Agrippina (full name: Julia Agrippina Minor) was born on November 6, AD 15. We know this because people gave a shit about her, unlike lots of other people who lived in this place and time, because her parents were both incredibly important people. Agrippina was the fourth surviving child and first daughter born to Vipsania Agrippina and Germanicus Caesar, making her a great-granddaughter of the wildly successful and famous former Emperor Augustus. We’ll take a look at each parent in turn, because Agrippina’s genetics were a major part of how her life turned out.

Vipsania Agrippina (also known as Agrippina the Elder, but we’ll call her Vipsania here for clarity) was the daughter of Julia the Elder, Augustus’s (scandalous!) daughter. Vipsania’s father, Marcus Agrippa, had been an important statesman and was the namesake for both her and her own daughter, because in this era, women were frequently named the feminized version of their father’s names.

Vipsania’s family was incredibly murderous to one another, meaning that she was the only surviving member of her generation, and her children were the only descendants of Augustus. Vipsania’a husband, Germanicus, was the nephew of the current emperor, Tiberius, as well as his adopted son, because this family tree is just like a pile of sticks all thrown together in the most confusing manner possible. Also note that Germanicus was also the grandsom of Mark “mighty thighs” Anthony. Basically, these two were as close to royalty as the very anti-royal Roman Empire could get.

Agrippina [the Elder] and Germanicus
painting by Paul Reubens
The National Gallery of Art

Names were sort of fluid in ancient Roman times, and when a military person did something impressive, their name was often changed to match the thing they had done. Germanicus had, therefore, not been given that name at birth but had the name bestowed upon him in recognition for how he famously conquered parts of Germany for the Roman Empire. And it’s there that our story actually begins, because Agrippina was born in Germany while her family were there for army-related reasons. When the family returned to Rome a few years later, they were greeted as returning heroes (well, a returning hero and his lovely family). And when Germanicus died a few years later, the whole place went wild with grief. Like: riots in the streets, pushing over statues, smashing pottern, people killing themselves so as not to live in a world without Germanicus. This cannot be overstated: the people of Rome REALLY loved Agrippina’s family.

The Emperor’s Grand-Niece

In the absence of her father, Agrippina and her siblings were raised by her mother and two other very powerful women: her paternal grandmother Antonia Minor, and her great-grandmother Livia Drusilla (who was pretty badass herself). In terms of ancient Roman woman role models, you couldn’t ask for anyone better. Vipsania, Antonia, and Livia had not only surived this notoriously murderous and misogynistic place, they had done their best to thrive while doing so. They were all ruthless, devoted to the continuation of their family line, and not opposed to the occasional murder. These three did all of this while technically abiding by the expectations for Roman women to be quiet, to stay out of the way, and to never be seen as acting too “manly”. They were each devoted wives and mothers, who never tried to get any official power which annoy the men in charge; they did everything in the shadows, using influence, blackmail, and pillow talk to get what they wanted.

And honestly, these three women had a lot of room for scheming because the current emperor, Tiberius, was worse than useless. Everybody hated him because he was overly serious, overly pious, and had a tendency to run away and hide out on distant islands rather than do Emperor-y stuff. Note: this is an entirely fine way to live ones life, but is not ideal if you were the Roman Emperor at this point in time. Among his many, many enemies was Vipsania, who was convinced he’d been responsible for the death of his son-nephew, Germanicus. Was Germanicus murdered? I mean, who knows. He was a military man swinging a sword through the ancient world centuries before the discovery of antibiotics, so it’s really as likely he died of tetanus or a paper cut as that he was murdered. But also, the odds of being murdered in ancient Rome were also really high, especially if you had anything to do with Vipsania.

In the midst of this inter-family chaos, 14-year-old Agrippina was married for dynasty reasons to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a man about twenty years older than her. (Fun fact: Ahenobarbus means “bronze beard” which means he was a ginger). We’ll call him Domitius, because that’s what most people called him back then. These two were sort of related, because everyone in this story is. Domitius’s mother was Octavia, Agrippina’s great-grand-aunt Octavia (aka the sister of Octavian, aka the previous wife of Mark “himbo” Anthony). Domitius was a high-ranking official and was also extremely rich, so in that sense he was a suitable match for Agrippina. However, every source that wrote about him emphasized how his personality and actions were THE WORST.

