BMCR 2007.02.45

Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire

Judith Ginsburg, Representing Agrippina : constructions of female power in the early Roman Empire. American classical studies ; v. 50. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (146 pages, 4 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, genealogical table.. ISBN 1423762002 $45.00.

Judith Ginsburg died in December, 2002, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript on Agrippina the Younger and a circle of devoted friends. This book is evidence of both circumstances: it is comprised of two and a half chapters of clear, articulate scholarly prose which is unmistakably Ginsburg’s, with the addition of some notes, beginning and concluding paragraphs, and a brief introduction by those who knew and loved her well. Those who added their own words to the manuscript — Erich Gruen, Natalie Kampen, Elizabeth Keitel, and Beth Severy-Hoven — made the decision not to disrupt the author’s own scholarly voice with their own, but instead simply to add what was needed for clarity and readability in select places. The book’s introduction is entirely by Gruen; otherwise the discreet and useful additions are signaled in the text by square brackets with the initials of the author attached.

I begin with this description of the book’s history and present arrangement because it is almost impossible to judge its content without also considering its form. As with many literary works from antiquity, the unfinished nature of the text presents the reader (and reviewer!) with some puzzles: what would the end have looked like? What is missing from the middle? If the author had had a chance to revise the complete manuscript, what would she have changed? Ultimately, of course, we must make the same choice as we do for the Aeneid, and accept the text as we have it, even as we leave open the possibility that some of the things we might have liked to be different would have been, had the disease that took her life given the author more time. That said, Representing Agrippina clearly makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on its particular subject and the study of women in antiquity in general; although more might have been accomplished, we should not let our regret for what is not in the book blind us to the merits of what is.

As the title suggests, this book is focused not on the historical personage who was Agrippina the Younger — great-granddaughter to the emperor Augustus, wife to the emperor Claudius, and mother of the emperor Nero — but on the role that representations of her played in their particular contexts. Thus, the first chapter considers the figure of Agrippina in “the literary tradition” (which actually means Tacitus, by and large); the second considers visual images, from coins through sculpture to cameos; the last, incomplete, chapter returns to texts and looks at the “rhetorical stereotypes” which frame the figure of Agrippina, again mostly in Tacitus’ Annals.

There is much to be praised here. Ginsburg was a great scholar of Tacitus — her 1981 study, Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus, is considered a classic work on this difficult author — and it shows in the present book. The first chapter proceeds through Agrippina’s life and public career step by step as they are depicted in Tacitus’ Annals, although also sometimes comparing his account with the accounts found in Cassius Dio and Suetonius. Ginsburg’s sensitivity to, and knowledge of, the Annals is put to good use here, as she shows the ways in which the depiction of Agrippina serves the literary needs of the text rather than “truthful” historical narrative. Particularly noteworthy is her observation that many of the major figures in the text are assimilated to stock comic figures: Pallas as the servus fallax, Agrippina as the matrona imperiosa, Claudius as the senex stultus, and so on (p. 23). Ginsburg also weaves a number of compelling close readings into her argument, such as when she notes that potentia matris (used of Agrippina at Annals 13.12.1) could signify either “the power of a mother over her son” or “the power Agrippina holds in Roman society by virtue of her position as the mother of the emperor” (p. 40). The phrase thus neatly blends the “private” and “public” influence the subject was able to wield. Ginsburg’s comparison of the stories of Agrippina’s death in Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio is also illuminating, as she observes that Suetonius focuses solely on Nero, to the exclusion of Agrippina’s perspective, whereas Dio constructs the episode as the brainchild of Poppaea Sabina. These comparisons serve to throw Tacitus into relief, and to show how carefully he crafted his narrative to emphasize the complicated psychological dance being performed between mother and son.

In essence, though, this first chapter is a close reading of Tacitus’ Annals. This is in some senses a virtue — as I noted, Ginsburg’s knowledge of Tacitus is extensive and her readings useful — but it also makes the chapter’s title, “Agrippina in the Literary Tradition”, misleading. Where, for example, is Josephus? Or Plutarch? Or, to move to an entirely different generic context, Seneca’s Octavia, in which the ghost of Agrippina appears and steals the show? These too, after all, present images of Agrippina which are both evidence of, and contributions to, the ways in which female power was understood in literature of the early empire. I, for one, believe that Tacitus was one of the greatest interpreters of early imperial history and culture to have survived from the ancient world, but he — even when read alongside Dio and Suetonius — still only offers us one “literary” version of Agrippina.

