HSC Ancient History Part 3: Personalities in Their Times – Rome – Agrippina the Younger

Return to HSC Resources

1. Historical context

Contents

Role of imperial women in Roman society

  • “a strong-minded woman was also able to influence general aspects of an emperor’s policy…the women of the Domus rose to a higher and more spectacular position than any of their republican forebears” – Bauman

2. Background and rise to prominence

Family background and status

  • Tacitean observation that “her degree was impeccable” holds true, as Agrippina’s family background formed a crucial basis for her power and influence, as she both observed important lessons of wielding power, and was provided a platform to build patron-client relationships.
  • As her father, Germanicus was a paramount connection for Agrippina as he was intensely popular with the Roman people and Army, his triumph in Germany attested to by Barrett as being “a memory that his daughter would exploit to the full” and corroborated by Tacitus who states that “the effect” of his triumph “was heightened…by the five Children”.
    • Thus, one can extrapolate that Germanicus used this children for the propaganda effect; an early influence on Agrippina’s manipulative nature.
  • Moreover, a direct descendent of Augustus, Agrippina the Elder formed an important basis of her daughter’s lineage providing her with the lessons that would later prove crucial to her political advancement. Indeed, from observation of her mother who “knew no feminine weakness” (Tacitus), Agrippina learnt to use her feminine wiles as a weapon; alluded to by Barrett who states that she saw sex as “a means…to power”.
  • Thus Grant’s observation that “she grew up in an appalling atmosphere of malevolence, suspicion and criminal violence” is congruent with the assertion that her family background gave birth to the goals that would continue to mark her life: gaining imperial prestige and elevating her son to princeps.

Early life, ambitions and marriages

First Marriage – Domitius Ahenobarbus

  • AD 28 at the age 13, Agrippina married Domitius.
  • Domitius himself held the office of consul in AD 32, and unusually was allowed to hold the office for an entire year
  • Suetonius presents a most colourful description of Domitius, suggesting that he: ” … was a wholly despicable character … Once driving through a village on the Appian Way, he whipped up his horses and deliberately ran over and killed a boy; and when a knight criticised him rather freely in the Forum he gouged out one of his eyes there and then.”
  • Agrippina’s marriage seemed to have had no impact on the political battles which were taking place at the time. In fact, it could be argued that the marriage to Domitius – be he a fine fellow or a brute- provided Agrippina with a major advantage àit provided her protection àagainst this background of attacks on the family of Germanicus, the family of Domitius would be able to offer the young Agrippina some security.
  • In Imperial Rome, “everybody seemed to be linked to everybody else”. (Tacitus)
  • As can be seen below, Domitius was not only of an ancient family but he was “a blood-relation of the Caesars” (Tacitus),  with a direct link back to Augustus’ sister, Octavia.

Second Marriage – Crispus Passienus

  • 41 AD
  • Passienus was wealthy and of consular rank but not as well connected as her first husband àshe already has status, she now needs wealth
  • “It is likely that Agrippina’s family background would have made her feel at home in a setting of literate sophistication, although Passienus’ great wealth would have also been a considerable inducement” – Barrett
  • Also thought that this marriage saved Agrippina from the intrigues of Claudius’ wife Mesallina, sister Livilla was not so fortunate; exiled for a second time and died in AD 42.
  • This marriage provides her with the wealth to support her background
  • Strategically, she was under the radar when Mesallina started scheming – this was a close call as her sister Livilla was caught up in the scheming and was eventually exiled for a second time. She was not a threat to Mesallina’s ambitions.
  • Sources portray Passienus as an intelligent, genial man, who was not afraid to say what he felt, as according to Barrett: “…wit was combined with a lively sense of humour that could sometimes be outlandishly eccentric…much of his humour was dangerously directed against his imperial masters”
  • Passienus himself had machinations for marrying Agrippina
  • “Passienus’ desire to conclude a political marriage for his own career advancement” (Barrett)
  • Passienus died in the mid 40’sà his death was convenient for Agrippina who was left very wealthy and now free to marry Claudius if he became free
  • POINT OF LIMITATION: Agrippina seemed to disappear from the sources until just before the fall of Messalina.

Third Marriage – Claudius

  • Her ability to navigate and survive the dangerous course of her brother Caligula demonstrates her ability to persuade people to her cause – she had a strong character
  • The Reign of Claudius provided her with the stability to truly promote her own place in society but more importantly, her sons.
  • Indeed, her marriage to Claudius provided her with a platform to power, as while it may be dismissed as a damming aside, Tacitus’ observation of Claudius’ “sluggish uxoriousness” is corroborated by Suetonius who states that “everything Claudius did…was dictated by his wives and freedmen”, thereby emphasising how through her marriage to Claudius, Agrippina was able to both use him as a puppet leader to achieve her own goals and build further patronage that would later help her elevate Nero to princeps.

Points of Analysis about Agrippina’s Marriages

  • Underlines significance of family background and status
  • Made her extremely wealthy
  • Political in nature
  • The effect of her first two marriages had established her in the public eye.

Motherhood

  • Agrippina was the mother of the future emperor Nero
  • She would come to be known as “optima mater” or “the best of mothers”
  • Gave her new status as a mother
  • Matronly virtue was an important criterion of acceptance in Roman society.
  • Significance of her child being a potential heir to the Julio-Claudian dynasty
  • The birth of her son had increased her prestige but it also marked the birth of an ambition that would come to dominate her future career – the elevation of her son to princeps.

Points of Analysis

  • Agrippina now had a vested Political interest in the dynasty beyond her own survive and personal advanced.
  • She was nothing if not an astute observer of human nature.
  • She used her influence and her considerable talents to cultivate and bend people to her will.
  • Background taught her the need for powerful acquaintances – learnt from her mother’s experiences/ mistakes – status and position are not enough to protect
  • Her power and influence forms the basis of Tacitus’s observation that her supporters formed a political faction known as the Partes Agrippinae
  • While her familial connections and political marriages formed an important foundation of her power, it was ultimately Agrippina’s own intelligence, talent and prowess that enabled her to succeed in the ranks of Roman society.
  • Dudley suggests Agrippina was guided by 3 main aims:
    • To draw political power into her own hands
    • To advance her son Nero to the Principate
    • To remove those who stood in her way
  • Reasons for these aims include:
    • Many members of her immediate family had been imprisoned, exiled or killed
      As descendant of Augustus, daughter of Germanicus, mother to the only direct male descendant of her illustrious family she may have felt entitled to her share of the power in the dynasty

3. Career

Basis of her power and influence; patronage

Limited by her gender, Agrippina achieved much of her political power through patron-client relationships.

Seneca

  • In 49, Agrippina used her influence over Claudius to recall Seneca from exile and give him the position of praetor
  • She wanted him to tutor her son. “had designs on him [Seneca] as a distinguished tutor for her young son…” (Tacitus) à ultimately to increase power and elevate him to the role of princeps. “Agrippina was training her son for the throne and entrusting his education to Seneca” (Cassius Dio)
  • “he [Seneca] was believed to be devoted to her in gratitude for her favours.”
  • Seneca did follow Agrippina’s instructions until he realised that being an amicus princepis (friend of the princeps) to Nero gave him even greater power.

Burrus

  • Ensured her support from the Praetorian Guard Burrus was made sole praetorian prefect in 51.
  • Burrus, according to Tacitus, was “fully aware whose initiative was behind his appointment” and the power Agrippina wielded due to this relationship ultimately facilitated Nero’s rise to power.

Pallas

  • This freedman played a significant role in promoting Agrippina as a future wife for Claudius after Messalina’s downfall and later, their association, according to Barrett would enable Agrippina access to the empire’s finances as Pallas was the rationibus. In return, Agrippina advanced members of his family, such as his brother Felix to Procurator of Judaea.

