Agrippina the Elder (c. 14 BCE–33 CE)

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Agrippina the Elder (c. 14 bce–33 ce)

Popular Roman whose independence and ambition for her children annoyed Tiberius and led to her exile and subsequent suicide by starvation. Name variations: Agrippina I; Agrippina Major; Vipsania Agrippina. Born around 14 bce; died in exile in 33 ce in Pandateria; daughter of Julia (39 bce–14 ce) and Marcus Agrippa; granddaughter of Caesar Augustus; sister of Gaius (b. 20 bce), Lucius (b. 17 bce), Julia (b. 15? bce); married Germanicus in 5 ce (died 19 ce); children: nine, including Nero Julius Caesar (d. 31 ce); Drusus III Julius Caesar (d. 33 ce); Gaius (12–41 ce, the future emperor Caligula); Drusilla (15–38 ce); Agrippina the Younger (15–59 ce, mother of the future emperor Nero); Julia Livilla (b. 16? ce).

Agrippina was the granddaughter of Augustus and the daughter of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus' closest political associate. Two of Agrippina's brothers had been named as Augustus' heirs to the Roman Empire before their premature deaths. Agrippina was married to Germanicus, himself recently named as an heir of Augustus' successor, Tiberius. Theirs was a loving marriage, producing nine children before Germanicus died of a sudden illness (19 ce) Since Germanicus' relationship with Tiberius had been deteriorating for some time before Germanicus' death, Agrippina accused Tiberius of having her husband poisoned. Thereafter, Agrippina remained Tiberius' implacable foe, even after the aging emperor named her two oldest sons as his political heirs (23 ce). Tragically, neither son lived long enough to inherit the empire, for Sejanus (the commander of Rome's Praetorian Guard) conspired against them and convinced Tiberius to punish their "treason" with exile and execution. Agrippina herself died in exile before she saw the ultimate accession of her youngest son, Caligula.

Agrippina the Elder was the daughter of Julia (daughter of Caesar Augustus) and Marcus Agrippa (Augustus' closest political associate and one of his best friends). Agrippina was born about 15 years into her grandfather Augustus' transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. This metamorphosis was very popular with the vast majority of those living under Roman authority, because the political and military excesses of the late Republic's Senatorial aristocracy had led to constant and debilitating war. However, peace came to the Roman world at the cost of political liberty, for Augustus had slowly accumulated an unparalleled concentration of power.

Augustus did not alter the infrastructure of the Republic, for it largely continued to function in the old way, with one exception: Augustus personally came to hold all of the important offices of the state. Thus, no other potential rival could marshal the resources to challenge Augustus' status. This led Augustus into a conundrum. On the one hand, he claimed to be no more than a beloved servant of the people who had elected him to all his offices. On the other hand, he could not allow any but a chosen successor to approach his status, lest the anarchy of the past—so associated with unfettered freedom—return. While espousing the virtues of a "free" political state, Augustus sought to control the choice as to who would succeed to his collection of powers—technically a role that should have been entirely left to the Roman people. Had Augustus had a biological son, it is certain that he would have been Augustus' choice as a political heir (after all, this was traditional in all Roman Senatorial families); however, despite having two stepsons in Tiberius and Drusus the Elder (the sons of Augustus' last wife Livia from her former marriage), Augustus' only child was his daughter Julia.

As a result, Julia's marriages were politically manipulated by Augustus. After each marriage, Augustus campaigned to get Julia's husbands elected to the various powers that would eventually elevate them to a successor's prestige. A simple plan, but one that was continuously foiled by their premature deaths.

Julia's first husband, Marcellus (a son of Augustus' sister, Octavia , and thus Augustus' nephew) died in 23 bce before their marriage produced children. Next, Julia wed Marcus Agrippa in 21 bce and remained married to him until his death in 12. In the nine years of their marriage, Julia gave Marcus Agrippa two sons, Gaius (20 bce) and Lucius (17 bce), and two daughters, Julia (15? bce) and Agrippina the Elder (14 bce). In addition, Julia was pregnant with a third son, Agrippa Postumus, when the elder Marcus Agrippa died.

The oldest two grandsons of Augustus were adopted by him as his legal sons and heirs, but both died (Lucius in 2 ce and Gaius in 4 ce), leaving Augustus to seek yet another successor. (Agrippa Postumus appears to have been too roguish to be considered. Before Augustus died in 14 ce, Postumus was exiled from Rome at Augustus' command.)

The death of Julia's husband Marcus Agrippa saddened Augustus and reminded him of his own mortality. Fearing that he would not see his grandsons live to politically replace him, in 11 bce, Augustus forced his stepson, Tiberius, to divorce the woman he loved (Vipsania Agrippina , daughter of the now dead Marcus Agrippa and his first wife Pomponia ) in order to marry a woman he did not love, Augustus daughter, the recently widowed Julia. Tiberius hated Augustus for so abusing him, especially since it was clear that Tiberius was not intended as Augustus' heir, but only as a kind of insurance policy lest Augustus die before his chosen heirs could assume public responsibilities.

Although the relationship between Tiberius and Augustus was rocky after Tiberius' marriage to Julia, Tiberius, more often then not, grudgingly did what Augustus required of him—even as Julia became a public embarrassment to both father and husband, rebelling against her own marital status by sleeping with many of Rome's most important men, and a few who were not so important. For her adultery, which flew in the face of her father's cherished moral legislation, Julia was exiled from Rome in 2 bce.

In the long run, weathering these unpleasant responsibilities paid off for Tiberius. In 4 ce, Augustus (resentfully to be sure) finally named Tiberius his heir. Over the next ten years, Tiberius received the necessary advancement, so that when Augustus died in 14 ce, Tiberius stood alone as Rome's new emperor. But before Augustus had named Tiberius as his successor, he had forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus—the son of Tiberius' brother Drusus the Elder—as his son. Both Tiberius and Drusus the Elder had become Augustus' stepsons when he married their mother Livia. The elder Drusus was esteemed by Augustus as his best general (although Tiberius was no incompetent along these lines), and he campaigned extensively in Germany. Before Drusus the Elder fell ill after a fall from a horse and died in 9 bce, he married Antonia Minor (36 bce–37 ce) and had three children with her: Germanicus, Livilla and Claudius (who would eventually become an emperor, 41–54 ce).

Tiberius also had a son, Drusus the Younger, from his marriage to his beloved Vipsania. Thus, Germanicus was now on a par with Drusus the Younger when it came to the succession. Many reasons may have motivated Augustus' demand (for example, Germanicus' connections with the Senatorial aristocracy were impeccable and proceeded along kinship lines, which would have broadened the political base of the imperial family), but Augustus must have known how much such a step nettled Tiberius. Part of Augustus' motivation was probably spite towards the man who may have become his heir, but who had never become his friend.

When Tiberius' heirs came to be of appropriate ages, so as to intertwine the fortunes of the imperial family even further, the younger Drusus married Germanicus' sister, Livilla, while, in 5 ce, Germanicus married Agrippina the Elder, daughter of Marcus Agrippa and Julia.

Since [Agrippina] seemed scared of tasting an apple which [Tiberius] handed her at dinner, the invitation to his table was never repeated…. [H]e said that she had charged him with attempted poisoning.

When Augustus' death in 14 ce led his legions along both the Rhine and Danube to rebel against their current working conditions, Tiberius dispatched Drusus the Younger to put down the mutiny along the Danube, while Germanicus acted similarly along the Rhine. Both commanders succeeded in the primary missions, but Germanicus—remembering Augustus' onetime intention of conquering Germany between the Rhine and the Elbe—spent the years between 14 and 17 campaigning in free Germany. Although Germanicus believed himself close to subduing this region, in 17 Tiberius recalled him to Rome where Germanicus was given a triumph. The reason for the recall resulted in a bone of contention. Germanicus and his supporters became convinced that Tiberius acted out of petty jealousy, not wanting Germanicus to win his due mead of glory.

One of Germanicus' chief supporters was his wife, Agrippina, with whom he had nine children, four of whom outlived their parents: Gaius (the future emperor Caligula); Agrippina the Younger (mother of Nero), Drusilla , and Julia Livilla . Two other sons, Nero Julius Caesar and Drusus III, would receive temporary honors but would die before their mother Agrippina. While Germanicus was in Germany, his wife and family had accompanied him. In fact, when the Rhine mutiny was still in full swing, the presence of Germanicus' family helped break the determination of the mutinous soldiers. (When it was pointed out that the soldiers themselves posed a greater danger to a "helpless" woman and her children than did the Germans across the frontier, the soldiers' will broke and reconciliation became possible.) Agrippina adored her husband, holding him as vastly superior to his "father" Tiberius and his "brother" Drusus the Younger. However, it is probably not the case that she so revered him for the "republican" sentiments that would later be attributed to him.

