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  • Ferox FeminaAgrippina Maior In Tacitus’s Annales
  • Mary R. McHugh (bio)

On 10 October 19 C.E., Germanicus, the popular heir apparent to Tiberius, died, allegedly poisoned by Piso and Plancina, the couple whose prosecution for misconduct in the East is memorialized in the senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre.1 On his deathbed, as Tacitus narrates, Germanicus advised his wife Agrippina, the granddaughter of Augustus and the daughter of Julia Maior, as follows:

tum ad uxorem versus per memoriam sui, per communis liberos oravit exueret ferociam, saevienti fortunae summitteret animum, neu regressa in urbem aemulatione potentiae validiores inritaret. haec palam et alia secreto per quae ostendisse credebatur metum ex Tiberio.2

Then, turning to his wife he begged her, by her memory of him, by their mutual children, to cast aside her defiance, to submit her spirit to the savagery of fortune, and not, on her return to the City, to goad her superiors in power by rivaling them for it. These words openly; others were in secret, by which he was believed to have shown dread of Tiberius.3

Germanicus, therefore, told Agrippina to put aside her harsh manner (ferociam) and to soften her spirit in the face of savage fortune, and also cautioned her not to provoke those more powerful than her in a competition (aemulatione) for power. And, finally, while he openly (palam) made these remarks to Agrippina, he said more to her privately, warning her of danger (so it was said) from Tiberius.

In this deathbed scene and, indeed, throughout the Annales, the vocabulary Tacitus uses to describe Agrippina resounds with words that, like ferocia, typically describe fierce, angry, and even savage, animal-like behavior.4 The adjective ferox and others like it—atrox (cruel, dreadful, unrelenting) and contumax (unyielding, defiant, willfully disobedient to civil authority)—have typically been interpreted as laudatory if applied to a man, indicating a bold, fighting spirit, but wholly pejorative when applied to a woman.5 Modern commentators of Tacitus have judged the qualities of being warlike, savage, [End Page 73] fierce, and stubborn as appropriate for a soldier but less so for the respectable Roman matrona.6 Does this choice of language imply that Tacitus the historian had a negative opinion of Agrippina? A number of scholars assert that the above and similar passages are Tacitus’s own unfavorable judgments of Agrippina.7

While I do not seek to rehabilitate the memory of Agrippina, nor to condemn it, I would like to suggest that our appreciation of the subtleties of the Tacitus’s portraits of Agrippina might be enhanced by a detailed analysis of his characteristic use of ambiguity. Scholars all too often have tended to think in terms of absolutes, in this case, of whether or not Tacitus was a misogynist.8 Some argue that Tacitus admired Agrippina’s tragic heroism, while still others would have Tacitus condemn Agrippina’s transgression of traditional gender boundaries.9 I do not think that Tacitus worked with such a harsh contrast of absolutes, of extremes of the spectrum, but rather he painted his portraits in shades of grey, understanding the complexity of human nature and appreciating that most characters, men and women, have their share of both virtues and vices.10 This technique ultimately leaves to the reader the subjective judgment of whether Agrippina was a heroine or a villain. Thus, while I will argue that Tacitus’s use of typically pejorative adjectives in describing Agrippina need not be understood as harshly as they have often been interpreted, I appreciate that Tacitean style is such that a multiplicity of meanings can be gleaned from the text. Notwithstanding, I will also argue that Tacitus does not necessarily view Agrippina’s ferocia unfavorably.11

Don Fowler’s (2000, 40–63) discussion of “deviant focalization” in the Aeneid provides a useful paradigm of how it is possible to separate the narrator’s (in this case, Tacitus’s) authorial voice from the point of view (“focalizer”) represented in his narrative. The authorial voice does not necessarily coincide with the perspective represented within the narrative, even though we might expect it to.12 Moreover, in this particular instance, the historian shows that Germanicus was aware...


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