BMCR 2011.03.40

Augustae: Machtbewusste Frauen am römischen Kaiserhof? Herrschaftsstrukturen und Herrschaftspraxis II. Akten der Tagung in Zürich 18.-20.9.2008

, Augustae: Machtbewusste Frauen am römischen Kaiserhof? Herrschaftsstrukturen und Herrschaftspraxis II. Akten der Tagung in Zürich 18.-20.9.2008. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2010. 394. ISBN 9783050048987. €69.80.


One of the major conundrums of the Principate is that it never developed one single clear-cut title for an emperor. The self-same system, on the other hand, produced the derivative title of Augusta, but modern efforts at translation betray significant helplessness. “Imperial women” is as comprehensive as it is vacuous; the only alternative is to give a list of persons eligible for that title: mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of an emperor. The contributions of the present volume flesh out the public role of those women, titled and untitled alike: their access to the emperor, their personal wealth and its euergetic use, their influence on decision-making and careers, and their key role in the production of legitimate heirs, both sons and husbands. Taken in their entirety, the papers succeed in giving more structure and transparency to a rewarding field of study.

Anne Kolb’s introductory essay provides orientation on the concept of an Augusta and pertinent literature, followed by a handy prosopography of the sixty imperial women from Livia Drusilla to Theodora for which the title is attested or has been supposed (pp. 23-35); one minor gap is the absence of Valeria Messalina (suggested by Cenerini, this volume p. 187). Her concluding case study of Agrippina illustrates the categories of dynastic influence, iconic representation and intervention on behalf of petitioners; it also examines Agrippina’s failed effort to extend the limits of power which Roman society tolerated in the woman closest to the ruler.

The volume’s first papers analyse an obvious precedent to the Roman case, the avowedly political role of Hellenistic queens or mothers of kings. Peter Van Minnen’s survey of the queens of the Ptolemies follows the epigraphic and papyrological evidence for their gradual rise to considerable independent power. This development, favoured by underage kings or by husbands’ dependence on additional dynastic support, culminated in the reigns of Berenice IV and Cleopatra VII. Limited as that power surge nonetheless remained, Roman developments never took that course. As Ann Cathrin Harders demonstrates, Cleopatra’s stays on the banks of the Tiber did much to create those aversions that Caesar’s heir would exploit on his way to Actium. Any exercise of power, be it political or intra-familial, and even the mere presence of foreign women in possession of such potestas was perceived as an an active threat to the very stability of Rome’s gender structure. The fear of a role reversal remained virulent enough to be used against Zenobia in the late 260s A.D.

Female influence on Roman politics continued to move in the Republican ways, as Leonhard Burckhardt points out. The typical Augusta appears much like a lady from the familiar nobilitas (of vastly enhanced means and perceptibility), both in her restraints and the social expectations she met with. The ideal still demanded that she be kept under close surveillance by her imperial husband or relative, assisted by her own self-control and by the Roman public’s close scrutiny. Transgressions of the socially acceptable will be far more often commented upon than a woman’s conformity. On the other hand, positive stereotypes may be applied in rhetoric even if the addressee did not conform to them, as the laws of the panegyric dictate.

Two studies shed light on the material base of imperial women’s power, “soft” as this may appear in political terms. The survey of brick stamps by François Chausson and Alfredo Buonopane makes use of the well-known phenomenon that female members of the domus imperatoria, above all the younger Domitia Lucilla, owned numerous brick factories that provided Antonine Rome with building materials. One remarkable exception is the Elder Faustina: the authors’ explanation is that she and her kiln-owning relatives had agreed to occupy different economic sectors. Should we think of less easily detectable building material, such as timber or recycled supplies from demolitions? The classic element of aristocratic property is, of course, real estate. Maria Grazia Granino Cecere takes a (somewhat jumbled) survey from Livia to the end of the Severan dynasty. Lead pipes, toponyms and slaves or freedmen with significant nomenclature around the capital disclose a welcome amount of new items in the possession of various Augustae. Not taken into consideration is the certainty that imperial women must have owned not only domus but also insulae, a high-profit business at all times, be it directly or by proxy.1

In her thought-provoking paper (“Patronage/Matronage der Augustae“), Christiane Kunst is able to show the wide field of informal power: the imperial woman as benefactress to cities and individuals, offering her own wealth but also mediation; the Augusta as one privileged channel of access, among others, to the emperor. Kunst’s use of the neologism “matronage” draws well-deserved attention to some peculiarities, such as the amount of networking among women of high birth or the intentional misinterpretation of protection and career advice for young senators on the make. From an editorial perspective, it might have been better to place this important essay with its rather structural interests before, not after, Morelli’s paper and not to interrupt the chronological order which dominates the second half of the volume.

In search for the origins of their special role, Anna Lina Morelli retraces the numismatic imagery of Julio-Claudian women until the first appearance of the word Augusta on coins struck after A.D. 21. Morelli argues that Livia stood in for her disgraced daughter Julia as an ostensible dynastic link and that an ideology of “maternità universale” (p. 143) is therefore at the very heart of the Augusta concept. This interpretation rests on evidence of provincial origins and limited circulation; cameos and sculpture are conspicuously absent.

The following study by Giovanella Cresci Marrone and Sara Nicolini, summarizing the roles of Augustus’ female relatives in funerary contexts, leaves out some of the very best available material and settles for an all too rigid closing date of A.D. 14. Public expectations concerning female mourning abound in the Senatus consultum de Pisone patre, and the Tabula Siarensis is hardly less relevant; the chance to augment the epigraphic evidence, scanty as it is up to the death of Germanicus, should not have been missed.

