Not Your Father’s Ancient History

Do you like your historical biographies bold and unapologetic? Do you want to learn something new from a set of seemingly old and exhausted primary sources? Want to hear the tale of a person constrained by crushing societal forces, but striking out in an unconventional and incredibly effective way? Finally, are you o.k. with expletives and current cultural references while learning about the ancient world? If so, let me recommend to you the thrilling, fascinating, well researched and bitingly funny Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon. Read on to find out more.

If you haven’t heard of Agrippina before (technically Agrippina the Younger but, as Southon points out, the Romans were super unoriginal when it came to giving a child a name) you have probably run across some of her notorious relations. She was the granddaughter of the first emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula (yes, that one!), the wife of the emperor Claudius, her own uncle (Ewww), and the mother of Nero (oh, my!).

So with an interesting pedigree like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well the elephant in the room when it comes to telling the story of a woman in the ancient world, and much of history alas, is who does the telling. The two primary surviving historical accounts of her time are written by two senators, Tacitus and Suetonius, roughly a hundred years later. Both had a major axe to grind when it came to the idea of a woman stepping out of her ‘proper’ role and, heaven forbid, wielding a little power for herself.

Southern does an excellent job of demonstrating how Agrippina only shows up in the historical record at all as a foil or reaction to a male protagonist. Because of this, there are huge gaps when it comes to trying to form a cohesive narrative of her life. Most historians look at the gaps and just give up on trying to tell her story at all. Not Sothern. Instead she embraces the ambiguity and speculation with gusto and produces a convincing and entertaining account.

It is really hard to do her style justice by just describing it, so I’ll just quote a great passage here concerning Agrippina’s mother, yet another Agrippina, and her return to Rome after her husband’s death:

Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome in 19CE with two symbolic middle fingers raised in Tiberius’s direction, while Tiberius sulked in his palace. The atmosphere went slowly downhill from here. But they were family, and – like Michael Bluth – the Julio-Claudians put family first. They couldn’t just avoid one another and get on with their lives, and Agrippina the Elder didn’t want that anyway. Agrippina the Elder wanted revenge.

So clearly this is not your father’s ancient history. But if you give this excellent history a chance, you will be thanking the gods that it isn’t when you finish.