Agrippina, the Woman Who Would Rule Rome

Mother, sister, wife and lover and part of the Roman elite, Agrippina the Younger sought to escape the restrictions imposed on her sex.

Agrippina the Younger crowns her young son Nero with a laurel wreath. Photograph by Carlos Delgado (CC-BY-SA 3.0 DEED).

Wife of one emperor, sister of another, mother of a third and – if rumours are true – the incestuous lover of the latter two, Julia Agrippina the Younger dominated Roman imperial politics in a way that no woman before her had ever attempted. Ancient sources portray her as a scheming seductress and sexual siren, but their bias against powerful females may have skewed their perspective. Whatever the truth about her character, Agrippina’s life defined the second half of the Julio-Claudian era, the mid-first century AD, and her sensational murder helped bring that era to a gruesome close.

Agrippina’s fame has largely been eclipsed by that of Livia, wife of Augustus, the devious spider-woman so memorably portrayed by Robert Graves in his novel I, Claudius. Yet Agrippina was vastly more ambitious and successful than her notorious predecessor. Today, almost exactly two millennia after her birth, she stands out as the sole Roman woman to attempt to break the ultimate glass ceiling: to wield the power of a princeps, not just behind the scenes but before the astonished eyes of the senate, the army and the Roman political elite.

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