March 02, 2007

Agrippina the Younger- Tacitus and the Empress

Tacitus was one of the first and greatest analysts of tyranny and the personality of rulers. His great work, the Annals, focuses on the Roman Emperors from the time of Augustus to the time of Nero, parts of the work are missing- most of the reign of Caligula for example- but what we have is a masterpiece of literary effort, imaginative reconstruction and psychological intuition. Amongst Tacitus's most vivid portraits and one once read which is never forgotten is of Agrippina the Younger, granddaughter to Augustus, wife to Claudius and mother to Nero.

Agrippina's image in both history and literature is the subject of Judith Ginsburg's last book, Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire. Ginsburg died before the book was completed and her scholarly friends decided to publish the text that she had begun- they added explanatory chapters but basically the main body of the work is Ginsburg's. The book has been reviewed by Kristina Milnor of Barnard College and the review says some interesting things about what Tacitus meant to do in writing about Aggripina. To those unfamiliar with her story, Agrippina married Claudius having already been married and possessing as her son, the young Nero. She swiftly according to Tacitus poisoned Claudius's own son, Britannicus, and then poisoned Claudius himself using mushrooms. Having placed her son Nero on the throne, there began a power struggle between the mother and son and between her and her son's powerful wife Poppaea Sabina which culminated in Agrippina's own death. That's the picture at least as Tacitus presents it- and Tacitus makes out Agrippina to be a scheming woman bent on power who commits incest with her own son in pursuit of her ambition to be the leader of the Roman state.

Ginsburg's book though interestingly presents Tacitus as reacting to the imperial propaganda about Agrippina herself. The art and statues we have of Agrippina laud her as the representative of the imperial family, she is counterposed with Demeter, a goddess of fertility. Her position as the granddaughter of one Emperor, the wife of another and the mother of a third all become important in her representations. Reading Tacitus, we can see that the historian is deliberately inverting this mythical version of Agrippina, the granddaughter inherits the lust for power, the wife poisons the husband's son and then him and himself and perhaps in the greatest betrayel of the Roman family ideal of all, the mother seduces the son. Tacitus is as Milnor notes the focus of this study- though mention is made in Milnor's review of Virgilian references to female leadership and Senecan references to evil step mothers.

What Ginsburg, according to Milnor, seems to be doing though is drawing attention to the way that Tacitus's portrayel of Agrippina and the imperial family is crafting an image of the principate as effeminate. The Julio-Claudians have lost control of their own women- in this way Agrippina forms the counterpoint to Augustus's wife Livia. Its interesting to reflect that Robert Graves in his great historical novel based on Rome, I Claudius, does exactly the same thing- there and in Tacitus female rulership becomes an emblem of the decline of the imperial house, of male republican rectitude into female sexual laciviousness and female corrupting rule. Ginsburg's death robbed us of the full sweep that her powers might have brought to such a theme and Milnor points to the way that the work is incomplete to say the least- but bringing to light the way that the telling of the life of Agrippina tells us about the way that a Roman historian thought about the interaction of gender and politics is fascinating. Tyranny in Roman discourse and future European discourse becomes effeminate (just think of the connotations of the harem and seraglio) whereas democracy and republicanism are tied strongly to the idea of the male citizen and his willingness to bear arms in defence of the realm.


james higham said...

Ginsburg's book though interestingly presents Tacitus as reacting to the imperial propaganda about Agrippina herself.

Interesting how Ginsburg could step outside the historical record, limited as it is, in pursuit of a 'feminist construct'. This is the nature of the feminist.

Gracchi said...


I disagree with you. The point that she is right to make is that Tacitus is like a lawyer briefed for the opposition. The interesting points are waht he seeks to prioritise- he prioritises the distinction between female imperial power, the power of eunuchs like Narcissus and the power of emasculated men like Claudius. He wants us to see tyranny as flowing from a lack of masculinity- in that sense his descriptions are about gender.

As to Ginsburg twisting history, I don't think she is here, the language of priorities is the religion of socialism Nye Bevan once said, in this case its what you prioritise when you make the attacks which shows what political allegiance you have. Framing an attack in a certain way demonstrates what you beleive and in this case Tacitus wants us to counterbalance good male republican government against effeminate tyranny!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks for another fascinating review. That's definitely going on my "to buy" list.