Galla Placidia – 388 – 450 – Ravenna, Italy

Ancient Rome, Constantinople, Italy

Galla Placidia

As the Roman Empire buckled and fell around her, Galla Placidia remained stalwart and dedicated to ruling by any means.

Early years:

The daughter of an emperor, Theodosius I, Placidia was an extremely precocious child. She was given her own household to manage and granted financial independence before she was even in her teens. She was given the title Noblissima Puella (most noble girl).

In 394 she moved to the royal court in Mediolanum (ancient Milan, northern Italy), where her father died early the following year. Theodosius was succeeded by Placidia’s half-brother Arcadius. Arcadius was considered a weak ruler, too much under the control of his domineering wife, Aelia Eudoxia and the General Rufinus.

Stilicho

Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Meanwhile, Galla Placidia spent much of her time in the care of her cousin, Serena, and her husband Stilicho the Vandal – a man of ambition.

Arcadius died in 408, leaving behind his seven year old son, Theodosius II as the Eastern Roman Emperor. Stilicho saw his chance and began preparing to head for Constantinople to act as the little emperor’s regent. He told the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Honorius, Placidia’s other half-brother, not to join him. Honorius became suspicious when an officer called Olympius suggested that Stilicho might be planning to usurp the imperial throne.

Olympius and Honorius acted quickly, leading a military coup and having Stilicho executed. His death left Placidia (who was in Rome at the time) unattached to any household.

Rome under siege:

Stilicho’s death caused problems elsewhere. The foederati was a part of the Roman army made up  of northern European tribes, including the Franks, Vandals, Alans and the Visigoths. Following Stilicho’s fall, the foederati (who were seen as loyal to him) were targeted throughout Italy, their wives and children murdered en masse.

 

The foederati were understandably furious and baying for Roman blood. 30,000 men joined the army of Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, who led them across the Alps and attacked the city of Rome in the September of 408. The city would remain under siege for two years.

In 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Buildings were burned, statues torn down, palaces looted and captives taken. Among the prisoners of war was Galla Placidia herself.

Life with the Visigoths:

The circumstances around Placidia’s capture are unknown, but the historians Jordanes and Marcellinus Comes both mention that she was taken out of Italy to Gaul by the Visigoths in 412. Alaric I died and was succeeded as Visigothic king by Ataulf, who formed an alliance with Honorius.

Ataulf had executed two usurpers of the Roman imperial throne in 413, sending their heads directly to Honorius. The emperor was so pleased that he cemented the alliance with Ataulf by giving his consent to the Visigothic king marrying Galla Placidia.

Placidia and Ataulf were married in a roman ceremony in 414 and the couple travelled to Hispania (Spain) later that year. They had one child together, Theodosius, who sadly died in infancy.

Fall of Ataulf:

Ataulf was assassinated while in Barcelona in 415. A rival faction within the Visigoths proclaimed Sigeric, Ataulf’s enemy, as the new king. Sigeric lost no time in asserting his authority, murdering all six of Ataulf’s children (from a previous marriage). Placidia was once again a prisoner of war.

Historical accounts say that she was treated very poorly, forced to walk for miles on foot among Sigeric’s captives. This was shocking to the Visigoths, who eventually assassinated Sigeric himself and had him replaced with a relative of Ataulf. As the old king’s widow, a foreigner and with no children, Placidia was still in a precarious situation.

Fortunately, so was the new king of the Visigoths. Running out of food and getting desperate, he appealed to Honorius’ magister militum (master of soldiers), Constantius. The peace treaty included renewing the foederati status of the Visigoths and returning Galla Placidia to her brother.

Second marriage:

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Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

No sooner than Galla Placidia had returned to Rome, Honorius forced her into marriage with Constantius. They had two children together, a daughter, Justa Grata Honoria, and a son, future emperor Valentinian III.

After everything she had been through, Placidia refused to retire quietly into domesticity. She expanded her influence at her brother’s court, involving herself in both court and church politics.

In 418, Placidia found herself on the losing side of a power struggle within the Church of Rome. Following the death of Pope Zosimus, two rival factions in the clergy elected their own popes, Eulalius and Boniface. The two popes threw Rome into religious and political turmoil.

Placidia was in favour of Eualius and petitioned the emperor on his behalf, personally writing letters summoning the African bishops to a synod in Italy. At first, Honorius did as his sister suggested and confirmed Eulalius as the legitimate pope. However, this did not stop the infighting in Rome, and while further synods were called in order to reach an agreement, Honorius demanded that both Boniface and Eulalius stay away from the city.

At Easter in 419, Eulalius went against the emperor’s orders and returned to Rome, attempting to sieze the papacy by force. He was repelled by the imperial army, and lost favour with Honorius. Boniface was proclaimed pope by April.

By 421, Honorius was thirty seven years old, unmarried and still without an heir. Constantius was proclaimed co-ruler of the Western Roman Empire – and Galla Placidia became the only Augusta (empress).

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Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Constantius died in 421, leaving Galla Placidia widowed a second time.

Move East:

Shortly after her second husband’s death, something happened which forced Placidia out of the west. Her reasons for leaving are unclear, some sources say that she argued with Honorius, others that she was in fact too close to her brother, and accused of scandalous behaviour with him which required her to create some distance.

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The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883 (source)

Whatever the reason, Placidia and her children arrived at the court of her nephew, Theodosius II, in 421, shortly after his marriage to Aelia Eudocia. In Constantinople, Galla Placidia’s title of Augusta was not officially recognised.

Two years after her arrival in the east, Honorius dropped dead, leaving a power vacuum in the western empire. In the scramble to find a suitable heir, Joannes, the head of civil service in Rome was proclaimed emperor by Castinus the Patrician.

Theodosius had other ideas, and began preparing Galla Placidia’s son, Valentinian (aged four at the time) for the imperial office. Joannes was overthrown in 425 and Valentinian proclaimed Augustus of the Western Roman Empire. Placidia would be his regent.

Beginning by pacifying her family’s enemies with a peace treaty, Galla Placidia’s twelve year regency over her son began to return stability to the western empire.

Upon Valentinian’s eighteenth birthday in 437, Placidia’s regency ended, though she continued to exercise political influence up until her death in 450 at the age of 62. Having lived through a siege, twice survived enemy capture, been a queen of the Visigoths, a prisoner of war and an empress of Rome, Galla Placidia had faced enough adventure and intrigue for ten lifetimes.

A pious Christian, Placidia built and restored many churches during her time in power. These included the Basilica of Saint Paul and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is a UNESCO world heritage site.

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Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (source)


In literature:

  • Two stanzas in Alexander Blok‘s poem Ravenna focus on Galla Placidia’s tomb.
  • Louis Zukofsky refers to the mausoleum in his poem 4 Other Countries:

“The gold that shines/ in the dark/ of Galla Placidia,/ the gold in the/ Round vault rug of stone/ that shows its pattern as well as the stars/ my love might want on her floor…”

  • Carl Jung refers to Galla Placidia in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

In music:

  • Spanish musician Jaume Pahissa wrote the opera Galla Placídia in 1913.

On television:

  • Galla Placidia is played by Alice Krige in the 2001 American TV Miniseries Attila.

 


References:

Galla Placidia on romanemperors.org

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – Hagith Sivan

Galla Placidia Augusta: a biographical essayStewart Irvin Oost

On Wikipedia:

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Fabiola – d. 399 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Fabiola

In a similar fashion to contemporaries Marcella and Paula, Fabiola was a high ranking Roman noblewoman who chose a life of poverty and charitable work under the influence of Saint Jerome.

She was married twice before her conversion to Christianity – first to a cruel man who she divorced, the second time to a man who left her widowed.

With two husbands behind her and enough money to live comfortably, like so many other women of her generation Fabiola turned to the church. There was only one problem – Fabiola had divorced her first husband and remarried, something forbidden by the Roman church. She would have to prove herself worthy before being accepted.

