Agrippina the Younger: Rome’s First True Empress

Agrippina the Younger was ambitious, ruthless, and intelligent. The first true empress of Rome, her life ended in a tragic downfall.

Oct 19, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
gemma claudius agrippina the younger shipwreck
The Gemma Claudia, depicting emperor Claudius and his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, 49 CE, Kunsthistorisches Museum; with The Shipwreck of Agrippina, Gustave Wertheimer, 19th century, private collection, via Sotheby’s


Few women in history could boast of Agrippina’s family pedigree. She was a great-granddaughter of Octavian (Augustus), the first Roman emperor, a great-niece of Emperor Tiberius, a sister to Emperor Caligula, the wife of Emperor Claudius, and the mother to Emperor Nero. Like her male relatives, Agrippina the Younger enjoyed immense power. However, she was a woman in a society ruled by men. Unlike the emperors, she had to fight to achieve that power. She had to scheme and perhaps, even resort to murder. Those actions assured her the scorn of historians (who, incidentally, were all men).


They blamed Agrippina’s naked ambition and vanity for her family’s misfortunes, and consequently, for the Empire’s ills. Yet, they could not avoid, albeit grudgingly, admiring her efforts and accomplishments. Agrippina the Younger was the first woman to transcend the role of the emperor’s wife. She was a true Roman empress. Honored with the title of Augusta in 50 CE, she wielded real political power and ruled as equal to her husband, Emperor Claudius. After his death (in which she might have played a role), she continued to rule over the Empire along with her son Nero. But the conflict with her son, at the apex of her power, led to Agrippina’s downfall and death.


Young Agrippina

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Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, Benjamin West, 1776, Yale University Art Gallery


Born in 15 CE in a military camp on the banks of the Rhine, Agrippina the Younger was destined for greatness. Her parents were prominent members of the ruling Julio-Claudian dynasty. Her mother was Vipsania Agrippina (Agrippina the Elder), a daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, and the favorite granddaughter of the first Emperor Augustus. Her father was Germanicus, a celebrated general and an adopted son of Emperor Tiberius — the heir to the imperial throne. However, the life of little Agrippina was turned upside down when she was only four years old. While in Syria, her father suddenly fell ill and died. The death was highly controversial. It seems that Germanicus was poisoned, possibly on Tiberius’ orders.


Agrippina the Elder had no doubts about the Emperor’s involvement. She claimed that Tiberius, fearful of Germanicus’ popularity with the army (and potential usurpation), arranged her husband’s assassination. Tiberius’ refusal to hold a public funeral did nothing to alleviate the rumors. As a portent of the things to come, her mother decided to exploit the people’s grief over their hero’s death, arriving in Rome with her husband’s ashes. It was an act of open defiance against the emperor’s will, but Tiberius had no choice but to comply. Accompanied by her children, Agrippina led a public procession to the mausoleum of Augustus, where she deposited Germanicus’ ashes.


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Great Cameo of France (depicting Julio-Claudian dynasty, including Agrippina the Elder, and Agrippina the Younger), 23 CE, or 50-54 CE, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, via the World Digital Library

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During this time, Agrippina the Younger began learning the inner workings of the imperial court. In this, she enjoyed the support of the most powerful female trio in the Roman Empire: her mother, her great-grandmother Livia, and her grandmother Antonia. The lessons would serve Agrippina well, following the downfall and death of her mother and two of her older brothers in 31 CE. Agrippina, only a teenager, had to adapt to survive the palace intrigues. Instead of challenging power head-on, as her mother had done, she chose to climb to the throne slowly and safely, navigating through a web of court politics and intrigues.


The Emperor’s Sister

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Copper coin with the Caligula’s portrait (obverse), the depiction of his three sisters (Agrippina the Younger on the left) (reverse), 37-38 CE, The British Museum


These survival techniques would serve Agrippina well in the years that followed. In 28 CE, on her 13th birthday, she married her much older cousin Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. It was a political arrangement (the instigator was Emperor Tiberius), but the marriage probably protected Agrippina when a family tragedy struck a few years later. The wheel of fortune turned once again in 37 CE. Following Tiberius’ death, her last surviving brother, Caligula, became emperor.


The first act of the new ruler was to rehabilitate his family’s reputation. The emperor showered his three sisters with honors and included them in official prayers. At the same time, consuls concluded their proposals to the Senate with the formula: “Favor and good fortune attend Gaius Caesar and his sisters.” The sisters prominently feature on the coins minted in the first year of Caligula’s reign.


Agrippina the Younger is depicted as Securitas, the security and strength of the Empire, while Drusilla and Livilla represent Concord and Fortune. Caligula’s devotion to his sisters reached such a point that people started doubting if something more scandalous than sibling devotion took place behind closed doors. Indeed, the sources, especially Suetonius, described Caligula’s infamous lavish feasts where the young emperor partook in sexual activities with his sisters in front of shocked onlookers.


