This artwork, made by the Dutch artist Pieter Tanjé (1706-1761) after a design by the fellow Dutchman Louis Fabritius Dubourg (c. 1693 – 1775), was inspired by the ancient story of the assassination of Emperor Nero’s step-brother, Britannicus. The relationship between the half-brothers was complicated. Britannicus was the son of Emperor Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Unfortunately, Britannicus’ mother was executed around the year 48 after accusations emerged that she was having an affair and was complicit in other crimes. Following the execution, Emperor Claudius remarried once again, this time to the widowed Agrippina the Younger—mother of Nero (who was fathered by Agrippina’s previous husband). Emperor Claudius married Agrippina in the year 49 and subsequently adopted Nero in the year 50. Under Agrippina’s influence, Claudius began to favor Nero as heir more than his own biological son, Britannicus, who was around four years younger than his stepbrother. After Nero gained this political advantage, Emperor Claudius suddenly and suspiciously died in the year 54, supposedly due to poisoning by Agrippina.
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 artwork gives 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).
Such is the story that inspired the artwork by Pieter Tanjé and Louis Fabritius Dubourg. 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 significant 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
- 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.