Claudius's reign - the part played by Agrippina


NOTE: the purpose of this discussion topic is not to debate the character of Agrippina or her general significance (that will happen in a later Theme).  All we are doing in this topic is making a list of Agrippina’s achievements in the reign of Claudius, and thinking about how important she was – this topic is SOLELY about ‘Claudius’s relationship with Agrippina and its impact on his reign’. 

Depending on what question you are asked in the exam, therefore, you may need also to draw on ideas in Themes 5 or 6.



The Primary Record

Tacitus has given us our most powerful impression on the impact of Agrippina on Claudius’s reign.  After she married Claudius, he writes:

From this point on, the state was changed completely, and everything was subject to the control of a woman … a controlling and almost masculine dominance (Annals 12.7).


It is a theme which runs, not only through Tacitus, but all the ancient writers – that Agrippina’s malign and overweening influence dominated Claudius’ government.



Modern Interpretations

Up to the end of the 19th century, writers tended to accept Tacitus’s view at face value, until the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1934) reinterpreted Claudius as an energetic and centralising ruler.  Part of his argument was to downplay Agrippina’s importance:

Agrippina holds a place in the history of Claudius’s reign only in virtue of her share in certain isolated events, such as the substitution of Nero for Britannicus, which had no influence ion the general character of Claudius’s government.

If you believe that Claudius dominated the government, you can’t at the same time hold that Agrippina dominated the government.


By contrast, Agrippina’s biographer Anthony Barratt (1996) argued that Agrippina was the decisive influence in the reign, effectively saving it from collapse:

It is apparent that the mood and atmosphere of Claudius’s reign improved measurably during its latter half … and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of the impetus for this change for the better should be attributed to the influence and efforts of Agrippina. The influence of Agrippina on the senate would have been considerable…’

For Barratt, Agrippina was more than just Claudius's helper – he argued that the coins of the reign (showing jugate heads of Claudius and Agrippina) demonstrated ‘the role of Agrippina as Claudius’s partner’.


Recently, however Diana Beuster (2009) has suggested that the impression that Agrippina ‘changed the state’ is ‘a Tacitean trap’ which we might wish to avoid.






The following websites will help you complete the task:

Try not to read the summary-of-mentions sheet on Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio until you have made your own list of Agrippina's actions.



Study your set-texts on Tacitus and Suetonius and make a list of all the actions of Agrippina and all the times she affected the politics of the reign. 

Try to make your list BEFORE you cheat and use the summary-of-mentions sheet!

  • What does it show about Agrippina's impact on the reign of Claudius? 

  • How 'malign' an influence was she? 

  • Did she really 'save the government from collapse?

Then click the yellow pointer to compare the comments that my pupils made:

  •  What did Agrippina DO in Claudius's reign:
    • •  She controlled the COURT more than the government (e.g. she seduced and married Claudius, eliminated rivals such as Lollia and Calpurnia, cultivated the freedmen - esp. Pallas). She also oversaw the education of Nero and Britannicus (a role which Tacitus could acknowledge, because he saw it as a 'woman's task').
    • •  She secured the succession for Nero (inc. political eliminations such as getting Britannicus's tutors removed, execution of Domitia Lepida)
    • •  Public works: she was closely involved in the draining of the Fucine Lake and, during a great fire in Rome, she accompanied Claudius as he lent his assistance.
    • •  Dio says she attended Claudius when he was transacting business or seeing ambassadors (e.g. Caractacus) - although she sat on a separate dais.
    • •  Tacitus - apart from receiving Caractacus and founding Cologne - has her interested in very little other than receiving honours (e.g the carpentum and the title Augusta).
  •  Analysis of Agrippina's influence on Claudius's reign:
    • FOR
    • •  By controlling Nero's education (Seneca) she determined the nature of his rule at the start of his reign.
    • •  By securing the succession for Nero, she determined the future history of the Roman Empire.
    • •  Tacitus says that 'everything was subject to the control of ... an almost masculine dominance'.
    • •  A tetradrachm showing jugate heads of Claudius and Agrippina presents her as a joint-ruler.
    • •  Barratt (1996) believes she saved the monarchy - there is significant evidence that her REPUTATION and popularity helped to stabilise government in the second half of Claudius's reign.
    • •  She exercised power, not in her own right, but only through the authority of the emperor; Claudius (unless he really was a dolt) was the ruler.
    • •  She couldn't eliminate Britannicus immediately or altogether.
    • •  Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio all agree that her influence over Claudius was fading towards the end of the reign.
    • •  Certain jobs were disallowed to her because she was a woman - e.g she played no part in the conquest of Britain (the Army), she could not go into the Senate or make laws, and she exercised a very limited role only in foreign policy.
    • •  There were limits to her influence - she was unable to stop the Senate expelling Tarquinius.
  •  What was the nature of Agrippina's relationship with Claudius:
    • •  If we are to believe Tacitus and Suetonius, it was sexual - she seduced him before they were married ( but note how the BBC series I Claudius portrayed it as cynical and asexual)
    • •  To some extent it was a marriage of political convenience to draw on her popularity (hence the freedmen's debate)
    • •  There is considerable evidence that she helped Claudius govern the country (see above - the fire, Caractacus, daily business and ambassadors, Fucine Lake, the tetradrachm).
    • •   There is some evidence that she dominated Claudius (Dio says he neglected Britannicus because she would not allow it; she influenced him when Britannicus insulted Nero; Suetonius and Dio say she had complete control over him)
    • •  It is highly unlikely that she murdered Claudius.
  •  What were the bases of Agrippina's power:
    • •  The immense prestige of being Germanicus's granddaughter (c.f. Nero's automatic popularity).
    • •  The fact that the emperor was her husband - all her actual power stemmed from him.
    • •  Her relationship to Pallas (esp. in her marriage and in the adoption of Nero).
    • •  Political skill? Dio says that she accomplished her ends partly by getting the freedmen to persuade Claudius, and partly by arranging beforehand that the senate, the people and the soldiers would 'shout their approval'.
    • •  She was ruthless - eliminating rivals and those who threatened Nero's succession.


Now write an answer to the following question:

'Agrippina dominated politics in the reign of Claudius.'  How far do the ancient sources support this opinion?

In your answer you should:

•  give a brief account of Agrippina's actions and influence during the reign of Claudius;

•  discuss the arguments for and against the idea that Agrippina dominated the reign;

•  show knowledge of the relevant sections of Tacitus and Suetonius;

•  consider how reliable you think these sources are.                                       [30]