Niece and fourth wife of Emperor Claudius, Agrippina the Younger (15-59 AD) was suspected of having him and his son assassinated in order to secure the throne for her own son, Nero. Through him she hoped to dominate Rome.
On her mother's side, Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of Augustus, who molded the Roman Empire from the ashes of the Roman Republic. Her father Germanicus was the nephew and designated heir of Augustus's successor Tiberius. In the year 20 AD, Germanicus met an untimely death. Agrippina undoubtedly retained childhood memories of the subsequent mistreatment suffered by her mother and older brothers at the hands of Emperor Tiberius, who was only a stepson of Augustus. She would have learned at her mother's knee to despise "usurpers" who were not direct descendants of Augustus. Historians have long suspected that a childhood spent steeped in fear and resentment may have warped Agrippina's brother, Caligula. Perhaps it also drove Agrippina in her determination to rule rather than suffer the whims of a ruler.
Her mother Agrippina the Elder was a model of the old-fashioned Roman wife and mother, except for her practice of accompanying her husband on his military tours, even those which took him to the frontiers of the Roman world. In 15 AD, the younger Agrippina was born in a military camp on the frontier of the Roman Empire, near the German tribes. (Following her later marriage to Claudius, Agrippina the Younger would award special municipal honors to the village that grew on the site.)
At the age of 33, Germanicus, a son of Emperor Tiberius's younger brother, was the most attractive and popular member of the imperial family. When he died after a brief and undiagnosed illness while touring the eastern Mediterranean provinces, the Roman people were convinced that Tiberius had ordered his assassination out of jealousy and fear. Agrippina the Elder was also certain that Tiberius was responsible for her husband's death. The four-year-old Agrippina, who was brought to the village of Tarracina to meet her mother and accompany her father's ashes on their journey home, could not have remembered him or her austere mother well. The agonizing public procession to Rome, however, through crowds running wild with grief and anger at the death of their favorite, surely left an indelible impression. Her mother's dignified but clearly heart-felt grief caught the imagination of the Roman people and won popular esteem for the widow and her children. If Tiberius had not felt jealous and uneasy earlier, he now had good cause for worry.
Agrippina the Elder was too ambitious to spend the rest of her life in quiet widowhood with her children. Her relationship to Tiberius was further complicated by her status: as a granddaughter of Augustus, she was heir to political connections and influence, making any second husband an automatic threat to Tiberius's plans for the succession. In such a thoroughly political household, it is likely that the young Agrippina would have been aware of the trial of her father's accused assassin (who ended inquiries by committing suicide). She would also have known of the deepening public hostility between her mother and Emperor Tiberius, who had not even come to the ceremony when the ashes of Germanicus were placed in the tomb of Augustus. Attending state dinners, Agrippina the Elder ostentatiously took precautions against poison in her dishes. In 26 AD, she finally asked Tiberius for permission to remarry, but he neglected to reply.
Modern historians of Rome are more inclined than their ancient counterparts to believe that the model matron Agrippina the Elder was aggressor, as well as victim, and that she was providing aid and support to the enemies of Tiberius even if she wasn't actively plotting against him. In a move to reduce the family's potential for making alliances, Tiberius decided that Agrippina the Younger would marry the much older Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus in 28 AD. (Betrothal of 13-year-old girls, with marriage to follow shortly, was common among Romans.) Suetonius described Agrippina's new husband as a "wholly despicable character" who was "remarkably dishonest."
Agrippina was only 14 when her mother and oldest brother were arrested in 29 AD and exiled to prison islands. Though her second brother had supplied evidence against them, he was the next to be arrested. Held in the imperial palace, he was starved to death. As for the third brother, Caligula, Tiberius alternated between ignoring and honoring him. In 33 AD, Agrippina the Elder starved herself to death, while her son Caligula's portrait was put on coins.
Caligula Gained Power
The year 37 AD saw the death of Tiberius, the accession to the throne of Caligula, and the birth of Agrippina the Younger's only child, Nero. But if Agrippina thought she was finally safe, she was wrong. Initially, Caligula heaped honors upon his sisters, as only they and he had survived childhood diseases and the hatred of Tiberius. Receiving all of the privileges and public honors previously reserved for Vestal Virgins, the three sisters were included in the annual vows of allegiance to the emperor. Their portraits were also put on coins. Caligula was especially devoted to his sister Drusilla who died in 38 AD.
Disaster struck in 39 AD when the imperial family visited and inspected the armies on the Rhine frontier. While they were still in the north, Caligula became convinced that both of his surviving sisters were involved in a love affair and a conspiracy against him with Drusilla's widower, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Though it seems unlikely that both sisters were dallying with Lepidus, it is possible that Lepidus and the two women had decided that Caligula was becoming unstable and an increasing threat to them. In any case, after retrieving his oldest brother's ashes from the island of Ponti, Caligula sent Agrippina into exile there. Suetonius believed that he was planning to execute his two sisters at the time of his death. Miriam Griffin has observed astutely that Agrippina's "childhood and youth would have warped the most sanguine nature, as her prospects fluctuated between extremes." She must have breathed a sigh of relief at the assassination of Caligula in 41 AD and applauded the accession of a crippled, elderly paternal uncle who was not descended from Augustus. The new emperor, Claudius, recalled her and her only surviving sister from exile.
