Over the past few weeks, as I have been telling people how much I liked this historical biography of a Roman empress, I have gotten some very skeptical responses. And I get it–it doesn’t sound like the kind of book you might pick up for a casual read on a Saturday afternoon. But I promise, Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon is fascinating and compelling and funny and sad. Even though I knew Agrippina was not going to get a happy ending, I was still reading along as fast as I could, desperate to know what happened to this incredible woman who lived 2000 years ago.
The basic facts: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of the emperor Augustus, and spent decades at the center of the imperial family and of Roman politics–she was Caligula’s sister, Claudius’s wife, and Nero’s mother. Her life was shot through with tragedy (imperial family disputes had a tendency to get bloody) but also with glory and ambition. Historical information about her is limited, since Roman writers only occasionally even bothered to mention women, so a lot of the book is Southon explaining what sources do mention Agrippina, and what we can assume in places where the historical record is silent. Southon (who is also lots of fun on Twitter @nuclearteeth) also does a really excellent job of both making sure that we remember that Agrippina was a real person with fears and loves and emotions, while also making it clear that Agripppina lived in an entirely different culture and time. For example, when discussing Agrippina’s first marriage, Southon talks about how disturbing she finds it that the 13-year-old bride was married to a man more than twice her age, but also makes the point that we really have no way of knowing how a Roman princess would have thought about this.
Southon is also really funny, and that’s what really makes this book stand apart. Yes, it’s a very detailed, academic history book that is rigorous in the treatment of its primary sources. But it’s also like hearing a snarky friend gossip about people you know. She calls Caligula “subtle as a brick,” says that Agrippina’s first husband was “a dick,” and is entertainingly exasperated with the Roman habit of giving everyone some variation of the same four names. It makes the book so readable, and helps bring the historical figures to life.
One final note: in the UK, where this was initially published, the title was Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore which is way more fun! I guess us Americans can’t handle that level of excitement in our history.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Tragic, yet funny.
You might also like: For some more educational history enhanced by dry humor, check out A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, or any of Sarah Vowell’s historical books–I particularly like Assassination Vacation and Unfamiliar Fishes.