A retelling of the 'special relationship' between the Roman Emperor Nero and his mum.
My last words? Something like - I’m pointing to my uterus, now - ‘Strike here! At the place that produced such a monster!’ Given his people were clubbing my brains out at the time, I’m impressed I managed to express a preference. My, how tempus does fugit: that was nearly two thousand years ago, yet it seems mothers are cursed never to forget. I’m Julia Augusta Agrippina - the Younger. As Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife (so too his niece) and life-giver to the treacherous devil spawn, Nero, I was a politically pivotal and terminally beautiful member of the ancient Roman elite, described on my Wikipedia page as ruthlessly ambitious and an enthusiastic exchanger of carnal knowledge with both my brother and my son: oh happy, happy days. Less flattering is the tittle-tattle positioning me at the centre of the sensational Mushroomgate scandal, when silly old Claudius kicked the bucket after eating bad fungi. No empress worth her sesterces takes, what my crazy brother used to call ‘a bum rap’, so pay attention: yes, my first two husbands predeceased me in circumstances that could be construed as fishy and yes, to lose a third, in a not dissimilar context, may appear more than mere carelessness, given that my dead loss was my son’s gain, propelling him - overnight - from a palace zero to Emperor Nero; you might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment. Yet had I known then of the boy’s capacity for duplicity, I’d’ve flushed his new-born butt into the Tiber and I could be RIP ’ing now, rather than floating about in a purgatorial Beigeville, being jostled by the proletariat.
‘The best of mothers.’ Those were my boy’s very words, his first day in his new job. Nero was devoted to his Mama then, counted on me to do that which needed to be done, while he felt his way around (so long as the guards weren’t looking). And I was pleased to help, because Mushroomgate was the climax to over six years graft, shaping an environment conducive to the procurement of my - forgive me, my son’s - rightful place as Rome’s First Citizen. King-making is a subtle art, demanding commitment for the long haul and dependent upon a singular form of control - typically operating in the bedroom - requiring stamina and a strong stomach. Visualise, if you will, Claudius: a salivating, sexagenarian cripple - with a st-stutter - gagging for it twice-nightly, thrice on weekends: ‘I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, really, really, really -’ ‘Wanna zigazig?’ ‘Aaaaah.’ During one of my routine bouts of post-coital vomiting, I casually proposed Uncle should adopt Nero, maybe throw-in a promise to name my boy his legal heir and successor when Claudius shuffled-off his mortal doo-dah. It’s no nevermind to me you’re saying ‘hello breakfast’: it’s important you’re fully seized of the naked reality lying beneath the consummation of true greatness; that being a perky-breasted powerbroker, sacrificing herself to the untrussed lusts of a husband-cum-close relative - in the name of sound parenting - was no easy ride. So, when I scored me a quack with a ton of debt and no scruples, Mushroomgate seemed an overdue accident, just waiting to happen. No sooner was Uncle Claudius decomposing in the mausoleum than I got the boy laurel wreathed-up, primed to claim my just reward.
Ever had your face on a coin? I have, many times; dueting with the boy-Emperor, though, was the cherry on the tortini and a fine bit of minting: my haughty expression and dimpled chin diverting attention from his porky chops. We were inseparable in those days, wagging tongues remarked on it. I cautioned Nero time and again: ‘Steady, you’ll stain your toga’; youngsters are so excitable. I appreciated he was a teenager looking to channel excess energy and it was politic for me to act as conduit; besides, that way he was more likely to shuffle-off and fiddle with his lyre, leaving me unmolested to run the empire. I was having a ball. Snapped my fingers and bodies jumped. The Praetorian guard were putty, detaining and maiming at my every whim. And I rigged it so the Senate met in my back parlour, allowing me access to classified information, while indiscreetly concealed behind chintz drapes. I was so self-absorbed I assumed his sulks were due to him missing his mommy being at work all day. And, to a point, I was right. For his fourteenth birthday I'd fixed it so Nero and Claudius’s cow-eyed daughter, Octavia, were joined in matrimonium. They never really got along (nothing novel there, of course), but they behaved themselves in public and if Nero ever needed anything in that way, he knew where to come. Five years later, however, on his nineteenth birthday, our special relationship did a Mount Vesuvius. A bright, spring morning, I thought I’d surprise Nero by taking him in hand, as a special treat. When I reached his bedroom, it was me who got the surprise: some palace popsy with honking hooters had beaten me to it. I was patiently explaining to the popsy she’d best unhook her talons from my poor boy’s member or I’d have her hooters lopped-off, when Nero interrupted me: ‘You’re really starting to tick me off.’ ‘Excuse me?’ ‘I’m done with you criticising all I say, do or scratch; shadowing me, questioning me: “Where you been? Who you been with? How did that get sticky?” Even when I threatened to quit and hightail it to Rhodes you still wouldn’t take the hint.’ ‘Let mama smell your breath.’ ‘Popsy’s in. You’re out. Capiche? This is my palace, I’m the goddamn Emperor - and don’t bother packing, just scat - and be grateful I haven’t had you arrested.’ ‘You’re feverish; lie down and let Mama -’ ‘And I’m having those dumb-ass, Mommie-dearest coins scrapped; what d’ya say to that!’’ ‘Popsy! Summon my physician!’ ‘For some healthful mushroom pâté? Guards!’ Though Nero’s baby blues had all this time been trained not on me, but on a potted palm (he bore a congenital squint), I was in no mood to smile; instead, I seized the moral high ground, stalking out and as I did so, sneering contemptuously at the honking hooters .
Since the Mount Vesuvius episode, I’d been taking time out at my villa near Naples. Rumours flourished Nero had put out a contract on me, but I dismissed them. Then one afternoon his flunkey stood in my vestibule, brandishing a bouquet and chocolates: ‘Gas station flowers and candy? With these he’s really insulting me.’ While I seethed, my eunuch - quite partial to gas station candy - snuck a piece. Moments later, amid writhing agonies, he was toast. In that instant I recalled my spies reporting a pushy cougar in her thirties had made moves on the boy and, accurately predicting my hostility towards an infiltrator, was openly scheming to have me rubbed out: all of a sudden I missed the popsy, with or without her hooters; even convinced myself it wasn’t Nero who wanted me whacked: what a schmuck. That evening I despatched my freedman and maidservant with a message for Nero, blowing a whistle on - what I’d interpreted as - the cougar’s conniving against his Mama. The meeting didn’t go to plan. Apparently Nero listened to what was said, then reached for his sword, tossing it at freedman’s feet, before calling his guards: ‘This guy’s an assassin working for mom: here’s her death warrant - courier it round to her villa with my compliments - after dude’s taken his exit.’ While freedman was ‘taking his exit’, (top tip: when ordered to slit your own throat, it’s important to get it right, first time) maid servant had been cowering in the shadows, waiting for the screaming to stop, before shimmying her fanny back here to fill me in and handing in her notice - and advising I do likewise. If only she’d shimmied a bit quicker. In a twinkling, my home was overrun by Nero’s henchmen. The rest you know.
With me out of the picture, Nero ran off the rails. Made after-life in Beigeville very awkward: horribly mangled corpses forming a disorderly queue outside my urn, whinging how they’d been defiled one way or another and pointing the finger at me for raising my boy all wrong; once or twice had occasion to remind them just who they were addressing: funny thing about death, it’s one hell of a leveller. So when, years later, news reached me Nero had - even by ancient Roman standards - overstepped the mark and been ordered by the Senate to take his own exit, I felt not a little relieved; the whingers could now take their grievances direct to the source of their dissatisfaction, leaving me be. Wait, that boy - skulking there in the corner - why, of all the nerve: ‘Nero! Come here this instant! And what is that on your toga?’
Word Count: 1,500
Part 2 Write a commentary (500 words) accompanying your prose Flowing from my study of A251 World Archaeology, I read broadly around the subject of the early Roman emperors before selecting Agrippina as my focus for in-depth research. As Derek Neale notes: ‘Your ambition in using research…is to create as full a picture as possible so that…the reader is convinced by the complexity of the world you are realising (Neale, 2006, p. 326). The initial challenge was, having produced a wealth of research material, I then realised ruthless selection was essential, to prevent my piece straying from the biographical characterisation required by the assignment, into journalistic reportage. I used a first person narrator (‘I’m Julia Augusta Agrippina, the Younger’) to establish a highly-subjective, ironic-satirical tone, seeking to produce a ‘strongly authentic’ voice, ‘using slang, faulty grammar, and colloquial language’ (‘No empress worth her sesterces takes, what my crazy bother used to call, a bum rap’). I then sought to create a contemporary, Mafiosi setting, positioning the narrator ‘centre-stage’ while hinting that Agrippina is ‘unaware of other possible interpretations [of her words and actions] which we may be picking up.’ (Anderson, 2006, p. 101-126). The piece comprises ‘traditional prose linked by sections of memory’, opening in the present, with Agrippina speaking from the fictitious Beigeville in Purgatory, from where the narrator leads the reader through a series of sequential flashbacks (Haslam, 2006, p. 294-5). The writing was structured by application of several through-lines (here, filial disloyalty, corruption and jealousy with an overarching theme of power: ‘my dead loss was my son’s gain, propelling him - overnight - from a palace zero to Emperor Nero’) signposting the ‘relevance of echoes and resonances’ (Haslam, 2006, p. 308). I adopted the literary device of direct speech as this ‘can invigorate [one’s] approach to a subject’ (Neale, 2006, p. 337). The device was calculated to develop characterisation, to point-up tensions and highlight disclosure of information - ‘I’m done with you criticising all I say, do or scratch’; ‘Gas station flowers and candy? With these he’s really insulting me’- as well as serving to support the themes of disloyalty, corruption and power - events pertinent to the modern world, given a dusting-off. To that end, I created Mushroomgate - inspired by Watergate - as a metaphor for the inherent institutional corruption operating within the ancient Roman elite and described the disintegration of the relationship between Agrippina and her son in terms of Mount Vesuvius erupting (albeit that Agrippina died in 59 AD and Vesuvius’s catastrophic eruption occurred in 79 AD). Imagery plays a major role, enriching characterisation and scene-setting. Agrippina’s declaration that she would have ‘flushed his new-born butt into the Tiber’ indicates a character suffering an acute sense of betrayal, while her ‘post-coital vomiting’ as a ‘perky-breasted powerbroker, sacrificing herself to the untrussed lusts of a husband-cum-close relative’ portrays a tough, plucky individual with a pragmatic outlook. Finally, the ‘palace doxy with the honking hooters’ hints at the nature of the obstacles being deliberately placed in Agrippina’s path by an - increasingly resentful - Nero. Word Count: 500
Anderson, L. (2006) ‘Writing Fiction’ in Anderson, L. (ed.) Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, Oxfordshire, Routledge, pp. 101-126
Beard, M. (2014) Laughter in Ancient Rome: on joking, tickling and cracking up, Oakland, California, University of California Press, pp. 64; 132-3
Blond, A. (2008) The Private Lives of the Roman Emperors, London, Magpie Books, pp.128-145
Haslam, S., (2006) ‘Life Writing’ in Anderson, L. (ed.) Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, Oxfordshire, Routledge, pp. 294-315
"I therefore decided to say No henceforth to every suggestion, request or inquiry whether inward or outward. It was the only simple formula which was sure and safe. It was difficult to practise at first and often called for heroism but I persevered and hardly ever broke down completely. It is now many years since I said Yes."
O'Brien, F. (1993). The Third Policeman, London: Flamingo Modern Classics, p.31