Livia Drusilla – 58 BCE – 29 CE – Rome

Ancient Rome

Mother of an empire…

LiviaDrusilla - Copy

The phrase ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ has rarely been truer than in the case of Livia Drusilla. An intimidatingly powerful woman in life and a goddess in death, she helped to lay the foundations of the Roman Empire.

Born the daughter of a wealthy citizen of the Claudii family, Livia was married to her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was also her cousin, when she was fifteen. Her family was at the time embroiled in the civil war between the assassins of Julius Caesar and Caesar’s heir, Octavian – the Claudians were on the side of the assassins.

Bust of Livia circa 31 BCE

Bust of Livia circa 31 BCE

Her father committed suicide during the Battle of Philippi, but her husband continued to fight, now on the side of Marc Antony. Livia’s first son, Tiberius, was born a year into their marriage. When he was two years old, the family fled to Greece to escape the Triumvirate formed between Octavian, Antony and Lepidus.

Once peace was finally declared, Livia and her family returned to Rome where, at nineteen years old, she was introduced to Octavian. The young politician was twenty-five and married. Both his wife, Scribonia, and Livia were pregnant, but apparently nothing would stop him.

Octavian quickly divorced Scribonia and instructed Tiberius Claudius Nero to divorce Livia. Only three days after she had given birth to her second son, Drusus, Livia was married to the most powerful man in Rome.

Life with Augustus:

Despite unusual beginnings, it was a marriage that would last for 51 years. After Marc Antony’s defeat at Actium in 31 BCE, Octavian changed his title to Augustus and ruled as Emperor – with his wife as his most trusted advisor.

The couple styled themselves as role models for the ideal Roman household. They lived modestly despite their immense wealth, presenting themselves as humble and pious. Livia in particular dressed plainly, rarely wore jewelry and acted as a dutiful and faithful wife in all things, even making Augustus’ clothes herself.

In a world dominated by men, Livia’s role as equal to her husband was highly unusual. She was given control over her own finances, influenced Augustus’ policies and petitioned him on behalf of others. Everyone in Rome knew that the Emperor listened to his wife, and she soon commanded a great deal of power.

They had no children together, though Augustus’ first wife had given birth to a daughter, Julia. Livia did not hesitate in pushing her two sons forward into powerful roles. The younger Drusus became a general and married Augustus’ niece, Antonia Minor. Tiberius was married to Julia and later adopted by Augustus and named heir.

Contemporary sources portrayed Livia as a very proud and dignified woman 800px-Altes_Museum_-_Statue_der_vergöttlichten_Kaiserin_Liviawho was a worthy consort to the Emperor. Her poise is demonstrated in one particular incident which recorded that some naked men once crossed her path (goodness knows why they were naked) and her guards wanted to put them to death for indecency. Livia however saved their lives by claiming that as she was a chaste woman, the men’s bodies were no different to her than statues.

Other writers were not so kind. Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio both suggest that Livia’s greatest ambition was to place her sons in positions of power, and that she was ruthless in her tactics.

Rumors circulated that she murdered Marcellas, Augustus’ favorite nephew and heir by poison – also that she orchestrated the circumstances which led to Agrippa Posthumous, Augustus’ other adopted son, to being exiled and later killed.

Tacitus and Cassius Dio (both of whom were born many years after Livia lived and died) even go as far as to accuse Livia of having poisoned and killed Augustus himself.

Augustus died in 14 CE, leaving a third of his property to Livia and the rest to Tiberius.

Life with Tiberius:

Livia had an often troubled relationship with her eldest son, Tiberius. His reign seemed to get off to a positive start – he made speaking against his mother treason in 20 CE, and in 24 he gifted her an honorary theatre seat amongst the vestal virgins.

However, as Livia continued to exercise the same powers she had held under Augustus, Tiberius began to turn against her. A particular sore spot for him was the public opinion that he owed his throne to his mother.

Livia’s friend, Plancina was saved from execution by the empress after being accused of murdering Drusus’ son Germanicus. In 22 Livia commissioned a statue to Augustus in the centre of Rome and put her own name before her sons on the inscription. These examples and others have been used to perceive Livia as overbearing – when Tiberius retired to his summer home in Capri, historians infer that it was to get away from his mother.

When Livia died in 29 at the grand age of eighty-seven, her son did not come to her funeral, instead sending his grand-nephew Caligula to give the oration.

Achieving Divinity:

Livia was a direct ancestor of the three Emperors who followed Tiberius; she was great grandmother to Caligula, grandmother to Claudius and great-great-grandmother of Nero.


Tiberius vetoed all of the honours Livia had been granted by the Senate after her death and stopped her will from being carried out – perhaps a final ‘screw you’ from a bitter son.

It would be her grandson Claudius, thirteen years later who made sure that Livia became Diva Augusta, the Divine Augusta. A statue was erected to her in the Temple of Augustus and races were held in her honor.

In Fiction:


The popular historical fiction novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves is based on Tacitus’ writings and portrays Livia as a Machiavellian, scheming political mastermind.

The comic Distant Mirrors – August by Neil Gaiman features Livia.

Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran has Livia as a character portrayed as a kind of wicked stepmother to the young Julia.

In the short story The King of Sacrifices by John Maddox Roberts Livia hires Decius Metellus to investigate the murder of one of Julia the Elder’s lovers.

Livia plays an important role in two Marcus Corvinus mysteries by David Wishart, Ovid (1995) and Germanicus (1997). She is mentioned posthumously in Sejanus (1998).

Livia is a central character in Luke Devenish‘s Empress of Rome novels.

In Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough, Livia is portrayed as a cunning and effective advisor to her husband, whom she loves passionately.

Films and TV:

In the 1976 BBC television series based on the book I, Claudius Livia was played by Siân Phillips who won a BAFTA for her portrayal:

In the 1968 ITV television series The Caesars, Livia was played by Sonia Dresdel.

Television series Xena: Warrior Princess presents another heavily-fictionalized version of Livia (played by Adrienne Wilkinson) as Xena’s daughter in season 5.

A 2007 episode of the TV series Rome features Augustus’ first meeting with Livia played by Alice Henley.

The television series, The Sopranos, originally dealt with the relationship between the scheming mother, named Livia, and her crime boss son, Tony Soprano.


I, Livia: The Counterfeit Criminal: the Story of a Much Maligned Woman – Mary Mudd

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce E. Salisbury

Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome – Anthony Barrett

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Altes Museum – Statue der vergöttlichten Kaiserin Livia” by Anonymous – Ophelia2.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Livia Drusilla Louvre Ma1233” by Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2007.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Livia Drusila – Paestum (M.A.N. Madrid) 03” by Luis García.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Amanirenas – c.40 BCE – 10 BCE – Meroe, Kingdom of Kush

Kingdom of Kush


Amanirenas (sometimes Amanirena) was a ruling queen of the Kingdom of Kush (now Sudan). She became famous for leading her armies against the Romans in a five year war which resulted in a very favorable treaty for her people.

Historians believe that Amanirenas is the Candace described by Strabo as leading the Meroitic wars against Rome. Strabo described the queen as masculine, brave, and blind in one eye.

Amanirenas’ ruled from the city of Meroë, as Shanakdakhete had before her, and her full title was Amanirenas, Qore and Kandake. Quore was the Meroite word for king, and Kandake meant queen (the Greco-Romans spelled this Candace).

Sources suggest that she was consort to her husband, King Teriteqas until he died, and then regent for her son Akinidad, who she also outlived.

Amanirenas  queen of Kush following the death of Egyptian ruler Cleopatra which had resulted in Roman occupation of Egypt. As Kush bordered Egypt and shared the Nile, the two great nations had a long history of warfare and invasion.

In 24 BCE, Aelius Gallus, the Roman Prefect in charge of Egypt left for a military campaign in Arabia. Amanirenas clearly saw an opportunity and went for it, launching an attack and defeating Roman forces in the Egyptian cities of Syene (now Aswan) and Philae.


The Nile at Aswan

It was a profitable venture; Amanirenas’ forces returned to Kush with prisoners and treasure, including several statues of the Emperor Augustus.

Later that year, Gallus was replaced as Prefect by Publius Petronius, who succeeded in driving the Kushites out of Syrene, establishing a Roman boarder at Primis (Qasr Ibrim).

At this point, Amanirenas chose diplomacy. She sent negotiators to visit Augustus in Samos and managed to strike a peace treaty with Rome. It was surprisingly favourable to Kush, who would keep Primis and who would be exempt from paying tribute to Augustus.

This mutually beneficial arrangement continued for three hundred years, and relations between Meroë and Roman Egypt were generally peaceful during this time.

More: This post on the Kandakes of Kush was written for Black History Month 2015

In Fiction:

1999 short animation: Candace of Meroe


The Image of the Ordered World in Ancient Nubian Art: The Construction of the Kushite Mind (800 BCE – 300 AD) – László Török

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography – Aetheopia

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology – William Smith, Ed.

Candace of Meroe on the Black History Pages

Image credits:

Nile N517266177 30554 627” by Citadelite at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia.

Licensed under GFDL via Commons

Cleopatra VII – 69 BCE – 30 BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt


Kleopatra VII Philopator, known commonly as ‘Cleopatra’, is perhaps the most well-known woman so far in this project, and one of the most famous figures in history.

Though she was not the first woman to rule Egypt (see Merneith, Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tausret), she was the last active pharaoh (only very briefly survived by her son) of Egypt as an independent country.

Cleopatra’s reputation precedes her. Thanks to hundreds of paintings, plays, operas, novels and films, the story of the ‘Queen of the Nile’ continues to be shared worldwide. She is remembered by turns as a great beauty, a seductress, a tragic lover, a passionate ruler and a cold, calculated femme fatale.

* * * * *

Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; a Macedonian Greek family who had ruled Egypt for three hundred years and could trace their lineage back to Ptolemy Soter, General to Alexander the Great. (See other Ptolemies in this project: Arsinoë II, Bilistiche, Arsinoë III, Cleopatra II).

The Ptolemaic dynasty was marked by corruption and power struggles. Before she was even fourteen years old, Cleopatra had seen both of her elder sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice overthrow their father – both were killed; one executed, one found dead in suspicious circumstances.


Ptolemaic princess, thought to be Cleopatra VII

Now the eldest living daughter, the teenage Cleopatra was elevated to co-regent beside her father.

Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes died when she was eighteen. As was tradition, Cleopatra married her younger brother, ten year old Ptolemy XIII, with whom she became joint ruler. It was clear that this arrangement was not a happy one. To assert her authority over her brother Cleopatra withdrew Ptolemy’s name from official documents and issued coins which showed only her face.

This sole reign caused uproar among certain factions in the royal court, and in 48 BCE Cleopatra was chased out of Egypt along with her younger sister, Arsinoë.

Cleopatra was not without supporters. An intelligent young woman with a

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

political mind, she was the first Ptolemy ruler who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. (In fact, including her mother-tongue, Greek, Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently, making her very popular with foreign diplomats as she rarely needed an interpreter). She also fully embraced the religion of Egypt like no Ptolemy before her, presenting herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis.

During Cleopatra’s exile, her thirteen year old brother-husband made a very powerful enemy. Julius Caesar had been at civil war with his General and co-ruler Pompey. When Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, the young pharaoh had him beheaded as he watched from a throne in the Alexandrian harbor.

