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Kirkus ReviewsOne of history's most notorious monsters is rehabilitated as a politically successful woman whose power and reputation in first-century Rome fell victim to Roman sexism.
Barrett (Classics/Univ. of British Columbia; Caligula, 1990) begins with a brief history of powerful Roman women before Agrippina, including her great-grandmother Livia, wife of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Much of this section is overly familiar, reading at times like a recap of I, Claudius. But this background gains significance once Agrippina the Younger makes her appearance. Barrett persuasively argues that Roman chroniclers were unable to see Agrippina or her predecessors except through the stereotype of the politically ambitious woman: a seductive poisoner with no sense of moral bounds. By carefully weighing the historical record, taking into account the distorting power of misogynist folklore, the author disputes such commonplaces as the idea that Agrippina murdered her husband, Claudius, and slept with her son Nero. His Agrippina is a politically adroit consensus-builder whose influence over two emperors contributed to the most enlightened portions of their reigns. Her diplomatic skill falters only in the handling of her teenage son—a miscalculation that leads to her execution in 54 a.d. on his orders. That Agrippina's murder was celebrated as a just comeuppance demonstrates the persistence of the "age-old resentment of powerful and ambitious women." Though Barrett draws no contemporary analogies, the reader may easily do so. Despite the high-mindedness of his central theme, the author is always alert to the pleasures of "juicy anecdote[s]" (such as Agrippina's supposed incest with her brother Caligula), and recounts them in full, if only to discredit them.
A scholarly yet accessible biography that largely succeeds in replacing Grand Guignol with something more satisfying: the tragedy of a natural leader born female in a society afraid to be led by women.