Women of Rome: Agrippina the Elder

On 18th October 33AD, on a tiny island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, a 47 year old woman who had been imprisoned for four years quietly and finally passed away. She died of starvation, although it is unclear whether it was suicide or murder. Either way it must have been a relief. The last decade of her life had been increasingly difficult in many ways, and the four years of her imprisonment had been hell. She had protested violently and constantly to her imprisonment. At one point, she had been beaten so badly by guards, on her step-father’s orders, that she had lost an eye. Back in Rome, her death was welcomed by the emperor, who was at the same time her step-father, father-in-law and uncle. He slandered her name and made her birthday a day of official day of bad luck.


Her full name was Vipsania Agrippina, though she is remembered as Agrippina the Elder, and she was Roman royalty. She was of the first generation to be raised without any knowledge of a time before Augustus was emperor, and Augustus was her granddad. Her mother was Augustus’s only biological child, Julia, and her father was his right hand man and closest friend Agrippa. Her elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, were lined up as Augustus’s heirs before their early deaths. After Agrippa died, Agrippina’s mother Julia married Tiberius, Augustus’s stepson. Agrippina and her brothers, however, were primarily raised by their grandmother, the empress of Rome, Livia.  

Agrippina the Elder
Agrippina the Elder

Agrippina grew up at the absolute centre power, wealth and privilege in the Roman empire. She grew up a princess and absolutely secure in her position. Unlike most of the others at the centre—like her stepfather Tiberius—she had Julian blood in her veins. She was a biological descendant of the already semi-divine Augustus, the divine Julius Caesar and all the way back to Venus herself. The rest were just Claudians: distinguished by not divine. Without Julian blood or Julian approval, no Claudian could yet hold true power. Like her mother, Agrippina knew after the death of her brothers that her hand in marriage was the key to becoming emperor. Her husband would be emperor, her sons would be emperors. She would be the next Livia.


Of course, that’s not what happened for her mother Julia. Her mother’s first two husbands pre-deceased her, and she was exiled for immoral behaviour before her father’s death. She never saw her last husband Tiberius take the throne. Julia seemed to lose patience with her role as the Great Augustus’s daughter, wife and mother, and pawn in her father’s power games. She took to drinking, affairs, and allegedly plotting against her father with a descendant of the Gracchi and Mark Antony’s second son. She died in exile, from starvation, after Tiberius became emperor.


Agrippina, on the other hand, never achieved her destiny through no fault of her own. She did everything right, but the hands of others meant that no matter how hard she fought and how perfect her morality and her bloodline and her birthright, she was denied. And the first sign that her destiny might slip away was the death of her husband.


Agrippina was married somewhere between the age of 14 and 18 to her second cousin Germanicus. Germanicus was the son of Antonia and Nero Claudius Drusus. Antonia was the daughter of Augustus’s sister and Mark Antony, Drusus was Livia’s son from her first marriage. After Tiberius had been marked as Augustus’s heir, Germanicus was marked as his. His marriage to Agrippina lay alongside his adoption by Tiberius as a clear public sign that he would be the next Roman emperor. And that Agrippina would be the next empress.


Agrippina was a spectacularly good wife to Germanicus, and it seemed that they really loved each other in a way that is both adorable and impressive. People loved them too. They were absolutely the Will and Kate of their time, but fightier. The Roman people would line the streets to see them and fling flowers at them. During their marriage they had nine children in 14 years, of whom six survived infancy. Agrippina’s fertility during a time when birth rates were very low among the Roman aristocracy was staggering and made her the queen of everyone’s heart. It’s also terrifyingly impressive, mainly because she didn’t have these children comfortably in a Roman palace. She had several of them in camps among soldiers, while accompanying her husband on campaign on the German frontier.


But Agrippina didn’t just sit around and have babies. She was also active and proactive in public life and in Germany started to show just how well she had inherited her grandfather’s flair for propaganda and showmanship. She began by dressing her youngest son Gaius up as a tiny toddler soldier and encouraging the troops to call him Caligula—little boots. She understood that the love of the army was more important than just about anything when one became emperor and she encouraged them to love her children.


She used this to best effect to put down a mutiny that her husband could not quite control. Germanicus cried, threatened suicide and made weak attempts at grand gestures to calm angry, neglected and overworked legions and still faced violence. So Agrippina, while heavily pregnant (with a child she seems to have lost), made a stand herself. Having initially refused to leave because she was “a descendant of the deified Augustus, and danger would not find her degenerate” She packed her bags and, with maximum fuss, weeping and attention drawing, left the camps with wee Caligula. The troops were appalled that the granddaughter of Augustus and the daughter of Agrippa was being forced to seek sanctuary with non-Romans and the stunt calmed the mutiny.


