Agrippina’s powerful family lineage allowed her to excel beyond the role of women in Roman society and become successful in the terms of wealth and power. Agrippina’s achievements include the marrying Claudius, successfully removing others, ascension of Nero, and having honors and powers given beyond other women of Rome. It is difficult to assess the extent of Agrippina’s achievements because of the gender bias that derives from the Ancient sources Dio Cassius, Suetonius and Tacitus and the re-assessment from modern sources such as Susan Wood and Anthony Barrett. The first successful achievement for Agrippina was her marriage to the Emperor Claudius. In AD 39, Agrippina was exiled because she was accused of aligning with others in order to overthrow her brother, Gaius Caesar.
However, in AD 41, Gaius was assassinated and Claudius became Princeps. Agrippina was recalled back to Rome and was considered to be a candidate for Claudius’ fourth marriage, after his marriage to Messalina had failed. Agrippina, had the advantage of a niece, and used it to make sexual advances upon Claudius. Her alliance with Marcus Antonius Pallas proved to be a significant factor in Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius. Pallas proposed her marriage to Claudius would strongly link both families (Julian and Claudian) and reminded Claudius that her son Nero was the grandson of Germanicus, a popular Roman commander. It was Pallas who convinced the Senate to revoke their rules on incestuous marriages, for one exception. In AD 49, Agrippina married Claudius. This gave her the tremendous power she needed in order to complete her ultimate ambition. Throughout Agrippina’s career, she successfully removed others, who were deemed a threat or were no longer of any further use to her.
Her first example of extermination was the poisoning of her second husband Gaius Sallutius Passienus Crispus. Agrippina knew of his wealthy inheritance and possessions. He was poisoned when he was of no further use to Agrippina’s devious, conniving plans. This is when Agrippina gained possession of his wealth, which was used in the continuation of her career. In AD 49, Agrippina successfully eliminated her rivals for Claudius’ affections, Lollia Paulina and Calpurnia. Paulina, to Agrippina’s resentment, was a strong contender. She was exiled and later committed suicide. Calpurnia was exiled because Claudius had reportedly commented on her beauty. In AD 54, Agrippina was responsible for the killings of Domitia Lepida (mother of Messalina) and her husband Claudius.
Lepida was executed out of Agrippina’s jealousy and Claudius was killed so that Nero would ascend the throne at a young age. Although there is no evidence of Agrippina poisoning Crispus or Claudius, the ancient sources strongly suggest it because of Agrippina’s clear ambitions and motives. Other victims of Agrippina include Lucius Geta, Rufrius Crispinus, Marcus Silanus, Junia Silana and Sosbius (Britannicus’ tutor). The removal of others shows the extreme extent Agrippina was willing to achieve in order to complete her life’s ambition. Agrippina’s ultimate achievement and desire was for her son, Nero, to ascend the throne. This is referenced in Tacitus’ statement “Let him kill me-provided he becomes Emperor”. Sources suggest it is no coincidence Nero was born nine months after the death of Tiberius.
Agrippina’s attainted wealth and marriage to Claudius, allowed for her to complete her life’s ambition. She arranged for a marriage between Nero and Claudius’ daughter, Octavia. To do this, she successfully convinced Claudius to adopt Octavia out of the family, so there was no hint of incest. Nero was formally adopted by Claudius and given precedence over Claudius’ biological son, Britannicus. Nero ascended the throne at 17, after the death of Claudius. Agrippina’s many honours and powers reflect on her achievements. During the early years of her brother, Gaius’ reign, Agrippina received many honours and privileges, which allowed her to excel beyond the role of women in Roman society. Women had a lower life expectancy compared to men and did not possess political power. Agrippina and her sisters were made honorary vestal virgins, granted imperial seats during the games and appeared on the obverse side of coins. Agrippina was given similar honours during the reigns of Claudius and the early years of Nero.
When married to Claudius, she achieved much power, which is reflected in Cassius Dio’s statement “She possessed all power, since she dominated Claudius”. During Claudius’ reign she was able to indirectly interfere with politics, given her own Praetorian Guard and received recognition outside of Rome. An example of her recognition was the colony she had instated at her birthplace, Ara Uborium. The name of the colony was titled in recognition of her and Claudius. She was granted a seating at the tribunal of Caractacus, which reflects on her close relationship of power to the Roman Empire. In AD 50, she was granted the title of Augusta, the highest prestige of any Roman imperial woman. She also appeared on the obverse side of the coin and in images alongside her husband. During the early years of Nero’s reign, Agrippina had access to much of his power. As Nero was not yet old enough to rule the empire, she handled his duties. This is reflected by Suetonius who states “…he turned over all his public and private affairs to Agrippina’s management”.
She was granted two lictors, became priestess of the occult of Claudius. The password for the Praetorian Guard was “Optima Mater”, meaning the best of mothers. Assessing the achievements of Agrippina is complex because of the gender bias from the ancient sources and opinions from modern sources. Ancient sources regard women close to power as grasping and devious. An example of this is the portrayal of Livia (Agrippina’s great-grandmother) who was portrayed as evil and manipulative. Agrippina is also portrayed similarly and is degraded by the negative aspects of her personality. For example, Tacitus spends much of his writing focusing on Agrippina’s incestuous relationship with her son and manipulative advances upon her uncle. This is communicated by stating she was all decked out and ready for incest” and “visiting her uncle frequently as a close relative, she tempted him into giving her preference and treating her in anticipation, as a wife”. She is strongly blamed for murders she may not have committed.
The ancient writers also have a poor, judgemental view of Claudius, by degrading him because his illness and the large amount of control his women and freed men had over him. Modern historians present conflicting opinions based upon their revising of the ancient sources. They focus less on gender bias, and concentrate on re-evaluating her. Authors such as Susan Wood acknowledge Agrippina’s ruthless, devious, manipulative actions towards gaining power. However author Anthony Barrett, suggests Agrippina played an important role during Claudius’ reign, and states “Agrippina’s presence seems to have transformed the regime of her husband”. He also concludes “It is when Agrippina is judged by her achievements, rather than her personality or character, she demands admiration”.
Agrippina’s powerful family bloodline allowed her to excel beyond the accepted role of Roman women and become successful in terms of achieving her ultimate ambitions. Agrippina’s achievements include the marrying Claudius, successfully removing others, ascension of Nero, and having honours and powers given beyond other women of Rome. Studying Agrippina’s achievements is complex because of the gender bias that derives from the ancient writers and the revising of her career by modern sources.