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Background: The Roman World

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Background: The Roman World

Use the maps to become familiar with the provinces and kingdoms of this period: The Roman world in AD 14: the provinces and client kings.

By the death of Augustus, Rome controlled the areas around the Mediterranean either directly or indirectly through client kings. During the Augustan period, Rome had expanded her control to include Egypt and part of North Africa and the Middle East. Illyricum and areas north and west of Italy were added also. Further efforts had been made south of Egypt and there was even talk of conquering Britain and Parthia, although that was largely propaganda. When Augustus died in AD 14, he left Tiberius, the next emperor, a very stable and well-organised empire.

The Position and Power of the Emperor in AD 14

Before Augustus took power in 30BC with the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman constitution consisted of Assemblies of the citizens (male only), magistrates elected by the Assemblies, and a Senate which advised the magistrates and which was made up of elected officials. In principle it was a mixed constitution with elements of both democracy and oligarchy. Julius Caesar had, before his assassination in March 44 BC, effectively taken over the government with the post of dictator for life, but it was to be another 14 years before the first emperor took control. Even then, much of the republican system of magistrates and Senate (if not Assemblies) remained in order for the government to work effectively. this website contains a chart and information on the republican system of government:

Look at: the main magistrates and their duties: censors, Consuls, Praetors, Aediles, Quaestors, Tribunes; the role of the Senate; the Assemblies and their duties.

Augustus, however, took over a great deal of the tasks of the these bodies. Most importantly he took control of the legions and the most important provinces – Syria, Spain, Gaul and Egypt (this one being virtually a private kingdom since no senator was allowed to go there). He also had a power (imperium) which was greater than other magistrates and governors of provinces. In addition, he had the powers of a tribune in Rome, as well as rights and privileges which allowed him to make laws and control the debates in the Senate. Among other honours he was Chief Priest (Pontifex Maximus), leader of the Senate (Princeps Senatus) and given the title Father of his Country (Pater Patriae). Although in theory the constitution still carried on working, in practice the emperor made the most important decisions. The magistrates became more administrators than decision-makers and the Senate tended to agree with what Augustus wanted. By the time Tiberius took over, it was clear who was in charge. Although Tiberius found it difficult to take over from Augustus there was no real challenge to him when he became emperor in AD 14.

Context: Agrippina’s upbringing and the influence of the imperial family

1.1 Agrippina’s family: Germanicus, Agrippina the Elder and Gaius (Caligula)

Tiberius had been compelled by Augustus to adopt Germanicus as his successor. Germanicus was the son of Drusus, Tiberius’ brother, and Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia, Augustus’ sister. Augustus’ intention was to create a family dynasty to continue as ruler of the empire.

Julio-Claudian family tree

The marriage of Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus brought together the two halves of the family of Augustus: Agrippina was the daughter of Julia, Augustus’ daughter and Germanicus the grandson of his sister. Germanicus was also a member of the Claudian family. Their children would be members of both the Julian and Claudian families. They would also be direct descendant of Augustus himself. Augustus had intended that his two grandsons, Gaius and Lucius, to succeed him, but they died in the youths. So he turned to Tiberius to hold the position until Germanicus was ready. Tiberius had a son of his own, Drusus but he made Germanicus his successor as Augustus had wanted.

Germanicus’ brother was the future Emperor Claudius, and later Claudius married one of Germanicus’ daughters, Agrippina the Younger. The cameo showing the two couples is a famous depiction of the relationship between them and the importance that relationship had for both Claudius and Agrippina the Younger. The two men are associated with weapons as victorious generals, while the women are represented in a way that suggests their importance and power. It may commemorate the marriage between Claudius and Agrippina the Younger.

View the cameo showing Claudius, Agrippina the Younger, Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder at (also in A.A. Barrett illustration No 6 and page 103).

Germanicus was also the father of the next emperor Gaius (Caligula) And the grandfather of Nero. While he was alive, and perhaps even more after his death in AD 19, the Romans saw Germanicus as another Augustus. His father Drusus had been very popular. This popularity extended to him and his children, Gaius and Agrippina, benefited also. Tacitus, the Roman historian, is full of praise for his achievements in Germany, in contrast to the cautious Tiberius.
Meanwhile, as already said, Germanicus was making tax-assessments in Gaul when news reached him that Augustus had died. He was married to the elder Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus, and they had several children. Germanicus was the son of Drusus, brother of Tiberius, and grandson of Livia, Augustus’ wife. He was worried because his uncle and grandmother secretly hated him, which was made worse by the fact that it was unfair. Drusus, Germanicus’ father, was highly regarded by the Roman people and they believed that he would have given back their freedom, if he had become emperor. So they gave the same support to Germanicus hoping he would do the same. He had a polite and modest personality, a wonderful openness and honesty about him, very different from the proud and hypocritical words and expressions of Tiberius. The mutual enmities between the women added to this; Livia showed a stepmother’s dislike of Agrippina; Agrippina herself was too easily provoked to anger, which would have been apparent if her love and loyalty to her husband had not given her strong-willed character some worthwhile aim.

Tacitus Annals 1.33

Task 1A

How are Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder portrayed in this passage?

Suetonius (Gaius 1-7) provides a short portrait of Germanicus which agrees with Tacitus. He had, according to Suetonius, every good quality – moral excellence, courage, generosity and the ability to inspire others. But as Tacitus suggests he was disliked by the Emperor Tiberius and Livia, the wife of Augustus. Suetonius (Gaius 2) claims Tiberius arranged his death. Tacitus’ account is more complicated involving the governor of Syria, Piso, as the main agent, but he still blames Tiberius and his jealousy of Germanicus’ success. Tacitus (Annals 2.71) gives us Germanicus’ final words to his friends in which he blames Piso and his wife Plancina. Tacitus then adds: (Annals 2.72)

Then he turned to his wife. he begged her, by her memory of himself and their children, to put aside her anger, and submit to the savagery of misfortune; he told her, when she returned to the city of Rome, not to anger those in stronger positions by competing for power. This is what he said with others present. In private he said other things, where he was believed to have shown that he was afraid of trouble from Tiberius. Not much later he died. There was great grief in province and among the surrounding peoples. Foreign nations and kings mourned: he had shown such great friendliness towards his allies, clemency towards his enemies; in his looks and words, he had been respected equally; while he had kept a greatness and seriousness, suitable to his high position, he had avoided envy and pride.

Tacitus Annals 2.72

Task 1B

What concerns Germanicus about Agrippina’s character?

What do you learn from Annals 3.4 about Tiberius and Agrippina the Elder?

What does Tiberius claim about her when announcing her death? (Annals 6.25)

After Germanicus’ death in AD 19, Agrippina promoted her sons Drusus Caesar and Nero Caesar as the rightful successors to Tiberius, although Tiberius had his own son, Drusus. In AD 23, however, Drusus died (or was killed by Sejanus and Livilla, his wife). Agrippina’s efforts to make her sons the heirs seems to have annoyed Tiberius, and, with Sejanus’ persuasive help, she and her sons were gradually removed from the scene. Both Nero and Drusus Caesar were imprisoned and died before Agrippina herself, in exile, starved to death. Only Gaius survived, having been taken to live with Tiberius when he retired to the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples.

1.2 Agrippina’s Early Life: marriage, sister to the emperor and exile

Agrippina had been born on November 6th AD 15 and since her father’s death had lived with Livia, her grandmother and mother of Tiberius. In AD 28 she was 13 years old and Tiberius arranged a marriage with Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (Tacitus Annals 4.75) who was about 30 when they married. His family was very rich and very distinguished as members of one of the leading families of Rome. Domitius had two sisters, one Domitia and the other Lepida in the sources. Both play a part in Agrippina’s later life. Domitia married a man called Sallustius Crispus Passienus, who later divorced Domitia and married Agrippina. Lepida was the mother of Messalina, the wife of Claudius before Agrippina. Her son Sulla was at one time due to marry Claudius’ daughter, Antonia. He was later executed by Nero.

In AD 33 Agrippina’s sisters were also married off. Drusilla was married to Lucius Cassius Longinus and Livilla to Marcus Vinicius. Gaius meanwhile was clearly being presented as a successor with Tiberius Gemellus, Tiberius’ grandson.

In March AD 37 Tiberius died (or was killed by Macro, the praetorian prefect) and Gaius became emperor. One of his first acts was to organised the gathering of the ashes of his mother and brothers and have them buried in a ceremony in the Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome. There were games in her honour, statues set up and coins minted. The family was promoted by Gaius, even Claudius who had been kept out the public eye by Augustus and Tiberius. Above all Gaius promoted his sisters. Their names were included in oaths and proposals to the Senate, and most importantly in the vow of allegiance taken to the emperor.

Sestertius showing Agrippina and her sisters (also in Barrett Ill. No 10 and p. 53)

The three sisters are represented on this coin from AD 37-8: Agrippina is Securitas, Drusilla (in the centre) is Concordia, and Livilla (on the right) is Fortuna.

Because Gaius based his claim to be emperor on his relationship to Augustus and the popularity of his father Germanicus, he was using the presentation of his family to secure his position.

This show of affection for his sisters also started rumours of incest between Gaius and them (Suetonius Gaius 24). This was to be a charge against Agrippina later with her son Nero. Whether these accusations were true or not is open to question since both Gaius and Agrippina are accused of all sorts of typical cruel and immoral behaviour in the sources in an effort to blacken their characters. These are stereotypical rumours and need to be considered carefully.

On 15th December AD 37 Agrippia gave birth to her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later to be the Emperor Nero.

This is an account in Suetonius’ Life of Nero. Suetonius includes some stories and hearsay which add an extra atmosphere to the birth of the child, especially in view of later events.

Nero was born at Antium nine months after the death of Tiberius, On 15th December [AD 37]. The sun was rising with the effect that its rays fell on him almost before he could be laid upon the ground. Straightaway many made dreadful predictions about him from his horoscope, and even something said by his father Domitius was seen as warning: among all the congratulations of his friends, he said that "any child born from Agrippina and himself would be cursed and and a disaster for the state. Another sign of furtue misfortune occurred on the day of his purification; Gaius Caesar [Caligula] was asked by his sister to give the infant whatever name he wanted; he looked at his uncle Claudius, who as emperor would later adopt Nero; Gaius then said that he gave him the name of ‘Claudius’. He did this as a joke but Agrippina ignored the suggestion, because at that time Claudius was treated as an object of fun in the palace.

Suetonius Nero 6

Task 1C

How likely is it that the characters said what is reported?

What does this passage tell you about Suetonius’ interests in writing the biography of Nero?

Drusilla died on 10th June AD 38 and was deified on 23rd September. Her second husband had been Marcus Lepidus. He had seemed to be a close associate of Gaius and even perhaps presented as potential successor. However, in AD 39 a plot by the governor of Germany seems have included both Lepidus and Agrippina who were lovers. When discussing her possible incest with Nero Tacitus mentions this affair:

Possibly Agrippina really planned such a great wickedness, perhaps because the consideration of a new act of lust seemed more believable in a woman who as a girl had allowed herself to be seduced by Lepidus in the hope of gaining power; this same desire had led her to lower herself so far as to become the lover of Pallas, and had trained herself for any evil act by her marriage to her uncle.

Tacitus Annals 14.2

Tacitus seems to imply it was this affair which set her on the road to immorality. The possibility is that Agrippina was looking for political support and using sexual means to gain it. Tacitus says that she did this ‘in the hope of gaining power’. Already she is being portrayed as ambitious and devious, a woman who will do anything for power. Another of her lovers at this time was said to be Lucius Annaeus Seneca. He was to be closely linked to Agrippina in the future. In AD 41 he was exiled on the accession of Claudius and recalled only in AD 49 through Agrippina’s wishes.

Agrippina herself was exiled and Nero went to live with Domitia, his aunt when his father, Domitius, died late in AD 40. Claudius, her uncle, recalled her from exile on his accession in January AD 41.

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