The Pleb Who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa

A reconstruction of a painted bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, accomplished soldier, building funder, respected and feared General of Augustus and a close friend to the first Roman Emperor, too. Most of the statues we have from Roman times are plain, but it is widely accepted now that they would have painted their statues. (Credit: ImperiumRomanum.pl, used without Permission under fair-use)

This article is an edit of a document originally created for Dr. Cora Beth Fraser’s Comfort Classics series. You can find the version edited for that here – or else go read all the Comfort Classics, they’re really good.

Being working class and interested in Roman history do not usually go together, at least not without a healthy dose of denialism and a heavy belief in fascist systems of governance, neither of which I have (that’s what somebody in denial would say!). So how did a council house bloke like me end up neck-deep in it like I have?

Growing up classical history was something people with posh accents on the telly did. Maybe someone you knew had some knowledge from watching a “Ben Hur” or a “Quo Vadis”, or some or other of those 50’s and 60’s ‘Epic’ movies. Even Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”, coming along in 2000, didn’t open up that world beyond appreciation of the violence and the action. I doubt many people of my class were considering the implications of the presentation of the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” as represented by his presentation of Marcus Aurelius. We just enjoyed the stabby-stabby blood spurts, pretended we didn’t cry at the end, and screamed “Are you not entertained!” whenever we felt like it appropriate.

A movie post for MGM’s 1951 Roman Epic “Quo Vadis” – based on an 1896 novel, with a love story of a Roman Legate entwined in the tumultuous era of Emperor Nero. (Credit: MGM, Public Domain)

We didn’t graduate from “Gladiator” to watching the BBC adaptation of classicist and writer Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” – Although you should, it’s an excellent series with a stellar cast. I disagree, though, with the stout and strong Brian Blessed playing Augustus, he goes a great job but that’s not ‘my’ Augustus. We didn’t go from “Gladiator” to reading Virgil’s “Georgics”, an epic poem about how best to run a farm and live a pastoral life in Rome.

We studied Roman history a bit in primary school and after that it barely seemed to come up again. When you’re working class it’s very easy to make yourself a target and having academic interest in anything is a great way to get yourself alienated, called a ‘boffin’, mocked relentlessly and potentially physically assaulted. It’s easier, indeed safer, to grow out of curiosity – A very sad truth, but a truth regardless.

So it took me quite a long time of not fitting in, a lot of therapy and a lot of effort to figure out who I truly was. It took me far too long to get my curiosity back, but I got it. That’s where Rome comes in.

It all started with an exceptionally intelligent and talented ex-partner who had studied Latin and classics more than I had, and her infectious enthusiasm intoxicating me on a trip to Rome.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Eternal City itself, spend a day checking out the sights without a camera, just walk around and imagine. Walk down the cobbles of the old Forum, check out the humble brick Curia, tread in the searing heat up the Palatine Hill, and consider that this was once the centre of all ‘Civilisation’, the very heart of the ‘known world’. It is actually a tiny place. The grandeur betrays it. Columns seem to spiral endlessly into the sky, monuments of conquest. Titus’ arch is the perfect frame for a vision of that imposing arena, the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum. Rome is deceptive in its big-ness.

The Forum Romanum, the main Forum of Rome, seen from the Palatine Hill. The Palatine was the Beverly Hills of Ancient Rome and became the hill upon which Augustus would put his home, ‘Palatine’ is the very root of our word ‘palace’. This patch of land you see was the centre of the known world, for a time. Decisions that could affect an area spanning from Britain in the West, North Africa in the South, and Syria in the East could be made here. (Credit: BIG ALBERT CC-BY-2.0)

Not too far away from this centre, around the area that would have been the old Campus Martius – the field of Mars – where Roman soldiers would have had to remain, at least if they were armed, so as not to break the rules and cross the city boundary, the Pomerium.

Walking around there now the narrow streets open out into a square where you are met with the sight of tall, imposing columns, and a concrete circus-tent-like structure. It seems to stand alone, isolated, frozen, even though it’s usually surrounded by cameras, selfie-sticks and people happily eating gelato. If you remove those columns, throw in some plate-glass, you could easily believe this building is modern in design. It is timeless.

I am talking about The Pantheon – literally the temple of all Gods. If you’ve been to Rome you’ve probably been there. If you’ve seen Rome on the telly you’ve probably seen it. If you’ve heard of Rome you’ve probably heard of it. It’s iconic.

It is not too much hyperbole to say this is one of the most remarkable and timeless buildings that architectural engineering has ever given the world. The Pantheon, the temple to all the Gods, in Rome. Initially commissioned by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa around 30 BCE, that one was likely destroyed by fire around 80 CE. It was then rebuilt by Domitian, but that one was destroyed by fire in 110 CE (fires were common in Rome!). This version, that has been standing for approximately 1,900 years, was commission by Hadrian in around 126 CE. I’ll be honest, I don’t like a lot of modern architecture and it’s because they don’t build enough things like this! (Credit: Roberta Dragan CC-BY-SA 2.5)

It is a surprisingly classic Greco-Roman style temple, with Corinthian columns (the ones that generally taper towards the top, becoming slender, and topped with ornate acanthus leaves) out the front and a massive dome, that is still, today, the largest, free-standing concrete dome in the world! 2,000 years after it was built! Those Romans knew how to build, that’s for sure. It’s almost like they were built on the foundations of a working-class hero!

Which leads us to the slightly confusing inscription on the front of the Pantheon;

M. AGRIPPA. L. COS. TERTIVM. FECIT.”

Translated (with a little added Lionel Ritchie);

“Marcus Agrippa, Son of Lucius, (One, twice) Three times a Consul, Made…”

Apparently by Latin grammar rules it is assumed he made ‘it’, as in the building. Not ‘love’ or ‘ice cream’ or ‘a fool of himself’. No, ‘Marcus Agrippa, three times consul made this’ is the inscription above the Pantheon.

The incredible free-standing dome of the Pantheon. Roman concrete is notoriously structurally sound and we are only just learning the secrets of it now. This dome is a testament to the strength of that concrete and the genius of their engineers. The patterns, concentric squares cut out, are believed to have made the structure lighter, so that it would not fall in on itself, meanwhile, the Roman sun bursts through the oculus, the eye, that hole in the centre, illuminating the building differently at different times in the day. Standing underneath this dome is awe inspiring. (Credit: djedj via Pixabay)

Now this is confusing because the building itself is Hadrianic in origin, he ruled between 117-138 CE, and he built a lot. He’s probably best known in Britain for Hadrian ’s Wall, another remarkable structure he commissioned as he travelled the empire building stuff. Hadrian’s Pantheon was likely first dedicated (building completed and opened) in 126 CE-ish. So why is someone else’s name on the front?

Well, Marcus Agrippa commissioned the building of the original ‘Pantheon’ temple at the site, believed to have been worked on between 30-40 BCE; it would have stood in around the same position as the current temple is.

But quite who the hell is Marcus Agrippa to be considered so important that an emperor of the stature of Hadrian felt the need to restore, or rewrite, the ‘original’ inscription?

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa would be, in my estimation, one of the three most influential figures in the changing of the direction of Rome, a major part in its transition from a Republic, to an Empire, what is known as the Principate.

The unpainted bust of Marcus Agrippa – from around 25-24 BCE, and it gives a clear indication of what stout, strong-featured man Agrippa was. This bust is currently in the Louvre, Paris but is believed to have come from Gabii, an Ancient former city in Latium, not far from Rome. (Credit:  © Marie-Lan Nguyen – CC-BY-2.5)

The details of his birth are murky, so lowly he was. He was likely born somewhere around modern Pisa to a plebeian family. Now, we think of all plebs as paupers but there were some notoriously prestigious plebeian families. The gens, the family, Vipsania was not one of them! Effectively he was a hard-working, smart working class boy, and something about that resonates with me.

He was lucky enough to befriend a young Gaius Octavian – the future Emperor Augustus – during schooling. He was lucky enough to get schooling in the first place! His parents must have worked very hard to make that happen. He was lucky enough, and good enough, to find his way into Caesar’s armies when he fought against Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey Magnus. He surely would have considered this a great honour, but he also would have had to demonstrate himself a good soldier, and a hard worker, to attain that honour.

Work, indeed, seemed to be the very measure of the man.

Of course, Caesar would go on to be defeated by a group of conspirators, and Agrippa’s friend, Gaius Octavian, would be Caesar’s main heir. Whatever you might think of Augustus as a human, or as a leader, he was a great manager and knew talent when he saw it. He knew his friend would be vital to his success and Agrippa became a trusted confidant and general of the man who, at this point, would be known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianius – (yes, insert jokes about Augustus picking a damn name here).

Another civil war was seemingly inevitable and Marcus Agrippa was central to Octavian-Augustus’ plans. At the Battle of Actium, with naval tactics he himself had helped develop, Agrippa made Caesar’s former right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (or Mark Antony) look a fool. In so doing he helped a sickly boy, a nephew by birth but son by adoption of Julius Caesar, become sole ruler over all of Rome and her territories. It is fairly safe (as safe as any speculation at least!) to say without Agrippa there is no Augustus, there is no Principate and Rome as we know it would appear altogether different.

A tapestry of Antony and Cleopatra fleeing at the Battle of Actium, from around 1650, by Dutch artists Justus van Egmont and Jan van Leefdael. Scholarly debate rages about what, exactly, happened at Actium. With the larger fleet, of bigger warships, and as an experienced General, Antony should have won. Agrippa, though, had trained his forces well and though his ships were smaller they had better manoueverability. What there is little debate about is that, spying a gap in the centre of the formations, Cleopatra’s fleet fled through the centre. Whether Mark Antony was with her, or whether this was a plan entirely of her own of which he knew nothing, is not known. Either way, it was seen as a retreat and caused a humiliating upset to Mark Antony. (Credit: Met Musuem of Art, Justus Van Egmont and Jan van Leefdael, Public Domain)

You’d think after all this he’s run rampant across the empire celebrating, drowning himself drunk in undiluted wine and cavorting at the Lupanar, the brothel, right?

Nope, he became Curule Aedile, essentially ‘Public Works Manager’ and he got busy figuring out what the people of Rome needed, commissioning buildings and working.

It was at this time he commissioned the Pantheon, allegedly to honour his friend, Augustus after his victory at the Battle of Actium. That, though, is a bit like buying your boss a present to celebrate how hard you worked. I think it is likely true, but it speaks much of the delicate balance of power between Agrippa and Augustus. There is an aspect of that building, in the message “See what I built in your honour, friend? Remember my victory for you.” It’s a simultaneous honour and a threat, Agrippa was making his strength, but also his humility, known.

It wasn’t just that famous temple, though. Agrippa commissioned renovations to the Cloaca Maxima, literally the biggest shithole in Rome; it was the large, main sewer. He built public baths, the Basilica of Neptune – honouring the God of the sea who favoured him at Actium. He built most of these works on his own land, bestowed upon him by Augustus, on the Campus Martius. He paid for a lot of it with his own money, again likely taken from the victory-stuffed coffers of Augustus. He commissioned the Aqua Julia, a new, main aquaduct to bring fresh water to the heart of his Roman district, and named it to honour the adopted family of his closest ally and best friend, the Julii.

Credit to the graffiti artist, they have tagged the entrance to Rome’s biggest shithole. This is an entrance to the Cloaca Maxima, Rome largest and main sewer. Agrippa commissioned an inspection and rejuvination of the sewer during his Aedileship. (Credit: Mbattista22 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

So much of what he did after his victories was public focussed, and yet, for the most part, he kept his name off of it. He bestowed everything to the city of Rome, in the name of Augustus. There was a tremendous humility to Agrippa, an understanding that if he was to shatter the social etiquette of the time, if this savage plebeian soldier was to keep his place at the top of Roman society, he was going to have to keep his head down and earn it, and he did. When it comes to a blueprint for shattering social orders, social mores, “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times a consul made…” that too.

Innuendo wholly intended, he even inserted himself into the Imperial family. He married Augustus’ daughter (by his first wife) Julia.

They went on to have five children. His first sons, Gaius and Julius, were split either side of a daughter, Julia the Younger, who went on to marry well and live uncontroversially. Gaius and Julius were adopted by Augustus, given the title Princeps Juventutis – the first among youths, or the Princes of Youth – and were clearly groomed to be heirs. Sadly, by sick or by trick (there are rumours regarding Livia) they both died young.

A bust of Julia the Elder, the daughter of Augustus and his second wife, Scribonia. She was, allegedly, a very promiscuous woman and would later be exiled as a result of her ‘scandals’. (Credit: Egisto Sani CC-BY-NC SA 2.0)

His next child with Julia was Agrippina the Elder, she married the beloved figure of Germanicus and their son, Agrippa’s Grandson, Gaius Julius Caesar, would go on to be the first descendant of Agrippa’s to be emperor. We would know him better by his nickname, ‘Little Boots’, or Caligula.

The youngest daughter of Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina the Younger, would go on to marry the Emperor Claudius, who would adopt her son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus who would also go on to be emperor. The Great-Grandson of Agrippa, renamed Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus on adoption, would be known to us as Nero.

This man, with a different ego, in another life, by different circumstances would have his name, his face, stamped permanently on this history of the nation, of the empire, he so clearly helped craft.

At one point in time Augustus was incredibly sick and bed ridden. He got better because of lettuce, that’s not even a joke; Augustus allegedly credited lettuce with his improvement and built statues to honour lettuce. Regardless of the lettuce, there is every indication that at the time the heir to the seat at the top, the inheritor of the Ring of the Imperial Seal, the man who would have succeeded Augustus as emperor would have been Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. We could be talking of the Agrippan Golden Age of Roman history.

I couldn’t find a licensable image of an Augustan Seal Ring, so have the same approximate image on a coin. It is believed that Augustus’ seal was the Greek Sphinx, seen here on the right. If you google “Augustus Seal Ring” you can see versions of it. You can even buy replicas on Etsy for when you want to feel like the Emperor. (Credit: CNG CC-BY-SA 2.5)

This man who began his life as an un-noteworthy pleb, who seemed to aspire to being nothing more than the best soldier he could be, became second in line to the throne of a burgeoning Empire and, we’ve heard enough about him to know, let’s be honest, he would have excelled at it. He would have excelled at running an empire like he excelled at everything he did.

Yet he always seemed to curb his ambitions. He rarely pushed, only as far as, and when, necessary. He never made a fuss, except where he felt dues were being distributed unfairly. He never ‘rebelled’ in a modern sense. At worst he was maliciously compliant. There was a rumoured falling out between Augustus and Agrippa and Agrippa excused himself by becoming Governor of the Eastern Provinces. He is believed to have taken a bit of a jolly, working his administration from the Isle of Lesbos and sending his Legates to do the work. Technically a slight rebellion, but he still got the job done. He always got the job done!

Let’s stop beating around the bush. Why didn’t Agrippa just kill Augustus and take power for himself? Well, never underestimate the power of friendship, for one thing. Also, both Agrippa and Augustus were canny politicians. They both knew Agrippa could probably batter Augustus with one-hand behind his back. But going back nearly a century prior, around 130 BCE and the Gracchi, their proposed land reforms, through the Marian reforms, and the Sullan re-reforms (he basically undid a lot of what Marius had done), through the era of the big generals and warlords, Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus and the end of that tumultuous period when Marcus Antonius was defeated at Actium – It ended a century of Roman civil strife. Augustus and Agrippa ended a century of Romans killing Romans.

Together, as they always should be. History’s greatest Bromance of Agrippa and Augustus – Depicted here on the Historiches Rathaus (The historical town-hall), Cologne, Germany. (Credit: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons))

Everything they both did after that period seems to have had one aim in mind. Pax, Latin for peace. Including Agrippa’s marriage to Julia.

Marcus Agrippa knew Roman society was conservative. It would not be easy for the prestigious families, long-standing Patricians, poshos, in the senate to accept a lowly pleb as their leader. Agrippa could have probably killed Augustus; he probably could have taken sole rule. Would he have? I don’t think so, because I think he was well aware it would continue the civil conflicts that the Roman people had had enough of by that point.

Augustus had inherited the name of Gaius Julius Caesar, the name ‘Caesar’ earned the respect of the armies, the name ‘Julius’ and the illustrious family of the Julii, earned the respect of Patricians in the senate.

Could Agrippa have succeeded if he went on to take Augustus out of the picture? Possibly, but it would have been a victory at the expense of peace. Could Augustus have dominated in the way he did without a general as competent, as hard-working and as humble as Agrippa? Definitely not.

Theirs was a true partnership, and the Pax Romana, the Pax Augustus, the Augustan Golden Age of peace, owes as much, if not more, to Agrippa as it does Augustus. His inclusion on the frieze of the Ara Pacis, the altar dedicated to Pax, the Goddess of peace, is a testament to this.

The Res Gestae Divi Augusti – ‘The works of the Divine Augustus’ are a politically expedient lie. It is a work clearly intended to maintain peace in a post-Augustan world, but to lay all that achievement at the feet of one man is laughable. Behind every great public figure there are servants and secretaries, agents and assistants – Augustus did not, indeed could not, reign or achieve alone. I have talked of the other incredibly influential figure behind Augustus’ success, Livia Drusilla, a canny politician herself and Augustus’ third, and final, wife. Well, his general was just as important as she was. In fact, of that unofficial Third Triumvirate of Rome, it is my opinion Augustus is the least useful!  

We have seen this, the South Frieze of the Ara Pacis, in some of our prior articles about Rome. As I always mention, debate rages as to who is who, but it is widely believed this stout, strong figure in the centre is Marcus Agrippa. (Credit: Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder, CC-BY-NC SA 2.0)

Without Agrippa, Roman history would look very different.

Augustus would go on to all the accolades, indeed, Agrippa would set the precedent that no matter how lofty the achievements of a general, the celebrations, the triumphs and ovations, should go to the Princeps, the First Citizen, the emperor. Agrippa’s humility literally changed how victory was celebrated.

As a working-class appreciator of Ancient Rome it burns me to my core when so-called populist movements, generally associated with far-right politics, adopt the mantras, the styles, the supposed ideologies of the classical world to justify themselves, their nonsense and their antics. I wonder what Marcus Agrippa would have thought of them.

Agrippa kept his head down, did his work and was nearly the Princeps from a pauper.

He reminds me, approaching my tenth year in the consulate of unemployment, that there’s hope yet. That one day, if I keep working hard, I can build something and upon it have the simple inscription;

Karl Anthony Mercer, son of Mick, twice university dropout, made this.”

Want to read more of our content about Rome?

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love: Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #10: Easily Available Abortion.
(Content Warning: Contains discussion about abortion and infanticide)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #9: Drawing Dicks on Things
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #8: Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #7: Gender and Sexuality Liberation (Content Warning: Contains irreverant discussion of sex and gender issues.)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #6: Travel and Tourist Tat
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #5: AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #4: Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #3: Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #2: Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love #1: Social Media (especially Instagram and Twitter)

Bad History: Did Rome Ever Actually Fall?
Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism

The fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla

What are ‘The Ides of March’?

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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