The Romans had a very clear idea about what a good woman should be. First of all, she should aspire to unimpeachable Pudicitia, the fragile personification of purity – the slightest questioning of a woman’s virtue could destroy her – and she was expected to be fertile, loyal and supportive, both as a mother and a wife. But women were also believed to be especially susceptible to the ‘effeminate’ temptations of luxury and indulgence, failings that were seen as potentially undermining of the state.
When Octavian seized control of the Roman world in 31 BC and took the name Augustus just four years later, he knew he had to reinvent the whole image of the Roman state. He famously claimed to have restored the Republic, and in a sense he had, but he had also established a monarchy in all but name – where none was supposed to exist. However, he was constantly thwarted in his attempts to make the emperor’s position hereditary.
The Julio-Claudian dynasty (1), of which Augustus was the first of five emperors, lasted from 27 BC to AD 68, and the only reason it endured was because it was handed down through the female line.
Women were suddenly more important than they had ever been. Augustus belonged to the Julii family. His mother, Atia, was the niece of Julius Caesar, and when Caesar adopted him, he took the name Gaius Julius Caesar. When he was aged around 23, he married his third wife, Livia Drusilla, after her divorce from the politician Nero Claudius Drusus, with whom she had two children.
Augustus soon realised that women could play a crucial part in promoting his regime, and he was determined that they would live up to the traditional ideals of Roman womanhood, so that their virtues could be synonymous with his rule and the moral reforms he tried to enshrine in law. He played on the fact that his sister, Octavia, and his wife, Livia (2), could be presented as living embodiments of all the female virtues he wanted associated with the state.
Livia contrasted with ‘bad women’ of the times. For example, Fulvia, who had married Mark Antony in 47 BC, had interfered in politics, was involved in her husband’s ambitions, and had outraged Roman historians and the public. More scandalously, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, had been flaunted in Rome by her lover, Julius Caesar, before she became fatally involved with Antony while he was still married to Fulvia.
The two families had become entwined after Fulvia’s death in 40 BC when Antony had married Augustus’ sister Octavia, who was hugely admired for her virtue. The marriage was part of a political arrangement between the two men, who, with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, ruled as a Triumvirate following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. But when Antony abandoned Octavia for Cleopatra his reputation was severely damaged, while Octavia’s was enhanced.
Both Octavia’s and Livia’s likenesses were used as representations of suitable imperial virtues. Each endowed a porticus in Rome. A porticus was a public facility consisting of gardens, temples, libraries and other facilities that provided the ordinary public with a taste of cultivated living. The Porticus of Livia (7) is lost, but the entrance to the Porticus of Octavia (3) can still be seen in central Rome. And they inspired other women to do this. Eumachia was a wealthy widow of high status in Pompeii in the early 1st century AD. She commissioned her own version of the Porticus of Livia for Pompeii in order to support the political career of her son. Today, the building is very ruinous but it was once one of the largest in the whole city, with a vast porch, cryptoporticus, colonnade, shrine of Concord with a statue of Livia, and a statue of Eumachia herself.
Augustus’ greatest problem was establishing his dynasty. He had no son, and he and Livia never had children together. He did, however, have a daughter called Julia (39 BC–AD 14), known as ‘Julia the Elder’, by his first marriage. This left him with three potential lines of descent: Octavia’s children by her first husband, Gaius Marcellus, and next by Antony; Livia’s children by her first husband; and Julia’s children by Augustus’ general Agrippa (8).
The preferred male options were Octavia’s son Marcus Marcellus, and Julia’s sons Gaius and Lucius. But, by AD 4, all three were dead. That left only Livia’s son Tiberius, who became emperor in AD 14. His mother, who had been deemed so virtuous, proved to be a domineering dowager empress, constantly reminding Tiberius that he was only emperor because of her. Livia’s reputation was enormous (6), however, and Tiberius issued coins that used her portrait to symbolise virtues such as justice (Justititia). Having managed her son’s accession, she interfered in the law on behalf of her friends, and presided over the state as if it were simply the continuation of Augustus’ rule. Yet she died in AD 29, in her late 80s and in her own bed. Few other empresses ever came close to Livia in terms of power and prestige. Tiberius and the other three emperors of the dynasty – Caligula, Claudius and Nero – were all descended from her, whereas only two were descended from Augustus.
Augustus’ daughter, Julia, who bore him grandchildren, turned out to be the opposite of both Octavia and Livia. She was notorious for having affairs, bragging that she only did so when she was pregnant by Agrippa, so she could never be accused of having someone else’s child. Because of the embarrassment that Julia caused to his moral reforms, Augustus exiled her to the island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene) in the Tyrrhenian Sea, where she died, in AD 14, the same year as her father.
The most important dynastic figure in the Julio-Claudian dynasty was Augustus’ granddaughter Agrippina the Elder (5) (circa 14 BC–AD 33), daughter of Julia and Agrippa. The empress who never was, Agrippina was hugely popular with both the army and the mob. She was married to the brilliant general Germanicus, the grandson of Livia and Octavia, and they produced six children.
Agrippina was said by the Roman historian Tacitus to have been ‘impatient for equality’. This phrase was bordering on an insult but he admired her for the way she inspired the Roman army by going on campaign with Germanicus, and taking her children with her.
They were the golden couple of the imperial family, but the unexpected death of Germanicus in AD 19 and Tiberius’ subsequent paranoia and jealousy led to Agrippina being exiled and murdered. Nevertheless, when Tiberius died in AD 37, the only acceptable candidate to succeed him as emperor was his great-nephew, Caligula, the son of Agrippina and Germanicus. Since he was descended from Augustus via Julia and Agrippina, and both Octavia and Livia, his pedigree
Caligula knew only too well that having a mother of unimpeachable virtue could only enhance his reputation since it was a given in Roman society that a mother, or wife, of immaculate Pudicitia could hugely advantage a man. So he recovered his mother’s bones from Pandateria, where she had starved to death as a result of her exile, issued coins in her honour and had her remains reinterred in the Mausoleum of Augustus – but it did him little good. His madness, arbitrary rule and attempts to assert his authority over the Senate by declaring himself a god, almost guaranteed he would be assassinated – and, in AD 41, he was.
That left the Praetorian Guard, the imperial bodyguard with potentially no prestigious high-paid jobs. They needed an emperor, and they found one in the person of Germanicus’ brother Claudius, who was Caligula’s uncle. Claudius has been sidelined by history. Probably suffering from cerebral palsy, which had left him with a limp, and other awkward physical characteristics, he was widely regarded as an idiot. In fact, he was anything but. The Praetorian Guard’s real interest, though, was his pedigree. Not only was he of solid Julio-Claudian descent through Livia and Octavia, he was also married to Messalina (10 and 11), herself descended from Octavia through her marriage to Gaius Marcellus.
Yet Messalina was not equal to the privileges luck had brought her. Immature and reckless, she seems to have embarked on a demented plan to marry her lover Silius, topple Claudius and seize power. Like Julia, she turned out to be a chronic embarrassment to the regime. When the story broke about her bigamous marriage to Silius, she was caught and executed in AD 48.
So, Claudius, in an extraordinary twist, turned to his niece, Agrippina the Younger, Augustus’ great-granddaughter. Her parents were Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder (9): her pedigree was unmatched. She also had a son, Nero, by a previous marriage. He and his mother shared a phenomenal line of descent back through the female line to Octavia, Julia and Livia.
The fact that Agrippina was his niece and legally unacceptable as a spouse, did nothing to stop Claudius from marrying her. He simply had the law changed, and the Senate meekly acceded to his wishes. Agrippina now embarked on a brilliant campaign to secure absolute power for herself and for her son’s succession. She was highly intelligent, politically astute and totally ruthless, fully prepared to destroy someone so she could seize his possessions. She systematically weaved her way into affairs of state, taking advantage of the fact that as a woman she had no official place in the system. That meant she was not limited by it either.
Agrippina started to appear on coins alongside Claudius (4) in the manner of a joint ruler. This was unprecedented. But within three years of her marriage in AD 51 to Claudius, he was dead. Most Roman historians believed she poisoned him, a method she was accused of preferring. As for the succession, Agrippina (14) had her way, and her son Nero (12) succeeded Claudius in AD 54. A preening, narcissistic adolescent, to begin with he was happy to leave his mother in control. But Agrippina had painted herself into a corner. She could not hold power in her own right and she could only rule through Nero.
As he grew older, Nero began to resist her. Animosity reached a climax when he took up with Poppaea (13), a notorious and ambitious beauty. Agrippina was furious and even tried, in extremis, to suggest incest as a means of controlling Nero. He, though, had endured enough of his domineering mother and, in AD 59, ordered her to be killed. The whole exercise turned out to be a farce. Agrippina was supposed to drown on a collapsing boat, but she escaped and swam ashore. Nero had to send armed men to round her up and murder her. With her death, the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to an end. Nero’s reckless rule continued until AD 68. He married his mistress Poppaea in AD 63 but killed her and their unborn child in a fit of rage two years later.
As far as Roman historians, such as Tacitus and Suetonius, were concerned, Agrippina the Younger was the epitome of a ‘bad woman’, who had stepped outside her station in life to pursue ruthless self-interest. The incest stories, true or not, only made the story more believable. Her behaviour was ‘proof’ of Claudius’ and Nero’s failings.
Yet the women of the Julio-Claudian family tower over the dynasty’s history. They became a crucial part of the image of the state but they also discovered how difficult it could be for a woman to function in a system that denied women any formal role, beyond being mothers and wives. Domina literally means ‘mistress of the household’ but some of the senior women of the Julio-Claudians gave it a new meaning – they were the mistresses of the Roman Empire. n
• Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome by Guy de la Bédoyère is published in hardback by Yale University Press at £25.
All images © Guy de la Bédoyère unless otherwise credited.