Agrippina the Younger (15–59 CE)

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Agrippina the Younger (15–59 ce)

Prominent woman intimately involved in power politics in the Roman Empire, who was often designated by her relationship to three emperors: sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius, and mother of Nero. Name variations: Julia Agrippina (often designated "Agrippina Minor"); Agrippina II. Pronunciation: agrih-PEE-nuh. Born at Ara Ubiorum (modern-day Cologne) on November 6, 15 ce; slain at Baiae by order of her son, Emperor Nero, 59 ce; eldest daughter of Germanicus (the great Roman general), and Agrippina the Elder ("Major," granddaughter of the great Augustus); sister of Drusilla (15–38), Caligula (12–41), and Julia Livilla; married Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (died 40 ce), in 28; married C. Sallustius Passienus Crispus (died 47 ce); married Claudius (died 54 ce), Roman emperor, in 49; children: (with Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus) Emperor Nero.

Received various formal honors along with her sisters (37 ce); accused of treachery by Caligula and exiled (39); recalled by the succeeding Emperor Claudius (41); married Claudius (49); succeeded in having Nero adopted by Claudius and received the prestigious title "Augusta" (50); poisoned Claudius and succeeded in having Nero made emperor (54). Published an autobiography, no longer extant, which was used by other classical historians as a source for Roman imperial history.

The life of Agrippina the Younger is recorded only in connection with the powerful men of her day, yet she was considered—even by those men—a potent political force. She was never able to hold public office simply because she was a woman, but she pushed the bounds of acceptable feminine behavior, using all possible means and methods to achieve her goals. In doing so, she proved that, for good or for ill, a woman could be both as ruthless and as capable as the men of her time.

Agrippina was born on November 6, 15 ce, only one year after the death of Caesar Augustus, the great founder of the Roman Empire and her own great-grandfather. Her mother, Agrippina the Elder , gave birth to her in Ara Ubiorum (modern-day Cologne) rather than Rome, because she had accompanied her husband, the popular Roman general Germanicus, to his site of command on the Rhine. The Roman historian Tacitus characterizes Agrippina the Elder as "outshining generals and commanders" and documents her active role in maintaining the morale of the troops. In one famous incident, for example, she stood at a bridgehead to congratulate the troops returning from a bloody but victorious battle with German tribes. At a time when Roman men viewed women as naturally inferior and excluded them entirely from military matters, her actions provoked both admiration and criticism. Clearly, she provided a strong role model for her daughter.

Agrippina the Younger, despite her privileged status, spent her formative years in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. The family's very prominence forced the Emperor Tiberius to perceive it as a potential threat to his power. Germanicus, who was the emperor's adopted son and blood nephew, died suddenly under mysterious circumstances, and, although she had no proof, Agrippina the Elder believed Tiberius had a hand in her husband's death. The populace, who held Germanicus' family in high esteem, prayed in response to the misfortune that the Elder Agrippina's "children might live to survive their enemies" and called her "the only true descendent of Augustus." This only emphasized the threat. Some years later, she and two of her sons were accused of treason; all three eventually died demeaning deaths, Agrippina the Elder of starvation in exile in 33.

In the meantime, the Emperor Tiberius had chosen a man of respectable heritage, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, for Agrippina the Younger to marry. Domitius was a bloodrelation to the founding Caesars, but Suetonius, the ancient biographer, describes him as a "wholly despicable character" marked by cruelty and dishonesty. At the age of 13, in the year 28, Agrippina became his wife, and in 37 she gave birth to her only child, the future emperor, Nero. Domitius is said to have remarked: "It is impossible for any good man to be sprung from me and this woman." But from Agrippina's standpoint, life had taken a positive turn.

Up to this time, she had had little opportunity to exercise her formidable political skills, apart from managing to survive. Yet now she set a goal that superseded everything else in her life: the greatest prize of the empire, emperorship for her son Nero. When astrologers prophesied that Nero would both become emperor and kill his mother, Agrippina is said to have responded, "Let him kill me, but let him rule."

Nero was born the same year that Caligula (Gaius), Agrippina's brother, succeeded Emperor Tiberius. Caligula restored Germanicus' household

to prominence and good fortune, bestowing great public honors on Agrippina and her two sisters, Drusilla (15–38) and Julia Livilla . All received the privileges of the vestal virgins (without the corresponding responsibility to live celibate lives or to perform ritual religious duties); all received the right to sit in the royal family enclosure at public games; all were included in the annual vows of allegiance to the emperor and for his safety. Oaths included the statement, "I will not value my life or that of my children less highly than I do the safety of the Emperor Gaius and his sisters." The three sisters were placed on the obverse of a coin which portrayed Caligula: Agrippina represented "Security" personified. Cumulatively, these honors were unprecedented.

