|Statue of a young Roman, possibly |
Britannicus, from the Vatican collections.
When he was still very small, Claudius would often take him in his arms and commend him to the assembled soldiers, and to the people at the games, holding him in his lap or in his outstretched hands, and he would wish him happy auspices, joined by the applauding throng.While Britannicus was just a boy, Claudius adopted Nero, his grandnephew, to assure the succession in case Claudius should die before Britannicus reached adulthood. It was said that Claudius had every intention of making Britannicus his heir "that the Roman people may at last have a genuine Caesar" according to Suetonius. However, Claudius died in AD 53, poisoned it was said by Agrippina the Younger, his third wife and the mother of Nero. Agrippina and her allies in the senate were able gain approval for Nero to rule and he was acclaimed emperor, though some sources say that Claudius meant for the boys to rule jointly or even for Britannicus to rule alone. In any event, Agrippina made sure that Britannicus and the other natural children of Claudius remained isolated politically.
With a few months, Nero and Agrippina felt secure enough to deal with Britannicus permanently. Like his father before him, he was poisoned and it is said that he breathed his last in the presence of his friend Titus--later Roman emperor in his own right.
A scene from the end of the I, Claudius TV series depicts the relationship between Claudius and his son Britannicus and offers a possible explanation for Claudius's apparent favoring of Nero at the end of his life:
Britannicus: Father, you wanted to see me.The entire transcript of this episode may be found here.
Claudius: Yes, come here. Now listen to me, my son, I've something very important to tell you, so listen carefully. No one must know of it. That's why I've sent for you at this hour, so that no one in the palace will know we've been talking. Now, I intend to alter my will in favor of Nero and I want to explain to you exactly why I'm doing so.
Britannicus: That's very considerate.
Britannicus: Why this sudden need to explain? You haven't felt it before. You adopted him as your son, you married him to my sister, you made him Consul-elect and City Warden without one word to me. You owe me nothing.
Claudius: Now don't speak like that.
Britannicus: Well, that's nothing to what I could say! I may be only a child, but I'm not blind and I'm not a stone. Do you think I haven't seen how you preferred him to me.
Claudius: It was for a reason.
Britannicus: You've never loved me. You've never been as a father to me. Never! Time without number you've shown the world what you thought of me and I shall never forgive you for it, never! And you killed my mother! I shall never forgive you for that either. I hate you.
Claudius: Now, you listen to me. Yes, it's true. For a long time after I discovered what your mother had been... how she had deceived me every day of her life, I could not find it in my heart to love you. But you must understand, you must be a man. Try to understand a father's weaknesses. I don't believe you are my son. I believe you are C-Caligula's son. But what difference does that make? You do not have his nature. I tell you this only to explain why, for a time, I could not find it in my heart to love you.
Britannicus: Was it my fault, then, whose son I was? Was I to be punished? Does a child choose his parents?
Claudius: Now, don't cry. Britannicus, please.
Britannicus: May I go now?
Claudius: No. Come here.
Britannicus: Please may I go?
Claudius: Come here. Come here. Come.
Britannicus: Oh, Father! Father!
Claudius: Now, I have something very important to tell you, so listen carefully. First, no matter who your father may have been, you are now my son and I love you more than anyone in the world. Second, Nero is destined to follow me as Emperor.
Claudius: Now, now, don't argue! It is written. Nothing can alter it! When I am gone, he will try to kill you, as C-Caligula killed Gemellus. And that is why I have treated you as I have. Kept you out of the public eye all this time. I have a plan to save you. Now, Narcissus has arranged it all through Caractacus. You see, the world is now wholly Roman. There is nowhere you could fly to be safe, except the remotest part of Britain. Nero will not be able to touch you there, for there is no one to give you up. Now very soon I shall allow some of Caractacus' young men to return to northern Britain, and you will go with them in disguise. You will stay at the court of Queen Cartimandua. Only she and Caractacus' son will know your real identity. And from there, she will send you north into regions where no Roman's foot has ever trod, but where she has friends and there you will wait.
Claudius: Nero is mad. He will destroy the Empire. His excesses will demand the return of the Republic and you will return to restore it. The Republic will live again.
Britannicus: No. No, I won't do it. It's not honorable.
Britannicus: No! Do you think that I, a Claudian, will paint my face blue and go and hide among barbarians?
Claudius: There is no shame.
Britannicus: No, I won't do it! I'm not afraid of Nero. Nero is a coward. I can protect myself. Let me put on my manly gown. Once I'm officially a man, I'll match Nero in everything he does. I don't believe in the Republic. No one believes in the Republic anymore. No one does except you. You're old, Father, and out of touch. I want my chance to rule, and rule Rome as it should be ruled. If you love me, give me that chance.
Claudius: Yes. Yes, I should have known that would be your answer. Well, so be it. I've done all I could. You shall have your wish. May the gods protect you. ... Britannicus. Perhaps you will confound the prophecies. Yes. Perhaps you will.
Given the monstrous nature of Nero and his reign, it is interesting to speculate how Roman and Christian history may have been different if Britannicus had ruled instead. For a more detailed biography of Britannicus, see the De Imperatoribus Romanis site.