Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Tacitus: Annals Book 13 [10]

10. The emperor in the same year asked the Senate for a statue to his father Domitius, and also that the consular decorations might be conferred on Asconius Labeo, who had been his guardian. Statues to himself of solid gold and silver he forbade, in opposition to offers made, and although the Senate passed a vote that the year should begin with the month of December, in which he was born, he retained for its commencement, the old sacred associations of the first of January. Nor would he allow the prosecution of Carinas Celer, a senator, whom a slave accused, or of Julius Densus, a knight, whose partiality for Britannicus was construed into a crime.

10. Eodem anno Caesar effigiem Cn. Domitio patri et consularia insignia Asconio Labeoni, quo tutore usus erat, petivit a senatu; sibique statuas argento vel auro solidas adversus offerentes prohibuit. et quamquam censuissent patres, ut principium anni mense Decembri, quo ortus erat Nero, veterem religionem kalendarum Ianuariarum inchoando anno retinuit. neque recepti sunt inter reos Carrinas Celer senator servo accusante, aut Iulius Densus equester Romanus, cui favor in Britannicum crimini dabatur.

11. In the year of his consulship with Lucius Antistius, when the magistrates were swearing obedience to imperial legislation, he forbade his colleague to extend the oath to his own enactments, for which he was warmly praised by the senators, in the hope that his youthful spirit, elated with the glory won by trifles, would follow on to nobler aspirations. Then came an act of mercy to Plautius Lateranus, who had been degraded from his rank for adultery with Messalina, and whom he now restored, assuring them of his clemency in a number of speeches which Seneca, to show the purity of his teaching or to display his genius, published to the world by the emperor's mouth.

11. Claudio Nerone L. Antistio consulibus cum in acta principum iurarent magistratus, in sua acta collegam Antistium iurare prohibuit, magnis patrum laudibus, ut iuvenilis animus levium quoque rerum gloria sublatus maiores continuaret. secutaque lenitas in Plautium Lateranum, quem ob adulterium Messalinae ordine demotum reddidit senatui, clementiam suam obstringens crebris orationibus, quas Seneca testificando, quam honesta praeciperet, vel iactandi ingenii voce principis vulgabat.

12. Meanwhile the mother's influence was gradually weakened, as Nero fell in love with a freedwoman, Acte by name, and took into his confidence Otho and Claudius Senecio, two young men of fashion, the first of whom was descended from a family of consular rank, while Senecio's father was one of the emperor's freedmen. Without the mother's knowledge, then in spite of her opposition, they had crept into his favour by debaucheries and equivocal secrets, and even the prince's older friends did not thwart him, for here was a girl who without harm to any one gratified his desires, when he loathed his wife Octavia, high born as she was, and of approved virtue, either from some fatality, or because vice is overpoweringly attractive. It was feared too that he might rush into outrages on noble ladies, were he debarred from this indulgence.

12. Ceterum infracta paulatim potentia matris delapso Nerone in amorem libertae, cui vocabulum Acte fuit, simul adsumptis in conscientiam [M.] Othone et Claudio Senecione, adulescentulis decoris, quorum Otho familia consulari, Senecio liberto Caesaris patre genitus. ignara matre, dein frustra obnitente, penitus inrepserat per luxum et ambigua secreta, ne senioribus quidem principis amicis adversantibus, muliercula nulla cuiusquam iniuria cupidines principis explente, quando uxore ab Octavia, nobili quidem et probitatis spectatae, fato quodam, an quia praevalent inlicita, abhorrebat, metuebaturque, ne in stupra feminarum inlustrium prorumperet, si illa libidine prohiberetur.

