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Roots of Nero, or bloody games between Agrippina the Younger and Gnaeus Domitius

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman coin showing Nero and Agrippina
Roman coin showing Nero and Agrippina | Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Agrippina the Younger became famous, among others, as Nero’s mother. She was the daughter of Germanicus – an outstanding Roman leader and Agrippina the Elder. She was born around 16 CE in a city located on the Rhine. Her husband, whom she married at the age of 13, was Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

Even though he came from an illustrious Roman family, he could not be called a charming man. Suetonius described Gnaeus’ life as “condemnable in every respect,” and his evil deeds included: running over a child in a settlement on the Alpine Road, gouging out the eye of his opponent during an argument, failure to pay for items bought at auction, and even failing to pay prizes during a horse-drawn carriage competition as a praetor. In 37, their only son was born – Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, whom history remembers as Emperor Nero.

After the birth of his son, Gnaeus replied that “from such a union as his and Agrippina’s, only something very wicked and disastrous to the state could come into the world.” Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus was accused at the end of the reign of Emperor Tiberius of lese majeste and adultery with his sister Lepida but escaped punishment due to Tiberius’s death. Gnaeus Domitius died in the 40th year, and twenty-five-year-old Agrippina became a widow. She decided to marry again – to Passienus Crispus, but she found that this was not a marriage that would satisfy her ambitions and provide a decent future for her son. Crispus died in 47. Agrippina married Claudius in 49.

Tacitus described the period after Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius:

From this moment it was a changed state, and all things moved at the fiat of a woman — but not a woman who, as Messalina, treated in wantonness the Roman Empire as a toy. It was a tight-drawn, almost masculine tyranny: in public, there was austerity and not infrequently arrogance; at home, no trace of unchastity, unless it might contribute to power. A limitless passion for gold had the excuse of being designed to create a bulwark of despotism

Tacitus, Annals, XII.7

Nero treated his mother with respect. However, she did not stop at appearances. She wanted real power and in various ways almost achieved it. She indirectly issued death sentences to people who were inconvenient to her and supervised the empire’s finances. Some series of coins released at the beginning of Nero’s reign showed her position in the state.

She offended her son in some way by opposing the Senate’s declaration waiving attorney’s fees and the organization of games by quaestors. These matters themselves were indifferent to her, but she acted as a widow who did not allow her husband’s works to be violated.

Then a scandal broke out in the palace; Nero decided to move his mother outside the Palatine Hill. Agrippina began to bother him: when he refused to follow her orders, his mother threatened to help Britannicus regain his throne. At the same time, Agrippina criticized Nero’s dismissal of Octavia and his taking of Acte as his lover. For this reason, the emperor decided to murder his stepbrother.

As Suetonius says:

He attempted the life of Britannicus by poison, not less from jealousy of his voice (for it was more agreeable than his own) than from fear that he might sometime win a higher place than himself in the people’s regard because of the memory of his father.

Suetonius, Nero, 33

Separated from his mother – Agrippina the Younger – Nero found a new friend. She was Sabina Poppaea, whose father was Titus Olilius. According to sources, it was Poppea who contributed to Nero’s two monstrous crimes – matricide and ficide. Nero’s decision to kill his mother was also accelerated by his fear that his mother might take the throne from him by preparing a coup. These fears and suspicions were also shared by the emperor’s advisers, Burrus and Seneca.

Suetonius reports that Nero tried to poison his mother three times and then murdered her in her sleep, which was reported to the woman by her trusted servants. Finally, he decided – under the guise of reconciliation – to invite her to celebrate the Quinquats, and after the celebrations, he offered his mother a damaged ship. He hoped that Agrippina would shatter on her return. However, it was to no avail, because the woman and her maid got out of the sinking ship and reached land safely, so Nero sent assassins to the house where she was resting.

Author: Paulina Bieś (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Aleksander Krawczuk, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 198
  • Tacyt, Dzieła, t. 1, wyd. Czytelnik, Warszawa 1957
  • Swetoniusz, Żywoty Cezarów, Zakład im. Ossolińskich, Wrocław 1965

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