Agrippina the Younger Timeline

Agrippina the Younger Timeline

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  • 15 Nov 6 CE - Mar 6 CE

  • 28 CE

    Agrippina the Younger is married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

  • 37 CE

  • 18 Mar 37 CE - 24 Jan 41 CE

  • 25 Jan 41 CE - 13 Oct 54 CE

  • 48 CE

    Death of Messalina, wife of Emperor Claudius.

  • 49 CE

    Roman emperor Claudius marries his niece, Agrippina the Younger.

  • 50 CE

  • 53 CE

    Roman emperor Nero marries Octavia.

  • 13 Oct 54 CE - 11 Jun 68 CE

Julia Agrippina

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Julia Agrippina, also called Agrippina the Younger, (born ad 15—died 59), mother of the Roman emperor Nero and a powerful influence on him during the early years of his reign (54–68).

Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus Caesar and Vipsania Agrippina, sister of the emperor Gaius, or Caligula (reigned 37–41), and wife of the emperor Claudius (41–54). She was exiled in 39 for taking part in a conspiracy against Gaius but was allowed to return to Rome in 41. Her first husband, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was Nero’s father. She was suspected of poisoning her second husband, Passienus Crispus, in 49. She married Claudius, her uncle, that same year and induced him to adopt Nero as heir to the throne in place of his own son. She also protected Seneca and Burrus, who were to be Nero’s tutors and advisers in the early part of his reign. She received the title of Augusta.

In 54 Claudius died. It was generally suspected that he was poisoned by Agrippina. Because Nero was only 16 when he succeeded Claudius, Agrippina at first attempted to play the role of regent. Her power gradually weakened, however, as Nero came to take charge of the government. As a result of her opposition to Nero’s affair with Poppaea Sabina, the Emperor decided to murder his mother. Inviting her to Baiae, he had her set forth on the Bay of Naples in a boat designed to sink, but she swam ashore. Eventually she was put to death on Nero’s orders at her country house.

Drusilla (15–38 ce)

Roman noblewoman. Born in 15 ce died in 38 ce daughter of Germanicus Caesar and Agrippina the Elder sister of Agrippina the Younger and Julia Livilla sister and mistress of Caligula.

Several plots to end Caligula's rule were formed and discovered before the conspirators could carry out their plans, including one involving his own sisters. In that particular incident, he banished his sisters to exile and executed the other conspirators. Even so, Caligula decreed great honors for his sisters Drusilla, Julia Livilla , and Agrippina the Younger : they were included in oaths, while on coins they personified "Security," "Peace," and "Prosperity." When his sister Drusilla died, Caligula "made it a capital offence to laugh, to bathe, or to dine with one's parents, wives, or children while the period of public mourning lasted," writes Suetonius. Though, in the Roman past, only Julius Caesar and Augustus had been deified, Caligula deified Drusilla, setting up a shrine for her, complete with priests, and gave her the name "Panthea" to show that she had the qualities of all goddesses.


Agrippina was the first daughter and fourth living child of Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus. She had three elder brothers, Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar, and the future emperor Caligula, and two younger sisters, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. Agrippina's two eldest brothers and her mother were victims of the intrigues of the Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus.

She was the namesake of her mother. Agrippina the Elder was remembered as a modest and heroic matron, who was the second daughter and fourth child of Julia the Elder and the statesman Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. The father of Julia the Elder was the emperor Augustus, and Julia was his only natural child from his second marriage to Scribonia, who had close blood relations with Pompey the Great and Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Germanicus, Agrippina's father, was a very popular general and politician. His mother was Antonia Minor and his father was the general Nero Claudius Drusus. He was Antonia Minor's first child. Germanicus had two younger siblings a sister, named Livilla, and a brother, the future emperor Claudius. Claudius was Agrippina's paternal uncle and third husband.

Antonia Minor was a daughter to Octavia the Younger by her second marriage to triumvir Mark Antony, and Octavia was the second eldest sister and full-blooded sister of Augustus. Germanicus' father, Drusus the Elder, was the second son of the Empress Livia Drusilla by her first marriage to praetor Tiberius Nero, and was the emperor Tiberius's younger brother and Augustus's stepson. In the year 9, Augustus ordered and forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, who happened to be Tiberius's nephew, as his son and heir. Germanicus was a favourite of his great-uncle Augustus, who hoped that Germanicus would succeed his uncle Tiberius, who was Augustus's own adopted son and heir. This in turn meant that Tiberius was also Agrippina's adoptive grandfather in addition to her paternal great-uncle.

Agrippina was born on 6 November in AD 15, or possibly 14, at Oppidum Ubiorum, a Roman outpost on the Rhine River located in present-day Cologne, Germany. [2] A second sister Julia Drusilla was born on 16 September 16, also in Germany. [3] As a small child, Agrippina travelled with her parents throughout Germany (15–16) until she and her siblings (apart from Caligula) returned to Rome to live with and be raised by their maternal grandmother Antonia. Her parents departed for Syria in 18 to conduct official duties, and, according to Tacitus, the third and youngest sister was born en route on the island of Lesbos, namely Julia Livilla, probably on March 18. [4] In October of AD 19, Germanicus died suddenly in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).

Germanicus' death caused much public grief in Rome, and gave rise to rumours that he had been murdered by Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and Munatia Plancina on the orders of Tiberius, as his widow Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome with his ashes. Agrippina the Younger was thereafter supervised by her mother, her paternal grandmother Antonia Minor, and her great-grandmother, Livia, all of them notable, influential, and powerful figures from whom she learnt how to survive. She lived on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Her great-uncle Tiberius had already become emperor and the head of the family after the death of Augustus in 14.

After her thirteenth birthday in 28, Tiberius arranged for Agrippina to marry her paternal first cousin once removed Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and ordered the marriage to be celebrated in Rome. [5] Domitius came from a distinguished family of consular rank. Through his mother Antonia Major, Domitius was a great nephew of Augustus, first cousin to Claudius, and first cousin once removed to Agrippina and Caligula. He had two sisters Domitia Lepida the Elder and Domitia Lepida the Younger. Domitia Lepida the Younger was the mother of the Empress Valeria Messalina.

Antonia Major was the elder sister to Antonia Minor, and the first daughter of Octavia Minor and Mark Antony. According to Suetonius, Domitius was a wealthy man with a despicable and dishonest character, who, according to Suetonius, was "a man who was in every aspect of his life detestable" and served as consul in 32. Agrippina and Domitius lived between Antium (modern Anzio and Nettuno [6] ) and Rome. Not much is known about the relationship between them.

Public role and political intrigues Edit

Tiberius died on March 16, AD 37, and Agrippina's only surviving brother, Caligula, became the new emperor. Being the emperor's sister gave Agrippina some influence.

Agrippina and her younger sisters Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla received various honours from their brother, which included but were not limited to

  • receiving the rights of the Vestal Virgins, such as the freedom to view public games from the upper seats in the stadium
  • being honoured with a new type of coinage, depicting images of Caligula and his sisters on opposite faces
  • having their names added to motions, including loyalty oaths (e.g., "I will not value my life or that of my children less highly than I do the safety of the Emperor and his sisters") and consular motions (e.g., "Good fortune attend to the Emperor and his sisters)".

Around the time that Tiberius died, Agrippina had become pregnant. Domitius had acknowledged the paternity of the child. On December 15, AD 37, in the early morning, in Antium, Agrippina gave birth to a son. Agrippina and Domitius named their son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, after Domitius' recently deceased father. This child would grow up to become the emperor Nero. Nero was Agrippina's only natural child. Suetonius states that Domitius was congratulated by friends on the birth of his son, whereupon he replied "I don't think anything produced by me and Agrippina could possibly be good for the state or the people".

Caligula and his sisters were accused of having incestuous relationships. On June 10, AD 38, Drusilla died, possibly of a fever, rampant in Rome at the time. He was particularly fond of Drusilla, claiming to treat her as he would his own wife, even though Drusilla had a husband. Following her death Caligula showed no special love or respect toward the surviving sisters and was said to have gone insane.

In 39, Agrippina and Livilla, with their maternal cousin, Drusilla's widower Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, were involved in a failed plot to murder Caligula, a plot known as the Plot of the Three Daggers, which was to make Lepidus the new emperor. Lepidus, Agrippina and Livilla were accused of being lovers. Not much is known concerning this plot and the reasons behind it. At the trial of Lepidus, Caligula felt no compunction about denouncing them as adulteresses, producing handwritten letters discussing how they were going to kill him. The three were found guilty as accessories to the crime. [7]

Exile Edit

Lepidus was executed. According to the fragmentary inscriptions of the Arval Brethren, Agrippina was forced to carry the urn of Lepidus' ashes back to Rome. [7] Agrippina and Livilla were exiled by their brother to the Pontine Islands. Caligula sold their furniture, jewellery, slaves and freedmen. In January of AD 40, Domitius died of edema (dropsy) at Pyrgi. Lucius had gone to live with his second paternal aunt Domitia Lepida the Younger after Caligula had taken his inheritance away from him.

Caligula, his wife Milonia Caesonia and their daughter Julia Drusilla were murdered on January 24, 41. Agrippina's paternal uncle, Claudius, brother of her father Germanicus, became the new Roman emperor.

Return from exile Edit

Claudius lifted the exiles of Agrippina and Livilla. Livilla returned to her husband, while Agrippina was reunited with her estranged son. After the death of her first husband, Agrippina tried to make shameless advances to the future emperor Galba, who showed no interest in her and was devoted to his wife Aemilia Lepida. On one occasion, Galba's mother-in-law gave Agrippina a public reprimand and a slap in the face before a whole bevy of married women. [8]

Claudius had Lucius' inheritance reinstated. Lucius became more wealthy despite his youth shortly after Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus divorced Lucius' aunt, Domitia Lepida the Elder (Lucius' first paternal aunt) so that Crispus could marry Agrippina. They married, and Crispus became a step-father to Lucius. Crispus was a prominent, influential, witty, wealthy and powerful man, who served twice as consul. He was the adopted grandson and biological great-great-nephew of the historian Sallust. Little is known on their relationship, but Crispus soon died and left his estate to Nero.

