Will we ever know what Agrippina was really like - probably not.
The lack of reliable source information
The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing in the early 3rd century ad, wrote revealingly about the lack of reliable information about the period of the early emperors:
‘Events cannot be reported like earlier ones. Previously, issues were brought before the Senate. Everybody leaned about them and noted them down and – even allowing for bias – a truthful picture was to some degree available. But [after the Empire] things started to become secret and hidden, and though some things were published they are not to be trusted, because they cannot be confirmed. For there is a suspicion that everything was said and done in accordance with the wishes of the powerful and their henchmen. Consequently virtually everything is transmitted differently from the way it happened. (Dio 53.19.1-4)
Tactius said much the same, in a less long-winded way:
Thus everything is maximum-unreliable, for some believe everything they hear (wherever they heard it), while others turn the truth into lies … and posterity preserves both. (Tacitus, 3.19.2)
Politics under the Republic may have been quarrelsome, and the politicians may have been incompetent – but at least the issues and outcomes were transparent. With the Empire, government and the politics-that-mattered moved behind the walls of the Emperor’s palace.
This had three dire consequences for the quality of information future historians had available:
1. a far smaller number of people were involved – most of the action took place within the emperor’s (Julio-Claudian) family; politics became a family affair, and the reality of what was happening was hidden behind a smokescreen of official publicity, propaganda and pretence. (Today we would call it ‘spin’.)
2. since the Empire was – as far as we can ascertain – a repressive tyranny of the most violent kind (think Stalin and Hitler plus an indifference to suffering), there was a VERY strong pressure on those-who-could-be-traced to write exactly what the emperor wanted them to write. Whether they were criticising previous emperors, or lauding the current one, it was likely that not a word of what they wrote was ‘true’ in an impartial sense.
3. there will always be gossip, of course, and gossip does often put the 'unofficial' side of things but – since the events-that-mattered were taking place essentially in secret, most of even the gossip of the time will have been conjecture at best and, at worst, wholly fiction.
The lack of decent ancient historians
Added to this, modern historians find themselves very badly served by the Roman historians who recorded the events at close hand. Cassius Dio is not one of your set-text historians, but both he and Suetonius (who is) were writing long after the events, and neither made any real attempt to weigh the reliability of the source-materials on which they were constructing their narrative. Suetonius, in particular, never omits an unlikely piece of juicy gossip unless he can find an even-more-crazy allegation to top it.
Tacitus, of course, lived near enough to the times to have been able to talk to some of those who had lived through them, and some modern historians talk about Tacitus as a ‘better’ source. I do not agree – I think Tacitus is WORSE. Tacitus takes the truth and intentionally distorts it, manipulating it into his own personal weltanschauung; and as a result his account thus seems to ‘fit together’ better, and seem so much more plausible as a result. At least Dio and Suetonius simply pile up the stories for us to decide for ourselves whether we believe them or not. Tacitus is consciously trying-to-mislead.
The failings of modern historians
To be fair, most modern historians acknowledge this. Their reaction is to try to discern the ‘possible truth’ which underlies the source. Rarely is this based upon anything much more than what-they-suspect-may-be-true – I do not see much systematic source-deconstruction going on in what is often merely speculation. Disappointingly, Anthony Barratt’s 1996 biography of Agrippina is just about the worst example of this one might fear to find.
Moreover, worse than guesswork, these historians strike me as essentially dishonest since – whilst constructing their ‘alternative hypotheses’ – they do not hesitate to invoke other ‘facts’ from Tacitus, Suetonius or Dio … which they use WITHOUT question. So stories which are resisted as unreliable at one point keep turning up accepted at others in order to dismiss some other source-story they wish to reinvent. Thus there is a danger that modern histories are not histories at all, but speculation based on Tacitus’s perversions of contemporary propaganda and lies.
Realising this, the late Judith Ginsberg (2006) commented:
We need to acknowledge that Tacitus’s Agrippina is largely a literary construct that serves the larger ends of [Tacitus’s] narrative.
As a result, she recommended:
‘a resisting rather than an assenting reading of the texts’and – instead of an attempt to write a ‘true’ biography from unreliable facts, she focussed on analysing:
'what cultural assumptions about the role of women, female sexuality, and political power underlie and make these [texts] such powerful constructs’.
Given that our course is about Agrippina, this is a very disappointing approach. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach is as much and more about Tacitus and his times than it is about the ‘real’ Agrippina … who is seen as essentially out of reach.
Will the real Agrippina stand up
As young historians trained up on SHP GCSE, I guess you will find nothing remarkable about the idea that sources can be unreliable, and that – as we study Tacitus and Suetonius – you need to adopt a ‘resisting’ attitude to what they are saying … though I suspect even you may be startled at the extent to which they are prepared to pervert the truth.
What you may be less familiar with (although the idea has cropped up when we studied Alexander and Hannibal) is the idea that the Agrippina we are reading about is not the ‘real’ Agrippina, but a semi-fictional construct.
You are welcome, of course, to speculate about what the ‘real’ Agrippina was like (everybody else does!) but I think it is key for you to realise that – although there once was a real Agrippina – we shall never know what she was 'really' like.
Instead, you need to appreciate that, when you read Tacitus, you are reading about Agrippina-as-Tacitus-presented-her (let’s call her ‘Tacitus-Agrippina’). In the same way, you will read about Tacitus-Claudius and Tacitus-Nero … just as, when you are reading Suetonius or Dio, you will be able to study Suetonius-Agrippina and Dio-Agrippina.
Since Suetonius and Dio made very little effort to filter their source-information, I suspect that (tentatively) you may be able to discern behind their writing a ‘what-ordinary-people-thought-at-the-time-Agrippina’. But beware – even the ‘what-ordinary-people-thought-at-the-time-Agrippina’ is not the ‘real’ Agrippina … who was hidden from ordinary people behind the walls of the palace and a very effective government propaganda machine.
Therefore, whatever you write about this unit,make sure you make it clear to the examiner:
1. that you know about 'resisting reading' - that you are are aware that every source you are citing is VERY unreliable (and that you explain why)
2. that you know that all we have are 'constructs-of-Agrippina' and that - whatever you say about Agrippina - you make it clear 'which' Agrippina you are talking about.
3. that, where you are speculating, you say so.