So – did Nero commit incest with his mother?
One of the few ‘facts’ that is common ‘knowledge’ about Nero (apart from the fact that he fiddled while Rome burned) is that he committed incest with his mother.
But did he?
In Britain, incest is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.
So – if we were to put Agrippina before a British court – would she go to jail?
Let's see what happened at the trial.
Calling the witnesses
Unfortunately, the primary witnesses – historians called Cluvius and Fabius Rusticus – COULD NOT be called, because their evidence had been lost.
Other contemporaries had not been summoned because they did not mention the alleged incest.
- The author of the tragic play Octavia (maybe Seneca himself, and possibly our earliest source of all), had the character Agrippina raging against Nero for killing her, and other characters assailing Nero’s reputation … but none of them even hinted at incest.
- Similarly, Pliny in his Natural History made 93 references to Nero, whom he called ‘the enemy of the human race’. He made 14 references to Agrippina (whom he had seen personally) including details of her teeth, Nero’s breech birth, and her ‘notorious crime’ in killing Claudius … but not a word of incest.
Therefore, we are forced to rely on secondary witnesses – Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio – for evidence.
Let’s see what they said:.
Tacitus was the earliest of the three main witnesses – perhaps 40 years after the events. He claimed that – although not a witness at first hand – he obtained his information from two people who were: Cluvius (who regarded Agrippina as the initiator) and Fabius Rusticus (who blamed Nero).
As a witness for the prosecution he offered a persuasive picture of Agrippina – ‘all dressed up and ready for incest’ – offering herself to Nero when he was ‘warmed up’ with wine. Those close to both, he said, had seen ‘passionate kisses and sensual caresses’ and – he continued – things got so bad that Seneca introduced Nero to Acte to try and counter Agrippina’s ‘pussy appeal’ (muliebris inlectebras). Besides which, he asserted, it was just the kind of behaviour you would expect from a woman who had been corrupted by Lepidus and had committed adultery with Pallas.
Under cross-examination, however, his testimony began to crumble:
- He said that Agrippina offered herself to Nero in ad59. But we know that Seneca introduced Nero to Acte in ad55 ... so when did the alleged incest happen?
- Why, if the incest was so well-known at court, did Poppaea not list it as one of the reasons she wanted Agrippina dead?
- When pressed about the kisses and caresses, all he was prepared to say was that they forewarned of wrongdoing about-to-happen.
- And when asked to come to a firm opinion either way, all he committed to was ‘possibly’ – a remarkably weak word for the chief prosecution witness.
Suetonius’s evidence was compiled 60 years after the events. He too got his information second-hand, but – although he has a reputation as a gossip-monger and fantasist – on this occasion he was relatively sure of his sources: ‘No one doubted’ he assured us.
At first his evidence seemed compelling: ‘There is no doubt that Nero wanted sexual relations with his mother’, and ‘whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, the stains on his clothes afterwards proved that he had indulged in incest with her’.
Examined by the counsel for the defence, however, his evidence fell apart completely.
- ‘Proved?’ he was asked. ‘Are you sure there ‘no doubt’ amongst your sources about that?’ Ah no – for that bit of evidence, all he could say was: ‘they say that’ … he could not categorically guarantee its validity.
- Was there any chance that he was mistaken about the conduct in the litter? As his testimony went on, Suetonius revealed that Nero had also a mistress who looked like his mother. So there was a suspicion of mistaken identity.
- Above all, when the defence pointed out that he only said Nero wanted sex, and asked whether Nero actually had sex, Suetonius categorically stated that Nero wanted sex ‘but was prevented by his mother’s enemies’.
At this point, the judge suggested that Suetonius ought to be treated as a witness for the defence, and the prosecution agreed.
Cassius Dio’s evidence appeared about 150 years after the events and was based, to a certain degree upon Tacitus and Suetonius. However, Dio was independently-minded and quite capable of putting his own interpretation on events.
He appeared as a witness for the defence.
Dio placed events not in ad55, as Tacitus, but in ad59, when Nero was beginning to entertain a mad passion for Poppaea. The story, he recounted, was that Agrippina – fearing that Nero would marry Poppaea – ‘ventured upon a most unholy course’ and ‘used her blandishments and immodest looks and kisses to enslave even Nero’.
Challenged to stop talking in winks and nods, and to say whether or not they had sex, however, Dio refused to commit: ‘Whether this actually occurred, now, or whether it was invented to fit their character, I am not sure’
However, he did offer as one explanation a story that was ‘admitted by all’ – that ‘Nero had a mistress resembling Agrippina of whom he was especially fond because of this very resemblance and, when he toyed with the girl, he would say that he was wont to have intercourse with his mother’. Dio also asserted.us that Nero had a male concubine, Sporus, who, similarly, looked like Agrippina – so generally the implication was that it was a case of people putting two and two together and getting five
Actually, the prosecution failed to produce ANY expert witnesses. It was impossible to find a modern historian who did not qualify the story of the incest with negative weasel words such as ‘suggestion of’, ‘alleged’, ‘reputed, ‘rumoured’ etc.
Those who were prepared to speak out, therefore, all appeared for the defence:
Agrippina’s biographer and expert Anthony Barratt (1996) was sceptical of the allegations, cross-referencing them to Tacitus’s report of Nero’s surprise and fascination on seeing his mother’s dead body. That suggests, Barratt said, ‘a lack of intimate familiarity with it’.
Richard Bauman (1994) admitted that he found the story of incest ‘hard to swallow’, and German historian Jurgen Malitz (1999) came right out and said openly that the stories ‘existed only in the imaginations of later reports’.
But it was Judith Ginsburg (2006) who provided the strongest argument for the defence. All the writers about Agrippina, she said, were men who were scandalised by the sight of a woman with power, and whose misogyny led them to castigate her as muliebris and quasi virile … a ‘sexual transgressor’ capable of the most foul sexual misconduct. ‘The consistency of the tradition’ of Agrippina’s incest, she said, ‘is no guarantee of its reliability’ … which the court took to mean that she did not believe it.
You the Jury
At this point in the criminal case, the judge intervened and dismissed it. In a criminal court there needs to be proof beyond doubt of guilt to convict, and that most obviously was not the case.
However, things are different in a civil court, where the court can decide ‘on the balance of probabilities’, which is a very different thing altogether.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, what do you think?
On the balance of probabilities, did Nero and Agrippina engage in incest?