Agrippina Major, saviour at the Rhine


Agrippina elderAgrippina the Elder,1 granddaughter of Augustus, made no secret of her goal to have her husband Germanicus sit on the throne in Rome, taking an active hand in her husband’s career and public image, as already intimated in the incident with Gnaeus Piso described above.2

Agrippina saw her mother Julia exiled when she only ten and both her elder brothers died before she was eighteen. Both her other siblings, Julia and Agrippa Posthumus, were also exiled by the time she was twenty-two.3 What effect this may have had on Agrippina and her desire to see her own children in power, as perhaps a security measure for her family, one can never know. But her pride in her family as a direct descendant of Augustus is mentioned, and her contributions to the imperial throne much advertised, as in the coin issued by Caligula in Figure 6.1 indicates. Her arrogance is also mentioned more often after the death of Germanicus. Initially she is introduced in the Annals as being “determined” but Tacitus soon asserts that she “turned this to good account by her devoted faithfulness to her husband“. She was also lauded for her intelligence and wit, and was extensively educated.4 But this temperate approach in Tacitus soon changes – over the course of a number of references we are told that she is ‘ferocious’, ‘angry’, ‘violent’ and ‘emotional’.5

Agrippina bore her husband nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood.6 Augustus was so impressed with their brood of children that he would show them off in public as the ideal of a Roman family. Although pregnant at the time, she accompanied Germanicus to Gaul when he was posted there in CE14.7 When news of Augustus’ death and Tiberius’ succession reached the Rhine, the army’s mood was rebellious and Germanicus tried to assuage them by calling all troops and tribe leaders together, and swearing allegiance to Tiberius in their presence.8 But mutinies broke out, and it was decided that the wives and children of the officers, including Agrippina and the young Caligula, would be sent from the camps to safety. According to the account we have, this proved to be the turning point for the rebels, who were ashamed that the granddaughter of Augustus and her children were being driven to flight by the Roman army themselves. They refused to let the wagon leave and many averted their eyes from Agrippina’s fierce gaze.9

Germanicus solved the restlessness of the army by attacking the Germans, pushing deep into the forests. In exchange, the Germans conducted guerrilla warfare in the woods, helped by the spring floods in CE15 that destroyed many Roman fortifications and temporary bridges. A large contingent of the army was trapped in a swamp on their way back to the Rhine Bridge, when the Germans attacked them.10 A mob of soldiers hurried to the bridge at Castra Vetera, intent on crossing and then destroying it behind them to stave off the advancing Germans. Agrippina realised it would mean certain death for the rest of the retreating Roman soldiers, so she placed the bridge under her personal protection:

Meanwhile a rumour had spread that our army was cut off, and that a furious German host was marching on Gaul. And had not Agrippina prevented the bridge over the Rhine from being destroyed, some in their cowardice would have dared that base act. A woman of heroic spirit, she assumed during those days the duties of a general, and distributed clothes or medicine among the soldiers, as they were destitute or wounded. According to Pliny the Elder, the historian of the German wars, she stood at the extremity of the bridge, and bestowed praise and thanks on the returning legions. This made a deep impression on the mind of Tiberius. “Such zeal,” he thought, “could not be guileless; it was not against a foreign foe that she was thus courting the soldiers. Generals had nothing left them when a woman went among the companies, attended the standards, ventured on bribery, as though it showed but slight ambition to parade her son in a common soldier’s uniform, and wish him to be called Caesar Caligula. Agrippina had now more power with the armies than officers, than generals. A woman had quelled a mutiny which the sovereign’s name could not check.” All this was inflamed and aggravated by Sejanus, who, with his thorough comprehension of the character of Tiberius, sowed for a distant future hatreds which the emperor might treasure up and might exhibit when fully matured.”11

Tacitus’ describes how Agrippina took on “the duties of a commander” in this passage, which is usually the type of information that reflects badly not only on the woman, but also on her husband or other male figures. The passage is unusual, since for ancient historians there was nothing worse than the dux femina, a woman general who led the troops in the manner of Fulvia,12 engaged in this exclusively male activity. And for a Roman woman to take on this role was a signal of the breaking down of Roman civilisation.13 Yet Tacitus calls her “a woman of heroic spirit” and focuses mainly on her role as caregiver. Vidén points out that, while Agrippina’s involvement with the army may have been inappropriate, it was rendered acceptable only because she was devoted to her husband.14

Agrippina elder 3Tacitus follows this up by highlighting Tiberius’ suspicion of her generous act. It is certainly a clear indication that Tacitus uses and adapts his portrayal of female figures to bring praise or condemnation to the men associated with them. At this point in the narrative, it is her husband, Germanicus, who is playing the role of the hero, with Tiberius as the villain, so Agrippina is used by Tacitus to place Germanicus in a positive light at this point. While he generally characterises Agrippina as ambitious, here she comes out of the episode quite favourably, while Tiberius is made to seem rather mean-spirited in not acknowledging such a generous concern for the troops from a woman who was, after all, seven months pregnant at the time.15 This literary technique of Tacitus’ proves to be rather effective – he sows a seed of suspicion that will bear fruit only in Book 4 of the Annals, where Agrippina is portrayed in a much less sympathetic manner.

Tiberius recalled Germanicus in CE17 and sent him to Syria in the east. On his and his family’s journey there, they made a thorough sight-seeing and public relations tour of the area, since Germanicus had been given authority over all the governors of the eastern provinces.16 This was soon followed by the episode related above, the alleged poisoning and death of Germanicus at the hands of Piso and Plancina.17 On his deathbed Germanicus spoke also to Agrippina:

Turning to his wife, Germanicus begged her … to forget her pride, submit to cruel fortune, and, back in Rome, to avoid provoking those stronger than herself by competing for their power”.18

Clearly Germanicus was quite familiar with his wife’s “masculine” characteristics. The incident at the bridge allowed him to profit from these traits, but clearly now that he is dying, she is required to subdue them and to submit to Tiberius as emperor.

Agrippina elder 4Much is made in the sources of the public grief in Rome at the news that Germanicus had died, and the highlight was Agrippina’s return to Rome in early 20CE with her husband’s ashes. She disembarked at the Italian port of Brundisium and was met by many of her husband’s veterans.19 Agrippina was hailed the “true heir of Augustus”, which certainly would have angered Tiberius.20 In the passage quoted on the previous page, Annals 1.69, Tacitus also informs us indirectly, through the reference to Pliny the Elder, that Agrippina was publicly referring to her young son as “Caesar Caligula”. If true, it is a clear indication of Agrippina’s ambitions for her children.

With the death of Germanicus, Agrippina saw all her dreams of becoming an empress and having her sons follow their father to the purple, shattered. As Burns puts it so eloquently, “She had witnessed 30,000 Roman soldiers beg Germanicus to replace Tiberius as emperor. She had seen him ride in triumph through the streets of Rome and be welcomed as a god in the eastern provinces. She had seen the full measure of devotion the people felt for him and had herself been hailed as Augustus’ only true heir. And yet, suddenly, she was nothing more than the widow of a dead Caesar, completely out of the line of succession. It was as if her destiny had passed her by.” 21

Not long after however, Drusus, the son and heir of Tiberius, died, placing Agrippina’s children once again in the line of succession. Her oldest sons, Nero and Drusus, were the likeliest candidates and their father and grandfather’s reputations were well known.

Another turn of events however ruined the hopes that Agrippina now had. Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a man who became Tiberius’ most trusted advisor, saw his chance for advancement. According to the accounts of all the historians he fostered the resentments of the royal family members towards each other, whispering tales of treason in Tiberius’ ear and warning the ageing emperor that Agrippina planned to advance her sons to the throne.

Sejanus was responsible for instigating plots which Agrippina became unwittingly drawn into:

“Her insubordination, however, gave Sejanus a handle against her. He played on the Augusta’s longstanding animosity against herand on Livilla’s new complicity…...they were to notify Tiberius that Agrippina, proud of her large family and relying on her popularity, had designs on the throne.”22

Clearly the words of her dying husband, quoted above from Tacitus,23had not proved very effective, as Agrippina was doing exactly what he had warned her not to do, therefore providing Sejanus with a weapon against her. The manner in which Tacitus presents this does not particularly inspire sympathy for Agrippina, despite the fact that she was being victimised by Sejanus. Rather we are given the impression of someone who is arrogant, reckless and, “in contradiction to her husband’s wishes, vying for power”.24

One incident implicated a close friend of hers, Claudia Pulchra, who was accused of attempting to poison Tiberius. Agrippina went directly to Tiberius and protested that Claudia was only condemned because of her continued friendship with Agrippina. She also accused Tiberius of hypocrisy for sacrificing to the deified Augustus while persecuting his offspring, underlining to him her physical resemblance to her ancestors. Tiberius reportedly only replied with a single line from Greek drama, “And if you are not queen, my dear, have I then done you wrong?”25

According to Tacitus, Agrippina requested Tiberius to find her a new husband, but he refused, knowing that any husband of hers could be a potential rival.26 Interestingly, Agrippina now moves away from the ideal of the univira, further changing her from the ideal wife and mother she is portrayed as in the first three books of the Annals.27

Tacitus claims that he learnt of both of these episodes from the memoirs of her daughter, Agrippina Minor. By providing us with the source for this information Tacitus is actually strengthening the link between the two Agrippina’s, which he reinforces throughout the Annals by using similar words to describe them, such as inflexibility/stubbornness, pride/arrogance and that she was savage/fierce.28

Tiberius’ right to refuse Agrippina’s plea to be married again is a clear demonstration of the power that the holder of the patria potestas had over the women of his household (should he choose to exercise it) who were not freed from guardianship. Although she was Augustus’ granddaughter and a prominent member of the imperial household, Agrippina still could not marry against the wishes of Tiberius, and this impotence strongly curtailed her freedom and autonomy.

Agrippina was now caught between the suspicions of Tiberius and the machinations of Sejanus. To make matters worse, her second eldest son Drusus began conspiring with Sejanus against Agrippina and her eldest son Nero, in order to advance to the throne himself. 29

Then, in CE29, Livia died and it became clear to what extent she had been protecting Agrippina and her children. Almost immediately Nero was charged with perversity and Agrippina was accused by Tiberius in the Senate of insolence and disobedience.30 Despite popular protests, both mother and son were sent into exile to different islands, Agrippina to Pandateria (the same place her mother Julia and her sister Julia Livilla, had been banished to). Agrippina’s prison conditions were harsh and four years later in CE33 she is said to have died of starvation.31 Although there is a possibility that she starved herself, examining the circumstances (her having living children and the fact that Tiberius was ageing) suggests otherwise. Both her elder sons, Nero and Drusus, also died of starvation in prison, Drusus’ treachery not saving him.32

Four years after Agrippina’s death in CE37, Tiberius died and her son Caligula succeeded to the throne in Rome. His mother, however, was not alive to see her dreams fulfilled and her son succeed where her husband had failed. The coins illustrated in Figures 7.3 and 7.4 show that Caligula made much of his family connections and consequent right to rule, honouring his mother on numerous coins. Her son Caligula had his mother’s ashes brought back to Rome in CE37, and the inscription on the marble block which housed her ashes read: “The bones of Agrippina, (daughter) of Marcus Agrippa, wife of Germanicus Caesar, mother of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, emperor”. Caligula was an unpopular emperor however, and was assassinated by his own praetorian guard.

Agrippina’s progeny also provided another Julio-Claudian emperor for Rome, the equally notorious Nero. In this sense the ambitions of Agrippina the Elder had been realised – and those of her daughter foreshadowed.

1 Hereafter referred to as only “Agrippina”

2Tacitus, Annals, 1.33; 4.52.6

3 Shotter, 2000:342-344.Germanicus was the son of Claudius Drusus (younger son of Livia) and Augustus’ niece Antonia Minor, (the daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony).

4 Suetonius, Augustus, 86; Tacitus, Annals, 4.52. Other than most of their contemporaries around the world, Roman women of the upper classes were encouraged to receive a full education which included reading, writing, arithmetic, philosophy, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy and musical theory. Augustus paid a private tutor, M Verrius Flaccus, a hundred thousand sesterces a year to tutor the children of his household (Suetonius, Augustus, 64.2). Hemelrijk, 1999:21-23

5 Tacitus, Annals, 1.33; 1.69; 4.12; 4.52 ; 4.51-2; 5.3; 6.25

6 Suetonius, Gaius, 7

7 Barrett, 1990:7

8 Tacitus, Annals, 1.34

9 The accounts of Tacitus, Annals, 1.41-44; Suetonius, Caligula, 48.1 and Dio, 57.5.6, differ slightly on the details of how Agrippina and young Gaius were released.

10 Tacitus, Annals, 1.64-68

11 Tacitus, Annals, 1.69. The incident is not mentioned by Suetonius, Tiberius 25, or Velleius Paterculus, 2.125-9. 

12 Velleius Paterculus’ description of Fulvia, who acted as commander, is a good example of how such women were viewed: “who had nothing of the woman about her except her sex” (2.74.2).

13 Female warriors or generals were considered fit only for barbarians. Tacitus for example mentions the uprising of Queen Boudicca in CE61, for the Romans the barbaric spectacle of women on the battlefield (Annals 14.36).

14 Vidén, 1993: 64

15 Barret, 2002:231

16 Tacitus, Annals, 2.55; Kokkinos, 1992:17, 43-48

17 Tacitus, Annals, 2.70

18 Tacitus, Annals, 2.72.1. Burns, 2007:277

19 Tacitus, Annals, 2.75

20 Tacitus, Annals¸3.4

21 Burns, 2007:51

22Tacitus, Annals, 4.12.2-5

23 Tacitus, Annals, 2.72.1

24 Saavedra, 1996:2

25 Suetonius, Tiberius, 53

26Tacitus, Annals, 4.52.3-53.2

27 Saavedra, 1996:2

28 The Latin words are contumacia, superbia and atrox.

29 Tacitus, Annals, 4.60, 5-6

30 Tacitus, Annals, 5.3

31 Suetonius, Tiberius, 53

32 Suetonius, Tiberius, 54



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