The occasion which led to the first open outbreak between Agrippina and her son was the discovery on her part of a secret and guilty attachment which had been formed between Nero and a young girl of the palace whose name was Acte. Acte was originally a slave from Asia Minor, having been purchased there and sent to Rome, very probably on account of her personal beauty. She had been subsequently enfranchised, but she remained still in the palace, forming a part of the household of Agrippina. Nero had never felt any strong attachment for Octavia. His marriage he had always regarded as merely one of his mother's political manœuvers, and he did not consider himself as really bound to his wife by any tie. He was, besides, still but a boy, though unusually precocious and mature; and he had always been accustomed to the most unlimited indulgence of the propensities and passions of youth.
The young prince, as is usual in such cases, was led on and encouraged in the vicious course of life that he was now beginning to pursue, by certain dissolute companions whose society he fell into about this time. There were two young men in particular whose influence over him was of the worst character. Their names were Otho and Senecio. Otho was descended from a very distinguished family, and his rank and social position in Roman society were very high. Senecio, on the other hand, was of a very humble extraction—his father being an emancipated slave. The three young men were, however, nearly of the same age, and being equally unprincipled and dissolute, they banded themselves together in the pursuit and enjoyment of vicious indulgences. Nero made Otho and Senecio his confidants in his connection with Acte, and it was in a great measure through their assistance and co-operation that he accomplished his ends.
When Seneca and Burrus were informed of Nero's attachment to Acte, and of the connection which had been established between them, they were at first much perplexed to know what to do. They were men of strict moral principle themselves, and as Nero had been their pupil, and was still, while they continued his ministers, in some sense under their charge, they thought it might be their duty to remonstrate with him on the course which he was pursuing, and endeavor to separate him from his vicious companions, and bring him back, if possible, to his duty to Octavia. But then, on the other hand, they said to each other that any attempt on their part really to control the ungovernable and lawless propensities of such a soul as Nero's must be utterly unavailing, and since he must necessarily, as they thought, be expected to addict himself to vicious indulgences in some form, the connection with Acte might perhaps be as little to be dreaded as any. On the whole, they concluded not to interfere.
Not so, however, with Agrippina. When she came to learn of this new attachment which her son had formed, she was very much disturbed and alarmed. Her distress, however, did not arise from any of those feelings of solicitude which, as a mother, she might have been expected to feel for the moral purity of her boy, but from fears that, through the influence and ascendency which such a favorite as Acte might acquire, she should lose her own power. She knew very well how absolute and complete the domination of such a favorite sometimes became, and she trembled at the danger which threatened her of being supplanted by Acte, and thus losing her control.
Agrippina was very violent and imperious in her temper, and had long been accustomed to rule those around her with a very high hand; and now, without properly considering that Nero had passed beyond the age in which he could be treated as a mere boy, she attacked him at once with the bitterest reproaches and invectives, and insisted that his connection with Acte should be immediately abandoned. Nero resisted her, and stoutly refused to comply with her demands. Agrippina was fired with indignation and rage. She filled the palace with her complaints and criminations. She accused Nero of the basest ingratitude toward her, in repaying the long-continued and faithful exertions and sacrifices which she had made to promote his interests, by thus displacing her from his confidence and regard, to make room for this wretched favorite, and of falseness and faithlessness to Octavia, in abandoning her, his lawful wife, for the society of an enfranchised slave. Agrippina was extremely violent in these denunciations. She scolded, she stormed, she raved—acting manifestly under the impulse of blind and uncontrollable passion. Her passion was obviously blind, for the course to which it impelled her was plainly very far from tending to accomplish any object which she could be supposed to have in view.
At length, when the first fury of her vexation and anger had spent itself, she began to reflect, as people generally do when recovering from a passion, that she was spending her strength in working mischief to her own cause. This reflection helped to promote the subsiding of her anger. Her loud denunciations gradually died away, and were succeeded by mutterings and murmurings. At length she became silent altogether, and after an interval of reflection, she concluded no longer to give way to her clamorous and useless anger, but calmly to consider what it was best to do.
She soon determined that the wisest and most politic plan after all, would be for her to acquiesce in the fancy of her son, and endeavor to retain her ascendency over him by aiding and countenancing him in his pleasures. She accordingly changed by degrees the tone which she had assumed toward him, and began to address him in words of favor and indulgence. She said that it was natural, after all, at his time of life, to love, and that his superior rank and station entitled him to some degree of immunity from the restrictions imposed upon ordinary men. Acte was indeed a beautiful girl, and she was not surprised, she said, that he had conceived an affection for her. The indulgence of his love was indeed attended with difficulty and danger, but, if he would submit the affair to her care and management, she could take such precautions that all would be well. She apologized for the warmth with which she had at first spoken, and attributed it to the jealous and watchful interest which a mother must always feel in all that relates to the prosperity and happiness of her son. She said, moreover, that she was now ready and willing to enter into and promote his views, and she offered him the use of certain private apartments of her own in the palace, to meet Acte in, saying that, by such an arrangement, and with the precautions that she could use, he could enjoy the society of his favorite whenever he pleased, without interruption and without danger.
