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Agrippina the Elder: Vixen or Victim? *
Tina Saavedra (ctsaaved@midway.uchicago.edu)


"The Lady was bad news." (from the movie 'Presumed Innocent')

The last two decades have witnessed much interest in the topic of 'women' in the writings of Tacitus. In general, however, scholars have focused on women that appear in the later Annals including Messalina, the younger Agrippina and Poppaea. In this paper I will argue that the portrait of Agrippina the Elder also deserves attention. Specifically, I intend to examine how she is characterized in books I-III of the Annals and compare it with her portrayal in book IV. I will attempt to demonstrate to you that there is a distinct change from Annals I-III to book IV. This change involves a shift from a positive to a negative tone in Tacitus' description of Agrippina (from now on I shall always refer to Agrippina the Elder as simply 'Agrippina' and her daughter as 'Agrippina the younger'). To highlight this change, my talk is divided into two parts: in the first part, we will look at how Agrippina is portrayed in books I-III. In the second part, we will consider how Tacitus depicts her in book IV. Finally, I will conclude by offering a few suggestions as to why Tacitus changed his characterization from a positive to a negative one. Let us begin with

Part 1: Characterization in Annals I-III

While the literary figure of Agrippina is perhaps best remembered as being a somewhat difficult and unpleasant person to deal with , it is important to emphasize that, in my view, this stems in a large part from the portrayal of her in book IV of Tacitus' Annals. If we knew her only from books 1-3, we might come to a different conclusion. Indeed, the first thing we hear about Agrippina is in passage 1:

(I.33.2) neptem eius Agrippinam in matrimonium pluresque ex ea liberos habebat.

He (Germanicus) was married to Agrippina, the grand-daughter of Augustus, who bore him several children.

There are three important details: She was married to Germanicus ; she was the grand-daughter of Augustus; she had many children. Her lineage, marriage and fertility are traits which appear at numerous points through Annals 1-4 . In fact, her fecundity is mentioned four times -more than of any other woman in the Annals. The next passage, no. 2, confirms that her marriage is also a significant facet of her portrayal. Here Tacitus states:

(I.33.5) ipsa Agrippina paulo commotior, nisi quod castitate et mariti amore quamvis indomitum animum in bonum vertebat.

Agrippina herself was somewhat rash, but because of her castitas and love for her husband, she converted even her irrepressible spirit to advantage.

The character of Agrippina is, however, most fully revealed in her portrayal in the Rhine Mutiny in passage 3:.

(I.41.3) pudor inde et miseratio et patris Agrippae, Augusti memoria, socer Drusus, ipsa insigni fecunditate, praeclara pudicitia; iam infans in castris genitus...

The soldiers felt shame and pity from this, but also from the memory of her father Agrippa and her grand-father Augustus, her father-in-law was Nero Drusus, she herself possessed remarkable fertility and distinguished pudicitia; a child had already been born in the army camp...

Once again we are reminded of her family background, her wifely virtues and her children. We can already see that her fertility, lineage and marital fidelity are emphasized. I would argue that Tacitus uses these positive traits to downplay her negative qualities. We learned from passage 2 that Agrippina was perhaps unrestrained or undaunted but Tacitus takes care to smooth it over by highlighting her virtues. Nevertheless, Tacitus cannnot hide the fact that Agrippina does more than a Roman matron ought to do.

In passage 4, Agrippina actually takes on a military role by preventing the soldiers from destroying a bridge on the Rhine:

(1.69.2) sed femina ingens animi munia ducis per eos dies induit.... tradit...stetisse apud principium ponti laudes et grates reversis legionibus habentem.

But that brave woman (Agrippina) took on the duties of a general throughout those days..it is said that...she stood at the front of the bridge and gave thanks and praise to the returning legions.

That Tacitus should describe her with the phrase ingens animi is surprising since elsewhere he makes it quite clear that he disapproves of female generals. Tacitus appears to set aside his dislike of women involved in the military in order to favour his theme of G. being a better alternative than Tiberius. One might argue that Agrippina's distinguished ancestry could allow her to be accepted as a military leader, but, for Tacitus, it would not be enough. For instance, ancestry does not prevent Tacitus from showing that he disapproved of Agrippina's own daughter when she acts as a general in book XII. If Agrippina's involvement with the army is unseemly, such involvement is turned to the good only by her love and devotion to her husband. As Vidén (1993, 64) observed, Tacitus sometimes uses women as reflections of men. In the Annals, Germanicus is portrayed as a sort of hero, so Tacitus must cast Agrippina in a heroic mold if he wants to maintain this positive image of Germanicus. I believe he uses her traditional virtues of fidelity, fertility etc to cover up the not so traditional behaviour which she displays such as her generalship in passage 4.

In books II and III we see Agrippina face the death of her husband. In passage 5 Tacitus presents us with Germanicus' assessment of his wife's character, as he gives her these words of advice on his deathbed.

(II.72.1) Tum ad uxorem versus per memoriam sui, per communis liberos oravit exueret ferociam, saeventi fortunae summitteret animum, neu regressa in urbem aemulatione potentiae validiores inritatet.

Then he turned to his wife and begged her to shed her ferocity for his sake and for the sake of their children, and also to resign herself to cruel fate, and that once she had returned to Rome not to rile up those who were more powerful in a struggle for ascendancy.

Germanicus's attributing ferocity to her is somewhat startling. Clearly, he is aware of his wife's masculine nature. He also seems to know that while these qualities stood Agrippina in good stead when he was alive to profit from them, now they must be cast off with his death. His is in effect telling his wife to submit her character. 'Summitteret animum' is perhaps also meant to remind us of her untamed nature, the indomitum animum, of passage 2. We can see, therefore, that it is not her ancestry which made such behaviour acceptable, so much as its service to Germanicus which transformed it into a virtue. It is her excellence as a wife which saves her from becoming her daughter, the notorious Agrippina the younger.

To sum up, what characterization of Agrippina can we find in books I-III? I have attempted to show that there is a consistent emphasis on A's family connections, her fecundity, and her love for her husband, but also on her intemperate, fierce and unfeminine nature. If we were to stop now, or if Tacitus had ended here, what would we now think of Agrippina? She has a strong character, to be sure, but she is also a widow with whose situation we can sympathize.

I will now consider how Agrippina is portrayed in book IV.

Part II

With this book, we can observe a sharp shift in the characterization of Agrippina which Tacitus makes clear in passage 6:

(IV.12.2-5) ...et mater Agrippina spem male tegens perniciem adceleravere...pudicitia Agrippinae impenetrabili. igitur contumaciam eius insectari....ut superbam fecunditate, subnixam popularibus studiis inhiare dominationi apud Caesarem arguerent.

The fact that the mother Agrippina poorly concealed her hopes also hastened their (i.e. the house of Germanicus) destruction. ...the pudicitia of Agrippina was unassailable. Therefore, he (Sejanus) attacked her arrogance ... they (agents of Sejanus) alleged, in the presence of Tiberius, that she boasted of her fertility, and relying upon her popularity with the people, that her mouth was watering for supreme power.

Tacitus' description of Agrippina as a mother who poorly conceals her hopes is significant because it tells us that she has disobeyed her dying husband's injunction: she has entered into the struggle for power. This also demonstrates the conflict between her role as wife and her role as mother: as a wife she ought to have listened to Germanicus, but as a mother, she must fight for her children's interests. I should also point out that in this passage Sejanus decides to strike at her by attacking her contumacia, arrogance, which is analagous to the ferocity which Germanicus had warned her about because they are both rather negative traits associated with men. It is perhaps no accident that her daughter, the younger Agrippina, will also be said to possess both contumacia and superbia, haughtiness.

Passage 7 which is divided into two episodes is key to our undertanding of Tacitus's portrayal of Agrippina in book IV:

(IV.52.3-53.2) Agrippina semper atrox, tum et periculo propinquae accensa, pergit ad Tiberium ac forte sacrificantem patri repperit. quo initio invidiae non eiusdem ait mactare divo Augusto victimas et posteros eius insectari. non in effigies mutas divinum spiritum transfusum: se imaginem veram, caelesti sanguine ortam...frustra Pulchra praescribi, cui sola exitii causa sit, quod Agrippinam stulte prorsus ad cultum delegerit...At Agrippina pervicax irae et morbo corporis implicata, cum viseret eam Caesar, profusis diu ac per silentium lacrimis, mox invidiam et preces orditur: subveniret solitudini, daret maritum...Sed Caesar...sine responso, quamquam instantem, reliquit. (id ego ...repperi in commentariis Agrippinae filiae...)

Agrippina was always truculent, but she was further roused at that time because of the danger to her kin. She went straight to Tiberius and by chance found him sacrificing to his father. She used this to begin her abuse of him and said it was inconsistent for the same man to offer sacrifices to the deified Augustus and to attack his descendants. Augustus' divine spirit had not been passed on to mute statues: she was the true likeness since she was born of heavenly blood...In vain was Pulchra being persecuted, who was being destroyed only because she foolishly cherished her friendship with Agrippina ...But Agrippina nursing her resentment and physically ill, when Tiberius paid a call to her sick bed, she poured forth tears for a while in silence, but later she began to insult him and entreat him: he should alleviate her loneliness and give her a husband...But Caesar...although she was pressing him, left without giving an answer. (I found this episode ...in the memoirs of the diary of her daughter Agrippina.)

Agrippina is described as 'semper atrox'. It is important to note that the adjective atrox is usually is reserved for men, but it has pejorative undertones . Tacitus makes such perjorative intent clear through the women whom he chooses to call atrox: Agrippina, her daughter and Poppaea. Adjectives of this sort, such as atrox, and superba not only masculinize the women in a negative way , but also link them thematically within the text of the Annals. This passage also shows how even Agrippina's lineage can become a negative attribute. Agrippina's description of herself as a living statue, born of divine blood is very striking, particularly when coupled with the phrase 'ad cultum delegerit' which is how she describes her friendship with Pulchra. While cultus does mean devotion to a friend or dignitary, it also refers to the worship of a deity. The idea of worship cannot be ignored, especially in this context. In the earlier Annals, her ancestry was a virtue, which served to evoke sympathy from the soldiers in the Rhine Mutiny and also compassion from the crowds who came to look upon the remains of the dead Germanicus. Now Agrippina's reliance upon it seems obnoxious, arrogant and foolish. What is the effect produced? Do we feel compassion for this woman, whose friends and relatives are persecuted because of their connection to her and who is herself under attack by Sejanus? Not at all! Tacitus has skillfully recreated a picture of a woman who is arrogant, foolhardy, and, in contradiction to her husband's wishes, vying for power.

We see a similar effect in the second episode, the sickroom anecdote. The scene ought to transform Agrippina into an object of sympathy. She is, after all, ill and Tiberius' visit to her sickbed has given her the excuse to ask him for another husband. The scene begins by mentioning first that she is pervicax, pig-headed, and only second that she is ill. The pejorative force of pervicax, which is usually applied to men undercuts the sympathetic effect of her illness. Her lack of wisdom is emphasized because she heaps abuse, invidia, upon the emperor. Our last impression is also negative because Tiberius leaves her instantem, which generally means to take up a threatening stance, or to press in a hostile manner. It will not surprise you, at this point, to learn that Agrippina is the only woman in the Annals to be described as instans--a word generally used to describe men, and most often in military circumstances. Clearly, in this case it is meant to have a negative tone.

In this same passage, Tacitus also tells us that he consulted the memoirs of Agrippina the younger as a source for these episodes. This statement provides an explicit link between the two Agrippinas: a link already made implicitly throughout the work as Tacitus uses an array of similar words to describe both women, such as the terms contumacia, superbia and atrox

Overall, what can we say about Tacitus's characterization of Agrippina in book IV? Are we moved by Agrippina's plight? Is she presented as a helpless victim? I have argued that we should answer 'no' to both these questions because Tacitus directs us away from such sympathetic/patronizing response. We must then ask ourselves why the historian has taken the trouble to produce this effect. I have two possible explanations. The first is related to the death of Germanicus and the second can be seen as a narrative technique. The first suggestion, then, is that Tacitus sees Agrippina as having rejected the Roman ideal of the univira, a one man-woman. A further refinement of the ideal wife motif emphasizes that not only should a woman have only one husband, but she ought not to survive him, especially if he has been the victim of political persecution. Agrippina would seem to fulfill neither of these requirements. Worse, she has disobeyed Germanicus' injunction about giving up her ferocity. The negative image she is given in this passage may then be in response to her failure to comply with the ideal of the univira.

The second explanation is that this shift in characterization also works at a narrative level if we consider it as a strategy in transition and anticipation. That is, the antagonistic aspect of Agrippina may serve as a thematic link for her daughter's character. As I noted earlier, a number of the masculine adjectives used to describe Agrippina are also applied to her daughter. Finally, by creating this abrasive image, and even having her offspring share some of these negative attributes, Tacitus may be ensuring that the reader remembers the character of her offspring. She was the mother of Caligula and the grandmother of Nero.

You may well be wondering why I have quoted a remark from a recent film, 'Presumed Innocent' and how this is related either to Tacitus or to Agrippina. The film revolves around the investigation of the brutal murder of a female attorney. Within the story, this woman's fate as a murder victim has positioned her to be a tragic figure. Rather than work with this expected characterization, the writers of the screenplay chose to represent her in an altogether negative way, making the audience unsympathetic to her, even though she was murdered. Similarly, we have seen how Tacitus' portrayal of Agrippina in Annals I-III was generally positive, particularly as he paints an especially pathetic picture of Agrippina as the grieving widow in books II and III. Given such an initially moving characterization, her persecution by Tiberius and Sejanus should have allowed for the reader to sympathize with her. The effect produced by Tacitus, however, is the opposite, as I hope to have demonstrated. Agrippina may have been 'bad news' but ultimately this damnation stems not from any pervasive flaw in her character, but from the literary tactics of Tacitus.


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This paper was presented at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference on April 19, 1996.

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