Yet Agrippina's good fortune soon vanished. Despite the public prominence Caligula had originally accorded his family, his favor turned to suspicion. In 39, he killed his former brother-in-law Lepidus, accusing him of incest with Agrippina and her sister Julia Livilla, and of involvement in a treasonous plot. Declaring that members of his family should not be given any more honors, Caligula auctioned off his sisters' belongings and sent Agrippina back to Rome in disgrace with orders to carry Lepidus' ashes in an urn for the entire journey. He then sent her and Julia Livilla into exile on the Pontian islands. Nero, only a small child, was separated from his mother and given into care of his aunt, Domitia Lepida . His father Domitius died during this negative period as well.

It was I who made you emperor.

—Agrippina, to her son Nero

After Caligula's death and the accession of Claudius in 41, Agrippina was recalled from exile. Immediately, she began casting about for a husband who would further her goals. She first pursued Galba, a wealthy man with good future prospects (a later emperor). Although he was married, Agrippina made advances toward him, provoking his mother-in-law to slap her publicly. She next turned her eyes to the literary figure C. Sallustius Passienus Crispus, who was also exceedingly wealthy and politically prominent. Passienus, like Galba, was already married, but he left his wife for Agrippina. Only a few years after their marriage, he died, having designated Agrippina and Nero his heirs. The ancient biographer Suetonius alleges that Passienus' death resulted from Agrippina's intrigues.

In 49, Emperor Claudius' wife Valeria Messalina (c. 23–48) was discovered in a treasonous plot and put to death. Although Claudius vowed he would never marry again, he immediately reconsidered, focusing on several women, Agrippina among them. Arguments in Agrippina's favor were her youth and beauty, her availability, and her proven fertility. Additionally, because she was his niece, a marriage with her would retain control of the empire in the Claudian family. Agrippina, never one to overlook an opportunity, profited by a niece's privilege of kissing and caressing Claudius "with a noticeable effect on his passions," according to Suetonius. This advantage, however, was simultaneously an obstacle, for both Roman law and custom considered such a marriage incestuous. The problem was resolved when the Senate passed legislation specifically allowing a marriage between a man and his brother's daughter. Once enacted, the marriage took place. Tacitus asserts, "From this moment the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman."

And, indeed, Agrippina was finally able to maneuver more effectively to position Nero for the succession. She persuaded Claudius to appoint men who were favorable to her into positions of power. For example, she convinced him to recall Seneca, the philosopher and writer, from exile and to appoint him to public office. More important, Agrippina gave Seneca the task of tutoring Nero, forbidding him to teach philosophy, because it was "no proper study for a future ruler." She further determined to place a loyal man as commander of the Praetorian Guard, a powerful military position. Whereas there had previously been two commanders, she argued that dividing the rule led to disharmony, while a single commander would alleviate the problem. Claudius yielded to her arguments and appointed Afranius Burrus, ever after loyal to Agrippina, to the position.

In addition to buttressing her position by key appointments, Agrippina worked ruthlessly to rid herself of potential threats. In one notorious case, she accused Lollia Paulina , previous wife of Caligula and then rival for Claudius' hand, of engaging in the treasonous crime of consulting astrologers about the emperor's marriage. Lollia Paulina's property was confiscated and she was exiled, where she was forced to commit suicide. When Lollia's head was brought back to Agrippina, since she did not recognize it, "she opened the mouth with her own hand and inspected the teeth, which had certain peculiarities," according to Cassius Dio. Another woman was banished merely because Claudius remarked favorably on her beauty.

But Agrippina's most significant accomplishment during the early years of marriage to Claudius was to contrive her son's adoption by the emperor. Claudius already had two children, Britannicus and Octavia (39?–62), from his previous ill-fated marriage, and Britannicus was expected to succeed Claudius. Agrippina pointed out that the great Augustus had always had two candidates primed and adopted in case of his demise, and her argument worked. In the year 50, Claudius adopted Nero, and since Nero was three years older than Britannicus and the son of the now powerful Agrippina, he became the expected heir to the empire.

