The Annals of Tacitus

Date: 1882

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Chapter XX Nero: A Roman Emperor



Murder of Britannicus


Nero was confounded at this threat, and as the day was near on which Britannicus would complete his fourteenth year, he reflected, now on the domineering temper of his mother, and now again on the character of the young prince, which a trifling circumstance had lately tested. It was sufficient, however, to gain for Britannicus wide popularity. During the feast of Saturn,1 amid other pastimes of his playmates, at a game of lot drawing for king, the lot fell to Nero, upon which he gave all his other companions different orders, and such as would not put them to the blush. When, however, he told Britannicus to step forward and begin a song, hoping for a laugh at the expense of a boy who knew nothing of sober, much less of riotous, society, the lad with perfect coolness commenced some verses which hinted at Nero’s expulsion from his father’s house and from supreme power. This procured him pity, which was the more conspicuous, as night with its merriment had stripped off all disguise. Nero saw the reproach and redoubled his hate.

Pressed by Agrippina’s menaces, having no charge against his brother2 and not daring openly to order his murder, Nero meditated a secret device. He directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the prætorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a great reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honor, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors, but it had no effect, as it was either rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety. . . . Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it was the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.

It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk but at a table of their own. . . . There Britannicus was dining. As what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived. . . . A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus. Then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost both voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero. The emperor, who still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, because of a periodical epilepsy with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina, her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, visibly showed that she was clearly just as innocent as was Octavia,1 Britannicus’ own sister. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learned to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion. And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth.

One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’ death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. . . .

1 , translated by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, London, 1882. Macmillan and Co.

2 Tacitus, Annals, xiii, 15–17.

1 The Saturnalia. See page 224, note 1.

2 More properly, stepbrother.

1 At this time she was already married to Nero.

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Chicago: A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, trans., The Annals of Tacitus in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 228–230. Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . The Annals of Tacitus, translted by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 228–230. Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: (trans.), The Annals of Tacitus. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.228–230. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from