“Just now, I made my way to the Forum through the midst of an army of women”. So Livy (34.4-7) presented the speech of the arch moralist (and misogynist) Cato the Elder in 195 BCE. As consul, Cato was arguing against the repeal of the lex Oppia, a sumptuary law that aimed at curbing the rights of Roman women. In the end, Cato’s defense of the law was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the stringent clauses of the lex Oppia and the debate over its repeal reveal to us the position of women in the Roman world.
Fundamentally, the Roman Empire was a profoundly patriarchal society. Men controlled the world, from the political sphere to the domestic; the pater familias ruled the roost at home. Where women emerge in the historical sources (of which the authors are invariably men), they feature as moral mirrors of society. Domesticated and docile women are idealized, but those who interfere beyond the confines of the home are reviled; there was naught so deadly in the Roman psyche than Roman women with influence.
Looking beyond the myopia of these ancient writers, however, can reveal colorful and influential female characters who, for better or worse, had a profound impact on the shape of Roman history.
1. Idealizing Roman Women: Lucretia and the Birth of a Republic
Really, the story of Rome begins with defiant Roman women. Way back in the mists of Rome’s earliest mythology, Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, had defied the orders of the king of Alba Longa, Amulius, and orchestrated for her sons to be spirited away by a compassionate servant. Perhaps the most infamous story of the courage of Roman women, however, is that of Lucretia. Three different ancient historians describe the fate of Lucretia—Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, and Cassius Dio—but the crux and consequences of Lucretia’s tragic tale remain largely the same.
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Using the sources above, the story of Lucretia can be dated to around 508/507 BCE. The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, was waging war against Ardea, a city south of Rome, but he had sent his son, Tarquin to the town of Collatia. There he was received hospitably by Lucius Collatinus, whose wife—Lucretia—was the daughter of the prefect of Rome. According to one version, in a dinner-time debate over the virtue of wives, Collatinus held up Lucretia as an exemplum. Riding to his home, Collatinus won the debate when they discovered Lucretia dutifully weaving with her maids. However, during the night, Tarquin snuck into Lucretia’s chambers. He offered her a choice: either submit to his advances, or he would kill her and claim that he had discovered her committing adultery.
In response to her rape by the king’s son, Lucretia committed suicide. The outrage felt by the Romans prompted an uprising. The king was driven from the city and replaced by two consuls: Collatinus and Lucius Iunius Brutus. Although several battles were left to be fought, the rape of Lucretia was—in the Roman consciousness—a fundamental moment in their history, leading to the establishment of the Republic.
2. Remembering the Virtue of Roman Women Through Cornelia
The tales that surrounded women such as Lucretia—often as much myth as history—established a discourse surrounding the idealization of Roman women. They were to be chaste, modest, loyal to their husband and family, and domestic; a wife and mother. Broadly, we might classify ideal Roman women as a matrona, female counterparts to male moral exemplarity. In later generations during the Republic, certain women were upheld as these figures worthy of emulation. One example was Cornelia (190s – 115 BCE), the mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.
Famously, her devotion to her children was recorded by Valerius Maximus, and the episode has transcended history to become a subject popular in broader culture. Confronted by other women who challenged her modest dress and jewelry, Cornelia brought forth her sons and claimed: “These are my jewels”. The extent of Cornelia’s involvement in the political careers of her sons was probably slight but remains ultimately unknowable. Nevertheless, this daughter of Scipio Africanus was known to have been interested in literature and education. Most famously, Cornelia was the first mortal living woman to be commemorated with a public statue at Rome. Only the base has survived, but the style inspired female portraiture for centuries after, mimicked most famously by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great (see below).
3. Livia Augusta: First Empress of Rome
With the shift from Republic to Empire, the prominence of Roman women changed. Fundamentally, very little actually changed: Roman society remained patriarchal, and women were still idealized for their domesticity and distance from power. The reality, however, was that in a dynastic system such as the Principate, women—as the guarantors of the next generation and as the wives of the ultimate arbiters of power—held considerable sway. They may not have had any additional power, but they almost certainly had increased influence and visibility. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore that the archetypical Roman empress remains Livia, wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius.
Although rumors abound in the written sources for Livia’s schemes, including the poisoning of rivals to her son’s claim to the throne, she nevertheless established the pattern for the empresses. She adhered to principles of modesty and piety, reflecting the moral legislation introduced by her husband. She also exercised a degree of autonomy, managing her own finances and owning expansive properties. The verdant frescos that once adorned the walls of her villa at Prima Porta to the north of Rome are a masterpiece of ancient painting.
In Rome, Livia went further than Cornelia, too. Her public visibility was hitherto unprecedented, with Livia even appearing on coinage. It was also manifest in architecture, as well as art, with the Porticus Liviae, built on the Esquiline Hill. After Augustus’ death and Tiberius succession, Livia continued to remain prominent; indeed, both Tacitus and Cassius Dio present an overbearing maternal interference in the new emperor’s reign. This established a historiographic pattern mimicked in decades to come, whereby weak or unpopular emperors were presented as too-easily influenced by the powerful Roman women in their family.
4. Daughters of Dynasty: Agrippina the Elder and Agrippina the Younger
“They actually possess all the prerogatives of kings except their paltry title. For the appellation, ‘Caesar’ confers upon them no peculiar power, but merely shows that they are the heirs of the family to which they belong”. As Cassius Dio noted, there was no masking the monarchical character of the political transformation ushered in by Augustus. This change meant that the Roman women of the imperial family quickly became highly influential as guarantors of dynastic stability. In the Julio-Claudian dynasty (which ended with Nero’s suicide in 68 CE), two women who followed Livia were especially important: Agrippina the Elder and Agrippina the Younger.
Agrippina the Elder was the daughter of Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ trusted advisor, and her brothers—Gaius and Lucius—were the adopted sons of Augustus who had both died prematurely… Married to Germanicus, Agrippina was the mother of Gaius. Born on the frontier where his father campaigned, the soldiers delighted in the young boy’s little boots, and they gave him the nickname ‘Caligula’; Agrippina was the mother of the future emperor. After Germanicus himself died—possibly by poison administered by Piso—it was Agrippina who carried her husband’s ashes back to Rome. These were interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus, a reminder of his wife’s important role in bringing together the different branches of the dynasty.
The daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, the younger Agrippina, was similarly influential in the dynastic politics of the Julio-Claudian empire. She had been born in Germany when her father was campaigning, and the site of her birth was renamed as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis; today, it is called Cologne (Köln). In 49 CE, she was married to Claudius. He had been made emperor by the Praetorians following the assassination of Caligula in 41 CE, and he had ordered the execution of his first wife, Messalina, in 48 CE. As it transpired, Claudius appears not to have enjoyed much success in picking his wives.
As the emperor’s wife, it is suggested by the literary sources that Agrippina schemed to ensure that her son, Nero, would succeed Claudius as emperor, rather than his first son, Britannicus. Nero was the child of Agrippina’s first marriage, to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. It appears that Claudius trusted Agrippina’s advice, and she was a prominent and influential figure at court.
Rumors abound that Agrippina was involved in Claudius’ death, possibly feeding the elder emperor a dish of poisoned mushrooms to speed up his passing. Whatever the truth, Agrippina’s scheming had been successful, and Nero was made emperor in 54 CE. The stories of Nero’s descent into megalomania are well known, but it is apparent that—to begin with at least—Agrippina continued to exert influence on imperial politics. In the end though, Nero felt threatened by his mother’s influence and ordered her assassination.
5. Plotina: Wife of the Optimus Princeps
Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, was an effective administrator but not a popular man. Nor, it seems, was he a happy husband. In 83 CE, his wife—Domitia Longina—was exiled, although the exact reasons for this remain unknown. After Domitian was assassinated (and the short interregnum of Nerva), the empire passed into the control of Trajan. The well-known military commander was already married to Pompeia Plotina. His reign made a conscious effort to present itself as the antithesis to the alleged tyrannies of Domitian’s later years. This seemingly extended to his wife: upon her entry into the imperial palace on the Palatine, Plotina is reputed by Cassius Dio to have announced, “I enter here the kind of woman I would like to be when I depart”.
By this, Plotina was expressing a desire to obliterate legacies of domestic discord and to be conceived of as the idealized Roman matrona. Her modesty is evident in her apparent reticence for public visibility. Awarded the title of Augusta by Trajan in 100 CE, she declined his honorific until 105 CE and did not appear on the emperor’s coinage until 112. Significantly, Trajan and Plotina’s relationship was not fecund; no heirs were forthcoming. However, they did adopt Trajan’s first cousin, Hadrian; Plotina herself would help Hadrian select his future wife Vibia Sabina (although it was not, in the end, the happiest union).
Some historians would later claim that Plotina also orchestrated Hadrian’s own elevation as emperor following Trajan’s death, although this remains suspicious. Nevertheless, the union between Trajan and Plotina had established the practice that was going to define Roman imperial power for several decades: the adoption of heirs. Imperial wives who followed during the reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, drew variously on Plotina as a model.
6. The Syrian Empress: Julia Domna
The role and representation of Marcus Aurelius’ wife, Faustina the Younger, was in the end different to those of her immediate predecessors. Their marriage, unlike those before them, had been especially fruitful, even providing Marcus with a son who survived to adulthood. Unfortunately for the empire, this son was Commodus. That emperor’s own reign (180-192 CE) is remembered by the sources for the delusions and cruelties of a despotic ruler, reminiscent of the worst excesses of Nero. His assassination on New Year’s Eve 192 CE caused a period of sustained civil war that wouldn’t finally be resolved until 197 CE. The victor was Septimius Severus, a native of Leptis Magna, a city on the coast of North Africa (modern Libya). He too was already married. His wife was Julia Domna, the daughter of a noble family of priests from Emesa in Syria.
Allegedly, Severus had learned of Julia Domna because of her horoscope: the notoriously superstitious emperor had discovered that there was a woman in Syria whose horoscope predicted that she would marry a king (although the extent to which the Historia Augusta can be trusted is always an interesting debate). As the imperial wife, Julia Domna was exceptionally prominent, featuring on an array of representation media, including coinage and public art and architecture. Reputedly, she also cultivated a close circle of friends and scholars, discussing literature and philosophy. Perhaps more importantly—for Severus at least—was that Julia provided him with two sons and heirs: Caracalla and Geta.
Through them, the Severan dynasty could continue. Unfortunately, sibling rivalry jeopardized this. After Severus died, the relationship between the brothers deteriorated rapidly. In the end, Caracalla orchestrated the murder of his brother. More shocking still, he instituted one of the most severe attacks against his legacy ever witnessed. This damnatio memoriae resulted in Geta’s images and name being erased and defaced across the empire. Where once there had been images of a happy Severan family, now there was only Caracalla’s empire. Julia, unable to mourn her younger son, appears to have become increasingly active in imperial politics at this time, replying to petitions when her son was on military campaign.
7. Kingmaker: Julia Maesa and Her Daughters
Caracalla was not, by all accounts, a popular man. If the senatorial historian Cassius Dio is to be believed (and we should consider that his account may be driven by personal enmity), there was much celebration in Rome upon the news that he had been murdered in 217 CE. However, there was rather less celebration at the news of his replacement, the praetorian prefect, Macrinus. The soldiers Caracalla had been leading in a campaign against the Parthians were especially dismayed—they had lost not only their main benefactor, but he had been replaced by someone who seemingly lacked the spine to wage war.
Fortunately, a solution was near at hand. In the east, relatives of Julia Domna had been scheming. Caracalla’s death threatened to return the Emesene nobility back to private status. Domna’s sister, Julia Maesa, lined pockets and made promises to Roman forces in the region. She presented her grandson, known to history as Elagabalus, as the illegitimate child of Caracalla. Although Macrinus attempted to quash the rival emperor, he was beaten at Antioch in 218 and killed as he attempted to flee.
Elagabalus arrived in Rome in 218. He would rule for just four years, and his reign would remain forever stained by controversy and claims of excess, debauchery, and eccentricity. One oft-repeated critique was the weakness of the emperor; he found it impossible to escape from the domineering presence of his grandmother, Julia Maesa, or his mother Julia Soaemias. He is even alleged to have introduced a woman’s senate although this is fictitious; more likely to be possible is the claim that he did allow his female relatives to attend senate meetings. Regardless, patience with the imperial oddball quickly wore thin, and he was murdered in 222 CE. Notably, his mother was also killed with him, and the damnatio memoriae she suffered was unprecedented.
Elagabalus was replaced by his cousin, Severus Alexander (222-235). Also presented as a bastard son of Caracalla, Alexander’s reign is characterized in literary sources by ambivalence. Although the emperor is broadly presented as “good”, the influence of his mother—Julia Mamaea (another daughter of Maesa)—is again inescapable. So too is the perception of Alexander’s weakness. In the end, he was murdered by disaffected soldiers while campaigning in Germania in 235. His mother, on campaign with him, also perished. A series of women had played decisive roles in elevating their male heirs to supreme power, and reputedly exerted considerable influence on their reigns. Evidence of their influence, if not their explicit power, is suggested by their sorry fates, as both Julia Soaemias and Mamae, imperial mothers, were murdered.
8. Pilgrim Mother: Helena, Christianity, and Roman Women
The decades that followed the murder of Severus Alexander and his mother were characterized by profound political instability as the empire was wracked by a series of crises. This ‘Third Century Crisis’ was ended by Diocletian’s reforms, but even these were temporary, and soon war would break again as new imperial rivals—the Tetrarchs—vied for control. The eventual winner of this tussle, Constantine, had a difficult relationship with the women in his life. His wife Fausta, the sister of Maxentius his former rival, was alleged by some ancient historians, to have been found guilty of adultery and executed in 326 CE. Sources, such as the Epitome de Caesaribus, describe how she was locked into a bathhouse, which was gradually overheated.
Constantine appears to have enjoyed slightly better relations with his mother, Helena. She was awarded the title of Augusta in 325 CE. Surer evidence of her importance, however, can be seen in the religious functions she fulfilled for the emperor. Although the exact nature and extent of Constantine’s faith remains debated, it is known that he provided funds for Helena to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326-328 CE. There, she was responsible for uncovering and bringing back to Rome relics of the Christian tradition. Famously, Helena was responsible for building churches, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, while she also uncovered fragments of the True Cross (as described by Eusebius of Caesarea), on which Christ had been crucified. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on this site, and the cross itself was sent to Rome; fragments of the cross can still be seen today in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
Although Christianity almost certainly changed things, it is clear from Late Antique sources that the models of earlier Roman matronae remained influential; not for nothing does a seated depiction of Helena allegedly draw on the influence of the very first public statue of a Roman woman, Cornelia. Roman women in high society would continue to be patrons of the arts, as Galla Placidia did at Ravenna, while in the very epicenter of political turbulence, they could continue to stand strong—even as the emperors themselves fumbled—just as Theodora allegedly bolstered the wavering courage of Justinian during the Nika riots. Although the narrow perspectives imposed by the societies in which they lived may try at times to obscure or obfuscate their importance, it is quite clear that the Roman world was profoundly shaped by the influence of its women.