The trials that marred the mid 20s AD were building up to the major political drama, the fall of Agrippina and her elder children.
The Feud Between Agrippina and Tiberius
The events within the imperial family are difficult to reconstruct. We have a detailed account of a furious row between Agrippina and Tiberius, but no idea as to who recorded that conversation and how it reached our accounts. We must suspect a fictionalisation of tensions between the two. According to Tacitus’ account, the row culminated in Agrippina asking for a husband (see below). It was soon after that row that Tiberius withdrew from Rome to Capri, from where he ran the government at one step removed from the senators and their in-fighting and from family tensions.
From AD 26, there appears to have been increasing suspicion within the imperial family. Although it is tempting to see these tensions as dating back to the death of Germanicus, it is perhaps more likely that Drusus’ death left the imperial family more divided, and Agrippina and her children dangerously exposed. By AD25, there was little doubt as to the extent of Sejanus’s ambitions.
In 26, charges were levelled against Claudia Pulchra. This followed on from the prosecution of Sosia Galla (see trials). Agrippina could only not use her imperial status to protect her friends, they were under threat for being her friends.
- What options were now available to Agrippina?
- What options were available to her friends?
Friendship was a social and a political business, even among women. If friendship with Agrippina was dangerous, her friends would start to slip away. But that would leave her more isolated and unprotected. She and her boys needed a political circle.
Agrippina needed to reconfigure the political landscape. She needed a political operator tied to her fortunes. She asked to remarry. In law, she could marry whom she chose, though her husband would have known that his was a marriage that brought unusual opportunities and risks. Politically, she needed Tiberius’ agreement. Tiberius refused.
Why would Tiberius refuse?
- Any husband for Agrippina would be catapulted into the centre of the imperial house
- A man of any senior status would become an adviser to Agrippina’s children and a representative of that grouping. Tiberius would be creating a potential focus for in-fighting in the imperial family. He would also be a potential rival to Sejanus.
- A man of lower status would shield Agrippina by pushing her somewhat off the political stage. It would suggest that Tiberius was trying to hide Agrippina away.
- Any marriage would suggest that Agrippina needed support and that the wife and children of Germanicus, the direct descendants of Augustus, were not sufficiently protected by Tiberius.
- Finding her a new husband, with good grace, would suggest that (in spite of all the rumours) the imperial family was a happy bunch and that Tiberius did not regard any new husband as a potential threat.
- Refusing her request merely enabled everyone to make the above unflattering calculations.
Not one of the players was naive.
Factions and Faction Fighting in a Family Dispute
Roman politics was agonistic (which means it was competitive at a personal level). It was also hierarchical. Success depended on rising through the hierarchy and gaining support from those senior in the hierarchy. The most senior figure was the emperor, but the emperor could be swayed by his advisers and those close to him. This concentrated political power in the imperial family.
A public division in the imperial family was an opportunity for some. Individual senators could exploit the division by securing the support of one faction. This could enable the senator to secure advancement in his career. It would also enable him to strike at his enemies who were in the other faction. Striking at those perceived to be enemies of his new faction would demonstrate loyalty and support.
The trouble is that every strike created more enemies and more uncertainty. Every strike against a faction increased hostility and the possibility that the most powerful would strike back. An attack on Agrippina’s group might in the short term be advantageous, but in the longer term, the prosecuting senator had to be confident that Agrippina and her sons would not emerge victorious and respond in kind. Open division in the imperial family encouraged faction fighting, but it also raised the political stakes. As the targets became more prominent, the prosecutors needed to be confident that they had backed the winning side.
The trial of Claudia Pulchra could be seen as a watershed moment. The prosecutors might be confident of the immediate backing of Sejanus and his group, but once Agrippina had raised objections, they needed also to be confident that Agrippina would not be in a position to allow Claudia Pulchra’s friends (including her) their revenge. They needed to be confident that should the increasingly aged emperor die, Agrippina’s children would not succeed. The worse the factionalism became, the less chance there was of a peaceful resolution.
All parties were likely capable of understanding this. Sejanus knew that his long-term security depended on the fall of Agrippina. Tiberius did not shut down the factional fighting. The pattern of prosecutions was working against her progressively. It is unlikely that Sejanus initiated many of the prosecutions, but it was evident that people thought he was winning, and as a result they moved to his side.
The Fall of Agrippina
We know very little about what happened. Nero Caesar, the elder son, was married to Livia Julia, daughter of Livilla. Livia Julia is accused in the tradition of informing on her husband.Rumours abounded. In AD 28, Gaius Asinius Gallus, one of the leading figures of the senate, took the very unusual step of asking that the emperor reveal his concerns. It was obviously an attempt to draw a statement from Tiberius sufficiently clear to stop the whispers against Nero and Agrippina (Annales 4.71). It did not work.
In AD 29 Tiberius wrote to the senate to level accusations against Agrippina and Nero Caesar. Nero was accused of ‘love of young men and conducting himself without shame’. The last is also a sexual reference. Agrippina was accused of ‘insolence and defiance’ (Annales 5.3; compare Dio, 58.3.7). There were no political charges. This was a dramatic moment and the senators briefly wavered. To condemn Agrippina on such fragile grounds was a major step. One of the senators urged caution. There were public demonstrations against Sejanus and for Nero and Agrippina. But Tiberius wrote again to reaffirm his condemnation. The consequences of defiance would have been dire: Agrippina and Nero were condemned and exiled (Annales 5.3-5).
Drusus was to follow, though we have no details. They were never to return. Nero died in exile. In AD 33, Drusus was starved to death. Extraordinary details emerged in an official report of his final days: he was eating his straw mattress by the end. Agrippina followed soon after, also starved to death, though possibly of her own volition. Asinius Gallus, who had been imprisoned awaiting trial, also starved to death.
Sejanus had won. But by 33, he was also dead.