About one year after Nero's marriage to Octavia the emperor Claudius was suddenly taken sick. On learning this, Agrippina was very much excited and very much pleased. If the sickness should result in the emperor's death, her son she thought would immediately succeed him. Every thing had been long since fully arranged for such a result, and all was now ready, she imagined, for the change.
It is true that Nero was still very young, but then he was uncommonly mature both in mind and in person, for one of his years; and the people had been accustomed for some time to look upon him as a man. Among other means which Agrippina had resorted to for giving an appearance of manliness and maturity to the character of her son, she had brought him forward in the Roman Forum as a public advocate, and he had made orations there in several instances, with great success. He had been well instructed in those studies which were connected with the art of oratory, and as his person and manners were agreeable, and his countenance intelligent and pre-possessing, and especially as the confidence which he felt in his powers gave him an air of great self-possession and composure, the impression which he made was very favorable. The people were in fact predisposed to be pleased with and to applaud the efforts of a young orator so illustrious in rank and station—and the ability which he displayed, although he was so young, was such as to justify, unquestionably, in some degree, the honors that they paid him.
Agrippina, therefore, supposing that her son was now far enough advanced in public consideration to make it in some degree certain that he would be the emperor's successor, was ready at any time for her husband to die. His sickness therefore filled her mind with excitement and hope. There was another motive too, besides her ambitious desires for the advancement of her son, that made her desirous that Claudius should not live. She had been now for several months somewhat solicitous and anxious about her own safety. Her influence over Claudius, which was at first so absolute and supreme, had afterward greatly declined, and within a few months she had begun to fear that she might be losing it entirely. In fact she had some reason for believing that Claudius regarded her with concealed hostility and hate, and was secretly revolving plans for deposing both her and her son from the high ascendency to which they had raised themselves, and for bringing back his own son to his proper prominence, in Nero's place. Agrippina, too, in the midst of her ambitious projects and plans, led a life of secret vice and crime, and feeling guilty and self-condemned, every trivial indication of danger excited her fears. Some one informed her that Claudius one day when speaking of a woman who had been convicted of crime, said that it had always been his misfortune to have profligate wives, but that he always brought them in the end to the punishment that they deserved. Agrippina was greatly terrified at this report. She considered it a warning that Claudius was meditating some fatal proceedings in respect to her.
Agrippina observed, too, as she thought, various indications that Claudius was beginning to repent of having adopted Nero and thus displaced his own son from the line of inheritance; and that he was secretly intending to restore Britannicus to his true position. He treated the boy with greater and greater attention every day, and at one time, after having been conversing with him and expressing an unusual interest in his health and welfare, he ended by saying, "Go on improving, my son, and grow up as fast as you can to be a man. I shall be able to give a good account of all that I have done in regard to you in due time. Trust to me, and you will find that all will come out right in the end." At another time he told Britannicus that pretty soon he should give him the toga, and bring him forward before the people as a man,—"and then at last," said he, "the Romans will have a prince that is genuine."
Agrippina was not present, it is true, when these things were said and done, but everything was minutely reported to her, and she was filled with anxiety and alarm. She began to be afraid that unless something should speedily occur to enable her to realize her hopes and expectations, they would end in nothing but bitter and cruel disappointment after all.
Such being the state of things, Agrippina was greatly pleased at the news, when she heard that her husband was sick. She most earnestly hoped that he would die, and immediately began to consider what she could do to insure or to hasten such a result. She thought of poison, and began to debate the question in her mind whether she should dare to administer it. Then if she were to decide to give her husband poison, it was a very serious question what kind of poison she should employ. If she were to administer one that was sudden and violent in its operation, the effect which it would produce might attract attention, and her crime be discovered. On the other hand, if she were to choose one that was more moderate and gradual in its power, so as to produce a slow and lingering death, time would be allowed for Claudius to carry into effect any secret designs that he might be forming for disavowing Nero as his son, and fixing the succession upon Britannicus; and Agrippina well knew that if Claudius were to die, leaving things in such a state that Britannicus should succeed him, the downfall and ruin both of herself and her son would immediately and inevitably follow.
There was at that time in Rome a celebrated mistress of the art of poisoning, named Locusta. She was in prison, having been condemned to death for her crimes. Though condemned she had been kept back from execution by the influence of Agrippina, on account of the skill which she possessed in her art, and which Agrippina thought it possible that she might have occasion at some time to make use of. This Locusta she now determined to consult. She accordingly went to her, and asked her if she did not know of any poison which would immediately take effect upon the brain and mind, so as to incapacitate the patient at once from all mental action, while yet it should be gradual and slow in its operations on the vital functions of the body. Locusta answered in the affirmative. Such characters were always prepared to furnish any species of medicaments that their customers might call for. She compounded a potion which she said possessed the properties which Agrippina required, and Agrippina, receiving it from her hands, went away.
Agrippina then went to Halotus, the servant who waited upon the emperor and gave him his food,—and contrived some means to induce him to administer the dose. Halotus was the emperor's "taster," as it was termed:—that is, it was his duty to taste first, himself, every article of food or drink which he offered to his master, for the express purpose of making it sure that nothing was poisoned. It is obvious, however, that many ways might be devised for evading such a precaution as this, and Halotus and Agrippina arranged it, that the poison, in this case, should be put upon a dish of mushrooms, and served to the emperor at his supper. The taster was to avoid, by means of some dexterous management, the taking of any portion of the fatal ingredients himself. The plan thus arranged was put into execution. The emperor ate the mushrooms, and Agrippina tremblingly awaited the result.
She was, however, disappointed in the effect that was produced. Whether the mixture that Locusta had prepared was not sufficiently powerful, or whether Halotus in his extreme anxiety not to get any of the poisonous ingredients himself failed to administer them effectually to his intended victim, the emperor seemed to continue afterward much as he had been before,—still sick, but without any new or more dangerous symptoms. Of course, Agrippina was in a state of great solicitude and apprehension. Having incurred the terrible guilt and danger necessarily involved in an attempt to poison her husband, she could not draw back. The work that was begun must be carried through now, she thought, at all hazards, to its termination; and she immediately set herself at work to devise some means of reaching her victim with poison, which would avoid the taster altogether, and thus not be liable to any interference on his part, dictated either by his fidelity to his master or his fears for himself. She went, accordingly, to the emperor's physician and found means to enlist him in her cause; and a plan was formed between them which proved effectual in accomplishing her designs. The manner in which they contrived it was this. The physician, at a time when the emperor was lying sick and in distress upon his couch, came to him and proposed that he should open his mouth and allow the physician to touch his throat with the tip of a feather, to promote vomiting, which he said he thought would relieve him. The emperor yielded to this treatment, and the feather was applied. It had previously been dipped in a very virulent and fatal poison. The poison thus administered took effect, and Claudius, after passing the night in agony, died early in the morning.
The Poisoning of Claudius
Of course, Agrippina, when her husband's dying struggles were over, and she was satisfied that life was extinct, experienced for the moment a feeling of gratification and relief. It might have been expected, however, that the pangs of remorse, after the deed was perpetrated, would have followed very hard upon the termination of her suspense and anxiety. But it was not so. Much still remained to be done, and Agrippina was fully prepared to meet all the responsibilities of the crisis. The death of her husband took place very early in the morning, the poisoning operations having been performed in the night, and having accomplished their final effect about the break of day. Agrippina immediately perceived that the most effectual means of accomplishing the end which she had in view, was not to allow of any interval to elapse between the announcement of the emperor's death and the bringing forward of her son for induction into office as his successor; since during such an interval, if one were allowed, the Roman people would, of course, discuss the question, whether Britannicus or Nero should succeed to power, and a strong party might possibly organize itself to enforce the claims of the former. She determined, therefore, to conceal the death of her husband until noon, the hour most favorable for publicly proclaiming any great event, and then to announce the death of the father and the accession of the adopted son together.
