Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore

Rate this book
They said she was a tyrant. A murderer, and the most wicked woman in history.

She kicked her way into the male spaces of politics and demanded to be recognized as an equal and a leader. For her audacity, she was murdered by her son and reviled by history.

She was the sister, niece, wife, and mother of Emperors. She was an Empress in her own right, and she was a nuanced, fearless trail-blazer in the Roman world.

The story of Agrippina -- the first Empress of Rome is the story of an empire at its bloody, extravagant, chaotic, ruthless height.

285 pages

First published January 1, 2018

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Emma Southon

6 books177 followers
Dr. Emma Southon holds a PhD in ancient history from the University of Birmingham.
After a few years teaching Ancient and Medieval history, followed by some years teaching academic writing. She quit academia because it is grim and started writing for her own enjoyment.
She co-hosts a history/comedy podcast with Janina Matthewson called History is Sexy.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
625 (47%)
4 stars
460 (34%)
3 stars
159 (12%)
2 stars
50 (3%)
1 star
24 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 241 reviews
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,388 reviews1,470 followers
August 5, 2019
Emma Southon gives us a fascinating look at a complex woman whom history has perhaps treated unfairly.

She starts by giving the reader reasons why the study of historical women is so difficult.

... we have just three major literary sources that mention Agrippina with any detail, and a total of seven literary sources from the entire corpus of Latin literature that think she was interesting or significant enough to deserve a single line; one of which is a play."

Like most women from history, Agrippina was mainly written about when she orbited important men. There's also the difficulty of potential bias in the few sources we have.

"She can be seen only through the distorting lens of her relationship to other people and how well or badly she performed the ideal form of that relationship. It's mostly badly, which is why we get to see so much of her."

But what's left when you take all of that into consideration is extraordinary. As the author points out, Agrippina was "the sister, niece, wife, and mother of emperors." There are few from history who can claim the same.

Southon uses an informal style and words like "stabby" and "murdery". I found her delivery rather hilarious and enjoyed it. If you're turned off by this type of writing, you may want to choose another, more serious author.

She doesn't neglect to remind readers of the context of every bit of Agrippina's history or point out when the record is missing or falls silent. Sometimes, the gaps in the record speak even louder than what was written.

"The next year, however, Agrippina came roaring back into historical narratives in the most confusing possible way."

I liked how Southon took complex concepts from Roman history and gave them to the reader in digestible chunks. For example, we get a glimpse of what portions of Agrippina's wedding ceremony may have been like:

"First, Agrippina the Younger anointed the doorway with fat and wool. Basically, she smeared some kind of animal fat onto the door frame and then strung wool between the door posts, sticking the ends to the fat. Obviously that sounds both disgusting and bizarre, which it is, but this is very symbolic and serious. Probably as these things were brought out, the party atmosphere would die down and everyone would watch reverently as this little girl covered the door in goo."

She goes on to examine the superstition of carrying the bride across the threshold of her new home which was another important part of the ceremony and nothing like the laughing, fun time it is today. It was interesting to me to juxtapose the modern viewpoint on these ancient traditions and see the glaring differences between the two.

Highly recommended for readers who like their non-fiction to sound like a conversation between friends. Southon makes the past come alive in a delightful read filled with scandals, power struggles and, of course, Rome.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance reader copy of this book, which is slated to go on sale tomorrow, August 6, 2019. The brief quotations I cited in this review may change or be omitted in the final copy.
Profile Image for Mark  Porton.
417 reviews367 followers
October 28, 2020
Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore – A Biography of the Most Extraordinary Woman in the Roman World by Dr Emma Southon is a fascinating read regarding one of the most remarkable figures of classical history.

Agrippina the Younger was a great granddaughter of Augustus, niece and wife of Claudius, sister of Caligula and mother of Nero. If you let that sink in a bit, you’ll realise that’s pretty much most of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty covered. If they ever make a TV series about Agrippina the Younger, it would make Game of Thrones look like the weather report. By the way, her Father was the Rock-Star General – Germanicus (my mind’s eye has him looking like Russell Crowe – with blonde hair).

Agrippina the Younger was born in 15 CE and was murdered by Nero’s hitmen in 59 CE. She was perhaps the most visible woman occupying a position of power and influence in early Imperial Rome with the possible exception of Augustus’ wife Livia. As Caligula’s sister she was elevated above every woman in Rome bar a few Vestal Virgins and her sisters and was visibly a part of the new, bright and shiny (at the beginning) Emperor Caligula’s reign. This lasted until Caligula discovered she was part of a plot to have him killed – as he had turned into a complete nutcase, and consequently she was exiled for a few years. After some time, Caligula was assassinated, and she returned from exile. Instead of coming back quietly with her tail between here legs she strutted back like Liam Gallagher (the Author’s analogy) ready to swing for anyone who came near her.

The part I found the most interesting of this story is her marriage to Uncle Claudius – the ‘idiot’. It turned out he was quite an able Emperor and not as silly as made out to be. The Senate needed to pass a law to enable him to marry his niece, as it was considered incest at the time. One of Agrippina’s motivations for marrying the stammering, club footed Claudius was to put her front and centre in a position of influence and power, but perhaps more importantly to her it placed her son, Nero, well in line to become the next Emperor. Agrippina contributed positively to Claudius’ reign – her excellent networking talents (better than her husband’s) enabled her to foster relationships and make backroom deals with important players at the time to help Claudius achieve stuff. It’s also worth noting the number of executions fell dramatically during the period after Claudius married Agrippina – she ‘knew her way around’, it seemed she could smooth things over. But there is one thing the sources (I’ll mention sources in a minute) seem to agree on is, she killed Claudius by way of poisoned mushrooms. This to pave the way for the ascension of Nero to the throne.

Once she was mother to the Emperor Nero, she enjoyed celebrity visibility and a direct ability to influence her teenage boy. However, after a couple of years, Nero grew tired of his mum’s nagging and had her done away with. This involved a fascinating story about a collapsible boat, followed by a stabbing in a countryside villa. Nero had to manufacture a conspiracy to justify the matricide.

