Check out THE FLEA at http://www.the-flea.com/
Suetonius' Ancient Blog
For Ancient History Students
Monday, May 03, 2010
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Calleva Atrebatum's Public Baths I
What does the Public Baths building in Calleva Atrebatum tell us about life in a Roman town of a recently conquered province, Roman Britain?
Of the known public buildings in Romano-British towns, public baths are the most frequent. 1 The Roman historian Tacitus, in his biography of the Roman Governor of Britain Gaius Julius Agricola, listed bath-houses as one of the “temptations” that caused the aristocrats of Celtic Britain to adopt a Roman lifestyle. 2 This research will focus on the bath-house at Calleva Atrebatum as an example of an important public building in a Roman town, and attempt to discover some of what this structure might reveal about life in Roman Britain in the years after the Claudian invasion.
Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), unlike most Roman towns in Britain, was completely abandoned, and not built over by an existing modern city, so it is possible to examine the entire extent of the town. In the pre-Roman Iron Age there was a Celtic settlement on the site, evidenced by large defensive earthworks and traces of round houses dating back to the late first century BC. By the beginning of the first century AD the round houses had been replaced by a planned settlement with streets almost at right angles to each other, suggesting a Celtic settlement heavily under the influence of Roman culture, an interpretation supported by coinage of the period issued by Eppilus, inscribed CALLEV (Calleva) and sometimes REX, the Latin word for ‘king’.
After the Roman invasion by the emperor Claudius in 43 AD, Calleva became part of the kingdom of the pro-Roman Celtic prince Cogidubnus who ruled an area in southern Britain from his Roman-style palace at Fishbourne near Chichester.
Probably in the 50s and 60s, a new street grid was laid out and an administrative and market building was built, probably of timber. The public baths seem to date from this period.
Calleva was probably a civitas, a tribal administrative centre based on the existing native Celtic tribe. Martin Millet’s statistical analysis of town sites and structures has shown that civitates were characterised by a series of features:
organised planning on a street grid and a suite of substantial Roman-style public buildings, notably the forum (public square and meeting place), basilica (town hall and law courts), public baths, temples, amphitheatre and theatre.” 3
G. C. Boon, who re-excavated parts of Calleva in the mid-twentieth century, emphasises the importance of public bath-houses to Roman culture, writing that “the Calleva Baths… show signs of constant alteration and improvement, showing the value set on cleanliness and the social amenities which they offered”. 4 All towns of any size boasted suites of public baths.
The building in Calleva was excavated in 1903-4. The original plan was overlaid by numerous additions which the early twentieth century excavator W. Hope rationalised into five groups 5 making six structural periods in all, showing the ongoing use and importance of the bath-house.
From the earliest period the Baths comprised:
a) an entrance portico
b) an exercise yard (palaestra)
c) an apodyterium (undressing room)
d) a warm room (tepidarium) attached to which was
e) a sudatorium (sweating room)
f) a caldarium (hot bath room)
The heating was of the hypocaust system with an outside furnace and hot gases circulated under the floor (built on brick columns) and up through flues made of box tiles embedded into the walls.
The building was set north and south, with these chambers arranged in an orderly row with one leading into the next, covering an area of about 700 square metres.
This plan (along with other evidence such as the building’s alignment to the street grid) has suggested to archaeologists that the public bath-house was an early structure in the post-conquest town, and that its design and possibly its construction had links to the Roman military occupation force. Anthony King shows that the plan is a very common one, especially on military sites, and is found in other towns in Roman Britain as well as Gaul and Germania, 6 and Frere adds:
The utilisation of building types already introduced by the army can be traced also in the plan of public baths, where the various rooms of graded heat extended in a long line behind a palaestra or exercise courtyard, as at Calleva, instead of being grouped more compactly alongside it as for instance at Pompeii. 7
So perhaps there was a military hand in the construction of the Calleva bath-house consistent with the idea that the army may have been used to encourage Romanisation and urbanisation.