She accordingly took prompt and decisive measures to prevent its being known that the emperor was dead. The immediate attendants at his bedside could not indeed be easily deceived, but they were required to be silent in respect to what had occurred, and to go on with all their services and ministrations just as if their patient were still alive. Visitors were excluded from the room, and messengers were kept coming to and fro with baths, medicaments, and other appliances, such as a desperate crisis in a sick chamber might be supposed to require. The Senate was convened, too, in the course of the morning, and Agrippina, as if in great distress, sent a message to them, informing them of her husband's dangerous condition, and entreating them to join with the chief civil and religious functionaries of the city, in offering vows, supplications, and sacrifices for his recovery. She herself, in the mean time, went from room to room about the palace, overwhelmed to all appearance, with anxiety and grief. She kept Britannicus and his sisters all the time with her, folding the boy in her arms with an appearance of the fondest affection, and telling him how heart-broken she was at the dangerous condition of his father. She kept Britannicus thus constantly near to her, in order to prevent the possibility of his being seized and carried away to the camp by any party that might be disposed to make him emperor rather than Nero, when it should be known that Claudius had ceased to reign. As an additional defense against this danger, Agrippina brought up a cohort of the life-guards around the palace, and caused them to be stationed in such a manner that every avenue of approach to the edifice was completely secured. The cohort which she selected was one that she thought she could most safely rely upon, not only for guarding the palace while she remained within it, but for proclaiming Nero as emperor when she should at last be ready to come forth and announce the death of her husband.
At length, about noon, she deemed that the hour had arrived, and after placing Britannicus and his sisters in some safe custody within the palace, she ordered the gates to be thrown open, and prepared to come forth to announce the death of Claudius, and to present Nero to the army and to the people of Rome, as his rightful successor. She was aided and supported in these preparations by a number of officers and attendants, among whom were the two whom she had determined upon as the two principal ministers of her son's government. These were Seneca and Burrus. Seneca was to be minister of state, and Burrus the chief military commander.
Both these men had long been in the service of Agrippina and of Nero. Seneca was now over fifty years of age. He was very highly distinguished as a scholar and rhetorician while he lived, and his numerous writings have given him great celebrity since, in every age. He commenced his career in Rome as a public advocate in the Forum, during the reign of Caligula. After Caligula's death he incurred the displeasure of Claudius in the first year of that emperor's reign, and he was banished to the island of Corsica, where he remained in neglect and obscurity for about eight years. When at length Messalina was put to death, and the emperor married Agrippina, Seneca was pardoned and recalled through Agrippina's influence, and after that he devoted himself very faithfully to the service of the empress and of her son. Agrippina appointed him Nero's preceptor, and gave him the direction of all the studies which her son pursued in qualifying himself for the duties of a public orator; and now that she was about attempting to advance her son to the supreme command, she intended to make the philosopher his principal secretary and minister of state.
Burrus was the commander of the life-guards, or as the office was called in those days, prefect of the prætorium. The life-guards, or body-guards, whose duty consisted exclusively in attending upon, escorting and protecting the emperor, consisted of ten cohorts, each containing about a thousand men. The soldiers designated for this service were of course selected from the whole army, and as no expense was spared in providing them with arms, accoutrements and other appointments, they formed the finest body of troops in the world. They received double pay, and enjoyed special privileges; and every arrangement was made to secure their entire subserviency to the will, and attachment to the person, of the reigning emperor. Of course such a corps would be regarded by all the other divisions of the army as entirely superior in rank and consideration, to the ordinary service; and the general who commanded them would take precedence of every other military commander, being second only to the emperor himself. Agrippina had contrived to raise Burrus to this post through her influence with Claudius. He was a friend to her interests before, and he became still more devoted to her after receiving such an appointment through her instrumentality.—Agrippina now depended upon Burrus to carry the Prætorian cohorts in favor of her son.
Accordingly at noon of the day on which Claudius died, when all things were ready, the palace gates were thrown open and Agrippina came forth with her son, accompanied by Burrus and by other attendants. The cohort on duty was drawn up under arms at the palace gates. Burrus presented Nero to them as the successor of Claudius, and at a signal from him they all responded with shouts and acclamations. Some few of the soldiers did not join in this cheering, but looked on in silence, and then inquired of one another what had become of Britannicus. But there were none to answer this question, and as no one appeared to proclaim Britannicus or to speak in his name, the whole cohort finally acquiesced in the decision to which the majority, at the instigation of Burrus, seemed inclined. A sort of chair or open palanquin was provided, and Nero was mounted upon it. He was borne in this way by the soldiers through the streets of the city, escorted by the cohort on the way, till he reached the camp. As the procession moved along, the air was filled with the shouts and acclamations of the soldiers and of the people.
When the party arrived at the camp Nero was presented to the army, and the officers and soldiers being drawn up before him he delivered a brief speech which Seneca had prepared for the occasion. The principal point in this speech, and the one on which its effect was expected to depend, was a promise of a large distribution of money. The soldiers always expected such a donative on the accession of any new emperor,—but Nero, in order to suppress any latent opposition which might be felt against his claims, made his proposed distribution unusually large. The soldiers readily yielded to the influence of this promise, and with one accord proclaimed Nero emperor. The Senate was soon afterward convened, and partly through the influence of certain prominent members whom Agrippina had taken measures to secure in her interest, and partly through the general conviction that as things were the claims of Britannicus could not be successfully maintained, the choice of the army was confirmed. And as the tidings of what had taken place at the capital gradually spread through Italy and to the remoter portions of the empire, the provinces, and the various legions at their encampments, one after another acquiesced in the result, both because on the one hand they had no strong motive for dissenting, and on the other, they had individually no power to make any effectual resistance. Thus Nero, at the age of seventeen became emperor of Rome, and as such the almost absolute monarch of nearly half the world.
It was, however, by no means the design of Agrippina that her son should actually wield, himself, all this power. Her motive, in all her manœuvers for bringing Nero to this lofty position, was a personal, not a maternal ambition. She was herself to reign, not he; and she had brought him forward as the nominal sovereign only, in order that she might herself exercise the power by acting in his name. Her plan was to secure her own ascendency, by so arranging and directing the course of affairs that the young emperor himself should have as little as possible to do with the duties of his office; and that instead of direct action on his part, all the functions of the government should be fulfilled by officers of various grades, whom she was herself to appoint and to sustain, and who, since they would know that they were dependent on Agrippina's influence for their elevation, would naturally be subservient to her will. Nero being so young, she thought that he could easily be led to acquiesce in such management as this, especially if he were indulged in the full enjoyment of the luxuries and pleasures, innocent or otherwise, which his high station would enable him to command, and which are usually so tempting to one of his character and years.
The first of Agrippina's measures was to make arrangement for a most imposing and magnificent funeral, as the testimonial of the deep conjugal affection which she entertained for her husband, and the profound grief with which she was affected by his death! The most extensive preparations were made for this funeral; and the pomp and parade which were displayed in Rome on the day of the ceremony, had never been surpassed, it as said, by any similar spectacle on any former occasion. In the course of the services that were performed, a funeral oration was delivered by Nero to the immense concourse of people that were convened. The oration was written by Seneca. It was a high panegyric upon the virtues and the renown of the deceased, and it represented in the brightest colors, and with great magnificence of diction, his illustrious birth, the high offices to which he had attained, his taste for the liberal arts, and the peace and tranquillity which had prevailed throughout the empire during his reign. To write a panegyric upon such a man as Claudius had been, must surely have proved a somewhat difficult task; but Seneca accomplished it very adroitly, and the people, aided by the solemnity of the occasion, listened with proper gravity, until at length the orator began to speak of the judgment and the political wisdom of Claudius, and then the listeners found that they could preserve their decorum no longer. The audience looked at each other, and there was a general laugh. The young orator, though for the moment somewhat disconcerted at this interruption, soon recovered himself, and went on to the end of his discourse.
After these funeral ceremonies had been performed, the Senate was convened, and Nero appeared before them to make his inaugural address. This address also, was of course prepared for him by Seneca, under directions from Agrippina, who, after revolving the subject fully in her mind, had determined what it would be most politic to say. She knew very well that until the power of her son became consolidated and settled, it became him to be modest in his pretensions and claims, and to profess great deference and respect for the powers and prerogatives of the Senate. In the speech, therefore, which Nero delivered in the senate-chamber, he said that in assuming the imperial dignity, which he had consented to do in obedience to the will of his father the late emperor, to the general voice of the army, and the universal suffrages of the people, he did not intend to usurp the civil powers of the state, but to leave to the Senate, and to the various civil functionaries of the city, their rightful and proper jurisdiction. He considered himself as merely the commander-in-chief of the armies of the commonwealth, and as such, his duty would be simply to execute the national will. He promised, moreover, a great variety of reforms in the administration, all tending to diminish the authority of the prince, and to protect the people from danger of oppression by military power. In a word, it was his settled purpose, he said, to restore the government to its pristine simplicity and purity, and to administer it in strict accordance with the true principles of the Roman Constitution, as originally established by the founders of the commonwealth. The professions and promises which Nero thus made to the Senate, or rather which he recited to them at the dictation of his mother and of Seneca, gave great satisfaction to all who heard them. All opposition to the claims which he advanced, disappeared, and the heart of Agrippina was filled with gladness and joy at finding that all her plans had been so fully and successfully realized.
The official authority of Nero being thus generally acknowledged, Agrippina began immediately to pursue a system of policy designed to secure the possession of all real power for herself, leaving only the name and semblance of it to her son. She appeared in all public places with him, sharing with him the pomp, and parade, and insignia of office, as if she were associated with him in official power. She received and opened the dispatches and sent answers to them. She considered and decided questions of state, and issued her orders. She caused several influential persons whom she supposed likely to take part with Britannicus, or at least secretly to favor his claims, to be put to death, either by violence or by poison; and she would have caused the death of many others in this way, if Burrus and Seneca had not interposed their influence to prevent it. She did all these things in a somewhat covert and cautious manner, acting generally in Nero's name, so as not to attract too much attention at first to her measures. There was danger, she knew, of awakening resistance and opposition, as public sentiment among the Romans had always been entirely averse to the idea of the submission of men, in any form, to the government of women. Agrippina accordingly did not attempt openly to preside in the senate chamber, but she made arrangements for having the meetings of the Senate sometimes held in an apartment of the palace where she could attend, during the sitting, in an adjoining cabinet, concealed from view by a screen or arras, and thus listen to the debate. Even this, however, was strongly objected to by some of the senators. They considered this arrangement of Agrippina's to be present at their debates as intended to intimidate them into the support of such measures as she might recommend, or be supposed to favor, and thus as seriously interfering with the freedom of their discussions. On one occasion Agrippina made a bolder experiment still, by coming into the hall where a company of foreign embassadors were to have audience, as if it were a part of her official duty to join in receiving them. Her son, the emperor, and the government officers around him, were confounded when they saw her coming, and at first did not know what to do. Seneca however, with great presence of mind, said to Nero, "Your mother is entering, go and receive her." Hereupon, Nero left his chair of state, and accompanied by his ministers, went to meet his mother, and received her with great deference and respect; and the attention of all present was wholly devoted to Agrippina while she remained, as to a very distinguished and highly honored guest,—the business which had called them together being suspended on her account until she withdrew.
Notwithstanding some occasional difficulties and embarrassments of this kind, every thing went on for a time very prosperously, in accordance with Agrippina's wishes and plans. Nero was very young, and little disposed at first to thwart or to resist his mother's measures. He was, however, all the time growing older, and he soon began to grow restive under the domination which Agrippina exercised over him, and to form plans and determinations of his own. There followed, as might have been expected, a terrible conflict for the possession of power between him and his mother. The history and the termination of this struggle will form the subject of the two following chapters.