Tacitus and Suetonius on the death of Agrippina (ad59)


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Tacitus, Book 14, Chapters 1-12

Suetonius, Nero, Chapter 34

34.  The decision to murder Agrippina
He was annoyed by the way his mother questioned and criticised his every word and action but he only went so far at first as to make her disliked by giving the impression that that he would give up being emperor and go and live on the island of Rhodes.
Next he took away all her privileges and her power, as well as her guard of Roman and German soldiers. He refused to let her live with him in the Palace. Then he tried everything possible to annoy her: he bribed men to bring law suits against while she stayed in the city of Rome; then, 

1.  Poppaea persuades Nero to murder Agrippina
In the year of the consulship of Caius Vipstanus and Caius Fonteius [AD 59], Nero no longer delayed the crime he had thought about for a long time. His daring increased with the length of his reign; he was also daily becoming more passionate in his love for Poppaea. She had no hope of Nero marrying her and divorcing Octavia while Agrippina remained alive. So she frequently complained to Nero, sometimes making fun of him, calling him a child controlled by another, with no power over the empire let alone his own freedom to act. "Why,"
Poppaea asked, "was her marriage was always being put off? Presumably her beauty and her ancestors, with their triumphs, did not please him, nor her ability to bear children nor her true feelings. What he feared was that, as his wife, she would reveal plainly the injustices done to the senators, the anger of the people against his proud and greedy mother. If Agrippina could put up with only a daughter-in-law who was hostile to her son, she asked to be sent back to her marriage with Otho. She would go anywhere in the world, so that she might only hear the insults to the emperor rather than see them, and at the same time get herself mixed up in his dangers." No one prevented Poppaea making complaints of this sort, strengthened by tears and all the skills of a lover; everyone wanted the mother’s power broken and no one believed that Nero’s hatred would harden to the extent of committing murder.


2.  The Incest of Agrippina and Nero
The author Cluvius writes that Agrippina took her desire to keep power so far as to offer herself more often to a drunken Nero, all dressed up and ready for incest. She did this at midday when Nero was already warmed up with wine and food. Those close to both had seen passionate kisses and sensual caresses, which seemed to imply wrongdoing. It was then that Seneca who looked for a woman’s help against this woman’s charms, introduced Acte to Nero. This freedwoman who was anxious because of the danger to herself and the damage to Nero’s reputation, told Nero that the incest was well known since Agrippina boasted about it. She added that the soldiers would not tolerate the rule of such a wicked emperor.

Fabius Rusticus writes that it was not Agrippina, but Nero, who was eager for incest, and that the clever action of the same freedwoman prevented it. A number of other authors agree with Cluvius and general opinion follows this view. Possibly Agrippina really planned such a great wickedness, perhaps because the consideration of a new act of lust seemed more believable in a woman who as a girl had allowed herself to be seduced by Lepidus in the hope of gaining power; this same desire had led her to lower herself so far as to become the lover of Pallas, and had trained herself for any evil act by her marriage to her uncle.

[28.  The Incest of Agrippina and Nero
... No one doubted that he wanted sexual relations with his own mother, and was prevented by her enemies, afraid that this ruthless and powerful woman would become too strong with this sort of special favour. What added to this opinion was that he included among his mistresses a certain prostitute who they said looked very like Agrippina.
They also say that, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, the stains on his clothes afterwards proved that he had indulged in incest with her.]

3Planning the Murder
Nero accordingly avoided secret meetings with her, and when Agrippina left Rome for her gardens or to her estates at Tusculum and Antium, he praised her for taking some leisure. At last, considering her a serious problem no matter where she was held, he decided to kill her. He had only to work out how – poison, sword or some other means. His first thought was poison. But if it was given during a meal with the emperor, it could not be put down to bad luck after Britannicus’ similar death. Also it seemed difficult to bribe her servants when her own experience of criminal acts prepared her for plots against herself. In addition she had protected her body by taking antidotes in advance. No one could suggest how they could cover up a murder by the sword. Besides they feared that anyone chosen for this crime would refuse such an order. The freedman Anicetus offered an idea. He was the commander of the fleet at Misenum, and had been tutor to Nero in boyhood; he and Agrippina hated each other. He said he could construct a ship, part of which could be made to collapse at sea, and throw the surprised victim overboard. Nothing causes so many accidents as the sea, he said, and if she was killed in a shipwreck, who would be so unfair as to claim it was a crime when the wind and the waves were responsible. The emperor could build a temple and altars and other displays of a son’s concern for his dead mother.