The earlier dating of the bath-house is supported by the design of its palaestra, which was not enclosed and roofed as usual with later British examples. The open palaestra of the Calleva baths in their first-century phase was a Mediterranean feature not often used in Roman Britain and resembles better-preserved examples still visible in Pompeii. 8
1. as shown in Millett, M. The Romanization of Britain, 1990, Table 5.1, p. 106
2. Tacitus, De Vita Iulii Agricolae, XXI
3. Millet op cit p. 69.
4. Boon, G.C. The Roman town Calleva Atrebatum at Silchester, 1974 p. 100.
5. ibid. fig. 14, p. 103.
6. King, A. Roman Gaul and Germany, 1990, page 78.
7. Frere, S. Britannia: A History of Roman Britain, 1967, p.232.
8. Bedoyere, G. de la. Roman Towns In Britain, 1992, p 53.
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
A4.02 Ancient and Modern Interpretations of Agrippina.
[including A4.01 Achievements and A3.06 Strengths and Weaknesses of Character]
Agrippina would have been the target of official denigration at three separate periods:
1. in 39 after her banishment by Caligula
2. after the mid 40s when she became the targes of Messalina’s hostility
3. in 59 when she was murdered
These attacks would have paid little attention to the truth; contemporary impressions of Agrippina are thus likely to have been one-sided. They would have been fixed soon after her death, and there would have been little incentive for Flavian historians to tone down any criticism. Agrippina had impeded Vespasian’s career so historians from his reign would have perpetuated the hostile tradition.
This historical writing is lost, but would have been the sources for the later historians who do survive, in which the hostile interpretation of Agrippina is continued.
Tacitus (c. 55 – c. 117)
Of the three surviving main sources Tacitus gives the most coherent picture of Agrippina. He is hostile towards the ambitious members of the imperial family and this is complicated by the fact that Agrippina was a woman. But Tacitus sees virtues in women as well as faults, and his women are at times capable of heroism, as Agrippina the Elder.
The main problem is not Tacitus' general view of women but his assessment of a particular class of women, those who sought to participate in the political process. Here he reflects the attitudes of his time and class, attitudes that go far back into Roman history. Underlying the corruption of the Julio-Claudian period according to Tacitus was the never-ending cynical manoeuvring to ensure a particular successor to the principate. This contest is dominated by women, immersed in factional feuds. Another recurring theme is the ambitious woman who seeks to bring down her female rival. Domitia Lepida who is a match for Agrippina in everything is destroyed ‘for women’s reasons’ by Agrippina.
Such women not only sought indirectly to exercise power but also attempted to place a claim on a power that belonged by right and tradition to the senate and people. So Tacitus says that Agrippina had Seneca recalled to help her ‘further her hopes for power’. Ambitious women are invariably described as beautiful, and beautiful women are stereotypically associated with vice.
In his portrayal of Agrippina Tacitus seems torn between outright hostility and reluctant admiration. While he condemned what she represented he admired her energy and competence. She did not behave from wantonness like Messalina but was modest in her private life and did nothing shameful unless it paved the way for her tyrannical control. Activities that are depicted as lust in Cassius Dio and Suetonius are shown in Tacitus to be important elements in her strategy of securing the principate for her son. Her attitude to money further enhances this picture, that she saw it as a means of subsidising political ambitions. During the shipwreck she is the only one who does not lose her head and panic.
Another problem with Tacitus is that he tends to think in stereotypes and this often prevents him from making a deeper analysis. He uses the term muliebris (female) thirty times, for example, usually in contexts that make a stereotypical statement, commonly to convey arrogance, irrational behaviour, sinister scheming, lack of self-control, seductive charms, deceit, jealous rivalry and seductive plots.
Thus there are recurring themes and parallels to the degree that one suspects that stories are distorted to echo one another. Livia and Agrippina, for example: both sons take power through the scheming of a mother, the removal by the mother of rival claimants and the poisoning of an incumbent emperor. In each case the mother tries to rule through her son, she is rebuffed by her son, and after her death it becomes clear that, for all her faults, she did act as a check on her son. Both emperors seem moderate, but after their mothers’ deaths exercise evil tendencies unrestrained.
Pallas, proposing Agrippina, emphasised that the son she would bring with her was Germanicus's grandson, eminently deserving of imperial rank; let the emperor ally himself with a noble race and unite two branches of the Claudian house, rather than allow this lady of proved capacity for child-bearing, still young, to transfer the glorious name of the Caesars to another family.
From the moment of Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman… this was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism.’
Her private life was chaste – unless power was to be gained.
Her passion to acquire money was unbounded. She used it as a stepping-stone to supremacy.
Agrippina hated Lollia Paulina… and Agrippina was a relentless enemy.
And now [AD 50} Agrippina was honoured with the title of Augusta.
Agrippina now [AD 50] advertised her power to the provincials. She had a settlement of ex-soldiers established at the capital of the Ubii and named after her.
[Caratacus and his family], released from their chains, offered to Agrippina, conspicuously seated on another dais nearby, the same homage and gratitude as they had given the emperor. That a woman should sit before Roman standards was an unprecedented novelty. She was asserting her partnership in the empire her ancestors had won (AD 51).
Agrippina did not venture to make her supreme attempt until she could remove the commanders of the Praetorian Guard, Lusius Geta and Rufrius Crispinus, whom she regarded as loyal to the cause of Messalina’s children…. The command was transferred to Sextus Afranius Burrus, who was a distinguished soldier but fully aware of who was behind his appointment.
'She entered the Capitol in a ceremonial carriage. This distinction, traditionally reserved for priests and sacred emblems, increased the reverence felt for a woman who, to this day, remains unique as the daughter of a great commander and the sister, wife, and mother of emperors.’
Agrippina’s intrigues (plotting) were still driving Claudius to the most brutal behaviour. [AD 53]
Agrippina had long decided on murder. [of Claudius, AD 54]
Agrippina’s violence, inflamed by all the passions of ill-gotten tyranny, encountered the united opposition of Seneca and Burrus.
Agrippina was gradually losing control over Nero. He fell in love with a former slave Acte… when Agrippina finally discovered the affair, her opposition was fruitless.
‘I will take [Britannicus to the Praetorian Guard’s camp. Let them listen to Germanicus’s daughter pitted against the men who claim to rule the whole human race - …Burrus… and Seneca!
She seemed to be looking round for a Party, and a leader for it.
As the officer was drawing his sword to finish her off, she cried out: ‘Strike here!’ – pointing to her womb.
When she had asked astrologers about Nero, they had answered that he would become emperor but kill his mother. Her reply was, ‘Let him kill me – provided he becomes emperor!’
Suetonius (c. 70 – c. 140)
Suetonius is a biographer rather than a historian. He had access to imperial archives, but he is willing to hand on any story that has come down in tradition, no matter how implausible.
Suetonius' picture of Agrippina is scattered through the biographies of Caligula, Claudius and Nero, and is inconsistent, reflecting his sources or his use of anecdote to create effect. Thus her influence over Claudius is malevolent, her personality is ferox (wild, arrogant) and impotens (unrestrained). But he is cautious about the mushroom story. He stresses that it was Nero who initiated the incest with his mother, while Tacitus accepts the accounts of other sources that Agrippina was the instigator.
Cassius Dio (c. 150 – 235)
His picture of Agrippina is uniformly hostile, even though he recognised that much of what was claimed about her came from gossip and speculation. He introduces her carrying the urn with Lepidus’ bones, and thus associates her with adultery and immorality. She is said to have seduced Claudius before their marriage and to have had a sordid affair with Pallas. Cassius Dio is the only surviving literary source to mention Agrippina between 55 and 59, again in the context of adultery (with Seneca).
He asserts that Agrippina became a second Messalina, which shows how little he understands her true nature. Only after her death does Cassius Dio recognise her importance in the dynastic scheme, calling her the daughter of Germanicus, granddaughter of Agrippa and descendant of Augustus.
As soon as Agrippina had come to live in the palace she gained complete control over Caligula. Indeed she was very clever in making the most of her opportunities, and, partly by fear and partly by favours, she won the devotion of all those who were at all friendly to Claudius. She caused his son Britannicus to be brought up as if he was a mere nobody. She made Domitius the son-in-law of Claudius at this time and later brought about his adoption also. She accomplished these ends partly by getting the freedmen to persuade Claudius and partly by arranging beforehand that the Senate, the populace and the soldiers should join together in shouting their approval of her demands on every occasion.
