The Women of the Caesars/Chapter 6
Agrippina, the mother of Nero
It is possible, as Tacitus says, that marriage with Claudius was the height of Agrippina's ambition, but it is also possible that it was an act of supreme self-sacrifice on the part of a woman who had been educated in the traditions of the Roman aristocracy, and who therefore considered herself merely a means to the political advancement of her relatives and her children.
I am rather inclined to accept this second explanation. When she married Claudius, Agrippina not only married an uncle who was much older than herself, and who must necessarily prove a rather difficult and disagreeable husband, but she bound up her fate with that of a weak emperor whose life was continually threatened by plots and revolts, and whose hesitations and terrors plainly portended that he would one day end by precipitating the imperial authority and government into some bizarre and terrible catastrophe. For Agrippina it meant that she was blindly staking her life and her honor, and that she would lose them both should she fail to compensate for the innumerable deficiencies of her strange husband through her own intelligence and strength of will. Every one will recognize how difficult was the task which she had undertaken.
But at the beginning fortune favored Agrippina as she boldly took up the work that lay before her. The wild pranks of Caligula and the scandals of Messalina had aroused an immeasurable disgust in Rome and Italy. Every one was out of patience. The senate as well as the people were demanding a stronger, more coherent, and respectable government, which would end the scandals, suits, and atrocious personal and family quarrels which were dividing Rome. Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus, the granddaughter of Drusus, and she had in her veins the blood of the Claudii, with all their pride, their energy, their puritanical, conservative, and aristocratic spirit, and the moment she appeared, all hopes were centered in her. Although she was a sort of feminine Tiberius, and in the purity of her life resembled her mother and her great-grandmother Livia, Tacitus nevertheless maligns her for her relationships with Pallas and Seneca. The fact that Messalina, even with her implacable hatred, failed to bring about her downfall under the Lex de adulteriis, proves the unreliability of these statements, and Tacitus proves it himself when he says that she suffered no departure from chastity unless it helped her power (Nihil domi impudicum nisi dominationi expediret). This means that Agrippina was a lady of irreproachable life; for if there is one thing which stands out clearly in the history of this remarkable woman, it is that both her rise and her fall depended upon causes of such a nature that not even her womanly charms could have increased her power or retarded her ruin. All hearts were therefore filled with hope when they saw this respectable, active, and energetic woman take her place at the side of Claudius the weakling, for she brought back the memory of the most venerated personages of the family of Augustus.
The new empress, encouraged by this show of favor, applied herself with all the strength of her impassioned nature to the task of again making operative in the state those traditional ideas of the nobility in which Livia had educated first Tiberius and Drusus, then Germanicus, and then Agrippina herself. In this descendant of hers the spirit of the great-grandmother finally reappeared, for it had been eclipsed by the fatal and terrible struggle between Tiberius and Agrippina, by the madness of Caligula, and the comic scandals of the first part of the reign of Claudius. All this served to bring back into the state a little of that authoritative vigor which the nobility in the time of its splendor had considered the highest ideal of government. Tacitus says of her rule that it was as rigid as if a man's (adductum et quasi virile). This signifies that under the influence of Agrippina the laxity and disorder of the first years of Claudius's reign gave place to a certain order and discipline. Severity there was, and more often haughtiness (palam severitas ac saepius superbia). The freedmen who had formerly been so powerful and aggressive, now stepped aside, which is an evident sign that their petulance had now found a check in the energy of Agrippina. The state finances and the fortune of the imperial house were reorganized, for Agrippina, like Livia and like all the ladies of the great Roman nobility, was an excellent administrator, frugal, and ever watchful of her slaves and freedmen, and careful of all items of income and expense. The Roman aristocracy, like all other aristocracies, hated the parvenus, the men of sudden riches, traffickers who had too quickly become wealthy, and all persons whose only aim was to amass money. We know that Agrippina sought to prevent as far as possible the malversations of public funds by which the powerful freedmen of Claudius had been enriching themselves. After she became empress we hear accounts of numerous suits instituted against personages who had been guilty of wasting public treasure, while under Messalina no such cases were brought forward. We know, furthermore, that she reestablished the fortune of the imperial family, which in all probability had been seriously compromised by the reckless expenditures of Messalina. This is what Tacitus refers to in one of his sentences, which, as usual, is colored by his malignity: Cupido auri immensa obtentum habebat quasi subsidium regno pararetur (She sought to enrich the family under the pretext of providing for the needs of the empire). What Tacitus calls a "pretext" was, on the contrary, the ancient aristocratic conception of wealth, which in the eyes of the great families was destined to be a means of government and an instrument of power: the family possessed it in order to use it for the benefit of the state.