How bad was Domitius? Well, for instance, one time he was said to have killed a slave for crime of being not drunk enough (as compared to the drunk-enough Domitius, apparently). Another time, he apparently ripped out another dude’s eye for the crime of being rude to him. He also apparently fucked most women he ever laid eyes on, with or without their consent, let’s assume mostly without their consent. Basically: dude was a nightmare of ancient Roman toxic male privilige/masculinity, meaning that our 14-year-old heroine had quite a challenge on her hands. But she’d lived through a pretty chaotic fourteen years so far, and had the instincts of a survivor to get through this situation. She also had the mentorship of her mother and badass female relatives to learn how best to not be murdered by her awful husband.

Teressa Liane as Agrippina in The Roman Empire (2016)

The early part of Agrippina’s first marriage occurred as things heated up in the Vipsania vs Tiberius cold war. By the time Agrippina was sixteen, her mother and two older brothers had all been sent to exile and/or jail for scheming against Tiberius, where they all died by suicide and/or starvation. So now, Agrippina’s only living relatives were her brother, Gaius, and two younger sisters, Drusilla and Livilla. And she kept her head down and didn’t get murdered, which was probably enough to keep her busy, until she was twenty-two years old and everything changed. Because Tiberius finally died, and Agrippina’s brother Gaius was named the new Emperor! But you probably better know Gaius by his nickname, Little Boots, or as it’s said in Latin, Caligula.

The Emperor’s Sister

A note on Gaius “Caligula” Germanicus: Caligula was the oldest surviving son of Vipsania and Germanicus. His childhood had been as chaotic as that of his sisters. He’d spent some time in exile when Vipsania had been kicked out for scheming against Tiberius, then after her death, rejoined his three sisters to be raised by their grandmother. As the only male child of this particulary family line, Caligula was unavoidably a threat to Emperor Tiberius, a man who’d become only more paranoid in his later years that someone was going to try and take over being Emperor from him. In order to neuter Caligula as a threat, Tiberius arranged it so that Caligula would be treated like a little boy even up into his late teen years.

Young Roman men got a sort of bar mitzfah moment at around age fifteen where they got to start wearing a toga, at which point they were seen as officially men. Caligula wasn’t permitted to wear a toga until he was nineteen, at which point he was shipped off to live with Emperor Tiberius on an isolated island away from the Senate and all of Roman politics entirely. Knowing that Tiberius could kill him at any time, Caligula had to play-act being friendly and not hating him, and this went on for six years. He grew up being perpetually traumatized, was never taught how to be a functioning adult man, and had been kept isolated from making any alliances within Rome to help him out once he became Emperor. All of which to say: what happened during this upcoming reign wasn’t entirely his own fault. He’d been, in many ways, set up to fail.

Back to Agrippina’s story.

As Caligula wasn’t married or had any children, he had to make everyone see him as a family man because then, like now, it was politically important to seem “relatable”. And also, the more he could remind people that he was the son of their beloved Germanicus and Vipsania, the more positive feelings people would hopefully have towards him. With this in mind, he elevated his three sisters, Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla, to be sort of honorary First Ladies of Rome who hung out with him in public all the time. He also granted them the same rights as Vestal Virgins, meaning that they had more rights than any other Roman women but without having the be virgins. These rights included: anyone touching them was punishable with death, they could have their own independent lives, and when they walked down the street they had a sort of honour guard who cleared the way for them. No Roman women in history, including the wives and mothers of previous Emperors, had any of this amount of autonomy or power.

Teressa Liane as Agrippina with Molly Leishman as Livilla in Roman Empire (2016)

In addition, every day at the start of Senate sessions, the men did a sort of pledge of allegiance moment where everyone promised to respect and adore the Emperor. Caligula had this changed so that everyone had to promise honour both him and his three sisters every time this pledge was said so Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla were present in name if not in body at the Senate hearings (women couldn’t attend Senate hearings, so that was about as close as they could get). Caligula also had coins minted with his face and name on one side, and his sisters on the reverse side. This was the first time living Roman women had ever been put on coins, and offers the first visual of Agrippina herself (a tiny image, shared with her siblings, but still the first time we can truly see her as a person).

