Who Was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa? The Roman General Behind Emperor Augustus

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a loyal Roman general, an architect, and a deputy, was associated with the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. However, his role was more important in building the Roman foundation of the Roman empire than Augustus himself. 

Agrippa served as one of the most skilled military commanders of Roman warfare. He managed Roman city’s administration as the Urban prefect of Rome in 40 BC.

Likewise, he also individualized the term ‘right-hand-man as he strategically stood by Augustus’ side and helped change Rome as the second man. 

However, his role during the victory at the Battle of Actium gained him respect, honor, and fame all over Rome. His rise to power resulted from his abilities and made him stand out as different from many powerful Romans.

Why did Agrippa build the pantheon?

The pantheon served as a temple for the Roman gods. The first pantheon was built around 27 AD to celebrate Augustus’s victory and his father-in-law over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium.

Why was Agrippa Postumus killed?

Agrippa was poisoned by Livia, Augustus’s wife, causing him to die because he changed his will in favor of Postumus for the succession.

Early life and Career of Marcus Agrippa

A white bust of young Marcus Agrippa
A white bust of young Marcus Agrippa

Marcus Agrippa, born in 63 BC, belonged to plebeian origins in the countryside of Roman Italy. He was the son of Lucius Vipsanius, but his family background was not well known to the Romans.

He met Octavian, later known as Emperor Augustus, in Apollonia, Illyria. Octavian was sent to Apollonia along with a legion of Macedonia by his great-uncle Julius Caesar

Marcus and Octavian were of the same age and got along in a short period. Meanwhile, Caesar began gaining power over Rome but was assassinated in 44 BC. 

Agrippa advised Octavian to return to Rome after his great-uncle’s death. On the other hand, Octavian sailed to Italy, and on his return, he discovered he became Caesar’s legal heir.

Marcus Agrippa’s Rise to power

Agrippa assisted Octavian in gaining victory in the Roman Battles after the death of Caesar and gaining his power back. He led rebellions, found colonies, and funded buildings. 

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Agrippa’s administrative and military skills were used in the eastern empire. His writings, which are now lost, later influenced Strabo and Pliny the Elder. 

After the victory at Actium, Octavian became emperor and took the title of Augustus, and Agrippa stayed with him as his close friend and general.

Agrippa assisted Augustus in levying Campanian troops after they returned to Rome to receive support from the Roman legions. In 43 BC, Emperor Augustus, Lepidus, and Mark Antony formed the 2nd Triumvirate. 

Agrippa was responsible for handling the case of Caesar’s assassination against the guilty Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Likewise, he also began his career in politics as the Tribune of the Plebs. This initiation granted him an early entrance to the Senatorial board.

In 40 BC, Augustus fought the Philippi battle and another battle against Fulvia and Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, Salvedieunus as his principal general, and captured Perusia. He left for Gaul making Agrippa Rome’s urban praetor and asking him to protect Italy from Sextus Pompeius occupying Sicily. 

Agrippa attacked Sextus as he raided the southern part of Italy and made him withdraw. Later, they both got along in invading Italy, but the war ended when Agrippa successfully took back Sipontum. He also was a mediator of the peace between Antony and Augustus.

Augustus came to know about Salvidienus offer to betray him by getting along with Mark Antony. As a result, he prosecuted Salvidienus and Agrippa became the leading general to Octavian.

Agrippa’s elder brother fought the civil wars in 40 BC under Cato against Caesar in Africa despite Agrippa’s relations with the family of Julius Caesar. His brother was taken prisoner when they defeated Cato’s forces; however, he was later freed after Augustus negotiated on his behalf.

Marcus Agrippa as the Transalpine Gaul’s governor

A map of Ancient Gaul
A map of Ancient Gaul

Marcus Agrippa was appointed Transalpine Gaul’s governor by Augustus in 39 BC, where he battled against the Germanic tribes. However, Octavian, in need of a supervisor, brought Agrippa back and asked him to look after the preparations for the upcoming wars.

To which Agrippa denied the offer and stayed back. His first concern was to provide a safe harbor for Octavian ships as Sextus had power over the sea.

He managed this as he cut through the land separating the Lacus Lucrinus while creating an outer harbor. He also made another inner harbor that joined two lakes, Lucrinus and Avernus, and named the harbors Portus Julis by honoring Octavian.

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Similarly, Marcus also contributed to technological improvements such as improved grappling hooks and enormous ships.

Agrippa’s War with Pompey

A portrait of the Battle of Naulochus involving Agrippa and Pompey
A portrait of the Battle of Naulochus involving Agrippa and Pompey

Octavian and Marcus began a voyage against Pompey in 36 BC. But, it did not go as planned due to massive storms damaging the fleet. As a result, Agrippa was made to stay back and attempt for the second time.

The second attempt went as planned, and Agrippa and his fleet gained victories against Naulochus and Mylae.

Their improved technologies and training helped them destroy all ships except the 7th. They, however, managed to make the men on the 7th ships of Sextus surrender.

With his increased power, Octavian compelled Triumvir Lepidus to retire and came into Rome’s power. At the same time, Agrippa was honored with a naval crown decorated with beaks of ships which, according to Dio, was the kind of decoration nobody had received before it or ever since.

Marcus Agrippa’s Public Service

Agrippa was involved in numerous tiny campaigns before returning to Rome by the end of 34 BC. Then, he was fast to repairing one of the Roman invented aqueducts (Aqua Marcia), along with the extension of pipes that would help cover more portions of the Roman city

Similarly, in 33 BC, as Rome’s first commissioner of water, he looked after the repairing of the streets, constructing baths, planning gardens, and cleaning the sewers.

Marcus Agrippa’s Role Alongside Augustus

A white bust of Roman Emperor Augustus
A white bust of Roman Emperor Augustus

Agrippa played a crucial role in fighting against Lucius Antonius and Fulvia in the Second Triumvirate’s war. During the Battle of Philippi, he acted as the ex-general and the main advisor to Caesar.

He was consul in 37 BC to supervise the preparations for war against Sextus Pompey, where he fought the Germanic tribes and put down the rising of Aquitanians. And got appointed as Transalpine Gaul’s governor in 39 BC.

Similarly, in 36 BC, Agrippa gained victory over Pompey in two significant battles: Naulachus and Mylae. And also showed his bravery at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC by being the commander of the Octavian fleet.

He continued assisting as one of the closest friends of Octavia, even after Octavian was titled Augustus and was the emperor. He helped Octavian renovate aqueducts, gardens, and baths and make Rome the famous city of marbles.

He, too, was backed up with similar powers as Augustus. For instance, he had the veto power to oversee the Senate’s actions and the right to present rules – laws for the public’s approval.

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Furthermore, he was a writer specializing in geography and handled the survey of the Empire that was made under the design of Julius Caesar.

Battle of Actium

A portrait of the Battle of Actium

Agrippa was called to the fleet’s command when the war with Antony and Cleopatra began. He captured Methone, sailed north, and raided the Greek coast, seizing Corcyra. Octavian occupied a naval base with his forces.

Octavian learned that Antony and Cleopatra were planning on escaping through the naval blockade by breaking a passthrough during the time of a battle.

In knowing so, Octavian thought of letting them pass by and acquire the surrendered ships, which Agrippa did not accept. He thought that this act of Octavian was proving his cowardice.

The battle of Actium took place on September 2, 31 BC, and Octavian’s victory gave him control over the Roman Empire. In 28 BC, Agrippa married Claudia Marcella (Augustus’s niece) and got hold of the 3rd consulship with Octavian in 27 BC.

Later life

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the son-in-law of Augustus, was very envious of the friendship between Agrippa and Augustus, leading to Agrippa being exiled to govern the east.

However, Agrippa stayed at Lesbos and sent his representatives to Syria. Meanwhile, he began negotiating with Parthians regarding the return of the standards of the Roman legion under their power.

Agrippa’s powers increased, almost matching Augustus’s in 18 BC, as he was granted Tribunicia Potestas- the power of the Plebeians’ tribune, which gave him authority to authorize the Senate’s actions as well as the ability to get people’s approval for the laws.

Marriage

A white bust of Julia the Elder
A white bust of Julia, the Elder

Agrippa was married three times and was father to 7 children from them.

Agrippa had 2 daughters from his first wife, 2 daughters from his second, and 5 children from his third.

Julia the Elder, Agrippa’s 3rd wife, was the daughter of the first Emperor of Rome.

Death and Legacy

Marcus Agrippa was the patron at The Maison Carrée at Nîmes
Marcus Agrippa was the patron at The Maison Carrée at Nîmes

Agrippa died in 2 BC at Campania when he was 50 years old. He was honored by a spectacular funeral by Augustus, and his mourning lasted for almost a month, and Augustus personally looked over his children’s education.

Conclusion

Marcus Agrippa waged wars, calmed provinces, beautified Rome, and played an essential role in laying the foundations of the Pax Romana.

He was mostly known for the victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC as the deputy of Emperor Augustus.

With Augustus, he became the co-ruler of the Roman Empire and married his daughter Julia. After Agrippa’s death, Augustus adopted his sons as potential heirs to the throne. His bloodline lived through Agrippina despite his death.

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