Another of my absolute favourites. This woman had everything: family, power, status. Oh, a few rumours of poison and incest here and there, but who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in their closet?
And yes, my fascination for her led to the short story “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary” and “The Patrician” and indeed the whole four story collection Love and Romanpunk. This is what happens when I embrace my obsessions.
The thing that came as most of a surprise to me, in writing those stories, was that I couldn’t write a sympathetic Livia and a sympathetis Agrippina in the same universe. No matter how much I fictionalised them, they hated each other too much. So Livia has to wait until I have a year or two to set aside in search of The Great Romanpunk Novel, which will have her relationship with Octavian front and centre.
In the mean time, Agrippina gets to slander Grandma with great abandon, and embrace the smugness that comes from having a suite of short stories in her honour. And, you know, being portrayed as a manticore-slaying superhero.
I didn’t say the stories were *entirely* historically accurate. If I cause Tacitus to turn in his grave a little, job done.
Agrippina was one of the many daughters of Golden Germanicus and angry, political Agrippina Major. She was the sister of Caligula – and, like their other sister Drusilla, was said to have committed incest with him at a very young age.
(Suetonius and Tacitus really did have far too much interest in other people’s sex lives)
Agrippina had an unstable childhood – both her parents died young, leaving her to the mercy of her strict, elderly aunt Antonia. Agrippina was married to someone mostly-unimportant, and had a son, Nero. When Caligula became emperor, Agrippina and Julia Livilla were garlanded with honours and status like their sister Drusilla, but both of them soon fell out with their brother and were exiled.
When Caligula died, Uncle Claudius was put on the throne, and seemed to make a pretty good job of it despite the Matter of Messalina.
Almost as soon as his wife was executed for adultery, Claudius started looking for a replacement. He and his advisors drew up a shortlist of appropriate women. When his eye fell on his 30-something niece Agrippina, recently returned from exile, he threw away the list and went for Totally Inappropriate, Please.
It was illegal to marry your niece, but Claudius changed the law. Marriage to your son’s daughter became legal, though marriage to your sister’s daughter was still officially incest. (gotta have standards)
Messalina had been specifically denied certain honours as the imperial wife. When her son was born, the Senate had offered her the title Augusta (previously only held by the elderly Livia and Antonia) but Claudius turned it down on her behalf. No thanks, too much honour for such a young and unimportant woman.
Not Agrippina, though. There was no honour too good for her. She was made Augusta lickety split. She also appeared on the state coinage with her husband (sometimes even on the same coin), something that hadn’t happened since the pre-imperial days of Antony and Octavia. Why was Agrippina allowed these honours when previous imperial wives hadn’t? Well, there is the teeny but important fact that she was descended directly from good old Augustus.
Augustus>>Julia>>Agrippina Major>>Agrippina Minor
Female bits aside, Agrippina had a better claim to the throne than Claudius himself.
Claudius then adopted Agrippina’s son Nero. Which was important, because he was a few years older than Claudius’ own son Brittanicus. To the Romans, adoption was exactly the same as a blood relationship (down to the finer points of genetic philosophy, though incest laws don’t apply if you want to marry an adopted son to a natural daughter). So Nero had been bumped to prime heir.
This turn of events has generally been portrayed by historians as a gross injustice, but if you consider Agrippina’s bloodline, it actually makes a lot of sense. Nero, as Agrippina’s son, had a direct line of descent from Augustus, while the best Claudius or his son could claim were the wife and sister of Augustus. Augustus was the key figure here – none of the later emperors had the same level of imperial kudos.
Then there’s the fact that Britannicus was the son of Messalina. No one ever came out and openly said “Hey, she slept around a lot, maybe he’s not Claudius’ actual son,” because it was irrelevant. By Roman law, once a father acknowledged a baby as his own, he couldn’t take that back no matter what information might come to light later. In a worst case scenario, Brittanicus was another adopted son, only one without as fine a pedigree.
So it totally made sense to have Nero as the top heir. Also, he was handsome (if a bit boofy) and generally charismatic. Possibly mad as a cut snake, but that has been challenged in recent years. Nero was no Caligula. If he was loopy, it was simmering under the skin, not out in open sight.
