Category Archives: Women of Note

Viking Women Colonized New Lands, Too

viking-boatVikings may have been family men who travelled with their wives to new lands, according to a new study of ancient Viking DNA.

Maternal DNA from ancient Norsemen closely matches that of modern-day people in the North Atlantic isles, particularly from the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

The findings suggest that both Viking men and women sailed on the ships to colonize new lands. The new study also challenges the popular conception of Vikings as glorified hoodlums with impressive seafaring skills. [Fierce Fighters: 7 Secrets of Viking Men]

“It overthrows this 19th century idea that the Vikings were just raiders and pillagers,” said study co-author Erika Hagelberg, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oslo in Norway. “They established settlements and grew crops, and trade was very, very important.”

Vikings hold a special place in folklore as manly warriors who terrorized the coasts of France, England and Germany for three centuries. But the Vikings were much more than pirates and pillagers. They established far-flung trade routes, reached the shores of present-day America, settled in new lands and even founded the modern city of Dublin, which was called Dyfflin by the Vikings.

Some earlier genetic studies have suggested that Viking males traveled alone and then brought local women along when they settled in a new location. For instance, a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics suggested that Norse men brought Gaelic women over when they colonized Iceland.

Modern roots

To learn more about Norse colonization patterns, Hagelberg and her colleagues extracted teeth and shaved off small wedges of long bones from 45 Norse skeletons that were dated to between A.D. 796 and A.D. 1066. The skeletons were first unearthed in various locations around Norway and are now housed in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo.

The team looked at DNA carried in the mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cell. Because mitochondria are housed in the cytoplasm of a woman’s egg, they are passed on from a woman to her children and can therefore reveal maternal lineage. The team compared that material with mitochondrial DNA from 5,191 people from across Europe, as well as with previously analyzed samples from 68 ancient Icelanders.

The ancient Norse and Icelandic genetic material closely matched the maternal DNA in modern North Atlantic people, such as Swedes, Scots and the English. But the ancient Norse seemed most closely related to people from Orkney and Shetland Islands, Scottish isles that are quite close to Scandinavia.

Mixed group

It looks like women were a more significant part of the colonization process compared to what was believed earlier,” said Jan Bill, an archaeologist and the curator of the Viking burial ship collection at the Museum of Cultural History, a part of the University of Oslo.

That lines up with historical documents, which suggest that Norse men, women and children — but also Scottish, British and Irish families — colonized far-flung islands such as Iceland, Bill told Live Science. Bill was not involved with the new study.

“This picture that we have of Viking raiding — a band of long ships plundering — there obviously would not be families on that kind of ship,” Bill said. “But when these raiding activities started to become a more permanent thing, then at some point you may actually see families are traveling along and staying in the camps.”

As a follow-up, the team would like to compare ancient Norse DNA to ancient DNA from Britain, Scotland and the North Atlantic Isles, to get a better look at exactly how all these people are related, Hagelberg said.

The findings were published today (Dec. 7) in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Originally published on Live Science

Agrippina Minor, the woman who would rule Rome


Agrippina youngerJulia Agrippina, better known as Agrippina the Younger,1and the sister of Caligula, soon showed signs of an even greater ambition than her mother, and being the emperor’s sister certainly favoured her initial attempts. As the granddaughter, sister, wife and mother of Roman emperors, she knew her worth. No other female member of the imperial family could claim so many ties to the throne.2 She was the great-granddaughter of Augustus and both the step-granddaughter and the adopted granddaughter of Tiberius. As Caligula’s sister she briefly experienced great wealth and unusual honours.3

These honours included the privilege of watching the games from the Imperial seats.4 The sestertius illustrated in Figure 6.1 depicts Caligula’s three sisters as goddesses, where Agrippina was depicted as Securitas, leaning on a column, a symbol of peace after past danger.5 Most importantly perhaps, he included his three sisters in the oath of allegiance to the emperor, in which Senators annually had to swear “I will not hold even myself or my children more dear than I hold Caligula and his sisters”. The phrase, “Favour and good fortune be with Gaius Caesar and his sisters” also had to preface all consular propositions.6 In addition to these unprecedented honours, Caligula also made his three sisters honorary Vestal Virgins which meant that a lictor attended them in public, they were exempted from having to take oaths, and they were granted to use of the carpentum when travelling in the city, illustrated on the coin in Figure 7.3.7 Balsdon speculated that the last honour was solely to get his hands on the Vestal Virgin dowries that his sisters would have received.8

Agrippina must have watched her brother’s increasingly erratic behaviour with some anxiety, knowing it could not lead to the stability she must have craved. Suetonius asserts that she herself believed in conservative behaviour for members of the Roman royal family and had great respect for Roman gravitas.9Relations between them soured after the death of their sister Drusilla, and in CE39, Agrippina was accused of treason and adultery with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (widower of her sister Drusilla), and together with her other sister Julia Livilla (accused of the same), was banished to the island of Ponza.10 Subsequently Caligula sold all their furniture, slaves and possessions, an act which lends credence to Balsdon’s theory mentioned in the preceding paragraph.11

In CE41, Caligula was murdered together with his wife and baby daughter, and while the senators debated whether to return the Roman empire to Republican rule, the Praetorian guard found Claudius in the palace and unceremoniously escorted him to the Senate, where they forced the senators to accept him as emperor.12

Agrippina’s influence over her paternal uncle Claudius was notorious in the writings of the ancient historians.13 It was said that she gained private access to him even before they were wed, and would sit on his lap and entice him sexually.14 Since Claudius was considered unequal to the task of ruling Rome as emperor, though later inscriptional evidence would exonerate him to some extent of the accusations made against him as recorded by Tacitus, it was assumed by the ancient historians that Agrippina most probably found it easy to entice and manipulate him.15

Claudius immediately recalled Agrippina and Julia Livilla from their exile and restored their estates and properties to them.16 However, danger loomed yet again in the form of Claudius’ wife, Messalina. Julia Livilla clashed with the empress and was executed for treason and adultery in CE42.17 Agrippina remained on her dead husband’s estates, distancing herself from the court. Perhaps she had learned from her mother’s mistakes and had decided to maintain a low profile, and thus avoided banishment or worse at the hands of Messalina.

Agrippina bore one child from her union with the rich but unambitious Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.18 Nero was born in 37, nearly ten years after their marriage and the same year as Tiberius’ death and Caligula’s ascension. Agrippina then married the well-known wit and politician, Passienus Crispus, who divorced his wife, the mother of Messalina, to marry Agrippina.19 She accompanied him to the eastern provinces, where he died a few years later. She inherited vast wealth from him and was freed, to now turn her eyes to an even more advantageous marriage.

It has been suggested that Messalina’ disastrous affair with Gaius Silius, a consul-designate for CE47 and a relation of Agrippina’s, may have been the result of a deliberate plot to remove Messalina and ensure that Claudius would need a new wife and consort. Silius was executed and Messalina driven to suicide in CE48.20

Various counsellors voiced their preferred choices for consort and empress to Claudius, but it was the voice of Pallas (the very slave of Antonia Minor’s who took the letter of Sejanus’ plot to Tiberius) that Claudius heeded, he suggested Agrippina.21 Despite the religious objections to a marriage between uncle and niece, the case presented in Agrippina’s favour as the best choice for Claudius’ new consort was so strong that it swept away the competition and all religious qualms. Agrippina was a scion of both the Julii and the Claudii, a daughter of the beloved Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, great-granddaughter to Augustus and even descendant of the exemplary Octavia and the flamboyant Marc Antony. There could be no better choice for Claudius to consolidate his rule and succession. Those councillors in favour of Agrippina also pointed out that she might very well present a path to power for an ambitious new husband should she remarry elsewhere. Claudius and the Senate agreed and the two were married in CE49, and as Tacitus remarked: “…from this point, the country was transformed. Complete obedience was accorded to a woman…22

Thus Agrippina took Claudius as her third husband. She was his fourth wife, following after the disreputable Messalina and Lollia Paullina, who, Tacitus reports, Agrippina caused to commit suicide.23 It was from this time on that she gained real influence and power.

