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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Matrons of Awesome: Part X – Flavian Ladies

September 30th, 2011 at 16:15

Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudians. After he died, Rome had the Year of Four Emperors, in which various blokes (Otho, Galba, Vitellius) tried to grab the throne.

Finally, Vespasian, a pragmatic military man, marched in and got himself settled in power. He, with his two adult sons Titus and Domitian, comprised the Flavian dynasty.

The one thing Flavian women are famous for, above all else, is the distinctive hairstyle of the era.

My favourite example of the Flavian “curled bogan fringe” is on this bust of an anonymous Flavian Lady. She’s a peach, isn’t she?

If you’re in Rome, you’ll find her in a window at the Musei Capitolini, the only well-lit piece of art in the whole place. Go and admire her!

Also, it’s amazing that they managed to get those curled fringes so high, two thousand years before hair product was invented. Go Flavians!

23. Sextilia

Vitellius, one of the so-quick-you-missed-it in betweeny emperors, gave his mother the title Augusta so he could support his claim to the throne (which up until that point was pretty much ‘I got here first, ner ner ner’) by being a “son of an Augusta.”

Sextilia was not overly impressed with her son’s achievements. When she heard he was calling himself Caesar (now more of a title and job description than a family name) she said, “I gave birth to a Vitellius, not a Caesar,” cutting as only a mother can be.

According to the same people who brought you “Livia poisoned everybody,” “Caligula bonked his sisters,” and “Nero fancied his own mum,” Vitellius murdered Sextilia, either assisting her suicide or helping her along to fulfil a prophecy that his reign would only be successful if he outlived his mum.

It didn’t work. He ruled only as long as it took Vespasian to get to Rome and whip Vitellius’ arse out of there.

24. Caenis

My love for this particular historical woman is entirely due to The Course of Honour by Lindsey Davis, a mostly fictional retelling of the back-story that explains why Vespasian, new emperor of Rome, was shacked up with a freedwoman (ex-slave) mistress rather than marrying some senatorial bint who would give him posh babies.

For a start, he didn’t need babies. Vespasian had two adult sons from his first marriage who were all set to be his heirs, and now he was a widower (and, you know, ruler of the world) he felt that he could do whatever the hell he wanted in his private life.

What he wanted was Caenis Antonia. She seems to have been a sensible, intelligent woman who was Vespasian’s partner and advisor in the manner of Livia to Augustus. He couldn’t marry her legally because you couldn’t if more than one rank separated you – a senatorial class man could marry a middle class woman, but not a citizen-class woman. And freedwoman was one rank below citizen.

There are two historical tidbits about Caenis. The first concerns the time that she was a slave, a secretary in the household of Antonia (yes, that Antonia) When Antonia discovered the Sejanus conspiracy, she dictated a letter to the emperor, telling him of the plot and the danger to his life. Once she had finished dictating, she asked her secretary, Caenis, to forget everything she had just heard.

Caenis replied that she was physically incapable of forgetting anything. So, also tactless.

The second anecdote concerns Vespasian’s younger son Domitian, who was 20 when his father became emperor. He once snubbed Caenis by refusing to take her hand in greeting, and this was held up as an example of what an utter bastard he was.

Which is interesting, considering that Vespasian’s relationship with Caenis was not something you might expect the generally misogynist historians to approve of. But there is no breath of scandal about this woman – just a general impression that she was good for Vespasian, and he loved her.

And The Course of Honour by Lindsey Davis is the best historical romance ever. Just saying.


25. Berenice

Titus shared his father’s taste in inappropriate women – and he was far less discreet about it.

Berenice was a Judaean queen, daughter of Herod Agrippa and great-granddaughter of Herod the Great. She was exotic, wealthy and had a substantial army at her disposal. Sounds familiar? Oh, yes. She was awfully reminiscent of a certain other foreign queen from Rome’s past whose name rhymes with Beopatra.

Titus and Berenice were lovers before his father took power – he was a general during the political and military mess that was the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, but their relationship took on a new significance once his father took on the imperial throne.