34 (continued).  Planning the Murder
...when she went to live in the country by the sea, he got others to go past her house and interrupt her peace and quiet with noisy partying and insulting jokes.Therefore terrified by her violence and threats, he decided to get rid of her.

Three times he tried to poison her. However, he realised that she had prepared for this by taking antidotes. In her bedroom he had a ceiling built, so that, by means of machine which loosened it, it would fall on her while she slept. This plot was revealed by some of those in on it.

Next he devised a collapsible boat: the idea was to kill her either in a shipwreck or by the collapse of its cabin.

4.  The meal at Baiae
Nero liked the clever plan, helped by the fact that it would be the time when he used to celebrate Minerva's five days' festival at Baiae. He lured his mother there, often saying that parents’ outbursts of anger should be endured and children should try to please; his aim was to spread the rumour that he wanted reconciliation with her and also to make Agrippina welcome it because women easily believe what is enjoyable.

He met her as she arrived on the shore (for she was coming from Antium); he welcomed her with an embrace and took her to his villa at Bauli. This was the villa washed by the waves of a bay between the promontory of Misenum and the lake at Baiae. There was a ship anchored among the others but more elaborate, as if this also was given to honour his mother. She normally sailed in a trireme rowed by sailors from the fleet. Then she was invited to a banquet so that night might conceal the crime. It is generally agreed that there was an informer, and Agrippina, hearing of the trap, uncertain whether to believe it, journeyed to Baiae by litter. Her fears were lessened by his attention to her; she received a friendly welcome and was seated above Nero himself. They talked a lot together – Nero was youthfully familiar or apparently discussing some serious matter. The meal lasted quite a while; as she was going he walked with her, staring into her eyes and clinging on to her breast.  This was either to complete his pretence or the final sight of his mother about to die affected even his cruel heart.

34 (continued)
The meal at Baiae
He pretended that he wanted to be reconciled with her again. So he asked her in the friendliest of letters to come to Baiae for the celebration of the feast of Minerva. He told his ship-captains to damage the boat which had brought her to Baiae as if it was an accident. He then dragged out the feast. When she wanted to return to Bauli, he offered her his own ship, with its collapsible device, in place of her damaged boat. He was in a happy mood as he led her to the ship; he even kissed her breasts as she was leaving.

5.  The failed murder at sea
The gods provided a brightly-lit, starry night, and a calm sea as if to give proof of the crime. The vessel had not gone far; Agrippina was accompanied by two companions: Crepereius Gallus stood near the helm, and Acerronia reclined at Agrippina's feet recalling happily Nero’s repentance and Agrippina’s renewed influence. Then at a signal the ceiling, made heavier by a load of lead, fell in; Crepereius was crushed and killed straightaway. Agrippina and Acerronia were protected by the projecting sides of the couch, which luckily were too strong to give way to the weight that fell on them.

Furthermore the ship did not break up as intended; for everyone was panicking and the many who knew nothing of the plot got in the way of those who knew about it. Then the rowers decided to throw their weight onto one side and so sink the ship; however on the spur of the moment they were not able to get everyone ready at once, so others took the opportunity to lean on the other side with the result that the ship was lowered more gently into the water.

Acerronia, however, (rather unwisely as it turned out) kept shouting that she was Agrippina, and urged them to help the emperor's mother; she was beaten with poles and oars and whatever weapon was handy on the ship. Agrippina kept quiet and so was not recognised. She was, however, wounded in the shoulder. She swam away, and came upon some fishing boats by which she was taken to the Lucrine lake and then carried to her own villa.

6.  There she considered that she had been tricked by a lying letter and by the special honours; the ship, close to the shore, not driven by wind nor struck by rocks, had fallen apart from the top, like some mechanism on land. She thought about this, and her own wound also; she realised that the only defence against the plot was to behave as if she did not understand. She sent her freedman Agerinus to report to her son that she had escaped a serious accident by the will of the gods and good luck; she begged him, although anxious at the danger to his mother, not to bother visiting her, since she need some peace and quiet for the present. Meanwhile she gave the appearance of feeling safe, and put medicine on her wound and lotions on her body. She then ordered her servants to look for the will of Acerronia, and her property to be sealed. In this act alone there was no insincerity.

