Agrippina the Younger was a member of the Julio-Claudian family who was exiled from Rome during the reign of her brother, Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41). Fortunately for her, Caligula was soon assassinated and Agrippina was almost immediately invited back to Rome by the next emperor, her uncle, Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54).
When Agrippina returned to Rome, she was allowed to resume raising her young son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. As Agrippina and her son were among the increasingly rare surviving descendants of Augustus (Agrippina was his great-granddaughter), their return to Roman society brought about all sorts of possibilities for Rome’s ruling elite to use in their endless political maneuverings. Agrippina the Younger welcomed the plotting, as she was an ambitious and cunning woman who thrived in court intrigue.
Unfortunately for Agrippina, ruthless and independent-thinking women were not in short supply in ancient Rome. In particular, she had a worthy rival in Messalina, who had been the wife of Emperor Claudius since the year 39 or 40. As Messalina was just as ambitious and politically savvy as her adversary, she immediately realized the threat that Agrippina and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus could potentially pose to herself and to her own son, Britannicus. Naturally, a great feud formed between the two sly women. Several ancient historians and biographers mentioned the battle of intrigue between the two women. Tacitus (c. 56-117+) wrote that Messalina was a “particularly virulent” persecutor of Agrippina and that Messalina was only distracted from her campaign by a wild affair with a certain Gaius Silius (Annals, Book XI, section 12).
The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), claimed that the feud between the two women almost became murderous. In his book, The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius alleged that Messalina eventually sent a team of assassins to murder Agrippina’s son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. According to the tale, the assassins found the young boy sleeping and were about to strangle him when they saw something terrifying. At the foot of the bed, the assassins were confronted by the coiled, scaly hide of a snake that was seemingly guarding the sleeping young boy. Believing that their target was divinely protected, the assassins loudly fled from the scene. The commotion either woke Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus or his mother, Agrippina, for they knew that assassins had been near and that a snake had been the reason of their indiscreet exit.
Upon inspection, however, all was not as it seemed. What was at the foot of the boy’s bed was not a live snake, but just the shed skin of one that had slithered by recently. Even so, Agrippina must have thought it was lucky, for she reportedly had the snakeskin gilded and turned into a bracelet, which she gave to her son.
Messalina, of course, was right to suspect and fear Agrippina and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. In the year 48, Messalina was executed by Claudius after word spread about the aforementioned affair that his wife was allegedly having with Gaius Silius. One year after Messalina’s execution, Claudius married Agrippina the Younger and adopted her son, who, upon adoption, assumed the infamous name Nero. When Claudius died of suspicious circumstances in the year 54, Agrippina and her allies ensured that it was not Britannicus, Claudius’ son by blood, but Nero, the late emperor’s adopted son, who became the next leader of the Roman Empire. In the year 55, Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) fulfilled Messalina’s nightmare by assassinating her son, Britannicus, who was only 13 or 14 years of age at the time of his murder.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (scene with Dionysus and a snake (c. 62-79 AD) – from Pompeii, House of the Centenary, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.