Agrippina the Younger remains today a controversial historical figure; thus a definitive judgement on the relative merits of her parenthood is not valid. Born in 15AD Agrippina existed as a woman of great agency in the patriarchal Roman aristocracy. At a time when there was no explicit political role for female figures Agrippina came to possess an enormous amount of influence and authority; much of this amassed as the wife of Claudius and then later in 54AD as mother of Emperor Nero. Women of this social context were expected to embrace the qualities of the matrona – the Roman female ideal.
This was to personify the image of a devoted, loyal and subservient wife and mother. The degree to which Agrippina adopted such a philosophy and applied it in her role as mother is debated. Barret, a contemporary academic details how Agrippina was able to promote her son to this post, attributing the success to “her patience and skill” as well as her extraordinary family connections. Tacitus, author of the famous ‘Annals’ conversely reports Agrippina to be “… immoral, disreputable and violent”.
In examining the two disparate arguments presented by these and other historians we can refine our understanding of Agrippina and assess her duties as a parent. As Agrippina so flagrantly contravened the many paradigms which contained women to a select few stereotypes, it follows that she was widely criticised by the ancient sources. Tacitus declares she possessed “… a rigorous, almost masculine despotism”. Such a slur was common- as Agrippina could not be quantified as a Roman female figure; parallels were instead drawn to a male one.
In many of the sources, Agrippina was even described as having an almost bestial, crazed quality; Tacitus at one point labelling her “maniacal”. Again this was an outlet to discredit her for defying the traditional gender archetype ascribed to the woman. Agrippina eluded definition, she was a unique ancient Roman individual. Welsch, another modern day academic states “Roman history and literature was usually written by, and for, upper-class men”, before continuing, “They regarded independent and individual actions by women as unfeminine and morally suspect”.
Hence it is necessary to analyse the sources with an appropriate critical lens. Through utilising ancient and contemporary sources of both a primary and secondary nature in association with archaeological evidence we can construct a reasonably valid portrait of Agrippina and her time. Such an approach is required in order to ensure that a prudent and rational conclusion is reached. Women in ancient Rome were considered to be of an inferior calibre to their male counterparts, thus their access to power was extremely limited.
Instead women were expected to enter into marriages of familial benefit and live through the male figures in her life. The woman was not to aspire to have autonomy or individual political desires but rather to achieve these successes through the promotion of a son or a husband. The level of ascendancy acquired by these family members was a reflection of the female’s competency as a matrona. Essentially the men in Agrippina’s life provided the medium through which she could attain power for her son, and arguably also for herself.
Through, as Barret describes, “… arefully preparing her ground” in addition to illustrious lineage recommended Agrippina to a noble marriage, it appears that her worth as a political ally in matrimony was exploited in her latter years to promote Nero. The theory carries that each of Agrippina’s marriages were a stepping-stone to her eventual supremacy as wife and then mother of an Emperor. At the bidding of her Guardian, Tiberius, Agrippina wed Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus in 28AD at thirteen years of age. This marriage provided her with a son; a genetically legitimate heir to the position of Princeps.
It is speculated that her latter two unions with Crispus and Claudius respectively were part of a decisive stratagem devised by Agrippina that centred on the safe accession of her son to Princeps. Tacitus says of her third union “Once she secured her marriage, she enlarged her ambitions and schemed for her son”. Welsch expresses a similar sentiment “By marrying Claudius, Agrippina would be satisfying her ambition of being in a position to help place her son on the throne”. Both historians, ancient and modern alike view her wedding to Claudius as the means to an end- of “securing” Nero’s future.
Her role as mother had effectively ended: her son had been delivered the most powerful position in politics and she was responsible. However she seemingly chose to prolong her involvement, helping to administer Rome’s affairs. The partnership initially functioned, Cassius Dio records Agrippina “managed for him all imperial business” and their solidarity is further demonstrated when in 54 and 55AD coins were minted depicting the mother and son standing equally. But it is alleged Agrippina’s controlling and domineering manner aggravated an increasingly independent Nero.
Tacitus recounts “… he became openly disobedient to his mother and turned to Seneca”. She had become alienated from his intimate dealings and Nero ordered her assassination in 59AD. In support of matrona values of loyalty and dedication to her son Agrippina is quoted as saying “Let him kill me, so long as he reins”. The murder was justified to the Senate by claiming Agrippina had “… wanted to be co-ruler”. The question of whether Agrippina held ambitions for furthering her own influence is one irrelevant to the success of her role as a mother.
This can be justified as Agrippina delivered to Nero all the possible power and prestige which existed in the Julio-Claudian rule. Nero survived Agrippina’s exile during Gaius reign, his rival Brittanicus was disregarded and then killed and ultimately Nero became Emperor and ruled for 10 (? ) years. Agrippina the Younger fulfilled her duties as a mother and even her harshest critics begrudgingly acknowledge her success in promoting her son, her pater familias, to a position of the highest office.