Agrippina the Younger: Facts & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Rome's history is full of powerful figures, but few were able to negotiate that power as successfully as Agrippina the Younger. In this lesson, we'll explore the life and legacy of this Roman empress and see how she managed to secure a position in the Roman Empire.

Julia Agrippina

It has long been noted that the greatest soap opera dramas of all time weren't works of fiction; they were matters of history. Love, betrayal, passion, vengeance, ambition, pride--history has it all, and in few places did we see this more clearly than in the Roman Empire. One key player in this drama was Julia Agrippina, more often remembered as Agrippina the Younger (15-59 CE). As one of the most powerful women in Roman history, Agrippina the Younger held a major role in the drama that was royal life in ancient Rome.

Agrippina the Younger
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Family and Early Life

Agrippina the Younger was destined to play a key role in Roman history from the moment of her birth. Her great-grandfather was Augustus, the man who had turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire with himself as the first emperor. She was the great-niece of the former emperor Tiberius, and her mother (Agrippina the Elder) was among the most respected women in Rome. Agrippina the Younger, therefore, was heir to some of the most prominent families in Rome and part of Rome's first imperial dynasty, which we call the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

Agrippina and Emperor Caligula

Born in what is now Cologne, Germany, but raised in Rome, Agrippina rose quickly into imperial politics. She was married by the age of 13 to a high-ranking first cousin, but she first found real power when Emperor Tiberius died in 37 CE without a son and her own brother, Caligula, became the new emperor. As sister to Emperor Caligula, Agrippina had greater political freedoms and more influence in courts. Her brother had coins made with her image (a major honor in Rome), and she became a more prominent public figure. Agrippina also had her first son at this time, a boy named Lucius.

Agrippina and her sisters on a Roman coin with Caligula on the reverse
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Caligula started as a fair and wise ruler, but eventually something happened. Sources from the time describe him becoming mad with power, although much of this could have been propaganda meant to smear his reputation. For whatever reason, Agrippina, along with her sister and cousin, became involved in a plot to assassinate the emperor. Her brother found out, had their cousin executed and the sisters exiled from Rome.

Agrippina and Emperor Claudius

Caligula continued to make enemies, and in 41 CE he was assassinated, along with his family. His and Agrippina's uncle, Claudius, was then proclaimed the new emperor of Rome, and Agrippina was welcomed back into the city. Back in Rome and recently widowed, Agrippina renegotiated her political power and that of her son, Lucius. While she first became a mistress of an advisor to Claudius, she soon turned her sights on her uncle, the emperor himself. Despite widespread disapproval at their relationship, Claudius married Agrippina in 49 CE.

With this marriage, Agrippina had become empress of the largest empire in the world at that time. Far from being content to rule from behind the scenes, Agrippina took a more active role in court and in Roman life. She was soon honored with the extremely venerated title of Augusta, something usually reserved for empresses who held great power after their husbands had died. In fact, Agrippina was the first empress in Roman history to hold this title while her husband was alive.

Agrippina and Emperor Nero

Agrippina's hold on Roman politics, however, was not simply limited to her husband. She immediately began finding ways to elevate her own son over Claudius's biological children, who were disinherited one by one. Finally, Claudius legally adopted Lucius and named him successor to the throne. At this, Lucius's name was changed to Nero.

Nero
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At some point around 54 CE, Claudius apparently began to question his decision to disinherit his own son in favor of Nero. Agrippina started to worry the Claudius might reverse his decision. Later that year, Emperor Claudius was dead. While some accounts claim that he died of natural causes, most scholars suspect that he had been poisoned by his wife. Either way, with Claudius's sudden death, Nero was thrust into power as the new emperor of Rome.

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