Claudius's reign - the part played by Agrippina
NOTE: the purpose of this discussion topic is not to debate the character of Agrippina or her general significance (that will happen in a later Theme). All we are doing in this topic is making a list of Agrippina’s achievements in the reign of Claudius, and thinking about how important she was – this topic is SOLELY about ‘Claudius’s relationship with Agrippina and its impact on his reign’.
Depending on what question you are asked in the exam, therefore, you may need also to draw on ideas in Themes 5 or 6.
The Primary Record
Tacitus has given us our most powerful impression on the impact of Agrippina on Claudius’s reign. After she married Claudius, he writes:
From this point on, the state was changed completely, and everything was subject to the control of a woman … a controlling and almost masculine dominance (Annals 12.7).
It is a theme which runs, not only through Tacitus, but all the ancient writers – that Agrippina’s malign and overweening influence dominated Claudius’ government.
Up to the end of the 19th century, writers tended to accept Tacitus’s view at face value, until the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1934) reinterpreted Claudius as an energetic and centralising ruler. Part of his argument was to downplay Agrippina’s importance:
Agrippina holds a place in the history of Claudius’s reign only in virtue of her share in certain isolated events, such as the substitution of Nero for Britannicus, which had no influence ion the general character of Claudius’s government.
If you believe that Claudius dominated the government, you can’t at the same time hold that Agrippina dominated the government.
By contrast, Agrippina’s biographer Anthony Barratt (1996) argued that Agrippina was the decisive influence in the reign, effectively saving it from collapse:
It is apparent that the mood and atmosphere of Claudius’s reign improved measurably during its latter half … and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of the impetus for this change for the better should be attributed to the influence and efforts of Agrippina. The influence of Agrippina on the senate would have been considerable…’
For Barratt, Agrippina was more than just Claudius's helper – he argued that the coins of the reign (showing jugate heads of Claudius and Agrippina) demonstrated ‘the role of Agrippina as Claudius’s partner’.
Recently, however Diana Beuster (2009) has suggested that the impression that Agrippina ‘changed the state’ is ‘a Tacitean trap’ which we might wish to avoid.
Try not to read the summary-of-mentions sheet on Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio until you have made your own list of Agrippina's actions.
Try to make your list BEFORE you cheat and use the summary-of-mentions sheet!
Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:
Now write an answer to the following question:
'Agrippina dominated politics in the reign of Claudius.' How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?
In your answer you should:
• give a brief account of Agrippina's actions and influence during the reign of Claudius;
• discuss the arguments for and against the idea that Agrippina dominated the reign;
• show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;
• consider how reliable you think these sources are.