Julia Agrippina (15 AD – 59 AD)

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Julia Agrippina

Julia Agrippina “The Younger,” was Empress of Rome, 4th wife to Emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Sister to Caligula, and mother to Emperor Nero.

After discovering Messalina’s crimes, Claudius told his soldiers to kill him if he was such a fool as to marry again. But he did, and they didn’t. This time he found the one woman in Rome who was worse than Messalina, his niece Agrippina. She was the daughter of Claudius’ brother, the great general Germanicus, and a sister of the insane Emperor Caligula. She had been married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (“Bronzebeard”). The Roman historian Suetonius calls this husband “a wholly despicable character”: Agrippina’s son by him, Domitius, better known as the Emperor Nero, was indeed chipped off these two old blocks.

When Caligula became Emperor, he decided he was a god, and he imitated the domestic lives of the gods by sleeping with his three sisters, Drusilla, Livilla, and Agrippina. He also set up a brothel in his palace, to raise money, and sold his sisters for high prices. Ultimately he got tired of having them around court, and sent Livilla and Agrippina in exile to a small island where they were forced to earn their bread by diving for sponges. Claudius, who was kind hearted, allowed the girls to return to Rome when he took the throne.

After Messalina’s death, Agrippina began to make up to uncle Claudius. Pallas, Claudius’s financial secretary, who was her lover, pushed her as a candidate for empress. She was intelligent and could help with the work of governing; since her son was the grandson of Germanicus, he was a worthy member of the imperial family; she might also have another son, to give the Emperor an heir that was not the child of Messalina. Also, as a rich member of the imperial family it would be unsafe to let her marry anyone else who might get ambitions for the imperial throne. Claudius accepted these arguments, especially after Agrippina seduced him. There was still one problem: Roman law (when rulers desired to follow it) defined such an arrangement as incest. But the Roman Senate had been well trained in servility by its dealings with Tiberius and Caligula. When a spokesman for the Emperor suggested the incestuous marriage, they urged it unanimously as being for the good of the country.

Agrippina quickly became the main power in government. The Roman tradition was that women belonged in the home, so many objected. Tactius says, “Complete obedience was given to a woman. But, unlike Messalina, she did not dabble in politics for fun. She brought to it an almost masculine sense of service; her seriousness was obvious, as was often, her arrogance. She lived chastely, except in order to gain more power. Her passion to acquire wealth was enormous, for it could lead to the acquisition of more and further power.

Agrippina persuaded Claudius to marry his daughter Octavia to her son Nero. She prepared to make him, not Claudius’ son Britannicus, the heir to the throne. She also guarded her own position by having murdered women whose beauty Claudius had praised. Officials whose loyalty was to Claudius were eventually replaced by her own men.

When she decided it was time to remove Claudius, poison was her chosen method. She gave Claudius a particularly choice mushroom from a dish she was eating: it was the only poisoned one. Claudius was given a fine funeral, and proclaimed a god. Nero, another imperial humorist (like his uncle Caligula before him), in later years used to get laughs by referring to mushrooms as “the food of the gods.”

Agrippina now seemed to have total power. Her son, who appreciated what she had done for him, gave as the watchword for his guard, “the best of mothers.” But Nero began to resent his mother’s control. She wanted an open share in government, which the Romans would have thought unacceptable. She thwarted Nero’s love affairs, forbid him to do as he chose, and threatened she would expose his treatment of her, and make Britannicus emperor in his place.

Nero ended this threat by poisoning fourteen year old Britannicus at the imperial table. He cunningly bypassed the boy’s taster appointed to protect him from poison, by having him handed a tasted cup in which the liquid was too hot. A servant poured in cold water, which contained poison. Britannicus took one sip, went into convulsions, and died instantly. Nero “lay back unconcernedly,” claiming that Britannicus was merely having an epileptic fit. The Empress Octavia, Britannicus’s sister, though young, “had learnt to hide sorrow, affection, every feeling.” After a short silence, the banquet continued.

Now Nero threw Agrippina out of his palace. Hired informers accused her of plotting Nero’s death. But Agrippina, who had bravery enough for anything, faced down the charges. Now Nero fell in love with Sabina Poppaea, who wanted to become empress. Agrippina opposed this, and the two women fought for control of Nero. Agrippina went so far as to sleep with her son to retain her influence. But Nero decided her would have to kill her to be free of her. Avoiding poison, which would remind people of the fate of Claudius and Britannicus, he tried several ingenious devices. All failed. Finally he planned a shipwreck. He prepared a ship that would collapse at sea, then gave a banquet of reconciliation for his mother. He treated her with great respect, then ushered her to her ship and bade her farewell, kissing her affectionately on the eyes and bosom. At this point, no doubt, he felt his problems were ended.

When the planned accident occurred, Agrippina’s two companions were killed. She was wounded, but swam ashore anyhow- her past as a sponge-diver proved handy. She sent a messenger to inform her son of her escape, pretending to have no suspicions of his guilt so that she would have time to plan her counter-strike. Nero was terrified: he had reason to know that her revenge was likely to be deadly. He framed her messenger by accusing him of attacking the emperor, then sent a freedman to kill his mother. Her last words are supposed to have been, “Strike here,” as she pointed to the womb from which Nero had come.

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