One of Claudius’s first acts as emperor was to recall from exile his two nieces Agrippina the Younger and Julia Livilla, the surviving daughters of his brother Germanicus. Both young women quickly returned to Rome, to the Germanican palace on the Palatine, and to positions of wealth and influence. Agrippina the Younger also was able to reunite with her three-year-old son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. The boy’s father, Gnaeus, having quite recently died, the child had been cared for by his father’s sister Domitia Lepida while Agrippina was in exile.
Now that he was emperor, Claudius surrounded himself with staff who had close associations with his family and who had shown him and them great loyalty in the past. As his secretary for finances he appointed Pallas, the most trusted retainer of his mother, Antonia; he was the man who had delivered Tiberius the letter from Antonia that had exposed the Sejanus plot. Callistus, the former member of Caligula’s staff who had been a member of the Caligula assassination conspiracy, had long been respectful of and generous toward Claudius, and he was appointed Claudius’s secretary for petitions. All Palatium correspondence, petitions for pardons and citizenship, and applications for audiences with the emperor were to pass through his hands, giving him considerable power of recommendation.
Men who had been close to Claudius’s brother, Germanicus, and who had survived Sejanus, Tiberius, and Caligula also were favored by the new emperor. Publius Suillius Rufus, Germanicus’s quaestor, who had been exiled by Tiberius, became a trusted confidante of Claudius. He was to gain notoriety and achieve popular dislike for leading prosecutions against men and women who offended the new Palatium. Another favorite of Claudius was Vibius Marsus, who had been in Syria with Germanicus. Marsus had narrowly escaped a death sentence from Caligula during that emperor’s four-year reign. Now, with some irony, Marsus was sent back to Antioch by Claudius, as his appointee to the post of governor of Syria. Quintus Veranius, the lone survivor among the trio of friends of Germanicus who had prosecuted Piso, was made a consul by Claudius, while Aulus Vitellius, nephew of the late Publius Vitellius, one of Veranius’s fellow Piso prosecutors, also received a consulship under Claudius.
In the same way, young Agrippina and Julia both surrounded themselves with men they felt they could trust, men with strong connections to the family of Germanicus who had remained faithful through difficult times. Agrippina had learned the hard way, having seen her father, mother, and brothers persecuted by their enemies and dying horrible deaths, that her continued survival depended on the people she associated with. Her brutal and disliked husband, Ahenobarbus, had died from natural causes while she was in exile, so she now welcomed overtures of marriage. She very quickly wed the wealthy senator Gaius Passienus Crispus. Considerably older than Agrippina and twice a consul, he was famed for his oratorical skills.
Agrippina the Younger’s sister, twenty-five-year-old Julia, depended more on her good looks and her close relationship with her uncle the emperor to guarantee her future security. “Extremely beautiful,”¹ and haughty like her mother, the late Agrippina the Elder, Julia soon incurred the jealousy of Claudius’s willful third wife, Messalina Valeria. Everyone in the imperial court bowed to the empress Messalina and went out of their way to flatter her—everyone, that is, except young Julia. What was worse, Julia often spent time alone with her uncle, which gave her a sense of invincibility. But heaven help a woman who steps between another woman and her husband, especially when that husband is the emperor of Rome. The jealous Messalina became determined to be rid of her husband’s attractive niece.
Since their return from exile, Julia and Agrippina had been receiving former clients. Among these clients of the family of Germanicus was Lucius Seneca, who by now had won a reputation as one of Rome’s leading speakers and lawyers. The witty, charming Seneca was spending a lot of time in Julia’s company, and before A.D. 41 was out, Messalina was to accuse Julia and Seneca of having an affair. Not only was Julia married at the time, but Seneca was also married by now and had a son. The name of this, his first wife, is unknown, but the wedding had taken place by A.D. 33.
Claudius was completely under the sway of his manipulative wife, Messalina, and even though he was very fond of Julia, he gave in to Messalina. Julia was sent back to the Pontian Islands as an imperial prisoner, convicted of adultery. At the same time and for the same crime, Seneca was exiled to the island of Corsica. Shortly after this, Julia was executed at her place of exile, again at the behest of her jealous aunt Messalina. Of Germanicus’s nine children, only Agrippina the Younger now remained alive.
In Claudius’s eyes, Messalina could do no wrong. He was blind to her countless affairs, to her trumped-up charges that removed influential men and women from around the emperor, and to her corruption of senior Palatium officials, including the secretaries Pallas and Callistus, which made her, and them, fabulously rich. It became common knowledge that if you wanted a favor from the emperor Claudius, ranging from an official appointment to Roman citizenship, you paid Messalina, via the Palatium freedmen, and she put in a good word with Claudius. This practice became so commonplace that a joke did the rounds at Rome that a noncitizen could acquire citizenship simply by giving Messalina a handful of colored glass.
Jokes like this never reached the emperor’s ears. He was totally ignorant of the fact that his wife was playing him for a dupe. For seven years word of Messalina’s bad habits was kept from the emperor, until her success made her overconfident. Even though she was married to Claudius, in A.D. 48, while the emperor was away from Rome, Messalina went through a marriage ceremony with her latest lover—the handsome Gaius Silius, son of Silius, the general of Germanicus and his wife, Sosia, who had both been destroyed by Sejanus.
It was Narcissus, Claudius’s Greek chief secretary, a role that made him in effect his prime minister, who tipped off the emperor. Narcissus had great influence with Claudius. On his recommendation, for example, General Vespasian, a future emperor, had been put in command of the 2nd Augusta Legion just prior to that unit’s participation in the invasion of Britain, during which Vespasian made his name as a brilliant soldier. Via his influence, too, finance secretary Pallas’s brother Felix would later be appointed prefect of Judea. Narcissus had the emperor’s ear and his confidence, so Claudius listened when Narcissus warned him that Messalina intended murdering him and setting young Silius up as the next ruler of Rome. Horrified, Claudius hurried back to Rome and, at Narcissus’s urging, went straight to the Praetorian Barracks to cement the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard, the force that had put him on the throne in the first place.
As young Silius and scores of those who had been in Messalina’s sex-dominated circle were arrested, Messalina herself fled to the Gardens of Lucullus, which she had owned ever since dispossessing the previous owner with one of her trumped-up charges. One after the other, Silius and various knights and senators were beheaded by Praetorian Guard death squads. Even the current commander of the Night Watch perished in this swift and bloody purge—he, too, had come under Messalina’s corrupt influence. But when Claudius wavered about authorizing Messalina’s execution, Narcissus, the chief secretary, personally gave the order. As the Praetorian tribune sent to kill Messalina forced his way into the Gardens of Lucullus, Messalina tried to kill herself with a dagger. But when she didn’t have the courage to push the dagger into her chest, the tribune impatiently gave her a helping hand, thrusting the blade into her heart.
As soon as Messalina was dead, Claudius’s advisers pushed the emperor to marry again, for the sake of the state. Each of his three senior freedmen—Narcissus, Callistus, and Pallas—proposed a different candidate. Pallas urged Claudius to marry his thirty-three-year-old niece, Agrippina the Younger. She had recently become available for marriage by becoming a widow for the second time—her husband, Gaius Passienus Crispus, had died prior to A.D. 48; there was a suggestion in some quarters that he had been poisoned. His great wealth had been inherited by Agrippina’s young son, Lucius.
Agrippina the Younger had grown into an attractive woman, with her mother’s looks and her father’s presence. Pallas stressed that also in Agrippina’s favor was the fact that a marriage between Claudius and Agrippina would unite the descendants of the Claudian family. And, importantly, “she would bring with her the grandson of Germanicus,” ten-year-old Lucius, who, he said, was entirely worthy of imperial rank because the blood of the Caesars ran through his veins from both his mother’s and father’s sides.²Claudius cherished fond memories of his late brother, Germanicus; once he became emperor he even entered a play written by Germanicus in the leading playwriting contest of the day. And he knew that Agrippina’s boy, Lucius, was a popular sensation whenever he appeared in public, because of the Roman people’s “fond remembrance of Germanicus.”³
The prospect of marrying the daughter of the brother he had adored, and of becoming father to Germanicus’s grandson, overshadowed all the qualifications of the other marriage candidates. Pallas’s advice prevailed, reinforced, as it was, Tacitus was to say, by pretty Agrippina’s intimate charms.⁴ Claudius, dominated by his freedmen as he had been dominated by Messalina, agreed to make Agrippina the Younger his fourth wife. But there was a legal problem to overcome before Claudius could take Agrippina as his bride: under Roman law, an uncle could not marry his niece. So Aulus Vitellius, whose family had always supported the house of Germanicus, went into the Senate and pushed through a vote changing the law to permit an uncle to marry his niece. Claudius and Agrippina the Younger were wed soon after, in early A.D. 49. According to Suetonius, only two other uncles, one a freedman, the other a former first-rank centurion with the Praetorian Guard, took advantage of the new law and married their nieces.⁵
Claudius was born to be dominated by others. Immediately after Agrippina moved into the Palatium with Claudius, says Dio, she “gained complete control over him.”⁶ She quickly convinced the emperor to end the exile of Lucius Seneca. During the eight years that Seneca had been banished from Rome for his adulterous relationship with Agrippina’s younger sister Julia, both his wife and his son had died. During the same period, with plenty of time on his hands, he had written some of his best philosophical work. When Seneca returned from Corsica, Agrippina immediately appointed him tutor to her son, Lucius. What was more, Claudius made both Seneca and his elder brother Gallio praetors that same year, A.D. 49. Suetonius would recount a tale told in his day that the night after Seneca was appointed to the post of tutor to Agrippina’s son, he dreamed that his pupil was actually the dead Caligula. This alleged dream was, wrote Suetonius, a portent of things to come.⁷
Two years later, through the influence of his brother Seneca, Gallio also would be appointed senatorial governor of the province of Achaea, in the southern part of Greece. There, that same year, Gallio would dismiss charges brought by local Jewish leaders against the Christian apostle Paulus of Tarsus, the later St. Paul. The younger brother of Seneca, Lucius Anneaus Mela, also would benefit from his brother’s influence, flourishing at Rome during this period.
