Agrippina atrox ac ferox – Tacitus’ depiction of Agrippina minor in the Annals
Agrippina the younger seems to fascinate not only for modern authors or movie makers, but also ancient writers and artists. Not only was Agrippina minor widely used as model for statues or images on coins, she also used to play often a major role in the stories of ancient authors like Tacitus, Suetonius or Cassius Dio. She stands out in the description of those authors, characterized mainly as evil and greedy for power, interfering the businesses of the emperors and therefore totally un-female, if not even totally male in her character.
Since there was no possibility for women holding an office, her power and influence must have had its origin the only source available to women in the Roman Empire, close relationship to male power. She was the wife of one emperor and the mother of another, also the sister of a third emperor and the daughter of a very popular and military successful prince of the imperial house. Agrippina the Younger was the daughter of Germanicus Julius Caesar and of Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina maior). Germanicus' father Drusus was a son of Augustus' wife Livia by her first husband. His mother was Antonia Minor, daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, Augustus' sister. Agrippina's mother, Agrippina the Elder, was a daughter of Julia, Augustus' only child, and of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus' respected aid in his ascension to the throne. Such excellent relations offered great opportunities for ancient authors to mention and portray Agrippina in their works.
Agrippina was born probably in 14 AD, most likely in the city now known as Cologne. In 17 AD the family had returned to Rome and Germanicus was granted a triumph, in which his family was included. Later in the same year her parents left Rome for Syria, whereas Agrippina and the other children were left behind in the care of the family. In 19 AD Germanicus died in the East, and her mother Agrippina maior returned with his ashes home to Rome in 20 AD.
Suetonius and Tacitus reports that in 28 AD Agrippina married Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a man from a distinguished family with a long line of consuls as his ancestors, and through his mother Antonia maior and his grandmother Octavia also related to Augustus. He himself became consul in 32 AD. From this marriage one son was born in December 37 AD, the future emperor Nero.
Unfortunately a great deal of Tacitus account on Caligula and his reign are lost, therefore we don’t have a depiction of Agrippina and her actions for that particularly time. Although we do know from other sources that during the first years of the reign of Agrippina’s brother Gaius Caligula great honors were bestowed to his sisters Agrippina, Drusilla and Livilla. The sisters were to be included in oaths, sit with him at games and take turns occupying the traditional wife's position at table. Their portraits were even depicted on several coin issues, mainly on Bronze coins. Such remarkable honors bestowed to the family found rather malicious echoes in the literary sources, which insinuated incest as a motif for the extraordinary honors. But I explained above the family connections of Agrippina and by evoking this lineage and commemorating it, the young Gaius Caligula legitimized and advertized his rule. We have to bear in mind that only a few years ago his family was dishonored and almost extinct by exiles and executions and suicides, therefore his claim to rule was not unchallenged. Caligula had to evoke all the connections especially to the great Augustus, and commemorating both his sisters and also his dead mother on coins and in portraits served his purpose to stabilize his rule.
But after 38 AD a conspiracy was exposed, in which the sisters and some prominent members of the aristocracy were involved. Probably the two remaining sisters of Caligula (Drusilla died in 38 AD) tied themselves to Aemilius Lepidus in order to help legalize his attempt to take over the principate and therefore keep it to their family, since the brother Caligula showed serious signs of a mental illness. Livilla and especially Agrippina were accused of having sexual relations with him. Lepidus was executed, and Agrippina and Livilla were sent into exile on the Pontian Islands off the coast of southern Italy.
After the assassination of Caligula in January 41 AD the sisters returned to Rome. Meanwhile Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Nero) had become emperor in 41 AD after the death of Caligula. He was the brother of Agrippina's father Germanicus and therefore her uncle.
That uncle, after the horrible end of his marriage to Messalina, mother of his two children Octavia and Britannicus, looked for a new wife, and Agrippina appeared to be the perfect candidate. That marriage seemed to be a political arrangement and it benefited both. Agrippina attained the position of an imperial wife, and Claudius was not only able to benefit from the connection Agrippina’s to the Julian family (we have to remember that Claudius was more linked to the Claudians, since he was the pater familias of the gens Claudia, he was not even adopted into the Julian family), but he was also able to keep the daughter of his still widely popular brother Germanicus from marrying someone else and so legitimating a latent rival with her family connection.
