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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 17 Sep 2007 16:57:02 -0500
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Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman 
Empire. By JUDITH GINSBURG. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 
2005. Pp. 160. Cloth, $45.00. ISBN 0–19–518141–7.

Order this text for $41.85 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal: 


Print Version (forthcoming): CJ 103.1: 116–19

Agrippina the Younger has been an intriguing subject for historians of the 
early Roman Empire from the time of Tacitus to our own. A powerful woman in 
a world controlled by men, the sister, wife and mother of Caligula, 
Claudius and Nero respectively, she has generally been viewed as 
manipulative and ruthless. Yet, as Anthony Barrett noted in his recent 
biography, “The actual record … suggests very strongly that both ancient 
and modern writers offer a lop-sided portrait.” Barrett revised that 
portrait by illuminating Agrippina’s accomplishments within the context of 
the opportunities available to her. In Representing Agrippina, Judith 
Ginsburg has shifted attention to the evidence itself, asking why and how 
the positive images of the material evidence and Agrippina’s contrasting 
negative characterization in ancient writers developed, and what the 
implications of these representations might be. To answer these questions, 
G. examines the literary evidence, the visual portrayals and rhetorical 
stereotypes in three separate chapters. By the book’s end, the reader can 
see how those writing about Agrippina, especially Tacitus, conflated her 
actions with the stereotypes of scheming women, partly to denigrate 
overly-ambitious women and partly to criticize imperial rule. The visual 
remains, on the other hand, reveal the imperial household’s use of 
Agrippina’s links to the Julio-Claudian past and future and her 
assimilation to Demeter to bolster legitimacy and stability.

Chapter One, “Agrippina in the Literary Tradition,” reviews Agrippina’s 
manipulative character in the literature. G. uses the evidence of Tacitus 
primarily, with occasional pertinent passages from Dio or Suetonius. The 
exceptional sensitivity with which G. has always analyzed Tacitus’ 
writings, and which continues in this work, allows the reader to gain even 
greater awareness of the author’s careful use of rhetorical and stylistic 
devices, vocabulary and even elements from comedy. With astute analysis, G. 
shows that Tacitus depicts Agrippina as a woman whose every action was 
attributable to political ambition. Actions that involve step-motherly 
intrigue, hypocrisy, female jealousy and a public display of dominance all 
expose “her own desire for power” (p. 33). Because of Tacitus’ compelling 
rhetoric, most scholars have accepted this literary image of Agrippina as 

The emperors themselves utilized Agrippina differently, as G. shows in 
Chapter Two, “Visualizing Agrippina.” Here, G. separates the visual 
material into three sections: coinage (convincingly subdivided into Roman 
and provincial), sculpture and cameos. G. first reviews the history and 
influence of imperial women on Roman coins before focusing on Agrippina 
herself. She includes both obverse and reverse images of coins that 
illustrate the messages of the imperial household and support her challenge 
to those who hold the view that Agrippina’s political clout alone explains 
her extraordinary presence on official coins (p. 57):

"(T)he complex roles that Agrippina’s image plays on the coinage, while 
they might well be an accurate reflection of Agrippina’s real power in the 
state, equally served the political interests of the three emperors with 
whom she was connected."

All three emperors used Agrippina to emphasize concordia between Julian and 
Claudian lines and to add validity to their own reigns. Her designation as 
Augusta and assimilation to Ceres on Claudian coins also underscored her 
role as the mother of the future emperor. The gold and silver issues of 54 
and 55 CE, where Agrippina appears on the obverse with Nero, provide 
additional confirmation of her value to the imperial household. G.’s denial 
that these last two issues illustrate a weakening in Agrippina’s political 
position in 55 and her claim that such an interpretation relies too heavily 
on Tacitus’ Ann. 13.12–13, however, require substantiation.

Turning to sculpture, G. makes a strong case for the political significance 
of Agrippina’s presence in statuary groups, especially at the Sebasteion at 
Aphrodisias, where Agrippina appears twice, first with Claudius and then 
with Nero (figures of both included). On both panels, although in different 
ways, Agrippina is assimilated to Demeter and fertility, and as such she 
represents “the continuation of the dynasty and a secure and orderly 
succession, the prerequisite for the peace and prosperity of Roman society 
at large” (p. 71). The more private cameos, especially the Gemma Claudia, 
illustrate themes and ideological interests similar to those on coinage and 

Ginsburg’s untimely death four years ago did not permit her to finish 
Representing Agrippina. Erich Gruen, Natalie Kampen, Elizabeth Keitel and 
Beth Severy-Hoven have added clearly marked, insightful introductions, 
conclusions and occasional references. In the overall introduction, 
however, Gruen acknowledges that a “somewhat unfinished quality remains” 
(p. 4). This is most evident in Chapter Three, “Agrippina and the Power of 
Rhetorical Stereotypes,” where G. returns to the literary evidence to 
assess the cultural assumptions that led to the powerful rhetorical 
stereotypes attached to Agrippina. With more time, G. would likely have 
edited her claims about step-mothers and the dux femina that are repeated 
from Chapter One (as well as removing repetitive statements there) and more 
fully developed her arguments to cover evidence beyond Tacitus. 
Nonetheless, what G. says is important. In fact, the juxtaposition of her 
detailed analysis of the development of the stereotypes of the saeva 
noverca, dux femina and sexual transgressor with her examination of the 
material evidence about Agrippina in Chapter Two is one of the strongest 
features of the book and makes her conclusions in both chapters even more 
convincing. In this chapter, G. shows how these negative stereotypes, 
developed during the late republic, were used in the imperial period “to 
cast opprobrium on the men with whom these women were associated and to 
discourage aristocratic and imperial women from challenging the male 
monopoly of the Roman political system” (pp. 106–7). Tacitus masterfully 
exploited the stereotypes in his criticism of the emperors linked with 
Agrippina and the political system as a whole: the dominatio that Agrippina 
gained through dubious tactics was a manifestation of a dysfunctional 
imperial regime.

In her introduction to Chapter Two, Ginsburg wrote that “the hostile 
tradition of the literary sources … continues to leave its mark on even the 
most respected scholars as they confront the Agrippina of coins, sculpture, 
and cameos” (p. 55). Now we can cast a more critical eye on the evidence of 
both media because G. has clarified the various agendas, cultural notions 
and imperial aims of those representing Agrippina.

Canisius College

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