Written by Emily Globe for CLAS 2501, Fall 2018, at Mount Allison University.
Agrippina the Younger (also called Agrippina II or Agrippina Minor) was a Roman Empress who lived in the early 1st century C.E. She was one of the more well-known women of the Julio-Claudian family, and had direct connections to three Julio-Claudian emperors. Agrippina was the sister of Emperor Caligula, the fourth wife of Emperor Claudius, and the mother of Emperor Nero.
Ancient sources frame her as a power-hungry woman who manipulated and killed the men in her life for her own gain. Agrippina is said to have masterminded a plan to have her son Nero ascend to the Imperial throne as a means of consolidating power for herself. She was assassinated by Nero in 59 C.E., something ancient sources believe may have been a means of ensuring she could no longer control him. (Tac. Ann.,13.20, 14.3, 14.7).
Agrippina the Younger was born on November 6th, 15 C.E. in Oppidum Ubiorum (modern-day Cologne, Germany), to famed general Germanicus and his wife Agrippina the Elder (Tac. Ann. 12.27, Ginsburg 25), but was raised by her grandmother Antonia in Rome (Suet. Calig. 24.1). She married Cn. Ahenobarbus Domitius at age 13, and had one son, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus (Tac. Ann. 12.3). In 39 C.E., her brother Caligula became emperor, and she enjoyed royal treatment for several years before being implicated in a plot against Caligula’s life and exiled (Suet. Calig. 15.3, Suet. Calig. 24.1). Agrippina returned to Rome after his death in 41 C.E., and her freedman Pallas convinced the new Emperor Claudius to marry her (Tac. Ann. 12.1-2). Tacitus claims that Agrippina had an informer accuse Lollina Paulina, one of her competitors for Claudius’ hand in marriage, of practicing witchcraft, causing her exile, and effectively secured Agrippina’s position as empress (Tac. Ann. 12.22).
If ancient sources are to believed, this was only the first instance of Agrippina using her influence to advance her position. Tacitus writes that the Censor Vitellius, who wanted to appease Agrippina, fabricated an accusation against the fiancé of Claudius’ daughter Octavia, which allowed Agrippina’s son Domitius to marry her instead (Tac. Ann. 12.4). As well, Pallas reportedly still felt bound to Agrippina, and on her behalf, he convinced Claudius to adopt Domitius as his heir under the name Nero (Tac. Ann. 12.25-26). Agrippina was reportedly not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get her way. Tacitus includes several anecdotes explaining Agrippina’s frequent tactic of eliminating rivals by having an ally accuse her rivals of some crime, causing their exile or execution (Tac. Ann. 12.42, 59, 65). Agrippina is said to be behind Claudius’ untimely death, poisoning him at the dinner table so that Nero could become emperor (Tac. Ann. 12.67, Suet. Cl. 44.1). Under Nero’s reign, she continued to eliminate those who she feared would speak out against her for her underhanded tactics (Tac. Ann. 13.1-2). Relations between Agrippina and her son soured, as he resented how controlling she was – something the Roman public was aware of as well (Tac. Ann. 13.6, 13.14-15, 13.18, Suet. Ner., 34.1). In 58 CE, Nero met and fell in love with a woman named Sabina Poppaea (Tac. Ann. 13.46). Agrippina, however, would not allow their marriage, as she was close with the empress Octavia (Tac. Ann. 14.1). This, along with rumours that Agrippina was attempting to incite a revolution against the empire, provoked Nero into devising a plan to kill his mother (Tac. Ann. 13.20, 14.3)
In March of 59 C.E., Nero invited his mother to Baiae to celebrate the festival of the Quinquatrus with him, and pretended that he was seeking reconciliation. When she left, Nero had her sent off on a boat that was designed to fall apart (Tac. Ann. 14.4, Suet. Ner. 34.2). Agrippina survived the sinking of the ship and escaped, but when Nero learned that she was still alive, he sent men after her to kill her (Tac. Ann. 14.7, Suet. Ner. 34.2). She was in her villa when they found and murdered her. According to Tacitus, Agrippina’s last words were: “Strike me in the belly” (Tac. Ann. 14.8), as if she wanted to punish her womb for giving birth to Nero.
Accurate Portrayal in Sources
A Note on Primary Sources Used
The three primary sources that provide insight into the life of Agrippina the Younger are Tacitus’ Annals, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, and Cassius Dio’s Roman Histories. The former two were writing at about the same time period (late 1st century CE – early 2nd century CE), while the latter was writing about 100 years later. Tacitus easily is the most detailed when it comes to Agrippina’s personality and motives, with Dio a close second. Suetonius, on the other hand, only mentions her when her involvement is particularly relevant to a major event. There is little mentioned in Dio’s writing that is not mentioned in Tacitus or Suetonius, and his framing of events is very similar to that of Tacitus. For this reason, it is Tacitus and Suetonius that are cited primarily on this webpage, but this is not to say that Dio’s information on Agrippina the Younger is any less accurate than Tacitus’ or Suetonius’.
Tacitus and the Ideal Roman Woman
As the main primary source used in this article about Agrippina, it is important to discuss whether Tacitus’ portrayal of Agrippina is an accurate one. As a member of the Roman elite, Tacitus likely subscribed to certain traditional beliefs on how Roman women should behave, as well as women’s stereotypical predispositions to certain habits. In fact, his Annals occasionally feature what one might only call “snarky comments” regarding Agrippina being a woman. When he writes of her disapproval of Acte (a freedwoman whom Nero desires), Tacitus says “But Agrippina, just like a woman, grumbled about [Acte].” (Tac. Ann. 13.13). He also describes her disapproval of a gift from Nero as “female arrogance” (Tac. Ann. 13.14), and of her reconciling with Nero “with the gullibility of a woman” (Tac. Ann. 14.4). These words suggest that Tacitus sees Agrippina as representative of certain negative stereotypes of women, such as being petty, avaricious, and overly sentimental.
Agrippina is commonly believed to have been a manipulative and power-hungry woman, and it is likely that this opinion comes primarily from Tacitus’ portrayal. Much of the twelfth and thirteenth books of his Annals are focused around what he frames as Agrippina’s machinations and power-plays. The deaths of several people by exile, execution, or suicide he ascribes to Agrippina’s influence, such as Lollina Paulina, a competitor for marriage to Claudius (Tac. Ann. 12.22), Lucius Silanus, whose engagement to Octavia prevented Nero from marrying her ( Tac. Ann. 12.8), as well as Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, who was growing suspicious of Agrippina’s influence (Tac. Ann. 13.1).
Tacitus also makes frequent mention of men that Agrippina had been sexually involved with. She was married three times, to L. Ahenobarbus Domitius, Passienus Crispus, and Emperor Claudius, and was illegally involved with her freedman Pallas (if Tacitus is to be believed, this relationship is what inspired Pallas to advocate, on Agrippina’s behalf, for Claudius’s adoption of Nero) (Tacitus 12.3, Tac. Ann. 12.25, Suet. Ner. 6.3). He also includes mention of Agrippina’s incestuous lust for her son Nero (Tac. Ann. 14.2), but leaves out Nero’s reciprocity, which Suetonius mentions in detail (Suet. Ner. 28.2). (Her marriage to Passienus Crispus is also excluded, but this very well may be due to the fact that it occurred between 41- 47 C.E., and Tacitus’ text concerning this period has been lost.) Tacitus’ narrative of incest between Agrippina and Nero casts a far more negative light on Agrippina than on Nero.
According to Susan Wood, Agrippina the Younger tried harder than any other woman to gain a level of power equivalent to men (Wood 1999). Kleiner suggests that the only women who were portrayed in imperial iconography such as statues were those women who diligently followed the set of expectations and characteristics laid out for Roman women (Kleiner 2000). From there, it is easy to make the same connection to literature, in that the women who attempted to participate in the masculine spheres of politics or the military would be framed as manipulative and wicked.
Anecdotes from Tacitus tell of Agrippina participating in both of these spheres. He mentions that Senate meetings were held at the imperial palace so that Agrippina could listen in from behind a door (Tac. Ann. 13.5), and tells of a scene where Agrippina was honoured equally with Claudius by the Briton Commander Caractacus after Claudius had pardoned him (Tac. Ann. 12.37). This event is not included at all by Suetonius, and Agrippina is excluded from Dio’s brief mention of it (Dio. Rom. His. 60.33). Another example is from 54 C.E., when Nero prepared to speak with a group of Armenians, and Agrippina had to be stopped from joining him (Tac. Ann. 13.5). By specifically including Agrippina’s role in these anecdotes, Tacitus highlights her lack of adherence to gender roles, which paints her in a negative light among the Romans public.
Nero is one of the three Julio-Claudian emperors who were not deified, and after his death, his reign was widely considered to be a disaster. Tacitus, as a Roman senator writing during the reign of another unpopular emperor, Domitian, may be attempting to explain why some emperors are unsuccessful. Tacitus purposefully frames the story of Agrippina in such as way that, makes her into a scapegoat for the disasters that happened under Nero’s reign. This way, Tacitus could write about the history of the Julio-Claudians but avoid placing blame for failures on imperial men, including the emperor himself. This would have the dual effect of explaining the shortcomings of unsuccessful emperors and would reinforce the traditional views on how the ideal Roman woman should act, lest they want to cause their sons to be unsuccessful as well.
While Tacitus is one of the major sources on the life of Agrippina the Younger, it is important to remember the context which he is writing in. In order to justify and explain the failures of Nero’s reign, he frames Agrippina as manipulative and power-hungry, likely as a means of placing the for Nero’s failures blame on her. While it is entirely possible that his portrayal of Agrippina is more or less correct, modern readers must be careful not to assume the accuracy of everything Tacitus writes. Regardless, Tacitus remains one of the most important sources for information about the life of the Julio-Claudian family.
There is not nearly as much to say about Suetonius’ portrayal of Agrippina the Younger. He mentions her far less frequently than Tacitus, but it is clear that he too frames her as being the mastermind behind the events that led to Nero’s ascension to the imperial throne (Suet. Cl. 44.1-2). Interestingly, Suetonius focuses heavily on Agrippina’s incestuous tendencies, claiming that she regularly had sex with her brother Caligula during his reign (Suet. Calig. 24.1). As well, Suetonius provides numerous mentions of Nero’s desire to have sex with his mother (Suet. Ner. 28.2). Unlike Tacitus, in both instances, the narrative is framed to place the men in a negative light, rather than put all of the blame on to Agrippina. There is far less evidence for Suetonius having an intent to place any blame on Agrippina. Rather, it is more likely that he chooses to focus more directly on the Julio-Claudian Emperors themselves, rather than tell the narrative of the family as a whole, like Tacitus.
Appearance on Coinage
The power and influence Agrippina the Younger gained is best illustrated in the material record by the number of coins she was portrayed on. The association of Imperial women with minor goddesses was a common tactic used in the Imperial period to promote the Imperial family as bringers of stability to the Roman people. As well, imperial women were associated with goddesses of motherhood and childbirth (Davies 2008), possibly as a way to inspire the female populace of Rome to aspire to the traditional ideas of the domestic, nurturing woman (Kleiner 2000). There are examples from the reigns of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero of such coins associating stability, domesticity, and motherhood with Agrippina (RIC I, 26, RIC I, 54).
During Caligula’s reign, Agrippina was included on the reverse of the sestertius with her two sisters, Drusilla and Julia, and were designed to emulate Securitas, Concordia, and Fortuna (stability, harmony, and luck, respectively), by showing them holding cornucopias, a symbol of prosperity (RIC I, 26).
