~~ Tacitus, commentating on Agrippina the Younger in The Annals ~~
Annelise Freisenbruch tells us that something of a watershed occurred in Rome around 35BC…….Why? Because for the first time in Roman history, you can see statues of the wife of the First Man in Rome: Octavian was the nephew of the late Julius Caesar, and had made himself master of the western half of the Roman republic`s dominions; his wife was the famous Livia; if legend was truth, she was the Lucrezia Borgia of the ancient world. It pays tribute to the fact that this woman`s influence was remarkable, and important enough to her husband, for her face to be shown to the public. This is the starting point to the author`s journey through the next 400 years: a tale of extraordinary women; talented, highly intelligent, driven by pursuit of power, insatiable ambition beyond limit…….they were the real power behind the emperors; they were the She Wolves of Rome.
Octavian was a wily customer, who had a full grasp of public relations and propaganda to show his regime in the best possible light: part of his strategy was to present himself as a family man with impeccable moral standards, in stark contrast to his degenerate rival for power, Mark Antony. The Roman mob were given a one sided view of what Antony was getting up to in the east: according to Octavian, he had gone native under the corrupting influence of the exotic Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, and had forgotten the staunch, moral, upright virtues of a true Roman. By sprinkling the statues of his wife and family around Rome, he was giving out the message that he`s the man to trust to uphold those proper family values which made Rome rulers of the world. Of course, reality can never match up to the ideal; Octavian`s daughter, Julia, possessed an insatiable sexual appetite, which eventually caused her to set up shop on the speaker`s platform in the forum, where a lengthy daily queue of men waited to sample her wares. She was eventually exiled to an island, where the next emperor discreetly allowed her to starve to death.
It should never be doubted that these women were a vital component of an emperor`s identity: Caligula reputedly made his sister Julia Drusilla pregnant, and then murdered her after he came to the conclusion that if it was a boy, Rome wasn`t ready for two gods; he also indulged himself with four wives. Such women were formidable adversary`s for an emperor to tackle if he realized he had bitten off more than he could chew: often times it was a question of kill or be killed as Claudius eliminated the empress Messalina after finding out she planned to murder him; it took two attempts for Nero to get rid of his control freak mother, Agrippina; the first was a failure, when the ship she was sailing in across the Bay of Naples, artfully disintegrated to order, but Agrippina swam to safety; and Constantine lost a wife in an unexplained hot tub incident. The list is almost endless, as emperor`s felt the need to kill their wives, mothers, and aunts, simply because they had become too powerful to contain; the phrase….“This town ain`t big enough for the two of us.” has never seemed so apt.
Rome was dominated by the pushy parent syndrome: children could literary collapse and die through over work; it`s always best to give even a prodigy a break from time to time, but Romans tended to invest a lot in their children, and expected big things from them in return. A celebrity poet or top of the range lawyer in the family would always work wonders for their finances. This attitude percolated throughout Roman society, making the imperial family just as susceptible as any other. To make it to the top you needed not just driving ambition, but preferably one fueled and sustained by a nuclear reactor: Tiberius was embarrassed at the political clout his mother Livia had with senators, even though as a woman, she couldn`t enter the senate, her voice was listened to with respect, and just a little fear. Whether the legends associated with her name are true or not, it never did any harm when dealing in the ultimate in power politics – running the Roman Imperium. Nero couldn`t overcome the stigma of everybody knowing he sat on the imperial throne courtesy of a mother who had poisoned her husband, and then dispatched his son – the legitimate heir – to the underworld. The sometimes, frantic and desperate attempts by emperors to rid themselves of the enemy within, is a compliment to the real power these women held.
From the empire`s acceptance of Christianity onwards, the role of imperial womenfolk changes: they become more chaste and ascetic, even making excursions into the thorny undergrowth of theology; the watery end of Constantine`s wife while indulging in a jacuzzi becomes a thing of the past. The days of the imperial dominatrix are almost over…………Almost. Two names stand out from the murky waters of the Late Roman Empire as it gradually merges into the Byzantine world: Galla Placidia and Theodora. Galla Placidia was the daughter of Theodosius the Great ( 379-395), and a very powerful and proactive figure she was too: she was sister of the emperor Honorius, the aunt of Theodosius II, the concubine of Alaric, King of the Goths, wife of Athaulf, King of the Goths, and then of the emperor Flavius Constantius, and then the mother of Valentinian III. Although, as regent, she had legislation passed in her young son`s name, she was the real power behind the throne. She was also thought to have been involved in the death of the Magister Militum Stilicho in 408, and in the power play, and death of the great general Aetius, who defeated Attila in 451.
Theodora was the empress of Justinian, and basically ruled with him as his right hand: think of her as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Boudicca, and you will probably get the picture of this amazingly influential dominatrix. Reading Annelise Freisenbruch`s pacy book of female Roman wonders, it`s impossible not to like these extraordinary and colouful women, with their irrepressible penchant for power politics and thirst for total control over the world`s first great superpower. Put yourselves into the quaking shoes of their men as you hear their women roar.