Mothers, Murderers & Mistresses: Empresses Of Ancient Rome (2013) s01e02 Episode Script

Part Two

By the early first century AD, the empire founded in Rome by its first emperor, Augustus, had become a family enterprise.
This great empire of the ancient world 'has fascinated me all my working life 'and I feel we've been misled' by the official and military flavour of Roman monuments and history.
'In particular, it's long struck me that not just the ancient 'but the modern image of Roman power is exclusively male.
' Yet, in the imperial family's house, here, on Rome's Palatine Hill, 'women were wielding real power.
' The trailblazer was Augustus' wife, Livia, a supreme politician, power broker and manipulator.
Livia had been content to show her muscle behind the scenes and out of public view.
But what if that just wasn't enough? Two compelling first-century personalities reveal what could happen when imperial women wanted more.
One was Messalina, the most notorious woman of ancient Rome, whose reputation for sexual athleticism has endured down the centuries.
The second was Agrippina, who stopped at nothing to achieve supreme power through her son, but ended up meeting her death at his hands.
Agrippina and Messalina were also vicious rivals, who would collide in a fatal clash of ambition.
These two women take us into the heart of the imperial court - that intrigue-ridden, sexually charged and bloody arena in which the future of the Roman world was at stake.
The Roman Empire was ruled by a succession of exceptional personalities, ranging from masterful politicians to rogues and madmen.
Among the powerful were a handful of women who were every bit as remarkable and often just as devious and ruthless as the men.
One woman binds together more than two decades of Rome's first-century history, years which were dramatic even by the empire's eventful standards.
Because she was the sister of one emperor - Caligula.
Wife of a second - Claudius.
And mother of a third - Nero.
Her name was Agrippina, often known as Agrippina the Younger, to distinguish her from her mother of the same name.
And if she helps us to understand the nature of power in the first century, it's not just because she was close to it.
She also wielded it herself.
Agrippina was born with one priceless asset.
She could boast direct descent from Rome's first emperor - the divine Augustus himself.
But Agrippina's early life was scarred by terror and tragedy.
Her father, the popular general Germanicus, and her mother were both victims of Rome's thuggish second emperor, Tiberius.
But Agrippina survived.
As was standard for Roman aristocratic women, at the age of around 13, she was married to a man of distinguished family - Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.
In AD 37, aged around 21, Agrippina gave birth to a son, whom we know as Nero.
That same year, Tiberius, the emperor who'd been responsible for the death of Agrippina's parents, died.
The twists and turns of Rome's dynastic succession now offered Agrippina an opportunity.
The new emperor, Gaius, was Agrippina's one remaining brother, known since boyhood by the nickname "Little Boots", in Latin - Caligula.
Caligula would soon reveal himself to be highly unstable.
According to one Roman historian, he even tried to make his horse a consul.
But he began his reign with conspicuous steps to encourage respect for Agrippina and his other sisters.
Caligula altered the oath of allegiance to the emperor, sworn by senators and soldiers, to include a particular show of loyalty to his three sisters.
Their status was proclaimed on coins.
Here, Agrippina, on the left, is identified with Securitas, the Roman goddess of safety.
But Caligula would prove an unreliable, indeed dangerous, patron.
Dozens of leading Romans were killed on his whim.
He executed one man simply because he didn't like his clothes.
Agrippina had now been widowed and stories began to circulate that she and her sisters were required to satisfy their imperial brother's sexual perversions.
The nature of Agrippina's close relationship with Caligula attracted comment from ancient historians.
Writing in the second century, Suetonius claims it was the emperor's custom "to have incestuous relations with each of his three sisters".
It's not certain these charges of incest have any basis in fact.
Indeed, very little is known about Agrippina during the initial period of her brother's rule.
But something dramatic must have happened, because, two years into Caligula's reign, Agrippina took an enormous risk.
In AD 39, Agrippina and her sister Livilla were implicated in a plot to overthrow Caligula, led by men with whom Agrippina was said to be sexually involved.
When the conspiracy was discovered, Agrippina and Livilla were despatched into exile off the coast of Italy.
According to the biographer Suetonius, they left Rome accompanied by a grim warning from their brother the emperor - "When he banished his sisters, he remarked, "'I have swords as well as islands.
'" 'For good measure, as well as exiling them, 'Caligula stripped his sisters of their property.
'Then, he staged a lucrative public auction 'of their jewellery, furniture and slaves.
'The power generated by their ancestry 'had led to Agrippina and Livilla's involvement in the plot 'and gave it real credibility.
'Their bloodline was a potent political weapon, 'but it also exposed them to extreme risk.
' Thinking about the story about the conspiracy in AD 39 involving Agrippina and her sister, Livilla, why do you think conspirators might have thought it would be a useful connection for them to be involved with the emperor's sisters? Because we're now in a situation where power is transferred dynastically and not through election.
That means that, within the imperial household, family is what matters, bloodlines, this is the root to succession.
So women in that context can suddenly become really very powerful, because they provide, through marriage, a connection to the imperial household or they provide children for the succession.
Agrippina was lucky to escape execution for her part in the attempted coup against Caligula.
Instead, she faced a lifetime of exile.
But two years later, in AD 41, Agrippina's fortunes took another dramatic turn.
Caligula was assassinated.
The conspiracy to eliminate him included senators who wanted an end to imperial autocracy and the return to a Republic.
But they would be thwarted.
Here, in the ruling family's palace on the Palatine Hill, the Praetorians, the emperor's personal bodyguard, stepped into the vacuum.
Without an emperor, the Praetorians would have no role, and no power.
So they alighted on an insignificant, middle-aged member of the imperial family as emperor.
He was Agrippina's uncle, Claudius.
Claudius was keen to show that a new, more forgiving era was under way.
One of his Claudius' first acts as emperor was to recall Agrippina and her sister Livilla from exile and to restore their property.
So Agrippina duly returned to Rome, where she did something which seems puzzling.
Agrippina and her sister arranged a formal funeral for Caligula, the brother they'd tried to overthrow.
It's likely the two sisters then interred Caligula's ashes here, at the Mausoleum of Augustus - the great family tomb built by the founder of the dynasty.
Agrippina was showing signs of a sharp political brain.
The Roman masses had been fond of Caligula because he regularly humiliated the rich and aristocratic.
And however hated Caligula was by that aristocracy, it would be impossible for them to criticise a sister honouring her brother.
But, above all, in celebrating her family connections, Agrippina was reminding Roman society of her lineage.
Specifically, of her blood ties to the divine Augustus, the man who had brought peace and order to the Roman world.
Her descent from Augustus was always the trump card in Agrippina's political hand.
And now, her uncle Claudius was emperor.
However, the same ancestry which gave Agrippina and her sister Livilla such prestige within the ruling dynasty continued to make them vulnerable.
They would become the targets of a powerful new enemy - Claudius' wife, Messalina.
The entry of Messalina into the Julio-Claudian family ratchets up the tension of Roman dynastic politics to a new level.
Though, as with any Roman imperial woman, making sense of her life means sifting two basic and frequently contradictory types of evidence - the invariably positive message conveyed by coins, inscriptions and statues, and the almost invariably hostile testimony of Roman historians.
Images created during Messalina's lifetime show her as a serene, regal, maternal figure.
A very different view emerges from the writers passing judgment after her death.
The imperial biographer Suetonius writes of her "crimes and misdemeanours".
According to the second-century historian Tacitus, she was excited by "the greatest infamy".
For the poet Juvenal, she was "the whore-empress".
A story recorded in the first century cemented Messalina's reputation for depravity.
We're told she competed against a famous prostitute in a sexual marathon and won the contest by having sex with 25 men in 24 hours.
There are lots of stories, aren't there, about Messalina's sexual misbehaviour when she's married to Claudius.
Why do you think it is that is Messalina who's singled out for association with this kind of sexual immorality? I think what makes Messalina so interesting is she's described as only interested in sex for sex's sake.
So there is, for example, a story from Pliny the Elder, that she used to creep out of the palace at night covered in a cloak, wearing a blonde wig, going through the streets of Rome to find a shabby mat in a brothel, where she would service customers till dawn, and still be unsatisfied and go back to the palace, again in disguise, dirty and reeking of the brothel.
Messalina's reputation has endured down the centuries.
She remains the most infamous woman in all Roman history.
Messalina's notoriety makes it more difficult than ever to get to the facts.
But enough is known to sketch out the career of this extraordinary and calculating woman.
Messalina married Claudius some three or four years before he unexpectedly became emperor.
She was probably approaching 20.
He was her second cousin and some 30 years older and, at this point, had shown little ambition.
But their wedding indicates Claudius possessed sound political sense.
So, Claudius marries Messalina.
