Agrippina Minor, the woman who would rule Rome


Agrippina youngerJulia Agrippina, better known as Agrippina the Younger,1and the sister of Caligula, soon showed signs of an even greater ambition than her mother, and being the emperor’s sister certainly favoured her initial attempts. As the granddaughter, sister, wife and mother of Roman emperors, she knew her worth. No other female member of the imperial family could claim so many ties to the throne.2 She was the great-granddaughter of Augustus and both the step-granddaughter and the adopted granddaughter of Tiberius. As Caligula’s sister she briefly experienced great wealth and unusual honours.3

These honours included the privilege of watching the games from the Imperial seats.4 The sestertius illustrated in Figure 6.1 depicts Caligula’s three sisters as goddesses, where Agrippina was depicted as Securitas, leaning on a column, a symbol of peace after past danger.5 Most importantly perhaps, he included his three sisters in the oath of allegiance to the emperor, in which Senators annually had to swear “I will not hold even myself or my children more dear than I hold Caligula and his sisters”. The phrase, “Favour and good fortune be with Gaius Caesar and his sisters” also had to preface all consular propositions.6 In addition to these unprecedented honours, Caligula also made his three sisters honorary Vestal Virgins which meant that a lictor attended them in public, they were exempted from having to take oaths, and they were granted to use of the carpentum when travelling in the city, illustrated on the coin in Figure 7.3.7 Balsdon speculated that the last honour was solely to get his hands on the Vestal Virgin dowries that his sisters would have received.8

Agrippina must have watched her brother’s increasingly erratic behaviour with some anxiety, knowing it could not lead to the stability she must have craved. Suetonius asserts that she herself believed in conservative behaviour for members of the Roman royal family and had great respect for Roman gravitas.9Relations between them soured after the death of their sister Drusilla, and in CE39, Agrippina was accused of treason and adultery with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (widower of her sister Drusilla), and together with her other sister Julia Livilla (accused of the same), was banished to the island of Ponza.10 Subsequently Caligula sold all their furniture, slaves and possessions, an act which lends credence to Balsdon’s theory mentioned in the preceding paragraph.11

In CE41, Caligula was murdered together with his wife and baby daughter, and while the senators debated whether to return the Roman empire to Republican rule, the Praetorian guard found Claudius in the palace and unceremoniously escorted him to the Senate, where they forced the senators to accept him as emperor.12

Agrippina’s influence over her paternal uncle Claudius was notorious in the writings of the ancient historians.13 It was said that she gained private access to him even before they were wed, and would sit on his lap and entice him sexually.14 Since Claudius was considered unequal to the task of ruling Rome as emperor, though later inscriptional evidence would exonerate him to some extent of the accusations made against him as recorded by Tacitus, it was assumed by the ancient historians that Agrippina most probably found it easy to entice and manipulate him.15

Claudius immediately recalled Agrippina and Julia Livilla from their exile and restored their estates and properties to them.16 However, danger loomed yet again in the form of Claudius’ wife, Messalina. Julia Livilla clashed with the empress and was executed for treason and adultery in CE42.17 Agrippina remained on her dead husband’s estates, distancing herself from the court. Perhaps she had learned from her mother’s mistakes and had decided to maintain a low profile, and thus avoided banishment or worse at the hands of Messalina.

Agrippina bore one child from her union with the rich but unambitious Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.18 Nero was born in 37, nearly ten years after their marriage and the same year as Tiberius’ death and Caligula’s ascension. Agrippina then married the well-known wit and politician, Passienus Crispus, who divorced his wife, the mother of Messalina, to marry Agrippina.19 She accompanied him to the eastern provinces, where he died a few years later. She inherited vast wealth from him and was freed, to now turn her eyes to an even more advantageous marriage.

It has been suggested that Messalina’ disastrous affair with Gaius Silius, a consul-designate for CE47 and a relation of Agrippina’s, may have been the result of a deliberate plot to remove Messalina and ensure that Claudius would need a new wife and consort. Silius was executed and Messalina driven to suicide in CE48.20

Various counsellors voiced their preferred choices for consort and empress to Claudius, but it was the voice of Pallas (the very slave of Antonia Minor’s who took the letter of Sejanus’ plot to Tiberius) that Claudius heeded, he suggested Agrippina.21 Despite the religious objections to a marriage between uncle and niece, the case presented in Agrippina’s favour as the best choice for Claudius’ new consort was so strong that it swept away the competition and all religious qualms. Agrippina was a scion of both the Julii and the Claudii, a daughter of the beloved Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, great-granddaughter to Augustus and even descendant of the exemplary Octavia and the flamboyant Marc Antony. There could be no better choice for Claudius to consolidate his rule and succession. Those councillors in favour of Agrippina also pointed out that she might very well present a path to power for an ambitious new husband should she remarry elsewhere. Claudius and the Senate agreed and the two were married in CE49, and as Tacitus remarked: “…from this point, the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman…22

Thus Agrippina took Claudius as her third husband. She was his fourth wife, following after the disreputable Messalina and Lollia Paullina, who, Tacitus reports, Agrippina caused to commit suicide.23 It was from this time on that she gained real influence and power.

Agrippina frequently accompanied Claudius in public and at times she even appeared in a chlamys aurata, a Greek military cloak made of cloth-of-gold, to display her rank as Augusta and display her power openly.24 Agrippina was also at the emperor’s side (sitting on her own dais) when he conducted business, received ambassadors and heard judicial cases.25 At least one incident was reported where a delegation gave her the same homage as they gave to Claudius the emperor.26 She also frequently entertained the highest ranking officials, both visiting and Roman, in her house much like the emperor himself.27As the wife of Claudius, she participated in affairs of state and enjoyed a position of exceptional importance. But later, as the mother of Nero, she controlled both the emperor and even the Roman empire itself, albeit for a brief period.

Tacitus saw Agrippina’s power as unfitting and he saw her as a woman unduly and inappropriately obsessed with power. He frequently used the concept of the dux femina to make his point that women such as Agrippina were usurping men’s power, to him the symptom of a failing state.28 He also portrayed the dux femina as more than just masculine, but as an aberration which would end in tragedy.29 He narrates how, in CE49, the Celtic ruler Caractacus, pardoned by Claudius, did homage also to Agrippina, ending with:

It was indeed a novelty, quite alien to ancient manners, for a woman to sit in front of Roman standards. In fact, Agrippina boasted that she was herself a partner in the empire which her ancestors had won.”30

Although Tacitus clearly feels that a woman is nothing without a man, he recognized that, with a man, a woman could wield great power and influence.31 This is defined by Fischler, “The activities of the imperial women became a standard category which authors used to evaluate the quality of emperors. Thus their consideration in historical literature was most often one of a number of factors which depicted the quality and nature of a ‘bad’ ruler. By definition, ‘good’ emperors had wives and mothers they could control, who never overstepped the boundaries set by convention.32

The women of Agrippina’s time defined their roles and goals through their relationships with the different men in their lives. Agrippina was no different. Her ambition to put her only son Nero on the throne and then keep him there, coupled with a fierce instinct for survival, were the two driving forces behind everything she did. Her main concern was for the advancement of her son Nero and she seldom interfered in governmental affairs unless they were somehow related to this goal. Though she did seek power for herself, for example managing to be named Augusta in the year 50CE while her husband was still living, her primary motive was to use her power promote Nero. After she was able to persuade Claudius to adopt Nero as his heir in CE50 and arranging his betrothal and subsequent marriage to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, Agrippina set out openly to advance her son.33 In CE51, Nero was named Princeps Iuventutis, the same title formerly borne by Gaius and Lucius, the long-dead grandsons of Augustus.34

Agrippina also made sure that Nero was pushed ahead of his stepbrother Britannicus.35 As Nero was three years older than Britannicus, it was easy to ensure that he took precedence in all public functions, as well as on coinage and inscriptions.36 Slowly but surely Agrippina undermined her stepson’s position. In CE51, at the age of 14, Nero was proclaimed an adult, was appointed proconsul and a member of Senate. He also appeared at official occasions at Claudius’ side, and was put on official coinage.37

Any supporters of Britannicus were removed or sidelined. In CE54 Agrippina had her former sister-in-law38 and Nero’s paternal aunt, Domitia Lepida,39allegedly a supporter of Britannicus, executed.40 Domitia was also said to have undermined Agrippina’s education of Nero, as she encouraged his frivolous pursuits, whereas Agrippina wanted her son to be serious and learned, with the gravitas she so respected.41 She arranged for the Stoic writer Seneca to be appointed as his tutor and the soldier Burrus Afranius appointed both as Praetorian Prefect and second advisor to Nero, but in the long term this would come to be a decision she would regret.

Claudius’ death in CE54 is usually regarded as an event that was directly caused by Agrippina, to forestall his naming Britannicus as his heir instead of Nero, as there were apparently signs of renewed affection between father and son.42 Most sources directly state that Agrippina had had her husband poisoned with a dish of mushrooms, apparently a favourite of the emperor’s.43 Only Josephus voiced some doubt about this and represented it as a rumour rather than fact.44 The facts cannot be known but given the real chance of a poisonous mushroom being served up alongside harmless varieties, accidental death must remain a possibility.

Agrippina younger 3Nero thus rose to the throne upon Claudius’ death in CE54. Initially it is very clear from both literary and documentary sources that Agrippina was in control of the seventeen year old emperor. The prominence of Agrippina in the coinage of the era has already been discussed in Chapter VI above. Agrippina was named priestess of the cult of the deified Claudius, and received privileges unheard of for a woman, such as being allowed to be present at Senate meetings, albeit behind a curtain. Agrippina’s control over Nero began to wane, our sources tells us, around the time that he had an affair with a freedwoman named Acte, despite Agrippina’s strong disapproval,45 and with the help of Seneca he resisted his mother’s influence.46

Agrippina’s turnabout in support of Britannicus allegedly led to that young man’s death under suspicious circumstances, and Nero ordered Agrippina to leave the imperial palace in CE55.47 All her powers and privileges were removed, from her bodyguards to her conveyances. She took up residence at Misenum, and spent little time with her son. Nevertheless, she remained popular and influential. Her son, on the other hand, was engaged in gaining as much freedom as possible, and eliminating any possible rivals for power. Seneca and Burrus, having helped to alienate Agrippina, now themselves fell from grace.48

The accounts of Agrippina’s death, as narrated by Tacitus and Suetonius, take on an almost farcical tone, but eventually, according to the sources, Nero successfully killed Agrippina. Before her death, Agrippina wrote an account of her life and career, becoming the first known woman author in Roman history, as she was the only woman on record to have published her memoirs.49 She was also the first imperial woman to bear the title Augusta during her husband’s lifetime. 50 Her portrait appeared on numerous Roman coins.

Agrippina’s triumph seemed complete; she was Augusta, she had been Claudius’ consort in government with unparalleled, openly proclaimed power, and she had personally stage-managed her son’s rise and succession, a kingmaker in truth. Unfortunately her triumphs, like those of her predecessors, would be short-lived.51 Agrippina’s power had not been absolute, nor equal to that of either Claudius or Nero.52

1 Referred to in the rest of this chapter only as “Agrippina”.

2 Not until the Severan dynasty (193-235) did other women match or surpass Agrippina’s connections to the throne and the power which such ties ensured.

3 Ginsburg, 2006:12-14

4 Dio, 59.3.4

5 Sutherland, 1974:153

6 Suetonius, Caligula, 15.3; Dio, 59.9.2

7 Tacitus, Annals, 4.16; Dio, 47.19.4

8 Balsdon, 1974:235

9 Suetonius, Nero, 34; Barrett, 1996:41

10 Tacitus, Annals, 14.2.4; Dio, 59.22.8

11 Suetonius, Caligula, 37

12 Suetonius, Claudius, 10

13 Tacitus, Annals, 12.3; Suetonius, Claudius, 26

14 Tacitus, Annals, 12.5

15 Suetonius, Claudius, 26 and 39. The Lyons Tablet records Claudius’ speech to the Senate to allow Gallic Chieftains.

16 Seneca, Apocolocyntosis; Dio, 60.4.1-2

17 Suetonius, Claudius, 29

18 He was her second cousin, son of Antonia Major who in turn was the eldest daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony.

19 Barrett, 2002:85

20 Suetonius, Claudius, 26; Tacitus, Annals, 11.37

21 Tacitus, Annals, 12.2

22 Tacitus Annals, 12.7, 5-6

23Tacitus, Annals, 12.22

24Pliny, Natural History, 33.63; Tacitus, Annals, 12.56; Dio, 61.33.3

25 Griffin, 1984:23-33

26 Tacitus, Annals, 12.37, 43, 13.2; Dio, 61.33.7, 33.12

27 Tactitus, Annals, 13.18

28 Santoro L’Hoir, 1994:5-25

29 Baldwin, 1972:88-101

30 Tacitus, Annals, 12.37

31Swindle, 2003:112-115

32 Fischler, 1994:127

33 Tacitus, Annals, 12.8; Suetonius, Nero, 7. Claudius had Octavia adopted into another family to obviate the appearance of incest in a marriage between brother and sister, even though theirs was an adopted relationship (Dio, 60.33.2).

34 Tacitus, Annals, 12.46; Dio, 61.32.1

35 Gibson, 2012:5, 41

36 For example; on Claudius’ triumphal arch in the Campus Martius in Rome, there are five columns which once held statues of his family. Those represented were Germanicus, Antonia, Agrippina, Nero and Octavia (Claudius’ daughter). Britannicus is conspicuously absent.

37 Tacitus, Annals, 12.41-42

38 Domitia Lepida was sister to Ahenobarbus, Agrippina’s first husband.

39 Tacitus, Annals, 12.64.5

40 Agrippina’s and Domitia Lepida’s enmity had started long before, when Lepida became the ex-wife of Crispus, Agrippina’s second husband who divorced her to marry Agrippina. Domitia was also Messalina’s mother and suspected Agrippina of orchestrating the scandal that ended Messalina’s life and with it, her marriage to Claudius.

41Barrett, 1996:106-107

42 Dio, 60.34

43 Tacitus, Annals, 12.66; Suetonius, Claudius, 44-6; Dio, 60.34; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 22.92; Seneca, Apocolocyntosis

44 Josephus, Antiquities, 20

45 Tacitus, Annals, 12.12

46 Tacitus, Annals, 12.14

47Tacitus, Annals, 12.18-21

48Dio, 61.7-10

49 Hemelrijk, 2004:207

50Augusta’ can be equated roughly with Empress, though its meaning was primarily honorific. The Senate named Livia Augusta after Augustus’ death. See Tacitus, Annals, 1.8 and Dio, 46.1.

51Shotter, 2008:76-79

52Dio, 61.33.1


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