Others

  • Another man, one of Seneca’s brothers – Junius Gallio – became proconsul of Achaea in AD 61-6, while another brother Annaeus Milo became an imperial procurator
  • According to Tacitus, other amici of Agrippina gained senatorial imperial posts – Balbillus as prefect of Egypt, Anteius Rufus as Govenor of Syria

Role during the reign of Gaius (Caligula), including exile

  • By AD 33, Agrippina the Elder, Nero and Drusus were dead. The family of Germanicus had been reduced to Drusilla, Livilla, Agrippina, and Gaius who was now living with the Emperor Tiberius on the island of Capri. Agrippina managed to escape the mayhem of Tiberius’ reign and the sources record little about her during his final years. In late AD 37, Agrippina gave birth to her only son, Nero. Most likely not a coincidence that the birth took place 9 months after the death of Tiberius – Agrippina would have been well aware that any son of hers, with his Julian blood and direct link to Augustus, would have been victim to the imperial power plays which marked Tiberius’ reign
  • Nero was a breech birth – difficult, dangerous and painful experience.
  • The astrologer, Thrasyllus, is alleged to have said at the time that Nero would rule Rome but would kill his mother. Agrippina’s response to this was: “Let him kill me, but let him rule.”

The New Emperor and His Family:

Agrippina Family tree HSC Ancient History

  • Tiberius died in March 37 and was succeeded by Agrippina’s brother, the 25 year old Gaius. Gaius’ accession was welcomed across Rome, as both a reprieve from Tiberius, but also as a son of Germanicus. Gaius had become known as “Caligula” or “little boots”, a term that the legionary troops of the Rhine had affectionately given him as a child from his habit of wearing soldiers’ boots while stationed in Germany with his father.
  • The popular approval which accompanied Gaius’ accession and the Senate’s decision to confer all power of the princeps upon him seemed well placed.
    • The cruelty and gloom of Tiberius’ reign had been lifted.
    • Gaius quickly established his popularity: exiles were recalled and he rescinded the hated sales tax.
    • He granted bounties to the troops.
    • He staged gladiatorial shows in Rome.
    • Gaius’ show of humility towards the Senate was matched by his open display of piety.
    • He travelled to Pandateria and Pontia, the island exiles of his mother and brother, and brought their ashes back to Rome.
    • They were placed in Augustus’ mausoleum.
    • He was unable to locate the remains of Drusus but erected a cenotaph in his honour.
    • During Tiberius’ reign, the birthday of Gaius’ mother, Agrippina the Elder, had been declared a day of ‘ill omen'; this decision was reversed.
    • He honoured his late father by renaming the month of September ‘Germanicus’.
  • In addition to honouring his parents and his late brothers, Gaius had his uncle, Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, appointed as consul. Tiberius Gemellus, son of Drusus and grandson of Tiberius, was adopted by Gaius and made Prince of the Youth. The legacies from Livia’s will (she had died in 29) which had been left unpaid were now paid. Special honours were granted to his grandmother, Antonia. Gaius showered his sisters with honours. It is worth considering the reasons for Gaius’ preoccupation with the promotion of family members. Gaius was ashamed of the poor birth of his grandfather, Agrippa. Suetonius says that he would break into a rage if anyone even mentioned Agrippa’s name.
  • “He nursed a fantasy that his mother had been born of an incestuous union between Augustus and his daughter Julia.” Suetonius
  • When referring to Gaius’ outrageous allegation regarding his parentage, Bauman suggests: “there may have been some method in his madness, in the sense that he was building up the image of the Domus, of the divine blood of Augustus.”

The New Emperor and his Sisters:

  • One of his first acts was to bring into prominence the position of his 3 sisters by giving them unprecedented constitutional status. In a series of measures, the 3 sisters were:
    • Made honorary Vestal Virgins – highest public position a female can obtain
    • Given seats in the imperial enclosure at games
    • Included in the annual vows of allegiance to the emperor: “I will hold myself and my children dearer than I hold Gaius and his sisters” Suetonius
    • Included in the preamble to proposals submitted to the senate
  • He also issued a coin, sestertius, showing his 3 sisters on the reverse. No Roman coinage had ever before depicted sisters of an emperor – unprecedented – elevates status considerably – excellent evidence – 37AD – “Caligula’s actions represent a key stage in the elevation of the women of the imperial house…they shared in the mystique and majesty of the principate” Bauman
  • The 3 sisters are depicted standing together – Agrippina represents securitas/ security – she holds a cornucopia (symbol of prosperity / health / fertility)

Agrippina sisters coin HSC Ancient History

  • Some ancient sources suggest Gaius had incestuous relations with his sisters, particularly Drusilla.
  • It is claimed that he lived with Drusilla as a wife although she was already married.
  • “They say that he ravished his sister Drusilla before he came of age…later he took Drusilla from her (first) husband…openly treating her as his lawfully married wife” Suetonius
  • “Caligula lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his was reclined above” Suetonius
  • He wanted to introduce the concept of Ptolemaic marriage into the imperial household to preserve the Julian bloodline.
  • Interestingly, when Gaius ill in AD 37, he considered making Drusilla his heir, and when he died the following year, he had her deified.

Agrippina and the Conspiracy of AD 39

  • In late 37, Gaius suffered a major illness. Afterwards he was never the same and his reign now becomes associated with words such as megalomania, tyranny and paranoia. Suetonius says that Gaius now made Drusilla heir “to his worldly goods”. Dio suggests that her husband, M Aemilius Lepidus was designated Gaius’ heir.
  • Drusilla died in 38. Gaius ordered a period of public mourning and it became an offence to bathe, laugh or dine with one’s parents. Drusilla was deified and was now known as Panthea, the universal goddess. A temple was dedicated to her and games staged to celebrate her birthday. Bauman says that the public honours awarded Drusilla were matched by “an avalanche of private grief”.
  • In late 39, Gaius and his wife Milonia gave birth to a daughter, called Julia Drusilla.
  • Then came the conspiracy of 39. The precise details of the alleged conspiracy have always been confused and the relationships of those involved – Lepidus, Gaetulicus, Agrippina, Livilla – far from clear.
    • In 39 Gaius went to Germany and had the legate of Upper Germany, Gaetulicus, arrested and executed – either he was involved in a plot against the emperor, or simply incompetent.
    • The next name dragged into the story was that of Lepidus.
      • Lepidus was having affairs with both of his late wife’s sisters, Livilla and Agrippina.
      • Gaius accused all three of immoral behaviour – and then of conspiracy. Suetonius tells how Gaius ‘dedicated three swords to Mars the Avenger’.
    • Conspiracy theory:
      • Did Lepidus see himself as a successor to Gaius who had been very ill? A link with a Julian princess such as Agrippina would do him no harm.
      • Agrippina’s husband was ill (Domitius dies in 40) and perhaps she felt that Lepidus was a “safe bet” for ensuring the future of her son, Nero.
      • “A marriage with Lepidus after her husband’s death would strengthen her position and her son’s at the same time. Like her mother Agrippina Minor was highly ambitious and it would not have been out of character is she had begun to scheme for Nero’s accession from the very outset.” Barrett.
      • Agrippina may have seen in Gaetulicus the military support necessary to gain and hold onto power.
      • “The rest of his sisters he did not love with so great affection, nor honour so highly, but often prostituted them to his favourites; so that he was the readier at the trial of Aemilius Lepidus to condemn them, as adulteresses and privy to the conspiracies against him.” Suetonius
    • Was this Agrippina’s first bid for power? Tacitus suggests as much: “In her earliest years she had employed an illicit relationship with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as a means to power.”
    • Whatever the true details of the affair, Lepidus was condemned to death. Gaius humiliated Agrippina by forcing her to carry Lepidus’ bones back to Rome. She was then exiled to the Pontian islands and her property was confiscated. While in exile, Agrippina’s husband, Domitius died of dropsy; her son, Nero, was now looked after by his aunt, Domitia Lepida (mother of Messalina who married Claudius in 39).
    • In 41, Gaius was assassinated. His successor was his uncle, Claudius.

Summary

  • As sister of the Emperor Gaius, Agrippina experienced a new level of power that would only fuel her ambition for unparalleled imperial influence.
  • Upon is sucession in AD 37, one of Gaius’ first acts was to bring into prominence the position of his three sisters by giving them unprecedented constitutional status.
  • They were granted the status of Vestal Virgins and included in the annual vows of allegiance as cited by Suetonius: “I will hold myself and my children dearer then I hold Gaius and his sisters”.
  • Moreover, Gaius issued a sestertius in AD 37 showing his three sisters on the reverse, Agrippina representing securitas and holding a cornucopia as a symbol of prosperity.
  • The considerable elevation of her status is corroborated by Baumann who states that his “actions represent a key stage in the elevation of the women of the imperial house”.
  • Thus, through her role during Gaius’ reign, Agrippina now had a vested Political interest in the dynasty beyond her own survival and personal advancement; the possibility of being the mother of a future heir to the Julio-Claudian throne.

Role during the reign of Claudius

  • Agrippina would reach what is arguably the peak of her power during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41 – 54). Following the murder of Gaius, Claudius was ‘chosen’ to be the next emperor. At this stage, Agrippina was still living in the exile imposed upon her by Gaius, and one of Claudius’ first actions was to recall her and her sister Livia and restore their property. Her ability to navigate and survive the reign of her Brother Caligula’s reign demonstrated her strong personality and her skill in handling people and persuading them to her cause. Now, the reign of Claudius gave Agrippina ample scope to sharpen these skills and to focus even more keenly on promoting her own position and securing Nero’s succession.

Marriage to Passienus

  • 41 AD
  • Passienus was wealthy and of consular rank but not as well connected as her first husband àshe already has status, she now needs wealth
  • “It is likely that Agrippina’s family background would have made her feel at home in a setting of literate sophistication, although Passienus’ great wealth would have also been a considerable inducement” – Barrett
  • Also thought that this marriage saved Agrippina from the intrigues of Claudius’ wife Mesallina, sister Livilla was not so fortunate; exiled for a second time and died in AD 42.
  • This marriage provides her with the wealth to support her background
  • Strategically, she was under the radar when Mesallina started scheming – this was a close call as her sister Livilla was caught up in the scheming and was eventually exiled for a second time. She was not a threat to Mesallina’s ambitions.
  • Sources portray Passienus as an intelligent, genial man, who was not afraid to say what he felt, as according to Barrett: “…wit was combined with a lively sense of humour that could sometimes be outlandishly eccentric…much of his humour was dangerously directed against his imperial masters”
  • Passienus himself had machinations for marrying Agrippina
  • “Passienus’ desire to conclude a political marriage for his own career advancement” (Barrett)
  • Passienus died in the mid 40’sà his death was convienient for Agrippina who was left very wealthy and now free to marry Claudius if he became free
  • POINT OF LIMITATION: Agrippina seemed to disappear from the sources until just before the fall of Messalina.

Claudius the Emperor

  • Modern historians have suggested that Claudius ruled with far more effectiveness than the ancient sources credit him; Rome recovered from the excesses of Gaius’ rule, the empire was run efficiently, and it was expanded with the successful invasion of Britain. However, the ancient sources seem to focus on his physical infirmities and alleged weak mindedness.
  • “everything that Claudius did throughout his reign – was dictated by his wives and freedmen: he practically always obeyed their whims rather than his own judgement.” (Suetonius)
  • Claudius married his third wife, Messalina, in about AD 39. Much younger than Claudius, her real date of birth is uncertain, and her age is of some significance. If young, her later promiscuous behaviour could be viewed as the ‘wild abandon’ of a teenager married to a much older man’ if older, her behavious could have had political connotations. Messalina was closely related to Domitius and could also trace her lineage to the imperial household.

The Role of Messalina

  • A figure history struggles to neglect; “The Messalina of the sources is one of the great nymphomaniacs of history.” (Bauman)
  • Dio writes of her forcing husbands to attend their wives’ sex sessions. This however, had a useful political purpose. If those husbands attended, there was a chance their careers could advance, but under Messalina’s patronage; if they complained they could be charged under Augustus’ morality laws for allowing their wives to indulge in extra-marital sex. By such means was Messalina able to build up her own clientele.
  • POINTS OF ANALYSIS: Messalina’s outrageous sexual dalliances while married to Claudius demand the questions: Was Messalina merely a jealous, highly sexual woman who allowed her passions to overcome her common sense? Or was she a clever scheming woman who merely used sex to achieve political power? Whatever the case, few were safe from Messalina’s machinations once she targeted them:

Agrippina’s Role During the Vengeance of Messalina

  • Largely absent from the sources 41-46 AD – she may have been deliberately keeping a low profile, though it is more likely she was away from Rome. Passenius was a pro consul in Asia for some of this time so she was probably living there.
  • “The absence of Agrippina from the recorded events of the reign between Claudius’ accession and the eve of Messalina’s fall speaks volumes for her good sense. She should have been the main target for Messalina’s vengeance.” (Barrett)
  • Agrippina had everything Messalina needed to fear. She had true Julian blood with a direct link to Augustus. She was daughter of the beloved Germanicus and she had a son, the only living male descendant of Germanicus, growing up quickly and gaining the popular affection of the Roman people. When Claudius staged his version of ‘The Secular Games’, youthful, noble horsemen performed ‘The Troy Pageant’. Nero received rapturous applause from the crowd, far greater than that received by Britannicus, son of Claudius and Messalina.
    • “Nero was greeted by wild applause, which could hardly have been spontaneous, and received a noticeably more enthusiastic reception than did Britannicus. The power of popular approval tends to be ignored as an element in Roman history, but popular opinion could have a considerable effect on the morale and self-confidence of the ruler. ” (Barret)
  • This is something that Messalina would have noted with both growing alarm and growing anger. Tacitus makes the point that by now, Messalina had Agrippina ‘in her sights’.
  • “[Messalina] always Agrippina’s enemy and now particularly virulent, was only distracted from launching prosecutions and prosecutors by a new and almost maniacal love affair.” (Tacitus)

The fall of Messalina

  • “But it turned out that she was not only guilty of other disgraceful crimes, but had gone so far as to commit bigamy with Gaius Silius, and even sign a formal marriage contract before witnesses; so Claudius executed her.” (Suetonius)
  • Silius and numerous other equestrians and senators were executed. Claudius returned home and apparently stated he would see “the poor creature” (Tacitus) on the morrow; immediately, Narcissus ordered the “deed of blood”. (Tacitus)
  • Maybe Messalina had become extremely worried about the increasing popularity of Agrippina and Nero, and the real danger that she and her son Britannicus, might be supplanted in the succession. Was the ‘coup’ organised to secure her power? “But clearly more than sexual passion was involved…and there can surely be little doubt of a conspiracy.” (Barrett)
  • Claudius’ leading freedmen – Narcissus, Palla and Callistus – had become worried about Messalina after they had witnessed what she had been able to do to Polybius. “They also appreciated that Silius was… a consul designate with patent ambitions (who) represented a threat they had never had to fear…” (Barrett)
  • Messalina’s behaviour, if political, seems odd. Was her position really in doubt? Why would she trust Silius to ensure her son’s position more than Britannicus’ own father Claudius? And if she and Silius were engaged in a power grab, staging a drunken, Bacchic wedding ceremony is certainly an odd way of going about it.
  • Perhaps Messalina was just acting out of boredom and seeking some additional sexual excitement. “However, the idea of being called his (Silius’) wife appealed to her owing to its sheer outrageousness – a sensualist’s ultimate satisfaction.” (Tacitus)

