Caesars' Wives

Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire

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About The Book

In scandals and power struggles obscured by time and legend, the wives, mistresses, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Caesars have been popularly characterized as heartless murderers, shameless adulteresses, and conniving politicians in the high dramas of the Roman court. Yet little has been known about who they really were and their true roles in the history-making schemes of imperial Rome’s ruling Caesars—indeed, how they figured in the rise, decline, and fall of the empire.

Now, in Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Roman Empire, Annelise Freisenbruch pulls back the veil on these fascinating women in Rome’s power circles, giving them the chance to speak for themselves for the first time. With impeccable scholarship and arresting storytelling, Freisenbruch brings their personalities vividly to life, from notorious Livia and scandalous Julia to Christian Helena. Starting at the year 30 BC, when Cleopatra, Octavia, and Livia stand at the cusp of Rome’s change from a republic to an autocracy, Freisenbruch relates the story of Octavian and Marc Antony’s clash over the fate of the empire—an archetypal story that has inspired a thousand retellings—in a whole new light, uncovering the crucial political roles these first "first ladies" played. From there, she takes us into the lives of the women who rose to power over the next five centuries—often amid violence, speculation, and schemes—ending in the fifth century ad, with Galla Placidia, who was captured by Goth invaders (and married to one of their kings). The politics of Rome are revealed through the stories of Julia, a wisecracking daughter who disgraced her father by getting drunk in the Roman forum and having sex with strangers on the speaker’s platform; Poppea, a vain and beautiful mistress who persuaded the emperor to kill his mother so that they could marry; Domitia, a wife who had a flagrant affair with an actor before conspiring in her husband’s assassination; and Fausta, a stepmother who tried to seduce her own stepson and then engineered his execution—afterward she was boiled to death as punishment.

Freisenbruch also tells a fascinating story of how the faces of these influential women have been refashioned over the millennia to tell often politically motivated stories about their reigns, in the process becoming models of femininity and female power. Illuminating the anxieties that persist even today about women in or near power and revealing the female archetypes that are a continuing legacy of the Roman Empire, Freisenbruch shows the surprising parallels of these iconic women and their public and private lives with those of our own first ladies who become part of the political agenda, as models of comportment or as targets for their husbands’ opponents. Sure to transform our understanding of these first ladies, the influential women who witnessed one of the most gripping, significant eras of human history, Caesars’ Wives is a significant new chronicle of an era that set the foundational story of Western Civilization and hung the mirror into which every era looks to find its own reflection.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Caesar's Wives includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

INTRODUCTION

Annelise Freisenbruch’s debut book, Caesars’ Wives: Sex, Power and Politics in the Roman Empire, investigates the lives and reputations of the colourful wives, daughters, sisters and mothers of the Roman emperors.

