Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.11

Anthony A. Barrett, Agrippina: Sex, Power and Politics in the Early Roman Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Pp. xxi + 320, ill. 20 b/w. $35.00 ISBN 0-300-06598-1.

Reviewed by Susan Wood, Oakland University,

Over the past twelve years, Yale University Press has issued a series of biographies of the Julio-Claudian emperors, all distinguished by both their rigorous scholarship and their readability for general audiences. The last of the series, by the same author as the present volume, was Caligula: the Corruption of Power, to which Barrett now adds another biography of that emperor's extraordinary sister, who outlived him to become a figure of great importance in the two succeeding principates, first as wife of Claudius and then as mother of Nero. This volume, therefore, takes the series of biographies in a new direction: no longer will it be only a "Lives of the Caesars," but will explore the careers and political agendas of other individuals as well, including those who never held the principate or were even eligible to do so, but who nonetheless affected the course of historical events for good or ill. In his preface, Barrett observes that the lives of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, the parents of his two most recent subjects, would merit historical monographs in their own right, raising the possibility that such studies may be forthcoming. (p. xv)

Biography has not been a fashionable form of historical writing in recent years, in a climate of scholarship that dismisses the significance of the individual and sometimes even the reality of the individual "self" (now described as a "social construct"). Every entry in this series of books, however, has vindicated the validity of this historical method, by using the narrative of the subject's life not as an end in itself but as a means to broader understanding of the Roman principate.1 Notably free from every volume, including the present one, is any trace either of sensationalism or of sentimentality. The former is the more conventional approach that treats the careers of these men and women as a string of titillating atrocity stories; the latter fosters the revisionist mentality that attempts to redraw every historical villain as a misunderstood martyr or elder statesman. (Only in the case of Richard III of England has such an effort ever achieved widespread popular acceptance, and the success of Riccardians remains something of a Holy Grail for historical revisionists.) Early in the narrative, Barrett establishes his own clear-eyed attitude toward his subject: he admires her achievements as a politician, her skill at establishing power bases and political alliances and her efficiency at accomplishing her desired goals, but recognizes that she was utterly ruthless and unethical. Although some of the charges that the ancient authors level against her, such as poisoning and incest, are by their very nature unproven and unprovable, Agrippina never showed signs of any higher ideological goal than the acquisition and retention of power for herself and her family. She unquestionably used all means at her disposal, including legal and illegal persecution of her personal enemies, in order to achieve those ends.

In this respect, Barrett acknowledges that Agrippina was the product of her society: a monarchical system will encourage any sort of behavior, no matter how cruel, in pursuit of the all-important succession of one's own blood line, while a political system that gives females no official voice will oblige intelligent women to learn devious and manipulative behavior in order to act through others. Griffin has earlier observed that the freedmen on whom Claudius relied, no matter how capable and intelligent they may have been, were nonetheless shaped by a similar experience of disenfranchisement to learn flattery and deception as techniques of survival.2 Women of an aristocratic political system that teaches them to use sex, in its authorized form of marriage, as a means to secure alliances between great families, will frequently also learn the unintended corollary lesson: that sexual alliances can be just as useful in their unauthorized forms to advance political agendas of their own that are different from those of the men in power. Barrett makes such an observation regarding the disgrace and exile of Julia, the daughter of Augustus: there has been much recent controversy over the degree to which Julia's crimes were political as well as sexual, but Barrett rightly points out that for a woman of Julia's status, adultery and treason were so closely linked as to be virtually one and the same offense -- a situation that British law still recognizes regarding women of the royal family. (p. 20). Having acknowledged the historical circumstances that created Agrippina and the other notorious women of her dynasty, however, Barrett adds that there is little value in righteous indignation on her behalf: "... students of history, having once observed the inequality, are likely to gain little historical insight by dwelling on it." (xiv). This book, although it will be indispensible to feminist scholars, is not militantly feminist in its outlook, a valid approach in view of the fact that there is no shortage of "ira et studio" in the writings of many other contemporary scholars of antiquity.

Barrett devotes the bulk of his text to a narrative of Agrippina's life, organized according to her changing roles in the imperial family: after a chapter of background about the fall of the republic and establishment of the principate, and a second on the Julio-Claudian family and Agrippina's position within it, the following chapters bear the titles of "Daughter," "Sister," "Niece," "Wife," "Mother," and "The End." Each of these headings, as Barrett concedes, defines Agrippina by her relationship to the man in power, but since it was precisely these relationships that provided her with or deprived her of political influence at any given time of her life, it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate organization. A ninth chapter provides a thorough critique of the available sources, including not only the literary record but sculpture, gems, inscriptions and coins. On pages 208-214, Barrett lists every reference to Agrippina in the ancient authors, organized by author, in chronological order and in order of the appearance of each reference in the ancient text. Researchers will find this concordance useful; the present reviewer expects to consult it frequently. Ten brief appendices, finally, address problems of chronology and prosopography that are important and relevant, but that would have interrupted the coherence of the narrative had they been discussed in the main text. One of these appendices, however, "The Decline in Agrippina's Power," pp. 238-40, contains material that arguably belongs in the last two narrative chapters. Here, Barrett disputes the conventional wisdom that Agrippina's influence over her son had ended by the third year of his reign, replaced by that of Seneca and Burrus, and proposes instead that despite their conflicts, she "remained an important force in political affairs right up to the end." The "quinquennium Neronis," the five good years of Nero's reign that the emperor Trajan praised are, according to Barrett, precisely those five years when his mother was still alive and could act as a moderating influence on his behavior, just as Livia did with Tiberius. Most readers will not need to consult the remainder of the appendices, but those who have a particular interest, for example, in whether Agrippina or Drusilla was the eldest daughter of Germanicus (pp. 230-32) will be glad that they are available.

In the early chapters, Barrett describes the circumstances that created the mystique of Germanicus, the heir to power who never lived to succeed, and so was loved and remembered not for what he did accomplish, but for what people imagined that he could have. All of his children benefitted from this public affection, but only Agrippina had the skill to take full advantage of it, using it among other things to forge alliances with sympathetic members of the Senate and, even more importantly, the Praetorian guard, which remained adamantly loyal to her to the end of her life. Barrett's analysis of her relationship to the Praetorians is perhaps the best exposition in the book of the political skills for which he admires her: Agrippina used the existing system of promotions and rotations to ensure that at Rome, not only the highest ranks but the middle levels of command as well would be held by men loyal to herself and her son, while those less sympathetic to her cause would receive honorable promotions that removed them from the city. She thus got rid of potential opponents without making unnecessary enemies. (pp. 118-121)

In the later chapters, Barrett interprets Agrippina's marriage to Claudius as a political alliance between two members of the imperial family: Claudius knew, after the treasonable conspiracies of Messalina, that he was vulnerable to attempted coups, and needed a partner in power. Agrippina brought with her the advantage of strengthening his ties to the line of the deified Augustus, from whom she, unlike he, was directly descended; she also brought her impressive intelligence and political ability. Her marriage to Claudius does seem to have marked a change for the better in his government, or at the very least, for the more peaceful, in that far fewer people were put to death for treason from A.D. 49 onward than during the Messalina years: Claudius seemed to have provoked less opposition in the latter part of his principate than he had done earlier. (pp. 103-105) Contrary to the picture painted by Tacitus and other ancient authors who see Claudius as the weak and deluded dupe of his wives, Barrett contends that Agrippina not only worked harmoniously with Claudius, but displayed great loyalty to his memory and heritage in the years after his death. She had, of course, self-interested motives for such loyalty, since the accomplishments of Claudius were also her own, and since her status as the priestess of the deified emperor gave her one of the few forms of institutionalized authority that a Roman woman could hold.

As the wife of Claudius, she had received more open acknowledgments of a formal role in government than any woman before her: she was the first wife of a living princeps to bear the title Augusta, and the first living woman to appear on gold and silver coins, in a portrait profile identified by name, during her lifetime. At the ceremonies for the draining of the Fucine lake she publicly appeared in a splendid cloth-of-gold cloak that caught the eye of many observers, suggesting as it did her quasi-royal status. Soon after the accession of Nero, she learned the limits of what Romans were willing to tolerate, when she attempted to take her place on a podium with her son, as his equal, to receive the Armenian delegation and was prevented from doing so. Agrippina's political abilities also had their limits, and dealing with an inexperienced teenager was one of them; Agrippina failed to understand that Nero, unlike Claudius, would not appreciate the value of a partner in power. Ironically, however, the tragic denouement of the conflict between Agrippina and Nero, one of the most lurid and notorious incidents recorded in Roman history, is not at all well understood. Barrett points out that since Nero did not marry Poppaea until three years after his mother's death, Agrippina's opposition to that relationship does not make a very convincing motive for the murder. The story, indeed, sounds suspiciously like a recycled version of her conflict with Nero over his relationship with the freedwoman Acte. (pp. 181-82) Whatever happened to Agrippina's yacht on the bay of Baiae on that March night in A.D. 59, there is no question that it was a bungled assassination attempt, not an accident. The descriptions of the shipwreck in Tacitus, however, are garbled and contradictory: did the ship break apart, or was the ceiling of the cabin rigged to fall in, and why would sailors aware of the plot have behaved in a manner almost certain to cause their own deaths, by trying to capsize the boat? Barrett suggests another plausible scenario: that a ship of the fleet deliberately rammed the yacht, although no ancient authors explicitly state that this happened. Whatever the true details of the first, unsuccessful effort, however, Agrippina's survival of the shipwreck forced Nero to give up any effort to disguise the murder, and to act openly. The lesson of her fate was not lost on women of later dynasties, none of whom ever again tried to claim the official status of coregent. (p. 180)

For those of us interested in the lives and roles of women in Roman antiquity, the available historical sources present something of a dilemma. The women whose lives are most thoroughly documented, in literary sources, epigraphy, coinage and the visual arts, are precisely those whose lives were most completely atypical in their society. Nonetheless, their public images, which generally attempted to present them as avatars of feminine virtue and "family values" (no matter how incongruously inaccurate these claims), as well as the stereotypes through which hostile historians condemn them, can tell us much of what was and was not expected of a Roman woman. Throughout this biography, Barrett offers a particularly lucid dissection of the stereotypical portrayal of women like Livia, Messalina and Agrippina in the writings of the ancient historians. Barrett acquits Tacitus of misogyny but finds him guilty of sloppily prejudiced thinking: a frequent topos in the Annals is the comparison of Agrippina to various female rivals, with whom the historian usually compares her as being alike in beauty and depravity. In fact, Agrippina's coins and sculptural portraits, with their hard features, square jaw and obvious orthodontic problems, do not make her look especially beautiful, although in official portraiture family resemblance (in this case, to Germanicus) sometimes takes priority over attractiveness. (p. 225) Agrippina's career and bad end bear structural similarities to those of other women such as Fulvia, the wife of Marc Antony, as Dio and other writers describe her. (pp. 10-12) Barrett might also have noted that the vilification of powerful women follows a similar form in much later Roman historiography, notably Procopius's secret history of the reign of Justinian and Theodora.3 The pattern is still recognizable today in the slanderous attacks often leveled at female public figures. (This is not a partisan observation, since both liberal and conservative women suffer the same sort of abuse: Nancy Reagan and Hillary Rodham Clinton have both been accused of sexual and financial improprieties, and the attacks on Janet Reno follows much the same pattern as those on Jeanne Kirkpatrick.) The stereotype also contains inherent contradictions: for example, the powerful woman is sexually voracious yet frigid and unfeminine ("ice queen" and "drag queen," in the language of the ineffable Camille Paglia).4 She betrays her husband; she retains the total loyalty of her husband and collaborates with him smoothly in their mutual misdeeds. She emasculates and weakens her husband; her husband is stronger because of her support. She is harsh and domineering; she is subtle and ingratiating. Tacitus, to his credit, is aware of some of these contradictions, and attempts to explain them away: he states, for example, that Agrippina was able to control her sexual appetites, but nonetheless to use sex unscrupulously when it suited her political ends.5 It is not impossible that the same person could demonstrate some of these contradictory characteristics at different times of her life, but virtually any woman could somehow be found guilty of some of them and therefore, according to stereotypical thinking, of all of them.

The exploration of this stereotype in its broader context, however, is not the primary purpose of Barrett's book. As noted above, he makes no pretense to offer a feminist analysis of or apologia for Agrippina's life. The fact remains that any reader with an interest in the history of Roman women, or of the Roman imperial system, whether scholar or interested layman, will find this biography indispensible.


1. See D.S. Potter, BMCR 1.2.12, review of Barbara M. Levick, Claudius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), for a similar observation.

2. Miriam T. Griffin, Nero: the End of a Dynasty (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 87-88.

3. Pauline Allen, "Contemporary Portrayals of the Byzantine Empress Theodora," Stereotypes of Women in Power: Historical Perspectives and Revisionist Views, ed. Barbara Garlick, Suzanne Dixon and Pauline Allen (New York, Westport, CT. and London, 1992), 94-100.

4. Camille Paglia, "Ice Queen, Drag Queen," The New Republic 214 (1996), 24-26.

5. Tac. Ann. 12.3 (on Agrippina's seduction of Claudius); 12.7 on her calculating chastity: "nihil domi impudicum, nisi dominationi expediret," 12.25 on alleged affair with Pallas.