Writing about women in Ancient history
Agrippina the Elder: 14BC –33AD, granddaughter of Augustus, wife of Germanicus (d 19AD). In 29 AD, she was accused of treason and sexual deviancy and was sentenced to death to the isle of Pandataria where she also lost an eye to blow from a centurion after protesting her incarceration. On the island, her mistreatment continued. She was both force-fed and starved until she died in 33AD.
I stared, mouth agape, reading the tiny index card next to the statue of the woman’s head. I reread it again, and again. I kept getting stuck on ‘lost an eye to a blow from a centurion’. The thought of it floored me. I couldn’t understand how a woman of such royal distinction was so dishonorably treated, and to then endure another four years of torment? Why?
Who was she and why had she incurred such hostile treatment? I stood there silently asking, as still as one of the nearby statues, for what seemed an eternity. I looked down at her enigmatic, resin face trying to imagine hair and eye color, a twitch of her mouth, did she have a ready smile or was it something only reserved for her closest friends and family? I read the other index cards, but none of them had anything remotely similar to Agrippina’s story. Clearly she was stubborn, passionate, and fearless; a classic tragic heroine. She was also a mother and a wife. But she was still just a woman who, despite her wealth and empirical connections, was considered nothing more than chattel.
But she was punched in the eye… I shook my head, perplexed. And then the penny dropped. Oh, I see, I smiled broadly; she must have made some enemies.
Since I was a little girl, history has been my go-to place for fueling my creative inspiration, a place to freely discover the undiscovered. I love getting lost in history, wandering around its cities, streets, hills, homes, legends, and getting to know the people. I know writing about people in ancient history is always a challenge, but it is one I’ve always been creatively ready to take.
When I stumbled upon Agrippina’s story seven years ago, I wasn’t expecting to have a multi award-winning screenplay, a miniseries in development and a documentary dedicated to her life. The day I discovered her story was a day many writers like myself can identify with; it was that day I had decided to give up pursuing writing as a career. I was full of anguish. I was lost, confused, and feeling like a dark hole was about to swallow me any second. I knew the exhibit would cheer me up. I was only there five minutes when I found Agrippina’s index card. I walked around the rest of the exhibit, but I couldn’t get her story out of my head. I had to know who she was and what she did that caused her life to end in such a heartbreaking way. I almost left the exhibit early, as I could feel my curiosity burning a hole in the back of my head.
When I returned home, I immediately sat down and googled ‘Agrippina the Elder’ looking for reference books and anything else related. I found her Wikipedia page where I learned that her husband, Germanicus, had died under suspicious circumstances in Syria. He was only 34. Agrippina was at his side. I can’t imagine having to helplessly watch a loved one deteriorate in that way. I then read of Agrippina’s campaign to seek justice for Germanicus’ death after emperor Tiberius refused to bring the two people who Agrippina believed were responsible to justice. Tiberius’ refusal was a slap in the face to her family; a family which Tiberius himself was made a part of by his own hand, albeit at Augustus’ behest.
Germanicus was a very important man. Not only was he Tiberius’ adopted son and heir, he was also a successful general and counsel. His death left behind a grieving widow with six children to care for, and a hole in the hearts of Rome’s citizens who considered him to be ‘a perfect Roman.’ I can understand why Agrippina felt she had no other choice but to pursue justice. She had lost her soul mate, and she was allowed no closure. In her quest for justice and to secure a legacy for her fatherless children, she pitted herself against the two most powerful men in Rome; emperor Tiberius and his right-hand man, Sejanus. Sejanus was just as ruthless as Tiberius and together they created a reign of terror in Rome. No one was safe, and no one was happy. Sejanus no doubt had eyes on succeeding Tiberius and would stop at nothing to make it happen, which meant getting Agrippina and her sons out of the way. Maybe Tiberius was aware of it, maybe not, but they found common ground in their hatred of Agrippina. Tiberius even refused to allow Agrippina to remarry, maybe due to the political protection she would gain. However, in spite of every chip stacked against her, Agrippina never backed down from her cause. For ten years.
In order to silence her forever, in 29 AD, Tiberius had Agrippina accused of treason and arrested, along with her eldest son, Nero, and sentenced to death to Pandataria. Ironically, it was the same island her mother, Julia, was sentenced to decades earlier by Augustus, but unlike Agrippina, Julia was recalled to Rome. Nero was sent to prison on Ponza where he was eventually coerced into committing suicide, and then her estranged son, Drusus, was arrested and left to rot in prison. It was on her way to Pandataria that Agrippina denounced the accusation of treason and her subsequent arrest so vehemently, that a centurion took it upon himself to punish her by slogging her in the eye. The blow was so vicious that she lost sight in that eye.
