Caligula might have been one of the most fearsome Roman emperors, but he had nothing on his baby sister Agrippina. Notorious even during her own time, no one would dare call this sibling, spouse, and mother of emperors a mere housewife. From her poison-happy plots to a death that gives new meaning to the word “overkill,” here are 43 ruthless facts about Agrippina.
1. Do You Know Who I Am?
Agrippina was born into a golden family of Rome, and she was related to many, many Roman emperors. Her father Germanicus was a respected and beloved general, and her mother Agrippina the Elder was the picture of Roman piety and responsibility. Let’s just say that the young girl did not take after her parents…
2. Power Couple
During the first part of her son Nero’s reign, Agrippina claimed equal power. She was even depicted on coinage alongside her child, leading some historians to claim her as the first true—if unofficial—Empress of Rome.
3. Street Smarts
Growing up, Agrippina’s uncle Tiberius was the Emperor of Rome. Being around all these powerful people had its benefits, and Agrippina learned quickly how to manipulate people to get what she wanted.
4. A Face Beat to the Gods
Statues and accounts of Agrippina depict her as a beautiful woman with large, wide-set eyes, a long aquiline nose, and column-curled hair.
5. Agrippina in the Middle
Agrippina was the middle child. In addition to three older brothers—including everyone’s favorite megalomaniac Caligula—she also had two younger sisters, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla.
6. An Indecent Proposal
When Agrippina was just 13 years old, her uncle Tiberius married her off to Gnaeus Domitius, a man with very powerful connections and even deeper coffers. Unfortunately, might and money were about all Domitius had to recommend him. To many who knew him, the child bride’s new husband was “despicable and dishonest.”
7. Girls’ Night out
In 37 AD, Agrippina moved up in the world when her brother Caligula became Emperor of Rome after his uncle’s death. Suddenly, the young woman was actual royalty. She and her sisters had the rights of the Vestal Virgins, and could even sit in the audience at public games—a handy privilege when the Roman definition of “ladylike” was “stay at home and look pretty alone.”
8. Animal Instinct
According to ancient writer Pliny the Elder, Agrippina had an extra canine on the upper right side of her jaw.
9. Brotherly Love
For all his bloody reputation, Caligula doted on his sisters. He put their faces on his official coins, and even inserted their names into his loyalty oaths. Whenever anyone swore allegiance to Caligula, they also had to pledge fealty to his favorite girls. As it went, “I will not value my life or that of my children less highly than I do the safety of the Emperor and his sisters.”
10. A Star Is Born
Just as Caligula ascended to the throne, Agrippina announced she was pregnant with her husband’s child. After giving birth in December of that year, she named the bouncing baby boy Lucius—but you might know him better as the future Emperor Nero.
11. Dark Daze
Tragically, Caligula’s favorite sister Julia Drusilla died of an unknown illness just a year after he came to the throne. Never a “glass half-full” kind of guy, Caligula took the loss very badly, and reportedly even refused to leave her corpse or let anybody touch it. Besides his sanity, Drusilla’s death also drained him of any fondness for his other sisters.
12. Daddy Issues
Nero’s birth wasn’t exactly a happy family moment. When some friends congratulated Agrippina’s husband on his newborn son, he gave a chilling response. “I don’t think anything produced by me and Agrippina could possibly be good for the state or the people,” he said. Spoiler: He was not wrong.
13. My Kind of Mercy
After Agrippina’s plot to kill Big Brother collapsed, Caligula showed her what might have been his last shred of mercy. Instead of killing his sisters, he “only” stripped them of all their worldly possessions and exiled them to the remote Pontine Islands—but Lepidus suffered an even darker fate. Caligula had him summarily executed.
14. Bye, Bye Brother
On January 24, 41, something both gruesome and miraculous happened. The Senate had Caligula assassinated along with his wife and child, and placed Agrippina’s gentle uncle Claudius on the throne. Agrippina, who had been waiting on the Pontine Islands with her ears perked, returned to Rome and her estranged son Nero.