Berenice travelled to Rome to be with Titus, and they lived openly together for some time (he having divorced his wife) but public opinion was very much against them marrying. Not that it was even possible for a Roman citizen to marry a non-Roman in anything other than unofficial terms.

Berenice stuck it out for a long while, even becoming a member of the Imperial Advisory Council, but politics won out, and when Vespasian died and Titus became emperor in 79 CE, he reluctantly sent Berenice away. He never remarried.

26. Flavia Domitilla

Here’s the thing – Flavia Domitilla was Vespasian’s wife, but she was already dead by the time he came to the throne. Nevertheless, Flavia Domitilla was given a high profile during the reign of her son Titus. She was posthumously given the title of Augusta, and deified. Given that Vespasian was also deified after his death, this made Titus the child of two gods, as well as son of Augustus and Augusta. Nice little status-grabber, that.

The evidence for most of this is numismatic rather than textual (coins, not words), which is problematic because Vespasian also had a daughter called Flavia Domitilla who also died before he came to the throne. So the Diva Domitilla Augusta on the coins could be Titus’ sister, not his mother, and this has led to all manner of historical controversy.

Which is dumb in all sorts of ways, because as has been previously established, there was heaps of status in deifying and Augustafying your mum (ie. look at me, son of Augusta!) and no point at all in giving the same honours to your sister. So there.

27. Julia Titi

Titus had a daughter, Julia (she was born long before his family took the Empire, so her name was a coincidence rather than a political statement) whom he promoted throughout his reign as a Good Roman Woman. She was given the title of Augusta while still very young, and appeared on the coinage and in statues. She looks like a teenager with frizzy hair and a wistful expression.

Titus died after only a few years in power, and his brother Domitian became emperor. Julia continued to be a prominent part of her uncle’s family public image, despite the fact that he had a wife to represent Roman womanhood.

Indeed, there were rumours that Julia had an affair with Uncle Domitian, and further (less historically verifiable) rumours that her death was due to a botched abortion.

She certainly died young, and Domitian deified her. Various historical sources have mentioned the rumours about Julia’s relationship with her uncle, but they are surprisingly non-judgemental towards her. She is not blamed or described in any negative terms (as are, for instance, Agrippina and Messalina, by the same historians). Domitian, generally painted in history as evil, debauched and a Bad Roman Emperor, is blamed for any incestuous impropriety that there might have been.

Makes a change.

28. Domitia Longina

Domitian’s wife Domitia had to put up with a lot, really. She lost their only living children (a girl and a boy) to childhood illnesses. Her husband was busy being emperor, was bonking his niece (allegedly) and possibly poisoning relatives (Titus did die awfully young…).

All this, and she hadn’t even wanted to marry Domitian in the first place. She was married to someone else, and he had “stolen her” from her husband, who was later executed for some mysterious crime or another.

Domitia finally got sick of palace life, and ran away with an actor called Paris. Domitian divorced and exiled her, and had Paris killed. Later, though, he recalled Domitia to his side. They remarried, and were “happy” together until a rebellious plot managed to assassinate Domitian, end his tyrannical rule (Vestal-killer, humph) and generally cheer everyone up.

Domitia was credited with an integral role in the conspiracy, and became just about the only woman in Roman history (well, the first 300 years of the empire which is all I’m prepared to make sweeping statements about) to survive the very end of her imperial dynasty.

Indeed, she stayed on very good terms with the emperors who succeeded Domitian, and continued to be portrayed in public statuary throughout the rest of her life. Which, by all accounts, was quite peaceful and relaxing compared to what had gone on before.

NEXT: Trajan’s Matrons

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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 (reworked) 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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One Response to “Matrons of Awesome: Part X – Flavian Ladies”

  1. Friends, Romans, Countrymen… « Musings of a (insert current hobby)ist… Says:

    [...] fantastic Tansy, who I think may have a thing about Ancient Romans, has been doing a series of posts on the Matrons of [...]

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