Reign of Claudius
Agrippina's son, Nero, had been left in near poverty during her exile, when Caligula used the excuse of her husband's death to seize most of their assets. Although Claudius returned the property taken from the two sisters, mere prosperity and imperial connections were not enough for Agrippina. She immediately tried to raise the stakes. Gossip reported that her first target was the extremely wealthy and well-born Servius Sulpicius Galba, but he escaped Agrippina's matrimonial snares and survived to later succeed Nero as emperor. She had apparently arranged a marriage with another rich senator, Gaius Sallustius Passienus Crispus, by the time of his death in 47 AD, despite the fact that he was already married to her sister-in-law, Domitia. Agrippina and Nero were remembered generously in Crispus's will, but rumors that she had poisoned him were probably inspired by her later treatment of Claudius and Britannicus.
Agrippina's campaign to become imperial consort might well have preceded the scandal which led to the suicide of Emperor Claudius's third wife, Messallina, in 47 AD. Messallina had favored sending Agrippina's sole surviving sister, Livilla, back into exile. Agrippina was thought to have been flirting with her uncle in order to obtain protection against Messallina. Also, Messallina was apparently worried about Nero's popularity as a descendant of both Augustus and Germanicus, who was still fondly remembered. By the time Messallina was apprehended in a plot to put her lover on the throne and murder Claudius, Agrippina had already made friends in the court and was ready to make her move.
Claudius's prestige had been badly damaged by the scandal. He desperately needed a public relations triumph. As always in matters of serious business, Claudius consulted his chief executive secretary, a freedman named Pallas who was devoted to Agrippina (many, in fact, believed they were lovers). He and others of Agrippina's party in the court convinced Claudius that what he needed was Agrippina. Marriage between uncle and niece was considered incestuous in Rome, and it took a senatorial decree to legalize the marriage. Still, Agrippina was of the bloodline of Augustus and was popularly idolized as the daughter of Germanicus. Her son Nero could be adopted to secure the survival of the dynasty, since Claudius's own son Britannicus was not past the high mortality years of childhood. In 49 AD, Agrippina and her uncle, Claudius, were married.
Control Through Alliances
Griffin describes how Agrippina "had achieved this dominant position for her son and herself by a web of political alliances," which included Claudius's chief secretary and bookkeeper Pallas, his doctor Xenophon, and Afranius Burrus, the head of the Praetorian Guard (the imperial bodyguard), who owed his promotion to Agrippina. Neither ancient nor modern historians of Rome have doubted that Agrippina had her eye on securing the throne for Nero from the very day of the marriage—if not earlier. Dio Cassius's observation seems to bear that out: "As soon as Agrippina had come to live in the palace she gained complete control over Claudius."
Agrippina did not, however, concentrate on advancing her son to the point of neglecting herself. She was the only living woman to receive the title "Augusta" since Livia, the wife of Augustus, and Livia had not been allowed to use the name during her husband's lifetime. Levick describes Agrippina's conduct in the court of Claudius: "Certainly from 51 onwards she appeared at ceremonial occasions in a gold-threaded military cloak, and on a tribunal (distinct from that of her husband, however), greeted ambassadors." Roman men's full nomenclature usually included a reference to their fathers, as in "son of Marcus." One official religious record listed Nero as "son of Agrippina" before putting in the usual reference to his father. Tacitus said that Narcissus, another influential secretary of Claudius, tried to warn others about Agrippina's plans: "There is nothing she will not sacrifice to imperial ambition-neither decency, nor honor, nor chastity." Writes Dio: "No one attempted in any way to check Agrippina; indeed, she had more power than Claudius himself."
In 50 AD, Nero became the adoptive son of Claudius as well, sealing the fate of Claudius and his son Britannicus, though Agrippina could afford to wait for the most opportune moment. Claudius probably feared the results if he were to exclude a grandson of Germanicus from the succession, and he certainly needed loyal military commanders rising through the ranks. While Claudius undoubtedly hoped that the adoption would secure the loyalty of both Nero and those who adored Germanicus, hindsight certainly revealed his error. The last months of his life were characterized by disputes with Agrippina over the advancement of Nero and Britannicus. Tacitus reports that Agrippina became afraid when she heard Claudius mutter while drunk that "it was his destiny first to endure his wives' misdeeds and then to punish them." Events were rapidly escalating. Custom dictated that Britannicus would assume a toga and be considered a man early in the spring of 55 AD.
In 54 AD, the frail 64-year-old Claudius died. His contemporaries assumed that Agrippina had poisoned him, and recent scholars have largely shared their conviction. The death of Claudius was particularly timely: he had survived long enough to award formal honors and recognition to Nero, who had used those years to make himself more popular and better known (as well as simply becoming older and more qualified to rule). Yet Claudius died before Britannicus could be set on the same track. Britannicus did not live to assume a man's toga. He died shortly after attending a dinner party with the rest of the imperial family—an event that no one thought a coincidence.
Tacitus claimed that Agrippina foresaw the end to all her plotting. Having consulted astrologers several years before, she had been told that Nero would become emperor but kill his mother. She supposedly replied, "Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor." Nero tried to justify her subsequent murder after the fact by claiming that she intended to rule Rome, using him as her puppet. His speech to the Senate, as reported in Tacitus, might well have put it fairly: "She had wanted to be co-ruler-to receive oaths of allegiance from the Guard, and to subject Senate and public to the same humiliation [of swearing allegiance to a woman]."
Seneca Tutored Nero
Given those claims, it is ironic that Tacitus and others ascribe the good aspects of Nero's reign to Agrippina. She had already had Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the noted Stoic rhetorician and philosopher, recalled from exile and made Nero's tutor. After Nero became emperor, she encouraged Seneca and Burrus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, to function as virtual regents. Unfortunately for her, she had made a mistake rather like that of Claudius. Seneca and Burrus thought it their duty to act for the good of their emperor. They believed that charge required them to ease Agrippina out before her blatant attempts to assert power evoked hostility against her son and the dynasty itself. In one dramatic incident at the end of 54 AD, she attempted to join Nero on his dais to receive ambassadors from Armenia. Even Claudius had made her sit on a separate throne when receiving. Seneca and Burrus nudged Nero into stepping down to greet her in an apparent gesture of respect, which allowed him to escort her to a separate, lower seat.
The power and influence she had sought for so long continued to wane through the next year. Seneca and Burrus encouraged Nero in an affair with a woman of low birth of whom Agrippina did not approve. They favored anything that reduced his mother's influence over him. While they convinced Nero to dismiss his mother's partisan, Pallas, from his powerful administrative post, they were not implacably hostile to Agrippina. As Griffin has commented, "It was not the intention of Seneca and Burrus that Agrippina be removed from the scene. Their influence over Nero depended largely on the fact that they provided a refuge from her tactless and arrogant demands."
Gossip had it that Agrippina had even tried to seduce Nero in order to hold his loyalty and might have succeeded. In any case, Nero understood better than Burrus and Seneca that while Agrippina might be killed, she would never be quietly subdued. Having been separated from his mother in early childhood, as an older child and adolescent Nero had been her partner in deadly conspiracy. He had acquired his political morality from her. Agrippina and her son understood each other well; she began taking preemptive doses of antidotes against common poisons.
When Nero first began to plan Agrippina's death, Burrus kept Nero's confidence by agreeing to carry out his plan if there were actual evidence that she was conspiring against her son. While such evidence did not surface, the issue did not go away. Nero called in Seneca and Burrus for emergency counsel after another plot to kill Agrippina in the preplanned collapse of a pleasure boat failed. Agrippina swam to shore, and Nero was terrified of his mother's wrath. Whereas Burrus and Seneca conceded that an angry Agrippina who knew that her son was her deathly enemy could not safely be left alive, they escaped actual complicity in Agrippina's murder by warning Nero that the Praetorians probably would not follow orders to kill her. After all, not only was she descended from Augustus and Germanicus, but she had selected many of the Guard's officers for their positions. Thus, Nero was forced to call in a contingent from the navy to stab his mother in the bedroom of her villa.
A Significant Legacy
Among Agrippina's lasting accomplishments was her recall of Seneca from exile. She provided him residence in Rome and the financial resources that facilitated his completion of many works of significant influence on the Stoic tradition. She also left her own memoirs and, though they do not survive today, Tacitus used them extensively in constructing his picture of the reigns of the final Julio-Claudians. Nero, who had believed himself incapable of living with Agrippina, found that he was unable to live happily without her. Regardless of her private life and motives, Agrippina tried to ensure that Nero governed well and observed the proprieties. Tacitus characterized the rest of his reign: "Then he plunged into the wildest improprieties, which vestiges of respect for his mother had hitherto not indeed repressed, but at least impeded." Perhaps Nero's notorious misconduct was an effort to find distraction or a respite from guilt. Dio reported that he frequently saw his mother's ghost and rarely had a good night's sleep.
Further Reading on Agrippina the Younger
Balsdon, J. P. V. D., Roman Women, Barnes & Noble, 1962.
Dio Cassius, Dio's Roman History, Putnam, 1924, 1925.
Griffin, Miriam T., Nero: The End of a Dynasty, Yale University Press, 1985.
Levick, Barbara, Claudius, Yale University Press, 1990.
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin, 1957.
Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin, 1971.