Nero's First Crimes
Claudius was dead, but the fact was at first made known only to a few faithful servants. Then Agrippina arranged that Britannicus, the real heir of the empire, should be kept out of sight, until her own son Nero had been set upon the vacant throne.
The senate and people made no objection to her choice, and everybody hoped that Nero would rule very wisely, because he was a grandson of Germanicus, and was advised by Seneca and Burrhus, who were both very able and upright men.
Because they were honest, these men first of all told Nero that he had better send his mother away from court, where her influence could do no good. Nero followed this advice, and during the first months of his reign he was generous, clement, and humane. We are told that when he was first asked to sign the death warrant of a criminal, he did so regretfully, and exclaimed: "Oh! I wish I did not know how to write!"
Nero was only about seventeen years of age when he began his reign. He was handsome, well educated, and pleasant-mannered, but unfortunately he, too, was a hypocrite. Although he pretended to admire all that was good, he was in reality very wicked.
His mother, Agrippina, had set him on the throne only that she herself might reign; and she was very angry at being sent away from court. However, she did not give up all hopes of ruling, but made several attempts to win her son's confidence once more, and to get back her place at court. Seeing that coaxing had no effect, she soon tried bolder means. One day she entered the hall where Nero was talking with some ambassadors, and tried to take a place by his side.
Nero saw her come in, and guessed what she intended to do. He rushed forward with exaggerated politeness, took her gently by the hand, and solemnly led her,—not to a seat of honor by his side, but to a quiet corner, where she could see all, but where she would hardly be seen.
Agrippina was so angry at being thus set aside that she began to plan to dethrone Nero and give the crown to Britannicus instead. This plot, however, was revealed to the young emperor. As soon as he heard it, he sent for Locusta, and made her prepare a deadly poison, which he tested upon animals to make sure of its effect.
When quite satisfied that the poison would kill any one who took it, Nero invited his stepbrother to his own table, and cleverly poisoned him. Although Britannicus died there, before his eyes, the emperor showed no emotion whatever; but later on he saw that the people mourned the young victim, and then he pretended to weep, too.
His wife, Octavia, the gentle sister of Britannicus, was sent away soon after, and in her place Nero chose Poppæa, a woman who was as wicked as Messalina or Agrippina. This woman gave him nothing but bad advice, which he was now only too glad to follow.
Having killed his brother, Nero next began to plan how he might kill his mother. He did not wish to poison Agrippina, so he had a galley built in such a way that it could suddenly be made to fall apart.
As soon as this ship was ready, he asked his mother to come and visit him. Then, after treating her with pretended affection, he sent her home on the treacherous galley. As soon as it was far enough from the shore, the bolts were loosened, and the ship parted, hurling Agrippina and her attendants into the sea.
One of the queen's women swam ashore, and cried out that she was Agrippina, in order to secure prompt aid from some men who stood there. Instead of helping her, the men thrust her back into the water, and held her under until she was drowned; for they had been sent there by Nero to make sure that no one escaped.
The real Agrippina, seeing this, pretended to be only a waiting maid, and came ashore safely. The young emperor was at table when the news of his mother's escape was brought to him. He flew into a passion on hearing that his plans had failed, and at once sent a slave to finish the work that had been begun.
In obedience to this cruel order, the slave forced his way into Agrippina's room. When she saw him coming with drawn sword, she bared her breast and cried: "Strike here where Nero's head once rested!" The slave obeyed, and Nero was soon told that his mother was dead.