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1

AGRIPPINA:
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Geography, topography and resources of Rome and the Roman Empire

GEOGRAPHY
Region of Latium (West coast of Italy) → central trading route to Etruria and Campania
Fertile plains, Mediterranean climate, crossed by rivers

Roman empire:
Vast area, centering Mediterranean. (North- Europe) (East- Greece, Asia) (South-Egypt, Africa) (West-Spain)
Major activity: Agricultural production (grapes,olive oil, cereal)

TOPOGRAPHY
Apennine mountain range→ wood, marble, stone, clay
River Tiber→ communication and trade mainly by river, access to sea and inland
Army legions patrol borders to defend against invasion,supervise traffic

RESOURCES
Italy (volcanic region) fertile soil, fine crops
Rome imports→ beef, grain, timber, oils, wine, glass, marble
Rome exports→ wine, olive oil, papyrus

Roman empire:
Trade important→ large amounts of food imported from all over empire
Grain most important→ Had to feed Rome’s urban masses (didn’t produce enough to be self-sufficient)
Slave trade (from conquered territories)
India→ Spices, jewels, perfumes
Egypt, Africa→ Grain, Ivory, Wild animals
Britain→ Lead, wool, gold, copper, tin

2

Agrippina:
Overview of Roman social and political structures; principate

Class conscious society; clear upper and lower class→ limited means to improve class
More lower than upper class→ keep content “bread and circuses”; food handouts, entertainment
Principate→ system in Rome; originally monarchy but revolt turned to republic
JC was dictator (made enemies; assassinated) Battle of Actium (31 BC) → contest for O or MA rule
Octavian victor→ undisputed control of Roman empire→ position to remodel political affairs
No real blueprint for govt→ principate evolved slowly
No way would he restore ‘real’ power to Senate, but didn’t want to alienate Senate like Caesar→ wanted to be seen sharing power, respecting traditional republican forms
“I transferred the state from my own power to the control of the Roman state and people.” RES GES

SETTLEMENT OF 27BC
Proconsular imperium for 10 years (control of most of legions) Senate to run other provinces
Nominated as consul every year to 23 BC
Gained Egypt after Actium→ controlled wealth, grain


SETTLEMENT OF 23BC
Tribunician authority” for life(pass laws in assemblies, summon senate, veto laws, propose new ones)
Given consular imperium for life
Took on ‘censorial powers’ (supervise membership of senate)
Most of Rome→ happy to have peace with him
Able to nominate successor→ adopted son Tiberius
Mid AD 40’s→ Principate became hereditary monarchy (family connections important)
ATY main goal→ have Nero become princeps

3

Role of imperial women in Roman society

Royal family→ women raised in palace
No political power (Patriarchal society) Imperial women had some influence; cultivate male allies, develop clientele.
Determining succession→ having son, opportunity for power and influence, occupation→ maneuvering son into power
Women were useful (establishing political alliances) marriage used for political/dynastic purposes
“Betrothals were broken or divorces dictated when alliances between men became animosities.” POMEROY
Females expected to be modest, marry young, large families, behave with dignity
Some owned businesses,able to inherit and hand on property without male permission
Imperial women meant to be educated. Daughters educated in traditional skills (weaving, spinning)
Role of women→ “To mind the house and watch over the children.” TACITUS
Objectives of Augustus in area of moral improvement:
Reverse upper classes voiding marriage, rejecting duty to have children
Reduce widespread adultery in noble classes
Reduce growing divorce rate
Limit lavish lifestyle of upper class
Passed law preventing men having affairs with respectable women (could have sex with slaves, prostitutes→ some senators wives registered as actresses, prostitutes etc)
Minimum age for marriage (Girls=12) (Boys=14)

4

BACKGROUND AND RISE TO PROMINENCE
Family background and status

Great granddaughter of Augustus (Julio) Great granddaughter of Livia- Aug 3rd wife (Claudian)
“Agrippina’s exceptionally illustrious birth is indisputable.” TACITUS, ANNALS
Father was beloved germanicus, brother would become Emperor Gaius (Caligula), Uncle (and later husband) would become Emperor Claudius,son would become Emperor Nero
“Her pedigree was impeccable.” S. PEROWNE
Well aware of value of her bloodlines→ later emphasises dynastic connections
“Agrippina...would make much of her Julian descent, a descent that came through the bloodline and was not conferred merely through adoption.” BARRETT
Inherited status from well-connected parents;
Germanicus successful political, military career (fought in Germany, consul in AD 12)
“True, Renaissance man.” SUETONIUS
ATE; active military role→ All 9 children born in military camps
Germanicus managed to suppress serious mutiny in Germany→ made popular with legions

5

Early life, ambitions and marriages

Born November 15AD (Modern day Cologne)
Early moths spent in Germany, came to live in Rome approx 16 AD. Germanicus viewed as hero
“The triumph of Germanicus…was a memory that his daughter would exploit to the full.” BARRETT
AD 17→ Germanicus sent by Tiberius to east (Ag remained in Rome) Fell ill and died in AD 19; convinced he had been poisoned→ stated Piso (new legate of Syria) and wife conspired to murder him
Rome; widespread grief. Tacitus didn’t attend ceremonies celebrating him→ fueled suspicion of murder, didn’t make him popular
Eventually Tiberius has Piso and Plancina brought to trial→ both accused of murder (took own life)
Progress towards Rome by ATE slow and deliberate→ procession reached Tarrancia, joined by Ag and Claudius; Barrett; suggests reunion would have been potent, vivid childhood memory for Ag
Following decade→ Destruction of family; Older sons (Nero, Drusus) prepared for high office→ Tiberius complained to Senate it was too quick.
ATE; arrogant, obsessed with power, convinced her lineage made her special→ in danger from Tiberius and Sejanus (right hand man and Praetorian guard prefect)
To protect her sons→ gathered group of powerful aristocratic friends around her. Claims she was forming party “Partes Agrippinae.” If so; “It was the 1st specific political movement formed by a woman.” BAUMANN
Sejanus had them imprisoned on false charges (AD 29) All died AD 33
“Mother and son were left to starve in their separate places of imprisonment...she must have been the single most important influence on her daughter and namesake.” M.T.GRIFFIN


MARRIAGE 1: Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus
After dad dead; required by law to come under tutelage of guardian (role; arrange suitable marriage)
Guardian was Emperor Tiberius→ 28 AD arranged marriage (Ag around 13)
Ahenobarbus was descendent of wealthy family and of MA (had married Octavia)
37 AD→ Gave birth to son Nero and became the Emperor’s sister (ascension of Gaius)
39 AD→ Ahenobarbus died
“It is interesting to note that they thought it best not to have children while Tiberius was still alive.” T. WEIDEMANN

MARRIAGE 2: Sallustius Passienus Crispus
Wealthy, consular rank (but not as well connected as Ahenobarbus)
Marriage saved her from intrigues of Messalina
47 AD→ Crispus died (left her very wealthy)
“Agrippina, remembering the weakness of her mother’s position after the death of Germanicus, set out to find a husband.” GRIFFIN

MARRIAGE 3: Claudius
According to sources (Ag very beautiful) Claudius a womaniser
Freemen competed to choose a wide for him, he needed companion
“Was in the habit of consulting him constantly...and in fact she was rather more familiar in her conduct towards him than became a niece.” CASSIUS DIO

6

Basis of her power and influence; patronage

Marriages (all well-connected) underlined significance of her family background, status and made her wealthy
Birth of child→ New status as a mother (Matronly virtue; important criteria of acceptance in society)
Even more significant→ Her child was possible heir to Julio- Claudian dynasty
Aware of importance of furthering prospects of her son→ vested political interest in dynasty beyond her own survival and personal advancement
Own family’s fortunes→ taught her that position and status wasn’t enough→ needed to surround herself with powerful, influential people to support her cause.
Learnt from ATE who had built strong network of friends/patrons to help support her and her children’s future
Ag used influence and her observance of human nature to cultivate,bend people to her will (husbands, senators,freedmen, Nero- for a while)
“She was no paragon of female virtue..she was prepared, if necessary, to wade through slaughter to a throne.” SALMON

