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 was responsible for his crucial military victories. The most remarkable achievement was against the army of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium that took place in 31 BC.

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

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

He built some of the most famous buildings in history, such as the Pantheon. Agrippa built a harbor at Puteoli in the Bay of Naples. This led him to two naval victories- one at Mylae and the other at Naulochus. 

These victories ended the threat from Pompeius, and for this, he was awarded a golden crown.

His late-life was widely devoted to building up and repairing Rome. He watched over ordinary but crucial matters such as cleaning and repairing sewers and building new water canals. 

He also wrote in detail about geography and wrote an autobiography which unfortunately is lost now.

Agrippa was a brilliant man and an extraordinary general. Although he had no intentions of being the first among Romans, he decided to stand by his childhood friend, Octavian. 

He served alongside Augustus from 45- 12 BC. His rise to power came from his abilities and made him stand out as different from many powerful Romans.

However, during the victory at the Battle of Actium, his role gained him respect, honor, and fame all over Rome.

What did Marcus Agrippa do?

Agrippa was crucially responsible for the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which resulted in victory over Mark Antony. He suppressed rebellions, founded colonies, and administered different parts of the Roman Empire.

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

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

Agrippa was born to Lucius Vipsanius in 63 BC in Roman Italy. His family was originally from the Italian countryside belonging to plebeian origins, and were not prominent in Roman public life. 

Some scholars as Victor Gardthausen and David Ridgway claim that Agrippa was initially from Pisa, Etruria.

Agrippa met the future emperor Augustus, then known as Octavius, in Apollonia, Illyria. Augustus’s great-uncle, Julius Caesar, sent Augustus to study in Apollonia with the Macedonian legions. 

They were educated together and were of the same age as they became close friends. Meanwhile, Caesar built on his power in Rome, however, he was assassinated in 44 BC. 

After the assassination of Octavius’s great-uncle Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Agrippa advised Octavius to return to Rome, but Octavius sailed to Italy with a small aid. When he returned, Octavius learned that Caesar adopted him as his legal heir. 

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Octavius took on Caesar’s name, however, modern historians prefer to address him as “Octavian” during this period.

Agrippa’s Rise to power

After the assassination of Caesar, Agrippa helped Octavian get power by gaining victory at one of the Roman Battles, the Battle of Actium. He quelled rebellions, found colonies, and funded buildings. 

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 beside him as his close friend and general.

Agrippa assisted Augustus in levying troops in Campania after their return to Rome as they needed the support of legions. Augustus, then, made a pact with Mark Antony and Lepidus in 43 BC as the Second Triumvirate. 

Agrippa was trusted with the case against Gaius Cassius Longinus as Augustus arranged for Caesar’s assassin to be prosecuted in his absence. 

The same year, Agrippa initiated his political career by holding the position of Tribune of the Plebs, granting him entry to the Senate.

Salvedieunus was Augustus’s principal general when Agrippa fought alongside him in the battle of Philippi and the war against Lucius Antonius and Fulvia in 40 BC when they captured Perusia. 

After the war, Augustus departed for Gaul, leaving Agrippa as urban praetor in Rome to defend Italy against Sextus Pompeius occupying Sicily. 

On July 40, Sextus started a raid in southern Italy while Agrippa attacked him, forcing him to withdraw. However, both Sextus and Antony invaded Italy, although the conflict ended when Agrippa successfully took Sipontum back from Antony. 

Agrippa also was a mediator of the peace between Antony and Augustus.

Augustus came to know during the discussion that Salvidienus had offered to betray him to Antony. Salvidienus was prosecuted after that and was either executed or committed suicide. After that, 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.

Governor of Transalpine Gaul

A map of Ancient Gaul
A map of Ancient Gaul

Octavian appointed Agrippa as governor of Transalpine Gaul in 39 BC. He fought the Germanic tribes, becoming the next Roman general to cross the Rhine after Julius Caesar. Octavian brought him back to assume the consulship in 37 BC. 

He needed his friend to supervise the preparations for the upcoming war; however, he denied the offer of victory for his activities in Gaul.

Agrippa’s first concern was to provide a safe harbor for Octavian ships as Sextus, on the coasts of Italy, had command of the sea. He managed this as he cut through the land separating the Lacus Lacrinus from the sea, creating an outer harbor. He then made an inner harbor by joining the lake Avernus to Lucrinus. 

The new harbor complex was named Portus Julius. He also contributed to technological improvements such as larger ships and an improved grappling hook. He married Caecilia Pomponia Attica, the daughter of Cicero’s friend Titus Pomponius Atticus this time around.

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 Agrippa set sail against Sextus in 36 BC. As the storms had severely damaged the fleet, they had to return. Agrippa was left in charge of the second attempt. 

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Agrippa and his men won victories against Mylae and Naulochus with improved technologies and training and destroyed all but seventeen ships of Sextus, compelling them to surrender.

With his increased power, Octavian forced Triumvir Lepidus into retirement, entering Rome in triumph. 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.

Public Service

 Lawrence Alma-Tadema's audience at Marcus Agrippa's
Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s audience at Marcus Agrippa’s

Agrippa has involved in smaller military campaigns in 35 and 34 BC but returned to Rome by the end of 34 BC. Then, he was fast to arrange drives of repairs of one of the Roman inventions, Aqua Marcia, and extension of pipes to cover more of the city. 

In 33 BC, he became the first water commissioner, and he got the streets repaired, and sewers cleaned out.

He also restored aqueducts, enlarged and cleansed the Cloaca Maxima, constructed baths and entrances, and laid out gardens. He encouraged public exhibition of arts, and Augustus boasted how he had found the city of bricks and left it of marble.

Role Alongside Augustus

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

In the Second Triumvirate’s war, he played a crucial role in fighting against Lucius Antonius and Fulvia as Caesar’s former general and right-handed man in the Battle of Philippi. 

He was consul in 37 BC to supervise the preparations for war against Sextus Pompey. During which, he fought the Germanic tribes and put down the rising of Aquitanians in 38 BC.

Agrippa was then appointed as the governor of Transalpine Gaul in 39 BC.

In 36 BC, in Mylae and Naulochus, Agrippa defeated Pompey and served as Curule aedile in 33 BC. In 31 BC, he commanded the victorious Octavian fleet at the Battle of Actium.

Octavian then became emperor and took the title of Augustus, and Agrippa stayed as his duty and a close friend.

He assisted Augustus in making Rome “a city of marbles” by renovating aqueducts for the general people having access to high-quality public services like baths, entrances, and gardens.

He was awarded powers almost at the same level as Augustus and had veto power over the acts of the Senate and the ability to present laws for approval by the people. He was also a writer specializing in geography. 

He supervised a complete survey of the empire made with Julius Caesar’s design. He constructed a circular chart with materials at hand and was engraved on marble by Augustus.

Later, he placed it on the porch built by his sister Vipsania Polla. He was married to Julia, the Elder, later married to the second Emperor Tiberius, Caligula’s maternal grandfather, and Emperor Nero’s maternal great-grandfather.

Battle of Actium

A portrait of the Battle of Actium

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

Octavian came to know that Antony and Cleopatra planned on breaking past his naval blockade when the battle approached and escaped.

At first, he thought to allow them to go by so their ships would surrender, seeing their leader’s cowardice; however, Agrippa objected, saying how their enemies’ ships would outrun theirs.

The battle of Actium took place on September 2, 31 BC, and Octavian’s victory gave him control over the Roman empire.

Then, in 28 BC, he gave his niece, Claudia Marcella Major’s hand over to Agrippa’s, and Agrippa held the third consulship with him in 27 BC. Octavian received the title of Augustus in the same year.

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As a tribute to the Battle of Actium, Agrippa rebuilt the building that served as the Roman Pantheon before its destruction. The inscriptions in the building preserve the text of the inscription from his building during his third consulship.

Then, Agrippa reformed the provincial administration and taxation system and built an adequate road system and aqueducts.

Later life

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew, and son-in-law were clouded by envy with Agrippa and Augustus’s friendship. This resulted in an honorable exile of Agrippa to govern the eastern province. 

However, he stayed at Lesbos and sent his representatives to Syria. Meanwhile, he was on a secret mission to negotiate with the Parthians regarding returning Roman legions standards that they held.

Agrippa was called back to Rome after the death of Marcellus as his services were indispensable. The exile was a careful political positioning of his loyal deputy as a backup plan for if the settlement plans of 23 BC failed and Augustus needed military support. 

His powers increased after that as he provided the Principate of Augustus with more excellent constitutional stability by providing an heir in case Augustus got ill or was assassinated.

His powers further increased, almost matching Augustus’s in 18 BC as his proconsular imperium was augmented to cover the provinces of the Senate and was granted Tribunicia Potestas– the power of a tribune of the plebeians. 

It gave him veto power over the acts of the Senate and the ability to present laws for approval by the people.

Agrippa was appointed governor of the east for the second time in 17 BC. His wise administration won him the respect and goodwill of the provincials, especially the Jewish population. 

He also restored Roman control over the Cimmerian Chersonnes, or the Crimean Peninsula, during his governorship.

Marriage

A white bust of Julia the Elder
A white bust of Julia the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Common

Agrippa was married three times and had several children from them. He had two daughters from his first marriage to Caecilia Attica: Vipsania Agripina Major, married to Quintus Haterius, and Vipsania Agrippina Minor, married to the future emperor Tiberius. 

He had two daughters from his second wife, Claudia Marcella Major: Vipsania Marcella- one of whom was married to Publius Quinctilus Varus and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. He had five children from his third wife, one of the most powerful Roman women, Julia the elder: Gaius Caesar, Julia the Younger, Lucius Caesar, Agrippina the Elder, and Agrippa Postumus.

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
Source: Wikimedia Common

Agrippa died at the age of 50 years in 12 BC at Campania. His son, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa Postumus, was named in his honor. He was honored by a spectacular funeral by Augustus, and his mourning lasted for over a month; and Augustus personally looked over his children’s education. Although Agrippa has built a tomb for himself, August and Agrippa were placed in Augustus’ tomb.

Conclusion

Marcus Agrippa personified the term ‘right-hand-man- and as the deputy of Emperor Augustus, he 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. He methodically maintained a secondary role concerning Augustus but felt inferior to nobody else.

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, the elder to his grandson Caligula and great-grandson Nero, despite his death.

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