Descent through the female line was the crucial factor that enabled the existence and survival of both the Julio-Claudian and Severan dynasties. Augustus engaged in a complicated series of experiments in establishing the identity of his own power and finding ways for his regime to continue after his death. Augustus from the outset made blood the key qualification for succession but the failure of the male line in his own time, which frustrated him so much, continued through the period and recurred under the Severans. This increased the importance of female members of the dynasties and with dramatic consequences. They were so important that it is possible to rewrite the history of the period in terms of their reigns and lives rather than the traditional approach. However, understanding what happened is dependent on the Roman written sources which are hugely complicated by ambiguities, gaps, bias and agendas. Above all, ancient historians were often critical of women in power and used them as ‘proof’ of the degeneracy and inadequacies of emperors. Modern historians therefore find themselves challenged by the evidence available. To this we can add buildings, sculpture and coins to try and provide a balance.
In the year AD 65 in Rome a domestic tragedy took place. It was one of the most decisive events ensuring the final and chaotic collapse of a dynasty that had ruled the Roman world for almost a century. Most of the crises that had afflicted the Julio-Claudian imperial family were self-inflicted and this one was no different. It was also the final moment in the life of the last significant female member of the dynasty’s court circle, Poppaea Sabina, empress of Rome and wife of the aimless aesthete and histrionic matricide emperor Nero. She fell to the ground, fatally wounded by her husband’s kicks. She took with her their unborn child. It was the price she paid for admonishing him about the time he spent at the circus. It was the price Nero paid for his reckless and indulgent personality and a disaster for the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which would die with him three years later.
The Julio-Claudian emperors (27 BC–AD 68) and their exalted family members exerted enormous influence across the Roman world, establishing a template for imperial dynastic identity and that dynasty’s control of power. They presided over a vast empire, operating a system of government that withstood the consequences of the family’s cast of extraordinary characters and the tensions generated by their idiosyncratic response to the unique and unprecedented position in which they found themselves. The women involved were no less significant than the men whose stories have dominated the traditional perspective of the period. These women also used varying degrees of agility and success to experiment with how they could assert their power.
The Julio-Claudian emperors are so named because of their descent either from the Julii through Augustus’ daughter Julia or his sister Octavia, or from the Claudii through Livia by her first husband. Tiberius (14–37) was descended from Livia, Caligula (37–41) from all three, Claudius (41–54) from Livia and Octavia, and Nero (54–68) once more from all three. There remains no doubt that their era was one of the most remarkable in world history. The evidence that has survived continues to bear witness to that fact. The century in which they ruled is already well documented in a variety of general histories and individual biographies. It was the Roman historian Suetonius, an equestrian who served on Hadrian’s staff, who vividly defined the Julio-Claudian era in terms of the consecutive emperors with his idiosyncratic and occasionally outrageous individual biographies of their lives. This work has long been recognized as a haphazard mixture of broadly reliable but disorganized information collected together with scurrilous anecdotes. Historians have tended to see the period in terms of a succession of imperial male biographies ever since.
Suetonius could have also, or even instead, profitably explored the period through the equally remarkable and notorious lives of the empresses and other prominent female members of the family. Of course he did not and nor did any other Roman historian either of the Julio-Claudian era or later periods. The lives of empresses and imperial women have invariably to be pieced together from incidental references in the works of men like Tacitus and Dio or the biographies of emperors. Had he written biographies of the Julio-Claudian women Suetonius might very well have made the startling, albeit elementary, observation that the only reason there was a Julio-Claudian dynasty at all was because the bloodline was almost exclusively transmitted down through the women. Not one of the Julio-Claudian emperors was succeeded by his son.1 In most cases there was no surviving son in the first place. When there was, as in the case of Claudius’ son Britannicus, the succession passed him by. It was the female route that legitimized the claim to dynastic descent by the successive male rulers even if the details and nature of each succession differed according to circumstances. Oddly, the real extent of the dynastic implications of Poppaea’s death appears to have excited little notice among ancient and even modern historians, as well as the more general issue of the vital importance of key female members of the imperial family to the dynasty’s survival.2 The failure of the male line was a major factor throughout Roman imperial history. Very few emperors succeeded their blood fathers to rule in their own right as opposed to serving as a co-ruler. Even fewer of these were succeeded in turn by their own sons. It was not until the fourth century and the reigns of the sons of Constantine I and then in the fifth century with the reign of Theodosius II that an emperor ruled in his own right after the reigns of his father and grandfather.3
The Julio-Claudian reliance on the female line was successfully obscured at the time because from the dictator Caesar right through to Nero the fiction of a father-son succession was manufactured with great success largely by using the system of adoption. The only exception was the accession of Claudius in 41 when the succession incongruously passed from a nephew to his uncle at the behest of the Praetorian Guard. Claudius’ eligibility even then was only conferred on him through his descent from Augustus’ wife Livia and Augustus’ sister Octavia, and not Augustus himself.
The crux of the matter as far as this book is concerned is the process of succession during the two principal dynasties that emerged during the Roman imperial period up to 284.4 As the first ‘emperor’, Augustus needed to find a way to secure his regime after his death. The circumstances of power being vested in one man were new, and in theory totally unacceptable within the Roman constitution. He therefore spent a great deal of time and energy on trying to find mechanisms that cloaked his control of the Roman world within the constitutional offices of the Republic. When it came to the succession Augustus came closest to exposing the monarchical nature of his regime. There was, by definition, no procedure for any such thing. Therefore he could not openly nominate a successor. In any case he had no son. Not having a son was a blessing in disguise. It prevented Augustus from making the obvious choice and thereby provoking allegations of a monarchy in the making. Instead, Augustus had to think laterally. He earmarked first the male offspring of his sister Octavia Minor, then his daughter Julia, and finally his wife Livia. This guaranteed his dependence on the female bloodline. Augustus never selected anyone for a successor who was not a relative, though he came close with his son-in-law Agrippa. These individuals were only marked out by their proximity to Augustus and the award of honours and offices that associated them with his. It was, at best, a tenuous and unavoidably oblique solution that created uncertainty and ambiguity.
The era of the Julio-Claudians has a great deal to tell us about how imperial women operated within the Roman state. There is much also to be learned from the Severans because they pushed their luck even further. Julia Domna, empress of Septimius Severus (193–211), brought with her a family of like-minded, highly intelligent, educated and ambitious wealthy women from Emesa (Homs) in Syria. After her death in 217 her widowed sister Julia Maesa used her position and connections to place first on the throne her eldest grandson Elagabalus (218–22), and then, after his murder, her second grandson, Severus Alexander (222–35), the sons of her daughters Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea.5 Even their names were a legacy of the Julio-Claudian period. Spurious tales of adultery were used to fabricate legitimacy for the emperors Elagabalus and Severus Alexander by claiming they were really the illegitimate sons of Caracalla (211–17). The Severan empresses were publicly associated with Venus Genetrix, the mythical progenitor of the Julii. The Severan dynasty was also primarily a female one, and conspicuously more so than that of the Julio-Claudians. These women were, if anything, even more assiduous than the Julio-Claudian women in the way they tried to take over male power structures. The story about Soaemias being the first empress openly to attend the Senate was clearly linked by later Roman historians to the way Livia had managed the Senate from her own house without attempting to intrude on the male-only assembly. Maesa died in her bed, but both her daughters and grandsons had violent deaths, destroyed by their imperial ambitions. Their saga has many echoes of what happened in the Julio-Claudian era, helping us to understand why gaining and holding on to power was so difficult for women in the Roman world and continued to be so. Thereafter, no comparable dynasty occurred again though some individual empresses were able to play prominent roles in imperial affairs in much later ages.6
The Julio-Claudian era followed centuries of the Roman Republic, which was brought to an end at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC after decades of civil war, factionalism and chaos. The needs of peace, Tacitus said, determined from then on that power had to be concentrated in the hands of one man (Augustus). Tacitus echoed the geographer Strabo’s much earlier observation during the reign of Tiberius that the Roman Empire was so big it had to be controlled by one man ‘in the manner of a father’.7 Tacitus had plenty of acerbic comments to make about how the emperors ruled and the change in Roman society the new system resulted in. Like almost everyone else at the time it would never have occurred to him or Strabo that anyone other than a man could be that person.