13. Agrippina, however, raved with a woman's fury about having a freedwoman for a rival, a slave girl for a daughter-in-law, with like expressions. Nor would she wait till her son repented or wearied of his passion. The fouler her reproaches, the more powerfully did they inflame him, till completely mastered by the strength of his desire, he threw off all respect for his mother, and put himself under the guidance of Seneca, one of whose friends, Annaeus Serenus, had veiled the young prince's intrigue in its beginning by pretending to be in love with the same woman, and had lent his name as the ostensible giver of the presents secretly sent by the emperor to the girl. Then Agrippina, changing her tactics, plied the lad with various blandishments, and even offered the seclusion of her chamber for the concealment of indulgences which youth and the highest rank might claim. She went further; she pleaded guilty to an ill-timed strictness, and handed over to him the abundance of her wealth, which nearly approached the imperial treasures, and from having been of late extreme in her restraint of her son, became now, on the other hand, lax to excess. The change did not escape Nero; his most intimate friends dreaded it, and begged him to beware of the arts of a woman, was always daring and was now false. It happened at this time that the emperor after inspecting the apparel in which wives and mothers of the imperial house had been seen to glitter, selected a jewelled robe and sent it as a gift to his mother, with the unsparing liberality of one who was bestowing by preference on her a choice and much coveted present. Agrippina, however, publicly declared that so far from her wardrobe being furnished by these gifts, she was really kept out of the remainder, and that her son was merely dividing with her what he derived wholly from herself.

13. Sed Agrippina libertam aemulam, nurum ancillam aliaque eundem in modum muliebriter fremere, neque paenitentiam filii aut satietatem opperiri, quantoque foediora exprobrabat, acrius accendere, donec vi amoris subactus exueret obsequium in matrem seque [Se]necae permitteret, ex cuius familiaribus Annaeus Serenus simulatione amoris adversus eandem libertam primas adulescentis cupidines velaverat praebueratque nomen, ut quae princeps furtim mulierculae tribuebat, ille palam largiretur. tum Agrippina versis artibus per blandimenta iuvenem adgredi, suum potius cubiculum ac sinum offerre contegendis quae prima aetas et summa fortuna expeterent. quin et fatebatur intempestivam severitatem et suarum opum, quae haud procul imperatoriis aberant, copias tradebat, ut nimia nuper coercendo filio, ita rursum intemperanter demissa. quae mutatio neque Neronem fefellit, et proximi amicorum metuebant orabantque cavere insidias mulieris semper atrocis, tum et falsae. forte illis diebus Caesar inspecto ornatu, quo principium coniuges ac parentes effulserant, deligit vestem et gemmas misitque donum matri, nulla parsimonia, cum praecipua et cupita aliis prior deferret. sed Agrippina non his instrui cultus suos, sed ceteris arceri proclamat et dividere filium, quae cuncta ex ipsa haberet.

14. Some there were who put even a worse meaning on her words. And so Nero, furious with those who abetted such arrogance in a woman, removed Pallas from the charge of the business with which he had been entrusted by Claudius, and in which he acted, so to say, as the controller of the throne. The story went that as he was departing with a great retinue of attendants, the emperor rather wittily remarked that Pallas was going to swear himself out of office. Pallas had in truth stipulated that he should not be questioned for anything he had done in the past, and that his accounts with the State were to be considered as balanced. Thereupon, with instant fury, Agrippina rushed into frightful menaces, sparing not the prince's ears her solemn protest "that Britannicus was now of full age, he who was the true and worthy heir of his father's sovereignty, which a son, by mere admission and adoption, was abusing in outrages on his mother. She shrank not from an utter exposure of the wickedness of that ill-starred house, of her own marriage, to begin with, and of her poisoner's craft. All that the gods and she herself had taken care of was that her stepson was yet alive; with him she would go to the camp, where on one side should be heard the daughter of Germanicus; on the other, the crippled Burrus and the exile Seneca, claiming, forsooth, with disfigured hand, and a pedant's tongue, the government of the world." As she spoke, she raised her hand in menace and heaped insults on him, as she appealed to the deified Claudius, to the infernal shades of the Silani, and to those many fruitless crimes.

14. Nec defuere qui in deterius referrent. et Nero infensus iis, quibus superbia muliebris innitebatur, demovet Pallantem cura rerum, quis a Claudio impositus velut arbitrium regni agebat; ferebaturque, degrediente eo magna prosequentium multitudine, non absurde dixisse ire Pallantem, ut eiuraret. sane pepigerat Pallas, ne cuius facti in praeteritum interrogaretur paresque rationes cum re publica haberet.     Praeceps posthac Agrippina ruere ad terrorem et minas, neque principis auribus abstinere, quo minus testaretur adultum iam esse Britannicum, veram dignamque stirpem suscipiendo patris imperio, quod insitus et adoptivus per iniurias matris exerceret. non abnuere se, quin cuncta infelicis domus mala patefierent, suae in primis nuptiae, suum veneficium: id solum diis et sibi provisum, quod viveret privignus. ituram cum illo in castra; audiretur hinc Germanici filia, in[de] debilis Burrus et exul Seneca, trunca scilicet manu et professoria lingua generis humani regimen expostulantes. simul intendere manus, adgerere probra, consecratum Claudium, inferno[s] Silanorum manes invocare et tot inrita facinora.

15. Nero was confounded at this, and as the day was near on which Britannicus would complete his fourteenth year, he reflected, now on the domineering temper of his mother, and now again on the character of the young prince, which a trifling circumstance had lately tested, sufficient however to gain for him wide popularity. During the feast of Saturn, amid other pastimes of his playmates, at a game of lot drawing for king, the lot fell to Nero, upon which he gave all his other companions different orders, and such as would not put them to the blush; but when he told Britannicus to step forward and begin a song, hoping for a laugh at the expense of a boy who knew nothing of sober, much less of riotous society, the lad with perfect coolness commenced some verses which hinted at his expulsion from his father's house and from supreme power. This procured him pity, which was the more conspicuous, as night with its merriment had stript off all disguise. Nero saw the reproach and redoubled his hate. Pressed by Agrippina's menaces, having no charge against his brother and not daring openly to order his murder, he meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor's chamber.

15. Turbatus his Nero et propinquo die, quo quartum decimum aetatis annum Britannicus explebat, volutare secum modo matris violentiam, modo ipsius indolem, [le]vi quidem experimento nuper cognitam, quo tamen favorem late quaesivisset. festis Saturno diebus inter alia aequalium ludicra regnum lusu sortientium evenerat ea sors Neroni. igitur ceteris diversa nec ruborem adlatura: ubi Britannico iussit exsurgeret progressusque in medium cantum aliquem inciperet, inrisum ex eo sperans pueri sobrios quoque convictus, nedum temulentos ignorantis, ille constanter exorsus est carmen, quo evolutum eum sede patria rebusque summis significabatur. unde orta miseratio, manifestior quia dissimulationem nox et lascivia exemerat. Nero intellecta invidia odium intendit; urgentibusque Agrippinae minis, quia nullum crimen neque iubere caedem fratris palam audebat, occulta molitur pararique venenum iubet, ministro Pollione Iulio praetoriae cohortis tribuno, cuius cura attinebatur damnata veneficii nomine Locusta, multa scelerum fama. nam ut proximus quisque Britannico neque fas neque fidem pensi haberet, olim provisum erat. primum venenum ab ipsis educatoribus accepit, tramisitque exsoluta alvo parum validum, sive temperamentum inerat, ne statim saeviret. sed Nero lenti sceleris impatiens minitari tribuno, iubere supplicium veneficae, quod, dum rumorem respiciunt, dum parant defensiones, securitatem morarentur. promittentibus dein tam praecipitem necem, quam si ferro urgeretur, cubiculum Caesaris iuxta decoquitur virus cognitis antea venenis rapidum.

16. It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina, her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus's own sister. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.

16. Mos habebatur principum liberos cum ceteris idem aetatis nobilibus sedentes vesci in adspectu propinquorum propria et parciore mensa. illic epulante Britannico, quia cibos potusque eius delectus ex ministris gustu explorabat, ne omitteretur institutum aut utriusque morte proderetur scelus, talis dolus repertus est. innoxia adhuc ac praecalida et libata gustu potio traditur Britannico; dein, postquam fervore aspernabatur, frigida in aqua adfunditur venenum, quod ita cunctos eius artus pervasit, ut vox pariter et spiritus [eius] raperentur. trepidatur a circumsedentibus, diffugiunt imprudentes: at quibus altior intellectus, resistunt defixi et Neronem intuentes. ille ut erat reclinis et nescio similis, solitum ita ait per comitialem morbum, quo prima ab infantia adflictaretur Britannicus, et redituros paulatim visus sensusque. at Agrippina[e] is pavor, ea consternatio mentis, quamvis vultu premeretur, emicuit, ut perinde ignaram fuisse [quam] Octaviam sororem Britannici constiterit: quippe sibi supremum auxilium ereptum et parricidii exemplum intellegebat. Octavia quoque, quamvis rudibus annis, dolorem caritatem omnes adfectus abscondere didicerat. ita post breve silentium repetita convivii laetitia.

17. And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus's death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven against a crime which many were even inclined to forgive when they remembered the immemorial feuds of brothers and the impossibility of a divided throne. It is related by several writers of the period that many days before the murder, Nero had offered the worst insult to the boyhood of Britannicus; so that his death could no longer seem a premature or dreadful event, though it happened at the sacred board, without even a moment for the embraces of his sisters, hurried on too, as it was, under the eyes of an enemy, on the sole surviving offspring of the Claudii, the victim first of dishonour, then of poison. The emperor apologised for the hasty funeral by reminding people that it was the practice of our ancestors to withdraw from view any grievously untimely death, and not to dwell on it with panegyrics or display. For himself, he said, that as he had now lost a brother's help, his remaining hopes centred in the State, and all the more tenderness ought to be shown by the Senate and people towards a prince who was the only survivor of a family born to the highest greatness.

17. Nox eadem necem Britannici et rogum coniunxit, proviso ante funebri paratu, qui modicus fuit. in campo tamen Martis sepultus est, adeo turbidis imbribus, ut vulgus iram deum portendi crediderit adversus facinus, cui plerique etiam hominum ignoscebant, antiquas fratrum discordias et insociabile regnum aestimantes. tradunt plerique eorum temporum scriptores crebris ante exitium diebus inlusum isse pueritia[e] Britannici Neronem, ut iam non praematura neque saeva mors videri queat, quamvis inter sacra mensae, ne tempore quidem ad complexum sororum dato, ante oculos inimici properata sit in illum supremum Claudiorum sanguinem stupro prius quam veneno pollutum. festinationem exsequiarum edicto Caesar defendit, id a maioribus institutum referens, subtrahere oculis acerba funera neque laudationibus aut pompa detinere. ceterum et sibi amisso fratris auxilio reliquas spes in re publica sitas, et tanto magis fovendum patribus populoque principem, qui unus superesset e familia summum ad fastigium genita.

18. He then enriched his most powerful friends with liberal presents. Some there were who reproached men of austere professions with having on such an occasion divided houses and estates among themselves, like so much spoil. It was the belief of others that a pressure had been put on them by the emperor, who, conscious as he was of guilt, hoped for merciful consideration if he could secure the most important men by wholesale bribery. But his mother's rage no lavish bounty could allay. She would clasp Octavia to her arms, and have many a secret interview with her friends; with more than her natural rapacity, she clutched at money everywhere, seemingly for a reserve, and courteously received tribunes and centurions. She honoured the names and virtues of the nobles who still were left, seeking apparently a party and a leader. Of this Nero became aware, and he ordered the departure of the military guard now kept for the emperor's mother, as it had formerly been for the imperial consort, along with some German troops, added as a further honour. He also gave her a separate establishment, that throngs of visitors might no longer wait on her, and removed her to what had been Antonia's house; and whenever he went there himself, he was surrounded by a crowd of centurions, and used to leave her after a hurried kiss.

18. Exim largitione potissimos amicorum auxit. nec defuere qui arguerent viros gravitatem adseverantes, quod domos villas id temporis quasi praedam divisissent. alii necessitatem adhibitam credebant a principe, sceleris sibi conscio et veniam sperante, si largitionibus validissimum quemque obstrinxisset.     At matris ira nulla munificentia leniri, sed amplecti Octaviam, crebra cum amicis secreta habere, super ingenitam avaritiam undique pecunias quasi in subsidium corripiens, tribunos et centuriones comiter excipere, nomina et virtutes nobilium, qui etiam tum supererant, in honore habere, quasi quaereret ducem et partes. cognitum id Neroni, excubiasque militares, quae ut coniugi imperatoris olim, tum ut matri servabantur, et Germanos nuper eundem [in] honorem custodes additos digredi iubet. ac ne coetu salutantium frequentaretur, separat domum matremque transfert in eam, quae Antoniae fuerat, quotiens ipse illuc ventitaret, saeptus turba centurionum et post breve osculum digrediens.

19. Of all things human the most precarious and transitory is a reputation for power which has no strong support of its own. In a moment Agrippina's doors were deserted; there was no one to comfort or to go near her, except a few ladies, whether out of love or malice was doubtful. One of these was Junia Silana, whom Messalina had driven from her husband, Caius Silius, as I have already related. Conspicuous for her birth, her beauty, and her wantonness, she had long been a special favourite of Agrippina, till after a while there were secret mutual dislikes, because Sextius Africanus, a noble youth, had been deterred from marrying Silana by Agrippina, who repeatedly spoke of her as an immodest woman in the decline of life, not to secure Africanus for herself, but to keep the childless and wealthy widow out of a husband's control. Silana having now a prospect of vengeance, suborned as accusers two of her creatures, Iturius and Calvisius, not with the old and often-repeated charges about Agrippina's mourning the death of Britannicus or publishing the wrongs of Octavia, but with a hint that it was her purpose to encourage in revolutionary designs Rubellius Plautus, who his mother's side was as nearly connected as Nero with the Divine Augustus; and then, by marrying him and making him emperor, again seize the control of the State. All this Iturius and Calvisius divulged to Atimetus, a freedman of Domitia, Nero's aunt. Exulting in the opportunity, for Agrippina and Domitia were in bitter rivalry, Atimetus urged Paris, who was himself also a freedman of Domitia, to go at once and put the charge in the most dreadful form.

19. Nihil rerum mortalium tam instabile ac fluxum est quam fama potentiae non sua vi nixa[e]. statim relictum Agrippinae limen: nemo solari, nemo adire praeter paucas feminas, amore an odio incertas. ex quibus erat Iunia Silana, quam matrimonio C. Sili a Messalina depulsam supra rettuli, insignis genere forma lascivia, et Agrippinae diu percara, mox occultis inter eas offensionibus, quia Sextium Africanum nobilem iuvenem a nuptiis Silanae deterruerat Agrippina, impudicam et vergentem annis dictitans, non ut Africanum sibi seponeret, sed ne opibus et orbitate Silanae maritus poteretur. illa spe ultionis oblata parat accusatores ex clientibus suis Iturium et Calvisium, non vetera et saepius iam audita deferens, quod Britannici mortem lugeret aut Octaviae iniurias evulgaret, sed destinavisse eam Rubellium Plautum, per maternam originem pari ac Nero gradu a divo Augusto, ad res novas extollere coniugioque eius et imperio rem publicam rursus invadere. haec Iturius et Calvisius Atimeto, Domitiae Neronis amitae liberto, aperiunt. qui laetus oblatis (quippe inter Agrippinam et Domitiam infensa aemulatio exercebatur) Paridem histrionem, libertum et ipsum Domitiae, impulit ire propere crimenque atrociter deferre.

Next: Book 13 [20]