Why do you think he chose Messalina? What did she What advantages does she bring to the marriage alliance, would you say? Well, I would think that what's at stake is, in a sense, keeping it within the family, because Messalina is descended from Augustus' sister.
In that sense, she's still bringing with her the connection to the founder of the dynasty.
She is also young.
She is available, therefore, to produce heirs who would, again, carry that bloodline down for him.
So she has a number of advantages in that respect.
'Claudius' elevation to emperor 'transformed his and Messalina's lives.
' But he owed his position largely to the support of the Praetorian Guard and had little track record of his own.
Though Claudius was a member of the ruling Julio-Claudian family, he was not directly descended from the divine Augustus.
Despite statues showing him as a god-like figure, Claudius was, in fact, infirm and physically frail.
It all meant that Claudius started out as a weak and insecure emperor.
Messalina recognised this, and her own vulnerability.
In theory, she'd stabilised both present and future by producing a son shortly after Claudius came to power.
But suppose her middle-aged and sickly husband should die before that child was old enough to succeed his father? Rome was not short of ambitious aristocrats with some kind of imperial claim.
Messalina conspired to eliminate potential rivals to Claudius, particularly in the Senate.
In one case, Messalina claimed that, in her dreams, she'd seen a distinguished senator, a relative of Augustus, assassinating Claudius.
The senator was summarily executed.
Messalina believed she also needed to act ruthlessly to secure not just Claudius' position, but her own too.
When Claudius married her, during the reign of his nephew, Caligula, it was a sign of his rising status, given that she herself had connections to the family of Augustus.
But what if Claudius were to find another wife, who was even more valuable politically? Someone who could embellish his own imperial credentials and bolster his support among senators who resented him? There were two obvious candidates to be a more illustrious wife for Claudius, the sisters Livilla and Agrippina the direct descendants of Augustus, and the nieces whom Claudius, in his first act as emperor, had brought back to Rome from exile.
Messalina's first target was Livilla.
Marriage to this great-granddaughter of the divine Augustus would have given Claudius considerable imperial kudos.
Messalina arranged for her to be put on trial before the Senate, convicted of adultery and, for the second time in two years, sent into exile.
Within a few months, Livilla was executed.
With Livilla out of the way, there remained Agrippina.
She was a widow, able to marry.
And if the ageing Claudius could not have more children, Agrippina even brought a ready-made heir who carried the bloodline of Augustus - her son, Nero.
Given the weight this ancestry carried in Roman society, Nero might be in a position to rival Messalina's own son and become next emperor, as Agrippina surely recognised.
However, there's now a gap in the historical records.
It seems that Messalina left Agrippina alone, for the moment.
Perhaps because she felt strong enough to do so as she and Claudius were now stamping their personal authority on the empire.
In AD 43, Claudius, chasing the military success that would strengthen him, invaded Britain.
This inscription, which once decorated an arch built to celebrate the emperor's victory, records the surrender of the "reges Britannorum" - the kings of the Britons.
Messalina revelled in her husband's glory.
When it came to the great triumphal procession through Rome to celebrate the victorious campaign, Messalina rode in a carriage right behind Claudius.
The significance of her presence was huge - she was the first adult woman ever to take part in a Roman triumph.
And with her, rode her infant son, the future of the dynasty, newly renamed Britannicus.
'Messalina's participation in this greatest of Roman state events was an unprecedented honour.
'It also showed how important Messalina had become to Claudius.
'The first emperor, Augustus, had enjoyed the support and cooperation 'of the aristocrats in the Senate.
'But that had now evaporated.
' Under Claudius, poor relations with the Senate made the emperor increasingly dependent on those close to him, in what was evolving into an imperial court.
Its principal members were the former slaves who comprised his inner circle and also, undoubtedly, Messalina, a key figure in the regime.
Ancient writers claimed that Messalina had enormous influence over Claudius.
Leading Romans humbled themselves to flatter her.
The imperial biographer Suetonius recorded how an eminent consul and provincial governor, Lucius Vitellius, grovelled before Messalina.
Vitellius omitted no measure which might secure him the favour of Claudius, who was at the mercy of his wives and freedmen.
He asked Messalina, as an immense favour, to offer him her feet so he might take off her shoes, and when he had removed her right slipper, he nursed it between his toga and his tunic, occasionally giving it kisses.
Roman historians created the long-lasting image of Messalina's rampant sexuality and the power this gave her over men.
But some of these writers were deliberately using the stories of her depravity to justify their hostility to autocratic government.
Messalina's often portrayed as a nymphomaniac, isn't she? Do you think it might make more sense to see her as someone who's using sex for political purposes in the precarious world of the imperial court? Yes, I think historians used to get terribly excited and say things like, "Messalina is one of the great nymphomaniacs of history", but the descriptions of sexual excess were, in the Roman world, always methods of attacking people politically.
If you describe the emperor's wife as an insatiable whore, what you're saying is that that emperor has no control over his wife.
If he has no control over his wife, he has no control of the state.
So, we can interpret that story as a way, if you like, of castrating Claudius, and castrating his role, and that's what the writers are trying to do.
Nonetheless, there is a potential political dimension of sexual activity in Messalina's life.
That if women only have access to power, illicit power, and not public authority, one of the ways they can achieve that power is precisely through their body and their sexual relations.
Messalina's powers drove her husband to depend on her and senators to abase themselves before her.
It seemed she could get anything she wanted, whatever the cost.
This was the site of the Gardens of Lucullus, one of Rome's most attractive properties.
Messalina set her covetous eyes on the gardens and persuaded Claudius that their owner, a former consul named Valerius Asiaticus, was a potential assassin.
Asiaticus was hauled before the emperor, accused of everything from corruption to sexual deviancy.
Shamed, he committed suicide.
'The death of Asiaticus and the seizure of his property by Messalina 'are dated to AD 47, 'six years into Claudius' reign.
'But then, with Messalina at the pinnacle of her success, 'her one remaining rival reappeared - 'Claudius' niece, Agrippina.
' When Agrippina re-emerges in the historical record, there's a sense of a growing hostility between her and Messalina and the historian Tacitus makes clear that this had political consequences.
There was growing sympathy for Agrippina, owing to the vindictiveness of Messalina.
Messalina was always Agrippina's enemy.
Messalina avoided a direct attack on Agrippina.
Instead, their rivalry was played out through their sons.
In AD 47, Claudius staged great games in Rome to mark the 800th anniversary of the city's foundation.
To mark the celebrations, both Messalina's child Britannicus and Agrippina's son Nero took part in a pageant, to cheering crowds.
The historian Tacitus simply comments, "The greater applause for Nero was regarded as prophetic.
" The crowd's acclamation of Nero implied that Messalina was now being outshone by Agrippina.
To thwart her rival, Messalina and a new lover now took an enormous gamble.
It would be a lethal cocktail of sex and politics.
A sense of breathless disbelief pervades Tacitus' account of Messalina's behaviour, beginning when she fell in love with "the handsomest young man in Rome", Gaius Silius, a senator in line for Rome's highest magistracy, the consulship.
According to Tacitus, Messalina clung to Silius in public and showered him with gifts.
Then, in AD 48, when Claudius was out of Rome, the emperor's wife entered into a form of marriage with her lover.
It will seem astonishing, I know, that in a city where everything is noticed and commented on, any people could have felt themselves so secure.
Let alone that, on an appointed day and before invited witnesses, a consul designate and Messalina, the wife of the emperor, should have been joined together in a traditional marriage ceremony, that the pair should have taken their places at a banquet, kissed, and finally spent the night as man and wife.
But I am not inventing marvels.
Silius also planned to adopt Claudius' son, Britannicus.
The whole episode looked very much like a coup d'etat.
When news of the marriage ceremony reached Claudius, his reaction was bewilderment.
We're told that time and time again he asked, "Am I still emperor?" This extraordinary story hurtled towards its denouement.
Either Claudius would be overthrown or Messalina had signed her death warrant.
Eventually, led by his loyal freedmen, Claudius headed back to Rome.
Messengers told Messalina that the emperor was out for revenge.
Messalina had one hope of survival - that she could explain everything away in a personal audience with Claudius.
Desperate to intercept the emperor on his way back to Rome, Messalina raced out of the city in a rubbish cart, accompanied by her two children and with the Chief Priestess of the Vestal Virgins on hand to supply a character reference.
'By now, Claudius' advance guard had made it back to Rome 'and intercepted Messalina.
' Led by Claudius' secretary, Narcissus, the imperial freedmen, ex-slaves, shouted Messalina down and made sure she did not get a chance to make a personal plea to the emperor.
When he arrived back at the imperial palace, Claudius announced he would see "the poor woman" the next day.
Fearful that Messalina would prevail on Claudius to forgive her, Narcissus the freedman sent soldiers to kill her that night.
