Agrippina the Younger: the first true empress of Ancient Rome

Through she is often defined by her male relatives, Agrippina the Younger – matriarch, wife and murderer – made her name in her own right. Emma Southon charts her rise to power for BBC History Revealed

Marble bust of Agrippina the Younger

Julia Agrippina is best remembered now as the tyrannical mother of mad emperor Nero, or as the overbearing and murderous wife of the emperor Claudius. Rarely, she is remembered as the sister of another emperor, Gaius (Caligula). She is almost never, however, remembered as a woman in her own right, free from the distorting lens of her male relatives.

But during her lifetime, Julia Agrippina, more commonly known as Agrippina the Younger, made unique and extraordinary inroads into the spaces of Roman political and social power, to the extent that she ruled for several years as her husband’s equal in power. She was the first true empress of Rome, although you’ll struggle to hear anyone refer to her as such.

Julia Agrippina is best remembered now as the tyrannical mother of mad emperor Nero, or as the overbearing and murderous wife of the emperor Claudius. Rarely, she is remembered as the sister of another emperor, Gaius (Caligula). She is almost never, however, remembered as a woman in her own right, free from the distorting lens of her male relatives.

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But during her lifetime, Julia Agrippina, more commonly known as Agrippina the Younger, made unique and extraordinary inroads into the spaces of Roman political and social power, to the extent that she ruled for several years as her husband’s equal in power. She was the first true empress of Rome, although you’ll struggle to hear anyone refer to her as such.

Born into the Roman ruling family of the first century, the Julio-Claudians, Agrippina was destined to be at the centre of Roman power, but more likely, as a woman, just to the side.

Her mother, Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder) was the granddaughter of the deified first emperor Augustus, while her father Germanicus was both the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius and biological grandson of Mark Antony. They were for a time Rome’s most beloved couple. Before Agrippina was 20, though, both her parents were dead and it was widely believed that Tiberius had murdered them both.

Whim of the emperors

During this time, little is known about Agrippina the Younger, except that she was married at the age of about 13 to her much older cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Her situation changed when she was around 22 when Tiberius died and her brother Gaius, who would be known as Caligula, became emperor.

His first priority was to rehabilitate his family’s reputation after decades of being maligned by Tiberius, and so he pulled all three of his sisters into the centre of the Roman state.

He showered them with all the honours the state could give, including giving them the rights of Vestal Virgins. In return, and following the death of their middle sister, Agrippina and the youngest Livilla were caught in the early stages of a plot to murder him.

This is the first time that the sources show us an Agrippina who is an active agent in her own life, when she is around 24 years old, has already been married for a decade, and given birth to her only child. Until this point, she is all but invisible, but suddenly, in AD 39, we catch a glimpse of a woman doing something remarkably bold to change the world around her.

The details of the plot are unclear – and some historians dispute there was ever a plot at all – but the events after it was uncovered suggest that Agrippina, Livilla and Drusilla’s widower Lepidus planned a coup. Agrippina endured an embarrassing trial, during which her love letters were read aloud, and was sent into exile with her sister on an island in the Mediterranean.

As a final humiliation, she was made to carry the ashes of the executed Lepidus with her. Whatever had been planned, the consequences suggest it was big.

Painting of The Shipwreck of Agrippina
Nero’s creative attempt to murder his mother is seen in the highly stylized The Shipwreck of Agrippina by Gustave Wertheimer (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

During her exile, Agrippina’s husband died of dropsy and her brother died of a sword to the throat. In early AD 41, a coup led by the Praetorian Guard brought in a new administration in the imperial palace, replacing Gaius, who was assassinated, with Agrippina’s paternal uncle, Claudius.

As a man in his 50s best known for his physical disabilities and academic interests, he was not a natural choice for the political and military leader of the empire. He was, however, fond of his nieces and one of his first acts was to allow Agrippina to return to Rome and be reunited with her son. He offered her a quiet, safe life as a minor royal.

Causing outrage

This quiet life was not to be, primarily due to the presence of Agrippina’s son. He had been named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus after his father, but everyone in Rome knew him as the youngest descendant of the divine Augustus. By the time she was 26, Agrippina was the lone surviving member of her family and her son the only male left carrying the bloodline.

