Monarchies are renowned for having complicated families, but one of the most powerful, most corrupt, and most complex was the Julio-Claudian in the first century AD. Some of its emperors, such as Caligula and Nero, are infamous for their wanton decadence; others, like Augustus and Tiberius, for their ambition. But as much as the men were marked for their excess, the women of the family may have been even more extreme.
Julia Agrippina, also referred to as Agrippina the Younger to distinguish her from her mother, Vipsania Agrippina, is one of the more prominent, and dynastically entangled, women in the Julio-Claudian family tree: she was the great-granddaughter of Augustus, the great-niece of Tiberius, sister of Caligula, niece and fourth wife of Claudius, and mother of Nero.
One of my favorite Latin passages of all time is her death scene from Tacitus’ Annales. Suetonius and Cassius Dio also give dramatic accounts of her death, but Tacitus’ is particularly intense. Although these three writers vary on the details, some common narrative threads unite them. Nero tried to assassinate Agrippina by building a boat deliberately designed to sink at sea and drown her. Agrippina, difficult to kill, survived by swimming to shore. In an attempt to finish the botched murder, Nero then sent assassins.
circumsistunt lectum percussores et prior trierarchus fusti caput eius adflixit. iam in mortem centurioni ferrum destringenti protendens uterum "ventrem feri" exclamavit multisque vulneribus confecta est1
When I happened upon the statue of Agrippina in the Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini, this passage leapt unbidden to my mind. The work shows Agrippina in a relaxed contrapposto with her left arm dangling by her side and her right bent at the elbow and extended out in front of her. She has a hood over her head in the fashion of a priestess. Her clothing is masterfully made and perhaps the most striking aspect of the statue. The folds alternate between clinging to her body and cascading down unimpeded, and are reminiscent of the many depictions of prominent senators and politicians showing off their togatus. Her gaze is serene as she tilts her head slightly down as if surveying the whole world beneath her purview. But who was this royal woman known to me only by accounts of her death? And what qualities does the sculptor attempt to emphasize? In order to approach these questions, we must look closer at the woman’s biography.
Agrippina the Younger was born fifteen years into the Christian era, in a small town called Oppidum Ubiorum, located in modern day Germany. Although her father, Germanicus, was a favorite of Augustus and next in line to be Princeps, he died suddenly and Agrippina and her sisters were brought to live in Rome with their relatives. Once Tiberius died and Caligula assumed the Empire, Agrippina supported Lepidus and plotted to assassinate Caligula. They were discovered and she was exiled. After the death of Caligula, however, she was recalled from exile and married her uncle, the next Emperor, Claudius. Assuming the name Augusta and all the power that came with it, she began planning for her son Nero to succeeded her husband. But when Claudius began favoring another as his heir, he suddenly died. This coincidence caused many to assume that Agrippina poisoned him. At this time the Principate fell to Nero, although he was still a boy. Agrippina officially became a priestess of the cult to her deceased husband, but she plainly controlled both her son and the empire.
By all accounts, Agrippina was ruthless woman who not only faced death bravely, but even possessed the wit and clarity of mind to level one final insult against her attacker -- despite the fact that he was her own son. And her death is not the only aspect of her biography that is bloody; all told, she is thought to be behind the political assassinations of ten people.
Are all these aspects of Agrippina manifest in this statue? Reading accounts of her life certainly gives new meaning to her calm countenance here in this statue, and helps us understand how she kept her composure even in Tacitus’ passage describing her death. Her oracle’s hood now seems representative of the clandestine power she wielded behind the throne of multiple emperors, and her expression seems not only cool, but calculating. Since the dates of this statue are inexact, it is unclear whether or not Agrippina was dead at the time of its making. If she was still alive at the time of its making, she may have commissioned it herself after having been appointed head priestess of the cult of Claudius. If that was the case, such a politically astute woman would have been well aware of how she was manipulating public image. It may be impossible to know the true intention of the commission with any certainty, but the singularity of its subject ensures its perpetuity.
1) "Around the couch the killers came and first the trierarch, with a cudgel, struck her head. Now thrusting out her stomach for death towards the centurion drawing his sword she exclaimed “smite my womb!” and was finished with many wounds." Tacitus 14.8