In the first years of Claudius' reign, Claudius was married to the infamous Empress Valeria Messalina. Although Agrippina was very influential, she kept a very low profile and stayed away from the imperial palace and the court of the emperor. Messalina was Agrippina's second paternal cousin. Among the victims of Messalina's intrigues were Agrippina's surviving sister Livilla, who was charged with having adultery with Seneca the Younger. Seneca was later called back from exile to be a tutor to Nero.

Messalina considered Agrippina's son a threat to her son's position and sent assassins to strangle Lucius during his siesta. The assassins left after they saw a snake beneath Lucius' pillow, considering it as bad omen. [9] It was, however, only a sloughed-off snake-skin in his bed, near his pillow. By Agrippina's order, the serpent's skin was enclosed in a bracelet that the young Nero wore on his right arm. [10]

In 47, Crispus died, and at his funeral, the rumour spread around that Agrippina poisoned Crispus to gain his estate. After being widowed a second time, Agrippina was left very wealthy. Later that year at the Secular Games, at the performance of the Troy Pageant, Messalina attended the event with her son Britannicus. Agrippina was also present with Lucius. Agrippina and Lucius received greater applause from the audience than Messalina and Britannicus did. Many people began to show pity and sympathy to Agrippina, due to the unfortunate circumstances in her life. Agrippina wrote a memoir that recorded the misfortunes of her family (casus suorum) and wrote an account of her mother's life.

Rise to power Edit

After Messalina was executed in 48 for conspiring with Gaius Silius to overthrow her husband, Claudius considered remarrying for the fourth time. Around this time, Agrippina became the mistress to one of Claudius' advisers, the Greek freedman, Marcus Antonius Pallas. At that time Claudius' advisers were discussing which noblewoman Claudius should marry. Claudius had a reputation that he was easily persuaded. In more recent times, it has been suggested that the Senate may have pushed for the marriage between Agrippina and Claudius to end the feud between the Julian and Claudian branches. [11] This feud dated back to Agrippina's mother's actions against Tiberius after the death of Germanicus, actions which Tiberius had gladly punished.

Claudius made references to her in his speeches: "my daughter and foster child, born and bred, in my lap, so to speak". When Claudius decided to marry her, he persuaded a group of senators that the marriage should be arranged in the public interest. In Roman society, an uncle (Claudius) marrying his niece (Agrippina) was considered incestuous and immoral.

Marriage to Claudius Edit

Agrippina and Claudius married on New Year's Day, 49. This marriage caused widespread disapproval. This may have been a part of Agrippina's plan to make her son Lucius the new emperor. Her marriage to Claudius was not based on love, but on power. She quickly eliminated her rival Lollia Paulina. Shortly after marrying Claudius, Agrippina persuaded the emperor to charge Paulina with black magic. Claudius stipulated that Paulina did not receive a hearing and her property was confiscated. She left Italy, but Agrippina was unsatisfied. Allegedly on Agrippina's orders, Paulina committed suicide.

In the months leading up to her marriage to Claudius, Agrippina's maternal second cousin, the praetor Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, was betrothed to Claudius' daughter Claudia Octavia. This betrothal was broken off in 48, when Agrippina, scheming with the consul Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the father of the future emperor Aulus Vitellius, falsely accused Silanus of incest with his sister Junia Calvina. Agrippina did this hoping to secure a marriage between Octavia and her son. Consequently, Claudius broke off the engagement and forced Silanus to resign from public office.

Silanus committed suicide on the day that Agrippina married her uncle, and Calvina was exiled from Italy in early 49. Calvina was called back from exile after the death of Agrippina. Towards the end of 54, Agrippina would order the murder of Silanus' eldest brother Marcus Junius Silanus Torquatus without Nero's knowledge, so that he would not seek revenge against her over his brother's death.

On the day that Agrippina married her uncle Claudius as her third husband/his fourth wife, she became empress. She also was a stepmother to Claudia Antonia, Claudius' daughter and only child from his second marriage to Aelia Paetina, and to the young Claudia Octavia and Britannicus, Claudius' children with Valeria Messalina. Agrippina removed or eliminated anyone from the palace or the imperial court who she thought was loyal and dedicated to the memory of the late Messalina. She also eliminated or removed anyone who she considered was a potential threat to her position and the future of her son, one of her victims being Lucius' second paternal aunt and Messalina's mother Domitia Lepida the Younger.

Griffin describes how Agrippina "had achieved this dominant position for her son and herself by a web of political alliances," which included Claudius chief secretary and bookkeeper Pallas, his doctor Xenophon, and Afranius Burrus, the head of the Praetorian Guard (the imperial bodyguard), who owed his promotion to Agrippina. Neither ancient nor modern historians of Rome have doubted that Agrippina had her eye on securing the throne for Nero from the very day of the marriage—if not earlier. Dio Cassius observation seems to bear that out: "As soon as Agrippina had come to live in the palace she gained complete control over Claudius."

In 49, Agrippina was seated on a dais at a parade of captives when their leader the Celtic King Caratacus bowed before her with the same homage and gratitude as he accorded the emperor. In 50, Agrippina was granted the honorific title of Augusta. She was only the third Roman woman (Livia Drusilla and Antonia Minor received this title) and only the second living Roman woman (the first being Livia) to receive this title.

In her capacity as Augusta, Agrippina quickly became a trusted advisor to Claudius, and by AD 54, she exerted a considerable influence over the decisions of the emperor. Statues of her were erected in many cities across the Empire, her face appeared on coins, and in the Senate, her followers were advanced with public offices and governorships. However this privileged position caused resentment among the senatorial class and the imperial family.

She went to a place outside the imperial court and listened to the Senate from behind the scenes, and even Claudius allowed her to be a separate court and decide on empire matters. Agrippina even signed government documents and officially dealt with foreign ambassadors. She also claimed auctoritas (power of commanding) and Autokrateira (self-ruler as empress) in front of the Senate, the people and the army.

Also that year, Claudius had founded a Roman colony and called the colony Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis or Agrippinensium, today known as Cologne, after Agrippina who was born there. This colony was the only Roman colony to be named after a Roman woman. In 51, she was given a carpentum which she used. A carpentum was a sort of ceremonial carriage usually reserved for priests, such as the Vestal Virgins, and sacred statues. That same year she appointed Sextus Afranius Burrus as the head of the Praetorian Guard, replacing the previous head of the Praetorian Guard, Rufrius Crispinus.

She assisted Claudius in administering the empire and became very wealthy and powerful. Ancient sources claim that Agrippina successfully influenced Claudius into adopting her son and making him his successor. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was adopted by his great maternal uncle and stepfather in 50. Lucius' name was changed to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and he became Claudius's adopted son, heir and recognised successor. Agrippina and Claudius betrothed Nero to his step sister Claudia Octavia, and Agrippina arranged to have Seneca the Younger return from exile to tutor the future emperor. Claudius chose to adopt Nero because of his Julian and Claudian lineage. [12]

Agrippina deprived Britannicus of his heritage and further isolated him from his father and succession for the throne in every way possible. For instance, in 51, Agrippina ordered the execution of Britannicus' tutor Sosibius because he had confronted her and was outraged by Claudius' adoption of Nero and his choice of Nero as successor, instead of choosing his own son Britannicus. [13]

Nero and Octavia were married on June 9, 53. Claudius later repented of marrying Agrippina and adopting Nero, began to favour Britannicus, and started preparing him for the throne. His actions allegedly gave Agrippina a motive to eliminate Claudius. The ancient sources say she poisoned Claudius on October 13, 54 (a Sunday) with a plate of deadly mushrooms at a banquet, thus enabling Nero to quickly take the throne as emperor. Accounts vary wildly with regard to this private incident and according to more modern sources, it is possible that Claudius died of natural causes Claudius was 63 years old. In the aftermath of Claudius's death, Agrippina, who initially kept the death secret, tried to consolidate power, and immediately ordered that the palace and the capital be sealed. All the gates were blockaded and exit of the capital forbidden and she introduced Nero first to the soldiers and then to the senators as emperor. [1]

The beginning of the power struggle between mother and son Edit

Nero was raised to emperor and Agrippina was named a priestess of the cult of the deified Claudius. She now attempted to use her son's youth to participate in the rule of the Roman Empire. She enjoyed imperial prerogatives: holding court with the emperor by her side, being allowed to visit senate meetings from behind a curtain, and appearing as a partner to her son in the royal coins and statues. The historian Tacitus depicts her as attempting a diarchy with her son when she demanded that the Praetorian Guard pledge their loyalty to her. She was also said to have tried to participate in her son's meeting with Armenian ambassadors until Seneca and Burrus stopped her. [14]

In year one of Nero's reign, Agrippina guided her 17-year-old son in his rule but started losing influence over Nero when he began to have an affair with the freed woman Claudia Acte, which Agrippina strongly disapproved of and violently scolded him for. Agrippina began to support Britannicus in her possible attempt to make him emperor, or to threaten Nero. The panicking emperor decided on whether to eliminate his mother or his step-brother. Soon, Nero had Britannicus secretly poisoned during his own banquet in February 55. The power struggle between Agrippina and her son had begun. [15]

Agrippina between 56 and 58 became very watchful and had a critical eye over her son. In 56, Agrippina was forced out of the palace by her son to live in the imperial residence. However, some degree of Agrippina's influence over her son still lasted several more years, and they are considered the best years of Nero's reign. But their relationship grew more hostile and Nero gradually deprived his mother of honours and powers, and even removed her Roman and German bodyguards. Nero even threatened his mother that he would abdicate the throne and would go to live on the Greek Island of Rhodes, a place where Tiberius had lived after divorcing Julia the Elder. Pallas also was dismissed from the court. The fall of Pallas and the opposition of Burrus and Seneca to Agrippina contributed to her scaling down of authority. In mid-56, she was forced out of everyday and active participation in the governance of Rome. [16]

While Agrippina lived in her residence or when she went on short visits to Rome, Nero sent people to annoy her. Although living in Misenum, she was always hailed as Augusta and Agrippina and Nero would see each other on short visits. [17] In late 58, Agrippina and a group of soldiers and senators were accused of attempting to overthrow Nero, and it was said they planned to move with Gaius Rubellius Plautus. [18] In addition, she revealed Nero's relationship with Poppaea Sabina.

