Lust, lies and lynch­pins

Six women who changed the course of Ro­man his­tory

BBC History Magazine - - Women Of Ancient Rome -

1 The prim power bro­ker

Livia (58 BC-AD 29) some­how pulled off the trick of be­ing enor­mously pow­er­ful while pos­ing as the model of Ro­man fe­male pro­pri­ety. Au­gus­tus’s em­press once chanced upon some in­no­cent naked men, who were in­stantly con­demned to death as a re­sult. Ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Cas­sius Dio, she saved them by primly an­nounc­ing that “to a chaste woman of re­straint naked men are of no more sig­nif­i­cance than stat­ues”. Tac­i­tus be­lieved Livia was de­ter­mined to see her son Tiberius suc­ceed Au­gus­tus, what­ever the price, and blamed her for mur­der­ing any ri­vals. 2 The dy­nas­tic tool Poor tragic Oc­tavia (69–11 BC). Used by her brother Au­gus­tus as a dy­nas­tic tool, she was ex­pected to pro­duce heirs and live up to the ex­act­ing moral­is­ing stan­dards of the regime. Oc­tavia be­haved as the re­spect­ful and com­pli­ant Step­ford Wife she was sup­posed to be as well as prov­ing a dy­nas­tic lynch­pin. Cuck­olded by her last hus­band, Antony, in favour of Cleopa­tra, she spent much of her life griev­ing for her dead son Mar­cel­lus.

3 The no­to­ri­ous wit

Ju­lia the El­der (39 BC– AD 14), Au­gus­tus’s only child and dy­nas­tic hope, was a night­mare daugh­ter. De­spite her suc­cess­ful child­bear­ing, she shamed her fa­ther with her par­ty­ing and in­fi­deli­ties. She was also a no­to­ri­ous wit, fa­mously an­nounc­ing that she only had af­fairs “when the ship is full”, ie when she was preg­nant. When her fa­ther told her off for dress­ing too show­ily, she tartly replied that she’d be old one day so she was go­ing to en­joy her­self now.

4 The pride of Rome

The em­press who never was, Agrip­pina

the El­der (c14 BC– AD 33), Au­gus­tus’s grand­daugh­ter, was widely ad­mired. Her fer­til­ity (the no­to­ri­ous em­peror Caligula was among her off­spring), pop­u­lar­ity with the army and brav­ery in the face of Tiberius’s bru­tal­ity to­wards her and her chil­dren made her a hero­ine. Tac­i­tus called her “pre- em­i­nently no­ble” and “the glory of her father­land” but he also said she was “im­pa­tient for equal­ity, greedy for mastery” and had thrown off “fe­male flaws in pref­er­ence to men’s con­cerns”.

5 The reck­less bigamist

Thanks to Tac­i­tus, the “fe­ro­cious and volatile” Mes­salina (cAD 17– 48), Claudius’s wife, has gone down in his­tory for her du­plic­i­tous and reck­less in­fi­delity. After sell­ing hon­ours and Claudius’s fam­ily heir­looms, Mes­salina em­barked on a big­a­mous mar­riage with her lover Sil­ius and planned to top­ple Claudius. When Claudius’s freed­men spilled the beans, Mes­salina was fin­ished. She was ex­e­cuted in the Gar­dens of Lu­cul­lus, a place she had greed­ily stolen from its owner.

6 The ruth­less op­por­tunist

The “cal­lous and men­ac­ing” Agrip­pina the Younger (AD 16– 59), Au­gus­tus’s great-grand­daugh­ter, was a hand-picked em­press. Hand-picked by her­self, as it turned out. A bril­liant and ruth­less op­por­tunist, she used her lin­eage and her son Nero to make her­self the most pow­er­ful woman in Ro­man his­tory. Ro­man his­to­ri­ans de­picted her as greedy, per­verted and de­gen­er­ate, blam­ing her hus­band Claudius and son Nero for their neg­li­gence. Me­dieval chron­i­clers were im­pressed. Their de­pic­tions of Mar­garet of An­jou and El­iz­a­beth Woodville owe more than a pass­ing nod to Agrip­pina.

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