Hoping that the execution would win him favor with Rome, Ptolemy cheerfully presented Caesar with the head of his enemy when the dictator arrived in Alexandria two days later. Caesar was furious. Though they had been political rivals, Pompey was a Roman consul and the widower of Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

At this point, Cleopatra famously had herself smuggled back into Alexandria – many stories describe her being rolled up in a carpet and carried to Julius Caesar’s bedroom by her servants. However she arrived, the twenty one year old queen quickly managed to charm the Roman ruler and the two became lovers.

Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Caesarion (little Caesar) and Julius Caesar sent his army after Ptolemy. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile and Cleopatra was married to her other brother, Ptolemy XIV with whom she became co-ruler.

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

The young queen travelled to Rome to visit Caesar with their son in the summer of 46 BCE. There she was invited to stay in one of Caesar’s luxury country houses, causing scandal as he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. The dictator had a golden statue of Cleopatra as Isis built and displayed in the Forum Julium, but he refused to acknowledge Caesarion as his heir, preferring instead his grandnephew Octavian.

Cleopatra was forced to return to Egypt with her family when Julius Caesar was assassinated in March 44 and Rome erupted in civil war. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV died – some say poisoned – and Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.

Three years later, Marc Antony arrived in Egypt.

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Marc Antony had come to ask Cleopatra for Egypt’s allegiance as he prepared to fight the Parthians. She promised this and more as the two greatest political figures of their time came together and fell in love.

The queen had the Roman solider enthralled – she took him on an exotic pleasure cruise down the Nile, held lavish banquets and showed off her immense wealth.

In time, Cleopatra gave birth to Marc Antony’s twins – Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. In return, Antony had Cleopatra’s younger sister and last remaining rival Arsinoë killed.

Four years passed before Antony returned to Alexandria. He had clearly missed Cleopatra because this time he stayed for good. Though he was still married to Octavian’s sister Octavia, he married Cleopatra in an Egyptian ceremony and they had a third child – Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

When Antony conquered Armenia in 34 BCE, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of both Egypt and Cyrprus, and the other children were made rulers of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Curenaica, Libya, Phoenicia, Syria and Cicilia. Cleopatra became ‘Queen of Kings’ and Caesarion was declared a god king.

The people of Rome were not pleased. It looked as through Cleopatra and Antony were planning war, and Octavian decided to strike first. The battle of Actium took place in 31 BCE between the Roman and Egyptian naval forces. Egypt fell when Marc Antony’s armies defected and joined Octavian.

The details of what happened next are not clear, and differ depend on who is telling the story. We do know that both Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide rather than face their defeat. Marc Antony probably fell on his sword, while Cleopatra famously allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (cobra).

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur


Caesarion was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but quickly killed by Octavian. The victorious Emperor returned to Rome triumphant with the three remaining children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in chains.

Cleopatra’s death marked not only the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but the end of all Egyptian pharaohs. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene, lived a long life and married Juba of Namidia, bringing a large dowry provided by Augustus. She and Juba went on to rule Mauretania. Their first son was named Ptolemy.

In fiction:

To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture…

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatta 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' 1945

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ 1945

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

A full list of depictions of Cleopatra VII on film can be found here.


Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra –Joyce Tyldesley

The Reign of Cleopatra Stanley Mayer Burstein

Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff

Image credits:

Click here for the image credits for this post.

Salpe – 1st Century BCE – Lemnos, Greece

Ancient Greece


Salpe was a midwife from the Greek island of Lemnos. Her name and methods are known to us through the writing of historian Pliny.

As well as midwifery, Salpe offered a number of cures and remedies for other ailments including sunburn, stiffness and dog bites. Her main ingredients were saliva and urine which were believed to have natural healing powers.

Greek physician and their patient

Greek physician and their patient

Salpe was probably not a well-educated woman – she probably couldn’t read and had little contact with leading medical professionals of the time. Her brand of medicine was based on a mix of superstition, herbal cures, prayer and sympathetic magic.

As physicians were expensive, the common people of Lemnos relied upon women like Salpe to provide them with healthcare.  Whoever she was, Salpe’s remedies must have been widely known for her to have caught the attention of Pliny.

