Mother Knows Best
from the Diary of Nero, 53-54 A. D.
I am fifteen years old today, December 15. Life is much the same. I study, I ride, I attend meetings of the senate and law courts, and I dine with the imperial family. Life in the palace follows a routine, the calendar of public sacrifices and ceremonies, punctuated by a scandal now and then.
Mother harps on my brilliant future. On my lessons, she has shifted from criticism to congratulation, since the first approach reflects as much on my teachers as it does on me. She cultivates them—Seneca, Burrus, and the rest. For herself, she maintains a steady pace of work. She is always perfectly groomed and dressed, in the timeless style of a Roman matron. She even moralizes in the tradition of the great mothers like Cornelia.
“I am merely helping the emperor discharge his duties. Like any wife and mother, I worry. Claudius is elderly, and his health is uncertain.”
Is it wifely care or fear of what will happen after he dies? Her latest tactic is to hurry my marriage to Octavia. The girl will soon be thirteen, which Mother feels is an appropriate age for a princess to marry. Never mind that she and I never talk, though we live under the same roof. Are we unsuited? Are we too young to marry? The political advantage is all that matters.
Saturnalia is that time of year when everyone lets loose and gets a little crazy. They eat too much and drink too much and talk too much. They do things they will regret later. That’s what makes it so much fun.
This year, Britannicus overindulged at dinner. He was laughing and talking in a squeaky voice, and he jumped up to demonstrate something, a kind of dance. His movements became jerky, his eyes rolled, his tongue stuck out, and he fell to the floor. The servants rushed to help.
“The important thing is to keep him from choking on his own tongue,” they said.
Claudius and Mother carried on as though nothing happened. They have seen it before, and they did not want the guests to think it was serious. Octavia stayed immobile, watched her brother twitch like a fish on a hook, and pretended to yawn.
“How tiresome,” she said. “I hate it when he does this.”
The fit passed, they took him to his suite, and dinner continued. I thought it was funny, the spasms and gurgling, like Britannicus was an idiot.
After the ceremonies marking the new year, Seneca comes to talk to me.
“Strap on your sword! Training is about to intensify. This year will see your introduction to public life. Not just honors and appearances at the games, but speeches and court cases. We are getting down to business.”
I am tired of mock debates and endless repetition drills, but the prospect of speaking before the senate or pleading a lawsuit is daunting.
“What if I make a mistake?”
“Not to worry. We will practice, step by step, with speeches before small groups, the advisors, and the emperor and empress. You have the height, the voice, and the stamina. The charisma will develop.”
Octavia is thirteen years old today, March 1. While she usually gets little attention at court, her birthday was an occasion. There were entertainers and presents at dinner, and she was invited to sit with the emperor. She wore a new dress, and her hair was arranged in an elegant, mature fashion. Mother fussed over her, as much as Octavia would tolerate, while Claudius was affectionate.
“You grew up while I wasn’t looking,” he said. “My little girl turned into a princess.”
Pale and angular, she dropped the sullen look and basked in the attention. That made her more attractive, which made me wonder what her mother Messalina was like. She paid no attention to me, hidden in the children’s alcove, but that hardly matters. I know what she does not, that Mother is behind this. The girl is a calf being readied for sacrifice. The wedding will be next month.
Coached by Seneca, I have started giving speeches in public. He writes the speeches, which I rehearse and memorize. While I stand at the podium, I have the text in front of me.
“Don’t bury your nose in it. An orator looks directly at the audience or slightly over their heads. He shows them his face. This technique requires knowing the text backward and forward, so that a glance will remind you what to say.”
During the past four days, I gave four speeches, one in each senate meeting. My debut was on behalf of Troy, which petitioned for tax relief. I reviewed the illustrious history of the city, the ancient legend that Aeneas fled to Italy after the city fell to the Achaeans, and his foundation of Alba Longa, where Romulus and Remus were born. I quoted from the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing, who first from the coast of Troy . . .” As the founder of Rome, Troy was voted permanent freedom from tribute tax.
Next, the colony of Bologna, which suffered a devastating fire, asked for financial aid. The senate voted to send ten million sesterces. Next, Rhodes petitioned to regain its freedom. The Rhodians have a checkered past, alternately siding with or against Rome, but the current regime is sound. The senate granted their request. Lastly, I spoke for the city of Apamea in Phrygia, which was flattened by an earthquake. To help them rebuild, the senate voted remission of taxes for five years.
Despite a few flubs in delivery, I was successful in all four cases. Seneca was pleased. Mother listened to the speeches behind a curtain, as women are not allowed in the senate, and she was pleased. Beryllus is proud, as my tutor for so many years. Even Claudius mumbled something at dinner that sounded congratulatory. I feel victorious, confident, and ready for more.
Octavia and I were formally married today, in the great hall of the palace. She wore the traditional veil, and we observed the other ancient traditions. There was a chorus of girls and boys to provide music, and a select audience of family and nobility. There was only one set of parents, since my father is dead and Octavia’s mother is dead. I was glad to see my aunt Domitia from Campania. There were some relatives of Claudius that I had not seen before, now my relatives.
The bride and groom held hands on the bench, and I lifted her over the threshold. We did not proceed to the nuptial chamber.
“At your age,” Mother says, “that is going one step too far.”
We will wait a decent interval, a year or two. We will keep our respective suites in the palace. In matters of ceremony, Octavia now has the status of a married woman, but in daily life nothing much will change for us.
In the middle of the day, the servants vanished from my suite, and Mother slipped in alone. She looked less formal than usual, her hair was loose, and she wore perfume. As always, she got right to the point.
“Since you are isolated from other young people, I decided to supplement your academic education with a course in sex. You are a married man now, and there are things you must know. I will be your teacher.”
Caught by surprise, I was nervous, but she proceeded to kiss and caress. In short order, clothing was removed, I was aroused, and Mother was insistent. The experience was new and interesting. I had no trouble conveying my delight. Anyway, I prefer this version of her to the stern empress. As I lay spent and happy, she tidied her hair.
“Roman mothers often initiate their sons in this way. And it is true that Caligula had sexual relations with his sisters, including myself. You cannot refuse an emperor, even if he is your brother. Still, I want this to remain our little secret. People can put the wrong interpretation on any action, no matter how innocent.”
“Would they call it incest?”
“Will Octavia be as good as you?”
“A girl’s body is firmer but not necessarily better. Someday, you will judge for yourself. Meanwhile, when it comes to foreplay, experience counts.”
Britannicus is only thirteen, but Claudius wants him to start wearing the toga—legally to become an adult—a year early. The emperor also asked the senate to put Britannicus’s portrait on this year’s issue of money, on a silver coin, and they did. Since money is distributed throughout the empire, this is a form of advertising, of letting the people know who is in favor. Mother brushes these things aside.
“Britannicus is a puny boy, while you are a strong, healthy man.”
“My portrait has not appeared on a coin.”
“All in good time.”
Life returned to normal, more or less, until a comet appeared several days ago. Its tail quickly grew, and it dominated the night sky. As the hot days begin, with the threat of disease, people are afraid. And as Claudius sinks into old age and apathy, everyone is uneasy about the future. A comet means the birth or death of a ruler. Public opinion leans toward the latter.
The comet faded as quickly as it came, and it disappeared yesterday. The people may be relieved, but the palace remains on edge. Unlike most people Claudius perks up in hot weather, which eases his joints. His public appearances are more frequent, and he is seen walking around the palace. Happening to meet Britannicus in a passage the other day, he impulsively hugged him. According to servants who were present, he was close to tears.
“Grow up quickly, my son, so that you can set things right.”
Narcissus announced his retirement today. The reason given was to regain his health at the seaside town of Sinuessa on the west coast. He says he is worn out after so many years in the government. Whatever the reason, it means that Claudius loses his most loyal advisor. The balance of power shifts to Pallas and his group. For the moment, Seneca takes the lead.
As in past years, we do not leave Rome for the summer like most of the aristocracy. The emperor prefers to stay close to home, and he likes the rambling, old-fashioned palace. Mother claims to like it too. Probably, she feels safer here. Safety is a theme. She looks as grand and imperial as ever, but she constantly checks to see who is around, and lowers her voice.
The emperor is 64 years old today, August 1. The dinner celebration was subdued, compared to previous years, but he enjoyed himself, drinking and laughing. Mother was at his side, laughing with him, and doing her best to charm and be charmed. She does not drink wine, but she simulates festivity. The company consisted of old friends of Claudius and high officials, and they took their cue from him. To outward appearances, then, it was a jolly good time. In our corner, Britannicus and Octavia whispered to each other and ignored me.
The autumn games were as exciting as ever. As a family, we attended the races, and Claudius did the honors. This year, I was not pushed forward, but we all shared in the public attention. Britannicus looked confident, and Octavia smiled, though she never says much. Mother looked proud and splendid.
Behind the scenes, she is anxious. The palace is full of whispers, and the advisors argue. Only Seneca and Burrus continue to work as a team. They consult with Mother more often than with Claudius. She visits me every day, and she is up to something.
“The emperor’s health worries me, especially his digestion.”
Locusta, an old woman with a bad reputation, has been spotted in the palace. She was accused of poisoning about a year ago, but nothing was proved. In general, people of her class are not allowed entry, so the servants are buzzing. On the other hand, poison is often suspected when people die of natural causes. The gossip may simply mean that she is disliked.
