Tacitus is a rewarding, but difficult writer, quite the opposite of Cornelius Nepos, who is easy but boring. The Annales is his final and most polished work. Unfortunately, interest in Tacitus was almost non-existent during the Middle-Ages, with the result that about the half of the content of his historical works have not been copied and are now lost forever. What is still left is of prime importance for historians, as it either covers events not described elsewhere, or gives different perspective. Fortunately the reign of Nero is covered by the Annales and Tacitus - with relentless literary power, brilliance and irony – leaves no uncertainty for the reader what to think about this emperor.
The reign of Nero is full of intrigues and murder and already at an early age he showed his violent character. A major problem for him was his stepbrother Britannicus , son of emperor Claudius. Nero’s mother was Claudius’ 4th wife and so Nero and Britannicus became stepbrothers. Agrippina favoured Nero as new emperor, but Claudius his own son. When Claudius died in 54 – according to Tacitus he was murdered on instigation of Agrippina - Nero was made emperor at the age of 16. Britannicus was safely put away, but a year later there was a fall out between Nero and his mother. She regretted that she favoured her son as emperor and was willing to put Britannicus forward. This greatly worried the young Caesar – and the fact that Britannicus would soon be 14 and be adult under Roman law. Quick action was needed. During the Saturnalia (at December), a game was played by youngsters at which by dicing a king was appointed, who could give the most ridiculous orders to his fellow players. I remember a game `truth or dare’ at which you either had to tell some secret or intimate detail about your life, or had to follow some funny and sometimes embarrassing command - I told or dared things I won’t tell or dare now. I guess the idea must have been the same, including gaining Dutch courage before daring… By chance or (or manipulation) Nero was appointed king and he ordered Britannicus to go to the middle of the group and sing some song. According to Tacitus Britannicus was quite shy in sober company, let alone amongst band of drunken youth. Contrary to Nero’s expectations, Britannicus was quite willing to sing a song, making use of the moment to sing about his unjust treatment by Nero and Agrippina. Instead of being made ridiculous, he receives pity and now Nero realizes that the sooner Britannicus was dead, the better it would be. As no credible charges could be brought forward against Britannicus, Nero decides that poison is the best option, not having the guts at that time to order his brother to be killed openly. A woman hold in custody for poisoning is ordered to brew a venomous potion, but alas! the first attempt fails as Britannicus had the fortune of having either diarrhoea, or the poison was not strong enough. Under threat of being killed, she brews something stronger and Britannicus is killed indeed, but that is told in chapter 16.
(Warning: Tacitus is the example of Roman `brevitas’: whereas in translating Livy you sometimes forget a few words – an adjective or a sub-sub clause somewhere hidden - in translating Tacitus, you will sometimes crave for more words.)
Tacitus, Annales 13, 15 (55 AD)
 Turbatus his Nero et propinquo die, quo quartum decimum aetatis annum Britannicus explebat, volutare secum modo matris violentiam, modo ipsius indolem, levi quidem experimento nuper cognitam, quo tamen favorem late quaesivisset. festis Saturno diebus inter alia aequalium ludicra regnum lusu sortientium evenerat ea sors Neroni. igitur ceteris diversa nec ruborem adlatura: ubi Britannico iussit exsurgeret progressusque in medium cantum aliquem inciperet, inrisum ex eo sperans pueri sobrios quoque convictus, nedum temulentos ignorantis, ille constanter exorsus est carmen, quo evolutum eum sede patria rebusque summis significabatur. unde orta miseratio, manifestior quia dissimulationem nox et lascivia exemerat. Nero intellecta invidia odium intendit; urgentibusque Agrippinae minis, quia nullum crimen neque iubere caedem fratris palam audebat, occulta molitur pararique venenum iubet, ministro Pollione Iulio praetoriae cohortis tribuno, cuius cura attinebatur damnata veneficii nomine Locusta, multa scelerum fama. nam ut proximus quisque Britannico neque fas neque fidem pensi haberet, olim provisum erat. primum venenum ab ipsis educatoribus accepit, tramisitque exsoluta alvo parum validum, sive temperamentum inerat, ne statim saeviret. sed Nero lenti sceleris impatiens minitari tribuno, iubere supplicium veneficae, quod, dum rumorem respiciunt, dum parant defensiones, securitatem morarentur. promittentibus dein tam praecipitem necem, quam si ferro urgeretur, cubiculum Caesaris iuxta decoquitur virus cognitis antea venenis rapidum.
his: Agrippina’s words
voluto: to ponder, consider
ipsius indolem: the character of Britannicus (who was quite intelligent)
levi experimento: by insignificant incident
quo…quaesivisset ( = acquisivissit) by which he got (in the opinion of Nero, therefore the subjunctive)
festis Saturno diebus inter alia aequalium ludicra regnum lusu sortientium evenerat ea sors Neroni: (a nasty sentence) during the day of the feast for Saturn, between other games of those of the same age (there was the game) `kingdom’ , by throwing dice (lusu) that lot (of being king) of those casting lots fell on Nero.
igitur ceteris diversa nec ruborem adlatura (iussit)
ruborem adlatura: about to bring shame
iussit exsurgeret = iussit ut ille exsurgeret
inrisus –us (m.): mockery
pueri ignorantis (+ acc.): for the boy (gen. obj.) unacquainted with
convictus = convivia: company
temulentus : drunk, drunken
exordior exorsus sum: to begin
evolutum eum (de) sede patria: him being turned away from his paternal throne
eximo exemi exemptum: to take away
intellecta invidia: abl. abs.
odium intendit: `strected out (increased) his hatred
minae minarum: threats
occulta molitur: he labours upon secret things
ministro Pallione Iulio...tribuno: the tribune P.I. being helper
cuius cura attinebatur damnata veneficii: in whose care was one detained, condemned for poisoning (lit. `the act of making poison’)
multa scelerum fama: with much fame for scandalous deeds
nam ut …, olim provisum erat = nam olim provisum erat, ut… because already for a long time it was provided that…
neque fas neque fidem pensi haberet: had no justice or trustworthiness of (any) weight
ab ipsis educatoribus: from his very own tutors
tramisitque exsoluta alvo parum validum: and he (Britannicus) transmitted (the poison) through a womb (alvus, f!) set loose as of little strength
saevio: to rave, be destructive
minitari…iubere: historic infinitives `he threatens ( +dat).. orders’
lenti sceleris impatiens: impatient for a slow scandalous deed
supplicium: death penalty
quod, dum rumorem respiciunt, dum parant defensiones, securitatem morarentur: the sentence is not difficult, provided that you take quod securitatem morarentur as referring to Pollio and Lucasta as subject `because they delayed/put in danger the safety (of Nero)’, and respiciunt and parant as referring to the adherents of Britannicus.
promittentibus: abl. abs.
praecipitem necem: a rash death
cubiculum Caesaris iuxta = iuxta cubiculum Caesaris
decoquitur virus cognitis antea venenis rapidum: a poison is cooked, rapid working by previously known venoms
Translation by John Jackson (1937)
Nero was confounded at this, and as the day was near on which Britannicus would complete his fourteenth year, he reflected, now on the domineering temper of his mother, and now again on the character of the young prince, which a trifling circumstance had lately tested, sufficient however to gain for him wide popularity. During the feast of Saturn, amid other pastimes of his playmates, at a game of lot drawing for king, the lot fell to Nero, upon which he gave all his other companions different orders, and such as would not put them to the blush; but when he told Britannicus to step forward and begin a song, hoping for a laugh at the expense of a boy who knew nothing of sober much less of riotous society, the lad with perfect coolness commenced some verses which hinted at his expulsion from his father's house and from supreme power. This procured him pity, which was the more conspicuous, as night with its merriment had stript off all disguise. Nero saw the reproach and redoubled his hate. Pressed by Agrippina's menaces, having no charge against his brother and not daring openly to order his murder, he meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the prætorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor's chamber.