After her marriage to Claudius in 49 C.E., Agrippina began appearing on more imperial coinage. The denarius at one point featured jugate busts of Claudius and Agrippina on the obverse, with a representation of the goddess Diana on the reverse (RIC I, 54), and the aureus featured a solo bust of Agrippina on the reverse (RIC 1, 53). The use of Diana, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, on the reverse of the denarius is likely a means of associating Agrippina with the Roman ideal of women as wives and nurturers. At least four other coins from the reign of Claudius also feature Agrippina (RIC 1, 92, RIC 1, 100), two of which feature her solo bust on the obverse of the coin (RIC 1, 89-90). Three out of these coins associate Agrippina with Ceres, goddess of motherhood and fertility (RIC 1, 90, RIC 1, 92, RIC 1, 100).
Agrippina appears on eight coins during the reign of her son Nero, all of which date from the first year of Nero’s reign (RIC 9-16). Two aurei feature both Nero and Agrippina on the obverse, one with their two busts facing and one in jugate position (RIC 1, 9-10). The rest feature Agrippina alone on the reverse, covered either by a veil or with a robe draped over her head, all in the essence of the goddess of modesty and domesticity, Pudicitia (see Davies 2008).
Some scholars have suggested that the proliferation of Agrippina’s image in coinage is an indication that she saw herself as a ruler of equivalent status to her son and as such made sure that she was featured on the coins (Barret 1996). However, it cannot be confirmed that Agrippina would have had any sort of direct influence on the images that are minted. Instead, a more feasible argument is that the frequency with which Agrippina appeared on coinage indicates that she was very well known, and up until a certain point was probably well-liked by the Roman public. It is logical to assume that more people would want to emulate someone that is popular and influential. If one purpose of including imperial women and their domestic associations on coinage was to inspire the female populace to emulate that domesticity, then the proliferation of Agrippina’s image on coinage indicates that she held some influence with the Roman public.
The catalogue of Roman Imperial Coinage lists no coins with Agrippina’s likeness after 55 A.D., the first year of Nero’s reign (Mattingly and Sydenham, 1948). This corresponds to information from Tacitus, who hints that by the end of 54 A.D., the public was losing faith in Nero’s ability as emperor, asking “What hope was there in a youth swayed by a woman?” (Tac. Ann. 13.6). Tacitus also indicates that the tension between Nero and Agrippina began to escalate in 55 A.D., when Agrippina voiced her disapproval of his affair with a freedwoman (Tac. Ann. 13.12-13). He goes so far as to say that by this time, the public was catching on to Agrippina’s manipulations (Tac. Ann. 13.14). This combination of literary and numismatic evidence suggests that once Agrippina’s influence began to decline, she was no longer a suitable candidate for the sort of public association with domesticity that she had been previously.
Parallels to Livia
There were three Julio-Claudian emperors (Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero) who were not deified after their deaths, and each one of them had a mother that was reported by Tacitus to have played a role in politics.
Tacitus hints that Livia, the wife of Augustus, was responsible for eliminating potential heirs to Augustus’ throne and clearing the way for her son Tiberius, who would become emperor (Tac. Ann. 1.3). As well, Tacitus suggests that Livia may be at fault for the illness and eventual death of Augustus (Tac. Ann. 1.5). L’hoir also compares Tacitus’ telling of Livia barricading the imperial palace (Tac. Ann. 1.5.4) with his mention of Agrippina taking part in the tribunal of Caractacus (Tac. Ann. 12.37), suggesting that both anecdotes portray the women negatively because of their partaking in the masculine sphere of military activity (L’hoir 1994).
