The Infamy of Agrippina | Cat Pierro | The Hypocrite Reader

Cat Pierro

The Infamy of Agrippina


Illustration by Claire Bidwell

Agrippina the Younger was an offensive woman. And some offenses are worse than capital.

The Roman Empire didn't let its greatest criminals get away with execution alone. After they died, the idea of them remained and had to be managed. Their names were stricken from public records, their portraits and statues were hidden away or mutilated or both, and in countless other ways it was made extremely difficult to honor their memories.

The modern term given to those ancient practices of posthumous dishonoring is damnatio memoriae. Some modern accounts—Wikipedia's included—would have us believe that the intention of a damnatio was to eliminate all traces of the condemned person's having ever existed. According to the third Google hit for damnatio memoriae, a page at, the practice “ensure[s] that the people who are complete major flaming shitburgers aren't even hatefully remembered.” This idea of totally eradicating a person from memory inflames our imagination. It evokes the last scene of Pan's Labyrinth, in which the captain, handing over his baby son, is told “he will never know your name” before being shot in the face.

If complete removal from history were indeed the true intention of a damnatio, we would have to say that (at least some) damnationes were not at all successful. After all, two millennia later there are no gaps in our timeline of Roman emperors, though nearly half of those emperors were condemned. (Another half were deified.) We would also have to surmise that Romans recognized one another by their noses, since chiseling off the nose was the primary way that statues of the condemned were mutilated.

But it seems that the Romans wanted not only to declare criminals unfit to be remembered but also to ensure that they were remembered hatefully. The Senate would often order someone’s portraits removed and in the same breath pronounce that person's birthday a date of ill omen (or death day a date of thanksgiving). And contemporary historians were certainly permitted to write about a recently condemned emperor as long as they wrote bad things. So the removal-from-memory side of damnatio was more symbolic than internet rumorists hope, and alongside Pan’s Labyrinth it may be appropriate to imagine the scene in Mary Poppins in which the proprietors of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, firing George Banks for bringing discredit upon them, solemnly punch a hole in his top hat, rip his boutonniere in two, and invert his umbrella.

Modern misinterpretations like nonetheless manage to capture, as Eric Varner puts it in “Portraits, Plots, and Politics: Damnatio Memoriae and the Images of Imperial Women,” “the Romans’ preoccupation with the manipulation of memory and posthumous reputation.” Both to assimilate and to problematize the notion of a Roman “preoccupation” with posthumous reputation, consider the emperor Tiberius’s refusal of a temple that would have been built in his honor. Tacitus renders Tiberius’s explanation as follows:

I am human, performing human tasks, and content to occupy the first place among men. That is what I want later generations to remember. They will do more justice to my memory if they judge me worthy of my ancestors, careful of your interests, steadfast in danger [...] Those are my temples in your hearts, those my finest and most lasting images. Marble monuments, if the verdict of posterity is unfriendly, are mere neglected sepulchers.
Rather than express admiration for Tiberius’s forward-thinking attitude, Tacitus goes on to report the suspicion his speech encountered:
Some attributed this to modesty, but most people thought it was uneasiness. It was also ascribed to degeneracy, on the grounds that the best men aimed highest [...] ‘Augustus had done better than Tiberius,’ it was said, ‘by hoping. Rulers receive instantly everything else they want. One thing only needs to be untiringly worked for--a fair name for the future. Contempt for fame means contempt for goodness.’
Perhaps their suspicion was grounded. Why would someone refuse a temple unless he knew his unworthiness would make it look ridiculous? Or unless, through degeneracy, he did not even want to be worthy? Although Tiberius claims to hold posterity's good judgment dear, his critics seem to suspect he has opted out of striving for it. And the only natural corollary of opting out is a “contempt for goodness.” Reputation and virtue thus show themselves linked.

There's one more thing got right: most subjects of damnatio memoriae were as a matter of fact “complete major flaming shitburgers.” For just a taste, Nero's “excesses” included executing just about anyone he pleased, raping just about anyone he pleased, boasting that he would kill the entire Senate, and (it was rumored) setting fire to Rome. In an attempt to restore his popularity after the fire, he tried to blame it on the Christians, but this backfired when he tortured them so horribly that everyone sympathized with them. But boundlessly powerful emperors were not the only people who underwent a damnatio. Conspicuous among the condemned are twenty-four women. We have to ask: what can they have done to deserve such a punishment? Some of them, daughters and wives, were executed and condemned collaterally along with the emperor. But some were condemned on their own merits. Agrippina was one of the latter.