7

Role during the reign of Gaius (Caligula), including exile

37 AD; Tiberius died→ Gaius (Caligula) now emperor
First acts: Bring 3 sisters into prominent position
Made vestal virgins
Included in annual vows for emperors safety and vows of allegiance
Included in preamble to proposals submitted to Senate
Issued on coin (never before sisters of emperor on coin)
Hints of incest (especially Drusilla) “Without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters.” BARRETT
39 AD; Ahenobarbus dead. Ag and Livillia convicted of committing adultery with Lepidus (Drusilla’s former husband). Forced to carry ashes and scatter→ Banished to Pontian Islands
41 AD; Gaius died and exile ended→ Uncle Claudius now emperor; sisters recalled to Rome

After exile→ married Crispus (saved from intrigues of Messalina)
Ascension of Claudius; turning point in Ag’s career; Sharpened political skills and focused on promoting own position and Nero’s succession
Mess wielded power→ used position to dispose of suspected rivals; threats to children
Downfall of Mess→ Public marriage to Gaius Silius. Motives? Maybe feared Ag’s power and popularity of Nero (got more applause at games than Britannicus)
Silius saw opportunity to make himself master of Rome (senate hostile to Claudius) Promised Mess her position would remain intact, Britannicus would be emperor.
Narcissus→ told Claudius of plot against him→ Praetorian guard killed her
“Had gone so far as to commit bigamy...so Claudius executed her.” SUETONIUS
Ag took advantage of downfall; married Claudius. Incestuous; Claudius granted special dispensation

8

Role during the reign of Claudius

49 AD; Married and Ag pursued objectives; (wanted Nero to succeed as emperor) (Achieve major share of political power)
“Agrippina used her influence over Claudius not only to consolidate Nero’s claims, but also to enhance her own position.” BAUMAN
PROMOTION OF NERO
Got Claudius’ daughter Octavia betrothal cancelled and Nero now engaged to her (AD 50) Nero adopted by Claudius→ Octavia ‘adopted out’ so they could marry
Nero given precedence over Britannicus in succession (Ag tried to isolate Britannicus; removed tutors and replaced with her own loyal men)
53 AD; Oct and Nero marry→ now lined up to take over from Claudius

Prepared policies in advance; ensured had friends in right places (powerful position for herself)
Remove rivals and recall supporters (Seneca brought from exile; became Nero’s tutor)
Lollia Paulina (one of Claudius’s choices for marriage) accused of astrology and forced to suicide
Removed prefects from Praetorian guard and replaced with own men (influence over guard)
GIVEN HONOURS
Title “Augusta” (first living consort of living emperor)
Colony named after her
Allowed to meet foreign dignitaries
Frequently appeared on coins

Sources suggest she murdered Claudius (Perhaps he had become aware of schemes and regretted making Nero heir; reconciled with Brittanius)

9

Role and changing relationship with Nero during his reign

54 AD; Nero became emperor
Early reign; Ag wield power and influence; given honours and allowed to travel in covered carpentum (Featured heavily on coins also)
Had actual power as well as symbolic; removed opponents and threats
54 AD; Ag attended senate and listened behind curtain
“At first Agrippina managed for him all the business of the empire…” CASSIUS DIO
Began to lose power; Armenian delegation (entered room and intended ascending stairs to sit next to Nero→ would have seen them as equals) Nero descended to greet her (avoid scandal)
Ag feared losing; threatened to make Britannicus legitimate heir to throne (Nero poisoned him)
Developed passion for Acte (freedwoman) → more Ag complained; more Nero’s passion grew
Ag changed tactic→ offered him her bed; couldn’t consummate; would have given her too much power (Took mistress in same image as mother instead)
“Agrippina's loss of influence is illustrated by the disappearance of her portrait from the coinage.” WEIDEMANN

10

Relationships with other members of the imperial court: Seneca, Burrus and imperial freedmen

Patronage helped achieve goals; patron assisted clients by advancing careers; in return, clients supported and furthered cause of their patron
Reign of Claudius and Nero→ had her clients placed in key positions; expected to remember these favours and do Ag’s bidding

SENECA:
Charged with adultery and exiled on island (After Mess died→ Ag brought him back)
50 AD→ Became praetor and Nero’s tutor (He and family prospered)
Drew apart when Nero became emperor (S tried to limit her influence in state)
Political operator and knew she was about to fall and would take him with her (concerned about Armenian scandal)

BURRUS:
Convinced Claudius Praetorian Guard would be more efficient if run by 1 prefect instead of 2 (Mess’ prefects replaced by Burrus)
Could stabilise political situation and add strength to her position (eased transition from Claudius to Nero)
Ensured loyal guard would rally behind new emperor; sought to control young Nero’s behaviour→ dissuade from immediately killing Ag
Refused to order his men to murder Ag (argued oath was sworn to protect all members of imperial family
“Owed positions to her.” SCULLARD

PALLAS:
Suggested candidate as wife; pushed for adoption of Nero and played key role in emperor’s finances
Strong ally; lessened influence of Narcissus who opposed her influence
Championed Ag; would bring to the marriage grandchild of Germanicus, fertile, link 2 branches of imperial house
Nero removed Pallas; an attempt to lessen the power of his mother

NARCISSUS:
Loyal to Claudius (not ally of Ag) Championed Aelia Paetina (had been married before, had a daughter together, would be good stepmom to Octavia and Britannicus)
Frequently at odds with Ag (E.g. Draining of Fucine Lake→ Ag openly blamed him for tunnel collapse)
Went away; came back and position in peril (Claudius dead, senate not keen on him, no friend to Ag or Nero)

11

Impact of her personality on career: public image

Ancient sources; Sketched unpleasant character
Undoubtedly more complex, rounded personality than Tacitus and Suetonius suggest
Studies of iconographic representations→ suggest she may have projected very different public image than provided by Tacitus
“Depictions of Agrippina on coinage and statuary...appears as matron and priestess...a central figure in the continuity of the dynasty.” GRUEN

12

Attempts on her life

Poppaea Sabina (liaised with Nero in 58) PS taunted him; would never divorce Octavia and marry her as long as Ag was alive
Mocked him and Ag’s control over him; said he wasn’t emperor but pupil of Ag; won him over
Ag didn’t want her fate to be decided by other woman→ Dressed seductively and lured Nero
Tried poisoning her 3 times and crush her with falling ceiling panes
Plan for collapsible ship to be built; Roof collapsed and Ag’s friend pretended to be her; was killed
Ag not recognised and swam away
“This was the end which Agrippina had anticipated for years. When she asked astrologers...they answered he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was “Let him kill me- provided he becomes emperor.” TACITUS

13

Death: Motives, manner and impact of death

When safe on land; sent message about ‘lucky escape’ Nero feared she would arm her slaves (army)
Ag framed for death of messenger (said she had sent him to kill Nero on Agrippina’s orders)
Her death was now justified→ killed with sword (Final restraints on Nero were removed)
“The matricide remains...a desperate act by Nero to liberate himself from the psychological domination of his mother.” WARMINGTON
“Her death caused changes in her son’s behaviour.” GRANT

14

Evaluation

Huge impact on early years of empire; influence brought chaos and uncertainty to an end
Impact in determining succession; worked towards making Nero emperor (promoted his image, education,titles and pushed Britannicus into the background)
Impact in reign of Gaius; limited significance (Saved Seneca’s life, conspiracy led to exile)
Impact on Nero’s reign less than on Claudius; Seneca limited her role, Nero grew tired of her)
SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF IMPACT
Decide leadership of Praetorian guard (Burrus appointment)
Remove political and personal rivals
Powers of patronage; (promote interests of clients and family)
Ultimately came as close as a woman could to actually exercising power
Julio- Claudian ancestry through Aug/Germanicus→ evident in relationship with emperors and key nobles and freedmen of their reigns
“Agrippina became the first woman during her lifetime to share with a reigning princeps the face of an official coin minted in Rome.” BARRETT

15

Assessment of her life and career

Difficult to assess; legend presents her sleeping with brother, overthrowing him, marrying uncle, murdering him, sleeping with son (ONLY SURE THAT SHE MARRIED UNCLE)
Sources were hostile→ tendency to focus on bad part of her life, rather than stabilising administration
Suetonius loves gossip; Included everything (even if couldn’t verify it)
Tacitus didn;t love empire; republican sentiments painted empire in negative light
Gender; Women weren’t supposed to be involved in politics; wasn’t their natural role
Assessment is unjust as to hostile, vicious etc→ certainly determines, ruthless, ambitious (but any political figure who makes it to the top of political ladder must be determined, manipulative)
No denying her achievements. Thanks to her influence→ govt of Claudius was transformed for better

