Contents - Previous Article - Next Article

Agrippina the Younger

Wife of Claudius and mother of Nero

Agrippina the younger was one of three daughters of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. She was thirty - four years old when the Roman emperor Claudius married her in A. D. 49.

By this time, Claudius had had three wives and his marriages to them had not been very good ones. His previous wife, Messalina, had been not only unfaithful to him but had actually married another man in full public view while Claudius was away visiting the new port of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber. Claudius was so affectionately disposed towards her that he was not moved to action until his private secretary gave the order for her execution. Messalina had been married to Claudius for seven years and had lived a full and very debauched life by the time of her death at the age of twenty - three.

By this time, Claudius was nearing the end of his life. Agrippina, being an ambitious and intelligent woman married to an emperor considered a weakling and somewhat of a dunce by those around him, naturally took the reins of power into her own hands. During the last five years of Claudius’ reign, she grew more and more powerful. At the time of their marriage, Agrippina had a teenage son named Nero who was to become the future Roman emperor of that name. She immediately secured his future by having Claudius adopt him. Claudius also had a son by Messalina named Brittanicus.

In A.D. 54, Claudius died after eating a dish of poison mushrooms. The early historians perpetuate the rumor that Agrippina had murdered him, but she really didn’t have a motive. She already controlled much of imperial policy and had seen to it that her son would be heir to the throne. Even today, people die after gathering and eating poison mushrooms gathered in Italy as they are easily mistaken for the edible kind.

When Nero ascended the throne, he was only seventeen and could not legally rule in his own name. Agrippina acted as his regent and was a powerful controlling influence on him even after he had reached the age of eighteen and could govern in his own right. For the first time in Roman history, a woman was given the title of AVGVSTA, meaning "empress", and her portrait appeared on coins with that of her son. Up until that time, women of the imperial household had only been portrayed on coins after they had died.

Nero grew to resent his mother’s strong hand in controlling his life. Agrippina had been raised in an upright and conservative Roman home, and was not tolerant of Nero’s frivolous behavior. After about a year, Nero moved her out of the imperial palace and into a residence of her own. With the help of his two closest advisors, Seneca and Burrus, Nero began to undermine her power until she could do little more than complain. She began to denounce her son more and more in public, and soon made a nuisance of herself. After the tension between mother and son grew to a critical level, Nero determined to be rid of her. He was aided in making this decision by the counsel given him by Seneca and Burrus.

Tacitus tells us the story how Nero sent his mother out on the Bay of Naples in a ship. An accident was to be staged in which part of the ship would collapse and pitch her into the sea. The accident was bungled and she escaped with only a hurt shoulder. A woman friend who had been with her was also thrown into the water. The woman began crying out that she was the emperor’s mother, hoping that she would be rescued. When Agrippina saw some of the ship’s crew clubbing her to death in the water instead, the tough old mother of Nero swam to safety in spite of her wounded shoulder. She returned home, believing that Nero would not dare to murder her now that so many people knew about the plot. Agrippina played it cool until the very end. Nero sent an ex-slave and a group of naval officers whom he could trust to complete the foul deed to finish her off with clubs and swords in her bed, to which she had retired to recuperate from her injury.

Agrippina the Younger was hated and feared by many of the Roman nobility amongst whom she lived and, no doubt, many of them were secretly glad to have her out of the way. But the crime of matricide was perhaps the most despicable one in the eyes of the ancient Romans. Today, our society looks upon child molestation as one of the most horrible crimes imaginable and holds the innocence of childhood to be inviolable. The Romans believed the home, hearth, and motherhood to be the very foundation of their society and honoring and protecting his mother were a Roman man’s most sacred duties. The Romans would tolerate Nero’s drunken revels and the wide range of his perversions and sexual appetites. They would even tolerate his brutality in dealing with his enemies, but they would never forgive a man who murdered his mother. Our society remembers Nero as a persecutor of Christians and a degenerate ruler, but it was the crime of murdering his mother that made it inevitable that he should one day be brought down. In A. D. 68, the Romans had finally had enough of him and the Senate declared him a public enemy. Nero finally paid the ultimate price for his crimes by taking his own life while hiding in an ex-slave’s house as soldiers were at the point of arresting him.


Go to next article: on Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni
Go back to previous article: on Agrippina the Elder


Return to Roman Women Table of Contents
Return to History and Technology Back Pages - The home page for this entire site.