The truth about Agrippina, her death, and her remains are as difficult to find as the location itself. Signs for her tomb appear and then vanish throughout the twisting Campi Flegrei roads, but plug Piazza Guglielmo Marconi into a GPS and you’ll see the Via Agrippina sign that leads down to a port. Park your car and make your way along crumbling buildings and a walkway by the sea. Another sign marks the tomb, whose bricks today are overgrown with weeds. A fence bars visitors as though making clear that the owners haven’t paid their rent in years.
It’s unknown if the people who called these stones the Tomb of Agrippina meant Agrippina the Elder or Agrippina the Younger — the story of each woman full of intrigue.
Agrippina the Elder was the granddaughter of Augustus, mother of Caligula, and grandmother of Nero. She had nine children and also accompanied her husband, Germanicus, on military campaigns, earning high respect from the Roman citizens who saw her as a heroic woman, wife, and mother. But after the death of her husband, Emperor Tiberius banished her to an island off the coast of the Campania region. When she died, so the story goes, Caligula brought her ashes back to Rome.
Agrippina the Younger was the daughter of Agrippina the Elder and also the mother of Emperor Nero. She was renowned, above all, for her sexual escapades and ruthless will to power. While her brother Caligula was still Emperor, it is said that he would hold lavish banquets and commit incest with his sisters, including Agrippina herself. Then, Agrippina, her sister Livilla and their maternal cousin Lepidus – who were all lovers – tried to kill Caligula. For that, Agrippina was exiled.
When Caligula was murdered in 41 A.D., the new Emperor Claudius brought Agrippina the Younger back to Rome. She quickly married a second husband, Crispus. (Her first husband, Domitius, was the father of Nero. She married Domitius at the age of thirteen by the order of Tiberius.) When Crispus died, rumors held that she’d poisoned her own husband to gain his estate. And indeed, she became very wealthy. Thereafter, she became mistress to one of Emperor Claudius’ advisers and through him arranged to get herself married to the Emperor himself. Her motive: to put her son Nero on the throne.
A crafty woman, Agrippina succeeded. Once married to Emperor Claudius, she schemed and ordered murders to get rid of many political rivals. Then, after Claudius adopted Nero as his son, the Emperor died and rumors abounded that Agrippina poisoned him too.
Nero took the throne and Agrippina tried to control her son and the empire, but Nero had other plans and expelled his mother to Misenum. Thereafter, he tried to kill his mother several times – but failed. Nero tried to drown Agrippina in a collapsible boat; he failed to poison her three times; he failed to crush her by a mechanical ceiling over her bed; but then he finally succeeded when he sent assassins to stab her. The Roman historian Tacitus famously wrote that just before the assassins succeeded in killing her, Agrippina shouted, “Smite my womb!”
After reading a bit about these women, the ruins of the Tomb of Agrippina resonate with ancient events. The bricks leave you waiting for Agrippina’s ghost – the one Nero claimed plagued him after his mother died. Perhaps she walks through the hallway inside and travelers can be thankful that the fence limits her range. Archeologists, however, once again ruin the myth and lore, saying that these stones were simply part of a Roman odeon (theater).
Getting There: When you reach Piazza Gulielmo Marconi in Bacoli, turn down onto Via Agrippina. Drive all the way to the port. The tomb is off to the left along the pedestrian walkway.