NERO'S FIRST CRIMES
CLAUDIUS was dead, but the fact was at first made known
only to a few faithful servants. Then Agrippina
arranged that Britannicus, the real heir of the empire,
should be kept out of sight, until her own son Nero had
been set upon the vacant throne.
The senate and people made no objection to her choice,
and everybody hoped that Nero would rule very wisely,
because he was a grandson of Germanicus, and was
advised by Seneca and Burrhus, who were both very able
and upright men.
 Because they were honest, these men first of all told
Nero that he had better send his mother away from
court, where her influence could do no good. Nero
followed this advice, and during the first months of
his reign he was generous, clement, and humane. We are
told that when he was first asked to sign the death
warrant of a criminal, he did so regretfully, and
exclaimed: "Oh! I wish I did not know how to write!"
Nero was only about seventeen years of age when he
began his reign. He was handsome, well educated, and
pleasant-mannered, but unfortunately he, too, was a
hypocrite. Although he pretended to admire all that
was good, he was in reality very wicked.
His mother, Agrippina, had set him on the throne only
that she herself might reign; and she was very angry at
being sent away from court. However, she did not give
up all hopes of ruling, but made several attempts to
win her son's confidence once more, and to get back her
place at court. Seeing that coaxing had no effect, she
soon tried bolder means. One day she entered the hall
where Nero was talking with some ambassadors, and tried
to take a place by his side.
Nero saw her come in, and guessed what she intended to
do. He rushed forward with exaggerated politeness,
took her gently by the hand, and solemnly led her,—not
to a seat of honor by his side, but to a quiet
corner, where she could see all, but where she would
hardly be seen.
Agrippina was so angry at being thus set aside that she
began to plan to dethrone Nero and give the crown to
Britannicus instead. This plot, however, was revealed
to the young emperor. As soon as he heard it, he sent
 for Locusta, and made her prepare a deadly poison,
which he tested upon animals to make sure of its
When quite satisfied that the poison would kill any one
who took it, Nero invited his stepbrother to his own
table, and cleverly poisoned him. Although Britannicus
died there, before his eyes, the emperor showed no
emotion whatever; but later on he saw that the people
mourned the young victim, and then he pretended to
His wife, Octavia, the gentle sister of Britannicus,
was sent away soon after, and in her place Nero chose
Poppæa, a woman who was as wicked as Messalina or
Agrippina. This woman gave him nothing but bad advice,
which he was now only too glad to follow.
Having killed his brother, Nero next began to plan how
he might kill his mother. He did not wish to poison
Agrippina, so he had a galley built in such a way that
it could suddenly be made to fall apart.
As soon as this ship was ready, he asked his mother to
come and visit him. Then, after treating her with
pretended affection, he sent her home on the
treacherous galley. As soon as it was far enough from
the shore, the bolts were loosened, and the ship
parted, hurling Agrippina and her attendants into the
One of the queen's women swam ashore, and cried out
that she was Agrippina, in order to secure prompt aid
from some men who stood there. Instead of helping her,
the men thrust her back into the water, and held her
under until she was drowned; for they had been sent
there by Nero to make sure that no one escaped.
The real Agrippina, seeing this, pretended to be only a
waiting maid, and came ashore safely. The young
 emperor was at table when the news of his mother's
escape was brought to him. He flew into a passion on
hearing that his plans had failed, and at once sent a
slave to finish the work that had been begun.
In obedience to this cruel order, the slave forced his
way into Agrippina's room. When she saw him coming
with drawn sword, she bared her breast and cried:
"Strike here where Nero's head once rested!" The slave
obeyed, and Nero was soon told that his mother was