“She is a mass of riddles”: Julia Augusta Agrippina and the sources
By Peter Keegan
Ancient history: resources for teachers, Vol. 37, No. 2, (2007)
Introduction: Agrippina the Younger fascinated ancient writers, and modern scholars continue to tell her story with relish. From the time of Tacitus to the present, her forceful personality and extensive influence captured the imagination of historians.
The literary tradition depicts her as a woman of authority, in all but name head of Rome’s body politic. As a consequence, Agrippina’s portrait is universally hostile. Because women in Roman society were excluded from gaining or exercising such power, acquiring it must have come through sharp practice, chicanery, deception, sexual artifice, and even murder. As Gruen observes:
[Agrippina] is represented as the consummate schemer, lusting after power, manipulating men and women to her ends, and when thwarted, retaliating with calculated ruthlessness. Modern treatments, on the whole follow that lead.
Taking the recent work of the late Judith Ginsberg as a guide, this article will refrain from historical reconstructions, focusing instead on the sources themselves, both literary and material, to examine the depictions of Agrippina. It will briefly explore the rhetorical conventions, the historiographical framework, and the visual representations comprising Agrippina’s image. The objective is to outline the patterns of literary and material representation and fabrication, reflecting in turn the ideas and purposes of writers and artists who supported or opposed Julio-Claudian rule.