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The Roman Emperor (Claudius): 41 AD, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871, The Walters Art Museum


It is not possible to determine the veracity of these salacious rumors. Yet, during Caligula’s reign, Agrippina’s popularity at the court rose greatly, while her marriage produced fruit. At the age of 22, Agrippina gave birth to her only child, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who would become known as Nero. From that moment onwards, Agrippina was determined to achieve one thing: to make her son emperor. It was not wishful thinking. After all, Agrippina herself was royalty. Her brother was a legitimate emperor. Yet, her goal was not selfless. As a woman, Agrippina was kept out of the political arena. Through her son, she had a chance to partake in imperial power, to climb to the very top — and to rule the Empire.


The Dangerous Road to Power

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Chalcedony cameo portrait bust of Agrippina the Younger, 37-39 CE, The British Museum


Agrippina the Younger’s fear of depending on the whims of powerful men materialized in 39 CE. The details are unclear. Some historians doubt if there ever existed a plot at all. The events that followed, however, suggest that Agrippina was involved in a failed coup against Caligula. The public trial declared her an adulterer and conspirator. Along with her sister Livilla, Agrippina was sent into exile on an island in the Mediterranean. It seemed that this was the end of her political career, and perhaps, her life. After all, her mother, too, died in exile.


Agrippina’s fate, however, was different. Following Caligula’s assassination in 41 CE, Agrippina was recalled to Rome. The new emperor, Claudius, was fond of his niece. Not only did he reintroduce her to court life. Claudius also restored the status of her son. The way to the top was open, once again. Agrippina became a widow that same year, but she quickly remarried the wealthy and well-connected Crispus. Crispus’ death in 47 CE, left Agrippina a very well-to-do widow. Again. Apart from material riches, she inherited her late husband’s connections and influence. Allegedly, Agrippina eliminated Crispus after he named her his heir, but that rumor was never conclusively proven.


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Statue of a woman holding a child (Presumably Messalina holding Britannicus), ca. 25-50 CE, Musée du Louvre


Such gossip further illustrates the harsh realities of court life, where every wrong step could end in political ruin or death. Agrippina was aware of the fickleness of her position and the tragic fate that had befallen her family. Instead of charging headlong to the top, she opted for a cunning approach, biding her time and staying out of the public eye. Agrippina was, after all, the last surviving member of her family, her son being the last male, who carried the blood of Augustus.


Agrippina also had to steer clear of Claudius’ third wife, the powerful and vengeful Valeria Messalina, who wanted the throne for her son, Britannicus. Messalina was a master schemer. She sent Livilla into exile, where she died, and even tried to kill Agrippina’s son. In the end, Messalina fell victim to her own intrigues in 48 CE. Agrippina’s moment finally arrived.


The Roman Empress

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The Gemma Claudia, depicting emperor Claudius and his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, on the left. Opposite to the imperial couple are Agrippina’s parents, Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus, 49 CE, Kunsthistorisches Museum


Agrippina the Younger was emperor Claudius’ niece. She was also the scion of the illustrious gens Iulia, the only remaining descendant of emperor Augustus. Her imperial ancestry made Agrippina an attractive prospect for Claudius. She was also young (only 35 years old), beautiful, and had a male heir. There was one hitch in Agrippina’s ambitious plan. In Roman society, a marriage between close relatives was unthinkable. Nevertheless, Agrippina was determined to become empress. She convinced Claudius to change laws regarding incest and was married with great pomp in 49 CE. Claudius also adopted her son, giving him the name Nero and making him his official heir. The marriage of Nero and Octavia, Claudius’ youngest daughter, further solidified Agrippina’s power.


Historians blamed Agrippina for manipulating the older Claudius into marriage. In most accounts, Agrippina’s image ranges from that of a passive bystander, exploited by a powerful man, to a tempting seductress, willing to trade her body for power. Naturally, all the historians were men, and they hardly hid their dislike for Agrippina, whom they considered little more than a female upstart.


Agrippina was an ambitious and unscrupulous woman. Yet, we should not forget that this young woman had seen her entire family decimated, while her life and the life of her son were constantly in peril. Marriage to the emperor was the only way to guarantee safety. Furthermore, Claudius profited from the marriage too. Through Agrippina, he could claim relation to the deified Augustus.


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Marble Portrait head of Agrippina the Younger, ca. 50 CE, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Villa, Los Angeles


More importantly, even the most biased sources could hardly deny Agrippina’s political acumen and her ruling skills. The new Roman empress broke with the tradition of imperial women staying in the shadow of their husbands. In all ways, Agrippina the Younger was Claudius’ equal partner. She finally held real power. And she knew how to use it. Agrippina established a close relationship with the Senate, imposed order and moderation at the court, and participated in official business conducted across the Empire.


In unprecedented fashion, Agrippina appeared standing beside the emperor in public, in full regalia. When Claudius granted freedom to the captive British king Caractacus, his wife, and children, the king also expressed gratitude to Agrippina, who sat next to her husband. For Tacitus, Agrippina’s position was something never seen before — an equal partnership governing the Empire.


The Mother of a New Emperor

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Agrippina the Younger crowns her son Nero emperor, relief from the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, ca. 54 – 59 CE, Sebasteion-Sevgi Gönül Gallery, Aphrodisias, via Oxford University Open Content


In 54 CE, Claudius died, either from natural causes or poison. According to Suetonius, Agrippina played a role in Claudius’ demise, trying to prevent the emperor from designating Messalina’s son Britannicus as his heir. Whatever had transpired, Agrippina fulfilled her life-long plan. Both the Senate and the army unanimously declared the 16-year old Nero the new Roman emperor. Agrippina, thus, became not only the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire but a ruler in all but name.


As the emperor’s mother, Agrippina received even more honors. In the Roman tradition, the father was the head of the family, while the mother was rarely mentioned. Nero, however, installed inscriptions, where he proudly mentioned that he was the “son of Agrippina.” Agrippina the Younger was the first and only woman to be honored in such a way. Sculptures also point to Agrippina’s high status. On the relief found in Aphrodisias (in modern-day Western Turkey), the empress is depicted as the personification of fertile Rome, crowning her young son. The most prominent evidence of Agrippina’s equal (if not senior) position to Nero are the coins minted in the first year of the emperor’s reign. One of the coins features Agrippina on the obverse – the place traditionally reserved for the emperor. Other coins show the joint portrait of mother and son.


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Golden coin with the joint portraits of Nero and Agrippina the Younger (obverse), the laurel wreath with an inscription (reverse), 54 CE, The British Museum


Agrippina’s power, however, soon started to wane, as Nero tried to get rid of his mother’s overbearing influence. First, he removed Agrippina’s allies from all top positions. Nero’s involvement in the elimination of his stepbrother Britannicus could also be interpreted as an attempt to get rid of Agrippina’s potential ally. When Agrippina tried to befriend Nero’s wife, Octavia, the emperor exiled his mother from the palace.


For Nero, Agrippina strayed too far from the traditional female role. He was probably encouraged to downplay his mother’s role by his close advisors. They perceived Agrippina’s influence in imperial politics as a danger to the emperor. Indeed, unpleasant rumors began to circulate about the close relationship between the mother and son, including incest. Suetonius’ hostile remarks followed such a line.


Agrippina, always a fighter, tried, unsuccessfully, to continue to influence her son and maintain her grasp on power. But Nero’s relationship with an ex-slave girl, followed by his affair with Poppaea Sabina, only further exacerbated the conflict between the two. It is possible that Agrippina, unsatisfied with her position, got involved in a plot against her son. Alternatively, Poppaea could also have played a role in Agrippina’s demise. Following the banishment and death of Nero’s first wife, Octavia, Agrippina remained the only obstacle keeping Poppaea off the imperial throne.


The Demise and Legacy of Agrippina the Younger

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The Shipwreck of Agrippina, Gustave Wertheimer, 19th century, private collection, via Sotheby’s


Despite her fall from grace, Agrippina the Younger was still popular among the people; her assassination had to look like an accident. The sources on Agrippina’s death differ and contradict each other, but they all concur that Nero’s problematic mother survived several assassination attempts. They ranged from poisoning (which Agrippina survived by using the antidote), a collapsed bedroom ceiling, and the most fantastic effort of all — a self-sinking pleasure barge, from which Agrippina miraculously escaped by swimming ashore.


Eventually, Nero’s assassins accomplished their task. Agrippina was killed or, possibly, was forced to commit suicide. The most impressive account of Agrippina’s final moment comes from Tacitus. When confronted by her attackers, Agrippina exclaimed: “Smite my womb,” implying that the end of her life should come by the destruction of the organ that gave life to her son. She was 43.


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Nero observing the body of his mother Agrippina, Arturo Montero y Calvo, 1887, Museo Nacional del Prado


Denounced as a traitor, Agrippina was denied a state funeral and buried in an unmarked grave. A few years later, her son’s reign came to a violent end with Nero’s suicide. Agrippina’s body was moved to a modest tomb, whose location is now lost. History was not kind to Agrippina the Younger. Nero’s death plunged the empire into chaos, and when hostilities ceased, the new Flavian dynasty presented Agrippina’s ruthlessness and ambition as a symbol of the decadent and corrupt Julio-Claudians.


Yet, there is one tangible legacy left by this powerful woman. When she married Claudius, Agrippina the Younger became the first and only imperial woman who founded a city and named it after herself. Located on the banks of the River Rhine, at the place of her birth,  Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium soon turned into one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. Its inhabitants continued to call themselves Agrippinensi, honoring the name of their founder. The city still stands today, known under a less glamorous name — Cologne.


Hated and vilified through the centuries, Agrippina the Younger remains one of the most influential and powerful women in the history of the Roman Empire. Sister, wife, and mother of the first Roman emperors, Agrippina was able to bypass the barriers put in place by Roman society and challenge women’s traditional role. Her path to the top was all but easy, with Agrippina having to scheme, fight, and perhaps even murder to accomplish her aim. In the end, her naked ambition, her ruthlessness, intelligence, and wit worked out. Agrippina the Younger became not just a figurehead but the first true empress of Rome.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.