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12 September 2018updated 17 Sep 2018 2:42pm

Matrons and murderers: the blood-thirsty women of Rome

The women of Rome’s imperial family matched the men for ruthlessness, but their reward was ingratitude rather than power.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

When the 23-year-old Empress Messalina celebrated a bigamous “marriage” with her latest lover, the faction opposed to her decided that the time had come, at last, to act. Messalina’s outrages against morality and decorum were not only scandalous. They were compromising the dignity of the principate and endangering the state. They had been going on ever since her marriage, but her husband, the Emperor Claudius, seemed not to know about them, despite the fact that her orgiastic parties, where men were obliged to watch their wives having sex with others, took place inside the imperial palace.

Someone, decided the freedmen who actually governed Rome, had to inform the emperor that his wife now had another “husband” and that the two of them were plotting to oust him. The messengers chosen were two prostitutes of whom Claudius was known to be fond: their names were Calpurnia and Cleopatra.

The situation is rich in irony. Messalina was to be accused of consorting with, and acting like, prostitutes, and was killed for it. But no one seems to have seen anything amiss in the fact that Claudius’s confidential friends included two women of that profession, women whom he had presumably used for sex. Their names add an extra piquancy to the episode. They are the names of Julius Caesar’s estimable wife and of the most reviled and celebrated of his many mistresses. Caesar, the deified founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had set Messalina a precedent in bigamy when, in Egypt, he allowed Queen Cleopatra to present him as her spouse. The rulers who came after him presided over a Roman state where ambitious women were obliged to navigate with the utmost care between the prototypes represented by these two women in his life. If they aspired to be like Cleopatra – independently rich, sexually self-determining, and wielding real political power – they had also to wear the mask of Calpurnia, the docile matron content to exert influence only through her relationship with a great man.

Guy de la Bédoyère points out that while Julius Caesar’s successors, from Augustus to Nero, established a quasi-monarchical dynasty where power was inherited on the basis of the blood-line, not a single one of those rulers passed the empire on to his own son. The line of succession zig-zagged between great-nephews, stepsons, and an uncle. In each case, most, if not all, of the new emperor’s claim to legitimacy depended on the female line.

Octavia (remembered chiefly as the wife whom Antony abandoned for Cleopatra), became the ancestress of emperors, so did Livia, Augustus’s wife, and so even did Augustus’s wretched daughter Julia, who spent the last 16 years of her life exiled on a tiny island as punishment for her “disorderly” love affairs, and who was eventually starved to death on her step-brother’s orders. Women might otherwise be of little account – Valerius Maximus, writing during the reign of Tiberius, blamed their taste for gold and purple on their imbecilitas mentis (feeble-mindedness) – but their child-bearing capacities were essential to the continuance of the regime.

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As individuals the women of the imperial family had no direct power, but as matriarchs, and most particularly as mothers, they could aspire to influence. Over and over again, though, they found that chance, or the ingratitude of the sons for whom they had schemed and, in some cases, murdered, thwarted their hopes of queen-motherly happiness.

Livia, Augustus’s consort, stepped into a greater role after his death, when her son Tiberius inherited. Far from welcoming her partnership, though, Tiberius exiled himself to Capri to escape the frustrations her claiming executive power caused him. Agrippina the Elder endured slander, exile and imprisonment in her tenacious campaign to ensure her son Caligula would succeed. Before he could do so she was so brutally beaten up, that one of her eyes was destroyed. Her daughter, Agrippina the Younger, slandered or poisoned anyone (almost certainly including her husband) who stood in the way of her son. Thanks largely to her, he became the Emperor Nero. She would do anything to please him, allegedly even offering herself to him for incestuous sex, but – exasperated by her dominance – Nero ordered her murder. When the first attempt (by drowning in an unsound boat) failed, he ordered it again, this time using the more conventional method of sending around a gang of armed thugs. Agrippina is said to have asked them to stab her first in the belly. “Strike here, for this bore Nero.”

The lives of the emperors and their families are so full of violent death, sexual misconduct and general mayhem that any account of them is constantly at risk of sinking into Horrible History-style absurdity. De la Bédoyère keeps a straight face, but errs in the other direction. Surprisingly, his book manages to be rather dull. Rightly suspicious of his literary sources, he gives a lot of attention to numismatics. The iconography of imperial coinage is undoubtedly important. It tells us a lot about the way the emperors sought to present themselves, which deities they wished to be identified with, which of their relatives they chose to honour. It doesn’t, however, especially when presented, as here, in indigestible chunks of catalogue-fodder, make for a compelling read.

There are other problems. The ancient historians are unreliable, greatly preferring to point a moral or tell a racy story to recording the facts. Most of them were writing long after the events they describe, drawing on primary sources that have since been lost. Suetonius is salacious, Tacitus and Velleius Paterculus are partisan. The Augustan poets sought to please Augustus. All of them, in writing about women, see their subject-matter through a veil of misogyny.

De la Bédoyère is fully aware of what dodgy material he has to build his story with. Searching for reliable facts in imperial Rome, he writes, can feel like “walking into an impenetrable fog”. But he is inconsistent in his approach to the fog-makers. He admires Livia, so when Tacitus denigrates her, he rejects Tacitus. He loathes the “termagant” Agrippina the Younger, so when Tacitus accuses her of extravagant crimes, he passes on Tacitus’s stories as trustworthy.

All historians of the ancient world have to wrestle with the same epistemological conundrum. Many, though, do it with more elegance: this book’s narrative line is tangled and its argument repetitive. Others, too, have a more persuasive take on their chosen theme.

De la Bédoyère has interesting things to say about the “strangely brilliant” conjuring trick whereby Augustus made himself the most powerful person in the Mediterranean world, while presenting himself as a humble servant of the no-longer-existent republic. He argues that the empresses, similarly, were able to accomplish much precisely because so little was expected of them. So inconceivable was it to their contemporaries that they might have political ambitions that it was “legally impossible to prosecute a woman for attempting to take power”. Denied any opportunity to be Cleopatras, they could plot and scheme and manipulate in the guise of Calpurnias. And yet, it is hard to see what any of these women achieved by such means, beyond buying “pet” dwarfs, doing down their rivals and promoting their ungrateful sons.

In AD 62 Nero married his second wife, Poppaea, presenting her on their wedding day with the gift of his first wife’s severed head. Over the next three years his behaviour became more and more crazy. One day Poppaea told him he went too often to the races. According to Suetonius, he flew into a rage and kicked her to death. Tacitus’s version is more guarded; the kicking was “accidental” he wrote, and Poppaea died afterwards, of poison. Dio Cassius is equivocal as to whether the murder was deliberate or otherwise, but he provides a ghastly and apposite detail. In the course of the attack, Nero jumped up and down on his pregnant wife’s belly. So, if Dio is to be believed, he crushed underfoot the last chance of a legitimate heir to the Julio-Claudian line.

De la Bédoyère’s subtitle suggests that the women of the family had “made Imperial Rome” by perpetuating the blood-line. In vain. Its final representative had – all too literally – stamped it out. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “Cleopatra” (Pimlico). She is a curator of the Metamorphoses Festival at Greenwich, on 6 October:

Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome
Guy de la Bédoyère
Yale, 385pp, £25

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This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism