Rome a symbol of strength, empowerment and prosperity for many, leaving no doubt in modern historians thoughts that this utopia was one of the most prominent of the ancient era’s. One dynasty within this epoch stands out, as being one of the most provocative and influential was the Julio-Claudian dynasty. This period was introduced with the instigation of the emperor Julio Augustus, known as one of the most appreciated emperors in Roman history. After Augustus came the rulers Tiberius, Gaius Germanicus (Caligula), Claudius and Nero.
With every new ruler the amount of power and wealth in the city swelled, some even say that it was the golden age of Roman literature and arts. Each of these power broker’s have one person in common, apart from imperial extravagance and notoriety, they all have felt the sting of Julia Agrippina’s manipulative powers (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013). When studying Agrippina it is found that many of the sources do not retain a sympathetic view of the During the Julio-Claudian era Agrippina the younger only retained her power through the manipulation of her son, husband and peers.
By doing this she made herself on the most powerful women in Rome. Growing up with the most loved general in Rome at that time, Agrippina was destined for greatness. In her teenage years the regrettable incident of her fathers passing occurred and the empire was left to Tiberius, during this time she was betrothed to Domitius Ahenobarbus, which she eventually bore a child with called Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Most sources state that she was forced into this marriage by the emperor Tiberius, a fact that is acknowledged by modern historian Donna Hurley when she states that Agrippina’s union with Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus was arranged by Tiberius.
After this Hurley then goes on to state that it was practice for families of prominence in the ruling house to have the emperor arrange their marriages, which would explain why Agrippina was married at the tender age of thirteen. This period was probably one of the most controversial in Agrippina’s time as it instigated her impression that those in power were the ones with the most influence.
Ask any of the historians of the Julio Claudian era how Julia Agrippina was able to come to such inordinate power, each will give you a different answer, but they all start with Agrippina’s relationship with her brother. By honoring his sisters Gaius Germanicus Caligula was reprimanded and made an easy target. These honors gave the three sisters unparalleled status, they included; making them honorary vestal virgins, inclusion in the annual vows for the allegiance to the emperor and the emperors safety, inclusion of in the preamble to proposals submitted to the senate, being depicted on coins and many other.
An account, now considered unlikely to be true, is mentioned by Suetonius [in 1914: XXIV], “He (Caligula) lived in habitual incest with his sisters… he is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was a minor”. The more realistic option is explored by Barrett, which states “ Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters… it was doubtless this affection that led to stories of incest with all three sisters”. This appeared as an opportunity for Agrippina to manipulate her way to becoming an influential power broker in that era.
Agrippina’s sister Drusilla was Caligula’s favourite, and when he fell ill he immediately made her his heir, however this instigation was evaded as she died unexpectedly in AD 38, therefore Caligula reaped with grief deified his beloved sister making her the only woman to be deified in the Julio Claudian era. The controversy commenced when Agrippina’s husband, Domitius, died and the two remaining sisters conspired against Caligula, whom at the time was growing quite timeworn. This conspiracy was set about so the family could withhold its power and influence in the republic.
Again, as before with Caligula the sisters were thought to have been involved in sexual relations with their brother-in-law, Marcus Lepidus, who according to Peter Roberts (2013, 165) was made heir in place of Drusilla. Putting his faith in the wrong man, Caligula eventually discovered a plot created by his much loved siblings and his beloved heir to get rid of him so as to make Lepidus the new emperor, whilst repaying the loyalty of Agrippina and her sister by allowing them to keep their status as when Caligula reigned.
Due to the emperor’s sensitivity to conspiracies, the emperor eventually took heed of their plan and sentenced Lepidus to be put to death whilst sending Agrippina and her sister into exile to the Pontian Islands. The idea that Agrippina was grasping for power even then is backed up by the modern historian, Leadbetter, in his novel ‘The Ambition of Agrippina the Younger’ when he writes “Agrippina and Lepidus had formed a conspiracy to replace Caligula… Thus Agrippina’s first attempt at seizing power long predated her marriage to Claudius”.