Agrippina and Claudius were married early in 49 AD; short time after Messalina had been removed. Here again Tacitus recalls a scheme which we find from now on frequently in the Annals: the use of sexuality by Agrippina in order to reach her political goals, not in order to satisfy her personal lust or desires. If Messalina is depicted extremely impious but more politically harmless, Agrippina is described as having not only a particularly political scheme in mind but even exercising a kind of masculine despotism and therefore using her sexual talents completely for those purposes.
Shortly after the marriage Claudius followed the tradition of his nephew Caligula and minted especially gold and silver coins with his portrait on the averse and with the portrait of his wife Agrippina on the reverse. Exceptional is the title Augusta, commemorated on the coins. The title Augusta, although not connected to constitutional power (which by the way not even the title Augustus was!), it provided her a public eminence and visibility as the female equivalent of the Augustus, that is as the female partner of the Emperor. It is remarkable that Agrippina minor is the first wife of a living emperor whose portrait appears on coins. Not even Livia, the first Augusta, was given such privilege. She was given the title of Augusta per testamentum after the death of Augustus, but even so her son Tiberius, the next emperor, did not allow Livia’s portrait with the legend Augusta to be minted at least on the official imperial issues. It’s likely to assume that both Augustus and Tiberius tried to avoid the public impression that the principate was a form of monarchic, probably Hellenistic rule with a ruling couple on the top of the government. But since between the end of the reign of Augustus and the beginning of the reign of Claudius almost 30 years had elapsed, time had come to depict the ruler in a more monarchic way, as a kind of a Hellenistic couple.
 For the discussion about Agrippina’s birthday see A.Barrett. Agrippina. Sex, power and politics in the Early Empire. New Haven/London 1996. pp.230-32
 Tac. Ann.12.27
 Tac. Ann.2.4
 Tac. Ann.2.53; Suet. Cal.10.1
 Suet. Ner.6.2; Tac. Ann.4.75
 Suet. Ner.1
 Dio 58.20.1
 Suet. Cal.15.3
 RIC 33 Caligula. Sestercius, C CAESAR AVG GERMANICVS PON M TR POT, head of Caligula, laureate, left / AGRIPPINA – DRVSILLA – IVLIA, the 3 sisters as Securitas, Concordia and Fortuna.
Most likely the sisters meant to represent the qualities of security, harmony and good fortune in application to the imperial house; it shows the unity of the whole imperial family after the dreadful and self-destroying reign of Tiberius.
 Suet. Cal.24.1
 Suet. Cl.9.1
 Suet. Cal.29.1; Tac. Ann.14.2; Dio 59.22.6-8
 Suet. Cal.59; Dio 60.4.1
 Tac. Ann.12.2 at Pallas id maxime in Agrippina laudare quod Germanici nepotem secum traheret, dignum prorsus imperatoria fortuna: stirpem nobilem et familiae Claudiaeque posteros coniungeret
 For the discussion concerning the advantages and disadvantages of Claudius’ future wife see A.Barrett. Agrippina. Sex, power and politics in the Early Empire. New Haven/London 1996. pp.95-97
 Suet. Cl.26.3; Dio. Epitome.61.31.8
 Tac. Ann.12.7 non per lasciviam, ut Messalina, rebus Romanis inludenti
 Tac. Ann.12.7 adductum et quasi virile servitium
 Tac. Ann.12.7 nihil domi impudicum, nisi dominationi expediret. cupido auri immensa obtentum habebat, quasi subsidium regno pararetur
 RIC 80 Claudius. Aureus. TI CLAVD CAESAR AVG GERM PM TRIB POT PP, head, laureate, right / AGRIPPINAE AUGVSTAE, head, with the corona spicea, right
 M.Flory. The meaning of Augusta in the Julio-Claudian period. American Journal of Ancient history 13. (1997). p.118
- Quote paper
- M.A. Diana Beuster (Author), 2008, Agrippina atrox ac ferox – Tacitus’ depiction of Agrippina minor in the Annals, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/128663