On the 13th of October of 54 A.D., when Emperor Claudius died, the Senate chose as his successor his adopted son, Nero, a young man of seventeen, fat and short-sighted, who had until then studied only music, singing, and drawing. This choice of a child-emperor, who lacked imperial qualities and suggested the child kings of Oriental monarchies, was a scandalous novelty in the constitutional history of Rome. The ancient historians, especially Tacitus, considered the event as the result of an intrigue, cleverly arranged by Nero's mother, Agrippina, a daughter of Germanicus and granddaughter of Agrippa, the builder of the Pantheon. According to these historians, Agrippina, a highly ambitious woman, induced Claudius to marry her after Messalina's death, although she was a widow and had a child, and as soon as she entered the emperor's mansion she began to open the way for the election of her son. In order to exclude Britannicus, the son of Messalina, from succession, she persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero; then, with the help of the two tutors of the young man, Seneca and Burrhus, created in the Senate and among the Praetorians, a party favourable to her son; no sooner did she feel that she could rely on the Senate and the Praetorians, than she poisoned Claudius.
Too many difficulties prevent our accepting this version. To cite one of them will suffice: if Agrippina wished - as she surely did - that her son should succeed Claudius, she must also have wished that Claudius would live at least eight or ten years longer. As a great-grandson of Drusus, a grandson of Germanicus and the last descendant of his line, the only line in the whole family enjoying a real popularity, Nero was sure of election if he were of age at the death of Claudius. After the terrible scandal in which his mother had disappeared, Britannicus was no longer a competitor to be feared. There was only one danger for Nero, if Claudius should die too soon, the Senate might refuse to trust the Empire to a child.
I believe that Claudius died of disease, probably, if we can judge from Tacitus's account, of gastroenteritis, and that Agrippina's coterie, surprised by this sudden death, which upset all their plans, decided to put through Nero's election in spite of his youth, in order to insure the power to the line of Drusus, which had so much sympathy among the masses. As a matter of fact, the admiration for Drusus and his family triumphed over all other considerations: Nero became emperor at seventeen; but when the election was over, Rome - again according to the tales of the ancient historians - saw a still greater scandal than his election. The young man - and this is credible - hastened to engage as his master the first zither-player of Rome, Terpnos; continued his study of singing; and bought statues, pictures, bronzes, beautiful slaves, while his mother seized the actual control of the State.
Agrippina insisted on being kept informed of all affairs; directed the home and foreign policy; and if she did not reach the point of partaking in the sessions of the Senate, which would have been the supreme scandal, she called it to meet in her palace and, concealed behind a black curtain, listened to its discussions. In short, the Empire fell into the hands of a woman; Rome saw the evolution of customs, through which woman had for four centuries been freeing herself from her ancient slavery, suddenly a fact accomplished by her visible intervention in politics - the intervention that the great keepers of tradition, first among them Cato, had always decried as the most frightful cataclysm that could menace the city.
This story is also the exaggeration of a simpler truth. Even if Nero had been a very serious young man, at his age he could not by himself have governed the Empire; it would have been necessary for him to serve a long apprenticeship and to listen to experienced counsellors. Burrhus and Seneca, his two teachers, were naturally destined to be his counsellors; but why should not his mother also have helped him? Like all the women of her family, Agrippina was of superior mind, of high culture, and, as Tacitus himself admits, led a most respectable life, at least to the time of her marriage with Claudius. Brought up, as she was, in that family which for eighty years had been governing the Empire, she was well informed about affairs of State. Is it possible to suppose that such a woman would shut herself up in her home to weave wool, when, with her talent, her energy, her experience, she could be of so much service to her son and to the State? We do not need to attribute to Agrippina a monstrous ambition, as does Tacitus, in order to explain how the Empire was ruled during the first two years, by Seneca, Burrhus, and Agrippina; it was a natural consequence of the situation created by the premature death of Claudius. Tacitus himself is forced to recognise that the government was excellent.
Helping her son in the apprenticeship of the Empire, Agrippina did her duty; but during restless times when misunderstanding is almost a law of social life, it is often very dangerous to do one's duty. The period of Agrippina and Nero was full of confusion; though apparently quiet, Italy was deeply torn by the great struggle that gives the history of the Empire its marvellous character of actuality, the struggle between the old Roman military society and the intellectual civilisation of the Orient.