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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Matrons of Awesome Part VI – Imperial Daughters and Many Small Islands

September 28th, 2011 at 17:07

11. Antonia
(sometimes called Antonia Minor because she had an older sister also called Antonia, though the other one never did much interesting – maybe ours should be named ‘Antonia the More Interesting Than Her Sister)

Daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony, Antonia was a quiet, austere woman who rose in status almost equal to that of Livia.

She was married to Drusus, Livia’s son (the cute one) and they had three children: golden Germanicus, limping, stuttering Claudius and lusty Livilla. Antonia was widowed at 27, and refused to remarry, despite the fact that Uncle Augustus had brought in a law that widows had to remarry within a year.

Antonia was a tough mother, and we have correspondence that shows how bitterly disappointed she was in young Claudius’ failings. Also, when daughter Livilla was caught out for being involved in a conspiracy against the Emperor Tiberius, Antonia is said to have personally walled her up in a room and starved her to death.

It was Antonia who discovered the conspiracy (of Sejanus, played in the I Claudius series by a devilishly young and curly-haired Patrick Stewart, oh yes he did) and revealed it to the Emperor. She was credited with saving the empire.

Antonia survived the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, and made it as far as the next Emperor, scary crazy Caligula, the son of her late son Germanicus. Caligula gave his grandmother a heap of honours, including the title ‘Augusta’ which had previously only been held by Livia. At least one source says that she rejected the title, which is patently ridiculous. He was giving her a cornucopia of high honours at the time, why would she risk annoying him to turn down one lousy title?

In fact, the title was re-issued to Antonia posthumously by the next emperor, her own son Claudius. It’s understandable that he wanted to do this – almost no one had heard of him, and he needed to point out his place in the shaky Julio-Claudian family tree. The ‘she refused it’ story was obviously made up to justify Claudius giving her a title she had already been given. IMO.

Antonia died within a few weeks of Caligula’s accession to the throne. Possibly poisoned by him for speaking her mind – she had always been a bit snarky with him since discovering him doing naughty things in bed with his sister when he was a child. Or maybe she just died of natural causes, being on the elderly side.

But this is the Julio-Claudian family – no one dies of natural causes!

12. Julia
(often called Julia Major, because her daughter had the same name, but it is also fitting because she was the first imperial Julia)

Julia was the daughter of Augustus, his only child. She was a witty, lively woman who had a tendency to get pregnant if she sat on a warm couch.

She was married three times, to her cousin Marcellus (Augustus’ heir at the time), then, after his early death to mysterious fever (cough-poison-cough) she was married to Augustus’ best friend and supporter, General Agrippa. He was the same age as her father.

They had at least five children: Gaius, Lucius, Agrippina Major, Julia Minor, and Agrippa Posthumus (born after the death of his father).

Several examples of Julia’s wit have been recorded for history. Once, she was asked how she managed to produce children that so obviously resembled her husband, given her tendency to sleep around. She responded with: “I never take on a passenger unless the cargo is already aboard.” Classy.

Her vanity was also immortalised in a scene where Augustus caught her plucking silver hairs from her head, and asked his daughter, “Which would you rather be, grey-haired or bald?”

Julia’s tendency to flirt and frolic brought her to a sticky end when she was married to her third husband, her dour stepbrother Tiberius. He was so annoyed at their marriage that he ran away to self-imposed exile on Rhodes for many years, leaving Julia to amuse herself. Later, when it became convenient for him, she was found guilty of adultery and also of conspiracy, since one of her suspected lovers was a rebellious son of Antony and Fulvia.

Julia was exiled to a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, and her mother Scribonia (whom history books hadn’t mentioned since she was divorced by Augustus) chose to accompany her. Julia’s public downfall was a huge humiliation to Augustus, who had staked his reputation on the good conduct of the women of his family, expecting them to stand as examples for the social legislation he had brought to Rome (making adultery illegal, trying to encourage the birth rate, not letting widows and divorcees of high rank stay unmarried for long, that kind of thing).

Julia and Scribonia had a miserable time of it. When Augustus died, Tiberius cut off their allowance, and by all accounts they starved to death.

I told you there was a reason no one liked Tiberius much.

Julia’s first two sons were adopted by Augustus as his heirs, but both died in their late teens, one to a fever (cough, Livia, poison, cough) and another to a wound sustained in battle (I don’t really think Livia needed to do much for that one, personally, though some like to give her the credit, what with sending her “personal physician” to try and save the boy). Agrippa Posthumus was later adopted by Augustus as an heir, but was disgraced and exiled to another small island for suspected revolutionary activities and/or attempting to rape a female family member (Livilla, I think, though I could actually be imagining that one, or channelling Robert Graves). It has been suggested that Livia’s motive for hastening Augustus’ demise (don’t you love that even at 85 and after a lifetime of ill health, the historians can’t bear the thought of him dying a natural death?) is that he was thinking of forgiving Posthumus and favouring him over Tiberius.

Julia’s daughter Julia Minor went down the same path as her mother – exiled to a small island (strangely, Augustus never ran out of those) after being caught out in naughty behaviour. Possibly a bit of namedropping here something to do with the poet Ovid, who was famously exiled at the same sort of time for “a poem” (possibly the one about how to pick up married women) and “a mistake” (tantalisingly, we don’t know what).

Of all of Julia Major’s children, only Agrippina Major made much of an impact on history of the dynasty, by surviving to bear children of her own. And what children they were… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

13. Livilla

Daughter of Antonia and Drusus, sister to gorgeous Germanicus and weedy Claudius, Livilla was a pawn in the imperial game from very young. She was married first to young Gaius (Agrippa & Julia’s eldest son) who was Augustus’ heir, so could potentially have been the second princeps femina after Livia.

Except Gaius died, so Livilla married someone else (yawn, can’t remember who – oh, hang on a minute, duh, it was Tiberius’s son whatsisname) and had some kids including a daughter whose name was either Livia or Livilla or Julia (but not, as Graves would have it, Helen). After that, she hung around the palace doing her nails for a few years.

Then, when dashing young military man Sejanus started sucking up to the Emperor Tiberius, and was set to become his heir and successor, Livilla fell into bed with him. Tiberius didn’t think of marrying them to each other (funnily enough, what with her being married to his son already) but suggested Sejanus might like to marry Livilla’s daughter. Naturally, Livilla was somewhat pissed off.

Suddenly Sejanus was arrested for treason (there’s more to it than that, but this really isn’t my area, blah boy politics blah, read some Tacitus if you’re really interested), Tiberius having been tipped off by Livilla’s mother Antonia. And Livilla, caught with her treasonous knickers down, got locked in a cupboard and starved to death by her mother.

Possibly they had finally run out of small islands.

14. Agrippina Major
(yep, you guessed it, mother of another Agrippina, and so on. Not a Kylie or Edith in sight of this family)

Unlike her sister Julia Minor, Agrippina did not inherit her mother’s tendency to involve herself in illicit love affairs. But then, why would she? She was married to sexy golden boy Germanicus, son of Antonia the Stern and Drusus the Likeable. They were Rome’s answer to the supercouple.

While Golden Germanicus travelled around with the army, earning brownie points by the bucketful for his military prowess, Agrippina marched in his wake with her many children at her side. No working in wool for this woman.

When Tiberius became emperor, Germanicus was named his heir. And what an heir! He was cheered wherever he went, rose petals were hurled at his head, slave girls were thrown at his feet… you get the picture.

Even their children were cute, particularly the youngest. Darling moppet Gaius was born in an army camp, and the adorable toddler was adopted by the soldiers as their mascot. “Little boots,” they called him, for the miniature replica soldier’s gear that the little cherub wore as play gear. It was a name that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Little Boots in Latin = Caligula.

But this is Agrippina’s story. When Golden Germanicus died, the world mourned with her. But Agrippina was no quiet, dignified widow like her mother-in-law Antonia. She raced home, wild-haired and wild-eyed, her children at her heels, to accuse Tiberius and his wicked mother Livia of murdering her darling husband.

Because yes, Livia would kill her own grandson, who was legitimate heir to her son’s Empire… that makes sense.

But Agrippina, the loyal military wife, would not be silenced.

Tiberius’ famous put down on one occasion: “Is it really so offensive to you that you are not treated like a queen?”

Eventually, Agrippina stopped yelling at the Emperor’s face long enough to get caught for conspiring behind his back and – you guessed it – she was exiled to a small island and executed, not necessarily in that order.

Her children remained at court, raised by their grandmother Antonia. Eventually, Caligula was named as Tiberius’s heir, despite already showing signs of being somewhat deranged.

I’m pretty sure it was Robert Graves rather than any of the ancient sources who came up with the best reason why Tiberius would hand his Empire over to Caligula: the only way to be remembered as a Good Emperor is to be succeeded by a Really, Really Bad one.

Oddly enough, it worked quite well. But don’t try this at home, kids.

NEXT: Sex, Scandal and Bloodshed

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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.

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