Contact Jasper Burns at (Email Address)
Return to Home Page
Return to Roman Empress Page
Return to Classical Gas Page

Was Nero the natural son of Claudius?

By Jasper Burns
(First published in THE CELATOR: Journal of Ancient and Medieval Art and Artifacts, Vol. 10, No. 12, December 1996, copyright by Jasper Burns)

Nero's Mother, Agrippina the Younger
Copyright by Jasper Burns

One of the mysteries of Roman history is: Why did Claudius choose his stepson Nero to succeed him over his own son Britannicus? While Nero was older than Britannicus by a little more than three years, Claudius' decision perplexed the ancients no less than it does modern scholars. Many writers have tried to explain it as the result of pressures brought on him by his ambitious and overbearing wife, Agrippina, and by her accomplice, the finance minister Pallas. It has even been argued that Claudius suspected that Britannicus, the son of his promiscuous wife Messalina, was not his own son. Is it possible that Claudius believed that Nero was?

This explanation for Claudius' preference for Nero seems never to have been suggested before. The ancient historians are all clear on the point that Nero's father was Agrippina's first husband, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. The fact that Ahenobarbus was a violent and unsavory man must have seemed to confirm his paternity of the unpopular Nero. And the idea that the beautiful, 20 year-old Agrippina was intimate with her twenty-five year older and reportedly unattractive uncle might seem absurd. However, they did marry twelve years later when Claudius was emperor, and if we suspend our disbelief for a moment, and look carefully at a few enigmatic bits of evidence, the proposition might begin to appear a little less far-fetched.

First of all, it is worth remembering that the sexual activities of the Julio-Claudian court were extremely complex and unpredictable. Claudius was married four times, Agrippina three, and both were famous for their extramarital exploits. Agrippina and her sisters, Livilla and Drusilla, were believed by many to have committed incest with their brother, the Emperor Caligula. Ahenobarbus, Agrippina's husband at the time of Nero's birth, was charged with treason, adultery, and incest with his sister Domitia Lepida at the end of Tiberius' reign. It was only the old emperor's death and the accession of Caligula that got him off the hook.

Copper As of Nero

Nero was born on December 15, 37 C.E., almost exactly nine months after the death of Tiberius on March 16 of the same year. Ahenobarbus, who suffered from dropsy and was a near-invalid at the time of Nero's birth, acknowledged the boy as his own. (How could he have accused the emperor's sister of adultery, especially if it was with the emperor's uncle?) However, he is said to have commented that any result of a collaboration between himself and Agrippina was bound to "have a detestable nature and become a public danger." This was a heavy curse to lay on one's own son! Ahenobarbus died when Nero was three.

As was customary, Nero's family gathered nine days after his birth for a purification ceremony and the choice of a name. It was customary for a first born son to be named after his father, but in the Ahenobarbus family, males were given the names Lucius or Gnaeus in alternating generations. Therefore, Nero would be expected to receive the name Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. The Emperor Caligula was present at this naming ceremony, as was Claudius. Agrippina asked Caligula to choose a name for the baby. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that the Emperor, known for his ironic sense of humor, looked at Claudius, grinned, and said; "I name him Claudius."

Agrippina ignored the suggestion and chose "Lucius" after all. Everyone assumed that Caligula was just being mischievous by choosing the name of his laughing-stock of an uncle. But could his mischief actually have been in alluding to a family secret by choosing the name of the boy's real father?

There is a story about the young Nero that involves an alleged attempt by Messalina to have him killed by hired assassins. This tale may have come from the memoirs published by Agrippina when she was married to Claudius and working to secure the succession for Nero. The historian Suetonius' version reports that the assassins entered Nero's room intending to strangle him as he slept, but were frightened off by a snake that emerged from under his pillow. A sloughed snakeskin was found later which Agrippina mounted in a golden bracelet worn as a talisman by Nero for many years. Another Roman historian, Tacitus, mentions a version involving more than one snake, but tells us that Nero himself confirmed the one snake story.

This tale may be relevant for a couple of reasons. First, if true, it shows Messalina's determination to eliminate Nero as a possible rival to her son Britannicus. While she is said to have taken pains to remove or disgrace several of her husband's male relatives, she seems to have taken an unusually direct approach with Nero. Could she have known or suspected that he had a special relationship to Claudius.

The other intriguing aspect of this story is more romantic. The tale of Nero and the serpent(s) is reminiscent of a legendary story of the baby Heracles. According to the Greek myth, Heracles was the son of the mortal woman Alcmene and the god Zeus, who assumed the form of her husband Amphitryon to make love to her. The goddess Hera, Zeus' wife, was so jealous of Alcmene that she sent two snakes to destroy Heracles and his twin brother Iphicles in their sleep. However, the super-human Heracles woke up and strangled the snakes, revealing his divine paternity. Now, if we see Nero as Heracles, Claudius as Zeus, Agrippina as Alcmene, and Messalina as Hera - and remember that Agrippina is believed to have told this story while promoting Nero's claim to succeed as emperor - we might reasonably wonder if it contains a hidden message.