[Suetonius at this point in his biography gives no description of the actual shipwreck.]

7.  Agerinus's alleged assassination attempt
Nero was waiting for news of the success of the crime. Instead he received news that she had escaped, wounded slightly, having experienced enough to have no doubts as to who was behind it. So out of his mind with fear, he claimed she soon would be there seeking revenge; she might arm her slaves or raise troops or make her way to the senate and the people, and charge him with a shipwreck, wounding her and killing her friends; he asked what defence he had against this, if Burrus and Seneca did not have any suggestion. He had summoned both of them at once, although it is uncertain whether they knew about it beforehand. Both were silent for along time to avoid dissuading him without success, or they believed that matters had reached the point that Nero was bound to die if Agrippina were not dealt with first. Seneca was quick enough to respond first and looked back at Burrus, as though asking if the soldiers ought to be ordered to murder her. Burrus replied that the praetorians were attached to the household of the Caesars, and, in memory of Germanicus, would not dare anything so terrible against his daughter; he suggested Anicetus should fulfil his promise.

Anicetus, with no delay, demanded the right to finish off the crime. When he heard this, Nero declared that he had been given the empire on this day and that it was a freedman who had given him so great a gift. He ordered Anicetus to go with men ready and willing to obey orders. Next he heard that Agerinus had arrived from Agrippina with a message; he himself then arranged for a little piece of play-acting for the accusation against Agrippina; while Agerinus was reporting his message, Nero threw a sword at the freedman’s feet, and then ordered him to be taken to prison as if caught in the act of assassination; this was so that he could pretend that his mother had plotted to kill the emperor, but in the shame of being caught had chosen to commit suicide.

34 (continued)Agerinus's alleged assassination attempt
He stayed awake in great fear for the rest of the time, waiting to hear what had happened. Then he learned that everything had gone wrong and that she had escaped by swimming. He now had no idea what to do. When Agerinus, Agrippina’s freedman, arrived to announce joyfully that she was safe and unharmed, Nero arranged for someone to throw a dagger down secretly beside Agerinus. At once Nero ordered the freedman to be arrested accusing him of being sent to assassinate himself and ordered his mother to be killed. It was to look as if she had taken her own life once she knew that her attempted murder of Nero had been revealed.

8.  The murder of Agrippina
In the meanwhile, news had spread of Agrippina’s dangerous incident, which was being seen as an accident. Everyone who heard about it rushed down to the shore. Some climbed up the sea-walls, some clambered onto the nearest boats; others went out into the sea, as far as their height allowed; some stretched out their arms; the entire shore-line was filled with cries and prayers, people asking different questions and replying uncertainly. An enormous crowd gathered carrying lamps, and when they understood she was safe, they got ready to go and show their joy at this. That was until they scattered at the sight of an armed and threatening column of soldiers. Anicetus surrounded the house with a guard; he broke down the door and dragged off the slaves in his way, until he came to the door of her room. A few servants were standing here, the others having panicked in terror when the soldiers burst in.

There was a little light in the room and one of the slave girls; Agrippina had become more and more worried, because no one had come from Nero, not even Agerinus. Their appearance would have been different if things had gone well; now there was loneliness and sudden sounds and the evidence of a final evil deed. As the slave girl began to leave, Agrippina exclaimed, “So you desert me too.” She look back to see Anicetus, accompanied by the warship captain Herculeius and a centurion in the fleet, Obaritus. “If,” she said, “you have come to see me, report back that I am recovered; if you are ready to commit murder, I will not believe this comes from my son."

The assassins surrounded her bed, and the captain of the trireme was the first to strike her head with a club. Then, as the centurion drew his sword to kill her, she showed him her womb, “Strike this,” she exclaimed and she was finished off with many wounds.

[Again, Suetonius inexplicably provides no description of the actual murder.]

9.  After the Murder
Everyone agrees on the facts so far. There is some disagreement over whether he inspected his mother’s dead body and praised her beauty – some say he did, others say he didn’t. She was cremated that night on her dining couch with a minimal funeral. As long as Nero was emperor the place was not enclosed nor earth raised over it. Eventually, because of the concern of her household a small tomb was placed on the road to Misenum near the villa of Julius Caesar the Dictator, which overlooks the bay from the top of the cliff.

