Vipsania Agrippina, commonly known as Agrippina Major or Agrippina the Elder played a key role in the lives and politics of the first emperors of Rome.
The granddaughter of emperor Augustus, Agrippina was named after her father, Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ favourite general. Her mother, Julia, was Augustus’ only legitimate child. Agrippa died when Agrippina was only two years old and her mother remarried the future emperor Tiberius. This marriage was an unhappy one, and in 2 BCE, when Agrippina was 12, Julia was exiled for adultery. Agrippina never saw her mother again.
Agrippina and her four full-blood siblings were raised by Augustus and his wife Livia. Historical sources report that she had an affectionate relationship with her grandfather. At some point between 1 BCE and 5 CE, she was married to her cousin Germanicus, Livia’s grandson.
By all accounts, the couple was well matched and they were extremely happy together. Germanicus was a beloved general and popular politician, as well as Tiberius’ adopted heir. Agrippina was a devoted wife, who supported her husband, travelling with him to war in Gaul and Germania.
They had six surviving children together; sons Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar and Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (nicknamed Caligula) and daughters Agrippina the Younger (Julia Agrippina), Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla.
Agrippina was praised for her child-bearing and her support for her husband as she travelled across the Roman Empire with her large family on various military campaigns. She was seen as the ideal Roman matron and a heroic figure, making her very popular with ordinary people.
Agrippina’s happy life came to an abrupt end when in the year 19 while the family was in the Middle East Germanicus got into a disagreement with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria and died very suddenly. Agrippina believed that her husband had been poisoned by Piso on Tiberius’ orders.
Plunged into grief, she brought her six children back to Rome, publicly carrying Germanicus’ ashes, determined to seek justice. The people of Rome were hugely sympathetic towards the widowed Agrippina, and when she accused Piso of murder and treason, the governor felt he had no choice but to commit suicide.
Agrippina never recovered from Germanicus’ death, and her loneliness increased as many of her relatives continued to die – she had already lost her two elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, and her younger brother Postumus had been exiled.
She had always been outspoken, and in the court of Tiberius she became moreso, advocating for her sons to become heirs to the imperial throne over Tiberius’ son and grandson. She soon became involved in a plot to overthrow the Emperor and his right hand man, Sejanus. Tiberius began to mistrust Agrippina and in 26 refused her request to marry a Roman senator for political reasons.
The ill-feeling between Agrippina and Tiberius came to a head when the emperor offered her an apple at a dinner party and she refused – suspecting it was poisoned. Shortly afterwards, Tiberius had Agrippina and her eldest sons, Nero and Drusus arrested for conspiracy to treason.
Following trial by the Senate, Agrippina and Nero were banished to Pandataria, the same island her mother had been banished to years before.
She did not give up without a fight. Historical sources tell us that Agrippina continued to be vocal even in her banishment, and was flogged so viciously that she lost an eye. She refused to eat and though she was force-fed, later succeeded in starving herself to death in 33.
Drusus died of starvation in Rome and Nero committed suicide. After Agrippina’s death, Tiberius declared her birthday as an unlucky day. However, the emperor was succeeded by Agrippina’s remaining son, Caligula, who restored his mother and brothers’ ashes to Rome. He had coins made in Agrippina’s honor and dedicated the Circus Games to her memory. Further to this, Caligula destroyed all evidence of the court case against Agrippina.
Agrippina’s son ruled for a further four years, and her daughter, Agrippina the Younger, later married the emperor Claudius, becoming empress and mother to future emperor Nero.
The historian Tacitus described Agrippina as determined and masculine:
“Agrippina knew no feminine weaknesses. Intolerant of rivalry, thirsting for power, she had a man’s preoccupations”
She was remembered as a great and deeply moral woman with a strong character who cared for her family above all things.
Agrippina features as a main character in Robert Graves’ novel ‘I, Claudius’ and she was played by Fiona Walker in the 1976 TV serial.
Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce E. Salisbury
Julio-Claudian family tree – created by author
“Benjamin West 001” by Benjamin West – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN3936122202
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Agrippina the elder” by Unknown – en:Image:Agrippina the elder.jpg. Uploaded on the English Wikipedia, 4 June 2004, by ChrisO
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Agripinna Senior (elder) Sestertius” by SwKSwK – Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons