Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire

Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire

Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire

Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire


Agrippina the Younger, wife of the emperor Claudius and mother of his successor Nero, wielded power and authority at the center of the Roman empire in ways unmatched by almost any other woman in Roman history. Such, at least, is the portrait of Agrippina delivered by our sources and perpetuated in modern scholarship. In this posthumous work, Judith Ginsburg provides a fresh look at both the literary and material representations of Agrippina. Unlike previous treatments, she seeks neither to condemn nor to rehabilitate Agrippina. Nor does she endeavor to exhume the "real Agrippina" from the embellished or fabricated portraits found among the ancients. Ginsburg trains her focus on the representations themselves. Her painstaking dissection of the portrayals by historians exposes the rhetorical tropes, the recurrent motifs, and the craft that shaped the literary image of Agrippina. The designs, as Ginsburg shows, were more than literary flourishes. They aimed to blur the boundaries between the domestic and the imperial realms, deploying the image of Agrippina as domineering wife and mother to suggest the flaws and instability of the regime, a dysfunctional family entailing a dysfunctional system of governance. Gender inversions at home played themselves out on the public scene as imperial rule compromised by female ascendancy. Distorted stereotypes of the "wicked stepmother," the domineering woman, and the sexual transgessor were applied to underscore the violations of status and disruption of gender relations that characterized the imperial administration. Ginsburg has as keen an eye for visual (mis)representations as for literary ones. The depictions of Agrippina on coinage and statuary provide a stark contrast with the written evidence. She appears as matron and priestess, emblematic of domestic rectitude and public piety, and a central figure in the continuity of the dynasty. Ginsburg incisively demonstrates the means whereby Agrippina's imagery was molded both to serve the interests of the Julio-Claudian regime and to advance the ends of its critics.


Erich S. Gruen

JUDITH R. GINSBURG DIED WELL BEFORE HER TIME ON DECEMBER 28, 2002. At her death she left behind an unfinished manuscript of monograph length on the younger Agrippina. She had been working on this study intermittently for several years, making trips to Rome to conduct research, and writing in the interstices amid teaching obligations, extensive engagement with her university and her profession, and commitments to social justice. She strove mightily in the last months of her life to bring the monograph to completion. But the ravages of a dread illness dictated that she fall short of that goal.

Ginsburg's important book Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus (1981) holds its place among the finest studies of that subtle and devious historian. She offered a tightly reasoned, nuanced, and original interpretation of Tacitean techniques that shed new light not only on the historian's practice but also on the devices with which he shaped (and distorted) our understanding of Rome in the early Empire. She demonstrated convincingly that Tacitus used the annalistic form of composition to his own ends, remaining within its framework to give the illusion of conventionality, while manipulating it so as to provide a vehicle for his idiosyncratic reconstruction. The second major study, on Agrippina the Younger, which would encompass analysis not only of Tacitus's portrait but that of the other literary sources, as well as the artistic representations, has been long awaited. Ginsburg's many personal, political, and academic commitments—and her own drive for perfection—delayed publication.

When illness struck in the spring of 2002, Ginsburg had finished Chapter 1 except for a conclusion, she had completed most of Chapter 2, and she had written Chapter 3 except for a fourth section on the domineering mother. There was no introduction or conclusion to the work. Ginsburg was determined to finish the nearly completed book. In the intervals left by painful, debilitating treatments, she reread the whole manuscript and devised a plan to finish it. She intended to write the missing section on the domineering mother, together with conclusions to parts of the manuscript, as well as an overall introduction and conclusion. She also decided to rearrange the manuscript by adding a section on Agrippina as Demeter, which she had written but not yet integrated into the book as a whole, as the final section of Chapter 2. She was unable to carry out this plan. What . . .

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