Rome’s lead­ing women

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

The first, and long­est, im­pe­rial dy­nasty sur­vived thanks to the women be­hind the throne, says Guy de la Bé­doyère

They were sup­posed to be chaste, du­ti­ful and sub­mis­sive. But in­stead they grew into some of the most dom­i­nant – and feared – fig­ures in the em­pire. Guy de la Bé­doyère re­veals how a co­hort of pow­er­ful women sus­tained Rome’s great­est im­pe­rial dy­nasty in the first cen­tury AD

wife’s rep­u­ta­tion was en­hanced by her will­ing­ness to over­look her hus­band’s phi­lan­der­ing

“What busi­ness has a woman with a pub­lic meet­ing?” asked writer Va­lerius Max­imus in the early first cen­tury AD. He an­swered his own ques­tion: “None – if an­ces­tral cus­toms are ob­served.” Yet this was a time when Ro­man women were tak­ing more power than ever be­fore – by the back door.

Of all the Ro­man im­pe­rial dy­nas­ties, the Julio-Clau­dian was the first and the long­est, last­ing from 27 BC to AD 68. It was ruled over by five male em­per­ors, but a lit­tle known fact is that the blood­line was passed down the fe­male line. And that fe­male line con­tained some of the most dom­i­nant of all Ro­mans – women with­out whom the dy­nasty could scarcely have ex­isted.

The em­per­ors Au­gus­tus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero may have wielded ab­so­lute power but the in­tel­li­gence, am­bi­tion and ruth­less­ness of women such as Livia, Oc­tavia and Agrip­pina the Younger (Au­gus­tus’s em­press and sis­ter and Nero’s mother re­spec­tively) is ab­so­lutely in­te­gral to the story. And what makes their achieve­ments all the more re­mark­able is that th­ese women were op­er­at­ing in a so­ci­ety in which the cards were stacked firmly against them.

Male hypocrisy

It’s im­pos­si­ble to talk about Ro­man women with­out con­sid­er­ing the Ro­mans’ al­most re­li­gious ven­er­a­tion for tra­di­tional fe­male virtues. The most ven­er­ated of all th­ese virtues was pu­dici­tia, the qual­ity of sex­ual chastity and pu­rity, and the abil­ity to serve as the mater­fa­mil­ias.

An hon­ourable woman of unimpeachable virtue en­hanced her rep­u­ta­tion and that of her hus­band and chil­dren. Cae­sar said: “My wife ought not even to be un­der sus­pi­cion.”

But there was hypocrisy at play here. And that meant that male in­fi­delity was ac­cept­able and a wife’s rep­u­ta­tion was en­hanced by her will­ing­ness to over­look her hus­band’s phi­lan­der­ing. Ae­milia Ter­tia, wife of the gen­eral Sci­pio Africanus, was ad­mired for ig­nor­ing his dal­liance with a slave girl – so, in ef­fect, not ques­tion­ing his self-control.

Con­versely, a bad wife could de­stroy a man and his fam­ily by suc­cumb­ing to the vices of ef­fem­i­nacy and lux­ury and thereby desta­bil­is­ing the state. The his­to­rian Tac­i­tus said: “A good wife has the greater glory in pro­por­tion as a bad wife is the more to blame.”

A bad woman was any woman who stepped out­side her sta­tion in life, like the no­to­ri­ous Sem­pro­nia who was witty, ed­u­cated and charm­ing, as well as adept at us­ing her sex­u­al­ity. The his­to­rian Sal­lust was dis­gusted by the way she lied and pur­sued men. “There was noth­ing she held so cheap as her virtue and chastity,” he moralised.

Women were con­sid­ered by def­i­ni­tion un­trust­wor­thy be­cause of their sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to ‘ lux­ury’ and in­cli­na­tion to squan­der money on fri­vol­i­ties. There was a spe­cial deroga­tory word for a talk­a­tive woman, a lin­gu­laca. An ed­u­cated woman was tread­ing into danger­ous ter­ri­tory – she was in­trud­ing into a man’s world, es­pe­cially if she opened her mouth.

Il­licit af­fairs

Ro­man at­ti­tudes to women are per­haps best cap­tured by the poet Ju­ve­nal’s fa­mous line: “Who will guard the guardians?” This is usu­ally re­garded as a warn­ing to peo­ple in supreme power about their body­guards or se­cu­rity ser­vices. The orig­i­nal con­text of the quote was, how­ever, very dif­fer­ent.

Ju­ve­nal was con­cerned with the in­tractable ‘prob­lem’ of keep­ing women un­der control. His friends said a wife should be locked in­doors. He replied that a woman was likely to use those placed in charge of her to help her pur­sue il­licit af­fairs.

One woman who be­came a source of par­tic­u­lar hor­ror was Mark Antony’s third wife, Ful­via, who par­tic­i­pated in her hus­band’s po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary ca­reer and ef­fec­tively worked along­side him. By 41 BC, they were re­garded as op­er­at­ing as joint con­suls, an un­think­able ar­range­ment in a world where women were ex­cluded from po­lit­i­cal of­fice. She even ap­peared on coins.

The his­to­rian Velleius Pater­cu­lus blamed Ful­via for caus­ing tu­mul­tus (‘ dis­or­der’). Plutarch said that Ful­via had no in­ter­est in spin­ning or weav­ing and was so adept at con­trol­ling Antony she had soft­ened him up and made the Egyp­tian ruler Cleopa­tra’s job easy (Antony and Cleopa­tra fa­mously had an af­fair in the 40s and 30s BC).

Cleopa­tra VII be­came the em­bod­i­ment of the fe­male threat to the Ro­man mas­cu­line world. She tit­il­lated and hor­ri­fied Cicero who said: “I hate the queen.” Ho­race dis­missed her as “mad” and sur­rounded by “shriv­elled eu­nuchs”. At­tack­ing Cleopa­tra be­came a way of crit­i­cis­ing Antony long after his fall.

After he de­feated Antony and Cleopa­tra in 31 BC, Au­gus­tus – Rome’s first em­peror – wanted the women of his new or­der to be mod­els of Ro­man fe­male pro­pri­ety. Au­gus­tus’s sis­ter Oc­tavia (for­merly Antony’s fourth wife) and his wife, Livia, be­came fun­da­men­tal props of the regime’s im­age.

Oc­tavia and Livia were as­so­ci­ated with di­vine virtues, com­mis­sioned pub­lic works, and sym­bol­ised Au­gus­tus’s moral re­forms. Not all the other fe­male mem­bers of the dy­nasty were quite so oblig­ing.

Au­gus­tus’s big cri­sis was how to or­gan­ise a

suc­ces­sion in a sys­tem that wasn’t sup­posed to ex­ist. He claimed to have re­stored the Repub­lic, not to have es­tab­lished a hered­i­tary monar­chy, but it was a monar­chy in all but name.

Au­gus­tus floun­dered around for a way to iden­tify a suc­ces­sor. His first plan was that his sis­ter Oc­tavia’s son Mar­cel­lus would fol­low him, but he died in 23 BC. The Julio-Clau­dian male heirs some­times seemed to drop like flies.

Au­gus­tus only had one child, a way­ward daugh­ter called Ju­lia who did ev­ery­thing she could to shame her fa­ther with her self-in­dul­gence and her af­fairs. Ex­cept, that is, for hav­ing had two sons called Gaius and Lu­cius by Au­gus­tus’s gen­eral Agrippa. They be­came their grand­fa­ther’s great­est hopes.

Lu­cius and Gaius’s deaths in AD 2 and 4 re­spec­tively ended that plan and Au­gus­tus re­sorted to Tiberius, Livia’s son by her first hus­band. The Julio-Clau­dian suc­ces­sion in AD 14 em­barked down its first fe­male trans­mis­sion. Mean­while, Ju­lia died in ex­ile, sent there by Au­gus­tus, who could not cope with a daugh­ter with a mind of her own.

Agrip­pina of­fered her son Nero in­ces­tu­ous sex in a bid to re­sume control. But it was too late, and he had her mur­dered

In­cest abounds?

Death con­tin­ued to stalk the Julio-Clau­di­ans like a bi­b­li­cal plague. By AD 37, when Tiberius died, the only re­al­is­tic op­tion left was Caligula. De­scended from Au­gus­tus through his mother, Agrip­pina the El­der (Ju­lia’s daugh­ter), and from Oc­tavia and Livia, his birthright was solidly via the fe­male line.

Caligula spent much of his reign be­ing mad, but he re­ha­bil­i­tated Agrip­pina’s mem­ory. She had been bru­tally tor­mented and killed in AD 33 by Tiberius who be­lieved she and her fam­ily threat­ened his rule. Caligula also flaunted his re­la­tion­ship with his sis­ters, one of whom was the no­to­ri­ous Agrip­pina the Younger. Sto­ries of in­cest abounded but re­mained un­proven.

When Caligula was as­sas­si­nated in AD 41 the Prae­to­rian Guard placed his un­cle Claudius on the throne. Claudius wasn’t de­scended from Au­gus­tus. But cru­cially, he was de­scended from both Oc­tavia and Livia. That was what made him the only choice left for the loy­al­ist Guard. Claudius’s wife, Mes­salina, was de­scended from Oc­tavia too. But Mes­salina was a dis­as­ter. She cuck­olded her hus­band and al­legedly engaged in or­gies, a com­pe­ti­tion with a pros­ti­tute, and fi­nally an at­tempted coup. It was too much for Claudius, who had her ex­e­cuted in AD 48.

What came next was al­most un­be­liev­able. Claudius mar­ried his niece Agrip­pina the Younger, who brought with her a son, Nero, from an ear­lier mar­riage. Nero had a stel­lar pedi­gree. Through his mother and de­ceased fa­ther he was de­scended from Oc­tavia. Through his mother he was de­scended from Au­gus­tus via Agrip­pina the El­der and Ju­lia. He was also de­scended from Livia.

Agrip­pina the Younger knew her path to power lay through Nero. But that was the trap for a Ro­man em­press. She per­suaded Claudius to dis­place his own son, Bri­tan­ni­cus, and make Nero the heir. In AD 54 she ar­ranged Claudius’s death by poi­son­ing. By then she was al­ready pos­ing as a joint ruler, ap­pear­ing on coins along­side him. She had op­po­nents mur­dered and also or­dered the killing of any­one with a dy­nas­tic claim.

When the teenage Nero suc­ceeded Claudius, Agrip­pina car­ried on as be­fore, de­ter­mined to be an em­press in her own right. But she hadn’t taken ac­count of Nero’s mount­ing re­sent­ment at his dom­i­neer­ing mother. When Nero took up with the glam­orous Pop­paea, Agrip­pina smelled de­feat. She of­fered Nero in­ces­tu­ous sex in an at­tempt to re­sume control. It was too late and Nero or­dered her mur­der in AD 59.

Nero went on to marry Pop­paea but killed her and her un­born child in AD 65 in a fit of rage. Apart from some fringe descen­dants of the Julio-Clau­di­ans, the dy­nasty had been wiped out. But if it had not been for the women there would never have been a dy­nasty at all. It would not be un­til AD 180 – over a cen­tury later – when a son (Com­modus) born dur­ing his fa­ther’s (Mar­cus Aure­lius’s) reign would suc­ceed him.

Buck­ing trends

Ex­cluded from le­gal power, each of th­ese women worked in dif­fer­ent ways to pur­sue her in­ter­ests and those of her chil­dren. This ex­clu­sion did give women some ad­van­tages. For ex­am­ple, it was im­pos­si­ble to pros­e­cute a woman for try­ing to seize power. That meant women could work out­side the le­gal sys­tem in ways that a man could not.

Th­ese women un­der­stood one thing above all: no one was go­ing to give them power. It would have to be taken. Con­versely, a Ro­man woman of sta­tus de­pended largely on work­ing through her hus­band or her male chil­dren.

De­spite all the re­stric­tions of Ro­man so­ci­ety, they bucked the trends, as­sert­ing them­selves by us­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties open to them as women. They changed the his­tory of the Ro­man world for good or ill, even if many were made to pay a ter­ri­ble price.

Agrip­pina the El­der had been fa­mously “im­pa­tient for equal­ity”, said Tac­i­tus. But she had been thwarted at ev­ery stage. Even her ruth­less daugh­ter found in the end that the sys­tem was loaded against women.

To­day, much of the ev­i­dence we have is the skewed record of the Ro­man his­to­ri­ans. They pre­served in dis­parag­ing de­tail how the Ro­man world per­ceived women and their place in so­ci­ety. In their ac­counts th­ese women found their great­est chal­lenge. That says so much about the world they lived in, and our own where women are still pre­sented with prej­u­dice and ob­sta­cles their Ro­man for­bears would recog­nise only too well.

Nonethe­less, noth­ing can change one fun­da­men­tal fact. The fe­male line of de­scent was crit­i­cal to the ex­is­tence of the first, great­est and long­est last­ing dy­nasty in Ro­man his­tory.

Guy de la Bé­doyère is a his­to­rian and broad­caster, spe­cial­is­ing in an­cient Rome. His books in­clude The Real Lives of Ro­man Bri­tain (Yale, 2015)

A fourth to fifth- cen­tury AD Ro­man mo­saic shows a woman spin­ning. The house­hold was con­sid­ered a woman’s nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment; the po­lit­i­cal arena cer­tainly was not

A pro­file of Nero on a c55 AD coin. The em­peror’s mother, Agrip­pina the Younger, en­gi­neered his rise to power. In re­turn, he had her killed

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