INTRIGUE AND THE EMPEROR'S WOMEN

 

Women were not allowed to hold office in Ancient Rome.  With human nature being what it is, there is little doubt that many women exercised considerable influence through their husbands on the political life of the country. As the empire grew so did the wealth of Rome.  The upper classes acquired the time and the money to pursue a variety of interests, both cultural and otherwise, and women could see no reason why they should not participate freely.  They had no success in gaining access to public office but they did manage to acquire other rights.

By the end of the Civil War most women married under the new system that allowed them to remain under their family's authority rather than fall under the power of their husbands.  Their fathers, brothers and uncles were often more benevolent and always more remote, and this gave women considerably more freedom to manage their own affairs. Presumably women had always influenced their husbands in one way or another, but it became socially acceptable for a man to admit publicly that he took advice from his wife.  Divorce was easy to get for both sexes; as it became more and more common it presented less of an obstacle to a woman's remarriage. We do not have as much evidence for the life style of those with less money, but it would be natural for the behavior of the upper classes to gradually work its way down the social ladder. There were many in the aristocracy who fought against what they perceived as the modern trend to looser morals.  Augustus introduced a series of laws designed to restore the old morality but they met with limited success.

The Emperor was not immune to these forces of social change.  The wives, mothers, daughters, and mistresses eagerly embraced the new ways to pursue their own personal agendas that often had little to do with the needs of their husbands or of the Empire. It is surprising, and a great tribute to the political reforms introduced by Augustus, that Rome lasted as long as it did considering the rather serious mental handicap of several of its emperors. The surprise must be even greater when we consider the machinations of the women who surrounded even those Emperors who were relatively normal.

The following list is by no means complete, but it will serve to illustrate the influence some women were able to wield at the highest level.  Unfortunately much of that influence was destructive and came at a time when the Emperor already had more to cope with than he could manage.

 

LIVIA: wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius

Augustus fell in love with Livia when they were both already married to others and when she was pregnant by her first husband. Augustus forced divorces all around, married Livia and adopted her two sons.

By all accounts it was a successful marriage. Like a traditional Roman wife, she remained very much in the background, but Augustus regularly consulted her and valued the advice she gave and he died with her name on his lips. Unfortunately the marriage produced no children leaving the succession up in the air.

Without an unambiguous heir to take control there was always the danger that the Emperor's death would lead to chaos, and of course there was much scheming. Livia's son, Tiberius, was Augustus last choice, but the eventual deaths of the other possibilities left Augustus with no alternative. There were those who believed Livia helped at least one of the potential heirs into the hereafter. Agrippina (the elder), widow of one of the heirs, Germanicus, certainly believed Tiberius to have had a hand in the death of her husband.

Since Livia and Augustus had no offspring as a couple, it was probably natural that each hoped to advance one of their own descendents. We do not know how much pressure she put on her husband to chose Tiberius as his successor, but there is no doubt that she believed that when he eventually did become Emperor it was because of her and that she was therefore entitled to a share in the glory. After nine years, her son refused to have anything more to do with her.

 

MESSALINA: wife of Claudius

Messalina was only 16 years old when she married Claudius. He was 22 years older. She was delighted when he became Emperor and loved to act the role of Queen. The position's chief benefit as far as she was concerned seems to have been the access it gave her to more boy friends. She even got her husband to insist the men she chose be more attentive to her. She sold offices to support her lifestyle and was accused by at least one enemy of raising money by working in disguise in a brothel.

One day when her husband was out of town she went through a marriage ceremony with her current boy friend, leaving future historians with lots to puzzle over. Women had the right to initiate divorce, but there is no evidence that she did so. Did she plan to commit bigamy? Was the wedding just a mock ceremony that was taken for more than the participants intended? Did she plan, as many believed, to rule Rome herself by installing her new husband as puppet emperor? Was she simply the unwitting dupe of others?

At any rate Claudius had had enough and soldiers were sent to her room with orders to kill her.

 

AGRIPPINA (THE YOUNGER): wife of Claudius and mother of Nero

Shortly after Messalina's death, Claudius is reputed to have told members of his Praetorian Guard that they should kill him if he ever got married again.  Nevertheless he had a new wife within the year.

It was not a love match, nor was there a need for an heir as Claudius already had a healthy son. The Emperor did not lack for bed mates to keep him warm at night, and, while a reasonably competent administrator, he had difficulty with more intimate relationships.

There was no constitutional need for a queen (as there was in Ancient Egypt), but women were certainly becoming more important socially, and it is possible there was a desire to start a new tradition.  Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of Augustus and a wealthy, outspoken, strong willed woman.  It is quite possible that the advisors of Claudius simply thought they would be better off with her on the inside where they could watch what she was doing.

Agrippina eagerly campaigned for the marriage to further her own agenda: she wanted her son Nero to be the next Emperor.  First, however, she needed to establish her own position.  She sat on a throne beside her husband at public functions.  Her image appeared on coins in the eastern part of the empire.  Claudius was much older and in failing strength while she in her early thirties was at the height of her physical power.  Some of her husband's advisers knew a winner when they saw one and were eager to do her bidding.

She persuaded Claudius to adopt Nero as his son.  Since Nero was actually a little bit older he always took precedence whenever his image appeared in public alongside his stepbrother. Agrippina even managed to arrange for Nero and Octavia, the Emperor's daughter, to become engaged.  Since Agrippina was the niece of Claudius, it had been necessary to get the Senate to change the law before they could marry; the legal impediment to Nero's engagement to his new step-sister was easier to get around---she was simply adopted by another family.

Fearing that Claudius was getting ready to name his son Britannicus as heir, Agrippina decided she had nothing to lose; on a day when the Emperor's most loyal supporter was out of town she fed her husband poison mushrooms.

Poor Claudius had rather bad luck when it came to women.  Two wives schemed to overthrow him.  Messalina lacked the skill or drive to follow through, but Agrippina lacked nothing.  Nero was the new Emperor and Agrippina was the power behind the throne.

Nero was only 17 when he ascended the throne, so perhaps it was not surprising that he looked to her for advice.  Coins from the eastern part of the Empire showed mother and son but in a manner clearly giving precedence to Agrippina.  She was able to have some of her enemies killed but it only took a year or so for others to persuade the Emperor that he should be ruling without the advice of a woman.

First he banished her to her private villa then he had her murdered.  The first attempt, a fake accident in which her ship was sunk, failed, but a second more direct attack by armed sailors in her villa was more successful.

 

 

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