Germanicus went on to have a glorious career with the German troops, avenging the tragedy of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and being enormously popular with Agrippina at his side. Agrippina was the good and faithful wife, but when needed she had astonishing mental and physical strength. One of her most staggering deeds occurred in the middle of Germanicus’s time in Germany while she was heavily pregnant yet again (she was basically always pregnant until Germanicus died to be honest. Just assume she’s always pregnant), during a battle a panic set in among the troops who began to plan to destroy the Rhine bridge, cutting off fighting troops on the German side. Agrippina stepped into a general’s role, calming the panic, directing the men, preventing the destructing, tending those who were wounded and encouraging those who were afraid. She sat on a horse and oversaw the return of her husband’s troops, safely over the Rhine bridge, offering congratulations and thanks,


If that image, of Agrippina, princess of Rome, mother of (at this time, 7) and pregnant, general of the Roman army, doesn’t stir your feminist heart, then I don’t know what to do with you.


These were the best days of Agrippina and Germanicus’s careers and lives. They were the beloved, semi-divine children of Augustus, heirs to the Empire and glorious conquering generals. They had five living children and three were sons. They were the golden couple.


In this light, Tiberius sent Germanicus to Syria to begin his political career with some complex negotiations surrounding who would be the next client-king of Armenia. Agrippina, of course, followed him and gave birth to her last child in Athens on the way. Having completed his mission successfully, Germanicus took a solo sightseeing tour to Egypt and returned to Syria to discover that the governor of the province, Piso, had begun interfering with his affairs. A quarrel began which ended only when Germanicus fell suddenly and drastically ill.


The primary sources are pretty clear that Piso was an agent of Tiberius and his mother Livia, that Tiberius loathed and was painfully jealous of Germanicus, and that Piso murdered Germanicus on Tiberius’s orders. However, the sources are also very clear that Piso used magic to kill Germanicus, which is why we take primary sources with a tiny pinch of salt. Indeed, sober sensible Tacitus says it was “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave” that killed him. Which is gross, but probably not deadly.


However, both Germanicus and Agrippina believed that he had been killed and that Tiberius was to blame. And Agrippina’s anger and sense of injustice at her husband’s death never seemed to subside. She immediately, and outside the normal sailing months, embarked for Rome with her children and her husband’s ashes clutched to her chest. She arrived in Italy to widespread Princess Diana levels of mourning. People lined the streets as she proceeded to Rome on foot, still holding the urn. And adored her: “they called her the honour of the country, the only blood-relative of Augustus, the one surviving model of the old values; as they turned to the sky and the gods, they prayed that her children might be unharmed and survive their enemies.”

Agrippina brings Germanicus's Ashes Home = Benjamin West
Agrippina brings Germanicus’s Ashes Home = Benjamin West

At the point that Agrippina arrived in Rome, she immediately began advocating for her sons. It had been her birthright as Augustus’s blood to grant the throne of the Empire to her husband or son. Tiberius had loathed her mother and probably killed her, held her grandfather’s throng, had taken away her husband and she was determined that he would not rob her sons of their right to rule. She agitated constantly against Tiberius, made allies to the extent that there are references to the “Agrippina party” in Rome and did everything she could to fight Tiberius.


At one point she stormed into see Tiberius as he was sacrificing privately to his adoptive father Augustus (which is quite a sweet image I think), to object to his agents falsely prosecuting her friends. In the ensuing argument she demanded of him how he could dare to sacrifice to the inanimate statue of Augustus while abusing his true descendants. “His divine blood does not flow in statues” she spat “but in me.” Showing that she also had an incredible flair for good lines and an ego to match.


The constant clashes did little to endear Tiberius to her, he treated her as a nuisance and a threat, and Tiberius did not warm to her sons. This was compounded by the rise of Sejanus, Tiberius’s right hand man, who plotted to take the throne for himself after Tiberius’s self exile to Capri and accordingly did his absolute best to destroy Agrippina and her sons’ claim to the throne.


Attacks from all sides, the bearing of nine children, her husband’s death, all the travelling and the constant failures to advance her sons took their toll, and at 40 Agrippina began to weaken. She finally caved and asked Tiberius to allow her to marry again, to restart her life. She asked from a sickbed, ill and exhausted. She wanted a companion. Tiberius refused. Her hand in marriage was too powerful to give away. She would die a widow.


It is at this point that the sources go dark. Several years of Tacitus’s Annals of this period are missing, and during that time, something dramatic happened. Sejanus fell, and Agrippina did too. Not just her, her eldest sons Drusus and Nero were also arrested and imprisoned for treason. Agrippina’s destiny was shattered: her sons would never take their rightful place on Augustus’s throne. She and they would die horribly in exile after years of suffering. Tiberius had won.


What Agrippina would never know as she was dying on that island was that her youngest son, tiny Caligula, would fulfil his mother’s dreams and become emperor. Or that her eldest daughter, Agrippina the Younger, would embody her mother’s self-belief, strength and brains and shape the world around her to become the first active Roman empress, and that her grandson Nero would be the last Julio-Claudian. Or that both her son and daughter would rehabilitate her, would rebury her in the Mausoleum of Augustus and commemorate her as a glorious woman and a paragon of Roman virtue.  Or that 1,983 years later we would remember her as a wronged woman, and a brilliant one.

Agrippina's Headstone
Agrippina’s Headstone

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