So, that is Agrippina the Younger in 30 seconds, but there is so, so, so much more to her story.

I think it’s important for me to mention the reliability of the sources. This author takes great pains to justifiably mention, on many occasions the (un) reliability of the sources (Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Suetonius et al) who are all – well – blokes, and all very much entrenched and have a vested interest in the patriarchal system which is Imperial Rome. The problem is not only they're men, they also wrote about her many years after the fact. Their illustration of Agrippina as being a manipulative, whoring, murdering evil woman, fits a narrative that suits the demonisation of women, their destructive influence on power politics and their belittling and undermining of men.

They must’ve been misogynistic to the MAX.

I left this book really feeling for Agrippina, it seemed to me she was merely trying to survive in a dynasty which was chaotic and surrounded by murder and skulduggery. She merely wanted to promote and advance her son Nero, surely that is what any woman would do? It’s just that she was very good at it, an excellent proponent of relationship building, and soft-power politics without being overtly obvious about it.

Dr Southon’s writing style is very easy, conversational almost – she even throws in the odd profanity, making it seem like you’re having a chat with her over a pint of best British Bitter. But it is clear she knows what she’s doing, she has clearly researched the main sources, and more – all demonstrated clearly at the end of the book. A very worthwhile piece of work.

Would I like to have a coffee with Agrippina the Younger? Perhaps, imagine what you’d be able to ask her – but I would make sure to switch our cups around before I took my first sip and I'd pass on the biscuits.

5 Stars

Profile Image for Louise.
1,672 reviews302 followers
January 18, 2020
If more history were written in this style, young people would devour it.

Emma Southon notes that lives of women, even players like Agrippina, hardly appear in the primary sources. Only 3 writers give Agrippina any detail. Seven writers give her one line. Through their quotes, you can see how their misogyny influenced what they wrote and didn't write. Southon interprets these interpreters in a style that keeps you smiling while you turn the pages.

Southon shows how Agrippina is deserving of far more text. She is sister to Gaius (better known to moderns as Caligula), wife to Claudius and mother to Nero. She is the sole survivor of her nuclear family… all but her father (and maybe him too) died due to family politics. She didn't just have this family status she used it to position herself to have power. Southon helps you read between the lines so you can see how she wielded it.

After she connived her marriage to her uncle Claudius, she connived her son Nero’s adoption by his uncle the emperor, putting Nero first in the line of succession – above Claudius’s own son Britannicus. She got Claudius to confer on her a title and status similar to that of an empress - a position that had not been conceived nor imagined at the time. Given Claudius’s poor judgment and lack of diplomacy, Agrippina’s hand can be detected in his administration of the empire. She saw to it that Nero had no rivals to the throne and when the time came had no qualms about (and probably relief in) murdering her husband. Having a son as Emperor was not all she envisioned, he turned on her and had her killed.

To make the story accessible, parallels to modern times are drawn. Agrippina’s parents, Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus, are compared to the today’s royals: Kate and William. Far more compelling is the writing style.

The academic approach to writing history is a heavily footnoted text which buries the drama with cool detachment. In contrast, Southon gives the story its due, bringing it alive for the modern reader. Given the sources, whose biases are exposed, this may be a more accurate rendering of Agrippina’s life than previous academic treatments.Here are some examples of the hot and contemporary prose:

pp.75 When Gaius (Caligula) turns on his sisters Southon writes “I imagine .. a Poirot-esque show down in a villa you would die to own. The emperor … brandishing letters… cold terror dripping down the spine as Agrippina realizes her gamble hadn’t paid off… weeping …. recriminations… a messy scene.”

pp.110-111 Claudius’s wife, Messalina (mother of Britannicus) bigamously married her boyfriend when Claudius was out of town, “the pseudo-marriage is a headscratcher… Claudius heard his wife had married someone else within hours – because of course he did – and he sped back to Rome. Claudius was as useful as a brick in a political crisis… Narcissus handled it….”

p. 141 When Agrippina and her first husband were sent to Asia. “The point of having a colony was to be the pinnacle of Roman culture in a region, to be the show town effectively so everyone in the surrounding area knew how great being a Roman was. And being a Roman in comparison to being anyone else in the west was pretty damn great.”

In lieu of an Appendix, it has “Extra Bits”. The first is a Julio-Claudio family tree, then a “Dramatis Personae” chart, a Glossary and then a list of material for “Further Reading.

This style is not for purists. If you want some solid research told with attitude, this book is for you. The closest I’ve seen to this, besides works for fiction (i.e. Margaret George’s “autobiographies”) is Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo Da Vinci which I also highly recommend for those who like sizzle in their historical non-fiction.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,900 reviews534 followers
January 2, 2021
Agrippina was the daughter of Germanicus, sister of Caligula, wife of her uncle Claudius and mother of Nero (who had her murdered) who was adopted by Claudius. She appears in the scant historical records when her life was relevant to the events surrounding the famous men in her life. She was particularly important during the reigns of Claudius and Nero. This book uses and embellishes those historical records. The author is very good at pointing out the source or sources used in her narrative, and she describes their contradictions. The book is very entertaining, irreverent, gossipy and fast paced. The narration by Teri Schnaubelt of the audiobook was very good and appropriately snarky when needed.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 21 books455 followers
May 26, 2020

So, here we have a book that has me feeling very much like a house divided.

I’m very interested in women in power, and how they managed to weld their power. Throughout so much of history, women were second-class citizens, if they were citizens at all. However, despite that, women have managed to weld very real power, influence and manipulate events, and become major brokers in huge historical events. That interests me. How do people of the “gentler sex” manage to overcome all the stuff set against them and become huge influencers in their own right?

