Read an Excerpt
Seneca and Nero had been together for ten years now. Nero had grown up, and Seneca had grown old. The princeps had found new allies, among them another former tutor, a Greek freedman named Anicetus (“Invincible”). Nero had elevated this man to admiral of the Misenum fleet, a naval force he was grooming to be his own corps d’élite—the Praetorians being more devoted to his mother. Other freedmen, slaves, and foreigners had begun to rise at court, men whose complete dependence and subservience gratified Nero. The voices that whispered against Seneca and Burrus had grown in number and stridency, and Nero had shown more willingness to listen.
It was to Anicetus, not to Seneca or Burrus, that Nero turned as he approached the great crisis of his reign, in the summer of 59. By that time, the young man’s love for Poppaea had brought him to a pitch of dire resolve. He had decided on a crime that the future will believe with difficulty, and ages to come, with reluctance, as the play Octavia forecast—correctly. He had decided to kill his mother.
It was what he had wanted to do years before but was prevented by Seneca and Burrus. Now, abetted by Anicetus, Nero found the courage to act. Perhaps Poppaea goaded him on, as Tacitus claims, by insisting she could never be his wife as long as Agrippina lived. But Nero needed no Lady Macbeth to harangue him into crime. He had already killed his adoptive brother on his own initiative; his mother posed a greater threat and caused him greater psychic torment.
Did Seneca take part in Nero’s matricidal plan? Tacitus wondered but didn’t know. Dio made Seneca chief instigator, though like much of his testimony on Seneca, this seems little more than slander. The question of collaboration is indeed hard to resolve. A princeps could not have easily hid such a plot from a high-ranked counselor, but perhaps Seneca no longer ranked very high. If Nero kept him in the dark, declining to consult his old ally against Agrippina, then relations between teacher and pupil had truly gone downhill. If Seneca was consulted, he may have seen he could not prevent Nero from acting but could at least help him succeed. Under that scenario, he may have consented to murder if it could be done cunningly, so as to look like an accident.
Cunning was indeed what was needed, for a daughter of Germanicus could not be attacked either with blades or legal writs. Poison too was out of the question; Agrippina, having long suspected Nero’s intentions, had taken precautions, perhaps even fortifying herself with antidotes. A technologically savvy method was called for, and Nero was a great lover of technology. One day he saw in the theater, according to Dio, a collapsible boat that fell apart when a lever was worked, simulating a shipwreck. The idea took root in his obsessed mind. With a move as clean and remote as the proverbial push of a button, Nero could crush his mother, or drown her, or both, far out in the water and away from the public’s eyes. He delegated the mission to Anicetus.
Constructing the trick ship in secret was no simple task. Anicetus no doubt recruited his best shipwrights at Misenum and also trained loyal sailors who would crew on the fateful voyage. Meanwhile Nero set about making up with his mother. The two had become estranged of late—some breakup had followed their overly intimate union— but Nero hastened to repair the breach. He had to regain Agrippina’s trust enough to get her on that boat.
Writing in jocular tones, admitting to having lost his temper, Nero cajoled his mother into joining him at Baiae, the sumptuous resort surrounded by lakes and a quiet bay, for the celebration of that year’s Quinquatria, a rite of Minerva held at the spring equinox.
Both Nero and his mother had villas at Baiae, as did many of the Roman elite. The place was famous for high living, loose morals, and easy pleasures, a den of vice that good men should shun, in the eyes of Seneca— though he did sometimes go there. In his disdain, Seneca painted a vivid picture: “Why do we need to see drunken men wandering the beach and boaters on riotous pleasure cruises, and the lakes resounding with songs of musicians? . . . Do you think Cato would ever have lived there, to count the adulteresses as they sail past, the many kinds of boats painted with vivid colors, the roses bobbing everywhere on the lake’s surface?” No was of course his answer, though he perhaps made the high season at Baiae sound more appealing than he meant to.
Boating was the great thing at Baiae. Because most of the villas stood along a curving shore, or across a small bay at Puteoli, partiers could get from house to house by boat, putting in at small private docks. In her grander days, Agrippina had plied these waters in a state warship rowed by picked sailors. Just down the coast from her villa, an estate called Bauli, was the naval station at Misenum, where such ships and crews stood ready. Now, though, it was a different boat that arrived from Misenum for her use, a luxury yacht fi tted out with regal ornaments, manned by a special crew— many of them Anicetus’ trained assassins.
Nero had this boat moored at a Baiae villa, where he had arranged a grand dinner party in Agrippina’s honor. He presented the boat to his mother after dinner as a gift. It was only one of the many filial gestures he made that night, in an effort to overcome her distrust. Agrippina had her guard up, for she had long suspected her son might seek her life. But the splendidly arrayed ship appealed to her vanity, and Nero’s kisses, as he put her on board, seemed sincere.
It was a cloudless, windless night, “with a calm that seemed sent by the gods to reveal the crime,” as Tacitus says in one of his most memorable sentences. The ship slipped along through shallow water, on its coasting voyage from Baiae to Bauli. Agrippina reclined with a friend, Acerronia, on a special couch on the vessel’s rear deck. The two women talked warmly of the evening’s entertainment and of the fond attentions of Nero. Nearby stood another of Agrippina’s entourage, her procurator—manager of her estates—Crepereius Gallus.
Without warning, a section of roofi ng above these three collapsed, slamming onto Gallus with the full force of its lead- reinforced weight. The man was immediately crushed to death.
Had Agrippina not been reclining on her couch, or had Acerronia not been sitting lower still as she bent over her friend’s feet, both would have died with Gallus. But the couch saved them. Its back and arms extended high enough to block the force of the falling lead. The two women got out from under the lethal weight and emerged into a frantic scene.
Anicetus’ agents among the crew were trying to complete their mission. They had expected the ship to break apart and pitch Agrippina into the sea, but this had failed to happen. Confused and seemingly lacking a backup plan, they rushed about on the boat’s splintered deck. Some had the idea of capsizing the craft by putting all their weight on one side. But other crewmen who were not part of the plot, perhaps surmising what their comrades were up to, countered them by running to the opposite side. Shouts echoed across the bay’s still surface, barely heard, if at all, by those on shore.
As the boat gradually tipped, Agrippina and Acerronia slid into the water. Acerronia, perhaps failing to see the design behind the calamity, called out that she was Agrippina and asked for rescue. Her cries drew a hail of blows from oars and other naval gear, as nearby assassins saw a chance to finish their job. Acerronia was clubbed to death in the water, while Agrippina, who had kept a prudent silence, took only a hit on the shoulder. Glimpsing the lanterns of some fishing smacks nearby, she swam off unnoticed. Indefatigable to the last, she had escaped Nero’s deathtrap.
Safely returned to Bauli, Agrippina reflected on her position. Nero clearly meant to kill her but had gone to extreme lengths to keep the crime secret. Her high stature as daughter of Germanicus, and her son’s timidity, had prevented an open attack, and these might now be enough to save her. She sent a messenger to Nero to inform him of the night’s events, pretending it had all been a freak accident. If she could feign trust in her son, prevent him from striking a second blow, she could somehow rally support and strengthen her position. Already crowds of well-wishers, festival-goers who had heard about the collapse of the ship, were gathered outside her villa. She had a fighting chance, if she could only survive this night.
Meanwhile at Baiae, Nero, accompanied by Anicetus, had fretted for hours awaiting word of the plot’s outcome. The news that it had failed sent him into a tailspin. He knew that his mother would now spot his intentions. Wounded but not killed, Agrippina would become more dangerous than ever. She might march on his villa that very night with a band of armed slaves, or make her way back to Rome to denounce him before the Senate. Nero was determined that his mother must die before the next day dawned, but he had no idea how to proceed. In despair, he sent for his two senior counselors to be roused from their chambers—Seneca and Burrus.
None of Seneca’s meditations on morality, Virtue, Reason, and the good life could have prepared him for this. Before him, as he entered Nero’s room, stood a frightened and enraged youth of twenty-three, his student and protégé for the past ten years. For the past fi ve, he had allied with the princeps against his dangerous mother. Now the path he had first opened for Nero, by supporting his dalliance with Acte, had led to a botched murder and a political debacle of the first magnitude. It was too late for Seneca to detach himself. The path had to be followed to its end.
Every word Seneca wrote, every treatise he published, must be read against his presence in this room at this moment. He stood in silence for a long time, as though contemplating the choices before him. There were no good ones. When he fi nally spoke, it was to pass the buck to Burrus. Seneca asked whether Burrus could dispatch his Praetorians to take Agrippina’s life.
Now it was Burrus’ turn to face the awful choices that came with collaboration. He too declined to do what the situation, and what full loyalty to Nero, demanded. The Praetorians, he said, had too strong an allegiance to Agrippina, and to the memory of her father. He suggested that Anicetus and the sailors at Misenum finish what they had started.
Nero’s old guard had temporized at a critical pass and thus ceded power to the new. Anicetus eagerly took on the task that Seneca and Burrus had cast off, and Nero instantly affirmed how highly he rated this boon. “Only today did I get control of the empire,” he declared, “and it was a mere freedman who conferred such a great gift.” This barb was aimed at Seneca who, despite having worked for a decade to firm up Nero’s power, had now been found wanting. The sage’s influence over the princeps, long in decline, had taken another lurch downward.
With opportune timing, the messenger sent earlier by Agrippina, Agerinus, now arrived with news of his mistress’s “accident.” Nero was grateful for a pretext, however slim, to move openly against his mother. As Agerinus delivered his message, Nero dropped a sword by the man’s feet and ordered him seized as an assassin. Then he dispatched Anicetus to Bauli.
It was well past midnight when Anicetus’ hit squad arrived at Agrippina’s villa. In spite of the hour, the grounds and beach were thronged with Agrippina’s well-wishers. Anicetus ordered them to disperse, then broke down the door and began removing household slaves.
Agrippina was in her bedroom with a lone servant, but even this last companion disappeared when armed men were heard in the house. The queen mother was alone when Anicetus and two other officers burst into her room. She had been hoping it was her messenger Agerinus arriving; his long delay meant she was still in grave danger.
Agrippina’s only chance was to shame her attackers out of completing their mission, to remind them of the glory of her line. But she was exhausted, shaken from the night’s ordeal, and wounded. The best she could manage, according to Tacitus, was to protest that Anicetus must have made some terrible mistake. Surely Nero would never order her death.
The captain accompanying Anicetus, a man named Herculeius, answered by hitting her on the head with a club. The other officer standing by, Obaritus, drew his sword. Agrippina was all out of stratagems. There was little left for her but to die.
Agrippina had been betrayed by those she had put in power, by Nero above all, but also by Burrus, Anicetus, and not least, Seneca. The sage she had rescued from Corsica, who owed all he had to her, had declined to raise his voice against her murder. Politics had first made bedfellows of her and Seneca—in the literal sense, some claimed. But politics, and her son’s disordered mind, had arranged things such that only one of them could survive.
The foremost woman of her age—sister of one emperor, wife of a second, mother of a third, the last of Germanicus’ children—was about to die, friendless, abandoned, alone. One last, bold gesture remained to her, a gesture reported by three ancient sources. The author of Octavia describes it best:
Dying and wretched, she makes one last request of her assassin:
to sink his lethal sword in her womb.
“Here’s where to bury your sword, right here—
The place from which such a monster came. . . .”
After those words, she lets her sad soul seep out through savage wounds together with a final groan.