Octavia 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, however, 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