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Women of the Empire – Agrippina the Elder
Raven Kamali

Agrippina the Elder was born in 14 BC. She was the fourth child of Julia (the daughter of Augustus) and Marcus Agrippa. She had two elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, born 20 and 17 BC, respectively, a sister named Julia close to her age, and a younger brother, Agrippa Postumus, born in 11 BC.

At the age of two, Agrippina’s father died, and her mother was married off to the future Emperor Tiberius. The disastrous marriage did not last long. Tiberius abandoned Julia, and she went to live her life according to her own desires, which saw to her permanent banishment when Agrippina was twelve years old. It is unlikely that Agrippina was ever allowed to visit her mother in exile. Thus, Agrippina grew up without a mother. And her step-grandmother, Livia, had absolutely no affection for her. According to Tacitus, she had a stepmother’s aversion to Agrippina. And her great-aunt, Octavia, who was by nature an affectionate woman, was not around while she was growing up – she had died eleven years earlier.

Agrippina had two aunts: Antonia the Elder and Antonia the Younger, the daughters of Octavia and Mark Antony. The former was married to Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus; the latter to Drusus the Elder, the brother of Emperor Tiberius. She would have been closer to Antonia the Younger than Antonia, the Elder. The former had three children: Germanicus, Livilla, and Claudius (the future emperor). Germanicus was a year older than Agrippina, Livilla, a year younger, and Claudius, four years younger. Three perfect playmates for young Agrippina.

Her two elder brothers, adopted by Augustus, may not have had much interaction with her as they were being groomed for public office. And they both died when Agrippina was a teenager. Gaius died when she was eighteen and Lucius when she was sixteen. We don’t know how close she was to her sister, Julia, or her brother, Postumus. She probably was close to her sister as a child, but that relationship would have ended when the girls grew older. Julia had a wild and extravagant nature that eventually led to her exile in AD 9. How close she was to her brother, Postumus, cannot be gauged either. Postumus seemed to have been an angry young man, so probably he wasn’t very sociable as a child. He was exiled in AD 7 and was executed in AD 14.

Thus, given the circumstances of her early life, we can be reasonably confident that she would have experienced a degree of emotional neglect. But Agrippina was too intelligent a child to allow any form of neglect, emotional or otherwise, to have any effect on her bold spirit. She would prove to be both strong and courageous as a young woman. Tacitus described her as a woman who knew no feminine weakness.

Agrippina was nineteen when she married her cousin, Germanicus, with whom she had grown up and was very much in love. She followed him everywhere, no matter how dangerous a situation. In AD 15, Germanicus, who was governor of the three Gauls and commander of the armies on the Rhine, was sent to quell a mutiny in the army of Lower Germany. And Agrippina went with him, even though she was heavily pregnant with their fourth child. Tacitus tells us that when Germanicus was criticized for keeping his baby son, Gaius (Caligula/Little Boots), and his pregnant wife in the camp and was urged to send them away, he pleaded with her to leave, but Agrippina scorned the proposal and reminded him that she was of the blood of the divine Augustus and would live up to it, whatever the danger. It was only when Germanicus burst into tears and clasped her and their son in his arms that he managed to persuade her to leave. The sight of her leaving shamed the troops and stopped the mutiny.

On another occasion, a rumor began behind the Rhine that the Roman army was cut off and a German force was on its way to invade Gaul. When some panicked and proposed for the bridge, which Germanicus had built across the Rhine to transport the troops, to be demolished, this great-hearted woman, as Tacitus described her, put a stop to it and took command. Tacitus quotes Pliny the Elder that Agrippina stood at the bridgehead to thank and congratulate the returning column. In her husband’s absence, Agrippina inspected the troops and exhibited herself before the standards with plans for money distribution. She also dispensed clothes to needy soldiers and dressed their wounds.

Agrippina’s actions in Germany unsettled Tiberius. As Tacitus points out, he already feared Germanicus’s popularity with his troops, and now his wife’s position was outshining generals and commanding officers. She had even managed to suppress a mutiny which the emperor’s own signature had failed to check. Tacitus further says that Tiberius wanted to seem the person chosen and called by the State and not as someone who had wormed his way in by an old man’s adoption and intrigues of the old man’s wife.

In AD 16, it so happened that there were disturbances in the Eastern provinces, with Armenia drifting into anarchy. It was a perfect opportunity for Tiberius to use the situation as a pretext, as Tacitus says, to separate Germanicus from his loyal troops and subject him to the intrigues and hazards of a new provincial command. So, he had the Senate entrust the Eastern provinces to Germanicus, with superior powers (wherever he might go) to those of all governors of imperial and senatorial provinces alike. At the same time, he packed off his son, Drusus the Younger, to Illyricum to accustom him to army life.

Though Tiberius sent Germanicus to the East with plenipotentiary powers, he made sure that his orders were disobeyed at every turn. To that end, he removed Syria’s imperial governor, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus Silanus, whose daughter was betrothed to Germanicus’s eldest son, Nero Caesar, and replaced him with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, a man with whom he had shared a consulship in AD 7. According to Tacitus, Piso was certain that the purpose of his Syrian appointment was the repression of Germanicus’s ambitions. His wife, Plancina, too, received instructions from Livia regarding the treatment of Germanicus and Agrippina.

Tacitus tells us that as soon as Piso arrived in Syria, his very first act was to replace centurions of long service and other senior staff of good character with his own dependants of bad character. He lavished the soldiers, even the humblest ones, with bribes, gifts, and every kind of favor and allowed military discipline to slide. Soldiers were permitted to roam about the countryside undisciplined, and soon the town fell into total disorder.

In AD 18, on his way to Syria, Germanicus visited Athens, where he received an excellent reception. Agrippina was with him and gave birth to their last child, Julia Livilla. Piso didn’t sit idle. In a savage speech, he insulted the Athenians by calling them the dregs of the earth and criticized Germanicus, without naming him, for his excessive compliments of them.

On another occasion, at a banquet given by the dependent king of the Nabatean Arabs, Germanicus and Agrippina were presented with heavy gold crowns, while Piso and his wife with lighter ones. Piso rudely pushed the crowns away and said that the guest of honor was the son of a Roman emperor, not of a Parthian king. This act embarrassed Germanicus, but he endured it and did not reprimand him. It is reasonable to believe that Germanicus would have been aware by now that Piso, a man with whom he had no prior quarrel, was not acting on his own but was instructed by Tiberius to undermine all his actions.

According to Tacitus, Germanicus was provided with a perfect opportunity to permanently get rid of Piso when a storm drove Piso’s ship onto the rocks, but instead, Germanicus sent warships to rescue him. This act of kindness failed to mollify an obdurate Piso. All he did was grumble that he was running late.

After settling the Armenian problem and renewing the alliance between Rome and Parthia, Germanicus went to Egypt to visit the many historical sites, including the pyramids. He also opened the public granaries and lowered the price of corn to relieve a sudden famine while he was there. Tacitus tells us that he walked about without guards, in sandalled feet and Greek clothes, and his behavior was generally popular.

We are told that Tiberius criticized Germanicus in mild terms for his clothes but reprimanded him severely for going to Egypt without his permission. Egypt was the emperor’s own private property and off-limits to all senators and knights unless they had his written permission. Augustus himself had set that rule to isolate Egypt, for whoever was in control of Egypt was in control of Rome. Eygpt was Rome’s source of grain. So, by holding it, an enemy could easily starve Italy to submission.

Why did Germanicus go to Egypt without Tiberius’s permission? We may accept the general view that Germanicus might have genuinely not thought of getting permission since he was the emperor’s adopted son and successor. After all, Augustus’s adopted son, Gaius, as Salmon states, did not need written permission to visit Egypt. However, Tiberius was not Augustus, and Germanicus was not Gaius. Tiberius was forced to adopt Germanicus as a condition to become Augustus’s successor. A fact that was not hidden from Germanicus. Tiberius had no fatherly or avuncular affection for Germanicus. Tiberius had his own biological son whom he wanted to see as his successor.

If Germanicus were ever in doubt of Tiberius’s malevolence towards him, Piso certainly would have put an end to it. Piso and his wife were openly hostile to Germanicus and Agrippina. Even ordinary soldiers were supporting Piso and his wife because they believed that everything was done with the approval of the emperor. Therefore, it is quite possible that Germanicus might have thought that his survival and the welfare of his wife and children depended on him going after the throne. And even if he didn’t think this way, Agrippina would have.

