(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.