BMCR 1994.05.14

1994.05.14, Kokkinos, Antonia Augusta

, Antonia Augusta : portrait of a great Roman lady. London: Routledge, 1992. xviii, 254 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780415080293.

In the spring of AD 20 Cn. Piso and his wife Plancina were tried before the Roman senate for maiestas and the murder of Germanicus. Piso chose (or was helped to choose) suicide to escape the inevitable conclusion. Plancina appealed to her friend Livia for help and received a full pardon. An official account of their trial, it now emerges, was prepared by the senate at the close of the year for publication to provincials and soldiers. The text of this account, known as the senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre, is due to be published late this year or early next; in the meantime we may consult a German paraphrase by Werner Eck. Eck retails the senate’s version of events as follows:

It is established that [Plancina], in contrast to Marcus Piso, was to blame for plurima et gravissima crimina. She had openly admitted that se omnem spem in misercordiam principis nostri et senatus habere. Furthermore the princeps had saepe … accurateq(ue) ab eo ordine petierit that the senate might content itself with the punishment of Piso and allow Plancina, like Marcus, to be granted indulgence. The princeps had gone on to explain that he had interceded in consideration of the pleas of his mother on Plancina’s behalf and that she had set forth the reasons why she wanted to secure indulgence for Plancina. The fairness of these reasons is said to have been evident to him—which indicates to us that in all likelihood Tiberius did not set forth the reasons in detail for the senate. Since (the senate said) Julia Augusta had served the res publica in the best way non partu tantum modo principis nostri, sed etiam multis magnisq(ue) erga cuiusq(ue) ordinis homines beneficis, and since she, despite having the right to the greatest influence, had only used this most sparingly, and since the princeps had out of pietas supported the wish of his mother, it was concluded remitti poenam Plancinae. 1

The principate was the rule of a dynastic house in which the women were nearly as prominent and powerful as the men. Some 35 lines of the new text are reported to be given over to praise of the members of the imperial house for virtues they demonstrated during the course of the trial. These were the same persons—among them Antonia—who in AD 19 had chosen from a list of funeral honours for Germanicus offered by the senate for their approval. 2 Yet historians continue to treat the principate as though it was the rule of a single person, the emperor. A volume devoted entirely to a woman of the house should provide a corrective. Livia was perhaps the more obvious choice for a subject, but Antonia, in addition to being the wife of Drusus the Elder, mother of Germanicus and Claudius, grandmother of Caligula, and great-grandmother of Nero, was the daughter of M. Antonius. K. claims that she was more eminent than Livia. It is difficult to imagine the scale for such an evaluation, or to see the need for one.

K.’s book is structured like a PIR entry. Registers at the back catalogue all of Antonia’s appearances in inscriptions, papyri, the plastic arts. Seven chapters of text correspond to these registers. The chapters have titles like ‘Antonia in Inscriptions’, ‘Antonia in the Minor Arts’, and so on. The approach is polemical. As Fergus Millar writes in his gracious foreword, ‘the material is not nearly sufficient to allow a real biography and [K.] neither pretends to be able to offer that, nor seeks to provide some semi-fictional substitute.’ The material itself compensates for whatever dryness was risked in such an approach. K. has packed 111 figures into 176 pages of text, and he would have included a further 189 had his publisher not objected. As an experiment in privileging the wealth and variety of contemporary sources for Antonia over the familiar literary accounts (chiefly Tacitus, Annals, which K. shows to be confused and unfair), K.’s book must be counted a success.

K. hopes his book will serve as a model for future studies of ancient figures, and it deserves to be used in this way. It will also stimulate thought on the nature and extent of women’s power in the ancient world. Antonia’s power may be said to have two aspects, hellenistic and Roman. Her vast Egyptian holdings, glimpsed in the papyri that K. sets out with admirable clarity, may have come to her from M. Antonius, who may in turn have received them from Cleopatra. The assumption of Ptolemaic property, together with its administrative system, opened a channel through which great riches and a certain amount of hellenistic royal style flowed into the Roman imperial house. Like the court of Philip II in which Alexander the Great was raised, Antonia’s house hold in Rome was filled with the children of kings and tetrarchs, including, at one time or another, princes and princesses from Judaea, Commagene, Thrace, Armenia, Mauretania, and even Parthia. These were tokens of her close and enduring ties to foreign royal houses, ties that were symbolized also by the presence among her slaves of Pallas, who would rise to notorious eminence as a freedman under Claudius, and who claimed descent from Arcadian royalty.