Marriage to Claudius

  • There were several candidates lined up to be Claudius’ next wife, each with her own freedman-backing.
  • Agrippina promoted her cause by visiting him frequently and using seduction.
    • “Visiting her uncle frequently – ostensibly as a close relation – she tempted him into giving her the preference and into treating her, in anticipation, as his wife.” (Tacitus)
    • “The freedmen zealously aided in bringing about this marriage…they wished to bring [Nero] up as Claudius’ successor in the imperial office so that they might suffer no harm at the hands of Britannicus for having caused the death of his mother Messalina.” (Dio Cassius)
    • “By marrying her, Claudius could both right old wrongs and immeasurably reinforce his political position.” (Levick)
  • Vitellius steered a law through the senate which allowed a man to marry his brother’s daughter, and they were married in early 49.
  • Indeed, her marriage to Claudius provided her with a platform to power, as while it may be dismissed as a damming aside, Tacitus’ observation of Claudius’ “sluggish uxoriousness” is corroborated by Suetonius who states that “everything Claudius did…was dictated by his wives and freedmen”, thereby emphasising how through her marriage to Claudius, Agrippina was able to both use him as a puppet leader to achieve her own goals and build further patronage that would later help her elevate Nero to princeps.

Securing Nero’s Accession

  • Agrippina wanted Nero to marry Claudius’ daughter Octavia. However, she was betrothed to Iunius Silanus. Agrippina managed to get this betrothal cancelled on the grounds that Silanus had committed incest with his sister, Junia Calvina. Behind this was Vitellius, the man who had managed to legalise Agrippina’s marriage to her uncle. Nero was betrothed to Octavia.
    • AD 50 – Nero was formally adopted by Claudius. However, now he and Octavia were technically brother and sister, so Agrippina arranged for Octavia to be ‘adopted out’. Nero was now given precedence in the succession over Claudius’ natural son, Britannicus who “saw through his stepmother’s hypocrisy and treated her untimely attentions cynically.” (Tacitus)
  • In 51, Nero was elected consul, the post to be taken up when he had reached the age of 19.
  • Various other honours were bestowed upon Nero. He was made Prince of Youth and granted proconsular imperium outside of Rome. He was placed into various priesthoods.
  • Agrippina tried to isolate Britannicus by removing his tutors and replacing them with men loyal to her, e.g. Seneca.
  • In 53, Nero and Octavia were married. He was now lined up to finally take over from Claudius.

Power as Claudius’ Wife

  • The ancient sources, namely Tacitus present Claudius as having a “sluggish uxoriousness” (fondness for or excessive submissiveness to one’s wife). Tacitus further suggests that under Agrippina the country was transformed. Whereas Messaline played with the state to satisfy her appetites, Agrippina ruled with an “almost masculine despotism.”
  • “As soon as Agrippina had come to live in the palace she gained complete control over Claudius.” (Dio Cassius).
  • “She wanted it as a stepping-stone to supremacy. “ (Tacitus)
  • Barrett questions this traditional view, upholding that Agrippina was the perfect wife for Claudius because they shared a belief that the union of their two families would provide Rome with strength and stability. Rather than being in thrall to a woman, he suggests that “he was in the enviable position of having a wife who shared his view of the world, and who would be an aggressive supporter of his political agenda.”
  • Agrippina was keen to seek some consensus before initiating new policies. She prepared matters in advance and ensured she had friends in the right places. Her close relationship to Pallas, personal as well as professional, gave her access to the financial affairs of the state. The regime under Agrippina had settled down. The sources mention 25 victims of Messalina, and only five of Agrippina – and Messalina’s sources aren’t complete like Agrippina’s. “The attitude of senators seems to have changed from sullen hostility to supportive collaboration.” (Barrett).
  • “What Tacitus calls a ‘pretext’ was, on the contrary, the ancient aristocratic conception of wealth, which in the eyes of the great families was destined to be a means of government and an instrument of power: the family possessed it in order to use it for the benefit of the state.” (Barrett)
  • Agrippina was very successful in creating a powerful position for herself.
    • She was able to remove rivals and recall supporters.
      • Seneca was brought back from exile to be Nero’s tutor, despite Claudius’ previous insistence he would never recall him.
      • Lollia Paulina was accused of dabbling with astrology and forced to suicide.
      • Claudius’ favourite mistress, Calpurnia, was banished after Claudius’ casual comment on her beauty. “Agrippina also banished Calpurnia, one of the most prominent women – or even put her to death, according to one report – because Claudius had admired and commended her beauty.” (Dio Cassius)
      • She feared Domitia Lepida’s closeness to Nero. She accused her of various black magic offences and was put to death.
      • Narcissus, who had supported Domitia Lepida, was sent to Sinuessa, imprisoned, tortued and eventually forced to suicide.
    • She held influence over the Praetorian guard
      • The prefects Geta and Crispinus were removed, and replaced by her man Afranius Burrus.
    • She was bedecked with various honours during her marriage to Claudius. “[Agrippina] quickly became a second Messalina, the more so as she obtained from the senate the right to use the carpentum at festivals, as well as other honours.” (Dio Cassius)
      • She was given the title ‘Augusta’, making her the first living consort of a living emperor to receive such an honour. “After that Claudius gave Agrippina the title of Augusta.” (Dio Cassius)
      • She was allowed the use of the priestly carpentum.
      • A colony was named after her – Colonia Claudia Augusta Aggripinensium.
      • She was allowed to meet foreign dignitaries.
      • At the opening of Fucine Lake, she famously outshone Claudius by wearing a gold cloak.
    • Even in the provinces she had influence.
      • In Judaea, there was a dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans, the latter supported by Roman governor Cumanus. Agrippina sided with the Jews and was able to have Cumanus removed and replaced by her won pro-Jewish candidate, Felix, brother of the freedman Pallas. (Josephus)
      • “Agrippina now advertised her power to the provincials. She had a settlement of ex-soldiers established at the capital of Ubii and named after her. This was her birthplace.” (Tacitus)
  • The construction of the Domus Tiberiana highlights the role of both her and Claudius in running the state. “The author of the Domus Tiberiana (expresses) Agrippina’s grandiose concept of the role of herself and of Claudius in the overall scheme of things.” (Barrett).
  • In some statues of her from this time, she was depicted wearing a diadem, an exceptional honour usually reserved for goddesses.

HSC Ancient History - goddess statue

  • A Sebasteoin relief from the city of Aphrodisas depicts Agrippina standing next to Claudius and clasping his hand, a typical gesture to express both Concordia and marital affection à Agrippina is holding a corn stalk in her left hand, a symbol of the prosperity of the Roman empire.

HSC Ancient History Gemma Claudia cameo

  • The Gemma Claudia cameo – made of five layered onyx in a gold setting – depicts Claudius (wearing a laurel wreath of a conquering emperor) and Agrippina the younger (a crown) on the left, and almost certainly Germanicus (laurel wreath) and Agrippina the Elder (a helmet: a bold and shocking statement of feminism, for Romans disapproved of women who interfered in military matters) on the right.
    • Germanicus’ presence indicates that Claudius and Agrippina did not only value that link to his reputation as a propaganda and popularity lever, but that Agrippina genuinely felt she was the inheritor of a special heritage,
    • The heads rise out of cornucopias, horns of plenty, representing the prosperity that the imperial government brings to Rome.

