The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Fiona Radford
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
My favourite would have to be the aureus from AD 54 – the early years of the reign of Nero. Nero and his mother, Agrippina the Younger, are both featured on the obverse.
When did you first come across this coin?
I really had no particular interest in Ancient History until Year 11 and 12. The teacher I had was amazing and really set my world on fire (no dig at Nero intended) with her stories of the Julio-Claudians. I first came across it in her class and now I get to share it with my own Ancient History classes every year.
Can you tell me a bit about the coin and its context?
Agrippina the Younger fought for power and position her whole life. She was no fool, so she knew that she could not hold an official place herself. Thankfully for Agrippina, her only child was a boy and he would eventually be known by his adopted name of Nero. She survived exile under her brother Caligula when Nero was just a toddler and did not suffer the same fate as her sister Livilla during the early reign of their uncle Claudius. His then-wife Messalina may have been worried about these two sisters due to their being direct descendants of Augustus.
Agrippina was quick to marry and get out of Rome during this risky time. Eventually, Messalina made a foolish gamble, overplayed her hand, and cleared the way for a new wife for Emperor Claudius. Even though she was his niece, Agrippina managed to snag that position for herself. She rose to new heights of power for a woman in ancient Rome and in many ways crafted the role of empress.
Her main objective during this marriage was to secure the position of her son. Within five years, Agrippina had arranged for his adoption by the emperor and marriage to Claudius’ daughter – and then murdered Claudius so that Nero could take his place. Nero was only a teenager at the time and was very aware that he owed his position to his mother and the illustrious connections that he possessed through her. Not only was he descended from Augustus, but the popular military commander Germanicus was his grandfather.
In the early years of his reign, Nero gave Agrippina many honours. No living woman had ever been featured on the obverse of a coin, and certainly not in a way that suggested some sort of equality between her and the emperor. There are quite a few interesting coins like this from the first years of Nero’s rule, but none where Agrippina is quite as prominent. Sadly, she fell from grace sometime in AD 56 and was murdered on Nero’s orders in AD 59.
What is it about this coin that appeals to you most?
The sheer badassery of Agrippina the Younger. She was the original Cersei Lannister. Even though she eventually went too far and lost her influence over Nero (and thus her life), I find it inspiring that a woman in a patriarchal society still dared to be so ambitious.
Agrippina was not interested in wealth for the sake of luxury or power for mere show. I’m sure there were elements of this, but she seems to have been genuinely interested in politics and diplomacy. Although the sources are a bit sketchy on this point, Agrippina seems to have virtually ruled Rome during Nero’s early reign, along with his advisers. Absolutely unthinkable! It would be hundreds of years before a woman was allowed such influence again.
Ancient sources like this are also interesting because you could interpret them in so many ways. It is possible to see Agrippina as someone who was used as a pawn and a symbol by her male relatives in their own quest for power… but I just can’t bring myself to believe that!
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I am a huge fan of other podcasts and I listen to them whenever I can – cleaning, cooking, walking my deaf cat (yep)… I currently subscribe to about 400 and have about 650 episodes downloaded on any given day. I am a murderino, so anything true crime grabs my interest, but I particularly love My Favourite Murder. Of course, there are a lot of history podcasts on my list too. The Dollop is a fantastically funny history podcast that mostly looks at crazy episodes from America’s past. I am also an environmental activist. There’s no future in History unless we take drastic action to address the current climate, pollution and waste crises, so I am trying to put more time into advocating for meaningful change.
Fiona Radford received her PhD in Ancient History from Macquarie University in 2012 and currently teaches secondary History. Her research interests include women and gender in the ancient world, classical reception (particularly film), and Rome during the late Republic and Julio-Claudian period. She co-hosts a podcast on ancient Rome with Dr Peta Greenfield called The Partial Historians and together they have appeared on a range of other ancient history shows, such as The Exploress. They have collaborated with Ted-Ed on animated lessons about ancient Roman history, including the Vestal Virgins and Spartacus.