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The most powerful Roman you've never heard of

We all know the names of the Julio-Claudian emperors, from Augustus to Caligula to Nero, but few people have heard of the women who were vital to the success (or lack thereof) of their reigns. The most powerful of these was Agrippina the Younger.

In the You’re Dead To Me podcast, Greg Jenner is joined by historian Dr Emma Southon and comedian Cariad Lloyd to learn about the extraordinary life of this powerful Roman empress who lived from 15–59CE. Here, Emma Southon describes the ways in which Agrippina the Younger showed her power, and how she lost it…

1. She was a powerhouse in three emperors’ reigns

Agrippina the Younger was a very important woman in the reigns of three of the earliest Roman emperors. She was the sister of the emperor Caligula, the wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero. Each one honoured her as the most important woman in their reign, and she was able to leverage this into/for unprecedented power.

2. Agrippina was descended from a God

Agrippina’s great-grandfather was the first emperor, Augustus. When Augustus died, he was deified by the Romans and a temple was built in his honour. Romans would make sacrifices to him as a god regularly. By 50CE, Agrippina was his only remaining descendent and she was considered to have the blood of the gods in her veins.

3. She was the first named woman to appear on a coin

Coins were an important propaganda tool in the Roman empire. Agrippina was the first living woman to be named on a coin when she appeared, alongside her two sisters, dressed as the goddess of freedom and security early in Caligula’s reign. During her reign as Claudius’s wife, she was the first Roman woman to appear on the front of a coin alongside the emperor himself instead of on the reverse.

4. She tried to overthrow her brother

Although Caligula gave her and her sisters enormous honours, he was a terrible emperor and was eventually the first emperor to be assassinated by his own guards. Before he died, many people tried to overthrow him, including Agrippina and her boyfriend. They were caught while they were still plotting and Agrippina was exiled to a tiny island as punishment. Her boyfriend was executed so Agrippina got off lightly!

5. Agrippina married her uncle

After Caligula was assassinated, Agrippina returned to Rome where her uncle had become emperor. Claudius was her father’s older brother, so it was a surprise when Agrippina married him. They had to persuade the Senate to change the incest laws so that they could get married. Historians and gossips at the time believed that Agrippina seduced her uncle because she quickly became the most powerful empress the Romans had ever seen.

The ancient ruins of the Roman Forum

6. She was Emperor Claudius’s partner in the Empire

Emperor Nero: Agrippina's ungrateful son
Nero tried kill her with a collapsing boat... Unfortunately for him, she was an excellent swimmer and survived!

Agrippina was also the most public empress the Romans had ever seen. She sat next to Claudius on a matching throne and acted like a politician which was very shocking to the Romans, who did not allow women to be in politics. At one public event, she wore a gold military cloak to show off her power and how untraditional she was.

7. She founded her own city

One of Agrippina’s most significant acts as empress of Rome was to found a city in the place of her birth. The city was originally called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, but became known as The Colony. Today, it is the fourth most populous city in Germany and retains its Roman roots in its name: Cologne.

8. She (probably) murdered her husband with a mushroom

After four years of marriage, Agrippina and Claudius became frustrated with one another. According to the surviving sources, Claudius regretted his decision to disinherit his own son Britannicus in favour of Nero and Agrippina was worried that she would lose her position of power if Nero did not become the next emperor. These sources say that Agrippina hired a professional poisoner and poisoned her husband with a particularly delicious looking mushroom. Unusually, there are no surviving records which say that Claudius died of natural causes so she probably did kill him!

9. She was highly honoured

As mother of the emperor Nero, Agrippina received even more honours. Traditionally, Romans considered themselves to be part of their father’s family and rarely mentioned their mothers, but Nero put up inscriptions in which he declared that he was the ‘son of Agrippina’. She was the first and only woman to be honoured by an emperor in this way.

10. Agrippina was almost unkillable!

Agrippina made Nero an emperor, but he wasn’t a very grateful son. He tried to force her to be a more traditional Roman mother. He wanted her to stay at home and wear pretty dresses, but she wanted to rule.

After their worst fight, Nero decided that the only way he could do what he wanted was to kill his mother. He first tried to poison her, but she took daily antidotes. Then, according to Nero’s biographer Suetonius, he tried to rig her bedroom ceiling to collapse on her while she slept but she was tipped off.

Next, he tried to kill her with a collapsing boat which tipped her into a lake while she was sailing. Unfortunately for Nero, she was an excellent swimmer and survived! Finally, he decided to stab her and, after she died, claim that she tried to kill him. She was stabbed to death by a soldier in her bedroom.

To find out more about Agrippina the Younger, listen to You're Dead To Me.