• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Britannicus

September 2019


Foundational to the pursuit of science—especially in this material and inscrutable age—is the study of thermodynamics. Confessedly, though doubtless to the exclusion of any wandering physicist by whom this humble entry might be read, it’s a foundation about which we average people know little. It’s certainly not one upon which our curiosity is raised and our scouring inquiry built. Acquisitive rather than inquisitive, profligate rather than scientifically literate, we Americans don’t much bother ourselves with the attainment nor the retention of basic scientific laws. We follow celebrities, not studies; fashions, not immutable truths.


That said, while we might concern ourselves distressingly little for its essence, we feel the effects of thermodynamics each and every day. One such effect, admittedly uncommonly seen, felt, or even known (to contradict my above point) is that of the “triple point” of a substance. It’s an astonishing phenomenon. If granted permission by the fickle confluence of temperature and pressure, of the atmosphere and of the surrounding heat, a substance can—if only for a brief while—exist simultaneously in its three possible phases. So long as this typically unnatural environment allows for it, the substance will bubble, flow, and sink with harmonious, amorphous gaiety. Like the Trinitarian doctrine come literally, rather than liturgically, to life, one substance will present as three. So long as the godly experimenter can dictate and control the conditions from which the substance can arise (no different a task, I shouldn’t think, from that executed by that grand Executive above), the substance will continue in a perplexingly coequal gaseous, aqueous, and solid state.


It’s a marvel to behold. Even more marvelous, however, is this—yet another phase. I introduce here another transitional state quite as comparably profound—that from thermodynamics to theatrics; from science to the stage. As if the process were magic or alchemic or something devilishly in between, the phase at which we arrive upon taking this leap is, of all possible destinations, the most sublime. After all, that’s what art, beauty, poetry, and all human endeavors in their most creative and studied forms combine at last to become—sublimity. That’s the end for which our vital bodies strive, the potted gold at rainbow’s end of which we’re in constant search.


Sublime, awesome, neoclassical, terrible—these, among others too numerous to list, are the words by which the work Britannicus might be described. Written by the seventeenth-century French tragedian Jean-Baptiste Racine, Britannicus reminds me above all of the aforementioned “triple point” of matter. Briefly a contemporary of Descartes, slightly longer as that of Newton, Racine admittedly wasn’t himself a scientifically-minded man. He was, first and above all else, a thespian more than he was a Cartesian, a dramatist more than he was a physicist. Though not uninitiated with those masters and matters that defined his day, Racine was a man whose poetic soul remained elevated, focused, and pure. It was, much to our future enjoyment, a spirit and a tongue untainted by academic verbiage and scientific prose.


Although he certainly didn’t have the intent of flashing before my eyes thermodynamic sparks in the midst of reading his play, I was brought to that explosive endpoint nevertheless. I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the applicability of the “triple point” to the character development of a particular person that was so brilliantly orchestrated by Racine. Rather aesthetically than scientifically applied, I thought this “triple point” representative of the transitional phase through which the play’s (and possibly history’s) leading antagonist, the Roman emperor Nero, goes.


Last of the five Julio-Claudian kings, Nero was—to borrow loosely from the language above—a thoroughly thermodynamically unstable person—if so entropic an individual could ever be thought to exist. An adopted son of the emperor Claudius by whom he was, until the seventeenth year of his age, preceded on the throne, Nero matured into one of the most ignominious, tyrannical, depraved, and injurious of all Roman politicians to date. That, of course, is placing upon his infamy a morbidly lofty status; many frightful politicians (among whom we might number Commodus, Caligula, and a much more recent Mussolini) have graced those same seven hills between which that ancient center of the Mediterranean still heaves. Nero, in the estimation of most Italians today (who, on matters politic, very seldom find a friend with whom to agree) was without a debate the worst.


Capricious and cruel, insolent and self-obsessed, he was, by the time of his death, a man entirely hated by all. Loathed by those over whom he ruled, feared by those at his kingdom’s furthest reach, he was a universally despised man. Inheritor of a once honest name, he became a rank despot upon whom his family’s increasingly inglorious dynasty was to end. None was immune to suffering under his reign. For proof, he was the bane of both Christian and Jew. So infrequent is it in their long histories of persecution that these two religions find themselves aligned, but their shared oppression at the hands of Nero was commensurable. Perhaps, in time, it might even be a point over which they will gather, lay down arms, and commiserate. Still, we await this day. They suffered mightily, and they suffered alike. These peaceful, albeit divergent children of Abraham became the equal recipients of Nero’s wrath.


In the case of the former, Nero sided with the Romanized Hellenes against whom those wretched Hebrews fought. What began as an earnest struggle for political legitimacy, regional sovereignty, and religious pride became a desperate conflict for life. At stake was the preservation of the Jews’ identity—so often besieged and besmirched. Nero dispatched to that still tumultuous land of Palestine his trusted general Vespasian—who was, in his own time, to become the future fount of the Flavian kings.


Naturally, when it came to the judgment of the Jewish cause, Nero was royally unsympathetic to that ancient people’s plight. He was rather unimpressed by their morally-dubious monotheistic creed and the insularity of their shtetls. As have done most anti-Semitic leaders ever since, he pursued his generation’s “Jewish Question” with unmitigated and sanguinary zeal. Beginning with his violent suppression of the Jewish revolt in the year AD 66, the course was set in place for the eventual razing of the Second Temple four years later. With the alternatively guiding and hammering hand of Nero, the walls of Jerusalem would be soon made to fall.


As it pertains to the latter, nearly all of Christendom is cognizant—no less so after the passage of two millennia—of Nero’s unforgivable sins. Indeed, his bigotry, scurrility, and irreligiosity hardly requires my retelling if you’re a Christian capable of holding a grudge. And, based on my experience, most Christians—bless their hearts—are. Affixed to his fiddle while his own city burned, Nero found in the Christian people a ready scapegoat upon whom a great deal of the blame for the fire could be placed. Still an unformidable and juvenescent faith (Mark, first and best of the authors of what would come to be at century’s end the Synoptics, was only then finishing his famous biographical, Christological sketch), the Christians hadn’t yet the numbers, the power, nor the political clout to defend themselves against his tireless persecution. Nero found in the religious bigotries of his day and in the common Pagan animosities toward the sect of Christ an expedient of which he was in desperate need. How else was he to explain to his charred and singed population the spontaneous flammability of the ground through whose tear-laden weeds it was made to grovel?


Ultimately, it’s Nero’s arrant depravity and Rome’s resilient grandeur that draws us in toward a closer inspection. The combination compels us to admire the age and to abhor, while persisting to study, the man. But the man, hard though it is to believe, wasn’t always that bad. Indeed, at the outset of his reign, he was considered by the masses to be innocent, outwardly benevolent, perhaps even innately good. Surely, no one expected brutality and malevolence from a king so sensitive to poetry, to music, and to art. He was smitten with himself, enamored of his own vanity, and thought his own voice and theatricality the greatest in the world. Could he even deviate his attention from his own reflection to enforce a decree, much less a monstrous, genocidal edict? Most thought he couldn’t.


And so, his coronation augured well for a Rome desirous of peace. Warmly, the city invited to the dais this young and self-proclaimed athlete and aesthete—this stripling of a king who wanted not royalty, but poetry to serve as the muse and scepter his life. It was hoped that he would be a fine continuation of the sapient, gentle, and only occasionally amorous Claudius by whom he was adopted.


Of course, this didn’t come to pass. Experience, as is its wont, diverged from expectation. Hopeful though they might’ve been for the prospects of a long and peaceful reign, the citizens of Rome were quickly disappointed with the accession of Nero; his magnanimity proved ephemeral—his stability, entirely absent. But there was a moment of transition, for he was never entirely good, nor wholly bad in the early part of his reign. This is the point at which Racine captures his snapshot of the king. This, in my opinion, is the most interesting part of the man, for it is man—a species ever vacillating between a hunger for power and an unslakable thirst to be loved; a species forever caught between an appetite of evil and good. He was, at this time, neither the depraved beast of his more advanced years (a reprobate, as shown, for whom nothing better than odium ought to be reserved), nor the sheltered, lyric-strumming, stoic-mouthing innocent of his youth. Racine portrays him in a terrifyingly transitional, and indeed recognizably human stage. That, if I don’t speak amiss, is the Neronian “triple point” at which this character explodes.


Rather than solid, liquid, and gas, the three phases in which Racine concocts Nero are as statesman, sadist, and as son. And, just like the matter found here on earth, Nero exists in them simultaneously. Emerging from the combined tuition of the Stoical Seneca and the martial Burrus, Nero wasn’t at all deficient in education. It wasn’t for a lack of intellect and its careful fostering that his character so precipitously and violently declined. Seneca, after all, was the first-century’s inaugural member of that ancient and phlegmatic sect (to whose later roster the names of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would be added). As did Aristotle to Alexander, Seneca delivered to his royal pupil all of the learning of which he was in possession. Even after having emptied himself of a lifetime of thought, it wasn’t enough for the fulfillment of the prince. The pedagogical pursuit of a king proved once again evasive, and history was made to suffer for the loss. The lesson remains: young kings aren’t usually the most educable of students, Prussia’s Frederick the Great excepting. On balance, though, the Peripatetic’s project was the better success of the two, but we blame not Seneca for his pupil’s failure.


While I’m at pains to emphasize the presence of Seneca in the young king’s life, Racine mentions him not. In fact, the philosopher isn’t even listed on the dramatis personae. Burrus, on the other hand, finds himself given a role. Of the two men by whom Nero was formally educated, only Burrus is gifted a speaking part in the play. A character somewhat ancillary to the plot, the audience is forgiven for not focusing its attention on him, but it’s clear to see his effect on Nero as the statesman—first of the three phases. Due to the stimulus of Burrus, Nero began to realize the newly-gained totality of his power. It was by Burrus’ direction that Nero came to understand the indomitability of his fist, the plenary nature of his persuasion, and the forcefulness of his decree. As first consul, he was the Jupiter of this cosmos to which we apply the name of state. His will, however mercurial it may be, was his law and the spark of his lighting was severe.


