Claudius was very unhappy in his wives. Two he divorced, and then married a third named Messalina, who was given up to all kinds of wickedness which he never guessed at, while she used all manner of arts to keep up her beauty and to deceive him. At last she actually married a young man while Claudius was absent from Rome; but when this came to his knowledge, he had her put to death. His last wife was, however, the worst of all. She was the daughter of the good Germanicus, and bore her mother’s name of Agrippina. She had been previously married to Lucius Domitius AEnobarbus, by whom she had a son, whom Claudius adopted when he married her, though he had a child of his own called Britannicus, son to Messalina. Romans had never married their nieces before, but the power of the Emperors was leading them to trample down all law and custom, and it was for the misfortune of Claudius that he did so in this case, for Agrippina’s purpose was to put every one out of the way of her own son, who, taking all the Claudian and Julian names in addition to his own, is commonly known as Nero. She married him to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, and then, after much tormenting the Emperor, she poisoned him with a dish of mushrooms, and bribed his physician to take care that he did not recover. He died A.D. 54, and, honest and true-hearted as he had been, the Romans were glad to be rid of him, and told mocking stories of him. Indeed, they were very bad in all ways themselves, and many of the ladies were poisoners like Agrippina, so that the city almost deserved the tyrant who came after Claudius. Nero, the son of Agrippina by her first marriage, and Britannicus, the son of Claudius and Messalina, were to reign together; but Nero was the elder, and as soon as his poor young cousin came to manhood, Agrippina had a dose of poison ready for him.
Nero, however, began well. He had been well brought up by Seneca, an excellent student of the Stoic philosophy, who, with Burrhus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, guided the young Emperor with good advice through the first five years of his reign; and though his wicked mother called herself Augusta, and had equal honors paid her with her son, not much harm was done to the government till Nero fell in love with a wicked woman, Poppaea Sabina, who was a proverb for vanity, and was said to keep five hundred she-asses that she might bathe in their milk to preserve her complexion. Nero wanted to marry this lady, and as his mother befriended his neglected wife Octavia, he ordered that when she went to her favorite villa at Baiae her galley should be wrecked, and if she was not drowned, she should be stabbed. Octavia was divorced, sent to an island, and put to death there; and after Nero married Poppaea, he quickly grew more violent and savage.