NON-FICTION//Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore- Emma Southon

Good biographies of pre-20th Century women can be really scant. Biographies of Roman women can be really dry and mostly guess work. After all, history is written by the victors (MEN) and women often don’t get a look in. I’m pleased to say that this book is not dry, boring OR scant and is, in fact very funny as well as informative.

It helps that Agrippina was an extraordinary woman and that there are still some sources about her that exist, although as Emma Southon writes with some justified irritation, she’s only ever written about in relation to something a man was doing. After all, Agrippina had the extraordinary experience of being the daughter of one of Rome’s most beloved generals and the sister, niece/wife (don’t ask) and mother of emperors. In other words, she was respected and revered by the Romans- and she had power.

I found this book incredibly accessible and really laughed at parts; there’s actually a joke from the TV series House used that a) made sense and b) made me laugh in the quiet journey on the 12.41 Penzance to Victoria train and earned me the disapproving glare of the man opposite. The thing is, history should be accessible, it should be funny and angry and make us think and challenge why it’s crap that we don’t know more about our female ancestors. I think Southon does a brilliant job of critiquing this, as well as acknowledging that the sources are biased and a bit rubbish, especially when it comes to women.

But what this book also does is make this extraordinary woman come alive, to make us think about who she was away from the men she happened to be related to, and the sacrifices she made (a lot) to get her son Nero on the throne. I completely re-evaluated my view of Caligula, although that was probably shaped by my kid’s constant watching of Horrible Histories more than anything else. I came away in awe of a woman who, by the time she was my age, had become one of the most powerful women in the Western world (in contrast, the most powerful woman in my house is probably the cat. I am currently unable to move because she’s resting her head on my foot. There is cramping happening.)

FORMAT: Paperback, bought by me from Waterstones Brighton

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