Agrippina the Elder

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Agrippina the Elder
Agripina Maior (M.A.N. Madrid) 01.jpg
Agrippina the Elder
Born 14 BC
Died 17 October AD 33 (aged 47)[1]
Burial AD 33
relocated in March AD 37 to the
Mausoleum of Augustus
Spouse Germanicus
Issue Nero Julius Caesar
Drusus Caesar
Caligula, Emperor of Rome
Agrippina the Younger, Empress of Rome
Julia Drusilla
Julia Livilla
Father Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa
Mother Julia the Elder

Agrippina the Elder (Latin:Vipsania Agrippina; Classical Latin: AGRIPPINA•GERMANICI,[2] 14 BC – 17 October AD 33), also referred to as Agrippina Major (Major which is Latin for the Elder), was a distinguished Roman woman and a prominent member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Born in 14 BC, she was the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia the Elder. Her maternal grandfather was Augustus,[3] the first emperor of the Roman Empire. By AD 5 Agrippina married her cousin, the popular general and statesman Germanicus. They had several children, including the emperor Caligula and the empress Agrippina the Younger.

Germanicus was intended to rule the empire after Tiberius, Augustus' adopted son and successor, with Agrippina by his side. His untimely death in AD 19 upended those plans, however. Agrippina's relationship with the emperor would gradually deteriorate, resulting in her banishment from Rome as well as the deaths of her two sons, Nero and Drusus Caesar. Agrippina did not live to see her youngest son, Gaius Caesar ("Caligula") succeed Tiberius in AD 37, having died in exile on 17 October AD 33. Following her son's assassination in AD 41, the empire passed to Claudius, the younger brother of Germanicus. His successor, Nero was the grandson of Agrippina the Elder and the last Julio-Claudian emperor.

Family and early life[edit]

Agrippina was born as the second daughter and fourth child to Roman statesman and Augustus’ ally Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia the Elder. Agrippina’s mother Julia was the only natural child born to Augustus from his second marriage to noblewoman Scribonia.

Her father’s marriage to Julia was his third marriage. From Agrippa’s previous two marriages, Agrippina had at least two half-sisters: Vipsania Agrippina and Vipsania Marcella Agrippina (although Suet. Div. Aug. 63 implies more). Vipsania Agrippina was Agrippa’s second child from his first marriage to Pomponia Caecilia Attica (known from Nep. Att. 19.) She became Tiberius's first wife and was the mother of his natural son Drusus Julius Caesar.

Vipsania Agrippina later married senator and consul Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus after Tiberius was forced to divorce her and marry Julia the Elder. Less well known is Agrippa’s oldest daughter - Vipsania Marcella. She was the first wife Publius Quinctilius Varus. Agrippa likely had more children, some of whom did not survive, from his second marriage to Augustus’ niece and (paternal) cousin to Julia the Elder, Claudia Marcella Major. No son is attested, but a daughter is possibly the mother of Dec. Haterius Agrippa (cos. AD 22, called a relative of Germanicus by Tac. Ann. 2.49).

Her mother’s marriage to Agrippa was her second marriage, as Julia the Elder was widowed from her first marriage, to her paternal cousin Marcus Claudius Marcellus and they had no children. From the marriage of Julia and Agrippa, Agrippina had four full-blood siblings: a sister Julia the Younger and three brothers: Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar and Agrippa Postumus. Agrippina was born in Athens, as in the year of her birth Agrippa was in that city completing official duties on behalf of Augustus. Her mother and her siblings had traveled with Agrippa. Later Agrippina’s family returned to Rome.

In 12 BC, Agrippina’s father died. Augustus had forced his first stepson Tiberius to end his happy first marriage to Vipsania Agrippina to marry Julia the Elder. The marriage of Julia and Tiberius was not a happy one. In 2 BC Augustus exiled Agrippina’s mother on the grounds that she had committed adultery, thereby causing a major scandal. Julia was banished for her remaining years and Agrippina never saw her again. Tiberius had left Rome for the Greek island of Rhodes ca. 6 BC allegedly to avoid any scandal. In his absence, Augustus arranged the divorce between Tiberius and Julia and sent word of it to Rhodes.

