This painting, by the Swedish artist Otto Wallgren (c. 1795-1857), purports to depict an interaction between Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) and his advisor, Sextus Afranius Burrus. Commander of the Praetorian Guard and a chief counselor to the emperor, Burrus was a member of a triumvirate of advisors who acted as stabilizing influences on Nero’s violent and flamboyant tendencies. His colleagues on that tripartite panel included the philosopher Seneca, as well as Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina did not get along with the two men, but the philosopher and the Praetorian worked well as a team. As described by the historian, Tacitus (c. 56/57-117), “These two men, with a unanimity rare among partners in power, were, by different methods, equally influential. Burrus’ strength lay in soldierly efficiency and seriousness of character, Seneca’s in amiable high principles and his tuition of Nero in public speaking. They collaborated in controlling the emperor’s perilous adolescence” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, XIII.2). Nevertheless, Nero began to find these restraining influences on his reign to be irksome. The emperor’s mother, Agrippina, was the first to go—Nero ordered her assassination. Although Sextus Afranius Burrus and Agrippina were not friends, Burrus reportedly argued against the planned assassination. Tacitus quoted Burrus as saying, “the Guard were devoted to the whole imperial house and to Germanicus’ [Agrippina’s father] memory; they would commit no violence against his offspring” (Annals of Imperial Rome, XIV.7). Perhaps it is this attempt to talk the emperor out of the assassination that is depicted above by Otto Wallgren. Nevertheless, Nero overruled his advisors and successfully had his mother murdered in the year 59. Burrus would soon follow her, dying of vague causes in 62, as would Seneca, who was forced to commit suicide in the year 65.
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.