Agrippina the Younger or Agrippina Minor was the niece and fourth wife of Roman emperor Claudius and mother of Nero, the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Considered one of the leading ladies of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Agrippina was known to be ambitious, powerful, dominating, and merciless. She was the daughter of Germanicus, an eminent general of the Roman Empire who once became heir apparent of the empire under Tiberius. Agrippina the Elder, her mother, was great-granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman Empire. Agrippina the Younger faced exile for a couple of years for conspiring against her brother, Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius as the Roman Emperor. Her first husband and Nero’s biological father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, died of edema. Her second husband, Gaius Sallustius Passienus Crispus, died of poisoning. Ancient historians believed that her uncle and third husband, Claudius, also died of poison, and many sources implicate Agrippina. Upon Claudius’s death, Nero, his stepson through Agrippina succeeded the throne. Initially Agrippina made efforts to play regent and dominate the empire, which eventually failed as Nero rose to power prompting power struggle between mother and son. Agrippina was later executed on Nero’s order.
Childhood & Early Life
Agrippina the Younger was born on November 6, 15 or 14 in a Roman outpost on the Rhine River called Oppidum Ubiorum, presently situated in Cologne, Germany, as the first daughter of an eminent general of the Roman Empire Germanicus and his wife Agrippina the Elder, a great-granddaughter of the first Roman Emperor Augustus.
Her three elder brothers were Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar and Caligula of whom the latter became Roman emperor. She had two younger sisters - Julia Livilla and Julia Drusilla.
Her father, suspected to be poisoned, fell ill and died in Antioch on October 10, AD 19, while her mother along with Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar fell to the scheming of Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus.
She grew up under the influence of three notable and powerful women, her mother, Agrippina the Elder; her paternal grandmother, Antonia Minor; and her great-grandmother, Livia Drusilla /Julia Augusta, wife of Augustus. During this time, her great-uncle Tiberius ruled the Roman Empire succeeding Augustus.
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First Marriage & Exile
After she completed 13 years of age, Agrippina was married off by Tiberius to a close relative of the five Roman Emperors from the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, in Rome in AD 28. Gnaeus was her paternal first cousin.
Gnaeus was the only son of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul 16 BC) and Antonia Major, niece of Augustus thus making him the great-nephew of Augustus. Gnaeus had two sisters Domitia Lepida the Elder and Domitia Lepida the Younger and was also maternal cousin of Claudius.
Gnaeus, who hailed from a prominent family of consular rank and served as consul in AD 32, was infamous for his despicable and dishonest character described by Roman historian Suetonius as "a man who was in every aspect of his life detestable".
Gnaeus and Agrippina chose to live between Rome and Antium (present-day Anzio and Nettuno). Gnaeus was inducted as commissioner by Tiberius in early AD 37 and on December 15 of that year the only son of Gnaeus and Agrippina, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later Emperor Nero, was born in Antium.
According to Suetonius, while responding to friends congratulating him on his son’s birth, Gnaeus said "I don't think anything produced by me and Agrippina could possibly be good for the state or the people".
Meanwhile, upon death of Tiberius on March 16, AD 37, Caligula became the Roman Emperor following which he bestowed several honours on his three sisters - Agrippina, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. These included the rights of the Vestal Virgins and issuing coins portraying his images along with his sisters.
Following Drusilla’s death on June 10, AD 38, who was quite close to Caligula, her husband, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, along with Agrippina and Livilla made an unsuccessful attempt to murder Caligula in AD 39 in pursuit of making Lepidus the new Emperor. The plot became famous as the ‘Plot of the Three Daggers’.
Caligula had Lepidus executed while Agrippina and Livilla were exiled to the Pontine Islands.
Gnaeus died in January AD 41 due to edema at Pyrgi. Although he left 1/3 of his estate to his son Nero through a will, the latter’s inheritance was taken away by Caligula who sent Nero to live with his paternal aunt Domitia Lepida, mother of Claudius' third wife, Valeria Messalina. Nero's inheritance was later restored after Claudius became Roman Emperor.
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Caligula was murdered on January 24, AD 41 by his own Praetorian Guard on the Palatine in a conspiracy involving senators, officers of the Praetorian Guard and courtiers. His wife, Milonia Caesonia, and daughter, Julia Drusilla, were also murdered just hours after his assassination.
Reign of Claudius, Agrippina s Second Marriage
The Praetorians declared Claudius, uncle of Caligula as the next Roman Emperor on the very day of the latter’s assassination. Following his accession to the throne, Claudius recalled Agrippina and Livilla from exile.
Claudius asked wealthy, intelligent and powerful Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus to divorce his wife, Domitia Lepida the Elder, Nero’s first paternal aunt, and marry Agrippina. Following the marriage, Gaius became Nero’s step-father.
Gaius, who held the consulship twice, was possibly treacherously killed by Agrippina around AD 47. His fortune worth two hundred million sestertii went to Nero.
Marriage to Claudius, Empress of Rome
Agrippina's second paternal cousin and third wife of Claudius, Empress Valeria Messalina, was a powerful and influential woman infamous for her ruthlessness, predatory and promiscuity. She also attempted to murder Nero, as she regarded him a threat to her son, Britannicus’ position.
Following Messalina’s mock marriage with Roman senator Gaius Silius and knowledge of their plot to assassinate Claudius, the latter ordered their execution in AD 48. Meanwhile, Agrippina became mistress of eminent Greek freedman and secretary, Marcus Antonius Pallas.
Contemplating marriage for the fourth time, Claudius chose Agrippina, his niece, among the three candidates put forward by his advisors including Caligula’s third wife, Lollia Paulina. The marriage took place on New Year's Day, AD 49, but it was widely disapproved as marriage between uncle and niece in a Roman society was regarded incestuous and unethical.
With this marriage, Agrippina became an Empress and emerged as the most powerful lady of the Roman Empire. In no time she charged Paulina with sorcery and had her property confiscated without a hearing. Paulina was sent into exile in Italy on orders of Agrippina and was compelled to commit suicide.
Not only Paulina, Agrippina had many others executed who she regarded as a potential threat to her and Nero’s position. Some such victims of Agrippina included the praetor Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus; Britannicus' tutor, Sosibius; and Messalina’s mother, Domitia Lepida the Younger.
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She was bestowed with the Roman imperial honorific title Augusta in AD 50. Thus, she became the Roman lady after Livia Drusilla and Antonia Minor to receive such a title. The Roman colony, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis, was also founded by Claudius that year marking the first and only Roman colony in the name of a Roman lady. The place, now called Cologne, forms the largest city of the most populous state of Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia.
Eventually, she was successful in convincing Claudius to make Nero his successor depriving Britannicus’ succession to the throne. In AD 50, Claudius adopted Nero, then known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. The latter became heir and recognised successor of Claudius after such adoption and came to be known as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.
Agrippina and Claudius betrothed Nero to Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia, and the marriage took place on June 9, AD 53.
With time Claudius started lamenting his marriage with Agrippina as also his adoption of Nero and started considering and preparing Britannicus for the throne. This possibly made the conjugal life of Agrippina and Claudius more combative in the last few months of his life and gave Agrippina a motive to remove him.
According to sources, Agrippina poisoned Claudius to death on October 13, AD 54 serving him a plate of poisoned mushrooms.
Reign of Nero, Agrippina s Power Struggle & Death
Nero succeeded Claudius as the new Roman Emperor on October 13, AD 54. Although Agrippina was successful in dominating her son and the empire in the first few months of Nero’s ascension, he later took over control in his hands, which led to a power struggle with his mother.
In AD 55, Nero removed Marcus Antonius Pallas, an ally of Agrippina from treasury, poisoned Britannicus to death when Agrippina attempted to enthrone Britannicus. Thereafter, Nero ousted her from the palace depriving her of all her honors and powers.
Around AD 57, Nero expelled her from the palace following which she lived in a riverside estate in Misenum and made short visits to Rome.
She was executed on March 23, AD 59 in Misenum at the order of Nero and cremated on a dining couch that night. While the circumstances and reason surrounding her death vary, the source of conflict between mother and son is considered to be Nero’s affair with Poppaea Sabina by many.