This artwork by the Austrian artist, Gustav Wertheimer (c. 1847-1902), was inspired by the elaborate tales of Nero’s plots to assassinate his own mother, Agrippina the Younger. As the great-nephew of the reigning Roman emperor, Claudius (r. 41-54), Nero always had been royalty, but was originally not very high on the list of imperial succession. This was especially true since Claudius had a son named Britannicus. Nevertheless, Britannicus’ mother, Messalina, was executed after having an affair, and at the time when Claudius became single, Agrippina (who was also a widow) caught Claudius’ eye. The two married in the year 49 and Claudius formally adopted Agrippina’s son, Nero. Under Agrippina’s influence, Claudius began to favor Nero as heir more than his own son, Britannicus, who was around four years younger than his stepbrother. When Emperor Claudius died in the year 54, after allegedly having been poisoned by Agrippina, the seventeen-year-old Nero (with the help of his mother) was able to ascend to the throne against very little resistance.
Even though mother and son had made a remarkable climb up the social ladder of ancient Rome, tensions quickly arose between Agrippina and Emperor Nero (r. 54-68). Most ancient sources described Agrippina the Younger as a domineering woman who wanted to control her son, or at least to play a role in his decision-making process. Nevertheless, Nero was at that age when teenagers can only think of rebelling against their parents. The first major breach in the relationship between Nero and Agrippina occurred in the year 55, when the young emperor decided to use one of his mother’s tricks in order to remove a potential rival. Unfortunately, this rival was Nero’s own stepbrother, Britannicus, who was only fourteen years old at the time. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56/57-117), Nero had Britannicus poisoned while they were both feasting together with other noble youths in Rome. While Agrippina the Younger had been more than happy to knock Britannicus down a peg in the imperial succession, she was extremely displeased about the boy’s assassination and made her opinion publicly known. In response, Nero took away her guards and forced her to move to a different residence.
By the year 59, Nero, with the support of his friends and confidants, began reportedly scheming about ways to kill Agrippina. Ancient Roman historians, like Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius, alleged that Agrippina the Younger had long been paranoid about assassination, and had taken precautions to prevent such an outcome. She was said to have stocked up on antidotes and was diligent in hiring food-tasters, and, more importantly, she was a cautious and observant woman. Even so, a man in Nero’s entourage thought up a plan that was intricate enough to overcome Agrippina’s caution. According to the ancient sources, a certain Anicetus engineered and manufactured a beautiful ship that Nero luxuriously decorated and furnished. All of this was allegedly done to make Agrippina covet the ship.
In the month of March, after Agrippina had become accustomed to the ship’s presence, Nero invited his mother out to a place called Bauli, in the coastal region of Campania. While there, Nero convinced Agrippina to ride on the ship. At first, she was hesitant, yet her son was unfortunately able to talk her out of her fears. When Agrippina and at least two friends boarded the ship, little did they know that Nero’s companion, Anicetus, had rigged the vessel to have a catastrophic failure. According to Tacitus, the ship’s cabin imploded mid-way through the journey, crushing to death one of Agrippina’s friends and injuring the others. The next step of Nero’s plan was to sink the ship. Some accounts claimed that Anicetus had set up some way for the ship to take on water, while others wrote that accomplices among the crew threw their own weight against the sides of the ship in an attempt to make it tip over. In any event, some crewmen were apparently in on the plot, for Tacitus claimed that one woman was beaten to death with oars when she was mistakenly identified as Agrippina. Whatever the case, the ship was a deathtrap and it is this diabolical plot in action that Gustav Wertheimer brought to life in his artwork.
As the story goes, Agrippina survived the deadly ship. Wounded but still mobile, she had managed to dive into the water and swim for safety. The danger, however, was not over. Although Agrippina allegedly knew that her son was behind the ship’s collapse, she decided to play ignorant, and sent a message to Nero, telling him that she was ok and that he did not need to worry. When the messenger arrived, Nero was said to have placed a sword by the man’s feet and then had him arrested, pronouncing that he was an assassin sent by Agrippina. With that staged excuse, Nero sent Anicetus with a band of soldiers to surround Agrippina’s home and to finally finish the job. The soldiers found the emperor’s mother in her bedroom, recovering from wounds she suffered while on the imploding ship. This time, the assassins did not fail.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.