Julia Vipsania Agrippina (circa 14 BC– AD 33), known as Agrippina Major (Agrippina "the Elder"), was one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire in the early 1st century AD. She was the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa by his third wife Julia Caesaris, was grand-daughter of Augustus, wife of Germanicus, and the mother of Agrippina Minor and Caligula.
The place and date of her birth are unknown but by about 5 AD she had married Germanicus, the step-grandson of the Emperor Augustus. The well-regarded Germanicus was a candidate for the succession and had won fame campaigning in Germania and Gaul, where he was accompanied by Agrippina. This was most unusual for Roman wives, as convention required them to stay at home, and earned her a reputation as a model for heroic womanhood. She bore him two daughters in Gaul, a boy and Agrippina Minor in the Rhine frontier.
Agrippina and Germanicus travelled to the Near East in AD 19, incurring the displeasure of the emperor Tiberius. He quarrelled with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, and died in Antioch in mysterious circumstances. It was widely suspected that Germanicus had been poisoned – perhaps on the orders of Tiberius himself – and Agrippina returned to Rome to avenge his death. She boldly accused Piso of the murder of Germanicus. To avoid public infamy, Piso committed suicide.
From 19 to 29, Agrippina remained in Rome, becoming increasingly involved with a group of senators who opposed the growing power of Tiberius' favourite Sejanus. Her relations with the emperor became increasingly fraught as she made it clear that she believed that he was responsible for the death of Germanicus. Tiberius also evidently feared that she might seek to secure the throne for her own children. In 26, the emperor rejected her request that she be allowed to marry again.
Agrippina and her sons Drusus and Nero Caesar were arrested in 29 on the orders of Tiberius. They were tried by the Senate and Agrippina was banished to the island of Pandataria (now called Ventotene) in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Campania, where she died on October 18, 33 in suspicious circumstances. The official story was that she had starved herself to death, but it seems equally likely that she was starved on the orders of the emperor. After her death, Tiberius convinced the senate to revoke all her former privileges and declared her birthday to be a day of ill-omen.
Agrippina had nine children by Germanicus, several of whom died young. Drusus died of starvation after being imprisoned in Rome and Nero Caesar either committed suicide or was murdered after his trial in 29. Only two of her children are of historical importance: Agrippina Minor, also known as Agrippina the Younger, and Gaius Caesar, who succeeded Tiberius under the name of Caligula. Despite Tiberius' enmity towards Caligula's elder brothers, he nonetheless made Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus joint heirs to his property.
Agrippina was regarded by contemporaries as being a woman of the highest character and exemplary Roman morals. There is a portrait of her in the Capitoline Museum at Rome and a bronze medal in the British Museum showing her ashes being brought back to Rome by order of Caligula.
Tacitus, Annals i.-vi.
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars
Julio-Claudian Family Tree
Last updated: 05-22-2005 04:47:28