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Murdering Mother

Agrippina and Nero

At the very time that Poppaea appears on the scene, stories began to circulate about an incestuous relationship between Agrippina and Nero. The two seem to have made a display of their closeness (which might have been a response to stories of division in the imperial court). Tacitus doubts whether their relationship was actually incestuous, unusually quoting two sources on the issue (Tacitus, Annales 14. 2). Dio also questions the tradition, but both he and Suetonius report that Nero kept a mistress who looked like Agrippina, though possibly to humiliate his mother (Dio, 61. 11; Suetonius, Nero 28).

The story culminates in  AD 59 with Nero deciding to kill his mother (Tacitus, Annales 14.3-9; Dio, 61.12-14; Suetonius, Nero 34). Such an action surely demands a psychological rather than a political explanation. The sources find the cause in the complex and lurid sexual dramas surrounding Nero. Acte warned Nero off his mother and the infamy that would arise from allegations of incest. Poppaea wished to be married and was convinced that Agrippina stood in her way. Octavia is painted into the part of the innocent. Again, we feel as we have fallen from the pages of the history book into a particularly grotesque, sensationalist novel.

But if Tacitus is right that the affair with Poppaea began in 55, these matters coming to a head in 59 seems surprising. Had the argument been going on for four years in the imperial court? He also put off marrying Poppaea (and ridding himself of Octavia) until 62. If this was a man driven to extremes by the nagging of a girlfriend wanting him to make an ‘honest woman’ of her, then he was not in a rush. Once more the novelistic account with its focus on sex does not make much sense.

Dio claims that Seneca had decided that Agrippina must go, but one suspects that sources hostile to the philosopher invented that charge: there could be little better way to blacken the reputation of a  moral philosopher than to suggest that he was responsible for matricide. But why would she have to go and how was she to be removed?

One can only speculate that in the close-knit world of the imperial court, Nero was finding his mother impossible. She was an experienced manipulator of the political scene and it seems unlikely that she could be side-lined. The traditional way of getting rid of a troublesome imperial female was to convict her of adultery, though that was a little more difficult in this case since Agrippina was not married.

  • Treason? That would look bad.
  • Exile might require a trial, create a powerful enemy, and would look cruel.
  • A covert removal had its advantages, even if requiring an absence of familial feeling. Also, if it became known, then Nero would be damned as having committed an atrocious crime.

The method chosen was absurd, so absurd that I suspect any novelist would reject the plot as too straining of credibility. At the theatre, Nero had seen a boat built to collapse. His admiral, Anicetus, volunteered to build another in order to facilitate a fatal accident.

Agrippina was invited to dinner with Nero. There she was presented with the galley. After dinner, she was escorted to the ship and made her way home to her villa across the bay of Naples. The boat collapsed. Had no one considered whether the gossiping Roman populace would make the assumption that the boating accident, in a new boat, was contrived?

But Agrippina was lying on her couch and the falling lead-weighted roof was supported by the couch’s raised end. She ended up in the sea. One her companions cried out for help, claiming to be the emperor’s mother. She was clubbed to death. Agrippina swam away, incidental evidence that Roman aristocratic women not only enjoyed a level of social and political independence, but also took exercise. When it became light, she was picked up by a fishing boat and returned to her villa.

  • Can we believe the story?
  • Can we believe that such a conspiracy would have been launched?
  • If the story is true, just how many people would have been in on the conspiracy?
    • Nero
    • Anicetus
    • The sailors
    • The boat-builders

Tacitus suggests that the conspiracy had leaked even before Agrippina had set sail, and she had made sure to travel to the dinner by land.

Agrippina At Home

Now aware of the conspiracy, she had little choice but to ignore it. She wrote to her son saying that she had survived an unfortunate accident and although not seriously injured, would prefer to rest without a visit from the doting emperor.

Nero summoned Burrus and Seneca. They were informed of the failed plot. Again, in Tacitus’ account, we are in the room with them. There was silence. Seneca asked Burrus whether the praetorians would act against Agrippina. He informed Nero that they would not, but volunteered Anicetus. Nero accepted. A dagger was planted on Agrippina’s messenger and thus justification was provided for her murder.

Treason became the way to rid himself of his mother. But a sudden act of treason after a near drowning in a collapsed boat given to her by her son? The story was out.

The arrival of the soldiers at Agrippina’s villa can hardly have been unexpected. She asked them to strike at her belly since it was from there that her son, the emperor and matricide, had sprung.

So runs the extraordinary account and our sources agree even on the details (Dio, 61. 12-13: Suetonius, Nero 34; Tacitus, Annales, 14. 3–10).

These were dramatic moments, vividly portrayed. Yet, we must wonder.

The meeting with Anicetus, Seneca and Burrus was secret, yet Tacitus seems to know exactly what went on and claims that confusion only arose in his sources when Nero came to view his mother’s body, a moment which must have offered ample scope to historians with a taste for dramatic embellishment. Much of the life of the emperor was conducted in semi-public, surrounded by a retinue of slaves, freedmen and hangers-on, but who would know what went on in this meeting and live to tell of it?

We can also play with the analysis of risks and benefits for the various characters in the drama.

  • Once Agrippina knew that Nero had tried to kill her, what was her next move?
    • Might she raise the guard against her so?
    • Might she rush to make the plot public knowledge?
    • What was the best outcome for her from such actions?
  • On the discovery of Nero’s plot, the members of the court had either connive in matricide or turn against Nero.
    • Could Burrus and Seneca have walked from the room and called the guards?
    • If Burrus was seen to send in the guards, would they go? And if they did, would Burrus be seen as responsible for the murder of the daughter of Germanicus and the mother of the emperor?
    • Could Nero have let Agrippina live?
    • What was the best outcome for them?
  • What options did Nero have?


Nero wrote to the senate to inform them of Agrippina’s conspiracy against him. He met the officers of the praetorians. They acclaimed Nero’s ‘victory’.

Thrasea Paetus walked out of the senate in disgust. Tacitus says that he was ‘thus endangering himself without bringing freedom any nearer’ (Tacitus, Annales 14. 10–12). This was a crucial moment.

Thrasea may have felt that there was an opportunity to overthrow Nero. If a leader emerged in the senate, there would have been a possibility that the praetorians would not defend Nero. If not at this moment, when would the senate act?

But then there is the risk/benefit analysis.

  • What happened if the senators stood as one and denounced Nero?
  • What happened to the senator who stood to denounce Nero, and was met with silence?
  • What would happen to the first praetorian to react with disgust?

There is, of course, a world of difference between acting to kill an emperor’s mother and acquiescing in a murder that had already happened. This was not a new calculation. The senators and the praetorians had made the same calculation when Nero was raised to the throne and when Britannicus was killed, and perhaps many times before.

Nero entered Rome triumphantly. He had committed the greatest of crimes and remained in power. But at what cost?


Agrippina: Mother of the Emperor        Nero and the Senate       Opposition or Resistance?

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