By the end of the 1st century ce, a somewhat romantic view of the defunct Republic would begin to circulate among some of the Senatorial order (including the historian Tacitus). When this movement flourished, it desecrated the memories of those of the empire who were held chiefly responsible for the establishment of the imperial institutions, which were now said by some to have seduced the Roman people from their traditional love of freedom. Historically, Tiberius was a special target for the neo-republicans, while Germanicus—primarily because his relationship with Tiberius deteriorated after the year 17—came to be painted as a republican "hero." It was said that had Germanicus ever come into power, which only the jealous Tiberius had prevented, Germanicus would have restored true Roman liberty. This was a fanciful notion at best, supported by little evidence, but it came to be believed largely because of the resentments and accusations against Tiberius that would one day be aired by Agrippina.

Although Tiberius probably resented the pompous airs Germanicus is said to have assumed, Tiberius continued to honor his adopted son. In 18, Germanicus held a second consulship and began a tour of the East as Tiberius' special envoy. Of particular sensitivity were Roman relations with Armenia, Cappadocia, and Commagene, but Germanicus was being sent to settle Rome's eastern frontier. Along with Germanicus and his family (including Agrippina), Tiberius sent an old friend and colleague, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, as the governor of Syria. Although subordinate to Germanicus, Piso was sent to provide a sober reign to Germanicus' transit of the East. Although Tiberius intended to reaffirm his ties with Germanicus with this appointment, Germanicus believed the assignment grew out of Tiberius' fear of his growing popularity.

From his base in Syria, in 19 Germanicus made the mistake of visiting Egypt without Tiberius' prior permission. Although his intentions seem to have been innocent—Germanicus wanted to see Egypt's antiquities, and what Germanicus wanted to do, he did—Egypt was nevertheless a touchy matter as far as Tiberius was concerned. Since the days of Augustus, Egypt (and more important its wealth) was the private possession of the emperor and off-limits to all senators, to which order Germanicus technically belonged. This ban on Egyptian travel was imposed because Egypt's potential for isolating itself from the rest of the world (the primitive state of ancient technology made Egypt inaccessible if a strong power held it aloof) made it a dangerous base from which to assault imperial authority. As a result, any unauthorized entry into Egypt could be construed as an act of treason—and Germanicus certainly knew this. Yet, he traveled there with impunity, holding himself apart from the conventions that shackled other men.

When Germanicus returned to Syria, Piso's loyalty to Tiberius and his anger over Germanicus' tourism led to an open break between the two, and Germanicus, pulling rank, ordered Piso to leave his province. Piso did so, but soon after his departure from Syria Germanicus fell mysteriously ill and died at Antioch, convinced, as was Agrippina, that Piso had had him poisoned. Piso made the mistake of returning to Syria before being recalled to Rome to face charges of murder and of reentering his province against the orders of a superior. Probably innocent of murder, Piso nevertheless understood that he was likely to become a scapegoat in light of his Syrian reentry. Protesting his innocence and maintaining his personal loyalty to Tiberius, Piso committed suicide—a deed that did Tiberius no good, for it intimately linked the allegations of murder against Piso to the emperor himself in many people's minds.

Agrippina greatly lamented the loss of her husband and was as convinced as Germanicus had been that Piso—on Tiberius' orders—had been an assassin. As did Germanicus, Agrippina seems to have believed that the growing awareness of Germanicus' greatness would soon have toppled Tiberius once and for all. It made sense to Agrippina that Tiberius, knowing this, was led to the rash act of removing his rival with poison. Carefully honoring Germanicus, Agrippina provided a heroic cremation. Thereafter, in a procession intended to win sympathy for the memory of Germanicus and undermine the popularity of Tiberius, Agrippina made her way home, displaying pious grief in the most public fashion, with her children and her husband's ashes. Once in Rome, Agrippina continued a vendetta against Tiberius for the rest of her life.

Although Agrippina truly believed (almost certainly incorrectly) that Tiberius was behind the death of her husband, it is possible that her campaign to associate Germanicus' death with Tiberius had a more Machiavellian rationale. Her return to Rome with Germanicus' ashes caused a sensation, and her charges against Tiberius clearly turned public sentiment in her favor and embarrassed the emperor. As a result, since he maintained his innocence against all such charges, the one thing that Tiberius could not do was dispossess the children of Germanicus from the succession—for if he did so, everyone would be convinced of his complicity in Germanicus' death. How much Agrippina might have been campaigning on behalf of her children is unknown, but having grown up in a highly charged political atmosphere, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that she had such a purpose.

