How Did Agrippina the Younger Die?

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Agrippina the Younger was a prominent and influential figure in ancient Rome as the wife of Emperor Claudius and mother of Emperor Nero. However, her life came to a brutal and abrupt end under mysterious circumstances in 59 AD. Agrippina’s death has been the subject of much historical debate and speculation over the centuries. Multiple ancient sources provide differing accounts of how and why she met her demise at the hands of her own son.

Who Was Agrippina the Younger?

Before examining the murky details surrounding her death, it is helpful to understand who Agrippina was and why she was such an important figure in Roman politics.

Agrippina was born in 15 AD to Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, a distinguished general and grandson of Emperor Augustus. She was raised in the imperial family and was considered a descendant of Augustus himself. After a failed first marriage, Agrippina married her uncle, Emperor Claudius, and took on a powerful role as empress.

How Did Agrippina the Younger Die?

Agrippina’s Influence and Ambition

According to ancient sources like Tacitus, Agrippina was ruthless in her quest for power. She convinced Claudius to choose her son, Nero, as his heir over his own son Britannicus. Ancient rumors even suggest Agrippina poisoned Claudius in 54 AD to hasten Nero’s ascent to the throne.

As Nero’s mother and an imperial woman, Agrippina exerted substantial influence over political affairs. She had coins minted in her image and sat beside Nero as he met with ambassadors. Her political ambition made her many enemies within Rome’s elite ruling class.

The Murder of Agrippina the Younger

In 59 AD, only five years after Claudius’s death, Nero allegedly arranged to have his mother murdered. But the exact details surrounding Agrippina’s death are hazy, with conflicting accounts from different ancient sources.

Killed by Nero’s Guards?

The Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius both claim Nero sent guards to kill his mother in 59 AD. According to their version of events:

  • Nero invited Agrippina to a festival in southern Italy
  • On their return by boat, the roof of Agrippina’s cabin collapsed, possibly in an assassination attempt
  • Agrippina survived the boating “accident” and swam safely to shore
  • That same night, Nero’s guards arrived at her home and killed her

Suetonius states Nero’s men clubbed Agrippina to death. Meanwhile, Tacitus vividly recounts her final moments as she bravely told the guards to “Smite my womb” and end her life.

A Boat Accident?

However, another ancient account points to a fatal boat accident rather than outright murder. As told by Sextus Aurelius Victor decades after the events:

  • Nero invited Agrippina to celebrate the Quinquatria festival
  • On their voyage home, the boat was rigged to collapse and drown Agrippina
  • But the plot failed – Agrippina survived the accident and made it ashore
  • She pretended she knew nothing of the assassination attempt
  • The next day, Agrippina returned to Rome

If Victor’s version is true, Agrippina’s death may have actually been accidental or, at least, not directly at the hands of Nero’s guards.

Agrippina’s Burial and Legacy

Regardless of how she died, ancient sources agree that Agrippina was denied proper funeral rites befitting her imperial status after her death. She was hastily cremated and buried in an unmarked grave. Nero also worked to destroy his mother’s legacy, having her declared a public enemy.

These postmortem events suggest Nero and his advisors wanted to quash any honor or affection Romans may have had for Agrippina following her murder.

Theories on Motives for Agrippina’s Death

Why would Nero want his mother dead, assuming she did meet her end by his command? Ancient historians propose a few motives for Agrippina’s murder in 59 AD.

Removing a Political Threat

As an influential woman with strong ties to the imperial family, Agrippina posed a threat to Nero’s power. According to Tacitus:

“She could be equal to the Caesars only by destruction of Nero.”

With her son on the throne, Agrippina continued to assert herself in political affairs. Nero and his advisors likely saw her as a roadblock to the young emperor’s independent rule.

Eliminating a Problematic Family Member

Agrippina’s domineering and controlling behavior took a toll on her relationship with Nero over the years. Suetonius hints at tensions between mother and son:

“[Nero] had long considered [Agrippina] a burden…and was trying to make up his mind to get rid of her.”

As a problematic maternal figure impeding his independence, Nero may have simply wanted to be rid of her presence.

A Pre-Emptive Strike

Another theory suggests Nero wanted to prevent his mother from potentially removing him from power. Agrippina had a reputation for scheming and previously helped elevate Nero to the throne by eliminating Claudius.

According to Cassius Dio:

“Once [Nero] had killed her, he would be safe, he thought, from every danger.”

In this view, Nero struck pre-emptively against Agrippina before she could conspire against him.

Agrippina’s Mysterious End

Over 2000 years later, the death of Agrippina the Younger remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The notion that Nero arranged to kill his own mother certainly seems to align with what we know of his cruel and paranoid character.

But the lack of decisive evidence means Agrippina’s final fate and the exact circumstances of her death will continue to be debated by scholars. Nevertheless, her violent end marked the conclusion of a dramatic life and reign as one of imperial Rome’s most powerful women.

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