In short, Agrippina attempted to revive the aristocratic traditions of government which had inspired the policies of Augustus and Tiberius. Not only did she attempt to do this, but, strange as it may seem, she succeeded almost without a struggle. The government of Agrippina was from the first a great success. From the moment when she became empress there is discernible in the entire administration a greater firmness and consistency of policy. Claudius no longer seems, as formerly, to be at the mercy of his freedmen and the fleeting impulses of the moment, and even the dark shadows of the time are lighted up for some years. A certain concord and tranquillity returned to the imperial house, to the aristocracy, to the senate, and to the state. Although Tacitus accuses Agrippina of having made Claudius commit all sorts of cruelties, it is certain that trials, scandals, and suicide became much less frequent under her rule. During the six years that Claudius lived after his marriage with Agrippina, scandalous tragedies became so rare that Tacitus, being deprived of his favorite materials, set down the story of these six years in a single book. In other words, Agrippina encountered virtually no opposition, while Tiberius and even Augustus, when they wished to govern according to the traditions of the ancient nobility, had to combat the party of the new aristocracy, with its modern and oriental tendencies. This party no longer seemed to exist when Agrippina urged Claudius to continue resolutely in the policy of his ancestors, for one party only, that of the old nobility, seemed with Agrippina to control the state. This must have been the result partly of the disgust for the scandals of the previous decade, which had made every one realize the need of restoring more serious discipline in the government, and partly of the exhaustion which had come upon both parties as the result of so many struggles, reprisals, suits, and scandals. The force of the opposition in the two factions gradually diminished. A greater gentleness induced all to accept the direction of the government without resistance, and the authority of the emperor and his counselors acquired greater importance in proportion as the strength of the opposition in the aristocracy and the senate became gradually weaker.
In any case, the empire was no longer to have forced upon it the ridiculous and scandalous spectacle of such weaknesses and incongruities as had seriously compromised the prestige of the highest authority in the first period of the reign of Claudius. But Agrippina was not content with merely making provision as best she could for the present; she also looked forward to the future. She had had a son by her first husband, and at the time of her marriage with Claudius this youth was about eleven years old. It is in connection with her plans for this son that Tacitus brings his most serious charges against Agrippina. According to his story, from the first day of her marriage Agrippina attempted to make of her son, the future Emperor Nero, the successor of Claudius, thereby excluding Britannicus, the son of Messalina, from the throne.
To obtain this end, she spared, he says, neither intrigues, fraud, nor deceit; she had Seneca recalled from exile and appointed tutor of her child. She removed from office the two commanders of the pretorian guard, who were creatures of Messalina, and in their stead she had elected one of her own, a certain Afranius Burrhus. She laid pitfalls for Britannicus and surrounded him with spies, and in the year 50, by dint of much intrigue and many caresses, she finally succeeded in having Claudius adopt her son. But this whole story is merely a complicated and fantastic romance, embroidered about a truth which in itself is comparatively simple. Tacitus himself tells us that Agrippina was a most exacting mother; that is, a mother of the older Roman type—in his own words, trux et minax. She did not follow the gentle methods of the newer education, which were gradually being introduced into the great families, and she had brought up her son in the ancient manner with the greatest simplicity. It is well to keep in mind, furthermore, that neither Britannicus nor Nero had any right to the throne of Claudius. The hereditary principle did not yet exist in the imperial government: the senate was free to choose whomsoever it wished. To be sure, up to that time the choice had always fallen upon a member of the Augustan family; but it had only been because it was easier to find there persons who were known and respected, who commanded the admiration of the soldiers in distant regions, and who had received a certain preparation for the diverse and often difficult duties of their office. And it was precisely for this reason that Augustus and Tiberius had always sought to prepare more than one youth for the highest office, both in order that the senate might have a certain freedom of choice, and also that there might be some one in reserve, in case one of these young men should disappoint the hopes of the empire or should die prematurely, as so many others had died. That she should have persuaded Claudius to adopt her son does not mean, therefore, that she wished to set Britannicus aside and give the advantage to Nero. It merely proves that she did not wish the family of Augustus to lose the supreme power, and for this reason she intended to prepare not only one successor, but two possible successors, to Claudius, just as Augustus had for a long time trained both Drusus and Tiberius.
In order to understand how wise and reasonable the conduct of Agrippina really was, we must also remember that Nero was four years older than Britannicus, and that, therefore, in the year 50, when Nero was adopted, Britannicus was a mere lad of nine. As Claudius was already sixty, it would have been most imprudent to designate a nine-year-old lad as his only possible successor, when Nero, who was four years his senior, would have been better prepared than Britannicus to take up the reign. There is a further proof that Agrippina had no thought of destroying the race of Claudius and Messalina, for before his adoption she had married Nero to Octavia, the daughter of the imperial pair. Octavia was a woman possessed of all the virtues which the ancient Roman nobility had cherished. She was chaste, modest, patient, gentle, and unselfish, and she would be able to assist in strengthening the power of her house. Agrippina had therefore, in the ancient manner, affianced the young pair at an early age, and hoped that she might make a couple which would serve as an example to the families of the aristocracy.
In short, Agrippina, far from seeking to weaken the imperial house by destroying the descendants of Messalina, was attempting to bring her son into the family precisely for the purpose of giving it strength. And, sensible woman that she was, she could hardly have acted otherwise. She had seen the family of Augustus, once so prosperous, reduced to a state of exhaustion and virtually destroyed by the fatal discord between her mother and Tiberius and the quarrels between her brothers. The state had suffered greatly through the madness of Caligula and the reckless hatred of the first Agrippina, and the present empress, her daughter, who was not merely fond of her son, but endowed in addition with the gift of reflection, sought as far as possible to make amends for the evils which had unconsciously been wrought. The hopes of the future were henceforth to abide in Britannicus and in Nero. In Agrippina there reappeared the wisdom of her greatest predecessors, and the people were so well satisfied that they conferred upon her the very highest honor, such as in her time even Livia herself had not received. She was given the title Augusta; she was allowed to ride into the precincts of the Capitol in a gilded coach (carpentum), though this was an honor which in old time had been conceded only to priests and to the images of the gods. This last descendant of Livia and Drusus, in whom the virtues of a venerated past seemed to reappear, was surrounded by a semi-religious adoration. This is an evidence of sincere and profound respect, for though the Romans often showered marks of human adulation upon their potentates, it was not often that they bestowed honors of so sacred a character.
The unforeseen death of Claudius suddenly cut short the work which Agrippina had well under way. Claudius was sixty-four years old, and one night in the month of October of the year 54 he succumbed to some mysterious malady after a supper of which, as usual, he had partaken inordinately. Tacitus pretends to know that Agrippina had secretly administered poison to Claudius in a plate of mushrooms. During the night, however, fearing lest Claudius would survive, she had called Claudius's physician, Xenophon, who was a friend of hers. The latter, while pretending to induce vomiting, had painted his throat with a feather dipped in a deadly poison, and had killed him. This version is so strange and improbable that Tacitus himself does not dare affirm it, but says that "many believe" that it was in this manner that Claudius met his death. But if there are still people credulous enough to believe that the head of a great state can be poisoned in the twinkling of an eye by a doctor who brushes his throat with a feather, it is more difficult to understand what grounds Agrippina could have had for poisoning her husband. According to Tacitus, it was because she was disturbed by the fact that Claudius had for some time shown that he preferred Britannicus to Nero; but even if the fact were true, as a motive it would be ridiculous. Augustus was much fonder of Germanicus than he was of Tiberius; and yet at his death the senate chose Tiberius, and not Germanicus, because at that moment the situation clearly called for the former as head of the empire. When Claudius died, Britannicus was thirteen and Nero seventeen years old. They were both, therefore, mere lads, and it was most probable that if the imperial seat fell vacant, the senate would choose neither, since they were both too young and inexperienced. This is so true that other historians have supposed, on the contrary, that Agrippina had fallen out with some one of the more powerful freedmen of Claudius, and seeing Claudius waver, had despatched him in order that she herself should not end like Messalina. But this hypothesis also is absurd. An empress was virtually invulnerable. Messalina had proved this, for she had committed every excess and abuse with impunity. Agrippina, protected as she was by the respect of all, invested with honors that gave her person a virtually sacred character, had nothing to fear either from the weak Claudius or from his powerful freedmen.
This accusation of poisoning, therefore, seems to be of precisely the same sort as, and not a whit more serious than, all those other similar accusations which were brought against the members of the Augustan family. Claudius, who was already sixty-four, in all probability died a sudden but natural death, and from the point of view of the interests of the house of Augustus, which Agrippina had strongly at heart, he died much too soon. It was a dangerous and difficult matter to ask the Roman senate to appoint one of these striplings commander of the armies and emperor, even though they were the only survivors of the race of Augustus. So true is this that Tacitus tells us that Agrippina kept the death of Claudius secret for many hours and pretended that the physicians were still struggling to save him, when in reality he was already dead, dum res firmando Neronis imperio componuntur (while matters were being arranged to assure the empire to Nero). Consequently, if everything had to be hurried through in confusion at the last moment, it is plain that Agrippina herself must have been taken by surprise by the illness and death of Claudius. She therefore cannot be held responsible for having caused it.
It is not, however, difficult to reconstruct the course of events. On the nights of the twelfth and thirteenth of October, soon after Claudius had been suddenly stricken down by his violent malady, the doctors announced to Agrippina that the emperor was lost. Agrippina immediately understood that since the family of Augustus could at that moment present no full-grown man as candidate for the imperial office, there was grave danger that the senate might refuse to confer the supreme power either upon Nero or Britannicus. The only means of avoiding this danger was to bring pressure to bear upon the senate through the pretorian cohorts, which were as friendly to the family of Augustus as the senate was hostile. She must present one of the two youths to the guards and have him acclaimed not head of the empire, but head of the armies. The senate would thereby be constrained to proclaim him head of the empire, as they had done in the case of Claudius.
