As has been mentioned Emperor Nero’s early period of rule was relatively enlightened yet the major difficulty continued to be his domineering mother Agrippina Minor who wouldn’t accept letting go of her own ambition and did everything to hold on to power such as threatening to shift her support to Britannicus, Claudius’ natural son and supporting Nero’s first wife Octavia amongst others who were unhappy with Nero. Not surprisingly these threats to his power were removed: Britannicus was assassinated shortly after Nero’s rise to power (poisoned at dinner in front of everyone) whilst Octavia was exiled and eventually driven to suicide. It is likely that these actions were taken, at least in part with Seneca’s support.
Nero’s mother Agrippina was rather harder to eliminate in spite of having her private German guards removed, continuously besieged by made up lawsuits and according to Suetonius had evaded three attempts at poisoning thanks to the regular antidotes she drank. She even foiled some trumped up charges accusing her of having plotted against her own son’s life. The false testimony was provided by freedmen belonging to one of Agrippina’s old friends now become a political enemy, but the attempt was foiled, the accusers were put to justice whilst Agrippina gathered her belongings and retired to the coast.
Within this period Nero was growing bolder and more sure of himself for numerous reasons:
Nero was not to be outdone and aided by the fleet’s commander worked out an extremely insidious plan: perhaps the extreme of ancient Roman invention in terms of murder.Tacitus
- He had easily managed to assassinate people who stood in his way with no significant ill effects
- He had appropriated himself of the victories his general Corbulo had achieved against the Parthians (“the golden day”)
- He had fallen madly in love with the unscrupulous Poppaea Sabina.
tells us that Nero lovingly invited his mother to a dinner at his own villa at Baiae in the bay of Naples, which would necessarily require her to travel over in her own private ship. The sumptuous dinner went wonderfully, with Agrippina side by side with her son who showed her all the love a son could. Unfortunately, whilst the banquet was in full course an “accident” caused Agrippina’s ship to be rammed by another and so her return home required her to borrow a ship lent her by Nero her son. This ship had (of course) been dutifully rigged with a mortal trap: A cabin which had a lead-filled roof operated by an appropriate mechanism so that those in the passenger cabin would be crushed on command and the ship itself sunk. The ship was beautifully adorned with statues, sumptuous fabrics and painted in expensive Pompeii red.
That night Agrippina boarded the ship with her faithful servant-friend Acerronia, we can imagine Nero’s uncertain recital as he waved her goodbye on the shore. During the night the deathly mechanism was put into action but things were wrong in more than one way: good weather made a wreck unlikely and in any case there was a failure in the death trap itself as the bed posts provided some protection against the great weight which fell on the two women. Agrippina and Acerronia jumped overboard. Acerronia shouted for help and in the confusion was mistaken by the sailors for Agrippina and was dutifully dispatched by an oar on the head. Agrippina on the other hand, though hurt at a shoulder managed to make her way back to shore in silence.
Whilst the timing provided by the historians suggests that the facts are not all that clear, the story goes that within that night Agrippina managed to make her way back to her villa and rather than resort to support from the military, many of whom were faithful to her, chose to send her libertus Agerrinus with a message to the emperor that she was well in spite of the accident. Nero is said to have been shocked and fearful at the prospect of such a failure and chose to finish her off by sending the commander of the navy with some of his men.
The men surrounded her villa, entered and whilst one beat her with a stick on the head another stabbed her in the stomach. Agrippina is said to have bared her own stomach as it was from there that Nero had been born. On reaching the scene Nero dispassionately observed his mother’s corpse and exclaimed he had never fully realized how beautiful she was.
It is interesting to note that Agrippina had strong military support. Many Praetorians had won their position through Agrippina and furthermore she was revered by the German legions who had been commanded by her father, so Nero saw that her murder should undertaken with the help of the navy. Within this detail we can get a sense of the increasingly important role that the army was to play and the decreasing importance of the Roman population at large in nominating future Roman emperors.