The Times Nero Tried To Kill His Mother (And The One Time He Succeeded)

A portrait depicting the Roman Emperor Nero looking over the corpse of his mother, Agrippina The Younger.

I've always found stories about the Ancient Roman Empire to be fascinating. The people, the places, the events, etc. almost read off like a modern day soap opera or television show. It's hard to believe some of these things really happened (some of them actually didn't, but were rather the product of the ancient writer's very creative imaginations. For example: Caligula appointing a horse to consulship? Yeah, that didn't happen) and terrifying to think about actually living through them. The story about the Emperor Nero and his mother, Agrippina, is one of my favorites, so much so I actually wrote a play about it.

Nero and Agrippina have one of the most interesting, complex and twisted mother/son relationships not just in Rome but in history. Their success in the empire were so intertwined with one another, that it was only natural that at some point or another one would see the other as a threat to their power that needed to be eliminated if they wished to retain it. Agrippina, perhaps, recognized that first, though as opposed to elimination she attempted to, instead, manipulate her son into doing her bidding, as she had done successfully so often in the past, not just with him, but also with many, many others in her life. Nero, however, sought to kill.  

The leads: the Emperor Nero and his mother, Agrippina, circa 54-59 A.D.

A little history is necessary to understand just exactly why Nero sought to kill his mother. Agrippina the Younger was born a scion of Rome's most notable dynasty, the House of the Julio-Claudians, the first emperors who ruled Rome, as the daughter of the legendary general Germanicus and the intelligent Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. Her brother was the Emperor Caligula, and it was rumored that the two were lovers (it is likely that George RR Martin drew inspiration for the relationship between Cersei and Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones from these two); however, ultimately, Agrippina ended up marrying a Roman nobleman and having one single son, Nero. Since she was a little girl, fate had always dealt Agrippina several hands of bad luck, though she always managed to come out on top, largely due to her ambition, cunningness and wit. She was far more intelligent than the men around her, especially those in-charge, and had long-since had a desire for power. Agrippina had a particular knack for long-term planning, managing to plot the downfall of the current empress, Messalinna (although it wasn't particularly hard), seduce the Emperor Claudius, who happened to be her uncle, into marrying her, arrange for Nero to replace Claudius's son, Britannicus, as his heir, and then poison Claudius with mushrooms allowing for both her and Nero to take over complete control.

Not bad for someone who lived in a time where women weren't seen having any value other than for sex and alliance marriages.

Gone but not forgotten: (L to R) Emperor Caligula, brother and lover of Agrippina the Younger; Emperor Claudius, second husband of Agrippina; Britannicus, son of Claudius. 

Simply put, it's fair to say that Agrippina practically handed her son the throne, and she most certainly viewed it that way. Nero didn't seem to mind much at first, being caught up in the glory and wealth that being emperor brought him, though he quickly found his mother to be domineering and intrusive, particularly with regards to his love life. It's unlikely Nero hadn't felt this way before about his mother, though now he could actually do something about it. He stopped listening to her and, for a time, banished her to her villa in Antium, outside of Rome. In retaliation, Agrippina started spreading rumors around that Claudius had been poisoned and that Britannicus was the rightful Emperor of Rome, not Nero. Agrippina had extreme amounts of influence in the Roman Empire (the Praetorian Guard, the soldiers assigned to protect the Emperor of Rome, all remained loyal to her in honor of her beloved father's memory), and so when people started to listen to her, Nero had Britannicus poisoned before anything could be done about it.

The supporting players: (L to R) Seneca The Younger, advisor to the emperor; Poppaea Sabina, Nero's mistress; Octavia, daughter of late Emperor Claudius, wife of Nero. 

One of the guiding voices behind Nero's ultimate decision to kill his mother was his mistress, Poppaea Sabina (whose mother, interestingly enough, had met her demise via suicide at the behest of Claudius's wife, Messalina. Everyone's connected in Rome), who demanded that Nero step up to his mother by divorcing his wife, and stepsister, Octavia, who Agrippina kept around because of her political advantages, and marry her, instead. Poppaea ignored the fact that she herself was already married, as well, to future Roman Emperor Otho. Nero banished her from the city several times, though ultimately his decision to have her killed was prompted when word was brought to him that his mother plotted to overthrow him and instill her lover, Rubellius Plautus, as emperor. This appeared in the form of noblewoman Julia Silana, who accused Agrippina of, shockingly, plotting. Enraged that his mother was, once again, misbehaving, Nero was reminded by his chief advisors, Seneca the Younger and Burrus, both, at one time, rumored lovers of Agrippina, that he could not very well kill a woman for a crime without offering her the chance of a defense, especially if she happened to be the Empress of Rome. However, when given the chance, Agrippina refused to offer an explanation, instead lambasting the accusations, demanding to see her son, and arranging for her enemies to be exiled and her allies to be rewarded. All of these things she accomplished successfully.

But it did not matter. The seed had been planted. Nero wanted his mother dead, and there was no stopping him. It is here that the accounts of what happened get a little mixed, though one thing remains clear: Nero tried many times to kill his mother, but, the fact-of-the-matter is, Agrippina the Younger was one incredibly challenging woman to kill.

According to Suetonius, Nero and his advisors attempted three times to poison her, however, Agrippina had long since anticipated that one of her enemies would try just that, so for years she'd been building an immune system to the poisons by drinking antidotes. He then claims he tried to crush her by having the ceiling of the bedroom at her villa collapse while she slept below, but the attempt failed. Tacitus does not mention that, however, both are clear that Nero tried to drown her by putting her on a ship designed to sink while out at sea. The event was a dinner at Nero's villa in the popular seaside resort Baiae; Agrippina had been warned earlier that evening by one of her attendants that the entire night was a plot set by her son to kill her, though Nero played the part of a loving and devoted son that night so well, Agrippina convinced herself it couldn't be real, even when he presented her with a brand-new ship as a present that evening, which her attendant had told her earlier was part of the plot. Nevertheless Agrippina and her entourage boarded the vessel, leaving immediately after dinner, fully convinced there was no plot because, before she'd left, Nero had hugged and kissed her, a rare and surprising occurrence considering the rough patch they'd been going through. Supposedly the waters were particularly peaceful that night.

At Baiae by Frederick Pepys Cockerell.
Into the silent blackness of night the vessel sailed away, while onboard, in their suite, Agrippina and her entourage lounged about, with one woman, Acerronia, perhaps one of the empress's few friends, congratulating her on restored position within the emperor's favor. Suddenly, without warning, the roof fell in, crushing and killing the third woman in the room, Crepereius Gallus. Agrippina and Acerronia only survived because the canopy of the bed they were both sitting was strong enough to resist the pressure. The ceiling was made of lead and was intended to sink the boat, however it failed. What happened next the ancient writers differ on. According to Suetonius, a second ship, sent by Nero, rammed into the boat, finally sinking it, while Tacitus claims the crew members sank the boat themselves by capsizing it, though in the general confusion of things, not everyone seemed to be on the same page. While some sailors threw their weight on one side to tip the vessel over, others ran to the opposite side to balance it out, creating the perfect opportunity for Agrippina and Acerronia to slip gently into the water undetected. Once in the water, however, Acerronia started to cry out ‘I am Agrippina! Help, help the emperor’s mother!’ in hopes that she would be rescued; she was promptly struck with oars and killed by the surviving crew members, who were floating on a raft.

Agrippina, watching the events go down, remained silent and, with a wounded shoulder, managed to swim through the waves and away from the wreckage, eventually finding some fishing boats who promptly rescued the empress and returned her to her villa.

Even though she was wounded, Agrippina the Younger managed to swim through the icy waters to safety. Talk about determination. 
It didn't take long for Agrippina to put two-and-two together, though she decided that her best bet was to feign ignorance and act as if she knew nothing of Nero's plot. She sent a messenger to the palace to inform her son that, miraculously, she had just survived a shipwreck, though he needn't bother to come visit her. She needed to time to heal. . . and plot.

By this time Nero had been informed that somehow his mother had managed to survive it all. Instantly he became plagued with terror and fear. "She may arm her slaves! She may whip up the army, or gain access to the senate or Assembly, and incriminate me for wrecking and wounding her and killing her friends! What can I do to save myself?" Nero cried, and, after summoning Seneca and Burrus, they tried to decide what to do. An initial plan of having the Praetorian Guard assassinate her by Seneca was shot down after Burrus explained that the Guard was incredibly loyal to the memory of Germanicus, and would never kill his daughter. Eventually, it was decided that an assassin would be sent to Agrippina's villa and her death would be staged as a suicide.

When the assassins arrived at the empress's villa, a crowd of admirers, having heard of Agrippina's near-death experience, had formed, and the men made their way through and into the house, where they arrested every slave in their path till they came upon Agrippina's bedroom. "If you have come to visit me,"  she said as they entered the room, "you can report that I am better. But if you are assassins, I know my son is not responsible. He did not order his mother’s death." They struck her on the head and knocked her to the floor, but before they could finish her off she cried her final words: "strike me hear!" she said, pointing to her stomach. "Smite my womb!" If Nero was to kill his mother, the fatal blow should be dealt in the spot where he was created.

Nero inspected his mother's body before she was cremated, perhaps to fully convince himself that she was truly dead, during which he praised her beauty and her figure (sickening as it is, it was rumored that Agrippina, when she felt her influence on her son had first begin to wane, had offered him sex as a way of restoring her control, though I'm not sure how much I believe that). Her body was burned that night on a dining couch.

Agrippina The Younger.
Interestingly, long before any of this, even before she'd married Claudius, shortly after Nero had been born, Agrippina had visited an astrologer asking if one day her son would be emperor. After a few moments, the astrologer replied gravely that yes, Nero would rule Rome one day, but that he would also be responsible for her death.

Her reply: "Let him kill me – provided he becomes emperor!"

The Remorse of Nero by John William Waterhouse, 1878.



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