Infamous Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) was the adopted son and heir of Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54). Although Nero, indeed, succeeded Claudius as emperor of Rome, his ascension to the throne came after bizarre twists and turns in the love lives of the royal family members. Nero, for his part, was the son of Agrippina the Younger and Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was technically a member of the royal family from the start, as Nero was already the great-nephew of Emperor Claudius even before the adoption occurred. Meanwhile, Emperor Claudius’ family life was incredibly troubled—he was unsuccessfully betrothed to at least two women and later married four times. Claudius’ first wife was a woman named Urgulanilla, but that marriage ended after she was charged with various crimes. Claudius’ second bride was Aelia Paetina, but they divorced for political reasons. Valeria Messalina was Claudius’ third wife, and she was with Claudius when he became emperor. Together, Claudius and Messalina had two children, a son named Britannicus and a daughter named Octavia. Yet, this marriage, too, broke down—Messalina was executed around the year 48 after allegedly having an affair and being complicit in other crimes. By this point in time, switching back to Nero’s family, Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus had died, leaving Agrippina the Younger a widow. In a twist of fate, Emperor Claudius became infatuated with Agrippina, and he went out of his way, breaking taboo, to make a marriage happen. Agrippina the Younger, as it happened, was Claudius’ niece, and the idea of a man marrying his own niece was so uncommon in ancient Rome that Claudius allegedly had to have it legalized before he could legitimately marry Agrippina. The emperor had his way, and he married Agrippina in the year 49 and then adopted her son, Nero, in the year 50.
Such was the odd way that Nero became an adopted son of Emperor Claudius. Yet, joining the emperor’s household and becoming heir to the throne were different matters. Here, again, Nero’s mother would play a crucial role. 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. Agrippina further ingratiated her son into the emperor’s family by arranging a marriage between Nero and Claudius’ daughter, Octavia, yet again cementing Nero’s high status. Finally, in the year 54, Emperor Claudius suspiciously died, allegedly after being poisoned by Agrippina. Following the emperor’s death, seventeen-year-old Nero (with the help of his mother) was able to ascend to the throne against very little resistance. As for young Britannicus, despite being displaced and disenfranchised by the machinations of his step-mother, he evidently had a good relationship with Agrippina the Younger, and she reportedly did not wish the boy any real harm.
Unfortunately, as the title of the article gave away, young Britannicus did eventually meet with an untimely demise. In the year 55, the young emperor, Nero, reportedly decided to use one of his mother’s tricks, poison, in order to remove his most dangerous potential rival—Britannicus, the biological son of Claudius. The renowned Roman historian, Tacitus (c. c. 56/57-117+), narrated the alleged poisoning in his Annals of Imperial Rome:
“It was custom for young imperial princes to eat with other noblemen’s children of the same age at a special, less luxurious table, before the eyes of their relations: this was where Britannicus dined. A selected servant habitually tasted his food and drink. But the murderers thought of a way of leaving this custom intact without giving themselves away by a double death. Britannicus was handed a harmless drink. The taster had tasted it; but Britannicus found it too hot, and refused it. Then cold water containing the poison was added. Speechless, his whole body convulsed, he instantly ceased to breathe. His companions were horrified. Some, uncomprehending, fled. Others, understanding better, remained rooted in their places, staring at Nero. He still lay back unconcernedly—and he remarked that this often happened to epileptics; that Britannicus had been one since infancy; soon his sight and consciousness would return. Agrippina tried to control her features. But their evident consternation and terror showed that, like Britannicus’ sister Octavia, she knew nothing…Britannicus was cremated the night he died. Indeed, preparations for his inexpensive funeral had already been made” (Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, 13.16-17).
So ended the young life of Britannicus, or, at least, that was the predominant story accepted by the ancient Roman public and its scholarly circles. As the quote conveyed, Agrippina the Younger reportedly responded with shock and disapproval, dare we say horror, after the death of Britannicus. This dark event became a major milestone in the great schism that would eventually form between Agrippina the Younger—a domineering woman who wanted to control or advise her son’s administration—and the increasingly independent and impulsive Nero. The culmination of the divide between mother and son arrived in the year 59, when Agrippina the Younger was reportedly assassinated or executed on the order of Emperor Nero.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Death of Britannicus, by Pieter Tanjé, after Louis Fabritius Dubourg, 1743, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- 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.