Agrippina the Younger – Rome’s Enigmatic Empress

Agrippina the Younger was the sister, wife, and mother of Roman Emperors. She was one of the most powerful women in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Because of her position, she has often been maligned in history. Ancient sources portray her as “a consummate schemer, lusting after power, manipulating men and women to her own ends, and when thwarted, retaliating with calculated ruthlessness.”[1] However, according to Anthony Barrett, while Agrippina was not a virtuous woman, she was a politically-adept woman and very shrewd. He argues that she deserves to be credited for her financial policies and effective administration in Claudius’s reign.[2] She also reshaped the boundaries of women’s political roles.[3] Agrippina lived a very colourful life, and her story proves to us that the truth is often stranger than fiction. She enjoyed a life of political influence and prestige under her uncle/husband, Emperor Claudius, and the early reign of her son, Emperor Nero. This lasted until her death in which she was brutally murdered by her own son.

Agrippina the Younger was the great-granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. Her parents were the famous general, Germanicus, and the scandalous Agrippina the Elder. Her brother was Emperor Caligula, and her sisters were Drusilla and Livilla. She was born at Ara Ubiorum (modern-day Cologne) on 6 November 15 C.E.[4] It was because of her family connections that she was a desirable prize as a bride. In 28. A.D. at the age of 13, she was married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, who was around 30. Domitius was a nobleman and a very wealthy one. His future seemed promising because a consulship seemed to be imminent.[5] While sources claimed that he was a “dishonest” and “despicable” character, these claims have largely been unfounded.[6] 

When Agrippina the Younger was 14, her mother, Agrippina the Elder, was exiled because of her hostility to Emperor Tiberius.[7] Agrippina the Elder eventually died of starvation. In 37, A.D. Tiberius died, and Caligula ascended the throne.[8] Agrippina gave birth to Nero within the same year. As emperor, Caligula gave Agrippina the Younger and her sisters the honour of Vestal Virgins.[9] However, despite Agrippina’s prestigious position, she was later accused, along with her lover, Lepidus, and her sister, Livilla, for plotting to kill Caligula. Agrippina and Livilla were banished to the island of Ponti.[10]

After Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D., Agrippina the Younger and Livilla’s exile ended.[11] Claudius returned her property. After the death of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Agrippina married Gaius Sallustius Passienus Crispus. He was a very wealthy man and held the consulship twice.[12] He was married to Agrippina the Younger’s sister-in-law Domitia. However, he divorced Domitia to marry Agrippina. Because Passenius left Domitia to marry Agrippina, Domitia was hostile to her.[13] The marriage was short-lived. The ancient sources claimed that Agrippina poisoned him, but there is no evidence for this.[14] Passenius’s death left Agrippina a wealthy woman.

After Passenius’s death, Agrippina the Younger set her sights on a much more glamourous prize. She wanted to be the imperial consort of Rome.[15] However, there was an obstacle in her way–Messalina. Messalina was the third wife of Emperor Claudius. Messalina had a daughter, Octavia, and a son, Britannicus, by Claudius. It was said that Messalina was jealous of Agrippina. She was seen to be flirting with her uncle and was gathering friends among the court to support her son, Nero.[16] Because of Nero’s heritage being a descendant of Augustus and Germanicus, he became popular with the public. In time, Messalina’s downfall arrived because she had plotted to kill her husband in order to put her lover on the throne.[17] 

Because of Agrippina’s imperial lineage, she made a great candidate for the throne. The only setback was that Agrippina was Claudius’s niece. This was considered incestuous in the Roman law. Claudius asked the Senate to change the law so that he could marry her, which they agreed to because of Agrippina’s imperial bloodline.[18] In 49. A.D. Agrippina the Younger and Claudius were married.[19]

As his wife, she became Claudius’s political partner.[20] They both had common interests. She was given the honorary title of Augusta.[21] She influenced Claudius to adopt Nero and choose him over his own son, Britannicus, as his successor.[22] She made Seneca, who was also her lover, a tutor to Nero because they had the same ideals.[23] She persuaded Nero to marry Claudius’s daughter, Octavia.[24] This made Nero’s status as heir secure. The only obstacle in her way for Nero to become Emperor was Claudius himself.

 In 54 A.D., Claudius died at the age of 64.[25] It was said that Agrippina may have poisoned Claudius with a deadly mushroom, but this is not proven. He may have died of natural causes.[26] However, she quickly installed Nero as emperor in case Britannicus made his claim to the throne. By having her son as emperor, Agrippina was the most powerful woman in the Roman empire.[27] Her relationship with him eventually deteriorated.[28] According to Anthony Barrett, Nero was a vain man who never liked to be criticized.[29] Agrippina criticized him and never made him forget that she made him Emperor.[30] She became a burden to her son so that he wanted to be rid of her.

In 59 A.D., Nero decided to murder his mother.[31] His first plan was having his mother’s pleasure boat collapse. It failed. When the boat collapsed, Agrippina the Younger swam to shore.[32] Realising that his mother survived the attempted murder, Nero was terrified of her wrath.[33] He sent a contingent from the navy, where they beat her with a club and stabbed Agrippina the Younger in her bedroom at her villa.[34] She was cremated on her dining couch and was not given a proper burial.[35] After Nero’s reign, she was given a modest burial by the road to Misenum.[36]

Some of Agrippina’s accomplishments were financial policies.[37] She was shrewd in finances and had an effective administration during Caligula’s reign. Agrippina was also a Jewish sympathiser and was interested in Jewish affairs.[38] Her greatest accomplishment was recalling Seneca from exile.[39] She helped him financially and encouraged him to complete his many works on philosophy.[40] She even wrote her memoirs, though they do not survive today.[41] She was a brilliant political partner to Claudius and tried to make sure that Nero would govern his empire well. Sadly, Nero did not realize his mother’s good intentions until after he killed her.[42] Nero would live with the guilt of matricide for the rest of his life.

While Nero was unhappy when his mother was alive, he was worse off without her. He could not get his mother’s simple grave out of his mind. He took his residence to Naples to escape the memory. Dio even reported that “he frequently saw his mother’s ghost and rarely had a good night’s sleep.”[43] So haunted was Nero that he eventually performed expiatory rites at her grave to appease her restless spirit.[44]

In conclusion, Agrippina the Younger lived a very colourful life. Although many ancient texts made her seem almost monsterish, Agrippina seems to ultimately be a shrewd, politically driven woman who sacrificed and plotted so that her son might become the Emperor. She was not without her faults, but she does not seem to be the evil woman some ancient sources make her out to be. Maybe one day, as more historians examine her legacy, she may be viewed in a more positive light.

Sources:

“Agrippina the Younger.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 20, Gale, 2004, pp.

                5-8.

“Agrippina the Younger (15–59 CE).” Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through

               the Ages, edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, vol. 1, Yorkin

               Publications, 2007, p. 22.

Barrett, Anthony A. Agrippina: Mother of Nero. Routledge Ltd, Florence, 1996;1999;2002;,

            doi:10.4324/9780203012352.

Ginsburg, Judith, and Eric Gruen. Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in

            the Early Roman Empire. vol. 50, Oxford University Press, US, 2005;2006;.

                 


[1]  Ginsberg and Gruen, p. 15

[2]  Ginsberg and Gruen, pp. 15-16

[3]  Ginsberg and Gruen, pp. 15-16

[4]  “Agrippina the Younger (15–59 CE).” p.22

[5]   Barrett, p. 51

[6]  “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 6

[7]  “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 6

[8]  “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 6

[9]   Barrett, p. 60

[10]  Agrippina the Younger.” p. 6

[11]  Agrippina the Younger.” p. 6

[12] Barrett, p. 97

[13] Barrett, p. 97

[14] Barrett, p. 99

[15] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 6

[16] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[17] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[18] Barrett, p. 116

[19] Barrett, p. 116

[20] Barrett, p. 108

[21] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[22] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[23] Barrett, p. 108

[24] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[25] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[26] Agrippina the Younger.” p. 7

[27] Barrett, p. 179

[28] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[29] Barrett, p. 186

[30] Barrett, p. 186

[31] Barrett, p. 214

[32] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[33] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[34] Barrett, p. 224

[35] Barrett, p. 224

[36] Barrett, p. 224

[37] Ginsberg and Gruen, pp. 15-16

[38] Barrett, p. 238

[39] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[40] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[41] “Agrippina the Younger (15–59 CE).” p.22

[42] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[43] “Agrippina the Younger.” p. 8

[44] Barrett, p. 225



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