Agrippina the Younger held a unique position in the first Roman imperial family. As great niece of Tiberius, sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero she stood at the centre of power in the Roman empire for three generations. Even in her own time, she was recognised as a woman of unparalleled power. From exile to being hailed empress, across three marriages and three widowhoods, her life, power and role were extraordinary in their scope and drama. Beautiful and intelligent, she is alternately a ruthless murderer and helpless victim, the most loving mother and the most powerful woman of the Roman empire. She is portrayed in ancient sources as using sex, motherhood, manipulation and violence to get her way, and single-minded in her pursuit of power for herself and her son. Agrippina’s life sheds light on the Julio-Claudian dynasty and Rome at its height - the chaos, blood and politics of it all - as well as the place of women in the Roman world.
This book follows Agrippina as a daughter, born to the expected heir to Augustus’s throne, who was then orphaned, as a sister to Caligula who raped his sisters and showered them with honours until they attempted rebellion against him and were exiled, as a seductive niece and then wife to Claudius who gave her access to near unlimited power, and then as a mother to Nero who adored her until he killed her. She was 44 when she died. It takes us from the camps of Germany during a mutiny, through senatorial political intrigue, assassination attempts and exile to a small island, to the heights of imperial power, thrones and golden cloaks and games and adoration. We will see Agrippina found her own city (Cologne), live up to and then flaunt the greatest ideals of Roman femininity and motherhood, and explore the absolute limits of female power in Rome. The biography of Agrippina is also the biography of the first Roman imperial family - the Julio-Claudians, and of the empire itself.
On approximately 6th November AD 15, Vipsania Agrippina gave birth to her fourth living child, her first daughter, in a Roman garrison on the banks of the
Rhine, the very edges of the Roman empire. Her father Germanicus named her after her mother and grandmother: Julia Agrippina, immediately causing trouble
for future historians trying to untangle the web that is the Julio-Claudian family tree. Her parents exemplified this web. Vipsania Agrippina, commonly
called Agrippina the Elder, was the daughter of Agrippa - Augustus’s right hand man - and Julia - Augustus’s daughter. In AD 15 she was simultaneously the
stepdaughter, niece and daughter-in-law of the reigning emperor Tiberius. Her husband was Tiberius’s biological nephew and adoptive son. Tiberius's full
name was Tiberius Claudius Nero. His father was called Tiberius Claudius Nero. It is possible that both his biological nephews were named Tiberius Claudius
Nero. We now call them Germanicus and the emperor Claudius. All of Agrippina and Germanicus’s daughters were named Julia. And so goes aristocratic Roman
naming conventions and aristocratic Roman families: they all have the same names and they’re uncomfortably incestuous with their marriages. Which brings us
back to Agrippina and Germanicus, who were married somewhere between 5-1BC, and who were (non-biological) cousins via a complex network of adoption and
The marriage of Agrippina and Germanicus was contracted by their families to once again cement together the two halves of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had been brought together by Livia and Augustus and which was vital to the maintenance of power in Rome at the beginning of Augustus’s reign. The Claudii were an ancient and enormously aristocratic family with massive cultural capital. Much like the Kennedys or the Rockefellers in America but much, much older. The antiquity and longevity and reputation of the Claudii added a considerable weight to the new, military backed power that Julius Caesar had bequeathed to Augustus. In an imperial system that still required the illusion of a functioning senate, alliance with an ancient and powerful family was useful. Bringing together these two families into one big tangle of a family via marriage gave all the members a huge web of influence and power, which could then be built upon with further marriages and alliances. It’s complex and frankly gives me a headache trying to work it all out. But on the ground, at a grass roots level, it means that Agrippina, daughter of Julia, was married to her stepfather’s adoptive son and this was considered to be broadly fine rather than staggeringly weird. The Romans have always had strange ideas about marriage though. One of their root foundation myths is the Rape of the Sabine Women, which sounds horrifying enough in name alone. In practice, it even odder. The story goes that the first Romans, led by Romulus, found that they had a distinct lack of ladies in their new city and the local tribesmen wouldn’t let them legally marry their women. So the Romans wandered next door to the Sabine peoples, abducted a load of their daughters and forcibly married them. Now, fairly obviously, the Sabines weren’t enormously keen on this as an act - they rather liked their daughters being around perhaps, or at least weren’t happy about them being straight up kidnapped by these new guys with their fancy new city - and so they declared war on the Romans. The war was bloody and nasty, and upset the fragile women who flung themselves between their new husbands and their fathers, took responsibility for the war and begged the men to stop the killing. Hearts touched, and maybe a little distracted, all the men agreed to be friends and the women agreed to stay in Rome and be wives to their abductors. And thus, women came to Rome and all was well, apart from the abducting and the war and the fact that this enshrined into myth the idea that women’s major function is as a point of contact between men.
[24/05/17] For a short time, I am making this extract available to everyone. Enjoy!
This is a sneaky bit of the introduction, a little bit of historical and cultural context before we leap into the main narrative with Agrippina's parents. It's an un-edited first draft so try to be kind.
Before we leap into the life of Julia Agrippina, we need some context. Agrippina lived…
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