But which one of the two youths was it best to choose, Claudius's son by blood or his son by adoption? Nero was chosen as the result of the unrighteous ambition of Agrippina, so Tacitus says. It is very probable that Agrippina was more eager to see her own son at the head of the empire than to see Britannicus there; but this does not seem to have been the real reason of her choice, for it could not have been otherwise, even if Agrippina had detested Nero and had cherished Britannicus with a maternal affection. Nero was four years older than Britannicus, and therefore he had to be given the preference over the latter. It was a very bold move to propose that the senate make a youth of seventeen emperor; it would have been nothing less than folly to ask that they accept a thirteen-year-old lad as commander-in-chief of the imperial armies of Rome.
Through the help of Seneca and Burrhus, the plan developed by Agrippina was carried out with rapidity and success. On the thirteenth of October, after matters had been arranged with the troops, the doors of the imperial palace were thrown open at noon; Nero, accompanied by Burrhus, advanced to the cohort which was on guard. He was received with joyous welcome, placed in a litter, borne to the quarters of the pretorians, and acclaimed head of the army. The senate grudgingly confirmed his election. There resulted in Rome a most extraordinary situation: a youth of seventeen, educated in the antique manner, and, though already married, still entirely under the tutelage of a strict mother, had been elevated to the highest position in the immense empire. He was ignorant of the luxury, pleasure, and elegance which were becoming general in the great families; outside of a lively disposition and docility toward his mother, he had up to this point shown no special quality, and no particular vice. Only one peculiarity had been noticed in him: he had studied with great zest music, painting, sculpture, and poetry, and had made himself proficient in these arts, which were considered frivolous and useless for a Roman noble. On the contrary, he had neglected oratory, which was held a necessary art by an aristocracy like the Roman, whose duty it was to use speech at councils, in the tribunals, and in the senate, just as it used the sword on the fields of battle. But the majority believed that this was merely a passing caprice of youth.
Agrippina, then, with the assistance of Seneca and Burrhus, had kept the highest office in the state in the family of Augustus, and she had done so by a bold move which had not been without its dangers. She was too intelligent not to foresee that a seventeen-year-old emperor could have no authority, and that his position would expose him to all sorts of envy and intrigue, and to open as well as secret opposition. She succeeded in mitigating this evil and in parrying this danger by another very happy suggestion—the virtually complete restoration of the old republican constitution. After the funeral of Claudius, Nero introduced himself to the senate, and in a polished and modest discourse, seemingly intended to excuse his youth, he declared that of all the powers exercised by his predecessors he wished to keep only the command of the armies. All other civil, judicial, and administrative functions he turned over to the senate, as in the times of the republic.
This "restoration of the republic" was Agrippina's masterpiece, and marks the zenith of her power. It followed, as a result of her decision, that Nero, who was to go down to posterity as the most terrible of tyrants, was that one of all the Roman emperors who had the most limited power; and furthermore it was likewise the result of her activity that the constitution of the empire had never been so close to that of the ancient republic as under the government of Nero. Most historians, hallucinated by Tacitus, have not noticed this, and they have consequently not recognized that in carrying out this plan Agrippina is neither more nor less than the last continuator of the great political tradition founded by Augustus. In the minds of both Augustus and Tiberius the empire was to be governed by the aristocracy. The emperor was merely the depositary of certain powers of the nobility conceded to him for reasons of state. If these reasons of state should disappear, the powers would naturally revert to the nobles. It was therefore expedient at this time to make the senate forget, in the presence of a seventeen-year-old emperor, the pressure which had been brought to bear upon it by the cohorts, and to wipe out the rancor against the imperial power which was still dormant in the aristocracy. This restoration was not, therefore, a sheer renunciation of privileges and powers inherent in the sovereign authority, but an act of political sagacity planned by a woman whose knowledge of the art of government had been received in the school of Augustus.
The move was entirely successful. The illusion that the imperial authority was only a transitory expedient made necessary by the civil wars, and that it might one day be entirely abolished, was still deeply grounded in the Roman aristocracy. Every relaxation of authority was specially pleasing to the senatorial circles. The government of Nero therefore began under the most favorable auspices, with joyous hope in the general promise of concord. The disaffection which had been felt in the last six years of Claudius's government was changed into a general and confident optimism, which the first acts of the new government and the signs of the future seemed to justify. Agrippina continued to keep Nero subject to her authority, as she had done before the election: together with his two masters, Seneca and Burrhus, she suggested to him every word and deed. The senate resumed its ancient functions; and governed by Seneca, Burrhus, and Agrippina in conjunction with the senate, the empire seemed to be progressing wonderfully, and in the eyes of the senators the entire government was in a better way than it ever yet had been.