With her siblings, Agrippina was raised in Rome by her maternal grandfather and maternal step-grandmother Livia Drusilla. Livia was the first Roman Empress and was Augustus’ second (or third) wife (Augustus briefly had a child bride). Livia had two sons by her first marriage to praetor Tiberius Nero: the future emperor Tiberius and the general Nero Claudius Drusus.

According to Suetonius, as a member of the imperial family, Agrippina was expected to display frugality, chastity and domesticity, all traditional virtues for a noble Roman woman. Agrippina and Augustus had a close relationship.

Life with Germanicus[edit]

Portrait of Agrippina found in Pergamon, İstanbul Archaeology Museums

Between 1 BC and AD 5, Agrippina married her second maternal cousin [3] Germanicus was the first son born to Antonia Minor and Nero Claudius Drusus. Antonia Minor was the second daughter born to Octavia Minor and triumvir Mark Antony, hence Antonia’s maternal uncle was Augustus. Germanicus was a popular general and politician. Augustus ordered Tiberius to adopt Germanicus as his son and heir.[3] Germanicus was always favored by his great uncle and hoped that he would succeed Tiberius, who had been adopted by Augustus as his heir and successor. Agrippina and Germanicus were devoted to each other. She was a loyal, affectionate wife, who supported her husband. The Roman historian Tacitus states that Agrippina had an ‘impressive record as wife and mother’.

Agrippina and Germanicus in their union had nine children, of whom three died young. The six children who survived to adulthood were the sons: Nero Julius Caesar, Drusus Caesar and Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus) and the daughters Agrippina the Younger (Julia Agrippina), Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. Caligula would become future Roman Emperor. Agrippina the Younger would become a future Roman Empress and mother to the later Emperor Nero. Their children were born at various places throughout the Roman Empire and Agrippina acquired a well-deserved reputation for successful childbearing. Eventually Agrippina was proud of her large family and this was a part of the reason she was popular with Roman citizens.

According to Suetonius who had cited from Pliny the Elder, Agrippina had borne to Germanicus, a son called Gaius Julius Caesar who had a lovable character. This son died young. The child was born at Treveri, near the village of Ambitarvium, just before the junction of the Moselle River and the Rhine River (modern Koblenz, Germany). At this spot, there were local altars inscribed as a dedication to Agrippina: “IN HONOR OF AGRIPPINA’S PUERPERIUM”.

Germanicus was a candidate for future succession and had won fame campaigning in Germania and Gaul. During the military campaigns, Agrippina accompanied Germanicus with their children. Agrippina’s actions were considered unusual as for a Roman wife, because a conventional Roman wife was required to stay home. Agrippina had earned herself a reputation as a heroic woman and wife. During her time in Germania, Agrippina had proved herself to be an efficient and effective diplomat. Agrippina had reminded Germanicus on occasion of his relation to Augustus.

A few months before Augustus’ death in 14, the emperor wrote and sent a letter to Agrippina mentioning a child who must be future emperor Caligula because at that time, no other child had this name.

The letter reads:

Yesterday I made arrangements for Talarius and Asillius to bring your son Gaius to you on the eighteenth of May, if the gods will. I am also sending with him one of my slaves, a doctor who as I have told Germanicus in a letter, need not be returned to me if he proves of use of you. Goodbye my dear Agrippina! Keep well on the way to your Germanicus!

