A biography of the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world
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.
A hello and a warning and some bits about Roman exile.
Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Hi pals! How are you? I am editing away as hard as I can and occassionally wondering what I was thinking when I wrote some bits, and sometimes thinking that I am brilliant and I can't wait for you all to read this! So if you could all promise to enjoy the good bits and ignore the rest, I'd like that.
But this isn't just a pointless check in. It's also a warning and a present.
Tuesday, 22 August 2017
It's 11pm here in Belfast and this has just happened...
The first scrappy wee draft is done! That was the fun bit. Now editing phase one starts...wish me luck!
Writing Retreat Redux
Thursday, 10 August 2017
In an effort to get this book in your hands as soon as I can, I have been on another little writing retreat in Donegal where I managed to knock out 11,000 words in 2.5 days. And that's WITH a sofa nap every day. I don't know why I am still surprised that having no access to the internet or Twitter is astonishingly good for getting stuff written that is more interesting than memes but I am. Not that…
Sneaky extract: A Brief History of 750 years of Rome.
Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Before we leap into the life of Julia Agrippina, we need some context. Agrippina lived in a culture that is quite alien to our own, and which valued its history and its religion very much. Romans in every stage of Roman history…
Thursday, 27 April 2017
Last time I wrote, lovely readers, I was off on my writing retreat and it was absolute bliss. Honestly, I have not had such a good time since the first two years of my PhD. And I LOVED doing my PhD. My in-laws let me borrow their holiday home in Donegal. If you've never been to Donegal, you should get on a plane right now because there is nowhere more gorgeous. Thankfully, it rained the whole time…
I've been thinking about Roman Religion
Sunday, 5 March 2017
About 9 months ago I started a Roman tinyletter called U Wot MVIII. One of the things I decided to document every week was Roman religious festivals and observances, thinking that there’d be a few a year and it would be fun. I’ve never studied Roman religion in any depth beyond undergraduate survey courses. I’ve always been a historian rather than a classicist, and gods and myths have never interested…
Fictional History and Historical Fiction
Friday, 10 February 2017
I’m going to start with two quotes that have been bothering me lately. Because I have the kind of extremely verbal brain that only gets text-based earworms. The first comes from Stefan Zweig writing in 1931 about the poetry of History (capitalisation there is his, though he was writing in German so I guess the capitalisation is the translator’s):
“Happily this respect for the facts, for…
Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium
Monday, 23 January 2017
Hello everyone! my new year resolution for 2017 was mostly to write more and that includes here. So i thought I'd show you some exciting photos from my trip to Cologne last week.
As you MIGHT know, the city of Cologne was founded as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium in 50AD by our own Agrippina the Younger in order to celebrate her own birth. the city was founded at the location of an altar built…
Friday, 15 July 2016
I have just recieved the postcards that will make up my new pledge level so I want to show them off because GOSH they're so pretty!
The front shows a frieze of Agrippina dressed as a sexy goddess crowning her son Nero as emperor. As a piece of iconography, this is staggering as she is quite literally saying that she has the power to grant the throne to whomever she wants. She herself is wearing…
"Influence is rarely lasting. Such is its fate"
Monday, 2 May 2016
So I decided to start a TinyLetter. A collection of thoughts and anniversaries and interesting things that I come across as I research and go about my merry way, things that don't make it to twitter or the blog. I'll post most of the content here too, but if you want some extra Romans in your life, you can sign up at https://tinyletter.com/Agrippinilla
This Week in History
“Do not act…
David Cameron ****** a Pig...and the Romans
Monday, 29 February 2016
This is me doing clickbait titles. And by using a slightly out of date reference that people will only just remember I’m maintaining the tradition that ancient historians are always a little behind everyone else when it comes to modern events.If David Cameron Fucked A Pig is too 2015 for you, Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer fits this too. Now most people won’t read past probably this bit (so my friends…
Was Agrippina a Whore?
Sunday, 31 January 2016
I suppose I should write something in these wee boxes, and make it worth everyone’s while and ££ to be interested in this project. So I decided to write about something that has come up a couple of times: the decision to include the word ‘whore’ in the title.
Obviously, this is a somewhat contentious issue, and one that is exacerbated by the fact that Bettany Hughes's book on Helen of Troy…
These people are helping to fund Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore.