In the painting above, artist Benjamin West (1738–1820) shows the somber scene of Vipsania Agrippina returning to Rome after the death of her husband in the year 19. Her late spouse was no ordinary man—he had been Germanicus, an accomplished general and a much-beloved member of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty in Rome. Germanicus was the nephew (and adopted son) of Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37). He was also the brother of future Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) and the father of notorious Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41). Germanicus, too, would have become an emperor had it not been for his suspicious death, which occurred only a few months shy of his thirty-fourth birthday. As he had been an extremely popular figure, much of the Roman population mourned his death and flocked to show support to his widow, Agrippina, and to the children Germanicus left behind. Tacitus, a great Roman historian, recorded in words the very scene that Benjamin West later painted—that of Agrippina arriving in Italy with the ashes of her idolized husband:
“Meanwhile, at the news of her approach, people flocked to Brundisium….As soon as her squadron was seen out to sea, huge sorrowing crowds filled the harbours and shallows, walls, house-tops—every vantage point. They wondered whether they ought to receive her landing in silence or with some utterance. As they still hesitated about the appropriate course, the fleet gradually came nearer. There was none of the usual brisk rowing, but every deliberate sign of grief. Agrippina, with her two children, stepped off the ship, her eyes lowered, the urn of death in her hands. Her companions were worn out by prolonged grieving; so the sorrow of the fresh mourners who now met her was more demonstrative. Otherwise everyone’s feelings were indistinguishable; the cries of men and women, relatives and strangers, blended in a single universal groan” (Annals of Imperial Rome, III.1).
Vipsania Agrippina, like many others in Rome, suspected that Germanicus had been poisoned, with Governor Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso and Emperor Tiberius being the rumored orchestrators of the assassination. Piso was set to be tried for the murder, but he committed suicide before a confession or verdict could be reached. Agrippina never gave up her suspicions of Tiberius’ involvement in Germanicus’ death, and her hostility to the emperor consequently led to Agrippina’s imprisonment on an island, where she died in the year 33, supposedly of malnutrition.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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.