Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore

By Emma Southon

A biography of the most extraordinary woman in the Roman world

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

A hello and a warning and some bits about Roman exile.

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. 


A Warning

Those of you who are on Twitter or like Love Island might already know that ITV2 has a new show starting Thursday 14th called Bromans about Bros becoming gladiators (please see trailer above or my reaction to the press release). Basically, ITV has decided to take hot young couples with a lot of tribal tattoos and hair extensions and make them lift weights and wrestle in the North African sun sexily and given it an "authentic" Roman theme. Obviously I am extremely into it so I have decided to write wee recaps/reviews of each episode for subscribers. So each Friday for the next few weeks, there'll be a wee Bromans update which you will either love or loathe but I'll mark them clearly so you can make your own decision! 

Some Stuff about Exile

As I am editing, I am cutting out lumps of stuff that I wrote when 90,000 words sounded like an impossible goal and I was worried that I wouldn't have enough stuff to write about so I spent ages worrying about details that don't matter. Now I have too many words and more important details to add, so I'm passing along some of the more interesting bits that will probably not end up in the book, though maybe some of this will be, with extra links. Enjoy!


Agrippina’s exile was to be carried out on the island of Pontia, now called Ponza, in the Tyrrean Sea. Ponza is about 70 miles off the coast of Naples, and is where her brother Nero also served out his exile. The island is a tiny volcanic place, but Agrippina would not be expected to live a life of total deprivation. The punishment was her being confined away from society, it was not to make her live in a cave. The island is beautiful, and has an Italian climate. It's got cliffs that fall away into the sea and the kind of views that make you want to weep. Archaeologists have found two villas on Ponza, both quite lovely. The biggest is almost 10 acres in size, has a little theatre of its own (there's a hotel inside it now), a solarium, those glorious views and little grottoes carved into the rocks that are full of fish. She also had a significant staff of slaves and freed slaves to look after her: she couldn’t be expected to do her own hair even now. In short, she has the kind of life that many a quiet soul, billionaire or writer would long for. A private island off the coast of Italy. A luxurious home. Fish ponds. The sea to swim in and massive staff to wait on her and then bugger off when she was bored of them. Given that we know that Agrippina was a very strong swimmer (more on that later), I particularly like to imagine her taking a morning swim each day. Wading into the green-blue sea and swimming until her arms were tired and she could barely see the shore that was her prison anymore.


Which is, of course, what it was. Effortlessly comfortable Richard Branson fantasy though it was, a private island is only really fun when you choose to be there. When you can never leave, when your brother is occasionally sending you letters reminding you that he owns swords as well as islands, when you may never see your son ever again, and when you are an imperial Roman woman, being on a private island--no matter how beautiful--is a torment. We know very, very little about what Roman exile was like, other than painful. We have just three reasonably well documented exiles, in that they wrote while they were in exile and those writings survived. They are, obviously, all men: Cicero, Ovid and Seneca. Cicero experienced an older, less restrictive form of exile that allowed him to go wherever he wanted except Italy. He mostly hung out in Albania and Greece until he was allowed to come home, and did little but write letters to his friends and family in Rome. His letters are dripping in pain, especially those to his wife, which are so tormented that you’d never know that he abandoned her a few years later for a young girl in his guardianship because he wanted the girl's cash. In exile, he writes long emotive letters full of heartbreak like


“though I am always wretched, yet when I write to you or read a letter from you, I am in such floods of tears that I cannot endure it ... if these miseries are to be permanent, I only wish, my dear, to see you as soon as possible and to die in your arms”


Cicero deeply mourns the loss of his wife and children, and also his house which was burnt down by his enemies. But on top of this, over and over, he also laments his humiliation. To be torn down from a position of power and strength, to be shown to be weak and to be thrown out of his own life. It is deeply, desperately humiliating. Even more than you can imagine because it is humiliation in a world where reputation is everything a man has. 

Ovid and Seneca experienced the much harsher punishment that Agrippina received and were confined to specific places. Like Cicero, Ovid wrote letters from exile, but unlike Cicero he managed to come across as a massive complainer. He bashed out 9 tedious books of poems to his friends that are almost entirely wingeing and asking for things, and a 650 line curse against his enemies. Like Cicero, Ovid claims that he’d rather be dead that suffering exile, several times, in verse form and slightly hysterically. At one particularly heightened moment, Ovid compares his exile to the experience of the Greek Brazen Bull, a form of torture in which a person is popped inside a bronze bull and then a fire is lit underneath the bull’s belly. The person inside is slowly cooked and their screams escape from a hole in the bull's mouth, sounding like its bellow.

