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(12 February 41 - 11 February 55 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Detail of the statue showing Britannicus in the arms of his mother – Messalina.
Author: Gautier Poupeau | Na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa - Na tych samych warunkach 2.0.

Britannicus was born as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus Britannicus on February 12, 41 CE. He was the son of Roman Emperor Claudius and Messalina. His original name, Germanicus, was changed to Britannicus to commemorate his father’s conquest of Britain in 43 CE. He was murdered by order of Nero, as a rival to the throne.

Planned heir to throne

As the only surviving son of the Emperor (his previous son with Plautia Urgulanilla had died at the age of 3 more than two decades earlier), he was a prime candidate for his father’s fortune and titles. In order to commemorate the birth of Britannicus, my father ordered a sestertius to be struck, on the obverse of which he placed Spes Augusta – the hope of the imperial family.

Two years later, in 43 CE Claudius was proudly awarded the title “Britannicus” by the Senate for his victorious conquest of the island of Britain. The emperor, however, rejected the offer and passed the nickname to his son. Claudius loved his only son immensely, whom he would take to all public events, shouting “Happiness with you, my boy!” and waiting for the same cry from the crowd.

His position was not shaken even by the open betrayal of his mother Messalina and her condemnation to death in 48 CE. This year, an unsuspecting Brit took part in a conspiracy to kill his father. Senator Gaius Silius, fascinated by (known for her perversion) Empress Messalina, became her lover. Messalina forced Silius to divorce and marry her (in which she committed bigamy) to witnesses while Claudius was in Ostia. Since Silius was childless, he intended to adopt a Briton. Narcissus revealed Messalina’s marriage and her plans to murder Claudius. The emperor ordered the execution of Silius, who did not defend himself during the trial. Together with him in 48 CE, Messalina was slain.

After Messalina’s death, Claudius became responsible for his son’s upbringing. However, he was also urged to marry again to stabilize the family’s situation in the Julio-Claudian family. Claudius had another wedding with his own niece Agrippina the Younger. In addition, he was adopted in 50 CE by her son from a previous marriage – Nero, which weakened the rights of the son born to his father’s inheritance. Nero was 4 years older than Britain and had priority to the throne. Nero’s position was also strengthened by the wedding arranged by his mother with the British’s older sister – Klaudia Oktawia, which took place three years later.

Sestertius issued in honour of the British birth.
Author: LaurenCole | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In late 54 CE Britannicus was only six months before entering adulthood and founding toga virilis. Suetonius reports that rumours circulated in the imperial palace about the emperor’s alleged plans to divorce Agrippina and disinherit Nero. The emperor was to be sure that his son was ready to receive the title of heir to the throne.

Agrippina’s ambitions, who had gained a great deal of influence in government, soon forced her to remove both Claudius and Britannicus from the path to the full power she hoped to exercise alongside her son Nero. Fearing that Claudius might change her will and make Britannicus the sole heir, she poisoned her husband on October 13, 54 CE.

Poisoning and death

After Claudius’ death, all titles and rights to the property were formally granted to both Nero and Britannicus. However, the Senate, recognizing the arguments about the young age of Britannicus, granted all titles and the power associated with them only to Nero. Claudius’ birth son was to receive them only after he had come of age. It never happened – the Britannicus was poisoned by Nero on February 11, 55 CE. during a feast in front of all the guests by the poisoner Lukusta on the day before his fourteenth birthday, when he was about to wear a men’s toga.

Tacitus reports1that the Britannicus received a warm drink that one of his slaves tasted, and when he asked to cool the drink, cold water with poison was added to the drink. The poison was said to take effect immediately, causing a loss of voice and breath. Nero was to explain that Britannicus suffers from an epileptic attack and that he had a problem with it since he was a child. Caius Dion states2 that during the funeral, Nero had Britannicus’ skin covered with plaster to hide the bluish colour of the skin, characteristic of the poison used; but the rain washed away the chalk. Suetonius states3that his friend Titus Flavius, son of the future emperor Vespasian, also attended the feast with the Britannicus. Apparently, Titus also tried the poisoned drink, but he survived and then fell seriously for a long time.
Britannicus was buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus.

According to Suetonius, the Briton was a good friend of the future emperor Titus Flavius, whose father Vespasian commanded the legions in the conquest of Britain. Wanting to link the Flavian dynasty to the Julio-Claudian family, Titus then promoted a version of the story that he was sitting at the table the day Britain was poisoned. He even claimed that he tried the poisoned dish and that he suffered from a number of ailments after that. As emperor, Titus was to issue coins and commission a golden statue in honour of his friend.

  1. Tacitus, Annales, XIII.12-17
  2. Cassius Dio, Roman history, LXI.7
  3. Suetonius, Titus, 3
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Suetonius, Claudius
  • Suetonius, Titus

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