The events leading to the destruction of Valeria Messalina are re-interpreted by Francesca Cenerini, who reads Messalina’s marriage to C. Silius as a transfer of imperial legitimacy, undertaken to anticipate Claudius’ impending choice of Agrippina and Nero instead of Messalina and Britannicus. This version presupposes the title of Augusta, so far unattested for Messalina, and would moreover create an isolated case. Marriage with a woman from the respective domus Augusta tended to make the husband capax imperii, but Messalina had no personal Augustan ancestry to her name, apart from her alliance with the very man she tried to annihilate. On the other hand, she could boast of no mean ancestors. Certainly she might combine her own dynastic capital with Silius’ profile as an opponent of Claudius’ reign.

Gian Luca Gregori and Emmanuelle Rosso follow the numismatic and epigraphic presentation of Titus’ daughter, Julia, who figured prominently in the Flavian dynasty’s self-representation over a full twenty years. Their attractive interpretation is that Julia was named in remembrance of Livia (Julia Augusta) and was assimilated to Venus Genetrix because her very birthday suggested so. From her first days Julia found herself “developed” into a symbol of dynastic continuity and assumed most of the duties normally incumbent upon an empress. Her public role survived, modified but scarcely diminished, well into Domitian’s reign.

Christer Bruun’s fine essay on the Younger Matidia, a person of formidable influence for half a century, focuses on the large theatre at Suessa Aurunca and explains the oddities of Matidia’s position. Dynastic chance never made her the closest surviving female relative of an emperor; on the other hand, Matidia stood — unlike her mother and sister — outside the immediate chain of women who conferred additional dynastic legitimacy on the heir apparent, Hadrian. After 138, making her an Augusta would have distracted public interest from the reshaped imperial family.

The suggestions of Stefan Priwitzer regarding Marcus’ wife Faustina have meanwhile been published in full length.2 His contribution touches two major themes of his dissertation, namely that Faustina never was destined for betrothal to Lucius Verus and that her alleged sexual transgressions were posthumous inventions by Commodus’ senatorial critics. At least the gossip concerning non-gladiatorial lovers needs some other motif; regarding Lucius, there still remains the Ephesus relief (from the “Parthermonument” of highly controversial dating) in which he, not Marcus, appears as the candidate of his adoptive father and grandfather.

Leaving the Principate, two contributions on imperial spouses from the Late Empire round off the volume. Anja Wieber’s study of Eusebia, the second wife of Constantius II, centers on Julian’s panegyric of c. A.D. 356/7. Julian Caesar, eager to prove his own loyalty to Constantius and to pay his debt to Eusebia, makes use of Homeric role models to present the empress as highly influential but safely subordinate to her husband. Aspects which might be perceived as worrying, such as her part in imperial decision-making, are legitimated by Eusebia’s lenient influence and her strict consensus with Constantius himself. Mischa Meier turns to Ariadne, daughter of Leo I and spouse of Zeno, who in 491 chose Anastasius as Zeno’s successor. In Meier’s view this period was the culmination of a systemic crisis in which the very need for emperors had become doubtful. Like her formidable mother Verina, Ariadne felt free to choose and to change her position, sometimes as Zeno’s ally, often enough in direct opposition against his will. Her decision to take a more traditional role at the side of Anastasius may have done much to save the Eastern emperors from the gradual weakening and eventual disappearance of their Western colleagues.

The concluding paper by Thomas Späth (” Augustae zwischen modernen Konzepten und römischen Praktiken der Macht”) offers a solution for the paradoxical fact that the actions and appearance of Augustae are recorded both in terms of transgressive behaviour and to exemplify the accepted rules. The bewildering result, a maze of restrictions, pre-set behaviour, and liberty of action, is, in Späth’s eyes, much the same for senators as for their female relatives: they compete with other houses for the glory of their domus or, to use Bourdieu’s term, social capital. Criticising an Augusta may partly have served to vent aristocratic dismay at the dominance of one single domus, but such criticism survives into the times of unquestioned monarchy — a strong hint that it was fed by something more fundamental.

The book’s attractive typeset outweighs some difficulties with orthography and with spacing after apostrophes; serious errors are luckily rare (p. 157 n. 90: for “Licinius Sura” read “Cornelius Lentulus Sura”). Its considerable merits are assisted by the luxuries of detailed indices and a fifty-page common bibliography. For all its wide span of papers one sadly misses something more on the religious functions or contributions to fill the huge gap between 180 and Constantius II. Yet this does in no way reduce the value of a book that is bound to become indispensable for future research on empresses, imperial families, and their role in Roman social history


1. For later centuries see Julia Hillner, “Domus, Family, and Inheritance: The Senatorial Family Houses in Late Antique Rome.” JRS 93 (2003), 129-145; Jedes Haus ist eine Stadt. Privatimmobilien im spätantiken Rom. Bonn (Habelt) 2004.

2. Stefan Priwitzer, Faustina Minor — Ehefrau eines Idealkaisers und Mutter eines Tyrannen. Quellenkritische Untersuchungen zum dynastischen Potential und zu Handlungsspielräumen im Prinzipat. Bonn (Habelt) 2009. Both the monograph and the paper incorrectly identify Arthur Jaekel, who first doubted the Lucius plan in 1912, as “(H.) Saekel”.