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.

The Gemma Claudia, an onyx cameo showing Claudius as Jupiter with his new wife Agrippina to the left, opposite her parents Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, c. AD 49Wife 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.

Agrippina’s birth (in AD 15) and her lineage brought her, from the start, into the male arena of contest and power. She was born in an army camp in Germany, the oldest daughter of Germanicus, the greatest general of his day, a man whom Augustus had marked as one of his two heirs. Her name, the same as her mother’s, emphasised her descent from Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ favourite soldier, and his wife Julia, Augustus’ daughter. Her early life was spent on the northern frontier of the Roman world, as her father was often on campaign there.  Today the city of Cologne marks her connection to this frontier; its full Roman name was Colonia Agrippinensis.

As great-grandaughter to Augustus, Agrippina had high status within the unofficial royal dynasty that the Julian house had become by the turn of the millennium. Her descent from Germanicus would prove to be an even weightier political asset. Hailed as a conquering hero, then bitterly mourned after his sudden and mysterious death in AD 19, Germanicus was seen as the ideal leader Rome might have had, particularly in the eyes of the army. In the great man’s absence, Agrippina and her siblings were transformed into objects of surrogate adoration.

As Agrippina was soon to learn, in the perilous world of dynastic politics great assets can also be great liabilities. The emperor Tiberius, already suspected of a role in the death of Germanicus, came to detest the man’s widow and children, whom he thought capable of plotting against him. When Agrippina was only 14, he had the girl’s mother and two of her brothers arrested as conspirators. All three died miserably in prison, starved to death either by their own resolve or by the order of Tiberius. Meanwhile, aged 13, Agrippina had been married off by Tiberius to a notoriously brutish and cruel aristocrat named Ahenobarbus, a man more than 30 years her senior. She was learning at first hand how little control a Julian woman had over her own life.

The year AD 37 brought happy changes for Agrippina. Tiberius died after making Caligula, Agrippina’s brother, his joint heir and Caligula quickly eliminated his rival to gain sole rule. The handsome 25-year-old made symbolic moves to show that his three sisters were sharers of his power. Agrippina now moved about Rome in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled cart reserved for dignitaries, with a lictor, an honorary escort who carried the bundled rods of high authority, riding before her. She saw her image, along with those of her two sisters, Livilla and Drusilla, circulating on the back of her brother’s coins.

That same year Agrippina gave birth to a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the first grandchild of the long-mourned Germanicus and one of the few male descendants of Augustus. Agrippina had gained stature on two fronts. One was the traditional path for Julian women, bearing potential successors to the throne. The other – semi-official inclusion in the regime of a reigning princeps – was new and intoxicating.

Not long after Agrippina’s fortunes had turned, so did the wits of her brother Caligula. Following the death of his favourite sister, Drusilla in AD 38, Caligula inexplicably grew vengeful and paranoiac, accusing his two surviving sisters of conspiracy. Agrippina now found herself banished to the Pontine islands, grim rocks in the Tyrrhenian Sea from which few ever returned. Her estate was auctioned off by Caligula to German buyers at rock-bottom prices.

Now in her early twenties, exiled, impoverished and separated from her infant son, Agrippina had time in which to ponder the vicissitudes of politics. In childhood she had looked forward to the exalted life of an emperor’s daughter, only to see that dream smashed by the death of Germanicus. Then, unexpectedly, the accession of Caligula had brought her into the imperial palace, though only for one year. Perhaps she had vowed, from her island prison, that she would not let a third opportunity slip through her fingers. Over the next two decades her iron determination to attain power would serve her well but would also arouse terror in others and would hasten her demise. 

Caligula might well have intended to have Agrippina killed on the Pontines. ‘I have swords as well as islands’, he reportedly said as he sent her into exile. But even as his madness deepened, Caligula remained aware of the problem of succession. The house of Caesar was not, officially, a monarchy – in principle Rome remained a republic – but it nonetheless needed heirs with blood ties to Augustus. The first princeps had fathered only one child, his daughter Julia; her grandchildren, among whom were the three surviving children of Germanicus, had the capacity to carry his line forward. Agrippina, by giving birth to Domitius, had made herself a precious dynastic asset.

Agrippina’s value to the Roman political elite rose dramatically in AD 41 when her brother Caligula, having alienated even his own Praetorian Guard with his bizarre behaviour, was assassinated and replaced by his paternal uncle, Claudius. Already in his fifties at this point and afflicted by illness, Claudius was not expected to reign long; moreover both he and his wife, Messalina, were descended from Augustus’ sister, not from the emperor himself. When Agrippina and her sister Livilla returned from exile, Messalina, a spiteful and jealous woman only in her teens, regarded her husband’s two nieces with unease, especially since Agrippina was by this time a wealthy widow; her husband Ahenobarbus had died while she was in exile, deeding large shares of his estate to her and to their son, Domitius.

Messalina had reason to fear Livilla and Agrippina, the last living children of Germanicus, and those whom she feared often ended up dead. For some reason though she struck at Livilla, who found herself charged with adultery. Back Livilla went to the Pontine Islands, this time with executioners close on her heels. Her alleged partner in crime, a brilliant senator named Lucius Annaeus Seneca, was banished to Corsica, but his sentence was later lifted, as we shall see. Agrippina somehow remained unharmed and indeed found her fortunes again on the rise: she was married a second time, to the wealthy ex-consul Gaius Crispus Passienus, who died soon after and left her a second substantial estate.

Romans found something disquieting in a young, beautiful and ambitious woman whose rich husbands had a habit of dying. Rumours spread that Agrippina had poisoned Passienus and that she manipulated powerful men by seducing them. Some modern historians have judged the ancient sources, even Tacitus, to be unreliable on this score. It is true that Roman writers loved tales of wicked, scheming women, but that does not mean they are completely unreliable. Agrippina was to demonstrate in later life that she played a sharp game and used her assets, including her sexual allure, to the fullest.

Early in his reign, in AD 41, Claudius fathered a son and passed to the boy his own title, Britannicus, awarded by the Senate after his conquest of southern England. He seemed to have become the first princeps to have sired an heir and established a clear plan for succession. But Claudius was growing sicker and few thought he would survive until Britannicus reached adulthood. The boy’s lineage was also problematic. Neither Claudius nor Messalina were pure bred Julians and Messalina’s status was lower than that befitting the mother of a princeps. Claudius had long refused her an honorific title, ‘Augusta’, that would have elevated her stature.

Messalina began to show signs of a deranged sexuality during the ’40s, taking lovers in an alarmingly overt way and even, if ancient sources are to be believed, seeking out anonymous encounters more typical of a prostitute than a princess. Some Romans, perhaps Claudius himself, felt unsure of the legitimacy of Britannicus and of his sister, Octavia, who was perhaps a year or two older.

Though Claudius turned a blind eye to his wife’s indiscretions, in AD 48 Messalina went too far. After a bizarre ceremony in which she claimed to have wed a new husband, Gaius Silius, Claudius turned against Messalina and a squad of Praetorians forced her to commit suicide. The emperor was now a widower, with two young children whose dynastic prospects had been badly tarnished by scandal. The time was ripe for another widow – and single parent – to enter the scene and make the imperial family whole again: Agrippina.

The sources differ as to whether it was uncle or niece, or both, who sought the incestuous marriage. Some describe Agrippina as a seductress who wantonly displayed her charms, which were by all accounts considerable, to the notoriously priapic Claudius. Others give Claudius the initiative, claiming he selected Agrippina as his wife after careful deliberation. In truth the union was probably a collaborative effort, designed to strengthen Claudius’ position and guarantee a legitimate heir. For even before his marriage to Agrippina, the princeps betrothed his daughter Claudia to her son Domitius. This move instantly placed Agrippina’s ten-year-old boy – the future Nero – in the front ranks of successors, ahead even of the increasingly isolated Britannicus.

After procuring an act of the Senate making marriages legal between uncles and nieces – a law that was to endure for centuries in the Roman world – Claudius wed Agrippina on January 1st of the year we now know as AD 49.

Now 33 or 34, married to an ailing ruler almost 30 years her senior, Agrippina saw bright vistas opening before her. She had already outlived two husbands; once the third was gone, she had every hope of seeing her son take his place and took immediate steps to ensure that outcome by arranging the recall of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the senator exiled to Corsica eight years earlier. This thinker and writer, who had begun publishing the ethical treatises for which he is known today, was appointed tutor to the young Domitius, a sign that the boy’s proper training was deemed a national priority.

Next Agrippina focused her attention on the Praetorian Guard, the corps of elite soldiers that acted as the imperial palace’s security force, secret police and, when necessary, hit squad. She installed as prefect, or commander, a soldier named Afranius Burrus, who, like Seneca, she had plucked from obscurity and placed deeply in her debt. Over the course of five years she replaced the older guards with new recruits loyal to the memory of her father, Germanicus. As daughter of the greatest soldier of the age, Agrippina could claim the allegiance of the military in a way that no other Roman woman had done. She was known to wear a chlamys, or soldier’s cape, on public occasions and once sat beside her husband, like an equal partner in rule, to receive the surrender of a defeated British insurgent.

Was Claudius a passive observer of all this, yielding to Agrippina’s will and besotted by her sexual charms? The sources portray him in these terms, but the truth is no doubt more complex. Many of Claudius’ moves suggest he saw Agrippina as a political asset. He advertised their partnership on his coins, sometimes showing his own profile overlapping hers in an arrangement called jugate. He granted her the prestigious title ‘Augusta’, which he had so long denied her predecessor. Most importantly, he adopted her son Domitius early in AD 50, giving him a new set of names including that by which he would thereafter be known: Nero.

Nero was three years older than Britannicus, an age gap that, given Claudius’ declining health, must have seemed significant.  Indeed Nero was pushed forward ahead of schedule to all his rites of maturation, as though Rome were watching a ticking clock. In AD 52, aged 13, he received his adult toga a year earlier than was usual. A year later he was married to Octavia, Claudius’ daughter. Agrippina, who understood that timing was everything, must have helped hasten both rites. Britannicus still had his partisans and, once he, too, came of age, the odds of a power struggle or of a shift of sentiment away from Nero would increase. 

Just such a shift seems to have been underway as Britannicus neared majority. Claudius may have had second thoughts, as rumours began to claim. Despite all Agrippina had done to elevate Nero, Britannicus still had not accepted his adopted brother’s status. One day he greeted Nero in the palace halls by his birth name, Domitius, as if seeking to undo the fact of his adoption. Agrippina heard of the slight and went straight to Claudius, claiming that an act of treason had been committed. Claudius allowed her, however grudgingly, to dismiss Britannicus’ tutors and appoint new ones, further demoralising the hapless boy.

By late AD 54 Britannicus was only a few months from his 13th birthday, the age at which Nero had been promoted to manhood. It was at this moment that Claudius, having eaten a dish of mushrooms at dinner, became violently ill and died during the night. Agrippina kept the death concealed until noon the next day, then sent her son Nero out to meet his destiny. On cue, the soldiers outside the palace hailed him as imperator, while Britannicus, detained within his chambers, remained off the scene. Nero was brought to the Praetorians’ camp for acclamation, then to the Senate house for the official granting of honours and powers. By the end of the day the transfer of power was complete and Rome had gained a princeps who was not yet 17.

Did Agrippina poison Claudius, as the ancient sources believe she did, to prevent him from advancing Britannicus? Certainly the timing of her husband’s death could not have been better for her son. Modern scholars are divided in their opinions. But it would be hard to argue she was incapable of murder.

As Nero’s reign began, Agrippina could claim that she had single-handedly installed her son in power. She had spent six years or more preparing the guard, the palace bureaucracy and the Roman people for his accession. Perhaps her most productive work had been done in Claudius’ bedroom, though on this point we have only the testimony of the scandal-loving ancient sources.

Agrippina meant to claim a steep reward from her son for her king-making services – a sizeable share of power. She went about Rome with two lictors marching before her, as well as a bodyguard of strapping Germans. The Praetorians obeyed her direct orders, as when she had two potential adversaries assassinated without Nero’s knowledge. Although sessions of the Senate remained closed to non-members, she arranged for that body to meet in a room of the palace where she could listen in from behind a curtain. It seemed that her title ‘Augusta’, only a honorific in the past, now meant something close to ‘regent’ or ‘co-ruler’.

Nero at first appeared agreeable to all this. His early coin issues showed his mother’s profile facing his own, a unique arrangement that suggested parity and collaboration. But family harmony in the palace was to be short lived. Events would soon show that Nero both resented and feared Agrippina’s control over him and that Agrippina would go to any lengths to maintain that control. The teenage boy and his tiger mother were soon on a collision course – with the young man’s love life a major source of conflict.

Nero’s marriage to Octavia had been engineered by Agrippina as a way to produce an unassailable heir and secure the dynasty’s future.  But Nero disliked his young wife and treated her with contempt. Once in power, he took up instead with Acte, a Greek ex-slave on the palace staff. Seneca tried gamely to help him hide the affair, but Agrippina got wind of it and went into a rage. ‘A handmaid for a daughter-in-law!’, she complained to her confidantes and demanded of Nero that he return to the marital bed. 

Nero showed who had the upper hand by getting his mother’s chief partisan, a Greek freedman named Pallas, to retire from politics. This turned Agrippina apoplectic. In a tirade recorded by the historian Tacitus, she vowed to have the Praetorians oust Nero and replace him with Britannicus. This threat had to be taken seriously, since Agrippina had for years cultivated the allegiance of the Guard. Only a few weeks later, Britannicus died at a state dinner, before Agrippina’s astonished eyes – poisoned on Nero’s orders. The young princeps had declared independence from his mother by killing his adoptive brother. 

It was not long before Nero’s double-profile coin was discontinued and Agrippina’s image disappeared from state currency, never to return. Agrippina herself was turned out of the palace and stripped of her German bodyguard. All of Rome got the message that the regime now considered her persona non grata. She went into seclusion at a family estate and little is heard of her in the sources for the next several years. But, though her will to power had been quelled, Nero’s fear of her had not. A final reckoning between mother and son still loomed.

It was again a love affair that ignited Nero’s mistrust of Agrippina. As he reached his twenties, Nero became infatuated with Poppaea Sabina, an astute, lusty divorcee eight years his senior. Again Agrippina sought to dissuade him, but this time used a new stratagem. If the ancient gossip can be believed, Nero’s mother, now in h+er early forties, began an incestuous affair with her son, hoping to keep his allegiance by plying him with sex. 

Poppaea wanted badly to replace Octavia as empress and regarded Agrippina as her main obstacle. She mocked Nero for not standing up to his mother and vowed to go back to her ex-husband unless he did.  Nero had often before wanted his mother dead, but Poppaea finally persuaded him to take action. In the spring of AD 59 he resolved to murder Agrippina, even though she had done little of late to provoke him.

The matricidal plot is described in detail in Tacitus’ Annals, in an episode equal parts tragedy and farce. Nero, inspired by a prop he had seen in the theatre, had a boat built that would collapse and sink at the pull of a lever. At Baiae, a popular resort on the Bay of Naples, he hosted a grand dinner party for his mother, then lovingly presented her with the boat for her journey home. Despite being worked by trained assassins, the boat’s mechanism failed to sink it and Agrippina was able to swim ashore. She made it back to her seaside villa, pretending, in order to mollify Nero, that she had merely suffered a freak accident.

Nero sent a squad of soldiers to finish his mother off and the daughter of Germanicus made a solitary last stand. Confronted in her bedroom by three armed men, she tried gamely to assert that her son could never have ordered her death. When it was clear that she was doomed, she bared her womb to the sword. ‘Strike here, at the place that produced such a monster’ were her last words, at least according to one ancient source. Her body was cremated and buried without ceremony or monument.

Agrippina died alone and powerless, but her legacy lived on. Nero’s matricide was cited as a principal motive by plotters who tried to overthrow him in AD 65 and again by rebellious legions who ousted him three years later and forced him to commit suicide. In a tragedy written shortly afterwards, the drama Octavia, usually attributed to Seneca, Agrippina’s ghost rises from the underworld to exult over her son’s downfall. 

In her three decades of political life Agrippina gained access three times to the levers of imperial power: first, as sister of Caligula, then as wife of Claudius and, finally, as mother of Nero. Her need for control increased with each successive phase, until she ended by alienating her son, as well as much of Rome, with her machinations. Her event-filled life revealed both what a Roman woman could achieve in the political realm and what she could not. Had she been born a man, Rome would have beheld a mighty Caesar indeed.

James Romm is James H. Ottaway Jr Professor of Classics at Bard College, New York.