Roman Emperors Dir Agrippina The Elder

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Agrippina the Elder

Donna Hurley

Vipsania Agrippina, always simply Agrippina or Agrippina the Elder, when it is necessary to distinguish her from Agrippina the Younger, was a daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and of Julia, the daughter and only child of the emperor Augustus. Marcus Agrippa did not belong to one of Rome's distinguished families but had been one of Augustus' chief supporters in his rise to power and remained a trusted ally. In 21 BC Augustus rewarded him with marriage to Julia, hoping for a direct line of descent with Agrippa serving as regent, if necessary, until any male children came of age. He and Julia did not disappoint. They produced five children, but it was only the family of their second daughter, Agrippina, who would play an important role in the Julio-Claudian dynasty during the next century.

Augustus lost little time in claiming this family for himself. He quickly adopted the two oldest boys, Gaius, who was born in 20 B.C., and Lucius, who was born in 17. A daughter, Julia, was evidently born between the boys and Agrippina between 16 and 13. Augustus' plan for succession seemed in order until Agrippa died in 12 BC, and a second interim solution was necessary. It was provided by another marriage for Julia, this time to Augustus' stepson, the son of his wife Livia, Tiberius Claudius Nero, who would follow him as the emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was to serve as guardian for the young boys until they came of age. But plans miscarried again when the two died prematurely in AD 4 and 2 respectively. [[1]] A final arrangement involved Agrippina. In AD 4 Augustus adopted Tiberius and in doing so made him his heir. To further assure the continuation of the dynasty that he had founded, he had Tiberius adopt his own brother's son, the young Germanicus, although he already had a son of his own. Augustus further arranged that Germanicus marry his granddaughter Agrippina. Their union brought Germanicus closer yet to the imperial house. [[2]]

Wife of Germanicus

The marriage of Agrippina and Germanicus proved even more fertile than had that of Julia and Agrippa. Of their nine children, two died in infancy and another as a toddler, but six, three males and three females, survived to maturity. These offspring promised a stable future for the imperial house. Near the end of his life, Augustus brought the two oldest, Nero and Drusus, into the royal box at games and showed them off in order to advertise family continuity. They added to the popularity of Germanicus as well, and Agrippina acquired a well-deserved reputation for successful childbearing. [[3]]

In AD 12 Germanicus left Rome to assume command of the legions on the Rhine frontier. Agrippina joined him in 14 and, so far as is known, remained in the north until 17. They had with them their youngest son, two-year old Gaius. It was at this time that the little boy acquired his nickname Caligula ("Little Boots") from the footwear worn by the legionaries. Agrippina paraded him about dressed in a soldier's costume, another display of their children for the benefit of the imperial house. But she began to be accused of bringing attention to herself and to her husband at the expense of the present emperor. [[4]] When Augustus died in the late summer of AD 14, Agrippina was in Germanicus' camp near the present city of Cologne. The legions, dissatisfied with terms of their service, used the occasion to demand improved conditions. The unrest forced her to evacuate to a safer area in the south of the frontier region. In September of AD 15 she was once again in a forward position as she rallied discouraged legions returning from a difficult German campaign. She prevented the destruction of a temporary bridge across the Rhine and by her action gained a reputation for prowess and fortitude. The first two of her three daughters (Agrippina the Younger and Drusilla) were born during this period, both probably in the territory of the Treveri, near modern Koblenz. [[5]] Germanicus was recalled to Rome after the end of the campaigning year of AD 16. Agrippina returned with him, and their children, now numbering five, all took part in their father's triumphal parade in May of AD 17. Once again the great grandchildren of Augustus gave an effective public face to the imperial house. [[6]]

Next, Germanicus was given a special command (maius imperium, "greater power"), to settle affairs in Rome's eastern theater, Asia Minor today. Agrippina once more went with him, again with "Little Boots" in tow. Their last child, a daughter, Julia Livia (Livilla), was born in early 18 on the island of Lesbos on their way to his headquarters in Syria. In the autumn of AD 19, Germanicus died under suspicious circumstances. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso commanded the legions in Syria; Germanicus' authority overlapped his. Predictable animosity followed, and Piso would be accused of poisoning the young and popular prince. An additional layer of distrust was added by the allegation that Augustus' wife Livia incited Piso's wife, her friend Plancina, against Agrippina. But even without Livia's prodding, Plancina was jealous of Agrippina's superior status. [[7]] When Germanicus died, Agrippina was said to have received his dying words: He urged her to "lay aside her intractable temper" in order to avoid conflict with powers in Rome who were stronger than she was, and he asked his circle of friends to present the granddaughter of Augustus and his six children to the Roman people. Whether or not Germanicus actually spoke these words on his deathbed, the narrative legitimately anticipates the difficulties that would follow for Agrippina and their children. She returned to Italy dramatically bearing her husband's ashes. She was met first by an escort of praetorians and then, closer to Rome, by family members. She received the attention due a hero's wife. [[8]]

Hostility in the Court of Tiberius

Despite Germanicus' warning, Agrippina did become involved in court politics as an advocate for her own sons in opposition to Drusus, the natural son of Tiberius. While Germanicus lived, he had a circle of followers who anticipated the day when he would succeed Tiberius. These men now transferred their attention to his oldest sons, Nero and Drusus, who were in their early teens when their father died. Their mother anchored the hopes of the boys and their supporters. There was talk of a "party of Agrippina", although the label probably refers to a perception of court politics rather than to an organized movement. The intrigues of the ambitious praetorian prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus made the conflict more lethal, but Agrippina's personality evidently contributed to the hostile atmosphere. [[9]] Her strength and steadfastness could easily be read as ambition and arrogance. She possessed "insolent speech and a stubborn spirit". She was "impatient of equality, eager to be in charge and cast off the faults of women in exchange for the responsibilities of men." [[10]]