A coin minted during Caligula’s reign, showing the Emperor on one side, and his three sisters on the opposite side. Agrippina is on the left, leaning on a column. Wikipedia commons

And then, as you might suspect, everything rather quickly went to shit. Several important things happened very close together near the end of Caligula’s first year as Emperor, and these things were:

  • Agrippina had her first child, a son named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. He was born in the breech position, and honestly it’s incredible that she didn’t die during this delivery.
  • Caligula fell ill and retreated from public life for several months. In his absence, his rivals stepped up their anti-Caligula plans. This included starting rumours that Caligula was having sexual relationships with his sisters. Please bear in mind that in ancient Roman times, accusing someone else of incest was a very common thing to do. Incest itself was not common, accusing someone else of incest was common. This was a highly effective, and popular way to defame someone you didn’t much care for.
  • When Caligula re-emerged following his illness, he seemed perhaps changed psychologically, and began ruthlessly murdering anyone he thought was conspiring against him to a sort of random and erratic level.
  • Agrippina and Caligula’s sister Drusilla died.
  • Caligula took this loss very personally, and acted out in a number of concerning ways: he stopped shaving his beard, smashed pottery, had Drusilla declared a deity and created a cult to worship her, and at one point even ran away a la Tiberius to meditate on an island for awhile.

And then, as if this isn’t all enough, Caligula had Agrippina exiled in the year 39 for allegedly conspiring with Livilla against him. Livilla’s husband, Lepidus, was executed for his alleged involvement in this same plot. (He was also accused of having had an affair with Agrippina). Did these three people actually conspire against Caligula? I mean, maybe. And it would make sense if they did, because the Emperor was clearly not doing well and also because Caligula had (in the midst of all this chaos) fathered a son, which meant Agrippina’s son was one more step removed from becoming Emperor one day. And as we will soon see, Agrippina’s entire life seemed to eventually reolve around ensuring her son became Emperor one day (very Margaret Beaufort of her).

Teressa Liane as Agrippina with Ido Drent as Caligula in Roman Empire (2016)

Agrippina, now aged 24, was sent to live on a luxury villa on the island of Pontia. For company, she had a household of slaves, a personal bodyguard, and the knowledge that at any point, Caligula could change her sentence to death. So it’s not like being in jail, but it was probably not super relaxing. Bit then!! After just one year of island living, Caligula was assassinated (by their uncle Claudius) and their uncle Claudius was named the new Roman emperor. As one of his first acts in the role, he released his niece Agrippina from exile and invited her to join him back in Rome.

The Emperor’s Niece

Just to catch us all up to speed because a lot has already happened, Agrippina was twenty-five years old when she returned to Rome to be reunited with her son, who was now four years old. Her awful husband Domitius had recently just died (probably not murdered), so she was now a widow/single mother. The new Emperor, her uncle Claudius, was fifty years old and not particularly well suited for the job. He’d barely held any political positions before, was not widely liked, perhaps had physical disabilities that made some people not respect him, and had a Tiberius-esque personality where he didn’t much like anybody. Claudius also, early in his reign, had Livilla executed for the usual random reasons (scheming, adultery), leaving Agrippina as the only surviving child of Vipsania and Germanicus. Her son was also again supplanted as presumptive heir with Claudius’s teenage bride, Messalina, had a son named Britannicus.

The Roman people still loved Agrippina, through all of this, largely due to their memories for how much they had loved her parents. Claudius, jealous and maybe a bit scared that this affection could turn against him somehow, had Agrippina married and shipped off to Asia to get her and her son out of the way as a threat to him. Her new husband was one of Claudius’s most trusted friends, who also happened to be Agrippina’s former brother-in-law (he’d been married to Domitius’s sister), Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. We’ll call him Crispus, for brevity. The whole thing seems very much like a thing where the Emperor does something nice for his friend, marrying him off to his wealthy niece. It wasn’t good news for Agrippina, though, as Crispus wasn’t at all on her same level, and marriage to him demoted her in importance. So you know she hated that.

And then a very tidy series of events occurred:

  • Crispus changed his will to make Agrippina his sole beneficiary
  • Agrippina and Crispus returned to Rome from Asia
  • Crispus mysteriously died, leaving Agrippina a wealthy widow

    Paging Jessica Fletcher! We have a very obvious murder on our hands! Is what the people in Rome would have said, if Murder She Wrote had been on TV at this time. As it wasn’t, they mostly spread rumours that Agrippina had very clearly just murdered her husband in order to inherit his estate. It’s entirely possible Crispus died of natural causes, or was murdered by someone other than his wife. But the end result is the same regardless of how he died: 28-year-old Agrippina was a double widow, super rich from her husband’s estate, and she peaced out to one of his private islands to, presumably, scheme ways for her son to become the next Emperor.

Five years pass without Agrippina’s name coming up in any documents, showing yet again how skilled she was at staying low on the radar. During these five years, though, Claudius began colonizing Britain (see my essay on Boudica for more on that scenario). (This is also why his son was named Britannicus). But just because Agrippina wasn’t around doesn’t mean there weren’t sexy scandals happening in Rome, because friends, it’s time to learn a bit more about Claudius’s teenage wife Messalina.

A Note on Messalina: Valeria Messalina was Claudius’s third wife. She was probably about 18 when she married the 50-year-old Emperor and they were first cousins once removed, because goddamn everyone is related to everyone in this story. He married her due to her being a descendant of Augustus, which helped shore of Claudius’s weaker claim to the throne. Messalina, like Agrippina, seems to have been extremely devoted to doing everything she could to ensure her son became the next Emperor. She and Agrippina feuded a lot and seem to have been equal matches to each other in terms of ruthlessness and scheming. As with Caligula, a lot of enemies spread a lot of rumours about her (and a lot of the stuff we know now was written after she had died, when people like Agrippina were busy retroactively making Messalina seem terrible). What bafflingly does seem to be true, and not a rumour, is that one day when Claudius was out of town, Messalina decided to marry her lover in a very public ceremony. When he found out, Claudius had her and eight men suspected of helping her out all put to death, which is frankly a reasonable reaction to such a public humiliation. He also had had her name erased from all historical records and monuments like she’d never existed. The whole story is wild. Here’s more info.

And then, in need of a wife, Claudius married his niece Agrippina less than three months later.

The Emperor’s Wife

Please note that it was just as weird in ancient Rome for an uncle to marry a niece as it would be in the current day and age. Remember, this is a culture where people frequently accused each other of incest because they knew it was the grossest thing you could accuse someone of doing. So what’s the deal? How the fuck did this happen??

Setting aside for a moment the very weird and messed up fact that Agrippina was Claudius’s niece, let’s look at what made her an appealing potential bride for the 59-year-old Emperor. She was a descendant of Augustus, and was still super popular as the daughter of Germanicus and Vipsania. She also had a son who, through her, was also more directly descended from Augustus than Claudius’s son Britannicus was. She was also rich, and smart, and seems to have had much better diplomatic/people skills than Claudius.

What was in this for Agrippina? Well for starters, she’d be the wife of the Emperor, making her the most powerful woman in Rome. She’d always grown up with a sense she was better than everyone else and destined for great things, and this opportunity may have seemed like her best chance to finally seize the power she felt was her birthright. It would also cement the future for her son, as once she was the Emperor’s wife she’d be better able to manipulate things to get her son to supplant Britannicus as heir.

So, lots of great reasons for them to get married, too bad about the being uncle and niece. But Claudius was really determined to make this happen and, after tricking the Senate into changing the laws for him, the pair were married on January 1, the year 49. In an attempt to spoil the day and remind everyone that this union was really fucking gross, Claudius’s former BFF Silanus died by suicide that same day. And not that same day but pretty quickly, three things happened:

  • Claudius formally adopted Agrippina’s son, changed his name to Nero, made him heir instead of Claudius’s son Britannicus, and married Nero off to Claudius’s daughter Octavia
  • Agrippina demanded that the scholar Seneca be returned from exile in order to be Nero’s new tutor, and
  • a woman named Lollia Paulina was accused of witchcraft, sent into exile, and died.

A note on Lollia Paulina: Lollia Paulina had been, briefly, one of Caligula’s revolving door of wives. She had also been mentioned by some Senators as a potential new wife for Claudius after the death of Messalina. Allegedly, Agrippina set events in motion to ensure Paulina’s death in order to remove her as a rival for her uncle-husband’s affections. So just mark that on your score cards for People Potentially Murdered by Agrippina.