At Easter, Fabiola dressed in a plain paupers smock and went to do penance at the gates of the Lateran basilica. Impressed, the pope welcomed her.

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The Lateran Basilica in Rome where Fabiola did her penance. (Source)

Fabiola got to work at once. She built a hospital and personally tended to the sick herself. Not afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of the poor, Jerome writes of Fabiola’s good works:

“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at.”

She also donated money to support churches and monasteries across Italy and travelled the empire sharing her wealth and caring for the sick. By 395 Fabiola felt she had not yet done enough – she decided to follow Paula’s example and travel to Jerusalem.

In Bethlehem Fabiola lived for a time with Paula and studied with Jerome. Here she threw herself into a life of penitence and contemplation of the scriptures.

“And yet this eagerness to hear did not bring with it any feeling of satiety: increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow, and by casting oil upon the flame she did but supply fuel for a still more burning zeal.”

Fabiola had still not found what she was seeking. The political climate in Jerusalem changed for Jerome after the Huns invaded. Between that and Jerome’s quarrel with the bishop of Jerusalem, Fabiola decided to go home.

She kept in touch with Jerome, and eventually went on to found a hospital at Portus for pilgrims travelling into Rome. She spent the rest of her life working in her hospitals caring for others, and is an example of Christian women’s early involvement in medicine and nursing.


References:

St. Jerome wrote a eulogistic memoir of Fabiola in a letter to her relative Oceanus.

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century : a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

Paula – 347 – 404 – Rome/Bethlehem

Ancient Rome

“If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” – Saint Jerome

Paula

One of the early ‘desert mothers’ – women who relocated to the holy land to work for the church – Paula of Rome was a key figure in the formation of Christianity.

She came from one of the most prestigious Roman families and inherited immense wealth. Married in her teens to a nobleman of equal standing, Paula had five children. As a young matron of Rome she enjoyed her privilege; Saint Jerome writes that she wore silk dresses and was carried about the city by eunuch slaves.

Paula’s husband died when she was only thirty-two, plunging her into grief.  Her mourning drove her desire to learn more about religion and eventually led her to the brown dress society, led by Marcella. Inspired by this monastic style of living, Paula became devoted to the church, giving away much of her material wealth.

When her family and friends complained that she was giving away her children’s inheritance, she simply dismissed them, claiming that she was exchanging their earthly inheritance for a heavenly one.

It was after she met Saint Jerome in 382 that Paula decided to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. Though she was doing good work in Rome, she was unhappy with the life she had because of her familial ties and social status and felt she would be free from these burdens in the desert.

Paula’s journey was an epic one by the standards of the time. Her children accompanied

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Saint Jerome with Saint Paula and Saint Eustochium by Francisco de Zurbaran (Source)

her as far as the Roman port of Portus at Ostia, and once she was on board the ship she refused to look back at them on the shore in case seeing them there drew her back.

Only her daughter Eustochium chose to make the journey with her. They stopped at the island of Pontia to visit the exiled martyr Flavia Domitilla, who further strengthened Paula’s resolve to reach Jerusalem.

Later she stopped at Cyprus to visit the bishop Epiphanius. Here she travelled to at every monastery on the island to leave behind a donation of money. Paula continued on her journey through to Seleucia, then Antioch, stopping at a number of holy places in modern day Syria, Lebanon and Israel to see the sights and worship, before eventually arriving in Bethlehem.

After seeing a number of important places from the bible, including the cave in which Jesus was said to have been born, Paula decided that she would stay in Bethlehem. Immediately she set to work building a monastery for monks and a convent for the women who joined her.

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The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Source)

For the rest of her life, Paula dedicated herself tirelessly to working for the poor, the sick and pilgrims who passed through Bethlehem. She may have had some basic medical knowledge as she is described as tending to the sick personally.

She also assisted Jerome academically, helping his Bible translation into Latin and later (with her daughter Eustochium) making copies to circulate the gospel.

After Paula’s death, Eustochium continued running the convent she had left behind. Her final resting place is beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the spot thought to be Jesus’ birthplace.