Nero very naturally reported all this to his companions. They of course advised him not to believe any thing that his mother said, nor to trust to her in any way. "It is all," said they, "an artful device on her part to get you into her power; and no young man of pride and spirit will submit to the disgrace of being under his mother's management and control." The young profligate listened to the counsels of his associates, and rejected the overtures which his mother had made him. He continued his attachment to Acte, but kept as much as possible aloof from Agrippina.
He desired, however, if possible, to avoid an open quarrel with his mother, and so he made some effort to treat her with attention and respect, in his general bearing toward her, while he persisted in refusing to admit her to his confidence in respect to Acte. These general attentions were, however, by no means sufficient to satisfy Agrippina. The influence of Acte was what she feared, and she well knew that her own power was in imminent danger of being undermined and overthrown, unless she could find some means of bringing her son's connection with his favorite under her own control. Thus the calm that seemed for a short time to reign between Nero and his mother was an armistice rather than a peace, and this armistice was brought at length to a sudden termination by an act of Nero's which he intended as an act of conciliation and kindness, but which proved to be in effect the means of awakening his mother's anger anew, and of exciting her even to a more violent exasperation than she had felt before.
It seems that among the other treasures of the imperial palace at Rome there was an extensive wardrobe of very costly female dresses and decorations, which was appropriated to the use of the wives and mothers of the emperors. Nero conceived the idea of making a present to his mother, from this collection. He accordingly selected a magnificent dress, and a considerable quantity of jewelry, and sent them to Agrippina. Instead of being gratified with this gift, however, Agrippina received it as an affront. She had been so long accustomed to consider herself as the first personage in the imperial household, that she regarded all such things as rightfully her own; and she consequently looked upon the act of Nero in formally presenting her with a small portion of these treasures, as a simple impertinence, and as intended to notify her that he considered all that remained of the collection as his property, and thenceforth as such subject to his exclusive control. Instead therefore of being appeased by Nero's offering she was greatly enraged by it. The angry invectives which she uttered were duly reported to the emperor, and his indignation and resentment were aroused by them anew, and thus the breach between the mother and the son became wider than ever.
In fact Nero began to perceive very clearly that if he intended to secure for himself any thing more than the empty semblance of power, he must at once do something effectual to curb the domineering and ambitious spirit of his mother. After revolving this subject in his mind, he finally concluded that the measure which promised to be most decisive was to dismiss a certain public officer named Pallas, who had been brought forward into public life many years before by Agrippina, and was now the chief instrument of her political power. Pallas was the public treasurer, and he had amassed such enormous wealth by his management of the public finances, that at one time when Claudius was complaining of the impoverished condition of his exchequer, some one replied that he would soon be rich enough if he could but induce his treasurer to receive him into partnership.
Pallas, as has already been said, had been originally brought forward into public life by the influence of Agrippina, and he had always been Agrippina's chief reliance in all her political schemes. He had aided very effectually in promoting her marriage with Claudius; and had cooperated with her in all her subsequent measures; and Nero considered him now as his mother's chief supporter and ally. Nero resolved, accordingly, to dismiss him from office; and in order to induce him to retire peaceably, it was agreed that no inquiry or investigation should be made into the state of his accounts, but every thing should be considered as balanced and settled. Pallas acceded to this proposal. During the whole course of his official career, he had lived in great magnificence and splendor, and now in laying down his office, he withdrew from the imperial palaces, at the head of a long train of attendants, and with a degree of pomp and parade which attracted universal attention. The event was regarded by the public as a declaration on the part of Nero, that thenceforth he himself and not his mother was to rule; and Agrippina, of course, fell at once, many degrees, from the high position which she had held in the public estimation.
She was, of course, greatly enraged, and though utterly helpless in respect to resistance, she stormed about the palace, uttering the loudest and most violent expressions of resentment and anger.