Caligula’s growing greed was becoming a worry to the senate, and although they disapproved of him they offered him compassion so as to gain his trust. Eventually the Praetorian Guard was sent to dispose of him (Roberts. P, 2008). Claudius, Agrippina’s uncle, is mostly known for his eventual insanity, however many do not remember his extreme kindness to those whose faith had been entrusted unto him. When he assumed power his first course of action was to reinstate his two nieces back into the Roman community.
His wife, named Messalina, assumed the same practice as Agrippina, and protected her own interests by divorcing her sick and time spent husband and joined C. Silius, next years appointed consul, in marriage. This, like Agrippina was executed to ensure her financial and social safety. This resembles the aforementioned conspiracy between the two sisters and Lepidus. Agrippina identifying this approach shamelessly begins to flirt with her uncle and plants the thought of Messalina’s betrayal in his mind. It was not long after this that the Praetorian Guard was sent to dispose of her.
Due to Agrippina’s obvious flattery towards the withered emperor did not go unnoticed and Claudius who was expected to wed again soon chose his niece as he new bride. This created some uncomfortable tension in the senate, which arranged all imperial marriages, since it was forbidden to marry your niece. This however was overlooked since Agrippina’s father even then was still seen as an inspiration in the empire and would give the emperor favor of the people. The marriage also prevented Agrippina from marry another rival for the throne, thus eliminating any competition.
After the two relatives were engaged a decree was passed to allow the matrimony between uncle and niece, a fact which is enforced by Cassius Dio in his book Roman History when he states “they [the senators] also passed a decree permitting Romans to wed their nieces, a union previously prohibited”. Like Messalina, Claudius showed the utmost fascination towards his new wife and granted her many extravagances, some which were only reserved for Goddesses. The most interesting is the five- layered sardonyx which depicts Claudius, Agrippina and her parents.
This would have displayed to the public that the marriage of the emperor and his niece has kept a pure blood line and therefore is the better option for emperor, it also confirms the positive relationship between the much loved warrior and the emperor. Another interesting privilege for Agrippina is the ‘Sebasteion of Aphrodisias’ where a statue of her has been put in place. This was a temple created for the Gods and was put emplace for Augusts (Antiquity 2, 2008). This would create the image that Agrippina should be likened to the Gods and should be just as prominent in time as Augustus.
Agrippina had such power of Claudius that she manipulated him to take in her son Domitius Ahenobarbus and make him heir to the throne. Claudius also changed his name to the better-known Nero Claudius Caesar. Agrippina was able to create prominence for Nero through the much used tactic patronage, which included the use of contacts and influence to achieve an objective. In Agrippina’s case her son to become emperor (Antiquity 2, 2008). These contacts, or clients, would assist the patrons by supporting and furthering the cause of the patron.
Agrippina’s clients were Seneca, one who she had recalled from exile, and Burrus who she had made sole prefect, an ordeal which is seen in ‘The Annals of imperial Rome’ written by Tacitus which states These two men were expected to do whatever Agrippina wanted, and were expected to aid in hers and her sons rise to power. There is much dispute over whether Agrippina was responsible for the death of Claudius, the more likely idea is that she did kill him as it is stated by both Tacitus and Dio Cassius.
When this ordeal was over, Nero was claimed the new emperor and to Agrippina’s delight was sculptured again in the ‘Sebasteion of Aphrodisias’ with Nero by her side. During Nero’s reign Agrippina was offered even more advantages then when Claudius reigned. She become priestess of Claudius’ cult and was offered two lictors, who were men which carried around the official emblems of the public office and would clear a path for her wherever she went (Antiquity 2, 2008). However this did not match the effervescent amount of coins that were minted with the mother and son to display the family’s power.
In AD 69 the saddened occurrence of Agrippina’s demise surfaced. It was apparent, although not to the wider area of Rome, that Nero was responsible for her death. It seems that Nero had grown tired of his mothers controlling ways and decided that the only way he would be rid of it was to kill her. Agrippina was an independent strong held woman in a time where females were down trodden. She was not afraid to test the system and remained one of the most prominent women in the time of imperial Rome.