How Nero tried to kill his mom, Agrippina, with a collapsible party boat

This year, I gave another talk at Glitch City’s yearly post-E3 Demo Night. It is the best E3 party because it is the one with the least amount of videogames in it.

I gave a talk last year too. This time, I gave another talk about ancient Roman murder. You can find my source material here. The slides for my talk were drawn by Brendon Chung and his Nero faces make me laugh every single time I look at them. You can find those slides at the bottom of this blog post.

The other talks are REALLY GOOD and I recommend watching the whole playlist of Demo Night 2017. I really liked Johnneman Nordhagen’s talk about early American fascism and the origin of the FCC; I also really liked Tom Astle’s talk about the genetic algorithm, and Chelsea Hash’s live technical art demo!

My talk is #7 in the playlist below. The text of my talk is below that:

So, everyone has heard about the Roman Emperor Nero. You’ve probably never heard about his mom, Agrippina. She was beautiful, wealthy, and feared, and for a short time she actually ran the Empire.

And, when he was twenty-two, Nero tried to kill her with a collapsible party boat.

Here’s the deal. Agrippina was from a powerful family. Caligula was her brother. Claudius was her uncle… and her second husband. She had him killed with a plate of poisoned mushrooms. She was known as an incredibly cutthroat person. Agrippina’s first husband was named Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. When their son Lucius was born, Gnaeus just said, “I don’t think anything produced by me and Agrippina could possibly be good for the state or the people.”

Lucius grew up to be Nero. He was seventeen when he became emperor, and for five years, Nero was fine with his mom in running things– and getting all the credit. She wasn’t puppeting from behind the scenes. She was calling herself Empress and putting her face on coins.

She lost control over Nero, however, when she complained too much about his new girlfriend. Nero kicked her out of the palace. Once he discovered that he could do this, he got addicted to tormenting his mom. He stripped her of all her powers– and sent her bad houseguests. She still had a lot of influence, though.

Nero finally decided to have Agrippina killed. But she had been eating antidotes for so long that she was IMMUNE TO ALL POISONS. So Nero found a solution to the unkillable mom: he built a death trap party boat and gave it to her as a gift.

He planned for the party boat to smash her to death with a heavy lead weight positioned directly above her lavish boat throne. Agrippina went out on a night cruise, and someone triggered the giant lead weight– but her boat throne was too powerful! It had a high back and wings and they protected her.

The boat rowers were in on it, and they had a plan B: run back and forth over the boat from side to side and tip it over to drown her and hide the evidence. But chaos erupted. Instead of running to the same side, half of them ran to one side and half ran to the other, so the boat DID NOT TIP OVER. It took them FOREVER to sink it.

Meanwhile, Agrippina’s friends aren’t even sure if this is an accident. Agrippina’s servant-girl can’t swim, so she starts screaming, “HELP, HELP, I’M THE EMPRESS! Save ME!” — so the murderous boat rowers just smash her to death with their oars!!

Agrippina sees this. Now she knows what’s going on. Immediately she turns and swims away. She swims right into some fishermen who are sailing to the scene. She tells them, “I’m the empress, save me, DON’T go over there.” So Agrippina gets out of the boat death zone and SURVIVES.

Agrippina decides to play stupid. She send a letter to Nero saying, “OH I WAS IN A TERRIBLE BOAT ACCIDENT WITH THE BOAT YOU GAVE ME, BUT I’M SO HAPPY TO BE ALIVE HOW ARE YOU EVERYTHING’S FINE.”

Agrippina misjudged, though. She’s scared of Nero, but NERO IS EVEN MORE SCARED OF HER. He LOSES HIS DAMN MIND. Remember, he already saw her kill one emperor. So he gets his soldiers and he says “just go and fucking murder my mom.”

His soldiers stomp into Agrippina’s palace, breaking down doors, and when they finally get to her room, they find her sitting there with her belly out, and she screams, “strike me in my womb, where HE CAME FROM,” and they DO, and she DIES!!! WHAT THE FUCK!!

I first heard this story in high school– I studied Latin for six years in middle school and high school. Everyone in it was such a bloody-knuckled kind of a person. It from this murderworld there was no room for even a microgram of kindness and everyone was assassinating each other all the time. I spent years learning about these people and Genghis Khan and World War One and the conquistadors and Salem witch trials and Julius Caesar getting stabbed and Emperor Tiberius scraping a man’s face off with giant knobbly crabshells, and when you’re a teen and you’re learning about history, it’s scary, and this stuff makes you wonder:

Was everyone in the past just horrible fuckmonsters living in a 24/7 violent orgy of suffering?

Let’s be honest, no. They were not. Studying history can sometimes make you feel like everyone in the past was so awful and gross that they are aliens to you. History class makes the past feel like it was universally bad and full of overwhelming suffering, and yeah, life was hard, but murder orgies like this one are serious outliers. Most people in history had what we would recognize as totally normal lives.

If I could change the way history is taught, I would spend a lot of energy making stories about peaceful ordinary people’s lives as exciting as people who kill each other with rube goldberg death boats. For the last five or six hundred years, we know enough about ordinary dudes that it wouldn’t be hard to show students how to feel kinship with the people from the past.

For the ancient past, however, it can take an act of imagination to really understand the universal humanity you share with people who lived two thousand years ago. So imagine for a second that you were in the happy crowd of totally normal peasants waiting on the shore for that once in a lifetime chance to see Agrippina step safely out of the fishermen’s boat. Imagine that you saw her beautiful face and her soaking gowns, and later you heard some terrible rumors, but she passed in and out of your life like a lavish ghost, and you never saw her again.

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