During the continuance of this paroxysm Agrippina bitterly reproached her son for what she termed his cruel ingratitude. It was altogether to her, she said, that he owed his elevation. For a long course of years she had been making ceaseless exertions, had submitted to the greatest sacrifices, and had even committed the most atrocious crimes, to raise him to the high position to which he had attained; and now, so soon as he had attained it, and had made himself sure, as he fancied, of his foothold, his first act was to turn basely and ungratefully against the hand that had raised him. But notwithstanding his fancied security, she would teach him, she said, that her power was still to be feared. Britannicus was still alive, and he was after all the rightful heir, and since her son had proved himself so unworthy of the efforts and sacrifices that she had made for him, she would forthwith take measures to restore to Britannicus what she had so unjustly taken from him. She would immediately divulge all the dreadful secrets which were connected with Nero's elevation. She would make known the arts by means of which her marriage with Claudius had been effected, and the adoption of Nero as Claudius's son and heir had been secured. She would confess the murder of Claudius, and the usurpation on her part of the imperial power for Nero her son. Nero would, in consequence, be deposed, and Britannicus would succeed him, and thus the base ingratitude and treachery toward his mother which Nero had displayed would be avenged. This plan, she declared, she would immediately carry into effect. She would take Britannicus to the camp, and appeal to the army in his name. Both Burrus and Seneca would join her, and her undutiful and treacherous son would be stripped forthwith of his ill-gotten power.
These words of Agrippina were not, however, the expressions of sober purpose, really and honestly entertained. They were the wild and unthinking threats and denunciations which are prompted in such cases by the frenzy of helpless and impotent rage. It is not at all probable that she had any serious intention of attempting such desperate measures as she threatened; for if she had really entertained such a design, she would have carefully kept it secret while making her arrangements for carrying it into execution.
Still these threats and denunciations, though they were obviously prompted by a blind and temporary rage, which it might be reasonably supposed would soon subside, made a deep impression upon Nero's mind. In the first place, he was angry with his mother for daring to utter them. Then there was at least a possibility that she might really undertake to put them in execution, as no one could foresee what her desperate frenzy might lead her to do. Then besides, even if Agrippina's resentment were to subside, and she should seem entirely to abandon all idea of ever executing her threats, Nero was extremely unwilling to remain thus in his mother's power—exposed continually to fresh outbreaks of her hostility, whenever her anger or her caprice might arouse her again. The threats which his mother uttered made him, therefore, extremely restless and uneasy.
A circumstance occurred about this time which, though very trifling in itself, had the effect greatly to increase the jealousy and fear in respect to Britannicus, which Nero was inclined to feel. It seems that among the other amusements with which the company were accustomed to entertain themselves in the social gatherings that took place, from time to time, in the imperial palace, there was a certain game which they used to play called, "Who shall be king ?" The game consisted of choosing one of the party by lot to be king, and then of requiring all the others to obey the commands, whatever they might be, which the king so chosen might issue. Of course, the success of the game depended upon the art and ingenuity of the king in prescribing such things to be done by his various subjects, as would most entertain and amuse the company. What the forfeit or penalty was, that the rules of the game required, in case of disobedience, is not stated; but every one was considered bound to obey the commands that were laid upon him,— provided, of course, that the thing required was within his power.
Nero himself, it appears, was accustomed to join in these sports, and one evening, when a party were all playing it together in his palace, it fell to his lot to be king. When it came to be the turn of Britannicus to receive orders, Nero directed him to go out into the middle of the room, and sing a song to the company. This was a very severe requirement for one so young as Britannicus, and so little accustomed to take an active part in the festivities of so gay a company; and the motive of Nero in making it, was supposed to be a feeling of ill-will, and a desire to tease his brother, by placing him in an awkward and embarrassing situation—one in which he would be compelled either to interrupt the game by refusing to obey the orders of the king, or to expose himself to ridicule by making a fruitless attempt to sing a song.
To the surprise of all, however, Britannicus rose from his seat without any apparent hesitation or embarrassment, walked out upon the floor, and took his position. The attention of the whole company was fixed upon him. All sounds were hushed.
He began to sing. The song was a lament, describing in plaintive words and in mournful music, the situation and the sorrows of a young prince, excluded wrongfully from the throne of his ancestors. The whole company listened with profound attention, charmed at first by the artless simplicity of the music, and the grace and beauty of the boy. As Britannicus proceeded in his song, and the meaning of it, in its application to his own case, began to be perceived, a universal sympathy for him was felt, by the whole assembly, and when he concluded and resumed his seat, the apartment was filled with suppressed murmurs of applause. The effect of this scene upon the mind of Nero, was of course only to awaken feelings of vexation and anger. He looked on in moody silence, uttering mentally the fiercest threats and denunciations against the object of his jealousy, whom he was now compelled to look upon, more than ever before, as a dangerous and formidable rival. He determined, in fact, that Britannicus should die.
In considering by what means he should undertake to effect his purpose, it seemed to Nero most prudent to employ poison. There was no pretext whatever for any criminal charge against the young prince, and Nero did not dare to resort to open violence. He determined, therefore, to resort to poison, and to employ Locusta to prepare it.