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus, (1768, Benjamin West, oil on canvas).
In art, Agrippina has served as a symbol of marital devotion and fidelity.[4]

Agrippina and Germanicus travelled to the Middle East in 19, incurring the displeasure of Tiberius. Germanicus quarreled 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, with Agrippina believing he was assassinated.[3] Agrippina was in grief when Germanicus died. She returned with her children to Italy with Germanicus’ ashes. The Roman citizens had great sympathy for Agrippina and her family. She returned to Rome to avenge his death and 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, downfall and posthumous honors[edit]

Roman Bronze Coin
Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1647

From 19 to 29, Agrippina lived on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Her remaining children were raised between her, Livia Drusilla and Germanicus’ mother Antonia Minor. Agrippina had become lonely, distressed, physically ill and many of her relatives had died. Agrippina had a hasty, uncomfortable relationship with Tiberius and possibly with Tiberius’ mother Livia. She became involved in politics in Tiberius’ imperial court, became an advocate for her sons to succeed Tiberius, and opposed Tiberius’ natural son and natural grandson Tiberius Gemellus for succession.

She was unwise in her complaints about Germanicus’ death to Tiberius. Tiberius took Agrippina by her hand and quoted the Greek line: “And if you are not queen, my dear, have I then done you wrong?”

Agrippina became involved in a group of Roman Senators who opposed the growing power and influence of the notorious Praetorian Guard Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Tiberius began to distrust Agrippina. In 26, Agrippina requested Tiberius to allow her to marry her brother-in-law, Roman Senator Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus. However, Tiberius didn’t allow her to marry Saloninus, because of political implications the marriage could have.

Tiberius carefully staged to invite Agrippina to dinner at the imperial palace. At dinner, Tiberius offered Agrippina an apple[3] as a test of Agrippina’s feelings for the emperor. Agrippina had suspected that the apple could be poisoned and refused to taste the apple.[3] This was the last time that Tiberius invited Agrippina to his dinner table.[3] Agrippina later stated that Tiberius tried to poison her.

Cinerary urn of Agrippina, in the tabularium

In 29, Agrippina and her sons Nero and Drusus, were arrested on the orders of Tiberius. Tiberius falsely accused Agrippina of planning to take sanctuary besides the image of Augustus or with the Roman Army abroad. Agrippina and her sons were put on trial by the Roman Senate. She was banished on Tiberius’ orders to the island of Pandataria (now called Ventotene) in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Campania. This was the island where her mother was banished.

In prison at Pandataria, Agrippina protested violently. On one occasion, Tiberius ordered a guard to flog her. During the flogging Agrippina would lose an eye.[3] Refusing to eat, Agrippina was force-fed but later starved herself to death.[3] Tacitus however leaves open the possibility that she was deprived of nourishment while in prison and her death was not voluntary.[1] She died on 17 October 33.[1] Agrippina’s son Drusus died of starvation while imprisoned in Rome and Nero committed suicide soon after the trial.[3] The notorious guard Sejanus was murdered in 31 on the orders of Tiberius. Tiberius suspected Sejanus of plotting to overthrow the emperor.

After her death, Tiberius slandered her name and had the senate declare that her birth date was a date of bad omen.[3]

In March 37, Tiberius died and Agrippina’s remaining son Caligula succeeded as emperor. After Caligula delivered Tiberius’ eulogy, Caligula sailed to Pandataria and the Pontine Islands and returned with the ashes of his mother and brother Nero. Caligula returned with their ashes in urns in his own hands.

As proof of devotion to his family, Caligula arranged the most distinguished soldiers available to carry the urns of his mother and two brothers in two biers at noon in Rome, when the streets were at their busiest, to the Mausoleum of Augustus. A bronze medal on display in the British Museum shows Agrippina’s ashes being brought back to Rome by Caligula.

Gaius (Caligula) had a posthumous sestertius (bronze coin) struck of his mother Agrippina the Elder, minted at Rome probably in 40-1 AD. The portrait is of Agrippina's draped bust right, wearing her hair in a long plait. The text reads AGRIPPINA M F MAT C CAESARIS AVGVSTI. On the reverse, a covered carriage or carpentum with the legend SPQR MEMORIAE AGRIPPINAE.[5]

Caligula appointed an annual day each year in Rome, for people to offer funeral sacrifices to honor their late relatives. As a dedication to Agrippina, Caligula set aside the Circus Games to honor the memory of his late mother. On the day that the Circus Games occurred, Caligula had a statue made of Agrippina’s image to be paraded in a covered carriage at the Games.

After the Circus Games, Caligula ordered written evidence of the court cases from Tiberius’ treason trials to be brought to the Forum to be burnt, first being the cases of Agrippina and her two sons.

The historians[edit]

According to Suetonius, Caligula nursed a rumor that Augustus and Julia the Elder had an incestuous union from which Agrippina the Elder had been born. According to Tacitus, Agrippina’s eldest daughter Agrippina the Younger had written memoirs for posterity. One memoir was an account of her mother’s life. A second memoir was about the fortunes of her mother’s family and the last memoir recorded the misfortunes (casus suorum) of the family of Agrippina and Germanicus. Unfortunately these memoirs are now lost.


Agrippina is regarded in ancient and modern historical sources as a Roman Matron with a reputation as a great woman, who had an excellent character and had outstanding Roman morals. She was a dedicated, supporting wife and mother who looked out for the interests of her children and the future of her family.

Her personality and conduct did however receive a certain amount of criticism. Her practice of accompanying Germanicus on campaigns was considered inappropriate, and her tendency to take command in these situations was viewed with suspicion as subversively masculine. Tacitus described her as “determined and rather excitable” - "Agrippina knew no feminine weaknesses. Intolerant of rivalry, thirsting for power, she had a man's preoccupations". Throughout her life, Agrippina always prized her descent from Augustus, upbraiding Tiberius for persecuting the blood of his predecessor; Tacitus, in writing of the occasion, believed this behaviour to be part of the beginning of "the chain of events leading to Agrippina's end."


She was the first Roman woman of the Roman Empire to have travelled with her husband to Roman military campaigns; to support and live with the Roman Legions. Agrippina was the first Roman matron to have more than one child from her family to reign on the Roman throne. Apart from being the late maternal grandmother of Nero, she was the late paternal grandmother of Princess Julia Drusilla, the child of Caligula. Through Nero, Agrippina was the paternal great-grandmother of Claudia Augusta, (Nero's only child through his second marriage to Poppaea Sabina).

From the memoirs written by Agrippina the Younger, Tacitus used the memoirs to extract information regarding the family and fate of Agrippina the Elder, when Tacitus was writing The Annals. There is a surviving portrait of Agrippina the Elder in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

Agrippina is a featured figure on Judy Chicago's installation piece The Dinner Party, being represented as one of the 999 names on the Heritage Floor.[6] She was played by Fiona Walker in the 1976 TV serial I, Claudius.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Tacitus, The Annals 6.25
  2. ^ E. Groag, A. Stein, L. Petersen - e.a. (edd.), Prosopographia Imperii Romani saeculi I, II et III (PIR), Berlin, 1933 - V 463
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Joyce E. Salisbury (2001). Women in the ancient world. ABC-CLIO. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-57607-092-5. Retrieved 3 January 2012. 
  4. ^ Hall, James (1979). Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-06-430100-8. Retrieved 5 October 2011. 
  5. ^ RIC 55
  6. ^ "Agrippina I". Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Agrippina I. Brooklyn Museum. 2007. Retrieved 3 January 2012. 


Ancient sources[edit]

  • Suetonius, De vita Casearum (On the Life of the Caesars) Augustus, Tiberius iii.52.3, 53 and Caligula iv.23.1
  • Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Robin Seager, Tiberius, London (Eyre Methuen) 1972
  • E. Klebs, H. Dessau, P. Von Rohden (ed.), Prosopographia Imperii Romani, 3 vol., Berlin, 1897–1898. (PIR1)
  • Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia 2002

External links[edit]