The extent to which Tacitus dominates the first, “literary” chapter is made more evident by the fact that the second chapter, “Visualizing Agrippina”, offers a fairly comprehensive overview of the visual evidence. Proceeding from images on coins (imperial and provincial) to sculpture (statuary and reliefs) to cameos, Ginsburg makes a compelling case for Agrippina’s unique prominence, not just in images directly controlled by the central imperial government but also in more local contexts as well. For instance, it is noteworthy that coins produced in the eastern provincial mints seem to accord her as much, if not greater, importance than those produced in the imperial mints to the west. Ginsburg argues that scholars who use the negative images of Agrippina found in the literary tradition to read the visual evidence have generally missed the very positive connotations which her appearance might carry in other contexts. As both great-granddaughter to the divine Augustus and mother to Nero, the figure of Agrippina served to look backward to the beginning of imperial rule and forward to a strong and productive future for the dynasty. This second aspect of her appearance is particularly evident in her assimilation to the goddess Demeter, which served to underscore both her personal fertility and the virtuous prosperity that the imperial regime wished to associate with its rule. This chapter represents a very useful summary of the available visual material, and Ginsburg’s interpretation — although she might have done more to highlight the differences between locally produced images and more straightforwardly imperial ones — seems undoubtedly correct. One serious error (in production not fact) mars this otherwise excellent chapter: the coin described on pp. 89 – 90 is not the one illustrated in figure 6, to which the reader is directed.

The book concludes by turning back to texts, to consider the “rhetorical stereotypes” which animate the (negative) views of Agrippina found in the literary tradition. This chapter is the most clearly unfinished of the three, as it is about half the length of the others and Ginsburg’s portion of it ends rather abruptly. Again, the discussion is mostly of Tacitus, although for comparison Ginsburg also makes some reference to other genres, such as the sample declamations provided by Seneca the Elder (p. 107), for other instances of “wicked stepmothers”, and Virgil’s Aeneid 4 (p. 112), for the transgressive dux femina. This chapter clearly follows on from the first, and it is not entirely clear to me why they were separated from one another. Part of the point seems to be, as Beth Severy-Hoven’s concluding note emphasizes, that Tacitus’ negative portrayals seem to have been deliberately shaped to answer the positive images of her (outlined in chapter 2) which the imperial regime had used to support itself: “[Tacitus’] Agrippina was a destructive mother-in-law, not a bountiful mater; her sexual activities were incestuously dangerous rather than chastely reproductive; and her masculine quest for political power revealed horrible gender inversions in the Julio-Claudian family, and thus the inability of the father of that family to lead” (p. 132). This is an important and productive insight, and although I would have liked to see Ginsburg make it more explicitly in the earlier parts of the chapter, no doubt she would have done so if she had had the opportunity to do final revisions on the manuscript. As in the other parts of the book, we must be grateful to Severy-Hoven and the other editors for proving such lucid interpreters and facilitators of Ginsburg’s work.

Overall, Representing Agrippina is a significant achievement. On the one hand, it identifies and clarifies some of the competing images in the historical and material record of a woman whose role in early imperial governance was unprecedented. Although I would have liked to hear what conclusions Ginsburg might have drawn if she had included a wider variety of texts in her study, the close attention she pays to Tacitus enables her to provide insight into the mechanics of his work and the strange but important function that Agrippina has within it. Moreover, it is hard to overestimate the influence Tacitus has had on modern understandings of the role which imperial women and their particular brand of femininity had on history and culture under the early empire. By breaking down the ideological influences on and within Tacitus’ depiction of Agrippina, therefore, Ginsburg also takes an important step toward breaking us of our dependence on him as “true history”, and shows how we should use him, rather than being used by him, in writing the stories of women in ancient Rome.

One final note. When I finished reading the book and turned back to look again at Gruen’s introduction, I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly, close to tears. I did not know Ginsburg. My emotions were not stirred by any particular grief for her, but rather by this: our scholarly community is given to self-absorption and judgment, often harsh, sometimes unkind. Acts of generosity and benevolence, when they do occur, are generally not well rewarded. This book is a monument, but not just to the kindness of the friends who worked so hard on the manuscript after the author’s death; rather, in it we may also see Ginsburg herself, a person whose devotion to scholarship still burned strong even through her final illness, but who had also found time in her career to garner such love and respect from her scholarly peers that they were willing to put aside their own work to see her manuscript through to publication. In this sense, even apart from its intellectual contributions — which are not inconsiderable — Ginsburg’s last work should be a lesson to us all.