Biography of Agrippina the Younger.
By Iwan Juwono or Zhou Shin Hao
Email: Nandezx@hotmail or Nandezx@sanguo-online.com
Author's Notes and Comments
I will update and add more information as time goes. This is just a very rough biography. Other sections will include some of these: Her Supporters, Her Enemies, Her breakaway from Nero, Her Political Maneuverings, Her life with Claudius, Her Life with Nero. There is more coming than that.
Agrippina the Younger is an interesting woman. In a patriarchal society, she managed to grab power from men and virtually take part in controlling an empire.
Her Birth and Descent.
Augustus during his reign had a daughter by the name of Julia, whom his first wife Scribonia bore. This Julia he married to Marcus Agrippa, his lieutenant. This marriage begets 9 children, of which only 5 survived. (1) These were Gaius and Lucius Caesar, Julia, Agrippa Postumus and Agrippina the Elder. After the death of Scribonia, Augustus married Livia, who had brought with her Tiberius and Nero Drusus from her previous marriage to Ti. Claudius Nero. This Nero Drusus married Antonia Minor, and begets the famous Germanicus. This Germanicus married Agrippina the Elder. From this marriage was Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar, Gaius (the Emperor Caligula), Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla and Julia Livilla. She was born in modern day Cologne. After the death of Germanicus and the conflict between Agrippina the Elder and Tiberius, she and her siblings went to live with their aunt Domitia Lepida. She married Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus at the age of 13 and from him Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was born. (The Emperor Nero)
Roman society is one of a Patriarchal society. Females can only garner power only through her influencing a male member of the family to be a front for her. Roman tradition hold women holding power in contempt, believing them to be inadequate to hold power over other men. Roman women could not hold public office, and often her husband or agent manages her estates. Roman women can only hold power indirectly, through either a cooperative or acquiescent husband. It is for this reason that Agrippina the Younger had three marriages and numerous affairs in order to consolidate her power in Rome.
Her first marriage was that to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, from a distinguished line of consuls and triumphant generals. By that marriage, she gave birth to Nero, who was her “Dynastic Weapon” (Leadbetter). Suetonius claims that Gnaeus said, “That any child born to himself and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger.” It is with this child, Nero, was she able to make her claim to power as the mother of the descendant of Augustus and Germanicus. Other people too believed the same way Agrippina did. Messalina was said to have sent assassins to kill Nero as a young boy but was driven away by a snakeskin. Suetonius describes Messalina’s attempt as follows: “ His mothers recall from banishment allowed him to enjoy once more the benefits of her powerful influence; and it transpired later that Claudius’ wife Messalina, realizing that Nero
Would become a rival to her son Britannicus, had sent assassins to strangle him during his siesta.” This can only prove the importance of Nero, who was begotten from her marriage to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. The Ahenobarbus family has great prestige in Rome, and this allows Nero to be able to claim great descent from two distinguished family. With the death of Gnaeus, his wealth was transferred to Nero at Claudius’ accession, and this placed it under the control of Agrippina.
Her second marriage was to Passienus Crispus, a man of great wealth who is also of age. This marriage gained for her great influence and the fear of many prominent people. Bauman says: “ The reason for the whole enterprise was Messalina’s fear of Agrippina’s ambitions for Nero. Agrippina was a far greater threat than any that Messalina had faced so far, because of her marriage to Passienus Crispus, her great wealth and Nero’s popularity with the people.” With the death of Crispus, she and Nero inherited his vast wealth, from which when combined with the wealth left to them by Ahenobarbus, Agrippina was able to finance her political moves. Agrippina was able to become patron to people who would help her in her scheme to make her son Emperor, and gain power through him. She, however, benefited through his death more than she did when he was alive. He died under suspicious conditions, after two years of marriage, not through the way he dies, but the effects of it. In his will, his large estate was left entirely to Agrippina, which made some of the opponents of the Julio Claudians suspicious. One of these may be Cassius Dio, even though he wrote his History quite some time after her death and the end of Julio-Claudians. He claims: “ She was amassing untold wealth for him, Overlooking no possible source of income, not even the most humble or despised, but paying court to everyone who was in the least degree well to do and murder.” Even though it was noted that Dio and most of the other ancient historians are highly biased against Agrippina, there were some truths to his comment. Agrippina even commenced relations with Pallas, a Freedman, reputed to be the richest man in Rome, even with the traditional prejudice against ex-slaves as ‘inferior’ by the Romans.
Her third and most important marriage was that to the Emperor Claudius. After the death of his most recent wife, Messalina, he chose her as his next wife. Even though Tacitus, Dio and Suetonius attribute his choice of a bride due to a dispute among his freedman, most of the modern historians believed that he himself chose Agrippina. This is due to the fact that most historians did not believe the old story that Claudius was a doddering, slobbering idiot, but instead an intelligent man behind a misleading figure. Claudius would have had noted the ancestry of Agrippina; she was of the blood of Augustus and the daughter of Germanicus, both of them highly popular and regarded in the memory of the Romans. A Marriage with her would have had meant the joining of the Julian and Claudian family, which would solidify Claudius’ position as emperor even further. Salmon says: In marrying Agrippina, Claudius acted as the result of consultation and deliberation rather than that of passion… Inscriptions suggest that it was also her Augustan blood, not her domineering personality, that led him to the arrangements he now made for the succession.”
It was due to this marriage with Claudius that she was able to finally be able to enjoy the trappings of her career. Honors were heaped upon her and her son, Nero. Nero was adopted into the Claudian Family, married Claudius’ daughter Octavia and was placed in front of Claudius natural son, Britannicus in the Succession. It was at this time that her prestige began to ascend into prominence. She was allowed to sit in audiences with the emperor, and even Caratacus, the defeated British king, gave to her the same praise as Claudius. She had even enjoyed the privileges of Livia, mother of Tiberius. She flaunted her prestige and influence in the Fucine lake incident, as Tacitus notes: “ Claudius presided in a s splendid military cloak, with Agrippina in a mantle cloth of gold.”
However, it was the death of Claudius that served her purpose the best at that time. Claudius had appointed Nero as heir proceeding Britannicus, and with this, she no longer needed Claudius, indeed, he became instead a deterrent for her son’s accession. Ancient Authors blame her using Locusta to poison the mushroom dish which Claudius he is fond of, but most modern authors disregard this and look instead for another method by which she murdered him. This is so because the first noted record of this story came from Pliny the Elder, and it was widely believed that he had a great hatred of Agrippina. Salmon says: “ The Story that she suborned a notorious poisoner named Locusta to doctor a dish of mushrooms, which proved fatal to the emperor, derives ultimately from the Elder Pliny, her arch-enemy, and has accordingly been regarded with suspicion.” Claudius’ death allowed Nero to approach the Guard and to be hailed as Emperor, from which Agrippina was able to gain some time of outright dominance in Roman Politics.
In a time of a Patriarchal Society, the advancement for a woman are limited to ‘bedroom influences’ and this Agrippina did well with her three marriages from which she was first able to beget a son which she could use as her ‘dynastic weapon’, the second wealth, and the third, a way unto which her son could ascend the throne without bloodshed.
The Lepidus Situation
At the tender age of 13, Agrippina the Younger was married by the command of Tiberius, the reigning Princeps to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus at 28 AD. The next year however, her mother, Agrippina the Elder and her brothers, Nero and Drusus, exiled and imprisoned respectively, the reason being that Tiberius, a Claudian, had hostility towards the family of Germanicus, and especially towards the Elder Agrippina and her political maneuvering at the year 29. In the year 37, Tiberius died and her brother, Gaius (otherwise known as Caligula) ascended the throne as Princeps with the approval of the Praetorian Guard and its prefect, Macro. It was in this year that the daughters of Germanicus and Agrippina were honored most. The three sisters of Gaius, Agrippina, Drusilla and Julia Livilla were made honorary Vestal Virgins and included in the annual oath of loyalty to the Princeps. In addition, during this year, Agrippina gave birth to a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus from her marriage to Gn. Domitius Ahenobarbus. Within the year of 38, Agrippina’s sister Drusilla died and that left Agrippina and Julia Livilla as the main women of the Julian family. In the year of 39, Agrippina was allegedly involved in a conspiracy with Aemilius Lepidus, Gaetulicus and Julia Livilla to overthrow Gaius. Gaius executed the two men and banished the sisters to the Pontian Islands, causing the future Nero to be placed in the care of his aunt, Domitia Lepida. Three months after this occurred, Ahenobarbus died. With the death of Gaius and accession of Claudius, Agrippina was recalled and was married the next year to Passienus Crispus, twice consul and a wealthy man.
Agrippina the younger died on 59 AD, under the knives of Anicetus and his Lieutenants. Being the mother to the emperor, it would have taken extreme causes and deterioration in their mother to son relationship for Nero to order her death by the means of the Fleet Commander, Anicetus. This deterioration began in the year that Nero ascended the throne as Princeps in 54 Ad and Agrippina having her year of outright dominance.
