The 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 thus 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
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