Mother of all battleaxes

Agrippina
September 19, 1997

It is not just in Massachusetts that you cannot chop up your momma with impunity. On the Bay of Naples, too, it might occasion cautious criticism, as the Emperor Nero discovered. After failing to eliminate his mother, Agrippina, with an ingenious collapsing boat, he had her murdered by officers of the fleet. So at least our sources claim. A gruesome end for a remarkable woman. Agrippina, the great-granddaughter of Augustus, was the sister of one emperor, Caligula, the domineering wife of another, Claudius (despite also being his niece), and ambitious mother of a third, Nero (her only child, the result of a breech birth nine years after her marriage). Ripe stuff for biography, it might be thought.

But there are problems. As Anthony Barrett recognises, the image of Agrippina presented in the ancient sources, just like that of Livia, Augustus's wife and mother of Tiberius, is a stereotype. The proximity of such women to the ultimate source of power gave them an influence and patronage which was both great and greatly resented. So they are represented as behaving unnaturally - that is like a man; they were regularly characterised as arbitrarily cruel, ever ready to use poison (the quintessential woman's weapon), bullying their husbands or sons, and exploiting sex as a political weapon. If this is the stereotype, how do we get at the truth? Barrett sees the problem, but argues over optimistically that "even behind reports that are contradictory, or, when consistent, patently absurd, there lurks a reality capable of being at least partially unearthed". The sad fact may be that the truth is irrecoverable.

But it is not just the quality of the evidence which is problematic, it is also the quantity. It may surprise some that it takes Barrett just over 100 pages to reach the marriage between Agrippina and Claudius in ad49; but all the direct evidence for the first 33 years of Agrippina's life could be easily assembled on the back of a reasonable-sized envelope. What Barrett gives us is not padding, but a detailed study of the workings of the imperial family and public life in the early principate (territory he has already covered in his earlier biography of Caligula). But the subject of young Agrippina is often lost sight of and can often only be dragged in by the use of that old illegitimate standby of biographers: "Agrippina must have thought"

Nevertheless, there is so much that is good here. The evidence is assembled as never before, and subjected to critical analysis, not just in the text, but also in the notes and numerous appendices. All this gives an air of an independence of judgement and disguises the reality that for much of this work the agenda is set not by Barrett, but by his main ancient source, Tacitus. So, for example, in his narrative of Agrippina's death he recognises that the motives ascribed to Nero are clearly concocted post eventum and that the account of the collapsing boat is full of improbabilities. But in the end his narrative is Tacitus's narrative. So, just like Tacitus, he does not give proper weight to a startling, contemporary alternative account - from Nero himself. In his speech to the senate following the killing of Agrippina Nero declared that the shipwreck was an accident and that he had to order the execution of Agrippina because she had been plotting to murder him. Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he? But what if he was telling the truth? After all, Domitian, a successor to Nero, is said to have pointed out that no one ever believes in any plot to kill the emperor unless it is successful.

My quarrel with this book is over the desirability and, above all, the possibility of the biographical approach. This in no way detracts from the immense amount of good, if conventional, scholarship displayed by Barrett. Any student will gain greatly from this study. But the general reader may feel that some of that weight of scholarship has got in the way of a vivid story, and may harbour the heretical thought that ancient lives should best be left to the imaginative reconstruction of the historical novelist.

Jeremy Paterson is senior lecturer in ancient history, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Agrippina: Sister of Caligula, Wife of Claudius, Mother of Nero

Author - Anthony A. Barrett
ISBN - 0 7134 6854 8
Publisher - Batsford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 330

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