Tag Archives: love and romanpunk

Matrons of Awesome Part XIV – A Surfeit of Julias

So those who have read the lead story in Love and Romanpunk know that the book has a fixation on the name ‘Julia.’ It’s not just because that name was attached to so many women of the first, Julio-Claudian era, or because, thanks to the various Caesars, it had a great many sacred and significant connotations in its own right.

There was another dynasty which cemented the importance of the name Julia, and it marked a huge change in the image that Roman imperial families showed to the world.

41. Julia Domna

When ambitious African-born Roman general Septimius Severus heard of a horoscope for a young woman named Julia that predicted she would marry a king, he hurried across country to court her. Julia Domna was the Syrian daughter (of Arab descent) of the high priest of a sun god. She not only married Septimius but also bore him two sons, Caracalla and Geta. She was a highly intelligent, educated woman who served as a valued advisor to her husband.

Some time later, Septimius brought the horoscope to fruition by using his military and political skills to make himself emperor of Rome. Which is… one way to do it. Ah, Romans. We say they were supersitious, but really they just used the supernatural as a ‘how to’ guide.

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Sneak Peeks: Love and Romanpunk

Thanks to everyone who has been tweeting or emailing me to say how much you have been enjoying the Matrons of Awesome series, and the Rock the Romanpunk posts generally. Normal service of the blog will be resumed as of Monday.

I didn’t end up doing any Films Romana posts (where I do in-depth reviews of the portrayal of Ancient Rome in old Hollywood films) because reworking the Matrons of Awesome posts took way more time this week than I expected. So tried to make up for that with a bunch of YouTube vids. There is much Romanpunk rocking in the world right now!

I’m only sad that I haven’t yet watched enough of Spartacus: Blood and Sand & Gods of the Arena, because I’m sure the fanvids for that are *awesome*.

Oh and cheers to Sean the Blogonaut, who reviewed the e-book version of Love and Romanpunk only a couple of hours ago. It’s also excellent timing that the books has been reviewed in Locus for a second time in the issue that came out today – this time, by Rich Horton. Hooray! It’s awesome to see this little book getting attention.

For those of you on the fence about whether Love and Romanpunk is a book that is for you, I thought I’d post some brief excerpts of the four stories. It should give you a sense for what you will be in for – I tried to pick bits that aren’t too spoilery, and used it as an excuse to scroll through my lovely new e-version on the Kindle, to find some of my favourite lines from the stories.

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Matrons of Awesome Part XII – Good Wives and the Gladiators

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.

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Matrons of Awesome Part XI – Trajan’s Matrons

(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…

29. Plotina

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.

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Matrons of Awesome Part VIII – Agrippina

18. Agrippina Minor
(often called Agrippina the Younger, same name as her mother, you get how this works by now)

Another of my absolute favourites. This woman had everything: family, power, status. Oh, a few rumours of poison and incest here and there, but who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in their closet?

And yes, my fascination for her led to the short story “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary” and “The Patrician” and indeed the whole four story collection Love and Romanpunk. This is what happens when I embrace my obsessions.

The thing that came as most of a surprise to me, in writing those stories, was that I couldn’t write a sympathetic Livia and a sympathetis Agrippina in the same universe. No matter how much I fictionalised them, they hated each other too much. So Livia has to wait until I have a year or two to set aside in search of The Great Romanpunk Novel, which will have her relationship with Octavian front and centre.

In the mean time, Agrippina gets to slander Grandma with great abandon, and embrace the smugness that comes from having a suite of short stories in her honour. And, you know, being portrayed as a manticore-slaying superhero.

I didn’t say the stories were *entirely* historically accurate. If I cause Tacitus to turn in his grave a little, job done.

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Matrons of Awesome Part VII – Sex, Scandal & Bloodshed

15. Drusilla

When Tiberius died, he was succeeded by the very young and very unstable Caligula. Caligula had three older sisters: Livilla (not the previous Livilla, sometimes called Julia, not any of the previous Julias), Agrippina and Drusilla, whom he heaped with public honours (honours not extended to his various wives, not even the mother of his baby). He had the names of his sisters included in the formal oaths, so that when Romans swore in the name of the Emperor they were also swearing in the name of his sisters.

Caligula’s favourite sister was Drusilla. Their grandmother Antonia had been shocked to find them in bed together as children, in a very non-siblingy kind of way. As emperor, Caligula infamously ravished all three of his sisters at official banquets. (it passes the time between lark’s tongue & pudding)

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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…)

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Matrons of Awesome Part III – Republican Vixens

I’m sure you’re good and sick of Roman matronal and maternal virtues by now, so let’s have a bit of scandal and vice for balance.

wall painting from the House of the Mysteries, Pompeii

5. Pompeia

Pompeia was the second of Caesar’s three wives, the first being Cornelia (a child bride, mother of his only legitimate child, Julia) and the last being Calpurnia (the one he cheated on with Cleopatra). Pompeia is memorable because she was married to Caesar during the first years of his career as pontifex maximus, high priest of Rome. It was a political marriage, she being the daughter of Pompey the Great, an ally and rival of Caesar’s

(Pompey also married Caesar’s daughter, which adds a whole layer of ick to the proceedings).

This is a story about the Bona Dea. Bona Dea means ‘good goddess,’ and she was a goddess without name or image. Men and women alike worshipped her, but there was one festival of the year which was restricted to women – or, to be specific, respectable married women (matronae). Every year, the wife of a public official would host the festival. All the men of the house would be turned out for the night (even male slaves were not allowed to remain) and the matronae of the city would come around.

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Matrons of Awesome Part II – The Republican Mothers

Angelika Kauffman, Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi, c. 1785

3. Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi

There is a club of Roman mothers who are acclaimed for being strong, influential figures in their sons’ lives. The more prominent a male citizen, the more likely it is that his mother will be praised for her virtues.

The interesting thing about Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi (always said like that, the entire phrase) is that, while she is primarily remembered for being the mother of famous Romans, they were not Roman heroes, nor people in a position to design their own propaganda. Her reputation as the ideal Roman mother was not, as with the mothers of Julius and Augustus Caesar, established to bolster the propaganda of her sons; if anything, their reputations are saved through an association with her.

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