Locusta, the reader will remember, was the woman whom Agrippina had employed for the murder of her husband, Claudius. She was still in custody as a convict, being under sentence of death for her crimes. She was in charge of a certain captain named Pollio, an officer of the Prætorian guard. Nero sent for Pollio, and directed him to procure from his prisoner a poisonous potion suitable for the purpose intended. The potion was prepared, and soon afterward it was administered. At least it was given to certain attendants that were employed about the person of Britannicus, with orders that they should administer it. The expected effect, however, was not produced. Whether it was because the potion which Locusta had prepared was too weak, or because it was not really administered by those who received it in charge, no result followed, and Nero was greatly enraged. He sent for Pollio, and assailed him with reproaches and threats, and as for Locusta, he declared that she should be immediately put to death. They were both miserable cowards, he said, who had not the firmness to do their duty. Pollio, in reply, made the most earnest protestations of his readiness to do whatever his master should command. He assured Nero that the failure of their attempt was owing entirely to some accidental cause, and that if he would give Locusta one more opportunity to make the trial, he would guarantee that she would prepare a mixture that would kill Britannicus as quick as a dagger would do it.
Nero ordered that this should immediately be done. Locusta was sent for, and was shut up with Pollio in an apartment adjoining that of the emperor, with directions to make the mixture there, and then to administer it forthwith. Their lives were to depend upon the result. The poison was soon prepared. There was, however, a serious difficulty in the way of administering it, since a potion so sudden and violent in its character as this was intended to be, might be expected to take immediate effect upon the taster, and so produce an alarm which would prevent Britannicus from receiving it. To obviate this difficulty, Pollio and Locusta cunningly contrived the following plan.
They mixed the poison when it was prepared, with cold water, and put it in the pitcher in which cold water was customarily kept in the apartment where Britannicus was to take his supper. When the time arrived Nero himself came in and took his place upon a couch which was standing in the room, with a view of watching the proceedings. Some broth was brought in for the prince's supper. The attendant whose duty it was, tasted it as usual, and then passed it into the prince's hand. Britannicus tasted it, and found it too hot. It had been purposely made so. He gave it back to the attendant to be cooled. The attendant took it to the pitcher, and cooled it with the poisoned water, and then gave it back again to Britannicus without asking the taster to taste it again. Britannicus drank the broth. In a few minutes the fatal consequences ensued. The unhappy victim sank suddenly down in a fainting fit. His eyes became fixed, his limbs were paralyzed, his breathing was short and convulsive. The attendants rushed toward him to render him assistance, but his life was fast ebbing away, and before they could recover from the shock which his sudden illness occasioned them, they found that he had ceased to breathe.
The event produced, of course, great excitement and commotion throughout the palace. Agrippina was immediately summoned, and as she stood over the dying child she was overwhelmed with terror and distress. Nero, on the other hand, appeared wholly unmoved. "It is only one of his epileptic fits," said he. "Britannicus has been accustomed to them from infancy. He will soon recover."
As soon, however, as there was no longer any room to question that Britannicus was dead, Nero began immediately to make preparations for the burial of the body. The remorse which, notwithstanding his depravity, he could not but feel at having perpetrated such a crime, made him impatient to remove all traces and memorials of it from his sight; and, besides, he was afraid to wait the usual period and then to make arrangements for a public funeral, lest the truth in respect to the death of Britannicus might be suspected by the Romans, and a party be formed to revenge his wrongs. Any tendency of this kind which might exist would be greatly favored, he knew, by the excitement of a public funeral. He determined, therefore, that the body should be immediately buried.
There was another reason still for this dispatch. It seems that one of the effects of the species of poison which Locusta had administered was that the body of the victim was turned black by it soon after death. This discoloration, in fact, began to appear in the face of the corpse of Britannicus before the time for the interment arrived; and Nero, in order to guard against the exposure which this phenomenon threatened, ordered the face to be painted of the natural color, by means of cosmetics, such as the ladies of the court were accustomed to use in those days. By doing this the countenance of the dead was restored to its proper color, and afterward underwent no further change. Still the emperor was naturally impatient to have the body interred.
The preparations were accordingly made that same evening, and in the middle of the night the body of Britannicus was buried in the Field of Mars, a vast parade-ground in the precincts of the city. In addition to the darkness of the night, a violent storm arose, and the rain fell in torrents while the interment proceeded. Very few, therefore, of the people of the city knew what had occurred until the following day. The violence of the storm, however, which promoted in one respect the accomplishment of Nero's designs by favoring the secrecy of the interment, in another respect operated strongly against him for the face of the corpse became so wet with the fallen rain, that the cosmetic was washed away and the blackened skin was brought to view. The attendants who had the body in charge learned thus that the boy had been poisoned.
On the morning after the funeral the emperor issued a proclamation announcing the death and burial of his brother, and calling upon the Roman Senate and the Roman people for their sympathy and support in the bereavement which he had sustained.
At the time of his death Britannicus was fourteen years old.