The First signs of this deterioration came as soon as Nero Ascended the throne as Princeps. Barrett says: “The Breach began when acts of Claudius began to be attacked.” One of his first actions was to attack and alter the Acts of Claudius, especially those that encouraged corruption in the judicial system and also Claudius himself. Suetonius Comments: “ Nero annulled many of Claudius’ decrees and edicts, on the ground that he had been a doddering old idiot; and enclosed the place where he had been cremated with nothing better than a low rubble wall.” Now, Agrippina, being the late widow of Claudius, would “See this as an attack of Claudius’ legislation” (Barrett). Nero sought to reduce the power of personal influence, which Agrippina was quite offended by. Barrett says: She resented the sabotaging of the Acts of Claudius … She saw as necessary to uphold as they were the Claudian Legacy.”
Seneca and Burrus, respectively the Emperor’s tutor and Guard commander also played a significant role in the estrangement of Nero and Agrippina, which led to Nero committing Matricide. When Nero ascended the throne, he gave a speech in the Senate that was written by Seneca. Bauman: “The philosopher took the opportunity to launch an immediate, if indirect, attack of Agrippina”. A more significant event was that of the Armenian incident, which most historians agree upon as the beginning of the end of Agrippina’s influence on Nero and her waning power.
Acte, an imperial freedwoman too was critical in the breakdown of Agrippina and Nero. Nero fell in love with her, and Seneca and Burrus supported this relationship. Agrippina saw her as threat to her position and abused her as “her freedwoman rival”, which only made Nero love her more. In a conciliatory effort, Nero sent her a golden robe, which was owned by the previous Augusta. However, Agrippina, declared that it was only a portion to which was owed to her. (Tacitus) It was from this statement that sinister thoughts were derived from and forced Nero to act. Nero removed Pallas from his influential office, virtually removing any use of him by Agrippina. Nero, too, also poisoned Britannicus while in a banquet with Agrippina and Octavia. These events forced further drove Agrippina away from Nero and allowed openings for her enemies to strike at her.
Poppea Sabina was one of these enemies. Wife of M. Salvius Otho, she was a woman of exceptional beauty and wit. Under the mechanisms of her husband, she became lover to Nero and taunted him with insults to his manhood do to his inability to divorce Octavia and shake off his mother’s influence. Bauman says: “She taunted him with being a pupil under guardianship rather than a Princeps, claiming that Agrippina was afraid that as Nero’s wife she would disclose her mother-in-law’s oppression of the Senate and her arrogance and greed.” This was in 58 AD, and with her being driven out of the palace and stripped of her German guards and lictors; Nero could freely attempt to commit matricide. It was generally believed that this and Agrippina’s vigorous opposition to Nero marrying Poppea when she discovered of his plans that led Nero to decide to end her hold on him and the State.
To eliminate Agrippina, Nero enlisted the help of Anicetus, the fleet commander at Misenum and once a tutor of Nero. To give him the justification he needs to murder Agrippina, Nero had a sword placed near Agerinus, Agrippina’s messenger and proclaimed that he was sent to the kill him using the sword. It was from this justification that Anicetus and his two officers broken into Agrippina’s home and murdered her.
Agrippina’s death by Nero was the result of a combination of factors, which could be said, that led one from another. The way she had conducted herself in her year of absolute dominance in 54 Ad, could have said to be the year upon which her fate was sealed for death by matricide.
Her Political Influence
Since the time of Augustus, the women of the Julio Claudian family were among the most prestigious, powerful and influential in the world of Roman Politics. From the examples of Livia and Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina the younger would have been fully aware of the paths open to her for to gain power and influence. Agrippina’s power and influence grew to such a point as that none equaled her achievements until the Fourth Century.
Her power and influence became notable even before her marriage with Gn. Domitius Ahenobarbus. Because of her noble lineage of Augustus and Germanicus, she was a person, which would have enormous sway with the army and Guard, both of which still hold the memory of Germanicus dear. This lineage Agrippina used numerous times, such as when she threatened to go the Guard’s camp, to plead as Germanicus’ daughter for the removal of Nero. Also, when Gaius Caligula, her brother was in power as Emperor, she and her sisters were given honors, which many Roman Citizens were beyond the point of propriety. They were installed as honorary Vestal Virgins, even though all three were married at that time, and Agrippina herself was pregnant with Nero. Also, Caligula forced a change in the annual vows of allegiance to the Emperor, which Suetonius recites as follows: “ I will not hold myself and my children than I hold Gaius and his sisters”. Another similar honor was the preamble given in proposals to the consuls by Senators, “ May this be good and propitious for Gaius Caesar and his sisters”. Another honor Bauman describes as follows: “ In 37 Caligula issued a sestertius portraying his image on the obverse and the three sisters on the reverse; Agrippina represents Securitas. Drusilla Concordia, and Livilla Fortuna.” As much as these honors were heaped upon Agrippina and her sisters, they did not bring any extra powers or influence to her. It only lent to her prestige. However, as Bauman notes, she did not have more power than her sister Drusilla at this time, “ Suetonius concludes that he did not love his other sisters as much, or accord them the same honors.”
During the reign of Messalina, she was most likely the second or third most powerful woman in Rome, if Domitia Lepida, aunt of Nero was taken into account. It was the fact that she had as her son Nero, who as a scion of the Julian and Claudian Family and potential heir that gave her the enormous power and influence among the Roman people, Equites and Senators. So feared was her potential influence and power that Messalina, the then Empress, sent assassins to kill Nero but failed. Bauman says: “ The reason for the whole enterprise was Messalina’s fear of Agrippina’s ambitions for Nero. Agrippina was a far greater threat than any that Messalina had faced so far, because of her marriage to Passienus Crispus, her great wealth and Nero’s popularity with the people.”
When she was married to Claudius, she showed power to the fullest of her abilities. She was able to bring back Seneca from exile using her influence with Claudius, and install him to be Nero’s tutor. Another example of her power would be removal of the two joint prefects of the Guard, Lusius Geta and Rufrius Crispinus and installed instead Afrianus Burrus, a distinguished soldier who would be in gratitude towards her. What made this important is that the post of
Prefect of the Guard is an extremely powerful one, with 10000 elite soldiers and assassins under the Prefects command. The fact that she was able to remove them quite easily and install someone she wished instead showed much of her power and influence. With this, her power and influence increased as the number and power of her clients increased dramatically. She was able to control the Guard through Burrus, and had a representative in the Senate through Seneca. Her power and influence were also illustrated during an event during Claudius’ reign. The capture and submission of the great British chieftain, Caratacus, who defied Roman armies in Britain for nine years, who was then presented to Claudius and the Senate. After showing honors to Claudius and the Roman people, he gave an equal honorific to Agrippina. The Carentum, a chariot usually reserved only for Vestal Virgins and Priestesses of State was also granted to her for parading around the city. It was around this time was the title Augusta given to her, this being significant as she was the only woman ever awarded the title at such a young age compared to the like of Livia. Another Show of power and influence by Agrippina was the renaming of her birthplace into Colonia Agrippinensis, from which veterans of the guard and centurions from the legions are given land. This had specified even more influence for her in the legions, giving the soldiers belief and thanks for her taking care of them after their careers in the army. Tacitus even acknowledges her power and influence: “ From this moment the country was transformed. Complete Obedience was accorded to a woman… This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism. In Public Agrippina was austere and often arrogant. Her private life was chaste – unless power was to be gained. Her passion
To acquire money was unbounded. She wanted it as a stepping stone to supremacy.” It was this wealth, this prestige and authority as empress, was she able to exercise her power. Her power was almost the equal to that of Claudius, only lacking that of his title and auctoritas and imperium of the armies.
In the early years of Nero’s reign was she supreme in Roman politics, with none to rival her power, as Nero was then only seventeen and too young to start defying her. In that year, her face was on the obverse in the position of honor from which was Nero, which clearly showed her dominance. Also, the granting of lictors to her and the appointment of priestess of Claudius only enriched her influence. In this time, she was also given an additional escort of a magistrate and also allowed to listen to Senate meetings through a curtain. This was her time of her supreme power, never to reach this peak again.
After the peak, her relations with Nero and his two tutors deteriorated. Seneca and Burrus were unable to accept a woman having supreme control of the state, and led Nero away from her, in such incidents as the Armenian Incident. With Acte and Poppea Sabina as mistresses, the death of Britannicus, Agrippina’s situation became desperate. Her Praetorian and German Guards were dismissed, and she was expelled from the palace and the Domus. Enemies plagued her as her position weakened until at the urging of Poppea, Nero ordered her assassination by Anicetus, the Fleet Commander.
Agrippina’s power and influence, which spanned three emperors, (Gaius, Claudius and Nero) were the highest that any woman in the Julio-Claudian period ever achieved, even against those of Livia, the first Augusta. She achieved these powers and influences, by which, from modern standards, might be deemed cruel and unnecessary. However, at this time, it may be considered quite normal in the peak of Roman Politics for brutality and forwardness such as Agrippina’s to be undertaken. It is these qualities that made her such as excellent politician in a society where her gender impedes her from gaining power and influence through legitimate means.
(1) Mortality rate during those times were extremely high
· The Twelve Caesars Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus translated by Robert Graves. Penguin Classics 1957
· The Annals of Imperial Rome Tacitus translated by Michael Grant Penguin Classics 1956
· A History of the Roman World 30BC to AD 138 E.T. Salmon Routledge 1944
· Women and Politics in Ancient Rome Richard A. Bauman Routledge 1992
· From the Gracchi to Nero H.H Scullard Routledge 1959
· Tiberius to Antonines Garzetti
· The Roman Mother Susanne Dixon
· Sister to Gaius wife to Claudius Mother to Nero Anthony Barrett.
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