Tacitus tells us that when her executioners arrived, Messalina was in the Gardens of Lucullus, the property she'd grabbed a year earlier by destroying the reputation of its owner.
She was with her mother, who told her, "Your life now is over.
"There is nothing more to look for but dignity in death.
" Then, at last, Messalina understood her fate.
She took the dagger and drew it tremulously towards her throat and then her breast, but in vain.
The officer's blow drove it home.
The body was left with her mother.
When Claudius heard the news of Messalina's death, we're told he showed little interest.
"He called for more wine", says Tacitus, "and carried on with his banquet as usual.
" In the end, Claudius could afford to be relaxed.
Adultery was a criminal offence in Rome and, irrespective of any attempt to seize power, the discovery of Messalina's affair with Silius would almost certainly have led to her exile at the very least.
The odds remained stacked against a woman's ambition for supremacy.
Messalina's scandalous affair and violent death fascinated and appalled ancient writers.
But why did Messalina embark on this apparently suicidal venture? Tacitus insisted that her emotions blinded Messalina, and her involvement with Silius was nothing more than a reckless infatuation.
But it's more plausible to see Messalina's motive not as lust, but as desperation in the face of the threat posed by her rival, Claudius' niece, Agrippina.
Unable to persuade Claudius to take action against his niece, Messalina's fear of Agrippina caused her to seek new political support, drove her into an adulterous relationship and led her to her death.
Today, Rome's museums feature many images of imperial women.
But those of Messalina are extremely rare.
The Senate ordered that all statues of her would be taken down, even from private display.
Messalina was to be a non-person.
The irony is that Messalina remains more famous than any other imperial woman.
She is an enduring symbol of Roman immorality.
The epitome of the shameless female.
That perception may not be completely without foundation in Messalina's case, but it's a mistake to dismiss her as a nymphomaniac and nothing more.
She understood that her position alongside the head of an autocratic system gave her considerable leverage, which she used ruthlessly on occasion.
Messalina also understood that Roman politics was a very high-stakes game.
What she failed to understand was her own limitations.
For the emperor Claudius, Messalina's execution brought a violent end to what was his third marriage.
According to his biographer, Suetonius, Claudius ruefully conceded to the Praetorian Guards, to whom he owed his power, that he should not marry again.
Claudius affirmed before a gathering in the Praetorian camp that, since his marriages had turned out so badly, he would remain unmarried and, if he did not keep his word, he would not object to them killing him with their own hands.
After the bloody drama of Messalina's death, the ageing Claudius may have hoped for a quiet bachelor life.
It was not to be.
The emperor remained vulnerable.
Messalina's plot had been deeply unsettling.
And his relationship with the aristocrats who sat here in the Senate was still fractious.
Claudius somehow had to bring genuine dynastic credibility to his reign.
One woman knew that what the emperor needed above all was a strong wife with unimpeachable ancestry at his side.
The moment was ripe for Agrippina, the direct descendant of the divine Augustus, to re-enter the imperial stage.
Agrippina was ideally placed to provide the support the regime needed and perfectly willing to exploit the emperor's weakness for her own ends.
Her first step was an alliance with Pallas, the emperor's treasurer and one of the most influential of his freedmen.
While other advisers backed rival contenders to be the emperor's new wife, Tacitus reports the argument Pallas put forward in favour of Agrippina.
Let the emperor ally himself with a noble line and unite two branches of the Claudian house, rather than allow Agrippina, this woman of proven capacity for child-bearing, still young, to transfer the distinction of the Caesars to another family.
In other words, Agrippina was simply too powerful to ignore.
If Claudius did not ally himself with her, her prestige might be transferred to someone else, who might then become a credible alternative emperor.
For her part, as the biographer Suetonius reports, Agrippina made a move to become her uncle's next wife.
The affections of Claudius were secured by the allurements of Agrippina, daughter of his own brother, Germanicus.
She took advantage of a relative's right to give kisses and opportunities for flattery.
One substantial hurdle still lay in Agrippina's way, however - a ban on marriage between uncle and niece, which was not only a longstanding tradition but also enshrined in Roman law.
Here, in the Senate, late in AD 48, a means was found to overcome this legal obstacle.
It was an elaborate piece of political theatre, quite probably orchestrated by Agrippina herself.
A reliable senator proclaimed that the emperor needed help, "for the labours of one who rules the world are most arduous.
" He argued that partner MUST be Agrippina.
As for the bar on marriage between uncle and niece, that was just social convention, and social conventions changed over time.
With senators and the Roman masses in the Forum acclaiming the proposal, Claudius entered the Senate and obtained a decree legalising marriage with a brother's daughter.
Agrippina's patience and skilful manoeuvring had paid off.
She was now the wife of Rome's emperor.
Agrippina's impact on government would be immense and immediate.
The historian Tacitus loathed every bit of it.
From this moment, the state was turned upside down.
A woman, Agrippina, was accorded complete obedience.
Not a woman like Messalina, who toyed with national affairs for her own pleasure.
This was a rigorous, almost masculine dominion.
Tacitus was not alone in his outrage against Agrippina.
Writing over a century later, the historian Cassius Dio claims that when Agrippina moved into the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill, she took over decision-making from her husband, through a mixture of intimidation and bribery.
Agrippina, a woman, set out to act like a man and reinvent the role of an imperial wife.
Her great predecessor, Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus, had influenced everything, from imperial decrees to the verdicts of major trials.
But Livia exercised her power behind the scenes, Agrippina's power was glaringly visible.
She was awarded the revered title of Augusta, the first consort of a living emperor to be honoured in this way.
For the first time, the emperor and his wife appeared on a coin together - Claudius on one side, Agrippina on the other.
A sense of genuine and publicly acknowledged partnership is emerging here.
The Romans never devised a term for "empress", a fact which reflects their antipathy towards female involvement in matters of state.
But an empress is what Agrippina was becoming.
Statues from across the empire show how Agrippina was acknowledged as a key figure in government.
Especially striking is this group of reliefs, discovered in what was once the rich Roman province of Asia.
This image shows Agrippina hand in hand with Claudius and the message is about much more than just marital harmony.
This figure, on the right, sadly now missing its head, is believed to represent the Roman Senate, bestowing an oak leaf crown on Claudius, a gesture of thanks for saving the state.
Emperor, Senate, Agrippina - all three are depicted as crucial to the stability and prosperity of the empire.
And what adds hugely to the significance of such images is that they seem to have had some basis in reality.
Agrippina really was helping government run more smoothly.
When Claudius became emperor, and for some years afterwards, the Senate had regarded him with sullen hostility.
Now, Agrippina worked to improve relations.
She cultivated support among key senators.
Co-operation replaced confrontation.
The net result of this improvement in relations was that senators stayed alive.
In the seven years from AD 41 to AD 48, when Claudius was married to Messalina, we know of dozens of executions of senators.
From AD 49 onwards, when Agrippina was the emperor's wife, such cases become significantly less frequent.
Whether it was behind the scenes in the senate or receiving public acclamation, Agrippina relished her power.
The great military achievement of Claudius' reign remained the conquest of Britain, begun in AD 43.
Here in Asia, the event was celebrated in this sculpture of a deceptively youthful and vigorous Claudius heroically subduing Britannia.
The Britons' resistance was led by the chieftain Caratacus, who was finally captured and brought to Rome in AD 51.
There, he was paraded before the emperor Claudius with Agrippina sitting close by.
According to Tacitus, Caratacus and the other prisoners paid their respect to Claudius and then, "offered homage with the same praise and thanks to Agrippina.
" This indeed was something new and alien to the customs of former times, that a woman should sit before the Roman standards.
Agrippina was asserting her partnership in the empire secured by her ancestors.
It wasn't just the great ceremonies and celebrations, Agrippina also shared the emperor's routine duties.
She sat with him at his morning "salutatio", when he received his many visitors.
The relationship between patron and client was at the centre of Roman life.
Now, when the emperor's many petitioners came calling, Agrippina was cast as a potential partner in dispensing his huge powers of patronage.
"No-one tried to limit Agrippina in any way", claims Cassius Dio, writing in the third century.
"Indeed, she had more power than Claudius himself.
" Agrippina used this unparalleled status to pursue one all-consuming goal - to make her son Nero the next ruler of Rome.
Agrippina's obsessive interest in Nero's future led her to consult astrologers, who advised her that he would be emperor, but that he would kill his mother.
"Let him kill," she replied, "provided that he rules!" Agrippina's ambitions for Nero were fierce and calculated.
Even before she married Claudius, Agrippina had been planning.
She set out to secure a marriage between Nero and Claudius' daughter, Octavia.
But Octavia was already engaged.
Agrippina arranged for her fiance to be charged with incest.
As a result, he committed suicide.
Agrippina then turned to a major obstacle blocking Nero's path to power.