Brass Sestertius of Nero

Claudius married Agrippina on January 1, 49 C.E., when Nero was 11 and Britannicus, his son by Messalina, was almost 8. It was generally assumed that this was no love-match, that Agrippina seduced Claudius and used him to further her ambitions for herself and Nero. Still, sexual relations between the two were taken for granted by Tacitus. When the law was changed to make their marriage possible, two weddings took place between uncles and nieces. The fact that Claudius and Agrippina attended one of them might suggest a certain sentimentality on the subject.

Claudius had a long-standing affection for Agrippina. Shortly before their marriage, he described her as "my daughter and foster-child, born and bred in my lap, so to speak." He allowed unprecedented honors to be heaped on her when she had become his wife. She became the first empress to receive the title of Augusta while her husband was still alive.

Claudius adopted Nero in 50 C. E. and was soon openly preferring him to Britannicus. In 51, Nero was named "Princeps luventutis" ("Leader of Youth"), which clearly marked him as the heir apparent. He appeared at the Games wearing triumphal robes while Britannicus remained dressed as a boy. Britannicus' portrait soon disappeared from the offical Roman Imperial coinage (though not from all provincial issues) while Nero's portrait remained.

There is an interesting story concerning the adoption of Nero, which comes from Seutonius' "Lives of the Twelve Caesars." In giving examples of Claudius' "scatterbrainedness and shortsightedness," he remarks that: "Shortly before adopting his stepson Nero - as though this were not wrong enough, when he already possessed a grown up son - [Claudiusj gave out with pride more than once that nobody had ever yet been adopted into the Claudian family." (translation by Robert Graves, Penguin Edition, 1979)

The question here is why did Suetonius find this remark strange? Were there previous adoptions into the clan that Claudius forgot about? Not according to Tacitus, who confirms the Emperor's statement. Was it simply that he was showing insensitivity to Britannicus' apparent misfortune in losing his place as the eldest son? Or was it because Claudius was unaccountably bragging about an ancient family tradition just as he was preparing to break it? If so, then the fascinating question arises: Was Claudius hinting that Nero's adoption was not an exception to the rule after all, as he was really a Claudian by birth?

In 53, Nero was married to Claudius' daughter Octavia (she was legally transferred to another gens, or clan, to avoid legal incest). This may be seen as a serious difficulty with the proposition as Nero would have been Octavia's half-brother if Claudius was his father. Would Claudius have willingly betrothed his son and daughter to each other?

Copper As of Claudius

Claudius, a grandson of Mark Antony, was well-versed in Greek culture and had numerous connections with the Hellenistic royal houses of the East, in which brother-sister marriages were common. Also, marriages between children of the same father, though not of the same mother, were permitted in Greece.

There is a story (told in another version about Caligula) that Nero once asked a companion if he, like Nero, had slept with his own sister, to which the quick-witted friend replied, "Not yet." Who was the sister with whom Nero claimed to have slept? There was only one possibility - Octavia. And it seems that the novelty of his relationship with Octavia would only have intrigued Nero if she was his sister by blood rather than by adoption only.

Admittedly, the evidence is open to interpretation, and there are difficulties. For example, why didn't Claudius or Nero acknowledge their relationship? A plausible answer to this might be: Because that would expose Agrippina and Claudius to scandal and deprive Nero of his very illustrious ancestry and considerable inheritance through the Ahenobarbus family. He was already the natural heir to Claudius' entire lineage through his mother and his grandfather, Claudius' brother Germanicus.

It is true that Nero made disparaging remarks about Claudius after his death, and tolerated public ridicule of his predecessor. But he also had Claudius deified, though this would seem to have strengthened Britannicus' position more than his own. Also, deification of dead emperors was not automatic at this time; neither of Claudius' immediate predecessors received that honor. And Nero did more than ridicule Agrippina, who was undoubtedly his mother - he murdered her!

Of course, the evidence presented here is far from conclusive. Still, it is interesting that all of the suggestive passages seem to originate from the people most likely to have known the truth about Nero's parentage - his mother Agrippina, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero himself. And the strongest argument in favor of this theory is not open to question: Claudius did prefer Nero to Britannicus and treated the two boys as if there were no difference between them but age. When Claudius died in 54, it was his elder son Nero who became his successor.

Contact Jasper Burns at (Email Address)
Return to Home Page
Return to Empress Page
Return to Classical Gas Page