Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome
Professor Catharine Edwards is a member of The Journal of Roman Studies Editorial board and has contributed to a number of Classics journals. She is the author of The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge 1993) and is currently presenting a new BBC 4 Documentary entitled ‘Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome‘. We ask Professor Edwards for some background to the TV series, and an explanation of what interests her about the study of Empresses in Ancient Rome.
The final episode of the series will be shown on BBC 4 at 9pm on the June 12th. Alternatively if you are based in the UK, you can catch up with the series on BBC iPlayer.
Female members of the imperial family, the wives, daughters – and particularly mothers – of Roman emperors are some of the most colourful characters in Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ accounts of Rome in the early imperial age. Livia, wife of Rome’s first emperor Augustus and mother of its second Tiberius, emerges as the lynch-pin of the family – charming, politically adept, devious – and prepared to stop at nothing – including murder – to secure her son’s succession to the imperial throne. Agrippina, sister of the emperor Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, outdoes even Livia in her outrageous plotting. She seduces the emperor Claudius, who happens to be her uncle, becomes his wife, then later murders him as soon as her son Nero is old enough to take over. Agrippina, it seems, longs to rule the empire herself. Nero cannot bear his mother’s domineering and eventually has her killed.
Other women, most strikingly Augustus’ only daughter, Julia, and Claudius’ first wife, Messalina, attract attention for their flagrant sexual excesses. Messalina is said to have taken part in a competition with Rome’s leading prostitute and won, satisfying 25 clients in 24 hours – if, that is, we are to believe the scandalized reports of Roman commentators.
I’ve always been interested in the interrelationship between gender and power in ancient Rome. This was a key concern in my first book, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge 1993). It’s also something that drew me to translate Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (Oxford World’s Classics 2000), while Tacitus’ characterization of Agrippina features particularly in my more recent Death in ancient Rome (Yale 2007). When I was approached by Tom Webber of Hotsauce TV to research and present a three-part series on Roman imperial women I jumped at the chance.
The stories of these women, though gripping, are often lost sight of, even when we focus on individual Roman emperors – let alone in studies of military or administrative history. Can we ever hope to recover something of their point of view? Tantalisingly, Agrippina herself wrote an account of her family’s history, which is now lost, though Tacitus drew on it in writing his Annals. What kind of a view of Roman history did this offer? Would it have given us a flavour of what it felt like to be almost at the pinnacle of Roman power, yet always ultimately dependent on the continuing favour of an erratic, sex-and-music obsessed youth?
The ancient evidence relating to these women is often highly contradictory. One particular challenge we face is explaining the striking mismatch between literary accounts, which so often highlight these women’s shocking excesses, whether of ambition, avarice or sexual desire and, on the other hand, the coins and works of sculpture) which seem to recognize their position and influence as completely legitimate. Did Romans – and the inhabitants of the empire more generally – resent these imperial women or admire them – or is the picture more complex? Venerated, envied, viewed with suspicion, feared and sometimes hated they certainly provoked strong emotions.