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Matrons of Awesome: Part X – Flavian Ladies

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!

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Matrons of Awesome Part IX – Forgotten Daughters, Brigitte Bardot, and Claudian Goddesses.

Some short ones this time!

19. Claudia Octavia

We know little about Octavia, daughter of the Emperor Claudius and his doomed wife Messalina, her except that she was used and abused quite outrageously in service to the imperial family.

As a teenager, she was married to her stepbrother/adopted brother Nero, in order to further promote his role as her father’s heir, ahead of her own brother Brittannicus. Mostly, Nero ignored her, which was the best outcome for everyone.

When her father died (cough, poison mushrooms, cough), Octavia found herself no better off than she had been before – except that now, the husband who was ignoring her was the emperor. It was Nero’s mother Agrippina, not his wife, who stood at his side as consort. Various exotic mistresses filled Nero’s bed, and his mother filled his heart. There was no room for anyone else. Then her brother Brittannicus was poisoned, and Octavia was left alone.

Nero wanted to divorce Octavia, but hadn’t realised just how popular she was with the ordinary people of Rome. There was an outcry, and Nero dropped the idea quickly. Instead, he framed her for adultery, and had her exiled, then executed.

Seneca, one of Nero’s chief advisors, wrote a tragedy, “Octavia,” which is particularly notable for the vicious caricature it makes of Agrippina’s character. In fact, Agrippina had fought for Nero to treat his wife more kindly, and to stay married to her. Though to be fair this was probably because she feared what might happen if Nero started choosing his own brides.

20. Claudia Antonia

Antonia was Octavia’s eldest sister, daughter of Claudius to one of his pre-Messalina wives. There is only one story told about Antonia. Towards the end of his life, having been divorced, widowed, etc. several times over, Nero had a bright idea to reclaim the popularity of his first marriage to Octavia by marrying her sister.

Antonia said no.

Nero killed her.

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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 VI – Imperial Daughters and Many Small Islands

11. Antonia
(sometimes called Antonia Minor because she had an older sister also called Antonia, though the other one never did much interesting – maybe ours should be named ‘Antonia the More Interesting Than Her Sister)

Daughter of Octavia and Mark Antony, Antonia was a quiet, austere woman who rose in status almost equal to that of Livia.

She was married to Drusus, Livia’s son (the cute one) and they had three children: golden Germanicus, limping, stuttering Claudius and lusty Livilla. Antonia was widowed at 27, and refused to remarry, despite the fact that Uncle Augustus had brought in a law that widows had to remarry within a year.

Antonia was a tough mother, and we have correspondence that shows how bitterly disappointed she was in young Claudius’ failings. Also, when daughter Livilla was caught out for being involved in a conspiracy against the Emperor Tiberius, Antonia is said to have personally walled her up in a room and starved her to death.

It was Antonia who discovered the conspiracy (of Sejanus, played in the I Claudius series by a devilishly young and curly-haired Patrick Stewart, oh yes he did) and revealed it to the Emperor. She was credited with saving the empire.

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Matrons of Awesome Part V – Romana Princeps

10. Livia Drusilla

There are some historical characters you just become unreasonably attached to. Livia is my sweetie. Warning: you’re not going to get a balanced academic opinion on this one. (it was hard enough doing that in my thesis)

When Livia met Augustus, they were both married to other people. He had a daughter, and she was pregnant with her second son. Within a few months of meeting each other (round about the time Antony and Octavia were getting married), they had divorced their respective spouses and were shacked up together. They got married almost immediately after she had her baby.

Does that sound like a relationship that happened two thousand years ago? Nope, me neither.

Livia never bore Augustus any children. There is no cited reason for this – they had both had children with their previous spouses. But she did suffer a miscarriage early in their marriage, which could have led to physical complications. What is interesting is that despite Augustus’ desire for a male heir of his body, he never divorced Livia to get a wife who would bear him a son. She was far too useful to him as a wife. HEAR THAT, HENRY THE EIGHTH?

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Mark Antony: Man of Rome!

I’ve always been Team Caesar rather than Team Antony – but James Purefoy’s performance in HBO’s ROME almost made me change my mind. Almost, I say, none of that smirking, Random Alex!

If ever there was a man who rocked the Romanpunk, it was this one.

[Your mileage may vary as to whether this vid is worksafe or not! I’m pretty sure he loses more clothes than this, so save it for later if you’re unsure]

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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