As if losing her husband and being separated from her children forever wasn’t enough, to try and completely break her, she was ordered to be both force-fed and starved. This went on for four years until she could take no more. It is believed that to end the torment, she may have starved herself to death. With her eldest sons dead, and her daughters married off, this left her youngest child, Gaius, aka Caligula, to succeed Tiberius as emperor. After he took over from Tiberius, Caligula ordered the transcripts of Agrippina’s trial to be destroyed, so we will never know the particulars of what went on in the Senate that fateful day or of her time on Pandataria.
Recently, I went back to the Wikipedia page and read Tacitus’ description of Agrippina. I had read it when I started the research but I paid no mind to it, as these derogatory scholarly opinions can too often be politically motivated. And although Tacitus prized her as a mother, he also described her as “determined and rather excitable” – “Agrippina knew no feminine weaknesses. Intolerant of rivalry, thirsting for power, she had a man’s preoccupations“. 1
Considering all that she had been through, any woman in Agrippina’s situation is allowed to be determined, and rather excitable. She is allowed to play her ‘feminine’ cards close to her chest in order to guess what move her male counterparts would make next. But intolerant of rivalry and thirsting for power? There was nothing to rival against. An unmarried woman of her standing of course would want to have some power in order to protect her family. To move around in ancient Rome as a woman, she would have had to play a man’s game. She was both praised and highly criticized for everything she did. She accompanied Germanicus on his campaigns, even giving birth along the way, and was instrumental in saving many soldiers’ lives which, of course, made her enemies froth at the mouth with jealousy and condemnation. She loved her family and was a patron for many hospitals and schools for the poor, again incurring the jealous wrath of the ambitious elite. I don’t know why Tacitus neglected to see the tribulations, trauma, and stress Agrippina had to endure in order to protect her family.
What would you have done? Finding her story changed my life that day. What would I have done if I were in her shoes? The same thing. Which is the same thing I’m doing now; back to fighting for a creative career in order to be able to share inspiring stories like Agrippina’s. She simply felt her children and her husband’s legacy deserved better. Her act of defiance was an exceptional one for her time and reflects the best of what human beings are capable of: compassion, strength, perseverance, and love. We need stories of courage, inspiration, and determination no matter what decade they come from, and regardless of race or gender.
The rarity of her actions, the sacrifice she was willing to make for her cause, and the passion with which she pursued it is epic. In ancient Rome, when women had no voice, here was a woman risking everything to right a wrong. All for love and her belief that Rome still offered its citizens justice. The significance of her actions, although tragic in the end, felt familiar. What human hasn’t risked everything to right a wrong or stepped into the arena of the world to fight for a just cause?
So how does a writer take on such an incredible yet unknown story? Besides doing the research, all I can do is to put myself in Agrippina’s shoes with the goal to honor the sacrifice she made and not to romance it. It’s intimidating to capture a life story and fill in gaps between action and inaction. We writers do have to take some artistic license to fill in those gaps with what seems and feels natural. I don’t want to insult the historical community because it is that same community I respect and who are the key to my project’s success. I know it will be difficult to meet everyone’s expectations.
It’s easy to be critical of films about historical figures: Alexander, Elizabeth, Agora, Nero, The Iron Lady, and Lincoln, just to name a few. Some have been extraordinarily successful and some not so much. Trying to find the balance between the entertainment side and the educational side to please everyone is so difficult. The further back you go, the harder, and more expensive it is to replicate. There are so many stories like Agrippina’s that we should not allow to slip away.
Perhaps she would have lived to a ripe old age had she just slipped silently into grief and mourning and not bothered with the idea of justice. In retrospect, millions of lives would have been different had they not stood up for themselves and let corruption rule the day.
But complacency doesn’t make history. And complacency was definitely not Agrippina.
1) Tacitus’ quote via Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agrippina_the_Elder
Persephone Vandegrift is an ancient history geek, multi award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, author, story consultant, and playwright. You can find out more about her upcoming film and theatre projects by following her on Twitter @PersephWrites. Also follow Agrippina’s journey via the DEATH OF A MORTAL WOMAN page on Facebook and message her with any questions.