Roman Empress Agrippina was a master strategist. She paid the price for it.

Rome’s hardball politics were off-limits to women, yet this great-granddaughter of Augustus won power for herself and her son, Nero, who would later have her murdered.

By Isabel Barceló
Published 18 Mar 2021, 19:49 GMT
Strong looks
Agrippina’s portraits often depicted her with large almond-shaped eyes, a forehead framed by curls of hair, full lips, and a firm chin. Marble bust, first century A.D. Naples National Archaeological Museum
Photograph by Dea, Album

Nobody could question Agrippina’s imperial credentials: great granddaughter of Augustus, great-niece of Tiberius (granddaughter of Drusus), sister to Caligula, wife of Claudius, and mother to Nero. Like her male relatives, she enjoyed great influence. Honoured with the title Augusta in A.D. 50, she wielded political power like a man—and paid the price for it.

Agrippina and Claudius opposite her parents. Cameo, A.D. 48. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Photograph by Bpk, Scala, Florence

Agrippina recorded her life in a series of memoirs, in which, according to first-century historian Tacitus, she “handed down to posterity the story of her life and of the misfortunes of her family.” Unfortunately, her writings—and her authentic perspective—have been lost. Most of what is known about her comes from secondhand sources written after her death. Many contemporary historians condemned her for violating Rome’s patriarchal structure with her naked ambition. Many blamed her for the actions of her son, Nero. While describing her at times as irrational, perverted, and unscrupulous, some historians, however, bestowed a grudging admiration for Agrippina, such as Tacitus when describing the moment she became empress of Rome:

From this moment, the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman—and not a woman . . . who toyed with national affairs to satisfy her appetites. This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism. In public, Agrippina was austere and often arrogant. Her private life was chaste—unless there was power to be gained. Her passion to acquire money was unbounded. She wanted it as a stepping-stone to supremacy. 

Of course Agrippina is not the only powerful woman in history to have been treated unfairly by scholars, but this bias against her has motivated today’s historians to revisit her life and accomplishments to assess their effects on the Roman Empire.

Palatine Hill was the location of choice for imperial residences. The image shows the Palatine ruins from the former site of the Circus Maximus, the largest hippodrome in the Roman world.
Photograph by Cristiano Fronteddu, Alamy, ACI

Famous family

Around A.D. 15, Agrippina was born in a military camp on the banks of the Rhine to an influential Roman power: Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius and a candidate to succeed him, and Agrippina the Elder, Augustus’ favourite granddaughter.

When Agrippina was just four years old, Germanicus died of poisoning in Syria, a crime that her mother always attributed to Tiberius. Agrippina the Elder claimed that the emperor Tiberius feared Germanicus’s popularity with the army, believing that military support would eventually allow Germanicus to usurp the emperor and take his place. Whether or not Tiberius was responsible for poisoning Germanicus, he did deny his adopted son the honour of a public funeral.

Agrippina [the Elder] landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus, by Gavin Hamilton, 1765-1772. Tate Collection, London
Photograph by Tate, London, RMN Grand Palais

Germanicus’s widow, the indomitable Agrippina the Elder, arrived in Rome with her husband’s ashes, in what became an open challenge to the emperor. With the greatest dignity, she took the urn containing the ashes and, accompanied by her children and a huge crowd of mourning citizens, she led a silent procession through the streets of Rome to the mausoleum of Augustus, where she deposited it. Tiberius was furious at his daughter-in-law’s defiance and never forgave her.

The younger Agrippina apparently received a solid education, and there is no doubt of her intelligence, nor of her determination and strength. From an early age, she certainly understood the workings of the imperial court and how a woman could manoeuvre within it. Her great-grandmother Livia, grandmother Antonia, and her mother taught her the mechanisms and dangers of life at court.

Agrippina the Elder would pay dearly for taking on Tiberius. A few years later, the emperor had her two eldest sons murdered and banished her to one of the Pontine Islands where she died. These horrors, observed by Agrippina the Younger, while still a child, scarred her deeply and left an indelible mark on her thinking. It was here that she grew up and where early trauma forged her character. She decided not to challenge power head-on, at least at first, as her mother had done, but rather to protect herself through marriage to a cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.

