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, from the second that Aeneas stepped onto the shores of Italy to the moment that Romulus Augustulus was deposed in the 5th Century AD, felt themselves to be the very modern point of a history that stretched back thousands of years. The tendrils of their history were real, living things that twined their way into their everyday lives, mostly through their family histories. Romans were a collective. Each individual existed primarily as part of a family and then as part of the Roman state, and those identities were considerably more important than any individuality. This is why about a third of the men and women in this book share the same couple of names and why daughters usually take a feminised version of their father’s name (Claudius/Claudia, Drusus/Drusilla, Agrippa/Agrippina, Octavian/Octavia and so on): their familial identity is the most important thing about them in a cultural sense. Without having a little bit of knowledge about Roman history, and the history of the Julian and Claudian families, virtually nothing about Roman culture in the first century makes sense. At the same time, a tiny bit of background about Roman history tells you an awful lot about how they saw women in a big picture sense, and what they thought the purpose and function of women was. So let’s have a whizz-bang tour of nearly a millennium of Roman history up until the birth of Agrippina’s parents.
Rome has two founders: Aeneas and Romulus. Aeneas was a child of Troy who escaped when it was sacked by the Greeks bearing a horse, carrying his father and household gods out of the ruined city. He travelled about a bit and eventually arrived in Italy and, long story short, becomes king of Alba Longa. A few royal generations later and a princess is raped by the god Mars resulting in twins. The princess is also a Vestal Virgin, and has therefore taken a vow of chastity. Rape is considered to be a violation of that vow (this is a theme we will return to) and so her sons are condemned to death as punishment. She tries to feed the twins to a wolf, who raises them instead (just keep going with me here). As demi-gods, the boys decide to found a city of their own, have a fight about which hill will be the best hill and Romulus kills Remus over it. So Rome get called Rome and Romulus seems pretty happy with the Capitoline hill as the capital/best hill. Romulus now needs to populate his city, so he rounds up some random men which is all well and good until they realise they are a city of exclusively men and that is both horrible and won’t last long. They need women. To get some women, the new Romans led by Romulus pretend to throw a party for their nearest neighbours, the Sabines, and steal all their women while the Sabine men are distracted. This is the Rape of the Sabine Women. The Sabine men, surprisingly, aren’t enormously happy that all their wives and daughters have been kidnapped so they start a war. However, the women are soft-hearted and don’t want either their fathers or their new husbands to die (having taken to the Romans for some reason. Stockholm syndrome probably), so they fling themselves between the two armies and stop the war. As a result of this action, the Sabines and Romans become united as one people under the dual kingship of Romulus and the Sabine king Titus Tatius.
Immediately in the foundation myths you can see the crystallising of some of the most important parts of Roman culture: respect for one’s father, respect for one’s gods, and the role of women as conduits and connectors between families. Women here function as links that tie peoples together, who bring peace and continuity in opposition to death and war. Men on the other hand are mostly violent, sexually violent and also violent. Easy right? Good. Because there’s more and to be honest, it’s all as gruesome as this.
So for the next few hundred years, the kings rule happily. There’s lots of good kings like Numa and everything is grand. Until the kings start to go bad, culminating in 509BC with the reign of Tarquinius Superbus (if you’re going to be an evil king, you may as well have an evil king name) Superbus’s son, Prince Sextus, develops a passion for a woman named Lucretia, a woman of high rank and higher morals who spends her evenings weaving woollen cloaks for her husband and being quiet. Sextus, being a depraved prince, is so aroused by Lucretia’s modesty and weaving skill that he rapes her, assuming she will keep quiet about the violation to her honour. However, Lucretia is also a woman of great moral strength and she immediately tells her father and husband and then kills herself to spare them the pain of having to do it (because, as we now know, rape counts as cheating). Her father and a sort of family friend who is invited for no real reason take her body, display it in the forum as evidence of the despotism of the king and thus incite a revolution, led by the family friend that overthrows the kings forever. That friend’s name? Lucius Junius Brutus.
This story, while exceptionally grim, also tells us an awful lot about the place of the female body in Roman culture. It represents a private space, invaded by the king. We also learn that even though Lucretia is raped and has told everyone that she has been raped, and everyone believes that this wasn’t an act of hers, she still bears the shame of adultery and must die. Her suicide is an act of masculine moral strength because she knows that her honour as a woman can never be restored. This is important. Remember this for later. Finally, we learn that things that happen to women that are out of the ordinary can cause massive social and political upheaval. Women drive historical narratives, but ideally by dying.
Back to the story. The kings are overthrown in 509BC and the republic is instituted by a collection of ancient aristocratic families known as the patricians. The republic is specifically set up to control both religion and politics, those things being inseparable. Two consuls take the place of the kings at the top of political ladder and take on the kingly duties between them. The rest of the political system is divided into offices, carefully set up to divide powers and stop anyone from gathering too much personal control over anything. Two consuls, for example, means that one could veto the other, preventing anyone from doing anything too terrible. The consuls were the head of the senate, made up of the patricians, who ruled as a consensus. Men obtained a political office through a very direct form of sort-of democracy that involves elections but is irrelevant here. You just need to know they exist. This setting up of the republic is the crowning glory of the Romans and the thing they are most proud of.
These themes of republic, of shared power and of consensus and agreement are key to understanding the early emperors. Without knowing how violently Romans were repulsed by the idea of hereditary monarchy, and how absolutely core the notions of shared rule were to the image that Romans had of themselves, the actions of the early Roman emperors look bizarre and inexplicable. At the same time, take note of the idea of the patricians: these are ancient families who have granted themselves authority purely on the basis of their age and basically everyone has agreed that they are better because they are older. That’s important too.
