldiers, she appealed to them to spare her—she was the daughter of Claudius, the niece of Germanicus, she reminded them. She had been the obedient stepdaughter of Agrippina, Germanicus’s daughter. She had committed no crime. But the unsympathetic Praetorians coldly ignored her pleas. Every vein on her arms and legs was slit open. There she lay, surrounded by the soldiers, as her heart pumped out her lifeblood. But the day was cold; her blood congealed; she would not die.
Impatient to end the business, the centurion in charge had Octavia carried to the island’s bathhouse. A ferociously hot bath was prepared. When its steam filled the room, Octavia was plunged into the scalding hot water. There she died. Once her body had been retrieved, the centurion sliced off the twenty-year-old’s head. This was sent to Rome to prove that the execution order had been carried out. Sabina, the new empress, asked to see the severed head of her predecessor, and when it was brought to her, viewed it with morbid satisfaction. This latter act was, in the view of Tacitus, who detailed Octavia’s death, the most appalling part of the entire episode.¹⁴
Seneca had failed to prevent either the execution of Octavia or Nero’s marriage to Sabina. With his influence waning, and with Nero increasingly avoiding him, Seneca, who was now sixty-five, decided that he should retire while he could. Seeking and receiving a private audience with Nero, he thanked the emperor for having made him wealthy and powerful and for ranking him among the most famous men of Rome. That he had been honored with such wealth and power was all the more significant, he said, because he came from a provincial family that, before him, had never advanced beyond the Equestrian Order. Craftily, he offered to allow his properties to be managed by the emperor’s agents and to be included in Nero’s estate, while he himself went into quiet retirement. “I can no longer bear the burden of my riches, and need help.”¹⁵
Nero graciously replied, praising his former tutor and faithful chief secretary, and thanking him for all he had done for him over the years. He hid his delight at being freed from Seneca’s disapproving presence at the Palatium and permitted him to retire, even making a show of urging him to come to him at any time if he felt he should offer advice on any matter. And so Seneca surrendered the ornamental dagger he wore as his badge of office as chief secretary, then withdrew from the palace and from public life. Previously he had been surrounded by a multitude of clients and traveled with a vast train of servants and dependents. Now he kept a low profile and a small entourage, moving quietly from one of his country estates to another, writing plays and long philosophical letters and rarely visiting Rome.
With Seneca out of the way, Praetorian prefect Tigellinus now planted seeds of doubt in Nero’s mind about his coprefect, Rufus. Tigellinus’s principal accusation was that Rufus had been too close to Agrippina, who had engineered his early promotion. Ironically, no one had been closer to Agrippina than Tigellinus, who had been convicted of adultery with her. But he was able to persuade Nero not to confide in Rufus. While Rufus found himself losing Nero’s favor, Tigellinus was given more and more responsibility by the emperor. Increasingly, Tigellinus became a new Sejanus, brutally terrorizing every class of Roman society. In Nero’s name he destroyed on false charges any rich man whose wealth approached that of the emperor, including the immensely rich Pallas, who, when he had retired as secretary for finances prior to Seneca’s withdrawal from the Palatium, had amassed a fortune even greater than Seneca’s.
Meanwhile, at Anzio in A.D. 63, Sabina, the new empress, bore Nero a baby girl, Claudia Augusta. The child would die of ill health before reaching her second birthday. Her death would be a harbinger of a tragic future for Nero. His death, and the unraveling of the mystery involving the murder of his grandfather Germanicus, were not far off.