After one year of marriage, Claudius had Agrippina titled Augusta. This was a big fucking deal, as only two women before her had ever been given this title. This title meant that she was on effectively equal standing with Claudius. No woman in Western history had ever had this much power before, and none would again for another hundred years*. She wasn’t an old-school Emperor’s wife like her grandmother and great-grandmother had been, wielding their power as influence behind the scenes. Agrippina Augusta was an active figure who sat beside her husband and had involvement in acts of state, whose thoughts were taken into consideration, and who was permitted to oversee projects of her own.

One of these projects was her creation of a Roman colony for retired military personnel in the area of Germany where she’d been born. Originally named Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (which means Agrippina’s Colony), the name of the colony was eventually truncated to just Colonia, and then its current name of Cologne (still a city in Germany). This wasn’t just a thing where she had it named after her and never thought about it again: Agrippina was truly the patron of this colony, ensuring that it had infrastructure in place to allow Colonia to thrive and for the people within in to live as well as possible, both the Roman veterans as well as the indigenous Ubii people of the area.

And then, as a final statement of just how powerful Agrippina had become, she was placed on a coin alongside Claudius in the year 50. Unlike when she’d shared the reverse of a coin with her sisters during the reign of Caligula, this time she was pictured on her own on the reverse side of the coin. She also commissioned statues made in her likeness that wore a diadem, a sort of crown-tiara hybrid that looked cool but more importantly, no living Roman woman had ever been shown to wear in a piece of art.

Coin showing Claudius on the front, and Agrippina on the reverse. Wikipedia Commons

And then, three years later, Emperor Claudius died in the year 54 of mysterious circumstances that seemed to involve having eaten a dish of poisoned mushrooms. (Also, less interestingly, Claudius was sixty-three years old and had a number of health issues, so he may have just died of natural causes). Instantly, rumours began to spread that Agrippina had killed him. As per usual, these rumours seem to have been one part people who hated her (because any time a woman acquires a lot of power, a lot of men tend to pop up hating her) and one part how she behaved in the aftermath of Claudius’s death. Which was, she was highly organized and took things into her hands and arranged that her son Nero would be named the new Emperor. Essentially, she seemed too capable and not sad enough for some people, which is laughable because if Agrippina had been the sort of person to freak out when someone is murdered in front of her, she’d never have survived this long in this family.

But, if we are to believe the rumours that Agrippina arranged Claudius’s murder, here’s how it allegedly would have happened. There was a famous poisoner in Rome at this time named Locusta, who was a peasant from Gaul (old timey France) who was so skilled at herbs she decided to move to Rome and be a freelance poisoner. She was, obviously, a very interesting person. Locusta’s reputation was such that Agrippina had her freed from jail to work as her go-to poison expert. The trick was that Claudius had a food taster on retainer, which makes sense as everyone was always trying to kill everyone. So Agrippina and Locusta arranged to serve him mushrooms, his favourite dish, and to lure the food taster away when the mushrooms arrived. The mushrooms were laced with poison, and when a doctor came to try and make Claudius vomit up the poison by shoving a feather down his throat the feather was also coated with poison, and so the Emperor died. I mean, genius. Allegedly.

Oh and then the part that would make Jessica Fletcher raise her eyebrows is that this time, Agrippina’s husband had died without any will that anyone cuold find. So one theory is that Claudius was preparing to cut Agrippina and/or Nero out of his will, and that’s why she had him killed. But of course maybe Claudius died of natural causes and just never wrote a will. Either way, Agrippina was like, “Don’t worry! He told me what he wants, and that’s for his adopted stepson Nero to become the next Emperor instead of his biological Britannicus! Trust me!” And everyone gave her a big side-eye, but agreed.

Which is how Agrippina, widowed for the third time, was now the Emperor’s mother.

The Emperor’s Mother

Statue of Agrippina casually belly-button out, crowning Nero
History Today

Agrippina had spent her whole life since Nero’s birth in ruthlessly ensuring he’d become the next Emperor. When he took on the role, she must have been so relieved but also like… what now? She’d had a great run as Claudius’s wife/the power behind the throne, and presumably she was planning on backseat ruling for her son now, too. The detail she’d neglected to properly plan ahead for (if there is a way to plan ahead for such things) is that Nero was 100% a little shit. It’s very much the Game of Thrones Cersei/Joffrey thing, where the mother is so much smarter and would have been a better leader but instead she has to sit and watch her son being an asshole and ruining everything. #spoilers

It started out well, though! Nero, aged sixteen, was the youngest ever Emperor of Rome. And unlike Caligula or even Claudius, he’d been groomed from a young age to actually know how to do this job. He had pre-existing responsibilities within the Senate, he had useful alliances with powerful people, and the people of Rome knew who he was and weren’t confused about where he’d come from. BUT ALSO, Nero’s true dream in life was to be an actor/singer, so although he’d been set up to succeed as Emperor his heart was never in it. But largely because of Agrippina’s backseat driving, Nero was stepping into the role of Emperor already quite popular and with a number of powerful allies who supported him.