But this isn’t a story about imperial men – back to Agrippina! As wife of Claudius she had honour, prestige and was totally a princeps femina in the manner of Livia. As the mother of Claudius’ heir, she was likewise laden with honour, status, etc. And life was good.
And then she poisoned Claudius with a dish of mushrooms. Allegedly. And everything went to hell.
Oh, it all seemed pretty damn rosy to start with, when Nero became emperor. Agrippina was Queen of the World, almost literally. Her son honoured her – and not his wife, Claudius’ meek daughter Octavia – as the princeps femina, standing at his side as he ruled Rome.
Indeed, since he was only a teenager, it was Agrippina who ruled Rome. She was on the coins, and making all the political decisions. She also made damn sure that she was glorified as a pious imperial widow. Claudius was deified and, like Livia for Augustus, Agrippina was made her late husband’s high priestess.
It didn’t last. Nero got comfy in the top job, and with that came a mischievous urge to ridicule rather than commemorate his predecessor. Turning Claudius into a joke did not sit well with mummy dearest, as her own personal status was invested in the notion of Claudius the God. She was also concerned that Nero was influenced by his mistresses, and that he treated his wife Octavia appallingly.
Finally Agrippina spoke out, declaring in public that Nero was an embarrassment and unworthy of the position he held. She suggested that his stepbrother Britannicus (surprisingly, still alive at this point) would be a far more appropriate emperor.
Nero promptly poisoned Britannicus. Of course.
Spurred on by his mistress Poppaea, he decided that Agrippina also had to go. He started by exiling her to her riverside estate, but his paranoia grew the longer she was away and resolved that he was going to have to kill her before she killed him first. He didn’t want to be accused of matricide (THERE HAVE TO BE STANDARDS APPARENTLY), so decided to kill her as discreetly as possible, so he could never personally be implicated.
Here’s where the whole thing turns into something out of a Carry On film.
Nero’s first attempt to murder his mother went very badly. He arranged for an elaborate trap to be built into a bed that was delivered to Agrippina; it was designed to collapse on her, but didn’t.
Next, he sent a message claiming to forgive his mother for her various crimes against him, and invited her to join him for a religious festival. He provided the boat.
Agrippina set sail for Rome, but the boat started “mysteriously” sinking before they’d got far from shore. What Nero had not taken into account was that his mother could swim. Also, she wasn’t stupid. When the sailors called out for survivors, (apparently not all of the ship sank, just the bit that had Agrippina in it), Agrippina’s maidservant lost her head and screamed that she was Agrippina, guessing that only the Lady herself would be rescued.
Nero’s men rowed out to the maidservant, and beat her head in with oars. Agrippina herself, sensibly silent, swam for the shore.
When Nero got word that his mother was still alive, he gave up on subtlety, and sent a pack of men with big shiny swords.
Here’s where it gets rather less like a Carry On film: they slaughtered her.
It is said that when the men with swords arrived, and she realised (as the previous attempts had apparently not made her realise) that her son really wanted her dead, she lay down without a murmur and let them do it.
Finally, it is said that when Nero came to the house to view her dead body, he fingered her limbs and talked about how beautiful she was. Icky.
Agrippina was a feisty, powerful woman who manipulated her way through life. There’s a statue in the National Museum at Naples that shows her as she might have been towards the end of that life: tired, sad, and waiting for the end. But her ambition for her son knew no bounds, and by this measure she was a major success.
My favourite historical tidbit about Agrippina is that she wrote a book. Many of our surviving historians used her book as a source. Tacitus claimed that this is how he knew she killed Claudius, though I find it highly unlikely that she would have publicly confessed this major crime.
Other sources suggest that it was a book about her family – her mother Agrippina, father Germanicus, great-grandfather Augustus, great grandmother Livia… oh, it sounds like a hell of a book. If any of you get hold of a time machine, that’s the item I’m putting in an order for.
But of course, being the impatient wench that I am, I went and wrote my own.
I’m reprinting the (reworked) series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.