Brother and emperor

During his reign, Caligula had a coin minted with his image on one side, and, on the other, the figures of his three sisters: Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla. National Archaeological Museum, Siena
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

Agrippina began to make waves when her brother Caligula became emperor in A.D. 37. It is to this era that the earliest surviving image of her dates. A coin minted with Caligula’s effigy on the front features his three sisters on the back. Depicted as Securitas, the security and strength of the empire, Agrippina leans on a column alongside her sisters Drusilla and Livilla, representing Concord and Fortune. The new emperor Caligula showered his three sisters with honours, included them in official prayers, and even had consuls conclude their proposals to the Senate with the formula “Favour and good fortune attend Gaius Caesar and his sisters.”

Agrippina grew popular during this time. At age 22, she gave birth to her only biological child, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who would become better known as Nero. From the very beginning, Agrippina was resolute in one aim: to see her son become emperor. It was not unreasonable, given her elite family credentials, nor was it unusual: Roman matrons were expected to promote their children’s interests.

A first-century bust depicts Nero, who in A.D. 54 became Roman emperor, at age 16. Initially promising reform, Nero was guided in the first few years by Agrippina until he gave orders for her murder in 59.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

In Agrippina’s case, she had a strong personal drive to get involved in politics. In a society that kept women out of government, it was unthinkable that she, by herself, could enter the arena. Through Nero, she had a chance to grasp power, but securing the imperial throne for him would be both difficult and dangerous. 

Caligula became seriously ill and, when he regained his health, began a bloody purge to eliminate rivals, reminiscent of the worst violence of Tiberius. Agrippina, having allegedly conspired in a plot to overthrow her brother, was accused of immoral conduct and exiled to the Pontine Islands. A year later, Caligula’s assassination unleashed a new wave of chaos before Agrippina’s paternal uncle, Claudius, took over as emperor in January, A.D. 41. Rome’s new ruler reversed the sentence on his niece and allowed her to return to Rome. (Caligula thought he was a god, and it got him killed.)

That same month, Agrippina became a widow after Ahenobarbus died, but she quickly remarried. Claudius arranged a union with a wealthy, well-connected man, Crispus, who had served twice as consul. The marriage lasted until Crispus’ death in 47, which left Agrippina a very wealthy widow. Rumours spread that she had caused her husband’s demise after he named her his heir.

The Pontine archipelago, 25 miles off the coast of western Italy, was used by emperors to exile their enemies. Like her mother, who had died in exile on this island seven years earlier, Agrippina was briefly banished here in A.D. 40.
Photograph by Dea, AGE Fotostock

Uncle and niece

A year later, Claudius was widowed and began looking for a new wife. Despite Agrippina being his biological niece, her imperial ancestry made her a strong marital candidate. She was beautiful, still young, and brought with her, her son, who, as Germanicus’s grandson, was, in the words of Tacitus,  “thoroughly worthy of imperial rank.” Claudius hoped that in this way she “would not carry off the grandeur of the Caesars to some other house.”

Roman historians attributed Claudius’s choice to manipulation. Tacitus wrote that “Agrippina’s seductiveness was a help. Visiting her uncle frequently . . . she tempted into giving her the preference.” Writing in the second century, the historian Suetonius was more condemning in his language: “[I]t was Agrippina . . . who hooked him. She had a niece’s privilege of kissing and caressing Claudius, and exercised it with a noticeable effect on his passions.”

The marriage between Claudius and Agrippina, was celebrated in A.D. 49. With skill and tact she established a close relationship with the Senate, imposed order and moderation in the courts, and worked alongside her husband in imperial matters. She earned the title of Augusta and, in an unprecedented step, would appear standing beside the emperor in public.

On one occasion, a British king, Caratacus, together with his wife and children, were paraded in chains through the streets of the city as prisoners of war. They were finally brought before Claudius to beg for mercy. Enthroned on a dais, surrounded by praetors, the emperor was moved to hear the speech of the condemned man, spared him and his family, and set them free. Caratacus thanked the emperor and then went before Agrippina, seated in a separate gallery, and thanked her too.  “It was an innovation, certainly, and one without precedent in ancient custom, that a woman should sit in state before Roman standards: it was the advertisement of her claim to a partnership in the empire which her ancestors had created,” wrote Tacitus.

Rome conquered Britain during Claudius’s reign and founded its first colony at Colchester, England, where a bronze statue of Claudius was later found. British Museum
Photograph by Scala, Florence

Agrippina’s own history, shaped by violent power struggles, prompted her to plan for her son’s ascent to the imperial throne with as little violence as possible. She knew that the road to power was not straightforward given that Claudius already had a biological son, although younger, named Britannicus. The empress knew it was important to establish in people’s minds that Nero, and not Britannicus, was the obvious successor. Agrippina worked behind the scenes to ensure this outcome. Agrippina made it a condition of her marriage to Claudius, that Nero would marry Octavia, Claudius’s youngest daughter. Nero appeared in public with the imperial couple and was showered with commission and honours. As a last step he became the emperor’s legally adopted son. Nero’s preeminence over Claudius’s younger son, Britannicus, was assured.

Claudius’s health was generally poor and a death by natural causes would have been quite plausible. Even so, many blamed the emperor’s death in A.D. 54 on Agrippina and theorised that she ordered him to be poisoned to ensure he would not rescind the commitment to pass the throne to Nero. No proof of Agrippina’s involvement exists, but the story has stuck. (These historic world leaders killed their lovers.)

Agrippina had a temple built in honor of her deceased husband on Caelian Hill, near where the Colosseum would later be built. The complex was destroyed by fire in A.D. 64.
Photograph by Alamy, Cordon Press

Mother and son

Soon after Claudius’s death, Agrippina acted quickly. Within just a few hours, the teenaged Nero was being acclaimed emperor by the army and the Senate. His close relationship with his mother was well known and well scrutinised. Suetonius related how Nero announced during his funeral oration for Claudius that Agrippina would be taking over his public and private affairs. An interesting detail: “On the day of his accession the password he gave to the colonel on duty was ‘The Best of Mothers’; and she and he often rode out together through the streets in her litter.” Rumours that the two were incestuously involved were reported by historians as well.

Agrippina’s influence and Nero’s gratitude would wane over time. Nero’s advisers Seneca and Burrus, who had been appointed by Agrippina, now held newfound power and used it to sideline her. Far from accepting her new role, Agrippina tried, unsuccessfully, to continue to influence her son. He enjoyed popularity at the start of his reign, but things would start to unravel. Familial tensions would increase over politics and Nero’s choice of companions. The already unbearable tension between mother and son was compounded when Nero had Britannicus assassinated. (Some historians are rethinking Nero's dark legacy.)

According to sources, the ship that Nero provided Agrippina was designed to sink—and it did. Nero, however, had underestimated his mother being a proficient swimmer. 19th-century oil painting by Gustav Wertheimer
Photograph by Culture Images, ACI

Within a year of Nero becoming emperor, Agrippina was ordered to leave the imperial residence and relocated to an estate in Misenum. She had been cast out from the inner circle of power, but she was not safe from her son. Nero tried to drown her by sabotaging a boat, but she survived. Undeterred, Nero sent assassins to the villa where Agrippina had taken refuge and had her murdered there in A.D. 59. There were no funeral honours. To cover up the matricide, Nero and his advisers crafted a misogynistic cover story, attributing various crimes to her, according to Tacitus, that included, “[aiming] at a share of empire, and at inducing the praetorian cohorts to swear obedience to a woman, to the disgrace of the Senate and people.” Her reputation lay shattered, and her birthday would be classed as an inauspicious day.

Despite the innuendos and criticisms, begrudging respect for Agrippina was expressed by some Roman historians. Tacitus wrote: “This was the end which Agrippina had anticipated for years. The prospect had not daunted her. When she asked astrologers about Nero, they had answered that he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was, ‘Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor!’”

The moment when Nero examines the murdered body of his mother, Agrippina, is described in several ancient historians’ accounts. In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, the second-century Roman historian Suetonius related how Nero “rushed off to examine Agrippina’s corpse, handling her limbs, and, between drinks to satisfy his thirst, discussing their good and bad points . . . He was never either then or afterward able to free his conscience from the guilt of this crime. He often admitted that he was hounded by his mother’s ghost and that the Furies were pursuing him with whips and burning torches.” Painting by Arturo Montero y Calvo, 1887. Prado Museum, Madrid

Photograph by Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid

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