Agrippina: Sister of Caligula, Wife of Claudius, Mother of by Anthony A. Barrett

By Anthony A. Barrett

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She enjoyed her privileged position only by virtue of being the wife of the princeps. Perhaps her great achievement was the way in which she managed to turn this ambiguity to her advantage. It enabled her to cast her own definition of her political role, which gave her an influence over affairs of state to a degree unprecedented for a woman. Generally, she appears to have conducted herself with great skill, as a discreet background adviser, with a good sense of how to tread the careful midcourse between docile passivity and unwelcome intrusion into spheres where women by law, custom or social climate would not be welcomed.

Thus he proceeded cautiously. His first inclination seems to have been to choose Marcus Claudius Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia. Marcellus was admitted to the senate and married to Augustus’ daughter, Julia. Unfortunately for the dynastic plans Marcellus fell seriously ill in 23 BC, and, despite the best efforts of the celebrated physician Antonius Musa, did not recover—the first major setback to Augustus’ scheme. 19 Augustus now tried a different course. He turned to his old friend and ally, Agrippa, the architect of the victory over Antony at Actium.

30 But many scholars insist that the claims of sexual misconduct by members of the Julio-Claudian family were largely specious devices to conceal serious political threats, and that charges of adultery or moral depravity could be used to eliminate dangerous claimants or their supporters. The prominence of the men involved in Julia’s case obliges us to consider the possibility of a political dimension very carefully. In fact the borderline between immorality and conspiracy is a fine one, when the imperial family is involved.

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