Roman Empress Agrippina was a master strategist. She paid the price for it.

Rome’s hardball politics were off-limits to women, yet this great-granddaughter of Augustus won power for herself and her son, Nero, who would later have her murdered.

Agrippina’s portraits often depicted her with large almond-shaped eyes, a forehead framed by curls of hair, full lips, and a firm chin. Marble bust, first century A.D. Naples National Archaeological Museum
DEA/ALBUM

Nobody could question Agrippina’s imperial credentials: great granddaughter of Augustus, great-niece of Tiberius (granddaughter of Drusus), sister to Caligula, wife of Claudius, and mother to Nero. Like her male relatives, she enjoyed great influence. Honored with the title Augusta in A.D. 50, she wielded political power like a man—and paid the price for it.

Agrippina recorded her life in a series of memoirs, in which, according to first-century historian Tacitus, she “handed down to posterity the story of her life and of the misfortunes of her family.” Unfortunately, her writings—and her authentic perspective—have been lost. Most of what is known about her comes from secondhand sources written after her death. Many contemporary historians condemned her for violating Rome’s patriarchal structure with her naked ambition. Many blamed her for the actions of her son, Nero. While describing her at times as irrational, perverted, and unscrupulous, some historians, however, bestowed a grudging admiration for Agrippina, such as Tacitus when describing the moment she became empress of Rome:

From this moment, the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman—and not a woman . . . who toyed with national affairs to satisfy her appetites. This was a rigorous, almost masculine despotism. In public, Agrippina was austere and often arrogant. Her private life was chaste—unless there was power to be gained. Her passion to acquire money was unbounded. She wanted it as a stepping-stone to supremacy. 

Read This Next

Planet circling a burned-out star offers a glimpse at the solar system's fate
This 50-year project is tracking the Cascades' melting glaciers
The Peruvian Amazon's largest wildlife market is back in business

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet