Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon

Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon 2019 Pegasus Books

If you ever feel bad about your family baggage, it might help to take a look at someone else’s. Tolstoy’s famous phrase that “every happy family is alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” was tailor-made for one particular Roman family. Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the primus inter pares, Emperor Augustus, and daughter of the beloved Roman general, Germanicus. Her family lineage was certainly august (no pun intended), but it contained its own unique seeds of destruction. But before the fatal blooming, Agrippina cagily used those Julian family ties to fight her way into a position of power unheard of since the time of Livia, Augustus’s third and favorite wife. Despite her accomplishments, she’s mostly remembered for being the sister of Caligula, the mother of Nero, and less foreboding but hugely consequential, the wife of Emperor Claudius. Oh, and incest…lots and lots of incest. 

But that’s mostly bollocks, mere rumors told to discredit an extremely competent and influential woman, according to Emma Southon in her new book, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World.  Southon, a PhD in Ancient History at the University of Birmingham, tells a saucy story about one woman against a very angry male world that threw every imaginable accusation against her when she stepped out of line in Roman society. It’s also a triumphant story about her rising above and bending that world to her will. As with most stories about those who toy with absolute power, it doesn’t end well. But before the inevitable, Southon is determined to make this a rollicking tour of Agrippina and her world. 

But first, the sources. As with any study of women in ancient Greece or Rome, they are scant, scattered, and exceptionally infuriating in Southon’s opinion. The three major sources are all men and they all really seem to hate Agrippina: Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. Since only men were considered worthy of recorded history, Southon reminds us that when women appear in the textual record, it’s almost always in relation to a man. But it should flag our attention: the fact they are mentioned at all by antiquity’s misogynists indicates they must have made an impact. In Agrippina’s case, she made an impact on the scale of the Tunguska event. 

Agrippina was born to Agrippina (her namesake) and Germanicus, a successful soldier and war hero, in 15 CE. Southon is a fleet-footed tour guide through the twists, turns, and diabolical intrigues that symbolized imperial Rome in the first century. The book includes a family tree to sort out the recurring names and a handy timeline of key events to help the uninitiated avoid utter confusion about who did what to whom. We do know from the flimsy source material the basics of Agrippina’s youth: her childhood exile from Rome, her return, two marriages, the birth of Nero, and her ability to survive as so many relatives were knocked off around her. But it was her marriage to Emperor Claudius (her uncle) in 49 CE that catapulted her to the peak of her fame, power, and prestige. In the year of her marriage to Claudius, she was given the honorific “Augusta,” being “only the third woman in history to receive this title and the first wife of a living emperor” to enjoy the appellation. It was an achievement of epic proportions, Southon explains: “Making her an Augusta gave her official status, if not an official role, in the Roman state and made her the most powerful woman the Western world had ever seen.”

The numismatics of the empire reflected that glory, as her visage joined the emperor’s on coinage throughout the empire. Even after Claudius died (under suspicious circumstances…of course it’s always suspicious in Rome) and Nero succeeded him, Agrippina’s likeness was shared on Roman coins with her son. These halcyon days were not to last long, since we’re talking about Nero here. Resentful of her power, influence, and love among the citizenry, Nero wanted her out of the picture. Thus, in 59 CE, when Nero was but 22 and his mother a still vibrant 44 years of age, he ordered her death. She faced it valiantly, even telling the centurions where to strike with their swords: her womb. 

Agrippina is a smart choice for those who think they probably won’t enjoy ancient Roman history. Southon takes an approach to her subject in a style that’s brash and bold. You know you’re not reading your mother’s history book the first five times the f-bomb appears or when you’ve learned every imaginable verb for sexual intercourse (I counted seven before I gave up counting). Southon attempts to make her parallels relevant by employing numerous pop culture references, as well. For those in the know, this will be terribly amusing. For others, it will be puzzling. At one point, this reviewer had to phone a friend: “Do you know who Michael Bluth is?” Apparently, he’s a fictional character on Arrested Development, a television sitcom. 

The excessive use of expletives aside, it’s the transitory nature of pop culture that unfortunately makes this book necessarily short-lived and also a bit superficial. Viewed for the personal historical homage it is, the book fits the bill as a witty, charming, and subjective take on an “uppity” woman in male-dominated Rome. Most importantly, it can encourage readers previously cold to history to dig into the footnotes and learn more about a woman unafraid to fight for power on her own terms, no matter the consequences. 

Peggy Kurkowski holds a BA in History at American Public University and is a copywriter living in Denver, Colorado.