Matrons of Awesome Part IV – Good and Evil at the End of the Republic

You may have noticed by now that Roman women tend to be classified as either Good or Bad. I used to think this was significant until a good friend and fellow scholar pointed out that Romans categorise everything this way. Men, women, emperors, fictional characters, countries. Everything is either Good or Bad.

The work I did over the three thousand years or so it took to complete my PhD thesis (okay, seven) revolved a great deal around the Roman idea of what constituted Good and Bad women. Lucretia and Cornelia on one side, Clodia and Fulvia on the other. The women of this post, however, provide some of the best examples of this division.

Julius Caesar, Marble, c. 50 BCE, Vatican Museums

A brief history lesson first: Rome was a Kingdom, then a Republic, the latter being a political system best described as ‘every rich man gets a vote’. Then, in a time when the Republic was falling to rack and ruin, a popular man. He had some good ideas about how to run Rome and the growing empire of territories it had conquered. He became high priest (pontifex maximus), then Dictator (a short-term position brought in occasionally when shit needed to get done). Finally, he was made Dictator for life. He was the only one that Rome trusted to actually Get the Job Done. He also looked good in tight jeans. (shut up, this is my version of the story) His name was Gaius Julius Caesar.

You may have guessed, I’m a bit of a fan.

Caesar’s Achilles heel was that he tended to assume everyone was (almost) as smart as he was, and that the world would see that he was trying to save Rome, get shit done, etc. But success breed jealousy, and many of his peers resented his a) smarts b) popularity c) saucy Egyptian mistress.

Because, yes, Caesar had visited Egypt to borrow their navy and ended up in bed with their Queen. His dalliance with Cleopatra, and other less than subtle reminders of his new power sent off warning bells in the heads of many of his fellow senators. (the ones whose power he had effectively usurped…)

Remember Lucretia? She was used as an excuse to kick the kings out of Rome. Now, hundreds of years later, Roman society had a horror of kings – a group paranoia about returning to the Bad Old Days. When Caesar’s good pal Antony offered him a crown in public (though Caesar refused it, theatrically), rumours began that Caesar planned to overturn the Republic and become a King.

Karl Urban as Julius Caesar in Xena: Warrior Princess (1999)

Ironically, the word ‘dictator’ had none of the connotations it does now, but ‘rex’ (king) was enough to put fear into the hearts of a whole city. Or, at least, the hearts of the rich white men who were used to being allowed to vote.

So a bunch of senators got together and stabbed Caesar to death.

All well and good (sob!), but they had failed to notice that the Republic was already dead. Caesar’s work was left half done, and their train wreck of a political system couldn’t snap back into place. The people looked for a replacement, and they found two: Caesar’s best pal Antony (a lush and a flake), and Caesar’s great-nephew and heir Octavian (had the right kind of evil smarts, but too young to be taken seriously). Together they hunted down Caesar’s assassins, and ended up trying to jointly rule an Empire. Only trouble was, they didn’t like each other very much.

Yay team!

Aureus of Mark Antony, featuring portrait of Octavia, 38 BCE

8. Octavia

Octavia was Octavian’s sister, a good and modest widow with several children. When Fulvia died (Antony’s “virago” of a wife, remember!) Octavian saw a chance to cement his uncomfortable alliance with Antony by marrying him to his sister. It worked, for a little while. They even released coins in commemoration of the friendship between the three of them.

(note: the bit in HBO’s Rome where Antony was shagging Octavia and Octavian’s mum was, sadly, completely fictional. Not even a scurrilous rumour at the time. Sorry, Atia. You just weren’t as awesome in history as you were on TV)

But while Octavian busied himself in Rome, Antony took on some of the more interesting outer reaches of the Roman Empire, regularly leaving his wife at home with their various children (his by Fulvia, Octavia’s by her first marriage, plus an expanding crop of their own, like a Roman version of the Brady Bunch) to bury himself in the wealth, luxury, politics and Queen of Egypt.

That’s right, Antony had taken up where Caesar left off with Cleopatra.

Octavian became more and more nervous – Cleopatra had wealth, resources and a kick-ass navy. Rome had empty coffers. If Antony chose to turn the power of Egypt against Rome… well, it all looked pretty damn terrifying. Then Antony sent Octavia a letter, announcing that she was divorced. The last tie between Antony and Octavian had been broken, and war was imminent.

But while soldiering was not Octavian’s superpower, political propaganda absolutely was. He did some of his best work on Antony, who became known as the shiftless sucking-up-to-foreigners traitor, while Octavian remained a virtuous and loyal Roman. Likewise, Cleopatra was portrayed as an evil, luxury-loving slapper while the abandoned Octavia was presented as the best and most modest of Roman women…

And yes, Octavian really was that good, because this propaganda still deeply affects the way all these people are remembered today.

Though to be fair, I think he had Antony right on the money, JUST SAYING.

While Antony was bonking a queen and revelling in the luxury of her court, Octavian planned a dynasty of his own. He heaped honours upon his sister Octavia and wife Livia, giving them a public identity through the (incredibly rare for women) right to be portrayed on statues. He named Octavia’s eldest son from her first marriage, Marcellus, as his heir.

There was a war, eventually. A civil war, really, because Antony’s troops were as Roman as Octavian’s – but propaganda came to the fore again, and Octavian made it clear that his men were fighting a war against the decadent Queen of Egypt, not their fellow Romans. It ended badly for Antony and Cleopatra, who both died as a result.

Octavia continued in public life as the mother of Octavian’s’s heir. After Antony and Cleopatra’s children were marched in the streets as prisoners of war, Octavia quietly took them into her own household along with their various half-siblings. Just like that episode where Marcia, Jan and Cindy had to share their room with the Egyptian princess who worshipped Isis!

Oh, what fun they had.

Later, when Marcellus died young, Octavia was so wracked with grief that she withdrew from public life, leaving Octavian (who had renamed himself Augustus, another masterstroke of PR) to find other women to promote as the Ideal Roman Matrona within his family.

She was always remembered as a Good Woman, even long after Antony or Octavian ceased to be politically relevant. But no one ever mentioned if she was happy.

9. Cleopatra

Foreign vs. Roman has always been a key indicator of virtue to the Ancient Romans, but never so much as during the period when Octavian/Augustus Caesar ruled Rome. (PS: he was emperor for fifty years. It pays to be your own best PR guy)

Austerity, modesty, restraint were all virtues equated with Romanness. Decadence, luxury and debauchery belonged to those furrin devils.

Cleopatra was a woman who ruled a country. She wore cosmetics and jewels. She costumed herself as a goddess, and draped ships with silk. She ate and drank the best of everything – and when Antony dared her to eat a “million-sesterce” meal, she made it happen low calorie style, by dissolving a rare pearl in vinegar and drinking it.

(apparently for this to actually work, you have to grind the pearl up into a powder first, which makes the story a bit more believable – cheers for that info, Chris Barnes!)

She represented female power, and basically she terrified the hell out of the Romans.

Cleopatra bore Julius Caesar’s son, which wasn’t relevant to anything dynastic, because the baby wasn’t Roman. If you weren’t Roman, you weren’t anything. Caesarion was never going to ride into town and declare he was the rightful ruler of Rome. Citizenship of Rome required a local mother as well as a father.

If Octavia represented the ultimate Good Wife, then Cleopatra was the ultimate Bad Woman. She provided plenty of material for Octavian’s anti-Antony propaganda, simply by being herself: the last of a long line of glamorous Egyptian pharoahs.

Better historians than I have written many more words on Cleopatra than I intend to today – besides, my theme is Roman women, not “kick ass female Pharoahs,” so I’ll concentrate on some of the ways in which Cleopatra’s presence and public image affected Roman women. (For more on Cleopatra’s fashions and the effect they had in Rome, check out this great post by historical novelist Stephanie Dray)

Augustus banned the worship of the goddess Isis, because she was so closely identified with Cleopatra. Banning a god was extremely rare in Ancient Rome, because they were so superstitious that they hated to offend any deity. Isis is a most excellent goddess, representing married women, queens, mothers and prostitutes all at the same time. While Augustus was often portrayed as akin to a god, he was very careful not to do the same with any prominent women of his family, in order to preserve a contrast between them and Cleopatra.

A statue of Cleopatra still stood in the forum of Julius Caesar, and now seemed tactless in the extreme. Augustus didn’t remove the statue, but he did take the expensive pearl earrings from it, putting them instead on a statue of Venus. Only goddesses, not mortals, were fit to wear such finery. A subtle put-down, but a put-down nonetheless. No woman of Augustus’ family wore jewellery in any official portraiture, while Cleopatra dripped gold and gems.

Octavia and many other women of the imperial family wore a particular hairstyle which we call the nodus style. It was a very harsh, pulled-back-over-scalp affair, with a tight bun of hair at the back, and a severe roll of hair on top of the scalp. This hairstyle represents the modesty and restraint that Augustus wanted the women of his family to demonstrate. Not a wisp of hair is allowed to soften the effect.

On at least one coin issue, Cleopatra chose this same hairstyle for herself, possibly in an attempt to promote herself as a woman demonstrating Roman (rather than those trashy Egyptian) values. Only, she added a couple of curls and a few accessories, because she didn’t want to go out looking like a complete frump.

I love that about her. Woman had style.


The Matrons of Awesome series was originally posted on Livejournal (LJ user: cassiphone) in March 2006 for Women’s History Month.

I’m reprinting the series as part of my Rock The Romanpunk week in celebration of my short story collection, Love and Romanpunk, which was published by Twelfth Planet Press earlier this year and is now available globally as an e-book as well as a pretty imperial purple print edition. Thanks to Wizard’s Tower Bookstore you can also now purchase it for the Kindle.

2 replies on “Matrons of Awesome Part IV – Good and Evil at the End of the Republic”

  1. Rowena says:

    Very much enjoyued thei roimp through roman women!

  2. Rowena says:

    Gaaaah. Fingers turned into thumbs and mispelled everything!

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