21 March 2016

First Ladies: Antonia Minor

In Ancient Rome women rarely held official positions, but often wielded considerable power behind the scenes. One of the best examples of this is Antonia Minor: daughter, niece, wife, mother, aunt, and grandmother of powerful Roman men, and in her own right one of the most powerful women in Roman history.

the Juno Ludovisi,
a portrait of Antonia Minor
Antonia was born in 36 BCE, the younger of two daughters born to Marc Antony and Octavia Minor. She never knew her father, who left his family for his ill-fated affair with Queen Cleopatra when Antonia was a toddler; she was raised by her mother and her uncle Octavian (soon to be known as Caesar Augustus) as part of a collection of important children brought up within Augustus' oversight, the offspring of family, friends, and enemies. Growing up in such an environment, Antonia must have learned the ways of Rome from an early age. She learned them well indeed.

At age 20 she married her step-cousin Drusus, the darling of the Roman military world. For seven years they were the power couple of Rome, touted by the Princeps as models of conservative Roman family values; in a time when the government had to browbeat the upper class into having children, Antonia was pregnant at least 5 times in 7 years (though only 3 children lived). She accompanied her husband on campaign and was so beloved by his soldiers that they called her "Mother of the Legions". By all accounts they were truly in love  there are no stories of either party having affairs, which was nearly unheard of in aristocratic Roman society. I often wonder how Antonia’s life might have been if Drusus had succeeded Augustus and she had become the true first lady of Rome, living happily ever after with her husband and children. Alas, that was not to be. In 9BCE Drusus died at the age of 29, leaving Antonia a widow at 27.

Rather than shrinking into the background, Antonia remained influential  and single  for the rest of her life. The Senate recognized her with honors and offered her the title Augusta, a distinction that had only been given to one other woman (her equally formidable aunt Livia, wife of Augustus). She'd inherited a lot of property and money from her father and husband, and she managed it on her own, interacting with male associates on terms of equality as an independent businesswoman. She and her aunt Livia oversaw the Julio-Claudian dynasty with a steely authority that earned them both the enmity of Roman writers, who tended to view strong women as cold, ruthless, vain, and unnatural.

coin featuring Antonia's profile
and the title Antonia Augusta
It's true that when it came to running the family business, Antonia did not let maternal instincts get in the way. She showed disdain for her youngest child, the stammering Claudius, mocking him as stupid and even calling him a monster. Roman attitudes to physical impairment surely colored her judgment, but it could be she just didn't like him. Perhaps losing Drusus had hardened her beyond such tenderness. But she couldn’t have been entirely without feeling – like her uncle Augustus, she collected the offspring of dead relations and raised a household of other people's children. She outlived several of them, including two of her own children: her son Germanicus followed in his father's footsteps by dying young of mysterious circumstances, while her only daughter Livilla masterminded a plot to assassinate Tiberius in 31CE. Antonia administered swift and merciless punishment, locking her daughter away and possibly starving her to death. No matter what else, loyalty to the family must always come first. 

At the age of 73, Antonia Minor died the same way she had lived: on her own terms, and by her own strength. When her grandson Caligula refused to listen to her advice and showed himself entirely unconcerned with the family's honor, she committed suicide as an act of protest. If only she had waited a little longer and seen her youngest son come to power, she could have known that not everything in her life was destined to come to a tragic end. Her stupid little monster ended up becoming one of the greatest emperors in Roman history.

Heather Domin is the author of The Heirs of Fortune, set in Augustan Rome, in which Antonia Minor plays a small but important role. She has been a contributing member of Unusual Historicals since 2011.


Susan Abernethy said...

Great article. Brought back such memories of the great actress Margaret Tyzack in the "I, Claudius" television series.

Mary Preston said...

Thank you!! I loved this.

Heather said...

Thanks Susan & Mary! I love 'I, Claudius' too. She did such a great job.