Paula is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church and her feast day is celebrated on 26th January.


In fiction:

Geoffrey Chaucer played upon the relationship between Jerome and Paula in the Wife of Bath‘s Prologue.


References:

Jerome’s Letter 108

On Wikipedia:

Marcella – 325 – 410 – Rome

Ancient Rome

Marcella

Marcella was a Roman noblewoman who was active in the early Christian church as one of the founders of monasticism (renouncing a worldly life to dedicate oneself to spiritual service).

The majority of information we have on Marcella comes from a letter written by Saint Jerome, a theologian and doctor of the church, in which he gives a biography of her life and praises her intelligence and good works.

“I will not set forth her illustrious family and lofty lineage… I will praise her for nothing but the virtue which is her own and which is the more noble, because forsaking both wealth and rank she has sought the true nobility of poverty and lowliness.”

– Saint Jerome on Marcella

Like Faltonia Betitia Proba, who lived around the same time, Marcella was born into a wealthy and influential Roman family. She was widowed young, after only seven months of marriage, and while it was Roman custom to remarry quickly, Marcella chose instead to dedicate the rest of her life to serving the poor, rather than a husband.

This was shocking to her contemporaries, including her mother, Albina, who had already found her a suiter, the elderly consular Cerealis. After hearing that Marcella planned to remain unmarried, Cerealis attempted to win her over by promising her his fortune, claiming that she would be more of a daughter to him than a wife, due to their age difference. Marcella’s cutting response was:

“Had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not an inheritance.”

Being uninterested in material wealth was an unusual trait at the time, particularly in a Roman Matron, for whom wealth and status was everything. Still, Marcella’s life of quiet prayer, chastity and charity struck a chord, and soon other young women were following her example.

Known as ‘the brown dress society’, Marcella and her community of Roman women dressed in coarse plain garments and stopped dressing their hair or wearing makeup. Marcella opened up her luxurious mansion as a refuge for the poor and a house of hospitality for pilgrims travelling to Rome.

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Painting of the Tiber with the Aventine Hill where Marcella’s house once stood. 1690 (Source)

It was through her hospital that Marcella met Jerome in 382 as he stayed with her while visiting Pope Damasus I. An intelligent and learned woman, Marcella thrived on the opportunity to debate with Jerome, a leading mind in theological matters. Fluent in Greek and Hebrew as well as her native Latin, she was invaluable to the scholar as he spent three years translating the Bible from her home.

Not content to simply listen and learn, Marcella was active in her pursuit of knowledge, openly challenging Jerome a number of times, impressing him immensely:

“..she never came to see me without asking me some questions about [the scriptures]… nor would she rest content at once, but on the contrary would dispute them; this, however, was not for the sake of argument, but to learn by questioning the answers to such objections might, as she saw, be raised. How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief… This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.”

Marcella’s influence spread throughout Rome, reaching another future collaborator of Jerome’s – Paula. Eventually Jerome and Paula chose to travel to the holy land to set up churches and monasteries there, but Marcella opted to stay in Rome and oversee her brown dress society.

The virgins in her society called Marcella ‘Mother’, and their lives can be compared to convent nuns in later Christianity. She was in her late seventies when the Goths attacked and ravaged Rome. Marcella’s house was invaded by soldiers seeking the treasure which was by then long gone on various charitable causes.

Marcella fled to the church of St Paul, where she died soon after. She is honoured today in the Roman Orthodox and Easter Orthodox churches as a saint. Her feast day is 31st January.


References:

Letter from Saint Jerome ‘To Principia’ detailing the life of Marcella – 412 AD

Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church – Ruth A. Tucker

On Wikipedia:

 

Faltonia Betitia Proba – c. 306/c. 315 – c. 353/c. 366 – Rome

Ancient Rome

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Faltonia Betitia Proba was an early Christian Roman woman who was inspired by her faith to create one of the most influential poems of late antiquity (4th – 6th Centuries).

