Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa
64, 63 or 62 BCE - 12 BCE
Born around 63 BCE to an undistinguished, but almost certainly wealthy family, Agrippa would rise to be the friend, ally, general and son-in-law of the first Emperor of Rome. Agrippa would be Augustus' right-hand man.
Agrippa was a part of the Augustan faction from the beginning. He was instrumental in raising an army to fight against Caesar's murderers, he led the prosecution against Cassius in 43 BCE and fought against Marcus Antonius' supporter Lucius Antonius (who was also known as Pietas) at Perusia in 40 BCE. Agrippa entered the Senate in 43 BCE, holding the position of tribune of the plebs. In 40, he became urban praetor and following his governorship of Gaul in 38 BCE and suppression of the Aquitanian Rebellion, was elected consul in 37 BCE. As consul, Agrippa produced the fleet used by Augustus to defeat Sextus Pompeius, and in 36 BCE was victorious at the battles of Mylae and Naulochus. 35-34 BCE saw Agrippa posted to Illyria, where he served as general in the war there. By 33 BCE he had returned to Rome and was ensuring Augustus' popularity by holding the position of aedile, providing the public with entertainment and essential services, such as the Julian aqueduct.
Between the years 31 and 27 BCE, Agrippa played a crucial role in Augustus' rise to and retention of control of the Empire. It was Agrippa who acted as the primary commander of the Augustan fleet at Actium in 31 BCE. Although Augustus was nominally in command, it was Agrippa who supplied the tactical brains and practical experience that led to the defeat of Marcus Antonius (see Suetonius: Deified Augustus, 16). Augustus was absent from Rome for the years 31-29 BCE, leaving Agrippa and Maecenas to take control of affairs in Italy. In 29 BCE he conducted the census and held the consulship in 28 and 27 BCE. These second and third consulships came at a critical point for Augustus and it was Agrippa's experience, support and popularity that enabled Augustus to bring about the transformation of the Republic to the Empire. Not only that, but he also helped Augustus reduce the size of the senate, although it seems to have been primarily a move to remove those hostile towards Augustus from the senate. Suetonius suggests that this 'review' of the senate instigated bad feeling to the extent that Augustus attended meeting with a cuirass beneath his toga and a sword at his side (Suetonius: Deified Augustus, 35).
In 23 BCE, Augustus fell dangerously ill and handed his signet ring to Agrippa. Should Augustus have died at this point, this action would have granted Agrippa supreme power. It was a measure of Augustus' trust in Agrippa as a person and in Agrippa's abilities. Augustus, however, recovered and following this, Agrippa was posted to the East, basing himself on Mytilene. There is some speculation that this posting arose out of conflict between Agrippa and Augustus' nephew, Marcellus (see Suetonius: Deified Augustus, 66). Marcellus was at this time married to Augustus' only child, Julia, and there was some feeling that Marcellus should have been named as Augustus' heir. The extent of any animosity or rivalry between Agrippa and Marcellus can never be truly assessed, given that Marcellus died in 23 BCE. It is more likely, though, that the situation in the East demanded a trusted and competent official skilled in both diplomacy and war, which Agrippa supplied.
21 BCE saw Agrippa return to Rome, before heading westwards again in 20 BCE to Gaul and onwards to Spain in 19 BCE, where he supressed the Cantabri. By 18 BCE, Agrippa had returned to Rome and was granted the tribunition of the plebs for a five year period and his imperium was also renewed for five years. In 13 BCE, both powers were again renewed for a further five years. Agrippa's authority fell second only to Augustus'.
The years 17/16-13 BCE saw Agrippa return to the East, where he negotiated a settlement with the disasatified veterans at Berytus and Heliopolis and developed his friendship with Herod the Great. Through this friendship, Herod was able to maintain good relations with Augustus, giving Agrippa some sort of status in Judaea as being especially benevolent towards the Jewish people.
In 12 BCE, there was suspicion of a revolt in Pannonia and Agrippa was dispatched in order to settle the situation. On his return, sometime in March, he fell ill and died towards the end of the month. Agrippa was given a public funeral and was buried in Augustus' mausoleum.
Public versus Private
Agrippa enjoyed remarkable popularity amongst the people almost certainly as a result of his public genrosity. He overhauled Rome's water and sanitation system, building two aqueducts — the Julian in 33 BCE and the Virgo in 19 BCE — installing new fountains, constructing Rome's first public baths and renovating the sewerage system. He even went as far as to take a boat through the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's major sewer, to inspect it! He also built a Pantheon, a granary and a bridge over the Tiber.
Agrippa wrote an autobiography, which has since been lost, as have his geographical writings. The map that was displayed on the Porticus Vipsaniae, based on Agrippa's writings and showing the extent of the world as the Romans understood it has also sadly been lost.
However, for all of Agrippa's public-spirited generosity, he appears to have been an intensely private individual. Clearly a capable man, and from a wealthy background, he almost certainly possessed the skills to rival Augustus as a leader. However, he chose to subordinate to Augustus throughout his career. Furthermore, he refused three triumphs that were offered to him from 19 BCE onwards. Conversely, it was possibly this dislike of attention that allowed him to rise to a position of such trust and authority, not being perceived as a threat to Augustus' supremacy. Suetonius suggests that Augustus could, at times, find Agrippa impatient (Deified Augustus, 66). Whether or not this is true is difficult to judge; Agrippa most certainly excelled as a general and as a politician, impatience does not seem to have coloured his attitude or decisions. Augustus was famed for his considered approach to matters (see Suetonius: Deified Augustus, 25) making it possible that Agrippa actually balanced this with sharper aptitude.
Wives and Children
Agrippa married three times. His first wife, whom he married in 37 BCE was Caecilia Attica, daughter of Cicero's great friend, Atticus. This marriage produced a daughter, Vipsania Agrippina, who would go on to marry the Emperor Tiberius. What became of Caecilia Attica is unknown, but in 28 BCE, Agrippa married Augustus' niece, Marcella. Their daughter, Vipsania, was to marry the ill-fated general Publius Quinctilius Varus. In 23, Agrippa divorced Marcella in order to marry Julia, Augustus' recently widowed daughter. Their marriage was a public indication of Agrippa's closeness to Augustus, and how much he was trusted and respected. Agrippa and Julia had five children together. Gaius Julius Caesar and Lucius Julius Caesar were both adopted by Augustus in 17, but predeceased him. Julius Caesar Agrippa was born following Agrippa's death, giving rise to his name 'Postumus'. There were two daughters: Julia and Agrippina. Agrippina would marry Germanicus, thus making Agrippa the grandfather of the Emperor Gaius Caligula and great-grandfather to Nero. It seems that he was able to leave his mark on the Julio-Claudian dynasty in more ways than one.
- Suetonius: Deified Augustus (trans. C Edwards, Oxford, 2000).
- The Oxford Classical Dictionary.
- Syme, R: The Roman Revolution, (Oxford, 1939).
- Zanker, P: The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, (Ann Arbor, 1988).