Agrippinas Death In Tacitus And Suetonius English Literature Essay

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Agrippina the Younger died on the 23rd of March 59 AD at the behest of her infamous son and emperor of Rome, Nero. The agreed upon facts of the case are that having Nero invited his mother to a banquet in the Naples area, the plan was for them to have one last supper together only for her then to perish in an elaborate boating accident on her way home. When this did not succeed, Nero sent some soldiers led by Anictus, a close friend, to put and end to Agrippina by more conventional methods. Our two best sources for this time period and this incident are Cornelius Tacitus and Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus and the two couldn't have more contrasting methods and styles of illustrating their accounts. This essay shall focus on four key themes in the similarities and differences of these historians and their works; their works as a whole, the format and style each uses throughout; their views on the character of Nero and his culpability in the incident; their depiction of Agrippina and her character and finally an examination of which account can be seen to be the more factual.

The most insightful sources for the era of the Julio-Claudian emperors are the ancient historians, of these, the greatest is Cornelius Tacitus who lived between the years 56 and 120 AD. While his life is shrouded in uncertainty as he left almost no information about himself, he enjoyed a successful career as a senator under the tyrannical Domitian, rising to the post of governor of Asia under the emperor Trajan. Spurred perhaps by guilt over his own compliance in, or lack of resistance to Domitian's despotism, he wrote a sneeringly critical account of imperial history in two works, the Histories, which covered the civil wars of 69 AD and the Flavian dynasty that followed, and his masterwork, the Annals, covering the Julio-Claudian dynasty. [1] Tacitus' intellect, high literary style and political eye make him essential reading for the era of the roman emperors. While his work ranges over the traditional topics of foreign wars and conquests, the closeted nature of court politics, where major decisions were made in palace corridors and bed chambers, lends his annals a dark and claustrophobic atmosphere. Here, members of the imperial family and their associates jostle for position around the emperor, concealing their true intentions and emotions behind dissembling displays of loyalty and trustworthiness. The reader does not come away with an upbeat impression of human nature. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a contemporary of Tacitus and lived between 70 and 130 AD, was known to Tacitus, although there is no particular evidence that they collaborated in any way. Suetonius was of equestrian rank and served as secretary to Hadrian. This gave him access to imperial archives from which he drew his biographical portraits, known today as the Twelve Caesars, stretching form Julius Caesar to Domitian. Where Tacitus and Suetonius cover the same material, the deficiencies of the latter are on glaring display. Suetonius' was no systematic and perceptive mind, rather his worked is marked by a sensationalism and exaggeration. Worse still, he addresses his subjects under thematic rubrics, the appearance of the emperor, his sexual proclivities, honours received, campaigns fought and so forth, so that events from different eras of a reign are brought together under one heading. This makes tracing the historic evolution of an emperor's reign through time almost impossible, [2] especially if one is dealing with Suetonius alone, but when supplemented with more reliable sources, such as Tacitus, a timeline can be more easily set out and Suetonius can have his uses.

Tacitus leans to vilify Agrippina in the Annals as someone deserving of death, while Suetonius paints her as a victim of Nero's excessiveness. The portrayal of Agrippina by Tacitus up to this point is one of a woman who seduced her own son and who sought to achieve power for herself. It is Agrippina in the Annals who is the sexual transgressor in incestual dealings within her own family, someone who 'had trained herself for every infamy by her marriage with her uncle' [3] , it is also Agrippina whose disapproval of Nero's new love Poppaea serves as the catalyst for her downfall in the eyes of Tacitus. Linda Rutland describes the beginnings of Tacitus' book 14 as 'an unbelievably tangled web of deception with Agrippina and Poppaea engaged in a battle of feminine wiles, both seeking to gain control of the emperor.' [4] A perfect example of such can be found at the beginning of book 14 as Tacitus advised us of Nero's growing love for Poppaea and he sarcastically tells us the reasons why they have yet to be married after she asks the question of Nero.

"Why," she asked, "was her marriage to be put off? Was it, forsooth, her beauty and her ancestors, with their triumphal honours, that failed to please, or her being a mother and her sincere heart? No; the fear was that as a wife at least would divulge the wrongs of the senate, and the wrath of the people at the arrogance and rapacity of his mother [5] 

Tacitus has provided the motive behind Nero's act of matricide; Agrippina was in the way of Nero's happiness and must be removed, as far as Tacitus is concerned, she is an incestuous villain, who has given Nero plenty of reason to act. Suetonius paints Agrippina in a more favourable light, never clearly identifying any particular reason for her murder and leaving Nero's reasons for committing such an act as somewhat vague, portraying the emperor as particularly bloodthirsty and cruel. In Suetonius' account, after Nero dines with his mother he joyfully bides her farewell and 'even kissed her breasts before she stepped aboard' [6] . Later, upon examination of her body, Nero mulls over the sexual attributes, both good and bad, of Agrippina's corpse. Both these events, remind us of the incestuous nature of their relationship, a relationship that according to Suetonius, in which Nero was the transgressor not Agrippina, listing their affair with along with the rest of Nero's sexual exploits. [7] Suetonius' lack of insight into of the reasons and motives behind Agrippina's murder and who he depicts as the guilty party plays out in stark contrast to that of Tacitus' account.

While Suetonius may ignore Agrippina's culpability in her own demise, Tacitus does show a brave and spirited side to her character to balance his previous assertions of her wickedness. Tacitus tells us that Agrippina was nervous upon arrival at Baiae as she had been advised of a possible plot against her life, also she was not oblivious to the fact that her son had been ignoring her, but having accepted his attempt at reconciliation, she was then completely duped by the proceedings under what Tacitus describes as 'feminine credulity, which easily believes what gives joy.' [8] After the collapse of her vessel and upon her realisation of what was really transpiring, Tacitus shows us a woman that escapes death twice, swims back to shore and manages to get safely to her villa. Agrippina is shown to be no fool, she recognised all the signs of attempted murder, in the unexpected summons by Nero, the lengthy banquet to allay suspicions, the fact that the ship her son had brought for her had collapsed top down on 'a night of brilliant starlight with the calm of a tranquil sea granted by heaven' [9] , and in the brutal fate of her servant. Her one last act would be spring a surprise on Nero by sending an envoy to his villa and hopefully to buy herself some time to plot a counter measure as her only 'safeguard against treachery was to ignore it.' [10] But this act only hastened her demise and in a final stand before the soldiers at the entrance to her villa, she proffered her belly, the belly that bore Nero, and exclaimed 'smite my womb' [11] , and on those last words she was run through. Quite a brave and noble end to a woman previously described by Tacitus as the incestuous, power hungry, murderer of Claudius. A nod perhaps to the strength and guile required for a child or relative of Germanicus to survive for so long under the Julio Claudian emperors, a feat no less described than in Tacitus' preceding thirteen books. Even though he may denounce her for her actions, this is the form that Tacitus takes in allocating praise to the strength of Agrippina. Whilst he still portrays her as guilty of certain acts and deserving of death, he offers a final resoluteness. Suetonius, on the other hand, while trying to portray Nero in a more negative light, completely ignores this aspect of Agrippina's death, moving straight from the boating incident to Nero ordering her death to his inspection of her body. Suetonius states that 'other more gruesome details are supplied by reliable authorities'. [12] A strange remark to make considering the biographer had no qualms getting into the specifics of previous outrages such as the orgies of Caligula or the escapades of Tiberius at Capri, but that is not the task at hand for Suetonius, he must move quickly onto the incestuous undertones of Nero's inspection of his mother. His aim is to vilify the emperor, to mention the cunning or strength of character of Agrippina would have detracted from her innocence in the proceedings. In her work Feminine Imperial Ideals in the "Caesars" of Suetonius, Molly Pryzwansky argues that Suetonius treats Agrippina in this manner as he wants to extenuate the cruelty and aggressiveness of Nero's own character and that this feat is made all the more difficult when his victims are of questionable moral standing themselves. [13] In this instance the above argument caries weight; there is no need, at least for Suetonius, to confuse proceedings in the matter.

Though lacking in detail, Suetonius' version of events can be seen to be a more accurate depiction of the last hours of Agrippina. Tacitus' telling of the story of the murder at the villa is so vivid and colourful that we generally accept it as a truism. Alexis Dawson argues that 'the reason the death scene in the Bauli villa is so gripping is that it is a scene: it is a perfect piece of theatre.' [14] Beginning in the dimly lit bedroom of Agrippina, she paces anxiously as the soldiers surround her villa: Tacitus is certainly setting a scene and building tension with this description of events and the theatricality of the deed itself is clear to all. First Agrippina's denial of what is about to take place 'if you have come to see me, take back word that I have recovered, but if you are here to do a crime, I believe nothing about my son; he has not ordered his mother's murder.' [15] Then her acceptance as she exposes her belly to her assailants. Is Tacitus using this theatrical effect as a comparison to Nero's own theatrical aspirations or to his own reprisal of the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes? A role that Suetonius himself advises us was one of Nero's roles. [16] Of course, these are questions we do not know the answer to. Many of the facts recorded by Tacitus in his annals were widely known facts, facts witnessed through peoples' own eyes, but not what happened at Agrippina's villa in Bauli. Unless there existed some form of recorded confession from the mouth of Anictus which seems unlikely. In this instance, I would agree that addition of details that should be unknown leaves Tacitus' account feeling like a theatrical piece of fiction as opposed to Suetonius, whom upon his omission of details, finds himself ahead on the factual front, a feat not always associated with him.

To conclude I briefly want to examine the reason why Tacitus and Suetonius made the above decisions in their writing. A major factor in this would be to do with the format that each of them has chosen to work in. The Annals is a yearly chartered history though the reign of the Julio Claudians. It skips from the palaces at Rome to the forests of Germany as is depicts events in chronological order. It is full of antidotes, vignettes, and colourful depictions of events and, as previously stated, it is written by a man who has a bias against the principate due to his experiences under Domitian. None of Tacitus' emperors are shown in a particularly favourable light, even Augustas, is shown to be played most expertly by his wife Livia. Suetonius' often baffling use of thematic chapters in his Twelve Caesars, specifically lead to his exclusion of certain aspects that can be found in Tacitus. For example, the famous scene of the death of Agrippina, so expertly woven by Tacitus does not appear in Suetonius. Maybe because it didn't happen, but definitely, in my opinion, because it didn't fit in with the current theme that Suetonius was showing us at the time. The theme of choice was a list of cruelties that Nero inflicted on peoples. Agrippia's side of the story was irrelevant to the point that Suetonius was trying to make. Who's to say there isn't a Suetonius: 'Life of Agrippina' lying unfound, that details this specific scene at the expanse of others. Also there is the message that each author wants to achieve, Tacitus's vilification of Agrippina, Suetonius of Nero, the common themes that run throughout their entire works, that of a fear of powerful women, who meddle in politics. The frightening ideal of the evil stepmother who kills her husband, helping to raise the status of her own son and through that son, acquire power can be seen at both ends of the Julio Claudian dynasty in Livia and Agrippina and is found throughout both works of history.