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Farewell Britannicus – we hardly knew ye. February 11th, 55BCE

February 11, 2016

Today, back in the first century, poor young Britannicus bit the dust.  Son of the emperor Claudius, his fate was sealed as soon as his father’s was.


Here is is as played by Graham Seed in the final episode of I Claudius in 1976.  A proud teenager, rejecting Claudius’ plan to hide in Britain while planning the restoration of the Republic.  Seed played Britannicus as an over-earnest youth with an over-developed sense of honour and an underdeveloped sense of pervasive evil.  He didn’t show up until episode thirteen, and he had clearly neglected to watch the previous twelve episodes.

Now it’s impossible to prove that Claudius was actually murdered.  There’s no way of analyzing those mushrooms nearly 2000 years on.  The tradition that the Emperor’s fourth wife and niece Agrippina (well, if you really want to copper-fasten the Julian and Claudian halves of a dynasty you end up violating a few taboos) poisoned her husband is very old.  And what’s beyond dispute is that for Agrippina there was a very specific window of opportunity for Claudius to die in.  Claudius had to die when her own son Nero (and Claudius’ great nephew) was just about old enough to become emperor but before the emperor’s own son (by Claudius’ third wife – the notorious Messalina) was old enough.  If Agrippina didn’t kill Claudius – she was just very lucky.

Or not, as it turned out – given the fact that her son got tired of any kind of maternal restraint and ended up having her killed.

Britannicus was a victim of a form of adoptive monarchy in which one emperor would make his wishes known regarding succession but could not, at least by convention, insult the senate by recommending a child to succeed.  A new emperor had at least to look like an adult if certain residual republican instincts were to be placated and if Rome were to continue to try to distinguish itself from what it liked to “other” as eastern despotisms. Britannicus was born slightly too late, while Nero was – quite literally – the last man standing – and was married to Britannicus’ sister Octavia – making Nero Claudius’ great nephew, step-son and son in law all at the same time.  Britannicus, it said, was deliberately slow giving Nero his new name of “Nero” when growing up, habitually referring to him as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus – the name he was born with.

Some royal family trees look not unlike a flow chart.

Britannicus survived a very very short time into Nero’s reign.  People who represented far less of a clear and present danger than Britannicus to Nero were dispatched quite quickly. So there was no Emperor Britannicus, and nor did Britannicus ever restore a republic. But Racine found him interesting enough to name a play after in the seventeenth-century and he remains a poignant basis for a tragedy – the tragedy of everyone born both helpless and royal – born supremely significant and utterly  impotent at one and the same time.



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