16

Legacy

Argued that there wasn’t long lasting impact of her life
When she was alive; survived only by establishing powerful alliances, isolating opponents
IMPACT ON GOVERNANCE OF ROME
Severed loyalty of Praetorian guard (Burrus appointed prefect)
Realised angry, sullen senate could cause problems for husband→ encouraged cooperation and senate worked constructively with empire
Period of her brief ascending (Nero’s reign) was best part of Nero’s rule→ descended into depravity, violence, civil war following her murder in 59 AD

Little physical memory beyond coins, occasional cameo, statues, reliefs
No political groupings were formed to resurrect reputation after death (Any supporters were removed or took up new allegiances)
Writers succeeded in blackening her name
Evidence of her remembrance; Reign of Trajan (Bust of Ag found in forum→many were to honour family members)
Legacy; She formally defined the place of women in Roman political system
Failed to break down patriarchal attitudes of her peers for whom politics was no place for a woman
Another 150 years before a woman would attempt to play role in political life (acted as a warning)
Price a woman might have to pay for wielding power and influence→ end up beaten and murdered by assassins on orders of one’s son.

17

Ancient and modern images and interpretations of Agrippina the Younger

Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio→ dominate representations (Hostile)
Archaeological; cameos, sculpted relief of Sebasteion at Aphrodisias (Ag & Claudius) (Ag & Nero)
Coins from reign of Claudius and most significant from Nero
Statues, coins, reliefs→ different to immoral, outrageous woman presented by ancient writers (appears demure,matronly,pious)
Sebasteion relief at Aphrodisias (turkey)Ag holding Claudius’ hand (possible affection/agreement) Ag placing crown on Nero’s head (suggests increase in her power and influence)
Ancient writers present her as immoral, brutal, unconcerned about abusing the legal system to remove rivals, manipulative, unprincipled
Modern writers (until 20th century) tend to echo this view; writing remained patriarchal
1970’s→ Feminist history, gender studies (no longer men fearful of threat to ‘natural’ patriarchy; women able to view her as intelligent, determined who should be admired for achieving as much as she did in male-dominated world.)


TACITUS
Hostile towards ambitious imperial family members
Assessment of women involved in politics; reflects time and class attitudes
Portrayal of Ag→ torn between hostility and reluctant admiration
Condemned what she represented, but admired her energy and competence
Thinks in female stereotypes; prevents from making deeper analysis

SUETONIUS
Biographer rather than historian. Access to imperial archives
Inconsistent→ Handed down any story that come across in tradition, no matter how implausible
Stresses that it was Nero who initiated incest with Agrippina

CASSIUS DIO
Hostile, but recognised much was from gossip and speculation
Only surviving literary source that mentions Ag between 55-59
Said she became 2nd Messalina (shows how little he understood true nature)
Said she was training Nero for the throne and had more power than Claudius

T.MOMMSEN
Historians until recently followed ancient traditions of hostility towards Ag
Morals of Ag were little better than Messalina and she was madly ambitious
From outset, Ag was not satisfied with her status in the household→ She wanted to share in government

SALMON
“Agrippina destroyed rivals, enemies and those whose wealth she desired.”
“Undoubtedly,she was hoping one day to rule the world through her son.”
“She was prepared if necessary to wade through slaughter to a throne.”

GUGLIRLMO FERRERO
Radical assessment of the rule of Julio-Claudian women in the wielding of supreme political power
Stripped away anti-imperial and anti-female bias of Tacitus; revealed noble woman who didn’t resemble distorted images in mainstream interpretations
Ag provided for states future by promoting Nero
“Restoration of the republic” was her masterpiece; marks height of power
Ag put the public interest before her own family

A. BARRETT
Ag represents essential stage in the evolution of the imperial system
Her achievement was to ‘be an empress in an empire that allowed only emperors.”
“It is when Agrippina is judged by her achievements, rather than by her personality or character, that she demands admiration.”
“The Roman imperial system was unfair to women like Agrippina.”