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 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 manipulatress …
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 a 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 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 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.
What remains of Julia’s proverbial quick-wittedness 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.)
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)