Well, typically they don’t just go out and grab power the same way a man does. No, women in history tend to have to be a bit more cunning, a bit more devious, a bit more like the wizard behind the curtain. What’s more, is typically when a woman does achieve some sort of power and influence, a lot of biographers distain them for it. So, you end up getting a lot of stories about the harlot, whore, poisoner, or whatever else people attribute to said women, and very few about how this woman, in the face of all adversary, managed to grab onto power with both hands and hold on. Context is lost. We know of Catherine de Medici as a poisoner, for example. We don’t really see all the misery she had to live through to attain the level of authority she did, and how hard she had to work to hang onto it, nor do many people take the time to see the reality of their actions outside of common interpretations and beliefs. Marie-Antionette never said, “let them eat cake” for example, but that and her hair are the most famous things about her.

So we have this biography of Agrippina, and to be honest, I was so excited when I got it. I could not wait to read this thing. Agrippina is known as being the mother of the infamous Nero, he of “fiddling while Rome burnt” fame. She’s rumored to have slept with her brother Caligula, and really, that’s all I ever knew about her. Likely, that’s all a lot of people ever really knew about her.

See what I mean? So many women in history we know based on who they slept with, and various rumors surrounding their interactions, rather than who they really were given the context of their day and age. A woman in power is often left at the mercy of the men who write about her after she dies/falls from grace.

I was really excited to read this book and then I started it I kind of… I don’t know. Maybe the excitement faded a bit.

This biography is written in a very distinct style. At first, I found it refreshing, but very soon, I found it to be exhausting. I read a lot of historical nonfiction, and I enjoy feeling like I am reading a book written by an authority. While it’s obvious that Emma Southon knows her stuff, her informal way of writing made me feel like I was talking to an enthusiast at a bar, rather than reading a book written by an expert in their field. Commonly used words like “bonk” really put me off, not because of the word itself, but because here we are, reading a book about a woman who may or may not have been maligned by history, and it was really, really hard for me to parse out where the truth rested with this style of prose. I feel like, perhaps, some of the context was lost in an effort to lighten the reader’s load and/or be funny.

Okay, so there’s that.

What I will say is that, despite my misgivings about the writing style, I did learn a lot here, like why and how Caligula elevated his sisters so high, and likely why rumors of them “bonking” likely began. It was also interesting to see why Agrippina may have felt a very real threat against her and her son Nero, and why this threat prompted her to move from relative quiet obscurity, to action of the sort that found her in history books.

What really got me about this book, however, is I felt that nearly everything Agrippina did was excused. There was almost never an alternative idea thrown out for readers to examine, and very few sources listed for what was given in the way of explanation. I, very early on, learned that basically everything Agrippina did was misunderstood, and other than some things being mentioned as written by contemporaries of the period, like Tacitus, there really wasn’t much for me to examine.

And this is CRUCIAL for any nonfiction historical book worth its salt. I don’t want to read YOUR version of history. I want to learn about HISTORY. We don’t know everything, but we can hypothesize. When an author is hypothesizing, they need to be able to present the facts as they see them, and then say, “from this I infer (insert stuff here), but there is also this other way of seeing things based on this other evidence” and there was hardly any of that. Southon lays out her interpretation of events, and is almost religiously apologetic regarding Agrippina’s life and actions, and there is hardly any real siting of sources to back her claims, though I will whole-heartedly admit that many, many, many of her claims are VERY believable given the context of the time period. The problem isn’t that, it’s that there were minimal sources and even fewer alternative perspectives and opinions given to examine.

Yes, I get that she’s a historian, and this likely was her life’s work, but if you’re especially going to go gung-ho apologetic about a figure that has been seriously maligned by history, you need to present your facts and back them up with some sturdy research and sources, rather than jokes and quips about people being “stabby” and etc..

And maybe Southon is correct, but between some of her more informal writing, where I did honestly feel like occasionally she was out to crack a joke more than write about a historical figure, and her very minimal sources all mixed in with her near worship of Agrippina as a powerful historical figure that everyone on the planet has misunderstood, I felt like I was reading a book written by someone I couldn’t fully trust. I wanted to trust her, but there is a whole lot of speculation here, and a whole lot of “let’s be funny” and “look at how misunderstood Agrippina is” without much “here’s all my research” to back it up.

Really, that’s a bit of a tragedy, because if Agrippina really is this misunderstood character, this woman who stood, despite the fact that just about every woman at her time was sitting quietly in the background, that deserves to be acknowledged, and it SHOULD BE, but it needs to be addressed in a far more studious, serious manner and there need to be plenty of sources to back it up, so readers can do their own research and make up their own minds. As it was, I read this book and now I understand that according to Emma Southon, Agrippina was incredible and we have all completely misunderstood her. Nearly everything she did was justified and excused, and her life was at turns wonderful, and extremely hard.

I just really, really wish it was a bit more scholarly, and backed up with sources and alternative facts a bit better, and perhaps presented in such a way where I felt I was talking to an authority figure, and not some drunk person at the local bar.

And the thing is, I really DID agree with her interpretation of the facts most of the time, but I was just left… meh.

Maybe I’m too picky.
Profile Image for Vivian.
2,847 reviews399 followers
June 17, 2020
History is written by the victors and the hand of chance. After all, what survives affects our interpretations. The more geographically disparate sources the more one can feel comfortable with consensus. The more time between an event and a historical record the less it is an eyewitness account. What people don't talk about can often be as revealing as what they do. Southon weaves a thread using these factors and tries to provide a cogent argument for Agrippina's actions and her influence on the Roman Empire beyond the scandal figure.
By the time she died, she had been accused of having sex with her brother, her uncle, her son and two cousins. The only reason that she wasn't accused of shagging her dad is that he died when she was so young. Had the Romans not practiced cremations, I"m pretty sure that someone would have claimed that she dug her dad's body just to fuck it for some reason.

Was Agrippina really that bad? Let's look at her times, family, and political environment.
Maiestas was essentially whatever the emperor wanted it to be in order to get rid of a troublesome senator. To make things even more fun, there were incentives for accusing people of maiestas. If you, random senator or equestrian, accused someone and they were successfully executed, you got to keep all their money and all their house as a reward.

--Julio-Claudians made Game of Thrones look meh.

There were also familial reasons why properly burying their murdered brother was a good move for Agrippina and Livilla: it was good pietas. Pietas was a uniquely Roman concept and is untranslatable into English. At its most base level, it meant duty to one's family and country. But this simple definition strips pietas of its depth and makes it sound a lot more optional than it was. Pietas referred to various flavours of love, religious devotion, obligation, justice, gratitude, respect, compassion and friendship. Pietas also contained a strong sense of natural law and natural justice, as in concepts which were perceived to be entirely fundamental to human behaviour. 

--Going to slightly disagree and mention that this concept is not unique to Romans that Greek eusebeia is similar and depending on the manifestation of pietas it speaks to one of the many terms for love in ancient Greece. Also, Romans were incredibly superstitious. Political rivals would hire people to create disturbances during high-profile sacrificial ceremonies.
Until Gaius [Caligula] had taken the throne and made him consul at the age of 50, Claudius had never held a political position. He wasn't even a senator for much of his life. He was the family embarrassment.

--Sounds like a great person to have in charge with no checks and balances. Uncle and future husband material? Especially, when her first husband sounded pretty good.
His primary skills were making hilarious bon mots, telling people how funny his own bot mots were, engaging in weird japes and being very unthreatening. He was everyone's sidekick. Passienus was famous for three things: marrying Agrippina, a couple of witty lines and being in love with a tree.

--Honestly, this doesn't sound bad as far as arranged political marriages go. Not on the radar to get assassinated or bring the Eye of Sauron down on the family and mildly amusing. During the crazy 'murder everyone' time, this sounds brilliant. Plus, I kinda love him just for the tree.
This was what the day-to-day ruling of the empire looked like. It was a constant ongoing negotiation between the Senate and the palace. The Senate was essentially a massive, complex maze of obligations, ties, alliances and grudges. It was made up of individuals, all of whom had their own family names to protect or make, their own webs of clients, patrons and obligations, their own decade-long feuds and resentments, their own ambitions.
--Agrippina had been immersed in this world since birth. Beloved as Germanicus's daughter and granddaughter of Augustus she held an enormous amount of public goodwill. She was wily enough to suggest policy to a group of senators and as long as she remained on the side of the emperor's good will. Keeping ahead of that was a challenge. 

The Julio-Claudians sure made death interesting. Murder mushrooms, poisons, swords, elaborate siniking boats. Never a dull moment and always best to check around the corner. Southon makes excellent points on the amount of coinage on which Agrippina appeared as well as a town named for her in what is present day Germany that her father Germanicus conquered. And Germanicus was beloved by the people. Agrippina understood good optics and used it wisely. 

Julia Agrippina Augusta died at the point of a centurion's sword as dawn broke on 20 March 59CE. She was 43.

This was highly accessible and not academic-speak. It also has healthy servings of all the salacious gossipy bits, so recommended for general readers with an interest.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,161 reviews1,257 followers
January 3, 2023
An entertaining and informative biography of a powerful Roman empress. This book is written in a humorous, irreverent style that you’ll either love or hate—I enjoyed it, essentially taking this as the book version of a lecture by a knowledgeable and charismatic professor who livens things up by poking fun at the material. The author is a real ancient history scholar and seems to have done thorough research. I was thrown at first by the lack of endnotes, but there are occasional footnotes and Southon also regularly discusses her sources in the text itself—as it turns out there’s really only three that discuss Agrippina in any detail, and if written today none of them would pass the Wikipedia test for reliability, so in the end we can only make educated guesses about what occurred.

Despite that limitation, I learned a lot about Rome in the early imperial period—coming in knowing very little about it, this was a good primer on a variety of well-known figures, even while keeping the focus mostly on Agrippina. She seems to have been an extraordinary person, coming from a family where her parents and siblings were all dead (mostly of murder) by the time she reached full adulthood, after the exact same thing had happened to her own mother, but seeking out a life at the center of power: elevated and then exiled by her brother Caligula; marrying her uncle Claudius and ruling at his side; securing the throne for her son Nero, only to see him turn against her. Agrippina came from a society where women were expected to have no public role (though from the frequency with which they were sued and/or murdered, I have to wonder if this was honored mostly in the breach), but nevertheless built up a power base and seems to have been quite successful at politics. It’s a crying shame her memoir—political propaganda though it undoubtedly was—didn’t survive; as is it’s only referenced in a couple of surviving sources.

Southon is an unabashed Agrippina fangirl, but she tempers that by being clear when she’s speculating and separating what she wants to be true from what we actually know. Biographies of historical women can sometimes excuse selfish and harmful wielding of power on the grounds that it’s cool that a woman was doing it, and I can see why some readers would see that here, but to me it stays on the right side of the line. The author is able to make the case that Agrippina was a voice of reason and diplomacy who was actually good for the empire, while also acknowledging that the world of palace politics cared little for the lives of ordinary people. And Southon’s humor, empathy and groundedness bring a lot to what is otherwise a violent and depressing story in which most of the characters are brutally murdered.

In the end, a strong choice for those who enjoy popular history, as long as you don’t mind a somewhat flippant tone. It has whetted my appetite to learn more about the period, though it’s sad enough that I’m not sure I’ll be jumping back in too soon.
Profile Image for Colin Baumgartner.
294 reviews6 followers
August 24, 2020
This is perhaps the worst book I’ve come across this year. I listened to this as an audiobook, otherwise I certainly would have given up on it.

Dr. Southon seems very misguided in her writing. The text is full of the sort of deluded, mental gymnastics that allow people to believe the earth is flat and that all the powerful people in the world are actually alien lizards. Dr. Southon is not far from this sort of intellectual nonsense. Facts mean little to nothing here. She lazily dismisses any sources that go against her idea of what was happening in Rome with Agrippina. She also cherry-picks the sources that could in the slightest way back up her claims. She is quick to dismiss almost all the Roman historians she mentions as petty, chauvinist pigs who make things up to suit their own silly worldview—and then does the exact same thing from her own feminist perspective. In Southon’s world, all Roman men are bumbling idiots or cruel bastards, while Agrippina is just a clever and abused woman (Southon can, naturally, intuit what Agrippina was thinking and feeling at various historical moments).

In Southon’s world, all men view women not as people, but as “walking, untrustworthy uteruses.” Certainly some thinking in Rome wasn’t in line with the standards of today (there is that unfortunate passage from Pliny The Younger about menstruation), but I won’t dig into the absurdity of Southon’s position and the laughable ethnocentrism of viewing history through her lens...

I think what was most offensive about this book though was the tone. A professor in my undergraduate years promised to fail anyone who used “I” in a term paper. I thought this was a bit overdone, but now I am not so sure. Southon has a bad habit of filling her writing with the pronoun—and giving little pronouncements about what she thinks about things. This distracts from the actual events and historical figures and ruins any credibility her retelling might conceivably have had. I can now see why historians use a more formal tone when writing about history. Southon’s tone simply doesn’t work.

I usually lecture students about how they are welcome to use profanity in their writing, but that profanity has to be used sparingly or it loses all force and ends up making the writer sound ignorant or lazy. Southon might also take note of that. If I had a quarter for every time she used the word fuck without any real purpose other than to try to sound millennial and hip, I would be able to afford a real book.
Profile Image for Lucy.
417 reviews626 followers
September 10, 2021
Maybe more like 3.75**** rounded up 🤷🏻‍♀️ rtc!

I think Agrippina is amazing from this!
Profile Image for Stephanie.
Author 70 books999 followers
May 10, 2022
I devoured this book in less than 48 hours because it is sooooo deliciously, compulsively readable, vivid, and fascinating. The writing style is sweary and exuberant and full of enthusiasm and humor - but this book is also full of really sharp historical and cultural analysis, fascinating insights, and really thought-provoking theories. It made me want to read a hundred more history books by Emma Southon immediately! I hope she publishes so, SO many more.
November 6, 2019
Southon is a truly awful storyteller. In her introduction, she begins comparisons with Agrippina's sources with a reference to Prime Minister David Cameron having sex with a pig. This shows her horizon limited to a sty on the Thames. She tries to shock with vulgarity. It is not a serious study.
July 14, 2020
I took a class on Roman history this past semester and after really enjoying it, I picked Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore by Emma Southon up on the recommendation of my professor. (I actually asked for this as a birthday present after the semester ended, which I think really amused my father.) Southon’s book is a biography of Agrippina the Younger, best known as the sister of Emperor Caligula, the niece/wife of Emperor Claudius, and, of course, the mother of perhaps the most infamous Roman emperor of all: Nero.

You might note how that particular description of Agrippina defines her solely by her connections to other men. That is a huge part of Emma Southon’s biography, which is discussed throughout. Divided into sections named after Agrippina’s role as a woman–the daughter, the mother, the wife, etc.–Southon dives much further in Agrippina as a fascinating historical figure in her own right. Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore tracks the life of a complex historical figure. With an illustrious pedigree that included Julius Caesar, Emperor Augustus, (supposedly) several gods, and a popular general for a father, Agrippina was destined for a life among the highest ranks of cutthroat Romans. Throughout her life, she was never far from the most ruthless of Roman power struggles, from her father’s murder at a young age and the targeting of her family under Emperor Tiberius to her (temporary) exile at the hands of her own brother, Caligula. But what Agrippina is really known for is her time as the wife of Emperor Claudius and the mother of Nero, during which she engineered her son into place as the adopted heir, (most probably) poisoned her husband, and was eventually assassinated by her own son. Agrippina’s life story is pretty wild, just taking it at face value, and that alone was enough to get me interested.

But Southon does more than simply recounting the life of Agrippina the Younger, instead delving into how the very narrative of history is constructed and the way the stories of women are often excluded or severely warped. Living in a time when women had very little official power or legal standing, Agrippina still managed to carve out a space in the sphere of Roman politics and gained not just influence, but actual power. Yet even when a woman such as Agrippina managed to grasp a measure of power comparable to their male counterparts, their stories were often distorted by biographers and historians to fit a narrative. In Agrippina’s case, a calculating and ambitious woman was frequently reduced to a power-hungry, depraved woman whose position of power was a sign of Rome’s degradation. Agrippina herself was certainly no saint (ex: likely poisoning her husband), but the few sources we have on her are wildly biased and unreliable (as Southon puts it, nowadays, none of them wouldn’t probably pass a simple test to source a Wikipedia article), casting her into the role of a perverted femme fatale. Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore is mostly an attempt to peel away the layers of distortion and rumor to reveal the real woman behind them. Southon’s exploration of what the reality of an incredibly infamous female figure in history was utterly fascinating as she dispelled myth, interrogated misogyny is source texts, and hypothesized about the reality of a woman who is equal parts fascinating and vilified.

Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore is also, to put is plainly, really entertaining. Southon’s tone is accessible and often shockingly funny, somewhat like listening to a very well-educated and slightly tipsy friend go absolutely off on a topic they have very strong opinions on. I guess if you’re looking for a completely academic book on Roman history (read: one that doesn’t reference the David Cameron pig sex scandal as a cornerstone of explaining the unreliability of political rumors, make fun of Roman sex scandals, call Nero a “neckbeard,” and swear quite a bit), this might not be your cup of tea, but I actually enjoyed it at lot. Like, Romans are wild–sex scandals! stabbing! dubious prophecies! debauchery!–and sometimes it’s good to just acknowledge that. Also, the tone often reminded me a lot of the most fun parts of the Roman history class I heard about this book in, which was exactly what I was looking for.

While I came into this with a fair amount of prior knowledge on Roman history, Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore would definitely be accessible to someone with less background. Southon’s tone is very readable and she easily summarizes any necessary knowledge of the Roman empire to understand Agrippina’s place it in it at the beginning. Overall, I’d really recommend this–it’s a great balance of laugh-out-loud funny, absolutely fascinating history, and and a thoughtful deconstruction of the unreliability of history.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,822 reviews1,383 followers
September 4, 2018
There is a series of stories drawn from other people’s stories about men. The only way through is to be honest about that. This story is as much mine as it is Agrippina’s, because I have chosen how to present the information I have. But it is a good story about a woman who deserves her place in history. It is about a woman so important that men do everything they can to hurt her by accusing her of incest, adultery, murder and child abuse. It is about a woman who ran the Roman Empire for a lot longer than a lot of male emperors, and about how the man who controlled the world reacted to that. It is above all, at the centre of it all, about power.

I was one of the Patrons of this book, via Unbound (https://unbound.com/) – the book appealed to me for two reasons:

My interest in Roman history, particularly in the late-Republic, early Imperial period:

My enjoyment of a number of female historians and fiction writers (in many cases writers cutting across fiction and non-fiction) who have examined Wars of The Roses and Tudor history (another favourite period of mine) with a concentration on the largely untold (or if told heavily distorted) story of the women (wives, daughters, mothers) of the male protagonists.

This book promised to bring the latter approach to the former period – and in my view succeeds admirably, while also producing an extremely readable book.

The author is excellent at pointing out the motivations that apply to the ancient historians coverage of Agrippina and which distort our understanding of her

Agrippina appears in the sources only when she is doing something that men think she shouldn’t be doing. Those five years when she was being good and quiet. Silence. Her entire first and second marriages. Silence …. It is only when she is overstepping the invisible boundaries of female behaviour that she gets noticed. So our sources show us an interpretation of one single facet of Agrippina as a real, living, human being. The other infinite fragments of Agrippina’s personality are lost forever. Certainly any form of vulnerability is subsumed beneath a narrative about her as a ruthless, cold woman, with a single minded determination to rule the world. I don’t deny that this is a pretty great story, but it is just a story. No one is just one story. The truth, such as truth can be found, is confusing, desperately complicated and contradictory.

And how that treatment also applies to other figures

Messalina [according to the male, ancient historians] is perhaps the ultimate version of what Roman men thought happened when women were released from control ….. a construction of pure Roman femininity. She didn’t plot, she didn’t plan, she just wanted to get rich and laid. Agrippina is positioned as the precise opposite of that …. She was not feminine in any way. She was not subject to her desires. She had a plan and she would subjugate anyone to achieve it …. [her] closest literary parallel – Mark Anthony’s third wife Fluvia

The title of the book is deliberately provocative – and partly reflects the historical treatment of its subject. The chapters, which act as dividers to the book and are themselves broken down into short sub-chapters, are titled Daughter, Sister, Niece, Wife and Mother – moving chronologically through Agrippina’s wife and her close relationship with the second to fifth Roman Emperors: daughter of Tiberius, sister of Gaius (Caligula), niece of Claudius and then his wife, mother of Nero.

Her descent from the first – Augustus (she was born one year after her great-grandfather’s death) – was an important part of her public image.

In a fascinating section, the author examines Agrippina’s clear public embrace (and effective invention) of her role as Empress and considers two options: that she believed in her deity, or (her own view) that like Augustus she was embarking on a propaganda campaign to “legitimise the idea of the emperor’s wife as a public and political presence” (just as he legitimised the concept of an emperor within the conventions of the Republic).

I also particularly enjoyed her careful examination of the influence that Agrippina had on the success of Claudius’s reign (judged by the constrast between his behaviour and effectiveness when she was his wife and that before their marriage) and of the way in which she influenced Claudius to promote Nero as his inevitable heir, as a way to ensure stability and continuity for the empire.

Despite her clear admiration for her subject, and well-reasoned dismissal of much of the historical slander aimed at her, the author clearly admits the likelihood of her having Claudius killed (given the clear consensus in all sources) and the likely reason for her actions (Brittanicus getting older and Claudius starting to vacillate on his choice of heir).

Overall an excellent book – one I am proud to have played a very small part in supporting.
Profile Image for Shahin Keusch.
45 reviews12 followers
October 11, 2021
I really loved this book. What an entertaining writing style. It was really hard to put down. Agrippina the younger is such an interesting and strong character. What she actually achieved is impressive. And she did this as a women in ancient Rome! 

This book is a good way to introduce yourself into the early history of the Roman Empire as Agrippina was around through most of the Julio-claudian dynasty. She was the great granddaughter of Augustus, the daughter of Germanicus, the sister of Caligula, the wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero.

If you are looking for a quick, educational and entertaining read about the Roman Empire, this book is for you. 
195 reviews121 followers
October 9, 2019
Hurrah, this was brilliant! Thanks to my lovely friend Alice for reccing it to me, for I enjoyed the crap out of it. Southon is foul-mouthed, jokey, and extreeeemely salty about Roman historians, such that my only regret about this book is that she had no cause to talk about Livy's history of Rome. (I hate Livy and want someone to talk shit about him.) Southon's doing the Lord's work in making history accessible and fun to a lay reader, and my only only wish for anything about this book to be different is that she'd included a bibliography of secondary sources because those are important too.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books208 followers
April 30, 2019
In this new biography of Agrippina, Southon does a good job prying apart rumor and propaganda from what might have actually happened (using David Cameron and the pig story as a cultural touchstone). The tone throughout is flippant and informal, which may well draw someone into ancient history who otherwise found it stodgy and incomprehensible, but if you're making crude jokes based on someone's lifetime body of scholarship, you should cite them.
Profile Image for Eschargot.
103 reviews3 followers
June 25, 2020
Agrippina, one of the most fascinating women in Roman history, has such a compelling story line...unfortunately Emma Southon has written this book in such a flippant and informal way that it takes away from that story. Very unfortunate.
I really liked Stacy Schiff’s history of Cleopatra from a woman's perspective and I was hoping this book would be along those lines, unfortunately it was not.
Profile Image for Cris.
62 reviews5 followers
November 18, 2021
No voy a meterme a hablar del contenido de este libro en sí, ya que no me considero con el conocimiento suficiente como para realizar una crítica, ni tengo interés suficiente en la historia de Roma como para buscar otras fuentes secundarias y desarrollar una propia valoración crítica. Solo diré que no me parece que la interpretación que ofrece Emma Southon acerca de las fuentes primarias (principalmente Tácito, Dion Casio y Suetonio), en algunas ocasiones contraria a historiadores modernos, sea para nada descabellada en la mayor parte de los casos.

Creo que para que este libro me haya gustado ha sido muy importante el estilo de Emma Southon. No se parece en nada a otras obras historiográficas que haya tenido que leer; es un estilo muy desenfadado y muy cercano, que hace que leer las más de 200 hojas de esta biografía no se convierta en la actividad más tediosa del mundo (algo que había temido, por otra parte). Creo que si los historiadores realizaran obras de divulgación en este estilo, muchísima más gente estaría interesada en la historia. Parece ser que cuanto más largas sean tus frases y más complejas tus palabras más sabes, y se sacrifica por ello en muchas ocasiones una buena comunicación con el lector. La forma de relatar los hechos de Southon hace que sea muy ameno, poniendo ejemplos contemporáneos y empleando bastantes referencias a la cultura pop para acercar al lector actual lo que podían sentir estas personas hace 2000 años. Entiendo que monografías dirigidas a un público especializado no puedan redactarse de esta manera; pero creo que esta es una forma diferente de hacer la historia que la acerca a muchísima más gente, de una manera amena y divertida.

Por otro lado, me ha parecido interesante la forma de dividir el libro en capítulos según el rol que adoptase Agripina en la vida del emperador o personaje importante de ese momento. Tal y como dice Southon, «... porque en el mundo antiguo una mujer solo existe por su relación con los hombres que la rodean; solo se puede observar a través de la lente distorsionadora de sus relaciones con otras personas y en función de lo bien o mal que estas relaciones se ajustan con su ideal.» Por ello, siempre se la trata de hija, hermana, sobrina, esposa y madre.

Sobre todo, creo que lo que más me ha gustado de este libro ha sido la manera con la que se puede llegar a conectar con estas personas que murieron hace tantísimos años. La humanización de estas personas me ha parecido, cuanto menos, increíble. Southon da motivos muy plausibles acerca de la motivación de los actos de cada uno de ellos, lo que hace que ya no veas a alguien como un personaje histórico que ha pasado a la posterioridad como malo o bueno, sino como una persona con ciertos intereses, pero también sentimientos y preocupaciones. Supongo que es algo que debería darse por hecho, puesto que al fin y al cabo eran personas también, pero es difícil de asumir después de tantísimo tiempo, cuando se cuenta la vida de esta gente con la misma actitud que si se estuviera hablando del tiempo de mañana, que es lo que suele ocurrir en las obras historiográficas.

Para Southon, Agripina no era una persona malvada que quería gobernar por todos los medios. Era una mujer que sufrió mucho, que vio como todas las personas que la rodeaban acababan asesinadas por la gente el poder y que no quería que eso le ocurriera a su hijo, y fue alguien que trabajó incansablemente para proteger a Nerón. También me ha llamado mucho la atención que solo se refiriera a Calígula (que se podría traducir como "botitas") como tal en una ocasión, para indicar que no le iba a llamar así por considerarlo condescendiente para un adulto. Durante el resto del libro le trata por su nombre, Cayo.

Por decir cosas que no me gustan, he sentido que Southon ha tratado de excusar a Agripina en numerosas ocasiones. Entiendo que Tácito, Dion Casio y Suetonio, debido a su contexto, solo buscan ofrecer una imagen de Agripina que no va más allá de el modelo de mujer perversa, como pasó con Livia. Sin embargo, a medida que vas leyendo esto, en muchas ocasiones parece excusar todas sus acciones, lo cual resulta bastante raro.
Profile Image for Cara (Wilde Book Garden).
1,137 reviews63 followers
February 24, 2023
Every time I read a historical nonfiction I get at least 1 (one) more historical woman to aggressively defend and I'm not mad about it.

CW: Grief, suicide, slavery, misogyny, murder, violence, loss of child, references to: incest, illness
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews524 followers
August 5, 2020
The way in which Emma Souton related the story of Agrippina made me feel as if Emma and I were long time friends who met for lunch on a break from our classes at university. It was as if I asked her, "So, what is your classics course about," and her reply was full of vivid imagery of life in ancient Rome that she weaved into a story that fascinated me long after we had finished our lunch. 

Because Agrippina was a woman, the only time she showed up in written history was when she was behaving inappropriately for a woman or when talking about her would serve to help tell the history of a man. Southon was daunted but not deterred by trying to construct a portrait of Agrippina's life. She used all the information available to her to gain as complete a picture as possible and when she was engaging in conjecture, she made sure to say so. I would love for Southon to next write about Hypatia of Alexandria. She has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and I think Southon could bring her to life. 

Southon's introduction was something at which to marvel. She managed to teach the reader about the biases of written history by using the example of the overblown story of David Cameron fucking a pig. He didn't really have sex with a pig. During his youth, friends dared him to pull out his penis and touched it to a dead pig's mouth. Not the same as fucking a pig, but that is the headline that went viral. If much of what was written about the real event got destroyed and someone, centuries far in the future, read what was left about him fucking a pig, they would conclude that he actually had full on sex with a pig. When writing about Agrippina, Southon continually thought about the David Cameron narrative and tried to sift out fact from fiction and bias from reality, and create a balanced picture of who this powerful woman in history was.  

One thing that she said during her book that felt off to me was that it didn't matter who Agrippina had sex with. Her reasoning was that powerful men in ancient Rome had sex with whomever they wished. So focusing on who Agrippina had sex with is misogyny that Southon won't pander to. I loved her for her passion and I loved her for calling out the misogyny that exists even today. However, because the Roman empire was run on misogyny, and because the gender roles were so disparate and so fixed, I believe it probably mattered a great deal. For a woman without her own political power, she relied on gaining power from men whom with which she had sexual relations. But, that is just my own opinion, and even when I disagreed with Southon's view of things, I enjoyed the hell out of her thoughts. I would read any book she took the time to write.  

