Nero was lord of Rome. Chance had placed a weak and immoral boy in unlimited control of the greatest of nations. Utterly destitute of principle, he gradually descended into the deepest vice and profligacy, which was soon succeeded by the basest cruelty and treachery. And one of the first victims of his treachery was his own mother, who had murdered her husband, the Emperor Claudius, to place him on the throne, and had now committed the deeper fault of attempting to control her worthless and faithless son.
She had threatened to replace him on the throne with his half-brother Britannicus, and Nero had escaped this difficulty by poisoning Britannicus. She then opposed his vicious passions, and made a bitter foe of his mistress Poppæa, who by every artifice incensed the weak-minded emperor against his mother, representing her as the only obstacle to his full enjoyment of power and pleasure.
At length the detestable son was wrought up to the resolution of murdering her to whom he owed his life. But how? He was too cowardly and irresolute to take open means. Should he remove her by poison or the poignard? The first was doubtful. Agrippina was too practised in guilt, too accustomed to vile deeds, to be easily deceived, and had, moreover, by taking poisons, hardened her frame against their effect. Nor could she be killed by the knife and the murder concealed. The murder-seeking wretch, who had no plan, and no stronger person than himself in whom he could confide, was at a loss how to carry out his wicked purpose.
At this juncture his tutor Anicetus came to his aid. This villain, who bitterly hated Agrippina, was now in command of the fleet that lay at Misenum. He proposed to Nero to have a vessel built in such a manner that it might give way in the open sea, and plunge to the bottom with all not prepared to escape. If Agrippina could be lured on board such a vessel, her drowning would seem one of the natural disasters of the open sea.
This suggestion filled with joy the mind of the unnatural son. The court was then at Baiæ, celebrating the festival called the Quinquatria. Agrippina was invited to attend, and Nero, pretending a desire for reconciliation, went to the sea-shore to meet her on her arrival, embraced her tenderly, and conducted her to a villa in a pleasant situation, looking out on a charming bay of the Mediterranean.
On the waters of the bay floated a number of vessels, among which was one superbly decorated, being prepared, as she was told, in her honor as the emperor's mother. This was intended to convey her to Baiæ, where a banquet was to be given to her that evening.
Agrippina was fond of sailing. She had frequently joined coasting parties and made pleasure trips of her own. But for some reason, perhaps through suspicion of Nero's dark project, she now took a carriage in preference, and arrived safely at Baiæ, much to the discomfiture of her worthless son.
Nero, however, was cunning enough to conceal his disappointment. He gave her the most gracious reception, placed her at table above himself, and by his affectionate attentions and his easy flow of talk succeeded in dispelling any suspicions his mother may have entertained.
The banquet was continued till a late hour, and when Agrippina rose to go Nero attended her to the shore, where lay the sumptuously decorated vessel ready to convey her back to her villa. Here he lavished upon her marks of fond affection, clasped her warmly to his bosom, and bade her adieu in words of tender regret, disguising his fell purpose under the utmost show of tenderness.
Agrippina went on board, attended by only two of her train, one of whom, a maid named Acerronia, lay at the foot of her mistress's couch, and gladly expressed her joy at the loving reconciliation which she had just perceived.
The night was calm and serene. The stars shone with their brightest lustre. The sea extended with an unruffled surface. The vessel moved swiftly, at no great distance from the shore, under the regular sweep of the rowers' oars. Yet little way had been made when there came a disastrous change. A signal was given, and suddenly the deck over Agrippina's cabin sank in, borne down by a great weight of lead.
One of the attendants of the empress was crushed to death, but the posts of Agrippina's couch proved strong enough to bear the weight, and she and Acerronia escaped and made their way hastily to the deck. Here confusion and consternation reigned. The plot had failed. The vessel had not fallen to pieces at once, as intended. Those who were not in the plot rushed wildly to and fro, hampering, by their distracted movements, the operations of the guilty. These sought to sink the vessel at once, but in spite of their efforts the ship sank but slowly, giving the intended victims an opportunity to escape.