Conflict between the widow and the emperor grew more serious. She was attacked indirectly when her friends were attacked. At one point Agrippina asked Tiberius permission to remarry. He refused to answer her, for he understood the implications of her request; a fresh marriage would have allowed the granddaughter of Augustus to introduce a protector for her sons. Besides, although she was no longer very young, her known fertility might bring complications. Distrust escalated. Sejanus stirred up trouble by telling her that Tiberius wanted to poison her, and as a result Agrippina refused food from his hand; Tiberius did not forgive the insult. [[11]] Finally, Agrippina and her oldest son Nero were arrested, perhaps put under house detention as early as AD 27. When they were exiled to the Pontian islands off the coast of Naples in 29, crowds protested in the streets. Agrippina's second son, Drusus, was arrested in 30 and kept in Rome. Nero was forced to suicide in 31. Agrippina remained intractable even as a prisoner; on one occasion her behavior earned her a beating so severe that she lost an eye. She starved to death in 33, either intentionally or because food was withheld. Drusus died of starvation the same year. The day she died was declared a holiday. [[12]]


Germanicus and the granddaughter of Augustus continued to provide political capital for their children and grandchildren. Agrippina's last surviving son, Gaius, survived the purges of Sejanus and Tiberius to become emperor in 37. One of his first acts upon accession was to retrieve the relics of his mother Agrippina and his brother Nero from the islands where they had died and to give them proper burial in the Mausoleum of Augustus. [[13]] Her three daughters, Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla, were players in the power struggles that took place during the reigns of Gaius and Claudius. The oldest of them, Agrippina the Younger, became the wife of Claudius and then the mother of the emperor Nero.


Barrett, A. A. Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Empire. (1996) New Haven, London.

Hurley, D. W. "The Politics of Agrippina the Younger's Birthplace," AJAH n.s. 2.1 (2003) 95-117.

Kaplan, M. "Agrippina semper atrox: a Study in Tacitus' Characterization of Women," in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History I. (1978) 410-17.

Levick, B. "Drusus Caesar and the Adoptions of AD 4," Latomus 25 (1966) 227-44.

________. "Julians and Claudians,". Greece and Rome 2nd ser. 22-23 (1975-76) 29-38.

________. Tiberius the Politician. (1976) London.

Santoro L'hoir, F. "Tacitus and Women's Usurpation of Power,". CW 88 (1994) 5-25.


[[1]] Tac. Ann. 1.3. Suet. Aug. 63.2, 64.1, 65.1; Tib. 15.2. Dio 54.8.5, 18.1, 28.3-5; 55.10a.8-9.

[[2]] Germanicus was the son of Tiberius' deceased brother Drusus. His name was Germanicus Julius Caesar after his adoption by Tiberius. To achieve even greater redundancy for the succession, Augustus adopted his last surviving grandson, Agrippa Postumus, at the same time. Postumus was born in 12 BC after the death of his father Agrippa. He would prove unsuitable to rule as time passed-- or so it was claimed -- and he was killed at the opening of Tiberius' reign. Agrippina's older sister Julia was already married to L. Aemilius Paulus. At the time of her marriage (about 4 BC), the succession was assumed to be firmly in order, and so she did not play a part in the plans as Agrippina would. Julia was exiled in AD 8 and died in disgrace. Tac. Ann. 1.3, 5-6, 33; 4.71. Suet. Aug. 63.2, 64.1, 65.1 and 4; Tib. 15.2, 22; Cal. 7. Dio 54.31.2; 55.13.2; 57.3.5-6.

[[3]] Suet. Aug. 34.2; Cal. 7. Agrippina was "characterized by her outstanding fertility" (insigni fecunditate), Tac. Ann. 1.41; 2.43.

[[4]] Tac. Ann. 1.69. Suet. Cal. 8.1 and 4; 9. Dio 57.5.5.

[[5]] Tac. Ann. 1.40-44, 69. Suet. Cal. 8.3, 9. Dio. 57.5.5-6. Hurley, pp. 110-17.

[[6]] Tac. Ann. 2. 41.

[[7]] Tac. Ann. 2.43, 54, 57, 69-71. Suet. Cal. 1.2, 2, 10.1. Dio 57.18.6-9. Livia's hostility also at Tac. Ann. 1.33; 3.17; 4.12.

[[8]] Tac. Ann. 2.71-72; 3.1-4.

[[9]] Tac. Ann. 4.12, 17, 39-40, 54. Barrett, p. 33. Drusus died in 23, Tac. Ann. 4.8-10.

[[10]] Tac. Ann. 1.33; 4.12, 17, 39, 53, 60; 5.3; 6.25. Suet. Tib. 53.1, 55.

[[11]] Tac. Ann. 4.23, 52-4, 68; Suet. Tib. 52.3, 53.1-2; Barrett, pp. 32-9.

[[12]] The circumstances and chronology are unclear. Tac. Ann. 4.60, 67, 70; 5.3-5; 6.23-25. Suet. Tib. 53.2, 54.2; Cal. 7. Dio 57.22.4b; 58.8.4, 22.4-5. Barrett, p. 37.

[[13]] Suet. Cal 15.1. Dio 59.3.5.

Copyright © 2004, Donna Hurley. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
Comments to: Donna Hurley

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