 
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION


  1. In her Introduction, the author writes ‘This book reopens the case file on Livia and her fellow Roman first ladies, aiming to reveal something about them beyond their static, cartoonish stereotypes. But how do we speak for and about them?’ (p. xx)  What are some of the problems faced by historians wanting to study the lives of Roman women? Read pages xx-xxi to help your discussion.
  2. Annelise writes that she takes ‘an agnostic approach’ to the wide array of different verdicts and characterizations of Roman imperial women in her book (p. xxi) Why does the author feel it is important to adopt this approach, and do you think her strategy is a good one?
  3. Caesars’ Wives highlights many parallels between the roles expected of Roman ‘first ladies’ and their modern female counterparts, in ‘selling’ a positive image of their husbands to their public. (see for example p. xxii-xxiii, and p. 34-6). What are the different ways in which they do this? What other modern parallels can you think of, besides the ones Annelise lists here?
  4. Read about Livia’s early life (p. 2-12). What do the descriptions of Roman weddings, childbirth and child-rearing, and the role played by women in public and private life, tell us about Roman attitudes towards women in general?
  5. In 35BC, Octavian sanctions portraits of his wife Livia and sister Octavia for public display in Rome (p. 25-28). Why was this such an important gesture? Why do you think portraits played such an important role in communicating messages of power in the ancient world?
  6. How educated were Roman women? What were the criteria for their needing to be educated at all? (Read pp. 37-38; 79-80; 191-192; and 240-241)
  7. How powerful was Livia in the regimes of both her husband Augustus (chapter 2) and her son Tiberius (chapter 3)? What evidence is there that she played a genuinely influential role in Roman politics? Do you think women throughout history can truly be called powerful if they have no official role, and are denied the same political and legal rights that men have?
  8. What can Roman women’s dress sense, jewelry and hairstyle reveal about the social mores of the age in which she lived? Compare for example Octavia’s demure ‘nodus’ hairstyle (p. 26-27) with the ‘Toupetfrisur’ sported by Flavian women of Domitia’s era (p. 149-150); or the story of Augustus’ disapproval of Julia’s dress (p. 54-55) with Aelia Flaccilla’s costume (p. 237-238). You could also read pages 144-5 and 212 on different attitudes to jewelry across the centuries).
  9. ‘….Messalina both in antiquity and subsequent folklore was described as a Roman Lolita who ran rings around her gullible elder husband and had an appetite for sex so gluttonous and insatiable that she was given a listing in Alexandre Dumas’ catalogue of the all-time great courtesans of history’. Read about Messalina’s life, between p. 106-114, and discuss how the stories of her sexual appetite became part and parcel of the political case against Claudius. Can you think of any parallels from history?
  10.  Messalina is succeeded as Claudius’ wife by Agrippina Minor. How sympathetic or unsympathetic a character do you find her? Why do you think some portraits of her may have survived, despite Nero’s order that they all be destroyed? (p. 130)
  11. The brutal practice of damnatio memoriae – which mandated the destruction of all images and inscriptions featuring a particular individual – befell a number of imperial women besides Messalina (p. 112-113) and Agrippina Minor, including Antonia’s daughter Livilla (p. 97),  Caracalla’s wife Plautilla (p. 194) and Constantine’s wife Fausta (p. 221). Why do you think so many women suffered this particular punishment?
  12. Why are Roman verdicts on foreign women like Cleopatra  (p. 22-31) and Titus’ mistress Berenice (p. 133—146) important indicators of Roman attitudes to women in general?
  13. The women of the second-century ‘receive little attention both in contemporary accounts of the period and in the works of later artists and dramatists who pounced on the trials and tribulations of their more disreputable and glamourous first-century sisters with such glee’ (p. 156) What accounts for the relatively good reputation of women of the second century, compared to first century predecessors?
  14. Although life expectancy in the Roman world was no more than thirty years, a number of Roman imperial women live well past their fiftieth birthdays – for example Livia (aged around 86), Trajan’s wife Plotina (more than 50), and Constantine’s mother Helena (around 80). What was old age like for women in the Roman world? (see for example, p. 93 and 164). What do you think might have been the best time of life for a woman in ancient Rome?
  15. Hadrian’s relationship with his wife Sabina was characterized as extremely frosty (p. 166-171). Can we tell, from any of the other relationships studied in the book, what husband-and-wife relationships were really like in the ancient world? (You could discuss Livia’s relationship with Augustus; Antoninus Pius’ with Anna Faustina, Marcus Aurelius’ with Faustina, or Galla Placidia’s relationships with her husbands Athaulf and Flavius Constantius).
  16. What does arrival of Julia Domna as empress in the early third century tell us about the political and social changes that have taken place in the empire since the days of Livia in the early first century? (see p. 180-182)
  17. Find an image of the Berlin tondo on the internet (described by Annelise on p. 223-224 and also mentioned on p. 237) What story does this picture tell? Does a painted image like this make you feel like you ‘know’ the individuals represented, more than you would if you saw them depicted in marble as usual?
  18. Read pages p. 258-261 on the impact of Christianity on the women of the Roman empire. Then discuss the question on p. 261: ‘Did all of this represent ‘progress’ for the women of the Roman empire?
  19. What fuelled the perception of empresses of fifth century as ‘powerful regents dominating their feeble, coddled sons and brothers’? (p 236)
  20. How did Pulcheria’s decision, in 414, ‘to pledge herself to the ascetic Christian ideal of lifelong celibacy’ (p. 246) work in her favour?
  21. ‘(Galla) Placidia was to have an important role in protecting her son from attempts both to influence him and to oust him from power’ (p. 256) What was this role, and how did Galla Placidia set about fulfilling it?
  22. How does the role of Roman ‘first lady’ change throughout the book, in terms of the amount of exposure they have, in terms of their role in the imperial court, and in terms of the way they present themselves (through dress, portraiture and so on?) How does this reflect political, social and religious changes in the empire as a whole?
  23. Who is your favourite woman in the book and why?
  24. Read the quote from Carl Jung at the start of chapter 9 (p. 231) on how he felt at visiting (what he thought was) the tomb of Galla Placidia. Do you think it is ever possible to catch glimpses of the ‘real’ Roman women in amongst all the contradictory verdicts on them? Or is that just fantasy on our part?

ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB 

Study the media coverage of upcoming elections, and attitudes towards both political spouses and women in the race. How important a role do you think a candidate’s spouse and family members should play in their campaign? Does it influence how you choose to vote, or what you think of them? Do you think women in politics are judged according to a different standard to men? 

Rent copies of films or television adaptations based on Roman history – such as I, Claudius, Rome, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Cleopatra, Gladiator – and discuss the portrayals of women in them. Do you think filmmakers and writers have a responsibility to offer up more positive or sympathetic images of the women from the ancient world, even if the ancient sources are sometimes unremittingly negative? 

Make a group visit to a local museum with an antiquities section, and/or go online and use Google images to search for different representations of the women in the book, both from antiquity and the modern era.

About The Author

Photograph © E.A. Dineley

Annelise Freisenbruch was born in 1977 in Paget, Bermuda, and moved to the UK at the age of eight. She studied Classics to postgraduate level at Cambridge University, receiving a PhD in 2004 for her thesis on the correspondence between the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his tutor Cornelius Fronto. During that time, she also taught Classics at a private school in Cambridge. She has worked as a research assistant on a number of popular books and films about the ancient world, and regularly gives talks to schools about Classics in popular culture. Annelise Freisenbruch was the researcher to Bettany Hughes on her critically acclaimed book Helen of Troy (Vintage). She was also a specialist series researcher on the BBC1 docu-drama series Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, and is currently working on films on Attila the Hun and Spartacus for the BBC. Annelise holds a PhD in Classics from Cambridge University and has worked as a freelance history researcher in the media for the last four years. She lives in Cambridge, where she teaches Latin to middle-school children. Caesars' Wives is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (October 25, 2011)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416583059

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Raves and Reviews

“A groundbreaking study of some of the most powerful women in early Western civilization….The author breathes new life into these overlooked subjects. A captivating look at imperial Rome’s roots in the making of the modern stateswoman.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Fascinating and enjoyable.” --Publishers Weekly

“A book both scholarly and racy…[Freisenbruch] restores to life some of the toughest, most colorful, and most bizarre women who ever existed.” –Robert Harris for Sunday Times (London)

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