How Empress Agrippina the Younger Scandalized Rome

Agrippina arriving at port of Brindisi with Germano's ashes, by Cesare Caroselli (1847-1927), oil on canvas, Julio-Claudian dynasty, Italy
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Roman Empress Julia Agrippina, also known as Agrippina the Younger, lived from A.D. 15 to 59. The daughter of Germanicus Caesar and Vipsania Agrippina, Julia Agrippina was the sister of Emperor Caligula or Gaius. Her influential family members made Agrippina the Younger a force to be reckoned with, but her life was plagued by controversy and she would die in a scandalous manner as well.

Marriage Woes

In A.D.

28, Agrippina married Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. He died in A.D. 40, but before his death, Agrippina bore him a son, the now notorious Emperor Nero. After a short time as a widow, she married her second husband, Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus, in A.D. 41, only to be accused of fatally poisoning him eight years later.

That same year, A.D. 49, Julia Agrippina married her uncle, the Emperor Claudius. The union may not have been the first time Agrippina was involved in an incestuous relationship. She is also rumored to have had sexual relations with Caligula when he served as emperor. Historical sources on Agrippina the Younger include Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius. Historians indicated that Agrippina and Caligula might have been lovers as well as enemies, with Caligula exiling his sister from Rome for allegedly conspiring against him. She wasn’t banished forever but returned to Rome two years later.

Thirst for Power

It’s unlikely that Julia Agrippina, described as power hungry, married Claudius for love.  A year after they wed, she persuaded Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, as his heir. He agreed, but that proved to be a fatal move. Early historians argued that Agrippina poisoned Claudius. She certainly profited after his death, as it led to Nero, then roughly 16 or 17 years old, assuming power, with Julia Agrippina as regent and Augusta, an honorary title given to women in imperial families to highlight their status and influence.

Unexpected Turn of Events

Under Nero’s reign, Agrippina did not end up exerting more influence over the Roman Empire. Instead, her power waned. Because of her son’s young age, Agrippina tried to rule on his behalf, but events did not turn out as she’d planned. Nero eventually exiled Agrippina. He is said to have considered his mother overbearing and wanted to distance himself from her. Their relationship grew especially strained when she objected to his romance with his friend’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, according to the editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. His mother also challenged his right to rule, arguing that her stepson Brittanicus was the real heir to the throne, the History Channel notes. Brittanicus later died in mysterious circumstances likely orchestrated by Nero. The young emperor also plotted to kill his mother by arranging for her to board a boat designed to sink, but that ploy failed when Agrippina swam safely back to shore. Still determined to commit matricide, Nero later ordered his mother be assassinated in her home. All in all, a scandalous woman met a scandalous end.

Nero would rule Rome until his suicide in A.D. 68. Debauchery and religious persecution characterized his reign.

 

Links to Websites Cited:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julia-Agrippina

http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/nero