Agrippina frequently accompanied Claudius in public and at times she even appeared in a chlamys aurata, a Greek military cloak made of cloth-of-gold, to display her rank as Augusta and display her power openly.24 Agrippina was also at the emperor’s side (sitting on her own dais) when he conducted business, received ambassadors and heard judicial cases.25 At least one incident was reported where a delegation gave her the same homage as they gave to Claudius the emperor.26 She also frequently entertained the highest ranking officials, both visiting and Roman, in her house much like the emperor himself.27As the wife of Claudius, she participated in affairs of state and enjoyed a position of exceptional importance. But later, as the mother of Nero, she controlled both the emperor and even the Roman empire itself, albeit for a brief period.

Tacitus saw Agrippina’s power as unfitting and he saw her as a woman unduly and inappropriately obsessed with power. He frequently used the concept of the dux femina to make his point that women such as Agrippina were usurping men’s power, to him the symptom of a failing state.28 He also portrayed the dux femina as more than just masculine, but as an aberration which would end in tragedy.29 He narrates how, in CE49, the Celtic ruler Caractacus, pardoned by Claudius, did homage also to Agrippina, ending with:

It was indeed a novelty, quite alien to ancient manners, for a woman to sit in front of Roman standards. In fact, Agrippina boasted that she was herself a partner in the empire which her ancestors had won.”30

Although Tacitus clearly feels that a woman is nothing without a man, he recognized that, with a man, a woman could wield great power and influence.31 This is defined by Fischler, “The activities of the imperial women became a standard category which authors used to evaluate the quality of emperors. Thus their consideration in historical literature was most often one of a number of factors which depicted the quality and nature of a ‘bad’ ruler. By definition, ‘good’ emperors had wives and mothers they could control, who never overstepped the boundaries set by convention.32

The women of Agrippina’s time defined their roles and goals through their relationships with the different men in their lives. Agrippina was no different. Her ambition to put her only son Nero on the throne and then keep him there, coupled with a fierce instinct for survival, were the two driving forces behind everything she did. Her main concern was for the advancement of her son Nero and she seldom interfered in governmental affairs unless they were somehow related to this goal. Though she did seek power for herself, for example managing to be named Augusta in the year 50CE while her husband was still living, her primary motive was to use her power promote Nero. After she was able to persuade Claudius to adopt Nero as his heir in CE50 and arranging his betrothal and subsequent marriage to Claudius’ daughter Octavia, Agrippina set out openly to advance her son.33 In CE51, Nero was named Princeps Iuventutis, the same title formerly borne by Gaius and Lucius, the long-dead grandsons of Augustus.34

Agrippina also made sure that Nero was pushed ahead of his stepbrother Britannicus.35 As Nero was three years older than Britannicus, it was easy to ensure that he took precedence in all public functions, as well as on coinage and inscriptions.36 Slowly but surely Agrippina undermined her stepson’s position. In CE51, at the age of 14, Nero was proclaimed an adult, was appointed proconsul and a member of Senate. He also appeared at official occasions at Claudius’ side, and was put on official coinage.37

Any supporters of Britannicus were removed or sidelined. In CE54 Agrippina had her former sister-in-law38 and Nero’s paternal aunt, Domitia Lepida,39allegedly a supporter of Britannicus, executed.40 Domitia was also said to have undermined Agrippina’s education of Nero, as she encouraged his frivolous pursuits, whereas Agrippina wanted her son to be serious and learned, with the gravitas she so respected.41 She arranged for the Stoic writer Seneca to be appointed as his tutor and the soldier Burrus Afranius appointed both as Praetorian Prefect and second advisor to Nero, but in the long term this would come to be a decision she would regret.

Claudius’ death in CE54 is usually regarded as an event that was directly caused by Agrippina, to forestall his naming Britannicus as his heir instead of Nero, as there were apparently signs of renewed affection between father and son.42 Most sources directly state that Agrippina had had her husband poisoned with a dish of mushrooms, apparently a favourite of the emperor’s.43 Only Josephus voiced some doubt about this and represented it as a rumour rather than fact.44 The facts cannot be known but given the real chance of a poisonous mushroom being served up alongside harmless varieties, accidental death must remain a possibility.

Agrippina younger 3Nero thus rose to the throne upon Claudius’ death in CE54. Initially it is very clear from both literary and documentary sources that Agrippina was in control of the seventeen year old emperor. The prominence of Agrippina in the coinage of the era has already been discussed in Chapter VI above. Agrippina was named priestess of the cult of the deified Claudius, and received privileges unheard of for a woman, such as being allowed to be present at Senate meetings, albeit behind a curtain. Agrippina’s control over Nero began to wane, our sources tells us, around the time that he had an affair with a freedwoman named Acte, despite Agrippina’s strong disapproval,45 and with the help of Seneca he resisted his mother’s influence.46

Agrippina’s turnabout in support of Britannicus allegedly led to that young man’s death under suspicious circumstances, and Nero ordered Agrippina to leave the imperial palace in CE55.47 All her powers and privileges were removed, from her bodyguards to her conveyances. She took up residence at Misenum, and spent little time with her son. Nevertheless, she remained popular and influential. Her son, on the other hand, was engaged in gaining as much freedom as possible, and eliminating any possible rivals for power. Seneca and Burrus, having helped to alienate Agrippina, now themselves fell from grace.48

The accounts of Agrippina’s death, as narrated by Tacitus and Suetonius, take on an almost farcical tone, but eventually, according to the sources, Nero successfully killed Agrippina. Before her death, Agrippina wrote an account of her life and career, becoming the first known woman author in Roman history, as she was the only woman on record to have published her memoirs.49 She was also the first imperial woman to bear the title Augusta during her husband’s lifetime. 50 Her portrait appeared on numerous Roman coins.

Agrippina’s triumph seemed complete; she was Augusta, she had been Claudius’ consort in government with unparalleled, openly proclaimed power, and she had personally stage-managed her son’s rise and succession, a kingmaker in truth. Unfortunately her triumphs, like those of her predecessors, would be short-lived.51 Agrippina’s power had not been absolute, nor equal to that of either Claudius or Nero.52

1 Referred to in the rest of this chapter only as “Agrippina”.

2 Not until the Severan dynasty (193-235) did other women match or surpass Agrippina’s connections to the throne and the power which such ties ensured.

3 Ginsburg, 2006:12-14

4 Dio, 59.3.4

5 Sutherland, 1974:153

6 Suetonius, Caligula, 15.3; Dio, 59.9.2

7 Tacitus, Annals, 4.16; Dio, 47.19.4

8 Balsdon, 1974:235

9 Suetonius, Nero, 34; Barrett, 1996:41

10 Tacitus, Annals, 14.2.4; Dio, 59.22.8

11 Suetonius, Caligula, 37

12 Suetonius, Claudius, 10

13 Tacitus, Annals, 12.3; Suetonius, Claudius, 26

14 Tacitus, Annals, 12.5

15 Suetonius, Claudius, 26 and 39. The Lyons Tablet records Claudius’ speech to the Senate to allow Gallic Chieftains.

16 Seneca, Apocolocyntosis; Dio, 60.4.1-2

17 Suetonius, Claudius, 29

18 He was her second cousin, son of Antonia Major who in turn was the eldest daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony.

19 Barrett, 2002:85

20 Suetonius, Claudius, 26; Tacitus, Annals, 11.37

21 Tacitus, Annals, 12.2

22 Tacitus Annals, 12.7, 5-6

23Tacitus, Annals, 12.22

24Pliny, Natural History, 33.63; Tacitus, Annals, 12.56; Dio, 61.33.3

25 Griffin, 1984:23-33

26 Tacitus, Annals, 12.37, 43, 13.2; Dio, 61.33.7, 33.12

27 Tactitus, Annals, 13.18

28 Santoro L’Hoir, 1994:5-25

29 Baldwin, 1972:88-101

30 Tacitus, Annals, 12.37

31Swindle, 2003:112-115

32 Fischler, 1994:127

33 Tacitus, Annals, 12.8; Suetonius, Nero, 7. Claudius had Octavia adopted into another family to obviate the appearance of incest in a marriage between brother and sister, even though theirs was an adopted relationship (Dio, 60.33.2).

34 Tacitus, Annals, 12.46; Dio, 61.32.1

35 Gibson, 2012:5, 41

36 For example; on Claudius’ triumphal arch in the Campus Martius in Rome, there are five columns which once held statues of his family. Those represented were Germanicus, Antonia, Agrippina, Nero and Octavia (Claudius’ daughter). Britannicus is conspicuously absent.

37 Tacitus, Annals, 12.41-42

38 Domitia Lepida was sister to Ahenobarbus, Agrippina’s first husband.

39 Tacitus, Annals, 12.64.5

40 Agrippina’s and Domitia Lepida’s enmity had started long before, when Lepida became the ex-wife of Crispus, Agrippina’s second husband who divorced her to marry Agrippina. Domitia was also Messalina’s mother and suspected Agrippina of orchestrating the scandal that ended Messalina’s life and with it, her marriage to Claudius.

41Barrett, 1996:106-107

42 Dio, 60.34

43 Tacitus, Annals, 12.66; Suetonius, Claudius, 44-6; Dio, 60.34; Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 22.92; Seneca, Apocolocyntosis

44 Josephus, Antiquities, 20

45 Tacitus, Annals, 12.12

46 Tacitus, Annals, 12.14

47Tacitus, Annals, 12.18-21

48Dio, 61.7-10

49 Hemelrijk, 2004:207

50Augusta’ can be equated roughly with Empress, though its meaning was primarily honorific. The Senate named Livia Augusta after Augustus’ death. See Tacitus, Annals, 1.8 and Dio, 46.1.

51Shotter, 2008:76-79

52Dio, 61.33.1


Agrippina Major, saviour at the Rhine


Agrippina elderAgrippina the Elder,1 granddaughter of Augustus, made no secret of her goal to have her husband Germanicus sit on the throne in Rome, taking an active hand in her husband’s career and public image, as already intimated in the incident with Gnaeus Piso described above.2

Agrippina saw her mother Julia exiled when she only ten and both her elder brothers died before she was eighteen. Both her other siblings, Julia and Agrippa Posthumus, were also exiled by the time she was twenty-two.3 What effect this may have had on Agrippina and her desire to see her own children in power, as perhaps a security measure for her family, one can never know. But her pride in her family as a direct descendant of Augustus is mentioned, and her contributions to the imperial throne much advertised, as in the coin issued by Caligula in Figure 6.1 indicates. Her arrogance is also mentioned more often after the death of Germanicus. Initially she is introduced in the Annals as being “determined” but Tacitus soon asserts that she “turned this to good account by her devoted faithfulness to her husband“. She was also lauded for her intelligence and wit, and was extensively educated.4 But this temperate approach in Tacitus soon changes – over the course of a number of references we are told that she is ‘ferocious’, ‘angry’, ‘violent’ and ‘emotional’.5

Agrippina bore her husband nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood.6 Augustus was so impressed with their brood of children that he would show them off in public as the ideal of a Roman family. Although pregnant at the time, she accompanied Germanicus to Gaul when he was posted there in CE14.7 When news of Augustus’ death and Tiberius’ succession reached the Rhine, the army’s mood was rebellious and Germanicus tried to assuage them by calling all troops and tribe leaders together, and swearing allegiance to Tiberius in their presence.8 But mutinies broke out, and it was decided that the wives and children of the officers, including Agrippina and the young Caligula, would be sent from the camps to safety. According to the account we have, this proved to be the turning point for the rebels, who were ashamed that the granddaughter of Augustus and her children were being driven to flight by the Roman army themselves. They refused to let the wagon leave and many averted their eyes from Agrippina’s fierce gaze.9

Germanicus solved the restlessness of the army by attacking the Germans, pushing deep into the forests. In exchange, the Germans conducted guerrilla warfare in the woods, helped by the spring floods in CE15 that destroyed many Roman fortifications and temporary bridges. A large contingent of the army was trapped in a swamp on their way back to the Rhine Bridge, when the Germans attacked them.10 A mob of soldiers hurried to the bridge at Castra Vetera, intent on crossing and then destroying it behind them to stave off the advancing Germans. Agrippina realised it would mean certain death for the rest of the retreating Roman soldiers, so she placed the bridge under her personal protection:

Meanwhile a rumour had spread that our army was cut off, and that a furious German host was marching on Gaul. And had not Agrippina prevented the bridge over the Rhine from being destroyed, some in their cowardice would have dared that base act. A woman of heroic spirit, she assumed during those days the duties of a general, and distributed clothes or medicine among the soldiers, as they were destitute or wounded. According to Pliny the Elder, the historian of the German wars, she stood at the extremity of the bridge, and bestowed praise and thanks on the returning legions. This made a deep impression on the mind of Tiberius. “Such zeal,” he thought, “could not be guileless; it was not against a foreign foe that she was thus courting the soldiers. Generals had nothing left them when a woman went among the companies, attended the standards, ventured on bribery, as though it showed but slight ambition to parade her son in a common soldier’s uniform, and wish him to be called Caesar Caligula. Agrippina had now more power with the armies than officers, than generals. A woman had quelled a mutiny which the sovereign’s name could not check.” All this was inflamed and aggravated by Sejanus, who, with his thorough comprehension of the character of Tiberius, sowed for a distant future hatreds which the emperor might treasure up and might exhibit when fully matured.”11

Tacitus’ describes how Agrippina took on “the duties of a commander” in this passage, which is usually the type of information that reflects badly not only on the woman, but also on her husband or other male figures. The passage is unusual, since for ancient historians there was nothing worse than the dux femina, a woman general who led the troops in the manner of Fulvia,12 engaged in this exclusively male activity. And for a Roman woman to take on this role was a signal of the breaking down of Roman civilisation.13 Yet Tacitus calls her “a woman of heroic spirit” and focuses mainly on her role as caregiver. Vidén points out that, while Agrippina’s involvement with the army may have been inappropriate, it was rendered acceptable only because she was devoted to her husband.14

Agrippina elder 3Tacitus follows this up by highlighting Tiberius’ suspicion of her generous act. It is certainly a clear indication that Tacitus uses and adapts his portrayal of female figures to bring praise or condemnation to the men associated with them. At this point in the narrative, it is her husband, Germanicus, who is playing the role of the hero, with Tiberius as the villain, so Agrippina is used by Tacitus to place Germanicus in a positive light at this point. While he generally characterises Agrippina as ambitious, here she comes out of the episode quite favourably, while Tiberius is made to seem rather mean-spirited in not acknowledging such a generous concern for the troops from a woman who was, after all, seven months pregnant at the time.15 This literary technique of Tacitus’ proves to be rather effective – he sows a seed of suspicion that will bear fruit only in Book 4 of the Annals, where Agrippina is portrayed in a much less sympathetic manner.

Tiberius recalled Germanicus in CE17 and sent him to Syria in the east. On his and his family’s journey there, they made a thorough sight-seeing and public relations tour of the area, since Germanicus had been given authority over all the governors of the eastern provinces.16 This was soon followed by the episode related above, the alleged poisoning and death of Germanicus at the hands of Piso and Plancina.17 On his deathbed Germanicus spoke also to Agrippina:

Turning to his wife, Germanicus begged her … to forget her pride, submit to cruel fortune, and, back in Rome, to avoid provoking those stronger than herself by competing for their power”.18

Clearly Germanicus was quite familiar with his wife’s “masculine” characteristics. The incident at the bridge allowed him to profit from these traits, but clearly now that he is dying, she is required to subdue them and to submit to Tiberius as emperor.

Agrippina elder 4Much is made in the sources of the public grief in Rome at the news that Germanicus had died, and the highlight was Agrippina’s return to Rome in early 20CE with her husband’s ashes. She disembarked at the Italian port of Brundisium and was met by many of her husband’s veterans.19 Agrippina was hailed the “true heir of Augustus”, which certainly would have angered Tiberius.20 In the passage quoted on the previous page, Annals 1.69, Tacitus also informs us indirectly, through the reference to Pliny the Elder, that Agrippina was publicly referring to her young son as “Caesar Caligula”. If true, it is a clear indication of Agrippina’s ambitions for her children.

With the death of Germanicus, Agrippina saw all her dreams of becoming an empress and having her sons follow their father to the purple, shattered. As Burns puts it so eloquently, “She had witnessed 30,000 Roman soldiers beg Germanicus to replace Tiberius as emperor. She had seen him ride in triumph through the streets of Rome and be welcomed as a god in the eastern provinces. She had seen the full measure of devotion the people felt for him and had herself been hailed as Augustus’ only true heir. And yet, suddenly, she was nothing more than the widow of a dead Caesar, completely out of the line of succession. It was as if her destiny had passed her by.” 21

Not long after however, Drusus, the son and heir of Tiberius, died, placing Agrippina’s children once again in the line of succession. Her oldest sons, Nero and Drusus, were the likeliest candidates and their father and grandfather’s reputations were well known.

Another turn of events however ruined the hopes that Agrippina now had. Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a man who became Tiberius’ most trusted advisor, saw his chance for advancement. According to the accounts of all the historians he fostered the resentments of the royal family members towards each other, whispering tales of treason in Tiberius’ ear and warning the ageing emperor that Agrippina planned to advance her sons to the throne.

Sejanus was responsible for instigating plots which Agrippina became unwittingly drawn into:

“Her insubordination, however, gave Sejanus a handle against her. He played on the Augusta’s longstanding animosity against herand on Livilla’s new complicity…...they were to notify Tiberius that Agrippina, proud of her large family and relying on her popularity, had designs on the throne.”22

Clearly the words of her dying husband, quoted above from Tacitus,23had not proved very effective, as Agrippina was doing exactly what he had warned her not to do, therefore providing Sejanus with a weapon against her. The manner in which Tacitus presents this does not particularly inspire sympathy for Agrippina, despite the fact that she was being victimised by Sejanus. Rather we are given the impression of someone who is arrogant, reckless and, “in contradiction to her husband’s wishes, vying for power”.24

One incident implicated a close friend of hers, Claudia Pulchra, who was accused of attempting to poison Tiberius. Agrippina went directly to Tiberius and protested that Claudia was only condemned because of her continued friendship with Agrippina. She also accused Tiberius of hypocrisy for sacrificing to the deified Augustus while persecuting his offspring, underlining to him her physical resemblance to her ancestors. Tiberius reportedly only replied with a single line from Greek drama, “And if you are not queen, my dear, have I then done you wrong?”25

According to Tacitus, Agrippina requested Tiberius to find her a new husband, but he refused, knowing that any husband of hers could be a potential rival.26 Interestingly, Agrippina now moves away from the ideal of the univira, further changing her from the ideal wife and mother she is portrayed as in the first three books of the Annals.27

Tacitus claims that he learnt of both of these episodes from the memoirs of her daughter, Agrippina Minor. By providing us with the source for this information Tacitus is actually strengthening the link between the two Agrippina’s, which he reinforces throughout the Annals by using similar words to describe them, such as inflexibility/stubbornness, pride/arrogance and that she was savage/fierce.28

Tiberius’ right to refuse Agrippina’s plea to be married again is a clear demonstration of the power that the holder of the patria potestas had over the women of his household (should he choose to exercise it) who were not freed from guardianship. Although she was Augustus’ granddaughter and a prominent member of the imperial household, Agrippina still could not marry against the wishes of Tiberius, and this impotence strongly curtailed her freedom and autonomy.

Agrippina was now caught between the suspicions of Tiberius and the machinations of Sejanus. To make matters worse, her second eldest son Drusus began conspiring with Sejanus against Agrippina and her eldest son Nero, in order to advance to the throne himself. 29

Then, in CE29, Livia died and it became clear to what extent she had been protecting Agrippina and her children. Almost immediately Nero was charged with perversity and Agrippina was accused by Tiberius in the Senate of insolence and disobedience.30 Despite popular protests, both mother and son were sent into exile to different islands, Agrippina to Pandateria (the same place her mother Julia and her sister Julia Livilla, had been banished to). Agrippina’s prison conditions were harsh and four years later in CE33 she is said to have died of starvation.31 Although there is a possibility that she starved herself, examining the circumstances (her having living children and the fact that Tiberius was ageing) suggests otherwise. Both her elder sons, Nero and Drusus, also died of starvation in prison, Drusus’ treachery not saving him.32

Four years after Agrippina’s death in CE37, Tiberius died and her son Caligula succeeded to the throne in Rome. His mother, however, was not alive to see her dreams fulfilled and her son succeed where her husband had failed. The coins illustrated in Figures 7.3 and 7.4 show that Caligula made much of his family connections and consequent right to rule, honouring his mother on numerous coins. Her son Caligula had his mother’s ashes brought back to Rome in CE37, and the inscription on the marble block which housed her ashes read: “The bones of Agrippina, (daughter) of Marcus Agrippa, wife of Germanicus Caesar, mother of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, emperor”. Caligula was an unpopular emperor however, and was assassinated by his own praetorian guard.

Agrippina’s progeny also provided another Julio-Claudian emperor for Rome, the equally notorious Nero. In this sense the ambitions of Agrippina the Elder had been realised – and those of her daughter foreshadowed.

1 Hereafter referred to as only “Agrippina”

2Tacitus, Annals, 1.33; 4.52.6

3 Shotter, 2000:342-344.Germanicus was the son of Claudius Drusus (younger son of Livia) and Augustus’ niece Antonia Minor, (the daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony).

4 Suetonius, Augustus, 86; Tacitus, Annals, 4.52. Other than most of their contemporaries around the world, Roman women of the upper classes were encouraged to receive a full education which included reading, writing, arithmetic, philosophy, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy and musical theory. Augustus paid a private tutor, M Verrius Flaccus, a hundred thousand sesterces a year to tutor the children of his household (Suetonius, Augustus, 64.2). Hemelrijk, 1999:21-23

5 Tacitus, Annals, 1.33; 1.69; 4.12; 4.52 ; 4.51-2; 5.3; 6.25

6 Suetonius, Gaius, 7

7 Barrett, 1990:7

8 Tacitus, Annals, 1.34

9 The accounts of Tacitus, Annals, 1.41-44; Suetonius, Caligula, 48.1 and Dio, 57.5.6, differ slightly on the details of how Agrippina and young Gaius were released.

10 Tacitus, Annals, 1.64-68

11 Tacitus, Annals, 1.69. The incident is not mentioned by Suetonius, Tiberius 25, or Velleius Paterculus, 2.125-9. 

12 Velleius Paterculus’ description of Fulvia, who acted as commander, is a good example of how such women were viewed: “who had nothing of the woman about her except her sex” (2.74.2).

13 Female warriors or generals were considered fit only for barbarians. Tacitus for example mentions the uprising of Queen Boudicca in CE61, for the Romans the barbaric spectacle of women on the battlefield (Annals 14.36).

14 Vidén, 1993: 64

15 Barret, 2002:231

16 Tacitus, Annals, 2.55; Kokkinos, 1992:17, 43-48

17 Tacitus, Annals, 2.70

18 Tacitus, Annals, 2.72.1. Burns, 2007:277

19 Tacitus, Annals, 2.75

20 Tacitus, Annals¸3.4

21 Burns, 2007:51

22Tacitus, Annals, 4.12.2-5

23 Tacitus, Annals, 2.72.1

24 Saavedra, 1996:2

25 Suetonius, Tiberius, 53

26Tacitus, Annals, 4.52.3-53.2

27 Saavedra, 1996:2

28 The Latin words are contumacia, superbia and atrox.

29 Tacitus, Annals, 4.60, 5-6

30 Tacitus, Annals, 5.3

31 Suetonius, Tiberius, 53

32 Suetonius, Tiberius, 54



Antonia Minor, a true Roma Matrona


antonia2The younger daughter of Octavia Minor and Mark Antony, Antonia Minor was born on 31 January 36BCE in Rome in the house of Antony, which Octavia at that stage still occupied. Being only six years old in 30BCE when Antony committed suicide, Antonia never knew her famous father and grew up in the household of Augustus on the Palatine hill.

In 18BCE Antonia was married to the younger son of Livia, Drusus. He was nineteen and she was seventeen, already older than most young Roman brides who were considered of marriageable age from as young as fourteen,1 though Augustus probably had been grooming her for Drusus in his dynasty-building attempts.2 They had several children, though only three of them would reach maturity, Germanicus, Livilla and Claudius.3

Their marriage however was short-lived, as Drusus died young in 9BCE, while fighting German tribes along the Rhine.

After Drusus’ death Antonia refused to remarry despite pressure from her uncle (and step-grandfather-in-law) Augustus, and the new marriage laws,4 and despite her relatively young age of twenty-seven.5 She remained in the house of Livia, her mother-in-law, in the room she had shared with Drusus, and her situation was clearly considered unusual even in antiquity:

… in the same bed, on the part of the one (Drusus) the vigour of youth was extinguished, while on the other part of the other (Antonia) the experience of widowhood dragged on into old age. Let this bedchamber be taken as representing the extreme case of such experiences.6

Antonia was also in control of her own finances and affairs, as she had exemption from guardianship according to Augustus’ ius trium liberorum. Being tantoniahus able to inherit from her husband, she became a wealthy woman with properties in Italy, Greece and Egypt – there is for example confirmation that Alexander, the magistrate in Alexandria, attended to her estates in Egypt.7 While there is no evidence that she used her wealth and influence in diplomatic efforts directly involved in imperial affairs, we do know that she regularly received visitors from other provinces and kingdoms, such as the royal houses of Judaea, Thrace and Mauretania, and even the Parthian king sent his son to Antonia’s company.8 Her patronage and friendship were considered valuable in advancing the interests of both Roman and non-Roman.9

She devoted herself to the education of her children and we hear about her again only at the granting of maius imperium to her eldest son, Germanicus, and his subsequent activities in the eastern provinces.10 She joined her son on his journey east, where they stopped at several places which held significance for the descendants of Mark Antony. But Germanicus died in CE19, on his Near-Eastern journey. The huge outpouring of public grief at the death of her popular son must have been at once a source of comfort, but also deepened her grief.11 She did not attend the cremation in Antioch nor did she participate in the funeral in Rome.12

When Livia died in CE29, Antonia became the unofficial first lady of Rome. She now took over the supervision of her grandson, Caligula, in addition to her own son, Claudius.13 Antonia’s political influence behind the scenes increased and wealthy and prominent citizens and consuls, such as Lucius Vitellius and Valerius Asiaticus, were part of her circle.14

Her greatest recorded achievement in the intricacies of the Roman court, however, was her instrumental part in exposing Sejanus and his plot to assassinate Tiberius, which demonstrates her loyalty to the imperial family and the emperor, even at the expense of her own daughter. Josephus is very clear in his description that Antonia was the driving force behind the exposure of Sejanus’ plots:

Antonia on her own had done a very great service to Tiberius. For a great conspiracy had been formed against him by his friend Sejanus, who at that time held the greatest power because he was prefect of the praetorian cohorts. Most of the senators and freedmen joined him, the army was bribed, and so the conspiracy made great progress. Indeed, Sejanus would have succeeded if Antonia had not shown more craft in her bold move than Sejanus did in his villainy. For when she was informed of the plot against Tiberius, she wrote him a full account of it and, entrusting the letter to Pallas, the most trustworthy of her slaves, sent it to Tiberius at Capri. Tiberius, being informed, put Sejanus and his fellow-conspirators to death. As for Antonia, whom he had previously held in high regard, he now valued her even more and put full confidence in her.”15 Sejanus was executed on 31 October CE31.

When Tiberius died and Caligula ascended the throne in CE37, Antonia was now granted the honours previously given to Livia, such as the title “Augusta”, the privileges normally accorded to the Vestal Virgins and the priestesshood of the deified Augustus.16 There is some debate as to whether the title Augusta was used while she was alive, or only after her death,17 but whatever the case may be, Caligula’s action is certainly in contrast to his later reported treatment of his grandmother Antonia.18 In Suetonius the latter is described as part of a long list to demonstrate his growing unsuitability for the position of emperor:

When his grandmother Antonia asked for a private interview, he refused it except in the presence of the praefect Macro, and by such indignities and annoyances he caused her death; although some think that he also gave her poison. After she was dead, he paid her no honour, but viewed her burning pyre from his dining-room.”19 

Unfortunately it is difficult to assess the validity of this information, as Caligula’s reign is not well represented among the extant literary sources, and in Suetonius and Dio he is presented as more of a caricature than anything else. While the detail seems spurious, and unverifiable, it can probably be said that Antonia tried to curb her grandson’s alleged excess, but without success.20 Caligula is said to have informed her as follows Remember I have the right to do anything to anybody!“.21On 1 May CE37, Antonia committed suicide, probably rather than watch her family slide into indignity and tyranny.22

Although Antonia was celebrated for her grace and beauty, her wit and wisdom, her kindness and generosity, it seems that she also had a harsh side and was said to have been a strict mother with rigid moral standards – so rigid, in fact, that when her daughter Livilla was duped by Sejanus and joined his conspiracy, she herself starved her daughter to death.23 She could not tolerate that Livilla had defiled herself and her family with a common adulterer, bringing the family into disrepute in this way.

Antonia was a powerful woman, born to famous parents, married to the popular Drusus, and mother of the ever-popular Germanicus, and also mother, grandmother and great-grandmother to three of Rome’s Julio-Claudian emperors. Between her and Drusus they gave legitimacy to the reign of Claudius, who fell outside the Julian line and needed public family endorsement to become an acknowledged member of the imperial family.

She was one of the wealthiest people in the Roman empire, and made many business transactions in her own right, as well as politically supporting candidates for consulship, and raising and educating her children and grandchildren. Her influence was great, especially with Tiberius, and with Caligula, if only for short while. She is still seen today as one of the greatest and most powerful ladies ever to have lived in the Roman world

1 Shaw, 1987:30

2 Tacitus, Annals, 6.15; Plutarch, Antony, 87.3. Antonia was linked to all the successive Julio-Claudian emperors, as well as other family members: she was Tiberius’ sister-in-law, paternal grandmother of the Caligula of Agrippina Minor, and more directly the mother of the emperor Claudius, and both maternal great-grandmother and paternal great-aunt of Nero.

