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 and Stella Duffy’s book on Theodora both include the word too (“Goddess, Princess, Whore” and “Actress, Empress, Whore” respectively so at least I’ve broken out of the three adjectives trope. By adding another adjective. I am only moderately innovative). I can’t necessarily speak to why Bettany and Stella decided to use the term, but I can speak for myself. And I do want to be clear that I did not use the term lightly or without thought (and to be honest I rather thought that any publisher would make me change it until I noticed that it was on the Helen book), but that I did have my reasons.

 

The first is that Agrippina is remembered in both ancient and modern sources in this way. Not necessarily using this word exactly, but her sexual behaviour is widely questioned and she is regularly accused of unacceptable use of her sexualitiy. Now obviously, “unacceptable” is a culturally relative term. For the Romans, the fact that Agrippina openly had control of her sexuality, chose who she slept with and married seemingly made those decisions without worrying too much what people thought of her was all entirely unacceptable. These were a people whose most lauded woman was one who killed herself because she was raped and had thus brought shame on her husband and father. This was a people who legally allowed men to murder their wives if they were believed to have been adulterous. A woman's sexuality never belonged to her as an individual in Roman culture, and so Agrippina’s willful control of who and what she knobbed was not ok at all. And so Agrippina is accused of all kinds of things, which mostly boil down to “chose her own sexual partners, not all were her husband. Maybe.” Nonetheless, in the ancient sources she is certainly portrayed as unchaste, improper and unacceptable sexually.

 

In the modern sources, they’re about the same. Obviously the sexual behaviours tend to be switched up a bit, to fit the cultural context in which they’re produced. There’s no point accusing a woman in the 21st century of controlling her sex life as if that’s a bad thing because *massive shrug*. Instead she is regularly accused of using sex as a tool to gain power, of essentially selling her sexual favours for power. Thus, Graves has his Claudius say:“Sexually, as I have said, she was completely immoral; yet she was by no means prodigal of her favours. She only slept with men who could be useful to her politically.” Because what is worse that a woman who doesn’t take sex seriously. Or takes it too seriously. It’s a lose/lose really isn’t it.

 

But here’s the thing, and the second reason that I included the word whore, she DID use sex for power. Whether she “rewarded” Pallas or Vitellius with a go on her tits is beside the point really (and I think does a disservice to Agrippina and to the men involved). I don’t think anyone would argue that she married her gross old uncle Claudius, with his dribbling and being 30 years her senior, and being her dad’s brother and previous legal guardian, because she massively fancied him. She married him because he was emperor, because he was the quickest route to power and he was amenable to it and he benefitted from it. More than anything it is this single act that gets her the epithet whore, and one which is central to her story. Because it deserves examination: is this morally reprehensible behaviour or not? Is it admirable to use the only leverage she had (as a potential wife) to get to the top?  And an examination of how Agrippina used her sexuality, what men said about her, and what the implications of all this are IS core to my book about Agrippina. So it only seemed right to include that in the title.

 

The final reason, the pragmatic reason, is that it fit the rhythm of the sentence the best. Which is why murderer isn’t in there. Sorry.

 

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