After Nero's adoption, Agrippina's influential position was publicly confirmed by formal honors, some unprecedented, that were bestowed on her. Among other things, she was given the title of "Augusta"—the first time a living spouse of a presiding emperor was so honored. A veteran colony was established at Agrippina's birthplace and named for her: Colonia Claudia Augusta Agrippinensium. Claudius allowed her to sit on a separate tribunal and greet foreign and visiting dignitaries with him, an innovation considered culturally inappropriate for a woman but one that emphasized her powerful position in the empire. Although Claudius seems to have appreciated her talents, the ancient historians are less understanding. Cassius Dio asserts, "No one attempted in any way to check Agrippina; indeed, she had more power than Claudius himself."

As Agrippina had arranged, Nero married Octavia, Claudius' daughter, further solidifying Nero's claims to the empire and highlighting the fact that he was nearly an adult and able to rule. But as Nero reached his 17th year, Claudius seems to have taken a new attitude toward his wife. According to Tacitus, he alarmed Agrippina by "remarking in his cups that it was his destiny first to endure his wives' misdeeds, and then to punish them." Claudius began to shift his attention to Britannicus, declaring, according to Suetonius, that even though Britannicus was young, he would give him the toga virilis (a symbol of passage to adulthood) "so that the Roman people might at last have a genuine Caesar."

All these factors spurred Agrippina to action. To solidify her control over her son, she first determined to rid Nero of his aunt Domitia Lepida, who had cared for Nero during Agrippina's exile. Domitia Lepida indulged and doted on Nero, while Agrippina, by contrast, maintained the strict expectations of a Roman mother. Agrippina's advantage in this rivalry for Nero's affection and compliance was her access to the workings of the justice system. Domitia Lepida was charged with employing black magic against Agrippina and with not controlling her bands of slaves in Italy. Nero, now that the choice was forced, sided with his mother and offered evidence against his aunt, who was sentenced to death.

Drusilla (15–38 ce)

Roman noblewoman. Born in 15 ce; died in 38 ce; daughter of Germanicus Caesar and Agrippina the Elder ; sister of Agrippina the Younger and Julia Livilla; sister and mistress of Caligula.

Several plots to end Caligula's rule were formed and discovered before the conspirators could carry out their plans, including one involving his own sisters. In that particular incident, he banished his sisters to exile and executed the other conspirators. Even so, Caligula decreed great honors for his sisters Drusilla, Julia Livilla , and Agrippina the Younger : they were included in oaths, while on coins they personified "Security," "Peace," and "Prosperity." When his sister Drusilla died, Caligula "made it a capital offence to laugh, to bathe, or to dine with one's parents, wives, or children while the period of public mourning lasted," writes Suetonius. Though, in the Roman past, only Julius Caesar and Augustus had been deified, Caligula deified Drusilla, setting up a shrine for her, complete with priests, and gave her the name "Panthea" to show that she had the qualities of all goddesses.

Domitia Lepida (c. 19 bce–?)

Roman matron. Flourished at the time of Nero; born around 19 bce; daughter of Antonia Major (39 bce–?) and L. Domitius Ahenobarbus (d. 25 ce); sister of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus; married M. Valerius Messalla Barbatus (both members of the dynastic Julio-Claudian family); children: Valeria Messalina (c. 23–48).

When Nero was three and his mother Agrippina the Younger was exiled, Roman emperor Caligula confiscated the boy's estate. As a result, Nero lived with his aunt Domitia Lepida until Claudius' accession to the throne of Rome restored Nero's fortune. Domitia, sister of Nero's deceased father Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was also alleged to be Nero's lover. (See also entry on Messalina, Valeria.)

Lollia Paulina (fl. 30 ce)

Roman noblewoman. Third wife of Caligula.

The chief obstacle remaining to threaten Nero's succession was Claudius, the emperor himself. Though accounts of Claudius' death vary in some details, all agree he died by poison and that Agrippina was responsible. In perhaps the most colorful narrative, recounted by Cassius Dio, Agrippina put poison on a mushroom, one of Claudius' favorite foods. "Then she herself ate of the others, but made her husband eat of the one which contained the poison; for it was the largest and finest of them." When the astrologically propitious hour arrived, Agrippina had Claudius' death publicly announced, along with a simultaneous announcement of Nero's accession. She buried Claudius with great pomp, and, like the great Augustus, he was posthumously pronounced a god. Agrippina made sure that Claudius' will was not read, and—since there was no one powerful enough to contest the accession—Nero was immediately accepted as emperor. On October 13, 54, Agrippina had achieved her goal, only one month before her 39th birthday.

Agrippina had identified her own interests with Nero's for so long that she now expected to share in ruling the empire. The ancient sources agree that at first Nero was little more than a figurehead, with Agrippina ruling in his name. Symbolic of her early political prominence was the first password given to the Praetorian Guard: Optima Mater (The Best of Mothers). She was appointed priestess of the newly established cult to honor the deified Emperor Claudius. She was represented on coins with Nero, sometimes as a goddess.

When a motion was introduced into the Senate aimed at changing some of Claudius' legislation, because Agrippina was cult priestess of the newly deified Claudius, she objected. She claimed that since Claudius had been deified, none of his decrees should be rescinded. The Senate gave Agrippina's objections due consideration. Although women were never admitted into the Senate chambers, the Senate accommodated her by meeting in a building where Agrippina could listen to the proceedings from behind a curtain. Though she did not win her cause, the fact that she had been allowed to witness proceedings of the Senate broke with tradition and demonstrated her eminence to all of Rome.

Agrippina's power, however, was not unlimited. Nero held the formal authority, while she could control matters only indirectly through her relationship to him or by calling in favors from those who were indebted to her. This reality was illustrated graphically when a visiting delegation was given an imperial audience and Agrippina, going farther than she had during Claudius' reign, attempted to join Nero on the same tribunal. Seneca prevented this by advising Nero to step down to greet his mother—thus displaying filial piety while denying her "unwomanly" assertion of formal authority. Gradually, Nero turned more and more to Burrus and Seneca for guidance. As Tacitus observed, Agrippina "could give her son the empire, but not endure him as emperor."

Her influence declined even more with Nero's coming of age. Nero fell in love with Acte (fl. 55–69 ce), an imperial freedwoman far below his social station. When Agrippina discovered their relationship, she had enough authority to force Nero to hide his liaison but not to cut it off. When Nero, as a result of his mother's opposition, began turning ever more to Seneca for counsel than to her, she switched tactics and admitted she had been in error, going so far as to offer the couple the use of her own bedroom.

But the problems were not resolved. Nero, attempting to ameliorate their relations, sent Agrippina a valuable jewelled garment as a present. She responded by claiming that he was only giving her a fraction of what he owed her. She began to rebuff Nero by turning her attention to Britannicus, letting Nero overhear her say that "Britannicus was grown up and was the true and worthy heir of his father's supreme position—now held … by an adopted intruder, who used it to maltreat his mother." Nero responded by having Britannicus poisoned at dinner, calmly pretending that his stepbrother was merely having an attack of epilepsy.

As Agrippina's and Nero's hostility escalated, she gave attention to Nero's wife Octavia, to whom Nero was little attached, and began courting other nobility as well. Nero, in a countermove, deprived his mother of her military guard and moved her from the palace to another house. He ended the great receptions she hosted, undermining her influence with other nobility. When Nero visited her in her new quarters, he came with an armed guard and stayed only briefly.

At this crucial juncture, Domitia Lepida, Agrippina's still surviving former sister-in-law, determined to get revenge. She sent reports to Nero that Agrippina was planning to marry a man who could represent a dynastic challenge and that together they were planning to incite a revolution. Nero, going to unexpected extremes, decided he had to get rid of his mother and began to talk of killing her, although, in the Roman view, parricide was the ultimate sacrilege. Burrus offered Nero the convincing argument that all have a right to be heard in self-defense and that this right should be extended to the emperor's own mother in particular. Nero allowed Burrus to bring the charges to her in person.

Agrippina defended herself admirably, charging that those accusing her had tainted motives, while claiming a mother's loyalty to her son, Nero. She demanded to see him personally. As a result of their interview, she obtained benefits for her own supporters and punishments for those who had accused her. Their relationship, however tenuous, was restored.

But in the year 58 another crisis appeared in the form of a new infatuation for Nero: Poppaea Sabina . Poppaea, though married, was wealthy, beautiful, aristocratic, and determined—possessing "every asset except goodness," as she is characterized by Tacitus. Poppaea soon had Nero under her influence and went so far as to mock him, implying that he was still under guardianship rather than a man ruling as emperor. She asserted that Agrippina would not allow him to marry Poppaea for fear that his mother's avarice, pride, and control of the Senate would come to light. No one voiced opposition to Poppaea, in part because many wanted Agrippina's influence undermined.

