In many respects it is surprising that Hollywood has not yet identified the story of Julia the Elder (30 October 39 BC – AD 14), sole child of Emperor Augustus, and the House of the Julians as the subject of a production which easily might rival “Game of Thrones” or similar TV tomes.
Her family entanglements alone were manifold: she was not only (1) the sole child and daughter of the Emperor Augustus, but (2) the stepsister and second wife (yes!) of the Emperor Tiberius, also the (3) maternal grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger; she also was (4) grandmother-in-law of the Emperor Claudius, and last not least (5) maternal great-grandmother of the Emperor Nero.
Like other famous women of antiquity, Cleopatra or Theodora, the light she was painted in by her contemporary historians is fluctuating between invective and accolade. We must keep in mind though that invective, in particular of sexual nature, was par for the course in ancient politicising – especially in the Roman Empire which was characterised by public exhortations of virtue and chastity (countless laws were passed to fortify the public morals) , but in reality was but one big brothel – as pretty much all contemporary sources agree.
It would appear that her father emphasised a good, if strict, education, and all sources agree on Julia’s knowledge of literature and culture. As it would be expected, at the age of 14, in 25 BC, she was married to a political favourite among Augustus’ assistants, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who, alas, died of an epidemic two years later.
His death in no respect came unwelcome to Marcellus’ great rival and second lieutenant to Augustus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa , who proceeded – two years later – to inherit Julia. And here it gets complicated from the start. Although the marriage resulted in five children, rumours of Julia’s lax interpretation of the holy vows began immediately. Not only did she apparently begin a long time affair with a certain Sempronius Gracchus (who was later banned for the affair by Augustus and, it seems, executed by Tiberius after his becoming emperor in AD 14), but, so it was widely rumoured, developed a passion for the selfsame Tiberius, who was indeed her stepbrother by adoption.
Yet in 12 BCE, Agrippa suddenly expired as well, and Augustus, after the loss of the second heir presumptive quickly married off his daughter – after an only perfunctory period of mourning – to the next in line, Tiberius, in 11 BCE.
Yet the marriage seemed to have been blighted from the start. Nonwithstanding Julia’s earlier infatuation with Tiberius, he had since married Vipsania Agrippina, a daughter of Marcus Agrippa, and was reported to be very fond of her. Yet by Imperial command a divorce and subsequent remarriage to Julia could not be circumvented. The union, however, produced no offspring and after a few years the non-lovers separated.
Now we get to the part where the story gets juicy. Nonwithstanding the rumours of her earlier infidelities (of which, at least in the case of Sempronius, the whole Empire was reasonably aware), in AD 2, she was actually arrested on her father’s orders for adultery and treason. But Augustus found himself in a bind he had created himself.
In 18 BC, he has passed, among some other bills sponsoring the moral superiority of the Roman race, the “Lex Iulia de adulteriis“, which not only punished adultery with banishment, in which the two perpetrators were to be banned on two different islands and their property could be partially confiscated, but allowed fathers to kill guilty daughters and their lovers, if they could lay hands on them, and husbands, depending on the circumstances of the crime, to kill the culprits and required to divorce the wives. The responsibility for punishing a daughter lay with the paterfamilias, hence, in the present case, Augustus himself.
Now the Emperor had to prosecute the daughter, which he did. As Tiberius was absent from the capital, Augustus sent her a letter in his name, asserting that Julia had actually schemed against his life in addition to the sexual crimes and declared the marriage null and void.
Julia was sent to banishment on the tiny island of Pandateria (today’s Ventotene) , then a manless and wineless (for she was fond of wine) barren spot in the Tyrrhenian Sea. She was forbidden to receive visitors and spent her last years solely in the presence of her mother, who shared the exile. Later, two of her children were exiled as well, for various other offenses.
Augustus moved her back to the mainland after five years and granted her a small allowance, favours who were been taken away when her former husband, Tiberius, became Emperor in AD 14. She died in the same year – probably starved to death, a favourite method of Imperial providence.
Why was Augustus so harsh – harsher, actually, than the law prescribed? He was entitled to do whatever he saw fit – he might simply have ignored the whole affair. Clearly he did it for matters of state and his own image as self-proclaimed moral renovator of the Empire. The suspicion of modern historians is that there is, however, a greater context to observe – an offensive against the tendency of Roman women of the late Republic to emancipate themselves from the tight male reign they were held in. Like Sulla, Octavian was an arch-conservative and as some historians have assumed, may have followed no lesser target than to establish himself as the moral paterfamilias of the whole Empire – as the absolute authority.
What about Julia’s alleged behaviour in the first place? Various ancient historians have criticised her sexual behaviour. For reasons of convenience. I will cite here the respective Wikipedia summary ( which I not usually do):
‘Marcus Velleius Paterculus describes her as “tainted by luxury or lust”, listing among her lovers Iullus Antonius, Quintius Crispinus, Appius Claudius, Sempronius Gracchus, and Cornelius Scipio. Seneca the Younger refers to “adulterers admitted in droves”; Pliny the Elder calls her an “exemplum licentiae” . Dio Cassius mentions “revels and drinking parties by night in the Forum and even upon the Rostra“. Seneca tells us that the Rostra was the place where “her father had proposed a law against adultery”, and yet now she had chosen the place for her “debaucheries”. Seneca specifically mentions prostitution: “laying aside the role of adulteress, she there [in the Forum] sold her favours, and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour.” Modern historians discredit these representations as exaggerating Julia’s behaviour.
Macrobius provides invaluable details of her witticisms and personality. Among the sassy ripostes he attributes to her is a retort to people’s surprise that all her children all resembled Agrippa – “I take on a passenger only when the ship’s hold is full.” On her character, he writes that Julia was extensively celebrated for her amiable, empathetic nature and studiousness despite her profligacy; “She was abusing her standing as fortune’s darling, and her father’s, though in other respects she gained a great deal of credit for her love of literature and extensive learning… and her kindness, fellow-feeling, and lack of cruelty.’
We must see the whole picture within the background of the incessant succession conflicts that were legendary during the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The early Empire was notably different from later forms of dynastic inheritance that the concept of primogeniture did not exist and adoption was a common and entirely legal and accepted alternative in succession issues. Neither existed a legally prescribed formula how to bequeath the Imperial succession. Since neither Augustus, Caligula or Nero fathered a legitimate son, adoption became the common way for the respective Emperor to manage his succession in the desired route.
Hence positive selection – usually adoption – and negative selection – murder by poison or execution for treason – competed in a certain balance of which every member of the court was only too accurately aware of. Because so few plain opportunities of genuine succession occurred – normal father-son or grandfather-grandson relations – it was almost normal behaviour of the family members to contemplate the murder of the heirs apparent to advance the chances of their own offspring, lovers or favourites.
In addition, the return to the Republic was never legally excluded – and always remained a bane to the Imperial family – hence the successively rising power of the magistri militum, who by the fifth century did reign in reality by using tame puppet Emperors.
Whether Julia played the succession game in earnest or became simply the victim of a gambit by her father, we do not know. Some historians have advanced the thesis that Julia supported a group of nobles who intended to replace Tiberius as heir apparent with Julius Antonius, who, as son of Marc Anthony, might have been a more popular candidate for Augustus’ succession. He had been a praetor before, and also proconsul for Asia.
The drawback of the theory is that Julius Antonius’ succession would have disadvantaged Julia’s own sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, who had already been adopted by their grandfather Augustus and did have their own place in the pyramid of succession.
It remains a toss-up what the real reasons were for Julia’s downfall – Augustus certainly was a straight-laced sourpuss but a canny politician. What remains of Julia’s proverbial quick-wittedness remains the above-mentioned explanation she gave why all her children resembled Agrippa – her then-husband – so much, despite her alleged promiscuity.
“I take on a passenger only when the ship’s hold is full.” [Macrobius, Saturnalia, Book II, 5:9.)
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)