Weird Wednesdays: The empress that conquered Rome

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Don’t mess with Romans.

Specifically, do not mess with the Roman Empress Julia Agrippina the Younger. If you do, you’ll find yourself poisoned, drowned, stabbed multiple times in sensitive places or simply banished from the Empire for the sake of ‘preserving the peace’.

This woman didn’t care. She cut through any opposition that stood in her way with the ruthless efficiency of surgeon with a scalpel. She went on to be the mother to one of the craziest, over-the-top megalomaniac Roman emperors ever recorded by history.

Julia was born in AD 15 to Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus Julius Caesar, who was known for his victories in the wild areas of what is now modern-day Germany. A descendant of Caesar Augustus and adoptive granddaughter of the current emperor Tiberius, Julia took after her forefathers in terms of seizing power with an iron, perfectly manicured fist.

At the tender age of 13, Tiberius arranged for Julia to be married to her cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, (yeah, Romans had long names). Nine years later, Julia became pregnant. Around the same time Tiberius died and her brother, Caligula, took the throne.

This went just as well as you would expect.

Initially, he wasn't a terrible emperor, per se. Caligula honored his sisters Agrippina, Drusilla and Livilla with special favors, high statuses and even mentions in his addresses to the Senate, along with printing their images on Roman currency.

It only really went downhill when Drusilla died.

Driven mad by grief (or just plain mad), Caligula started doing little quirky things, like building massive statues of himself and appointing his horse as consul. Agrippina, her sister, Livilla, and Drusilla’s husband didn’t take this very well and plotted to murder the mad emperor.

However, they were discovered and banished by Caligula. Stripped of her title and luxurious life in Rome, Agrippina was sent to the Pontine Islands, off the coast of what is now Italy, with her husband Domitius and infant son, Lucius. Domitius died shortly afterwards of disease, leaving Agrippina alone.

Caligula kicked the bucket in AD 41, stabbed to death by his own bodyguards. His uncle Claudius took the throne shortly afterward, and lifted Agrippina's exile. When she returned to Rome, Agrippina proceeded to marry the wealthy Roman, Crispus, and then poisoned him to death in order to get at his sweet, sweet inheritance.

It didn’t take long of Agrippina to start making moves at her uncle (ew) in order to take the throne. The only thing that stood in her way was Valeria Messalina, Claudius’ wife. Messalina actually tried to have Lucius killed, sending assassins to stab him in his bed at night. However, Agrippina was forward thinking and stuck a snakeskin on his pillow, causing the killers to run in terror, thinking it was a venomous serpent.

A statue of Roman Empress Julia Agrippina, mother of Nero located in the Warsaw National Museum (Photo courtesy of Warsaw National Museum)

A statue of Roman Empress Julia Agrippina, mother of Nero located in the Warsaw National Museum (Photo courtesy of Warsaw National Museum)

Eventually, after garnering popularity in Rome from penning a memoir about her time in exile, Agrippina worked the idea into Claudius’ head that his wife was trying to kill him. Revealing a conspiracy plot headed by Messalina, Claudius put his wife to death.

After sleeping her way up through Claudius’ consuls, advisors and attendants, Agrippina married her uncle in AD 49. She then reassigned, poisoned or forced suicide on any politicians or advisers that were loyal to the late Messalina, eliminating all competition to absolute power. A year later, she received the title of Augusta, an honorific that basically put her on the same level as Julius Caesar in terms of power and influence.    

With her marriage to Claudius came the adoption of Britticancus, Messalina’s son. Agrippina initially didn’t try to get rid of him, since Claudius named her son Lucius as heir to the throne.

However, in AD 54, Claudius changed his mind and chose Britannicus as his successor. This didn’t really fly with Agrippina, so she went ahead and poisoned her husband to death with a plate of mushrooms.

Lucius, now age 17 and married, took the throne. Since Claudius adopted him, he took the name of his adoptive grandfather, Nero.

This went over just as well as you would expect.

Though Agrippina enjoyed even greater power as the mother of the emperor, sitting in on Senate meetings and named priestess of a powerful cult, a rift began to grow between mother and son. In AD 55, tired of her meddling, Nero forced his mother out of the palace and stripped her of her power and titles. However, she was still very popular among the Roman public and pulled the strings of the Senate from afar.

In AD 58, Nero decided to end it all and kill her. Unfortunately, she was rather hard to kill.

Accounts of Agrippina's death are varied. Some say that Nero tried sabotaging a boat Agrippina was sailing in, but she survived the wreckage and swam to shore. He tried poisoning her several times, but she was savvy enough to have the antidotes on hand.     

Eventually, he just went the old-fashioned route and hired an assassin to stab her to death. Her final words?

“Smite my womb.”

Which is fitting, considering how eventually Nero, hunted by the Senate and reportedly driven mad with guilt over the murder of his mother, stabbed himself to death 10 years later.

And you thought today's elections were bad.



Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.