HSC Ancient History silver tetradrachma

  • This silver tetradrachma depicts jugate busts of Agrippina and Claudius – Agrippina is behind Claudius, indicating inferior status. The inscription in part bears “Agrippina – Augusta” – an absolutely critical indication of Agrippina’s prestige. She was the first wife of living emperor to receive the title. Livia had received it posthumously, and Antonia as an honorary equivalent to Queen Mother. But for Agrippina it advertised her as the defacto joint ruler alongside the princeps.
    • POINT OF ANALYSIS: Whilst the Ephesian coins depict the Agrippina and Claudius in jugate busts, with Agrippina behind in the inferior as per her conventional role, the Roman coins present Agrippina and Claudius on each side of the coin, giving them equal status and revealing her level of prestige and recognition in Roman society.

Death of Claudius

  • Most sources suggest that Agrippina organised the murder of her husband. If the sources are to be believed, it would appear that Agrippina had good reason to worry about her husband. Dio says that Claudius had become aware of Agrippina’s schemes and that this had made him angry.
  • The sources further suggest that Claudius was becoming reconciled with his son Britannicus, and was regretting the haste with which he agreed to make Nero his heir.
  • However, it should be noted that the modern sources have their doubts. A massive change of mind like this on the part of Claudius could have caused massive disruption in Rome. This could well have created the sort of chaos in Rome that Claudius had fought so hard to avoid.
  • “Soon afterwards he made his will, and had it signed by all the magistrates as witnesses. But he was prevented from proceeding further by Agrippina, accused by her own guilty conscience, as well as by informers, of a variety of crimes.” (Suetonius) The fact that Agrippina suppressed Claudius’ will after his death forces an assumption that it stated for Britannicus to rule or for Britannicus and Nero to rule jointly. No source is even able to suggest what it said, so no one knew – Agrippina kept it a secret. Both Tacitus and Suetonius strongly imply, but do not state, that Agrippina resolved to murder Claudius because she perceived that he was turning against her and the succession of Nero. Dio, however, states it explicitly: “Agrippina, learning of this, became alarmed and made haste to forestall anything of the sort by poisoning Claudius.”

Summary

  • During the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54) Agrippina reached the peak of her power and accordingly, had ample scope to focus dually on promoting her own position and ensuring Nero’s succession.
  • Her absence from the sources prior to her marriage to Claudius perhaps indicates that Agrippina was preoccupied with evading the vengeance of Messalina and thus “speaks volumes for her good sense” (Barrett).
  • Furthermore, her marriage to Claudius provided her with a platform to power, as while it may be dismissed as a damming aside, Tacitus’ observation of Claudius’ “sluggish uxoriousness” is corroborated by Suetonius who states that “everything Claudius did…was dictated by his wives and freedmen”, thereby emphasising how her marriage to Claudius merely facilitated her ambition and manipulation.
  • Continually, Agrippina’s new levels of power permeated the public sphere as the construction of the Domus Tiberiana and a Sebasteoin relief from the city of Aphrodisias – depicting Agrippina and Claudius in a stance of Concordia – highlights what Barrett perceives as “Agrippina’s grandiose concept of the role of herself and Claudius in the overall scheme of things”.
  • Yet her perception of her unparalleled power and influence is also echoes in the private sphere as the Gemma Claudia cameo – a private piece of jewellery – depicts the busts of Agrippina and Claudius alongside those of Agrippina’s parents emerging from cornucopias, a symbol of prosperity.
  • Indeed the presence of her parents enforces the pertinence of her family background, thereby emphasising how while her marriage to Claudius provided her with a new platform to elevate herself in the political ranks of Roman society and groom her son for the position of princeps, it is ultimately her family lineage that provided the basis of her power and influence.

Role and changing relationship with Nero during his reign

  • Nero’s accession occurred on 13 October AD 64; he was seventeen years old.
  • He had support from both the Praetorian Guard (Burrus) (he awarded each member of the guard 15,000 sesterces) and the Senate.

‘The Best of Mothers’: The period of power and influence

  • Nero’s first act was to appear at the Guards camp, where he gave a speech.  The password he gave to the Praetorian sentry on duty on the day of his accession was optima mater, ‘the best of mothers’ (Suetonius).
  • He then proceeded to the Senate where lavish honours were bestowed upon him. It appears that these moves were engineered by his trusted advisors, Burrus and Seneca. In this first speech to the Senate, (written for him by Seneca), he outlined how he would govern. There were to be no more trials behind closed doors as there had been in Claudius’ reign. There was also to be a separation of the government from the Julio-Claudian house; towards the end of Claudius’ reign, it had appeared that the Roman government was being run solely by the members of the Julio Claudian household, particularly the women and freedmen.
  • The great honour enjoyed by Agrippina at the beginning of Nero’s reign can be seen in the sculptured relief of the two of them from the Sebasteoin relief from Aprhodisias.
  • Other significant honours were accorded to her at this time: when Claudius was deified, she became priestess of his cult. She was granted two lictors (men) carrying the official emblems of public office – the fasces – who walked before magistrates to clear a path through the crowd so that they could pass.
  • Evidence of her exceptionally high statues can also be seen in the gold and silver coins minted in the first year of Nero’s reign. The coin below encapsulate in a single coin her three greatest roles – Agrippina Augusta, wife of the deified Claudius, mother of Caesar:

HSC Ancient History Nero gold and silver coins

  • “Agrippina’s privilege would have served to elevate her in the public mind to the status of a woman who had a quasi-official share in the administration of the principate” Barrett.
  • In late 54, there was an attempt at the Senate to change some laws which had been passed during Claudius’ reign. In her role as ‘priestess of the cult of the divine Claudius’ Agrippina fought this – unsuccessfully. However, she attended a session of the senate, being a curtain, while the laws were being debated – exceptional example of influence: “the amending laws were passed, but Agrippina had achieved the unthinkable; she had attended a meeting of the senate” Bauman

Changing Relationship with Nero- power waning

  • Even in the early stages, underneath the honors, it is evident that Agrippina’s power was being undermined – key example: Seneca was expounding the principle of the separation of the imperial domus and the state – as a woman, Agrippina could only wield influence when decision making was focused in the domus. Nero’s accession speech written by Seneca: “From my house, bribery and favouritism will be excluded. I will keep personal and State affairs separate. The senate is to preserve its ancient Functions” Tacitus.
  • Agrippina did not ignore these attacks upon her. With Pallas’ demotion, Agrippina made sure Nero overheard her say that Britannicus was coming of age and would make a worthy successor to his father – she threatened to take Britannicus to the Praetorian camp and declare his legitimate claim to the throne. Nero had Britannicus poisoned.
  • Next, Agrippina moved closer to Nero’s wife, Octavia (sister of Britannicus and daughter of Claudius).
  • She began to hold secret meetings with various key figures, raise funds, court military figures and noblemen – developing a source of security, similar to her mother’s partes Agrippinae.
  • As time went on, a number of developments revealed that Agrippina’s influence on Nero was being challenged.
    • In late 54, a new commander had to be appointed for Armenia. Seneca and Burrus persuaded Nero to appoint the competent Corbulo, rather than allow Agrippina to interfere.
    • The freedmen Pallas, who was ‘very close’ to Agrippina, was demoted in 55 – lost his influence over financial affairs.
    • Petty acts: He removed her military escort and took away her German guards. He removed her from the palace and sent her to Antonia’s former palace. Nero took to visiting her only occasionally, and then escorted by guards. He sent “people to pester her with lawsuits (and disturb) her with jeers and cat-calls” Suetonius.
    • Nero’s affections for the freedwoman Acte greatly angered Agrippina – Nero’s passions only grew: “In the end, deeply in love, he became openly disobedient to his mother” Tacitus.
  • “The over-watchful, over-critical eye that Agrippina kept on whatever Nero said or did proved more than he could stand” Suetonius.

The Rubellius Plautus Affair:

  • Junia Silana’s (Agrippina sabotaged her marriage prospects) supporter claimed that Agrippina was involved in planning a revolt with Rubellius Plautus, and that she planned to marry him. Rubellius Plautus would have been a significant dynastic threat to Nero. Plautus could trace his ancestry back directly to Livia and Augustus’ sister Octavia.
  • Junia Silana informed Domitia (Nero’s aunt – didn’t like Agrippina – A took Crispus from her and destroyed her sister Domitia Lepida) and her supporters of the impending revolt, and Domitia informed Nero.
  • Nero decided to kill his mother but was convinced by Burrus to allow Agrippina a chance to speak her defence. She presented a spirited defence and demanded an interview with Nero – she did not try to defend herself but instead demanded punishment for the various accusers. She succeeded – Junia Silana and her supporters were exiled, Domitia’s chief supporter, Atimetus was killed.

Relationships with other members of the imperial court: Seneca, Burrus and imperial freedmen

  • According to Tacitus, Agrippina was responsible for the suicide of Claudius’ freedman, Narcissus, who remained loyal to Britannicus and with whom she had an ongoing feud.
  • In Tactitus’ account, Seneca and Burrus combined forces at this point to curtail Agrippina’s power, although he hints that Seneca had earlier made moves in this direction. In Nero’s inaugural address, composed by Seneca, he pledged: “From my house bribery and favouritism will be excluded. I will keep personal and state affairs separate. The Senate is to preserve its ancient functions” Tacitus.
  • During the reign of Claudius, decisions had been made in the palace intra cubiculum, or ‘behind closed doors’. According to the ancient sources, this is where the emperor had been influenced by his wives and freedmen, resulting in the downfall and death of individuals who were seen as threats – thus, Nero’s inaugural address may be seen as a sign that Agrippina’s power was going to be restricted.
  • Tacitus gives us 2 examples of what he perceives as Agrippina’s unbridled ambition: her listening in on the proceedings of the senate, her attempt to sit beside Nero when he received an envoy from Armenia – as Agrippina approached the tribunal, Seneca advised Nero to step down to meet her and lead her to another seat – Cassius Dio adds that after this Seneca and Burrus made sure no more public business was entrusted to the emperor’s mother and they took over most administration themselves.

Impact of her personality on career: public image

  • The number of coins, busts, statues and reliefs of Agrippina from Rome and the empire reflect her high profile in the Julio Claudian period.
  • Agrippina first appeared on the reverse of a coin minted during the reign of her brother Gaius –she was portrayed as a personification of Securitas – Rome’s security.
  • After her marriage to Claudius, she was show with her head draped, a symbol of piety, or wearing a crown of wheat, an association with Demeter, goddess of fertility, prosperity and abundance.
  • In the latter part of Claudius’ reign, Agrippina appeared on the obverse of the coin together with Claudius, symbolising her partnership with him.
  • The title of Augusta appeared in the legend of some of her coins.
  • Coins minted in Nero’s reign help to illustrate Agrippina’s prominence. In the early years of his reign a coin bearing the insignia SPQR shows portraits of Nero and Agrippina facing each other, with the legend “Agrippina Augusta, Wife of the Divine Claudius, Mother of Nero Caesar”. Another coin minted by the Senate features portraits of Nero and Agrippina on the obverse, an elephant chariot bearing the figures of the Divine Augustus and the Divine Claudius on the reverse with the legend “by the Decrees of the Senate, Agrippina Augusta, Wife of the Divine Claudius, Mother of Nero Caesar”.
  • Later in Nero’s reign Agrippina’s portrait appears on the reverse of coins, then she disappears from Roman coins.
  • Her portrait continues to appear on coins throughout the empire – Ephesus, Caesarea and Antioch.
  • Refer to reliefs from the Sebasteion of Aphrodisias.

Attempts on her life

  • Sources depict a strained relationship between Agrippina and Nero from 55 AD. Both Suetonius and Tacitus tell of Nero’s infatuation with a slave girl Acte and Agrippina’s opposition to the match.
  • Refer to Britannicus scheme, removal from palace, Rubellius Plautus Affair etc.
  • After the Plautus Affair Agrippina kept a low profile until the next threat appeared in the form of Nero’s mistress Poppaea Sabina. The ancient sources portray Poppaea as beautiful, wealthy, powerful and depraved. She taunted Nero with his relationship with Acte, his marriage to Octavia and his dependence on his mother.
  • Nero decided that the only way he could break free of his mother’s dominion was to have her killed. He followed a plan proposed by Anicetus, commander of the fleet, and one of Agrippina’s old enemies. Significantly, Nero could not call on the Praetorian guard who remained loyal to Agrippina.
  • The plan was to build a collapsible boat which would break up and hurl her into the lake where she would drown. The plan backfired and Agrippina swam to safety.

Death: motives, manner and impact of death

  • Agrippina died in AD 59
  • Ancient sources suggest Nero killed his mother however they provide various methods (matricide)

Motive:

  • Charge leveled at Agrippina that she wanted the allegiance of the guard and to be co-ruler – trying to find a plausible motive.
  • Adrunius’ plot – most likely a set up
  • So he could marry Poppaea Sabbina? He did not marry her for another three years so this prompts doubts on this motive

Method:

  • Suetonius = attempts to poison Agrippina 3 times while Tacitus = no poisoning
  • Falling ceiling panels
  • Collapsible ship – Agrippina jumped into the water and swam away – put her survival down to divine mercy and his lucky star
  • Barrett: “now that events had turned critical they realised that Nero could not be persuaded…”
  • Burrus denies Nero’s command for the Praetorian Guard to kill her as they made a pledge to protect the entire imperial family.
  • Agrippina was assassinated in her room by a group of men led by Anicetus, sent by Nero. Tacitus: “she cried out, strike here, pointing to her womb”

Impact:

  • Tacitus records that Nero justified his actions to the Senate by portraying his mother as a threat to himself and the people of Rome. He claimed that she had sent an ex-slave to murder him and that she had “wanted to be co-ruler – to receive oaths of allegiance from the Guard, and to subject the senate and public to the same humiliation” Tacitus.
  • Nero did not return to Rome until 6 months after the death of Agrippina
  • Her Birthday was added to the days of ill omen
    • Apparently Nero was haunted by the ghost of his mother àalmost implies a guilty conscience

4. Evaluation

Impact and influence on her time

  • Greatest influence evident in her relationship with highly prominent people in Roman history: Gaius, Claudius and Nero
  • Relationship with freedmen
  • She becomes arguably the 2nd most powerful individual in the empire despite holding no official political status.
  • Overtime representations have altered from the negative portrayal of ancient sources, to the re-evaluations of modern sources which reveal a politically astute woman who undoubtedly used her considerable talents to fulfill her ambitions, and in so doing she contributed to the strength and stability of the regime.
  • Dudley suggests Agrippina was guided by 3 main aims:
  1. To draw political power into her own hands
  2. To advance her son Nero to the Principate
  3. To remove those who stood in her way

