Mothers and Whores: Women in Ancient Rome

by Johanna Qualmann

Women in the Roman Republic and Empire are one of the most elusive parts of history. They are spoken for, but never speak; represented, but rarely for themselves. Where women feature in historical literature, the patriarchal tradition of moral history casts them into established literary archetypes: the virtuous maiden, the regal mother, the evil stepmother, the avaricious whore. And often, mentions of women in ancient Roman literary sources can be seen as reflecting opinions of the men they were associated with more than their own personalities.

At the intersection of archaeological and literary evidence, women’s historiography becomes especially interesting. Accusations of debauchery, greed, promiscuity and even treason abound – and yet, coinage, portraiture and honorific titles tell a different story. Such is the case for the four women in this piece: Fulvia, the woman who rallied armies; Livia, the virtuous matron turned evil stepmother;  Agrippina, ambitious mother and poisoning mistress; and Faustina, the depraved adulteress accused of treason.

Fulvia – the antithesis of respectability

Coins of Fulvia in 41 BC, depicted as the Goddess Nike.

Fulvia Flacca Bambula (80 – 40 BC) lived during the late Republic in a time of civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus). She was the first Roman woman to be honoured with her image on a coin; but her association with Athena (the goddess of war) on one side shows that she was not the virtuous matron she should have been. Literary sources represent her as the antithesis of respectability: wealthy and high born, but cruel and vicious, always lusting to possess more wealth and power. She incited riots on her first husband’s death, and apparently took great joy in mutilating Cicero’s severed head with her golden hair pins.

Her third marriage to Mark Antony brought her the most notoriety, and while he was away on campaign she managed his supporters in Rome. Some sources even claim that she took up a sword herself, and together with magistrate Lucius Antonius mobilised eight legions for Mark Antony’s side in the war. In 41 BC she is said to be the most powerful figure in Rome. But her power was short-lived: Antonius lost a major siege to Octavian and Fulvia was forced to flee and died from illness soon after, allowing Antony to denounce her and reconcile with Octavian. Both men then used her as a scapegoat for the entire civil war, though how much of her portrayal is propaganda is unclear.

 

Livia – the evil stepmother

Livia Drusilla (58 BC – AD 29) was the second wife of the emperor Augustus and the first Roman empress. Throughout her life she was portrayed as the quintessential Roman matron: virtuous, pious, respectable, an empress devoted to her family and her husband.

Coins of Livia, minted by the senate, depicted as Piety.

She was given the honorific title augusta by Tiberius in AD 14, which meant that she could mint her own coins, hold her own courts and wear the imperial regalia reserved for the emperor, and later also given the title mater patriae (mother of the fatherland). After her death in AD 29 she was deified by the emperor Claudius.

Despite her titles and honours, Livia’s portrayal in history is predominantly negative. Sources writing about the Augustan period are uniquely critical of the whole imperial family, so it is unclear how exaggerated her character was. Livia was painted as a woman driven by ambition and desire to control the men in her life – the only way for her to have a political influence. She constantly interferes with Tiberius’ politics, bullying and scheming behind the scenes, and embodies the archetype of the evil stepmother, by ruining her stepdaughter’s whole family. Tacitus continuously describes her as novercalis- characterised by unmotivated animosity. The image of Livia as a cold, Machiavellian,

Livia from ‘I, Claudius’.

political mastermind has even continued in modern media, in the book and BBC television series I, Claudius and HBO series Rome. She remains the “conniving bitch” of the Augustan period – whether justified or not.

 

Agrippina – poisoner and seductress

Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 – 59) was the seductress and poisoner of the Julio-Claudian period. Known primarily as the fourth wife of Claudius and the mother of Nero, her portrayal is one of the most negative in Roman history. Like Livia, Agrippina also accumulates titles and honours,

Portrait of Agrippina the Younger.

but in writers such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio, she epitomises the archetype of the prostitute. She is described as motivated by extreme jealously, using seduction and fear to gain power over men. In one scene of his history, Dio condemns her as a tyrant, usurping masculinity by wearing a gold chlamysor military cloak. She is also sexually deviant, marrying her uncle and making advances on countless men, as well as drinking too much wine. Her misdeeds culminate in her rumoured poisoning of Claudius and manipulation of her son Nero into the role of emperor.

Interestingly, her portrayal changes in reference to the emperor Nero, and she is reduced to a secondary character in the story. She simultaneously becomes the bad influence explaining Nero’s despotism, and the “wise mother,” the only one who can keep him in check. It seems Nero soon grew tired of her involvement, and had her murdered in AD 59. Once again, it is unclear whether her overall literary portrait tells us anything about her actual character: because the period in which she lived was held as contemptuous and immoral, she might have simply been reduced to an archetype or a cautionary tale.

 

Faustina the Younger - mother and whore

Faustina the Younger (AD 125? – 175) was the wife of emperor Marcus Aurelius. She was celebrated for her fertility, bearing fourteen children after a long chain of empresses who had no children of their own. Her husband describes her as a devoted and loyal wife, the epitome of Roman womanhood, and granted her the honorific titles augusta and mater castrorum (mother of the camp) in reference to her popularity among the army. Her coinage celebrates her fidelity, modesty and fertility.

However, a different picture – of sexual depravity, shameful lust and immorality – is painted by literature and history. The anonymous author of the Historia Augustaerecords her having affairs with her son-in-law (whom she subsequently poisoned), soldiers and gladiators, and it is even rumoured that Commodus, the emperor succeeding Marcus Aurelius, was the product of one such affair. Other writers describe her “cruising for sexual

Faustina the Younger, pictured with her children and praised for her fertility.

partners” among naked men at the beach. She was even accused of treason when associated with a governor in Syria who proclaimed himself emperor when Marcus Aurelius once fell ill; when in all likelihood she was simply seeking protection in the case of her husband’s death.

Whatever the true case may be for all these women, there is certainly a disjunct between the different ways their characters were portrayed – where they are portrayed at all. How unfortunate that these strong, independent female figures will never be able to speak for themselves out of the depths of history.

~ Johanna Qualmann
This article is featured in the current herstory issue of wom*news!
You can find more of Jo’s writing at her blog A Life Unexamined.

References

Burns, J. (2006). Great Women of Imperial Rome : Mothers and Wives of the Caesars. Routledge: London.

Calhoon, C. G. (1994). Livia the poisoner: Genesis of an historical myth. University of California, Irvine). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 360 p. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/304089893?accountid=14723

Harvey, T. (2011). The visual representation of Livia on the coins of the Roman Empire. University of Alberta (Canada)). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/870726070?accountid=14723.

Mallan, C. (2009). The Portrayal of Women in Cassius Dio’s ‘Roman History’. Retrieved from https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:227031

Weir, A. J. (2007). A study of Fulvia (Masters Dissertation, Queen’s University, Ontario). Retrieved from http://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/1974/966/1/Weir_Allison_J_200712_MA.pdf

One thought on “Mothers and Whores: Women in Ancient Rome

  1. Pingback: Mothers and Whores: Women in Ancient Rome « A life unexamined

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