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The Julio-Claudian Women Reshaping the History Books

The fledgling Roman empire is a source of continued fascination and inspiration for the modern-day historian. The appeal of the era, with its intrigue, violence, and complex characters, transcends historical accuracy and nestles firmly in the pop-culture sub-conscience. However, modern scholarship’s continued infatuation with this hazy world of war, death, and classic masculinity neglects an ever-overlooked part of history: women.

The reactive socio-political environment of the Julio-Claudian period encouraged the transgression of traditional political boundaries. Succession issues and proximity to the male elite were two key components of influential women’s successful transgression of traditional boundaries of power in the early Roman empire. Two of the most fascinating women to scrutinize are Livia Drusilla, first Empress of Rome, and Agrippina the Younger, mother to the notorious Emperor Nero.

Many historians consider influential Roman women enigmatically; individuals who procured influence and power in traditionally “male” ways. So how did women cultivate authority in such restrictive environments? For Livia and Agrippina, the answer was simple: reputation. In the Annales, for example, the famed historian Tacitus argued that Livia maintained influence in the empire by the purity of her conduct. His successor Dio wrote that Livia claimed she prevailed over Augustus “by being perfectly chaste…”. Agrippina, on the other hand, was recorded as having a formidable character. The question remains: how did these women acquire their reputation? [1]

One answer is that the transition from Republic to Empire under Augustus Caeser allowed for a reestablishment of traditional power boundaries. The Julio-Claudians, with dynastic intentions, turned the government of Rome into a personal tool.[2] One of Augustus’ crowning achievements was his influence over the cultural legacy of the early Roman Empire. Granted, his reconstruction of the political landscape of Rome is more readily apparent in the ancient texts, but the nature of that landscape had a profound effect on the intricacies of Roman society. Where previously politicians who pandered to the merits of the Republic enjoyed the highest status, suddenly, Augustus shaped the character of the Roman elite.

Simply by virtue of her marriage to Augustus, then, Livia was involved with the implementation of a new Roman culture. She worked within the capacity of the patriarchy, as the “embodiment of traditional chastity” in order to exert influence, as opposed to the likes of Agrippina the Younger, who “asserted herself as equivalent to her husband”.[3] Even such a simple example begs the question: did Augustus use Livia to achieve political gains? Did Livia use Augustus? The prominent historian Pomeroy claims Livia was “able to manipulate Augustus beyond doubt” which may indicate Livia’s self-awareness regarding her image as an authority figure.[4] Livia appeared alongside Augustus on imperial coinage distributed across the empire. Pomeroy dismisses her presence on currency as “personification of an attribute of the emperor… or his reign…”. But does this give too much credence to Augustus in their relationship? It is undeniable that Augustus played an important role in Livia’s successes.

The ancient historian Dio recorded that Augustus “granted to…Livia statues, the right of administering… affairs without a guardian, and the same security and inviolability as the tribunes enjoyed.”[5] MacLachlan notes how these concessions “awarded Livia… visible and sanctioned public presence that had not been possible previously for women…”.[6]

There is some suggestion that Livia actively used her status to protect her allies. Tacitus recalls the case of Urgulania, a prominent woman, who incurred the wrath of Senator Piso. Urgulania sought refuge in the imperial palace, a move which prompted Tacitus to declare that she existed “above the law” by virtue of her friendship with Livia. Tacitus wrote that Livia “was insulted and her majesty slighted” but nevertheless “directed the money that was claimed to be handed to him (Piso)” to turn him away.[7]

As previously mentioned, history tends to stop short of considering women as primary motivators for change because of their exclusion from politics. It was of course impossible for elite women to neglect their domestic duties in search of personal ambition, simply because of the patriarchal society they worked within. After all, Livia’s entire legacy was built around the idea she was a “mother” of the empire: Dio said, “she had… reared the children of many, and had helped many to pay their daughter’s dowries, as a result of which some called her mother of the country.”[8]

Judith Ginsburg cites three main rhetorical stereotypes in contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of Julio-Claudian women: the saeva noverca (wicked stepmother), the dux femina (commander woman), and the sexual transgressor (competitor).[9]

It is important to acknowledge these stereotypes even if their origin can be found in chronicles attributed to a misogynistic era. Regardless of their wholesale truth, the consistent presence of these stereotypes in the writings of near-contemporary scholars is at least evidence of anxiety over the role of female aristocrats in the Roman Empire. Tacitus wrote of Livia, “she was a domineering mother, an agreeable wife and possessed a character suited to the political occupation of her husband.”[10] Dio also claimed that Livia, “used to declare that it was she who had made Tiberius emperor… and wished to take precedence over him…”.[11] It is notable that historians like Dio acknowledged a world in which a woman could claim she wanted tangible power alongside a male peer.

Agrippina the Younger was perhaps the clearest example of the dux femina- the commander woman- among Julio-Claudian women. Among other actions, she recalled Seneca from exile, was honoured on imperial coinage, received embassies, stocked the Praetorian Guard with loyalists, drove Narcissus to suicide, was implicated in Claudius’ purge of the Senate, and, crucially, pressured Claudius into naming Nero as his heir.[12] Unlike Livia, Agrippina was not subtle in her ambition. In her son Nero’s early reign, Agrippina was privy to senate meetings, which she moved to the palace. She authorized coinage, handpicked Nero’s educators and convinced Claudius to adopt her son as his heir.[13] While it is this last point that garnered most attention, each one of Agrippina’s successes highlights the manipulation of the domestic role, and the importance of proximity to the male successor, in her challenge to gendered power boundaries.

An inevitable consequence of women’s relationship with power is scrutiny over their use of sex to facilitate their status or influence in a certain society. Less considered, however, is the much more tangible concept of sexual transgression. Tacitus claimed Agrippina's “ardour to keep her influence was carried so far that… she presented herself on several occasions to her half-tipsy son, coquettishly dressed and prepared for incest”.[14] Dio described Messalina as “the most abandoned and lustful woman” who “became enraged at her niece Julia… and accordingly… secured her banishment by trumping up various charges against her, including that of adultery… and not long afterward even compassed her death”.[15] Preoccupation with sex and power in contemporary chronicles can be isolated to one key concept: sexual transgression as a vassal for challenging boundaries of power.

Agrippina the Younger was a key violator of traditional gender roles in her aforementioned active role beside both Claudius and Nero. She was generally perceived to hold shared influence over inherited imperial power in her proximity to the political process. Tacitus famously claimed that Agrippina proclaimed of Nero, “let him kill me, as long as he becomes emperor”.[16] Such examples reflect an intensity usually associated with the ambition of the male elite.

These women exhibited political savvy, courage, and intellect not only to survive, but to implement their own ambitions. If anything affirms the ability for Julio-Claudian women to challenge traditional boundaries of power, it is their success in grasping even the smallest hint of influence in the lives and reigns of their sons.

Domesticity and proximity were the two primary vessels of influence for Julio-Claudian women. Succession disputes were the most accessible means for royal women to challenge traditional boundaries of power. The role of rhetorical stereotypes such as the dux femina, the saeva noverca, and the sexual transgressor, something that historians closely scrutinize, do much to explain how women’s pursuit of power has been perceived from the days of Tacitus and Dio to the modern era.

In the broader context of the ongoing historical process, attitudes toward the research and discussion of women’s role in history continue to change The argument that limited source material renders the study of women obsolete is the mark of a lazy historian.

Speculation, hypothesis, and investigation must be the mantra of the modern researcher. Women must be made more than accessible characters in our study of history. Progressive scholars like Pomeroy, Hemelrijk, and Bedoyere have made important strides in the humanization of historical figures like Livia in recent years. The challenge lies in maintaining and expanding a level of interest in the subject area that scrutinizes the agency, complexity, and significance of women alongside men in historical analysis.

End Notes

[1] Tacitus, Cornelius. 1984. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Dorset Press, (1.10) and Dio, Cassius. Translated by Cocceianus, Earnest Cary, and Herbert Baldwin Foster. 1914. Dio Cassius Roman History. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (58.2.5)

[2] Matyszak, Philip. 2006. The Sons of Caesar: Imperial Rome’s First Dynasty. Thames and Hudson, 10.

[3] Bedoyere, 124

[4] Pomeroy, 121

[5] Dio, Roman Histories, 49.32.2.

[6] MacLachlan, 131

[7] Tacitus, Annales, 2.34

[8] Dio, Roman Histories, 58.2.3.

[9] Ginsburg, Judith. 2006. Representing Agrippina. Oxford University Press.

[10] Tacitus, Annales, 5.1.1.

[11] Dio, Roman Histories, 57.12.3-4.

[12] Burns, Jasper. 2007. Great Women of Imperial Rome. Routledge.57-66, and Tac. Ann. 4; Tac. Ann. 6;

[13] Tac. Ann. 12.8

[14] Tacitus, Ann. 14.2

[15] Dio, Hist. 60.

[16] Tacitus, Ann. 14.9

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