See biography by M. Reinhold (1933).
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, marble portrait bust, early 1st century BC; in the Louvre, Paris.
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Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (c. 63 BC–12 BC) was a Roman statesman and general. He was a close friend, son-in-law, lieutenant and minister to Octavian, the future emperor Caesar Augustus. He was responsible for most of Octavian’s military triumphs, most notably winning the naval Battle of Actium against the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
It is not known whether Agrippa fought against his brother in Africa, but he probably served in Caesar's campaign of 46–45 BC against Gnaeus Pompeius, which culminated in the Battle of Munda. At any rate, Caesar regarded him highly enough to send him with Octavius in 45 BC to study in Apollonia with the Macedonian legions, while Caesar consolidated his power in Rome. It was in the fourth month of their stay in Apollonia that the news of Julius Caesar's assassination in March 44 BC reached them. Despite the advice of Agrippa and another friend, Quintus Salvidienus Rufus, that he march on Rome with the troops from Macedonia, Octavius decided to sail to Italy with a small retinue. After his arrival, he learnt that Caesar had adopted him as his legal heir. (Octavius now took over Caesar's name, but is referred to by modern historians as "Octavian" during this period.)
In 42 BC, Agrippa probably fought alongside Octavian and Antony in the Battle of Philippi. After their return to Rome, he played a major role in Octavian's war against Lucius Antonius and Fulvia Antonia, respectively the brother and wife of Mark Antony, which began in 41 BC and ended in the capture of Perusia in 40 BC. However, Salvidienus remained Octavian's main general at this time. After the Perusine war, Octavian departed for Gaul, leaving Agrippa as urban praetor in Rome with instructions to defend Italy against Sextus Pompeius, an opponent of the Triumvirate who was now occupying Sicily. In July 40, while Agrippa was occupied with the Ludi Apollinares that were the praetor's responsibility, Sextus began a raid in southern Italy. Agrippa advanced on him, forcing him to withdraw. However, the Triumvirate proved unstable, and in August 40 Antony sided with Sextus in a joint invasion of Italy. Agrippa's success in retaking Sipontum from Antony helped bring an end to the conflict. Agrippa was among the intermediaries through whom Antony and Octavian agreed once more upon peace. During the discussions Octavian learned that Salvidienus had offered to betray him to Antony, with the result that Salvidienus was executed or committed suicide. Agrippa was now Octavian's leading general.
In 39 or 38 BC, Octavian appointed Agrippa governor of Transalpine Gaul, where in 38 he put down a rising of the Aquitanians. He also fought the Germanic tribes, becoming the first Roman general to cross the Rhine after Julius Caesar. He was summoned back to Rome by Octavian to assume the consulship for 37 BC. He was well below the usual minimum age of 43, but Octavian had suffered a humiliating naval defeat against Sextus Pompey and needed his friend to oversee the preparations for further warfare. Agrippa refused the offer of a triumph for his exploits in Gaul – on the grounds, says Dio, that he thought it improper to celebrate during a time of trouble for Octavian. Since Sextus Pompeius had command of the sea on the coasts of Italy, Agrippa's first care was to provide a safe harbor for his ships. He accomplished this by cutting through the strips of land which separated the Lacus Lucrinus from the sea, thus forming an outer harbor, while joining the lake Avernus to the Lucrinus to serve as an inner harbor. The new harbor-complex was named Portus Julius in Octavian's honour. Agrippa was also responsible for technological improvements, including larger ships and an improved form of grappling hook. About this time, he married Caecilia Pomponia Attica, daughter of Cicero's friend Titus Pomponius Atticus.
In 36 BC Octavian and Agrippa set sail against Sextus. The fleet was badly damaged by storms and had to withdraw; Agrippa was left in charge of the second attempt. Thanks to superior technology and training, Agrippa and his men won decisive victories at Mylae and Naulochus, destroying all but seventeen of Sextus' ships and compelling most of his forces to surrender. Octavian, with his power increased, forced the triumvir Lepidus into retirement and entered Rome in triumph. Agrippa received the unprecedented honor of a naval crown decorated with the beaks of ships; as Dio remarks, this was "a decoration given to nobody before or since".
Agrippa participated in smaller military campaigns in 35 and 34 BC, but by the autumn of 34 he had returned to Rome. He rapidly set out on a campaign of public repairs and improvements, including renovation of the aqueduct known as the Aqua Marcia and an extension of its pipes to cover more of the city. Through his actions after being elected in 33 BC as one of the aediles (officials responsible for Rome's buildings and festivals), the streets were repaired and the sewers were cleaned out, while lavish public spectacles were put on. Agrippa signalized his tenure of office by effecting great improvements in the city of Rome, restoring and building aqueducts, enlarging and cleansing the Cloaca Maxima, constructing baths and porticos, and laying out gardens. He also gave a stimulus to the public exhibition of works of art. It was unusual for an ex-consul to hold the lower-ranking position of aedile, but Agrippa's success bore out this break with tradition. As emperor, Augustus would later boast that "he had found the city of brick but left it of marble", thanks in part to the great services provided by Agrippa under his reign.
Agrippa's father-in-law Atticus, suffering from a serious illness, committed suicide in 32 BC. According to Atticus' friend and biographer Cornelius Nepos, this decision was a cause of serious grief to Agrippa.
As the decisive battle approached, according to Dio, Octavian received intelligence that Antony and Cleopatra planned to break past his naval blockade and escape. At first he wished to allow the flagships past, arguing that he could overtake them with his lighter vessels and that the other opposing ships would surrender when they saw their leaders' cowardice. Agrippa objected that Antony's ships, although larger, could outrun Octavian's if they hoisted sails, and that Octavian ought to fight now because Antony's fleet had just been struck by storms. Octavian followed his friend's advice.
On September 2 31 BC, the Battle of Actium was fought. Octavian's victory, which gave him the mastery of Rome and the empire, was mainly due to Agrippa. As a token of signal regard, Octavian bestowed upon him the hand of his niece Claudia Marcella Major in 28 BC. He also served a second consulship with Octavian the same year. In 27 BC, Agrippa held a third consulship with Octavian, and in that year, the senate also bestowed upon Octavian the imperial title of Augustus.
In commemoration of the Battle of Actium, Agrippa built and dedicated the building that served as the Roman Pantheon before its destruction in 80. Emperor Hadrian used Agrippa's design to build his own Pantheon, which survives in Rome. The inscription of the later building, which was built around 125, preserves the text of the inscription from Agrippa's building during his third consulship. The years following his third consulship, Agrippa spent in Gaul, reforming the provincial administration and taxation system, along with building an effective road system and aqueducts.
His friendship with Augustus seems to have been clouded by the jealousy of his brother-in-law Marcus Claudius Marcellus, which was probably fomented by the intrigues of Livia, the third wife of Augustus, who feared his influence over her husband. Traditionally it is said the result of such jealousy was that Agrippa left Rome, ostensibly to take over the governorship of eastern provinces - a sort of honorable exile, but, he only sent his legate to Syria, while he himself remained at Lesbos and governed by proxy, though he may have been on a secret mission to negotiate with the Parthians about the return of the Roman legions standards which they held. On the death of Marcellus, which took place within a year of his exile, he was recalled to Rome by Augustus, who found he could not dispense with his services. However, if one places the events in the context of the crisis in 23 BC it seems unlikely that, when facing significant opposition and about to make a major political climb down, the emperor Augustus would place a man in exile in charge of the largest body of Roman troops. What is far more likely is that Agrippa's 'exile' was actually the careful political positioning of a loyal lieutenant in command of a significant army as a back up plan in case the settlement plans of 23 BC failed and Augustus needed military support.
It is said that Maecenas advised Augustus to attach Agrippa still more closely to him by making him his son-in-law. He accordingly induced him to divorce Marcella and marry his daughter Julia the Elder by 21 BC, the widow of the late Marcellus, equally celebrated for her beauty, abilities, and her shameless profligacy. In 19 BC, Agrippa was employed in putting down a rising of the Cantabrians in Hispania (Cantabrian Wars). He was appointed governor of the eastern provinces a second time in 17 BC, where his just and prudent administration won him the respect and good-will of the provincials, especially from the Jewish population. Agrippa also restored effective Roman control over the Cimmerian Chersonnese (modern-day Crimea) during his governorship.
Agrippa’s last public service was his beginning of the conquest of the upper Danube River region, which would become the Roman province of Pannonia in 13 BC. He died at Campania in March of 12 BC at the age of 51. His posthumous son, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa Postumus, was named in his honor. Augustus honored his memory by a magnificent funeral and spent over a month in mourning. Augustus personally oversaw all of Agrippa's children’s educations.
Agrippa was also known as a writer, especially on the subject of geography. Under his supervision, Julius Caesar's dream of having a complete survey of the empire made was carried out. He constructed a circular chart, which was later engraved on marble by Augustus, and afterwards placed in the colonnade built by his sister Polla. Amongst his writings, an autobiography, now lost, is referred to.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, along with Gaius Maecenas and Octavian, was a central person in the establishing of the Principate system of emperors, which would govern the Roman Empire up until the Crisis of the Third Century and the birth of Dominate system. His grandson Gaius is known to history as the Emperor Caligula, and his great-grandson Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus would rule as the Emperor Nero.
Marcus Agrippa, a highly fictionalised character based on Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa's early life, is part of the BBC-HBO-RAI television series Rome. He is played by Allen Leech. The series creates a romantic relationship between Agrippa and Octavian's sister Octavia Minor, for which there is no historical evidence.
A fictionalised version of Agrippa in his later life played a prominent role in the celebrated 1976 BBC Television series I, Claudius. Agrippa was portrayed as a much older man, though he would have only been 39 years old at the time of the first episode (24/23 BC). He was played by John Paul. Agrippa is also one of the principal characters in the British/Italian joint project Imperium: Augustus featuring flashbacks between Augustus and Julia about Agrippa, which shows him in his youth on serving in Caesar's army up until his victory at Actium and the defeat of Cleopatra. He is portrayed by Ken Duken.
Agrippa is a character in William Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra and also a main character in the early part of Robert Graves novel I, Claudius. He is a main character in the later two novels of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.
Agrippa is also a character in the video game Shadow of Rome, which has Agrippa as one of Octavian's friends and supporters. Although the game is highly inaccurate in its history, Agrippa does face Mark Antony in the final battle on a ship alongside Octavian.