Agrippina was training her son for the throne and was entrusting his education to Seneca. She was amassing untold wealth for him, overlooking no possible source of revenue, not even the most humble or despised, but paying court to everyone who was in the least degree well-to-do and murdering many for this reason. Indeed, she even destroyed some of the foremost women out of jealousy; thus she slew Lollia Paulina because she had been the wife of Gaius and has cherished some hope of becoming Claudius' wife. As she did not the woman’s head when it was brought to her, she opened the mouth with her own hand and inspected the teeth, which had certain peculiarities….
No one attempted in any way to hinder Agrippina; indeed, she had more power than Claudius himself and used to greet in public all who desired it, a fact that was entered in the records. She possessed all power, since she dominated Claudius and had won over Pallas…
Nothing seemed to satisfy Agrippina, though all the privileges that Livia had enjoyed had been bestowed upon her, and a number of additional honours had been voted. But although she exercised the same power as Claudius she desired to have his title outright…
Claudius was preparing to put an end to her power, to cause his son to assume the toga virilis, and to declare him heir to the throne. Agrippina, learning of this, became alarmed and made haste to forestall anything of the sort by poisoning Claudius…
Agrippina was ever ready to undertake the most daring undertakings; for example, she caused the death of Marcus Silanus, sending him some of the same poison with which she had treacherously murdered her husband.
At first Agrippina managed for him all the business of the empire… She also received the various embassies and sent letters to peoples and governors and kings… When this had been going on for some time, it aroused the displeasure of Seneca and Burrus, who were at once the most sensible and the most influential of the men at Nero's court. They seized the following occasion to put a stop to it: an embassy of Armenians had arrived and Agrippina wished to mount the tribunal from which Nero was talking with them. The two men, seeing her approach, persuaded the young man to descend and meet his mother before she could get there, as if to extend some special greeting to her. Then, having brought this about, they did not re-ascend the tribunal, but made some excuse, so that the weakness in the empire should not become apparent to foreigners; and thereafter they laboured to prevent any public business from again being committed to her hands…
Agrippina was distressed because she was no longer mistress of affairs in the palace, chiefly because of Acte… who was loved by the emperor much more than his wife Octavia. Agrippina, indignant at this and other things, at first attempted to admonish him, and administered a beating to some of his associates and got rid of others. But when she found herself accomplishing nothing, she took it greatly to heart and said to him, “It was I who made you emperor” – just as if she had the power to take away sovereignty from him again.
Historians in modern times have followed the ancient tradition of hostility towards Agrippina until quite recently. Theodor Mommsen, working in the 1860s, 70s and 80s, and E.T. Salmon, writing in the 1940s, are representative of this hostile interpretation. Both have no trouble in accepting that Agrippina was guilty of the crimes that the ancient writers accused her of.
The morals of Agrippina were little better than those of Messalina, and she was madly ambitious. Her innate desire was to bring the dynasty of Germanicus to the throne. All his children looked upon themselves as rightful heirs… Her first husband had been Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus… in 37 Nero was born. It was this son that she wanted to set on the throne… From the outset Agrippina was not satisfied with her status in the household. She wanted to share in the government. She was immediately given the title Augusta. Although not much can be deduced from this, it was nevertheless a name inseparably associated once and for all with supreme authority. Agrippina coveted partnership in government, but she did not attain it. She is reputed to have demanded that the Praetorian Guard take an oath of allegiance to her: this demand was not met. She did, for all that, jostle her way into government in a manner that was irreconcilable with the nature of the Roman principate…
It is probable that Agrippina was behind the death of Claudius… she was a person to whom one could ascribe such a deed.
(Mommsen, A History of Rome under the Emperors)
Agrippina destroyed rivals, enemies and those whose wealth she desired. Her weapons were poison or a trumped-up charge, often of magic; informants and treason-trials were revived, but the trials were held in the privacy of the palace [instead of in the Senate]'
It is not difficult to credit the belief that Claudius had been poisoned by Agrippina. Even if she felt that the ultimate succession of her son Nero was secure, she may have wished to see him on the throne while he was still young enough to follow her advice and will.
Undoubtedly she was hoping one day to rule the world through her son.
She was prepared, if necessary, to wade through slaughter to a throne.
All things considered, it is hard to feel much compassion for the fate that subsequently overtook this woman…
Guglielmo Ferrero’s Women of the Caesars (1911) was a radical and ground-breaking reassessment of the role of Julio-Claudian women in the wielding of supreme political power. Like a museum conservator patiently cleaning the accumulated grime of ages to restore old masterpieces, Ferrero stripped away the heavy anti-imperial and anti-female bias of Tacitus and his successors to reveal portraits of noble Roman women who did not at all resemble the distorted images favoured in mainstream interpretations. In his fascinating defence of women vilified for nearly two thousand years, Ferrero changed forever the way in which history has viewed these women. In Women of the Caesars, where Ferrero challenged all the major assumptions about the female Julio-Claudians.
From Ferrero, G. The Women of the Caesars. New York, 1911 (Summarised by Paul Stevens, using Ferrero's own words as far as possible).
1. Agrippina was a woman who had been educated in the traditions of the Roman aristocracy, and who therefore considered herself merely a means to the political advancement of her relatives and her children.
2. Her marriage to Claudius was to a weak emperor who was, because of his hesitations and terrors, a threat to the imperial authority and government She saw it her duty to compensate for the innumerable deficiencies of her strange husband through her own intelligence and strength of will.
3. At the beginning of her marriage, everyone was out of patience with the principate. The scandals of Caligula and Messalina led to a demand for strong, respectable government.
4. Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus, the granddaughter of Drusus, and she had in her veins the blood of the Claudii, with all their pride, their energy, their puritanical, conservative and aristocratic spirit.
5. Tacitus maligns her, yet himself says she suffered no departure from chastity unless it helped her power (Nihil domi impudicum nisi dominationi expediret). This means that Agrippina was a lady of irreproachable life.
6. [Romans, especially the patrician class] were filled with hope when they saw this respectable, active and energetic woman take her place at the side of Claudius the weakling.
7. Agrippina applied herself to making operative in the state those traditional ideas of the nobility in which Livia had educated first Tiberius and Drusus, then Germanicus, then Agrippina herself. Agrippina brought back into the state that authoritative vigour which the nobility had considered the highest ideal of government.
8. Tacitus says of her rule that it was as rigid as if a man's (adductum et quasi virile). The laxity and disorder of the first years of Claudius' reign gave place to a certain order and discipline.
9. The freedmen (Pallas, Callistus and Narcissus) who had formerly been so powerful and aggressive, were now restrained, especially in relation to wasting public funds. Agrippina, like Livia and like all the ladies of the Roman nobility, was an excellent administrator, frugal, and ever watchful of her slaves and freedmen, and careful of all items of income and expense.
10. What Tacitus calls a 'pretext' in Cupido auri immensa obtentum habebat quasi subsidium regno pararetur (She sought to enrich the family under the pretext of providing for the needs of the empire) was, on the contrary, the ancient aristocratic concept of wealth: the family possessed it in order to use it for the benefit of the state.
11. Agrippina attempted to revive the aristocratic traditions of government which had inspired Augustus and Tiberius. Her government was a great success. From the moment she became empress there is a greater firmness and consistency of policy in the entire administration.
12. Trials, scandals and suicide became far less frequent under her rule. During the six years that Claudius lived after his marriage to Agrippina, scandalous tragedies became so rare that Tacitus, deprived of his favourite materials, set down the story of those six years in a single book.
13. In this period there was less resistance to the imperial administration. The two main political factions in Rome were those who followed the traditions of the ancient nobility; and the party of the new aristocracy, with its modern and oriental tendencies. This latter party, source of much resistance to imperial power, faded during the rule of Agrippina, who represented the interests of the ancient nobility.
14. Agrippina also provided for the state's future by promoting Nero. Tacitus says Agrippina used intrigue, fraud, deceit. She had Seneca recalled, removed two commanders of the Praetorian Guard, had Burrus made commander, had Britannicus surrounded by spies, and so on, so that in AD 50 Nero was adopted by Claudius.
15. But this whole story is a complicated and fantastic romance. Agrippina was a mother of the older Roman type - severe and exacting.
16. Nor was the principate yet hereditary: the Senate was free to choose whoever it wished. True, so far it had chosen members of the Augustan family, but only because it was easier to find there persons who were known and respected, who had the admiration of the soldiers in distant regions, and who had received preparation for the difficult duties of their office.
17. This was why Augustus and Tiberius had always prepared more than one youth for the principate, so that the Senate might have some choice, and so that there might be one reserve.
18. So for Agrippina to persuade Claudius to adopt Nero does not mean that she wanted Britannicus set aside. It merely proves that she did not want the family of Augustus to lose power, so she prepared two possible successors to Claudius, just as Augustus had for a long time trained both Drusus and Tiberius.
19. When Claudius adopted Nero in AD 50, Claudius was already 60. Britannicus was 9. Nero was 14. It would have been most imprudent to designate a 9 year old lad as Claudius' only successor.
20. Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina, was chaste, modest, patient, gentle and unselfish - all the virtues which the ancient Roman nobility had valued. By betrothing her to Nero, Agrippina had tried to make a couple to serve as an example.
21. Her ability was recognised by the Romans, who gave her the title Augusta, and allowed her to ride into the Capitol in a gilded coach (carpentum) - suggesting a semi-religious adoration, and profound and sincere respect.
22. Tacitus' story of Agrippina poisoning Claudius is ridiculous. Even Tacitus merely says that 'many believe' the story to be true.
23. Tacitus says that Agrippina poisoned Claudius because he was favouring Britannicus. But there was no certainty that the senate would choose either on Claudius' death: Nero was only 17 and Britannicus only 13.
24. The charge of poisoning, like all the others brought against the Augustan family, seems unlikely. From the point of view of the interests of the Julio-Claudians, Claudius died much too soon. Tacitus tells us that Agrippina kept the death of Claudius secret for many hours and pretended that doctors were trying to save him when in reality he was already dead, dum res firmando Neronis imperio componuntur (while matters were being arranged to assure the empire to Nero). If everything had to be hurried through at the last moment, Agrippina herself must have been taken by surprise by the sudden death of Claudius. She therefore cannot be held responsible for having caused it.
25. When Claudius died, Agrippina must have understood that since the family of Augustus had no full-grown man as candidate for the principate, there was grave danger that the senate might refuse to confer supreme power on either Nero or Britannicus.
26. The only answer to this would be to present one of the two youths to the Praetorian Guards and have him proclaimed head of the armies. This would force the senate to proclaim him head of the empire, as in the case of Claudius.
27. Nero was chosen by Agrippina because he was older. It was a bold move to ask the senate to make a seventeen-year-old emperor; it would have been folly to ask them to accept a thirteen-year-old.
1. Agrippina foresaw problems for Nero in establishing authority, because of his age. She engineered his approach to the senate where he declared that of all the powers exercised by his predecessors, he wished to retain only the command of the armies. All other civil, judicial and administrative functions he turned over to the senate.
2. This 'restoration of the republic' was Agrippina's masterpiece, and marks the height of her power.
3. In carrying out this plan, Agrippina is the last continuator of the great political tradition founded by Augustus who, as with Tiberius, considered the empire to be governed by the aristocracy, with the emperor merely the holder of certain powers conceded to him for reasons of state. If these reasons of state should disappear, the powers should naturally revert to the aristocracy.
4. By restoring these powers, Agrippina diverted attention from the pressure the army had brought on the senate to accept Nero, and lessened the dislike of imperial power felt by the aristocracy.
5. This was a good beginning for Nero's government. The senate resumed its ancient functions; and governed by Agrippina, Seneca and Burrus in conjunction with the senate, the empire seemed to be progressing wonderfully.
6. But Nero had an 'artistic' and rebellious temperament. Despite Agrippina's betrothal of him to the highly suitable Octavia, he proposed to marry the ex-slave Acte. The Lex de maritandis ordinibus prohibited marriages between senators and freedwomen. Raised as she was in the strictest ideas of the old Roman aristocracy, Agrippina could not permit such a relationship.
7. The party of the modernizing nobility had for ten years been held in check by Agrippina; but gradually, as the exotic and anti-Roman tendencies of Nero declared themselves, this party became bolder. It gathered about the emperor and tried to claim him as its own.
