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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Matrons of Awesome Part XII – Good Wives and the Gladiators

October 1st, 2011 at 16:21

When Antoninus Pius was adopted as Hadrian’s heir, he already had a wife and daughter, both called Faustina.

A condition of Antoninus’ adoption was that he in turn adopt two men chosen by Hadrian: Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. But Marcus Aurelius and Faustina also managed to break the adoptive tradition of the emperors by having a son of their own. And what a son! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

the apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and Faustina

33. Faustina Major

Antoninus’s wife Faustina didn’t make much of an impact on the imperial family, as she died within a couple of years of her husband’s reign. She is notable, however, for getting the title of Augusta almost immediately, making her the first imperial wife since Domitia who didn’t have to wait several years for this honour.

Faustina’s posthumous life is more memorable – she was deified by her husband, and became something of a patron goddess for the whole Antonine family, with an unprecedented number of coin types released in her honour.

A temple was built to her – not wholly unusual for a Roman diva (deified woman – as distinct from dea, which means goddess), but the fact that it was built in the middle of the forum was highly out of the ordinary for any new god.

The temple still stands there today – it goes by the name of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, as his name was added after his own death and deification, but it is important to remember that this temple, situated in the prime real estate of the Forum, epicentre of Rome, was originally built to honour a woman.

Antoninus also set up a foundation in Faustina’s memory called the puellae faustinianae, which provided dowries for orphan girls.

34. Faustina Minor

Like Sabina – only more so – Faustina was born into the imperial family, and that would have given her a strong grounding in what was expected of an imperial wife. Which was handy, because it was her husband, Marcus Aurelius, who was to her father, Antoninus Pius, when he died. (Lucius Verus kind of tagged along as a co-emperor for a while, but sub-emperor may be a more appropriate term)

It was a toss-up originally as to which heir Faustina, the only surviving child of Antoninus and Faustina Major, would marry: Marcus Aurelius or Lucius Verus. It must be assumed that the marriage increased Marcus’ chances of being bumped up to prime rather than spare heir. Poor old Lucius had to wait until Marcus and Faustina’s own daughter Lucilla grew up before he got himself an imperial daughter for a wife…

But this is Faustina Minor’s story. The most significant thing about Faustina was her fertility. After so many pre-grown adult heirs and adoptions, it came as something of a shock to Roman society to have an imperial wife who was not only fertile, but positively abundant.

Not since the reign of Claudius had an imperial wife actually produced a male heir – and the only natural sons who had ever inherited the imperial throne from their father were Titus and Domitian, who had both been adults when their father became emperor.

It is hardly surprising that, upon giving birth to twin sons after something like four daughters, Faustina Minor was celebrated in Rome as something akin to a goddess of plenty. Her portrait types changed with every child born to her, and she had a wealth of public images commissioned of her, from statues to coins.

Faustina was known for travelling with her imperial husband when he went abroad with the army. She was even given a new honorific title, invented just for her: Mater Castrorum, Mother of the Camp.

One of Faustina’s twin boys died at the age of four, but the other grew up to inherit the Empire. It was something of a red letter day, given that no emperor had ever before had a son born during his reign who actually grew up to be emperor. Not a single one. Unfortunately for Rome, the particular emperor that this son grew up to be was Commodus. Remember him from the movie Gladiator? Yep, that was pretty much him. Only he held on to the throne for much longer than the Joaquin Phoenix version, and was just a little bit crazier. No, really. Caligula and Nero’s love child kind of crazy.

[Actually, if you believe half of the stories we have about Commodus, we're talking Arkham Asylum levels of crazy. You can draw a lot of parallels between the literary portraits of the more flamboyant Roman Emperors, and comic book supervillains. Where was Batman when Rome needed him? And why did Rome attract so many erratic young rulers? Was it genuine mental illness, the lead in the pipes, power going to the heads of over-privileged young men, or just a whole lot of bad press? Sadly we'll never know.]

Like Plotina, Faustina Minor’s popular reputation was retroactively damaged because of her son. In an attempt to explain how the son of Marcus Aurelius and grandson of Antoninus Pius (both very good, mostly sensible emperors) could turn out so gratuitously loopy, a rumour was spread that Faustina had conceived her son by bonking gladiators. Though, it has to be said, that comes from one of the most disreputable literary sources that we have.

35. Lucilla

Again, think the movie Gladiator. Only… well, not. The characterisation and pretty outfits were just fine, but the bit about her (illegitimate!) son inheriting from Commodus… nuh. Lucilla was the daughter of Marcus Aurelius and Faustina Minor. When she came of age, she was married to her father’s co-emperor Lucius Verus, and given the title Augusta. She had possibly two children, probably both female.

When Lucius Verus died, Marcus Aurelius (now ruling solo and totally not upset about it) chose some ordinary senator to be Lucilla’s second husband. Both Lucilla and her mum were furious about this, as they considered the man to be unworthy of “an Augusta who is daughter of an Augusta.”

When Lucilla’s brother Commodus took over the throne and started all his dramatic “fighting as a gladiator, dressing up as Hercules, not persecuting Christians, demanding he be worshipped as a god, slutting around instead of attending to the paperwork” antics, Lucilla found herself losing even more status.

This was particularly due to the fact that a new Augusta – Commodus’ wife Crispina – had entered the imperial family, and was pulling rank on the imperial sister. For once, the wife came up trumps.

By all accounts, Lucilla was involved in various plots against the emperor, notably one with her stepson which seriously backfired. She was exiled and soon after executed by her brother.

Unlike her mother, there are not even the vaguest rumours that Lucilla had sex with gladiators. Not even ones that looked like Russell Crowe. Sorry about that.

There is a very dim possibility, however, that she had sex with her brother. Then again, didn’t everyone?

36. Crispina

Despite being an Augusta, Crispina is pretty much a footnote in the history of Commodus. He married her, made her Augusta, exiled her and executed her, in that order. There are a few statues and coins around, but we don’t know much beyond that.

37. Marcia

Marcia was Commodus’ mistress – the fact that history remembers her name at all is pretty stunning considering just how many people Commodus is rumoured to have shagged. She is memorable because, like Domitia Longina, she was crucial to the plot which successfully assassinated her emperor.

I always remember a quote (though not sure where it comes from, or if it’s Officially Historical) that Marcia served her master well for many years, then served the empire well by killing him. Basically, she poisoned him when he was sleepy but it wasn’t quite strong enough to do the job, so she and the other conspirators arranged for a friendly local wrestler to pop by and strangle him.

Which is probably the way he would have wanted to go.

NEXT: Between the Dynasties

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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 XII – Good Wives and the Gladiators”

  1. Carmelo Cofield Says:

    The other day, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a thirty foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My apple ipad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is totally off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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