Stertinius, the emperor’s physician, is more in evidence, too. He was seen entering Mother’s suite. That is unremarkable, except that no one can recall seeing it before. Claudius is old but not ill, unless you consider age to be an illness. Once the hot weather passed, he returned to his shuffling, sleepy manner, like a tortoise who draws back into his shell.
At dinner tonight, Claudius ate something that disagreed with him. He loves mushrooms, and he ate a large helping of them, cooked in a sauce. His taster Halotus was beside him the whole time. A few minutes later, Claudius complained of stomachache, and went out to relieve himself. He returned, continued drinking and eating, then complained again. Mother was there, paying close attention. She did not eat the mushrooms, since she says she does not care for them, though she usually shares food as part of etiquette. Claudius groaned loudly, and she ordered the servants to take him to bed. With the emperor gone, we all left the dining room. The actors and musicians packed up.
Rumors flew that the emperor was poisoned, and the palace is in an uproar. The guard is doubled, and no one can move around without an escort. Stertinius was summoned, and he is with Mother and some advisors in the emperor’s suite. I was summoned, and I just returned from there. Claudius was propped up in bed, wrapped in a thick blanket, with a poultice on his forehead. His eyes were open, but they did not focus, and he did not talk. He looked pale. While I was there, the doctor bent over him and stuck a feather in his mouth to induce vomiting. Nothing came up. Mother took me aside.
“The emperor’s condition is serious.”
“Is he already dead?”
“Nonsense. Still, we must be ready for anything. Stay dressed, and wait for word from me.”
This has been the longest day of my life. It is impossible to describe everything that happened, so I will skim.
I was summoned again to the emperor’s suite. This time, Britannicus and Octavia were there, the top advisors, Mother, Stertinius, and many servants. Claudius looked the same as before. The senate had been notified that he was ill, and they sent a message that they were offering prayers for his recovery. Mother kept a firm grip on the situation and on Britannicus. She conferred with Seneca and Burrus. At one point her astrologer entered and showed her a chart. After that, Burrus left to supervise the guard, and Seneca left on other business.
“The emperor is resting,” Mother announced. “We will all remain here until morning. Let the musicians play softly, to soothe the sick man.”
I managed to get close enough to see that the sick man was not breathing. Still, the servants fussed over him and changed the poultice. There were sounds of marching and voices outside. After daybreak, Mother ordered the servants to fetch my full-dress regalia, and I got dressed under her gaze. Seneca reappeared, holding a paper on which the ink was still wet. It was a short speech to the troops, which I immediately started to memorize. Pallas came. Mother wanted to know the current state of the treasury, cash on hand, and so on. The astrologer made another appearance. He and Mother discussed timing, and they settled on noon.
They marched me out to the courtyard, where the guard going off duty was assembled, and Burrus gave orders. One or two men looked around and asked where Britannicus was. Burrus ignored them. At the stroke of noon, the main gate was flung open. Burrus escorted me out, and presented me to the change of guard. At his signal, all the soldiers saluted me as emperor. As always, there was a crowd of people looking on, and they cheered. I climbed into a litter, and the troops carried me to the Praetorian camp, where I was again saluted.
I delivered the speech I had just learned. It included a money donation to the guardsmen, the same as Claudius made when he became emperor. That prompted more cheers.
We moved on to the senate, which had hastily gathered in the Curia in the Roman Forum. I spoke again, this time without a text, a few sentences about our mutual trust, the good of the state, and my wish to serve the people. It was the sort of thing that has been drummed into me for years. I thought I did rather well off the cuff.
The senators listened politely, voted to suspend debate, then made speech after speech in praise of Rome, the divine Augustus, Tiberius, the recently deceased Claudius, and myself. In the end, they voted me the same powers and titles that Claudius had, and the emperors before him. I refused “Father of the Country” because I am so young. It was now evening. I got back in the litter, and we marched up the slope of the Palatine.
By this time, Claudius’s corpse was decently covered, and his bedroom was cleared. Mother organized a feast, invited the leading figures, and somehow got the dining room cleaned and decorated. I presided, with Seneca at my elbow, and other high officials hovering nearby. The scene was chaotic, wonderful, and hysterical. Everyone in the palace had been awake the night before and was exhausted. The wine went to our heads. Only Seneca remained steady, like a bull among a nervous flock of sheep.
As a bereaved widow, Mother could not celebrate, but her superhuman energy made her glow. She flashed me a look of triumph, then returned to scolding the servants.
As the guests departed, the captain of the guard asked me for tonight’s watchword. I spoke loud enough for everyone to overhear.
“Mother knows best.”
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, New Haven Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Poydras Review, Short Fiction