Agrippina

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 Jul 2019

Member Reviews

If you ever feel bad about your family baggage, it might help to take a look at someone else’s. Tolstoy’s famous phrase that “every happy family is alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” was tailor-made for one particular Roman family. Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the primur inter pares, Emperor Augustus, and daughter of the beloved Roman general, Germanicus. Her family lineage was certainly august (no pun intended), but it contained its own unique seeds of destruction. But before the fatal blooming, Agrippina cagily used those Julian family ties to fight her way into a position of power unheard of since the time of Livia, Augustus’s third and favorite wife. Despite her accomplishments, she’s mostly remembered for being the sister of Caligula, the mother of Nero, and less foreboding but hugely consequential, the wife of Emperor Claudius. Oh, and incest…lots and lots of incest. 

But that’s mostly bollocks, mere rumors told to discredit an extremely competent and influential woman, according to Emma Southon in her new book, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World.  Southon, a PhD in Ancient History at the University of Birmingham, tells a saucy story about one woman against a very angry male world that threw every imaginable accusation against a woman who stepped out of line in Roman society. It’s also a triumphant story about her rising above and bending that world to her will. As with most stories about those who toy with absolute power, it doesn’t end well. But before the inevitable, Southon is determined to make this a rollicking tour of Agrippina and her world. 

But first, the sources. As with any study of women in ancient Greece or Rome, they are scant, scattered, and exceptionally infuriating in Southon’s opinion. The three major sources are all men and they all really seem to hate Agrippina: Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. Since only men were considered worthy of recorded history, Southon reminds us that when women appear in the textual record, it’s almost always in relation to a man. But it should flag our attention: the fact they are mentioned at all by antiquity’s misogynists indicates they must have made an impact. In Agrippina’s case, she made an impact on the scale of the Tunguska event. 

Agrippina was born to Agrippina (her namesake) and Germanicus, a successful soldier and war hero, in 15 CE. Southon is a fleet-footed tour guide through the twists, turns, and diabolical intrigues that symbolized imperial Rome in the first century. The book includes a family tree to sort out the recurring names and a handy timeline of key events to help the uninitiated avoid utter confusion about who did what to whom. We do know from the flimsy source material the basics of Agrippina’s youth: her childhood exile from Rome, her return, two marriages, the birth of Nero, and her ability to survive as so many relatives were knocked off around her. But it was her marriage to Emperor Claudius (her uncle) in 49 CE that catapulted her to the peak of her fame, power, and prestige. In the year of her marriage to Claudius, she was given the honorific “Augusta,” being “only the third woman in history to receive this title and the first wife of a living emperor” to enjoy the appellation. It was an achievement of epic proportions, as the author explains that:

"Making her an Augusta gave her official status, if not an official role, in the Roman state and made her the most powerful woman the Western world had ever seen."

The numismatics of the empire reflected that glory, as her visage joined the emperor’s on coinage throughout the empire. Even after Claudius died (under suspicious circumstances…of course it’s always suspicious in Rome) and Nero succeeded him, Agrippina’s likeness was shared on Roman coins with her son. These halcyon days were not to last long, since we’re talking about Nero here. Resentful of her power, influence, and love among the citizenry, Nero wanted her out of the picture. Thus, in 59 CE, when Nero was but 22 and his mother a still vibrant 44 years of age, he ordered her death. She faced it valiantly, even telling the centurions where to strike with their swords: her womb. 

Agrippina is a smart choice for those who think they probably won’t enjoy ancient Roman history. Southon takes an approach to her subject in a style that’s brash and bold. You know you’re not reading your mother’s history book the first five times the f-bomb appears or when you’ve learned every imaginable verb for sexual intercourse (I counted seven before I gave up counting). Southon attempts to make her parallels relevant by employing numerous pop culture references, as well. For those in the know, this will be terribly amusing. For others, it will be puzzling. At one point, this reviewer had to phone a friend: “Do you know who Michael Bluth is?” Apparently, he’s a fictional character on Arrested Development, a television sitcom. 

The excessive use of expletives aside, it’s the transitory nature of pop culture that unfortunately makes this book necessarily short-lived and also a bit superficial. Viewed for the personal historical homage it is, the book fits the bill as a witty, charming, and subjective take on an “uppity” woman in male-dominated Rome. Most importantly, it can encourage readers previously cold to history to dig into the footnotes and learn more about a woman unafraid to fight for power on her own terms, no matter the consequences.
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This is the biography I didn't know I've been waiting for years to read! 

Generally, I read biographies along with one or two other books just in case I get bored and need a diversion before I get back to the serious business of reading. However, with Southon's Agrippina I was fully immersed the entire time.

I will admit I was put off a bit at first by Southon's frank remarks, but, as I continued to read I began to warm up to her. As I keep reading, it felt like Southon was putting into writing what I was thinking. This book seemed to be scrupulously researched as well, which I sincerely appreciated. It felt like I was being taken back to Agrippina's moment in time. 

If you are in search of a great biography that is very well researched but isn't dry enough to start a fire, I would recommend Agrippina by Emma Southon as your next read.
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Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman in the Roman World gives readers something that is hard to find: a biography of a Roman woman.  Agrippina: sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius, mother of Nero.  She was loved and reviled, praised and curse- both today and during her lifetime. Agrippina created new roles for imperial women, and pushed (or outright broke) the accepted role of women in Roman life.

 Emma Southon looks at Agrippina's life as it can be pieced together from ancient sources, but she also gives readers perfect examples of why those sources can't necessarily be trusted.  She immerses the reader in the culture of the Roman world so we can see how our modern views on women, politics, and life in general were not those of Tacitus, Seutonius, and the histories they wrote.That True History can't always be discovered and sometimes the historian has to make their best assumptions- but should also be willing to admit that they are assumptions.

It is clear that Southon is an expert in all things Aggripina and ancient Rome and has done her research.  But her writing style isn't designed to overwhelm the reader with how much she knows or how amazingly academic she is.  Instead, Southon writes as if she is a friend trying to describe Agrippina's life to you over a pint at the local pub.  She is in full casual, brilliant,  story-telling mode; she shreds her original sources for their clear prejudices and unreliability; and presents it all with sparkling English humor, wit, and occasional vulgarity that left me laughing at many of her opinions and insights.  Southon reconstructs Agrippina's life through ancient sources, gives her views on what was mostly likely to happen when Agrippina wasn't being written about, and does a wonderful job of explaining why she thinks that way while reminding the reader when something is only herl speculation or opinion.     


If you only read one book in your life on Agrippina, or the Roman Empire as a whole, it needs to be Emma Southon's Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman in the Roman World. It is a book for people who love history and are looking for a more feminist light to be shone on ancient sources, for those who love history and want to celebrate powerful women the Romans tried to hide in the shadows.  It is also a book for people who think they don't like history and that history is boring.  Just a few pages into Agrippina will convert even the most hardened "history isn't for me" believers. 



I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review
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Emma Southon gives us a fascinating look at a complex woman whom history has perhaps treated unfairly.

She starts by giving the reader reasons why the study of historical women is so difficult.

... we have just three major literary sources that mention Agrippina with any detail, and a total of seven literary sources from the entire corpus of Latin literature that think she was interesting or significant enough to deserve a single line; one of which is a play."

Like most women from history, Agrippina was mainly written about when she orbited important men. There's also the difficulty of potential bias in the few sources we have.

"She can be seen only through the distorting lens of her relationship to other people and how well or badly she performed the ideal form of that relationship. It's mostly badly, which is why we get to see so much of her."

But what's left when you take all of that into consideration is extraordinary. As the author points out, Agrippina was "the sister, niece, wife, and mother of emperors." There are few from history who can claim the same.

Southon uses an informal style and words like "stabby" and "murdery". I found her delivery rather hilarious and enjoyed it. If you're turned off by this type of writing, you may want to choose another, more serious author.

She doesn't neglect to remind readers of the context of every bit of Agrippina's history or point out when the record is missing or falls silent. Sometimes, the gaps in the record speak even louder than what was written.

"The next year, however, Agrippina came roaring back into historical narratives in the most confusing possible way."

I liked how Southon took complex concepts from Roman history and gave them to the reader in digestible chunks. For example, we get a glimpse of what portions of Agrippina's wedding ceremony may have been like:

"First, Agrippina the Younger anointed the doorway with fat and wool. Basically, she smeared some kind of animal fat onto the door frame and then strung wool between the door posts, sticking the ends to the fat. Obviously that sounds both disgusting and bizarre, which it is, but this is very symbolic and serious. Probably as these things were brought out, the party atmosphere would die down and everyone would watch reverently as this little girl covered the door in goo."

She goes on to examine the superstition of carrying the bride across the threshold of her new home which was another important part of the ceremony and nothing like the laughing, fun time it is today. It was interesting to me to juxtapose the modern viewpoint on these ancient traditions and see the glaring differences between the two.

Highly recommended for readers who like their non-fiction to sound like a conversation between friends. Southon makes the past come alive in a delightful read filled with scandals, power struggles and, of course, Rome.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance reader copy of this book, which is slated to go on sale tomorrow, August 6, 2019. The brief quotations I cited in this review may change or be omitted in the final copy.
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Disclaimer: I received an arc of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Agrppina is a fascinating historical figure who’s image, like most woman, was distorted both by her contemporaries and my early historians.  I love reading books that take a fresh look at historical figures through a new lens and question the bias of those who previously recorded history.  

While the title of the novel might be a bit off putting, the author was intentionally provocative and highlights the slander surrounding this female figure.

The novel is well-written and perfect for history buffs and newbies alike.
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Power, especially royal power could best be wielded by a woman wronged...

The story of Agrippina is one that has long been left to shadows and footnotes. Now, she is brought to life in this thrilling book, and her story just bursts from the pages! If you enjoy Ancient history, then you have to read this book and discover this powerful and outspoken woman.

I LOVED this book! It was one that I could not put down!
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It was fascinating to read about a historical figure that has been overlooked by history.

It was very interesting to learn how she came to her conclusions.

I really liked that the author wrote in an authentic voice, as if she was talking to you in person.  Some may not appreciate this.
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Agrippina the Younger, granddaughter of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor; daughter of the popular general Germanicus and his formidable wife, also named Agrippina; sister of Caligula; empress of Claudius and mother of Nero, has always gotten extremely bad press, from the time of the early historians who accused her of incest with both her brother and her son as well as the murder of her husband Claudius. Her portrayal in Robert Graves’ immensely popular and influential novel I, Claudius only cemented her reputation as an immoral woman who would do anything for power. Author Emma Southon aims in Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World to balance the scales a bit.

As Southon points out at the beginning of her book, we have virtually no contemporary information about Agrippina and most of what we do know about her life comes from only a few authors who wrote much later and had agendas, using her both to comment on the flaws of the men around her and to portray her as everything a Roman woman should not be - a treatment which had also been meted out to earlier women such as Marc Antony’s wife Fulvia.

She then proceeds, in a lively, conversational fashion but with, at least as far as I could tell, impressive knowledge* and erudition, to lay out her case. (Fair warning: This is not your conventional scholarly biography, including plenty of opinion, asides to the reader on such annoyances of the naming conventions for Roman women, and the occasional f-bomb, including reference to a scurrilous rumor about a British politician and a pig as an example of the kind of stories that make the rounds today, despite people knowing that they’re false.) She sees her subject as a highly intelligent, competent woman who for a good part of her life, did follow the template of patrician Roman womanhood, but who also had a healthy desire to preserve her own life and that of her son - especially after seeing virtually her entire family die violent and/or unnatural deaths - and who wished to use her intelligence and competence to advance herself and her family, mainly Nero. Southon argues that Agrippina was actually a positive influence on Claudius, pointing out that the instability of his early reign largely subsided after their marriage, and far from portraying her as a saint, is willing to entertain the possibility that she did murder him. Sadly, however, Agrippina was unable to exert the same kind of influence on Nero, who after initially seeming to accept her as a co-ruler, as she had essentially been with Claudius, rejected her early on and eventually had her murdered in what started as a spectacular comedy of errors (although ending tragically) that has entered the realm of legend.

I received this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

*There was only one thing I found that was actually wrong - presumably something that was typed incorrectly and hopefully will be fixed in the final published version - a reference to Antonius Felix, procurator of Judea, marrying the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, when by my reckoning the woman was actually their great-granddaughter.
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Thank you to NetGalley for my ARC!
This was unbelievably fabulous! The scholarship of Roman women is very limited and this was an absolutely brilliant addition to the field. It was funny, yet remained accurate and scholarly, and yet it was an easy read for historical nonfiction. Where was this when I did needed it for my own research!? Emma Southon did a great job. It is an extended analysis of a fascinating woman who existed and is recorded in the patriarchal lense of Roman history. This is feminist in its scope because it has to be in order to convey that fact that quiet, well behaved women do not show up in the era's narratives. It is entertaining, engaging and honest. I highly enjoyed it and can't recommend it enough!
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This was legit. Intense and more than a little dense, yes. But, I'm a classical studies (ancient civilizations) major and I was thoroughly intrigued and willing to suffer through the minor narrative faults to learn more. I'm nerdy like that. #historynerd ^_^ 

Really though, if I hadn't been so interested in the subject of this book, I might not have finished it because it did get denser than I would have liked and read in some parts like an academic paper. Beyond that though, it was really refreshing and the tales and insights shared were things I don't think anyone (the majority) has ever really given much due consideration. 

Would I recommend? To a select group of people. Yes. It really was fascinating. 
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Agrippina is an intriguing historical figure. She was the wife, sister, niece, and mother of emperors. Her story seemed to be a soap opera for there is betrayal, political intrigue, and murder. Thus, her story is an interesting and enthralling read. I really like reading about her. However, the writing was not great. The writing was very amateurish and not very academic which I find to be very off-putting. Still, I recommend this for fans of Margaret George, Kate Quinn, and Michelle Moran. Full review to come!
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This is a unique take and somewhat rough around the edges book. This could be a good way to get the average person not normally interesting in history pulled into it, but for the rest of us who live history it might run is the wrong way.
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In this new biography of Agrippina, Southon does a good job prying apart rumor and propaganda from what might have actually happened (using David Cameron and the pig story as a cultural touchstone).  The tone throughout is flippant and informal, which may well draw someone into ancient history who otherwise found it stodgy and incomprehensible, but if you're making crude jokes based on someone's lifetime body of scholarship, you should cite them.
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