This theme of a mother going to extreme lengths to put her son in a position of power neatly parallels Tacitus’ story of Agrippina and Nero. Neither Tiberius and Nero were deified after their deaths, and were generally disliked as emperors, especially compared to Augustus. L’hoir (1994) goes as far as to claim that Tacitus purposefully links together the lives of Livia and Agrippina the Younger in order to connect the dots leading to the downfall of the Julio-Claudian House.
Julio-Claudian Family Tree
Barrett, A. A. (1996). Agrippina : mother of Nero.
Cassius Dio. (1927). Dio’s Roman History. Vols. 1-9. (E. Cary, trans.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. London: William Heinemann Ltd. (Original work published in 1914
Davies, G. (2008). “Portrait Statues as Models for Gender Roles in Roman Society.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes. 7, 207-220.
Ginsburg, J. (2006). Representing Agrippina: Constructions of female power in the early Roman empire. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Kleiner, D. E. E., (2000). Now you see them, now you don’t: the presences and absence of women in Roman art. In E. R. Varner (Ed.), From Caligula to Constantine: Tyranny and Transformation in Roman Portraiture (45-57). Atlanta, GA: Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.
L’Hoir, F. (1994). Tacitus and Women’s Usurpation of Power. The Classical World, 88(1), 5-25. doi:10.2307/4351613
Mattingly, H., and Sydenham, E. A. (Eds.). (1948). Roman Imperial Coinage (Vol. 1). London: Spink & Son Ltd. (Originally published in 1923).
Suetonius. (1930). The Lives of the Caesars. Vols. 1-2. (J.C. Rolfe, trans.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. London: William Heinemann Ltd. (Original work published in 1914)
Tacitus. (1951). The Histories and The Annals. Vols. 1-4. (J. Jackson, trans.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. London: William Heinemann Ltd. (Original work published in 1937
Wood, S. E. (1999). Imperial Women: A study in public images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68. Boston, MA: Brill.
One thought on “Agrippina the Younger”
“Tacitus’ narrative of incest between Agrippina and Nero casts a far more negative light on Agrippina than on Nero.”
So, this is the first I’m learning about this aspect of Nero’s life. Also, I’m not a history student academically, I’ve just had an amateur interest in ancient cultures for most of my life, and I have sort of a general/casual knowledge of Nero, gleaned from secondary rather than primary sources.
But, I mean… I admittedly don’t know whether this was going on *while he was a literal child* or whether it started during his adulthood, but given that that’s literally a parent almost-definitely sexually abusing their offspring (because I don’t think a sexual relationship between someone and their parent can ever be free from insurmountable power differentials, given the crucial psychological role that parents play in their children’s lives), I don’t 100% mind that she gets most of the flack for that “relationship.” I don’t find it especially salient that Nero may have “reciprocated” her desire for sex with him at some points according to outside sources just observing the “relationship.” A lot of sexual abuse victims/survivors may “enjoy” some parts of their abuse, and many more may appear to enjoy it to an outside witness, but that doesn’t really make the sex more consensual, less predatory, or psychologically healthier.
It also seems to necessarily cast all the previous anecdotes about Nero hating his mother in a much different light – initially they get recounted as these acts ranging from petty to murderous, and given the knowledge a reader might have about the intensity of Nero’s sucking, that reader might be drawn into going, “well that’s Nero; he sucked.” But these actions take on a much different and frankly more understandable light when Agrippina and Nero’s incest gets casually dropped on the reader, and you realize this man may have been a literal CSA survivor. At very least, he was in a sexual relationship with someone who would have likely held an extremely high amount of psychological and emotional influence over him, due to being his literal mother. Him being male and her being female, or even him being Emperor, probably wouldn’t have changed this. It seems pretty much impossible that the relationship dynamic could have been equal, or could ever have been non-predatory/non-manipulative at the very best. I don’t think another source claiming that he seemed to enjoy it/reciprocate it really makes it much better, and in fact the idea that he enjoyed it seems sort of belied by his hatred for her, as displayed in the listed actions toward her throughout his life.