Agrippina in Power

Agrippina’s held a central position in the dynasty. She was Claudius’ niece and the daughter of the beloved Germanicus. She was a direct descendant of Augustus though her mother, Agrippina the elder. Her son was now to be advanced to equal centrality. In a first step, he was betrothed to Octavia (Tacitus, Annales 12.9).

In AD 50, it was decided that Claudius should adopt Domitius (Tacitus, Annales 12. 25). He came to be known as Nero. In AD 51, Nero officially became an adult. he was designated princeps iuventutis (Pince of Youth). The title marked him as successor to Claudius, but also made more obvious the side-lining of Britannicus.

In AD 53, Nero married Octavia. As a consequence of the bizzarre alliances in the imperial family, they were both first cousins once removed and, legally and religiously, brother and sister. Octavia had to be adopted so that she could marry back into the family (Tacitus, Annales 12.58). The marriage united two lines in the family, very much as the marriage of Agrippina and Claudius had done. The Julio-Claudians looked very much like one household, perhaps more closely integrated than at any period since the death of Germanicus. Since Augustus, the regimes had presented their rule as a family affair, and Claudius now continued that policy of presentation.

One consequence of Claudian familial policy was to elevate Agrippina. Some of the themes that we see in the portrayal of Messalina return: sexual infidelity, ambition, greed, jealousy, interference in key decisions. But Agrippina’s power was seen to be greater than that of her predecessor.

  • Lollia Paulina who had been Agrippina’s rival in the debate on imperial wives (Annales 12.22) was killed.
  • A Calpurnia was exiled, because Claudius found her beautiful (Dio, 61.33.2; Tacitus, Annales  12.22) .
  • Agrippina was seen as an ally of the freedman Pallas. It was assumed that they were lovers (Tacitus, Annales 12. 25).
  • In 54, supposedly feeling her power slipping, she did away with Domitia Lepida, another female member of the imperial house and again supposedly because she was a rival for Claudius’ affections (Tacitus, Annales 12.64).
  • Attacks on individuals, such as Statilius Taurus, a man from a family extremely prominent under Augustus, were attributed to her financial greed (Tacitus, Annales 12.59).
  • The prefects of the praetorian guard, Lusius Geta and Rufius Crispinus were removed from office for fear that they harboured loyalty to Messalina and to her children. They were replaced by Burrus Afranius, a distinguished soldier and a man she trusted (Tacitus, Annales 12.41; Dio, 61.33.2).
  • She supposedly persuaded a colony to be founded at the place of her birth (Colonia Agrippiensis), modern Cologne (Tacitus, Annales 12.27).
  • She appeared next to Claudius on state occasions (Dio, 61.33.7). He issued coins with his portrait on one side and hers on the other.
Agrippina Claudius Coin

Agrippina Augusta (RIC Claudius 117)

Claudius Coin_opt

Claudius (RIC Claudius 117)








She was given the title Augusta. She is represented throughout her imagery as a partner in power.


The later tradition has reacted with horror at Agrippina’s influence. It is seen as marking the weakness of her husband. Modern historians have often too easily carried that view over into their own work: a woman holding power was seen as a weakness and an offence to conventional Roman social morality. There is no doubt a certain reaction against her role in the early years of her son’s reign. Nevertheless, there is no sense that Claudius sought to conceal her authority. Indeed, he advertised it.


  • We might assume that Claudius failed to understand the offence against conventional social morality, but that would require us to believe that he understood the morals of his own society less well than we do.
  • We might assume that Claudius wanted to advertise the completely exceptional nature of Agrippina who could transcend the unfortunate weakness of being a woman, but then we have to worry about Messalina.
  • We might assume that she demanded such prominence, and did not care what others thought, but then we have to accept the misogynistic narratives of our sources.
  • We might conclude that the Romans of the mid first century were more open to an imperial woman holding obvious power and authority, but then we would have to assume that attitudes hardened against women in public life during the first century AD until their period when our sources wrote, mostly early second century, when they could be anguished at her power and presence.

However we understand Agrippina’s prominence, we should not think of power in the imperial household as a ‘zero-sum game’. Agrippina’s power did not necessarily lessen that of Claudius. She did bring prestige and authority to the imperial house. She made a very public contribution and that contribution was recognised in the coinage and in the titles granted to her.

Claudius owed his position entirely to his family. Throughout his reign, he was careful to honour previous emperors and generations of the imperial family. Rather than think of the imperial position as an autocratic power, with everything focused on the individual, we might think of the Principate as a period of family rule. We might think of the imperial family as the equivalent to a family firm running the Empire.

Romans very much thought in terms of the household rather than individual. For them, the success of any individual brought benefits to the family and household. Status and identity was a matter of household membership. In such a model of imperial power, bringing Agrippina much more closely into contact with the imperial position made sense: it emphasised the importance of the household and family. And if one thinks in terms of household rather than in terms of the individual, it was not obvious that Britannicus was better placed to succeed his father than Nero was.

Claudius and his women       Agrippina, Mother of the Emperor                Death of Claudius

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