Agrippina, from Diary of Nero
By Robert Boucheron
Followed by Q&A
November 7, 57 AD
Mother has published a memoir. The singular form is apt, since the book is short, one volume. As a token of her esteem, she sent me a copy. It has her characteristic voice, proud and commanding, with touches of female grace. She must have dictated it to her secretary. I read it through in one sitting, then had a servant read selected passages aloud at dinner. My guests agreed: “It is Agrippina to the life.”
She goes on at length about her father, the great Germanicus, and about her last husband, the late Claudius—the marvelous chance that brought them together, the important work she did for him, and the tragedy of his passing. Who would know from reading her book that she hastened that tragedy? Britannicus likewise comes in for praise and regret, as though she cherished her late stepson. As for me, I figure less than might be expected. In this account, my coming to the throne is almost an accident.
The question is: why write the book? Is Mother planning a comeback? Does she miss the power and the glory? My friends say that she is past her prime, that no respectable Roman will marry her, and that her memoir is a “pathetic diatribe.” I wish I could believe that.
January 1, 58 AD
I took office as consul for the third time today. It is our highest office and a great honor. At this stage, it is also necessary for the government to function smoothly, says Seneca. We need firm control at the top, and that is what I provide.
News from Armenia—general Corbulo reorganized the army, based in Syria, for a major campaign in the mountains. He discharged soldiers who were too old or unfit for service, men whose entire career was passed in cities, and who could barely handle a weapon. He recruited soldiers from Galatia and Cappadocia, and brought in a legion from Germany. Winter conditions are harsh, and there are reports of frostbite. Corbulo intends to toughen his troops and move against Tiridates in the spring.
February 1, 58 AD
Otho has mentioned his wife Poppaea several times. She is gracious, charming, and a beauty. Her mother was the most beautiful woman of her day, and the daughter is upholding the tradition, which comes with a large fortune. Previously married and the mother of a son, she was seduced by Otho, so he claims, then persuaded to marry him. She rarely goes out, so I have to take his word for it. When leaving my dinner parties Otho says:
“I go now to my wife, who brings what all men want and a lucky few enjoy.”
Otho is short, bald, knock-kneed, and flat-footed, but vain enough to pluck his body hair like a homosexual. Still, his wealth is attractive, and he has a certain charm. Is he crowing over his wife? Is he teasing me? My curiosity aroused, I asked him to bring Poppaea to dinner.
February 8, 58 AD
Poppaea is all that Otho promised, and more. Her manner is impeccable, both aristocratic and charming, and her beauty cannot be exaggerated. She has a habit of half-veiling her face, which makes her more intriguing. At dinner tonight, she was agreeable and flirtatious. She said she had heard so much about me, was eager to meet me, and was immediately won over by me. Otho said very little, and smiled ruefully from his couch beyond. The other guests did likewise. Poppaea was the center of attention, and she knew it. Six years older than I, she did not ignore the difference in age, as most people do in deference to my rank, but playfully said she could teach me a thing or two. Something about her struck a chord, and now I realize what it is—she resembles Mother.
February 22, 58 AD
At my request, Otho brought Poppaea to dinner again. He left early, pleading a morning appointment. She lingered, one thing led to another, and she ended up staying the night. Her comment about teaching me a thing or two was not an idle boast. I invited her to return, as this course of study will require extensive tutoring. Am I falling in love?
March 5, 58 AD
Construction was slowed by winter, but now that spring is at hand the pace is picking up. My new amphitheater is rising in the Campus Martius, my addition to the palace is getting out of the ground, and the Macellum is up to the second story. I want to stage a show this year in the amphitheater, so I ordered more workers to the site, even if they must be taken from other projects. It is fascinating to see the wood members fitted together—posts, braces and beams—and how the angles at which they are cut result in the curve of the whole. The engineers explain how the wood frame works in three dimensions, how it transfers weight to the ground, and how it moves. They say that all things expand with heat and contract with cold, though you cannot see it, and wood bends like a bow. Wind exerts force, too, like the current in a river. They must design for all these forces, plus the weight of a crowd of people. I praised their work, and urged them on.
June 10, 58 AD
Three days of spectacle just concluded in my new amphitheater. It still lacks some finishing touches, like a canvas awning to keep off the summer sun, but I wanted to show it to the people. They are as pleased as I am, and they packed the risers to see wild beasts, dancing, gladiator shows, and a drama written for the occasion.
Octavia accompanied me as empress, but we barely spoke. She knows about Acte and makes no reproach. The girl’s low origin poses no threat, and she may be glad of the sexual diversion. Poppaea is a different matter. She is noble, rich, and ambitious, as I now realize. Octavia must know about our affair and resent it, but she would suffer torture before saying anything. Instead, she maintains a frozen silence, betrayed by her flashing brown eyes.
Poppaea is the opposite in every way—blonde, uninhibited, and highly vocal. Once you get past the coy first meeting, you are never in the slightest doubt as to what she wants and what she thinks. For three months she has been coming to the palace. We are lovers—passionate, frequent, and loud. Yet, when I beg her to stay more than two nights, she refuses:
“I am a married woman, and I am devoted to my husband. His character and style of life are excellent. Now there is a man who knows quality, while you, Nero, are dragged down by the company you keep, a servant girl. What a sordid, dreary life you lead!”
June 12, 58 AD
My darling Acte understands. It is over three years since we met, and she is as sweet, lovely, cheerful, patient, and obliging as ever. I promise that we will see each other in the years to come, and that I will continue to provide for her. In addition to the villas I gave her at Puteoli and Velitrae, I am giving her a pottery works on Sardinia for income, and an allowance for her household, which at last count numbered six. She murmurs her thanks and weeps a little. Of all the people that surround me, she is the only one who makes no demand.
June 20, 58 AD
Otho stopped coming to my receptions and dinners. As the affair with Poppaea developed, he adopted a hangdog look, and I alternately shunned him or made sharp remarks. The others caught on, and he became a general butt of jokes, mainly to do with loose wives and impotent husbands. Still, he persisted, perhaps afraid that his absence would be seen in a worse light. Finally, I sent word that he was no longer welcome. The messenger reported back to me that the poor man’s face fell, and he turned away in shame. My friends say that it is unwise to make an enemy of Otho, given his wealth and position. So I will make amends by appointing him governor of Lusitania. That will get him far away from Rome, where he cannot make trouble.
June 28, 58 AD
The Milvian Bridge is a popular spot for nighttime revelers, which is to say whores, pimps, pretty boys, tarts, and anyone else you can imagine. Senecio and our gang visited the place, and I could not resist going back the other night. On our way back on the Via Flaminia, there was a scuffle with some other street crawlers. One of my crew, a freedman named Graptus, recognized them as attendants of Cornelius Faustus Sulla Felix. He made us detour to the Gardens of Sallust for safety.
I already distrusted this Faustus, so I ordered an inquiry. The evidence for an assassination plot was slight, but I decided not to take chances. He was found guilty and exiled to Massilia. I will drop my nightly excursions for a while. In any case, we leave Rome soon for the summer.
October 5, 58 AD
Corbulo achieved great things in Armenia this summer. The news took months to reach Rome, and when it did, caused a sensation. After some skirmishes in the spring, in which Roman troops were beaten, Corbulo moved his army into the field against the Parthians. Tiridates and his brother ravaged the country, but would not meet us in battle, so Corbulo changed tactics, and launched several small attacks with his allies. He pressed hard enough that Tiridates asked for a meeting, then flinched, seeing the size of the Roman army. Corbulo wanted to avoid drawing out the campaign, so he attacked Armenian forts, and took three in one day. This made the other forts surrender. Encouraged, Corbulo moved against the capital Artaxata.
Tiridates was torn between defending a siege and maintaining mobility. He lured the Romans into an ambush, but our discipline paid off, and the army kept close ranks. After a day of feints and harassment, he withdrew secretly during the night. Corbulo began to move into siege position, but when daylight revealed the true situation, the inhabitants surrendered, saving their lives. Artaxata was too large to garrison and too important to leave intact. As a fierce storm gathered overhead, Corbulo burnt it to the ground.
For this victory, I was hailed. The senate voted thanksgiving, as well as statues, a triumphal arch, and honors. They were getting so carried away that a senator named Longinus observed: “The year does not contain enough days for the festivals you propose.”
December 15, 58 AD
Today I am twenty-one years old. As I did last year, I delayed any celebration to Saturnalia. I entertain at the palace most nights anyway. Seneca and the top advisors sent their congratulations, and various citizens did likewise. I see no reason to doubt their sincerity, since I provide the peace under which we all thrive.
Acte gracefully retired from view, Octavia maintains a dignified silence, and my beautiful Poppaea rules, at least in the bedroom. I love her madly. If she is more mature, she is certainly energetic when it comes to sex. I wonder if I will always be able to satisfy her.
Even Mother is quiet, after the publication of her memoir a year ago. Burrus keeps a watchful eye on her movements, and he says there is nothing to report. So perhaps her lust for power is fading. When she announces a visit to her villas at Tusculum or Antium, I praise the idea and urge her to take more vacations.
February 1, 59 AD
Seneca made a comment about Mother recently, something to the effect that as long as she lives she will remain a threat. I shrugged it off. Now I hear reports that she praises Octavia, who will soon be nineteen, as:
“A woman in the prime of life who is a wife in name only. Worse, she must endure an adulterous interloper.”
While she has no control of anyone but her own dependents, Mother is skilled at manipulation, Seneca says. He is afraid that her latest tactic is to stir public opinion against me. To the extent that she succeeds, she also undermines the government, and a coup would be disaster for Seneca and the rest of the council.
Poppaea meanwhile complains of Mother for an entirely different reason. Divorced from Otho in all but name, she says that her position is ambiguous and that the remedy is to marry me. Since I am already married, that is only possible if I divorce Octavia. And that would add fuel to Mother’s fiery propaganda. Poppaea says nothing about Octavia, who is dispensable in her view. All her energy is directed against Mother.
February 15, 59 AD
Mother’s detractors continue their campaign. Seneca and Burrus note her past conduct and her present talk, while Poppaea uses womanly wiles and dramatic scenes. Here is a sample:
“What kind of emperor are you? You are master of neither the empire nor of yourself. Otherwise, why do you put off marrying me? I suppose my looks and my ancestry are not enough for you. Do you think I am unable to bear children? Do you doubt my love?”
In a similar vein: “You are afraid of her! Your mother is arrogant and greedy! If she can only tolerate a daughter-in-law who hates you, then don’t marry me. Let me go back to Otho. I love you too much to watch her humiliate you and put you in mortal danger.”
This goes on night after night, at full volume. I try to reassure her, get worked up, and fling retorts back at her. To prove the depth of her love, Poppaea then abandons herself to furious sex. Exhausted, we collapse in bed and sleep like healthy children.
February 22, 59 AD
Acte appeared unexpectedly today, sent by Seneca. She adds another voice to the chorus against Mother. In her account, Mother is now boasting of sexual intimacy with me, and getting attention. Conservative army officers are muttering about “sacrilege,” which they cannot support in an emperor. Burrus will not confirm or deny this, which only makes it more worrisome. Though innocent, Acte would suffer with the rest of my inner circle if things went wrong, so she has a personal stake in my welfare. I was touched by her tears.
On reflection, I am more touched by her message. The threat is real, and something must be done. With my scenes with Poppaea now common knowledge in the palace, various persons have made suggestions. Exile or house arrest will not solve the problem. Mother is capable of striking from a distance and through solid walls. Violence is unthinkable—I shudder at the idea of stabbing her with a dagger, even if an assassin could be found. Poison is impractical, as she is so careful and her servants are incorruptible. If she died after dinner here, suspicion would fall on me. Besides, she knows all about poison and has antidotes.
February 27, 59 AD
Anicetus, the commander of the fleet at Misenum, has the answer. In earlier years, he worked on stage effects and scenery. He says that a ship can be rigged with a section that will give way, causing it to sink and throw Mother into the sea without warning. Nothing is so unpredictable as the sea. If a shipwreck does away with her, who can blame wind and waves? After she dies, I can erect a temple in her memory and show filial grief, and no one will be the wiser.
This plan strikes me as ingenious. Also, the timing is right. The Minerva festival is next month, when Mother will be at Baiae. I will visit the temple of Minerva, stay at Puteoli, and invite her on a cruise.
March 20, 59 AD
For days, I went around saying things like “You have to put up with mothers, because you only get one” and “Mothers have feelings, too.” I knew that they would be relayed to Mother and put her in a better frame of mind. I invited her to dinner.
As she arrived by boat from Antium, I met her on the shore with arms outstretched. We embraced, and I personally conducted her to the villa. As we walked, a sumptuously appointed ship appeared offshore, much like the warships she used to travel in. I said it was at her disposal. At dinner, I gave her the place of honor next to me and showered her with attention. I was serious and silly by turns, and we talked confidentially. It was like the old days. I put her at ease by saying that I am older and able to appreciate her now. The party went on for a long time.
When she left, I again walked her to the shore. I gazed into her eyes and clung to her. I was genuinely sad to see her go. Her ship lay at anchor. The night was starlit, and the sea was calm. She went aboard with two friends, and the ship glided away. I waved from shore until they were impossible to see, a black speck in the night.
I retired to my room and wrote this. If all goes well, I will at last be rid of her.
March 21, 59 AD
Things did not go according to plan. At a signal, lead weights dropped, collapsing the cabin. One of Mother’s friends was crushed and killed. Mother and her other friend, Acerronia, were saved by the raised sides of their couch. The ship’s hull did not cave in, so sailors who were in on the plot threw their weight on one side to capsize the ship. This took time, and the women got in the water safely. Realizing that it was no accident, Acerronia shouted:
“Help, help! I am Agrippina! Save the emperor’s mother!”
The sailors struck her with poles and oars and killed her. Meanwhile, Mother stayed quiet and escaped. She was struck in the shoulder, but she swam to some sailing boats. They took her to shore, and she walked to her own villa. There, she assessed the situation. She decided that the only way to deal with it was to pretend ignorance. Meanwhile, word came to me of the fiasco, and I panicked.
Anicetus was with me. I called for Burrus and Seneca, who had to be wakened. When they came in, I said:
“She may arrive at any moment! She may arm her slaves! She may whip up the army or gain access to the senate. She will incriminate me for the shipwreck, for wounding her and killing her friends. What can I do? You must save me!”
Neither man spoke for a moment. Finally, Seneca turned to Burrus:
“Should troops be ordered to kill her?”
“The guard is devoted to the whole imperial family,” Burrus said. “They will commit no violence against the daughter of Germanicus. Anicetus must make good on his promise.”
“And so I will!” exclaimed Anicetus. I was overjoyed:
“Go quickly! And take men who obey orders without question. If you succeed, this is the first day of my reign.”
A messenger arrived from Mother, her freedman Agerinus. When my servant told me, I grabbed a sword, held it behind me, then admitted him.
“By divine mercy, your mother survived a serious accident. While you will no doubt be anxious, please do not trouble to visit her tonight. She is tending a slight wound, and wants to rest.”
Pretending to be startled, I lunged toward Agerinus and dropped the sword at his feet.
“Murder!” I shouted, pointing at the floor. “Mother sent this man to kill me. Arrest him!”
Agerinus was immediately seized and bound. I ordered him to be locked up but left unharmed until events played out.
By this time, people in the area heard about the shipwreck and converged on Mother’s villa. They ran to the beach, climbed on the embankment, waded in the water, and got in fishing boats. They waved torches and shouted questions, clamoring for news. When word got out that she was safe, the wails of distress changed to shouts of rejoicing. Then as Anicetus approached at the head of an armed column, the crowd dispersed.
Soldiers surrounded the house and broke in. Anicetus arrested every servant in his path. When he came to Mother’s bedroom, he found her with a single maid, who vanished. He had two men with him, a naval captain and a lieutenant. From her bed, Mother said:
“If you have come to visit me, you can report that I am better. But if you are assassins, I know that Nero is not responsible. My son would not order his mother’s death.”
The captain hit her on the head with a truncheon. As the lieutenant drew his sword, she pointed to her abdomen and cried out:
They stabbed her until she died.
That is the account Anicetus gave me just now. I ordered him to return and cremate Mother’s body at once. If there is no wood handy, burn the furniture. I also ordered the execution of Agerinus, for attempted murder of myself. The stars are fading, and it will soon be dawn.
March 22, 59 AD
I did not sleep at all last night. I tried to lie down, but terror would seize me, and I would leap to my feet. Only as daylight returned was I able to calm down. Burrus sent some guard officers to congratulate me on escaping from Mother’s evil scheming. We exchanged the army handclasp.
As the sun rose higher, and I looked out to sea and the curving shoreline, I wondered if the dreadful night was a dream. Was it all a mistake? Did I commit a horrible crime? Whatever she may have done to provoke it, Mother is dead. I can hardly write the words. The woman who gave birth to me and launched my career is gone forever. She loved me in her own way. She was forty-three years old and as beautiful as ever.
I ordered the servants to go into mourning. I ordered Burrus to suppress any celebration in the guard. And I ordered Seneca to compose a letter to the senate describing the events and justifying our action. Despite my lack of sleep I was nervous and restless all day. Toward evening, I decided that I cannot stay here. Not knowing how the people will react, I do not want to return to Rome. Naples is nearby. That city and its people have always liked me. I gave orders for a ship to take me there tomorrow.
April 1, 59 AD
A few days at the villa of a friend in Naples have done wonders for me. I feel rested and rejuvenated. There is plenty of news. Seneca’s letter to the senate described the unfortunate shipwreck, the plot against my life, and the arrest and execution of Agerinus. He enumerated Mother’s scandals and crimes, her attempt to rule the empire, her assassination of leading citizens, and her contempt for the senate. Her death, he said, was a national blessing.
Senators competed with expressions of thanksgiving and proposals for new religious festivals. They voted games to commemorate my deliverance, a gold statue of Minerva, and inclusion of Mother’s birthday in the list of ill-omened dates. Paetus, who has held aloof from action in my favor, walked out of the senate house in disgust.
The people here cheer me and hold nothing against me. My friends say that the Romans will welcome me home in the same spirit. I sent Burrus to prepare the way, and others volunteered to do likewise. As spring graces the countryside, it will make for a glorious procession north through Campania.
In reward for outstanding service, exceptional conduct, and bravery in the line of duty, I promoted Anicetus and the two naval officers. They will stay with the fleet at Misenum until further orders.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, VA, and member AIA. He writes articles on architecture, history, city planning, and construction, as well as literary fiction.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: “Agrippina” is from a novel based closely on the life of the Roman emperor Nero (37-68 AD).
Q: What is your second favorite place on earth?
A: My second favorite place on earth is Paris.
Q: Mac, or PC?
A: PC—recently bought a new laptop for email and writing, but must keep my old "tower" for drafting with AutoCAD.
Q: What’s your process for writing stories?
A: Short stories start in a hazy, daydream way, as a scene that is imaginary or from life. I make notes on plot and dialogue, and ask questions about motivation, time frame, etc. The notes often get thrown away, rewritten, forgotten. Eventually, I write an outline of one or more pages. I then expand the outline, revising as needed, to produce a first draft.
Q: What would you be if you weren’t a writer?
A: If I were not a writer, I would be a nightclub singer.