The reign of Claudius was brought to an end by poison--the notorious Locusta was employed by Agrippina for the purpose--and he was succeeded by Nero, to the exclusion of Britannicus.
At the outset the young emperor was guided by Seneca and Burrus; his first speech--put into his mouth by Seneca, for he was no orator--was full of promise. But he was encouraged in a passion for Acte, a freed-woman, by way of counterpoise to the influence of his mother, Agrippina. The latter, enraged at the dismissal of Pallas, threatened her son with the legitimate claims of Britannicus, son of Claudius; Nero had the boy poisoned. Nero's private excesses and debaucheries developed, while the horrible system of delation flourished and prosecutions for treason abounded.
About this time the emperor's passion for Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Otho, became the source of later disaster. Beautiful, brilliant, utterly immoral, but complete mistress of her passions, she had married Nero's boon companion. Otho was dispatched to Lusitania and Poppaea remained at Rome.
Poppaea was bent on the imperial crown for herself, and urged Nero against his mother. A mock reconciliation took place, but it was only the preliminary to a treacherous plot for murdering the former empress. The plot failed; her barge was sunk, but she escaped to shore Nero, however, dispatched assassins to carry out the work, and Agrippina was slaughtered.
The emperor forthwith plunged into wild extravagances, on which his mother's life had been some check. He took cover for his passion for chariot-driving and singing by inducing men of noble birth to exhibit themselves in the arena; high-born ladies acted in disreputable plays; the emperor himself posed as a mime, and pretended to be a patron of poetry and philosophy. The wildest licence prevailed.
About this time the Roman Governor in Britain, Suetonius, crossed the Menai Straits and conquered the island of Anglesea. But outrages committed against Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, stirred that tribe to fierce revolt. Being joined by the Trinobantes, they fell upon the Romans at Camulodunum and massacred them. Suetonius, returning hastily from the west, found the Roman population in panic. The troops, however, inspired by the general's resolution, won a decisive victory, in which it is said that no fewer than 80,000 Britons, men and women, were slaughtered.
Not long after, Burrus died and Tigellinus became Nero's favourite and confidant. Nero then capped his matricide by suborning the same scoundrel who had murdered Agrippina to bring foul and false charges against his innocent wife, Octavia: who was thus done to death when not yet twenty, that her husband might be free to marry Poppaea. As a matter of course, the crime was duly celebrated by a public thanks-giving.
The dispatch of an incompetent general into Asia resulted in a most inglorious Parthian campaign. It was well that Corbulo, marching from Syria, restored the Roman prestige in the Far East.
These events were followed by the famous fire which devastated Rome; whether or no it was actually Nero's own work, rumour declared that he appeared on a private stage while the conflagration was raging and chanted appropriately of the fall of Troy. He planned rebuilding on a magnificent scale, and sought popularity by throwing the blame of the fire--and putting to exquisite tortures--a class called Christians, from their first leader, Christus, who had suffered death under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius.
A widespread conspiracy was now formed against Nero, in favour of one Gaius Calpurnius Piso. The plot, however, was betrayed by a freedman of one of the conspirators.
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