This had two effects: it made them deeply dangerous to Claudius’s rule, and it filled Agrippina with a righteous belief that her son deserved to take his great-great-grandfather’s throne.

Nonetheless, she stayed out of the public eye as far as possible. That was until Claudius’s notoriously promiscuous wife Messalina was executed in AD 48 after being caught in a bizarre bigamous marriage. Then Agrippina burst into public life in a manner that shocked and horrified Rome: she married Claudius, her own uncle.

Agrippina’s family: your guide to the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Agrippina the Elder (mother)

Seen as the sole biological descendent of the first emperor, Augustus, she was the only child born of the general Marcus Agrippa and Julia, Augustus’s daughter. She had six children and after her widowhood, tried to advance her eldest sons in Rome. She and they were exiled and executed in mysterious circumstances by the emperor Tiberius.

Germanicus (father)

Germanicus was the grandchild of Mark Antony and Octavia. He was known as a great general for his successes in Germany – being granted a military triumph – and had a promising political career. He died suddenly while in Syria and it was widely believed that Tiberius had poisoned him. He maintained his immense popularity even after his death.

Gaius Caligula (brother)

The youngest son Gaius survived the executions that claimed his mother and brothers, so inherited the empire from Tiberius in AD 37, before he was 25. Although he only ruled for four years, he has become infamous for his capricious, sadistic and perverted nature. When the Praetorian Guard launched a coup, Gaius, his wife and daughter were assassinated.

Nero (son)

Agrippina’s only child. After a tumultuous childhood, he became emperor in AD 54. The early years of his reign were seen as successful, but his behaviour deteriorated. His reign is associated with cruelty and numerous executions. He was overthrown in AD 68 after several generals revolted against him. Having fled Rome, he committed suicide.

Claudius (uncle/husband)

As he suffered from a stammer, uncontrolled emotional responses and a propensity to drool, he had no political career until he became emperor in AD 41. His rule was initially tumultuous and authoritarian, but became more peaceful after his marriage to his fourth wife: Agrippina. She allegedly poisoned him with a mushroom.

This outraged later Roman commentators whose morals were offended by such an act and such a marriage. Claudius was forced to have the incest laws changed in order for the marriage to be allowed. Why he chose to marry his niece is forever a mystery.

One source claims Agrippina seduced him, using her familial access to him to manipulate his weakness for women. In this version, Agrippina is an aggressive temptress, willing to sell her body to her own uncle in exchange for power. In another source, though, one of Claudius’s freedmen offers Agrippina as a prize while others present their own women, touting their fecundity and their good families.

In this version, Agrippina is a passive bystander, little more than a walking bloodline. These are both narrative tropes, not real life. Instead, Agrippina was a mother in her 30s, hugely powerful on the basis of her name, money and connections. She was neither a passive womb, nor a young temptress.

It is Agrippina’s behaviour once she was Claudius’s wife that makes her quite so extraordinary. Unlike the wives of emperors before and after her, she was, in all ways, her husband’s partner in rule. Livia – Augustus’s wife and Tiberius’s mother – had previously been the model of a Roman women. But she had female power, amounting to influence over her male relatives who exerted the real, tangible power. And she only used it in private spaces, never trying to enter public life herself. But influence wasn’t enough for Agrippina. She wanted real power.

One of Agrippina’s first acts was to found a town at the place of her birth in Germany and name it after herself. Originally named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, its name was eventually shortened to its modern name: Cologne. She donned the colours gold and purple — colours only available to the emperor — and sat beside her husband in front of the Roman imperial standards. She caused outrage among the great and good by putting herself in public spaces and forcing men to acknowledge that a woman ruled over them. She became a visible partner in the emperor’s power that was both unique and highly disturbing to male Roman onlookers. She even wrote and published her own autobiography, the only Roman woman to have ever completed such an audacious public act.

