History is Incessantly Incesty (Part Duo)

Nero

Emperor Nero watching longingly as his mother out crazy him.

Moving right along down historical family trees much like the dating preferences of the people I will be focusing on in this series, I’ll be looking at one case in particular in the Julio-Claudian line fraught with power-grabbing, incest, and the occasional murder or two. Not unlike the Lannisters, one famous mother in history was willing to bang whatever and murder whomever if it meant she’d be sitting pretty on the Marble Throne. [1]

2) Agrippina the Younger

Nero and Agrippina

Joffrey and Cersei Nero and Agrippina

There is no shortage of lunatic Roman Emperors and Nero is certainly one of the more famous iterations. Remembered for his dramatics and flair for theatre, or the flare that engulfed Rome in 64 AD which Nero was accused of having caused himself, he will forever go down in history as the man who played the fiddle as Rome burned. [2]

For a rumor had spread that, while the city was burning, Nero had gone on his private stage and, comparing modern calamities with ancient, had sung of the destruction of Troy. – Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome [3]

But where there’s a fire-happy Mad King (Cersei Lannister certainly must have been inspired in her frequent use of wildfire), there’s usually a mom standing behind him totally responsible for it. Enter Agrippina the Younger, stage left.

Agrippina joins among the ranks of some of the most powerful figures in Roman History, born into the Julio-Claudian line descendant from Julius & Augustus Caesar. Now, as you can imagine, the family tree is a bit sticky with important folk, so for the purposes of this post and the dirty that follows, I’ll point out the relevant relations now before your eyes glaze over. Agrippina the Younger’s parents are Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus. From her mother, she is directly descended from Augustus, counting him as her great grandfather. Her father Germanicus was a popular and famous general whose younger brother Claudius would eventually become Roman Emperor. [4] Still with me so far?

Now, being descendant from the most powerful family in Roman History should prove nothing short of bearing considerable skill in political ambitions and intrigue. And Agrippina the Younger was certainly no disappointment on this matter. When she was just 22, her brother Caligula (yes, that one) became Emperor of Rome after their great uncle Tiberius passed away (Or murdered, semantics). Being a doting and loving brother, Caligula granted Agrippina and her sisters all sorts of honors and special privileges, which led their enemies to speculate whether there were other benefits being shared between them. Oh, brother. [5]

He lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above. Of these he is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was still a minor, and even to have been caught lying with her by his grandmother Antonia, at whose house they were brought up in company. – Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars; Life of Caligula [5]

All good things must come to an end, however, and eventually Caligula dovetailed into a tyrannical spiral of insanity after the death of his favorite sister that only a well-conceived assassination plot could fix. With clear love lost between them, Agrippina and her other sister Livilla plotted with their cousin Lepidus to dagger Caligula into the annals of history forever. It didn’t work out though, and Caligula condemned them all to trial producing public letters supposedly written in their own hand writing as evidence of…more incestual bonding between the plotters because THIS FAMILY. Caligula got his way and his cousin Lepidus was executed with his sisters being sent off in exile. [5]

Julia Drusilla

The favorite Drusilla in question… Painted by John Godward in 1906

Agrippina didn’t have long to wait in exile though, for Caligula was swiftly murdered a year later at the measly age of 28 in a display of stabbing rivaling the death of Julius Caesar. With Caligula gone, Agrippina’s uncle Claudius became the new Roman Emperor and he invited the sisters back to Rome where Agrippina could begin using her feminine wiles to solidify her place among those in power and attempt to leverage her young son, Nero, into the line of succession.

Whether or not Agrippina had a proliferation for incest [6] as her accusers claim or she knew that getting close to her uncle was obviously the best way to the Empire, only one obstacle stood in her way–Claudius’ wife Messalina. Her aunt-in-law (and also second cousin because lol) already proved disastrous to her sister Livilla, who was exiled after being accused of an affair with Seneca and promptly starved to death. Agrippina was playing the long game though, and after the death of her second husband (some say at her hand in a classic Black Widow scheme), she became considerably wealthy and used it to leverage her position of sympathy into that of renown and popularity.

And suddenly, Emperor Claudius found himself a bachelor as Messalina tried and failed to murder him too, clearly backstabbing being the preferred recreational sport of the Roman nobility. Despite the disdain and disgust of the general populous, Agrippina married Emperor Claudius and became the first wife to obtain the title of Augusta despite the scary uncle that came with it. Agrippina had succeeded in claiming her place as Roman Empress. [3.1]

But Agrippina’s intrigues were still driving Claudius to the most brutal behavior. – Tacitus, Annals [3]

As Empress, she was frequently noted as conniving and ruthless. [3.2] When she wanted a beautiful garden, she’d accuse someone into committing suicide in order to claim it. She also accused a controller of a joint project of illicit profits to which he exclaimed that the accusations were nothing more than a byproduct of her “dictatorial, feminine excess of ambition.” Can I get that written on my grave stone, please?

Her joint rule was fraught with so many plots against anyone accused of disloyalty against her or inheritance of her son Nero, Claudius was said to have “remarked in his cups that it was his destiny first to endure his wive’s misdeeds, and then to punish them.” But Agrippina wasn’t about to allow him the chance.

Rochegrosse_Georges_Antoine_The_Death_of_Messalina_1916

The Death of Messalina, painted by Rochegrosse Georges Antoine 1916

In a scene straight out of The Beguiled or Phantom Thread, Agrippina planned the murder of Claudius by sprinkling poisonous mushrooms into his food which would have probably done the job if not for the fit of diarrhea that accompanied, and saved him, from his fate. Agrippina was pissed. Enlisting the help of Claudius’ doctor, Xenophon, she made sure the job was done with less fecal fanfare, ensuring his death ruled of natural causes. [3]

The story is that, while pretending to help Claudius to vomit, he put a feather dipped in a quick poison down his throat. – Tactius, Annals [3]

With the death of Claudius, Agrippina was an heir away from making sure Nero was the next Emperor. Locking up Claudius’ son Britannicus and letting everyone know whom Claudius had chosen for succession, her baby boy Nero finally became Roman Emperor and this time she didn’t have to sleep with anyone to do it. Unfortunately, her authority over her now powerful son wasn’t what she had hoped, since with the return of her dead sister’s lover Seneca as Nero’s tutor/adviser and with the slave girl Acte finding a place in his heart, Agrippina had a lot to complain about. [3.3]

This was unbecoming to Nero who attempted to appease his mother by sending her a nice jeweled garment as a peace offering. To which Agrippina scoffed at and demanded her rightful place by his side instead, after all, she orchestrated the damn thing, didn’t she? Upping the petty, Nero banished his mother’s side-piece Pallas from the estate and Agrippina started to wonder if maybe throwing her lot behind Britannicus wouldn’t be such a bad idea, despite, you know, the whole conspiracy thing. Like mother like son, though, Nero poisoned him at the family table before an overthrow could take place.

Fuming, Agrippina flounced around the palace trying to make powerful allies where she could but Nero wasn’t having any of it and withdrew her retainer of guards and ended her lavish receptions on palace grounds by sending her to a different residence altogether, seeing to the end of her court in the process. It’s here that her tactics shift and the sources drudge up accusations familiar, at this point, to her usual games. [3]

Agrippina’s passion to retain power carried her so far that at midday, the time when food and drink were beginning to raise Nero’s temperature, she several times appeared before her inebriated son all decked out and ready for incest. -Tactius, Annals [3] Also, yikes.

Witnesses observed kisses and intimate caresses between the pair and though no one could settle on which one was the initiator in the first place, Tacitus offers a shrug of doubtless commentary on the matter claiming, “In her earliest years she had employed an illicit relationship with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (her cousin, remember?) as a means to power. Through the same ambition she had sunk to be Pallas’ mistress. Then, she married to her uncle, her training in abomination complete.” [3]

This obviously proved to be disadvantageous to Nero as the accusations spread. He’d also fallen in love with Poppea, who was herself as cunning as his mother, who sought to rid them both of Agrippina and solidify a marriage between the pair. So, naturally, as Romans are want to do, they decided to murder her out the way.

How was the question. Agrippina was no fool, and as her supposed method of poisoning did the job for her own plots, she had taken measures to ensure the same could not be done to her. As Tacitus writes, she had by this point strengthened herself in resistance by a preventative course of antidotes. There was always stabbing too, but that was getting pretty old. Instead, an insane idea came to mind to fashion a ship with a removable section that could be rigged to come loose and hurl Agrippina to a watery death because that somehow sounds not at all planned, who could possibly suspect a thing, right? [3]

Shipwreck of Agrippina

It did not work. The section designed to come off was halted by a well-placed couch that Agrippina had been lounging on and when this part of the plan fell apart, the crew tried attacking with paddles. Needless to say, Agrippina swam away mostly unscathed and super suspicious of her son. Nero knew it too, and despite her feigned ignorance of the ordeal, he immediately sent men to her villa to finish her off. There, they bludgeoned her with a truncheon and killed her, but not before she told them to strike her in the womb first, her last act of revenge against her son.

And if you thought that was the end of the incest in this post, I’ll leave you with this one last anecdote. For upon her death and subsequent deliverance of her remains, accounts add that “Nero inspected his mother’s corpse and praised her figure.” [3]

Oh, for the love of–

Fact Check it, yo!

Primary & Secondary Sources:

[1] This is a pretty solid joke, if you don’t mind my bragging. Octavian Augustus Caesar was said to have claimed, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Suetonius Tranquillus, Divus AugustusFirst paragraph, first line.

[2] Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus all claim that Nero watched the fire rage while playing the lyre and singing of the destruction of Troy. (Dio, Epitome LXII; Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars; Tacitus, AnnalsRespectively)

[3] Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome. (The Madness of Nero, Penguin Epics pg. 87)

  1. “Agrippina’ s public image was also much promoted under Claudius’ reign : she was in fact the first wife of a living emperor to adopt the title Augusta, and before her no living woman had appeared on gold and silver coins.” Kajava, M. (1998). L’Antiquité Classique,67, 492-494. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41659921 
  2. “…those writing about Agrippina, especially Tacitus, conflated her actions with the stereotypes of scheming women, partly to denigrate overly-ambitious women and partly to criticize imperial rule.” & “Tacitus depicts Agrippina as a woman whose every action was attributable to political ambition. Actions that involve step-motherly intrigue, hypocrisy, female jealousy and a public display of dominance all expose “her own desire for power.” Williams, K. (2007). The Classical Journal,103(1), 116-119. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30038666
  3. “ first, it highlights much more clearly what Agrippina was expecting from her son’s principate: the continuation of the partnership, which evidently Seneca and Burrus, with their insistence upon the ‘Augustan model’ of government, were determined to deny her. Such an aspiration inevitably irritated a son more than it had the husband.” David Shotter. (1998). Agrippina. The Classical Review,48(1), 117-118. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/713730

[4] Gallivan, P. (1974). Confusion concerning the Age of Octavia. Latomus,33(1), 116-117. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41528935

[5] Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars; Life of Caligula

[6“she was a living critique of the principate and the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Claudius and the political system appear weak in allowing a power-hungry Dux Femina to flourish; the existence of a saeua nouerca (with all that stereotypes connotations of dysfunction) in the imperial family points to dysfunction in the state; and the incest theme critiques Julio-Claudian endogamy.” & “in this connection Dio’s uncertainty, absent in Tacitus, about the veracity of the incest theme, which he says might have been invented to fit the characters of Agrippina and Nero.”

Malloch, S. (2007). Agrippina the Younger. The Classical Review,57(2), 477-478. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4497627

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2 thoughts on “History is Incessantly Incesty (Part Duo)

  1. So with all the incesty-ness happening around this family and time in general what was the general attitude towards it? Was it frowned upon? Ignored? Did they know what it could possibly do to the offspring?

  2. At least in the Roman Empire, these kind of relationships were definitely thought of as immoral and taboo. This is partly why its so prevalently featured in salacious character assassinations, it’s a great way to make a case for why someone could lack moral reasoning in other ways. The marriage between Agrippina and Emperor Claudius was certainly frowned upon too, Uncles and Nieces shouldn’t be together. And though Tacitus is the leading authority on the events in this time period, he’s not without his biases. So even though we know Agrippina and Emperor Claudius happened, we can’t be entirely certain of the validity of the claims against Nero. There’s a lot of analysis that points out that Tacitus could be using these stories to criticize the Julio-Claudian rule in general, and you’ll notice that when an Emperor falls out of favor, like Caligula did, you’ll usually find wild stories like these in the sources.

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