Influential Women of Ancient Rome

The history of Rome, like many Antiquity and Medieval societies, is mostly men’s story. This is because women were forbidden to run for office (or even set foot in the Senate building), serve in the army or hold religious posts with a few notable exceptions like the Vestal Virgins. All the same, here’s some ladies who played an important part in the course of Rome’s development. I’ll list some of my favorite to learn about, from those who got famous in typically feminine roles–sexual violence victim, the mother, etc and as the list goes on, transition to those who bent the gender norms before it was cool and managed to wield real power.

Lucretia (died 510 BCE): Supposedly the most beautiful and virtuous woman in Rome at the time. She was brutally raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last king of Rome, and in her shame after the fact, she stabbed herself. Her death infuriated the city and led to the rebellion which created the Republic. I find it significant that (assuming the story is accurate) the Roman people valued an individual life so much they overthrew their government and tried an entirely new system as a result. Imagine if people cared even half that much about an atrocity today. Back then, when the only government was local and communities more interconnected, it was easier to get upset enough to demand justice.

Cornelia Africana (195-115 BCE): Was hailed for generations as a model mother. She was daughter of the famous general Scipio Africanus and mother to the Gracchi Brothers. Cornelia was an active supporter of her sons’ political careers. There’s a famous anecdote of one of her friends showing off some expensive jewelry, and Cornelia summoning Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus into the room, saying “These are *my* jewels.” She’s also one of only two Romans in the republican period (along with Julius Caesar) who was offered and refused a crown (in her case, by turning down a marriage to Ptolemy.) There’s another story about how Cornelia’s husband Tiberius captured two snakes that were in the house. He was told that releasing the male snake would kill Cornelia, but releasing the female would kill himself. He chose to free the female snake and allow Cornelia to live. For as much as sources discuss her father and sons, I find it odd this anecdote about the other most important man in her life isn’t more well-known. It’s very romantic.

For whatever it’s worth, Cornelia is my favorite Roman woman, at least from the Republican or Principate Eras.

Livia Drusilia (58 BCE – 29 CE): Wife of Augustus, married for 51 years all the while an active confidant and adviser. She would be the first Roman woman whose image was printed on money. Livia was also the first woman granted the posthumous title “Augusta,” and the first to be deified (as “Diva Augusta”) after death. She was given the title “Mother of the Fatherland” after Augustus’ death, and an elephant drawn chariot conveying her image would be paraded around during public games. A statue of Livia was placed in the Temple Augustus, races were held in her honor, and women would pray to her and invoke her name in their sacred oaths. While these honors were only bestowed based on the accomplishments of her husband as opposed to herself, the veneration for a living woman to this extent was still a step in the right direction as far as gender equality goes.

Agrippina (15-59 CE): A political schemer akin to Cersei Lannister. Her most famous act is said to be poisoning the Emperor Claudius so her son Nero could ascend to power. She manipulated Claudius into exiling or executing her various rivals in the meantime, and took an active role in the earlier part of Nero’s reign. She was the first Empress awarded the title of Augusta in her own lifetime, as it had previously been a posthumous honor. Claudius named a new colony after her, the only time in history a Roman colony was named for a woman. I guess it’s important to remember women can be just as depraved as men, and victims of discrimination are not always virtuous martyrs. That shouldn’t be used to deny equal treatment, but it is still worth keeping in mind.

Ulpia Severina (birth and death dates unknown): Her husband was Emperor Aurelian, who ended the Crisis of the Third Century. After his sudden death in 275, she is said to have ruled the Empire in her own right for a few years until the Senate picked a suitable successor. Obviously, this would make her the only woman in the history of Rome to do such a thing. She was awarded the title “Mother of the Army, Senate and Country.” It goes without saying that this would be a huge step for equality between the sexes if true, though admittedly she never would have been put in that role had she not married the right man in the first place.

Zenobia (240-274 CE): After her husband died, she ruled the so-called Palmyrene Empire in her own right, as her son was only a year old. (This was a group of rouge provinces who had seceded from Rome.) She helped plan an invasion of Roman Egypt, conquering the province. Eventually, she was ousted by Aurelian–(the same man who was married to Ulpia in the previous entry)–and taken back to Rome as prisoner. She was put in golden chains and forced to march in his triumphal parade. It is said that Aurelian was so impressed by Zenobia’s regal demeanor even in captivity that he subsequently freed her. This would be the first and only time a Roman woman rose and fell to startling highs and lows by virtue of her own actions. Therefore, Zenobia in many ways represents the freest and most successful step towards sexual equality in Roman history.

Zenobia is my favorite Roman woman from the Crisis of the Third Century or Dominate Era.

This particular sculpture is called “Zenobia in Chains” and it’s one of my favorites.

There’s a few more who played roles similar to those listed here. Verginia was another victim of rape which outraged the public and led to political reforms, specifically the ousting of the Decemvirate. Aurelia Cotta was the mother of Julius Caesar who used her political clout to save him from Sulla’s conscriptions. Julia Maesa was a scheming grandmother who put two grandsons on the throne, including the infamous Elagabalus. Lucilla was another schemer who plotted and failed to kill her brother Commodus. It’s worth noting in her case though, that Commodus was a terrible ruler, and so her betrayal of him might have been born of noble intentions rather than personal greed. Antonia Minor was a favorite niece of Augustus, and would come to be seen as another model woman and mother in the Imperial period for her devotion to her husband (she never remarried after his death) and to her children.

A Tragic Father-Daughter Relationship

Perhaps the saddest and most profound story in the annals of Roman womanhood is that of Julia the Elder, the only natural born (as opposed to adopted) child of Augustus. They were said to be incredibly close, and she is described as being a sweet girl with a great wit. Not only that, young Julia had the confidence to challenge some of her father’s policies to his face. He was devoted to her, and she was supposedly his favorite consort at public events after his own wife. Julia was the child of Augustus’ earlier marriage to a woman named Scribonia, and as such Livia is said to have resented the girl and even mistreated her. 

Julia was forced into three unhappy marriages throughout her life, the last of which to the future Emperor Tiberius (Livia’s son). Unfortunately, Tiberius was obsessed with another woman whom he’d enjoyed a loving marriage with, but divorced against his will in order to marry Julia and secure the political dynasty. As a result, he greatly resented his new wife for circumstances which she had no control over. There were accusations of infidelity directed at Julia, and the scandal forced Augustus to exile his beloved daughter. (He had enacted a series of policies and speeches designed around the promotion of virtue, including chastity. To have his own daughter publicly seen as an adulteress was humiliating, and to let her off easy would make him look like a hypocrite.) Augustus never forgave Julia for this infraction, and gave strict orders her body not be buried in the Mausoleum of Augustus along with the rest of the family. After her father passed away, Julia was completely at Tiberius’ mercy, and the new Emperor had her starved to death.

I find Julia’s story particularly compelling for several reasons:

I have a great soft-spot for Father-Daughter relationships, both in fiction and real life. It may be because they’re the most pure and protective relationship a man can ever have with a woman (generally speaking of course) where there is no shame or pressure to distance oneself (as boys feel towards their mothers growing up) and no sexual attraction to muddy the waters. Most dads know what other guys want from young women because they, or at least their male friends, were that way growing up. A man raising a daughter knows the disrespect and predatory behavior she’s in for in life, and there’s little he can do about it except raise her to be as self-sufficient as possible, and lead by example how a man treats a lady, so she seeks out the right kind of partner. A daughter is a man’s reminder (or lesson) that all those women he pressured into sex, or catcalled, or made lewd comments about to his buddies, is a person too. A dad is a girl’s protector and superman, the ideal she will hold all other men in her life to. I think there’s something beautiful in that, and I don’t believe any other parent-offspring relationships are quite as special or protective. So anyway, it’s really upsetting to hear about one in particular which began so affectionately yet ended so wrong.

It’s also a great example of how, money and power are not everything. Despite being master of the known world, Augustus watched helplessly as multiple young relatives he’d been grooming as heirs died one by one. He isolated himself from Julia because of his puritanical social agenda, the somewhat unscrupulous woman he’d married after her mother, and the political union he forced upon her. For all the glory Augustus achieved it alienated him from the most precious thing in the world–his child. Even the most powerful men are vulnerable to hurt and regrets.

Julia, it seems, was a person born before her time, or rather a woman born to a cruel and repressive (especially for girls) society. She was the kind of intelligent, free-spirited, strong-willed young woman who would have flourished in say, the 1920’s, the 1960’s or the present day. Unfortunately she was too good for the world around her, just as Scipio Africanus and Hannibal Barca (which I will talk about in a future post.)


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