Tacitus on the reign of Nero
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Annals, Books 12-13
12.69 - 13 October ad54: Nero becomes emperor
Then at midday, on October 13th (AD 54) the palace gates were suddenly opened and, accompanied by Burrus, Nero came out to the cohort which was present on guard-duty according to the military custom. There, at the word from the officer, he was received with cheering and placed in a litter. They say that some soldiers looked back and hesitated, asking where Britannicus was; soon, as there was no one to take a different line, they followed what was offered to them.
Nero was carried into the camp and he spoke a few appropriate words, promised a gift of money and was greeted as Emperor. The senators passed decrees following this decision of the soldiers. There was not sign of any disagreement in the provinces either. Claudius was decreed to be a god and his funeral was conducted exactly as Augustusí funeral. Agrippina equalled her great-grandmother Livia in the magnificence of her dress. However, Claudius's will was not read. Agrippina did not want to arouse in the minds of the common people a sense of injustice and unfairness for the way in which the stepson had been preferred to the son.
13.1 - ad54: Agrippina despatches Junius Silanus and Narcissus
The first death of the new reign was that of Junius Silanus, proconsul of Asia; Nero knew nothing about this crime which was arranged by Agrippina. Silanus had not provoked his death by some act of violence; he was in fact lazy and despised so much by previous emperors that Caligula used to call him ĎThe Golden Sheepí.
The truth was that Agrippina had brought about the murder of his brother Lucius Silanus, and so was afraid he would try to avenge this crime; there was also the constant gossip claiming it was wrong for Nero, to be preferred to Silanus; Nero after all was just recently a boy, and had the empire through a crime while Silanus was a mature man, a noble, who lived a life free from crime and was also descended from the Caesars Ė an important factor then. Silanus was the great-great-grandson of Augustus. This was the cause of his murder. He was murdered by Publius Celer, a Roman knight, and Helius, a freedman, who were in Asia to look after the emperorís property there. They gave the proconsul poison at a banquet, so obviously that there was no effort to hide the fact.
Just as quickly Narcissus, Claudius' freedman, whose disputes with Agrippina I have already recorded, was forced to commit suicide because of his harsh imprisonment and loss of any hope. Nero actually had not wanted this: Neroís still hidden vices fitted in well with Narcissusí greed and extravagance.
Burrus and Seneca; the supremacy of Agrippina
There would have been more murders, if Burrus and Seneca had not opposed them. These men were the emperorís advisors while he was young. They were in agreement (a rare thing for those in power) and, in different ways, they were both effective with Nero. These two men guided the emperor's youth with a unity of purpose seldom found where authority is shared, and though their accomplishments were wholly different, they had equal influence. Burrus had a soldier's interests and serious character; Seneca tutored Nero in public speaking and had a friendly disposition and decency. They helped each other so that they could more easily direct the young emperor towards acceptable pleasures, if he rejected decency and goodness.
For both of them there was the struggle against the ferocity of Agrippina; she was burning with all the desire of her criminally-gained power; she had the help of Pallas who had ruined Claudius by encouraging his incestuous marriage and the destructive adoption of Nero. Nero was not the sort to give in to slaves. Furthermore, Nero loathed Pallas, whose arrogant attitude went far beyond what was expected of a free slave.
Even so, publicly every honour was piled on Agrippina. When a tribune, whose customary job it was, asked for the password, he was given ďThe Best of MothersĒ. The Senate also decreed her two lictors, and the office of priestess to Claudius; at the same meeting they decreed a public funeral and deification for Claudius.
|13.3 - Claudius's funeral
On the day of the funeral Nero delivered the speech in praise of Claudius. As he spoke of the long line of ancestors and their consulships and triumphs, he and his audience were serious. The praise of his works of literature and that nothing terrible had happened to the state in foreign wars during his reign were appreciated by his listeners. When Nero turned to his foresight and wisdom, no one could resist smiling, although the speech, written by Seneca, was very eloquent, as one would expect of a speech written by a man with his pleasant ability and whose style was suited the times. Older men, who spend their leisure comparing the new and old ways, noted that Nero was the first of the emperors to need another manís eloquence. The dictator Caesar was as good as any of the greatest orators, and Augustus spoke in a fluent and easy way quite proper for an emperor. Tiberius also understood the skill using words properly, and at times was strong in his views, or deliberately ambiguous. Even Caligula's disturbed mind did not damage his ability to speak in public. Claudius, when he was well prepared, spoke with some elegance. Nero, even as a young boy, had turned his lively mind to other activities such as carving, painting, singing or managing horses; sometimes he wrote poems Ė this indicated that he had in him the beginnings of learning.
13.4 - Nero's promises to the Senate
Once the pretence of sadness was done with, he entered the Senate, and spoke of the authority of the senators and the support of the soldiers; he mentioned the advice and examples of good government which were there to help him. He declared that his youth had not been spoilt by civil wars and family quarrels; he brought with him no hatreds, no injustice, nor desire for revenge.
He then described the shape of his future government, especially avoiding those things which had caused recent unpopularity. He claimed he would not judge every case, or keep accuser and accused locked in the same house, letting the powerful few control everything. In his house, he said, nothing would be for sale and there would be no opportunity for corruption; his private affairs and the affairs of the State would be kept separate. The Senate would keep its ancient duties; Italy and the public provinces should present their cases before the consuls, who would provide then with audience before the senators. He himself would see to the armies allotted to him.
|13.5 - lawyers, quaestors and Armenia (Agrippina is
He kept his promise and many matters were decided by the senate. No one was to be paid a fee or given a present for pleading a case; there was to be no requirement for the quaestors-elect to put on gladiatorial shows.
Agrippina opposed this, on the grounds that it overturned a law of Claudius; however, the proposal was passed by the senators who used to be called to the palace, so that she might stand near a door built behind them, where she was hidden behind a curtain which stopped her being seen, but did not stop her hearing what was said.
When envoys from Armenia were having an audience with Nero, she was getting ready to walk up onto the raised area and sit next to him. She would have done so, if Seneca, while everyone stood there amazed, had not told Nero to go down and greet his mother as she came up. This display of a sonís concern prevented the scandal.
|13.12 - ad55: Agrippina and Acte
In other things, his motherís control over him was weakening bit-by-bit. Nero fell in love with a freedwoman, named Acte, and told two young men, M. Otho and Claudius Senecio, about it. Othoís family had members who had been consuls; Senecio was son of one of the imperial freedmen. At first Agrippina was unaware of this; then despite her opposition, they had gained Neroís favour through sharing vices and secrets; even Neroís older friends did not oppose him, because this girl fulfilled his desires with no harm to anyone; for Nero disliked his wife Octavia, whose nobility and good character were well-known. This was either through some act of fate or because something forbidden is always more attractive. It was feared also that he would start to seduce noble women, if he was prevented from passion for Acte.
Agrippina, however, became angry as women do and raged that she had a freedwoman for a rival, a slave girl for a daughter-in-law, and other things of the same sort. She could not wait until Nero regretted his action or had had enough of Acte. The worse her complaints got, the more intense became his passion, until overwhelmed by his love he stopped obeying his mother and turned to Seneca. One of his friends was Annaeus Serenus who had concealed the early part of Neroís love affair by pretending to be in love with the freedwoman himself. He had even allowed his name to be used publicly as the giver of the presents which were secretly given by the emperor to the girl.
Then Agrippina, changing her tactics, tried flattery with the youth, and even offered the privacy of her own bedroom to hide those desires which come with youth and great power. She confessed that her harsh attitude had been badly timed and she gave him resources from her own wealth, which in itself almost equalled the emperorís. So shortly before she had been excessive in her attempt to coerce her son; now she was equally ready to allow him anything. Nero was not deceived by this change; his closest friends feared it, and begged him to beware of the traps of a woman, who had always been ruthless and was now lying and insincere.
Nero happened to be looking over some dresses and other things which had been worn in the past by previous wives and mothers of emperors. He selected a dress and jewellery which he sent as a gift to his mother out of generosity in giving an outstanding and highly valued article. Agrippina, however, loudly declared that her own range of dresses was not increased by this but rather she was being kept away from the rest, and her son was splitting up everything that he possessed only because of her.
|13.14 - the removal of Pallas
and the rage of Agrippina
There were some who reported these words to Nero giving them a more sinister meaning. So Nero, angered by those who had supported this arrogance in a woman, removed Pallas from the post to which Claudius had appointed him, and from which he had effectively controlled the empire. It was reported that, as Pallas was leaving, accompanied by a great crowd of supporters, Nero jokingly remarked that Pallas was going to swear himself out of office. Pallas had in fact insisted instead that there should be no inquiry into any of his actions in the past, and that his accounts with the state should be considered balanced.
After this, Agrippina became alarmed and began to threaten action and she did not care if the emperor heard what she said: that Britannicus had now grown up, and was the true and deserving successor to his father's power, which Nero, introduced by adoption, was now using to wrong his mother. She did not care about revealing all the terrible acts of this unlucky family: first her own marriage; her history as a poisoner; the fact that her stepson was alive was a success for herself and the gods. She said she would go with him to the praetorian camp; they would listen to the daughter of Germanicus; against her would be the crippled Burrus and the exiled Seneca, demanding their right to rule the world, one with a mutilated hand, the other with an educatorís language. At the same time she stretched out her hands and with cries of abuse, she called on the deified Claudius and the ghosts of the Silani, and all the many crimes which she had committed for no purpose.
the murder of Britannicus
Nero was alarmed at this. It would soon be the day of Britannicusí 14th birthday. Nero thought about his motherís tendency to violence, and again the character of Britannicus; this had been proved in a trivial incident which was still able to make him widely popular. During the Saturnalia, while others of his age were playing at drawing lots to see who would be king, the choice happened to fall to Nero. He gave the others certain orders which were unlikely to cause them embarrassment; but when he told Britannicus to get up and come forward and begin a song, he was hoping to get a laugh out of a boy who had little experience of sober parties, let alone drunken ones. But the boy calmly started a poem about how he was expelled from his fatherís house and excluded from power. This brought him sympathy which was all the more obvious since the night and the relaxed atmosphere removed any pretence. Nero understood the disapproval and his hatred increased.
In any case Agrippinaís threats were worrying him. But he had no charge to bring against his brother nor did he dare to order his murder openly. He turned to secrecy and ordered poison to be prepared, using Iulius Pollio, a tribune of the guard, as his agent. He had under guard a woman named Locusta, already condemned for poisoning, and notorious for her many crimes. They had already placed slaves, who had no thought for what was right or loyal, close to Britannicus. His tutors first tried to poison him but it passed through his bowels either because it was too weak or so diluted enough to delay the effect. But Nero, unable to stand such slowness in his crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to be executed because they endangered his own safety and security while thinking of their own defence against the public scandal. Then they promised that the death would be as rapid as if stabbed to death. So in a room next to Neroís bedroom, a poison was cooked up that would be quick from previously successful ingredients.
It was normal for the emperorís children to sit at meals with other nobles of the same age, where they could be seen by their relatives, at a table of their own, with appropriate but less luxurious food. Britannicus was dining there. His food and drink were always tasted by a selected servant; to avoid changing the practice, and so betray the plot if both servant and master died, this was the method they came up with: a drink which was harmless, but very hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, after he rejected it because it was too hot, the poison was poured in mixed in some cold water; in this way the poison spread throughout his body; he could not speak and his breathing stopped. Everyone sitting around froze in fear, some, not realising what was happening, scattered. Those, who did understand, sat still, staring at Nero. But he, as he reclined there, apparently unaware of the confusion, said that this not unusual; he added that Britannicus had suffered from epilepsy since childhood and his sight and feeling would soon return.
But Agrippina gave a momentary glimpse of her terror and distress, even though she tried control her expression and hide it; but it was clear from this that she had known nothing about this and neither had Octavia, Britannicus's own sister. She realised that there was no one now to support her, and that here was an example of the murder of a relative. Octavia also, despite her youth, had learnt to hide her grief and concern, every feeling in fact. So after a brief silence, they went back to enjoying the banquet.
|13.18 - Agrippina's faction
He then handed out expensive gifts to the most important of his friends. Some criticised these men, who claimed to maintain some sense of morality, for having divided houses and estates among themselves, at such a time, like some spoils of war. Others believed that Nero had forced them, aware of his crime and hoping to get away with, if he could make the most powerful obligated to him by gifts.
But his motherís anger could not be softened by any extravagant presents; she embraced Octavia; she had secret meetings with her friends; she seized on money everywhere in addition to her natural greed; she welcomed centurions and tribunes in her home; she showed respect for the title and qualities of those nobles who still survived; all of which gave the impression that she was looking for a faction and some one to lead it.
Nero knew of all this. He ordered her guard to be removed, which was there to protect first the emperorís wife and then the emperorís mother, along with some German troops, recently added for the same honour. He also moved her to a separate house which had once been Antoniaís, to stop her holding frequent gatherings of supporters; whenever he visited, he was surrounded by a crowd of centurions, and used to leave after a brief kiss.
