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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Agrippina the Younger attained a level of power in first-century Rome unprecedented for a woman. In this first biography of Agrippina in English, Anthony A. Barrett draws on the latest archaeological, numismatic, and historical evidence to create a startling new picture of this influential and misjudged woman.According to ancient sources, she achieved her success by plotting against her brother, the emperor Caligula, murdering her husband, the emperor Claudius, and controlling her son, the emperor Nero, by sleeping with him. Although she was ambitious, Barrett argues that she made her way through ability and determination rather than by sexual allure, and that her political contributions to her time seem to have been positive.

Excerpt

Through some perverse and mysterious quirk of nature, the villains of history, rather than the saints, are what excite the popular imagination. Characters like Rasputin, Dr Crippen, Vlad the Impaler are undoubtedly evil, but they are also so colourful and so alluringly sinister, that they fascinate at the same time as they repel. At first glance Agrippina the Younger clearly deserves membership in this select company. She plotted against her brother Caligula (as well as sharing his bed), she murdered her husband Claudius with a deadly mushroom, and she tried (unsuccessfully) to cope with a rebellious teenage son, Nero, by sharing his bed too. She was finally eliminated by that same Nero through a scheme as ingenious and outlandish as any in the history of crime - an irresistible combination of treachery, incest and murder. Or so tradition has it. Whether these things actually happened is another matter altogether. At one level it makes hardly any difference, since historical reputations are a product of perception, not of reality. But at another level the issue is an important one. The complete truth about Agrippina may be unobtainable by now, but the serious reader is entitled to hope for a version that comes as close to that truth as the evidence allows, rather than a string of entertaining but dubious anecdotes. That kind of sober reappraisal of the evidence is the objective of this biography.

Time has certainly not been kind to Agrippina's memory. She suffers one accidental disadvantage, essentially trivial but often a curse on posthumous reputations. She had a parent of the same name, not as famous (infamous in her case) but prominent enough for the activities of mother and daughter to be occasionally confused. Far more serious, Agrippina's sordid popular image has eclipsed her more significant accomplishments. Along with Livia, the wife of the first Roman emperor, she represents a political paradox of the early Roman empire, the woman who managed to exercise great power and influence in a society that offered no constitutional role to powerful and influential women. It is this achievement, to be empress in an empire that allowed only emperors, that makes her accomplishments interesting and worthy of serious study. But not to the Romans - they saw the elevation of women like Agrippina as an inversion of the natural order, and the preoccupation of the ancient writers with the evils of female ambition all but blinded them to any admirable qualities they might have possessed.

Modern scholars, of all national backgrounds, have with very few exceptions treated Agrippina no less harshly than did their ancient counterparts. In the first monograph devoted to her, Agrippina die Mutter Neros, written in German over a century ago, the distinguished writer Adolf Stahr accepted the hostile ancient testimonia uncritically. More recent treatments have maintained this tradition. Syme calls her 'violent', 'truculent and merciless', 'corrupt but vigorous' and speaks of her 'robust criminality'. To Dudley she is a 'Clytaemnestra' of a woman. Mellor considers her 'loathsome' and

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