It seems that Claudius’ death was encouraged and hence not a surprise to those at the centre of the imperial court. Agrippina was ready. With Claudius firmly dead, Agrippina had the palace guarded by praetorians. Octavia and Britannicus were restricted to the inner rooms and Nero was presented to the praetorians, accompanied by their commander Burrus (Tacitus, Annales 12.68-69). It was clear what the soldiers were supposed to do: they were supposed to acclaim Nero. Burrus was there to ensure that this happened smoothly. Tacitus suggests that there was a stutter.
Annales 12.69 offers one of the clearer insights into imperial politics:
Some, it is said, hesitated, and looked round and asked where Britannicus was; then, when there was no one to lead a resistance, they yielded to what was offered them. Nero was conveyed into the camp, and having first spoken suitably to the occasion and promised a donative after the example of his father’s bounty, he was unanimously greeted as emperor. The decrees of the Senate followed the voice of the soldiers, and there was no hesitation in the provinces.
The soldiers paused. They looked. They asked. They were faced with a choice. They may even have been unhappy. But insisting on Britannicus being brought forth was a risk. Money was promised. People cheered. What would be the benefit of opposition?
- Did the soldiers make the right decision?
- What choices did they have?
- What was at stake for the soldiers?
- How might opposition have had a good outcome?
The senators then met.
- What choices did they have?
- Could they insist on Britannicus being brought forth?
- What was at stake for senators?
- What would happen next?
The senators could remember the aftermath of Gaius’ death. They did not need a second lesson in the realities of imperial politics, but perhaps we do. The key questions are those of risk and benefit. All the political participants had to make that calculation. Is that calculation that we see repeated throughout Nero’s reign.
Tacitus begins his account of the reign of Nero with two deaths: Junius Silanus and Narcissus. Narcissus had lost the dynastic struggle. For all the complaints about the extravagant power of the freedmen, their lives were cheap. He was encouraged to suicide.
Junius Silanus was proconsul of Asia and the brother of the Lucius Junius Silanus who had been betrothed to Octavia. He was very well connected, powerful, probably deeply hostile to Agrippina after the death of his brother, and thus a threat. Tacitus has ample details and we must imagine that the poisoners sprang to action once Nero’s death was known.
Intriguingly, Tacitus’ account closely parallels the opening of the reign of Tiberius (Annales 1.6) in which a seemingly blundering an unaware Tiberius became aware of crimes committed in his name. Nero was similarly unaware.
With Rome secured and enemies killed, it seemed that Nero had been presented with the empire by Agrippina. Remarkably, a frieze from distant Aphrodisias suggests just that: Agrippina is seen laying a wreath on Nero’s head. There was no crowning ceremony in accessions to the imperial throne, but the symbolism could not be more obvious and suggests that the regime was eager to advertise the crucial role played by Agrippina.
With Burrus as sole praetorian prefect ensuring the security of the regime, the next stage was consolidation.
Nero delivered speeches to the senate prepared by Seneca (apparently) but delivered by Nero (Dio, 61. 3; Tacitus, Annales 13. 3).
Nero played a sophisticated political game. He owed his Claudius and he officially honoured him. Claudius was deified. Seneca, so closely connected to the court, produced a satirical work, the Apocolocyntosis (Pumkinification), in which Claudius on Olympus is not only refused divinity on the motion of Augustus, significantly enough, but also chastised for his crimes and his elevation of freedmen. Nero’s speech at Claudius’ funeral, allegedly also written by Seneca, caused laughter in the senate (Annales 13. 3). But it was to Augustus he appealed. He was a direct descendant of Augustus on his mother’s side of Augustus’ sister Octavia on his father’s side. It was useful to emphasise that line as a break from the Claudian past.
Nero and his court were capable of playing to two audiences: a traditional audience and another more sophisticated audience ready to see and appreciate the subversive elements of Neronian culture. Even when raising Claudius to the skies, Nero and his court demonstrated their contempt. This may have had a certain appeal to an audience of senators who had become so skilled in dissimulation that it could welcome each new horror with praise of the emperor. Such obvious hypocrisy allowed Nero to distance himself from the previous regime while honouring its actions, especially, of course, his own elevation.
Nero’s first speech to the senate was also a model of diplomacy. The young man promised to look to his elders for advice and support and honour the traditions of the senate. Remarkably, that policy appears to have been followed through.
Nero is seen in these early times as reliant on Seneca and Burrus. They replaced the freedmen at the heart of the imperial court. There is a tendency to try and draw line through the reign and see a considerable worsening of the situation in the later years, especially after the fall of Seneca, but Nero was not remote from the intrigues of the court from the first showed no reluctance to remove those who caused offence.
But it was around Agrippina that the first major conflicts of the reign circulated.
Nero Nero and the Senate Agrippina: Mother of the Emperor