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Nephele

Agrippa -- or Octavian -- descendant of slaves?

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In the last episode of HBO's Rome, Agrippa makes it clear to Octavia that he hasn't a hope of marrying her because: "My father was a nobody. His father was a slave. I have not a drop of good blood in me."

 

While I've read that Agrippa's family were not of patrician rank (although they were wealthy equestrians), I don't recall having read anything about Agrippa's grandfather having been a slave.

 

On the other hand, according to anthropologist Margaret Murray, It was Octavia (and, obviously, Octavian too) whose paternal great-grandfather was said to have been a manumitted slave. In her article for The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, titled "Royal Marriages and Matrilineal Descent" (written in 1915), Murray furthermore stated that Octavian's father was a moneychanger, and that Octavian's mother, Atia (who in HBO's Rome displays a snobbish disdain for foreign tradesmen's daughters), was herself the granddaughter of an African, either a perfumer or a baker.

 

So, of the two -- Agrippa and Octavian -- which truly had the ignoble ancestry? Does anyone here have any additional information to shed light on which of the two (if not both or neither) was actually descended from slaves?

 

-- Nephele

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Agrippa's family history is rather unknown... Tacitus says simply that he was of 'humble origins'. I believe Agrippa's father was the first of his family to reach the equestrian order, though I'm afraid I cannot find the proper documentation.

 

The Octavii seem to have been long established equestrian family, but Gaius Octavius Thurinus (father of Augustus) was the first to achieve high political rank (Praetor). Suetonius reports in Life of Augustus that the father of Augustus took the cognomen Thurinus in honor of his victory over Spartacan forces there... or was it perhaps an ancestral home? The cognomen was dropped by Octavian (Augustus) very early in life and we know that Antony delighted in mocking Octavian as the descendant of money-lenders (perhaps the two are related). At any rate, Octavian was definitely of humble familial origin compared to the political aristocrats, but the grandson of a slave (making his praetor father the son of a slave) seems an unlikely fit.

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In Meyer Reinhold's 'Marcus Agrippa', the author makes a good case for Agrippa's forebears being of Illyrian descent. His argument is based on various epigraphical evidence from that province and later archaeological discoveries of inscriptions bearing the Vipsanian nomen. Whilst we cannot claim that Reinhold's thesis is sounder than any other, it is, in my view, more persuasive than the slave theory. Therefore, we might say that Agrippa's grandfather was not a Roman citizen - which is not the same as being a slave.

 

As to the Equestrian rank - again Reinhold's thesis is that this was conferred on Agrippa and Salvidienus by Octavian early on in 44BC or 43BC - and as I cannot find an ancient source that states that Lucius Vipsanius (Marcus' father) was equestrian, I am persuaded to discount such a rumour.

 

The rumour of Octavian himself being descended from slaves was, I am fully convinced, part of Antony's propaganda when the two had quarrelled openly.

Edited by The Augusta

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Thanks for the additional information, Primus Pilus and The Augusta.

 

At any rate, Octavian was definitely of humble familial origin compared to the political aristocrats, but the grandson of a slave (making his praetor father the son of a slave) seems an unlikely fit.

 

Actually, Margaret Murray wrote that it was Augustus' great-grandfather who was the manumitted slave. But I take your point, Primus.

 

In her article, Murray suggests that Augustus' marriage to Livia was his means of legitimizing his claim to "the throne", as previously having obtained such rank merely through "appointment" (i.e. adoption by Julius Caesar) was not quite enough.

 

As to the Equestrian rank - again Reinhold's thesis is that this was conferred on Agrippa and Salvidienus by Octavian early on in 44BC or 43BC - and as I cannot find an ancient source that states that Lucius Vipsanius (Marcus' father) was equestrian, I am persuaded to discount such a rumour.

 

I haven't been able to find any ancient sources, either, as to whether Marcus Agrippa's father had been of equestrian rank. I was going on historian and author Jona Lendering's article at his website Livius.org: "Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa belonged to a provincial but wealthy family of equestrian rank..."

 

-- Nephele

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Just for reference:

 

Tacitus says of Agrippa in Annals book 1.3:

Augustus meanwhile, as supports to his despotism, raised to the pontificate and curule aedileship Claudius Marcellus, his sister's son, while a mere stripling, and Marcus Agrippa, of humble birth, a good soldier, and one who had shared his victory, to two consecutive consulships, and as Marcellus soon afterwards died, he also accepted him as his son-in-law.

 

Suetonius Life of Caligula 23:

He did not wish to be thought the grandson of Agrippa, or called so, because of the latter's humble origin; and he grew very angry if anyone in a speech or a song included Agrippa among the ancestors of the Caesars. He even boasted that his own mother was born in incest, which Augustus had committed with his daughter Julia; and not content with this slur on the memory of Augustus, he forbade the celebration of his victories at Actium and off Sicily by annual festivals,40 on the ground that they were disastrous and ruinous to the Roman people.

 

I suspect further comments are buried in Cicero's voluminous letters but am not having much success locating any particulars.

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I haven't been able to find any ancient sources, either, as to whether Marcus Agrippa's father had been of equestrian rank. I was going on historian and author Jona Lendering's article at his website Livius.org: "Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa belonged to a provincial but wealthy family of equestrian rank..."

 

Thanks for the link, Nephele. However, as Lendering has not cited his sources, I am still not convinced that Agrippa was actually born into a family of Equestrian rank. Nor was I impressed with Lendering's musings on Agrippa's veiled figure on the Ara Pacis! He was shown veiled 'because he was dead'?! :) Statesman were shown veiled to indicate a priesthood - surely! We know from our sources that Agrippa was 'enrolled' into a priesthood. Augustus himself on the Ara Pacis is shown veiled, as is Aeneas for the sacrifice. This shows the connection with the priesthood and religion of Rome - not the fact that 'Agrippa was dead' before the dedication of the Ara Pacis. Well - it may be a new viewpoint, but Ihave never heard of it before. ;)

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All I can gather is that Agrippa's family was from the Italian countryside and not much is known about them. There are repeated references to Agrippa's humble origins and while some sources cite his "equestrian" rank, not much is really known about his father, Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa.

 

Who was Lucius descended from is the key question ? We'll never know the truth of this until someone finds some other source. There are tons of papyrii yet to be translated and perhaps one day, the truth will be known. Until then, HBO's version of his ancestry may yet be another version of the "truth".

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Thanks for the link, Nephele. However, as Lendering has not cited his sources, I am still not convinced that Agrippa was actually born into a family of Equestrian rank. Nor was I impressed with Lendering's musings on Agrippa's veiled figure on the Ara Pacis! He was shown veiled 'because he was dead'?! :) Statesman were shown veiled to indicate a priesthood - surely! We know from our sources that Agrippa was 'enrolled' into a priesthood. Augustus himself on the Ara Pacis is shown veiled, as is Aeneas for the sacrifice. This shows the connection with the priesthood and religion of Rome - not the fact that 'Agrippa was dead' before the dedication of the Ara Pacis. Well - it may be a new viewpoint, but Ihave never heard of it before. ;)

 

I have to admit you bring up a good point regarding the interpretation of Agrippa's veiled appearance on the Ara Pacis. Out of interest I did a bit of research, and found a number of scholarly articles that back up what you stated, including one written by Dr. Mark D. Fullerton (architectural historian, Dept. of History of Art, Ohio State University) for the American Journal of Archaeology (July, 1985) titled "The Domus Augusti in Imperial Iconography of 13-12 B.C." in which Fullerton commented on the Ara Pacis, stating: "Augustus and Agrippa are shown similarly capite velato as pontifices." (p. 481)

 

I, too, would have liked to see some cited sources on Jona Lendering's website. Perhaps he does have new information to shed light on the subject. I e-mailed him and invited him to join this discussion, but I don't know whether he might have the time to do so.

 

-- Nephele

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From Velleius Paterculus: The Roman History 2.59 on Octavian

Of the origin of Octavius I must now say a few words, even if the account comes before its proper place. Gaius Octavius, his father, though not of patrician birth, was descended from a very prominent equestrian family, and was himself a man of dignity, of upright and blameless life, and of great wealth. Chosen praetor at the head of the poll among a list of candidates of noble birth, this distinction won for him a marriage alliance with Atia, a daughter of Julia. After he had filled the office of praetor, the province of Macedonia fell to his lot, where he was honoured with the title of imperator. He was returning thence to sue for the consulship when he died on the way, leaving a son still in his early teens.

 

Book 2.88 on Maecenas and Agrippa

The guards of the city were at that time under the charge of Gaius Maecenas, of equestrian rank, but none the less of illustrious lineage, a man who was literally sleepless when occasion demanded, and quick to foresee what was to be done and skillful in doing it, but when any relaxation was allowed him from business cares would almost outdo a woman in giving himself up to indolence and soft luxury. He was not less loved by Caesar than Agrippa, though he had fewer honours heaped upon him, since he lived thoroughly content with the narrow stripe of the equestrian order. He might have achieved a position no less high than Agrippa, but had not the same ambition for it.

 

Book 2.96 on Agrippa's death

Then occurred the death of Agrippa. Though a "new man" he had by his many achievements brought distinction upon his obscure birth, even to the extent of becoming the father-in‑law of Nero; and his sons, the grandsons of the emperor, had been adopted by Augustus under the names of Gaius and Lucius. His death brought Nero closer to Caesar, since his daughter Julia, who had been the wife of Agrippa, now married Nero.

 

Book 2.127 on Agrippa's lineage not being an obstacle

It is but rarely that men of eminence have failed to employ great men to aid them in directing their fortune, as the two Scipios employed the two Laelii, whom in all things they treated as equal to themselves, or as the deified Augustus employed Marcus Agrippa, and after him Statilius Taurus. In the case of these men their lack of lineage was no obstacle to their elevation to successive consulships, triumphs, and numerous priesthoods.

 

Neither Cassius Dio, Appian nor Livy (in the limited Periochae) make any mention of Agrippa's heritage. Cicero's letters also do not seem to mention him, though I have not yet attempted an exhaustive search. It would stand to reason that if Octavius and Agrippa attended school together, they were likely of similar economic station, but so far there seems to be no written evidence to directly support Agrippa's descent from a "prominent" equestrian family.

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Many, many thanks, Primus Pilus, for that exhaustive bit of research you did! I'm much appreciative (and much impressed).

 

It would stand to reason that if Octavius and Agrippa attended school together, they were likely of similar economic station, but so far there seems to be no written evidence to directly support Agrippa's descent from a "prominent" equestrian family.

 

I've been corresponding with Jona Lendering in e-mail and he tells me that "Agrippa's equestrian status appears to be some sort of article of faith", as Der Neue Pauly (the updated Pauly-Wissowa, classical encyclopedic work published in Germany in 1894) "mentions it as fact without quoting sources." Jona Lendering believes it to be likely, but he says that "more evidence would be nice indeed".

 

-- Nephele

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I've been corresponding with Jona Lendering in e-mail and he tells me that "Agrippa's equestrian status appears to be some sort of article of faith", as Der Neue Pauly (the updated Pauly-Wissowa, classical encyclopedic work published in Germany in 1894) "mentions it as fact without quoting sources." Jona Lendering believes it to be likely, but he says that "more evidence would be nice indeed".

 

Generally speaking then.. we are all in the same proverbial boat.

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The Emperor Pertinax was the son of a wool-monger. Agrippa was what he was. If, of 'low birth', more credit to him.

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I've been corresponding with Jona Lendering in e-mail and he tells me that "Agrippa's equestrian status appears to be some sort of article of faith", as Der Neue Pauly (the updated Pauly-Wissowa, classical encyclopedic work published in Germany in 1894) "mentions it as fact without quoting sources." Jona Lendering believes it to be likely, but he says that "more evidence would be nice indeed".

 

Generally speaking then.. we are all in the same proverbial boat.

 

 

Yes, it seems to be all there is to go on for now. But you did a superb job, Primus Pilus, in digging up that amount of information.

 

I also asked Jona Lendering about the reason given on his webpage for Agrippa's head covering in the relief on the Ara Pacis, and mentioned that others are of another opinion. Jona wrote back: "They are probably right; someone has also pointed out that the identification of Agrippa that I quoted (made by Coarelli) was wrong. I must check the library but I would not be surprised if Coarelli turns out to be wrong. Feel free to quote this retraction as well."

 

I thanked Jona Lendering in e-mail, but just wish to add a very public "thank you!" to him here, for his graciousness in taking the time to respond personally to me.

 

-- Nephele

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Sounds Like Prof. Lendering should be our next invitee to 'ask the expert'! I think I have a few questions for him...and others on here would, I'm sure, contribute!

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