Death and aftermath Edit

The circumstances that surround Agrippina's death are uncertain due to historical contradictions and anti-Nero bias. All surviving stories of Agrippina's death contradict themselves and each other, and are generally fantastical.

Tacitus's account Edit

According to Tacitus, in 58, Nero became involved with the noble woman Poppaea Sabina. She taunted him for being a "mummy's boy." She also convinced him of the autonomy of any other emperor. With the reasoning that a divorce from Octavia and a marriage to Poppaea was not politically feasible with Agrippina alive. Nero decided to kill Agrippina. [19] Yet, Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62, calling into question this motive. [20] Additionally, Suetonius reveals that Poppaea's husband, Otho, was not sent away by Nero until after Agrippina's death in 59, making it highly unlikely that already married Poppaea would be pressing Nero. [21] Some modern historians theorise that Nero's decision to kill Agrippina was prompted by her plot to replace him with either Gaius Rubellius Plautus (Nero's maternal second cousin) or Britannicus (Claudius' biological son). [22]

Tacitus claims that Nero considered poisoning or stabbing her, but felt these methods were too difficult and suspicious, so he settled on – after the advice of his former tutor Anicetus – building a self-sinking boat. [23] Though aware of the plot, Agrippina embarked on this boat and was nearly crushed by a collapsing lead ceiling only to be saved by the side of a sofa breaking the ceiling's fall. [24] Though the collapsing ceiling missed Agrippina, it crushed her attendant who was outside by the helm. [24]

The boat failed to sink from the lead ceiling, so the crew then sank the boat, but Agrippina swam to shore. [24] Her friend, Acerronia Polla, was attacked by oarsmen while still in the water, and was either bludgeoned to death or drowned, since she was exclaiming that she was Agrippina, with the intention of being saved. She did not know, however, that this was an assassination attempt, not a mere accident. Agrippina was met at the shore by crowds of admirers. [25] News of Agrippina's survival reached Nero so he sent three assassins to kill her. [25]

Suetonius's account Edit

Suetonius says that Agrippina's "over-watchful" and "over-critical" eye that she kept over Nero drove him to murdering her. After months of attempting to humiliate her by depriving her of her power, honour, and bodyguards, he also expelled her from the Palatine, followed by the people he sent to "pester" her with lawsuits and "jeers and catcalls".

When he eventually turned to murder, he first tried poison, three times in fact. She prevented her death by taking the antidote in advance. Afterwards, he rigged up a machine in her room which would drop her ceiling tiles onto her as she slept, but she once again escaped her death after she received word of the plan. Nero's final plan was to get her in a boat which would collapse and sink.

He sent her a friendly letter asking to reconcile and inviting her to celebrate the Quinquatrus at Baiae with him. He arranged an "accidental" collision between her galley and one of his captains. When returning home, he offered her his collapsible boat, as opposed to her damaged galley.

The next day, Nero received word of her survival after the boat sank from her freedman Agermus. Panicking, Nero ordered a guard to "surreptitiously" drop a blade behind Agermus and Nero immediately had him arrested on account of attempted murder. Nero ordered the assassination of Agrippina. He made it look as if Agrippina had committed suicide after her plot to kill Nero had been uncovered.

Suetonius says that after Agrippina's death, Nero examined Agrippina's corpse and discussed her good and bad points. Nero also believed Agrippina to haunt him after her death. [26]

Cassius Dio's account Edit

The tale of Cassius Dio is also somewhat different. It starts again with Poppaea as the motive behind the murder. [27] Nero designed a ship that would open at the bottom while at sea. [28] Agrippina was put aboard and after the bottom of the ship opened up, she fell into the water. [28] Agrippina swam to shore so Nero sent an assassin to kill her. [29] Nero then claimed Agrippina had plotted to kill him and committed suicide. [30] Her reputed last words, uttered as the assassin was about to strike, were "Smite my womb", the implication here being she wished to be destroyed first in that part of her body that had given birth to so "abominable a son." [31]

Burial Edit

After Agrippina's death, Nero viewed her corpse and commented how beautiful she was, according to some. [32] Her body was cremated that night on a dining couch. At his mother's funeral, Nero was witless, speechless and rather scared. When the news spread that Agrippina had died, the Roman army, senate and various people sent him letters of congratulations that he had been saved from his mother's plots.

Aftermath Edit

During the remainder of Nero's reign, Agrippina's grave was not covered or enclosed. Her household later on gave her a modest tomb in Misenum. Nero would have his mother's death on his conscience. He felt so guilty he would sometimes have nightmares about his mother. He even saw his mother's ghost and got Persian magicians to scare her away. Years before she died, Agrippina had visited astrologers to ask about her son's future. The astrologers had rather accurately predicted that her son would become emperor and would kill her. She replied, "Let him kill me, provided he becomes emperor," according to Tacitus.

Agrippina's alleged victims Edit
  • 47
    • Passienus Crispus: Agrippina's 2nd husband, poisoned (Suet.).
    • Messalina: Because of the competition for the emperor's successor
    • Lollia Paulina: as she was a rival for Claudius' hand in marriage as proposed by the freedman Callistus (Tac. & Dio).
    • Lucius Silanus: betrothed to Octavia, Claudius' daughter before his marriage of Agrippina. He committed suicide on their wedding day.
    • Sosibius: Britannicus' tutor, executed for plotting against Nero.
    • Calpurnia: banished (Tac.) and/or executed (Dio) because Claudius had commented on her beauty.
    • Statilius Taurus: forced to commit suicide because Agrippina wanted his gardens (Tac.).
    • Claudius: her husband, poisoned (Tac., Sen., Juv., Suet., Dio).
    • Domitia Lepida: mother of Messalina, executed (Tac.).
    • Marcus Junius Silanus: potential rival to Nero, poisoned (Pliny, Tac., Dio).
    • Cadius Rufus: executed on the charge of extortion.
    • Tiberius Claudius Narcissus: Because of the competition with Agrippina.

    In music and literature Edit

    She is remembered in De Mulieribus Claris, a collection of biographies of historical and mythological women by the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio, composed in 1361–62. It is notable as the first collection devoted exclusively to biographies of women in western literature. [33]

    • Octavia, a Roman tragedy written during the Flavian period
    • Agrippina: Trauerspiel (1665), a German baroque tragedy by Daniel Casper von Lohenstein
    • G.F. Handel's 1709 opera Agrippina with a libretto by Vincenzo Grimani
    • Empress of Rome (1978), a novel by Robert DeMaria (Vineyard Press edition, 2001, ISBN1-930067-05-4)
    • Agrippina is considered to be the founder of Cologne and is still symbolised there today by the robe of the virgin of the Cologne triumvirate. In the sculpture programme of the Cologne town hall tower, a figure by Heribert Calleen was dedicated to Agrippina on the ground floor.

    In film, television, and radio Edit

    • The 1911 Italian film Agrippina
    • I, Claudius (1976) played by Barbara Young (here called Agrippinilla).
    • Caligula (1979) and also Messalina, Messalina (1977) played by Lori Wagner.
    • A.D. (1985 miniseries) played by Ava Gardner.
    • Boudica (2003) played by Frances Barber.
    • Imperium: Nero (2005) played by Laura Morante.
    • Ancients Behaving Badly (2009), History Channel documentary. Episode Nero.
    • Roman Empire (2016), Netflix, played by Teressa Liane.
    • Agrippina the Younger was portrayed by Betty Lou Gerson in the August 31, 1953, episode of the CBS radio program Crime Classics that was entitled "Your Loving Son, Nero." The episode chronicles the killing of Agrippina by her son Nero who was portrayed by William Conrad.
    • Mio Figlio Nerone (1956) played by Gloria Swanson

    Ancient Edit

    Most ancient Roman sources are quite critical of Agrippina the Younger. Tacitus considered her vicious and had a strong disposition against her. Other sources are Suetonius and Cassius Dio.

    Julia Agrippina (the Younger) was born on November 6, 15 AD just one year after Caesar Augustus died…that would be Great Grandpa Augusta to Agrippina. She was the first daughter to Germanicus, a very popular military general, and Agrippina the Elder a very brave and unconventional Roman military wife. Although her father would die when she was very young coughpoisoncough and the rest of her family didn’t fare so well either, Agrippina would do what was needed to survive a very high profile life in a society where “high profile” meant “giant target.”

    This episode was a little different for both of us– the magnitude of materials we needed to reference so that we could puzzle together Agrippina’s life was surprising. We cover that dramatic life as the daughter of a military leader, the sister to an emperor, the wife AND niece to another emperor and the mother to yet another…but we also talked about life, challenges, customs and survival strategies for women in ancient Rome.

    And we talk a lot about poison.

    Even with all the deaths (and trust us, there are many) Agrippina put a lot of living into her 44 years. Five siblings, three husbands, one son (Emperor Nero, heard of him?), several exiles, positions in power unusual for a woman, confidants and enemies add many story arcs to her tale. Layer in loyalty, betrayal, strategy, keen knowledge of her strengths and even murder–all common themes for both her time and her times and this is one epic life story. You would think that death would end all the drama..but oh no! The twisting of her life story after she died at the hand of (REDACTED…spoilers) was a battle she couldn’t fight.

    Son, I brought you into this world and I certainly can take you out!” Agrippina, the Younger.
    Maybe. (Aphrodisius Museum)

    Was she an innocent victim, a scheming malefactress, a survivor…all of them? We give you the history, legends and tales (with a heavy hand of debate) and you decide for yourself.


    We had a lot…A LOT of recommendations this time so you better settle in because you are about to dive into a rabbit hole of ancient Rome.

    Jennifer Wright (It’s a fun, light read)

    The History of Rome with the legendary Mike Duncan. Really? This series ended in 2012 and it’s STILL on the top iTunes lists-it’s that good. Agrippina’s life runs through episodes 57-64, then flip up to History of Roman Weddings, episode 69.

    Emperors of Rome with Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith (not that Matt Smith, but still a nice guy who sorta time travels)


    Her life as a comedic opera by Handel! (if there is no opera company presenting it, here is a quick NPR Overview of Agrippina opera. )

    Just going to put this up here because we know you are all about the poison culture of ancient Rome. Poisons, Poisoning, and Poisoners in Rome, and the Poison Garden in Northern England.

    Srsly. It looks beautiful (from outside a prison, of course.) Pontine Islands tourist info.

    A nice tidy list of all the articles that Beckett talked about in the media section of the show :

    If you go to only one of these websites, maybe it should be the one that tells you about the lives of women in ancient Rome because…History Chicks. (What is up with those Vestal Virgins?)

    The British Museum Collection of Roman Artifacts (which is really a lot less dry than that title may suggest)

    Eat like a Roman with Colatura di Alici (super fancy fish sauce) or at least learn about the how and why of garum from this NPR piece, Fish Sauce: An ancient Roman condiment rises again.

    Anchovies and salt layered and fermented– like ketchup only nothing like ketchup.

    VISUAL LEARNERS (or for when only a video will do)

    Silent film, Agrippina (it’s 18 minutes of your life, but well spent.)

    If you can’t (or won’t) eat Roman food, you can watch Giles and Sue do it for you on Supersizers, Eat

    Hairdressing archeologist Janet Stevens. People! This really is a great time to be alive! If you do this ‘do, #historychicksfieldtrip on Instagram, we ALL want to see it!

    “Caligula is the poster boy for sociopaths everywhere.” First line of this video. Strongest lead EVER.

    Agrippina the Younger: the first true empress of Ancient Rome

    Through she is often defined by her male relatives, Agrippina the Younger – matriarch, wife and murderer – made her name in her own right. Emma Southon charts her rise to power for BBC History Revealed

    This competition is now closed

    Julia Agrippina is best remembered now as the tyrannical mother of mad emperor Nero, or as the overbearing and murderous wife of the emperor Claudius. Rarely, she is remembered as the sister of another emperor, Gaius (Caligula). She is almost never, however, remembered as a woman in her own right, free from the distorting lens of her male relatives.

    But during her lifetime, Julia Agrippina, more commonly known as Agrippina the Younger, made unique and extraordinary inroads into the spaces of Roman political and social power, to the extent that she ruled for several years as her husband’s equal in power. She was the first true empress of Rome, although you’ll struggle to hear anyone refer to her as such.

    Born into the Roman ruling family of the first century, the Julio-Claudians, Agrippina was destined to be at the centre of Roman power, but more likely, as a woman, just to the side.

    Her mother, Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder) was the granddaughter of the deified first emperor Augustus, while her father Germanicus was both the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius and biological grandson of Mark Antony. They were for a time Rome’s most beloved couple. Before Agrippina was 20, though, both her parents were dead and it was widely believed that Tiberius had murdered them both.

    Whim of the emperors

    During this time, little is known about Agrippina the Younger, except that she was married at the age of about 13 to her much older cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Her situation changed when she was around 22 when Tiberius died and her brother Gaius, who would be known as Caligula, became emperor.

    His first priority was to rehabilitate his family’s reputation after decades of being maligned by Tiberius, and so he pulled all three of his sisters into the centre of the Roman state.

    He showered them with all the honours the state could give, including giving them the rights of Vestal Virgins. In return, and following the death of their middle sister, Agrippina and the youngest Livilla were caught in the early stages of a plot to murder him.

    This is the first time that the sources show us an Agrippina who is an active agent in her own life, when she is around 24 years old, has already been married for a decade, and given birth to her only child. Until this point, she is all but invisible, but suddenly, in AD 39, we catch a glimpse of a woman doing something remarkably bold to change the world around her.

    The details of the plot are unclear – and some historians dispute there was ever a plot at all – but the events after it was uncovered suggest that Agrippina, Livilla and Drusilla’s widower Lepidus planned a coup. Agrippina endured an embarrassing trial, during which her love letters were read aloud, and was sent into exile with her sister on an island in the Mediterranean.

    As a final humiliation, she was made to carry the ashes of the executed Lepidus with her. Whatever had been planned, the consequences suggest it was big.

    During her exile, Agrippina’s husband died of dropsy and her brother died of a sword to the throat. In early AD 41, a coup led by the Praetorian Guard brought in a new administration in the imperial palace, replacing Gaius, who was assassinated, with Agrippina’s paternal uncle, Claudius.

    As a man in his 50s best known for his physical disabilities and academic interests, he was not a natural choice for the political and military leader of the empire. He was, however, fond of his nieces and one of his first acts was to allow Agrippina to return to Rome and be reunited with her son. He offered her a quiet, safe life as a minor royal.

    Causing outrage

    This quiet life was not to be, primarily due to the presence of Agrippina’s son. He had been named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus after his father, but everyone in Rome knew him as the youngest descendant of the divine Augustus. By the time she was 26, Agrippina was the lone surviving member of her family and her son the only male left carrying the bloodline.

    This had two effects: it made them deeply dangerous to Claudius’s rule, and it filled Agrippina with a righteous belief that her son deserved to take his great-great-grandfather’s throne.

    Nonetheless, she stayed out of the public eye as far as possible. That was until Claudius’s notoriously promiscuous wife Messalina was executed in AD 48 after being caught in a bizarre bigamous marriage. Then Agrippina burst into public life in a manner that shocked and horrified Rome: she married Claudius, her own uncle.

    Agrippina’s family: your guide to the Julio-Claudian dynasty

    Agrippina the Elder (mother)

    Seen as the sole biological descendent of the first emperor, Augustus, she was the only child born of the general Marcus Agrippa and Julia, Augustus’s daughter. She had six children and after her widowhood, tried to advance her eldest sons in Rome. She and they were exiled and executed in mysterious circumstances by the emperor Tiberius.

    Germanicus (father)

    Germanicus was the grandchild of Mark Antony and Octavia. He was known as a great general for his successes in Germany – being granted a military triumph – and had a promising political career. He died suddenly while in Syria and it was widely believed that Tiberius had poisoned him. He maintained his immense popularity even after his death.

    Gaius Caligula (brother)

    The youngest son Gaius survived the executions that claimed his mother and brothers, so inherited the empire from Tiberius in AD 37, before he was 25. Although he only ruled for four years, he has become infamous for his capricious, sadistic and perverted nature. When the Praetorian Guard launched a coup, Gaius, his wife and daughter were assassinated.

    Nero (son)

    Agrippina’s only child. After a tumultuous childhood, Nero became emperor in AD 54. The early years of his reign were seen as successful, but his behaviour deteriorated. His reign is associated with cruelty and numerous executions. He was overthrown in AD 68 after several generals revolted against him. Having fled Rome, he committed suicide.

    Claudius (uncle/husband)

    As he suffered from a stammer, uncontrolled emotional responses and a propensity to drool, he had no political career until he became emperor in AD 41. His rule was initially tumultuous and authoritarian, but became more peaceful after his marriage to his fourth wife: Agrippina. She allegedly poisoned him with a mushroom.

    This outraged later Roman commentators whose morals were offended by such an act and such a marriage. Claudius was forced to have the incest laws changed in order for the marriage to be allowed. Why he chose to marry his niece is forever a mystery.

    One source claims Agrippina seduced him, using her familial access to him to manipulate his weakness for women. In this version, Agrippina is an aggressive temptress, willing to sell her body to her own uncle in exchange for power. In another source, though, one of Claudius’s freedmen offers Agrippina as a prize while others present their own women, touting their fecundity and their good families.

    In this version, Agrippina is a passive bystander, little more than a walking bloodline. These are both narrative tropes, not real life. Instead, Agrippina was a mother in her 30s, hugely powerful on the basis of her name, money and connections. She was neither a passive womb, nor a young temptress.

    It is Agrippina’s behaviour once she was Claudius’s wife that makes her quite so extraordinary. Unlike the wives of emperors before and after her, she was, in all ways, her husband’s partner in rule. Livia – Augustus’s wife and Tiberius’s mother – had previously been the model of a Roman women. But she had female power, amounting to influence over her male relatives who exerted the real, tangible power. And she only used it in private spaces, never trying to enter public life herself. But influence wasn’t enough for Agrippina. She wanted real power.

    One of Agrippina’s first acts was to found a town at the place of her birth in Germany and name it after herself. Originally named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, its name was eventually shortened to its modern name: Cologne. She donned the colours gold and purple — colours only available to the emperor — and sat beside her husband in front of the Roman imperial standards. She caused outrage among the great and good by putting herself in public spaces and forcing men to acknowledge that a woman ruled over them. She became a visible partner in the emperor’s power that was both unique and highly disturbing to male Roman onlookers. She even wrote and published her own autobiography, the only Roman woman to have ever completed such an audacious public act.

    For five years, Agrippina enjoyed life as Claudius’s empress. These years were notably more peaceful, stable and successful than the eight years of his reign prior to their marriage. Of the 35 named senators executed by Claudius during his reign, just four occurred during the years of Agrippina’s influence. There were no more coup attempts from the armies, or significant violence in Rome. All the while, Agrippina and Claudius both groomed Nero to be the next emperor, preparing him with political offices and honorary titles. It seemed that the two would have a long reign and a peaceful succession.

    Power of her own

    This illusion was shattered when, in October AD 54, Agrippina murdered her husband with a poisoned mushroom and declared her 16-year-old son, under the name Nero, as emperor in his place. Her motivation is entirely obscure.

