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Julia Vipsania Agrippina or most commonly known as Agrippina Major (Major is Latin for the elder, Classical Latin: AGRIPPINA•GERMANICI, 14 BC – 18 October 33) was the distinguished and prominent Roman granddaughter of Augustus. She lived between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. Agrippina was the wife of the general, politician Germanicus and a relative to the first Roman Emperors. She was the second granddaughter to Augustus; sister-in-law, stepdaughter and daughter-in-law to Tiberius; mother to Caligula; maternal second cousin and sister-in-law to Claudius and the maternal grandmother to Nero.

Family and early life

Agrippina was born as the second daughter and fourth child to Roman Statesman and Augustus’ trusted ally Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia the Elder. Agrippina’s mother Julia, was the only natural child born to Augustus from his second marriage to noblewoman Scribonia, who was a descendant of triumvir Pompey and dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Her father’s marriage to Julia was his third marriage. From Agrippa’s previous two marriages, Agrippina had two half-sisters: Vipsania Agrippina and Vipsania Marcella Agrippina. Vipsania Agrippina was the Agrippa’s first child from his first marriage to Pomponia Caecilia Attica and became the first wife of the future Emperor Tiberius and was the mother to Tiberius’ son, prince Drusus Julius Caesar. Vipsania Agrippina later married senator and consul Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus. Vipsania Marcella was Agrippa’s second child from his second marriage to Augustus’ first niece and the paternal cousin of Julia the Elder, Claudia Marcella Major. Vipsania Marcella was the first wife to general Publius Quinctilius Varus.

Her mother’s marriage to Agrippa was her second marriage, as Julia the Elder was widowed from her first marriage to her paternal cousin Marcus Claudius Marcellus and they had no children. From the marriage of Julia and Agrippa, Agrippina had four full-blooded siblings: a sister Julia the Younger and three brothers: Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar and Agrippa Postumus. Agrippina was born in Athensmarker Greecemarker, as in the year of her birth; Agrippa was in Athens completing official duties on behalf of Augustus. Her mother and her siblings had travelled with Agrippa. Later Agrippina’s family had returned to Romemarker.

In 12 BC, Agrippina’s father had died. Augustus had forced his first stepson Tiberius to end his first happy marriage to Vipsania Agrippina to marry Julia the Elder. The marriage of Julia and Tiberius was an unhappy marriage. In 2 BC Augustus had exiled Agrippina’s mother, because she had committed adultery and this had caused a major scandal. Julia was banished for her remaining years and Agrippina never saw Julia again. Around this time, to avoid any scandals Tiberius divorced Julia and left Rome to live on the Greekmarker island of Rhodesmarker.

Agrippina along with her siblings were raised in Rome, by their maternal grandfather and their maternal step-grandmother Livia Drusilla. Livia was the first Roman Empress and was Augustus’ third wife, (from Livia’s first marriage to praetor Tiberius Nero, she had two sons: emperor Tiberius and general Nero Claudius Drusus. Her marriage to Augustus would be her second one).

According to Suetonius, Agrippina had a strict upbringing and education. Her education included how to spin and weave and she was forbidden to say or do anything, either in public or private. Augustus made her record any daily activities she did in the imperial day book and the emperor took severe measures in preventing Agrippina from forming friendships, without his consent. As a member of the imperial family, Agrippina was expected to have and show strict traditional Roman virtues for a woman that was frugality, chastity and domesticity. Agrippina and Augustus had a very close relationship.

The wife of Germanicus

Between 1 BC-5, Agrippina married her second maternal cousin Germanicus. Germanicus was the first born son to Antonia Minor and Nero Claudius Drusus. Antonia Minor was the second daughter born to Octavia Minor and triumvir Mark Antony, hence Antonia’s maternal uncle was Augustus. Germanicus was a popular general and politician. Augustus ordered and forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus as his son and heir. Germanicus was always favored by his great uncle and had hoped that he would succeed Tiberius, who was adopted by Augustus as his heir and successor. Agrippina and Germanicus were devoted to each other. She was a loyal, affectionate wife, who supported her husband. The Roman historian Tacitus states that Agrippina had an ‘impressive record as wife and mother’.

In the marriage of Agrippina and Germanicus, they had nine children. Three children from their union died young. The six children who survived to adulthood were Nero , Drusus Caesar, Caligula (born as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus), Julia Agrippina or Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. Caligula would become future Roman Emperor. While their daughter Agrippina the Younger, would become future Roman Empress and mother to future Roman Emperor Nero. Their children were born at various places throughout the Roman Empire and Agrippina acquired a well-deserved reputation for successful childbearing. Eventually Agrippina was proud of her large family and this was apart of the reason, she was popular with Roman citizens.

According to Suetonius who had cited from Pliny the Elder, Agrippina had borne to Germanicus a son called Gaius Julius Caesar who had a lovable character. This son died young. The child was born at Treveri, near the village of Ambitarvium, just before the junction of the Moselle Rivermarker and the Rhinemarker River (modern Koblenzmarker Germanymarker). At this spot, there was local altars inscribed as a dedication to Agrippina: “IN HONOR OF AGRIPPINA’S PUERPERIUM”, puerperium means child-bearing for a boy.

Germanicus was a candidate for future succession and had won fame campaigning in Germania and Gaul. During the military campaigns, Agrippina accompanied Germanicus with their children. Agrippina’s actions were considered unusual as for a Roman wife, because a conventional Roman wife was required to stay home. Agrippina had earned herself a reputation as a heroic woman and wife. During her time in Germania, Agrippina had proved herself to be an efficient and effective diplomat. Agrippina had reminded Germanicus on occasion of his relation to Augustus.

A few months before Augustus’ death in 14, the emperor wrote and sent a letter to Agrippina mentioning how Gaius (Caligula) must be future emperor because at that time, no other child had this name.

The letter reads:

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, Oil on canvas, c.

Agrippina and Germanicus travelled to the Middle East in 19, incurring the displeasure of Tiberius. Germanicus quarrelled with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria and died in Antiochmarker in mysterious circumstances. It was widely suspected that Germanicus had been poisoned or perhaps on the orders of Tiberius. Agrippina was in grief when Germanicus died. She returned with her children to Italymarker with Germanicus’ ashes. The Roman citizens had great sympathy for Agrippina and her family. She returned to Rome to avenge his death and boldly accused Piso of the murder of Germanicus. According to Tacitus (Annals 3.14.1), the prosecution could not prove the poisoning charge, but other charges of treason seemed likely to stick and Piso committed suicide.

Time in Rome, downfall and posthumous honors

From 19 to 29, Agrippina lived on the Palatine Hillmarker in Rome. Her remaining children were raised between her, Livia Drusilla and Germanicus’ mother Antonia Minor. Agrippina had become very lonely, distressed, physically ill and many of her relatives had died. Agrippina had a hasty, uncomfortable relationship with Tiberius and possibly with Tiberius’ mother Livia Drusilla. She started to become involved in politics in Tiberius’ imperial court and became an advocate for her sons to succeed Tiberius and was in opposition to Tiberius’ natural son and natural grandson Tiberius Gemellus for succession.

She was unwise in her complaints about Germanicus’ death to Tiberius. Tiberius took Agrippina by her hand and quoted the Greek line: “And if you are not queen, my dear, have I then you wrong?”

Agrippina became involved in a group of Roman Senators who opposed the growing power and influence of notorious Praetorian Guard Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Tiberius began to distrust Agrippina. In 26, Agrippina requested to Tiberius if she could marry her brother-in-law, Roman Senator Gaius Asinius Gallus Saloninus. However Tiberius didn’t allow her to marry Saloninus, because of the political implications the marriage could have.

Tiberius carefully staged to invite Agrippina to dinner at the imperial palace. At dinner, Tiberius offered Agrippina an apple as a test of Agrippina’s feelings for the emperor. Agrippina had suspected that the apple could carry a certain death and refused to taste the apple. This was the last time that Tiberius invited Agrippina to his dinner table. Agrippina later stated that Tiberius tried to poison her.

In 29, Agrippina with her sons Nero and Drusus, were arrested on the orders of Tiberius. Tiberius falsely accused Agrippina in planning to take sanctuary besides the image of Augustus or with the Roman Army abroad. Agrippina and her sons were tried by the Roman Senate. She was banished on Tiberius’ orders to the island of Pandataria (now called Ventotenemarker) in the Tyrrhenian Seamarker off the coast of Campania. This was the island where her mother was banished.

In prison at Pandataria, Agrippina protested very violently. On one occasion Tiberius ordered a centurion to flog her and in course she lost an eye. Agrippina was force-fed and later starved herself to death. There is a possibility that malnutrition was a contributed to her death. She died October 18 33. Agrippina’s son Drusus died of starvation being imprisoned in Rome and her other son Nero either committed suicide or was murdered after his trial in 29. The notorious Guard Sejanus was murdered in 31 on the orders of Tiberius. Tiberius suspected Sejanus in plotting to overthrow the emperor.

After the death of Agrippina, Tiberius wickedly slandered her memory. Tiberius had stated while Agrippina lived, he showed her clemency. Tiberius was able to persuade the Roman Senate to decree Agrippina’s birthday as a day of ill omen.

In March 37, Tiberius had died and Agrippina’s remaining son Caligula succeeded as emperor. After Caligula delivered Tiberius’ eulogy, Caligula sailed to Pandataria and the Pontine Islandsmarker and returned with the ashes of his mother and brother Nero. Caligula returned with their ashes in urns in his own hands.

As a proof of devotion to his family, Caligula arranged the most distinguished knights available to the carry the urns of mother and his two brothers in two biers at about noon in Rome, when the streets were at their busiest to the Mausoleum of Augustusmarker. A bronze medal in the British Museummarker shows Agrippina’s ashes being brought back to Romemarker by Caligula.

Caligula appointed an annual day each year in Rome, for people to offer funeral sacrifices to honor their late relatives. As a dedication to Agrippina, Caligula set aside the Circus Games to honor the memory of his late mother. On the day that the Circus Games occurred, Caligula had a statue made of Agrippina’s image to be paraded in a covered carriage at the Games.

After the Circus Games, Caligula had ordered written evidence of the court cases from Tiberius’ treason trials to be brought to the Forum to be burnt. The written evidence from their court cases to be burnt first was the cases of Agrippina and her two sons. According to Suetonius, Caligula nursed a fantasy that Augustus and Julia the Elder had an incestuous union from which Agrippina had been born.

According to Tacitus, Agrippina’s daughter Agrippina the Younger, had written various memoirs for prosperity. One memoir was an account of her mother’s life; another memoir was about the fortunes of her mother’s family and the last memoir recorded the misfortunes (casus suorum) of the family of Agrippina and Germanicus. Unfortunately these memoirs are now lost.


Agrippina is regarded in ancient and modern historical sources as a Roman Matron with a reputation as a great woman, who had an excellent character and had outstanding Roman morals. She was a dedicated, supporting wife and mother who looked out for the interests of her children and the future of her family.

Tacitus describes Agrippina’s character as “determined and rather excitable”. Throughout her life, Agrippina always proudly and arrogantly prized her ancestry from Augustus. However Agrippina’s constant dwelling of her noble birth and her stating being the "sole surviving offspring of Augustus" (Tacitus, Annals 3.4) may have contributed to her downfall.

Although Agrippina was an innocent victim of Tiberius’ tyranny, Agrippina dwelling on her ancestry, was an complete insult to Tiberius and Livia Drusilla. Tiberius was the adopted son and heir of Augustus, while Livia was adopted into the imperial family after the death of Augustus. Agrippina’s attitude in her ancestry became a challenge to the position of Tiberius as successor of Augustus and ruling as an emperor, which effected future succession in the Julio-Claudian dynasty.


Agrippina the Elder is considered the most prominent and distinguished grandchild born to Rome’s first Emperor. She is also considered one of the most prominent women in the Julio-Claudian dynasty; one of the most virtuous and heroic women of antiquity and of the first century.

She was the first Roman woman of the Roman Empire to have travelled with her husband to Roman military campaigns; to support and live with the Roman Legions. Agrippina was the first Roman matron to have more than one child from her family to reign on the Roman throne. Apart from being the late maternal grandmother of Nero, she was the late paternal grandmother of Princess Julia Drusilla, the child of Caligula. Through Nero, Agrippina was the great paternal grandmother of Princess Claudia Augusta, the child of Nero.

Although Agrippina was a great example of a Roman Matron, she set a precedent for many upcoming Roman aristocratic women. She paved the way for women to wield influence and power in Roman politics, particularly in the Imperial Court, Senate and Army. She also set a precedent for wives who were Roman Empresses or female relatives of the ruling Imperial Family of the day to assist in the ruling and decision making policies that could effect, change and shape the Empire. The aristocratic women of the empire, had more power and influence, than their predecessors in the Roman Republic. Through the precedents that were set by Agrippina, some aristocratic women later became patrons of learning, culture or charity and advisors to the later Roman Emperors.

From the memoirs written by Agrippina the Younger, Tacitus used the memoirs to extract information regarding the family and fate of Agrippina the Elder, when Tacitus was writing The Annals. There is a surviving portrait of Agrippina the Elder in the Capitoline Museumsmarker in Romemarker.

See also


Ancient sources

  • Suetonius, De vita Casearum - On the Life of the Caesars - Augustus, Tiberius iii.52.3, 53 and Caligula iv.23.1
  • Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome

Secondary sources

  • Robin Seager, Tiberius, London (Eyre Methuen) 1972
  • E. Klebs, H. Dessau, P. Von Rohden (ed.), Prosopographia Imperii Romani, 3 vol., Berlin, 1897-1898. (PIR1)

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