When he became emperor, Nero was only 17. Some writers, therefore, speak of the early years of his reign as a ‘regency’, in which the young emperor was guided by
Agrippina, Seneca and Burrus.
Different writers have different interpretations of the relationship between the three.
The Primary Record
The traditional interpretation is that Agrippina dominated Nero at first but that, after a power struggle, she was replaced as Nero’s favoured advisers by Seneca and Burrus.
This is the interpretation offered by Tacitus (especially in
Book 13.2), and Dio (61.3-4) says much the same thing without the
At first Agrippina managed for him all the business of the empire… When this had been going on for a considerable time, it aroused the displeasure of Seneca and Burrus, who were at once the most sensible and the most influential of the men at Nero's court
... and they put a stop to it [by preventing Agrippina mounting the Tribunal at an embassy of the Armenians.] When they had accomplished this, they took the rule entirely into their own hands and administered affairs in the very best and fairest manner they could, with the result that they won the approval of everybody alike. As for Nero, he was not fond of business in any case, and was glad to live in idleness.
Modern historians have offered other, slightly different interpretations. Dana Gioia (1995) speaks of ‘an uneasy coalition’
between the three, where Robert A Kaster (2010) ignores Agrippina as ever having had any influence on policy at all.
Most writers speak of Seneca and Burrus exercising ‘tremendous influence’ – ‘considerable power’. The first five ‘good’ years of Nero’s reign are associated with them, and called the ‘Quinquennium Neronis’. Only Vasily Rudich (1993), in his study of political dissidence under Nero, points out that – for all their supposed power – they failed to undertake any government reforms.
Seeing as Seneca was a senator, you will read some historians who suggest that he was behind Nero’s offer to rule more in concert with the Senate – he certainly wrote the speech which so thrilled the Senate at the start of Nero’s reign. However, you need also to know that, in c.ad54-55, Seneca wrote De Clementia, a handbook of advice for the young ruler, in which he accepted the abolsute power of the emperor, and only advised that he rule mercifully:
‘While a Caesar needs power, the state also needs a head’.
Everybody agrees that Seneca and Burrus gradually lost power, though they postulate different dates when that process started.
Dio dated it from the murder of Britannicus in ad55.
Dana Gioia put it in ad56, when Seneca found himself having to yield to Nero’s wild excesses.
Most historians would date the beginning of the end in ad59, when Seneca
and Burrus proved so useless in the murder of Agrippina.
Robert Kaster puts it after the death of Burrus in ad62.
Christina Moose (1998) has the interesting observation that, as Seneca and Burrus lost their control over
Nero they found themselves increasingly morally compromised as they became involved in his
So, there are five questions to consider about Seneca and Burrus:
1. Who held power in the early years of Nero’s reign?
2. What were relations like between Agrippina and Seneca & Burrus?
3. How much power over the government did Seneca and Burrus have?
4. Were they ‘good rulers’?
5. When did their influence begin to wane?
The following websites will help you complete the task:
You are recommended to read Peter Roberts's
notes here (starting
at page 173, col 2).
You can read Dana Gioia's
here (pp. xxiii-xxiv).
You can read Robert Kaster's summary here (pp. viii-ix).
Use your summary-of-mentions of Seneca and Burrus to think about the five questions.
Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that
my pupils made:
- Analysis of Seneca and Burrus:
- • Seneca wrote Nero's speeches - so was he able thus to influence policy?
- • Burrus was critical during Nero's accession -
he was presented by the Praetorian Guards to the Senate.
Seneca was powerful enough to have Publius Suillius banished
Seneca was important enough to force him to commit suicide (Burrus may have
- • Vasily Rudich (1993) points out that there are no reforms or laws attributed to Seneca
- • Some of the jobs (e.g. Burrus making people clap, Seneca covering up the affair with Acte etc.) portrays them more as errand boys than dominating advisers.
- • Did they have ANY power, or did Tacitus (who wanted to smear the whole Principate as evil and corrupting) exaggerated their influence to explain away the Quinquennium (he did not want to admit that Nero had even been a good ruler). NOTE that Suetonius does not acknowledge that they had any power AT ALL.
- Were Seneca/Burrus and Agrippina at war?
- • Tacitus and Dio both say so explicitly; they see the incident of the Armenian envoys as the time when Agrippina was pushed out of power.
Nero's opening speech is seen as a public rejection of Claudius and
- • Tacitus, Dio and Suetonius all
record conflict between Agrippina and Nero - but did this imply conflict with
Seneca and Burrus?
- • Seneca and Burrus had been appointed by Agrippina during Claudius's reign.
- • In fact Seneca intervened to prevent Agrippina's embarrassment when she tried to ascend the emperor’s tribunal.
- • Seneca protected Agrippina during Juina Silana's plot, and he and Burrus
interviewed her and took her to see the emperor.
- • Seneca
and Burrus took no part in the plot to murder Agrippina.
- • Dana Gioia (1995) speaks of ‘an uneasy
coalition’ between the three, rather than conflict.
Now write an answer to the following question:
'Seneca and Burrus dominated the early years of Nero's reign.' How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?
In your answer you should:
• give a brief account of the careers of
Seneca and Burrus;
• discuss the arguments for and against the
idea that they held great power;
• show knowledge of
the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;
• consider how
reliable you think these sources are.