In A.D. 50, within a year of marrying Claudius, Agrippina convinced the emperor to adopt her boy, Lucius, as his own son, just as Tiberius had adopted Germanicus. This made the boy Claudius’s heir apparent, ahead of his own ten-year-old son from his marriage with Messalina, Britannicus. Lucius’s name was changed to reflect the adoption, to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. From this point on, history would know him as Nero. To further cement Nero’s position in the imperial hierarchy, he was betrothed to his cousin Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina.
Agrippina now worked hard to sideline or eliminate rivals to both herself and Nero. Females who had previously been touted as potential brides for Claudius soon became victims of plots to remove them; their fate, exile or enforced suicide. Then there was Claudius’s son, Britannicus (who had initially been named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus), a potential rival to Nero’s claim to the throne. Josephus was to say that Agrippina feared that once Britannicus reached manhood and his father died he would take the throne for himself and avenge the death of his mother, Messalina, by destroying Agrippina and Nero.⁸ To begin with, Agrippina progressively diminished Britannicus’s status at the imperial court. Next, she had his tutors and servants removed, and some even executed, branding them bad influences. She subsequently surrounded the boy with staff of her choosing. At the same time, she had Praetorian tribunes and centurions who had been sympathetic to Britannicus’s mother, Messalina, promoted and transferred to distant legion postings, on the frontiers of the empire and well away from Rome.
Agrippina also believed that the joint commanders of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Geta and Rufius Crispinus, were too fond of the memory of Messalina and too fond of Messalina’s son, Britannicus. So supposedly to prevent factionalism within the Guard, Agrippina convinced Claudius to replace both Geta and Rufius with a single consolidating Praetorian prefect, recommending Sextus Afranius Burrus for the job. A provincial Equestrian knight from the province of Narbonne Gaul in southwestern France, Burrus was an astute and physically powerful man who had made a name for himself with the legions as a tough officer and fierce fighter despite a withered left hand.
Precisely where in the empire Burrus had acquired his “brilliant”⁹ military reputation we are not told, but it is likely he served with one of the four legions that invaded Britain for Claudius in A.D. 43. The unit that saw the most action and won the most praise during this campaign was General Titus Vespasian’s 2nd Augusta Legion, and it is quite possible that Burrus had served as military tribune and second-in-command with that unit, or possibly with the 14th Gemina Martia Victrix or the 20th Valeria Victrix, legions that also were in the thick of the fighting against the British tribesmen. Once again, Claudius took Agrippina’s advice: Geta and Rufius were removed from their posts, to be replaced by Burrus, who, says Tacitus, knew all too well to whom he owed his promotion:Agrippina.¹⁰
The teenage Nero married Claudius’s daughter Octavia in A.D. 53, even though, says Tacitus, Nero loathed her.¹¹ Claudius, meanwhile, had no affection for his adopted son, and was increasingly unhappy with his domineering wife and her constant pushing of Nero. “Nothing seemed to satisfy Agrippina,” Dio observed.¹² She had destroyed anyone who opposed her, and took Claudius’s powerful secretary Pallas into her bed, to control both him and Claudius. Nor did she hesitate to act to save her favorites from precarious situations. She stepped in to overturn prosecutions by her senatorial enemies against Pallas and against Praetorian commander Burrus, using Seneca as her eloquent agent in the Senate to win their acquittals.¹³ On another occasion she secured an acquittal for Aulus Vitellius. At the same time, like her predecessor Messalina, Agrippina became increasingly rich through the largesse of grateful clients. And just like Messalina, Agrippina thought she had succeeded in deceiving Claudius.
Now she was terrified to learn that Claudius, when drunk at a banquet, had been overheard to say, “It is my destiny to have to suffer my wives’ infamy only to finally punish it!”¹⁴ Conscious of the fate of her predecessor, Agrippina thought increasingly about self-preservation. When, in the summer of A.D. 54, sixty-two-year-old Claudius became seriously ill, Agrippina hoped he would not recover; his death would make Nero emperor. When Claudius did unexpectedly regain his health, Agrippina set in motion a plot to murder him.
But it would not be an easy thing to accomplish. Having spent his first fifty years surrounded by family intrigues, executions, and the threat of an unnatural death, and having seen his predecessor die by the sword, Claudius had always been extremely security-conscious. Since he had become emperor, everyone who came into his presence, female as well as male, was searched by his German Guard bodyguards for weapons before they were permitted near him. Prior to Claudius’s reign, the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula had not bothered with guards at their banquets, but Claudius began the habit of stationing men of the German Guard in his dining room to stand guard while he and his guests dined, a habit that would be continued by future emperors for hundreds of years to come.
With death by the sword effectively ruled out by these security measures, Agrippina settled on poison as the best means of eliminating her husband. But even that would prove difficult, as Claudius used a slave named Halotus, a eunuch, to taste all the emperor’s food before it reached Claudius’s mouth. Halotus would be the key to the crime. Agrippina decided to use a rare, slow-acting poison, one that first addled the brain of victims before killing them. Knowing that there was a woman named Locusta in the City Prison who had recently been convicted of poisoning, Agrippina bribed Locusta’s guards to convince the woman to arrange the required poison, on condition that her life be prolonged. Word came back that Locusta agreed to the bargain.
By the fall, Agrippina was in possession of the poison. She then brought food taster Halotus into the plot, apparently by bribing him. “Writers of the time,” Tacitus was to say, “have declared that the poison was infused into some mushrooms,” which were a favorite delicacy of Claudius’s.¹⁵ In the first half of October A.D. 54, when Claudius’s powerful but gout-ridden chief secretary, Narcissus, left Rome to take the healing waters of a Campanian spa to provide some relief from his painful complaint, Agrippina set the murder plot in motion. “Had he [Narcissus] been present,” Dio was to say, “she would never have accomplished it.”¹⁶
Dio says that Agrippina was at Claudius’s side when he dined on the evening of October 12.¹⁷ Claudius had never been able to hold his drink, and as was often the case he became drunk this night, making it easier for Halotus to deliver the poisoned mushroom platter to his master. Agrippina herself ate one of the mushrooms on the plate, recommending the largest to Claudius, who downed it. But, being drunk, he later in the evening vomited up his meal, and with it, much of the poison. Agrippina was personally nursing Claudius, and she sent for Xenophon, the emperor’s physician, with the excuse that he was to treat Claudius’s “sickness.” Xenophon also was party to the murder plot. According to Tacitus, in the privacy of Claudius’s bedchamber and under the pretext of helping Claudius vomit, the doctor put a feather down his throat; the feather had been smeared with another, fast-acting poison.¹⁸ In the early morning hours of October 13, Claudius succumbed to the poison and breathed his last tortured breath.
Agrippina wanted to keep Claudius’s death a secret for the time being. Many years before, astrologers had told her that her son would enjoy a long reign if he became emperor in the afternoon. She gave orders for the German Guard to seal off the Palatium. The palace gates, which always stood open, were swung shut and bolted. Agrippina also kept Claudius’s son, Britannicus, and daughters, Octavia and Antonia, close by her; they had been told that their father was unwell, but none of them knew that he was already dead. The Senate was convened. Informed via missives from the palace that the emperor was dangerously ill but that his condition was improving, the consuls offered prayers for his recovery.
Then, at noon, the palace gates were flung open and Praetorian commander Burrus emerged with seventeen-year-old Nero at his side to announce that Claudius was dead. The tribune of the Praetorian Guard cohort on duty that day then called on his men to hail Nero as their new emperor. There were joyful shouts from the troops, for this was the grandson of Germanicus and, as Edward Gibbon, eighteenth-century author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, observed, “the Romans still revered, in the person of Nero, the grandson of Germanicus.”¹⁹ Many among these soldiers believed that young Nero was destined to fulfill the destiny that had been deprived of his grandfather by cruel murder.
As Nero was loaded into a litter, says Tacitus, some soldiers looked around, wondering where Claudius’s son, Britannicus, was, but he was being kept back at the Palatium by his stepmother, Agrippina.²⁰ Nero was carried to the Praetorian Barracks, where he was quickly surrounded by thousands of men of the Praetorian Guard and City Guard, who enthusiastically hailed him as their new emperor. A stunned young Nero smiled and acknowledged their salutes and good wishes.
Even though he was only seventeen, Nero was already an accomplished public speaker. Well tutored by Seneca, he had even served as a defense attorney in court cases on special occasions on the authority of the Senate. Now, with the Praetorian prefect Burrus at his side, he addressed the troops, delivering a speech written for him by his tutor Seneca that morning. His speech, in which Nero promised to pay every soldier of the Guard a bonus once his ascension to the throne was confirmed by the Senate, was warmly welcomed by the troops. Burrus then had Nero carried to the Senate House, where the Senate quickly decreed in his favor. Claudius, brother of Germanicus, was dead. Nero, teenage grandson of Germanicus, was emperor of Rome. The emperor was dead. Long live the emperor!