11 February AD 41|
11 February AD 55 (aged 14)|
|Burial||Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome|
|Roman imperial dynasties|
|Augustus||27 BC – 14 AD|
| Gens Julia|
Julio-Claudian family tree
| Preceded by
| Followed by|
Year of the Four Emperors
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus (11 February AD 41 — 11 February AD 55) was the son of the Roman emperor Claudius and his third wife Valeria Messalina. He became the heir-designate of the empire at his birth, less than a month into his father's reign. He was still a young boy at the time of his mother's downfall and Claudius' marriage to Agrippina the Younger. This allowed Agrippina's older son Nero to eclipse him in the public's mind. He lived only months into his stepbrother Nero's reign, and was probably murdered just before his 14th birthday.
Birth and early childhood
Britannicus was the son of the Roman Emperor Claudius and his third wife Valeria Messalina; he was probably born on 12 February 41. Of his father's two sons, Britannicus was the longer-lived. Claudius' other son, by his first wife Plautia Urgulanilla, died at the age of 3 or 4; nearly two decades earlier. Britannicus was accordingly named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, sharing his father's praenomen as recognition of his status as heir.
Britannicus' father had been reigning for less than a month, and his position was boosted greatly by the arrival of a successor. To mark the birth, the emperor issued sestertii with the obverse Spes Augusta – the hope of the imperial family. Two years later, in 43, Claudius was granted the honorific "Britannicus" by the senate as a reward for his conquest of Britain. The emperor refused it for himself, but accepted it on behalf of his young son. This is the name by which the boy became known to posterity. According to Suetonius, Claudius doted extensively on Britannicus. He carried him around at public events, and shouted "Good luck to you, my boy!" to elicit a similar response from the crowds. He was supposedly a precocious child.
Fall of his mother, Messalina
In 48, Britannicus became a pawn in the acts that led to the demise of Messalina. One of the conditions for her bigamous marriage to Gaius Silius (consul designatus 49 AD) was that he adopt her son as his own. They apparently then planned to rule as regents for the boy after the planned overthrow of Claudius. Messalina may have believed this was the only way to prevent her son from being killed with his father. Messalina and Silius were discovered shortly after their wedding and put to death, having never launched their coup.
Rise of his step brother, Nero
After the downfall of his mother, Britannicus' youth became a liability for Claudius. The lack of an adult heir made the emperor vulnerable to conspiracies aimed at overthrowing the dynasty, especially those by other Julio-Claudians. It was suggested that he should find an older heir and try to bring an end to strife within the family by marrying Agrippina the Younger, the last adult Julian. Shortly after Claudius married Agrippina, he adopted her son Nero, who was older than Britannicus and a direct descendant of Augustus. Nero was married to Britannicus' sister Claudia Octavia and named joint-heir with Britannicus until such time as the latter came of age. Nero was a popular young man, and his adoption did indeed stave off coup attempts in the second half of Claudius' reign. Britannicus did not get along with his step-family. According to the historian Tacitus, Britannicus continued to refer to Nero by his birth-name, Domitius, long after the adoption. However, it must be remembered that this was an accusation made by enemies of Britannicus. This included public events where the boys were honored as a pair, and jealousy was heightened by Nero's rise to manhood. Nero reacted to these slights by insisting that Britannicus was illegitimate, but Claudius gave no indication of believing this. Tacitus reports that those who had reason to oppose Agrippina and Nero formed a faction around Britannicus, taking advantage of this discord. Agrippina retaliated against these supporters with force, changing Britannicus' circle. His tutor, Sosibius, had once been a tool of Messalina's, and Agrippina quickly disposed of him. Claudius may have agreed to this because of their links to his old officially damned wife. Such warring factions would have undermined his very reason for adopting Nero and marrying Agrippina.
Death of his father, Claudius
|O: head of Claudius|| R: bust of Britannicus
|bronze coin struck in Thessalonica 53 - 54 AD; ref.: RPC 1588|
The actions Claudius took to preserve his rule in the short-term were not easily undone as Britannicus approached manhood. In late 54, Britannicus was within 6 months of reaching manhood by Roman tradition, and had matured early. According to the historian Suetonius, Claudius began to mention divorcing Agrippina and dismissing Nero now that he was no longer needed. In preparation, Claudius commended both his son and adopted son to the Senate as equals in his last Senate address. Suetonius reports that Claudius now admonished his son to grow up quickly, implying that everything would be righted when he assumed the toga virilis.
Sadly for Britannicus, Nero's supporters acted to prevent this. On 13 October 54, Claudius died, perhaps by natural causes or perhaps murdered by Agrippina. Tacitus claims that Britannicus and his sisters Octavia and Antonia were locked in their rooms to ensure that no counter claim could be made to Nero's succession. Nero spoke the eulogy at the emperor's funeral and took sole power. Claudius' new will, which either granted joint-rule to Britannicus and Nero or just Britannicus, was suppressed by the new emperor's men in the senate. The freedman Narcissus, Britannicus' champion according to Tacitus, was quickly put to death. Britannicus was pushed to the background.
