Caveat: “Some sexual attitudes and behaviours in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies. Roman religion promoted sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state, and individuals might turn to private religious practice or “magic” for improving their erotic lives or reproductive health. Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. “Pornographic” paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upper-class households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for men to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman. “Homosexual” and “heterosexual” did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the man who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role. Hypersexuality, however, was condemned morally and medically in both men and women. Women were held to a stricter moral code, and same-sex relations between women are poorly documented, but the sexuality of women is variously celebrated or reviled throughout Latin literature. In general the Romans had more flexible gender categories than the ancient Greeks.”
Also: “Prostitution was legal throughout the Roman Empire in all periods. Most prostitutes were slaves or freedwomen. Prostitutes in Rome had to register with the aediles. Despite what might seem to be a clear distinction as a matter of law, the jurist Ulpian opined that an openly promiscuous woman brought the status of prostitute upon herself, even if she accepted no money. The Augustan moral legislation that criminalized adultery exempted prostitutes, who could legally have sex with a married man. Encouraged to think of adultery as a matter of law rather than morality, a few socially prominent women even chose to avoid prosecution for adultery by registering themselves as prostitutes.” [See Wikipedia]
Yet murder and perversion abounded … as seen in the movie “Caligula” [Download] The establishment of the Imperial Court seems to have brought the, er, emancipation of the girls to a flowering …
One may reasonably doubt whether a more murderous, licentious and scandalous breed existed in the annals of mankind, and they certainly matched the infamous males of the clan – the respective emperors of the age, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
Livia Drusilla, the long-time wife Augustus, undoubtedly deserves her own article, which is being planned. Praised by the imperial scribes as the faithful wife and mother of the nation, her critics spilled venom and bile about the strange deaths of her adversaries [FN1] and about the willingness with which she fed her husband the youngest girls for the satisfaction of his imperial lust.
[FN1] See Wiki: “Rumour had it that Livia was behind the death of Augustus’ nephew Marcellus in 23 BC. After Julia’s two elder sons by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, whom Augustus had adopted as sons and successors, had died, the one remaining son, Agrippa Postumus, was adopted at the same time as Tiberius, but later Agrippa Postumus was sent into exile and finally killed. Tacitus charges that Livia was not altogether innocent of these deaths and Cassius Dio also mentions such rumours. There are also rumours mentioned by Tacitus and Cassius Dio that Livia brought about Augustus’ death by poisoning fresh figs. Augustus’ granddaughter was Julia the Younger. Sometime between 1 and 14 AD, her husband Lucius Aemilius Paullus was executed as a conspirator in a revolt. Modern historians theorize that Julia’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in Paullus’ revolt. Livia Drusilla plotted against her stepdaughter’s family and ruined them. This led to open compassion for the fallen family. Julia died in 29 AD on the same island where she had been sent in exile twenty years earlier.
But if you were curious and DID peek, send us a comment on the debauchery you witnessed! Gory details welcome!
Did she really look like Elizabeth Taylor? We will never know, but the odds are she did not – what we know from coins and ancient busts speaks against it. She may have had red hair, as in the famous picture, but most likely she shaved all her bodily hair, as it was Egyptian custom, and wore elaborate wigs. It seems clear, however, that she knew everything about ancient make-up, using belladonna to dilate her pupils and stibium (also called kohl, antimony sulphide) to colour her eyebrows. Very little, however, speaks against Cleopatra VII Philopator‘s force of personality, wits and political shrewdness.
Although she was, technically spoken, survived for a few days by her and Caesar‘s son Caesarion as sole ruler, she was in practical regards the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor to the various Egyptian Empires in the lands of the Double Crowns.
Her descent features more than a few incestual, er, complications – within her last four patrilineal generations (father to father), there were three brother-sister marriages and the same number of uncle-niece marriages, so that in the end her family tree looks suspiciously like a vertical line – in fact, she only had two pair of (instead of four) great-grandparents – of which one was the son and daughter of the other!
From 81 BC on, mayhem, murder and very irresponsible financial planning within the royal family ended with the Romans’ – initially under Sulla – titular takeover of Egypt as collateral for outstanding loans. Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII succeeded as a client king of Rome hanging on to power – by his nails – from 80 to 58 BC and again from 55 to 51 BC with a small interruption when having been intermittently deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s elder sister Berenice IV.
After Berenice’s fall and subsequent beheading, Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her father some time in 52 BC, but faced serious problems after her father’s death in 51 BC. Irregularities of the Nile flooding had left the land in famine and a debt of 17,5 million drachmas to Rome (it is hard to assign a present-day value to the then-drachma, but for a long time in ancient Greek one drachma represented the daily wage of a skilled worker) petrified the state’s fiscus – aggravated by the lawless behaviour of the largely Germanic/Gallic-Roman garrison left by the financiers of the Empire.
Two factors further complicated Cleopatra’s new royal position – her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she had initially rejected as co-regent but probably married for the sake of tradition – aspired to power and the ascendancy of the Roman civil war, which began to extend to Egypt.
By the summer of 49 BC, Cleopatra was fighting her brother and losing, when Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius arrived from Greece with a request for military assistance against Caesar – which was granted by both Ptolemy and Cleopatra alike in their last concurrent decision. Eventually, she had to flee to Roman Syria, where she attempted to find troops for an invasion of Egypt. Yet the invasion soon stalled, and she was forced to camp outside the town of Pelousion in the Eastern Nile Delta over the winter.
Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Pompey decided to make Egypt the basis for his tactical retreat but was promptly murdered by agents of Ptolemy XIII soon after having made landfall near Pelousion. Ptolemy believed to have perfected nothing but a masterpiece – having removed Cleopatra’s supporter Pompey, thus weakening his sister, and simultaneously earning Caesar’s gratitude for the removal of his enemy.
Uh oh. Caesar was royally angry about the coward murder and ordered – from the royal palace – both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to stop the nonsense, end the war, kiss and make up. We know what happened then: Ptolemy decided on war and Cleopatra on love, arriving at Caesar’s quarters, as Plutarch recounts, in a rug or bed sack.
Caesar’s subsequent attempts to find a solution for Egypt momentarily fizzled, and he had to endure the famous siege of the palace – protected by 4000 guards and most likely in the arms of the queen – until reinforcements arrived in the spring of 47 BC. Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsinoe IV (half-sister to Cleopatra) and their supporters were defeated quickly, but Caesar remained wary of the intricacies of Egypt and the preceding chaos of the sole-female-rulership of Berenice and proceeded to set up Cleopatra with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-rulers. While his consulship had expired at the end of 48, Mark Antony had provided him the dictatorship of Rome until the end of 47, and thus he possessed the proper legal authority.
In April 47, Caesar departed for Rome, leaving three legions in Egypt, and his son Caesarion was born on June 23. In Rome, Caesar paid respect to his childless marriage with Calpurnia by keeping his mouth horkos odonton in public while Cleopatra blazoned forth the news of his paternity to everyone.
In late 46 followed the visit of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV to Rome which is so memorably depicted in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The queen had to remain outside the pomerium, i.e., outside the holy precinct of the inner city, for no monarch was allowed to enter; she was put up in a villa in Caesar’s garden.
They were still in Rome – unpopular with most of the senators – when Caesar was assassinated at the Ides of March 44. Perhaps she hoped for Caesarion to be named the heir to Caesar, but when that honour fell to Octavian, she left for Egypt, had her brother killed by poison (it is said) and elevated Caesarion to co-ruler.
In the Liberators’ Civil War, forced by Mark Antony and Octavian against the assassins of Caesar, she was initially courted by both sides but quickly declared for Mark Antony. Alas, one of her own lieutenants, the governor of Cyprus, defected to the enemy and subsequently she had to attend a possibly dangerous confrontation with Mark Antony at Tarsus – which she, however, defused easily by a few lavish banquets and her considerable personal charms. Mark Anthony fell for her hook, line and sinker, and Arsinoe IV, who had only been banished before, and the treasonous governor were duly executed.
The lovely couple was fond of parties and even founded their own drinking club, the “Indestructible Livers” …
But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.
Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavian and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campaign and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to her aid. The rebels subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.
Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.
This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the above mentioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.
Anthony then set out on his grand design, the war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to chip in a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera. At least the campaign had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.
Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania – in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a Hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular Hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …
These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant not only the end of the triumvirate but were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could, politically, not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun.
Sparks began to fly in earnest and a full-fledged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most non-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.
In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.
In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half of the Senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.
War finally broke out, and the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In the August of 30 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.
Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.
Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury Antony in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:
Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).
Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC. The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as Hemlock, Opium, Belladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments. The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters and sculptors, of which we show a few below.
Valeria Messalina (AD 17-20? – 48) was the original Roman floozie and is immortalized in paintings, sculptures, stage productions, films and novels. As in the case of other scandalous women of the Roman world – Julia the Elder,Theodora and Cleopatra, it is hard to say how much in the historical reports is invective – slander for political gain – and how much is true, or, at least, probable.