Agrippina also seemed to assume that she was effectively Nero’s regent and could now take over even more control running things. And she did, for the first bit. She’d single-handedly turned things around during Claudius’s reign, with way less revolts and treason happening while she was there doing the books; she would have known very well what to do and kept on keeping on now for Nero. Her fatal flaw was perhaps that she really wanted to make sure everyone knew it was her doing this stuff, not Nero. She was never one to quietly fade into the background, Agrippina ensured she was always in Nero’s presence, at least publicly, appearing near him just as she’d been with Claudius so nobody forgot that she had power in this situation as well.

And you knew this was coming, MORE COINS DRAMA!! The latest coins Agrippina had minted put her in her most powerful pose yet, this time of the coin with Nero. On these ones, she and Nero were both in profile facing each other, a display of how they were (allegedly) equals.

Agrippina and Nero sharing the front of a Roman coin. Honestly it looks like they’re really mad at each other, doesn’t it? #foreshadowing Wikipedia

But then, of course, things started going to shit because that’s the sort of story this is. The first major blow to Agrippina’s power was when she went in, as per usual, to join Nero and others for a meeting with foreign delegates. With Claudius, she used to sit sort of behind him. For this meeting, her first with Nero in these positions, she went up to sit right next to him. Nero’s tutor, Seneca (who Agrippina had brought back from exile personally) directed Nero to remove her, and Nero did, escorting her to a separate seat further away from him. After this, she never again joined Nero for a business meeting.

The thing that caught her here is that Agrippina had broken new ground for herself, but it was largely based on a common understanding, not law. She hadn’t had laws changed to improve things for other women, or even other Emperor’s wives or mothers: she just started doing new stuff herself, and the men in power let her do these things. So when they changed their mind, she had no law or precedent to turn to in her own defense. She’d side-stepped the obstacles inherent of being a Roman woman by not behaving as a woman or as man; she’d been her own person, a quasi-Goddess outside of this gender paradigm. But when she fell, it was all too easy because all it took was to start treating her like a woman again.

So, Nero was a brat and everyone around him encouraged him to distance himself from his mother. One example is that, in around the year 55, Nero and Agrippina had a huge screaming fight about his new girlfriend, a woman named Acte who was a freed slave. As a kind of fuck you to Agrippina, Nero had his mother sent some jewels and a dress. This was an insult because Agrippina had never ever ever been a woman for whom fashion or luxury was an interest. In fact, she prided herself on her frugality and lack of flash and glamour. For Nero to present her with these gifts was like him saying, “Here, you’re a woman, that’s all you are and all you’re good for,” and was mega dismissive of her. Apparently in response, she said something like, “I gave him the empire, and he gave me a dress,” which: true. Nero was a sucky son.

He was also a shitty step-brother/cousin, as he had his 14-year-old stepbrother/cousin Britannicus murdered via poison sourced from returning guest star Locusta! Britannicus died in the middle of a big dinner party in front of lots of people, including Agrippina, and Nero made everyone stay and continue the party even around the teenage boy’s corpse. This incident was like a formal announcement that Nero was a psychopath whose thesis statement for life was chaos. This was like, one year into his reign so it had all gone apart spectacularly quickly. Agrippina, always a grounding presence in his life, had to go if Nero was truly to go completely feral, and so he had his mother exiled to live in her own villa far, far away from him.

Sort of like Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, word spread that the formerly untouchable Agrippina had lost her powerful ally and so all of her enemies began to step up and voice their grievances against her. Charges were made against her that she’d been scheming against Nero, and Agrippina literally walked right over to her son’s palace like NERO STOP THIS SHIT and friends, so terrifying was this woman that Emperor Nero The Boy Tyrant stopped that shit. Somehow, these two reached an understanding behind closed doors such that nothing about Agrippina appears in public record for the next four years, meaning that everything was going more or less fine. During these four years, the country seemed to be running pretty well, which suggests that she was allowed back in to run things while Nero spent most of his time putting on plays and forcing people to watch and clap for him.