Claudius had an heir of his own - Britannicus, his son by Messalina.
Britannicus was three years younger than Nero, but he was Claudius' own blood.
To marginalize Britannicus, Agrippina set about building support for Nero in the imperial palace and in the Senate.
At the same time, officers of the Praetorian Guard sympathetic to Britannicus were replaced by others loyal to Agrippina.
Significantly, in AD 50, Agrippina persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero as his son.
Then, in AD 53, Nero married the emperor's daughter, Octavia, and was now established as the favoured successor.
When Agrippina got married to Claudius, do you think it's right to think of her as having an agenda? Oh, absolutely.
No, she knew exactly what she wanted and that was that her son was going to become the next emperor, one way or other.
So I think she thought he had a very good chance if she played her cards well.
And she did.
And then, all that had to happen was that Claudius had to disappear.
As, in due course, he did.
As, in due course, he did.
On the evening of the 12th October AD 54, a banquet took place in the imperial palace.
In the course of the meal, Claudius fell violently ill.
During the night, the emperor died.
Our ancient sources agree that Agrippina was responsible for his murder.
Tacitus provides a detailed account of how Agrippina, whom he describes as "long resolved on the crime", obtained poison and made arrangements for it to be administered to Claudius.
Writers of the time report that the poison was smeared on a particularly delicious mushroom.
The potency of the drug was not obvious straightaway, so Agrippina employed a complicit doctor she had standing by.
As if helping Claudius as he retched, he put a feather down the emperor's throat.
It was smeared with fast-working poison.
The death of Claudius is reported to us as a very gripping story.
Is there any doubt that Agrippina herself was responsible? It was awfully convenient.
One has to say it came at just the right time.
Brittanicus, who was Claudius' son and who would have been emperor if Nero hadn't been inserted in the succession, Brittanicus was about to come of age and Claudius would have expected a certain amount of fuss to be made of him.
But you can't prove it.
I mean, Claudius always ate and drank too much and mushrooms are very tricky things.
Indeed they are.
The day after the death of Claudius, Agrippina's son, Nero, was presented to the Praetorian Guard and acclaimed as emperor.
Tacitus laments that key elements in Roman society swiftly fell into line with the imperial bodyguard.
"The soldiers' decision was followed by senatorial decrees", he writes.
"The provinces also showed no hesitation.
" Across the empire, Agrippina's crucial role in securing Nero's succession was explicitly recognised and celebrated.
In this image from Asia, she's shown literally crowning her son as emperor.
Even in Rome, with its long-standing unease about women in politics, coins showed Agrippina alongside her teenage son and emperor.
Nero was not quite 17 when he became emperor and it's clear that Agrippina was determined to keep a firm hand on government.
According to Tacitus, she was "burning with all the passions of illegitimate rule", while the biographer Suetonius claims that Nero was more than happy for his mother to take a leading role.
Nero allowed his mother the greatest influence over all matters, private and public.
Even on the first day of his reign, the password he gave to the tribune of the watch was "the best of mothers".
And afterwards, he rode about the city with her, sharing a litter.
In broader political terms, Agrippina did her best to intervene, and went to elaborate lengths to listen to deliberations of the Senate, a body from which women had traditionally been strictly excluded.
And when a delegation from the client kingdom of Armenia appeared before Nero, she was about to mount the dais and sit next to the emperor.
Tacitus claims "everybody was stunned" and a scandal was only narrowly averted.
This near breach of etiquette was the first obvious sign that Agrippina's apparent command of the heights of Roman politics might be illusory.
In reality, Agrippina's situation was precarious.
She had already fulfilled her most useful function in ensuring Nero's succession.
Now, she was dependent on his whims, and as her teenaged son made new friends and began affairs with women she disapproved of, Agrippina was losing control over him.
Tacitus alleges that in her desperation to maintain her influence over Nero, Agrippina was prepared to add an erotic dimension to their relationship.
At midday, when Nero, even at that hour, was flushed with wine and feasting, Agrippina quite often appeared before her intoxicated son dressed up and ready for incestuous relations.
Agrippina was becoming desperate - her hold on power was ever more fragile.
A year after his accession, Nero felt his mother was no longer of use to him.
Her involvement in matters of state was an embarrassment and an irritation.
Suetonius writes that Agrippina's over-critical eye was "more than the young emperor could bear".
According to Tacitus, Agrippina tried to undermine her son by creating an anti-Nero faction in Rome.