Agrippina had always been involved in her husband’s affairs. It is not reasonable to assume that she had no say in his visit to Egypt. She would have known that it was not legal. We are not told if she accompanied him to Egypt, but given that she went with him everywhere, there is no reason to believe that she didn’t this time.

While in Germany, Germanicus could have mounted a successful challenge to Tiberius’s position as emperor when his troops offered him their support if he wanted the throne. He refused. Visiting Egypt might have been a strategic move on Germanicus’s part, with Agrippina’s full support, to send a warning shot to Tiberius that he could unseat him anytime he wanted. After all, filial loyalty to Tiberius had not benefited him so far. He always had a guard with him everywhere he went in Athens, but not in Egypt. Perhaps a display for the benefit of Tiberius. He didn’t need any guards. He was secure in Egypt.

Upon returning to Syria, Germanicus learned that Piso had all his orders to divisional commanders and cities either canceled or reversed. According to Tacitus, there was a violent argument between the two men, and Piso decided to leave, but Germanicus suddenly fell ill. So, Piso stayed for a while. When news came that he was feeling better, which caused the people of Antioch to rejoice, Piso sent his attendants to disperse the crowds and then left Syria.

Examination of the floor and walls of Germanicus’s bedroom revealed the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with the patient’s name, charred and bloody ashes, and other malignant objects which, as Tacitus puts it, are supposed to consign souls to the powers of the tomb. Alarmed and angry, Germanicus put his illness to poisoning. In a letter to Piso, Germanicus ordered him out of the province.

Germanicus never recovered from his illness. He died at the age of thirty-three in Syria in AD 19. On his deathbed, he warned Agrippina of the danger from Tiberius and told her not to provoke those stronger than herself. He also left instructions to his friends for his death to be avenged. Waiting in Cos for Germanicus to die, Piso and his wife celebrated his death.

Both Tacitus and Suetonius tell us that everyone, including foreigners, mourned Germanicus’s death. Even the Parthian king canceled his hunting parties and banquets on receiving the news of Germanicus’s death. In Rome, business was suspended, courts were emptied, and houses shut. The new governor, Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus, chosen not by Tiberius but by the votes of senior officials, generals, and senators in Syria, prepared charges and indictments against Piso and Plancina. He also sent to Rome a woman named Martina, a notorious poisoner and a close friend of Plancina.

Tacitus tells us that Agrippina, unwell and exhausted by grief but impatient of anything that postponed revenge, took ship to Rome with Germanicus’s ashes and her children. On the advice of his friends, Piso and his wife set sail to Syria to resume his command after writing a letter to Tiberius. And as his ship passed Agrippina’s, hostile exchanges were made. Piso’s bid to regain the governorship of Syria was unsuccessful, and he was given a ship back to Rome.

Upon Agrippina’s arrival to Rome with her six young children (thirteen-year-old Nero Caesar, twelve-year-old Drusus Caesar, seven-year-old Gaius, three-year-old Agrippina the Younger, two-year-old Drucilla, and one-year-old Julia Livilla), there was great mourning. At the funeral, Tiberius and Livia were absent. Antonia was also not present. Tacitus thinks that Tiberius and Livia kept Antonia home so that the dead man’s grandmother and uncle might seem, by staying indoors, only to be following the mother’s example.

What would have angered Tiberius and his mother the most was the popular enthusiasm for Agrippina. Tacitus says that people called Agrippina the glory of her country and the only true descendant of Augustus and the unmatched model of traditional behavior. They gazed at the heavens and prayed for her children that they might live to survive their enemies. They were also upset that Germanicus had died far from home, so his body had to be cremated unceremoniously in a foreign land. In a statement Tiberius issued, he chastised the people for their excessive lamentation and told them to go back to work.

Piso was charged and tried for bribery of the troops, abandonment of the province to every rascal, insults against his commander, and murdering his commander by poison. At the trial, both Tiberius and Piso refused to produce private correspondence. Piso was convicted of every charge except poisoning. It couldn’t be proven. Livia secured a pardon for Plancina. And Martina never made it to Rome. She was found dead at Brundisium. Poison was found in a knot of her hair. However, Piso ended up committing suicide. Or so it appeared. Perhaps he was forced to do it. Tacitus recalls that when he was young, he heard older men speak of a document in Piso’s hand, which contained instructions from Tiberius relating to Germanicus.