Born into a wealthy and noble family, Proba was the daughter of a Roman consul. She was clearly highly educated and made a politically useful marriage to the Prefect Clodius Celsinus Adelphus in 351.

Boccaccio_-_Faltonia_Proba_-_De_mulieribus_claris,_XV_secolo_illuminated_manuscript

Faltonia Betitia Proba teaching the history of the world since the creation through her Cento Vergilanius de laudibus Christi. From a 15th Century manuscipt of the De muliberibus claris by Giovanni Boccaccio. (Source)

Though she had been raised in the Roman pagan religion, at some point during adulthood Proba converted to Christianity, a relatively new cult which was increasing in popularity in Rome at this time. Devout in her beliefs, Proba influenced her husband and two sons to convert as well.

There are two poems attributed to Proba, the first of which is believed to have been written before her conversion. Known as Constantini bellum adversus Magnentium, it told the story of the war between emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius. This poem no longer exists, and some scholars think that Proba may have personally had it destroyed due to its pagan themes.

Following her conversion, Proba completed her master work; the  Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi.

CentoProbae

An image of Faltonia Betitia Proba holding a scroll. Underneath is the beginning of her Cento. (Source)

A cento is a poem which is entirely composed of verses or passages taken from other authors, reworked to tell a different story. Proba used verses by the ancient poet Virgil combined with biblical passages to create an epic style poem about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In 694 lines, Proba tells the story of the bible, from the Old Testament stories of creation, the fall of man, the great flood and the story of Moses, to the New Testament and teachings of Jesus.

De Laudibus Christi was hugely popular upon publication. It was written in a style which was accessible and entertaining, which led to the work being shared and taught in schools. Faltonia Betitia Proba was praised well into the medieval period for her work.


References:

Early Christian Women Writers: The Interesting Lives and Works of Faltonia Betitia Proba and Athenais-Eudocia – Cătălina Mărmureanu, Gianina Cernescu, Laura Lixandru 

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. By various writers. Edited by Sir William Smith

On Wikipedia:

 

Julia Maesa – 165 – 226 – Rome

Ancient Rome, Ancient Syria

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The younger sister of Julia Domna, Julia Maesa played an equally important part in the politics of the Roman Empire, actively influencing the ascension of her grandsons the emperors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus.

Ethnically Syrian, Julia Maesa, like her sister, was considered a Roman citizen due to her family’s immense wealth. She married Syrian nobleman Gaius Julius Avitus Alexianus and had two daughters; Julia Soaemias Bassiana and Julia Avita Matmaea.

After the death of her nephew, Caracalla and her sister’s suicide, Julia Maesa returned to Syria where she began to make plans.

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Coin depicting Julia Maesa (source)

Her grandson, Elagabalus, was fourteen years old and Julia Maesa was willing to do anything to make sure her family was back in power. Hugely rich, she was able to orchestrate a plot to overthrow emperor Macrinus and put Elagabalus in his place. She and her daughter (Elagabalus’ mother) spread a rumour that the boy was actually Caracalla’s illegitimate son, and therefore rightful heir to the empire.

The plot was successful and for her efforts Julia was rewarded with the title Augusta avia Augusti (‘Augusta, grandmother of Augustus’). Unfortunately, the best laid plans often go awry and Elagabalus was not a successful emperor.

Elagabalus

Bust of Elagabalus (source)

The teenager’s behaviour was erratic and scandalous. He held lavish parties, ignored the Roman gods in favour of the Syrian sun god and married a Vestal Virgin – an enormous taboo by Roman standards. Julia Maesa took swift action against her uncontrollable grandson and had him and his mother assassinated.

Now Julia promoted her second grandson, Alexander Severus, who was somewhat less of a disaster than his cousin – he managed to escape assassination until he was 26.

Julia Maesa died sometime in 226. Like her sister Domna before her, she was deified.


References:

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient WorldJoyce E. Salisbury

Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the CaesarsJasper Burns

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman WomenMarjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

On Wikipedia:

Julia Domna – 170 – 217 – Rome

Ancient Rome

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Julia Domna (sometimes Julia Domma) had a very privileged start in life. Born into the wealthiest family in Syria, her father was a high-priest and her great-uncle had been a leading Roman Centurion – who left her his estate.

800px-Julia_Domna_Glyptothek_Munich_354Educated in politics and philosophy, Domna’s star continued to rise as she married the roman Septimius Severus in her late teens. By all accounts it was an extremely happy pairing, and Severus openly listened to his clever wife’s opinions and advice.

Domna had two sons, Caracall and Geta, and the family’s fortunes increased when Severus became emperor of Rome in 193. However, this position would come at a price as Severus faced civil war with a number of rivals.

As Severus marched out on military campaigns to the Eastern reaches of the empire, Julia Domna travelled at his side. This bought her a lot of respect among the common people and soldiers, and she was given the title Mater Castrorum – mother of the camp.

Back in Rome, Julia Domna flourished in the role of empress. She pursued her passion for philosophy and encouraged philosophers to share their knowledge. She commissioned Philostratus to write his Life of Apollonius, which is still considered the major source of information on Apollonius.

In 208 Severus and Julia left Rome again for Britain, where three years later Severus died in York. The emperor’s sons, Caracalla and Geta were left to rule jointly, with Julia as their mediator. Unfortunately, the two brothers did not get on, and within a year Caracalla had ordered his soldiers to murder Geta.

Julia was horrified by her son’s actions and their relationship never recovered. She continued to play the role of dutiful mother and was with Caracalla in Parthia when he was assassinated in 217.

Having lost her husband and both sons and suffering from breast cancer, Julia Domna chose to commit suicide. She was carried back to Rome and given an empress’s burial.


References:

Julia Domna: Syrian Empress – Barbara Levick

Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Julia DomnaEmily Ann Hemelrijk

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Julia Domna Glyptothek By Unknown – User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-08, Public Domain

The Severan Tondo By Fred the Oyster – Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Public Domain

Coin featuring Julia Domna By Rasiel Suarez, CC BY-SA 3.0

Coins, Aureus with Septimius Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla and Geta By cgb – http://www.cgb.fr/septime-severe-julia-domna-caracalla-et-geta-aureus,brm_251139,a.html, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

 

Pompeia Plotina – d.121/122 – Rome

Ancient Rome

PompeiaPlotina

Pompeia Plotina Claudia Phoebe Piso – or just Pompeia Plotina for short – was an influential and intellectual Roman Empress.

Raised in Escacena del Campo in the romanised Hispania province, Plotina was the daughter of Lucius Pompeius Plotia, a politician. In around 91 she married Trajan, a soldier who had recently been elected a roman Consul.

Plotina_-_sestertius_-_RIC_0740

The couple never had any children of their own, but were adoptive parents to the future emperor Hadrian and his sister, who had become orphaned at a young age. Trajan became emperor in 98, and in 100 he gave his wife the title of Augusta (Empress), which she did not accept until five years later.

Plotina was well read, and took a deep interest in philosophy – particularlyBust_of_Pompeia_Plotina,_from_the_Baths_of_Nepture_at_Ostia,_110-120_AD,_Palazzo_Massimo_alle_Terme,_Rome_(12453374733) the Epicurean school, which promoted modesty and moderation as well as gaining knowledge of the world. The empress and her husband became known for their simplicity, their philanthropy and their kindness.

Rather than concerning herself with increasing her power as so many empresses before her, Plotina used her influence to help others. She worked for fairer taxation, better access to education and poverty relief. She became beloved by Roman society and Trajan became known as one of the ‘five good emperors’.

When Plotina died, she was deified (made a goddess) and Hadrian built a temple in her honour at Nîmes, in Provence.


References:

A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women – Marjorie Lightman, Benjamin Lightman

The Women of Pliny’s Letters – Jo-Ann Shelton

Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook – Bonnie MacLachlan

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Plotina – sestertius – RIC 0740” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Bust of Pompeia Plotina, from the Baths of Nepture at Ostia, 110-120 AD, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome (12453374733)” by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Bust of Pompeia Plotina, from the Baths of Nepture at Ostia, 110-120 AD, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Agrippina – 14 BCE – 33 CE – Rome

Ancient Rome

Agrippina

Vipsania Agrippina, commonly known as Agrippina Major or Agrippina the Elder played a key role in the lives and politics of the first emperors of Rome.

The granddaughter of emperor Augustus, Agrippina was named after her father, Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ favourite general. Her mother, Julia, was Augustus’ only legitimate child. Agrippa died when Agrippina was only two years old and her mother remarried the future emperor Tiberius. This marriage was an unhappy one, and in 2 BCE, when Agrippina was 12, Julia was exiled for adultery. Agrippina never saw her mother again.

Julio-Claudian family tree

Julio-Claudian family tree

Agrippina and her four full-blood siblings were raised by Augustus and his wife Livia. Historical sources report that she had an affectionate relationship with her grandfather. At some point between 1 BCE and 5 CE, she was married to her cousin Germanicus, Livia’s grandson.

Agrippina_the_elderBy all accounts, the couple was well matched and they were extremely happy together. Germanicus was a beloved general and popular politician, as well as Tiberius’ adopted heir. Agrippina was a devoted wife, who supported her husband, travelling with him to war in Gaul and Germania.

They had six surviving children together; sons Nero Caesar, Drusus Caesar and Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (nicknamed Caligula) and daughters Agrippina the Younger (Julia Agrippina), Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla.

Agrippina was praised for her child-bearing and her support for her husband as she travelled across the Roman Empire with her large family on various military campaigns. She was seen as the ideal Roman matron and a heroic figure, making her very popular with ordinary people.

Agrippina’s happy life came to an abrupt end when in the year 19 while the family was in the Middle East Germanicus got into a disagreement with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria and died very suddenly. Agrippina believed that her husband had been poisoned by Piso on Tiberius’ orders.

Plunged into grief, she brought her six children back to Rome, publicly carrying Germanicus’ ashes, determined to seek justice. The people of Rome were hugely sympathetic towards the widowed Agrippina, and when she accused Piso of murder and treason, the governor felt he had no choice but to commit suicide.

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West

Agrippina landing at Brundisium with the ashes of Germanicus by Benjamin West

Agrippina never recovered from Germanicus’ death, and her loneliness increased as many of her relatives continued to die – she had already lost her two elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, and her younger brother Postumus had been exiled.

She had always been outspoken, and in the court of Tiberius she became moreso, advocating for her sons to become heirs to the imperial throne over Tiberius’ son and grandson. She soon became involved in a plot to overthrow the Emperor and his right hand man, Sejanus. Tiberius began to mistrust Agrippina and in 26 refused her request to marry a Roman senator for political reasons.

800px-DSC04499_Istanbul_-_Museo_archeol._-_Agrippina_maggiore_sec._I_d.C._-_Foto_G._Dall'Orto_28-5-2006The ill-feeling between Agrippina and Tiberius came to a head when the emperor offered her an apple at a dinner party and she refused – suspecting it was poisoned. Shortly afterwards, Tiberius had Agrippina and her eldest sons, Nero and Drusus arrested for conspiracy to treason.

Following trial by the Senate, Agrippina and Nero were banished to Pandataria, the same island her mother had been banished to years before.

She did not give up without a fight. Historical sources tell us that Agrippina continued to be vocal even in her banishment, and was flogged so viciously that she lost an eye. She refused to eat and though she was force-fed, later succeeded in starving herself to death in 33.

Drusus died of starvation in Rome and Nero committed suicide. After Agrippina’s death, Tiberius declared her birthday as an unlucky day. However, the emperor was succeeded by Agrippina’s remaining son, Caligula, who restored his mother and brothers’ ashes to Rome. He had coins made in Agrippina’s honor and dedicated the Circus Games to her memory. Further to this, Caligula destroyed all evidence of the court case against Agrippina.

Agripinna_Senior_(elder)_Sestertius

Agrippina’s son ruled for a further four years, and her daughter, Agrippina the Younger, later married the emperor Claudius, becoming empress and mother to future emperor Nero.

The historian Tacitus described Agrippina as determined and masculine:

“Agrippina knew no feminine weaknesses. Intolerant of rivalry, thirsting for power, she had a man’s preoccupations”

She was remembered as a great and deeply moral woman with a strong character who cared for her family above all things.


In Fiction:

Agrippina features as a main character in Robert Graves’ novel ‘I, Claudius’ and she was played by Fiona Walker in the 1976 TV serial.


References:

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

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Tiberius and CaligulaSeutonius


Image credits:

Julio-Claudian family tree – created by author

Benjamin West 001” by Benjamin West – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN3936122202

Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Agrippina the elder” by Unknown – en:Image:Agrippina the elder.jpg. Uploaded on the English Wikipedia, 4 June 2004, by ChrisO

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Agripinna Senior (elder) Sestertius” by SwKSwK – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Hortensia – fl. 42 BCE – Rome

Ancient Rome, Italy

Hortensia

Hortensia was celebrated in the final years of the Roman Republic for her oration (public speaking) and in particular an impassioned speech she gave before the three most important men of her generation.

Public oratory was central to the life of a Roman citizen. Careers were built and destroyed based on a politician’s ability to speak in public and persuade the people with eloquence and reason. Courts of law held rhetoric in high esteem, and having a lawyer who could speak well was often more important than evidence and justice.

Hortensia’s father, Quintus Hortensius, was a highly skilled orator, and rival to Cicero, the greatest speaker of the time. He ensured that his intelligent daughter received an education unusual for women at the time. A keen student, Hortensia read Greek and Latin, learning rhetoric by reading the speeches of great orators.

She likely married her second cousin, Quintus Servilius Caepio, who left her widowed in 67 BCE. The marriage produced a daughter, Servilia, and Caepio also adopted his nephew Marcus Junius Brutus – who became one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

In 42 BCE, Rome was being managed under the uneasy triumvirate of Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus, who were at war with Caesar’s assassins. The campaign required almost all of Rome’s legions and was becoming very expensive. A tax was needed – and the three rulers decided that it should be levied against Rome’s most wealthy women.

The women, including Hortensia, were outraged. They had not caused the war, nor were they permitted to vote under Roman law. Many of them had lost husbands, brothers and sons in the fighting – and now they were being forced to pay for it, too!

Hortensia_speech

Medieval woodcarving of Hortensia leading the women of Rome to the Sentate (source)

They chose Hortensia to plead their case, and a group of women marched to the senate to protest the tax. The historian Appian records Hortensia’s speech:

“You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, our brothers on the pretext that they wronged you, but if, in addition, you take away our property you will reduce us to a condition unsuitable to our birth, our way of life and our female nature.

If we have done you any wrong, as you claim our husbands have, proscribe us as you do them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, nor torn down your house, nor destroyed your army, nor led another against you, nor prevented you from obtaining offices and honours, why do we share in the punishments when we did not participate in the crimes?

Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the offices, honours, military commands, nor in short the government for which you fight between yourselves with such harmful results? You say ‘because it is wartime’. When have there not been wars? When have taxes been imposed on women, whom nature has set apart from men? Our mothers once went beyond what is natural and made contributions during the war against the Carthaginians, when danger threatened your entire Empire and Rome itself. But then they contributed willingly, not from their landed property, their fields, their dowries, or their houses, without which it is impossible for free women to live, but only from their jewelry. 

Let war with the Celts or Parthians come, we will not be inferior to our mothers when it is a question of common safety. But for civil wars, may we never contribute nor aid you against each other.”

Angry and embarrassed at being told off by a group of women, Octavian, Antony and Lepidus tried to no avail to dismiss the women. Still, the crowd found in their favor. The very next day the number of women subject to tax reduced from 1400 to 400.


References:

The Civil Wars , Book 4Appian

Institutio OratoriaQuintilius

On Wikipedia: