Agrippina the Elder – History, Family & Marriage

Agrippina the Elder – History, Family & Marriage

An important member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Agrippina the Elder was the granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. She was an influential figure during the conflict of succession during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. In an era when women were not leaders, she played a very significant role in Roman politics and was known to be very intelligent and strong-willed. Born Vipsania Agrippina, this Roman woman was said to be fiercely independent and had high ambitions for her children, who ended up being her greatest strength. Her ultimate demise came when she was exiled to an island in Italy, where it’s said that she committed suicide by starvation.

Family

Agrippina the Elder was born in 14 BC into a family of great wealth and influence. Her family was Rome’s first imperial family and the founders of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Her Father – Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa

Following the death of Marcellus in 23 BC, Agrippa tied the knot with his widow, Julia the Elder, who was the only biological daughter of Emperor Augustus. Image: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa – Agrippina the Elder’s father

Her father was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a Roman general and close ally to Emperor Augustus.

Marcus Agrippa was one of Augustus’ most trusted generals in the battles waged against rivals Sextus Pompeius and Mark Antony. Agrippa first allied with the Second Triumvirate, which was an alliance between Augustus, Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to fight against Sextus Pompey during the civil war of Bellum Siculum (42 BC – 36 BC).

After the Second Triumvirate disintegrated, Agrippa once again sided with Augustus to fight ally-turned-rival Mark Antony. Agrippa was thus crucial in Augustus’ victorious campaign against Antony’s forces that were backed by Egypt’s Cleopatra. To seal their alliance, Augustus allowed Marcus Agrippa marry his only biological child, Julia the Elder.

At some point in time Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, were the two people tipped to succeed Augustus.

Mother – Julia the Elder

Julia the Elder – Agrippina the Elder’s mother

Agrippina the Elder’s mother was Julia the Elder, the only natural daughter of Emperor Augustus.

Siblings

Her two oldest brothers Gaius and Lucius were adopted by Emperor Augustus, who had no male heir.

From her father’s earlier marriages, Agrippina had many half-siblings, including Vipsania Attica, Vipsania Marcella and Vipsania Marcellina.

Stepdaughter of Tiberius

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa died in 12 BC and the emperor married his daughter and Agrippina’s mother, Julia the Elder, to his stepson Tiberius Claudius Nero. Agrippina the Elder became Tiberius’ stepdaughter. Image: Bust of Emperor Tiberius, second Roman emperor, at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse

After her father’s death in 12 BC, her mother was married off to Tiberius, Emperor Augustus’ stepson (by his marriage to his third wife Livia). What this meant was that Agrippina the Elder became the stepdaughter of Tiberius.

Why was she called Agrippina the Elder?

It was a Roman custom that women in the same family would often have the same name. Agrippina was actually born Vipsania Agrippina, a name she shared with many of female relatives, including her daughter, whom historians like to call Agrippina the Younger (aka Agrippina Minor). Therefore, Agrippina was called “Agrippina the Elder” to help historians distinguish her from her daughter. Agrippina had four step sisters from her father’s previous marriage and she had four full siblings: three brothers – Gaius, Lucius, and Postumus Agrippa, and her older sister, Julia the Younger.

Marriage and Children

Germanicus (15 BC – 19 AD) – Agrippina the Elder’s husband

Augustus’ intended heirs, Gaius and Lucius, died within two years of each other, in 4 AD and 2 AD, respectively. The Emperor was left without heirs again. Augustus’ third wife Livia, who wielded a tremendous amount of influence, was able to convince Augustus to adopt her son Tiberius, who was the Emperor’s stepson Tiberius. Augustus agreed to Livia’s request provided Tiberius in turn adopted his nephew, Germanicus. Agrippina the Elder was already married off to Germanicus to continue the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Agrippina’s marriage to Germanicus proved to be very fertile, they had nine children, out of which six made it to maturity. The six children were Nero Julius Caesar, Drusus Julius Caesar, Gaius Caesar (Emperor Caligula), Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla, and Julia Livilla. These offspring promised a stable future for the imperial house and added to the popularity of Germanicus as well as Agrippina, which angered Tiberius. Emperor Augustus died on 19 August AD 14 and Tiberius acceded to the throne.

Agrippina the Elder traveled with her husband and children during his military career. She would dress two-year-old Gaius in military costume, this display was for the benefit of the imperial house. Some historians credit her actions as having won the soldiers’ admiration. One time, this act of hers contributed to the end of the mutiny. The attention garnered by Agrippina, Germanicus and their children did not sit too well for Tiberius and his mother.

After the death of Tiberius’ son, Drusus the Younger, in AD 23, Agrippina the Elder’s sons were elevated to heirs of the emperor.

Death of Germanicus

Furthermore, Germanicus was very successful in his military campaigns and was widely popular amongst the soldiers. However, Germanicus’s successful conquest was cut short when he died suddenly in Antioch in AD 19, at the age of 33. There were speculations that he was poisoned by his rival Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who feared Germanicus’ popularity with the people. There were also some rumors that Emperor Tiberius was responsible for the demise of Germanicus, as the emperor had grown jealous of the rising popularity of his nephew.

Agrippina journeyed back to Rome with his ashes, where she met a huge crowd of sympathizers who came to show their respect. The ashes of her husband were interred at the Mausoleum of Augustus, a final resting place for many Julio-Claudio dynasty members.

Rivalry with Tiberius

Agrippina the Elder did not hide her suspicion about Tiberius being responsible for her husband’s death and was worried her sons would be displaced in the line of succession by Tiberius’ son Drusus the Younger. However that fear quickly faded after the sudden death of Drusus the Younger (son of Tiberius) on 14 September AD 23.

Agrippina began to plot ways to elevate her children to the position of heirs by gifting Tiberius the Great Cameo of France. It was a personalized gift that placed the family of Germanicus around the new emperor. Agrippina was sending the emperor a message: her children were the rightful heirs to Tiberius.

Steadily, her sons, especially her oldest, Nero, gained popularity in the Senate, leading to increased hostility between the widow and the emperor.

Relations were so bad that Agrippina refused to eat with Tiberius for fear of being poisoned. The Emperor’s ambitious praetorian prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, also fueled the rivalry by telling Tiberius tales about Agrippina which made the emperor suspicious. Her every action, her strength and bluntness were read as ambition and arrogance.

Desperate to protect her children, Agrippina sought Tiberius’ permission to remarry but he feared her known fertility might lead to more children and further complicate the line of succession.

Agrippina the Elder’s feud with Sejanus

After the loss of his son, Drasus, in 23 AD, Tiberius became less interested in running the empire. The emperor instead delegated many of his duties to Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a close associate of the emperor. In 26 AD, the Tiberius took a break from politics and retired temporarily to his imperial villa on the island of Capri, just off the coast of Campania.

Tiberius’ delegation of many official duties to Sejanus, the Praetorian Prefect, resulted in him losing real power. At some point in time, Tiberius was only emperor by name, as Sejanus and the Praetorian Guard appeared to have all the power in Rome.

By AD 27, Agrippina had been taken into custody and placed under house arrest in her suburban villa outside Herculaneum. Two years later, Agrippina and her oldest son, Nero, were accused by Sejanus, with implicit approval from Tiberius, of being a threat to the public, i.e. public enemies (hostes). The mother and son were sent into exile; Nero was sent to Pontia, where he later committed suicide (31 AD); and Agrippina was exiled to the island of Pandateria (in present-day Italy).

To make matters, her second son, Drusus, was also arrested and imprisoned in Rome.

How did Agrippina the Elder die?

Agrippina, a once beloved granddaughter of Augustus, was so mistreated that she lost an eye due to a severe beating from one of her guards. She remained in exile until 33AD when she died from starvation, most likely imposed upon her by the guards. There were rumors that her death was made to look like a suicide.

Aftermath

For having a hand in the deaths of two of Tiberius’s grandnephews – Nero Julius Caesar and Drusus Caesar – and the humiliation of Agrippina the Elder, in an expertly crafted maneuver, Tiberius successfully convinced the Senate to denounce Sejanus. After his trial, Sejanus was sentenced to death for treason in 31 AD.

Sejanus was executed on October AD 31 at the emperor’s order; and after the death of Agrippina’s two oldest sons, her youngest son Gaius was made joint-heir (along with Tiberius’ grandson, Tiberius Gemellus) by Tiberius.

After Tiberius’ death, Agrippina’s son Gaius (Caligula) became Emperor and killed his cousin Tiberius Gemellus to crush any opposition. Caligula brought back his mother and brother’s ashes to Rome.

A progenitor of Roman Emperors

Agrippina’s daughter, Agrippina the Younger married the next emperor, Claudius Nero Germanicus. Agrippina the Younger was the mother of Nero, the last Roman emperor from the Julio-Claudian dynasty. What this means is that Agrippina was the granddaughter, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother of four Roman emperors.

Read More: List of Roman Emperors: From Augustus to Romulus Augustulus

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