Further Reading

Agrippina : Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire

Matrona Docta : Educated Women in the Roman Elite

"...At last, convinced that she would be too formidable, wherever she might dwell, he resolved to destroy her, merely deliberating whether it was to be accomplished by poison, or by the sword, or by any other violent means. Poison at first seemed best, but, were it to be administered at the imperial table, the result could not be referred to chance after the recent circumstances of the death of Britannicus. Again, to tamper with the servants of a woman who, from her familiarity with crime, was on her guard against treachery, appeared to be extremely difficult, and then, too, she had fortified her constitution by the use of antidotes. How again the dagger and its work were to be kept secret, no one could suggest, and it was feared too that whoever might be chosen to execute such a crime would spurn the order..." -Tacitus (Roman Historian)

She was the daughter of Claudius' brother, the great general Germanicus, and sister of the emperor Caligula. She had been married to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (Bronzebeard) of whom the Roman historian Suetonis calls a "wholly despicable character." Agrippina's son by him, Domitius would eventually become Emperor Nero.

When Caligula became emperor, he decided he was a god and imitated the domestic lives of the gods by sleeping with his three sisters, Drusilla, Livilla and Agrippina. He also setup a brothel in the palace where he sold his sisters and charged high rates. Ultimately he got tired of having them around the court and exiled Livilla and Agrippina 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 assassination Agrippina saw an opportunity to win Claudius' affections and soon convinced Pallas, Claudius' financial secretary and her lover, to push her as a candidate for empress. Soon enough Claudius grew quite fond of her and began to understand the many reasons why a marriage between them would make sense: she was intelligent and cunning and could help with the work of governing; her son was a worthy member of the imperial family; she might give the emperor an heir and as a rich member of the imperial family, it would be unsafe to let her marry anyone else who might get ambitious for the imperial throne. The Roman Senate, well trained in servility by its dealings with Tiberius and Caligula agreed to the marriage unanimously in spite of the fact that incestuous marriages were forbidden by Roman law. In 49, she married her third husband and uncle Tiberius Claudius Caesar after the Senate removed the prohibition against the legal marriage between uncle and niece.

By this time, Claudius was venerable and nearing the end of his life. Agrippina, being an ambitious and intelligent woman married to an emperor considered a weakling and somewhat of a dunce by those around him, naturally took the reins of power into her own hands and quickly became the main power of government. Tacitus says, "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."

Agrippina persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero as his son and to arrange a marriage between marry his daughter Octavia and 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 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, in later years used to laugh by referring to mushrooms as "the food of the gods."

When Nero became emperor he was only seventeen, and could not legally rule so for the first year of his reign Agrippina basically ran the empire until he was of legal age. She was the first woman in the history of Rome to be given the title of empress. Her picture later appeared on coins with her son; she was the first woman of the imperial household to be pictured on coins while she was still alive. Her son, who appreciated what his mother had done for him lovingly called her "the best of mothers" but eventually he began to resent her power and control. Agrippina wanted an open share in government which the Romans thought was scandalous. She thwarted Nero's love affairs, forbid him to do as he chose and often threatened him that she would expose his treatment of her and make Britannicus emperor in his place. Nero ended this threat by poisoning 14 year old Britannicus at the imperial table. He cunningly bypassed the boy's taster appointed to protect him by handing him a cup in which the liquid was too hot, after having tasted it, a servant poured in poisoned cold water in the drink which was then handed to the boy. After one sip Britannicus went into convulsions and died instantly. Nero "lay back unconcernedly," claiming that Britannicus was merely having an epileptic fit. Octavia, Britannicus' sister, though young, "had learnt to hide sorrow, affection, every feeling. After a short silence the banquet continued."

Nero exiled Agrippina from the palace. Soon enough hired informers accused her of plotting Nero's death, but Agrippina faced down the charges declaring they were false. Nero had at this time fallen in love with Sabina Poppae (who desperately wanted to be empress). Agrippina fiercely opposed this union and the two women fought for control of the emperor. Agrippina went as far as to sleep with her son to retain her influence, but Nero knew the only way to be rid of her was to kill 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 planned 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. Undoubtedly, at this point, Nero thought his problems were over.

When the planned accident occurred, Agrippina's two companions were killed. She was wounded, but swam to shore 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 revenge. The terrified Nero, knowing that his mother's revenge was sure to be deadly, framed the massager by accusing him of attacking the emperor and then sent a freedman to kill his mother. Her last words were supposed to have been, "Strike here," as she pointed to the womb from which Nero was borne.

Agrippina's alleged victims:

Agrippina the Younger1 | Cassius Dio | Agrippina the Younger2

Wearing a toga, the Roman Emperor Claudius limped into Davidge Hall February 9th to keep a long overdue doctor's appointment. He was gravely ill after devouring a heaping helping of mushrooms served up by his scheming, power-hungry wife, Agrippina. His symptoms included extreme abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, low blood pressure, and difficulty breathing. Claudius would be dead within 12 hours...So what was Agrippina's motive? “Power,” says Dr. Talbert. Ambitious and influential, Agrippina had convinced Claudius to adopt her son Nero, so that Nero would inherit the throne.

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"...The whole world was ablaze then and falling down in ruin just as if Juno had made her husband mad. Less guilty therefore will Agrippina's mushroom be deemed, seeing that it only stopped the breath of one old man, and sent down his palsied head and slobbering lips to heaven, whereas the other potion demanded fire and sword and torture, mingling Knights and Fathers in one mangled bleeding heap. Such was the cost of one mere's offspring; and of one she-poisoner..."
-Juvenal (satyrist)

 

 

15 - 59 A.D. - Ancient Rome

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 anyhow. This time, it seemed he had found the one woman in Rome worse than Messalina, his niece Agrippina.