15. Thank You, Next
Around 40 AD, Agrippina was single and ready to mingle. Domitius had died, and Agrippina knew enough about power to know she had to snag herself a man if she wanted to taste any of that sweet nectar. She tried going after a well-connected man named Galba, but her advances were apparently so shameless, he gave a hard pass. Well, that and he was already happily married.
In 41 AD, all of Agrippina’s homewrecker dreams came true. Politician Gaius Passienus divorced his wife just so he could marry her. Though we’re sure Agrippina was a catch, Passienus’ sudden interest might have had an ulterior motive. Claudius had reportedly asked him to wed his restless niece—and when an Emperor of Rome elbows you for a favor, you’d better take it as a command.
17. Cool Girl
Agrippina’s ambitions weren’t always out of control. In the first year of Claudius’ reign, she took it very easy and rarely even went to the Imperial residence.
18. Paying the Price
When Nero was just a boy, the historian Tacitus claims Agrippina went to an astrologer to plan out her son’s glorious future. When the seer gasped and told her that Nero would indeed become an emperor, but also kill her, Agrippina didn’t bat an eyelash. All the ruthless matriarch replied was, “Let him kill me, provided he becomes emperor.”
19. Rising Sons
When he came to power, Claudius was married to the notorious Empress Valeria Messalina, who was known for her dangerous court politics and her outsized jealousy. Threatened by Agrippina’s son Nero and his rivalry with her own son Britannicus, Messalina even once hired assassins to kill Nero—they failed.
20. Not Without My Son: The Agrippina Story
Agrippina was something of a celebrity during her time. The public had sympathy for her many misfortunes, and she even leveraged her status to write a memoir about her family.
21. Popularity Contest
Empress Messalina might have had a legitimate reason to be jealous of Agrippina. One day, both women were sitting with their sons at a public performance. When the two noblewomen were introduced, Agrippina received more applause than the current Empress.
22. Forbidden Love
By 48 AD, Claudius was on the market for a wife again; he had just executed Messalina for (kind of predictably) plotting to overthrow him. To the horror of many, his eye fell on Agrippina. For a society that lusted for the blood of gladiators and executed empresses on the regular, Romans had a kind of fussy taboo about uncles marrying their nieces.
The two lovebirds married anyway, incest regulations be darned.
23. Trophy Wife
The marriage was loveless, at least on Agrippina’s part. By this point, the OG momager was just long-gaming her son Nero’s ascension to the throne—but becoming the Empress consort of Rome wasn’t a bad perk, either.
24. That’s Augusta to You
Maybe Claudius just liked his women ruthless and cunning, because in 50 AD Agrippina was given the grand title of “Augusta.” She was only the second living woman honored with the name.
25. Justice for Agrippina
Though Agrippina has an infamous reputation today and even ancient sources despised her, some modern experts believe that history has judged her too harshly. To them, Agrippina was only doing her best to lead Rome while her ineffective, easily influenced husband Claudius plowed it into ruin.
26. Momager Goals
50 AD was a good year for Agrippina. That year, she finally convinced Claudius to adopt Nero has his own son and secure him as his successor. This was a pretty big feat, but it’s even bigger when you consider that Claudius already had a biological son, Britannicus, who was still very much alive and begging for the throne.
27. Don’t Cross Me
Agrippina’s time as Empress was marked by rampant paranoia and abuses of power. She eliminated enemy after enemy with political scheming, bedroom plots, and straight-up murder. No one was safe: when Brittanicus’ rather harmless tutor complained that she was pushing his student out of royal contention, she had him executed too.
28. Give and Take
After Claudius died and Nero became emperor, the new Agrippina-Nero alliance didn’t last long. It all changed when Nero got with his new girlfriend Claudia Acte, who Agrippina despised. Needless to say, a disapproving Agrippina wasn’t like other disappointed moms. Instead of just giving Nero the silent treatment or cutting off his allowance, she vindictively started campaigning for Britannicus to overthrow him.