And then Nero fell in love again, this time with a 29-year-old woman named Poppea Sabina. A bunch happens with Poppea and Nero later on (none of it good) but for the purposes of this story, just note that rumours had it Poppea didn’t like Agrippina and encouraged Nero to murder his mother. Whether or not Poppea directly enouraged Nero to do this, it’s shortly after they began their relationship that Nero began plotting ways to murder Agrippina.

Buckle in.

Gloria Swanson as Agrippina with Vittorio De Sica as Seneca and Brigitte Bardot as Poppea in Nero’s Weekend (1956)

So, because Agrippina still was very popular with lots of Romans, especially army soldiers with fond memories of her beloved father Germanicus, Nero knew he couldn’t just order some soldier to stab her to death. So, he went to his trusty plan of poisoning her. But guess what: just like in The Princess Bride, Agrippina grew up seeing so many people poisoned to death that she’d long been taking small doses of every known poison in order to make herself immune to all of them. Even Locusta wasn’t able to make this happen, poison-wise. And so Nero turned to Plan C: make it look like an accident. During his failed acting career, he’d seen a stage prop of a boat with a trick floor and commissioned an actor friend of his to build a real life boat like that.

The scene was set! Nero invited his mother to visit him at a villa that required a long boat trek to get to. Agrippina, understandably and correctly suspicious, refused his offer of a boat and instead come on her own boat. They had dinner together, awkward, and at the end of the night Nero had convinced her enough that he wasn’t trying to kill her that she agreed to take his special boat back home. Maybe he was a talented actor after all?

As per the plan, part of the boat collapsed when they were in the middle of open water and the ship started to sink. Agrippina’s servant Polla figured if she pretended to be Agrippina then it was more likely she would be saved, so she cried out she was the Emperor’s mother and wouldn’t someone help her?? But the ship’s crew, working for Nero, hit Polla in the head with oars to drown her, because they were assassins. Along with Polla, numerous crew members died as well. But guess who didn’t die? Agrippina!

The Shipwreck of Agrippina
Painting by Gustav Wertheimer Wikimedia Commons

Remember when she spent a year on an island in exile? Clearly, she’d practiced her swimming at that point, because she was a strong enough swimmer to get to short. Everyone cheered her survival, because she was still Agrippina The Super Popular, but she was smart enough to know this ridiculous plan was her son’s attempt to kill her. She had a messenger send word to Nero like, “Don’t worry! I’m still alive!” and he commenced freaking out. News of the shipwreck spread around her neighbours and crowds of people stood around her villa, weeping and praying because their beloved Augusta had nearly died.

But then! Plot twist: a group of soldiers arrived, the personification of Nero’s reply to Agrippina’s message about her survival. The soldiers burst into her room and revealed that they’d been sent there to execute her because, Nero claimed, Agrippina had tried to murder him. UGH THAT UNGRATEFUL ASSHOLE!! Agrippina tried to talk them out of it, obviously, claiming that NO WAY would her son ever try to have her murdered. But the soldiers were resolute, and her final act and words were to fling open her robe to reveal her stomach, demanding that they stab her in the womb. And they did. And thus was the death of Agrippina the Younger, aged 44.

Legacy

*Agrippina achieved more individual power than any Roman woman before her. It wouldn’t be until a century later when the 3rd century Severan women aka the Syrian Matriarchy came along that any Roman noblewomen would ever attain this amount of power. (These women were Julia Domna and her nieces Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, and they were awesome).

References

My main source was Emma Southon’s biography of Agrippina, which is hands-down the most fun historical biography I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend this funny, vulgar, melodramatic and feminist book strongly enough!!

Other references:

Poison: a history by Jenni Davis

Poison : an illustrated history by Joel Levy

A Woman of Great Power (BBC History Extra podcast)

Consort Introduction and Agrippina (Rex Factor podcast)

Episode XX – Agrippina the Younger (Emperors of Rome podcast)

Liked it? Take a second to support Ann Foster on Patreon!

One thought on “Agrippina: The Poisonous Ambition Of An Ancient Roman Badass

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.