Agrippina now found herself surrounded by enemies, including the sinister figure of Sejanus, the Praetorian Prefect, and a trusted adviser of Tiberius. This man nursed imperial ambitions of his own. However, there were three obstacles: Tiberius’s son, Drusus, and Agrippina’s two eldest boys. He first went after Drusus, who had struck him in the face after an argument. He seduced his wife, Livilla, Germanicus’s sister, and audaciously convinced her to poison her husband. Drusus died in AD 23 by poisoning, which appeared as an illness. Tiberius was devastated by the death of his son but was clueless as to the circumstances of his death. It would take eight years for the truth to come out.

Next, Sejanus went after Agrippina. Agrippina could never be charged with the crime of adultery. Her virtue was unassailable. Poison was deemed impractical as Agrippina and her sons had loyal attendants. The only charges that could stick would be treason and slandering the emperor. To that end, Sejanus set out to poison the relationship between Tiberius and Agrippina even more than it already was. Suetonius tells us that he sent his agents in the guise of friends to Agrippina, warning her that Tiberius was planning to poison her, so she must avoid dining with him. At the same time, he told Tiberius that he should test Agrippina’s trust by inviting her to dinner and offer her a piece of fruit. So, Tiberius invited Agrippina to dinner, but she wouldn’t touch her food. When he gave her an apple, Agrippina didn’t eat it but passed it to her servants. Her action infuriated Tiberius, and he complained bitterly to his mother.

In AD 29, Livia died. Her death made it easier for Tiberius to go after Agrippina and her two eldest sons. As much as Livia hated Agrippina, she still had a moderating influence on Tiberius as to how far he could proceed with persecuting Agrippina. According to Tacitus, Tiberius sent a harshly-worded letter to the Senate in which he denounced Agrippina and Nero Caesar. The youth was not accused of any actual or intended rebellion but homosexual indecency. Against Agrippina, Tiberius didn’t dare to invent a similar charge; instead, he attacked her insubordinate language and disobedient spirit. The Senate listened, as we are told, in terrified silence.

Agrippina and her son were both sent to exile. Nero Caesar was sent to the prison island of Pontia and Agrippina to Pandateria, where her mother was exiled. Suetonius informs us that when Agrippina protested, Tiberius had her beaten so savagely that she lost an eye. Drusus Caesar was next. Instead of sending him to a prison island, Tiberius had him imprisoned in the Palace cellar, where he was beaten repeatedly and savagely by guards and slaves. Nero Caesar was forced to commit suicide in AD 30, and Drusus Caesar was starved to death in AD 33. We are told that for eight days, Drusus gnawed at the stuffing of his mattress. According to Suetonius, their bodies were chopped up into so many pieces that it was with great difficulty they were found later for burial.

On receiving the news of Drusus’s death, Agrippina starved herself to death. Tiberius had her jaws prized open for forcible feeding but without success. After her death, Tiberius slandered her memory viciously, accusing her of adultery and shamelessly lying that she grew weary of living because of the death of a former lover. He even persuaded the Senate to decree her birthday as a day of ill-omen. Their bodies remained unburied until Gaius (Caligula) became emperor, whereupon he brought the remains of his mother and brothers back to Rome and buried them in the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Sejanus, who had come under suspicion by AD 30 for the murder of Tiberius’s son and having designs on the throne, was executed along with his many partisans and two young children – a boy and a girl – in AD 31. At the execution, the boy was aware of what was going on, but the girl had no idea. Tacitus tells us that she repeated uncomprehendingly: ‘What have I done? Where are you taking me? I will not do it again!’ She said that she could be punished with a beating like other children. Both children were executed by strangulation. The girl, however, was raped by the executioner first, as Roman law prohibited the killing of virgins. Livilla, too, paid for her crimes of killing her husband and allowing herself to be seduced by Sejanus. She was starved to death. People hated her so much that even her statues were destroyed.

The sixth and final part of this series will examine the life of Claudia Octavia, the daughter of Emperor Claudius.

About the author

Raven Kamali is a multi-genre novelist and poet with a degree in Ancient History and Latin. She also writes historical essays on ancient Rome.

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