The Annals by Tacitus - book XIVThe Annals

By Tacitus

Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb


A.D. 59-62

In the year of the consulship of Caius Vipstanus and Caius Fonteius,
Nero deferred no more a long meditated crime. Length of power had
matured his daring, and his passion for Poppaea daily grew more ardent.
As the woman had no hope of marriage for herself or of Octavia’s divorce
while Agrippina lived, she would reproach the emperor with incessant
vituperation and sometimes call him in jest a mere ward who was under
the rule of others, and was so far from having empire that he had
not even his liberty. “Why,” she asked, “was her marriage put off?
Was it, forsooth, her beauty and her ancestors, with their triumphal
honours, that failed to please, or her being a mother, and her sincere
heart? No; the fear was that as a wife at least she would divulge
the wrongs of the Senate, and the wrath of the people at the arrogance
and rapacity of his mother. If the only daughter-in-law Agrippina
could bear was one who wished evil to her son, let her be restored
to her union with Otho. She would go anywhere in the world, where
she might hear of the insults heaped on the emperor, rather than witness
them, and be also involved in his perils.”

These and the like complaints, rendered impressive by tears and by
the cunning of an adulteress, no one checked, as all longed to see
the mother’s power broken, while not a person believed that the son’s
hatred would steel his heart to her murder.

Cluvius relates that Agrippina in her eagerness to retain her influence
went so far that more than once at midday, when Nero, even at that
hour, was flushed with wine and feasting, she presented herself attractively
attired to her half intoxicated son and offered him her person, and
that when kinsfolk observed wanton kisses and caresses, portending
infamy, it was Seneca who sought a female’s aid against a woman’s
fascinations, and hurried in Acte, the freed-girl, who alarmed at
her own peril and at Nero’s disgrace, told him that the incest was
notorious, as his mother boasted of it, and that the soldiers would
never endure the rule of an impious sovereign. Fabius Rusticus tells
us that it was not Agrippina, but Nero, who lusted for the crime,
and that it was frustrated by the adroitness of that same freed-girl.
Cluvius’s account, however, is also that of all other authors, and
popular belief inclines to it, whether it was that Agrippina really
conceived such a monstrous wickedness in her heart, or perhaps because
the thought of a strange passion seemed comparatively credible in
a woman, who in her girlish years had allowed herself to be seduced
by Lepidus in the hope of winning power, had stooped with a like ambition
to the lust of Pallas, and had trained herself for every infamy by
her marriage with her uncle.

Nero accordingly avoided secret interviews with her, and when she
withdrew to her gardens or to her estates at Tusculum and Antium,
he praised her for courting repose. At last, convinced that she would
be too formidable, wherever she might dwell, he resolved to destroy
her, merely deliberating whether it was to be accomplished by poison,
or by the sword, or by any other violent means. Poison at first seemed
best, but, were it to be administered at the imperial table, the result
could not be referred to chance after the recent circumstances of
the death of Britannicus. Again, to tamper with the servants of a
woman who, from her familiarity with crime, was on her guard against
treachery, appeared to be extremely difficult, and then, too, she
had fortified her constitution by the use of antidotes. How again
the dagger and its work were to be kept secret, no one could suggest,
and it was feared too that whoever might be chosen to execute such
a crime would spurn the order.

An ingenious suggestion was offered by Anicetus, a freedman, commander
of the fleet at Misenum, who had been tutor to Nero in boyhood and
had a hatred of Agrippina which she reciprocated. He explained that
a vessel could be constructed, from which a part might by a contrivance
be detached, when out at sea, so as to plunge her unawares into the
water. “Nothing,” he said, “allowed of accidents so much as the sea,
and should she be overtaken by shipwreck, who would be so unfair as
to impute to crime an offence committed by the winds and waves? The
emperor would add the honour of a temple and of shrines to the deceased
lady, with every other display of filial affection.”

Nero liked the device, favoured as it also was by the particular time,
for he was celebrating Minerva’s five days’ festival at Baiae. Thither
he enticed his mother by repeated assurances that children ought to
bear with the irritability of parents and to soothe their tempers,
wishing thus to spread a rumour of reconciliation and to secure Agrippina’s
acceptance through the feminine credulity, which easily believes what
joy. As she approached, he went to the shore to meet her (she was
coming from Antium), welcomed her with outstretched hand and embrace,
and conducted her to Bauli. This was the name of a country house,
washed by a bay of the sea, between the promontory of Misenum and
the lake of Baiae. Here was a vessel distinguished from others by
its equipment, seemingly meant, among other things, to do honour to
his mother; for she had been accustomed to sail in a trireme, with
a crew of marines. And now she was invited to a banquet, that night
might serve to conceal the crime. It was well known that somebody
had been found to betray it, that Agrippina had heard of the plot,
and in doubt whether she was to believe it, was conveyed to Baiae
in her litter. There some soothing words allayed her fear; she was
graciously received, and seated at table above the emperor. Nero prolonged
the banquet with various conversation, passing from a youth’s playful
familiarity to an air of constraint, which seemed to indicate serious
thought, and then, after protracted festivity, escorted her on her
departure, clinging with kisses to her eyes and bosom, either to crown
his hypocrisy or because the last sight of a mother on the even of
destruction caused a lingering even in that brutal heart.
The Annals by Tacitus