2. Agrippina the Younger (15-59 CE)
Even if you don’t know her name, Agrippina the Younger was one of the most famous women of ancient Rome. She was related to ancient Roman emperors: Caesar Octavian Augustus was her great-grandfather, Claudius was her uncle (and later her husband), Caligula was her brother, and Nero was her son. Like the famous men she was related to, she was destined to become a household name.
Agrippina was scandalous even by today’s standards. When her uncle Claudius became emperor of Rome in 41 CE, he was married to the infamous and ruthless Messalina. After her execution, Claudius considered marrying again. Agrippina had become the mistress of one of Claudius’ advisors, the former Greek freedman Marcus Antonius Pallas. Claudius’ advisors were discussing at the time which noblewoman he should marry, and Claudius had a reputation for being easily persuaded. Claudius did approach the Senate and persuaded them that marrying his niece was in the public interest, but Romans highly criticized the marriage.
Agrippina’s reasons for marrying Claudius are unknown. Whether she was grasping for power or trying to protect herself and her son, or both, what we do know is that she had enough influence at the time to reject the marriage if she wanted to. There had to be a reason to enter into such a scandalous marriage, since marrying her father’s brother was a marriage too close in blood relation to be considered proper and scandalized Roman society.
Considering Agrippina’s actions afterward, we can assume she married Claudius to plot her rise to power. She eliminated all of her political rivals, including supporters of Claudius’ former wife Messalina, and anyone who didn’t support her son’s political career. She successfully manipulated and influenced Claudius into adopting Nero and making him Claudius’ successor. She denied Claudius’ son Britannicus access to his father and refused to allow her husband to groom him to become the next emperor.
The story goes that Claudius later repented making Nero his successor and began to favor Britannicus and began to prepare him to become Emperor, which gave Agrippina a motive to remove him. The rumors are that she poisoned her husband, but more modern sources claim that Claudius died from natural causes. Claudius’s death couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment for Agrippina or for Nero.
Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius changed the face of Roman history. Whether she seduced him, or she simply didn’t fight it, or she saw the marriage as a path to power, it didn’t matter. She married him for her own reasons, whether it was to protect the life of her and her son, or for her lust for power. In the process, she changed the succession and made her husband adopt her own son Nero, instead of grooming his son Britannicus to become Emperor. After Claudius’ death, Nero became Emperor, just like his mother wanted.