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This Week In History

Britannicus and Nero – February 11, 55 AD

Tiberius Claudius Germanicus was the son of Roman emperor Claudius, and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. He was born on February 12, 41 AD, less than a month after Claudius had begun his reign. Two years later, Claudius was offered the title of “Britannicus” by the senate, to honor him for his invasion of Britain. He declined the offer, instead passing it on to his two-year old son, who would then be known as Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus. Suetonius records that Claudius loved Britannicus greatly, picking him up during public events and saying “Good luck to you, my boy!”, to which the viewers would echo the sentiment. All seemed to be going well for the heir-apparent, until 48 AD. This is a category of  nero coins.

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Britannicus, Palatine Hill, Rome

Valeria Messalina, while still wife of Claudius, married Gaius Silius, who was forced to adopt Britannicus as his son. Silius was the consul designatus for 49 AD. The bigamous relationship was discovered, as were their plans to overthrow Claudius, declare Britannicus emperor and jointly rule the empire. Messalina and Silius were executed while Britannicus was 7 years old.

Claudius, having sentenced his wife to death, and his son being so young, was in a vulnerable position. Other members of the Julio-Claudian lineage could make a move for the throne. To try to ease the family tensions, Claudius married his niece, Agrippina Junior, on January 1, 49. This marriage brought about three more potential heirs in Agrippina’s sons – Pompeius, Sulla, and Nero. Shortly thereafter, Claudius adopted Nero, who was 3 years older than Britannicus, and a direct descendant of Augustus, but had Pompeius and Sulla executed. Ancient sources are unclear as to whether the boys were Nero’s brothers or were step-brothers from Agrippina’s previous marriage to Marcus Junius Silanus, whereas Nero was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

Agrippina set about quickly to get Nero next in line. She had Britannicus’s tutor Sosibius, executed when he spoke up against Nero being favored over Claudius’s own natural-born son. Nero was named princeps iuventutis in 50, making him guardian of Britannicus, as well as being named co-caesar. In 53, Nero married Britannicus’s sister, Claudia Octavia. Slowly but surely, Agrippina was locking in every position she needed to take power through her own son.

Although Nero was being honored extensively, Britannicus was getting close to reaching manhood by Roman tradition. In October 54, he was less than 6 months from being 14 years old, the age considered mature in Roman society. Claudius was considering divorcing Agrippina, since she and Nero were no longer needed and commended Nero and Britannicus as equals during his last senate address. Agrippina made her move and poisoned Claudius with some mushrooms during dinner, on October 13. Tacitus records that Britannicus, his sister, Claudia Octavia, and half-sister, Claudia Antonia, were all locked away in their rooms so Nero could speak at the funeral and take the throne by himself, without opposition.

Britannicus was now at the mercy of Agrippina and Nero. Those who opposed the new emperor were removed, but Britannicus was still inching toward adulthood. Tacitus reports that Nero decided to make his move and employed Locusta to poison his rival. The same assassin that helped murder Claudius. On February 11, 55, the night before his 14th birthday, Britannicus died immediately after drinking some poison during a dinner party. A party attended by one of his best friends, Titus, who also ended up drinking some of the poison, but recovered after a long illness. Titus would eventually go on to become emperor and issue coins and erect a status to honor Britannicus.

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