He adds that in gathering money to support her plans, "she outdid even her instinctive rapacity".
Of all the Roman Empire's extraordinary women so far, Agrippina had come nearest to grasping supreme power.
But the son whom she believed would bestow it on her had turned against her.
I think she did think that she should be almost a joint ruler.
And she was obviously a very intelligent, very clever woman who must have, like many women in her position in that period, have been biting her nails thinking how much better I could do it than they are doing it.
And Nero, in particular, was not very bright.
But what she hadn't reckoned on is that he had these advisers who had rather different political ideas.
Yes and I think then the advisers play on the sense of resentment that a woman should be controlling the emperor.
And he is, of course, a rebellious adolescent.
One has to remember he's 16 when he comes to the throne.
He's been married to somebody he doesn't particularly like and he wants to have some fun.
But his mother says that he has to do this and he has to do that.
His advisers are rather gentler.
They say he has to do this and that, but he can have a girlfriend and he's allowed to do private horse racing and that kind of thing.
She wasn't good at that.
She was not a compromiser.
No, I think she wasn't.
By AD 55, Nero was on the offensive against Agrippina.
He withdrew his mother's bodyguards and dismissed her key allies.
Finally, he forced Agrippina to move out of the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill.
Nero claimed that the morning gatherings of Romans seeking her help with their petitions had become too noisy.
It's more likely that he wanted to separate his mother from any supporters in the Praetorian Guard.
Suetonius tells us that Nero then did all he could to torment Agrippina.
In Rome, she was pestered with lawsuits.
On her country estate, he arranged for crowds to pass her villa shouting abuse.
Then, in AD 59, five years into Nero's reign, the standoff took a more sinister turn.
Suetonius claims Nero was plotting his mother's death.
A further insight comes from Tacitus.
He says Nero was teased by a mistress, who taunted him for being under Agrippina's thumb.
And finding his mother intolerable, Nero resolved to murder her.
Though typically, Agrippina, the great survivor of the dangerous world of Julio-Claudian politics, was not easily killed.
Suetonius claims that Nero tried three times to poison Agrippina and was three times unsuccessful because she'd already taken the antidote.
Then, a plan to have her bedroom ceiling fall in on her came to nothing when Agrippina received prior warning.
Tacitus reports how another murder plot was hatched when Agrippina and Nero were staying on opposite sides of a bay near Naples.
Nero was as intent as ever on killing his mother.
But he still wanted her death to look like an accident.
The plan was to invite Agrippina out for dinner, then send her home in a vessel guaranteed to sink.
It did, but Agrippina and her companion Acerronia managed to swim away from the wreck.
Then, Acerronia made a fatal mistake.
Thinking she'd improve her chance of rescue, she called out to the ship's crew claiming to be Agrippina and was beaten to death.
Still the great survivor, Agrippina kept quiet and swam to safety.
'Then, according to Tacitus' blood-curdling account, 'Nero sent soldiers to her house to murder her.
' The assassins stood on either side of her bed, the naval commander was first.
He struck her head with a club.
As the centurion bent on killing her extended his dagger, Agrippina thrust her womb towards him and called out, "Strike my stomach.
" And after a series of blows, she was killed.
Hostile Roman historians allege Agrippina was widely resented during her lifetime.
Tacitus claims that "everyone longed for the mother's domination to end.
" Suetonius writes that when news broke of her death, Nero was jubilant.
Congratulations poured in, "from the Army, the Senate and the people.
" This sycophancy towards Nero puts Agrippina's achievements into even more remarkable perspective.
In a political system that was still taking shape, Agrippina grasped the opportunities that were open to a woman with ambition to match her powerful family connections.
Politically adept, shrewd and ruthless, Agrippina was a powerful, conspicuous symbol of a new age.
She showed how much a woman could accomplish in imperial Rome.
But she could only win supreme power through a man, her son.
Agrippina's ultimate tragedy was that he did not inherit her own extraordinary talents.
Even critics such as Tacitus admit that it was only after Agrippina's death that Nero's reign really came off the rails, as he emptied Rome's treasuries for his vast building projects and sang tragic roles in the theatre.
One rebellion after another by his generals drove him to suicide in AD 68.
And it's Tacitus who provides perhaps the neatest summary of Agrippina's greatest political achievement and ultimate failure - "She could give her son the empire," he writes, "But she could not bear him as emperor.
" In the next programme, slaves, Syrians and saints.
The women who led the way as the Roman Empire was transformed.