Review | Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World – Emma Southon

About the Book

Sister of Caligula. Wife of Claudius. Mother of Nero. The story of Agrippina, at the center of imperial power for three generations, is the story of the Julio-Claudia dynasty—and of Rome itself, at its bloody, extravagant, chaotic, ruthless, and political zenith.

In her own time, she was recognized as a woman of unparalleled power. Beautiful and intelligent, she was portrayed as alternately a ruthless murderer and helpless victim, the most loving mother and the most powerful woman of the Roman empire, using sex, motherhood, manipulation, and violence to get her way, and single-minded in her pursuit of power for herself and her son, Nero.

This book follows Agrippina as a daughter, born in Cologne, to the expected heir to Augustus’s throne; as a sister to Caligula who raped his sisters and showered them with honors until they attempted rebellion against him and were exiled; as a seductive niece and then wife to Claudius who gave her access to near unlimited power; and then as a mother to Nero—who adored her until he had  her assassinated.

Through senatorial political intrigue, assassination attempts, and exile to a small island, to the heights of imperial power, thrones, and golden cloaks and games and adoration, Agrippina scaled the absolute limits of female power in Rome. Her biography is also the story of the first Roman imperial family—the Julio-Claudians—and of the glory and corruption of the empire itself.

352 pages
Published August 6, 2019
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This book was a library loan. Yay libraries!

So, here we have a book that has me feeling very much like a house divided. 

I’m very interested in women in power, and how they managed to weld their power. Throughout so much of history, women were second-class citizens, if they were citizens at all. However, despite that, women have managed to weld very real power, influence and manipulate events, and become major brokers in huge historical events. That interests me. How do people of the “gentler sex” manage to overcome all the stuff set against them and become huge influencers in their own right? 

Well, typically they don’t just go out and grab power the same way a man does. No, women in history tend to have to be a bit more cunning, a bit more devious, a bit more like the wizard behind the curtain. What’s more, is typically when a woman does achieve some sort of power and influence, a lot of biographers distain them for it. So, you end up getting a lot of stories about the harlot, whore, poisoner, or whatever else people attribute to said women, and very few about how this woman, in the face of all adversary, managed to grab onto power with both hands and hold on. Context is lost. We know of Catherine de Medici as a poisoner, for example. We don’t really see all the misery she had to live through to attain the level of authority she did, and how hard she had to work to hang onto it, nor do many people take the time to see the reality of their actions outside of common interpretations and beliefs. Marie-Antionette never said, “let them eat cake” for example, but that and her hair are the most famous things about her. 

So we have this biography of Agrippina, and to be honest, I was so excited when I got it. I could not wait to read this thing. Agrippina is known as being the mother of the infamous Nero, he of “fiddling while Rome burnt” fame. She’s rumored to have slept with her brother Caligula, and really, that’s all I ever knew about her. Likely, that’s all a lot of people ever really knew about her. 

See what I mean? So many women in history we know based on who they slept with, and various rumors surrounding their interactions, rather than who they really were given the context of their day and age. A woman in power is often left at the mercy of the men who write about her after she dies/falls from grace.

I was really excited to read this book and then I started it I kind of… I don’t know. Maybe the excitement faded a bit. 

This biography is written in a very distinct style. At first, I found it refreshing, but very soon, I found it to be exhausting. I read a lot of historical nonfiction, and I enjoy feeling like I am reading a book written by an authority. While it’s obvious that Emma Southon knows her stuff, her informal way of writing made me feel like I was talking to an enthusiast at a bar, rather than reading a book written by an expert in their field. Commonly used words like “bonk” really put me off, not because of the word itself, but because here we are, reading a book about a woman who may or may not have been maligned by history, and it was really, really hard for me to parse out where the truth rested with this style of prose. I feel like, perhaps, some of the context was lost in an effort to lighten the reader’s load and/or be funny. 

Okay, so there’s that. 

What I will say is that, despite my misgivings about the writing style, I did learn a lot here, like why and how Caligula elevated his sisters so high, and likely why rumors of them “bonking” likely began. It was also interesting to see why Agrippina may have felt a very real threat against her and her son Nero, and why this threat prompted her to move from relative quiet obscurity, to action of the sort that found her in history books.

What really got me about this book, however, is I felt that nearly everything Agrippina did was excused. There was almost never an alternative idea thrown out for readers to examine, and very few sources listed for what was given in the way of explanation. I, very early on, learned that basically everything Agrippina did was misunderstood, and other than some things being mentioned as written by contemporaries of the period, like Tacitus, there really wasn’t much for me to examine. 

And this is CRUCIAL for any nonfiction historical book worth its salt. I don’t want to read YOUR version of history. I want to learn about HISTORY. We don’t know everything, but we can hypothesize. When an author is hypothesizing, they need to be able to present the facts as they see them, and then say, “from this I infer (insert stuff here), but there is also this other way of seeing things based on this other evidence” and there was hardly any of that. Southon lays out her interpretation of events, and is almost religiously apologetic regarding Agrippina’s life and actions, and there is hardly any real siting of sources to back her claims, though I will whole-heartedly admit that many, many, many of her claims are VERY believable given the context of the time period. The problem isn’t that, it’s that there were minimal sources and even fewer alternative perspectives and opinions given to examine.

Yes, I get that she’s a historian, and this likely was her life’s work, but if you’re especially going to go gung-ho apologetic about a figure that has been seriously maligned by history, you need to present your facts and back them up with some sturdy research and sources, rather than jokes and quips about people being “stabby” and etc..

And maybe Southon is correct, but between some of her more informal writing, where I did honestly feel like occasionally she was out to crack a joke more than write about a historical figure, and her very minimal sources all mixed in with her near worship of Agrippina as a powerful historical figure that everyone on the planet has misunderstood, I felt like I was reading a book written by someone I couldn’t fully trust. I wanted to trust her, but there is a whole lot of speculation here, and a whole lot of “let’s be funny” and “look at how misunderstood Agrippina is” without much “here’s all my research” to back it up. 

Really, that’s a bit of a tragedy, because if Agrippina really is this misunderstood character, this woman who stood, despite the fact that just about every woman at her time was sitting quietly in the background, that deserves to be acknowledged, and it SHOULD BE, but it needs to be addressed in a far more studious, serious manner and there need to be plenty of sources to back it up, so readers can do their own research and make up their own minds. As it was, I read this book and now I understand that according to Emma Southon, Agrippina was incredible and we have all completely misunderstood her. Nearly everything she did was justified and excused, and her life was at turns wonderful, and extremely hard. 

I just really, really wish it was a bit more scholarly, and backed up with sources and alternative facts a bit better, and perhaps presented in such a way where I felt I was talking to an authority figure, and not some drunk person at the local bar. 

And the thing is, I really DID agree with her interpretation of the facts most of the time, but I was just left… meh.

Maybe I’m too picky. 

3/5 stars


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