Agrippina the Younger will never, ever have a different narrative. Contemporary historians hated her guts and every historian after believed her to be a truly horrid human being because of the writings of the contemporary historians. The best she can hope for is what I am going to write about her and unfortunately, my readership isn’t that large and no one really cares.
(Cover image from Wikmedia Commons. Listed as CC 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)
What We Say About Her
Agrippina has the unfortunate history of giving birth to one of the least likable Roman Emperors in a long line of unlikable Roman Emperors. This fact alone will never grant her a more favorable story line. The mothers of monsters will always be assumed to be monsters themselves – and I can’t really deny that.
Her son Nero is said to have famously fiddled while Rome burnt and contemporary historians wrote about his cruelness and corrupt actions towards government and the people of the empire. He had his mother assassinated and was congratulated when she was gone because he would no longer have to deal with her, at least the historians say. When it came time to kill himself, his own idea, he backed down and made someone kill him. Basically, he was a bullying weeny.
Interestingly, modern historians are beginning to turn the narrative around for Nero and are trying to portray him as misunderstood and possibly the victim of character assassination. My problem with this is that they never seem to want to include Agrippina into the mix. If he gets a character rebuild then she deserves one too.
Her first two husbands
Agrippina herself was born into privilege. She was the great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus and her father was a well-known general and at one point was in line to be Emperor of Rome. Her marriages therefore were to men of wealth, power, and privilege which means Agrippina was going to have to deal with a certain amount of backstabbing, gossip, and secrecy.
Her first marriage was to a man with some money. He was the father to her only child Nero.
Her second marriage was also to a man of wealth and power. Their almost whirlwind relationship caused quite a stir for an already infamous woman so when he died suddenly, more questions arose about Agrippina’s role. Her husband, Crispin, had left everything to Nero, making the already wealthy boy even more so.
But she was a woman in ancient Rome and did not enjoy the same level of privilege as her husbands. She was very young and beautiful and did not want to act as an old widow until her next marriage. This modern mentality added greatly to the narrative that she was an evil person.
Emperor Claudius, was Agrippina’s uncle and her third husband. He had executed his previous wife Messalina and was on the prowl for a fourth wife. Historians have written that he was somehow both dominated by women and a womanizer and was seduced by the sexual advances of his niece and completely at her mercy. I’m not sure how one can be dominated by women and also a womanizer.
When Claudius died the rumors were that she killed him (remember would have been her third matricide).
Even if Agrippina was conniving and manipulative, if she somehow managed to usurp her uncle/husband, the emperor of Rome, then maybe Rome would have been better off. Weak leaders are the ones who lose their thrones. Maybe our conversation should instead be, “What could have been if Agrippina had ruled herself?” Regardless, her third marriage ended in the same way the others did – with the sudden and suspicious death of her husband.
I will give a little on this point though. Claudius had agreed to name her son as his heir and with Nero as the Emperor of Rome, Agrippina would have had A LOT more power and wealth. This is motivation enough for a lot of people. I’m not saying she didn’t kill him, I’m just pointing out that people already hated her so are we actually looking at all possible motivations and all possible killers? Couldn’t we also consider the fact it was an accident? The man did die from eating mushrooms.
In between her first two husbands, her brother became Emperor Caligula. Caligula, Agrippina, and their two younger sisters Drusilla and Livilla were portrayed as close. Many historians of the time wrote about their incestuous relationships which eventually began to take over the narrative. But just because a salacious story grips people’s imagination doesn’t mean it is true.
When their sister Drusilla died, Caligula reportedly began to go insane. Agrippina and Livilla were said to have plotted with a third to assassinate their brother and put someone else in power. However, not much is known about the plot and it just doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Neither sister held any real power nor were either of them well connected. They couldn’t have controlled the transition of power so how is this story plausible? What makes more sense is their brother, in an attempt to consolidate his power and to regain control of at least the social power surrounding him he accused his sisters of trying to kill him.
Both Livilla and Agrippina were exiled for a time.
What I’d Like to Say About Her
Agrippina the Younger was no saint. She might not even be a good person. I do believe that she enjoyed the rumors of Claudius’ third wife Messalina being a prostitute and sex addict. (She most certainly wasn’t.) Agrippina probably engaged in plenty of gossip sessions and certainly would have exaggerated stories. We can all agree, it isn’t a nice thing to do.
I would also agree that Agrippina was probably involved to a degree with the strange business of Messalina’s marriage to Silius but I’m not convinced she was a key player and probably doesn’t deserve to have historians speculate that she killed Messalina.
Mostly, I’d like us to examine the evidence and really consider it. Does it make sense? What are the motivations? Would she have actually had the power and influence necessary for some of these power moves? I’m not convinced. I’m also sick of putting all my faith in the historical accounts of women, especially Agrippina the Younger.
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