Fandom: Hand of Isis - Jo Graham, Historical RPF, Ancient History RPF, Classical Greece and Rome History & Literature RPF, Roman History RPF
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa/Charmian (Hand of Isis), Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa/Julia the Elder, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa & Gaius Octavian
Characters: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Charmian (Hand of Isis), Julia the elder, Gaius Octavian, Octavia of the Julii, Livia Drusilla, Marcellus, Demetria (Hand of Isis)
Additional Tags: Aftermath, Survivor Guilt, Redemption
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa will always choose Rome. But he returns to Alexandria to confront the past. And he doesn't come alone.
This was the treat I wrote, inspired both by affection for the Numinous World novels by Jo Graham and by a decades long fascination with that particular century in Ancient history. I hope it works both if you've read Hand of Isis and if you haven't, but are interested in history.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa doesn't often get a starring role, in part, I think, because his life doesn't fit with the most popular tropes it could/should have fallen into and in fact downright defies them. He was the most talented military strategist of his generation, and yet neither tried to use that in order to make himself ruler of the Roman Empire, nor did he crash and burn trying. Nor was he someone who could only function in war: his "civilian" projects - aequaducts (including some that are still used, like the one getting water to the Trevi fountain in Rome), roads, temples, the change of the Campus Martius from a swampy health risk to to a park and buildings highlight of the cityscape, etc. - are impressive, and if Augustus by the end of his life could boast that he found Rome a city made of bricks and left it a city made of marble, it was Agrippa who had done much of the actual work. All this being said, Agrippa, while being as close to the Roman ideal as you could get in real life, can't have been without ambition: his three marriages were all proof of that (first he married money, then he married into the Julian family, and then he basically married the succession), and while he seems to have been content to be Octavian's/Augustus' right hand man, he definitely drew the line at the prospect of Augustus' nephew Marcellus being in command, leading to an estrangement betwen himself and Augustus that . Also, as I have him observe in less anachronistic terms than these, no one remains the second most powerful man of the world for such a long time in the most cut throat of surroundings if he doesn't know how to deal with power.
So Agrippa remains an enigma worth exploring to me. In Augustus-friendly fictions, he's usually the devoted sidekick without second thoughts; in Cleopatra-friendly fictions (by far the majority these days), he's either a brute ("Lily of the Nile"), the wrong age (the famous Elizabeth Taylor starring Cleopatra has him show up as a grizzled veteran with probably only two lines), or not present as a character at all. In the recent tv show Rome (definitely a Roman pov tale) he's basically Sam Gamgee who has wandered into entirely the wrong narrative for him. (Seriously, the actor looks a bit like Sean Astin as Sam.) And has an ill-fated brief romance with Octavia, which should make things awkward a few years later when he marries her daughter, but then said daughter doesn't exist in Rome.
Hand of Isis, which is narrated by Charmian, Cleopatra's handmaiden and in the world of the novel also her half sister, is an exception in that it's definitely on the Cleopatra side of things, but Agrippa, who has a supporting role in the narrative, is still presented as a tragic and sympathetic character. The one big change/addition the novel makes to history as far as Agrippa is concerned is to let a very young Agrippa be present among Caesar's staff in Egypt and to give him an affair with Charmian. (Spoiler: it doesn't end well.) However, he's actually not that often present in the novel (leaving dreams aside), and most important in the effect his siding with Octavian has. Because we're in Charmian's pov, Agrippa choosing to follow Octavian (whom Charmian despises, and who thus isn't given any positive qualities) is just barely comprehensible by Agrippa's Roman-ness.
This, then, provided an immediate fertile ground for me to grow my own story from. Agrippa from his own pov, which would explain why he does what he does, and would without refuting anything that happens in Hands of Isis also present a different take on both Rome and Octavian than Charmian has. Another important reason for me to choose this story to write, though, was that I've always been curious about Agrippa's later, post-Actium life, and about his third marriage, to Julia (Octavian's/Augustus' only daughter), whom I freely confess I have a huge soft spot for. Suetonius basically sees Julia as the occasion for massive slutshaming and no more than that, but I've always liked the take on her we find in Metrobius' "Saturnalia":
"She was in her thirty-eighth year, a time of life when if she had behaved reasonably she would have been almost elderly; but she abused the indulgence of fortune no less than that of her father. Of course her love of literature and considerable culture, a thing easy to come by in that household, and also her kindness and gentleness and utter freedom from vindictiveness had won her immense popularity, and people who knew about her faults were amazed that she combined them with qualities so much their opposite.
Her father had more than once, speaking in a manner indulgent but serious, advised her to moderate her luxurious mode of life and her choice of conspicuous associates. But when he considered the number of his grandchildren and their likeness to Agrippa, he was ashamed to entertain doubts about his daughter’s chastity. So Augustus persuaded himself that his daughter was light-hearted almost to the point of indiscretion, but above reproach, and was encouraged to believe that his ancestress Claudia had also been such a person. He used to tell his friends that he had two somewhat wayward daughters whom he had to put up with, the Roman republic and Julia.
One day she came into his presence in a somewhat risque costume, and though he said nothing, he was offended. The next day she changed her style and embraced her father, who was delighted by the respectability which she was affecting. Augustus, who the day before had concealed his distress, was now unable to conceal his pleasure. “How much more suitable”, he remarked, “for a daughter of Augustus is this costume!” Julia did not fail to stand up for herself. “Today”, she said, “I dressed to be looked at by my father, yesterday to be looked at by my husband.”
Here is another well-known story. At a gladiatorial show Livia and Julia drew the attention of the people by the dissimilarity of their companions; Livia was surrounded by respectable men, Julia by men who were not only youthful but extravagant. Her father wrote that she ought to notice the difference between the two princesses, but Julia wittily wrote back, “These men will be old when I am old.“
End of Metrobius quote. Julia and Agrippa had five children together, the last one born after his death, and their birth places were spread across the Roman Empire because she was travelling with him, which doesn't necessarily guarantee they had a good marriage, but makes it at least possible. Moreover, given what Julia's father and her third husband, Tiberius, ended up doing to her eventually, it was probably the happiest time in her life, and I enjoyed writing her in that phase, where she also made an excellent narrative foil for an older Agrippa trying to come to terms with his past.
I've always been a fan of stories about survivors of tragedies (with and without guilt to carry), who have to get on with their lives and have to decide what they do next, not by forgetting or ignoring the past, but by trying to reconcile it with the present. Agrippa, in my story, attempts to do this. Read on whether he succeeds...