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.