Agrippina’s character and significance


There are two questions to consider at the end of the course:

  • What was Agrippina's character?

  • What was her political significance?

The Primary Record

You should be able to look back through your notes and set-texts to remind yourself of what the ancient writers Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio said.  Remember to use 'resisting reading', and to relate what they are saying to their reliability.


Most modern historians interpret the attitude of ancient writers to Agrippina as one of total hostility – e.g. Anthony Barratt (1996):

The Romans saw the elevation women like Agrippina as an inversion of the natural order, and the preoccupation of the ancient writers with the evils of female ambitions all but blinded them to any admirable qualities [she] might have possessed.’


However, although we know that Tacitus especially was prejudiced against powerful women in general, and against Agrippina in particular, your job as an historian is to assess to what extent this has affected/invalidates his account.



The following websites will help you complete the task:

You MUST read the Foreword (pp. xii-xv) from Anthony Barratt's, Agrippina (1996).

You are recommended to read Peter Roberts's notes here (starting at page 156).



Modern Interpretations

Until very recently, Agrippina’s reputation had hardly improved on ancient times.

Anthony Barratt’s summary of the historiography includes a list of the words historians have used about her – it includes: ‘violent’, ‘merciless’, corrupt’, loathsome’, ‘vindictive’, ‘tough’, ambitious’, ‘greedy for power’.

A few recent writers have attempted to correct the record. The late Judith Ginsburg (2005) acknowledged the misrepresentation of Agrippina in the sources, but did not attempt a re-interpretation of Agrippina.  By contrast, Anthony Barratt (1996) attempted to portray Agrippina as a politician of genius, ascribing to her all the good things in the reigns of Claudius and Nero. His argument was completely circular: starting with the claim that Agrippina was a genius, he therefore reinterpreted Tacitus to eliminate Tacitus’s lack of appreciation of her genius, after which looked at his reinterpreted account of events, and demonstrated from it that Agrippina was a genius.

Recently, Catherine Edwards (2007) has suggested that the drastic deterioration in Nero's rule after her death shows not only the degree to which Agrippina controlled her son but also the positive nature of her influence.



Discuss with a partner what you think about Agrippina's character.  Do not just make assertions – justify your ideas with evidence which takes into account the limitations of the sources.

Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:

  •  What was Agrippina's character?
    • •  The sources present a strange mixture of vulnerable/caring and ruthless/vindicative.
    • •  She was always coolly aware of her public image.
    • •  She was patient, and prepared to plot/plan.
    • •  She was arrogant and power-hungry.
    • •  Ronald Syme (1958) thought that Tacitus - whilst he obviously HATED her - also had a grudging respect for her ability.


Now discuss Agrippina's achievements and significance.

Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:

  •  Analysis of Agrippina's achievements and significance:
    • •  Married Claudius , played a part in government and may have saved the reign.
    • •  Got Nero on the throne.
    • •  The power to banish, execute.
    • •  The Visual Sources suggest that for a time she ruled the Roman Empire.
    • Longer term?
    • •  She left no dynasty or legal/constitutional legacy.
    • •  She achieved nothing for women's rights in the Roman world andmay have set them back.
    • •  Her reputation was so comprehenively blackened after her death it has proved almost impossible to rehabilitate her.


Now write an answer to the following question:

'Apart from personal prestige, Agrippina achieved very little.'  How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

•  give a brief account of Agrippina's achievements;

•  discuss how significant and remarkable her achievements were;

•  show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;

•  consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                       [30]