That exhausts my comments on Nero as statesman. The second of the three phrases in which Racine sets the king is in that of son. And of what good is a son if not for the status of his mother? And of what good is a mother if not for the shrewd and protective tenacity that’s shared between both human and lioness? What is her relationship to her son if not solicitously attentive to his future prospects and, god willing, to her own personal fame? Nero’s mother, as it turns out, was lacking neither in prominence nor in surveillance, nor in an ability to effectuate her aims. Known to Nero as mother, to Rome as machinator, history knows her by the name of Agrippina the Younger.


Agrippina, this matron of monarchs, is herself deserving of a digression. Conscious, however, of my own verbosity and the constraints upon your time, I’ll spare the cherished reader a longer walk along this tempting path. A brief jaunt will suffice. Agrippina was, among so many things, a youth of royal blood, an endangered adolescent, an incestuous lover, and almost a queen. She was the sister of Caligula—a relation by which her sexual notoriety profited little. Politically, though, her proximity to and intimacy with the crazed emperor was a boon. Wanting to replicate the Pharaonic style of sister-love, Agrippina approached her unstable, regal brother with arms outstretched and legs invitingly open. Caligula, prone to profligacy himself, was in little need of convincing. The union proved disappointingly unfertile—a fact much to biology’s relief.


Racine captures Agrippina not in the familial prurience of her youth, but in the political tactfulness and eventual descent of her elder age. Trading assignations for machinations, she’s shown to be a star waning in the firmament of her son, while her grasp—once tightly held on her power—begins to slip. Heretofore, she’s led a life as something of a blessed regent, one wildly and equally popular in both city and town. Scornful of the Frenchman’s Salic Law—whose dictates bar from authority any woman’s touch—Agrippina dominated Roman politics against all norms and in the absence of her son. Now, Nero has come of age and has come to the conclusion—first slowly and now resolutely—that his mother’s is no longer an influence by which he need be burdened. Spurning his mother’s counsel, wise though it may be, Nero completes the divestment from his mother for which he’s begun to yearn. A son now shorn of his mother’s influence, Nero enters upon the transitional state of becoming his own man. Rome, he concludes, wants not a mistress, but a master and this son was made to be free.


Thus, we’ve seen the two states of the “triple point” in which Nero appears: that of statesman and that of son. The third, final, and ghastliest phase of which Nero partakes is that of sadist. This phase, so to speak, is introduced by Racine in relation to the character for whom the play is named. Britannicus, we learn, is by marriage Nero’s younger brother-in-law. The laws of primogeniture should stir in the anxious Nero no sense of disquiet—he being the elder—but the suspicion by which he’s constantly bothered is that Britannicus might have a stronger claim to the throne than does he. The insight of historians tends to agree with young Nero’s well-grounded fear. Probably, Britannicus—the son begotten of Claudius and Messalina, his penultimate of four wives—was the more legitimate heir of the two; Nero was rather adopted than sired by the emperor. Britannicus was regal by blood (although the adoption of distant relations by outgoing emperors for purposes of succession was customary in the eyes of the Roman kings).


Nero, having come this far, was determined not to be subverted by a brotherly coup. No one, be he Roman, distant German, menacing Iberian, or even, heaven forbid, next-of kin, was to threaten his crown. Under the doubtful veil of romance, he decided to steal from Britannicus’ somber clutch his beloved Junia—seemingly the only light for which this lugubrious Britannicus continued to live. She was, for this heir of an empire shorn of crown and soon of life, the only happiness and the sole consolation of which he was availed. Nero, for no reason other than the infliction of pain it was sure to cause his poor brother, inserted himself between the two. He forced, at the risk of death, Junia to lie to Britannicus about her feelings. Tolerating no deceit, not even that of a subliminal look of which only lovers are mutually aware, he made her mislead Britannicus by thinking she cared for him not.

Britannicus, as tender as was Nero hard, felt himself ruined. After all, what good would be an empire if dispossessed of love?


Nero was little concerned with the answer. “I have the art” said he, “to punish an arrogant rival”, and punish him he did. He sent his agent Narcissus to poison Britannicus, the first of many murders for which his sovereign order would be responsible. Many more punishments, each as perverse, macabre, and unspeakable as the last, would ensue. Five years hence, Nero would kill his own mother. He’d graduate from matricide to sodomy, tethering to poles and fornicating with young girls while himself dressed as a bull. Racine, however, shows restraint—as every adherent to the classical model ought. He gives us only this first, and comparatively quite tame entrée into what would be many courses of Nero’s sadism.


The portrayal of this “triple point” of Nero, this moment of combustible strife, is a testament to the brilliance of Racine. He, with an ability untouched by any other, captures with artful possession and boundless scope a man—nay—a monster in between three states: that of statesman, that of son, and that of sadist. It is a man with whom we can associate, if only briefly and with consequent unease. The dramatist, here, becomes the scientist as the theatrics change to physics and we’re made to feel more alive. We all feel the energetic impact of this story’s afterglow and we bask in the explosion.

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