Before reading this book, I barely knew anything about Agrippina. Despite the lack of information, thanks to Southon, I have as good a picture of Agrippina's struggles, triumphs, betrayals, and daily goings on as I can have. I don't know how this book made it onto my to-read list, but I am sure glad it did. 
36 reviews2 followers
September 1, 2019
I was excited to read this book. Agrippina was at the center of a chaotic era in Roman history and the topic and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads sounded great. Within the first few pages, I was so turned off that I shut off my kindle. I thought the book was going to be a history written for interested adults, not a rewriting of wikipedia for an immature young adult audience. The writing is childish, condescending and boorish--simplistic syntax laced with obscenity. With respect to content, it could be great. What a fantastic subject. But there is no analysis here; no placing Agrippina in context with aristocratic women's lives in ancient Rome. It is simply a retelling of the few known facts interspersed with unsubstantiated assumptions and foul language. Below are some direct quotes from the first chapter or two--I could get no further

1. "She obviously gave no fucks about causing a stir"
2. "To make the situation more complicated, there was a third actor, whose main joy in life was shit stirring. This was Sejanus...You may remember him as Patrick Stewart with hair in the 1970s BBC version of I Claudius".
3. "Agripinna the Elder had no time for gender bullshit like not legally being able to engage in politics because she was a woman"
4. "In American politics the term 'optics' is used to describe the visual impact and public perception of an event. Good optics means that something will look impressive or pleasing to the public"

If you are an adult and like "1066 and all that" or "Horrible Histories", then maybe you'll get through this. Agrippina has a similar tone, but without nearly as much wit. Really, don't read this unless you are an 11 year old who likes history and wants to be titillated by foul language.
Profile Image for Hank Cox.
20 reviews
March 31, 2020
This book is poorly written, seemingly at the level of a high school history essay. The author interjects way too many of her personal observations; for example, on pg. 64, when discussing the maiestas trials: "If you ... accused someone and they were successfully executed, you got to keep all their money and all their houses as a reward! Isn't that great and not at all terrible!". The second sentence, with the exclamation point, is useless. One can almost hear the breathless excitement as the author reads that aloud. And, leading into my second major complaint, the author is often incorrect in her statements. In the above example, you, as the accuser, don't get to keep all of the convicted persons property; the bulk of it went to the state, in these cases, the emperor; you, as the accuser, do get to keep a percentage, but not all.

Another, more serious mistake, occurs on pg. 46. "there were plenty of other men lurking around who had perfectly good Julian or Claudian blood and who wouldn't have minded being the regent to an 18-year-old emperor. Here, the author is discussing the possible succession of Tiberius Gemellus. First big mistake: the Roman principate had no mechanism in place for the position of regent. It's utter nonsense to talk about it. Second big mistake: at 18 years old, Tiberius Gemellus was an adult and wouldn't have required a regent in order to rule.

In the introduction, the author accuses Suetonius and Tacitus of being moralizing. The same charge can be leveled at the author, perhaps even more so, since she is supposed to be a modern historian.

So, my recommendation is, read this book if you must, but read it as entertainment, not as a serious work of history.
Profile Image for Jenny Hemming.
209 reviews2 followers
October 23, 2018
I like the premise for this book, and the ambition to write accessible history. However, I find that the history is undermined by the writing style, which is just trying too hard. But if there were a prize for deploying euphemisms for sex it would win hands down. I also think that the use of popular culture references is fine in principle but will rapidly date the book. I’m finding these factors irritating enough to make me call a halt, but there is also some questionable historical technique: having made lots of valid points about the absence of evidence and the motives of writers writing long after the event, Southon falls into a similar trap, ascribing feelings where there can be no evidence.

This has the material for a really good piece of historical fiction, which would allow Southon to express her empathy for the characters in a more valid way, i.e filling in the silences of history, and provide a route into the period which she so clearly is very knowledgeable about.
607 reviews4 followers
January 15, 2020
The information in this book is great but after reading a few chapters I couldn’t tolerate the too cutesy writing style. Presumably written to entice readers that don’t care for nonfiction history, the frequent references and insertions of current slang, people and events became annoying and detracted from the real history.
Profile Image for Jennifer deBie.
Author 4 books28 followers
February 23, 2022
Emma Southon is a historian after my own heart and her biography of Agrippina is everything a reader could want from a book subtitled "Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore". Threaded through with dark humor, sly asides, dirty jokes, and refreshing honesty about the unreliability of historic sources, Southon knows her subject inside and out, and doesn't take herself too seriously while she's at it.

The portrait Southon creates is of a complete woman, one born into an extraordinary family, who was determined to carry on their legacy by any means necessary in a society and time when women weren't allowed to carry anything but babies. Through intelligence, determination, calculation, and really (probably) only one or two murders, Agrippina rose to become the most powerful woman Rome had ever seen, but her ambition also led her to dance on the knife's edge. The Roman court was a perilous place for anyone, much less a woman who wanted to control powerful men, and the story of Agrippina's rise, fall, rise again, and eventual betrayal is truly one for the ages.
Profile Image for MargaretDH.
1,050 reviews17 followers
December 23, 2020
I wish all pop history could be written by real historians who want to talk about their research in non-scholarly ways! This was an excellent exploration into the life of Agrippina the Younger, written by a Roman scholar with an excellent sense of humour. She tells the story (because this really is biography as story) in an engaging and amusing way, while also providing commentary on her sources and just enough social history for you to understand what's going on.

This was very funny, very informative, and I'd recommend it to almost anyone.
Profile Image for Tansy Roberts.
Author 117 books267 followers
May 18, 2022
Fantastic, very modern biography of a true classic from the ancient world. I love the irreverent, snarky tone throughout, and the unapologetically 21st century lens through which these completely bonkers events are viewed.

The strong use of historiography, tracking where the sources for Agrippina rise and disappear and rise again, and comparing all the different, equally (not always) dubious sources for her biographical facts (and indeed "facts") makes this a very useful as well as fascinating work.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 241 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.