As the pyre was set alight, one of her freedmen, surnamed Mnester, killed himself with a sword; no one knows whether it was from love of his mistress or because he feared his own murder. Many years before Agrippina had believed this was how she would die and had she had ignored the information. She had consulted Chaldaean astrologers about Nero; they had replied that he would become emperor and order his mother’s murder; she had said, “Let him kill me, as long as he becomes emperor.”

34 (continued).  After the Murder
Credible writers provide horrible facts: he could not wait to see the dead body; he held her limbs; he criticised some and praised others; being thirsty during all this he had drinks.

10The psychological after-effects
Only when Nero had finally committed this crime, did he realise how terrible it was. For what remained of the night, he was silent, often rising up in fear and, senselessly, waiting for daybreak as if he expected it to bring his death. But then, at the suggestion of Burrus, the centurions and tribunes arrived to flatter him and this gave his some hope. They seized his hand and congratulated him on his having escaped this unexpected danger and his mother's criminal attempt on his life. Then they went to the temples and, following their example, the nearest towns of Campania indicated their joy with sacrifices and official visits to Nero. Nero himself, showing a different sort of hypocrisy, appeared sad, weeping at his mother’s death, as if he regretted being safe. However, although men’s looks change, the appearance of places do not; he still had the terrible sight of the sea and that shore; some too believed that the sound of a trumpet from the surrounding hills and groans from the mother's tomb were heard.

34 (continued).  The psychological after-effects
However, he could never, not at the time nor afterwards, bear the knowledge of his crime, although soldiers, senate and people supported him with their congratulations; he often confessed that he was hunted by his mother's ghost and harrassed by the whips and burning torches of the Furies. He even tried to have a ceremony performed by the Magi in order to call up her ghost and ask forgiveness. In fact on his trip through Greece he did not dare to join in the Eleusinian mysteries, because the herald announces that the sinful and wicked must be removed from the intiation rites.

The 'official story'
So he left for Neapolis and sent a letter to the Senate, which, in summary, said that the would-be assassin Agerinus, one of Agrippina's closest freedmen, had been arrested with the sword, and that with her guilt of planning this act, she had paid the penalty.

11.   He dug up some charges from her past and added these: she had hoped to share the power of the empire; she had attempted to get the praetorian cohorts to swear allegiance to her, a woman; and she had aimed to bring disgrace on the senate and people of Rome. Nero added that, when she was unable to achieve this, she became hostile to the army, senate and people, and opposed the gifts of money and made plans to endanger leading citizens. He recalled how hard he had worked to prevent her from breaking into the senate house and giving her answers to foreign nations. Also he indirectly criticised the time of Claudius, transferring many of the crimes of that reign to his mother, asserting that her removal was due to the good fortune of the state. Indeed he told the story of the shipwreck; but who was stupid enough to believe that it was accidental, or that a shipwrecked woman had sent one man with a weapon to break through an emperor's guards and fleets? So people did not criticise Nero, who had passed all criticism by this savage crime, but Seneca because he wrote such a confession in this speech.

12.  Spineless senators and indifferent deities
However, the leading nobles remarkably competed with each other in decreeing votes of thanks and sacrifices at every altar; the Festival of Minerva – the time when the plots had been revealed – was to be celebrated with annual games; a golden statue of Minerva should be set up in the senate house next to statue of Nero himself; the birthday of Agrippina would be included in the list of unlucky days. Thrasea Paetus had usually let pass previous votes of thanks in silence or with brief agreement; this time he left the senate-house in silence, causing danger to himself, without making it any easier for others to win their freedom.

There appeared also the frequent, pointless omens. A woman gave birth to a snake, and another was killed by a thunderbolt in her husband's arms. Then the sun suddenly became dark and the fourteen districts of the city were struck by lightning. None of this showed the concern of the gods since Nero’s reign and crimes continued for many years after. In order to increase the unpopularity of his mother and to suggest that his reign was more lenient with her gone, he recalled home from exile two noble women, Junia and Calpurnia, with two ex-praetors, Valerius Capito and Licinius Gabolus, whom Agrippina had formerly banished. He also allowed the ashes of Lollia Paulina to be brought back and a tomb to be built for them. Nero now cancelled the punishment of Iturius and Calvisius, whom he had himself temporarily exiled. Silana had died naturally at Tarentum; she had returned there from her distant exile either because Agrippina, whose hostility had led to her fall, had become less powerful, or because her anger against Silana had lessened.