Obviously this is an appalling way to die, and very little like living on an island. But not to Ovid’s mind. As an exile, he was separated from his beloved Rome. While Cicero is interested in his position, his wife and his house in that order, Ovid is primarily interested in the city of Rome. He laments: “Rome is in my thoughts, and home, and longed-for places, whatever of mine remains in the city I’ve lost.” In a later letter, dedicated entirely to his patriotism, he wails “Where is better than Rome?” and  waxes lyrical about the places he misses most:


“I revisit the sites of the lovely city from my home/and my mind surveys it all with its own inward eye./Now the fora, now the temples, now the marbled theatres,/now I think of each portico with its levelled grounds./Now the grassy Campus that faces the lovely gardens,/the ponds and the canals, and the Aqua Virgo./But I suppose, the pleasures of the city being snatched away/in my misery, that I should at least enjoy all this countryside!/It’s not so much that my heart desires the fields I lost,/the noble landscapes of the Paelignian country,/or those gardens sited on the pine-clad hills/that view the junction of Via Clodia and Via Flaminia.”


            Ovid, in summary, misses the city of Rome more than anything else. He misses his wife, his friends, his daughter, but what he really misses is his country. He misses living in a beautiful city that makes him feel beautiful and special. He misses the glory and spectacle of Rome. He is also very clear and insistent that he misses being warm. Ovid was exiled to the Romanian coast, a town which is now a city called Constanța, which is excessively beautiful. To Ovid’s mind, it is the edge of the world. He writes a poem almost every winter (for eight years) complaining about being cold, about barbarians who wear trousers and don’t even speak Latin. He loathes it. There’s a statue of Ovid in a square named after him in the centre of Constanța now, and I can’t imagine much that would make him angrier.

Ovid’s exile was literally eight years of writing misery laden letters that his friends (including Germanicus) must have dreaded receiving, full of begging and pure sycophancy for Augustus as he essentially begged to be allowed to return home. He died in exile. It is interesting though that Ovid prostrated himself so fully in his exile poetry. He died while he was halfway through writing an epic poem describing every festival in the Roman calender (the Fastii) that it’s generally thought was his last ditch attempt to get back in Augustus’s good books by contributing to his programme of moral and artistic reform. Who knows if it would have worked, but every ounce of Ovid’s energy to the end was dedicated to grovelling to power for release.


            Seneca on the other hand, being deeply Stoic, refuses to be sad about anything at all in writing, or indeed have any feelings that could be identified from a distance. Instead--in a move that is either extremely patronising or admirable depending on your point of view--he writes letters to his mum telling her to stop being sad because he’s fine. Of course, Seneca got to go to Corsica, so he probably was mostly fine, but it is an unusual response to tell other people to stop being sad about you. This is Seneca’s stoicism at play, stoicism being a philosophy that teaches that one cannot change what happens in one’s life, only one’s own response to it. A Stoic should accept the good and the bad in life with the same calmness and aspire to the four great virtues: courage, wisdom, justice and temperance. To quote perhaps the most famous Stoic, 2nd-century emperor Marcus Aurelius:


 And let this truth be present to you in the excitement of anger, that to be moved by passion is not manly, but that mildness and gentleness, as they are more agreeable to human nature, so also are they more manly; and he who possesses these qualities possesses strength, nerves and courage, and not the man who is subject to fits of passion and discontent.


Obviously this is both sexist as hell and boring, but it was Seneca's one true love and he really went for it in his writing. Seneca was good friends with Agrippina. Agrippina had rescued him from being exiled once before when she still had influence over her brother, and it was she who eventually recalled him from exile in 49AD. Plus, Seneca was actually exiled by Claudius for banging Agrippina’s sister Livilla (she was re-exiled too), which raises some doubt about how temperate and Stoic he was outside of his writings. Still, he did a good job of pretending.


            So how did Agrippina react to being exiled? To her humiliation and isolation? To her separation from her husband and son? Of course we don’t know. Undoubtedly she wrote letters. She probably wrote to Seneca given how friendly they were. Her husband Domitius was still around for a little while so she probably wrote to him but he died of his dropsy at some point in 40AD and their son was sent to live her husband’s sister Domitia Lepida, so probably she wrote to her. Death would prevent letters getting to Domitus, though presumably someone wrote and told Agrippina that she was now a widow. I sort of assume that Gaius did. It seems like it would please him to break bad news. But did she write like Cicero the broken-hearted family man, or Ovid the grovelling urbanite, or Seneca the Stoic? Of course, she wrote like none of them. She wrote like an Imperial woman of a royal bloodline. And we have no idea what that might sound like.




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