Britannicus was born Tiberius Claudius Germanicus on February 12, AD 41, only a few weeks after his father became the emperor Claudius. His name was changed to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus after the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. In the ancient sources he is most often simply Britannicus. He was the second child and only son of Claudius and his third wife Valeria Messalina. Their first child had been a daughter, Octavia, older by a few years. Another daughter, Antonia, had been born to Claudius and a previous wife; two other children were long dead. []Claudius did not celebrate the arrival of Britannicus or his subsequent birthdays with the extravagance that might have been expected for a new prince of the imperial house. There were other succession arrangements at the time. [] But as the only surviving son of a reigning emperor, Britannicus carried a burden and a blessing. The promise of his honorific name did not guarantee that all would go well.
The story was told that when Britannicus was a child, a physiognomist was called in to read his character and destiny from his physical characteristics. The pseudo-scientist declared, contrary to expectation, that Britannicus would never be emperor but that another child who was present would someday fill that role. The other child was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, a boy whose father (later the emperor Vespasian) was in favor in the Claudian court and who was often with Britannicus. Clearly, this story would not have developed until a time when Titus’ principate (AD 79-81) was either realized or anticipated.[] But there was genuine fear that the life of the young prince might not follow a smooth course. If the aging Claudius died before Britannicus came of age, it would be difficult for him to remain in line for the principate unless he had a protector. His mother Messalina tried to solve the problem. In AD 48 she unilaterally divorced Claudius and secretly married Gaius Silius, consul-elect for the following year. The idea seems to have been that he would replace Claudius, adopt Britannicus, and protect the future interests of both mother and son. But Claudius learned of the marriage before the plot could proceed. Both principals and a number of others were executed. []Messalina’s preemptive action may have been prompted by a fear that Claudius’ niece, Agrippina the Younger, wanted to take her place and substitute for Britannicus her own son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the boy who would one day become the emperor Nero. The competition between the two minor children was obvious when Claudius arranged an equestrian display for noble youths in AD 47. Both Britannicus and Nero performed. The latter received greater applause. Rumor had it that Messalina had already tried to strangle her rival’s son. []
Stepson of Agrippina
Britannicus and his sister Octavia survived the death of Messalina — for the time being — and Claudius lived a while longer too. Claudius did take Agrippina, the daughter of his brother Germanicus, as his new wife, and she brought with her to the marriage her son who was slightly more than three years senior to Britannicus. Claudius soon adopted him and gave him the name Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar. The action made him his elder son and ostensibly the preferred heir; Britannicus was now a younger brother. [] Although the wily Agrippina was said to have manipulated her new husband into accepting this arrangement, it was in Claudius’ interest to have a son who was closer to his majority. The prospect of orderly succession provided protection. His direct descent from the ever-popular Germanicus was a bonus. Nero was given the toga virilis when he was only 13. The token of adulthood made him ready to move into his father’s place if necessary. []
Britannicus was left in relative obscurity, and his education was neglected. Agrippina was accused of pushing forward her own son at the expense of her stepson. But Britannicus still had his champions, and they pitied him because of the treatment he received from his father and stepmother. The adoption itself offered opportunity for conflict. Britannicus once angered Nero by calling him by his birth name, either Domitius or Ahenobarbus. He held an advantage of being the emperor’s natural son. On the other hand, Messalina’s reputation for promiscuity cast doubt on his legitimacy. []
In AD 54, Britannicus reached the age when he too could soon be given the toga of manhood and so join Nero as a ready successor to Claudius if necessary. Thirteen seemed more appropriate for him than it had been for Nero because he was big for his age. Claudius was reported to be regretting his marriage to Agrippina and changing his mind about the adoption of Nero. He embraced Britannicus, urged him to grow up quickly so that he could be Nero’s equal, and said that he would soon explain all, including the slights that he had received. He also wrote a new will, an action that suggested that he was revising his plans. Agrippina became aware of this change of heart and allegedly took action: It was inevitable that she be accused of poisoning Claudius when he died in October of AD 54. But the report that he was revising his plans in favor of Britannicus may derive from speculation after the fact and be an interpretation on the part of historians who needed to relieve him of responsibility for Nero. Shortly before Claudius died, he commended both boys to the protection of the senate. Perhaps he intended for them to be joint heirs. []
Life under Nero
With Claudius dead, Agrippina quickly saw to it that the Praetorian Guard swore its allegiance to Nero while she kept Britannicus and Octavia out of the way. [] At first she was held in high regard as mother of the new emperor, but Nero quickly put distance between himself and her. As a result, she turned her attention to Britannicus, who still had his supporters. The teenagers continued to challenge and insult one another. On one occasion Nero attempted to embarrass the shy Britannicus by making him sing. Britannicus surprised by responding with a song that hinted at the wrongs that had been inflicted on him. []
Within a year, Nero thought it necessary to be rid of Britannicus permanently. He obviously considered his brother a genuine threat. He hired a known poisoner who first prepared a dose that was subtle enough to disguise the cause of death, but it proved too weak. A stronger, more effective dose eluded the tasters, and Britannicus died quickly before the eyes of his fellow diners. Titus was again his companion. The fatal seizure was excused as an attack of epilepsy. Britannicus was buried immediately during a heavy rainstorm, and an attempt was made to disguise the telltale marks of poison that were thought to appear on his body. It was rumored that Nero had raped him shortly before he killed him. Special opprobrium fell on the murderer of a virgin. []
ConclusionThis was not quite the end of Britannicus’ story. It was still pertinent when the Flavian dynasty that followed Nero was claiming its right to the imperial tradition. This family could not justify its position on the basis of succession to the disgraced Nero and so turned to Claudius instead. And the memory of Britannicus lingered as a reminder of Claudian legitimacy in opposition to Neronian illegitimacy. His sister Octavia is the heroine of the play written at some time after the death of Nero. It’s title is titled her name, but its central message is the wrong done to the Claudian house because of the wrong done to its last male member and its last hope. When Titus became emperor in 79, he set up a statue of his childhood friend.[]
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[] Suet. Cl. 27. Dio 60.22.2. Antonia’s mother was Aelia Paetina. Claudius was married to her before his more prestigious match with Messalina, an event that probably took place in AD 37. Antonia was born in 29 at the latest since she was old enough to marry in AD 41. Claudius also had a son and daughter by his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla. The son, Drusus, died a pubescent youth in 24 or 25. The daughter, Claudia, was thrown out of the house perhaps about the same time because Claudius thought that not he but one of his freedmen was her father.