29. Don’t You Forget About Me
The Great Mommy and Me Breakup of 55 was nothing short of Oedipal. In one absurd moment, Nero threatened that he would abdicate the throne and go live in exile, even though this appeared to be exactly what his mother wanted. Then, even after Nero exiled Agrippina from his palace to a country estate, he still regularly sent people over just to annoy her.
30. Two Can Play at This Game
Agrippina taught her son well. Ripping a page right out of her playbook, Nero had the poor puppet Britannicus poisoned in 55.
31. Black Widow
In 47 AD, Agrippina’s second husband died and she inherited his wealth and estates—which is when dark rumors started to follow her around. At his funeral, people whispered that Agrippina had poisoned him just to get her hands on his money.
32. Too Close for Comfort
As with all things Caligula, this kindness may have had a dark side. People often whispered that the Emperor was a little too fond of his sisters, particularly Julia Drusilla, and rumors swirled that he was involved in an incestuous relationship with all of them. He did apparently say that he wanted to treat Drusilla as his wife, so you know, fair point.
33. Sibling Rivalry
Family loyalty wasn’t worth a whole lot in Ancient Rome, and it certainly didn’t mean much to Agrippina. After watching her brother Caligula spiral into madness, she and her sister Julia Livilla conspired to kill him and install a new emperor in his place. That new emperor? None other than Drusilla’s widower, Marcus Lepidus.
34. The Writing’s on the Wall
Their plot failed—miserably. Caligula found out about it and wasted no time putting them on trial. In the hearing, he accused both his sisters of sleeping with Lepidus and denounced them as harlots. He even claimed to have procured handwritten letters where they talked about killing him. Doesn’t sound like very good “secret plotting” to me.
35. Till Death Do Us Part
Agrippina always had good follow-through. When it started to look like Claudius regretted making Nero his successor—maybe after watching all his subjects die around him—Agrippina set off her end game. On October 13, 54, it’s said that Claudius died after eating a plate of poisoned mushrooms. Many sources point the finger at trigger-happy Agrippina.
36. A Clean Break
Other sources claim that Agrippina killed Claudius with a poisoned enema, which is one memorable way to say goodbye.
37. Unnatural Causes
Since his death was a private event, it’s possible that Emperor Claudius just expired of natural causes. After all, he was 63 years old, a lifespan very few people in his job description lived to see. Possible, and yet so convenient for Agrippina.
38. She’s Gotta Go
In 59 AD, things between Nero and Agrippina reached a boiling point. Though sources differ on his exact motives and movements, Nero decided he had to kill his mother to get some peace in his life. What followed was something so excessively violent, it’s hard to say whether it belongs in a Looney Tunes sketch or a Quentin Tarantino film.
39. The Unsinkable Agrippina
According to the historian Suetonius, Nero tried and failed several times to kill his mother, each time trying to up the ante and still finding her frustratingly alive. First, he tried to poison her on several occasions, but she always took an antidote each time. Then, he constructed a machine that would collapse her bedroom ceiling on her while she slept, but she caught wind of the plot and escaped.
Finally, he—seriously—invented a collapsible boat that would drown her while she was on a pleasure cruise. Reader, SHE STILL SURVIVED.
40. The End of an Empress
At last, in March of 59, Nero succeeded in his assassination attempts. The great Agrippina died after a team of assassins stabbed her and made it look like a suicide. She was 43 years old.
41. Death Becomes Her
Once Nero was sure of Agrippina’s death, he went over to her corpse and uttered a horrific response. Apparently, he examined the body and coldly discussed his recently deceased mother’s good points (mostly indestructible) and bad points (a tad controlling). Disturbingly, it’s said he also commented on how beautiful she looked.
42. Fruit of the Womb
We’re told that when Agrippina’s assassins arrived, her last spiteful words were, “Smite my womb.” That’s right, she commanded them to stab her in her womb because it had borne her such an awful son. Um, Show me the lie?
For the rest of Nero’s reign, the unhinged emperor never covered up his mother’s grave. In a completely and totally unrelated move, he also claimed to be haunted by her ghost, and once hired magicians to send her spirit away.