(or: “disgustingly good women of the Adoptive Era.”)
(or: “of all the PR in all the world, these women had the best that money could buy”)
After the Flavians dynasty died with Domitian, elderly Nerva took the Empire. He didn’t have a wife or children, so he chose the ridiculously sensible route of just picking an adult male who he thought would do a good job, and making him the heir. That was Trajan, a childless forty-something general with a good head on his shoulders.
Sadly, without a focus on dynastic inheritance, there was no place for the public image of women in Nerva’s reign. Let’s move on to Trajan.
It was during the reign of Trajan that many of the historical sources about the Julio-Claudians were actually written. There’s a popular theory that the Julio-Claudian women were dealt with so atrociously in the sources as sluts, harridans and poisoners in order to show how modest, virtuous and generally wonderful the women of Trajan’s family were.
So if you’re looking for the juicy stuff, you might want to go back to some of the earlier entries…
Plotina was middle aged when her husband Trajan became emperor. Luckily for her, he had no interest in siring a biological heir, so her marriage was not in danger from any wide-hipped young temptresses (for some reason I keep expecting this to happen, ala Henry VIII, but the adoption laws of Rome actually protected wives from being discarded in the name of fertility).
Plotina was a good woman. No, really. Modest, chaste. All those things. We have scads of information (well, compared to other Roman women) about how good she was, and what a non-slutty, non-poisonous, non-greedy wife she was when Trajan was alive.
However, as soon as Trajan died, Plotina’s literary portrayal changed quickly. In Dio in particular (one of our main historical sources) it’s like a switch has been thrown, and she goes overnight from a paragon of wifely virtue to a scheming, ambitious mother figure in the manner of Agrippina.
Most people with a vague knowlege of this era know how the thread goes. Nerva adopted adult Trajan, who adopted adult Hadrian, la la la. Except Trajan didn’t adopt Hadrian at all. He never got around to it. He let Hadrian marry Trajan’s great-niece Sabina, which could be read as a move towards creating a dynastic line, but he never formally adopted Hadrian. He might have had someone else in mind, for all we know.
When Trajan died, Plotina went to work. She arranged the adoption papers, and retroactively signed them on Trajan’s behalf. Some of the sources get a bit excitable about this, claiming that she did it out of lurve for Hadrian, because that’s the only motive a woman could have in the Roman world?
What crap. Isn’t it far more likely that she knew Trajan meant Hadrian for the position, and had been nagging him for months to formalise it, and then had to roll her sleeves up when the time came because Trajan hadn’t bothered?
Anyway, Plotina was quite non-threatening as an imperial “mother” goes. When she died, Hadrian said that she made it easy for him by never asking him for anything he felt obliged to refuse her.
Marciana was Trajan’s sister. Many historians ignore her significance, preferring to concentrate mainly on Plotina. But Marciana and Plotina had, in fact, exactly the same social position.
Yep. Because Romans still didn’t have the of an automatic status for an imperial wife. There were about ten words for ‘emperor’ and none for ‘emperor’s wife’. Historians talk a lot about empresses, but that’s a cultural concept borrowed from elsewhere. The Romans did not have empresses. The closest they had was the title ‘Augusta,’ and that was something bestowed upon women by the Senate and the Emperor. More importantly, it wasn’t only given to imperial wives – as we’ve seen so far, it’s as likely to be given to mums, sisters and even daughters.
An imperial wife only had as much status as her husband chose to allow her, as did other women of the imperial family.
Trajan borrowed a leaf out of Augustus’ book and gave the same status to his sister as to his wife. He offered them both the title Augusta at the same time, and they both refused it out of modesty. (later, they accepted it at the same time and all was well)
Pliny the Younger, professional toady, wrote a gushing panegyric (sucking up letter) to Trajan, which includes huge slushy tracts about how marvellous Plotina and Marciana both are. He declares that since they share the same status, they are marvellously good and moral for not getting into jelly-laden catfights on the front lawn of the Palatine.
I’m paraphrasing, obviously.
At least one historian suggested Pliny was implicitly criticising Trajan for undermining Plotina’s “rights” as an imperial wife, by making her share status with Marciana instead of letting her get on with being top bitch. Which is stupid. If you’re going to implicitly criticise your boss, a Panegyric is not the way to go about it. Even an ironic one.
Also, Pliny the Younger wouldn’t understand irony if it invited him to the baths.
When Marciana died, well into the reign of her brother Trajan, her daughter Matidia was given the title Augusta, and basically slotted into her mother’s position as “equal-status companion to Plotina.”
Her mother was also deified, and coins were released in honour of Matidia Augusta, daughter of Diva Marciana. This is significant because these are coins celebrating a mother and daughter of the imperial family, with no mention of the emperor. The only precedent for this were the Diva Poppaea/ Diva Claudia Virgo coins of Nero’s reign, but these Marciana/Matidia coins are more significant because one of the women on them is still alive.
Sadly, Matidia didn’t do anything else of note except having a couple of daughters, one of whom – Sabina – was married at the age of 12 to a distant cousin of Trajan called Hadrian.
And that, my friends, is what we call foreshadowing.
The state of the marriage between Hadrian and Sabina is controversial. Some sources portray her (when they bother to mention her at all) as a jealous woman who ensured she never bore Hadrian a child because of his love for men. Others suggest that her relationship with both Hadrian and his male lover Antinous was cordial – both Sabina and Antinous joined Hadrian on many of his travels, something one would not expect from a wife whose marriage was not at least friendly in the platonic sense.
Indeed, when Antinous died (and had cities and stars named after him, temples built in his honour, etc.), Hadrian mentioned the friendship that his lover had shared Sabina.
There are few other mentions of Sabina in history, which is unfortunate given that she had a longer public career than any other imperial woman of this Adoptive era. We know that Sabina did not receive the title Augusta until the age of forty, despite being in her twenties when her husband became Emperor. Some historians have seized upon this as being significant evidence of Hadrian’s disdain of her – though it is more likely that he was trying to preserve the ‘mature’ connotations of the title, which she received at a similar age as had her mother, grandmother and her great aunt-in-law Plotina. That, and the title Augusta has often been associated with the emperor’s title Pater Patriae, which Hadrian only accepted on his own behalf in the same year that Sabina became Augusta.
Like Antinous, Sabina predeceased Hadrian, and he deified her. Unlike Antinous, her deification became part of official state propaganda. When Hadrian adopted his own adult male heir, Antoninus Pius, Diva Sabina was included in Antoninus’ own propaganda as his “mother.”
I know. They’re a bit dull, the Adoptive Era women, aren’t they? It’s all modest draperies and not poisoning each other, I’m afraid. There is a vague rumour that Sabina pushed Antinous into the Nile, but it’s not very credible.
Let’s take a moment though to admire the fierce hairstyles of this era.
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.