3 Suetonius, Claudius, 1.6

4 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.180

5 Suetonius, Augustus, 34.1; Josephus, Antiquities, 18.180

6 Valerius Maximus, 4.3.3

7 Josephus, Antiquities, 20.6

8 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.143; Suetonius, Caligula, 26.1; Tacitus, Annals, 6.40

9 Suetonius, Caligula, 10.1; Dio, 60.2.5; Josephus, Antiquities, 18.143, 156, 164-5

10 Tacitus, Annals, 1.3, 14, 2.43; Suetonius, Tiberius, 15.2 and Caligula, 1.1

11 Suetonius, Caligula, 6.1; Josephus, Antiquities, 18.209

12 Tacitus, Annals, 3.3

13 Dio,60.2.5

14 Tacitus, Annals, 11.3.1

15 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.181.2; Dio, 58.9-11; 65.14.1-2

16 Suetonius, Caligula, 15.2; Dio, 59.3.4

17 Kokkinos, 1992:27; Suetonius, Caligula, 15.2; Dio, 59.3.3-4. Both Caligula and Claudius awarded her the title of Augusta, since Claudius refused to honour the acts of his predecessor but could therefore claim that he had awarded her this honour.

18 Dio, 49.3-4

19 Suetonius, Caligula, 23.2; also Dio, 59.3.6

20 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.236; Suetonius, Caligula, 23.2-3

21 Suetonius, Caligula, 29.1

22 Dio, 59.3.6 informs that Caligula forced her to commit suicide after she rebuked him, but this is not attested anywhere else and probably not reliable.

23 Dio, 58.11.7


Octavia, First Lady of Rome


antike3-032Octavia was six years older than her famous brother, Octavian, and recognised as the most prominent woman of the Roman elite for as long as she was alive. By all accounts her brother loved her dearly and remained devoted to her throughout her life until her death in 11BCE.1Augustus’ regard for his sister can be seen in the fact that he allowed her to live in widowhood after Antony’s death, never demanding that she marry again for political alliance, despite his introduction of social legislation that discouraged this. In her youth she had been married to Gaius Claudius Marcellus and had children three children by him, a son and two daughters. Shortly after his death she was required to marry Mark Antony to seal the Second Triumvirate between Antony and Octavian (the third triumvir, Lepidus, was never as strong a presence in the power struggle).2 It was thought that Octavia would be a strong harmonising influence on the two men, and initially the marriage was quite successful, despite the fact that at this time, Antony already had a liaison with Cleopatra.3 Octavia bore Antony two daughters, known as Antonia Major and Minor.

Octavian and Antony’s rivalry however, refused to be laid to rest and the two men continued to bump heads.4 In 37BCE, a major conflict was brewing between the two leaders of Rome and another civil war loomed. It was through the diplomatic efforts of Octavia that conflict was averted at that time. She persuaded her brother and husband to meet and sign the Treaty of Tarentum,5 which extended the Triumvirate for another five years:

“There he was prevailed upon by Octavia, who had accompanied him from Greece, to allow her to visit her brother. She had already borne Anthony two daughters and was now again pregnant. She met Octavian on her way to him, and, after taking aside his two friends Agrippa and Maecenas and winning their sympathy, she appealed to her brother with tears and passionate entreaties not to make her the most wretched of women after having been the happiest.”6

Antony, howeOctaviaver, eventually treated Octavia as casually as he had treated his first wife, Fulvia. After the Treaty was signed and temporary peace restored, he returned with his wife to the East, but despatched her to Italy when they reached Corcyra, ostensibly because he did not want to expose her to any danger. With hindsight however, it was widely accepted that he sent Octavia away so that he could resume his affair with Cleopatra.7 In 36BCE he acknowledged paternity for his children with Cleopatra and in 35BCE, he instructed Octavia (by letter) to return to Rome.8

Octavia remained true to the ideals of the Roman matrona – faithful, chaste and a symbol of motherhood – and lived in Antony’s house in Rome, raising not only their own children, but also his children by Fulvia and later by Cleopatra (as well as her own children by Marcellus). It was only in 32BCE that Antony formally divorced Octavia and ordered her from his house and property. Octavia left Antony’s dwelling and retired into semi-seclusion, still raising all their accumulated children.

Without the buffer of Octavia, the propaganda war between the two protagonists was free to reach its full potential. Octavian, despite his vaunted regard for his sister, used Antony’s treatment of Octavia blatantly in his attempts to smear Antony’s name. He also allowed Octavia to attempt to join Antony in 35BCE, so that it would give him a reasonable pretext for war if Antony continued his scandalous treatment of Octavia.9 Despite her alleged protests that she did not wish to be the cause that drove the two men into war,10 this simply added to Octavian’s cause, since she appeared all the more wronged. She continued her role as intermediary between the two parties:

(Octavia) also entertained any friends of Antony’s who were sent to Rome either on business or to solicit posts of authority, and she did her utmost to help them obtain whatever they wanted from Octavius.11

When she was unceremoniously sent back to Rome, her public humiliation was obvious and in both the Senate and in public, Octavian showcased Octavia’s exemplary behaviour and contrasted it with Antony’s allegedly debauched and un-Roman conduct. The result was of course civil war. Couched in the propagandist words of Octavian it seemed a war between Rome and Cleopatra of Egypt, though in fact Antony was the main target. In 31BCE Octavian won the Battle of Actium and with the suicide, first of Antony and later of Cleopatra, Octavian became the undisputed master of the Roman world.

Almost all the attention paid to Octavia by the ancient historians and writers has been favourable and she was considered to be the epitome of Roman womanhood, an example to follow, a new and modern Cornelia,12 even though most of this evidence has been slanted, deriving from interpretation of the conflict between Octavian and Antony. Modern opinions tend to regard Octavia in the same way as no other evidence to the contrary has yet come to light.

Octavia was therefore a key figure in forging diplomatic ties between her husband and brother, but also, against her will, she became a manipulated image in the portrayal of Octavian’s bellum iustum.

1 Suetonius, Augustus, 4.1; Plutarch, Mark Antony, 31

2 Dio, 48.31.4; Plutarch, Antiquities, 31.3

3 Plutarch, Mark Antony, 31; Barrett, 2002:30

4 Mommsen et al, 2005:68-69

5 Dio, 48.54.1

6 Plutarch, Mark Antony, 35

7 Kleiner, 2005:32-34

8 Dio, 49.33.4

9 Plutarch, Mark Antony, 53

10 Plutarch, Mark Antony, 54

11 Plutarch, Mark Antony, 54

12 Murgatroyd, 2008:268

Terentia and Tullia, the women in Cicero’s life

The wife and daughter of Cicero, Terentia and Tullia.1 When she married Cicero, Terentia brought a substantial dowry.2 It is also clear that she did not enter manus and administered her property independently, with the supervision of a guardian. Terentia was also a political woman with strong ambitions for her husband, as alluded to by Plutarch: “Terentia was not meek or naturally timid, but an ambitious woman and, as Cicero himself tells us, more inclined to take a share of his political concerns than to give him a share of her domestic ones”.3

In many letters of Cicero, and of his wife to him, it is clearly revealed that Terentia managed his estates and financial affairs. Treggiari informs us that Cicero must have been well aware of Xenophon’s division of labour between men and women, as he had translated the Greek author’s Oeconomicus in his youth.4 Cicero went even further, though, and although he arranged Tullia’s first marriage, he later gave his legal consent for Tullia’s second marriage in advance, therefore giving his approval for whomever Terentia and Tullia chose.5 Cicero was away on the business of the Senate and the law so often, especially after civil strife broke out between Caesar and Pompey, that it made practical sense for him to defer such matters to his wife.6 The man they chose, Dolabella, was a supporter of Caesar. As such he became an intermediary between Caesar (who wanted the support of Cicero) and Cicero (who supported Pompey). It is evident from various letters, as referred to by Dixon, that Terentia and Tullia played significant roles in these negotiations.7

Both Terentia and Tullia were aware and supportive of Cicero and his political activities during the turbulent years of the Republic when men such as Pompey and Caesar vied for the dominant position. This can be evidenced from the political information contained in a letter Cicero sent to Terentia:

We had decided, as I wrote to you earlier, to send myself to meet Caesar, but we changed the plan since we got no news of his coming. About the other matters, although there is nothing new, you can find out what we would like and what we think at this time needs to be done from Sicca. I am still keeping Tullia with me”.8

Cicero eventually divorced Terentia because he suspected her of mismanagement and embezzlement. Some modern scholars latched onto Plutarch’s opinion that Terentia was filled with avarice, yet Balsdon disputes this, using Cicero’s own letters as evidence to the contrary: “She was just independent of mind and purpose, and did not always do things exactly as Cicero wanted or take his word for everything”.9 Even in ancient times, however, divorcing Terentia was seen as among the troubles which Cicero brought upon himself, as it was considered disgraceful for a man to divorce his wife who had grown old with him and who was the mother of his children.10

A demonstration of negotiation(s) within a so-called “female network”11 can be seen when a certain M. Fabius Gallus wanted to purchase the house next to Cicero’s in Rome, which belonged to the plutocrat Crassus, although Crassus’ half-sister Licinia was occupying it. Cicero had requested Tullia to promote the sale if she could:

When I got back, I asked my Tullia what she had done. She said she had taken the matter up with Licinia, but I don’t think Crassus sees much of his sister, and she had said that she didn’t dare move house in the absence of her husband (Dexius) (who has gone to Spain) and without his knowledge”.12

Although Tullia was not successful in her negotiation, it does indicate that her father trusted her to negotiate on his behalf. It also perhaps highlights how other women, such as Licinia, did not have such autonomy accorded to them.13

Tullia’s death in 45BCE left Cicero mournful and despondent and in a letter to Atticus he wrote of the strength he had derived from her support and advice.14

All in all it can be said that the women of Cicero’s family played a significant role in his life and a more than usual role in his business and politics. This impression may of course be exaggerated due to the personal nature of Cicero’s letters, and the fact that the extant documents may give a slanted impression, but nevertheless it does show the possibilities of progression in the influence and autonomy for some women, at least.

1 Not to be confused with Tullia, wife of Tarquin, previously discussed.

2 Plutarch, Cicero, 8.2

3 Plutarch, Cicero, 20.2

4 Treggiari, 2007:33

5 Dixon, 1985:367

6 Treggiari, 2007:86

7 Dixon, 1983:91-112

8 Cicero, F14.15/167, Brundisium

9 Balsdon, 1974:12-15

10 Plutarch, Cicero, 41.2

11 Treggiari, 2007:133

12 Cicero, To Fabius Gallus, 55BCE

13 Walker, 1935:19

14 Cicero, To Atticus, mid April 44BCE

Tullia Minor

 Tullia was presented by Livy as being politically motivated and a kingmaker in her own right, was Tullia Minor, described as the most evil of women by the ancient sources, as her influential role led to violence and tyranny. The younger daughter of the Etruscan king Servius Tullius, she is said to have propelled her brother-in-law, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) to murder both her own husband and his wife, Tullia’s sister, in order to marry her. She then persuaded her new husband to kill her own father, so that he could become king. Tarquin, according to Livy, was just as bad as Tullia, but “evil was drawn to evil but the woman took the lead.1

According to Livy, Tullia claimed Tanaquil as her role model, although Livy made Tullia out to be far more evil than Tanaquil. It could be that Livy, in depicting this progressive evil, wanted to emphasise that the overthrow of the kingship was ‘just’, thereby validating the establishment of the Roman Republic. Tullia did not stay behind the scenes and is described as openly flaunting her power, appearing in public to proclaim Tarquin as king2 and even driving her wagon over the body of her dead father.3

1 Livy,1.46.7

2 Livy, 1.48.5-6

3 Livy, 1.48.7-8



The first known woman to wield any political power in the Roman world, albeit through the men in her life, appears to have been the Etruscan Tanaquil.1 If there is any accuracy in the writings of Livy, she can literally be considered to have been the first “kingmaker” in the history of Rome, since Rome still had kings before the advent of the Republic. Daughter of a powerful family, she encouraged her husband Lucius Tarquinius Priscus to leave their home city of Tarquinii and migrate to a new patria Rome, in search of appropriate recognition for a man of his ability.2Tanaquil used her influence with her husband, as well as her religious authority by citing prophecy, to attempt to have two men (in succession) ascend the throne as kings of Rome. The two men concerned were her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and his successor to the throne, Servius Tullius, who grew up in the court of Priscus under the tutelage of Tanaquil. She also married her daughter to Tullius, and thus gained additional influence with the future king.3

Tanaquil’s ‘inspirational’ role in the Tarquin dynasty was probably a feature of the earliest written accounts.4 Where at least one portrayal has identified her with female virtues,5 Livy emphasises her political skills and makes her a figure of substantial public importance. This has been thought to reflect the higher public profile of Etruscan women mentioned above but it accords with other portrayals of women in Livy’s first book.

Tanaquil’s patronage of the two kings led to friction with other claimants to the throne and ultimately caused the deaths of both men. Her husband Tarquinius Priscus was assassinated with an axe and Servius Tullius too died horribly, at the hands of one of Priscus’ and Tanaquil’s natural sons.

1 Livy, 1.34, 39, 41

2 Livy, 1.34–41

3 Dio, 2.9

4 Bauman, 1992:2

5Pliny the Elder (8.74.194) recorded that a statue to her had been erected in the temple of Semo Sancus, identifying her (wrongly) with Gaia Caecilia. She therefore seems to have become a female role model for Roman brides. 


Fulvia, wife of Mark Antony

5954914987_1a2f7c50d4_z Fulvia, the third wife of Mark Antony who was also her third husband, was another Late Republican women who had considerable influence, especially where it concerned her husbands’ careers. Plutarch’s description is less than flattering:

She was a woman who took no thought for spinning or housekeeping, nor would she deign to bear sway over a man of private station, but she wished to rule a ruler and command a commander.1

She solicited active support for Antony, firstly by bringing to him the gangs of her first husband Clodius Pulcher, which gained Antony the upper hand in his “gang wars” with Dolabella in 47BCE.2 Secondly, after the death of Julius Caesar, her support for Antony and her garnering of support for his cause had great influence during Antony’s participation in the Triumvirate with Octavian. When Cicero campaigned for Antony to be declared an enemy of the State, Fulvia gathered enough support for her husband to block Cicero’s attempts.3

In 42BCE, while Octavian and Antony were pursuing the murderers of Caesar, Fulvia was left as the most powerful woman in Rome. Cassius Dio implies that she controlled the politics in Rome:

She, the mother-in-law of Caesar and wife of Antony, had no respect for Lepidus because of his slothfulness, and managed affairs herself, so that neither the senate nor the people transacted any business contrary to her pleasure. At any rate, when Lucius [Antonius] urged that he be allowed to celebrate a triumph over certain peoples dwelling in the Alps, on the ground that he had conquered them, Fulvia for a time opposed him and no one was for granting it, but when her favour was courted and she gave permission, they voted for the measure unanimously…4

When Octavian returned to Rome in 41BCE to disperse land to Caesar’s veterans, Fulvia opposed Octavian, fearing that the legions would become loyal to him only, at the expense of Antony. Together with Lucius Antonius, her brother-in-law, she raised eight legions against Octavian in what became known as the Perusine War.5 Octavian won the war, however, and Antony’s standing in Italy was forever damaged. Fulvia fled to Greece and met Antony in Athens. Shortly after, she died of an unknown disease. Her death gave Octavian and Antony the opportunity to blame the conflict solely on Fulvia,6 and Antony’s subsequent marriage to Octavian’ sister, Octavia Minor, gave the appearance of reconciliation between the two Triumvirs.