For five years, Agrippina enjoyed life as Claudius’s empress. These years were notably more peaceful, stable and successful than the eight years of his reign prior to their marriage. Of the 35 named senators executed by Claudius during his reign, just four occurred during the years of Agrippina’s influence. There were no more coup attempts from the armies, or significant violence in Rome. All the while, Agrippina and Claudius both groomed Nero to be the next emperor, preparing him with political offices and honorary titles. It seemed that the two would have a long reign and a peaceful succession.

Power of her own

This illusion was shattered when, in October AD 54, Agrippina murdered her husband with a poisoned mushroom and declared her 16-year-old son, under the name Nero, as emperor in his place. Her motivation is entirely obscure.

The sources almost unanimously paint her as a tyrant, desperate to cling to power and terrified of her stepson Britannicus being promoted above Nero. This last fear may well have been true. Agrippina’s primary goal in life appears to have been that Nero would survive to rule; that her mother’s family, not Claudius’s, would keep the imperial throne.

Her extreme act proved to be successful. Nero was acclaimed emperor peacefully and his reign would go on to last 13 years. Initially, Claudius’s death was nothing but good news for Agrippina. As wife of the emperor she acted as his partner, but was always the junior partner. With Nero ascending as a teenager, though, she was now effectively his regent, placing her as the senior partner.

That Agrippina was Nero’s equal in power is evident in the iconography on the coins and friezes from this time. Both their faces are depicted on coinage, and in several they face one another, their heads of equal size and equal importance. In one sculpture, Agrippina is depicted as the personification of fertile Rome, crowning her young son.

A Roman showing busts of Nero and Agrippina facing each other
One of the coins showing Nero and Agrippina in equal position (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Yet within months, Nero began to attempt to enforce more traditional gender roles in the palace. He wanted his wife, the teenage Octavia, and his mother to remain private and silent. He did not want his mother to be present at political events and, in order to make his point clear, he publicly humiliated her multiple times in front of foreign delegations and Roman officials. He even had her removed from the palace to curb her power.

Agrippina, however, had a strong sense of her own abilities and five years of experience running an empire, so she made sure her voice was going to be heard.

Agrippina’s downfall

In AD 59, Nero lost patience with hearing his mother’s voice. He had fallen in love with an unsuitable woman named Poppaea, and wanted to be free to marry her. He also knew that men who listened to women could only be vilified as weak and feminine. As Agrippina was still popular, he was desperate to maintain public support so decided the best way was to stage an accident. He had a trick boat built that would sink with Agrippina on board, drowning her in the bay off the town of Baiae.

But it appears Nero was unaware of her strength as a swimmer. She survived the sinking attempt, which included a lead ceiling almost falling on her, and made it to shore with an injured arm. Hearing the news, Nero panicked and sent three men to her villa to murder her.

Agrippina died looking her killers in the eye and holding her ground. Called a traitor, she was denied a state funeral and buried in an unmarked grave. She was 43. Nero lost his popularity, and his reign never recovered. Agrippina was a cold-blooded murderer, and an excellent ruler. She oversaw a decade of peaceful Roman rule and opened the doors to the end of a dynasty. She learned from her predecessors how to be successful, and taught her son how to be ruthless. Truly, she was the first empress of Rome.

What was the legal position of women in Rome?

Agrippina went far beyond what was allowed. Legally, women in late Republican and early imperial Rome were perpetual minors. They were not allowed to sign contracts or engage in any legal activities themselves. Although they could own property, they could not buy or sell it without permission from a male guardian. By default, this was their father, but it could be their husband, brother, family friend or even a magistrate.

Guardianships existed due to the belief that women had weak judgement (infirmitas consilii), which meant they were unable to make rational or good decisions by themselves. Certain women could be freed from guardianship as a reward for excellence. Under Augustus, women who bore three or more children were entitled to be emancipated.

The restrictions on women’s public activities loosened during the imperial period, and there are many examples of women running businesses without interference from men. However, the legal and cultural taboos against women in politics and the military never weakened. These were always considered exclusively male spheres.

Women were unable to vote during the Republic and legally unable to even enter the Senate house at any time. Women who tried to engage in political life were universally reviled throughout Roman history as monsters.

Emma Southon is author of Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore (Unbound, 2018)

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This content first appeared in March 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed