Anthony A. BARRETT, Agrippina, Mother of Nero. Londres, Batsford, 1 vol. 16 χ 24 cm, XXI p., 19 fig. Prix: 25 £. ISBN Evil and. In this study, the author uses the latest numismatic, historical and archaeological evidence to reveal the true character behind the legend of Agrippina and to. : Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire ( ): Anthony A. Barrett: Books.

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Over the past twelve years, Yale University Press has issued a series of biographies of the Julio-Claudian emperors, all distinguished by both their rigorous scholarship and their readability for general audiences. The last of the series, by the same author as the present volume, was Caligula: This volume, therefore, takes the series of biographies in a new direction: In his preface, Barrett observes that the lives of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, the parents of his two most recent subjects, would merit historical monographs in their own right, raising the possibility that such studies may be forthcoming.

Biography has not been a fashionable form of historical writing in recent years, in a climate of scholarship that dismisses the significance of the individual and sometimes even the reality of the individual “self” now described as a “social construct”. Every entry in this series of books, however, has vindicated the validity of this historical method, by using the narrative of the subject’s life not as an end in itself but as a means to broader understanding agrippjna the Roman principate.

The former is the more conventional approach that treats the careers xnthony these men and women as a string of titillating atrocity stories; the latter fosters the revisionist mentality that attempts to redraw every historical villain as a misunderstood athony or elder statesman.

Only in the case of Richard III of England has such an effort ever achieved widespread popular acceptance, and the success of Riccardians remains something of a Holy Grail for historical revisionists. Early in the narrative, Barrett establishes his own clear-eyed attitude toward his subject: Although some of the charges that the ancient authors level against her, such as poisoning and incest, are by their very nature unproven and unprovable, Agrippina never showed signs of any higher ideological goal than the acquisition and retention of power for herself and her family.

She unquestionably used all means at her disposal, including legal and illegal persecution of her personal enemies, in order to achieve those ends.

In this respect, Barrett acknowledges that Agrippina was the product of her society: Griffin has earlier observed that the freedmen on whom Claudius relied, no matter how capable and intelligent they may have been, were nonetheless shaped by a similar experience of disenfranchisement to learn flattery and deception as techniques of survival. Barrett makes such an observation regarding the disgrace and exile of Julia, the daughter of Augustus: Having acknowledged the historical circumstances that created Agrippina and the other notorious women of her dynasty, however, Barrett adds that there is little value in righteous indignation on her behalf: This book, although it will be indispensible to feminist scholars, is not militantly feminist in its outlook, a valid approach in view of the fact that there is no shortage of “ira et studio” in the writings of many other contemporary scholars of antiquity.

Anthony A. Barrett – | Jason Halliday –

Barrett devotes the bulk of his text to a narrative of Agrippina’s life, organized according to her changing roles in the imperial family: A ninth chapter provides a thorough critique of the available sources, including not only the literary record but sculpture, gems, inscriptions and coins.

On pagesBarrett lists every reference to Agrippina in the ancient authors, organized by author, in chronological order and in order of the appearance of each reference in the ancient text. Researchers will find this concordance useful; the present reviewer expects to consult it frequently.


Ten brief appendices, finally, address problems of chronology and prosopography that are important and relevant, but that would have interrupted the coherence of the narrative had they been discussed in the main text.

One of these appendices, however, “The Decline in Agrippina’s Power,” pp. Here, Barrett disputes the conventional wisdom that Agrippina’s influence over her son had ended by the third year of his reign, replaced by that of Seneca and Burrus, and proposes instead that despite their conflicts, she “remained an important force in political affairs right up to the end. Most readers will not need to consult the remainder of the appendices, but those who have a particular interest, for example, in whether Agrippina or Drusilla was the eldest daughter of Germanicus pp.

In the early chapters, Barrett describes the circumstances that created the mystique of Germanicus, the heir to power who never lived to succeed, and so was loved and remembered not for what he did accomplish, but for what people imagined that he could have.

Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire – Anthony A. Barrett – Google Books

All of his children benefitted from this public affection, but only Agrippina had the skill to take full advantage of it, using it among other things to forge alliances with sympathetic members of the Senate and, even more importantly, the Praetorian guard, which remained adamantly loyal to her to the end of her life. Barrett’s analysis of her relationship to the Praetorians is perhaps the best exposition in the book of the political skills for which he admires her: Agrippina used the existing system of promotions and rotations to ensure that at Rome, not only the highest ranks but the middle levels of command as well would be held by men loyal to herself and her son, while those less sympathetic to her cause would receive honorable promotions that removed them from the city.

She thus got rid of potential opponents without making unnecessary enemies. In the later chapters, Barrett interprets Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius as a political alliance between two members of the imperial family: Claudius knew, after the treasonable conspiracies of Messalina, that he was vulnerable to attempted coups, and needed a partner in power.

Agrippina brought with her the advantage of strengthening his ties to the line of the deified Augustus, from whom she, unlike he, was directly descended; she also agripplna her impressive intelligence and political ability. Her marriage to Claudius does seem to have marked a change for the better in his government, or at the very least, for the more peaceful, in that far fewer people were put to death for treason from A. Claudius seemed to have provoked less opposition in the latter part of his principate than he had done earlier.

She had, of course, self-interested motives for such loyalty, since the accomplishments of Claudius were also her own, and since her status as the priestess barrett the deified emperor gave her one of the few forms of institutionalized authority that a Roman woman could hold.

As the wife of Claudius, she had received more open acknowledgments of a formal role in government than any woman before her: At the ceremonies for the draining of the Fucine lake she publicly appeared in a splendid cloth-of-gold cloak that caught the eye of many observers, suggesting as it did her quasi-royal status. Soon after the accession of Nero, she learned the limits of what Romans were willing to tolerate, when she attempted to take her place on a podium with her son, as his equal, to receive the Armenian delegation and was prevented from doing so.


Agrippina’s political abilities also had barretr limits, and dealing with an inexperienced teenager was one of them; Agrippnia failed to understand that Nero, unlike Claudius, would not appreciate the value of a partner in power. Ironically, however, the tragic denouement of the conflict between Agrippina and Nero, one of the most lurid and notorious incidents recorded in Roman history, is not at all well understood. Barrett points out that since Nero did not marry Poppaea until three years after his mother’s death, Agrippina’s opposition to that relationship does not make a very convincing motive for the murder.

The story, indeed, sounds suspiciously like a recycled version of her conflict with Nero over his relationship with the freedwoman Acte.

Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire

The descriptions of the shipwreck in Tacitus, however, are garbled and contradictory: Barrett suggests another plausible scenario: Whatever the true details of the first, unsuccessful effort, however, Agrippina’s survival of the shipwreck forced Nero to give anyhony any effort to disguise the murder, and to act openly. The lesson of her fate was not lost on women of later dynasties, none of whom ever again tried to claim the official status of coregent. For those of us interested in the lives and roles of women in Roman antiquity, anhhony available historical sources present something of a dilemma.

The women whose anthong are most thoroughly documented, in literary sources, epigraphy, coinage and the visual arts, are precisely those whose lives were most completely atypical in their society. Nonetheless, their public images, which generally attempted to present them as avatars of feminine virtue and “family values” no matter how incongruously inaccurate these claimsas well as the stereotypes through which hostile historians condemn them, can tell us much of what was and was not expected of a Roman woman.

Throughout this biography, Barrett offers a particularly lucid dissection of the stereotypical portrayal of women like Livia, Messalina and Agrippina in the writings of the ancient historians.

Barrett acquits Tacitus of misogyny but finds him guilty of sloppily prejudiced thinking: In agroppina, Agrippina’s coins and sculptural portraits, with their hard features, square jaw and obvious orthodontic problems, do not make her look especially beautiful, although in official portraiture barrettt resemblance in this case, to Germanicus sometimes takes priority over attractiveness.

This is not a partisan observation, since both liberal and conservative women suffer the same sort of abuse: Nancy Reagan and Ahrippina Rodham Clinton have both been accused of sexual and anhtony improprieties, and the attacks on Janet Reno follows much the same pattern as those on Jeanne Kirkpatrick. The stereotype also contains inherent contradictions: She emasculates and weakens her husband; her husband is stronger because of her support.

She is harsh and domineering; she is subtle and ingratiating. Tacitus, to his credit, is aware of some of these contradictions, and attempts to explain them away: The exploration of this stereotype in its broader context, however, is not the primary purpose of Barrett’s book.

As noted above, he makes bafrett pretense to offer a feminist analysis of or apologia for Agrippina’s life.

The fact remains that any harrett with an interest in the history of Roman women, or of the Roman imperial system, whether scholar or interested layman, will find this biography indispensible. Levick, Claudius New Haven: Yale University Press,for a similar observation. Yale University Press, Historical Perspectives and Revisionist Viewsed.