Junia Silana's plot to
Nothing in human affairs is so likely to change and so quick to disappear as a reputation for power that has no support in real strength. Immediately, Agrippinaís household was abandoned: no one comforted her; no one came except a few women (it is uncertain whether because they loved her or hated her). Amongst these was Junia Silana (as I have written earlier, her divorce from Gaius Silius had been forced on her by Messalina). She was famous for her noble birth, her beauty and her immorality, and she had been a close friend of Agrippina for a long time. However they quarrelled because Sextius Africanus, a young aristocrat, had been put off marrying Silana by Agrippina, who often described Silana as a loose woman who was too old for him. She did not want Africanus for herself; but she did want to keep a husband from possessing the wealth of the widowed and childless Silana.
Silana was now offered the chance of revenge. She found accusers from among her clients, Iturius and Calvisius. They were not to use the old and often heard charges Ė that she mouned the death of Britannicus and spoke about the wrongs done to Octavia. They were to involve Rubellius Plautus who, on his maternal side, had a claim to descent from Augustus equal to Neroís. The accusation was that Agrippina had persuaded him to aim at revolution and that she would share his bed and then his power, so again seize control of the state. Iturius and Calvisius revealed this to Atimetus, a freedman of Domitia, Nero's aunt. Atimetus was pleased to be offered this chance, for Agrippina and Domitia were bitter rivals. Atimetus encouraged Paris, the actor, who was also a freedman of Domitia, to go immediately and describe the accusation in the worst light possible.
It was late at night and Nero was still drinking when Paris entered, as he usually did at this time to add to the emperorís pleasures. This time, however, he appeared upset and sad. Nero listened to Paris go through the story and was so panic-stricken that he was determined to kill not only his mother but also Plautus, and remove Burrus from his praetorian command, on the grounds that he was promoted by Agrippina and was now repaying her. Fabius Rusticus writes that the orders were written to Caecina Tuscus, giving him command of the praetorian cohorts but that because of Seneca's influence Burrus kept the post. Pliny the Elder and Cluvius say there was no doubt about the commanderís loyalty. Fabius certainly tends to praise Seneca; Senecaís friendship was influential in the success of Fabiusí career. Where historians agree, I will follow their views; when they differ, I will name them and record their views.
Nero, now in terror and eager to kill his mother, could not be put off until Burrus had promised that she would be killed if the crime was proved. However, he added that anyone, especially a parent, should be given the chance to defend themselves; there were no accusers present, only the word of one man from the house of an enemy. He urged Nero to consider the dark night, the fact that he had spent the night awake at a banquet and the whole situation likely to lead to a thoughtless and ill-considered action.
In this way he calmed the fears of Nero; they went at dawn to Agrippina so she could learn of the charge and refute them or pay the penalty. Burrus performed this duty, watched by Seneca . Some freedmen were there also to witness the conversation. Then Burrus, after explaining the charges and the accusers, became threatening. Agrippina, with all her old fire and spirit, said ďI am not surprised that Silana, who has never had children, is ignorant of how a mother feels. Parents do not replace their children as often as immoral women their lovers. If Iturius and Calvisius, having thrown away their wealth, are taking up this accusation to repay this old woman for their latest favour, it does not mean that my name must be ruined by the accusation of murdering my son, or that Nero should be made guilty of murdering his mother. I would be grateful for Domitiaís hostility, if she were my rival in kindness to my Nero. Actually she is staging some scene from a play with her lover Atimetus and the actor Paris. She was extending her fish-ponds at Baiae, while I was ensuring Neroís adoption, his proconsular power, the future consulship and everything else which led to control of the empire. Let me see who it is who can prove that I have undermined the loyalty of the city cohorts or the provinces, or even corrupted either slaves or freedmen to commit some crime. Could I have lived with Britannicus as emperor? And if Plautus or any other were to become emperor and be my judge, there would be plenty of accusers to charge me, not with some careless remark made out of love for my son, but with crimes for which only a son could show my innocence.Ē Those present were deeply moved and tried to calm her down; but she demanded to talk to her son. Once there, instead of pleading her innocence, as if it might suggest some guilt, or mentioning her kindnesses, as though it might sound like a complaint, she gained revenge on her accusers and rewards for her friends.