Before a packed room, the CANI programme of events for 2019/20 began on 16 October with the talk Dr Emma Southon presenting on ‘The Life and Legacy of Agrippina the Younger.’
After some quick CANI business, Helen McVeigh introduced our speaker. Originally from Brighton but now living in Belfast, Dr Southon received her PhD from the University of Birmingham on the subject of ‘Marriage, Sex and Death: The Family and the Fall of the Roman West.’ Her first book Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler and Whore provided the subject of the talk – the life of the granddaughter, sister, niece, wife and mother of Julio-Claudian emperors, Agrippina the Younger.
Dr Southon expressed how her want to write this book was because there was no biography of the woman so important to the story of the prototypical emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the records of historians such as Tacitus.
But in those pages of Tacitus, along with the likes of Suetonius and Cassius Dio (none of whom were her contemporaries), Agrippina is almost universally derided as an arch-manipulator and “ruthless slut.” She grew up in a climate of suspicion where she felt that Tiberius had murdered her parents, but this only the beginning of the rollercoaster that was her life in the imperial spotlight.
She first appears in sources with Caligula’s untraditional and perhaps even unhealthy attachment to his sisters, with them depicted on coins and made part of the oaths of state. This did not stop her plotting against her brother, who had her exiled. Agrippina was allowed to return by Claudius, but he married her off and she disappears from the historical record for another five years. When she returned to the public eye, it was as the wife of the emperor (who just happened to be her uncle…)
Agrippina was appointed Augusta and became the first to hole that title while still having a public role and even had some semblance of power within Claudius’ court. Unsurprisingly, Tacitus sees this as a “political earthquake,” gravely undermining the social fabric.
That said, the appointment of Agrippina to a position of power and influence coincided with an upturn in popularity for Claudius’ regime and the building of a more successful government, able to move people around into useful positions without having to resort to arbitrary removals and executions.
Even the event that Agrippina is best known for – the succession to Claudius – demonstrates that the empress was a talented administrator and leader. She, along with Claudius, very much followed the succession plan of Augustus, gradually introducing Nero to positions of publicity, power and influence so by the time of his accession, the public was used to his presence and Nero himself should have been well-used to being ‘first among equals.’
However, the succession of Nero also highlights the incident that garnered Agrippina much of her infamy – her being behind the murder of Claudius. Furthermore, the likes of Tacitus saw her succession plan as a manipulation of the political scene to make sure Nero succeeds instead of Britannicus. This violation of pietas was perhaps a greater crime than her killing of Claudius and Britannicus.
Because of her gender, her achievements were often seen as crimes, with the Neronian lens further ruining Agrippina’s reputation – she had birthed him, reared him and put him on the throne, so she was responsible for his actions. And even the most powerful woman could be brushed aside by even a weak/poor emperor, which was seen after the smooth accession of Nero, when the new emperor and Seneca saw to the marginalising of Agrippina. But even then, she must have retained some influence over her son – why else would he have undertaken to have her murdered?
At the end of her talk, Dr Southon answered some questions from the audience regarding Agrippina’s cremation on a dining room chair, Poppaea’s involvement in her death (yes, but Nero must also have been prominent – proving the influence Agrippina still had), the universality of her depiction as a whore, who her modern counterpart might be (Margaret Thatcher?), whether there was any reflection of Agrippina in Nero’s acting and whether she wanted power for herself or for Nero. For the latter, Dr Southon suggested that she may have been more interested in bringing the imperial position back into her own Julian side of the family.
CANI would like to extend our thanks to Dr Southon for her fascinating look at an otherwise maligned and pigeon-holed empress. We very much look forward to Emma presenting for us again in the future.
Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler and Whore is available in all good bookstores and Dr Southon’s second book on Roman murder entitled A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is due out in 2020. She is also co-host of the History is Sexy podcast.