Agrippina the Elder

Julio-Claudian dynasty

caption=Agrippina the Elder, wife of Germanicus

Julia Vipsania Agrippina (Classical Latin: AGRIPPINA•GERMANICI [Aut|E. Groag, A. Stein, L. Petersen - e.a. (edd.), "Prosopographia Imperii Romani saeculi I, II et III" (PIR), Berlin, 1933 - V 463 ] ), (14 BC – 18 October 33), most commonly known as Agrippina Major or Agrippina "the Elder", was one of the most prominent women in the Roman Empire in the early 1st century AD. She was the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa by his third wife Julia the Elder, was a granddaughter of Augustus and wife of Germanicus. She was mother to the emperor Caligula and grandmother to Nero.Citation | last = Plate | first = William | author-link = | contribution = Agrippina I | editor-last = Smith | editor-first = William | title = Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology | volume = 1 | pages = 80-81 | publisher = Little, Brown and Company | place = Boston | year = 1867 | contribution-url = ]

Early life

Agrippina was born in Athens, Greece. In 5 she had married Germanicus, her second cousin and step-grandson of the Emperor Augustus.

Agrippina had nine children by Germanicus, three of whom died young. The six who survived to adulthood were:
* Nero Caesar
* Drusus Caesar
* Caligula, future Emperor
* Agrippina the Younger, mother of Emperor Nero
* Julia Drusilla
* Julia Livilla

Traveling wife

The well regarded Germanicus was a candidate for the succession and had won fame campaigning in Germania and Gaul, where he was accompanied by Agrippina. This was most unusual for Roman wives, as convention required them to stay at home, and earned her a reputation as a model for heroic womanhood. She bore him two children in Gaul, a boy and Agrippina the Younger in the Rhine frontier.

Agrippina and Germanicus travelled to the Near East in 19, incurring the displeasure of the emperor Tiberius. Germanicus quarrelled with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, and died in Antioch in mysterious circumstances. It was widely suspected that Germanicus had been poisoned – perhaps on the orders of Tiberius himself – and Agrippina returned to Rome to avenge his death. She boldly accused Piso of the murder of Germanicus. According to Tacitus ("Annals" 3.14.1), the prosecution could not prove the poisoning charge, but other charges of treason seemed likely to stick, and Piso committed suicide.

Time in Rome

From 19 to 29, Agrippina remained in Rome, becoming increasingly involved with a group of senators who opposed the growing power of Tiberius' favourite Sejanus. Her relations with the emperor became increasingly fraught as she made it clear that she believed that he was responsible for the death of Germanicus. The climate was further poisoned by the "inveterate hatred" that Tiberius' mother felt for her (Tacitus, Annals 4.12), since Agrippina's ambition, to be the mother of emperors and thus Rome's first woman, was an open secret. In 26, the emperor rejected her request that she be allowed to marry again.

Exile and death

Agrippina and her sons Nero and Drusus were arrested in 29 on the orders of Tiberius. They were tried by the Senate and Agrippina was banished to the island of Pandataria (now called Ventotene) in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Campania where her mother had once been banished. There she was treated with great brutality, losing an eye from the blow of a centurion and later undergoing forcible feeding (Suetonius, Tib.53). She died on 18 October 33 in suspicious circumstances. Her death, according to Suetonius the result of voluntary starvation (ibid), was probably hastened by her realisation that the fall of Sejanus had "led to no abatement of horrors" (Tacitus, Annals 6.25). Tacitus also mentions malnutrition as a likely cause. After her death Tiberius accused her of "having had Asinius Gallus as a paramour and being driven by his death to loathe existence" (Annals 6.25). At Tiberius' prompting the Senate decreed that her birthday should be marked as a day of ill omen (Suet.ibid.).

Drusus died of starvation after being imprisoned in Rome and Nero Caesar either committed suicide or was murdered after his trial in 29. Only two of her children are of historical importance: Agrippina the Younger and Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who succeeded Tiberius under the name of Caligula. Despite Tiberius' enmity towards Caligula's elder brothers, he nonetheless made Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus joint heirs to his property.

There is a portrait of her in the Capitoline Museums at Rome and a bronze medal in the British Museum showing her ashes being brought back to Rome by order of Caligula.


Agrippina was widely regarded by contemporaries as being a woman of the highest character and exemplary Roman morals, notwithstanding a profound arrogance and a vaulting ambition: Tacitus' verdict is of a woman who "could not endure equality and loved to domineer, [and who] with her masculine aspirations was far removed from the frailties of women" (Annals 6.25).

A superficial assessment views Agrippina as the innocent victim of tyranny. In reality, however, Agrippina herself had done much to provoke her fate. Her constant dwelling on her birth (e.g. Annals 1.40) and her being the "sole surviving offspring of Augustus" (Annals 3.4) was not merely an insult to Tiberius, Augustus’ son by adoption, but also to Livia, who was Julia Augusta only by testamentary adoption; her attitude also implied a challenge to Tiberius' own position.

ee also

:Tacitus, "Annals" i.-vi.:Suetonius, "The Twelve Caesars":Julio-Claudian Family Tree


Ancient Sources

* Suetonius, "De vita Casearum" - On the Life of the Caesars "Tiberius iii.52.3, 53" and "Caligula iv.23.1"

econdary Sources

* Robin Seager, Tiberius, London (Eyre Methuen) 1972
* (ed.), "Prosopographia Imperii Romani", 3 vol., Berlin, 1897-1898. (PIR1)

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