Fulvia is also the first historical Roman woman to have her portrait depicted on coins. She was represented on several provincial coins – she is thought to have been the model for Nike on a denarius of 42BCE, as well as on coins from the city of Eumeneia, a city which changed its name in her honour, dating from 41BCE. Fulvia can be said to have been a precursor to the women of the Julio-Claudians such as Octavia and Livia, both her contemporaries (though slightly younger).

1 Plutarch, Antony, 10:4

2 Welch, 1995:192

3 Appian, The Civil War, 3.8.51

4 Dio, 48.4.1

5 Appian, The Civil War, 5.3.19. Blok, 1977:151

6 Plutarch, Antony, 30.3


Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi


Probably the most famous Republican woman who obtained lasting renown is Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. The nobility of Cornelia is celebrated by a large number of Roman authors, though the facts of her life are still hotly debated.1 In the ancient sources she is mentioned in a familial, positive context, a true matrona of Rome, whose virtue and fecundity were exemplary. She was the daughter of the famous Scipio Africanus and wife of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who died in 154BCE, after which Cornelia devoted herself to the education of her children. She allegedly bore twelve children,2 only three of whom grew to adulthood.3 She also cultivated intellectuals and philosophers and promoted rhetoric, cultivating the Hellenic style. She drew them to her villa at Misenum, which became a social and cultural centre. Although this may be considered a “public” display, Cornelia drew no criticism from Livy or others, probably because it was seen as intellectual pursuits and not as interference or that she was seeking political influence.

A well known quip was attributed to Cornelia when she responded to a Campanian woman who was boasting about her excessive jewels, by pointing to her children and saying “these are my jewels”.4 Another legendary instance was when she refused to marry Ptolemy VIII, king of Egypt, explaining that such a marriage would be a step down for a widow of a Roman Senator.5 In modern times this may be seen as an arrogant statement, yet it was clearly not regarded as such in ancient times, as nobody, not even the Pharaoh himself, is recorded as objecting to it.

Cornelia’s political involvement centred on her ambitions for her sons, a trait generally seen by all sources as admirable. Her insistence that she be known as ‘mother of the Gracchi’6 is often cited, and it was also used by her sons, and probably her daughter Sempronia as well, as it elevated all her children’s importance and advertised their social status. She ensured that her children received the best possible education and that they married into key political families in order to cement political alliances.7 Both Gracchi brothers’ oratory skills were legendary and, even a century later, Cicero was to cite Tiberius and Gaius as examples of the balance between natural ability and training.8

Plutarch maintains that Cornelia gave her sons political advice: “but the other law was withdrawn by Caius himself, who said that he spared Octavius at the request of his mother Cornelia”.9 Gaius gave her intervention as his reason for his withdrawal of the bill that would have kept the family enemy Octavius from public office.10 Gaius also used his mother’s name in political speeches,11 since her name carried some moral authority in Rome and by mentioning her (and his dead brother Tiberius), he skilfully played on the emotions of his audience.

There was also public criticism of Cornelia, as Gaius’ public retorts to his opponents indicate, for example “So are you slandering Cornelia, who bore Tiberius?12 There were also accusations that she hired rustic thugs and sent them to Rome to support and protect Gaius.13 If true, this would simply underline the skill with which she managed a Lucretia-like facade with a Tanaquil-like practicality, but according to Dixon, there were political forces in play which may have produced this type of evidence simply to discredit her and through her, her family.14 Two fragments of letter(s) to Gaius from the once voluminous body of work by Cicero’s contemporary, Cornelius Nepos, written around 122/123BCE, have survived. In these fragments Cornelia berates Gaius for seeking revenge for Tiberius’ murder, and for defiance against the established Republic. The authenticity of the letter fragments has been questioned by various scholars. Dixon argues that the letters were corrupted for propaganda purposes by those who supported the return of the Republic after 27BCE. Experts, however, are still divided on the authenticity of these letters.15

The question must be asked why Cornelia made such a lasting impression. Her name became a by-word in later years to indicate the ultimate Roman woman, and even later Christian writers paid tribute to her memory.16 Was it specifically because of her famous father, powerful husband and notorious sons? It is certain that most women gained any measure of influence and autonomy only thanks to their influential family connections and especially the standing of their husbands, but some had more influence than others. This may also explain why ancient Roman women vied for glory and respect for their husbands and sons, so that these could reflect upon them and thus gain them some measure of political influence as well. Of course a woman’s ability to persuade her husband himself could also have played quite an important part to garner influence and sway, as valid in ancient times as today.17

How was the image of Cornelia kept alive for so long? Dixon may offer an answer when she claims that Sempronia, the daughter of Cornelia and the only child to outlive her, was the one who kept the legend of Cornelia and the Gracchi alive.18Although we do not know anything about Sempronia’s life during her long widowhood (129 – 100BCE) after her famous husband Scipio Aemilianus died, it would be very odd if she did not spend at least some of that time with her ageing mother at Misenum. Dixon uses the example of Marcia, daughter of Cremutius Cordus, who was persecuted under Tiberius, yet who secretly preserved the works of her father and thus maintained his memory.19 Also the examples of women of the Stoic opposition during the Julio-Claudian and Domitian reigns who performed similar roles are used by Dixon as examples of women keeping the family history and knowledge alive.20 Sempronia was also uniquely placed to promote her brothers and mother as the popularis revival gained momentum around 100BCE.

Sempronia was the sole heir to Cornelia’s vast fortune.21 The gradual transition from manus marriages to those without manus allowed Sempronia to inherit her mother’s fortune directly. In the early- and middle Republic, marriages were conducted cum manu, which meant that no woman could inherit directly, and that all inheritance went to her closest male relative. She also could not own any property. With cum manu marriages, the woman was adopted into her husband’s family, and legal control of her passed from her father to her husband.22 She could only become sui iuris when her husband died.23

1 Dixon, 2007:2

2 Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 1.3

3 Tiberius, Sempronia and Gaius were the only children of Cornelia to reach adulthood.

4 Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 19.3

5 Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 1.7

6 Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 8.7

7 Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, 1; Tacitus, Dialogue, 28 (extract in Lefkowitz & Fant, 2005:191)

8 Cicero, Brutus 103-4, 125, 210-211

9 Plutarch,Gaius Gracchus, 4.2

10 Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, 4.2

11Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, 4.3

12Plutarch Gaius Gracchus, 4.3

13Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus, 13.2

14 Dixon, 2007:27

15 Dixon, 2007:27

16 Schaff, 2009:103

17 Milnor, 2009:278

18 Dixon, 2007:12-14

19 Tacitus, Annals 4.34-5 and Dio, 57.24.4. Dixon, 2007:13. “Cremutius Cordus committed suicide in 25CE. His daughter was the Marcia to whom Seneca the younger addressed his consolation of the death of her son. He recalled her courage and determined filial piety in the face of her father’s sufferings (To Marcia 1.1-5).”

20 Dixon, 2007:12-14 – “Plin. Ep.3.16, 7.19 mentions Arria the Elder, Arria the Younger and Fannia as performing such duties”.

21 Thomas, 1991: 134.

22 Gardner, 1998:11

23 Literally meaning “of one’s own right”.