    The sources almost unanimously paint her as a tyrant, desperate to cling to power and terrified of her stepson Britannicus being promoted above Nero. This last fear may well have been true. Agrippina’s primary goal in life appears to have been that Nero would survive to rule that her mother’s family, not Claudius’s, would keep the imperial throne.

    Her extreme act proved to be successful. Nero was acclaimed emperor peacefully and his reign would go on to last 13 years. Initially, Claudius’s death was nothing but good news for Agrippina. As wife of the emperor she acted as his partner, but was always the junior partner. With Nero ascending as a teenager, though, she was now effectively his regent, placing her as the senior partner.

    That Agrippina was Nero’s equal in power is evident in the iconography on the coins and friezes from this time. Both their faces are depicted on coinage, and in several they face one another, their heads of equal size and equal importance. In one sculpture, Agrippina is depicted as the personification of fertile Rome, crowning her young son.

    Yet within months, Nero began to attempt to enforce more traditional gender roles in the palace. He wanted his wife, the teenage Octavia, and his mother to remain private and silent. He did not want his mother to be present at political events and, in order to make his point clear, he publicly humiliated her multiple times in front of foreign delegations and Roman officials. He even had her removed from the palace to curb her power.

    Agrippina, however, had a strong sense of her own abilities and five years of experience running an empire, so she made sure her voice was going to be heard.

    Agrippina’s downfall

    In AD 59, Nero lost patience with hearing his mother’s voice. He had fallen in love with an unsuitable woman named Poppaea, and wanted to be free to marry her. He also knew that men who listened to women could only be vilified as weak and feminine. As Agrippina was still popular, he was desperate to maintain public support so decided the best way was to stage an accident. He had a trick boat built that would sink with Agrippina on board, drowning her in the bay off the town of Baiae.

    But it appears Nero was unaware of her strength as a swimmer. She survived the sinking attempt, which included a lead ceiling almost falling on her, and made it to shore with an injured arm. Hearing the news, Nero panicked and sent three men to her villa to murder her.

    Agrippina died looking her killers in the eye and holding her ground. Called a traitor, she was denied a state funeral and buried in an unmarked grave. She was 43. Nero lost his popularity, and his reign never recovered. Agrippina was a cold-blooded murderer, and an excellent ruler. She oversaw a decade of peaceful Roman rule and opened the doors to the end of a dynasty. She learned from her predecessors how to be successful, and taught her son how to be ruthless. Truly, she was the first empress of Rome.

    What was the legal position of women in Rome?

    Agrippina went far beyond what was allowed. Legally, women in late Republican and early imperial Rome were perpetual minors. They were not allowed to sign contracts or engage in any legal activities themselves. Although they could own property, they could not buy or sell it without permission from a male guardian. By default, this was their father, but it could be their husband, brother, family friend or even a magistrate.

    Guardianships existed due to the belief that women had weak judgement (infirmitas consilii), which meant they were unable to make rational or good decisions by themselves. Certain women could be freed from guardianship as a reward for excellence. Under Augustus, women who bore three or more children were entitled to be emancipated.

    The restrictions on women’s public activities loosened during the imperial period, and there are many examples of women running businesses without interference from men. However, the legal and cultural taboos against women in politics and the military never weakened. These were always considered exclusively male spheres.

    Women were unable to vote during the Republic and legally unable to even enter the Senate house at any time. Women who tried to engage in political life were universally reviled throughout Roman history as monsters.

    Emma Southon is author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore (Unbound, 2018)

    Agrippina: The Poisonous Ambition Of An Ancient Roman Badass

    Agrippina (full name: Julia Agrippina Minor) was born on November 6, AD 15. We know this because people gave a shit about her, unlike lots of other people who lived in this place and time, because her parents were both incredibly important people. Agrippina was the fourth surviving child and first daughter born to Vipsania Agrippina and Germanicus Caesar, making her a great-granddaughter of the wildly successful and famous former Emperor Augustus. We’ll take a look at each parent in turn, because Agrippina’s genetics were a major part of how her life turned out.

    Vipsania Agrippina (also known as Agrippina the Elder, but we’ll call her Vipsania here for clarity) was the daughter of Julia the Elder, Augustus’s (scandalous!) daughter. Vipsania’s father, Marcus Agrippa, had been an important statesman and was the namesake for both her and her own daughter, because in this era, women were frequently named the feminized version of their father’s names.

    Vipsania’s family was incredibly murderous to one another, meaning that she was the only surviving member of her generation, and her children were the only descendants of Augustus. Vipsania’a husband, Germanicus, was the nephew of the current emperor, Tiberius, as well as his adopted son, because this family tree is just like a pile of sticks all thrown together in the most confusing manner possible. Also note that Germanicus was also the grandsom of Mark “mighty thighs” Anthony. Basically, these two were as close to royalty as the very anti-royal Roman Empire could get.

    Agrippina [the Elder] and Germanicus
    painting by Paul Reubens
    The National Gallery of Art

    Names were sort of fluid in ancient Roman times, and when a military person did something impressive, their name was often changed to match the thing they had done. Germanicus had, therefore, not been given that name at birth but had the name bestowed upon him in recognition for how he famously conquered parts of Germany for the Roman Empire. And it’s there that our story actually begins, because Agrippina was born in Germany while her family were there for army-related reasons. When the family returned to Rome a few years later, they were greeted as returning heroes (well, a returning hero and his lovely family). And when Germanicus died a few years later, the whole place went wild with grief. Like: riots in the streets, pushing over statues, smashing pottern, people killing themselves so as not to live in a world without Germanicus. This cannot be overstated: the people of Rome REALLY loved Agrippina’s family.

    The Emperor’s Grand-Niece

    In the absence of her father, Agrippina and her siblings were raised by her mother and two other very powerful women: her paternal grandmother Antonia Minor, and her great-grandmother Livia Drusilla (who was pretty badass herself). In terms of ancient Roman woman role models, you couldn’t ask for anyone better. Vipsania, Antonia, and Livia had not only surived this notoriously murderous and misogynistic place, they had done their best to thrive while doing so. They were all ruthless, devoted to the continuation of their family line, and not opposed to the occasional murder. These three did all of this while technically abiding by the expectations for Roman women to be quiet, to stay out of the way, and to never be seen as acting too “manly”. They were each devoted wives and mothers, who never tried to get any official power which annoy the men in charge they did everything in the shadows, using influence, blackmail, and pillow talk to get what they wanted.

    And honestly, these three women had a lot of room for scheming because the current emperor, Tiberius, was worse than useless. Everybody hated him because he was overly serious, overly pious, and had a tendency to run away and hide out on distant islands rather than do Emperor-y stuff. Note: this is an entirely fine way to live ones life, but is not ideal if you were the Roman Emperor at this point in time. Among his many, many enemies was Vipsania, who was convinced he’d been responsible for the death of his son-nephew, Germanicus. Was Germanicus murdered? I mean, who knows. He was a military man swinging a sword through the ancient world centuries before the discovery of antibiotics, so it’s really as likely he died of tetanus or a paper cut as that he was murdered. But also, the odds of being murdered in ancient Rome were also really high, especially if you had anything to do with Vipsania.

    In the midst of this inter-family chaos, 14-year-old Agrippina was married for dynasty reasons to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a man about twenty years older than her. (Fun fact: Ahenobarbus means “bronze beard” which means he was a ginger). We’ll call him Domitius, because that’s what most people called him back then. These two were sort of related, because everyone in this story is. Domitius’s mother was Octavia, Agrippina’s great-grand-aunt Octavia (aka the sister of Octavian, aka the previous wife of Mark “himbo” Anthony). Domitius was a high-ranking official and was also extremely rich, so in that sense he was a suitable match for Agrippina. However, every source that wrote about him emphasized how his personality and actions were THE WORST.

    How bad was Domitius? Well, for instance, one time he was said to have killed a slave for crime of being not drunk enough (as compared to the drunk-enough Domitius, apparently). Another time, he apparently ripped out another dude’s eye for the crime of being rude to him. He also apparently fucked most women he ever laid eyes on, with or without their consent, let’s assume mostly without their consent. Basically: dude was a nightmare of ancient Roman toxic male privilige/masculinity, meaning that our 14-year-old heroine had quite a challenge on her hands. But she’d lived through a pretty chaotic fourteen years so far, and had the instincts of a survivor to get through this situation. She also had the mentorship of her mother and badass female relatives to learn how best to not be murdered by her awful husband.

    Teressa Liane as Agrippina in The Roman Empire (2016)

    The early part of Agrippina’s first marriage occurred as things heated up in the Vipsania vs Tiberius cold war. By the time Agrippina was sixteen, her mother and two older brothers had all been sent to exile and/or jail for scheming against Tiberius, where they all died by suicide and/or starvation. So now, Agrippina’s only living relatives were her brother, Gaius, and two younger sisters, Drusilla and Livilla. And she kept her head down and didn’t get murdered, which was probably enough to keep her busy, until she was twenty-two years old and everything changed. Because Tiberius finally died, and Agrippina’s brother Gaius was named the new Emperor! But you probably better know Gaius by his nickname, Little Boots, or as it’s said in Latin, Caligula.

    The Emperor’s Sister

    A note on Gaius “Caligula” Germanicus: Caligula was the oldest surviving son of Vipsania and Germanicus. His childhood had been as chaotic as that of his sisters. He’d spent some time in exile when Vipsania had been kicked out for scheming against Tiberius, then after her death, rejoined his three sisters to be raised by their grandmother. As the only male child of this particulary family line, Caligula was unavoidably a threat to Emperor Tiberius, a man who’d become only more paranoid in his later years that someone was going to try and take over being Emperor from him. In order to neuter Caligula as a threat, Tiberius arranged it so that Caligula would be treated like a little boy even up into his late teen years.

    Young Roman men got a sort of bar mitzfah moment at around age fifteen where they got to start wearing a toga, at which point they were seen as officially men. Caligula wasn’t permitted to wear a toga until he was nineteen, at which point he was shipped off to live with Emperor Tiberius on an isolated island away from the Senate and all of Roman politics entirely. Knowing that Tiberius could kill him at any time, Caligula had to play-act being friendly and not hating him, and this went on for six years. He grew up being perpetually traumatized, was never taught how to be a functioning adult man, and had been kept isolated from making any alliances within Rome to help him out once he became Emperor. All of which to say: what happened during this upcoming reign wasn’t entirely his own fault. He’d been, in many ways, set up to fail.

    As Caligula wasn’t married or had any children, he had to make everyone see him as a family man because then, like now, it was politically important to seem “relatable”. And also, the more he could remind people that he was the son of their beloved Germanicus and Vipsania, the more positive feelings people would hopefully have towards him. With this in mind, he elevated his three sisters, Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla, to be sort of honorary First Ladies of Rome who hung out with him in public all the time. He also granted them the same rights as Vestal Virgins, meaning that they had more rights than any other Roman women but without having the be virgins. These rights included: anyone touching them was punishable with death, they could have their own independent lives, and when they walked down the street they had a sort of honour guard who cleared the way for them. No Roman women in history, including the wives and mothers of previous Emperors, had any of this amount of autonomy or power.

    Teressa Liane as Agrippina with Molly Leishman as Livilla in Roman Empire (2016)

    In addition, every day at the start of Senate sessions, the men did a sort of pledge of allegiance moment where everyone promised to respect and adore the Emperor. Caligula had this changed so that everyone had to promise honour both him and his three sisters every time this pledge was said so Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla were present in name if not in body at the Senate hearings (women couldn’t attend Senate hearings, so that was about as close as they could get). Caligula also had coins minted with his face and name on one side, and his sisters on the reverse side. This was the first time living Roman women had ever been put on coins, and offers the first visual of Agrippina herself (a tiny image, shared with her siblings, but still the first time we can truly see her as a person).

    A coin minted during Caligula’s reign, showing the Emperor on one side, and his three sisters on the opposite side. Agrippina is on the left, leaning on a column. Wikipedia commons

    And then, as you might suspect, everything rather quickly went to shit. Several important things happened very close together near the end of Caligula’s first year as Emperor, and these things were:

    • Agrippina had her first child, a son named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was born in the breech position, and honestly it’s incredible that she didn’t die during this delivery.
    • Caligula fell ill and retreated from public life for several months. In his absence, his rivals stepped up their anti-Caligula plans. This included starting rumours that Caligula was having sexual relationships with his sisters. Please bear in mind that in ancient Roman times, accusing someone else of incest was a very common thing to do.Incest itself was not common, accusing someone else of incest was common. This was a highly effective, and popular way to defame someone you didn’t much care for.
    • When Caligula re-emerged following his illness, he seemed perhaps changed psychologically, and began ruthlessly murdering anyone he thought was conspiring against him to a sort of random and erratic level.
    • Agrippina and Caligula’s sister Drusilla died.
    • Caligula took this loss very personally, and acted out in a number of concerning ways: he stopped shaving his beard, smashed pottery, had Drusilla declared a deity and created a cult to worship her, and at one point even ran away a la Tiberius to meditate on an island for awhile.

    And then, as if this isn’t all enough, Caligula had Agrippina exiled in the year 39 for allegedly conspiring with Livilla against him. Livilla’s husband, Lepidus, was executed for his alleged involvement in this same plot. (He was also accused of having had an affair with Agrippina). Did these three people actually conspire against Caligula? I mean, maybe. And it would make sense if they did, because the Emperor was clearly not doing well and also because Caligula had (in the midst of all this chaos) fathered a son, which meant Agrippina’s son was one more step removed from becoming Emperor one day. And as we will soon see, Agrippina’s entire life seemed to eventually reolve around ensuring her son became Emperor one day (very Margaret Beaufort of her).

    Teressa Liane as Agrippina with Ido Drent as Caligula in Roman Empire (2016)

    Agrippina, now aged 24, was sent to live on a luxury villa on the island of Pontia. For company, she had a household of slaves, a personal bodyguard, and the knowledge that at any point, Caligula could change her sentence to death. So it’s not like being in jail, but it was probably not super relaxing. Bit then!! After just one year of island living, Caligula was assassinated (by their uncle Claudius) and their uncle Claudius was named the new Roman emperor. As one of his first acts in the role, he released his niece Agrippina from exile and invited her to join him back in Rome.

    The Emperor’s Niece

    Just to catch us all up to speed because a lot has already happened, Agrippina was twenty-five years old when she returned to Rome to be reunited with her son, who was now four years old. Her awful husband Domitius had recently just died (probably not murdered), so she was now a widow/single mother. The new Emperor, her uncle Claudius, was fifty years old and not particularly well suited for the job. He’d barely held any political positions before, was not widely liked, perhaps had physical disabilities that made some people not respect him, and had a Tiberius-esque personality where he didn’t much like anybody. Claudius also, early in his reign, had Livilla executed for the usual random reasons (scheming, adultery), leaving Agrippina as the only surviving child of Vipsania and Germanicus. Her son was also again supplanted as presumptive heir with Claudius’s teenage bride, Messalina, had a son named Britannicus.

    The Roman people still loved Agrippina, through all of this, largely due to their memories for how much they had loved her parents. Claudius, jealous and maybe a bit scared that this affection could turn against him somehow, had Agrippina married and shipped off to Asia to get her and her son out of the way as a threat to him. Her new husband was one of Claudius’s most trusted friends, who also happened to be Agrippina’s former brother-in-law (he’d been married to Domitius’s sister), Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. We’ll call him Crispus, for brevity. The whole thing seems very much like a thing where the Emperor does something nice for his friend, marrying him off to his wealthy niece. It wasn’t good news for Agrippina, though, as Crispus wasn’t at all on her same level, and marriage to him demoted her in importance. So you know she hated that.

    And then a very tidy series of events occurred:

    • Crispus changed his will to make Agrippina his sole beneficiary
    • Agrippina and Crispus returned to Rome from Asia
    • Crispus mysteriously died, leaving Agrippina a wealthy widow

    Five years pass without Agrippina’s name coming up in any documents, showing yet again how skilled she was at staying low on the radar. During these five years, though, Claudius began colonizing Britain (see my essay on Boudica for more on that scenario). (This is also why his son was named Britannicus). But just because Agrippina wasn’t around doesn’t mean there weren’t sexy scandals happening in Rome, because friends, it’s time to learn a bit more about Claudius’s teenage wife Messalina.

    A Note on Messalina: Valeria Messalina was Claudius’s third wife. She was probably about 18 when she married the 50-year-old Emperor and they were first cousins once removed, because goddamn everyone is related to everyone in this story. He married her due to her being a descendant of Augustus, which helped shore of Claudius’s weaker claim to the throne. Messalina, like Agrippina, seems to have been extremely devoted to doing everything she could to ensure her son became the next Emperor. She and Agrippina feuded a lot and seem to have been equal matches to each other in terms of ruthlessness and scheming. As with Caligula, a lot of enemies spread a lot of rumours about her (and a lot of the stuff we know now was written after she had died, when people like Agrippina were busy retroactively making Messalina seem terrible). What bafflingly does seem to be true, and not a rumour, is that one day when Claudius was out of town, Messalina decided to marry her lover in a very public ceremony. When he found out, Claudius had her and eight men suspected of helping her out all put to death, which is frankly a reasonable reaction to such a public humiliation. He also had had her name erased from all historical records and monuments like she’d never existed. The whole story is wild. Here’s more info.

    And then, in need of a wife, Claudius married his niece Agrippina less than three months later.

    The Emperor’s Wife

    Please note that it was just as weird in ancient Rome for an uncle to marry a niece as it would be in the current day and age. Remember, this is a culture where people frequently accused each other of incest because they knew it was the grossest thing you could accuse someone of doing. So what’s the deal? How the fuck did this happen??

    Setting aside for a moment the very weird and messed up fact that Agrippina was Claudius’s niece, let’s look at what made her an appealing potential bride for the 59-year-old Emperor. She was a descendant of Augustus, and was still super popular as the daughter of Germanicus and Vipsania. She also had a son who, through her, was also more directly descended from Augustus than Claudius’s son Britannicus was. She was also rich, and smart, and seems to have had much better diplomatic/people skills than Claudius.

    What was in this for Agrippina? Well for starters, she’d be the wife of the Emperor, making her the most powerful woman in Rome. She’d always grown up with a sense she was better than everyone else and destined for great things, and this opportunity may have seemed like her best chance to finally seize the power she felt was her birthright. It would also cement the future for her son, as once she was the Emperor’s wife she’d be better able to manipulate things to get her son to supplant Britannicus as heir.

    So, lots of great reasons for them to get married, too bad about the being uncle and niece. But Claudius was really determined to make this happen and, after tricking the Senate into changing the laws for him, the pair were married on January 1, the year 49. In an attempt to spoil the day and remind everyone that this union was really fucking gross, Claudius’s former BFF Silanus died by suicide that same day. And not that same day but pretty quickly, three things happened:

    • Claudius formally adopted Agrippina’s son, changed his name to Nero, made him heir instead of Claudius’s son Britannicus, and married Nero off to Claudius’s daughter Octavia
    • Agrippina demanded that the scholar Seneca be returned from exile in order to be Nero’s new tutor, and
    • a woman named Lollia Paulina was accused of witchcraft, sent into exile, and died.

    A note on Lollia Paulina: Lollia Paulina had been, briefly, one of Caligula’s revolving door of wives. She had also been mentioned by some Senators as a potential new wife for Claudius after the death of Messalina. Allegedly, Agrippina set events in motion to ensure Paulina’s death in order to remove her as a rival for her uncle-husband’s affections. So just mark that on your score cards for People Potentially Murdered by Agrippina.

    After one year of marriage, Claudius had Agrippina titled Augusta. This was a big fucking deal, as only two women before her had ever been given this title. This title meant that she was on effectively equal standing with Claudius. No woman in Western history had ever had this much power before, and none would again for another hundred years*. She wasn’t an old-school Emperor’s wife like her grandmother and great-grandmother had been, wielding their power as influence behind the scenes. Agrippina Augusta was an active figure who sat beside her husband and had involvement in acts of state, whose thoughts were taken into consideration, and who was permitted to oversee projects of her own.

