Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa: Statesman, General, and Friend of Augustus
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was one of the most powerful and influential men who lived during the early days of the Roman Empire. Agrippa was a statesman, general, and most important of all, a close friend of Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. Agrippa aided Augustus greatly in his rise to power, and continued play an important role during the latter’s reign. In addition to the numerous victories that he won as Augustus’ general, Agrippa also initiated a number of building projects which contributed to the beauty and grandeur of Rome.
Early Days and Education
Agrippa was born in 64/63 BC into a provincial family. According to ancient sources, Agrippa was not from any of the leading Roman families. For example, in Velleius Paterculus’ Roman History, Agrippa is said to have had an “obscure birth”. It is not entirely clear where Agrippa’s family originated, but it is likely that they were from the provinces, probably somewhere in central Italy. Nevertheless, they were not exactly poor either. For instance, Agrippa was educated in Rome, which was beyond the financial means of most provincial families.
Bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Pushkin Museum. (Shakko/Wikipedia)
It was whilst receiving his education in Rome that Agrippa would meet Gaius Octavius, the future Augustus. At the age of 18/19, the two young men travelled to the east, Apollonia on the Illyrian coast, to be more precise. There, they joined the Macedonian legions of Julius Caesar, which were being prepared for Caesar’s campaign against the Parthians. In Apollonia, so says the Roman writer Suetonius, the two friends visited an astrologer by the name of Theogenes, who predicted that they would have brilliant futures,
“While in retirement at Apollonia, Augustus mounted with Agrippa to the studio of the astrologer Theogenes. Agrippa was the first to try his fortune, and when a great and almost incredible career was predicted for him, Augustus persisted in concealing the time of his birth and in refusing to disclose it, through diffidence and fear that he might be found to be less eminent. When he at last gave it unwillingly and hesitatingly, and only after many requests, Theogenes sprang up and threw himself at his feet. From that time on Augustus had such faith in his destiny, that he made his horoscope public and issued a silver coin stamped with the sign of the constellation Capricornus, under which he was born.”
Shortly after this, Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome. In his will, Caesar had left his fortune and name to Octavius, which indirectly gave him a substantial amount of political influence. The man who held the most power in Rome at that time, however, was Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s strongest supporters. Eventually, Octavius and Antony would be at war with each other. Prior to this, however, they would, for the most part, be on good terms, and cooperated against their common enemies.
Appointment as Consul
In 37 BC Agrippa, who was barely 30 years old, was appointed as a consul. This was extraordinary, as a person had to be officially at least 43 years old before he could hold this office. Additionally, Agrippa lacked other important qualifications for this post as well. For example, he was not from a senatorial family, and he had never been a quaestor before. Nevertheless, as Agrippa was a military man and a close friend of the future emperor, he got this position.
Statue of Agrippa at the Archaeological Museum of Venice. (Public Domain)
Agrippa was an effective general, both on land and on the sea. During the same year that Agrippa was appointed consul, a war broke out with Sextus Pompeius, a son of Caesar’s colleague and rival, Pompey. In the chaos caused by the war between the triumvirs (Octavian, Antony and Lepidus) against Caesar’s murderers, Sextus Pompeius seized the opportunity to capture Sicily. The island was turned into a pirate’s den, and the food supply of Rome was threatened to be cut off. A fleet was prepared, and in 36 BC, was launched against Sextus Pompeius. At Mylae and Naulochus, Octavian’s fleet, led by Agrippa, defeated Sextus Pompeius, and put an end to his ambitions.
Agrippa is also recorded to have initiated many building projects in Rome, in line with Augustus’ policies. Augustus is recorded to have “often urged other prominent men to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones, each according to his means.” Apart from beautifying Rome at private expense, Agrippa was also appointed as aedile in 33 BC. In this capacity, Agrippa is most notable for having built three aqueducts, restoring the sewers, constructing a bathhouse, and having the streets paved.
One of Agrippa’s merits that was most valued by Augustus was his utter loyalty to his master. Augustus, in turn, seems to have had complete trust in his subordinate’s loyalty. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the pair worked so well with each other.
Thus, the all too familiar stories of overly ambitious subordinates overthrowing their overlords or overly suspicious rulers putting to death their most competent officials was not the case for Augustus and Agrippa.
Featured image: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Photo source: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
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