The present author somewhat tends to see the political (in her case, that is, murderous) incidents as more likely than the sexual allegations – sexual defamation and innuendo were par for the course in ancient Roman political discourse. Accusations of sexual misconduct and in particular of adultery were indeed rather suitable political weapons – in particular because of the incongruity of official Roman morals as declared in many laws – e.g. Imperator Augustus’ own Lex Iulia de adulteriis – when compared to Roman reality, which in this respect resembled a gigantic bordello – given that prostitution was always legal in the empire and sex with slaves was essentially unregulated and common.
The main source behind the allegations was, perhaps, originally Agrippina the Younger, who followed Messalina on the throne and into the emperor’s bedchamber. It remains an open question whether she was worse than her contemporaries or not – the ladies of the Julio-Claudian dynasties are generally not remembered for chastity and restraint.
Ms. Agrippina was a busy bee in her own right, and was later rumoured – with the aid of the famous preparer of poisons Locusta – to have poisoned not only her husband Claudius but Britannicus as well, on Nero (her son’s) behalf. It did not help her much in the end – Nero had her eventually removed.
By all reports Messalina must have been quite the catch and a feast for the eyes. Her relation to the Imperial family was intimate. Her family, the gens Valeria, was one of the most ancient and honoured patrician families of Rome. She was the daughter of Domitia Lepida the Younger, a great niece of Augustus and her first cousin Senator Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus (the rest may be read on Wiki). Both her grandmothers had been not only half-sisters, but also nieces of Augustus Caesar.
We do not know much of her life before she became the third wife to heir presumptive Claudius – who was her own cousin (once removed) – in AD 38. If one reads a bit about the whole Julio-Claudian dynasty, one may easily get the impression that it was but one incestuous clan – and may not be far off the truth. She bore Claudius two children – Octavia (later Nero‘s wife) and Britannicus. When Caligula was murdered in AD 41, her husband was made Emperor and she found herself Empress.
She realized early that Claudius’ adopted son Nero was a main competitor for her son Britannicus in the imperial succession (although we must remember here that adoption might change the order of succession at any time). What she did about it and what followed is, however, largely conjecture – based on somewhat dubious historical reports.
In general, historians blame her in three regards: that she mingled in the imperial succession to advance her son Britannicus respectively her lovers, that she conspired against various senators for financial gain and, it seems, out of sexual motives, and that she was both adulterous and promiscuous – crimes for which exile was the normal sanction – but for an empress, the death penalty was far more likely. “Adulterium” respectively “Stuprum” – the shame – were crimes of the woman in question only, not the man – apparently the Romans concluded that no “Latin lover” could resist the ladies’ allures …
She is blamed for the executions of Claudius’ nieces Julia Livilla and Julia Livia, of the prominent senators Appius Silanus and Valerius Asiaticus – the former actually being married to Messalina’s mother Domitia Lepida but apparently desired by the daughter, whom he refused – the poisoning of Marcus Vinicius (Consul AD 30) – who is said to have resisted her advances as well – and the execution of the freedman Polybius, Claudius’ private secretary.
Julia Livilla seems to have been involved (AD 39) in a conspiracy to overthrow Caligula and replace him with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, both her and her elder sister Agrippina‘s lover. She was punished by exile but returned after Caligula’s assassination, only to get in trouble with Messalina in AD 41 and was charged by Claudius (who was her paternal uncle) with adultery, committed, it was said, with Seneca the Younger, She was exiled again and apparently starved to death on Claudius’ orders sometimes in AD 42.
Julia Livia, granddaughter of Tiberius, fell the same way to apparently false charges of immodesty and adultery reported on orders of Messalina to Claudius’ ears by her palace spies, mostly freedmen, and was executed around the same time as Livilla. In both cases there seemed to have been no evidence to the alleged crimes and no official investigation was carried out.
The case of Appius Silanus was different. It seems that Messalina herself desired the highly honoured senator, who, as remarked, was married to her mother Domitia Lepida. On his refusal, Messalina and the aforementioned Narcissus reported an assassination plot, which they claimed to have seen in their dreams, to the emperor and the poor man was promptly executed for treason.
Not lust but greed seemed to have been the driving force in Messalina’s persecution of Valerius Asiaticus. He was one of the richest and most prominent men in Rome, having been consul not once but twice, and had bought and further developed the already famous gardens of the legendary Lucius Licinius Lucullus. It would seem that Messalina brought the notorious senator Publius Suillius Rufus (Claudius’ favoured prosecutor) – by what means we do not know, but we can guess – to indict Asiaticus on capital charges – along the usual conspiracy against the state also a charge of adultery with Poppaea Sabina the Elder, mother of the current empress Poppaea Sabina. He was duly found guilty and committed suicide in AD 47. Messalina inherited the gardens when she followed Poppaea Sabina as empress.