Nevertheless, for the time being, Tiberius' son Drusus the Younger became his sole heir. In 23, however, this Drusus died of another mysterious illness. It was later revealed that Drusus had been poisoned by his wife (Germanicus' sister), Livilla, and her lover, the monstrous Captain of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus. It is clear that Livilla was convinced to remove her husband by her seducer Sejanus, who promised marriage. In fact, Sejanus hoped to turn his fortuitous command of the Praetorian Guard—the only troops stationed on Italian soil (with a camp just to the east of the city of Rome)—into a bid for imperial power. Sejanus had not been born into Rome's most prestigious social class, the Senatorial Order. As a result, no one (not even Tiberius) considered him as a potential emperor. To overcome the many obstacles before him, Sejanus realized that he needed to (a) eliminate all possible successors to the imperial majesty from within the imperial family and to (b) become associated himself with the imperial family through marriage. With Germanicus gone, the obvious focus of his ambitions was Livilla, the wife of Tiberius' only heir. Remove Drusus, thought Sejanus, and (after a suitable period of mourning) marry Drusus' widow while continuing to ingratiate himself with Tiberius.

Unfortunately for Sejanus, Tiberius would not agree to his and Livilla's marriage when it was first proposed to him (25 ce). Initially rebuffed, Sejanus continued to plot in silence, reasoning that, if Tiberius was truly desperate for an heir, Tiberius would turn to him. Unfortunately for Agrippina's two oldest sons, Nero Julius Caesar and Drusus III, they lay between Sejanus and his dream. Soon after Tiberius' son died, Tiberius named these sons of Germanicus as his imperial successors (23). How much Tiberius' mother, Livia, might have been behind these adoptions is unknown. Even after Agrippina's sons attained their status as Tiberius' successors, Agrippina continued to lambast Tiberius over Germanicus. Sejanus' dream may have been set back by these adoptions, but they did not prove to be insurmountable obstacles, especially after Livia died in 29.

Tiberius had long maintained a love-hate relationship with his mother Livia. She had acted to mitigate the influence such figures as Sejanus could exercise over Tiberius, and it is clear that she shielded Agrippina from Tiberius' anger. But when Livia died in 29, Tiberius became increasingly susceptible to Sejanus' accusations that Nero Julius Caesar and Drusus III were falling into the sins of their father, arrogantly parading their disregard for Tiberius' authority, while flirting with out-and-out treason. These allegations were made all the more believable by Agrippina, who acted as a rallying point for those Senators who opposed either Tiberius or Sejanus, or both. Agrippina's role in this regard intensified as Sejanus' influence grew, and especially blossomed after Tiberius refused to allow Agrippina to remarry (26), undoubtedly reasoning that the husband of the mother of his heirs would be in a good position to offer serious political opposition.

Once Livia was no longer there as ballast, Tiberius' relations with Agrippina and her sons immediately deteriorated, again under Sejanus' artful prompting. Before the end of 29 ce, Nero Julius Caesar and Agrippina were exiled to Pandateria. In the following year, Drusus III was imprisoned in Rome. Both of Agrippina's sons were executed: Nero Julius Caesar in 31 and Drusus in 33. Given the intensity of Agrippina's hatred of Tiberius and the closeness of her ties with her sons, there may have been something behind the suggestions of treason, brought to Tiberius' ear by Sejanus. Whether true or not, however, Agrippina shared her sons' fates, for, after four years in exile, learning of her son Drusus' assassination, she starved herself to death in 33.

Sejanus, however, did not benefit from the destruction of these rivals. In 31, Tiberius (tipped off by Antonia) learned of Sejanus' complicity in the death of his own son, Drusus. This led to Sejanus' well-planned fall and execution. Though it was too late to restore the fortunes of Agrippina or her two oldest sons, she would have a kind of reaffirmation and revenge through her youngest son, Gaius (nicknamed "Caligula," meaning "Little Boots," by her husband's Rhine legionaries, from the little army boots Agrippina had made for her young son so that he could parade around his father's camp). Caligula became not only Tiberius' proposed heir, but also his actual successor in 36. All other possible heirs to the imperial authority having been exterminated by one hand or another, the empire was about to know evil in its most irresponsible form.


Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Penguin Press, 1957.

Tacitus. Complete Works. Modern Library, 1942.

suggested reading:

Balsdon, J.P.V.D. Roman Women. London: Bodley Head, 1962.

Scullard, H.H. From the Gracchi to Nero. 5th. ed. London: Methuen, 1978.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California