The republic ticks along alright for some centuries. There’s some fights between the patricians and the plebeians (i.e. people not in the senate) that are irrelevant by the time of Agrippina but which cause lots of waves of trouble that continue to simmer. Then the Romans start expanding their territory and the armies start to grow. At this point we are leaving the world of myth and are into reasonably well documented military and political history. Now Romans granted men who won great military victories a big parade called a triumph and an enormous amount of personal prestige and authority. This was fine when wars were fairly small and great victories were rare, but during the Punic Wars against Carthage in North Africa (modern Tunisia) and the destruction of that city in 146BC, massive victories became more common. The Punic Wars brought the Romans into contact with a lot of new people that they thought they might like to conquer, and so it brought some men a lot more personal glory and power than had previously been possible. The first two to emerge from this and cause trouble are Marius and Sulla. Marius gets so much personal power that he ends up being consul a terrifying seven times and Sulla is set up to bring him down a peg or two by replacing him as general in the east. Which is how the first civil war starts in 88BC. This bit is complicated and not very important but basically Marius dies, there’s a second civil war, Sulla becomes dictator for a few years then retires. Everyone expects that the republic will settle back to normal and recovery from the civil wars will be able to continue.
Apparently, however, no-one predicted that a lot of young men would see Marius and Sulla as idols to be imitated. Young men like Pompey, who came up through Sulla’s armies, and Julius Caesar, who was a supporter of Marius. Pompey is enormously successful in the East, defeating Mithradates in modern Turkey. Caesar, meanwhile, was conquering Gaul and writing books about it in the third person. In the middle was Crassus who was defeating Spartacus. Everyone was killing a lot of people and being praised a lot for it. You all know what happens here. There’s a civil war, Julius defeats everyone and becomes dictator like Sulla. Except unlike Sulla, who understood that dictator was a short term emergency position, Caesar decides to be dictator in perpetuity and makes his decision to be in charge of everything forever a bit too obvious. Mainly by telling everyone repeatedly that he was going to be dictator forever and letting Mark Anthony offer him a crown in front of people. So Brutus and chums give him 27 stab wounds and declare, once again, the monarch has been overthrown and the republic restored.
Again, no-one accounted for the ambitions of younger men. so when 19 year old Octavian, Julius Caesar’s newly adopted son, appears from no-where and starts calling himself Caesar and threatening people with swords, everyone is quite surprised. When Octavian turns out to have a chum named Agrippa who is a military genius and starts defeating his elders in yet another civil war, everyone is even more surprised. And a bit upset. Octavian defeats Brutus and pals, and then allies with Anthony to unofficially rule the empire. Except that was never going to last, so Octavian goes to war against Antony, defeats him at Actium and becomes king of the world. But not in name. What Octavian, who was a very smart young man, learnt from his adoptive father is that if you make your power explicit, Romans get stabby. What he did instead was continually insist, until the day he died, that the republic was fine, that he wasn’t in charge, that everyone could do exactly what they wanted if they wanted do. It’s just that he happened to have the best ideas and everyone agreed and stop looking at that sword over there. It’s not there.
Octavian defeated Antony in 31BC, after almost 200 years of continual war and almost 100 years of civil war. Rome was exhausted and now had an enormous amount of territory to rule, an effort that required a huge amount of paperwork. So the senate let him have his illusion of not being emperor because they were just happy that there were no more young and ambitious men left to threaten Octavian. So they gave him laurels and called him Augustus and pretended that he was just like them but the best of them. He was the Princeps: the first citizen.
Which just about brings us to where we begin. Agrippina’s parents were born in about 14BC and 16BC respectively. Octavian was granted the name Augustus, which solidified his position, in 27BC. What you will have noticed (hopefully) is that the second we slipped into history rather than myth, all the women disappeared. That was about 1000 words of men doing war and politics. Awful stuff. That’s because Roman history as told by the Romans is all about men doing war and politics while women are quiet. There are a few women who appear in these stories for some dramatic purpose. Cornelia Africanus, the mother of the Gracchi, is a powerful character from the very beginning of the civil wars: a widow who raised her children right. Cleopatra is a figure who has resonated through the centuries as a beautiful decadent powerful queen, presented by Octavian as everything a Roman woman should not be so that Antony’s liaison with her was reason enough to destroy him. Fulvia was Antony’s second wife who raised an army for him and was abandoned by him as a result. Octavian’s sister Octavia stood as a modern Sabine woman between her brother and her husband Antony until she was also abandoned in favour of Cleopatra. A litany of near forgotten woman were married off to create alliances and divorced when they fell apart. Women are quiet, private and do as they are told by their brothers, fathers and husbands for the most part, so they are not worth mentioning unless they are exceptionally bad (Cleopatra and Fulvia) or exceptionally good (Octavia and Cornelia) and are therefore useful to mention.
This is our final lesson from this tour of Rome: it is perfectly possible to tell a history of Rome after Lucretia that does not mention women at all. War and politics only involve men on an official level. Only men wrote histories. So, if a woman is included in the narrative of the original sources, it is because the male author has made an explicit and definite decision to include her and has a reason for it. Women in the Roman world are never a neutral. They can never simply exist in the public eye. When they are held up to be looked at, they always mean something. So let us turn to Agrippina…
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