Each of the emperors also ruled very differently. Augustus, for example, focused all his attention on manufacturing a recreation of the Republican state. Tiberius struggled to assert his identity under the weight of Augustus’ posthumous reputation and his mother Livia’s domineering presence. Caligula relied far more on experimenting with a more despotic style of rule to compensate for his youth and lack of experience. Claudius operated a more bureaucratic court-centred style of rule. Nero had little interest in anything beyond his personal indulgence. The role of the imperial women therefore changed throughout the reigns of the emperors, but so also did their opportunities. These women’s roles were far more important than just serving as peripheral components of the dynasty. They made substantial contributions to the political, social and cultural character of the regime, whether those were for the better or for the worse, sometimes determining the course of history. Some helped sustain the regime, others almost toppled it. Either way they made their mark. It was, as has been said, undoubtedly a ‘partnership in power’, but exactly what that meant is more of a challenge to understand than at first it appears.8 (Pg.55)
The ways in which elite Roman women acquired and used power depended on how women were positioned in Roman society and how the political system operated. Only men could hold office. Men from senatorial families were expected to progress through a series of magistracies, entering the Senate early in their careers. These magistracies made them eligible for administrative and military positions, climaxing in the consulship. There was therefore no official position that women could hold within the Republic’s constitution. However, the Romans had a very clear idea about the importance and utility of women to society and the interests of the aristocracy.
Once Augustus came to power problems emerged in finding a definition of his position and role. There was technically no such thing as an ‘emperor’.Supreme power in the Roman world under the emperors was vested in a strange mixture of conventional Republican magistracies and privileges held by only one person, the princeps, or, literally, ‘first citizen’. The word princeps denoted simultaneously Augustus’ membership of the senatorial elite on an equal footing with his peers as well as suggesting that he exceeded them. He did that through his auctoritas.
The word meant literally ‘authority’ but in a much more all-encompassing way than the English word suggests.9
This made it possible for Augustus and almost everyone else to indulge in the fancy that the Republic was still in existence. As constitutional arrangements go the Republic was both disorganized and strangely brilliant. The disorganization meant that it was possible to view the system and see what one wanted to see. The Republic could be said to have survived intact, its offices and protocols all working properly and presided over by the Senate. It was equally easy to change the focus and see that while all this might be true there was a single man at the centre. His personal status and authority exceeded everyone else’s and his sole control of those offices was the result, even though he was by definition supposed not to exist.
The brilliance of the Augustan regime was the stability this created out of a system that had become dangerously chaotic. It had almost torn the Roman world apart until Augustus defeated his enemies and took charge of a population sick of the disorder. Since only men were eligible for the constitutional positions and privileges it follows that women had neither a gateway to formal powers nor the necessary prestige other than as the wives and family members of men who possessed these. Women were generally restricted in public life to roles as priestesses or as members of the Vestal Virgins in charge of the cult of Vesta. These were prestigious but were not vital front-rank political positions (plate 17). Although this system underwent enormous change the essential elements and the official exclusion of women from power remained in place throughout imperial Roman history.
The non-existence of the formal position of ‘emperor’ is very important to bear in mind when it comes to using terms like ‘emperor’ and ‘empress’. Emperor is a word derived from imperator, best translated as ‘general’ and meaning literally having the power to command an army. That power was known as imperium and was granted in theory by the Senate. Imperium was supposed to be both temporary and conditional. The acclamation imperator was one of the titles emperors took. In time it became synonymous with supreme power but in the time of the Julio-Claudians it was still evolving into that meaning. This can easily be seen from coin legends. Until the reign of Nero (54–68), imperator was a subsidiary title featured towards the end of a coin legend, abbreviated to IMP. Only under Nero did it gravitate to the beginning in the manner of a forename, becoming more common thereafter and eventually permanent. It is convenient for us to use these words, for example considering what it was like ‘to be empress in an empire that allowed only emperors’, but they can help create a false sense of absolutes and opposites.10 No one in Rome at the time spoke in the same way about their rulers. They had neither the terminology nor the conceptual framework to do so. Instead, the name ‘Augustus’ and its female equivalent ‘Augusta’ became the way the Romans referred to the emperor and his empress. Augustus adopted his new name when it was proposed by a senator called Munatius Plancus. It was derived from other words that denoted an increase in dignity (auctus) and the consecration of anything in a religious rite by an augur (a type of priest who looked out for and interpreted signs). The consecration gave them the quality of augusta.11 Augustus was therefore a name without political associations but instead had a quasi-religious aspect that hinted at the special qualities which placed him above others.
The absence of any formal route to power for women did not prevent them either from finding different ways to exert power, or some from reaching for supreme power itself. The very vagueness of male imperial power in the Roman Empire was precisely what helped facilitate the creative approach to power adopted by women like Livia, Agrippina the Younger and Julia Maesa. They accomplished this through an ingenious number of routes, evading the technical limitations of male formal office to enjoy remarkable degrees of influence. At the same time they were constantly being confronted by attempts to curb their ambitions. These ranged from campaigns of attrition to execution or murder, precisely because they were also regarded as being immune to the legal and social restraints that were supposed to prevent men from such excess.
By far and away the most useful form of alternative primary evidence comes from coins (plates 20–2, 26, 28–9, 31). These served more purposes than modern examples. They were the easiest way for the ancient Roman state to publicize its identity, the names and likenesses of the members of the imperial family, and to commemorate both events and aspirations. This did not come about overnight. The process took time to evolve. Augustus, for example, made far less use of coins to promote the imperial family than did Caligula (37–41) and Claudius (41–54). Livia was routinely depicted by the state as the embodiment of the female ideal but made no appearance on Roman coinage (other than some provincial issues) until after Augustus’ death.41 The coins struck for Livia by Tiberius provide a useful counterbalance to the vitriol in some of the written sources, especially Tacitus. By the time of the Severans Roman coinage had become much more regularized in terms of how it was used by the state as a vehicle for information and exhibits a far wider range of types. Empresses were routinely portrayed on coins in their own names and with selected reverse designs that evoked suitable stock female virtues, such as Pudicitia.42 Some of the written references for Septimius Severus’ empress Julia Domna paint her as ambitious and scheming. Conversely, the coinage and official art of the Severan regime depicted her in the Livia idiom as an idealized Roman matron.
Livia was the most successful Julio-Claudian woman in getting some way towards equality of power and living to tell the tale. From the outset Augustus recognized the importance of women in his reconstructed Roman state. He also appreciated the need for women in the political, social and cultural framework of his regime. This had begun with Caesar who explicitly associated the Julian family with descent from Venus, via her mythical son Aeneas and his son Iulus (‘with a slight change of name’, according to Appian), depicting this lineage on coins. Caesar built a Temple of Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) in his forum at Rome which stood as an unequivocal reminder to every one of his lineage. The night before the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC Caesar had promised a temple to her if she brought him victory over Pompey.12 The temple had an even more potent component. Caesar copied the Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt who set up statues of themselves beside cult statues. He installed a ‘beautiful image of Cleopatra by the side of the goddess’. He was clearly linking his own descent from a goddess to Cleopatra’s as the daughter of a god to enhance his divine associations.13 Cleopatra’s titles were those of a pharaoh in her own right, a female Horus, and it is equally clear that Caesar had married her under the terms by which marriage was understood in Egypt.14 Even so the gesture was extraordinarily radical and audacious. Important Roman women were not normally honoured this way.15 In 46 BC Caesar flaunted Cleopatra in Rome. It was obvious to one and all what was going on between the two, not least because of the belief that she had seduced him in order to persuade him to secure her position on the Egyptian throne. Around this time Caesar acknowledged Cleopatra’s son by him and allowed her to call him Caesarion (plate 3).16 Her presence in Rome offended aristocratic sensibilities, given that Caesar was married to the honourable Calpurnia. In mid-June 44 BC Cicero told his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, ‘I hate the queen’ (reginam odi), and said he could not think about her arrogance sine magno dolore, ‘without great anguish’.17
The Temple of Venus was not the only example of affiliation to female divinities in Caesar’s life. One coin issue recorded a now-lost temple Caesar had dedicated to his Clementia, a female personification of his clemency, after Pharsalus.18 Clementia was depicted in a clipeus sculpture, a shield-shaped motif with a bust of her projecting from the centre, in the middle of the pediment. Issued just after his assassination in March 44 BC, the coins and the temples were advertisements of the importance of female virtues and associations even in a male-dominated political environment.19
Female power was predominantly vested in exercising influence. That was most effectively done either through the emperor or their sons as political entities, or through senators and high-ranking equestrians (such as the praetorian prefects) they had drawn into their orbits. The extent of any one woman’s power relied very much on her personality and the circumstances in which she operated, which in practice meant her relationships with the men of her immediate family. One of the greatest challenges faced by the Julio-Claudian and Severan women was that they depended on the promotion of a son during their own lifetime to ensure their positions. This could, and did, colour their judgement as they juggled political and parental instincts alongside their own ambitions. Agrippina the Younger successfully sought the elevation of her son Nero as emperor even though it must have been obvious to her that he was unsuited to power. Perhaps she blinded herself to this or believed he could be controlled. The tension climaxed in her murder on his orders. It was an outcome at odds with Agrippina’s considerable achievements and political ability. Maesa made a similar error of judgement with her grandson Elagabalus.20 (Pg.60)
All these powerful women had personalities that ranged from the subtly dignified to the sinister and manipulative, though both of these are stereotypes which mask more complex individuals. Forever excluded from legal power, each woman worked in different ways to pursue her interests and those of her children. The concept of women holding such influence was such an anathema to the Romans that it was even legally impossible to accuse or prose-cute a woman for attempting to take power. This obstacle proved occasionally frustrating and resulted in some of the vindictive treatment meted out to Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of Augustus, after her death before her memory was rehabilitated by Caligula. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for a woman whose ‘impatience for equality’ led to years of frustrated humiliation and ultimately destruction at the hands of Tiberius.21
The posthumous veneration of certain women is another intriguing and recurring aspect of the period. Agrippina the Elder and Antonia Minor are two particularly good examples. Both were extensively honoured after their deaths by their sons, Caligula and Claudius respectively. In their cases the process was as much about self-interest as genuine respect for their mothers’ memories. Claiming to have had a mother of unimpeachable virtue was an integral component of the two emperors’ public images. There was also a more general cultural tradition of reverence for past examples of exalted women. Cornelia Africana, mother of the reforming Gracchi brothers, was one of the best examples in the late Republic and on into the imperial era.22 Long after her death she was being portrayed as a moral exemplar just as women like Agrippina the Younger who were regarded as villains served as moral warnings.
The ancient sources include extended narratives, passing references, or anecdotes written down from decades to hundreds of years after the time these women lived. Each Roman historian had his own agenda, and it is always the case that our sources are male. The record of the Julio-Claudian women was one invariably compiled by men. It was weighed down in varying degrees with the prejudices of a society that had such a specific idea of the separate sphere in which women lived, or should have lived. The instinctive bias of Roman historians forms one of the biggest obstacles to understanding the Julio-Claudian and Severan women, though it also tells us much about the political, legal and social environment in which these women lived.
Very few of the Roman historians we rely on for the Julio-Claudian period had known or seen any of the dynasty’s women in person. Most, like Tacitus or Suetonius, found their material by scavenging through imperial archives or in histories and other books that have not survived. Apart from Augustus’ Res Gestae we have no autobiographical material either by the emperors, empresses or any other members of the imperial family. Roman historians also habitually only showed any serious interest in aristocratic married women. That was once they had become conspicuous members of the elite and were participating in public life and family arrangements. Unmarried younger women and girls are virtually ignored.
Evidently thoroughly enjoying himself from the moment he picked up his stylus, Suetonius had an eye for his readership, both then and in the future. More useful as a history is what remains of Tacitus’ Annals, though this only begins with the reign of Tiberius and has not survived intact. Gaps exist throughout, including parts of the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero and, most frustratingly of all, the entire reign of Caligula. In a statement that could be seen either as monumental arrogance, naivety or just disingenuous, Tacitus announced grandly at the start of his Annals that he would tell his history ‘without anger or partiality’ on the grounds that he was sufficiently removed from the events.23
It is, needless to say, apparent throughout that Tacitus had a very clear agenda. He used subtle means to direct his readers. Women were used as devices to drive his narrative themes. One was that Livia had systematically manipulated opportunities to ensure her son Tiberius became emperor instead of Augustus’ grandsons.24 This has been amply perpetuated in our own era by Robert Graves’s novel I Claudius. Such sources present us with enormous challenges, not least because of the tendency either to idolize or condemn female characters.25 Agrippina the Younger and Poppaea are presented in part as the personalities with the masculine attributes that, in the opinion of Tacitus, Claudius and Nero ought to have had. Agrippina’s ambition as Claudius’ empress was also seen as evidence of his inability, or unwillingness, to keep her under control. Likewise, her conduct helped ‘explain’ Nero’s degenerate behaviour. Using female characters this way helped to amplify Claudius and Nero’s failings, just as much later Dio’s account of Julia Domna’s agony when Caracalla killed his brother Geta in her arms served to emphasize the barbarity of Caracalla’s vicious personality. The real focus of the Roman historians here was on Nero and Caracalla rather than the truth about the female personalities involved.
Dio’s history makes good some of the lost passages of Tacitus, as do a few other sources such as Josephus. Dio, who like Tacitus was a senator, is also one of the two essential sources for most of the Severan period. The other is Herodian about whose occupation and origins we know almost nothing, though he does refer to having been in some sort of imperial service.26 Both were contemporaries and eyewitnesses of the Severans (Dio died about 235, Herodian sometime in the 240s or a little later). However, their accounts differ in some detail and represent a far less substantial record. This is especially true where the women are concerned for the Severan era, unlike the more extensive collected sources for the Julio-Claudian period.27
Despite the separation in time both Tacitus and Dio viewed imperial history with a sense of moralizing dismay at what monarchy had brought the Roman world. They also bemoaned the reduction of senatorial authority. They of course had been influenced themselves, Tacitus most by the republican tone of Sallust. Tacitus and the majority of the other sources for the Julio-Claudian period, such as Suetonius, wrote in the first few decades of the second century AD. They were attracted to demonstrating and even amplifying the contrast between the perceived excesses of the Julio-Claudian era and the more restrained and dignified reigns of Trajan and Hadrian.28 Tacitus was also beguiled by the appeal of a narrative in which disastrous outcomes like Nero’s later reign could be traced back to earlier events or, more often, the defective personalities of his villains such as Livia and Agrippina the Younger and their ulterior motives.29 Ronald Syme, one of the greatest modern historians of the late Republic and early imperial period, conceded that he had been ‘unable to escape from the influence’ of Tacitus.30 Where truth blurred into caricature is often very difficult to unravel.31
Using often unsatisfactory sources of evidence Roman historians could mix up events or even people. Only rarely do we know what evidence or resources our sources had to hand. We know that they relied on a mixture of official records, private documents, published works, anecdotal information, tradition and their own invention.32 Appian and Plutarch for example plundered the history written by Gaius Asinius Pollio during the reign of Augustus, which is long lost. Similarly, Tacitus credits Pliny the Elder as a source for his information about Agrippina the Elder’s activities in Germany in 15. In truth Pliny had written at the earliest several decades after the event and that particular work is lost too. Substantiating Tacitus’ claims is therefore impossible but in the context of the period quite normal. Reconstructing the movements of some of the key women involved, for example whether Livia or Julia accompanied their respective husbands on journeys abroad, is like walking into an impenetrable fog. Their presence was often not recorded and if it was then the miasma clears to offer only occasional references which scarcely ever go hand in hand with any kind of verifiable date.33 Some of our sources, such as Macrobius, wrote so long after the events they describe (several centuries in his case) that their reliability has to be questioned though not necessarily with any confidence about drawing a definitive conclusion one way or the other. Dio’s long and essential history survives in large part only as a late antique epitome of what he had originally written.34 Much was lost or confused in the process of abridgement. Letters from the Julio-Claudian period, if they exist at all, normally only survive when quoted all or in part by a Roman historian who included them in another work. Aulus Gellius refers to reading a ‘volume of letters of the deified Augustus written to his grandson Gaius’, and quotes from it, but the collection is otherwise unknown.35 We have no way of knowing whether any of these quoted letter texts are bowdlerized.36
One of the features of academic studies of the ancient world, or indeed any period in history, is the very different positions adopted based on what seems to be absolutely certain interpretations of often quite indifferent, vague or insubstantial evidence. We also have to deal with sources written in either Latin or Greek. Anyone with even modest proficiency in either knows that ambiguities and other difficulties of meaning abound in both languages, resulting in translations that often subtly or even substantially differ. The potential also for allusions or other oblique references that we simply do not recognize is considerable. These complications are made worse by the errors in transmission from antiquity. The histories that we have are texts that escaped vaporization during the Middle Ages, being copied in monasteries whose archives were then plundered by the energetic and eagle-eyed printers of the Renaissance searching for material to publish throughout Europe. When more than one medieval copy survives it is instantly apparent that the texts usually differ in detail. Sometimes this has significant consequences for understanding the meaning. Often there is uncertainty about which text is the correct one, leading to inconclusive and arcane scholarly debate. Much else was lost along the way.
At best then the written evidence is often challenging, fragmented and ambiguous, if it exists at all. The chance of finding any new evidence that might resolve an issue once and for all is extremely small. Certainty will remain elusive. The problem continues on into modern works. Any historian of the ancient world, including this one, struggles to know how far to go with the evidence available. This becomes especially apparent with full-length biographies of prominent individuals such as Livia or Antonia Minor. These almost invariably stretch what we know beyond breaking point. Any evidence, however peripheral, is rounded up and incorporated, accepted or refuted as necessary to reconcile it with the theory being expounded.37 This can also result in one author’s speculations or assumptions being interpreted by others as facts and repeated as such.38
It is also quite possible that the more remarkable claims made by Tacitus and Suetonius, among others, had at least some and perhaps even a significant foundation in truth. Whatever the deficiencies and bias of the sources, they are what we have. Scepticism about the reliability of our ancient sources does not provide solutions in its own right and at worst can amount to little more than lazy academic posturing and prioritizing vague speculation as substitutes. In the end there is no choice but to take some of what our sources say on trust. This includes even the most controversial topics such as Agrippina the Younger’s incestuous relations with her son. After all, had there not been some sort of story in the first place Tacitus, Suetonius and others would not have troubled to tell it.39
We do of course possess some other sources of evidence, mainly coins, architectural remains, sculpture and inscriptions (epigraphy). Physical monuments from the Julio-Claudian period do not survive in abundance in Rome. The visible ruins of ancient Rome today are very largely of later dates. Very little of the magnificent dereliction of the Forum belongs to the Julio-Claudian era, and even less can be linked to the women, though the porch of the Porticus of Octavia is an exception (plate 6). One of the most striking relics is the Augustan Ara Pacis and its sculptures, laboriously dragged up from deep underground mainly in Italy’s Fascist era and restored in a modern cover building (plates 7, 8). Inscriptions can also help but these are often ambiguously abbreviated, broken and scattered across the Empire (plates 2, 14, 16). Sometimes this additional evidence gives us a chance of balancing, contradicting or verifying what the ancient sources provide us with. It can, however, be just as easy to make too much of these relics. The so-called ‘House of Livia’ in Rome is a case in point. A stamped pipe, bearing the generic name Julia Augusta used by several other empresses (mainly the Severans) as well as Livia, is the only basis for arguing that she once owned it. Despite that, some modern works treat her ownership as an attested fact.40
Assembling a book like this is therefore likely to result in no better than a pastiche or tangential version of what really happened. During the research for this book it became very clear that something was lacking in all the sources for the period when it comes to the personalities and everyday lives of these women. Empresses accumulated substantial wealth in the form of money, possessions and estates scattered throughout Italy and beyond. They sometimes engaged in blatant embezzlement and intimidation to do this. They also presided over households managed by freedmen and slaves. These acted as their own nerve centres for intrigue, spin and power, and were embellished with bizarre accessories like naked boys and ‘pet’ dwarfs maintained for their amusement.43 Whether venerated or vilified, admired or loathed, the tendency of Roman historians to see these women as stereotypes means we have little sense of their personal warmth, appeal or humour. We exist at arms’ length from Livia, Octavia, both the Agrippinas, Messalina and Poppaea, and the Severan women. Charisma is an awkward word but it does have a use in trying to understand how certain individuals had a commanding impact on those around them. Julia the Elder, Augustus’ daughter, was given the opportunity to escape into the limelight as a sharp-witted woman capable of using humour as a weapon and as a manifestation of a real personality with flaws and brilliance. Even that impression may be partly apocryphal.44 Agrippina’s powerful performance at the bridge on the German frontier in 15 is perhaps a better example; only her ‘charisma’ can explain what happened.
There can be no objective outcome, no conclusive and indisputably accurate account or perspective. If there is one thing we can know for certain it is that most of the evidence we would have liked is long since gone, if indeed it ever existed. One thing, however, is certain. The Julio-Claudian and Severan dynasties were recognized to have been remarkable periods in their own times, and the women who played so important a part in them amongst the most memorable individuals in the history of the Roman Empire. Before we can start to explore their stories though we must begin by considering where women were positioned in society, what was expected of them, and how they were either venerated or condemned for the way they conducted themselves. (Pg.69)
“Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome” by Guy de la Bédoyère.