She has been described by the ancient and modern sources as ‘ruthless, ambitious, violent and domineering’. She was a beautiful and a reputable woman. According to Pliny the Younger, she had canine teeth which meant a sign of good fortune. Many ancient historians accuse Agrippina of poisoning Emperor Claudius, though accounts vary wildly.
Agrippina’s father was a popular general and politician. His mother was Antonia Minor and his father was general Nero Claudius Drusus. Antonia Minor was a daughter to Octavia Minor from her second marriage to triumvir Mark Antony. Octavia Minor was the second eldest sister and full blooded sister of Augustus. Germanicus’ father Nero Claudius Drusus was the second son to Empress Livia Drusilla from her first marriage to praetor Tiberius Nero (she married Augustus’ as his third wife); was Emperor Tiberius’ younger brother and was Augustus’ step son. In 9, Augustus ordered and forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus as his son and heir. Germanicus was always favored by his great uncle and had hoped that he would succeed Tiberius, who was adopted by Augustus as his heir and successor.
Agrippina was born at Oppidum Ubiorum, a Roman outpost on the Rhine River (modern Cologne, Germany). She travelled with her parents throughout the empire until AD 18, when she and her siblings returned to Rome (apart from Caligula) to live with their paternal grandmother. Her parents travelled to Syria to complete official duties. One year later in October, Germanicus died suddenly in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).
Germanicus’ death caused much public grief in Rome and his mother returned to Rome with his ashes. Agrippina was raised between her mother and great grandmother Livia, who were two notable influential and powerful figures, and lived on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Tiberius became the head of the family.
After her thirteenth birthday in 28, Tiberius arranged for her to marry Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. Tiberius ordered the marriage to be celebrated at the Capital in Rome. Domitius came from a distinguished family. From his paternal side he descended from men of consular rank. Through his mother Antonia Major, he was related to the imperial family. Antonia Major was the elder sister to Antonia Minor and was another daughter to Octavia Minor and Mark Antony (Augustus being her maternal uncle). Domitius was her father’s first maternal cousin and her mother’s second maternal cousin. He was a wealthy man with a despicable and dishonest character. Domitius was consul in 32. Agrippina and Domitius lived between Antium (modern Anzio) and Rome. Not much is known about the relationship between them.
Around the time that Tiberius died, Agrippina became pregnant and Domitius acknowledged the paternity of the child. In the early morning hours in Antium of December 15 37, Agrippina gave birth to a son—her first child, and the first born to Domitius. Agrippina and Domitius named him Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, after Domitius' late father. This child would grow up to be the future Emperor Nero. This son was Agrippina's only natural child.
Caligula and his sisters were accused of having incestuous relationships. Allegedly, during large banquets Caligula would commit incest with his sisters and also Caligula allowed his friends to sleep with his sisters in the palace. On June 10 38, Drusilla died, and following her death Caligula's relationship with Agrippina and Livilla changed. Caligula showed no extreme love nor respect towards them.
In 39, Agrippina and Livilla, with their maternal cousin and Drusilla's widower Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, were involved in a failed plot to murder Caligula and make Lepidus the new emperor. Lepidus, Agrippina and Livilla were lovers. Not much is known concerning this plot and the reasons behind it. At the trial of Lepidus, Caligula felt no compunction about denouncing them as adultresses, producing handwritten letters discussing how they were going to kill him.
Lepidus was executed. Agrippina and Livilla were exiled by their brother to the Pontine Islands. Caligula sold their furniture, jewellery, slaves and freedmen and forced them to dive for sponges to make a living. Agrippina probably learned how to swim well during this time. In January 40, Domitius died of Edema (dropsy) at Pyrgi. Lucius had gone to live with his second paternal aunt Domitia Lepida after Caligula had taken his inheritance away from him. Caligula, his wife, and his daughter were murdered on January 24, 41. Her paternal uncle Claudius became the new emperor of Rome.
Claudius ordered Agrippina and Livilla to return from exile. Livilla returned to her husband, while Agrippina was reunited with her estranged son. After the death of her first husband, Agrippina tried to make shameless advances to the future emperor Galba, who showed no interest in her and was devoted to his wife. On one occasion Galba's mother-in-law gave Agrippina, in a whole bevy of married women, a public reprimand and a slap in the face.
Claudius also had Lucius’ inheritance reinstated and arranged for Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus and Domitia (Lucius’ first paternal aunt) to divorce so that Crispus could marry Agrippina. When Agrippina returned, she had nothing to return to. Agrippina married Crispus as her second husband and he became a step father to Lucius. Crispus was a prominent, influential, witty, wealthy and powerful man, who served twice as consul. He was the adopted grandson and biological great, great nephew of the historian Sallust. Little is known on their relationship.
In the first years of Claudius’ reign, Claudius was married to the infamous Empress Valeria Messalina. Although Agrippina was very influential, she kept a very low profile and stayed away from the imperial palace and the court of the emperor. Messalina was Agrippina’s second paternal cousin.
When Agrippina returned from exile, Messalina realised that Agrippina’s son was a threat to her son’s position and sent assassins to strangle Lucius during his siesta. The assassins left in terror, when a snake suddenly darted from beneath Nero’s pillow -- but it was only a sloughed-off snake-skin in his bed, near his pillow.
In 47, Crispus died, and at his funeral, the rumour spread around that Agrippina poisoned Crispus to gain his estate. After being widowed a second time, Agrippina was left very wealthy. Later that year at the Secular Games, at the performance of the Troy Pageant, Messalina attended the event with her son Britannicus. Agrippina was also present with Lucius. Agrippina and Lucius received greater applause from the audience than Messalina and Britannicus did. Many people began to show pity and sympathy to Agrippina, due to the unfortunate circumstances in her life. Agrippina wrote a memoir that recorded the misfortunes of her family (casus suorum) and wrote an account of her mother’s life.
Pallas advised Claudius that he should marry Agrippina. Pallas stated to the emperor, that her son was the grandson to his late brother Germanicus; by marrying her Claudius would ally the two branches of the Claudian house and imperial family. For Agrippina’s seduction, it was a help that she had the niece’s privilege of kissing and caressing her paternal uncle. Claudius was seduced by her passions.
Claudius made references to her in his speeches: ‘my daughter and foster child, born and bred, in my lap, so to speak’. When Claudius decided to marry her, he persuaded a group of senators at their marriage should be arranged in the public interest. In Roman society, an uncle marrying his niece was considered to be incestuous.
Agrippina and Claudius married on New Year’s Day in 49. This marriage caused widespread disapproval. This was a part of Agrippina’s scheming plan to make her son Roman Emperor. Her marriage to Claudius wasn’t based on love, but on power. She eliminated her rival and distant relative Lollia Paulina, who was another possible wife for Claudius. In 49, Agrippina charged Paulina with black magic. Paulina did not receive a hearing. Her property was confiscated, she left Italy and on orders, she committed suicide.
Before her marriage to Claudius, her maternal second cousin praetor, Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus was betrothed to Claudius’ daughter Claudia Octavia. This betrothal was broken off in 48, when Agrippina scheming with consul Lucius Vitellius had falsely charged Silanus with open affection towards his sister Junia Calvina. Agrippina did this hopefully to secure Octavia to marry her son. Consequently Claudius broke off the engagement and forced Silanus to resign from public office. Silanus committed suicide on the day that Agrippina married her uncle and Calvina was exiled from Italy in early 49. (Towards the end of 54, Agrippina had ordered the murder of Silanus' eldest brother Marcus Junius Silanus Torquatus without her son's knowledge, so he wouldn't seek revenge against her over his brother's death).
In 49, Agrippina presided over the exercises of Roman legions and Celtic King Caratacus assumed that she, as well as Claudius, was the martial leader and bowed before her throne with the same homage and gratitude as he accorded the emperor.
In 50, Agrippina was granted the honorific title of Augusta (a title which no other imperial woman had ever received in the lifetime of her husband). She was the third Roman woman and only the second living Roman woman to receive this title. Also that year, Claudius had founded a Roman colony and called the colony Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis or Agrippinensium, after Agrippina who was born there. In 51, she was given a carpentum which she used. A carpentum was a ceremonial carriage usually reserved for priests and sacred statues. Also that year she appointed Sextus Afranius Burrus as head of the Praetorian Guard.
Agrippina successfully manipulated and influenced Claudius into adopting her son and having him become his successor. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 50 was adopted by his great maternal uncle and stepfather. Lucius’ name was changed to Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and he became Claudius’ adopted son, heir and recognised successor. Agrippina and Claudius betrothed Nero to Octavia and Agrippina arranged for Seneca the Younger to return from exile to tutor the future emperor. Claudius chose to adopt Agrippina's son because of his Julian lineage . Agrippina deprived Britannicus of his heritage and further isolated him from his father and succession for the throne. In 51 Agrippina ordered the execution of Britannicus’ tutor Sosibius, because he confronted Agrippina and was outraged by Claudius’ adoption of Nero and his choice of Nero to succeed him, instead of his natural son Britannicus.
Nero and Octavia married on June 9 53. Claudius later repented of marrying Agrippina and adopting her son Nero, began to favour Britannicus, and started preparing him for the throne. This was the motive that is claimed that Agrippina needed to eliminate Claudius. Ancient sources credited her poisoning Claudius on October 13 54 with a plate of poison mushrooms at a banquet, thus enabling Nero to quickly take the throne as emperor. Accounts vary wildly with regard to this private incident and it is quite possible Claudius died of natural causes.
Agrippina was named a priestess of the cult of the deified Claudius. She was allowed to visit senate meetings, watch and hear the meetings behind a curtain. This evidently shows that she had real power.
In the first months of Nero’s reign Agrippina controlled her son and the empire. She lost control over Nero when he began to have an affair with freedwoman Claudia Acte, which Agrippina strongly disapproved of and violently scolded him for. Agrippina began to support Britannicus in her attempt to make him emperor. Britannicus was secretly poisoned on Nero’s orders during a banquet in February 55. The power struggle between Agrippina and her son had begun.
Agrippina between 55 and 58 became very watchful and had a critical eye over her son. In 55 Agrippina was forced out of the palace by her son to live in imperial residence. Nero deprived his mother of all honors, powers and even removed her Roman and German bodyguards. Nero even threatened his mother he would abdicate the throne and would go to live on the Greek Island of Rhodes. Pallas also was dismissed from the court. The fall of Pallas and the opposition of Burrus and Seneca, contributed to Agrippina's loss of authority..
Towards 57, Agrippina was expelled from the Palace and went to live in a riverside estate in Misenum. While Agrippina lived there or when she went on short visits to Rome, Nero had sent to people to annoy her. Although living in Misenum, she was still very popular, powerful and influential. Agrippina and Nero would see each other on short visits.
According to Tacitus, in 58, Nero became involved with the noble woman Poppaea Sabina. With the reasoning that a divorce from his wife, Octavia, and a marriage to Poppaea was not politically feasible with Agrippina alive, Nero decided to kill Agrippina. Yet, Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62, calling into question this motive. Additionally, Suetonius reveals that Poppaea's husband, Otho, was not sent away by Nero until after Agrippina's death in 59, making it highly unlikely that already married Poppaea would be pressing Nero. Some modern historians theorize that Nero's decision to kill Agrippina was prompted by her plotting to set Gaius Rubellius Plautus (Nero's maternal second cousin) on the throne.
Tacitus claims that Nero considered poisoning or stabbing her, but felt these methods were too difficult and suspicious, so he settled on building a self-sinking boat. Though aware of the plot, Agrippina embarked on this boat and was nearly crushed by a collapsing lead ceiling only to be saved by the side of a sofa breaking the ceiling's fall. Though the collapsing ceiling missed Agrippina, it crushed the tiller who was outside at the helm. The boat failed to sink from the lead ceiling, so the crew then sank the boat, but Agrippina swam to shore. Agrippina was met at the shore by crowds of admirers. News of Agrippina's survival reached Nero so he sent three assassins to stab her.
According to Suetonius, Nero was annoyed at his mother being too watchful and tried three times to poison Agrippina, but she took the antidotes in time and survived. He then tried to crush her with a mechanical ceiling over her bed at her residence. After this failed, he devised a collapsable boat, which would either have its cabin fall in or become shipwrecked. Nero then ordered captains of a different boat to ram this boat while Agrippina was aboard. Nero heard Agrippina survived the wreck so he ordered her to be executed and framed it as a suicide.
The tale of Cassius Dio is also somewhat different. It starts again with Poppaea as the motive of the murder. In this tale, Nero designed a ship that would open at the bottom while at sea. Agrippina is put aboard and after the bottom of the ship opened up, she fell into the water. Agrippina swam to shore so Nero sent an assassin to kill her. Nero then claimed Agrippina plotted to kill him and committed suicide. Her reputed last words, uttered as the assassin was about to strike, were 'Smite my womb' (the implication here being she wished to be destroyed first in that part of her body that had given birth to so "abominable a son").
After Agrippina's death, Nero viewed her corpse and complemented how beautiful she was. Her body was cremated that night on a dining couch. On that night, Nero was witless, speechless and scared. When the news spread that Agrippina died the Roman army, senate and various people had sent him letters of congratulations, that he murdered his mother.
During his reign, her grave was not covered or enclosed. Her household later on gave her a modest tomb in Misenum. Nero would have his mother’s death on his conscience. He felt so guilty he would have nightmares about his mother. He even saw his mother’s ghost and got Persian magicians to scare her away. Years before she died, Agrippina had visited astrologers to ask about her son’s future. The astrologers predicted that her son would become emperor and would kill her. She replied ‘Let him kill me, provided he becomes emperor’.