Marcus Vinicius was not so easy to crack. He had been consul twice and was a highly decorated officer – apparently above reproach – so he was poisoned. About the reasons for the execution of Polybius we do not know much – gossip holds that Messalina was tired of him as a lover and sought a secretary to Claudius who was more, er, pliable – in her expert hands.
The interesting question is whether or not Claudius was clueless about his wife’s actions – he probably turned a blind eye since they were getting rid of his political enemies, and – simpleton that he was or seemed to be – he could later deny that he knew anything about her actions.
Executions for crimes against the state were everyday occurrences in Roman politics but as their occasions multiplied, senators fearing to share the fate of Silanus and Asiaticus seemed to have started their own smear campaign. A few juicy scandals might, perhaps, advance their designs.
Rumours and innuendo of sexual adventures was as common and prevalent in Rome as in any other place, but gossip about the orgies Messalina was reported to host privately and not-so-privately quickly spread everywhere. The story everyone recalls best is the one on the competition in regard to sexual stamina which Messalina reportedly fought out with the prostitute Scylla, to find out who could satisfy more men in twenty-four hours – which Messalina is said to have won with a score of twenty-five lovers – as Pliny the Elder‘sNatural History relates in Chapter 83, n. 237:
Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, thinking this a palm quite worthy of an empress, selected, for the purpose of deciding the question, one of the most notorious of the women who followed the profession of a hired prostitute; and the empress outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace.
Juvenal described her habits in Satire VI as follows:
Then look at those who rival the Gods, and hear what Claudius endured. As soon as his wife perceived that her husband was asleep, this august harlot was shameless enough to prefer a common mat to the imperial couch. Assuming night-cowl, and attended by a single maid, she issued forth; then, having concealed her raven locks under a light-coloured peruque, she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used coverlets. Entering an empty cell reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca, her nipples bare and gilded, and exposed to view the womb that bore thee, O nobly-born Britannicus! Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee; and when at length the keeper dismissed his girls, she remained to the very last before closing her cell, and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away. Then exhausted by men but unsatisfied, with soiled cheeks, and begrimed with the smoke of lamps, she took back to the imperial pillow all the odours of the stews.
What seems to have broken her neck was a party she held on the occasion of a visit of her husband, Emperor Claudius, to the harbour and shipyards of Ostia he was building there. In his absence, his wife gave a lavish party. The freedman Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, another secretary and magistrate, decided to inform his boss about the licentious affair – he had his own reasons in regard to Britannicus, Messalina’s son (check the link, it is interesting).
We have reason to believe that, in his report, Narcissus took a few liberties with the facts or at least with what he could prove. He told his employer that his wife had indeed performed a wedding ceremony with a certain Gaius Silius, who happened to be a designated consul for the following year AD 49.
Whether it was true or not, we do not know. If true, it might have been a plot to tumble Claudius and install Silius as emperor – who might then adopt Britannicus as heir. Silius was not only popular with the people, but also the Praetorian Guard, which made him a true danger.
Claudius hesitated. Back on the way to Rome, he was met on the road by his wife and children in the company of the chief vestal virgin Vibidia who sought to arbitrate in the matter. Yet the horizon clouded when Claudius – while inspecting the house of Silius – found a number of Julio-Claudian family heirlooms that his generous wife had gifted to her lover.
It seems Claudius – still doubtful – lacked the willpower to do what was necessary in the interest of the empire, so Narcissus took it upon himself to order the execution of the empress. She had fled with her mother to the Gardens of Lucullus and was given the chance of an honourable suicide but could not bring it off. So a soldier ran his sword through her.
On hearing the news of his wife’s demise, the emperor is said not have shown a reaction but simply asked for some more wine. The senate, in a gasp of relief, ordered damnation memoriae, the removal of her name from all public places. Yet gossip remained through all those centuries and made her immortal.
In many respects,it is surprising that Hollywood has not yet identified the story of Julia the Elder (30 October 39 BC-AD 14), the only daughter of Emperor Augustus, and the House of the Julio-Claudians as the subject of a production which easily might rival “Game of Thrones”.
Her family entanglements alone were manifold and on the incestuous side: she was not only (1) the sole child and daughter of the Emperor Augustus, but also (2) the stepsister and second wife (yes!) of the Emperor Tiberius; the (3) maternal grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger as well as the (4) grandmother-in-law of the Emperor Claudius, and last not least (5) the maternal great-grandmother of the Emperor Nero …
Like other famous and powerful 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 scandalous writings, in particular of sexual or murderous nature, was par for the course in ancient politics – especially in the Roman Empire which was characterized by legal and 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. Prostitution was always legal in Rome and sex with slaves essentially unregulated.
Her mother was Augustus’ second wife Scribonia, but as the Emperor had divorced her (to add insult to injury Augustus remarried on the day Julia was born), she grew up with her then-stepmother Livia, the famous court manipulator …
It would appear that her father emphasized a good – if strict – education, and all sources agree on Julia’s ample knowledge of literature and culture. As it would be expected and was Roman custom, at the age of 14, in 25 BC, she was married to the current 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 (from the famous Republican family, who was later banned for the affair by Augustus and, as it seems, executed by Tiberius after his becoming emperor in AD 14), but, so it was widely rumoured, in addition, developed a passion for the selfsame Tiberius, who, to complicate things, was 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 a period of mourning as brief as to border on the perfunctory – to the next in line, Tiberius, in 11 BCE.
Yet this marriage seemed to have been blighted from the start. Notwithstanding 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, divorce and subsequent remarriage to Julia could not be circumvented. The union, however, produced no offspring except for a baby-son who died in infancy and after 6 BC, when Tiberius left Rome for retirement in Rhodes, the non-lovers had separated – apparently by mutual assent.
The reasons behind the retirement are somewhat unclear. Historians have speculated that it was motivated because Augustus had adopted his grandsons Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar by Julia and Agrippa, and Tiberius had accepted that they would rank before him in the order of succession. In the event, they died AD 2 and AD 4 – both of quick and mysterious illnesses, which caused only more gossip – and hence they subsequently did not matter. Velleius Paterculus and Cassius Dio, however, write that Julia’s “promiscuous and very public behaviour” may have played a role as well.
Now we get to the part where the story gets mysterious, for the real motivations for what happened now have never come out. Notwithstanding the rumours of her earlier infidelities (of which the whole Empire was reasonably aware and her father must have known from beginning to end), Pliny reports that in AD 2 she was actually arrested on Augustus’ orders for adultery and for having planed, with unnamed conspirators, the murder of her father and/or her husband Tiberius. As mentioned, Augustus’ motivation is not known – even Tiberius reportedly wrote from Rhodes in favour of Julia. No investigation was held, no Procès-verbal, no explanations given.
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 offences.
Augustus moved her back to the mainland five years later and granted her a small allowance, favours which were repudiated 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 a 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 personification of absolute authority.
Perhaps Augustus did indeed suspect a conspiracy against himself and the principate – that the alleged lovers of his daughter planned to replace Tiberius as heir presumptive with Iullus Antonius, the son of Marc Antony (who had been a praetor before, and also proconsul for Asia) – the more likely because important senatorial family members, namely former consul Titus Quinctius Crispinus Sulpicianus, a Scipio, the aforementioned Sempronius Gracchus and one Appius Claudius were implicated in the scandal and banned or drawn to commit suicide.
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 were not dead yet at this time) and did have their own place in the pyramid of succession.
What about Julia’s alleged behaviour in the first place? Various ancient historians have criticized her sexual behaviour. For reasons of convenience. I will cite here the respective Wikipedia summary (which I very seldom 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. … 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 ought to see the whole picture perhaps 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 on 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 expected of 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, reigned in realitas through tame puppet-emperors.
Whether Julia played the succession game in earnest or simply became the victim of a gambit by her father, we do not know. The real reasons for Julia’s downfall hence remain a mystery – Augustus certainly was a straight-laced sourpuss yet a canny politician.
She was witty. Macrobius writes:
At a gladiatorial show, her stepmother Livia and Julia drew the attention of the people by the dissimilarity of their companions; Livia was surrounded by respectable men, Julia by men who were not only youthful but extravagant. Her father wrote that she ought to notice the difference between the two princesses, but Julia wrote back, “These men will be old when I am old“.
One day she came into his presence in a somewhat risque costume, and though he said nothing, he was offended. The next day she changed her style and embraced her father, who was delighted by the respectability which she was affecting. Augustus, who the day before had concealed his distress, was now unable to conceal his pleasure. “How much more suitable”, he remarked, “for a daughter of Augustus is this costume!” Julia did not fail to stand up for herself. “Today”, she said, “I dressed to be looked at by my father, yesterday to be looked at by my husband.” *
[* Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-10. ca. AD 400. Tr. H. Lloyd-Jones. L]
Well remembered is the 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.)