La Meditazione by Luigi Sechhi
La Med­itazione by Luigi Sech­hi

In many respects it is sur­pris­ing that Hol­ly­wood has not yet iden­ti­fied the story of Julia the Eld­er (30 Octo­ber 39 BCAD 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.

A little party in the woods ...
A little party in the woods ...

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.

Reawaken­ing by Giulio Aristide Sar­torio

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.

Julia as  Venus - Diego Velázquez
Without doubt, she may have made a fine mod­el for Diego Velázquez

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.

Golden Rain by Leon Francois Comerre
Or maybe a mod­el for Leon Fran­cois Comerre?

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):

Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre
Odal­isque by Jules Joseph Lefe­b­vre

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.

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 risqué 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.) 


(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2019)

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