Agrippina committed many crimes and then met a terrible downfall. If I were asked to identify her tragic mistake, I would say: she gave birth to Nero. Even that might not have ruined her, except that she made a second mistake: she loved him very, very much. It is alleged that she asked astrologers whether he would become emperor. When they told her he would, but that he would also kill her, she replied, “Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor!”1

This should have been difficult to achieve, considering that the current emperor, Claudius, was Agrippina’s uncle, and he already had an heir, a son Britannicus, three years Nero's junior. It would have been nearly impossible unless, of course, Agrippina was to marry Claudius in spite of their close relation, arrange for her son to marry his daughter Octavia, and then murder Claudius just before Britannicus would have come of age.

Elsewhere Tacitus laments that he was born into an inglorious age and apologizes for the tedium of his subject matter. This was his own way of declaring some people unfit to be remembered. “My themes […] concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined—a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes.” While Agrippina may not be a shining exemplar of virtue, her story is anything but boring. Aside from the moral reasons for writing about her—“It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity's denunciation”—she makes for a fascinating piece of gossip. Gossip differs from dutiful posthumous dishonoring and paints an accordingly different picture of its target. Tacitus’s Agrippina bears the imprint of both.

He reports that she was “not a woman like Messalina [Claudius’s previous wife] who toyed with national affairs to satisfy her appetites. This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism. In public, Agrippina was austere and often arrogant. Her private life was chaste—unless power was to be gained.” A sex life subordinated to a political life was not at odds with lethal jealousy; while married to Claudius, she was always having some woman or other “struck down because the emperor had praised her looks.” Agrippina’s jealousy pertained to Nero as well, of course. When his aunt tried to stand first in his heart “by kind words and indulgence” (Agrippina herself preferred “severity and menaces”) she too was sentenced to death. Although defeating these women may have been politically necessary, just as defeating Britannicus’s supporters was necessary, Tacitus often makes her look like a vessel for a demonic female passion. Avarice accompanied jealousy and was supplemented by ambition: “Constantly meeting her own friends in secret, Agrippina outdid even her natural greed in grasping funds from all quarters to back her designs.” The result of this half-gossip, half-incrimination is a strangely gendered mix: her “feminine jealousy” and other weaknesses direct her activity, but they direct it with such totalizing urgency that she seeks the means to achieve her aims with calculating self-restraint, with “almost masculine despotism.”

It amazes us to read that her aims were radically transformed after she poisoned Claudius and a 16-year-old Nero claimed the throne. But when we look at the details, it makes sense. It came out that Nero was having an affair with a former slave named Claudia Acte. Although “his older friends were not displeased to see his appetites satisfied,” his mother, who, remember, had arranged his marriage to Octavia, “displayed feminine rage at having an ex-slave as her rival and a servant girl as her daughter-in-law, and so on.” Here Tacitus tries his hand at psychological insight: “She refused to wait until her son regretted the association, or tired of it. But her violent scoldings only intensified his affection for Acte.” We recognize this even today as typical motherly behavior—at once domineering and pathetic. But Agrippina was too clever a villain to behave ineffectually for long, in Tacitus’s eyes—she was as often a machine as she was an object of psychology. So when Nero began to disobey her openly, she “changed her tactics” and offered Acte and Nero the use of her own bedroom for their illicit activities.

One day shortly afterward Nero spontaneously bought Agrippina a jewelled robe. She was ungrateful: she “declared that her son was doling out to her a mere fraction of what he owed her—all else but this one thing was kept from her.” This response exasperated Nero, and he discharged her lover and greatest supporter, whom Nero had never liked anyway, from his powerful position. Now Agrippina was reduced to desperation. Her son, she began to rave, was “an adopted intruder” who used the throne “to maltreat his mother.” She avowed full support of Britannicus, the rightful heir. “Unshrinkingly she disclosed every blot on that ill-fated family,” Tacitus says, “without sparing her own marriage and the poisoning of her husband.” She vilified herself as viciously as anyone could have; such was the extent of her ruthlessness. Her extreme, driven, and apparently self-effacing attitude, which had once been put to Nero’s service, was now pointed against him.

This complete turnaround highlights the contradiction in Agrippina. Her ambition, in its ability to wait and to suffer, to renounce and to destroy, is so much more than the changeable, womanish vice that steers it. I think it is this contradiction for which we should remember her. She has forgone her highest pronouncement (“Let him kill me—provided he becomes emperor!”) and yet in attitude she remains the same (“Let my reputation suffer—provided he suffers!”). By investing herself fully in her son, whether to help him or harm him, she has made it possible to renounce her own continuity, and security, and reputation. Along with these things, she renounces the judgment of posterity. And only a fear of posterity could have kept her vice in check.

Even after Nero poisoned Britannicus, Agrippina did not give up: she became Octavia’s supporter against Nero and held secret meetings. This gave a former friend of Agrippina’s, Junia Silana—former because “Agrippina had deterred a young nobleman, Titus Sextius Africanus, from marrying Silana by describing her as immoral and past her prime”—the opportunity to take revenge: she gathered friends to accuse Agrippina (perhaps correctly) of inciting one Rubellius Plautus to revolution. Tacitus renders her defense as follows:

‘Junia Silana has never had a child,’ she said, ‘so I am not surprised she does not understand a mother’s feelings! For mothers change their sons less easily than loose women change their lovers. If Silana’s dependants Iturius and Calvisius, after exhausting their means, can only repay the hag’s favors by becoming accusers, is that a reason for darkening my name with my son’s murder, or loading the emperor’s conscience with mine?

‘As for Domitia, I should welcome her hostility if she were competing with me in kindness to my Nero—instead of concocting melodramas with her lover Atimetus and the dancer Paris. While I was planning Nero’s adoption and promotion to consular status and designation to the consulship, and all the other preparations for his accession, she was beautifying her fish-ponds at her beloved Baiae.

‘I defy anyone to convict me of tampering with city police or provincial loyalty, or of inciting slaves and ex-slaves to crimes. If Britannicus had become emperor could I ever have survived? If Rubellius Plautus or another gained the throne and became my judge, there would be no lack of accusers! For then I should be charged, not with occasional indiscretions—outbursts of uncontrollable love—but with crimes which no one can pardon except a son!’

This speech sets us up to pity her: she names her irrationality outright. Lest we are overly touched, Tacitus reminds us of her calm, “almost masculine” side: “She demanded to see her son. To him, she offered no defense, no reminder of her services. For the former might have implied misgivings, the latter reproach. Instead she secured rewards for her supporters—and revenge on her accusers.” Does Tacitus’s vilifying rhetoric succeed, though, in counterbalancing his and our fascination? Agrippina has renounced posterity, and Tacitus, as posterity, has castigated her accordingly. And yet, might not another slice of posterity feel differently? Not the gatekeeper of morality but the more human, the sentimental, the gossip? This contradictory woman, hard-faced even in helplessness, pierces through time to present herself to us. Centuries later, long after the Roman Empire has fallen—along with its dangerous dependence on the virtues of a few individuals—now, in the distant future, do we sympathize?

By then the prospect of matricide had entered Nero’s head. Later, he fell in love with a woman named Poppaea who insisted he divorce Octavia, and he knew he couldn’t accomplish this while his mother was alive. Rather than be so obvious as to add to the slew of poisonings—or perhaps, having tried three times to poison her and realized that she had loaded her body with antidotes, as Suetonius reports—he devised a scheme involving a ship that could break apart on command.

It was a beautiful scene. It took place in March at Baiae, during the festival of Minerva. “Parents’ tempers must be borne!” Nero told everyone, and welcomed his mother at the shore with love and caresses. They had dinner; he pointed out the ship she would ride in, more luxurious than all the rest. Sometime during the night an informer gave the plot away to Agrippina, and she didn’t know whether to believe it. Her son’s attentions were too good to be true, but they were very good nonetheless. “They talked about various things; Nero was boyish and intimate—or confidentially serious. When she left, he saw her off, gazing into her eyes and clinging to her. This may have been a final piece of shamming—or perhaps even Nero’s brutal heart was affected by the last sight of his mother, going to her death.”

Tacitus believed Agrippina fell for Nero’s “shamming,” and that it put her at ease. (“Women are naturally inclined to believe welcome news.”) I prefer to believe she knew full well that she was meant to die. I like to think she perceived her son’s mixture of manipulation and genuine affection—and that she clung to these last moments as if they were worth whatever lay ahead.

The shipwreck was poorly enacted. Others died, but Agrippina swam to shore and was taken home. There she waited.

When her killers arrived in her bedroom, she greeted them. “If you have come to visit me, you can report that I am better. But if you are assassins, I know my son is not responsible. He did not order his mother’s death.” First they hit her on the head with a truncheon, then they drew their swords. “Strike here!” she instructed them—her last words—and pointed to her womb.

Such was the kind of woman who, denounced by Nero and a Senate that feared him, made it onto the list of the condemned. Because her statues and portraits were hidden away, they remain in better condition today than they would have had she been virtuous.

1 Though Suetonius has a few words to say about her in Lives of the Caesars, and several other accounts were lost in the folds of time, our main source for Agrippina is Tacitus’s Annals.