Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore

By Emma Southon

A biography of the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world

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 intermarriage.

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. [i]

Another excellent story which really enshrines this idea into a slightly more modern (in Roman terms) context is that of Cato the Younger and his wife Marcia, who were contemporaneous with, but slightly older than, Julius Caesar. The story goes that a friend of Cato’s named Hortensius wanted to enter his family and so asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately, Cato’s daughter was already married to someone else, and was 40 years younger than Hortensius, and so Cato refused. Undeterred, and suffering no lack of gall, Hortensius then requested that - as Marcia had already born heirs but Hortensius was childless - Cato divorce Marcia and let him marry her. After what one imagines was an awkward pause, Cato agreed. And thus, Marcia was divorced and married off to Hortensius until Hortensius died, when she returned to Cato. This story was told by biographers as proof of Cato’s excellence, honour and willing to rate men over women.[ii]

So, the idea of marrying people off in ways that we would now see as worthy of a daytime TV talkshow where chairs get thrown were at least slightly normal amongst aristocratic Romans, where marriage was a contract between men more often than it was a union between two people who had any interest in one another. And for that reason it is genuinely nice to see that Agrippina and Germanicus appeared to have had a happy marriage. They had 9 children together (3 of whom did not survive past infancy), a number which is truly exceptional among the Roman elite who at the time Augustus was attempting to bribe into having children at all with new laws that rewarded individuals for having 3 children. Moreover, Agrippina accompanied Germanicus on all his military and non-military trips around the empire, including to the grim German army encampments. But then Agrippina and Germanicus are individually exceptional in a lot of ways. We’ll get Germanicus out of the way first, as this book is about women. And Agrippina manages to stay alive longer than her husband.

Germanicus was the grandson of Mark Anthony, through his mother Antonia Minor. She is known as Antonia Minor because her older sister was also called Antonia. We’re going to have to deal with a lot of this. Antonia was a somewhat terrifying woman, who allegedly starved her own daughter - Germanicus’s sister - to death for committing adultery. We’ll talk about her more later. Germanicus was probably named Nero Claudius Drusus at birth, probably, no one is sure, but became known as Germanicus after his successful campaigns in Germany. And Germanicus was adored by the Romans, especially by those Romans who never met him like historians and biographers writing 80 years after his death, and the general population of Rome. The people who met him were, to be honest, rather more split on how much they liked him. But historians and the plebs worshipped him, and he is remembered in writing as essentially a demi-god. He gets compared to Alexander the Great by Tacitus, despite winning only the one small war. This limited actual success deters no Roman writer, who tend not to be limited to mere truths, and Tacitus tells us that Germanicus “outdid Alexander in the great in clemency, self-control and every other good quality” even though, again, he provides only evidence to the contrary. Suetonius meanwhile half dehydrates himself so furious is his adoration, and six chapters of Caligula’s biography are dedicated to spunking praise on his father. Germanicus is handsome, smart, funny, he kills men in hand to hand combat like Achilles but is so desperately modest you’d never know it, everyone falls in love with him where ever he goes, except those who are jealous of him like mean old Tiberius, and to them Germanicus is kind and tolerant. He has bandy legs, but he works every day after dinner to strengthen them by riding horses. Truly, according to our sources, he is a literally perfect man. According to both Tacitus and Suetonius, when Germanicus came to town, people would follow him around, and run twenty miles outside of Rome to meet him. Indeed, he was “in danger of being mobbed to death whenever her arrived at Rome.” Basically, Germanicus was The Beatles. And much like the Beatles, he insisted upon being a real life, quite disappointing, person rather than the cypher that teenage girls and grown historians want him to be. Germanicus’s version of being in Wings however was - in essence - everything that he did bar killing some Germans. And even in Germany, he managed to be quite unimpressive.

Germanicus made his name and reputation in a war with various German tribes between the Rhine and the Elbe immediately following the death of Augustus in AD14. Germanicus arrived in Germany about 15 minutes before the news that Tiberius had decided not to decommission any soldiers who had been enlisted for less than 20 years. The length of service was supposed to be 16 years. Instantly, the troops mutinied. And quite reasonably. Many of them had been in service for almost two decades, and in service means marching about in Germany, a place that the Romans feared and loathed, in the cold and constant rain, with very limited rights. Soldiers weren’t allowed to marry for example. Their conditions were also horrendous. As Tacitus puts it, the mutineers shows “their lash-marks, their white hair, their tattered clothes.” Tacitus also points to some soldiers who had served for thirty or forty years. It’s not hard to empathise with them. Germanicus struggles to put down the mutinies, partly because his power to meet their demands to get paid for their service and be allowed to go home is non-existent, and partly because he’s bad in a crisis. His first approach to dealing with the mutiny begins with a long and tedious speech about loyalty, goes through some weeping and ends with him faking a suicide attempt in front of everyone so they’ll stop him. Except one soldier offers him a sharper sword, so he goes off in a huff. At this point, Germanicus has three kids, is in his late twenties, commands a huge army, is first in line for the throne if something happens to Tiberius, and he’s acting like the protagonist in a very low quality YA book. Despite this initial failure, he does stick around - with his heavily pregnant wife and 3 year old son - and does some more crying in a tent and bombastic speeches, until Agrippina takes things into her own hands and very conspicuously leaves telling the troops that they can’t be trusted around the granddaughter of Augustus. This triggers a shame mechanism in the highly loyal troops, who adore her and her son Caligula, and effectively the mutiny dies down. Germanicus takes all the credit, gives some more speeches and then makes the troops themselves kill the mutiny leaders to teach everyone a lesson. And then he cries about that too. The reason that Tacitus has Germanicus crying all the time is probably not because he was somewhat emotionally unstable - although his tendency to whip out a sword and threaten suicide at the sign of the slightest misfortune is disturbingly frequent - but because he was attempting to cast him in the classical model of hero in the style of Achilles. Weeping within the Greek archetype was seen as a perfectly masculine and virile manner of grieving and so many of the Greek heroes weep a lot. Think Achilles weeping over the body of Hector after he has killed him and then mutilated his corpse. This is what Tacitus is alluding to when he has Germanicus cry over the mutineers. Notably, a recent scholar called Germanicus “unstable” as a result of his crying, which is rather a modern judgement. It also is a take that is a little credulous. Tacitus’s heroic allusions in his construction of his Germanicus are so strong as to be unbelievable so we can take all the details above with a fistful of salt. What we do know is that he did put down the mutiny eventually, that Agrippina was a part of that success, and that in order to raise everyone’s morale after the punishments, he decided to attack a nearby German tribe and start a war.

[i] See Livy Book 1.9-13 and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus for more detailed versions.

[ii] This all comes from Appian’s Histories, Lucan’s Pharsalia and Plutarch’s life of Cato Minor.

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