Assessment of her life and career

  • Ancient written sources, representing exclusively male perspectives, present her as a wicked, scheming mother, prepared to go to any lengths for her son; as a seductress using her feminine wiles to have her way; and as a violent and intimidating woman who eliminated anyone who got in that way. However, these sources often present Agrippina’s thoughts and motives which is a great limitation and it is impossible to know her desires, particularly one or more generations removed from the events.
  • In comparison, modern critical studies use a range of historiographical tools and include a consideration of the writer’s context, their gender, political persuasion, literary styles and the sources available to them. The modern scholar, Anthony Barrett, suggest that it may be time for a more balanced assessment of Agrippina: “Agrippina’s presence seems to have transformed the regime of her husband, the emperor Claudius”
  • Extremes of judgement range from the harsh portrayal of Tacitus compared to the noble portrait suggested by the modern scholar Ferrero. Of her role at the beginning of Claudius’ reign he says: “All hearts were therefore filled with hope when they saw this respectable, active and energetic woman take her place at the side of Claudius the weakling, for she brought back the memory of the most venerated personages of the family of Augustus”

Legacy

  • Definition ‘anything handed down by an ancestor or predecessor, a consequence’
  • The physical/ tangible traces a person leaves behind – coins, cameos, statuary
  • Non -physical/ intangible traces such as the traditional interpretation of the ancient written sources and their reflection in modern popular culture.
  • Nero’s reign lasted only 10 more years after her death and ended in ignonimy.
  • No woman in the dynasties that followed would ever again have the prominence and the power that Agrippina had known.
  • Still prominent in modern society: opera, film and television. The opera, Agrippina, by Handel was first performed in Venice in 1709. The famous Hollywood actress, Gloria Swanson, played Agrippina in the 1956 film Nero’s Mistress and Ava Gardner played her in the epic mini-series AD Anno Domini produced in 1985. Perhaps the best known television production of recent times featuring the Julio-Claudians was the miniseries ‘I, Claudius’, based on the novel of the same name by the modern author, Robert Graves. They all depict Agrippina as the femme fatale of Tacitus’ Annals.

Ancient and modern images and interpretations of Agrippina the Younger

Ancient

  • 2 Strands:
    • The public image in archaeology and what this reveals about her – how politics wanted to present her and how she wanted to present herself.
    • How Ancient Historians project her
  • Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius dominate representation of Agrippina and are uniformly hostile to her.
  • Tacitus interprets her ‘masculine despotism’ – Gender Bias and hatred of imperial rule
  • Archaeological sources are more about imperial propaganda e.g. coins, reliefs – however, also more personal representations e.g. Gemma Claudia cameo (she is drawing attention to her lineage – strengthening her claim to power).

 Modern

  • Some modern scholars writing about Agrippina have followed the negative literary tradition – particularly that of Tacitus – and have produced a portrait little different from the ancient tradition. Scullard was writing in the 1960s, before the influence of feminism and gender studies began to be reflected in historiography “ambitious and unscrupulous, Agrippina struck down a series of victims: no man or woman was safe if she suspected rivalry or desired their wealth”.
  • More recent modern studies have adopted a critical appraisal of Tacitus. The scholar Judith Ginsburg sums up the literary representations of Agrippina by Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius: “we need to acknowledge, in other words, that Tacitus’ Agrippina is largely a literary construct that serves the larger ends of the narrative of the principates of Claudius and Nero” Ginsburg.
  • Other historians like Ginsburg concentrated on analysing the representations of Agrippina, and other Julio-Claudian women, in coins, statuary and cameos.
  • For Example, Susan Wood’s study focuses on the problem of the succession in the Julio- Claudian period and thus the increasing importance of imperial women and their male relatives. Wood examines the increasingly bold representations of women of the family in public art. She shows how this is part of a propagandistic effort to justify the current emperor’s status, or his choice of heir. Their representation reflects the increasing need to emphasise bloodlines and distinguished decent.

5. Impact of Agrippina the Younger on the Julio-Claudian Dynasty

Impact on the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54):

  • Stability brought to Claudius’ reign after his marriage to Messalina, mainly due to Agrippina’s influence on administration and the degree of political stability she gained through Seneca, Burrus and Pallas.
  • Major impact on determining succession. She succeeded in promoting Nero as the next emperor through his image, education and titles while simultaneously crushing Britannicus.

Impact on the reign of Nero:

  • Smaller influence than under Claudius.
  • Seneca worked hard to limit her role and Nero gradually tired of an interfering mother.
  • People close to Agrippina, such as Pallas, were removed from office.
  • She was ultimately murdered.

Impact on the reign of Gaius (47-41):

  • Of limited significance – as his sister, she shared various honours early in the reign and rumour had it that they committed incest.
  • Perhaps responsible for saving Seneca’s life during the events in 39.
  • Her alleged involvement in the conspiracy led to her exile from Rome.

Specific Examples:

  • She was able to decide leadership of the Praetorian Guard with Burrus’ appointment.
  • She was able to remove political and personal rivals
  • Her powers of patronage allowed her clients to promote the interest of family members and friends.
  • Ultimately, she came as close to a woman could come to actually exercising power.

Assessment:

  • It is almost impossible to be certain about Agrippina’s career because the ancient sources are universally hostile towards her.
    • Suetonius: Loves gossip and willing to include anything he has heard about her whether or not he is able to verify the stories did not concern his historical method.
    • Tacitus: Tacitus had no love of the empire and his republican sentiments drove him to paint the empire in a negative light. Agrippina’s involvement in the affairs of state would have opened her up to attack regardless of her gender.
    • Her gender was certainly an issue. Women were not expected to be involved in politics. To ancient writers, Agrippina’s ambitions would have been viewed as feminine evil.
  • Modern scholars from the 19th century German writer Adolf Stahr to Syme to Werner Eck pepper their accounts of her life with terms such as ‘violent’, ‘robust criminality’, ‘murderous immorality’ and ‘depraved’.
  • However, one could argue that any political figure who rises to the top must be ruthless, ambitious, determined and manipulative.

Impact of Agrippina on the Governance of Rome:

  • She secured the loyalty of the Praetorian Guard. She achieved this, not only by having Burrus appointed prefect, but by also determining who would be appointed in the ranks of the lower offices.
  • The removal of rivals did not cease during her time. However, Claudius’ regime from 49-54 was not a vicious dictatorship but gave the appearance of a benign partnership between rulers and ruled.
  • Agrippina realised that an angry and sullen senate could cause major problems for her husband. She encouraged cooperation and during her time, the senate worked constructively with the regime.
  • The period of her brief ascendency during the reign of Nero, was clearly the best part of Nero’s rule. Nero’s rule descended into depravity, violence and ultimately civil war following her murder in 59.

Disappearance:

  • There is little physical memory of Agrippina beyond representations on coins, the occasional cameo, statues and the occasional relief such as the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias.
  • No political groups were formed to resurrect her reputation after her death.
  • Subsequent emperors, such as Vespasian (AD 69-79) made no efforts to commemorate her life and achievements. Roman writers merely succeeded in blackening her name.
  • The only evidence we have of Agrippina being remembered can be found during the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117). A head of Agrippina was discovered in Trajan’s forum. This may have been put in place to support Trajan’s claims to honour family members.
  • The next sculpted appearance of Agrippina came in a relief on a 1916 fountain built in the German city of Cologne. The fountain was restored in 1955. In 1993 a statue of Agrippina was placed in the city’s town hall to honour her role in the ancient founding of the city.

Perhaps Agrippina’s legacy was that she formally defined the place of a woman in the Roman political system. She failed to break down the staunchly conservative patriarchal attitudes of her contemporaries for whom politics was no place for a woman. It would be over 150 years before a woman would again attempt to play a key role in Roman political life. This could suggest that part of Agrippina’s legacy was to act as a warning sign to aspiring political women. This price a woman might have to pay for attempting to wield power and influence was the end up being beaten and cut to pieces by a band of assassins on the orders of one’s son.

Physical Interpretation of Agrippina the Younger:

  • Visual representations tend to depict a positively demure, matronly and indeed pious female in contrast to the immoral, vicious woman of the ancient writers

HSC Ancient History Agrippina the Younger reclining pose

  • Figure 12.3 and 12.4 come from a relief of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias (Turkey). The relief in Figure 12.3 shows Agrippina holding the hand of Claudius, indicating perhaps a degree of affection or agreement. The toga-clad figure on the right of this relief represents the senate and people of Rome crowning Claudius. The relief in Figure 12.4 shows Agrippina placing a crown on the head of her son, Nero. This would seem to suggest an increase in her power and influence has occurred.

HSC Ancient History Agrippina and Claudius statue

Written interpretation of Agrippina the Younger:

  • Ancient sources: She is presented as immoral, brutal, willing to use any degree of violence, unconcerned about abusing the legal system to remove rivals to her husband’s political power, or people she perceived as rivals on a personal level, manipulative and unprincipled = Tacitus, Dio and Suetonius. Suetonius enjoys the gossip of incest and violence attributed to her, but his account lacks the malice of the other two.
    • “gained complete control over Claudius…she was very clever in making the most of opportunities, and, partly by fear and partly by favours, she won the devotion of all those who were at all friendly toward him…she caused his son Britannicus to be brought up as if he were a mere nobody…she made Domitius [Nero] the son-in-law of Claudius at this time and later brought about his adoption also. She accomplished these ends partly by getting the freedmen to persuade Claudius and partly by arranging beforehand that the senate, the populace, and the soldiers would join together in shouting their approval of her demands on every occasion” Dio Cassius à Patronage, manipulation, ambitious
  • Most modern writers, at least up to the late 20th century, have generally tended to echo this view of the ancients. Up to this time, the writing of ancient history remained very much the reserve of middle-aged men who usually did not question the male-dominated, patriarchal nature of their own times. Thus, they would not be inclined to question a similar set of values from early imperial Rome.
    • “Agrippina…exhibited an undisguised lust for power…(Both Agrippina and Messaline) were quite unscrupulous in the means by which they sought to gratify their fancies, and both used their influence with the emperor to remove those who stood in their way.” Cary, M
    • “Ambitious and unscrupulous…Agrippina now meant to rule through her son. She murdered or drove to suicide potential foes…her power was advertised on the coinage…Nero’s name and titles were banished to the reverse” Scullard
  • However, since the 1970’s, the writing of history, both modern and ancient, has come under the influence of a wide range of historiographical trends. Notable amongst these have been the writing of feminist history and the appearance of gender studies. This has led to historians approaching a figure like Agrippina from a different perspective. Instead of a woman-hating middle-aged man, fearful of a threat to the natural “patriarchal” order of things, we now have sympathetic women able to view Agrippina as an intelligent, determined woman who should be admired for achieving as much as she did in a world totally dominated by men.
    • Judith Ginsburg: Representing Agrippina: Construction of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire argues that Agrippina’s role in history has been affected by the repetition of stereotypes such as “wicked stepmother”, “domineering woman” and “sexual transgressor”.
  • In fact, a close examination of the numismatic and statuary evidence suggests a figure quite different to that presented by Tacitus and Suetonius:
    • A traditional Roman matron and priestess
    • An icon of domestic correctness, moral uprightness and public piety.
    • From the reign of Claudius – Agrippina appears on the reverse, advertising her ‘Augusta’ title: “Agrippinae Augustae”

HSC Ancient History Claudius coin

Fictional Interpretations of Agrippina:

  • An opera composed by George Frideric Handel appeared in 1710 for the Venice Carnivale. Though the characters are historical, this is an amusing farce which attempts to comment on contemporary politics rather than reflect the realities of early imperial Rome. Even so, Agrippina is presented as an unscrupulous schemer.
  • In 1956, the actress Gloria Swanson played Agrippina in the film Nero’s Mistress. This film does no seek to take the story seriously ; it is a comedy in which everybody is trying to kill everybody else.
  • In 1985, Ava Gardner played Agrippina in the epic 12 hour mini-series Anno Domini. This covered the years AD 30-69,and attempted to give a sweeping view of Rome and the rise of Christianity at the time. Gardner’s role in this budget, all-star production was not great and it presented Agrippina in the usual manipulative way.
  • The classic 1976 BBC series, I, Claudius, based on the books of Robert Graves, had Barbara Young playing Agrippina. Agrippina was presented in the normal scheming, unscrupulous manner of which the ancients sources would approve.
  • Graves – scurrilous but cannot be faulted on the depth of his research and his command of the classics: “Agrippinilla…cared only for power. Sexually, as I (Claudius) have said, she was completely immoral; yet she was by no means prodigal of her favours. She only slept with men who could be useful to her politically.

Timeline

 

28

 

Married Domitius Ahenobarbus.

37 Birth of Nero to first husband Domitius Ahenobarbus.
47 Second husband dies suddenly. Agrippina is suspected of poisoning him.
49 Agrippina marries her uncle, the emperor Claudius.
50 Claudius adopts Nero as heir to the imperial throne.
54 Agrippina murders Claudius. Nero ascends to the throne.
  Nero feuds with his mother over a woman; Agrippina loses influence.
55 Nero poisons his brother Britannicus.
58 Nero falls under the influence of Poppaea.
59 Nero has his mother murdered.

6. HSC Past Questions

2013

  1. How did Agrippina the Younger’s background prepare her for her prominent role? (10)
  2. Success  or  failure? Assess  the  contribution  of  Agrippina  the  Younger  to  her  time. (15)

2012

  1. Describe Agrippina’s relationship with Nero. (10)
  2. To what extent have the interpretations and images of Agrippina the Younger changed over time? (15)

2011

  1. Describe Agrippina’s Julio-Claudian background. (10)
  2. Discuss the basis of Agrippina’s power and influence. (15)

2010

  1. Describe the representations of Agrippina the Younger in the ancient sources. (10)
  2. To what extent was Agrippina the Younger an influential political figure? (15)

2009

  1. Explain how and why Agrippina the Younger was killed. (10)
  2. How have interpretations of Agrippina the Younger changed over time? (15)

2008

  1. Describe the basis of Agrippina’s power and influence before her marriage to Claudius. (10)
  2. Evaluate Agrippina’s relationship with Nero (15)

2007

  1. Describe Agrippina the Younger’s relationship with Seneca, Burrus and imperial freedmen. (10)
  2. Assess the achievements of Agrippina. (15)

2006

  1. Why was Agrippina killed? (10)
  2. Evaluate the significance of Agrippina’s marriages in her rise to prominence. (15)

2005

  1. Briefly describe the early life of Agrippina the Younger. (5)
  2. Explain Agrippina’s role during the reign of Claudius. (8)
  3. With reference to sources, assess the images of Agrippina the Younger. (12)

2004

  1. Briefly outline Agrippina the Younger’s rise to prominence. (5)
  2. Explain Agrippina the Younger’s relationship with Seneca, Burrus and imperial freedmen. (10)
  3. With reference to sources, evaluate the influence of Agrippina the Younger in her lifetime. (10)

2003

  1. Outline the social position of Agrippina the Younger. (5)
  2. Explain the reasons for the death of Agrippina the Younger. (10)
  3. With reference to sources, assess the achievements of Agrippina the Younger. (10)
/**google code below*/ /**google code above*/