8. Agrippina put the public interest before her own family. That is why, as Nero became unruly and began to align with the new nobility, she may have looked to supporting the more serious-minded Britannicus.
9. But he was poisoned in 55, and Tacitus tells us this caused Agrippina great terror. It is not difficult to see why. Nero was now the last and only survivor of the house of Augustus, so it was no longer possible to bring pressure to bear upon him by supporting some other member of the imperial family.
10. The new nobility gained in strength as Nero turned against Agrippina, while her party of the old nobility lost size and power.
11. Also, as often happens in times of peace and prosperity, the temper of the time was tending towards milder, more liberal government, away from Agrippina's authoritative and severe approach.
12. Even so, Agrippina continued to check the progress of the government in its new direction. Nero was still too weak and undecided to attempt an open revolt against her.
13. In 58 Nero became involved with Sabina Poppaea, who came from a family which supported the new, modernising, orientalising philosophies. This approach she encouraged in Nero.
14. She persuaded him that the policy of authority and economy which his mother desired was making him unpopular, and suggested instead that he show generosity towards the people which would win him their affection.
15. As a result, Nero proposed to the senate that they abolish all indirect taxes and duties. The conservatives in the senate resisted this, but Nero made some adjustments by edict. This led to a split between Nero and his mother.
16. Poppaea and the new friends of Nero goaded him on to have Agrippina killed.
17. After the farce of the 'collapsible boat' assassination attempt, Nero had a party of sailors go to Agrippina's villa to kill her. No soldier would have turned his sword against the daughter of Germanicus. Tacitus tells us: 'The murderers closed round her bed. First the captain hit her on the head with a truncheon. Then as the lieutenant was drawing his sword to finish her off, she cried out: "Strike here!" - pointing to her womb [which had borne Nero]. Blow after blow fell, and she died' (Tacitus, XIV).
18. Thus died the last woman of the house of Augustus, and with the exception of Livia, the most remarkable woman in that family. She died like a soldier, on duty and at her post, bravely defending the social and political traditions of the Roman aristocracy and the time-honoured principles of Romanism against the influx of those new forces of a later age which were seeking to orientalise the ancient Latin republic.
Since Women of the Caesars, Ferrero’s interpretation has become steadily more influential. Although usually more cautious than Ferrero, most studies of the Julio-Claudian period are far more critical of Tacitus’ version, and far more likely than was previously the case to give credit to these important female participants in imperial rule. Anthony A. Barrett may be typical; his assessment(1996) takes a middle ground somewhere between the extreme hostility of Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Mommsen and Scullard on the one hand and the portrait of her as a virtuous heroine offered by Ferrero.
The politically powerful woman would always suffer a devastating ‘image’ problem in ancient Rome, which could be compensated for only by consummate skill in political manipulation. This Agrippina did brilliantly as the wife of Claudius, but tragically failed to achieve as the mother of Nero…
Syme often argued that Agrippina, and other powerful imperial women, were weighty figures in their own day but were essentially unimportant, since they passed from the scene without any lasting impact. This is surely to under-estimate Agrippina's significance. She represents an essential stage in the evolution of the imperial system, in the attempt to give a formal definition to the political role open to a woman of ability and energy. She did not change the hardened attitudes of her contemporaries, but she did define what Romans were willing to tolerate. Her experiment may have been a failure but it was not without its long-term effects. It can surely not be a coincidence that she was the last woman to play a dominant role in Roman political life for a century and a half. Later generations of imperial wives and mothers who might otherwise have entertained aspirations to power clearly took to heart the bitter lesson that Agrippina learned when, in 59 AD, she was beaten and hacked to death by her son’s hired assassins.
She represents a political paradox of the early Roman empire, the woman who managed to exercise great power and influence in a society that offered no constitutional role to powerful and influential women. It is this achievement, to be empress in an empire that allowed only emperors, that makes her accomplishments interesting and worthy of serious study. But not to the Romans – they saw the elevation of women like Agrippina as an inversion of the natural order, and the preoccupation of the ancient writers with the evils of female ambition all but blinded them to any admiral qualities they might have possessed.
Modern scholars have treated Agrippina no less harshly than did their ancient counterparts…. The actual record, however, suggests very strongly that both ancient and modern writers offer a lop-sided portrait at best. Agrippina’s presence seems to have transformed the regime of her husband, the emperor Claudius…. The evidence suggests that after her marriage to Claudius, Agrippina inverted the normal progression of a monarchical regime, changing it from a repressive dictatorship marked by continuous judicial executions to a relatively benign partnership between the ruler and the ruled. Also, the ascendancy she enjoyed after her son Nero’s accession coincided with the finest period of his administration, and her final departure from the scene seems to have removed the restraining check to his descent into erratic tyranny.
Thus Agrippina’s contribution to her time seems on the whole to have been a positive one. This does not mean, of course, that she was a paragon of virtue and a woman of sterling character, worthy of the devout and unstinting admiration bestowed on her by… Guglielmo Ferrero…. who portrayed her as a splendid heroine of duty. In fact, the evidence, honestly and fairly evaluated, seems to suggest that she was a distinctly unattractive individual. But in her defence it might be pointed out that politically ambitious people tend not to be appealing at the very best of times. And politically ambitious people who have to make their way in a monarchical system can generally succeed only through behaviour that is by most norms repellent. If we add to this formula a politically ambitious woman in a monarchical structure that had no formal provision for the involvement of women, the odds are almost insurmountable in favour of her being, by necessity, rather awful. It is when Agrippina is judged by her achievements, rather than by her personality or character, that she demands admiration.
Clearly the Roman imperial system was unfair to a woman like Agrippina, whose talents and energies were such that she would have achieved high office, quite likely the principate itself, if she had been a man.
This book approaches Agrippina as the daughter of an acclaimed and much-loved prince, the sister of an emperor, the wife of another emperor, and the mother of yet another – in each case, it might be objected, the appendage of a significant man. But in the setting of ancient Rome these subordinate roles are what, in fact, defined her sphere of operations, as she was fully aware. The brilliant exploitation of that position, so as to exercise enormous de facto power and influence, was her own great achievement.
Baumann’s (1992) interpretation of Agrippina is perhaps not quite as friendly to her as Barrett’s but still much less hostile than the ancient or older modern interpretations.
[After the death of Messalina] Agrippina would now come into her own, dominating the politics of her time as no member of the Domus, not even Livia, had ever done… She had one supreme ambition, to place her sone Nero on the throne: ‘Let him kill me, but let him rule.’ But not far behind that was her determination to secure a position of unprecedented eminence for herself. She proposed coming as close as it was possible for a woman to come to a partnership in power; she would be in fact, though not in law, a socia imperii (comrade or associate in power). The story of Agrippina in Claudius' reign is the story of her successful realisation of both her objectives.
Of Agrippina's many contributions to the history of the reign [of Claudius] one that is often neglected is her abandonment of that Julian article of faith, the divine blood of Augustus. Once Nero became a Claudian by adoption, Agrippina threw herself wholeheartedly into promoting the new link, and redoubled her efforts when she herself was given the title of Augustus'. Although technically this did not make her a Claudian – she was not adopted as Livia had been by Augustus (in his will) – it did strengthen the bond. In a certain sense she was simply returning to her origins, since her father had been a Claudian until his adoption by Tiberius an the latter’s interlocking adoption by Augustus. Having forged a Claudian link to her son’s advantage, Agrippina reinforced his position (and also her own) after his accession by springing to the defence of Divus Claudius, the god who was now Nero's father… When her own position came under threat Agrippina did not hesitate to turn the Claudian link against Nero. She espoused the cause of his ‘brother’ Britannicus, and when Nero countered that move she allied herself to Octavia… She began supporting the ‘genuine’ Claudians against the spurious occupant of the throne, even trying to revive her mother’s party – with a Claudian logo instead of a Julian one. The purpose was, of course, to exert pressure on Nero to restore her partnership in power, but history caught up with her. More’s the pity. In spite of her many unpleasant qualities, one cannot help feeling a certain admiration for Julia Agrippina, the last of the really great Julio-Claudian matrons.
Richard Baumann, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome
Essay: How have ancient and modern authors interpreted the achievements of Agrippina II?
1. List the honours awarded to Agrippina with dates.
2. Draw up a table of the strengths and weaknesses of Agrippina's character with examples where possible.