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6 women who changed the course of Roman history

The first, and longest, imperial dynasty survived thanks to the leading women of Rome, writes Guy de la Bédoyère. Here are six powerful women who sustained Rome's greatest imperial dynasty in the first century AD…

A fourth to fifth-century AD Roman mosaic shows a woman spinning. The household was considered a woman's natural environment; the political arena certainly was not. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Published: September 6, 2018 at 9:19 am
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The prim power broker

Livia (58 BC–AD 29) somehow pulled off the trick of being enormously powerful while posing as the model of Roman female propriety. Augustus's empress once chanced upon some innocent naked men, who were instantly condemned to death as a result. According to historian Cassius Dio, she saved them by primly announcing that "to a chaste woman of restraint naked men are of no more significance than statues". Tacitus believed Livia was determined to see her son Tiberius succeed Augustus, whatever the price, and blamed her for murdering any rivals.


The dynastic tool

Poor tragic Octavia (69–11 BC). Used by her brother Augustus as a dynastic tool, she was expected to produce heirs and live up to the exacting moralising standards of the regime. Octavia behaved as the respectful and compliant Stepford Wife she was supposed to be as well as proving a dynastic lynchpin. Cuckolded by her last husband, Mark Antony, in favour of Cleopatra, she spent much of her life grieving for her dead son Marcellus.

  • Your guide to the Roman empire: when it was formed, why it split and how it failed, plus its most colourful emperors

The notorious wit

Julia the Elder (39 BC–AD 14), Augustus's only child and dynastic hope, was a nightmare daughter. Despite her successful childbearing, she shamed her father with her partying and infidelities. She was also a notorious wit, famously announcing that she only had affairs "when the ship is full", ie when she was pregnant. When her father told her off for dressing too showily, she tartly replied that she'd be old one day so she was going to enjoy herself now.

Julia the Elder (39 BC–AD 14), Augustus's only child and dynastic hope, was a nightmare daughter. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Julia the Elder (39 BC–AD 14), Augustus's only child and dynastic hope, was a nightmare daughter. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

The pride of Rome

The empress who never was, Agrippina the Elder (c14 BC–AD 33), Augustus's granddaughter, was widely admired. Her fertility (the notorious emperor Caligula was among her offspring), popularity with the army and bravery in the face of Tiberius's brutality towards her and her children made her a heroine. Tacitus called her "pre-eminently noble" and "the glory of her fatherland" but he also said she was "impatient for equality, greedy for mastery" and had thrown off "female flaws in preference to men's concerns".


The reckless bigamist

Thanks to Tacitus, the "ferocious and volatile" Messalina (cAD 17–48), Claudius's wife, has gone down in history for her duplicitous and reckless infidelity. After selling honours and Claudius's family heirlooms, Messalina embarked on a bigamous marriage with her lover Silius and planned to topple Claudius. When Claudius's freedmen spilled the beans, Messalina was finished. She was executed in the Gardens of Lucullus, a place she had greedily stolen from its owner.


The ruthless opportunist

The "callous and menacing" Agrippina the Younger (AD 16–59), Augustus's great-granddaughter, was a hand-picked empress. Hand-picked by herself, as it turned out. A brilliant and ruthless opportunist, she used her lineage and her son Nero to make herself the most powerful woman in Roman history. Roman historians depicted her as greedy, perverted and degenerate, blaming her husband Claudius and son Nero for their negligence. Medieval chroniclers were impressed. Their depictions of Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville owe more than a passing nod to Agrippina.

Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and broadcaster, specialising in ancient Rome. His books include The Real Lives of Roman Britain (Yale, 2015) and Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome (2018)


This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine


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