Julia the Elder was the only child of Emperor Augustus. This posed a challenge for a ruler who wanted to found a dynasty. He dedicated his life to Rome; he spent his life rebuilding it. How else to ensure that his work was not in vain? Julia was the link between Augustus and any heir he chose. Be it one of her three husbands or one of her many sons. However, Julia was anything but an obedient daughter or a dutiful wife.
Julia the Elder: Born of a Wrong Mother
Augustus was married three times. But only one woman was the love of his life. His second wife, Scribonia, served as a political match to seal an alliance between the then triumvir and Sextus Pompeius. Scribonia was related to Sextus, so Augustus (at that time known as Octavian) divorced his first wife, Claudia, and forced Scribonia to divorce her husband. This happened in 40 BCE. The marriage was not a happy one. In his divorce note later on, Augustus wrote to Scribonia that he could no longer put up with her “shrewish disposition.”
Scribonia gave birth to their only child, Julia, a year and a half after their wedding. The very same day, she received the divorce note. Octavian no longer needed her, and he was already in love with his future third wife, Livia. He could not have known then that Scribonia’s baby would be his only child. But still, as he drove away the mother, he gladly took the child.
Livia: The Evil Stepmother?
Julia could not have remembered her birth mother. Augustus and Livia married scandalously soon after the divorce. As soon as Livia moved into Augustus’ household, she took over the care of the baby Julia. What was the relationship between these two women like? Ancient sources mostly say that Livia hated her stepdaughter and plotted against her at every turn. But the ancient authors all too often rely on Tacitus. And Tacitus hated Livia. For him, she was the very essence of evil — the Maleficent of Roman history.
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However, there might be some truth in it. Why are all the evil stepmothers evil in the first place? Because they want their own children to thrive. And Livia was also eager to push her sons’ interests. Livia had two sons from her first marriage, Drusus and Tiberius. They stayed with their father until he died in 36 BCE. Then, the two boys were reunited with their mother and united with Julia.
Julia’s Childhood on the Palatine
Julia grew up in a luxurious villa on the Palatine Hill overlooking Rome. Her stepmother Livia ruled the large household with a firm hand. She might have had a good relationship with her stepbrothers. Tiberius was older, and Drusus was roughly her age. We know nothing about her relationship with the latter, but they probably got along well. Nearly everybody got along well with Drusus. Tiberius was a different matter. He was a little sulky, inclined to solitude, and read a lot. Augustus considered his older stepson slow and crude. Some sources would have us believe that Julia the Elder took a liking to her older “brother.”
Marriage was on the table as soon as she reached adolescence. She was the emperor’s only child and thus too important to be allowed a choice of a husband. But whom would she marry?
Julia’s First Marriage: Marcellus the Crown Prince of Rome
Augustus did not consider Livia’s sons when looking for an heir. He looked to somebody from his own family. Somebody with Julian blood in their veins. And there were plenty of them to choose from because there was another important woman in Rome. One who was very much loved by the Roman public. The meek and humble Octavia, Augustus’ beloved sister. It was her older son, Marcellus, whom Augustus took on as his heir.
Marcellus and Julia were married. They were a similar age and they had known each other all their lives. We know little of Marcellus’ character. Seneca left a description saying that he was clever, talented, well-tempered, and with good manners. Could it be that the two young people found understanding between each other? It might be. But little time was given to them — only one or two years. In 23 BCE, the crown prince fell sick and died, leaving no children.
Julia’s Second Marriage: Agrippa the Leader of Rome
Julia the Elder became a widow at the age of 16. Once again, she had to follow her father’s wishes and marry a man of his choosing.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was a lifelong friend of Augustus. He excelled in martial arts and organizational tasks. Augustus owed his military victories to Agrippa. As long as Marcellus had lived and Augustus favored him as an heir, the ancient sources imply that a rivalry arose between the young “crown prince” and the old general. When Marcellus died, Augustus needed his old friend again. He made it evident that Agrippa was the second man in Rome by marrying him to his only daughter Julia.
Was the marriage happy? Agrippa was more than twice her age. A renowned general of a somewhat crude disposition. Julia the Elder was well-educated, outgoing, and friendly. She enjoyed parties and the company of poets. From what we know of Agrippa, their interests diverged very much. Either way, Julia spent a lot of time alone in Rome as her husband traveled around the Empire on military and other campaigns. But they had five children. Two daughters, Julia and Agrippina the Elder, and three sons, Gaius, Lucius, and Agrippa, who was named Postumus as he was born after his father’s death.
How Obedient a Wife and Daughter Was Julia?
Agrippa was away a lot. Some ancient authors imply that even during this marriage, Julia entertained some lovers. Macrobius provides us with unique descriptions of Julia. She was told repeatedly that all children are the very image of their father. She would point at her belly and say: “I take on passengers only when the boat is full.” In other words she cheated on her husband only when pregnant so that she did not give him a child out of wedlock.
Macrobius also describes Julia the Elder as amiable and says that the Roman public loved her very much. Augustus never hesitated to use her as a pawn in dynastic politics but supposedly he loved her very much and forgave her when she did not behave as a virtuous Roman woman. Julia lacked cruelty, and more importantly, she had no interest in politics. She read a lot and loved poetry. She represented a counterpart to her stepmother, who was ambitious and embodied the image of a perfect virtuous Roman wife.
Julia’s Third and Final marriage: Tiberius
Agrippa died suddenly in 12 BCE at the age of 51. Julia gave birth to their fifth child, Agrippa Postumus, and became a widow again at 27. Still beautiful and full of life, she did not stay unmarried for long. Her elder sons, Gaius and Lucius, were adopted by Augustus, who chose them to be his heirs. But they were only boys and Augustus was no longer a young man. So, he had to find an older, more experienced man to be his second in command.
Finally, he turned to his older stepson, Tiberius. He ordered him to divorce his beloved wife, Vipsania, and marry Julia but the marriage was a total failure. Although there might have been a brief period of happiness at the beginning of their life together when a child was born, it was soon to die as children in antiquity frequently did. In 6 BCE, Tiberius gave up his position in the Roman administration and left for Rhodes rather than be with his wife. The couple separated and once again, Julia was alone.
Julia lived alone for nine years. All the ancient sources suppose that she had a lot of affairs during that time. But they deduce this mainly from the events of the year 2 BCE. Her lifestyle differed significantly from the ideal of a virtuous Roman woman, a model promoted vigorously by Augustus and his own wife, Livia. Julia entertained her friends at many parties, drank a lot of wine, and behaved frivolously. That much is certain. But Augustus must have known. He was well informed about everything in Rome so we can hardly imagine that all of Rome knew about his daughter’s scandalous life, and he did not. But in 2 BCE, Julia the Elder crossed some sort of line.
According to some accounts, Julia the Elder and her male and female companions got very drunk, went to Forum Romanum, and partied on the rostra. Whatever the truth, the bubble burst. Augustus’ reaction was swift and harsh. He punished her lovers and exiled his daughter to the small island of Pandateria. It was a rock surrounded by the ocean. The emperor forbade her male company and wine, and every visit had to be approved by him personally.
Did Julia Conspire Against her Father?
Exile was a common punishment for an adulteress. But modern sources (in contrast with the ancient ones) mention more. They mention treason. At least one of Julia’s companions and lovers was executed for treason. Julus Antonius was the son of Augustus’ old nemesis, Marcus Antonius. Although the boy was raised in the emperor’s household by his sister Octavia, he never received any honor and was discouraged from participating in politics. Cassius Dio says that Iulus Antonius was executed. Some modern historians insist that Augustus’ punishment and treatment of Antonius and Julia’s other lovers were too harsh for common adultery.
Some conspiring may have been involved but we do not need to look for a conspiracy if we put the scandal in context. Augustus introduced groundbreaking family legislation and went to great lengths to enforce it. This so-called Lex Iuliae aimed to reform the loose morals of young people in the upper classes in order to promote a virtuous family life blessed with many children. What was he to do when his own daughter so openly despised her father’s reforms? Julia’s example could have served as a warning, and Augustus’ example would signal to all fathers and husbands that no matter how much they love their daughters and wives, they should punish them accordingly if they must. So, Julia once again served her father’s politics.
Julia the Elder: Exile and Death
Pandateria was basically a piece of rock in the ocean. Here Julia the Elder spent her days until her father mitigated her punishment and allowed her to move to the mainland, to Rhegium. He was merciful enough to let her birth mother accompany her. We can only imagine what the two women, who had never seen each other, talked about. When Augustus died and Tiberius became emperor, Julia’s situation worsened. Tiberius took away her income and forbade her to leave the house. She died in 14 CE.
Did Augustus’ disobedient daughter leave a legacy? The Julio-Claudian dynasty is her legacy. After her husband Tiberius, her grandson Caligula ascended to the throne. The last emperor of the dynasty, Nero, was her great-grandson. In the end, she might have ended her life in disgrace, but Julia the Elder is the reason why we call the first Roman dynasty of emperors Julio–Claudians. For better or worse.