Julia Agrippina (Agrippina the Younger) played a notable role in the Julio-Claudian family drama. Her influence had as its origin the only resource available to women of her time, proximity to male power. She, like Livia before her, was the wife of one emperor and the mother of another. She was also the sister of a third and the daughter of a prince of the imperial house whose shadow fell across dynastic politics long after his death. She could not in any case have avoided the complications that were her lot by birth, but she evidently had the desire — and the will — to exploit the position into which she had been born. She wrote a memoir that recorded the “misfortunes of her family” (casus suorum). This document alone seems proof that she was deeply aware of the stress generated from a dangerous environment. []
Agrippina the Younger was the daughter of Germanicus Julius Caesar and of Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder). Germanicus’ father was a son of Augustus’ wife Livia by a former husband. His mother was Antonia Minor, daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, Augustus’ sister. Germanicus had thus a double connection with the first family of Rome, and he drew closer to its center in AD 4 when his uncle, who would become the emperor Tiberius, was adopted by Augustus, and adopted him in turn. In this way Germanicus became a Julian and by the law of adoption a legitimate grandson of the ruling dynast. Agrippina’s mother, Agrippina the Elder, was a daughter of Julia, Augustus‘ natural daughter and only child, and of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ valued helper in his climb to the top.
Agrippina the Younger’s ancestry on both sides of her family thus converged on Augustus. But as one of nine children, six of whom lived to maturity, she was not the only one so marked. Hers was a large family that promised continuity for the imperial house, and all its surviving members were involved in the power struggles of the first century. [] Agrippina was born on November 6, probably in AD 14, on the Rhine frontier. [] Her mother had found herself in this quarter because she had accompanied Germanicus when he exercised his command over the Armies of Upper and Lower Germany. By 17, the family had returned to Rome and little Agrippina, her three surviving brothers, and a baby sister rode in their father’s triumph. [] Later in 17 her parents left Rome for Syria, where Germanicus would assume supreme command (maius imperium) of the eastern provinces. Agrippina and most of her siblings were left behind in the care of nurses and the extended family. Only her brother Gaius, whom history would know as Caligula, went east with his parents. Agrippina would not see her father again; Germanicus died near Antioch. She and the rest of the family went to meet her mother when she was bearing his ashes home to Rome in AD 20. []
Agrippina next appears in the historical record in AD 28 when she was married to Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus []. Their union had been arranged by Tiberius, now emperor and head of the imperial household. Arranged marriages were standard practice for all families of prominence and a matter of state business for the ruling house. Ahenobarbus came from a distinguished family that boasted a long line of consuls. Made consul himself in AD 32, he remained in office that entire year. [] He was, in addition, related to the Augustan line through his mother, Antonia Maior. Their first son and only child, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, was not born until December of 37. He would become the emperor Nero,
The Reign of Gaius
An anecdote about this child furnishes an example of the motif central to Agrippina’s reputation. Her brother Gaius had succeeded Tiberius to the principate earlier that year, and it is reported that she asked him to name the infant, hoping perhaps that the still childless emperor would name him after himself and perhaps adopt him in time. If he were Gaius’ heir, hers would be the prize of motherhood. Instead, Gaius looked at his uncle, who, although he would be the emperor Claudius soon enough, was at that time a laughing-stock in the court, and he suggested his name as a joke. [] This anecdote may have come into existence only after Nero became emperor and Agrippina was indeed the emperor’s mother (mater principis). It nonetheless illustrates clearly the popular perception that her ambition was of long duration.
During the first years of his reign, Gaius showed great honor to Agrippina and to her sisters, Drusilla and Livilla. The young emperor was bereft of family support and so elevated and honored all he could muster, his three sisters and his uncle Claudius. The sisters were to be included in oaths, sit with him at games, and take turns occupying the traditional wife’s position at table. [] This conspicuous preference prompted rumors of incest, a closer relationship yet. [] But the favorable treatment soon ended. In AD 38, Drusilla died. She was the sister with whom Gaius had the closest relationship, and he had chosen her husband, M. Aemilius Lepidus, as his interim successor. [] Her death put an end to this arrangement and was a prelude to a conspiracy in which Lepidus played a prominent part. Details are unclear, but it seems that the two surviving sisters had given up on the erratic Gaius and offered Lepidus the asset of their Julian blood in order to help validate his attempt to take over the principate. Livilla and especially Agrippina were accused of having sexual relations with him. Reality or metaphor, the allegation gave substance to the notion that they were his partners. Lepidus was executed and Agrippina was forced to carry his ashes back to Rome. She and Livilla were sent into exile on the Pontian Islands off the coast of southern Italy. []
Domitius Ahenobarbus died in the winter of AD 40-41 while Agrippina was probably still in exile[] Gaius was assassinated in January of 41, and after his death the sisters returned to Rome. [] Although her property that had been confiscated by Gaius was restored to her on her return, much of it may have been dissipated, and she looked quickly for protection and wealth. She set her sights on the prominent Ser. Sulpicius Galba, who would become emperor after the Julio-Claudian line came to an end, but this first effort was unsuccessful. [] She soon married the wealthy and witty C. Sallustius Crispus Passienus, consul in 27 and again in 44, He had formerly been the husband of a sister of Domitius Ahenobarbus and so was her brother-in-law. Passienus died before 47 and it was rumored that Agrippina had poisoned him. [] His wealth provided a motive, but his death also left her free to make her next move, a move that would finally bring her close to the principate.
The Reign of Claudius
Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Nero) became emperor in AD 41 after the death of Gaius. He was the brother of Agrippina’s father Germanicus and so her uncle. During the first part of his reign, Claudius’ wife was Valeria Messalina, who, like Domitius Ahenobarbus, was descended from Antonia Maior. The two had a daughter, Octavia, and then a son, Britannicus, who was born a few weeks after Claudius became emperor. In the autumn of 48 Messalina divorced Claudius unilaterally and married C. Silius, consul-designate for the following year. By this action she transferred her Julian credentials to a party who she thought would be able to protect her interests after Claudius died, an event that might be expected before very long. [] The move is reminiscent of the one that Agrippina and Livilla had made a decade earlier when they transferred their support from Gaius to Lepidus in the hope of grabbing on to a rising star. But it may also have included a preemptive strike against Agrippina, who was plausibly maneuvering to replace Messalina as imperial wife and make her own son the preferred heir.[] Messalina did not succeed; Claudius learned of the attempted coup, and she lost her life.
Claudius looked for a new wife at once, and Agrippina was the candidate on the spot, ready and willing. It was reported that she seduced him by behaving in a manner more intimate than was appropriate for a niece. [] In fact, their marriage, like all dynastic marriages, was a political arrangement and it benefited both. Agrippina attained the long-coveted position of imperial wife, and Claudius was able to keep the daughter of his still popular brother Germanicus from marrying someone else and so legitimating a potential rival with her family connection. Her bid to become Claudius’ wife was championed by the powerful imperial freedman Pallas. These two continued to work closely together, so closely that in time it was thought that their relationship was sexual. [] But an impediment stood in the way of Claudius and Agrippina: Marriage between uncle and niece was incestuous and illegal. At the initiative of Pallas and the palace insider L. Vitellius, the senate voted to make such a union legal, at least when the uncle was on the father’s side. Agrippina and Claudius lost no time and were married early in AD 49, only months after Messalina had been removed from the scene. []
Nero was eleven years old and still named L. Domitius Ahenobarbus at this point. He was quickly betrothed to Octavia, the daughter of Claudius and Messalina, and it was assumed that Agrippina had set in motion this plan that would bind the families more closely. [] The next year (AD 50) Claudius adopted the boy, and he became Nero Claudius Caesar. []. Britannicus, Claudius’ natural son, now stood in second place; Nero had become the older son. Agrippina was thought to have manipulated her husband so that he adopted Nero just as she had arranged his marriage with Octavia, since it moved her son to the head of the line for succession. But the adoption was helpful to Claudius as well. A son who would reach his majority a few years before Britannicus provided more proximate protection.
As Claudius’ wife, Agrippina was granted public honors. In AD 50 she received the title Augusta, the first living woman so honored since Livia, and her name was attached to a colony for discharged veterans at oppidum Ubiorum (Cologne). [] The next year she was allowed the use of the carpentum, the ceremonial carriage usually reserved for priests and sacred statues. She received the defeated British chieftain Caratacus jointly with Claudius, occupying a platform that stood near that of her husband. On at least one ceremonial occasion she presided in a golden cloak. “She put it forth that she was herself a partner in the empire acquired by her ancestors. ” []
In AD 54 Nero, although young (he was sixteen), was technically an adult and so legally able to become princeps should his adoptive father die. But Britannicus, trailing three years behind, would soon cross that threshold of manhood and become eligible as well, at least in theory. It was convenient that Claudius die promptly so that Nero could be in place before Britannicus came of age. Claudius did die, rather suddenly, on October 13. His death may well have been from natural causes, but Agrippina was inevitably accused of poisoning him. The timetable provided a motive: Claudius was allegedly beginning to regret his marriage to her and in the process of changing his mind about the preferred position of Nero. [] Agrippina was accused of manipulating events further when she kept Britannicus out of sight until after the praetorian guard had made its initial salute to Nero as its commander. [] His first watchword to the guard, “best of mothers” (optima mater), can be understood as acknowledgement that he owed her the principate. []
The Reign of Nero
Agrippina now held a second role of potential influence. No longer wife of the princeps, she became the mother of one, the progression that Livia had followed. Immediately after Nero’s accession, Agrippina received further honors. She was named a priestess of the cult of the newly deified Claudius and was granted the attendance of two lictors when she appeared in public. She became the first living woman whose portrait bust appeared on the imperial coinage along with that of a reigning emperor. She listened in on meetings of the senate from behind a curtain; this image makes overt the idea of involvement in state affairs behind the scenes.[] These external trappings may not, however, have corresponded to genuine power. []
The period of formal recognition did not last long in any case. By the next year (AD 55) Nero appears firmly dependent on the direction of his praetorian praefect Burrus (Sex. Afranius Burrus) and his tutor Seneca (L. Annaeus Seneca). But already in AD 54, her influence seems to have been diminished. She approached the dais where Nero was about to receive an envoy from Armenia, intending to join him on the same platform, not on a separate one as she had on a comparable state occasion with Claudius. Prompted by Burrus and Seneca, Nero stepped down to meet her and in this way turned aside her bid for symbolic joint leadership. []
Open conflict between mother and son arose over his affair with a freedwoman named Acte. [] An irregular liaison of this sort with a social inferior would not normally have provoked attention, but in the current context Acte could be construed as a challenge to Nero’s wife Octavia, who, as Claudius’ daughter, was a bond between the previous regime and that of her husband. But Nero was moving away from the past, both from his mother and from Claudius, and as a result Agrippina was forced to depend on her former husband for an increasing portion of her prestige. [] Agrippina was said to have become desperate enough at this point in time (AD 55) to acknowledge her complicity in the death of Claudius. The admission was intended to make clear to Nero that she was responsible for his position. She also drew closer to her stepson Britannicus, and her support of him provided a challenge real enough to prompt retaliation. Nero allegedly poisoned his stepbrother. [] After that, Agrippina was forced to move from the imperial residence, her bodyguard was removed, and she was harassed by a lawsuit. Her champion Pallas was dismissed from the court. []
Nothing is known of Agrippina between 55 and 59, but she must have remained a thorn in Nero’s side as she interfered or tried to interfere in court politics. It was still remembered that she was a daughter of Germanicus, and that counted for much; the possibility of a union between her and a potential usurper remained present. When she reenters the story, the necessity of doing away with her has already been suggested; her murder was “a long- considered crime” (diu meditatum scelus). The immediate reason was the same one that had surfaced earlier. She objected to Nero’s mistress. This time the liaison was with Poppaea Sabina, an upper-class woman with whom marriage was possible. But Octavia still stood in the way. Poppaea had “no hope for marriage for herself or the divorce of Octavia while Agrippina lived”. [] It was rumored that Agrippina made a desperate attempt to keep Nero in her camp by making her own sexual advances. []Nero must also have been desperate for an end to the contest of wills, for he contrived a plan to drown her by means of a collapsible boat. Agrippina escaped death by swimming gamely until she reached help, but she now knew clearly that her life was in danger. Nero took more direct action and dispatched assassins to accomplish the murder. The series of events is, however, unclear, for there are serious inconsistencies in regard to the collapsing boat, other details of the failed plot, and the murder itself. [] An official report was sent to the senate: Her death had occurred when she made an attempt on his life, not he on hers. The document also noted her past meddling in state affairs. Nero was congratulated on his escape. []
It is often difficult to gain a clear understanding of the personalities of the ancient world, for the portraits of them painted in the ancient texts are derived from layers of time-specific prejudice. When Nero was emperor and it was necessary that he be viewed favorably, Agrippina was described as a negative influence. When his reputation plummeted after his death and the Flavians rehabilitated Claudius’ capital, she was held responsible for Claudius’ inadequacies. The constant theme, however, is the perception that she was a very ambitious woman. The anecdote in which she asks Gaius to choose a name for her newborn son, retrojected on to the narrative as it probably was, makes this point as clearly as any, for it indicates that ambition was the driving force of her entire adult life. The message resurfaces in the accusations of her partnering with Aemilius Lepidus, her poisoning of Passienus Crispus, her seduction of Claudius and the manipulation of him in regard to the adoption of Nero and especially her poisoning him at the opportune moment. The factual truth of all of these allegations must remain uncertain, but she was a woman who had both the means to make a place for herself in the high-stakes Julio-Claudian world and seemingly the will to exercise her options. In the end she was overwhelmed by the weight of her competitive family.
Barrett, A.A. Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire.Yale University Press (New Haven and London) 1996. [An extensive bibliography is included.]
Barrett Caligula: The Corruption of Power. Yale University Press (New Haven and London) 1990.
Champlin, E. Nero. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, and London) 2003.
Dawson, A. “Whatever Happened to Lady Agrippina”. CJ 64 (1969) 253-67
Eck, W. Agrippina, die Stadtgründerin Kölns: Eine Frau in der frühkaiserzeitlichen Politik. (Cologne) 1993.
Ehrhardt, C. “Messalina and the Succession to Claudius”.Antichthon 12 (1978) 51-71.
Griffin, M. T. Nero: the End of a Dynasty. Yale University Press (New Haven and London) 1985.
Humphrey, J. “The Three Daughters of Agrippina Maior”.AJAH 4 (1979) 125-43.
Hurley, D. W. “The Politics of Agrippina the Younger’s Birthplace. AJAH n.s. 2 (2003) 95-117.
Levick, B. Claudius. Yale University Press (New Haven and London) 1990.
Meise, E. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der julish- claudischen Dynastie. Vestigia 10. (Munich) 1969.
Mommsen, T. “Die Familie des Germanicus”. Hermes 13 (1878) 245-65.
Syme, R. Tacitus Oxford University Press (Oxford) 1958.
[] Other branches of the family could also claim descent, direct or indirect, from Augustus, but none was so favored as the family of Germanicus. Agrippina the Elder had a sister Julia (Julia the Younger), whose grandchildren (the Junii Silani) would be potential rivals under Claudius and Nero. Their credentials were somewhat tarnished, however, by the fact that Julia herself had fallen from grace under Augustus. There were also those descended from Octavia and from her daughter Antonia Maior (an older sister of Antonia Minor); these included the father of Nero and both mother and father of Claudius’ wife Messalina. Another line passed through the natural son of Tiberius.
[] The year (not the date) and the place of her birth are uncertain because of contradictory evidence. Tacitus writes that she was born at oppidum Ubiorum (modern Cologne, Ann.12.27), but the birth may have taken place near the present city of Koblenz. See Mommsen, Humphrey, Barrett,Agrippina (Appendix 2), and Hurley for the arguments.
[]. The date of Passienus’ death is derived from the fact that there is no notice of it in Tacitus’Annals when the text resumes in AD 47 after ten missing years (Barrett, Agrippina, p. 85; Syme p. 328, n. 12). The allegation of poisoning (Suet.Life of Passienus) may have been appended to the story only after Agrippina’s reputation had suffered under Nero and it was assumed that she had poisoned Claudius. Why not an earlier husband as well?
[] A temple for divus Claudius was begun but left unfinished until the time of Vespasian (Suet. Cl. 45, Ves. 9.1). The designation of Nero as “son of the god” appears less and less on his coinage and on inscriptions. But he had already begun to separate himself from his adoptive father in his first speech to the senate (Tac.Ann. 13.4).
[] Tac. Ann.14.1. The affair with Poppaea could not, however, really have been the reason for getting rid of Agrippina in 59. It was not until 62, three years later, that Octavia was sent away and marriage with Poppaea took place (Tac.Ann. 59-64; Suet. Ner. 35.1-2; Dio 62.13.1).