Some of Salpe’s remedies (do not try these at home!):

  • To cure the bite of a wild dog, wear the flux of the wool of a black ram contained in a silver bracelet.
  • For a numb (stiff) limb, spit into the bosom of the patient, or touch the upper eyelids with salvia
  • To strengthen the eyes, apply urine.
  • To cure sunburn, mix urine and egg white (preferably ostrich) and apply to the skin every two hours.
  • Feed a dog a live frog to stop it from barking.


Woman’s Power, Man’s Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King edited by Joy K. King, Mary DeForest

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the 20th Century – Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Image credits:

Medicine aryballos Louvre CA1989-2183 n2” by English: Clinic Painter (name-piece) – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011).

Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons



Eirene – 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece


Eirene (sometimes Irene) was an artist who lived in Greece during the 1st century BCE. Like Timarete and Anaxandra before her, Eirene was the daughter of an artist, and became a pupil to her father, Cratinus.

Though none of her work survives, Eirene was famous for a painting of a girl which was on display in Eleusis. Pliny writes that she also painted an image of the mythological nymph Calypso, who kept the hero Odysseus on her island for years.

In addition to these works, Eirene apparently also painted portraits of celebrities of the day – a portrait of the gladiator (in some translations ‘juggler’) Theodorus, and another of a dancer called Alcisthenes are credited to her.


Naturalis historia, XXXV.40.140, 147. – Pliny the Elder

Famous Women – Giovanni Boccaccio, Virginia Brown

On Wikipedia:

Cornificia – c.85 – 40 BCE – Roman Republic

Ancient Rome

“Not satisfied with excelling in such a splendid art, inspired by the sacred Muses, she rejected the distaff and turned her hands, skilled in the use of the quill, to writing Heliconian verses… With her genius and labor she rose above her sex, and with her splendid work she acquired a perpetual fame.”


Cornificia was born into a family of wealth, status and talent.

Her brother, Cornificius was both a praetor and an augur for the Roman Republic, as well as a poet. This upbringing likely afforded Cornificia a good education which inspired her own love of poetry.

Unfortunately, as happens too often, Cornificia’s work has all been lost. Her work is described as ‘distinguished’ by St Jerome in the 4th Century CE, inferring that the poet’s work did survive and was read for four hundred years after her death.

Cornificia and her brother were immortalised by a monument in Rome which still stands today. She was also praised by early feminist renaissance writer Laura Cereta who passionately wrote:

“Add also Cornificia, the sister of the poet Cornificius, whose devotion to literature bore such a fruit that she was said to have been nurtured on the milk of the Castalian Muses and who wrote epigrams in which every phrase was graced with Heliconian flowers.”


The opening quote of this post is from Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (De mulieribus claris)

praetor was a magistrate and/or military commander, while an augur was a priest whose task was to ‘take the auspices’, interpreting the will of the gods by studying the activities of birds.


Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth CenturyJane Stevenson

Famous Women Giovanni Boccaccio, Virginia Brown

On Wikipedia:

Fulvia – c.83 – 40 BCE – Roman Republic

Ancient Rome

Content warning: Some swearing.

Politician, gang leader and general rabble rouser, Fulvia was not a woman you wanted as your enemy…


The rise and fall of Fulvia is central to the end of the Roman Republic. An immensely ambitious woman, her power grew through her marriage to three of the most politically important men of her generation; Publius Clodius Pulcher, Gaius Scribonius Curio, and Marc Antony.

She was the first Roman non-mythological woman to appear on Roman coins.

First marriage: Pulbius Clodius Pulcher

15th Century Engraving of Fulvia

15th Century Engraving of Fulvia

From a wealthy family, Fulvia married aristocratic politician Clodius when she was 21. The marriage produced a son and a daughter as well as political stability.

Clodius was hugely popular with the common people of Rome, and he and Fulvia went everywhere together. However, their status was not without danger. The couple had a number of Roman gangs under their control and in 52 BCE Clodius was killed by rival Titus Annius Milo’s gang.

Fulvia grieved publicly for her husband, dragging his body through the streets of Rome – this incited an angry mob who took Clodius’ body and cremated it in the senate. As the widow of this popular man, Fulvia remained a symbol and reminder of him – transferring this power to her later husbands.

Second marriage: Gaius Scribonius Curio

Following the standard grieving period, Fulvia married her second husband, Gaius Scribonius Curio, in around 52-51 BC. Like the ill-fated Clodius, Curio was also very popular with the plebians of Rome, using Fulvia’s popularity and connection to her dead husband to gain favour with Julius Caesar.

Two years after marrying Fulvia, Curio had been elected as a tribune and sent to North Africa by Caesar to fight the army of King Juba I of Numidia. Unfortunately, Curio’s luck had run out and he was killed in battle.

Now a widow with three children (she had one son with Curio), Fulvia was once again on the marriage market.

Third marriage: Marc Antony

Fulvia meets Marc Antony

Fulvia meets Marc Antony

Fulvia’s final marriage was to Marc Antony a few years after Curio’s death. Antony himself was an established politician and military commander, while Fulvia had retained her wealth and gang connections. Together they were a force to be reckoned with.

Fulvia vocally defended Antony from attacks by the orator Cicero and gathered support for her husband using her marriage to Clodius as a draw. When Julius Caesar was assassinated, Antony suddenly became the most powerful man in Rome.

When Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavian (later Augustus) formed their uneasy triumvirate with Marcus Aemillius Lepidus, Fulvia’s daughter Clodia was married to Octavian.

To further protect the alliance, Marc Antony sought out his long-time enemy Cicero and had him killed. One ancient source says that Fulvia pierced the tongue of the dead Cicero with one of her golden hairpins as revenge for all the things he’d said about her husband.

Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsky

Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsky

Later, Antony and Octavian left Rome to track down Julius Caesar’s assassins, leaving Lepidus in charge. Many sources say that as the most powerful woman in Rome, it was really Fulvia who ruled.

“She, the mother-in‑law of Octavian and wife of Antony, had no respect for Lepidus because of his slothfulness, and managed affairs herself, so that neither the senate nor the people transacted any business contrary to her pleasure.” – Cassius Dio

Opposition to Octavian

Eventually, the triumvirs distributed the provinces among themselves. Lepidus took the west and Antony went to Egypt, where he was to meet his fate in queen Cleopatra VII.

Octavian’s plans soon became clear once he returned to Rome in 41 BCE and divorced Clodia, accusing Fulvia of overreaching her power.

Thinking quickly, Fulvia gathered her children and began to tour the countryside meeting veterans, reminding them of their loyalty to Marc Antony. She gained an ally in Antony’s brother, Lucius, and began to promote her husband in opposition to Octavian.

Fulvia's coins

Fulvia’s coins

By 41 BCE Fulvia’s actions had escalated to war. She and Lucius raised eight legions, even occupying Rome for a short time, until Lucius had to retreat under siege to Perusia. It was known as the Perusine War, and Marc Antony was completely unaware.

During the siege, Octavian’s soldiers at Perusia began to sling bullets inscribed with insults directed at Fulvia personally and Octavian wrote a vulgar epigram directed at her in 40 BCE, referring to Antony’s affair with the courtesan Glaphyra:

“Because Antony fucks Glaphyra, Fulvia has arranged

this punishment for me: that I fuck her too.

That I fuck Fulvia? What if Manius begged me

to bugger him? Would I? I don’t think so, if I were sane

“Either fuck or fight”, she says. Doesn’t she know

my prick is dearer to me than life itself? Let the trumpets blare!”

The siege at Perusia lasted two months before Lucius surrendered. Fulvia fled to Greece with her children. By the time Marc Antony sailed back to Rome to deal with Octavian, Fulvia had died of an unknown illness in exile in Sicyon.

After her death, Antony and Octavian used it as an opportunity to blame their quarrelling on her.


Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World Joyce E. Salisbury

Roman Women Augusto Fraschetti, Linda Lappin

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Fulvia Antonia” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Svedomsky-Fulvia” by Pavel Svedomsky (1849-1904) – [1].

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Glaspalast München 1891 088b” by S. Francisco Maura Montaner – Illustrierter Katalog der Münchener Jahresausstellung von Kunstwerken Aller Nationen im kgl. Glaspalaste 1891, 3. Auflage, ausgegeben am 24. Juli, München 1891 (Digitalisat der BSB).

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fulvia-Clodius” by Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”.

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Elephantis – fl. late 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

Content warning: Sex, erotic art, sex work.

Writer, physician, midwife and author of an infamous sex manual…


Elephantis was a woman with many talents. She was likely a sex worker, and is also noted by Pliny to have been a capable midwife (perhaps a useful skill in her line of work).

Elephantis shared her knowledge, authoring a manual on cosmetics, and another on abortive methods. But she is most notorious for her sex manual.

Her birth name is unknown; it was common for courtesans in classical times to take animal names as pseudonyms for their clients to know them by. It is even possible that there was more than one woman named Elephantis.

None of her works have survived, though they are referenced in other ancient texts. Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Tiberius owned a complete set of Elephantis’ works – said to be written as poetry – as part of his extensive ‘erotic library’.


Ancient Roman erotic art fresco from a brothel in Pompeii

A poem in the Priapeia also refers to Elephantis’ sex manual:

“Lalage dedicates a votive offering to Priapus, bringing shameless pictures from the books of Elephantis, and begs him to try and imitate with her the variety of intercourse of the figures in the illustrations.”

There is a further epigram by the Roman poet Martial which reads:

“Such verses as neither the daughters of Didymus know, nor the debauched books of Elephantis, in which are set out new forms of lovemaking.”


  • The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus.
  • “Novae figurae” has been read as “novem figurae” (i.e., “nine forms” of lovemaking, rather than “new forms” of lovemaking), and so some commentators have inferred that Elephantis listed nine different sexual positions.


The Twelve Caesars (Tiberius 43:2)Seutonius

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Pompeii-wall painting” by ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki – Own work photograph.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Iaia – c.116 – 27 BCE – Cyzicus, Mysia

Ancient Rome


Iaia of Cyzicus (also known as Marcia and Lala) was a painter who worked in Rome during the first century BCE. She was known for her panel paintings and ivory engraving.

Though she found fame at the centre of the Roman Empire, Iaia was born in Cyzicus, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) which was under Roman rule. The short descriptions of her in antiquity describe a remarkable and independent woman, who chose to remain single and never married.

Historian Pliny wrote; “There was no painter superior to her for expedition; while at the same time her artistic skill was such that her works sold at much higher prices than those of the most celebrated portrait-painters of her day.”

Most of Iaia’s paintings were of women, including a large portrait of an old woman, displayed in Naples. It is also noted that she painted a self-portrait using a mirror to capture her likeness.

Michel Corneille the Younger, Lala from Cyzicus painting, Palace of Versailles, 1672

Michel Corneille the Younger, Lala from Cyzicus painting, Palace of Versailles, 1672

Sadly these works have not survived. What remains is the echo of a woman who traveled a great distance and was so skilled in her craft that she worked faster and painted better than her male competitors, becoming independently wealthy.


Natural HistoriesPliny

Women in the Classical WorldElaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H. A. Shapiro

Reader in the History of Books and Printing – By Paul A. Winckler

On Wikipedia:

Image credits:

Salon des Nobles-LALA DE CYZIQUE CULTIVANT LA PEINTURE” by CORNEILLE, Michel (1642-1708) – RMN.

Licensed under Public Domain via Commons