    One of these projects was her creation of a Roman colony for retired military personnel in the area of Germany where she’d been born. Originally named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (which means Agrippina’s Colony), the name of the colony was eventually truncated to just Colonia, and then its current name of Cologne (still a city in Germany). This wasn’t just a thing where she had it named after her and never thought about it again: Agrippina was truly the patron of this colony, ensuring that it had infrastructure in place to allow Colonia to thrive and for the people within in to live as well as possible, both the Roman veterans as well as the indigenous Ubii people of the area.

    And then, as a final statement of just how powerful Agrippina had become, she was placed on a coin alongside Claudius in the year 50. Unlike when she’d shared the reverse of a coin with her sisters during the reign of Caligula, this time she was pictured on her own on the reverse side of the coin. She also commissioned statues made in her likeness that wore a diadem, a sort of crown-tiara hybrid that looked cool but more importantly, no living Roman woman had ever been shown to wear in a piece of art.

    Coin showing Claudius on the front, and Agrippina on the reverse. Wikipedia Commons

    And then, three years later, Emperor Claudius died in the year 54 of mysterious circumstances that seemed to involve having eaten a dish of poisoned mushrooms. (Also, less interestingly, Claudius was sixty-three years old and had a number of health issues, so he may have just died of natural causes). Instantly, rumours began to spread that Agrippina had killed him. As per usual, these rumours seem to have been one part people who hated her (because any time a woman acquires a lot of power, a lot of men tend to pop up hating her) and one part how she behaved in the aftermath of Claudius’s death. Which was, she was highly organized and took things into her hands and arranged that her son Nero would be named the new Emperor. Essentially, she seemed too capable and not sad enough for some people, which is laughable because if Agrippina had been the sort of person to freak out when someone is murdered in front of her, she’d never have survived this long in this family.

    But, if we are to believe the rumours that Agrippina arranged Claudius’s murder, here’s how it allegedly would have happened. There was a famous poisoner in Rome at this time named Locusta, who was a peasant from Gaul (old timey France) who was so skilled at herbs she decided to move to Rome and be a freelance poisoner. She was, obviously, a very interesting person. Locusta’s reputation was such that Agrippina had her freed from jail to work as her go-to poison expert. The trick was that Claudius had a food taster on retainer, which makes sense as everyone was always trying to kill everyone. So Agrippina and Locusta arranged to serve him mushrooms, his favourite dish, and to lure the food taster away when the mushrooms arrived. The mushrooms were laced with poison, and when a doctor came to try and make Claudius vomit up the poison by shoving a feather down his throat the feather was also coated with poison, and so the Emperor died. I mean, genius. Allegedly.

    Oh and then the part that would make Jessica Fletcher raise her eyebrows is that this time, Agrippina’s husband had died without any will that anyone cuold find. So one theory is that Claudius was preparing to cut Agrippina and/or Nero out of his will, and that’s why she had him killed. But of course maybe Claudius died of natural causes and just never wrote a will. Either way, Agrippina was like, “Don’t worry! He told me what he wants, and that’s for his adopted stepson Nero to become the next Emperor instead of his biological Britannicus! Trust me!” And everyone gave her a big side-eye, but agreed.

    Which is how Agrippina, widowed for the third time, was now the Emperor’s mother.

    The Emperor’s Mother

    Statue of Agrippina casually belly-button out, crowning Nero
    History Today

    Agrippina had spent her whole life since Nero’s birth in ruthlessly ensuring he’d become the next Emperor. When he took on the role, she must have been so relieved but also like… what now? She’d had a great run as Claudius’s wife/the power behind the throne, and presumably she was planning on backseat ruling for her son now, too. The detail she’d neglected to properly plan ahead for (if there is a way to plan ahead for such things) is that Nero was 100% a little shit. It’s very much the Game of Thrones Cersei/Joffrey thing, where the mother is so much smarter and would have been a better leader but instead she has to sit and watch her son being an asshole and ruining everything. #spoilers

    It started out well, though! Nero, aged sixteen, was the youngest ever Emperor of Rome. And unlike Caligula or even Claudius, he’d been groomed from a young age to actually know how to do this job. He had pre-existing responsibilities within the Senate, he had useful alliances with powerful people, and the people of Rome knew who he was and weren’t confused about where he’d come from. BUT ALSO, Nero’s true dream in life was to be an actor/singer, so although he’d been set up to succeed as Emperor his heart was never in it. But largely because of Agrippina’s backseat driving, Nero was stepping into the role of Emperor already quite popular and with a number of powerful allies who supported him.

    Agrippina also seemed to assume that she was effectively Nero’s regent and could now take over even more control running things. And she did, for the first bit. She’d single-handedly turned things around during Claudius’s reign, with way less revolts and treason happening while she was there doing the books she would have known very well what to do and kept on keeping on now for Nero. Her fatal flaw was perhaps that she really wanted to make sure everyone knew it was her doing this stuff, not Nero. She was never one to quietly fade into the background, Agrippina ensured she was always in Nero’s presence, at least publicly, appearing near him just as she’d been with Claudius so nobody forgot that she had power in this situation as well.

    And you knew this was coming, MORE COINS DRAMA!! The latest coins Agrippina had minted put her in her most powerful pose yet, this time of the coin with Nero. On these ones, she and Nero were both in profile facing each other, a display of how they were (allegedly) equals.

    Agrippina and Nero sharing the front of a Roman coin. Honestly it looks like they’re really mad at each other, doesn’t it? #foreshadowing Wikipedia

    But then, of course, things started going to shit because that’s the sort of story this is. The first major blow to Agrippina’s power was when she went in, as per usual, to join Nero and others for a meeting with foreign delegates. With Claudius, she used to sit sort of behind him. For this meeting, her first with Nero in these positions, she went up to sit right next to him. Nero’s tutor, Seneca (who Agrippina had brought back from exile personally) directed Nero to remove her, and Nero did, escorting her to a separate seat further away from him. After this, she never again joined Nero for a business meeting.

    The thing that caught her here is that Agrippina had broken new ground for herself, but it was largely based on a common understanding, not law. She hadn’t had laws changed to improve things for other women, or even other Emperor’s wives or mothers: she just started doing new stuff herself, and the men in power let her do these things. So when they changed their mind, she had no law or precedent to turn to in her own defense. She’d side-stepped the obstacles inherent of being a Roman woman by not behaving as a woman or as man she’d been her own person, a quasi-Goddess outside of this gender paradigm. But when she fell, it was all too easy because all it took was to start treating her like a woman again.

    So, Nero was a brat and everyone around him encouraged him to distance himself from his mother. One example is that, in around the year 55, Nero and Agrippina had a huge screaming fight about his new girlfriend, a woman named Acte who was a freed slave. As a kind of fuck you to Agrippina, Nero had his mother sent some jewels and a dress. This was an insult because Agrippina had never ever ever been a woman for whom fashion or luxury was an interest. In fact, she prided herself on her frugality and lack of flash and glamour. For Nero to present her with these gifts was like him saying, “Here, you’re a woman, that’s all you are and all you’re good for,” and was mega dismissive of her. Apparently in response, she said something like, “I gave him the empire, and he gave me a dress,” which: true. Nero was a sucky son.

    He was also a shitty step-brother/cousin, as he had his 14-year-old stepbrother/cousin Britannicus murdered via poison sourced from returning guest star Locusta! Britannicus died in the middle of a big dinner party in front of lots of people, including Agrippina, and Nero made everyone stay and continue the party even around the teenage boy’s corpse. This incident was like a formal announcement that Nero was a psychopath whose thesis statement for life was chaos. This was like, one year into his reign so it had all gone apart spectacularly quickly. Agrippina, always a grounding presence in his life, had to go if Nero was truly to go completely feral, and so he had his mother exiled to live in her own villa far, far away from him.

    Sort of like Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, word spread that the formerly untouchable Agrippina had lost her powerful ally and so all of her enemies began to step up and voice their grievances against her. Charges were made against her that she’d been scheming against Nero, and Agrippina literally walked right over to her son’s palace like NERO STOP THIS SHIT and friends, so terrifying was this woman that Emperor Nero The Boy Tyrant stopped that shit. Somehow, these two reached an understanding behind closed doors such that nothing about Agrippina appears in public record for the next four years, meaning that everything was going more or less fine. During these four years, the country seemed to be running pretty well, which suggests that she was allowed back in to run things while Nero spent most of his time putting on plays and forcing people to watch and clap for him.

    And then Nero fell in love again, this time with a 29-year-old woman named Poppea Sabina. A bunch happens with Poppea and Nero later on (none of it good) but for the purposes of this story, just note that rumours had it Poppea didn’t like Agrippina and encouraged Nero to murder his mother. Whether or not Poppea directly enouraged Nero to do this, it’s shortly after they began their relationship that Nero began plotting ways to murder Agrippina.

    Gloria Swanson as Agrippina with Vittorio De Sica as Seneca and Brigitte Bardot as Poppea in Nero’s Weekend (1956)

    So, because Agrippina still was very popular with lots of Romans, especially army soldiers with fond memories of her beloved father Germanicus, Nero knew he couldn’t just order some soldier to stab her to death. So, he went to his trusty plan of poisoning her. But guess what: just like in The Princess Bride, Agrippina grew up seeing so many people poisoned to death that she’d long been taking small doses of every known poison in order to make herself immune to all of them. Even Locusta wasn’t able to make this happen, poison-wise. And so Nero turned to Plan C: make it look like an accident. During his failed acting career, he’d seen a stage prop of a boat with a trick floor and commissioned an actor friend of his to build a real life boat like that.

    The scene was set! Nero invited his mother to visit him at a villa that required a long boat trek to get to. Agrippina, understandably and correctly suspicious, refused his offer of a boat and instead come on her own boat. They had dinner together, awkward, and at the end of the night Nero had convinced her enough that he wasn’t trying to kill her that she agreed to take his special boat back home. Maybe he was a talented actor after all?

    As per the plan, part of the boat collapsed when they were in the middle of open water and the ship started to sink. Agrippina’s servant Polla figured if she pretended to be Agrippina then it was more likely she would be saved, so she cried out she was the Emperor’s mother and wouldn’t someone help her?? But the ship’s crew, working for Nero, hit Polla in the head with oars to drown her, because they were assassins. Along with Polla, numerous crew members died as well. But guess who didn’t die? Agrippina!

    The Shipwreck of Agrippina
    Painting by Gustav Wertheimer Wikimedia Commons

    Remember when she spent a year on an island in exile? Clearly, she’d practiced her swimming at that point, because she was a strong enough swimmer to get to short. Everyone cheered her survival, because she was still Agrippina The Super Popular, but she was smart enough to know this ridiculous plan was her son’s attempt to kill her. She had a messenger send word to Nero like, “Don’t worry! I’m still alive!” and he commenced freaking out. News of the shipwreck spread around her neighbours and crowds of people stood around her villa, weeping and praying because their beloved Augusta had nearly died.

    But then! Plot twist: a group of soldiers arrived, the personification of Nero’s reply to Agrippina’s message about her survival. The soldiers burst into her room and revealed that they’d been sent there to execute her because, Nero claimed, Agrippina had tried to murder him. UGH THAT UNGRATEFUL ASSHOLE!! Agrippina tried to talk them out of it, obviously, claiming that NO WAY would her son ever try to have her murdered. But the soldiers were resolute, and her final act and words were to fling open her robe to reveal her stomach, demanding that they stab her in the womb. And they did. And thus was the death of Agrippina the Younger, aged 44.


    *Agrippina achieved more individual power than any Roman woman before her. It wouldn’t be until a century later when the 3rd century Severan women aka the Syrian Matriarchy came along that any Roman noblewomen would ever attain this amount of power. (These women were Julia Domna and her nieces Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, and they were awesome).


    My main source was Emma Southon’s biography of Agrippina, which is hands-down the most fun historical biography I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend this funny, vulgar, melodramatic and feminist book strongly enough!!


    View Inside Format: Cloth
    Price: $55.00

    Agrippina the Younger attained a level of power in first-century Rome unprecedented for a woman. According to ancient sources, she achieved her success by plotting against her brother, the emperor Caligula, murdering her husband, the emperor Claudius, and controlling her son, the emperor Nero, by sleeping with him. Modern scholars tend to accept this verdict. But in his dynamic biography—the first on Agrippina in English—Anthony Barrett paints a startling new picture of this influential woman.

    Drawing on the latest archaeological, numismatic, and historical evidence, Barrett argues that Agrippina has been misjudged. Although she was ambitious, says Barrett, she made her way through ability and determination rather than by sexual allure, and her political contributions to her time seem to have been positive. After Agrippina's marriage to Claudius there was a marked decline in the number of judicial executions and there was close cooperation between the Senate and the emperor the settlement of Cologne, founded under her aegis, was a model of social harmony and the first five years of Nero's reign, while she was still alive, were the most enlightened of his rule. According to Barrett, Agrippina's one real failing was her relationship with her son, the monster of her own making who had her murdered in horrific and violent circumstances. Agrippina's impact was so lasting, however, that for some 150 years after her death no woman in the imperial family dared assume an assertive political role.

    A selection of the History Book Club

    "Any reader with an interest in the history of Roman women, or of the Roman imperial system, whether scholar or interested layman, will find this biography indispensable."—Susan Wood, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

    "This work elucidates nicely some of the problems one encounters in attempting to define the various roles played by, and the position of, imperial women in the first decades of the Roman Empire. Moreover, Barrett combines rigorous scholarship with a particularly engaging narrative style. Of great value to students is the essay on sources, as well as the appendixes, which tackle the genealogical quagmire of reconstructing the imperial family. Highly recommended."—Choice

    "Barrett is to be congratulated on a book from which a great many will derive both knowledge and pleasure."—David Shotter, Classical Review

    "All students of the Julio-Claudian dynasty should give careful consideration to this revisionist portrait of Agrippina."—William J. Dominik, Classical World

    "One of history's most notorious monsters is rehabilitated as a politically successful woman whose power and reputation in first-century Rome fell victim to Roman sexism. . . . A scholarly yet accessible biography that largely succeeds in replacing Grand Guignol with something more satisfying: the tragedy of a natural leader born female in a society afraid to be led by women."—Kirkus Reviews

    "[Barrett] does not exonerate Agrippina the Younger so much as give plausible explanations for her behavior and put her actions in a proper perspective. . . . Cleverly, insightfully arranged. . . . This is a wonderful book."—Library Journal

    "A carefully reasoned and eloquently presented attempt to find redeeming virtues in one of the most infamous women of antiquity. . . . A fitting complement to a host of other popular imperial biographies and will be found stimulating to both students and scholars of the early Roman empire."—David F. Graf, Religious Studies Review

    "Agrippina emerges in this thoroughgoing study as even more fascinating than her traditional reputation, and the ancient stories about her are themselves seen in a clearer light."—The Key Reporter

    "Barrett has produced a smooth and readable plea for a dubious client. Moreover, his English and American publishers have between them turned his book into an interesting cultural document."—Timothy Barnes, University of Toronto Quarterly

    Personalities: Agrippina the Younger

    Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 &ndash AD 59) was one of the most influential women from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (27 BC-AD 68). She was the daughter to the popular general, Germanicus, once heir to the Roman Empire, and Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus. She was a sister to the emperor Caligula, and the niece and fourth wife to the emperor Claudius. Her son, Nero, born during her earlier marriage to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, eventually became the fifth and family emperor from the Julio-Claudian family to rule the Roman Empire. Agrippina the Younger&rsquos imperial pedigree is quite astounding as the granddaughter, sister, wife and mother to four of the five emperors who ruled Rome for eighty years. It was this pedigree that encouraged her central role in the imperial image of her son&rsquos reign, as it was only through her linage could the young Nero claim imperial descent. Her formidable presence in the imperial family during her 43 years left a long-lasting presence in Roman society. Her position first alongside her brother then her husband and finally her son developed the role of the imperial women within the imperial image. As such, her presentation in official imperial media &ndash such as inscriptions, statuary and coins &ndash offers insights into the role of imperial women during the first century of the Principate. Moreover, her representation within the literary material indicates the reaction of elite male Roman citizens to the growing power of the imperial family and their women.


    Map of the Roman Empire at the time of Agrippina the Younger&rsquos birth
    Photo credit: Eck, W. 2007 Age of Augustus, Malden and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. (Second edition), page 90-91.

    By the time of Agrippina the Younger&rsquos birth in AD 15, Rome had transformed from the republic and into what is now known as the Principate. A year prior to her birth, the father of this transformation, Augustus, had died and the empire was ruled by his less popular and arguably uninterested adopted son, Tiberius. Rome would continue to prosper, however, with the new way of life starting to fully develop and embedded itself within Roman society. Therefore, to understand the powerful role of Agrippina the Younger, it is first necessary to study the world in which she lived. Below is a list of further resources that discusses the geography, topography and resources of Rome, the developing political structures of the empire and the role of imperial women during this transformative period.

    Mother and son

    Soon after Claudius’s death, Agrippina acted quickly. Within just a few hours, the teenaged Nero was being acclaimed emperor by the army and the Senate. His close relationship with his mother was well known and well scrutinised. Suetonius related how Nero announced during his funeral oration for Claudius that Agrippina would be taking over his public and private affairs. An interesting detail: “On the day of his accession the password he gave to the colonel on duty was ‘The Best of Mothers’ and she and he often rode out together through the streets in her litter.” Rumours that the two were incestuously involved were reported by historians as well.

    Agrippina’s influence and Nero’s gratitude would wane over time. Nero’s advisers Seneca and Burrus, who had been appointed by Agrippina, now held newfound power and used it to sideline her. Far from accepting her new role, Agrippina tried, unsuccessfully, to continue to influence her son. He enjoyed popularity at the start of his reign, but things would start to unravel. Familial tensions would increase over politics and Nero’s choice of companions. The already unbearable tension between mother and son was compounded when Nero had Britannicus assassinated. (Some historians are rethinking Nero's dark legacy.)

    Within a year of Nero becoming emperor, Agrippina was ordered to leave the imperial residence and relocated to an estate in Misenum. She had been cast out from the inner circle of power, but she was not safe from her son. Nero tried to drown her by sabotaging a boat, but she survived. Undeterred, Nero sent assassins to the villa where Agrippina had taken refuge and had her murdered there in A.D. 59. There were no funeral honours. To cover up the matricide, Nero and his advisers crafted a misogynistic cover story, attributing various crimes to her, according to Tacitus, that included, “[aiming] at a share of empire, and at inducing the praetorian cohorts to swear obedience to a woman, to the disgrace of the Senate and people.” Her reputation lay shattered, and her birthday would be classed as an inauspicious day.

    Despite the innuendos and criticisms, begrudging respect for Agrippina was expressed by some Roman historians. Tacitus wrote: “This was the end which Agrippina had anticipated for years. The prospect had not daunted her. When she asked astrologers about Nero, they had answered that he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was, ‘Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor!’”

    The moment when Nero examines the murdered body of his mother, Agrippina, is described in several ancient historians’ accounts. In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, the second-century Roman historian Suetonius related how Nero “rushed off to examine Agrippina’s corpse, handling her limbs, and, between drinks to satisfy his thirst, discussing their good and bad points . . . He was never either then or afterward able to free his conscience from the guilt of this crime. He often admitted that he was hounded by his mother’s ghost and that the Furies were pursuing him with whips and burning torches.” Painting by Arturo Montero y Calvo, 1887. Prado Museum, Madrid

    Watch the video: Did Roman emperor Nero murder his own mother?


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