But the situation soon changed. Agrippina, to be sure, had given her son a strictly Roman education, and had brought him up with a simplicity and rigor long since out of fashion; and though she had early given him a wife, she continued to keep him subject to maternal authority. But, with all this, it is doubtful if there ever was a temperament which rebelled against this species of education as strongly as did Nero's. His taste for the arts of drawing and singing, the indifference which he had shown for the study of oratory from his childhood, these were the seeds from which as time went on his raging exoticism was to be developed through the use and abuse of power. His was one of those rioting, contrary, and undisciplined temperaments which feel that they must do precisely the opposite of what tradition, education, and the general opinion of the society in which they live have prescribed as necessary and recognized as lawful. In the case of Nero the defects and the dangers in the ancient Roman education were to become apparent.
The first of these dangers declared itself when Nero entered upon one of those early marriages of which we have spoken in the first of these studies. Agrippina had early arranged an alliance with a young lady who, because of her virtues, nobility of ancestry, and Roman education, might have become his worthy companion; but a year after his elevation to the imperial dignity, the eighteen-year-old youth made the acquaintance of a woman whose beauty inflamed his senses and imagination to the point of making him entirely forget Octavia, whom he had married from a sense of duty and not for love. This person was Acte, a beautiful Asiatic freedwoman, and the inexperienced, ardent youth, already given up to exotic fancies, became so enamoured that he one day proposed to repudiate Octavia and to marry Acte. But a marriage between Nero and Acte was not possible. The Lex de maritandis ordinibus prohibited marriages between senators and freedwomen. It was therefore natural that Agrippina should have opposed it with all her strength. She, the great-granddaughter of Livia, the granddaughter of Drusus, the daughter of Germanicus, educated in the strictest ideas of the old Roman aristocracy, could not permit her son to compromise the prestige of the entire nobility in the eyes of the lower orders by so scandalous a mésalliance. But on this occasion the youth, carried away by his passion, resisted. If he did not actually repudiate Octavia, he disregarded her, and began to live with Acte as if she were his wife. Agrippina insisted that he give up this scandalous relationship; but in vain. The mother and son disagreed, and very shortly after having resisted his mother in the case of Acte, Nero began to resist her on other occasions. With increasing energy he shook off maternal authority, which up to that time he had accepted with docility.
This, however, was a crisis which was sooner or later inevitable. Agrippina had certainly made the mistake of attempting to treat Nero the emperor too much as she had treated Nero the child; but that the crisis should have been reached in this manner as the result of a love-affair, and that it should have provoked a misunderstanding between the mother and son that was soon to degenerate into hatred, was most unfortunate. Agrippina, though she enjoyed great prestige, had also many hidden enemies. Everybody knew that she represented in the government the old aristocratic, conservative, and economical tendency of the Claudii,—of Tiberius and of Drusus,—that she looked askance upon the development of luxurious habits, the relaxation of morals, and the increase of public and private expenditures. They understood that she exerted all her influence to prevent wastefulness, the malversation of public moneys, and in general all outlays for pleasures either in the state or the imperial family. Her virtues and her stand against Messalina had given her a great prestige, and the reverence which the emperor had shown for her had for a long time obliged her enemies to keep themselves hidden and to hold their peace. But this ceased to be the case after the incipient discord between her and Nero had allowed many to foresee the possibility of using Nero against her. In proportion as Nero became attached to Acte he drew away from his mother, and in proportion as he withdrew from his mother his capricious, fantastic, and rebellious temper was encouraged to show itself in its true light. The party of the new nobility, with its modern and oriental tendencies, had for ten years been held in check by the preponderating influence of Agrippina. But gradually, as the exotic and anti-Roman inclinations of the emperor declared themselves, this party again became bolder. The memories of the scandals of Caligula and Messalina were becoming effaced by time, the rather severe and economical government of Agrippina was showing signs of weakening, and all minds were beginning to entertain a vague desire for something new.
The two parties which in the times of Augustus had rent Rome asunder were now being realined in the imperial house and in the senate—the party of the old nobility, which had Agrippina at its head, and the party of the modernizing nobility, which was gathering about the emperor and trying to claim him as its own. Tacitus clearly tells us that the older and more respectable families of the Roman nobility were with Agrippina; and even if he had neglected to tell us so, we might easily have guessed it. For a moment the old, old struggle which had been the cause of so many tragedies in the upper classes of Rome seemed once more ready to break forth. But even though Agrippina was the soul of the party of the old nobility, the party needed a man whom it could oppose to Nero as a possible and better candidate for the imperial dignity.
Agrippina, like a true Roman matron of the old type, looked upon the family merely as an instrument of political power, and therefore subjected her personal affections to the public interest. She began to cast her eyes upon Britannicus, the son of Messalina, who was now becoming a young man and who seemed to be more serious-minded than Nero. It was even muttered that she thought of giving her own son's place to the son of Messalina, when suddenly, in 55, Britannicus died at a dinner at which Nero was present. Was he poisoned by Nero, as Tacitus says? Although there is no lack of obscurities and improbabilities in the account of Tacitus, this time the accusation, if it is not true, is at least much more probable than the other accusations of the same kind. It is certain that the report that Britannicus had been poisoned was soon current at Rome, and that it was believed; and the death of Britannicus was likewise a fatal blow to Agrippina and her party. Tacitus tells us that the death of Britannicus caused Agrippina great terror and unspeakable consternation, and it is not difficult to divine the reasons. Nero now remained the last and only survivor of the family of Augustus, and it was therefore no longer possible to bring any effective opposition to bear upon him by setting up some other member of the family who would be capable of governing. The new nobility, with its modern tendencies, now rapidly gained strength, and the influence of Agrippina declined proportionately.
As a result of the lofty qualities of genius and character with which she had been endowed, Agrippina had been able to hold the balance of power in the state as long as she had succeeded in keeping the emperor under her influence. This had been true in the cases of both Claudius and Nero. After Nero escaped from her influence, or, rather, after he had turned against her, her prestige and her power rapidly diminished, and her party lost greatly in size and in power. Although personally the emperor was youthful and weak, the dignity of his office made him more powerful than all the members of his family, however energetic and intelligent they might be. At this period, furthermore, Nero was supported by an entire party which was daily increasing in strength and in numbers, for, as always happens in eras of prosperity and peace, the temper of the time was tending toward a milder, gentler, more liberal government, and consequently one which would be less authoritative and severe.
Agrippina, however, was an energetic woman, not easily discouraged, and she continued the struggle. Consequently for two years longer, even in the midst of strife, intrigues, and suspicions, she preserved a considerable influence, and was able to check the progress of the government in its new direction. This was either because Nero, though no longer exactly obedient to his mother's will, was still too weak, too undecided, and too deeply involved in the ideas of his earlier education to attempt an open revolt against her, or it was because Seneca and Burrhus wisely sought to conciliate the ultra-conservative ideas of the mother with the newer tendencies of the son.
The definitive break with his mother and with her political ideas,—that is, with the ideas which had been professed by her ancestors,—came in 58, when Nero forgot Acte for Poppaea Sabina. The latter belonged to one of those great Roman families into which the new spirit and the new customs had most deeply penetrated. Rich, beautiful, avaricious of luxuries and pleasures, possessed of an unbridled personal ambition, she had attracted Nero to herself, and, in order to become empress, gave the uncertain youth the decisive impulse which was to transform the disciple of Agrippina and the grandson of Germanicus into the prodigal and dissolute emperor of history. She encouraged in him his desire to please the populace, and certainly never checked his love for Greece and the Orient, which resulted finally in his mania of everywhere imitating the example of Asia and of taking up again, though to be sure less wildly, the policies of Caligula. Tacitus tells us that she continually reproved Nero for his simple customs, his inelegant manners, and his rude tastes. She held up to him, both as an example and as a reproach, the elegance and luxury of her husband, who was indeed one of the most refined and pompous members of the degenerate Roman nobility. Poppaea, in short, gave herself up to the task of reshaping the education of Nero and of destroying the results of Agrippina's patient labor. Nor was this all. She even became, with her restricted intelligence, his adviser in politics. She persuaded him that the policy of authority and economy which his mother had desired was rendering him unpopular, and she suggested the idea of a policy of liberality toward the people which would win him the affection of the masses. After he had fallen in love with Poppaea Sabina, Nero, who up to that time had shown no considerable initiative in affairs of state, elaborated and proposed to the senate many revolutionary projects for favoring the populace. He finally proposed that they abolish all the vectigalia of the empire; that is, all indirect taxes, all tolls and duties of whatever sort. The measure would certainly have been most popular, and there was much discussion about it in the senate; but the conservatives showed that the finances of the empire would be ruined and persuaded Nero not to insist. Nero, however, wished to bring about some reform which would help the masses, and he gave orders in an edict that the rates of all the vectigalia be published; that at Rome the pretor, and in the provinces the propretor and proconsul, should summarily decide all suits against the tax-farmers and that the soldiers should be exempt from these same vectigalia.
Though some of these reforms were just, this new policy was also the cause of the final rupture with his mother. Agrippina and Nero, to all intents and purposes, no longer saw each other, and Nero, on the few visits which he was obliged to pay her in order to save appearances, always arranged it so as never to be left alone in her presence. In this manner the influence of Agrippina continued to decline, while the popularity of Nero steadily increased as the result of his youth, of these first reforms, and of the hopes to which his prodigality had given rise. The public, whose memory is always brief, forgot what Agrippina had done and how she had brought back peace to the state, and began to expect all sorts of new benefits from Nero. Poppaea, encouraged by the increasing popularity of the emperor, insisted more boldly that Nero, in order to make her his wife, should divorce Octavia.