Acerronia, with instinctive devotion to her mistress, or a desire to save her own life, cried out that she was Agrippina, and pathetically implored the mariners to save her life. She won death instead. The assassins attacked her with oars and other weapons, and beat her down to the sinking deck. Agrippina, on the contrary, kept silent, and, with the exception of a wound on her shoulder, remained unhurt. Dashing into the dark waters of the bay, she swam towards the shore, and managed to keep herself afloat till taken up by a boat, in which some persons who had witnessed the accident from the shore had hastily put out. Telling her rescuers who she was, they conveyed her up the bay to her villa.
Agrippina had been concerned in too many crimes of her own devising to be deceived. The treachery of her son was too evident. Without touching a rock, and in complete calm, the vessel had suddenly broken down, as if constructed for the purpose. Her own wound and the murder of her maid were further proofs of a preconcerted plot. Yet she was too shrewd to make her suspicions public. The plot had failed, and she was still alive. She at once despatched a messenger to her son, saying that by the favor of the gods and his good auspices she had escaped shipwreck, and that she thus hastened to quiet his affectionate fears. She then retired to her couch.
Meanwhile Nero waited impatiently for the news of his mother's death. When word was at length brought him that she had escaped, his craven soul was filled with terror. If this should get abroad; if she should call on her slaves, on the army, on the senate; if the people should learn of the plot of murder, and rise in riot; if any of a dozen contingencies should happen, all might be lost.
The terrified emperor was in a frightful quandary. He sent in all haste for his advisers, but none of them cared to offer any suggestions. At length the villanous Anicetus came to his aid. While they talked the messenger of Agrippina had arrived, and was admitted to give his message to the prince. As he was speaking Anicetus foxily let fall a dagger between his legs. He instantly seized him, snatched up the dagger and showed it to the company, and declared that the wretch had been sent by Agrippina to assassinate her son. The guards were called in, the man was ordered to be dragged away and put in fetters, and the story of the discovered plot of Agrippina was made public.
"Death to the murderess!" cried Anicetus. "Let me hasten at once to her punishment."
Nero gladly assented, and Anicetus hurried from the room, empowered to carry out his murderous intent.
Meanwhile the news of the peril and escape of the empress had spread far and wide. A dreadful accident had occurred, it was said. The people rushed in numbers to the shore, crowded the piers, filled the boats, and gave voice to a medley of cries of alarm. The uproar was at length allayed by some men with lighted torches, who assured the excited multitude that Agrippina had escaped and was now safe in her villa.
While they were speaking a body of soldiers, led by Anicetus, arrived, and with threats of violence dispersed the peasant throng. Then, planting a guard round the mansion, Anicetus burst open its doors, seized the slaves who appeared, and forced his way to the apartment of the empress.
Here Agrippina waited in fear and agitation the return of her messenger. Why came he not? Was new murder in contemplation? She heard the tumult and confusion on the shore, and learned from her attendants what it meant. But the noise was suddenly hushed; a dismal silence prevailed; then came new noises, then loud tones of command, and violent blows on the outer doors. In dread of what was coming, the unhappy woman waited still, till loud steps sounded in the passage, the attendants at her door were thrust aside, and armed men entered her chamber.
The room was in deep shadow, only the pale glimmer of a feeble light breaking the gloom. A single maid remained with the empress, and she, too, hastened to the door on hearing the tramp of war-like feet.
"Do you, too, desert me?" cried Agrippina, in deep reproach.
At that moment Anicetus entered the room, followed by two other ruffians. They approached her bed. She rose to receive them.
"If you come from the prince," she said, "tell him I am well. If your intents are murderous, you are not sent by my son. The guilt of parricide is foreign to his heart."
Her words were checked by a blow on the head with a club. A sword-thrust followed, and she expired under a number of mortal wounds. Thus died the niece, the wife, and the mother of an emperor, the daughter of the celebrated soldier Germanicus, herself so stained with vice that none can pity her fate, particularly as she had committed the further unconscious crime of giving birth to the monster named Nero.