There is some reason to think that, if a Roman historical context for a woman’s power did not really exist, one was duly manufactured. Sallust, in a well-known passage of his Conspiracy of Catiline, had found the attainments of Sempronia noteworthy and perplexing. In the succeeding age, however, Augustus would honour Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, with a statue, and by so doing imply credit where perhaps little was due. Such embellishments to the historical record could be employed to justify the prominence women had attained in the imperial period chiefly by virtue of their independent control of wealth.

Cornelia had refused to remarry after she was widowed. Included in the marriage legislation of 18 BC was the ius trium liberorum, which freed fecund mothers from financial guardianship ( tutela) when their husbands died. Love of this independence might well have been the reason Antonia, mother of Germanicus, Claudius, and Livilla, never remarried after Drusus the Elder was killed in a fall from a horse in 9 BC. At the same time the privilege was also bestowed upon Livia, who had in fact just lost her second son, in order that she might keep pace with Antonia. Thus the ius trium liberorum became a matter of imperial ‘patronage’.

It was not only women of the imperial house who enjoyed newly-enhanced status. The jockeying of the great Roman houses for power continued long after one house had become dominant, and did so precisely because such a house was not a closed entity, but a network of alliances formed through marriage and adoption. Though the role for women in these operations could be essentially passive—as incubators or convenient spouses—it came increasingly to be one of leadership: the SC de Pisone captures a moment in which values were in transition. So, for example, the victim of the second great trial before the senate in AD 20, Aemilia Lepida, could be described by Tacitus as herself having a pedigree that outshone her husband’s, and even that of most members of the imperial house, in that she could trace her ancestry back to both Sulla and Pompeius ( Ann. iii. 22-3). As the charges against this woman began to mount, she gathered a retinue of other leading women—amicae, the equivalent of a senator’s or an emperor’s amici—and marched into the Theatre of Pompeius during the ludi Romani magni in September, where the assembled crowd accorded her sympathy and support. It may well have been the threat that such women presented which caused the senate in December to publish its account of the trial of Piso and Plancina, where Plancina’s beholdenness to Livia was stressed.

As the daughter of M. Antonius, Antonia embodied the dual identity—hellenistic and Roman—of the imperial house. Indeed, her connections in the East dwarfed those few possessed by Tiberius himself. This is the context for appreciating the most important new fact for political history presented by K., namely that Antonia accompanied Germanicus at the start of his fateful trip east in AD 18, as did Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina, and his children—and as Plancina accompanied Piso, who was Germanicus’ aide. The evidence for this is circumstantial—dedications to Antonia along Germanicus’ certain or probable itinerary—but compelling. The fact means that three generations of M. Antonius’ descendants were present simultaneously in the world that had once been his preserve. Antonius was not far from Germanicus’ thoughts, as imagined by Tacitus, who described the prince gazing over Actium and seeing ‘a spectacle of sorrows mingled with joys’ ( Ann. ii. 53). Nor would the memory of Antonius have been beyond the reach of the Athenians who presented Germanicus with an antiquarian display ( vetera … facta dictaque) on the next stage of his tour (ibid.). Something, at any rate, provoked the loyal Piso, who travelled to Athens hot on Germanicus’ heels. There he delivered an inflammatory speech in which he accused Germanicus of compromising the decus Romani and told the proud Athenians that they did not deserve their name after years of selling their citizenship, concluding, for good measure, with a reminder of their defeat by Macedon three centuries before ( Ann. ii. 55). Before the year was out, Germanicus would be dead and Piso would be facing a show-trial he betrayed no signs of having expected. The revival of Antonius’ memory in the persons of Antonia and Germanicus had been intolerable.

It is a pity that K. was unable to take account of the SC de Pisone in his book. But it is one of the book’s merits that it contributes so signally to our understanding of the new document.

  • [1] My translation from the German of W. Eck, ‘Das s.c. de Cn. Pisone patre und seine Publikation in der Baetica’, Cahiers du Centre Glotz IV (1993), 189-208, at 199. [2] The Tabula Siarensis, AE 1984, 508.