But Agrippina was not the woman to yield thus easily, and she continued the struggle against her son, against his paramour, and against the growing coterie which was gathering about the emperor. She opposed particularly the repudiation of Octavia, which, being merely the result of a pure caprice, would have caused serious scandal in Rome. But Nero was even now hesitating and uncertain. He still had too clearly before him the memory of the long authority of his mother; he feared her too much to dare step forth in open and complete revolt. At last Poppaea understood that she could not become empress so long as the mother lived, and from that moment the doom of Agrippina was sealed. Poppaea was goaded on by all the new friends of Nero, who wished to destroy forever the influence of Agrippina, and by her words and deeds she finally brought him to the point where he decided to kill his mother.
But to murder his mother was both an abominable and dangerous undertaking, for it meant killing the daughter of Germanicus—killing that woman whom the people regarded with a semi-religious veneration as a portent of fortune; for she was the daughter of a man whom only a premature death had prevented from becoming the head of the empire, and she had been the sister, the wife, and the mother of emperors. For this reason the manner of her taking-off had been long debated in order that it might remain secret; nor would Nero make his decision until a seemingly safe means had been discovered for bringing about the disappearance of Agrippina.
It was the freedman Anicetus, the commander of the fleet, who, in the spring of 59, made the proposal when Nero was with his court at Baiae, on the Bay of Naples. They were to construct a vessel which, as Tacitus says, should open artfully on one side. If Nero could induce his mother to embark upon that vessel, Anicetus would see to it that she and the secret of her murder would be buried in the depths of the sea. Nero gave his consent to this abominable plan. He pretended that he was anxious to become reconciled with his mother, and invited her to come from Antium, where she then was, to Baiae. He showed her all regard and every courtesy, and when Agrippina, reassured by the kindness of her son, set out on her return to Antium, Nero accompanied her to the fatal vessel and tenderly embraced her. It was a calm, starry night. Agrippina stood talking with one of her freedwomen about the repentance of her son and the reconciliation which had taken place, when, after the vessel had drawn some distance away from the shore, the plotters tried to carry out their infernal plan. What happened is not very clear. The seemingly picturesque description of Tacitus is in reality vague and confusing. It appears that the ship did not sink so rapidly as the plotters had hoped, and in the confusion which resulted on board, the emperor's mother, ready and resolute, succeeded in making her escape by casting herself into the sea and swimming away, while the hired assassins on the ship killed her freedwoman, mistaking her for Agrippina.
In any case, it is certain that Agrippina arrived safely at one of her villas along the coast, with the help, it seems, of a vessel which she had encountered as she swam, and that she immediately sent one of her freedmen to apprise Nero of the danger from which she had escaped through the kindness of the gods and his good fortune! Agrippina had guessed the truth, but for this one time she gave up the struggle and sent her messenger, that it might be understood, without her saying so, that she forgot and pardoned. Indeed, what means were left her, a lonely woman, of coping with an emperor who dared raise his hand against his own mother?
However, fear prevented Nero from understanding. No sooner had he learned that Agrippina had escaped than he lost his head. In his imagination he saw her hastening to Rome and denouncing the horrible matricide to the soldiers and the senate; and beside himself with terror, he sent for Seneca and Burrhus in order to take counsel with them. It is easy to imagine what the feelings of the two teachers of the youth must have been as they listened to the terrible story. Even they failed to understand that Agrippina recognized and declared herself conquered. They, too, feared that she would provoke the most frightful scandal which Rome had yet seen, and not knowing what advice to give, or rather seeing only a single way out, which was, however, too serious and horrible, they held their peace while Nero begged them to save him. At last Seneca, the humanitarian philosopher, turned to Burrhus and asked him what would happen if the pretorians should be ordered to kill Agrippina. Burrhus understood that Seneca, though he was the first to give the terrible advice, yet wished to leave to him the more serious responsibility of carrying it into execution; for Burrhus, as commander of the guards, would have had to give the order for the murder. He therefore hastened to say that the pretorians would never kill the daughter of Germanicus, and then added that if they really wished to do away with Agrippina, the best plan would be for Anicetus to carry out the work which he had begun. His advice was the same as Seneca's, but he turned over to a third person the very grave responsibility for its execution. He had, however, chosen this third person more wisely than Seneca, for Anicetus could not refuse. If Agrippina lived, it was he who ran the risk of becoming the scapegoat for all this bloody and horrible adventure.
As a matter of fact, Anicetus accepted. The freedman whom Agrippina had sent to announce her misfortune was imprisoned and put in chains, in order to convey the impression that he had been captured carrying concealed weapons and in the act of making an attempt upon the emperor's life by the order of his mother. Anicetus then hastened to the villa of Agrippina and surrounded it with a body of sailors. He entered the house, and with two officers rushed into the room where Agrippina, reclining upon a couch, was talking with a servant, and killed her. Tacitus tells us that when Agrippina saw one of the officers unsheathe his sword, she asked him to thrust her through the body which had borne her son.
Thus died the last woman of the house of Augustus, and, with the exception of Livia, the most remarkable feminine figure in that family. She died like a soldier, on duty and at her post, bravely defending the social and political traditions of the Roman aristocracy and the time-honored principles of Romanism against the influx of those new forces of a later age which were seeking to orientalize the ancient Latin republic. She died for her family, for her caste, and for Rome, without even having the reward of being remembered with dutiful regard by posterity; for in this struggle she had sacrificed not merely her life, but even her honor and her fame. Such, furthermore, was the common destiny of all the members of this family, and if we except Livia and Augustus, the privileged pair who founded it, we are at a loss to know whether to call it the most fortunate or the most unhappy of all the families of the ancient world. It is impossible for the historian who understands this terrible drama, filled with so many catastrophes, not to feel a certain impression of horror at the vindictive ferocity that Rome showed to this house, which, in order to bring back Rome's peace and to preserve her empire, had been fated to exalt itself a few degrees above the ordinary level of the ancient aristocracy. Men and women, the young and the old, the knaves and the large-hearted, the sages and the fools of the family, alike, all without exception, were persecuted and plotted against. And again, if we except the persons of the two founders, and those who, like Drusus and Germanicus, had the good fortune to die young, Rome deprived them all, deprived even Antonia, of either their life or their greatness or their honor, and not infrequently it robbed them of all these three together. Those who, like Tiberius and Agrippina, defended the ancient Roman tradition, were hated, hounded, and defamed with a no less angry fury than Caligula and Nero, who sought to destroy it. No one of them, whatever his tendencies or intentions, succeeded in making himself understood by his times or by posterity; it was their common fate to be misunderstood, and therefore horribly calumniated. The destiny of the women was even more tragic than that of the men, for the times demanded from them, as a compensation for the great honor of belonging to this privileged family, that they possess all the rarest and most difficult virtues.
What was the cause of all this? we ask. How were so many catastrophes possible, and how could tradition have erred so grievously? It is almost a crime that posterity should virtually always have studied and pondered this immense tragedy of history on the basis of the crude and superficial falsification of it which Tacitus has given us. For few episodes in general history impress so powerfully upon the mind the fact that the progress of the world is one of the most tragic of its phenomena. Especially is such knowledge necessary to the favored generations of prosperous and easy times. He who has not lived in those years when an old world is disappearing and a new one making its way cannot realize the tragedy of life, for at such times the old is still sufficiently strong to resist the assaults of the new, and the latter, though growing, is not yet strong enough to annihilate that world on the ruins of which alone it will be able to prosper. Men are then called upon to solve insoluble problems and to attempt enterprises which are both necessary and impossible. There is confusion everywhere, in the mind within and in the world without. Hate often separates those who ought to aid one another, since they are tending toward the same goal, and sympathy binds men together who are forced to do battle with one another. At such times women generally suffer more than men, for every change which occurs in their situation seems more dangerous, and it is right that it should be so. For woman is by nature the vestal of our species, and for that reason she must be more conservative, more circumspect, and more virtuous than man. There is no state or civilization which has comprehended the highest things in life which has not been forced to instil into its women rather than into its men the sense for all those virtues upon which depend the stability of the family and the future of the race. And for every era this is a question of life and death. In such periods when one world is dying and another coming to birth, all conceptions become confused, and all attempts bring forth bizarre results. He who wishes to preserve, often destroys, so that virtue seems vice, and vice seems virtue. Precisely for this reason it is more difficult for a woman than for a man to succeed in fulfilling her proper mission, for she is more exposed to the danger of losing her way and of missing her particular function; and since she is more likely to fail in realizing her natural destiny, she is more likely to be doomed to a life of misfortune.
Such was the fate of the family of Augustus, and such especially was the fate of its women. The strangers who visit Rome often go out on Sunday afternoons to listen to the excellent music that can be heard in a room which is situated in one of the little streets near the Piazza del Popolo and which used to be called the Corea. This hall was built over an ancient Roman ruin of circular form which any one can still see as he enters. That ruin is the entrance to the tomb which Augustus built on the Flaminian Way for himself and his family. Nearly all of the personages whose story we have told were buried in that mausoleum. If any reader who has followed this history should one day find himself at Rome, listening to a concert in that old Corea, which has now been renamed after the Emperor Augustus, let him give a thought to those victims of a terrible story of long ago, and may he remember that here, where at the beginning of the twentieth century he listens to the flow of rivers of sweet sound—here only, twenty centuries ago, could the members of the family of Augustus find refuge from their tragic fate, and after so much greatness, resolved to dust and ashes, rest at last in peace.