According to several accounts, Agrippina played her last card when, in desperation, she tried to seduce Nero. Other sources argue that Nero tried to seduce her. All agree, however, that Seneca enlisted Nero's earlier lover Acte to dissuade him from this wicked course of action. Nero again began to avoid meeting his mother and even encouraged people to bring lawsuits against her, among other small harassments.

Again, Nero began to toy with possible methods of murdering his mother. Eventually, he settled on a ship with a section that could collapse and drop her into the sea. With the trap set, he invited her for dinner, displaying great filial devotion, as if their differences were resolved, and afterwards sent her off to her own villa across the Bay of Baiae. The ship collapsed as planned, and Agrippina was hurled into the sea. Ever the survivor, she swam until picked up by a small boat.

Pretending she did not know Nero's intent, Agrippina sent a message to him about her narrow escape. Nero in consternation sent for Burrus and Seneca to ask their advice. Both agreed that since the Praetorian Guard was under oath to protect the royal house, it would not consent to kill her. Finally, Nero ordered one of his freedmen, who held personal grudges against Agrippina, to kill her, using as justification the lie that she had sent a messenger to assassinate the emperor. Tacitus reports that the freedman broke into her bedroom with two other officers. Spirited to the end, Agrippina exclaimed, "If you have come to visit me, you can report that I am better. But if you are assassins, I know my son is not responsible. He did not order his mother's death." As they closed around her, she bared her abdomen crying, "Strike here, for this bore Nero!" and then died under their blows.

Nero is said to have coldly observed her body afterward, commenting, "I did not know I had such a beautiful mother," though some skepticism at this final filial degeneracy is voiced by the ancient authors. Agrippina was cremated that same night and buried without honor in an uncovered and unenclosed grave.

Poppaea Sabina (d. 65 ce)

Empress of Rome from 63–65. Birth date unknown; died in 65 or 66 ce because of a kick by Nero; daughter of Poppaea Sabina (d. 47); granddaughter of Poppaeus Sabinus, governor of Moesia; married Rufius Crispinus; married Marcus Salvius Otho; married Nero (37–68), Roman emperor (r. 54–68), in 63.

As Nero's hedonism grew, so did his lechery. One affair of note was that with Poppaea Sabina, beginning in the year 58. Poppaea was not just another of Nero's playthings—she was of senatorial background and married to Marcus Salvius Otho, who would briefly reign as emperor after Nero's death. Beautiful and ambitious, Poppaea supposedly seduced Nero, who ordered her husband to Lusitania so as to facilitate their adultery. Shortly after Nero divorced Octavia (c. 39–62), he married Poppaea. Though Nero seems to have cared for her as much as he ever cared for anyone, in 65 he killed her by kicking her in the stomach (while she was pregnant with their child), reputedly after she complained about his spending too much time at the racetrack.

After the murder, Seneca helped Nero contrive excuses for her death: she had tried to usurp power over the Roman people; she had engineered deaths of prominent men; she had barely been kept from entering the Senate; she was behind all the wrongs of Claudius' rule. The people responded by decreeing Thanksgivings, establishing annual games to celebrate the discovery of Agrippina's plot against Nero, and designating Agrippina's birthday as an inauspicious day. Agrippina still retained the loyalty of the popular classes, however, and graffiti and ditties expressed an alternate view: "Nero, Orestes, Alcmeon—O, matricides all."

Nero was briefly haunted with remorse for this great breach of Roman morals. It was said that the coast echoed from the neighboring hills with wails from his mother's grave, and Nero left that area of the country to escape his feeling of horror.

Tacitus claims that after Agrippina's death Nero "plunged into the wildest improprieties, which vestiges of respect for his mother had hitherto not indeed repressed, but at least impeded." In this way, the historian divides the periods of Nero's rule (as he did with Claudius') by Agrippina's influence over him and then the lack thereof. But, ultimately, Tacitus designates her merely in relationship to the men over which she exerted such great influence: "A woman who to this day remains unique as the daughter of a great commander and the sister, wife, and mother of emperors."


Barrett, Anthony A. Caligula: The Corruption of Power. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Bauman, Richard A. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. NY: Routledge, 1992.

Dixon, Suzanne. The Roman Mother. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Griffin, Miriam T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

ancient sources:

Cassius Dio. Roman History.

Suetonius. "Life of Gaius"; "Life of Claudius"; "Life of Nero."

Tacitus. Annals of Imperial Rome.

Sylvia Gray Kaplan , Adjunct Faculty, Humanities, Marylhurst College, Marylhurst, Oregon