Britannicus survived for a few months under the rule of his adopted brother, mostly ignored, but the machinations of his stepmother Agrippina led to his death. In early 55, one of Agrippina's favorites, the freedman Pallas, was dismissed from his job as secretary of the treasury – a post he had held since the reign of Claudius. According to Tacitus, Agrippina reacted violently to this slight by Nero. She declared that she repented of her actions to bring Nero to the throne, and would throw in her lot with Britannicus, the true heir who would soon come of age. She threatened to take the boy to the Praetorian camp, where she would admit to murdering Claudius and Britannicus would be declared emperor. Nero did not take this threat lightly.
Tacitus recounts Nero's numerous attempts to publicly undermine Britannicus' image. One such attempt was when Nero asked Britannicus to sing at a drunken party, months before his 14th birthday. Britannicus however, not only avoided humiliation, but also generated sympathy amongst the guests, after singing a poem telling the tale of how he had been cast aside in favour of Nero. Tacitus also stated the belief that for a considerable time before his death, Britannicus was sexually molested by Nero.
According to Suetonius, Nero moved against Britannicus, employing the same poisoner, Locusta, who had been hired to murder his father, Claudius. The first dose failed, and Nero decided to throw caution to the wind. Britannicus was poisoned at a dinner party attended by his sister, Claudia Octavia, Agrippina, and several other notables. The 1st-century chronicler Tacitus wrote that the assassin avoided being given away by a food taster by adding the poison to his drink when Britannicus asked for it to be cooled, as he felt it was too hot. The substance was instantly fatal, and Britannicus fell to the floor foaming at the mouth. He died on 11 February 55, one day before his 14th birthday, less than a month before he was to assume manhood, and just four months after his father's death. Nero dismissed the murder by claiming that the boy suffered from epilepsy. Some modern historians, particularly Anthony Barrett, suggest that he may have indeed suffered from the disease, and that a particularly bad seizure killed him. Britannicus was cremated and his ashes placed with his father in the Mausoleum of Augustus; during the Sack of Rome in AD 410, the Goths entered the mausoleum, and the ashes of the deceased Emperors and their relations were scattered.
According to Suetonius, Britannicus was good friends with the future Emperor Titus, whose father Vespasian had commanded legions in Britain. As part of the Flavians' attempts to link themselves with the Julio-Claudians, Titus claimed that he had been seated with Britannicus on the night he was killed. He even claimed to have tasted the poison, which resulted in a serious and long illness. Titus would go on to erect a gold statue of his friend, and issue coins in his memory.
Britannicus in culture
Britannicus appears as a character in the novel Claudius the God by Robert Graves, in which Claudius belittles him as a means of keeping Britannicus obscure in the public eye and thus safe from harm. Aware that it is prophesied by the Sibyl for Nero to succeed Claudius, Claudius makes an elaborate plan to hide Britannicus in Britain and for him to return to Rome to restore the Republic. Britannicus refuses to go along with the plan, and Claudius reluctantly agrees to make Britannicus his own heir (knowing that it shall doom his son). It also claims that towards the end of his life Claudius came to believe that Britannicus may have been Caligula's son, not his own. In the 1976 television series, I, Claudius, he was portrayed by actor Graham Seed, and is portrayed as a young adult rather than a teenager.
|Ancestors of Britannicus|
- This date has a margin of error of one year according to Levick
- Barrett argues that Tacitus reference to the will being suppressed so as to prevent outrage about Nero meant that the will did not name Nero as primary or sole heir. Therefore the Senate's elevation of Nero would cause outrage if the will were read
- Tacitus Book XIII, 17
- According to Barrett. Most authors agree he died in that month
- Barrett, Anthony (1999). Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Dio Cassius. Historia Romanum. Books LX-LXII.
- Levick, Barbara (1990). Claudius. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Momigliano, Arnaldo (1934). Claudius: the Emperor and His Achievement. Cambridge: Trans. W.D. Hogarth. W. Heffer and Sons.
- Oost, S.V. (1958). "The Career of M. Antonius Pallas". American Journal of Philology. 79: 113–139.
- Scramuzza, Vincent (1940). The Emperor Claudius. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Suetonius. Twelve Caesars. Life of Claudius.
- Suetonius. Twelve Caesars. Life of Titus.
- Tacitus. Annals. Books XI-XIII.
- Girolamo Cardano Neronis Encomium Translated by Angelo Paratico as Nero. An Exemplary Life. Inkstone Books, 2012.
- (French) Britannicus de Jean Racine : Analysis, Plot overview
- Britannicus de Jean Racine in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker